A World Beyond This
At first there is light, a brilliant white that blinds in its intensity. He gasps but has no breath, flails but there is nothing to move; he can’t move, can’t see can’t –
Colour. Shades of cerulean, viridian and emerald dance before him as feeling floods his brain, like waking up except being aware of every little thing that happens. He gasps again and this time air bursts into his lungs, sweet, rich oxygen. He wolfs it down, clenching and unclenching his fists as his muscles twitch and his nerves buzz. His heartbeat pounds, booming throughout his bloodstream and roaring in his ears. Has it always been this loud? Has a body always been this lively, or is he just noticing it for the first time?
Matthew faces the sky when he spawns. He doesn’t know why they programmed it so, but his neck is stretched at an odd angle, looking upwards. It’s not uncomfortable, though, when it really should be. Matthew can’t help but rub his nape as his gaze wanders, blinking. A mass of fluttering leaves hijacks his vision and he realises he’s at the base of a tree, a canopy of green above him. Sunlight filters through, and – he can feel it. He can feel the sun’s kiss on his skin and he shivers at the gentle breeze, tasting the cut grass when he breathes in.
He traces the lines in his skin, the veins and splashes of colour. Matthew rubs his fingertips together and starts, because – it feels normal. The warmth, the texture, even the thrumming of his pulse as it should be. To think they’d actually managed to translate all this into data, into mathematical formulae and strings of zeros and ones…
Matthew is not alone. Men and women of every age and colour walk past him, and this is when Matthew notices he’s in a park. Quite a big park, actually: swallowed by the city yet still large enough for him to be completely lost. The ‘big tower’, she’d said, only – there are a lot of towers, poking their heads up behind the trees. The sunlight glints off the skyscrapers, too, as if the horizon were alight…
Matthew shakes his head, clenching his fists. He can marvel at the Ether later; right now, he has a job to do. But – where to go?
He blinks and suddenly text dances in his vision, swimming all over the place – no, wait: he was just moving his head. Matthew stands still and the menus do the same, arranging themselves so that he could see all of them without turning. He pokes the hologram that says ‘MAPS’, but nothing happens, his fingers brushing through thin air. He concentrates on it instead and it pops open, a blob marking his location. Ambery Park, in the city centre. Matthew bites his lip but before he can remember where exactly the interview is the program beats him to it, a line of red streaking across the map. Yes – Turn Tower, the very first place to be rendered. Matthew closes the map but the line of red still remains, superimposed upon the ground. Arrows bob along it and off he sets, rubbing his hands together.
He feels strangely naked without his notepad and pen, as if a great part of him is missing. Not many reporters use paper anymore, recording devices much more convenient, but Matthew had always found the scratching of ink on paper therapeutic. They could have copied his notepad in, of course, but it (quite literally) wouldn’t be the same. The Watcher program would record not only sound but video, time and several other things as well. He would have to copy everything over once he was back, but at least it saves him having to remember the conversation.
Matthew leaves the parks and is pleasantly surprised to find that he can walk to the Tower, no public transport required. Something is strange, though, something off, and it takes a while before he’s able to pinpoint it. The city is… peaceful. Yes, that’s the word: peaceful. In London the soundscape assaults you, an unholy clamour of too many people crammed into not enough space. Sonic booms break the air as the rich are catapulted across the skies, and massive generators hum as they supply those underwater with air and power. Those sounds, so familiar to him, are – gone.
In the Ether, the sea hasn’t risen. Cars coast along smoothly, their engines humming rather than revving, and everything just works. Traffic lights flicker through green to amber to red and the vehicles wait for them, pedestrians crossing the road at a leisurely pace. No one waits for long. Shops and cafés hug the streets, gaudy with colours and bubbly fonts. Businesses of every kind thrive, and Matthew takes note of a so called ‘pirate café’ that has live parrots strutting across the tables. Hundreds of thousands of people live their lives in these streets, yet they don’t have to shout to be heard.
Fifteen minutes later he arrives, the Tower rising up before him. Sunlight catches off it and he shields his eyes as he glances upwards, exploiting that weird neck angle the program allows. Turn Tower is a monolithic structure, a spire of glass that holds up the heavens. It is no great feat of architecture but, at the same time it is stunning.
He goes to check his watch but then realises he isn’t wearing one. Actually, what clothes is he wearing? Matthew doesn’t recognise them but they fit him snuggly, although decidedly more stylish an outfit than he would have opted for. Opening the menu again, he finds a clock – 13:58. Early. He enters the lobby and, to his surprise, she is already waiting for him. She – Risha Ambery, the Ether’s founder and computer scientist behind most of its core algorithms. It’s the third time he’s meeting her but Matthew’s still intimidated by Risha’s intellect, and he swallows.
Risha notices him arrive and smiles, striding over.
“Matthew,” she says warmly. “I’m so glad you could be here today.”
He shakes her hand. “Me too.”
“How are you finding your first time?” Risha asks.
“It’s incredible, truth be told,” he replies. “I can’t believe how realistic everything is.”
She laughs. “I should hope so. It cost us billions to climb out of the uncanny valley.”
Matthew chuckles. He already knows all about how the Ether was built – the magics of quantum key exchange and other clever stuff he could list but not explain. The virtual world is a pinnacle of human achievement, by any measure, but that isn’t what he’s here to talk about. They take the lift to Risha’s office on the top floor, a place that affords her a sweeping view of Turn City and the surrounding lands. Clouds gather on the horizon, tinged with wisps of grey.
He gestures. “It rains here?”
“Of course.” Risha sits at her desk. “How else do you think plants grow?”
“Surely you could just program them differently?”
“We could,” she says, “but then they’d be nothing more than cheap imitations of life.”
He sits across from her, scrolling through the menu until he finds the recording program. He switches it on and a blue icon appears in the corner of his vision, flashing.
“You believe the plants here are alive, then?” Matthew starts.
Risha shrugs. “They meet all the criteria, as do our animals.”
“But they don’t exist.”
She frowns. “Of course they do. In your world they’re zeros and ones; in this world…” Risha waves her hands. “They’re alive.”
Matthew shakes his head.
“What we perceive is just information,” she says. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
“And information can be quantified,” he finishes.
“Before we start properly, would you like any refreshments?” Risha asks.
“Water, if you have any.”
A press of a button, and a glass of water appears on the table next to him. He takes a sip and finds that it tastes just the same as the water back home, only cleaner.
“Miss Risha Ambery,” Matthew says. “A year ago, the Ether officially opened and, as of now it has over ten million users. The initiative has been a huge success, drawing praise from all across the globe, and is expected to reach a population of a hundred million within the next decade.”
Risha crosses her legs.
“Previously, I’ve interviewed you about how and why your team built the Ether, but today I’m here to ask you about your experience of it.” He straightens in his chair. “You said that you envisioned the Ether as ‘an upgraded version of the world’. After living here for a year, do you believe this has been achieved?”
“Personally? I do believe so,” she says. “We have a zero crime rate, a booming economy and overwhelming satisfaction from each of our citizens.”
Matthew raises his eyebrow. “A zero crime rate?”
Risha nods. “Our Sentinel program focuses heavily on preventing issues before they arise, as well as dealing with any mishaps along the way. It works closely with members of the community to identify at-risk individuals, whom are then given the appropriate care, free of charge.”
“So it’s impossible for me to, say, steal something?” he asks.
“You’re welcome to try, but…” She snorts. “You wouldn’t get very far.”
“What about fraud, or institutionalised crime?”
“That’s taken care of, too,” Risha says. “Sentinel is impartial, even to me.”
He takes another sip of water.
“What of discrimination?” Matthew asks.
Risha sighs. “No program can cure people’s prejudice,” she says. “However, Freedom makes sure no one acts upon their prejudice by analysing trends in, for example, pay gaps, and flagging them.”
“I suppose that makes most businesses transparent, then.”
“Quite,” Risha says. “We also focus heavily on education, making sure all of our citizens have the opportunity to learn regardless of their background.”
Matthew’s hands twitch. He wants to write this down, but he fights the urge.
“What does day-to-day life in the Ether look like for you?”
“Honestly?” She grins. “I’ve been sleeping an awful lot.”
He snorts. “If anyone deserves a lie in, it’d be you.”
Risha rolls her eyes. “Tell me about it.” She shakes her head. “Most of my job now is maintaining the servers and developing new areas. However, I’ve recently started teaching as well.”
“Yes. I’m running several courses at the local university, as well as workshops on how to exploit the virtual world to its fullest.”
Matthew smiles. “I could use one of those classes.”
“By all means, come along one day.”
“I should imagine you’re under a lot less stress now that the Ether’s online.”
“Yes, absolutely. My team’s incredible; it’s crazy how much time I suddenly have on my hands.”
“What do you do with all this spare time?” Matthew asks.
Risha grimaces. “I will admit I usually just… tinker my side-projects.”
They both laugh.
“I do enjoy playing the piano, though,” she adds. “My brain’s not just full of binary.”
He pulls a face. “Well…”
“Alright,” says Matthew. “I’ve one last question for you.”
“Are you happy?”
Risha frowns. “I don’t think you understand. In this society we’ve created, there is no such thing as sadness.”
“Yes, but – are you happy?”
She blinks. “I am. Of course I am.”
The interview finishes. Matthew thanks Risha for her time and leaves, a crawling sensation itching down his spine. She hadn’t lied – he knows that much, but… Risha hadn’t told the truth, either. That last question…
Matthew expected the veil to rise after his interview. He expected the rose-tinted glass to shatter, to see the Ether as it really is, but…
It is perfect. Not tyrannical in its control, nor euphemistic in its rendering. The Ether is not too perfect, it just is. Perhaps –
Perhaps Risha simply doesn’t know the answer.
That itching sensation won’t go away. He doesn’t go back to the park to log out but does it in the middle of the street, facing heavenwards. Colour begins to fade and his fingers stop twitching, everything going numb. Matthew’s last thoughts as he leaves are that nothing ever goes wrong in this world, but because of this…
Nothing could ever go right, either.