A while back, my friend Sorina at Chosen Voice drew a picture for me and I promised to write a story for it. It took quite a while and since what I came up with was more a novel-length story than a short story, I had to restart it several times. As it was, I still had to break it into four installments. I will be posting them over the next four days so you won’t have to wait long to get the whole story.
I also wrote this as a tribute to fathers since it’s Father’s Day coming up on Sunday in some countries. This story is partially dedicated to my father, who is one of my best friends.
The Horse Bridge, Part 1
Yesterday was New Year’s Day, 2084, but I didn’t go out. No one goes out anymore, at least not when they can help it—out to that disturbing real outside where you’re not in control of anything and nothing is customizable. We call it “UX” in online speak, for “UnCustomizable Space.” In is the craze now—further and further in. That’s the challenge, the goal of life: to make your own digital world, and then move deeper, down to stronger and stranger realities.
They say that UX is the place of unavoidable necessities, the kind you don’t talk about—like using the bathroom or going to a doctor. So, that afternoon, when I had an unavoidable necessity to attend to, I simply told my friends that I was “UXing” and they didn’t ask the details. Everyone has unavoidable necessities that take them away from their real life.
I disconnected the inputs to the computer and pulled myself out of the chair with a groan. Two steps across my 10’x10’ apartment brought me from my input chair to the shower stall, where I washed off and dressed. Then my car drove me over to the Tall Maple nursing home.
When I opened the door to Room 406, the wispy-haired resident with blistered and scarred skin was sitting on the bed, staring towards the door. I forced a smile onto my face.
“Hi Dad,” I said. “How are you today?”
“Hi, Jeremy,” he said. “Is it raining out?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I took the car over—it’s all underground roadway.”
“Is it raining?”
“Yeah, it’s raining.” I didn’t know, or particularly care. “Happy birthday, Dad.”
“Is today my birthday? I thought I had one already.”
“You get one every year. You’re 45 this year.”
“45?” Abruptly, he began to cry, although I wasn’t sure if it was because he thought this was too old or too young. Or maybe he was crying just because. Honestly, I didn’t really care. They told me that my father was a hero for all the work he had done researching the environmental meltdown and finding ways to start reversing the effects. All I knew was that he had not really been my father for the last eleven years. I didn’t know him—had never known him well—and I was always glad when I could say good-bye and head back to my real life.
“What’s that, Jeremy?” he asked suddenly, pointing.
“That’s the door, Dad.”
“How do you use it?”
“You just put your finger to that button and it opens,” I said, then stopped. “Well, not for you.”
“I want to go out,” he said, and got up to lightly brush his finger over the door button. It didn’t open for him. “Do you think I could go hiking again someday? Maybe canoeing?” I never answered those questions when he asked them. “Why don’t you get out more, Jeremy? You look so pale.”
“Outside’s not much fun anymore, Dad—not the kind of place you want to go. I go in, deeper and deeper—”
I stopped when I saw his blank look. It was pointless trying to relate to him. Once, when I was feeling ambitious, I explained to my dad about the fractal nature of life programs like Real World, the one I used. I explained how you created your home base and then the computer created iterations of it, emphasizing some things, and expanding hints and implications of the home base. These resulted in hundreds and thousands of custom-made worlds that were often beyond the user’s wildest imaginations but perfectly suited to them. I explained all this and he seemed to understand, until I finished and he asked, “But why?” After that, I gave up. My dad would always view computers as tools for work and play, not places to live.
I stayed with Dad another hour, reminded the nurses that it was his birthday, then went down to my car. It hummed along the underground roadway on its own while I plugged in and went to Darktower, my home base. It was a massive tower, soaring thousands of feet over a midnight landscape. I made it so that the sun never rose and there were no stars or moon. Outside the windows, it was pure black, but inside the tower, it was cheery and bright.
I went into my hall of mirrors, to see if any of my friends were available. Rashid was there. The mirror showed a glimpse into his home base, which was in the middle of the sun. His avatar wore sunglasses all the time.
“’Sup, Baron?” Rashid said. He leaned back against a wall of roiling orange flame. “Did you hear the news from Real World?”
“I just got back from UX. What’s hot?”
“They released a 5th iteration,” Rashid said. “The creation software is totally new, they say. It’s a big secret how it works. I’m going down tonight. If I find anything amazing, I’ll send you a wormhole to come join me.”
“Which world are you going to iterate? You going to try another Miranda?” Rashid only nodded, a wicked grin on his face. He had around 30 iterations of Miranda, his computer-generated girlfriend. Each one had a slightly different personality, depending on his mood.
“You should introduce a girl too,” he said.
“Maybe later. I want to test it out first.”
I talked to Rashid a bit more, then picked up the 5th iteration upgrade from Package Depot. It looked like an egg and I threw it against the wall to start the update. Everything shimmered for a second, as it always did with large updates.
I started up the tower towards my inner sanctum at the very top. I could have installed a jump to get there instantly, but I liked to walk up the long, winding stairway and feel the distance increase below me.
I had gone halfway when something walked into view far below me on the ground floor. It was some sort of animal—large and white, with a purple corona around its neck. I snapped my fingers to summon the Universal Helper and it appeared next to me in the form of a small dragon.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing at the animal below me.
“I’m sorry, Baron Darktower, what do you mean?”
“That animal-thing down there. What is it?”
“I don’t see any animal,” the Helper said.
“There, it’s walking away. Now it’s gone.” The Helper spread its small wings and flew out into the open space and then back. “Oh, you’re hopeless,” I said, and dismissed it.
When I got up to my sanctum, I got the Helper back and had him show me pictures of animals. Five minutes later, a picture came up. It had been a horse. I had never seen an actual horse, and only a few times even in Real Life. It must have come in with the upgrade, although the fact that the Helper could not see it worried me. I hoped it wasn’t a glitch.
(to be continued tomorrow)