Wei knew what she wanted to do with the lights as soon as she found them in the storage closet. The town across the lake was falling into a state of ruin far beyond any repair efforts she could hope to make, but across the houses and stores on the waterfront she strung the lights, dragging a generator all that distance as well so she could plug them in. Once hung, they made a pitiful sight, but she didn’t need the effect to stand up to careful scrutiny. She needed them only for the moments of inattentiveness, those rare occasions when she caught them out of the corner of her eye and could believe, for just a moment, that the town still had life in it.
“Station eighteen, please come in.”
Wei had been nodding off, but the voice of Kyle from Central startled her awake. She fumbled at the microphone before managing a sure grasp on it.
“Yes, station eighteen present.”
“Be aware that we’ve been experiencing some difficulties with the system that is causing some subjects to be ejected from the simulation.”
Wei’s stomach dropped. He spoke as though the implications of this weren’t terrifying.
“Uhh, how many subjects are being ejected?”
“Very few, only twelve so far, but we have not yet fixed the glitch, so you need to be prepared for the possibility of someone in your unit waking up.”
Oh, just waking up, like they’ve been taking a nap. No big deal.
“I will be prepared, sir.”
“And make sure those books of yours aren’t blocking any of the doors or hallways.”
“They never have been, sir. Any other news?”
“Just the one you don’t want to talk about.”
Wei’s stomach dropped again.
“Yup, almost ready. You’re gonna need to think about what to do next.”
“There’s gotta be something else I can do out here.”
“You know this is the only job you’re qualified for. I’m not sure why you’re so against going in. I think you’re the only person who’s out here because she wants to be.”
Wei said nothing. She had explained it to him so many times before, but he never registered any of it. No one ever seemed to understand her reasoning.
“Right,” she said, “I’ll keep an eye on my charges until then. Hope none of them wake up.”
Central signed off. Wei sat at the terminal staring into space, trying to process the double shot of bad news she had just received, then remembered what Kyle had said about the books. They were blocking halls and doorways, but organizing them could be just the thing to keep her distracted. She was just getting ready to head upstairs when another call came in. It was Murad at station nineteen.
“Did you get the news?” he asked before she could say anything.
She assumed he was talking about the glitch. Nemo was something he was excited for.
“Central just called me.”
“I had guessed they would have finished talking to you by now. I hope you have made adequate preparations.”
“I only just got off the phone with them.”
“Based on the available data, I’ve estimated that the odds of having a subject wake up is somewhere around two million to one.”
“And with a hundred thousand people per station…” she let the solution hang in the air.
“Twenty to one,” he said with a condescension that made clear his assumption that she couldn’t solve the equation. “I hope you’re prepared.”
“I will be.”
Murad hung up without any further conversation. He did this every time Central came through with an important message. It was patronizing of course, but part of her also appreciated having someone else to talk to, even someone as unpleasant as Murad, but even his perpetual condescension wasn’t likely to be half as uncomfortable as what would happen if one of the subjects woke up.
She focused on that problem as she made her way towards the elevator because she didn’t want to think about Nemo. People getting booted from the simulation: nothing like it had ever happened before, and since anyone who went in assumed it was a one-way trip, she could only imagine that anyone making the trip back would be less than pleased. And yet, it would be an opportunity to talk to someone else, someone other than Kyle or Murad. Part of her wanted it.
She shook the thought away. Twenty-to-one still wasn’t great odds. There was no use dwelling on it. She had to see to her books.
Even with all the advancements that could now sustain the human lifespan far beyond its natural limits, it was still more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime. In some ways, Wei thought of herself as more of a museum curator than anything else. The museum of books, here in its glory for any future generations who might excavate the ruins of Station Eighteen. Such a wealth of information they’d find, and Wei’s bones would be there in the midst of them to let them know who to thank for it.
Unless they think it was the collaborative effort of me and the hundred thousand other bones they’d find here. Maybe I should leave a note.
Her efforts to keep the books well organized was more dream than reality. She wanted so much to have an elegant city of stacks flowing along the hallways, but it never came about as she would have liked it. After the admonishment from Kyle, she resolved to try again, taking the elevator up to the second floor and stepping out to stare at the impossible mess before her. There were piles in front of her piles, which she had intended to integrate, there were stacks that had fallen over, stacks that were leaning so precariously, it was a marvel that they hadn’t. She knew nowhere to start except at the nearest stack, trying not to think too much about just how many of the other ninety-nine floors above her were also in a similar mess. The thing is though, as much as central fussed, no one passed through these aisles except her.
She got to work on the nearest stack, a pile of history books she had been meaning to read for so long, her ambitions were history, too. The stacks on this floor were the early ones, from the days when she’d been selective about which books she’d loot from the ruins. But every time she brought home a pile of what she’d carefully selected, she’d find herself longing for some of the ones she’d left behind, and would return for those too, and then books that it had once seemed unthinkable to bother with suddenly became indispensable. And then at some point, she’d just go back for everything she’d left behind.
Even before the transcendence, she’d been book-obsessed. It was why it had come as such a shock to everyone who knew her that she had chosen to be one of the tiny handful who would stay behind rather than transcend with the rest of humanity. She’d always loved so much to get lost in a book. Surely a virtual fantasy world would be a dream far beyond that. But, something never sat right with her about it. She loved the real world, so she had stayed behind, becoming one of the caretakers of the stations where the bodies of those living in paradise were housed. Her job was largely ceremonial. She was mostly just there because even in the age of robots, everyone still felt better knowing that there could be a human to respond to crisis if it ever occurred, and the development of Nemo made it clear that central wasn’t even concerned about that anymore.
The alarm sounded. It took Wei a moment to realize the implications of it. The system had failed: one of her wards had been ejected from the simulation, and was waking up back in their own body. Wei checked her phone. The failure was on the ninety-third floor: far above where she kept any of her books. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about that.
She rushed to the elevator. The ride had never seemed slower. There was no protocol for what to do in the event of a subject waking up. It was the main reason they still hadn’t automated her position. She was going to have to wing it.
The doors opened on a hallway identical to the one she had just left, except that here there were no books, and there was a red light flashing over one of the doors. She went to it, pressed the button to open the door.
There was nothing in the room except a few slings suspended from the ceiling in which hung the naked body of a now awake and deeply distressed middle-aged woman.
She was frantic, the helmet she was wearing with its brace of wires running into the wall behind her shaking and jiggling with her motions.
“It’s okay,” Wei said, “don’t worry, it’s okay. You woke up.”
The woman’s gaze was now fixated on her.
“What do you mean I woke up?” she asked, and then the realization began to dawn on her. “You mean I’m back in the…in the…”
Wei finished the thought for her.
“In the real world.”
“Oh, my god,” the woman said, then more forcefully, “Oh, my god!” Her eyes roved around the room, as though some solution to the problem was hanging there on the walls. “You have to put me back, I have to go back in.”
Wei was trying to shush her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, we’ll be able to put you back. Don’t worry.”
“I have a party I have to go to. I need to be back in time for it.”
Oh well, God forbid, Wei thought, and had to stop herself from voicing the sentiment.
“I don’t know how long it will take. A technician has to come out to put you back in the system.”
The woman looked at her, squinting to comprehend. She was at least calming down though.
“Aren’t you a technician?”
Wei shook her head.
“I’m just a caretaker. I’m here to keep an eye on things in case anything goes wrong. I’ll have to put a call in to central. It’ll be a few hours before anyone can get out here.”
“A few hours?” the woman said, a quaver of panic returning to her voice. “What am I supposed to do until then?”
Wei started to speak, and then stopped. Was it really such a horrible thought, to spend a few hours back in reality? She was supposed to be a caretaker, but how was she supposed to take care of this horror, this woman’s absurd reaction to returning to the place that all humanity came from? There was only one thing Wei could think to suggest.
“Maybe you’d like to get out of this sling, stretch your limbs a little bit. Maybe you’d like some clothes.” Wei paused. “Maybe you’d like to see the real world again.”
The woman grimaced.
“What on earth would I want to do that for?”
Because it’s Earth, isn’t that good enough? Wei thought.
“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to remember where you came from, see the real world again, feel real grass, a real breeze, none of those computer-generated experiences? How long has it been?”
The woman looked around the room, thinking things through. Wei tensed in anticipation. Finally, the woman sighed in exasperation.
“I might as well.”
Wei found some clothes for the woman in the same storage closet where she’d found the lights. She’d given the woman some privacy to get dressed, and had had to wait an uncomfortably long time for her to emerge, but she had to acknowledge that this woman, whose name she’d learned was Doreen, had lain dormant for who knows how long, decades or more, and was having to use a real flesh-and-blood body for the first time since. It was a wonder she was as coordinated as she was.
When Doreen did finally emerge, she was sweating and panting, looking wearied from great struggle. The dress was on messy.
“I’d forgotten how hard it is to use a real body. You never get tired in there, you know. Have you ever been in before?”
Wei shook her head no, already dreading this conversation. “I almost did. I’d wanted to, but I just couldn’t go through with it. It’s hard to explain why except, you know, everything out here is real, authentic.”
“Authentic?” Doreen said with a quiver of contempt. “What’s in there is as real as anything else. And it’s so amazing, I just can’t even tell you, it’s just…” her face fell, “but I suppose someone has to stay out here, don’t they?”
“Yeah,” Wei nodded, “a few people do, fewer and fewer every year, but I think there will always be a bit of humanity left out here.”
And I want it to be me.
“Oh, but I’m sure it’s still nice out here and all,” Doreen said with no conviction.
“I like it,” Wei said, “even if it’s not as nice as it used to be. A lot of the cities have fallen to ruin now. There’s no one left to take care of them.”
This seemed to alarm Doreen.
“All of them? Even the big ones?”
“I think there’s a team who does maintenance on some of the historic buildings, but there’s not enough to see to the upkeep of all of it. There’s only a few thousand of us still out here.”
“Why, it must be like an apocalypse then.”
“Sort of, yeah,” Wei said. “But it’s beautiful in its way. Do you still want to see it?”
“Well, you said it would be a few hours before anyone could come.”
Wei walked beside her towards the exit, walking slow to match the woman’s uncertain pace.
“We won’t have to walk, will we?” Doreen asked.
“Don’t worry, I have a vehicle.”
Doreen looked over Wei’s head, then cringed.
“I’m so stupid, I actually forgot that they don’t display names over people’s heads out here. What should I call you?”
“Call me Wei.”
Central did not like the caretakers leaving their stations, but understood that necessity occasionally called for it, and Wei left far more often than necessity dictated, but her companion seemed little concerned. She was breathless at the sight of real nature, eyes roving about the landscape, less interested in the staggering monument of the station than she was in the spears of grass, eyes focused on the abundance of green around them as she climbed into the golf cart.
“What’s that town over there?” Doreen asked, nodding towards the ruins where Wei had strung up the lights.
“It’s where the people who built and maintained the tower used to live, back when a large human crew was needed to maintain the stations.”
Doreen nodded and continued to examine the world around her.
“It doesn’t look the same at all,” Doreen said.
Wei felt a little shiver of satisfaction at those words as she started the engine.
“You mean compared to inside?” Wei asked.
“Yeah. They say the world in there is indistinguishable from the outside, but it’s not the same at all, and I can’t really explain why. It’s just something about how the grass moves, how light reflects off it. The buildings all look the same though.”
“Do they have stations inside?” Wei asked.
“Can you imagine? Worlds inside of worlds…though we do play videogames in there, so maybe it’s not that strange. But the laws of physics don’t apply in there. We have buildings that go on forever, and you can jump off them, and it’s fine.”
“I’m definitely going to need to keep an eye on you,” Wei said as she put the vehicle into drive. Doreen said nothing for a while, but she was smiling as she roved her eyes about the landscape. Her wonder made the world new to Wei, for whom this had all become common. She never dared go too far from the station, a restriction that planted in her too many fantasies of making off for the horizon, driving until Station Eighteen had vanished behind her.
What if I can convert her?
It was a thought far too dangerously radical, and yet Wei spun away at it, imagining a reality revolution that began with her converting Doreen to the magic of the real world – the original world – so that she returned to the virtual space only to preach the gospel and bring others out of the virtual space –
Doreen gave a gasp that startled Wei out of her thoughts.
“What’s wrong?” Wei asked. Doreen was studying her reflection in the sideview mirror.
“I’m old,” Doreen said. She shook her head. “Sorry, I forgot what I looked like out here. In there, I look about twenty, always have, but I was…” she thought a moment, “forty-seven when I went in. There is so much I’ve forgotten about my old life.”
“Tell me about it,” Wei said.
Memories make for good longing.
“Oh god, it’s been so long. I had a husband and two kids. We still talk in there, but you kind of have a way of drifting from your old relations inside. Connections don’t matter anymore. It really changes your perspective on things. I had an office job – blech, I don’t want to think about my old life anymore. Isn’t that why you go into a place like that, so you don’t have to think about the way things used to be?”
“I mean, I’ve been living the way things have been for me for a long, long time,” Wei said.
The nearest city was coming into view. It had not been a spectacular one in its heyday, but in its ruin, it had at least achieved a certain nobility. Roman ruins had, after all, once been buildings of little interest to their occupiers. Here, the road was slowly giving way to plant life, shattered windows saw trees flourish in their void. Sidewalks were the dominion of animals now, feral cats and dogs as common as humanity had once been. Wei brought the cart to a stop.
“Does anyone still live here?” Doreen asked.
“No one’s lived here in decades,” Wei said, “and the city was falling to ruin long before that, anyway. I can remember what this place looked like even when there were still people here, and it wasn’t much nicer than this.”
“I’m sure there weren’t trees growing out of – wait a minute,” Doreen spun to face her, “you can remember this place decades ago? But you can’t be more than about twenty-five.”
“Um, actually,” Wei grew uncomfortable under Doreen’s confused gaze, “I’m almost a hundred and fifty.”
“A hundred and fifty!” Doreen shouted, “But how?”
“They’ve made a lot of strides in longevity sciences since you went in, reverse aging, organ renewal. We can keep a person alive in their body for a long time now.”
“But if I was forty-seven when I went in, and that must have been sixty or seventy years ago…you’re older than me.”
“I was getting into my seventies when they started building the stations and inviting people to be uploaded. The elderly were given priority, and I said yes to an upload when they got around to me, but…I just couldn’t go through with it. I don’t know why, except that I had an experience similar to you. I was just sitting on my porch staring at a blade of grass and thinking that if I went in, I’d never get to see anything like that again, it would just be imitation, everything would be imitation, even the things that are already imitation, like city lights. And I just couldn’t live with that.”
“So now you run a station?”
“Like I told you before, I’m just a custodian, there in case anything goes wrong. There’s still a few jobs that people have to stay behind for, and there’s not many of us left out here, and most of the women left aren’t fertile anymore, so…”
“The human race is going extinct…” Doreen said.
“Not exactly. There’s still billions of people, it’s just most of humanity is uploaded, so the goal now is to try to get to a point where all the jobs that are left can be automated so that there’s no reason for anyone to stay out here, and station attendant is next on the docket.”
“So you’ll be going in soon?”
“I don’t know. I’m still not sure I want to, even if there’s less to admire about the world now than there used to be.” She indicated the ruins before them. Doreen got out of the cart and walked towards them, staring them over. Since Wei was staring at her back, she couldn’t see whether it was admiration or horror, or something in between that Doreen was expressing.
“There’s something strangely beautiful about this,” Doreen said, “and I don’t know why. It should be ugly, but somehow it’s not.”
“I guess you don’t have ruins inside,” Wei said.
“No, we do, but this has been the biggest difference yet. The ruins inside, well, they’re manmade, they’re kind of deliberate in how they’re designed, but this – this is real ruin. Inside, I’d be able to climb to the top of that highest skyscraper no problem, but out here I don’t see any way to do it. You can’t manufacture true decay. You’ll never see anything like this in there.” She went silent a moment. “I guess the whole world must be falling to ruin like this.”
“Sort of,” Wei said, “it’s been a kind of controlled apocalypse, just letting things slowly shut down, kinda like euthanasia, I guess, letting our old civilization die painlessly.”
And destruction is apparently is the only thing that makes the world out here unique.
“Yeah, in there is immortality. We basically created heaven.” She turned to Wei. “How long can you survive out here with all the anti-aging treatments?”
“A couple people have made it to two hundred, but I don’t think anyone has gotten much past that yet. We could probably figure it out, except that I think anyone who could solve that has been uploaded by now. We just make do on the tech that was already developed when most of humanity was still out here.”
“So it’s a good thing they’ve almost figured out how to automate your job, right? I hate to be morbid, but you’ve only got a few more years left in your flesh.”
“Oh, I know,” Wei said.
“So you’re going to come in, right? I mean, is this really what you’d prefer?” Doreen gestured towards the ruins. Wei was struggling to come up with an answer, watching as Doreen’s bemused expression turned to astonishment.
“You still don’t want to do it?”
“I mean…” Wei struggled at the truth of it. “I should want it, I know. I’m sure I will go in this time, once they sort out the automation. I’m sure it will just take a bit of getting used to. I mean the only alternative would be to just vanish into the wilderness, and I don’t know how long I’d survive if I did that.”
Doreen came towards her, close enough to put a hand on her shoulder.
“Trust me, before you know it, you’ll wonder why it was you were ever so resistant. It is amazing in there.”
The enthusiasm in Doreen’s voice cut deep at Wei. She tried not to show the hurt in her eyes when she asked: “So, how would you like to explore the ruins?”
“Is there really any reason to make it special?” Doreen asked.
She turned and started walking towards the fallen buildings. Wei held back for a bit and, when she was sure Doreen was out of earshot, she made the call to central, her foolish hope for a revolution already dashed.
The shelves in all the stores had long been emptied, carted off to places unknown. Wei knew that at least some of these products were archived in warehouses in case there was ever any need for future generations to study them, though she couldn’t imagine who in the future would be doing that.
“It’s all so organized,” Doreen said, “not the chaos that you always see in apocalyptic movies.”
“The difference of being able to shut things down on purpose. It was kind of sad watching each of these stores close, knowing that they’d never open again. Almost nothing is manufactured anymore: just what’s needed for the survival of those of us who are left.”
Wei looked at an old ad that was hanging on a wall of a woman in half-twirl, her dress frozen in movement, her face just turned towards the camera. The poster was faded, but still had the spirit of its old liveliness in it.
“I’ll admit I don’t know what I’m holding onto anymore,” Wei said, “just that I can’t let go of it. I think I might actually like the idea of being the last person out here, because if all of us get uploaded, then what is any of this even here for?” She motioned at everything around them. “The world we came from might as well not exist at that point, but if I stay behind, at least there will be someone out here to look at all this, and know that it still exists.”
They turned a corner and found themselves facing a dead end where a wall had collapsed and blocked off the hallway.
“Until you die,” Doreen said.
“Yeah,” Wei nodded, “until I die.”
The silence of this exchange hung for a moment.
“Should we be getting back?” Doreen asked, “whoever’s coming out to re-upload me must be arriving soon.”
Wei froze. There was nothing to give her but the truth.
“Yeah…about that,” Wei said. She could tell Doreen had already divined something was wrong by the look on her face.
“Don’t tell me…”
“I only made the call a few minutes ago.”
Wei cringed at whatever was to come. She would have accepted violence, but the silence that came instead was a different sort of pain. Doreen did speak after a pause, the simplest sort of question.
“I don’t know,” Wei said, “I’ve been so lonely. No one else thinks like me, even the other people out here. I thought maybe once you’d seen the real world again, you’d want to stay, that you’d realize how much better things are out here –”
“Take me back to the station.”
She didn’t follow Doreen into the elevator, but she did watch as the numbers on the display ascended to the floor where she’d woken. Wei sat in her office, glancing over the security monitors, her eyes flitting with some pain of guilt past the one that showed Doreen sitting against her door. A part of her said she should go up there to try to make amends before Doreen disappeared from the physical world, no doubt forever this time. The rest of her sat and stared.
Going in would give me a chance to apologize.
The serviceman gave Wei only a quick hello when he came in. His job was the work of just a few minutes, and then Doreen was uploaded again. Not long after, the serviceman was back down, leaning against the door to her office.
“You got one of the last cushy jobs left,” he said to her.
“It’s not as great as you think it is.”
“Yeah, that lady had a couple of nasty things to say about you. It doesn’t matter anymore, though. You heard from central?”
“The last I talked to them was about the glitch and about Nemo.”
“So they haven’t updated you?” The serviceman stared at her expectantly.
“About what?” Wei asked, though she already knew what it was.
“You wanna hear it from them instead? I’m sure they’ll call you shortly.”
“I might as well hear it now.”
“Nemo is operational now. They got him all smoothed out. Y’all have just been made redundant.”
“You mean…” Wei was trying to hold back her sickness.
“Yup, nothing left for you to do but go in. I suppose it’s about time for you. You’re one of the oldest people left out here, aren’t you?”
She tasted copper on her tongue.
“I haven’t been keeping track.”
“Well, you’ve earned it. You’ve done your part to hold down the fort out here. Ain’t no one can’t say you didn’t stick it out. Of course, it’ll take ‘em a little bit longer to automate what I do, but we’re getting damn close to the zero point.”
“When no one’s left in the real world,” Wei said.
“Damn right. I wonder who it’ll be – the last one left, I mean. I need to be getting back though. Throw yourself a party. You deserve it.”
The official call came in a few minutes after the serviceman left. Central was congratulatory, Murad even more so when he called a few minutes later.
“So what’ll you do when you go in?” he asked her.
“Make an apology,” Wei said.
She almost took the cart, but changed her mind at the last minute. Something told her they’d be less likely to search for her if she left it behind. Her departure had been delayed until the early evening because she had agonized for so long over which books to take before finally having to accept, with some defeat, that she would just have to leave all of them behind. She found what food she could, hopefully enough to sustain her until she found some other way to eat, but if not – well, she had no plan for that.
She wasn’t far down the road before she turned to take a last look at Station Eighteen. As she did, she caught a flicker of light out of the corner of her eye of city lights, but when she looked again she realized it was just the lights she had strung up in the ruins of the town next to the station, fooling her with the illusion of life.