Open your eyes. A sliver of light slides through the window of her tent, of her apartment. She sits up.
I’m awake. Good.
The sound of rain and nature is intimate in her ears. She stretches her leather boots over her socked feet and rolls onto her knees. It’s early in the morning, it’s the middle of the night. She throws a few things inside a rucksack.
Change to waterfall. Hmmmm. Louder. There. Set to automatic upon exit.
Between the rooftops in the distance and the bridge above, the sun peeks at her, gold with warmth. She steps out into the quiet world outside, out into the muted masses. Shhhhhhhhhh, her headphones, her messy hair, she drives her hands deep inside her coat pockets and takes a deep breath. Shhhhhhh, she dives into the dense shuffling crowd, shhhhhhhhpp, and much like the vacuum of air penetrating through a tight seal, the sound barrier of rushing water sharply shifts into the sound of a busy intersection. Rush hour: a subtle blend of distant conversations, heels and soles, pant swish, passing vehicles, wind displacement, as complex and as delicate as a familiar fragrance slowly maturing into auricular perfection. Counter-current she weaves her way through the herd. Scarcely noticed, lost in thought. A dark hooded organic thread in a curtain of streaming code. She always felt a simple, more serene loneliness when surrounded yet ignored.
Without breaking stride, she grabs hold of the left lens on her goggles, twists it a quarter turn and takes an exhaustive look around. To her one eye, the world is suddenly grey and lifeless, dark. To the other, the crowd is flowing by still, avoiding her, paying her no attention. Once she is certain the perimeter is clear she drops to her knees and rolls under an old rusty personal transit tube, under an air vent gushing a warm humid night air. Inside the maintenance cubicle, she gathers herself and twists her right lens too to the grey lifeless night. She had begun writing a decor for the cubicle on the overlay she had designed using the old Happiness 3 programming but had eventually thought it too risky. The blank slate that provides the physical foundation for the augmented reality, with its cushioned, round-edged dullness kept her sharp, attentive.
From her inside pocket, she withdraws a small anachronistic calculator and proceeds to type on it. The gadget beeps angrily once. Twice. She sighs and begins to type and swipe on a terminal screen that appears mid-air with her gloved left hand. A few disks whir inside the little device as she drops it into the maintenance tunnel at her feet. There is a distant crash and a latch draws back from the grate. Stealthily, she lifts the grate and steps into the tunnel disappearing through a cloud of steam.
Deep inside the bowels of the machinery of her physical world, she burrows forth, lit only by the blue-green neon coolant fluid flowing through the pipes and the two tiny LEDs on each side of her goggles. Following a path carved into her minds just as well as into the underground, travelling neurons just as much as tunnels, shafts and ladder wells, she eventually turns a sharp corner into a small alcove. She stops. The air is stagnant, suffocatingly humid. She glances back into the shadows. An indecipherable labyrinth it had taken her years of solitary explorations to unravel, she now could travel in a mere matter of minutes. A murky veil settles about her ankles in her sudden stillness. Twenty-seven minutes, to be exact. Barely enough time to wonder exactly what it was that had driven her underground, what she had hoped to discover when she had first begun mapping the complex subterraneous network.
A deeper immersion or escape?
She so thoroughly enjoyed the company of the valves and vents and throbbing machinery for how tangible, how impermanent, for how mechanical and full of purpose, that she eventually came to remember every passage, every intersection, every shift in infrastructure, every shift in temperature every broken rung and hanging wire.
Cyber114. A net of invisible sensors scans her as she crawls through a tiny opening.
Once on the other side, she stumbles out of a culvert onto a platform where, before her, a vast expanse lays extending into unfathomable obscure reaches. She sits on her vantage point and draws a soggy day-old sandwich from her bag. She takes small bites and looks on, never not bewildered and excited to witness her playground so bare. All this space allocated for further expansion, space enough for an entire world, a world she could architect to imperfection. Where even a single moment is more alive than an entire lifetime of Happiness 5. A dim crease in the underworld of the great City in the Sky.
Boot The Gutters.
She slips her other glove on and watches as her creation, her own diminished reality, gradually comes to life before her. The glow of the colourful city lights shimmer in the scratched glass of her goggles. Her feet dangle excitedly over the razor’s edge into nothingness. Just then, a black cat leaps out of the darkness, takes a few tentative steps towards her and stretches glitching. She offers it a few chunks of her sandwich and pets it with her glove.
From their perch, the pair sit in silent awe for a long moment, side by side, admiring the spectacle of a city being born into the night.
Let’s see now.
She hides the remainder of her sandwich into her bag, brushes a few crumbs off into the abyss and begins absently swiping and typing.
Somehow, it always caught her by surprise.
Are you going to eat with those things on?
She looks up from her bowl of crunch, sideways, defiantly. Her insubordination is brief, however, and with a quick tap she deactivates her goggles and slides them up onto her forehead to reveal a world without artifice. She bares her teeth at him then looks away. A deep ring of red outlines the purple arc under her grey eyes. Whereas she chose to use the virtual lenses as a tool, she would at times forget that her dad shunned them altogether. She feels a little exposed at first, a reflex of a feeling, but expressly she represses it. The seer of a naked eye is healthy, she reminds herself, a grounding.
He sits across from her at the kitchen table with a glass of strong coffee, of dark grey liquid, and a chocolate chip oat bar, a small drab ration.
She stares back at her plate in disappointment. Her breakfast suddenly reveals itself for the mirage that it is and her milk and cereal transform back into a crunchy type of nothingness. Her half-mouthful sits on her tongue like a wet sock, and even so, she knows he is right. Always so. Painfully so. Her dad crosses his legs and sits more comfortably. She yawns reflexively.
Why not just add it to your avatar?
He’s probing. She feels it, and squints at him, resenting his untroubled understanding of her rebelliousness.
Can we talk about something else?
I’m not like them. This is who I am. They actually like this.., she raises a spoonful of crunch and empties it mid-air, … this stuff because they’ve never looked at it. But I’m not like you either ok? I mean, how can you eat this stuff?
It’s the same stuff your eating.
Yeah but I don’t look at it! She could feel herself becoming theatrical and hated it. It’s early morning, late in the night for her. I choose. I choose. It’s the only freedom to be had in this, she hesitates, this bunker existence.
The man sitting across from her takes a bite of his breakfast, the creases beside his eyes slightly wrinkle.
All hours of her nights might be spent on all the devilry her mind is able to conjure, he thinks to himself, however, her true masterpiece will forever be the person she so craftily engineers for this Happiness illusion. A stark meticulous contrast. She pours all manners of cleverness into being disarming, all her imagination into every slightest detail of her personality. To be one of them. An ordinary girl. Theatre, he thinks. No. Not merely. She could very well still choose the illusion, as so many had.
Cowards, all, the words travel his mouth soundlessly as a shadow comes to shroud his mind. For there was an undeniable comfort in the illusion, and as the post-world carried on its darkly course, he wasn’t so sure anymore that Happiness was not a better home.
And yet, was she to choose this path of greater immersion into the illusion, he thinks somberly, she would forever be lost to him.
Patience, he reminds himself. Patience. He sighs audibly retreating further within himself, travelling deep to delve finally into thoughts of escape and a pilgrimage to the post-world. To weather time as one weathers an unrelenting wind. It had been a while since his last pilgrimage.
She watches on as her father loses his way into deep thought. How much does he know?, she, thinks to herself.
In The Gutters, she had programmed herself to be ignored. Very much a stream of code amongst streams of code to the virtual inhabitants of her realities, although with an interactional value of zero. In Happiness 5, a reality shared by all inhabitants of the City in the Sky, she had programmed herself to be indistinguishable. As much a survivor of the post-world as any other. No more no less. Yet at home, no guises withstood the raw glances of her father’s eyes.
The balance always seemed to teeter with him between an unconditional acceptance of the way she chooses to live her life, and an odd knowing acceptance. And although, logically, she accepted the former to be the truth, somehow she had always felt the latter’s lingering threat. It barely mattered to her whether her father knew. However, seeing as he so thoroughly lacked the technological wherewithal, let alone the interest, to grasp any of her various projects, the how of it all always remained particularly pervasive to her. A tiny yet stubborn sliver lodged in her confidence. Ever since her first foray in decreased realities, ever since she had released her tapes, she had the inkling that he had known. More, even. That he had somehow foreshadowed it.
The thought confuses her.
She sits calmly back in her chair at the table and sighs. Her eyes rise to steal another concealed glance at her father, still lost in his reveries. Is there a greater game at play here?, she wonders as she had often wondered before. For what value is there in being a queen amongst pawns, moving freely between all planes, all realities? If another commands the board, if a master is at play, however many freedoms a queen holds over a pawn, neither truly possess freedom of will. She fought against the fog of fatigue shifting about her tired mind. But at last the thought won her over, dragging her asunder to drown in a well of self-doubt and hurt. To have her life manipulated like a mere program?
Quietly, she stands. Then, with trembling hands, she gathers the dishes and brings them to the wall. A tile slides upwards and seals itself again swallowing her half-eaten breakfast, his clean plate and glass. Rather than a queen moving freely across realities, she felt herself a ghost caught between realities. Condemned to be forever an outsider, an outcast, cursed, unable to conjure a sufficient suspension of disbelief to fully inhabit the virtual space that is Happiness. How deliberate was he in teaching her to embrace the physical world? And to what end?
Paranoia, she whispers to herself unconvincedly. She had no one else in this world. If she ever was special, it was through his eyes alone.
The light creeps into the apartment, she can feel its synthesized warmth. For a moment, she tries to believe in the presence of a sun, yet all the effort brings about is a melancholic weariness that creeps under her defences and weighs upon her weary existence.
I’m going to head home.
When she bids farewell to her father, her words barely break into his absent state. As though his mind had escaped, found solace in a different realm. A layer less, in reality, foundational even to the physical world of City in the Sky her father had taught her to embrace. A reality that took precedence on the one they shared. It was not rare for her to find him in this state.
I’m leaving, Dad.
Again her words find no resonance in his consciousness. She feels herself out of focus. A mere program to be dismissed at will. A stream of code amongst streams of code to the last person who could distinguish.
Fissured and dull, an ancient cathedral bell resounds echoless and unsettles the sacred peace of the night. A stillness settles in the air. The chime comes again. And again. And when at last it ceases, there is a hollow, like a breath withheld, and the night knows such a silence so as to strip darkness of its majesty. The air shivers and a faint whisper filters through the great city. Rodents scurry whimpering from the murky empty streets down deep into the underworld. Inside the cathedral, the air begins to quake with ungodly might. Pillars of tarnished stone suddenly are set into motion, contorting excruciatingly upwards, outstretching like burnt twisted hands into the starless abyss above. Rafters wince and grind and the great dome collapses in a glockenspiel shower of shattered stained glass. A column of light pours moon-silver through the hollow in the ceiling and is dispersed through the shards of glass whose fall comes to a halt mid-air, in a chandelier of ruin and elegance.
Verdi, Dies Irae. The ground begins to crumble as the pews knot and tangle, driving roots deep into the crypts below. Louder. LOUD! The cathedral floor sinks under her feet as the choir bellows the hymn of death. Her fingers assault wildly the air as she conducts her own orchestrations of doom upon the once sacred place. Saintly paintings of pious scenes and martyrdom fade silently, leaving only severed limbs and haunted, stranded eyes to gaze sinisterly from their sombre alcoves. The vibrations become such that her heart is left unsure of the master of its own rhythm. Fugitive gasps of breath escape in vapour from her mouth. The entirety of her being pushes outwards to erupt and be free, she screams out to relieve the pressure but manages no more than an inaudible rasp. Her eyes begin to water and the overwhelming force instead redirects itself inside to assail her own soul. Her feet softly find the ground anew. The cursed hall reverberates the sound of her troubled breathing in broken echos, as though conjoining in the suffering.
Silence anew. She stands alone, gazing through nebulous eyes at the bedevilled cathedral towering above her, maimed by the wrath of its creator, monument now to a different darkly reverence. She feels hollowed. Miniscule. Insignificant in the presence of such humbling might, albeit her very own. With barely the strength to be, she sets off into the night.
The lights blur and merge as a faint drizzle begins to fall. Her hair sticks to her eyes and nose. She wraps herself tightly into her own arms. Alone, she wanders endlessly, drunkenly through the desolate streets and for the first time being ignored is an unbearable wound.
Someone, she whispers to herself. People. Please.
Gradually people filter through from the alleys and shops. She sighs, and for a moment is relieved. But as she runs to them, to an old lady murmuring to her rosary, a young boy tending his bicycle, a couple sharing an umbrella, all in turn ignore her as per their programming. They avoid her as they would a light post or a sleeping dog.
The street is suddenly swarming with people, the shops open, the stalls, the district is bustling with life.
Hordes rush into the streets and a pedestrian traffic jam forms around her, bodies shifting restlessly like bees in a hive. People push to squeeze by each other. There is much chatter and a fight breaks out in a small square ahead. The crowd shuffles more aggressively as some try to move towards it, some away.
The suffering grows inside her. The force of her emotions pushing in against the core of her being with ever-increasing pressure. She curls into a ball on the wet cobblestones. Minuscule at the foot of the mass of shoving bodies. Tramplings begin to occur. And still, she is left untouched.
Leave, she whispers. Enough! The crowd breaks up and soon she finds herself alone again under the rain. Clinging desperately to herself.
The crushing pressure furthers its work against her soul until the core of her being is so minute, so compressed, that she is suddenly offered an aching glance at the very essence of her being, her primal urges, to be loved, to impress, to be special; until she is more suffering than self.
She waits but the black cat doesn’t come.
Monk!, she screams.
The outflow of tears catches her by surprise. She slides her goggles onto her forehead and burrows her face into her arms. The obscure abyss surrounding her is so vast that her whimpers find no walls to bounce against.
The hologram blurs and twitches nestled in the worn steady hands of the cook. The three exchange glances. In a gesture of mercy, as one lowers the eyelids of a deceased, the cook smoothes a rag over the orb and dissimulates it into her apron. She could suffer the exposition of the orb no longer than she could that of her own raw, beating heart. There was a common understanding buried deep in the creases, in the furrows of the masks they wore, of the nature of this particular evil. Yet, none could have fathomed the form this necessary evil would take, none could have prepared to be so helpless in face of such suffering.
A few coal embers dance into the night as the cook retrieves the rusted iron kettle from the clay stove. With three fingers, she gathers the cups and spills their cold and embittered contents to the gutters. She thereafter pours a fresh steaming round and distributes the cups anew. The young lady accepts hers with a respectful bow while the man barely even registers the motions. Her work fulfilled, the cook leans back, slides the rag off her shoulder and resumes her obsessive, ceaseless polishing. Such insurmountable odds. Her eyes return to rest naturally on the spot where the projection of the girl had been, where she remained still, engraved into the retina of her eye. The girl’s helplessness reflected nowhere as clearly as in her own.
The man drowns his face into his rough hands breathing brokenly. Worn thin by inaction, by years of waiting. Thick threads of smoke filter unevenly through his knuckles. How does it all end? There was no longer a clear path towards escape that he could conjure for himself, no longer a light in the distant reaches to steady his gaze. This new illusion, he thinks bitterly, the Gutters… what cruel jest of fate was this? He chuckles in his folly, obscuring his head within an impenetrable cloud of smoke.
A few discreet threads of vapour escape the teacup, swaying playfully before the young woman’s eyes. An unnatural stillness settles in the air. The cook’s eyes drift upwards, jarred from their mooring, to contemplate the odd phenomenon unfolding before her. No amount of motion could come to equal the intensity of the stillness she now beheld. The young woman sat inanimately, devoid of life, yet with such commanding immobility that it was as though all motion was accentuated by her, all sounds heightened, all light inexplicably drawn to her. The rag falls limp in the cook’s hand.
As the smoke clears, the man’s eyes almost miss her entirely as he gathers his surroundings. Frozen in time, cup held mid-air before her lips; his eyes had failed to register her as anything other than an element of the background, a feature of the stall. The man’s gaze soon finds anchor alongside the cook’s in the presence of the beguiling woman. All fades from their reality but the pale buttery glow of an overhead bulb and the crispy crackling of the tungsten within. The frailty of the incandescent filaments whispering threateningly that all life would end if it were to suddenly burn out.
Of the three, she knew her own daughter the best.
Just before the cup reaches her mouth, her lips part into an eloquent smile.
As she reaches the lowest expression of herself, curled into a ball at the center of the lonely abyss, her despair adheres to a little bit of character. To a little bit of fight. She takes her goggles off her head and looks at them. She glances at her own pitiful features mirrored twofold in the glass.
How dramatic, she laughs half-heartedly at herself. Am I so special?
Lifting the lenses up to her eyes, she gazes through at a world undisturbed. Streets empty, a slight fog shifting.
Who is it that disappears when I take my goggles off?
An outcast, again, she thinks to herself. How foolish to have ever thought otherwise. The Gutters was never her home. The world she had designed as a murky reflection of the world above, the reality she had crafted for herself, into which she had sought refuge; would remain in the end merely an illusion to her, forever out of her reach. A swift breath of loneliness flows through her mind, chased by a warm breeze of kinship for the people of The Gutters. A longing to be apart of those who know nothing other than her Diminished Reality. To whom the walls are walls and the rain rain. Reality is just input, she thinks to herself. And I, along with every inhabitant of this or any reality, all I am is source code.
Input and source code, she whispers, the words, so simple, suddenly imbued with irrefutable wisdom.
Input and source code. No one is special.
As the words speak themselves through her mouth, completing its sequence as some age-old rhyme, a strange comfort seems to emanate from them. For, nestled in the marrow of existence, there was a home that could not be denied her.
Instilled with a new sense of resolution, she slides her goggles back on, and in a gyrating sweep, she takes in her surroundings. A world, empty. Its people dismissed at her capricious whim. Dismissed as her father had, as though she pertained to a more important reality. Her father’s recent dismissal of her still lingering painfully inside her, she becomes suddenly aware of her own hypocrisy.
No more, she promises to the shifting fog. I am not my father.
Rummaging within the depths of her many coat pockets, she fumbles across a thin metallic web which she stretches over her gloved hands. Then, sitting crosslegged, she spreads her hands in the air, as far as she can on either side of her, and, with a deep breath, she begins her work. The Gutters had grown substantially since the last time she had done any major overhaul work, and at first, nothing around her seems to move. The world is completely still. Then, at last, from a distance beyond sight came a faint rumbling. Reluctantly, the world obeys her command, grindingly launching into its heavy rotation around her. Once set in motion, a gradual momentum builds as her hands, circling in front of her, gather the world like yarn into a ball. The revolutions resound tremendously in the great hollow of the abyss, grating and grinding with ever-increasing speed as the world shrank towards its axis. The spectacle lasts a few breathtaking moments until finally, all that remains floating before her is a blinding ball of whirling light no bigger than her own head.
The Gutters comes to a rest, still and so minute in the palm of her hand, with all of its buildings and streets and inhabitants. She marvels a while at its condensed magnificence, spellbound, its incandescence dancing in the worn glass of her goggles.
How you have outgrown me, she whispers in awe. It’s time to set you free.
With a melancholic sigh, she wrestles her tired eyes away from the bewitching sphere and stows the orb delicately in a small pocket of her rucksack. The world is blackness once more, her tiny goggle LEDs drowning in the invading nothingness.
As she reaches the foot of the steep soaring wall a certain unnerved anticipation seeps through her mind. Her eyes travel upwards into the far reaches above. She reaches for the serpentine ladderwell, her eyes still transfixed above. Once more, the feeling of being but a pawn in a greater game surfaces in her conscious mind. With every rung she climbs, The Gutters would be one step closer to attaining its freedom. No longer would it be a tumourous growth of streaming code pulsating silently in the depths of Happiness, but rather, a complete autonomous world of its own. A world to rival Happiness. More, she thinks with a mixture of elation and apprehension. Sealed from outside interference, it would lay claim to greater freedom still than Happiness. The Gutters would be set forth on a course from which there would be no return. A fate reminiscent of her own, she thinks.
Then, as though pulled upwards by the forces of inevitability, of a path long-ago decided upon, she begins her ascent.