“Oh, that was a long time ago,” I said, looking at the old photograph on the battered tablet, hoping to demur. Rows and rows of men bearing one of the earliest visor headsets. “That was a long time ago.”
“Were you there?” Huxley asked. Her big eyes—we used eyes again, by then, at least some of the time—were blood-red from her most recent Treatment; in fact, her treatment visor was still perched on the top of her head. I pointed to a brown blur at the top of the photo near where I had sat that day, on a narrow, upholstered chair that barely contained my wide body.
“We had no choice, then,” I started to explain, but already I was lying. We had always had a choice, but it had become thinner with the passing months and years, like the air thins as you ascend a mountaintop. You press on because the summit seems closer than the base camp. Because you can’t even remember the base camp, anymore. Because you deserve to summit.
But we sure felt powerless, our bulbous white bodies filling the uniforms we had been issued: the dark jeans, the blue button-downs, the black T-shirts, the cotton blazers. Choices only felt like choices once you pondered their alternatives. But the whole junket had seemed like an onerous imposition. Even getting there. Forced through body scanners, our property ransacked before being imprisoned inside airship tubes and plied with bland steaks before being encased in thick duvets. Slipper-clad, sipping at small-batch White Man’s Bourbon.
“What was it like then?” Her voicebox was still being re-trained and it sounded like copper. “The World, I mean.”
“It wasn’t called that yet,” I chuckled. My dry mouth opened and then closed. I couldn’t explain much more. Things were pretty raw back then. Virtual reality wasn’t virtual because it was unreal, but because it was meritorious, virtuous. It had valor. The ancient Romans had it right already. Virtus, moral perfection, whose root was already vir, man. Not virtual reality but manly reality, a reality designed by and made for real men. Not the real men of masonry and of football, with their lumbering bodies and thick hands. The men of knowledge and invention. The Creators, the Disruptors, the Founders. Finally we could make a World for us.
The scenarios that appeared on the headsets were catalyzing. They brought us together, we Men of Virtue. First, cornflower and plum and lime hues as the apparatus warmed up, a cortical palate cleanser to separate the harsh, unfair world outside from the paradise within. Then: twitch-contests of power to replace cruel sport. Then: sultry diversion to replace boring schooling. Then: warm, white sand beaches, and then purple wisps of sunset, and then the long, tan legs of the women we knew we really deserved, and then everything in between and in between them. Anonymous brown beards framing mouths agape, drenched with the lust of power and pleasure and recognition. Social Media.
Suddenly I realized: The image Huxley had found was partial, probably having been damaged by data loss or edited by the Restoration algorithm when the volume was restored from the Internet Fragments. Or else it had been censored before then, the left third of the image replaced by a pattern generated by the neural nets that were popular in those days. We still weren’t allowed to possess idols of the Founders. That was probably it. And so, a sea of Kyles and Jakes and Dereks and Adams and Kevins, flood-filling the remainder left by Zuckerberg’s deletion.
I searched for the original, using some tricks I still remembered from before the Upload. Huxley couldn’t believe how fast my fingers worked the old keyboard. “You’re like a sorcerer,” she whispered, and all those memories of power and prowess made my face flush.
She hid behind me when it appeared on the cracked screen, clutching at the cotton folds that clung to my now even more substantial body. I should have realized that she wasn’t used to seeing strange, bare faces anymore. Let alone this one.
That Zuckerberg chose to forego the Treatment way back then should have been a sign. The virtues of virtual reality blinded us to its reality: It wasn’t a panorama, but a prison. There are the Founders, and there are the Bearers, and the former are spared the shame of walking among the latter. But back then everything still intermingled, just like the sweat and heat that we finally foreswore for its clean, cortical alternative.
“At least,” Huxley began, then stopped. I told her it was okay, that all that was over now, at least for her. Her red eyes blinked dry to wet. “At least, in that room, at least they didn’t have to see. At least they were protected.”
“Protected?” I asked, but I should have known better. “From the shame of … Him seeing them.” It was an understandable reaction. She had never known anything else. The future lasts forever, but the past lasts even longer, because the past reverberates through every possible future. She looked down and slid the visor that had been resting on her forehead back over her big eyes and puffed through her nose the tiny, tender breath of a child.
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