In my dream, I’m walking with Silvia through the garden. The greenhouse is humid, tropical, yet her little hand in mine is cool. The scent is that of mist, of good soil, of growing things. All around us bloom orchid and lily blossoms, and birds of paradise. Beneath are the tops of cabbages, carrots, turnips, gourds. A ladybug scuttles across my finger into Silvia’s open palm, its microscopic legs planting a thousand curious kisses upon her skin. Silvia recoils, giggling. I watch as her bewilderment becomes delight and then the dream concludes. (Every Gold-Class model avatar comes with a one-petabyte allowance of memory storage. Memories of my daughter account for six hundred terabytes.)
I wake alone in pulsing darkness of my pod to the sound of voices in the hall: man, woman, computer. A married couple has rented the pod next-door; the Concierge Program is giving them a guided tour. “Welcome to Gold Tower Level 93. Your pod number is…” The previous tenant was evicted just last night when he gambled away his Ticket Status—a regrettably common occurrence in this tower. I can see them now, awkward as a pair of newborn calves, not yet adjusted to their virtual prosthesis. (The price of every Gold-Class Ticket includes an avatar based on the digital rendering of the Ticketholder’s physical form. Cosmetic upgrades are available at a modest premium.)
A message blinks across the glass wall beside me. “Good morning, Luke Duncan-Epsilon. The time is 0600 hours on December 7, 2023. Your day begins now.” Behind this text, beyond the window, looms the sprawling city with its towers like stalagmites in some vast obsidian cave. In the Old Reality, the hour was determined by the sun. Within the Hive, the Warmth of Sunlight is a commodity—darkness is public domain.
0900 hours –
I patrol the Grand Market with my partner, Constable Marcus-Theta. We move methodically among the patrons and the vendors advertising Tastes and Aromas reminiscent of the Old Reality. Taste of Maguro Nigiri with Ginger and Wasabi. Gyoza with Soy Sauce. Medu Vada with Sambar and Chutney. Glowing neon signs illuminate the busy plaza; so densely populated a communal space could no longer exist on the outside. Some of the kiosks even emit pungent smoke to draw prospective customers. A translucent Venus reclines among the clouds as doting cherubs feed her grapes collected from some distant vineyard. The decadent goddess moans, “It’s Even Better Than I Remember!”
My corporeal body requires no nutrients as it presently slumbers in cryostasis. Yet passing through the neon smoke I’m struck with a sudden pang of hunger. Our avatars exhibit many such redundant neurological impulses. Without them, the numbness of a purely virtual existence might cause us to come detached from our humanity. (I “hunger” because to hunger is human.)
More than Taste, a variety of synthetic sensory experiences are sold as tonics, gel capsules, and inhalants. Even Touch, with all of its intricate nuance, can be purchased in the bathhouses and massage parlours of the Magenta District just beyond the boundaries of the Market.
“Another power cut, last night,” Marcus-Theta laments.
“I noticed,” is my response.
“I can’t remember the name of my kindergarten schoolteacher.”
“Is it important?”
“I suppose not.”
“Then don’t worry about it.”
We continue along our designated route until one sign draws my glance. It glows above a spectrum of tiny gel capsules displayed in tall transparent cylinders. Taste of Ballpark Frank with Ketchup and Spicey Mustard. I nudge my partner and point. “Do you remember this? I haven’t eaten an American hot-dog since I was a boy.”
“How much for two caps?” my partner inquires.
“No charge for policemen,” the vendor tells us, recognizing our badges. Working the beat is not without its perks.
Projected onto the wall behind him is a televised political debate between two Platinum-Class Ticketholders running for City Council. “It’s time our municipal government put a cap on the number of new citizens plugging into the Hive on a regular basis. Recent spikes have already come at the cost of widespread power cuts and threaten to overload the entire system…”
His opponent interjects, “We are talking about an unprecedented global pandemic! We have a responsibility to…” but I’ve stopped listening. I leave Hive politics to the Platinum crowd.
Still, as I receive my capsule, I notice the prices of many commodities have risen due to the cuts in question. Because every individual’s memory storage is part of the greater collective whole, a temporary loss of system power sometimes equals loss of memories. As power cuts become increasingly frequent and remembrances (like the taste of an American hot-dog) become distorted, the retail value rises accordingly.
“Bottoms up,” says Marcus-Theta.
I set the capsule on the back of my tongue (a ceremonial gesture to trigger the sensory process) and, suddenly, I’m chewing. I’m salivating. I’m savouring the salty tangy juices. I’m a young boy again in the bleachers with my brother, chanting “Let’s go, Red Sox!” under a hot summer sun. The Taste lingers exactly one minute and thirty seconds and is gone—my hunger wanes.
“It’s Even Better Than I Remember!” the buxom goddess moans.
We thank the vendor and resume walking. I think of my daughter living alone on the outside—what will her dinner be tonight? A tin of Campbell’s tomato soup? The weather must be cold out there by now.
I’ve been a part of this digital community since the very beginning. Acquiring a Ticket was easier in those days when the technology was new. I still remember what reality was prior to the pandemic and the subsequent protocol restricting all human contact. Biochemists and microbiologists labour endlessly, still unable to synthesize a cure. Anything to kill that prehistoric pathogen incubated for millennia within the melting polar ice caps. Until they do, the choice is to live isolated and alone inside of a plastic bubble or together as citizens of the new virtual arcology.
Silvia’s mother, Teresa, was immunocompromised and among the thousands claimed by the pandemic just last winter. I had begged Teresa to let me bring them into the Hive. Alas, even on her deathbed, that stubborn woman I once loved was convinced a cure was imminent, convinced a miracle would save her, save all of us. I don’t believe in miracles and ever since her death I’ve been on a list, waiting to purchase a second Gold-Class Ticket. Meanwhile Silvia wanders the Quarantine Zone in her hazmat suit, scavenging what remains of our abandoned metropolis. The military maintains order, but as resources dwindle and the death toll rises I begin to wonder for how long.
For a time, we would exchange video messages. Our last correspondence ended in an argument, the subject of which I’m unable to recall. I was never much of a father in the Old Reality. Within the Hive, things could be better. Together, we could begin anew.
In my dream, I’m walking with Silvia through the garden. The greenhouse is warm yet her hand is cool. The scent is that of growing things: blossoms, vegetables. A ladybug crawls across my finger. This amuses her.
December 16 –
My partner and I have been reassigned.
A dangerous hacker has recently gained access to the system and is living among us disguised as an ordinary citizen. As of 0600 hours, a surveillance team intercepted plans to seize control of the Hive’s collective digital assets. Capturing the cyber-terrorist, codename Black Hat, is now priority number one.
“Long has this criminal eluded outside authorities,” the superintendent says, “but where others have failed, our department will succeed. Arrest this man, Inspector,” he tells me, “and I will personally see to it that your child is given a Gold-Class Ticket.” Knowing his influence as a member of the Platinum-Class, I pledge my badge to the cause.
1800 hours –
I locate the snitch known as Church Mouse panhandling outside the New Baptist Megachurch. Behind its doors, the minister at his pulpit equates the global health crisis to the judgement of a tyrannical god. His booming sermon in seven languages echoes out onto the street. “Hark! I will bring a sword upon you which will avenge the breaking of my covenant! And when you withdraw into your cities, I will send a pestilence, delivering you into the hands of your enemies…”
“Good evening, Inspectors! What a pleasant surprise.” Church Mouse is a “Connie,” what we call Economy-Class Ticketholders. Others call them “Low Rez” because the price of an Economy-Class Ticket includes inadequate memory and no digital rendering at all. Instead, Connies are given generic avatars (one of several existing models) devoid of almost any distinctive characteristic. As Marcus-Theta describes them: “Barely the likeness of a human being. How could anyone live like that?”
“Many haven’t got a choice,” I remind him.
“I’d rather take my chances on the outside,” he says. “Better than living like a ghost.”
Church Mouse drags on the mouthpiece of his hookah; his charcoal smells of burning electrical wires. “You want names? I’ll give you one. I know this pimp, an ex-programmer. He smuggles Crypto Kitties into the Magenta District: child prostitutes disguised as Low Rez adults. The man is a parasite. You want him? He’s yours.”
“Not interested,” says Marcus-Theta.
“We want the man in black,” I say.
“Black Hat,” he says, lowering his voice. “You ask too much of me.”
“Let us remind you,” says Marcus-Theta, “the only reason you haven’t been deported is because you provide a service. Are you no longer able to provide that service?”
The beggar squints up at us through glassy colorless eyes, his bald head glistening under the light of an incandescent cross. It’s the same smooth head atop countless other Low Rez avatars. I pity Church Mouse and everyone of his class.
Benevolent governments of the outside host regular lotteries for Economy-Class Tickets. The winners go to publicly funded cryo-clinics then come flooding into the Hive, bringing more power cuts to the detriment of us all. Once within the Hive, the Connies live in casket-pods or crowded together in slums like so much cattle. (In the Old Reality, the term “cattle” described a multitude of cows. A cow was a bovine mammal raised and harvested for its milk and its meat. The Taste of Slow-Cooked Brisket costs one hundred and sixty credits. The Aroma costs another twenty.)
“Okay, listen. I can’t give you the man you want, but I know the woman who can.” He reluctantly directs us to a junkyard in the Industrial District and we deposit a sum of credits into his bank account. “God have mercy on my soul,” he says and he departs.
“Invest in some upgrades!” Marcus-Theta recommends.
Church Mouse isn’t going to spend his payment on aesthetics. Nor will he spend it as others might at the tonic bars, brothels, or casinos. He will bring his money to the Pain Mongers in the blood-arcades, peddlers of the most addictive illegal substance credits can buy. Masochism is common among his class, among those who retain little of the Old Reality, who balance precariously on the brink of detachment. About his product a Monger I once arrested said to me, “What I provide is the most human of all our senses: a sense of mortality.”
I did not dispute him. Within the Hive, an avatar neither ages nor deteriorates, regardless of the model. It might hunger, might dream, but an avatar cannot bleed, it cannot break a bone, it cannot sample death—not without Monger assistance. In this aspect, our digital counterparts are decidedly sub-human.
In my dream, I’m walking with my daughter through the garden. The greenhouse is warm. Her hand is cool. The soil is rich with nitrogen, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. A speckled insect attaches itself to her. The child recoils.
December 17 –
At the precinct, my partner interrogates the Low Rez woman we suspect of harbouring Black Hat. We found her squatting with a group of delinquent children in the carriage of a long-deleted prototype train. Like a band of clumsy rōnin, the children donned helmets and breastplates—crude exoskeletons culled from surrounding debris. The renegade group was otherwise unarmed and ill-equipped. “I want every child scanned immediately,” said the super. “Any one of them could be our Trojan Horse.”
I watch behind two-way glass as Marcus-Theta circles the woman on the stool in the center of the holding cell. (Counter-terrorism laws within the Hive grant us authority to detain her without a warrant.) Meanwhile a tactical squad scours the junkyard, rummaging through hills of obsolete Hive-teach, searching for any possible trace of Black Hat.
“Citizen L-376, my name is Constable Marcus-Theta. You’ve been accused of aiding and abetting a wanted criminal. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Ridhi,” the woman says quietly. “My name is Ridhi.” Her avatar is a discontinued almost-antique model, still clad in the nondescript jumpsuit which came with it—no cosmetic upgrades.
“Your name,” he corrects her, “is Citizen L-376. I read your documents. You’ve been accused of harbouring undesirables before. Hackers, data pirates…”
“Accused but not charged. Not convicted.”
“I want you to tell me everything you know about the terrorist, Black Hat.”
The superintendent joins me, watching. Ordinarily we would run a simple diagnostic scan of the prisoner’s avatar, extracting whatever knowledge we require. This woman’s memories, however, have somehow been encrypted. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the department’s top analyst, unable to crack the code. “Never in a Connie.” It’s becoming obvious the calibre of criminal I’m up against.
“It’s a clever trick,” says Marcus-Theta, regarding the coded memories. “Is that how you’re hiding him? Is that why we can’t pinpoint him on the grid?” He continues, “We know about his designs to hijack the credit reserve.” The woman says nothing, remains rigidly stoic. “I don’t understand you Connies,” the constable says. “You plug into the Hive on the charity of others and this is how you repay the system, by plotting to destroy it.”
“I didn’t win the lottery,” says the woman, raising her head. “I purchased my Ticket, same as you. My ticket was Gold then, just like yours. I pawned it. I was given this new avatar, new name, new voice. The credits I received help children in the slums, the children of parents your department deported.”
“Now, you’re helping this criminal hold an innocent community hostage.”
“It isn’t about the money. It’s about rebooting the system. It’s about reclaiming our dignity.”
“What you’re describing is an act of terrorism.”
“I do what must be done to protect those I love.”
“Love?” he snickers. “What would a Connie know about love? Your limited capacity could never sustain so complex an idea.”
The woman grins mysteriously, removing from around her neck a crystal pendant on a gunmetal chain. “Do you know what this is? It was given to me by one of my wards. The boy came to me, some time ago, asking, ‘Ridhi, who watches over the bodies of everyone in cryostasis?’ I said to him, ‘That would be the brave men and women who monitor the cryo-clinics.’ The boy was unconvinced. You see, some of the older children started telling stories of ‘boogeymen’ who prowl the clinics at night, unplugging bodies at random and whisking them away. So, the younger children expanded upon this mythology. They started making these talismans. The boy said, ‘whoever holds a talisman in this place will be protected in the other.’ That from the mind of a Low Rez child.”
“Is there a moral to that story, schoolteacher?” asks Marcus-Theta.
The woman hooks the chain back around her neck. “Our memories are limited, it’s true. So, we cling to them all the tighter. What little we possess we cultivate, what you with your abundance would squander.”
This talk brings us no closer to Black Hat nor me to my daughter. I direct Marcus-Theta to inject her with sixty milligrams Pain of Burning, one of several weaponized tonics at our disposal. A similar, albeit less potent, substance is loaded into the capacitor cartridges of our service tasers and threaded through our batons. My partner obeys without question. The super casts me a sideways glance. It might be a primitive tactic, but the results are undeniable. Soon, beads of sweat are tumbling down her skin. Her steady pulse begins to race.
“Where is Black Hat? Where are you hiding him?”
The woman closes her eyes. “We are not your enemy. You blame Connies for the power cuts, but it isn’t so.” Her muscles tighten, veins throbbing perceptively. The Burning is becoming unbearable. “The Platinum-Class! They redistribute the power! The Platinum-Class control the system! They don’t want you to remember!”
My partner increases the dosage. “Where is Black Hat!? Where are you hiding him!?”
A column of invisible flames is climbing up around her. The woman leaps up with it, knocking over the stool. “We are Zircon Cicada, the resistance! We are the ones who rebel against the system! Together, we are many! Together, we will rise up!”
As the woman convulses and cries out in agony, I ponder what that Pain is like. I recall my mother’s kitchen, the kettle warming on the stove, my hand moving closer and closer. My mother—what was her name?
The super presses the button below the intercom. “That will do, Constable,” he says to Marcus-Theta. Then he presses another button below that one, connecting him to the surveillance department. “Scan the wavelengths for chatter: Zircon Cicada…”
My partner stands up and exits the room. The Low Rez woman crumples, gasping her breaths as the Pain gradually subsides. I watch her suck oxygen which does not exist into lungs which do not require it. Eventually the woman calms down.
“In the Old Reality,” she whimpers to no one, “I was a cardiologist.”
What the woman says might well be accurate. Connies tend to exploit nostalgia for the Old Reality. (Sentimentality clouds judgment.)
2100 hours –
Marcus-Theta joins me at the tonic bar. We watch the baseball game, Cubs verses Red Sox. A sign above the hologram projector vividly states: “Platinum and Gold Members Only!”
“You know it’s all bullshit, don’t you?” says the bartender about the game. “Syndicate hackers manipulate the physics algorithm. It’s like injecting the players with cyber-steroids.”
My partner dismisses her, but he knows it’s true. It’s why he gave his bookie six hundred credits to bet on the Cubs tonight. “Cute bartender,” he says, watching her walk to the other end of the room.
“She’s had upgrades,” I tell him.
“How do you know?”
“I was in, three nights ago.”
“Let’s leave a big tip and see what’s new tomorrow.” The constable drains his vile then orders the next round. I chuckle receptively.
2300 hours –
I’ve now consumed almost double the recommended amount of this particular inebriant. When consumed in large quantities, it begins to act as a depressant. I’m thinking about the Low Rez woman weeping in her jail cell. I wonder how long it’s been since I wept and how much more tonic is required to trigger tears.
“Close the gates for nine months,” Marcus-Theta drunkenly submits. “No new citizens for nine months and the pandemic will solve this Connie problem. The strong among them will survive. Let nature weed out the others.”
I say nothing. He gestures for his bill.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’ve got a hot date,” he says, grinning. “A go-go dancer from the Magenta district.”
“Hey, kid!” cries the bartender across the room. “Can’t you read the sign?”
We pivot on our stools; the kid is apparently talking to us. “Who wants to know?”
“A message for you.” The kid presents him with what resembles a small business card. Marcus-Theta holds it up to read. The text is black on white, a single block of binary code.
“What the hell am I to make of this? To make of this… To make of, make, make, make, make, make, make, make, make…”
“Drop it! Now!” I spring up, swatting the card out of his hand. The code is a computer virus and it’s latched onto Marcus-Theta’s avatar. His head twitches and jaw quivers as he continues his endless palsied loop: “To make, make… To make, make, make…”
The young courier is gone.
When paramedics arrive on the scene, my partner is catatonic. I recount what happened as they run a diagnostic scan. Results indicate the virus has rerouted the signal connecting him to his corporal brain. His consciousness is now lost in the limbo between worlds, a labyrinth we dub the “backrooms.” No one has ever come back from the backrooms. Nothing now remains of my partner but this hollow prosthetic vessel. His organic body will be removed from the cryo-clinic and the next Gold-Class Ticketholder will replace him. His documents indicate no next of kin.
In my dream, I am walking through an enclosed area. The walls are made of glass. A child walks beside me.
December 18 –
The superintendent permits me to summon an ex-Monger to continue interrogating the Low Rez woman. Three hours later, the prisoner has provided coordinates to a secret bunker and the key to dismantling its cloaking device.
1900 hours –
The bunker is located under the Hive Menagerie, the door within a jagged wall of igneous rock. A tactical squad converges; the zoo grounds are evacuated. Meanwhile simian primates clamber uninterrupted among the digital treetops. Penguins lounge on slabs of arctic ice. No plexiglass divide separates animal from spectator. Above us, like an enormous blue meteorite, a barnacle-encrusted whale swims across the starless night.
In the distance, a political campaign slogan is projected against the side of a tower: “Crack Down on Connie! Vote Labour Party!”
“Twenty seconds to breach,” the squad captain declares.
Just beside the door in the red rock, a lioness is devouring a wounded antelope. I watch a moment as the predator disembowels its prey, ripping apart the torso with bloody dripping jaws. This closed-circuit hologram begins again in exactly thirty minutes. I will be gone by then.
“Breach!” cries the squad captain. His men storm the bunker, descend the spiral stairs, cast beams of light into the darkness. Black Hat is alone inside. I descend last of all. The terrorist, we discover, is no man but another Low Rez woman—slightly younger, but the same generic model as her accomplice. This of course is just a disguise. A dubious masquerade.
“Hands up! Down on your knees! Don’t move!” Tasers are leveled. Black Hat calmly complies, raising her hands above her head, sinking slowly to the ground. A mechanized collar is fastened around her neck to lock her consciousness within its current vessel. It will not be coming unlocked, I suspect, for a very long time.
“What have you done with Ridhi?”
I see Black Hat is talking to me. “Your partner will answer for what was done to mine.”
“I didn’t know your partner,” says the terrorist, “but I know you.” The captain hoists her up by the collar. “You’re Luke Duncan. That was your name before the system changed it. Before the system changed you. Teresa Duncan was my mother. I’m Silvia, your daughter.”
I step closer and gaze deep into her pixilated eyes. Nothing there but hollow
darkness. This ploy is truly desperate, even for a Connie. “Take the terrorist into custody.”
The captain drags her toward the stairs. “No, wait a minute! Stop! Listen to me!” Her cries echo desperately down the stairwell and reverberate around the room. “I’m your daughter! Don’t you remember? It’s me! Silvia!” Captain and terrorist exit the bunker.
“Is this true?” one of the men inquires.
“Impossible,” I tell him. “I have no children.”
0100 hours –
Alone in my pod, unable to sleep, I play chess against the Concierge Program. I listen to music—Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 1 in D Minor. Eventually I will replace the music with Tranquil Sounds of Rain. The persistent pitter-patter soothes me.
Voices in the hall: some people in this tower have begun to suspect the new tenants of being Connie sympathizers. I think of my partner and what the burning woman said to him. “We are Zircon Cicada, the resistance! We are those who rebel against the system! Together, we are many! Together, we will rise up!”
“Rook to D-7,” says the modulated voice of the Concierge.
I study the grid, contemplate my next move. More and more I have come to detest the Connies. Collectively they represent just how tenuous our humanity truly is within this virtual society. Let the charitable governments construct a second Hive separate of ours, one built exclusively for the Connies. Let the lottery winners live there, among themselves, in one enormous doomed colony.
The cyber-terrorist is behind bars. A Platinum tribunal will decide her fate. Personally, I hope it is the same as the constable’s: an eternity lost in the backrooms. Imagining the Low Rez rebellion, a possible army of Black Hats, I know my work is not yet done.
In my dream, I am walking. I am walking through the glass place.
Kirk Bueckert is a young writer living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. His previous work has been published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House and the League of Canadian Poets.