“This was the third junkie today; I hope you got something better for me next, else I’ll take a break.”
Kara was leaning back in the large leather couch. Her black VR helmet was pulsating light through the room. She was naked, except for her comfy panties. It was the middle of the day, but her blinders were still set to dark mode. The neon lights from the computers behind her covered the messy apartment in a gloomy vibe. Since she had received one of the new implants, she had been using it non-stop. There was no time to clean up. She was more addicted to it than when a new update dropped; weeks of non-stop work and experimentation.
She never bothered to cover her implants with synthetic skin or make them fit her skin tone. She was confident in wearing them. All of her implants were silver metallic: her arms, jaw, parts of her chest below her breasts, and parts of her hips. Her joints and ankles were implants as well, but besides the tiny scars around the skin not visible. Like many women at her age, she had gotten her uterus replaced. She could not stand being sick for a couple of days every month. It irritated her and felt like an excessive monthly beating. If she wanted some kids, a lab version from her genes could turn her into father and mother of her own genetic copy. It sounded creepy and bizarre, but so was the notion of regularly giving birth to a bowl of blood.
Z had not given her any information about the implants and only casually mentioned that it was the latest they were working on. Besides the absurd increase in bandwidth and computational power, the sex was amazing. Even better than a direct connection with the old ones. She had tested it intensively with V and Z, and they were delighted with the result.
Salim received his implants a day after her, and their business took off. Together they had been working on a virtual implementation of an emergency unit. Why have doctors working in hospitals exposed to diseases and infections, when they could do their job just as well, if not better in VR.
They had taken all the robots currently in use in hospitals and merged them into one monster. The base idea was solid, but it took almost two years from the prototype to a proper version that could be used.
When she took several of them to work and her productivity tripled, she was seen as a threat and quickly removed from her position. After talking to the whole gang, Julio had an idea that sounded plausible. They founded their own emergency response unit. Kara, Salim, and the few others supporting the idea were all verified medical professionals, which got them green-lit by the government quickly.
Their business model was simple; instead of an ambulance being able to only provide basic first aid and bring patients into hospitals, they had fully equipped drone ships stationed on helicopter pads across the city. Once they would get an emergency call, the drone ship would dive like a hawk towards the site of the incident. They had two robots aboard with a fully equipped surgery room. Once at the site, they could immediately operate. All robots were controlled by one single doctor, besides an AI which was offloading smaller tasks.
Insurance companies immediately saw the benefits and got aboard. It would cost more money up front but saved enormously in the long run. In most cases, the patient was operated right next to his house and could get back home straight after. There were no hospital and staff costs, and the patients had a way higher rate of recovery. The eleven minutes Kara and her teams started operating earlier made all the difference.
Legally, they were occupying a grey zone with hospitals lobbying against them. It’s understandable, as they completely flipped the business model and made hospitals in their current form obsolete. Politicians stayed silent as they did not want to get their head chopped off from hospitals or insurances. Hospitals updated their contracts to lock in their doctors, but with the new implants, they would receive the final blow they hoped would never come.
Usually, she would control two drone ships at any time, but since she had the new implant, she was controlling up to six. She needed breaks more often, but the success rate of her operations stayed the same. Salim was managing the incoming emergencies in a control center with a few other old fellas who had worked in air traffic control before an AI had taken their place many years ago. They were still as sharp as ever, even if they could barely walk. She had to giggle every time she visited. It looked like a bunch of grannies had escaped the elderly home to go back to work.
Kara was finishing up her shift. A child with a broken leg, an old lady with a heart attack, and two gang members who got shot, but still had enough time to upgrade their insurance.
She took the helmet off and yawned. She looked like a zombie. The blinders got more transparent and made her eyes sore. She looked at the mess that was her apartment as she carefully slurped the cold tea she had made hours ago.
She put the mug aside and stretched her back. It was time to clean up. She did not know which clothes were still clean and which not, so she stuffed everything into the washing machine, then sorted the trash. Still in her undies, she opened the apartment door, then the window in the hallway. Below the window, the trash containers were positioned. She aimed and dropped the trash bags into the correct ones. It was a feeling of accomplishment every time she dunked them perfectly. A young girl walking with her grandma suddenly stopped on the street below. The girl had watched Kara and was now staring at her boobs. As her grandma saw the weird woman, which she assumed to be a prostitute, she covered the girl’s eyes and pulled her away. She made a grumpy look, but Kara could not hold herself and had to laugh. She could not fault the grandma for protecting her grandchild from this weird looking woman.
With more public exposure through social media and several live broadcasts, people changed their insurance and more doctors joined. Companies turned it into a PR stunt and rented them landing pads for free.
Hospitals and medical professionals started to openly criticize them for taking their jobs, but they did not anticipate the public backlash. Even the politicians who once had blocked proposals for her company had to recognize the advantages of her service.
Their company was indeed replacing many jobs, but they were saving lives and millions of Eurodollars in the process. She could only think of all the nurses she had encountered while she worked in the hospitals. Maybe one out of ten enjoyed and liked her job; the others were complaining and toxic. Now she was giving them an opportunity to start something new. But even if not, the recent increases in unemployment benefits from the government were enough to live on with a minimalistic lifestyle.
She felt sudden exhaustion coming over her. The doorbell rang as her pizza had arrived, and she quickly shoved it down her throat. She kept sitting on her couch with her implants turned off. Maybe she should slow down a bit, take a break. Go on vacation and not a virtual one. She tumbled into her bed and fell asleep.
“Right now, a lawyer is checking the evidence and will give us clearance to go virtual. You can confess now, and your sentence will get lowered, maybe even dropped.”
The pale man was sitting on the cold chair with only his pants on. His chest was covered in tattoos and his socks soaked in blood. The room was black, and none of the walls were visible. He was nervously wiggling up and down but did not confess. He did not know that they were already in a virtual simulation while he was still lying in the corner of the street in his blood. It was raining, and he was bleeding out.
If Hagger was quick, he could collect the evidence, get a confession, bring the man to the police, and get his pay before the man bled out. If he died before, the trip would not have been worth it.
“If this is how you want it.”
Hagger connected a cable to the man’s forehead, who began to panic. The same alley loaded up again. It was cold, windy, and the rain was picking up. Instead of standing on top of the apartment building and observing the crime, Hagger was following the young man through the apartment. The man was re-experiencing his crime in full detail with Hagger next to him, cheering him on.
He was stalking out the three women on the street below. They wore thick jackets and no makeup. Hagger knew immediately that they were carrying weapons and had illegal implants, but the young man did not. Hagger upped the emotional response, and the man started to panic inside his own body, which he could not control.
“I already know what is going to happen. We can save ourselves the trouble if you just confess.”
“I, I did not know. I was set up. They killed me.”
“Who was setting you up? And what did you do?”
The man was opening the window on the first floor and looked through the street. Empty in both directions. Nobody lived or passed by here. The skin of his arms separated, and two large blades slid out and attached themselves over his palms. He took the small vase that was standing next to the window and threw it up high into the cover of the street. It broke on the concrete, and the women turned around.
One of them separated from the group, and he dropped from the window toward the other two. He was silent like a cat as his blades dived towards their spines. He noticed something twitch under their clothes, and it got him aware of the obvious; the women were openly showing him their necks, displaying their weakness. He noticed the small scars on their face down to their neck. Those were not some simple thugs that he was dealing with; these were fully kitted fighting machines.
“Your last chance.”
“They set me up. I was their family. They said they forgave me.”
“I need names, and you need to tell me what you did for them.”
As if they had realized his sudden understanding of the situation, they turned their head towards him and stopped his blades with their hands. They both walked apart, still holding his blades and extending his torso. Blood from their hands was flowing down all over his arms, but they did not bother. The third woman had already turned around and aimed the shotgun at his chest.
He recognized the bullets as they raced towards him. Shaped like hooks, they would dig themselves into his body, rip into the flesh, and deepen the wound every time he would inhale or move.
The impact threw him into a puddle of mud. The pain in his chest was overwhelming, and he passed out as the women walked away.
Hagger pulled himself out. Unfortunately, the guy did not confess, which means he would get paid less.
As a subcontractor for the police, he still knew where the crimes were happening in the lower city. He only had to show up, record the crime, and take in whoever was still alive. Most of the gang members were too scared to relive their near-death experience and confessed. He had to make them relive the memory regardless to collect the implant metadata created during the event. If the spikes in hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate correlated with his visual recordings, they could be used as evidence.
What he did was technically not legal, but employed as a subcontractor for the government, it was a grey zone. The less work for the police, the bigger his pay. As long as he delivered the evidence and the criminal, they did not ask how he got it. The subcontracting business was the driving factor in dampening the gang’s power in the city. More members were arrested, locked away, and soon gangs would perish, and with them, most of organized crime.
He took the man by the legs and pulled him out of the water. His body was already getting cold. What a poor guy. He lifted the man over his shoulder. He had to walk through the rain for a bit until he could order an ambulance. He could feel the warm blood flowing into his jacket. It took him a while to notice that the young man was already dead.
He dropped the body on the concrete and looked up into the dark sky. Rain was flowing down his face. What a shitty day. He could not do anything more for this one. He would report the crime and submit the evidence. That would at least pay enough to get him food for the evening.
The wheelchair raced past him as Shana opened the door. Julio had not seen her sister that excited in a while. The three of them were picked up in one of the luxurious company quadcopters. Fully golden on the outside with enough space for six people.
The copter was blocking the street, but nobody seemed to mind. People got out of their cars to look and take photos of the majestic vehicle. As Shana’s sister saw the golden copter, they could almost hear her gasp in excitement.
Almost silently, they flew over the city. Seeing their house disappear in an ocean of apartments and streets, then passing skyscrapers and shabby apartments of the slums kept them transfixed at the windows. On a pad high up the double helix, they were welcomed by the two. They took the elevator inside the double helix, rotating slowly around itself with the city as the backdrop. Each of them was brought into a room for themselves. As they walked into the lush garden, they met. When Julio and Shana touched each other, they got goosebumps.
“But we are in different rooms, aren’t we?”
Z smiled, leaned against a tree a few meters away from them.
“We are technically in all rooms at the same time.”
“Where is my sister?”
Behind Z, they saw a young woman walking towards them. It took them a moment to realized that it was her. She was not in her wheelchair, and her face was full of expression. She was walking gracefully over the grass, and each touch of her toes created small riffles around her. Her long hair was blown back by the wind.
Julio was just as stunned as Shana, but V and Z had hoped for this. She was not rejecting the new environment but fully embraced it. They were watching the happiest moment in her life unfold.
“Hello, you two.”
A tear was running down Shana’s eyes. She had never heard her sister talk beside the moans or grunts she could make. Z walked over to them and greeted her.
“We are glad you accustomed yourself so quickly. Most people reject this environment and stay fixed in their current self.”
“I understand why. Leaving your body behind and embracing this is fairly challenging.”
She was holding out her arms and two wings span over them. They pushed themselves up, and she was being lifted into the air, floating before them. She looked at Shana, who was covering her shirt with tears. As she looked down her tears, one of them dropped on the green grass and rippled through the entire room. The grass turned blue and they suddenly were standing on an ocean of tears. Did she just do that?
Bright lights were coming from deep under. Shana’s sister ahead, they dived towards the mysterious light. The closer they got, the clearer the lights became. It was not just any city; it was the city they lived in.
They dived towards the double helix, which was visible from far above the city, and entered through the same landing pad they had a few minutes ago. They took the same elevator and reached the rooms.
A perfect copy of themselves was standing before them in the room. But it was not just a copy; it was them. As they walked towards themselves, they looked into their eyes while the space behind them merged. It was not only a mirror. It was a catalyst. As they touched themselves, familiarity, warmth, and comfort filled them. They were meeting someone they had been with their entire life.
Shana relieved herself of all the emptiness that had built up in her all those years. Julio felt like he had met his parents again and remembered the days they had lived together. Those feelings had become more distant over the years, but all of a sudden, they were here with him.
Shana’s sister did not seem to work through any trauma. She hesitated, then the two of her kissed. She seemed to enjoy it and became more passionate.
“They did go meta quite fast.”
V and Z were watching the three from the infinite space above.
“Makes you feel like you have no idea what is going on inside them.”
“So many emotions will tire them out quickly. I give them two hours, tops.”
“You wanna grab some food?”
“You mean like, real food?”
“Remember the restaurant I sent you a few days ago. They are supposed to make some amazing pasta. Haven’t had that in a while.”
“Should we keep a copy of ourselves here?”
“Nah. They won’t need us. They will be fine.”
They both exited through the white door next to each other, but once in the hallway, separated by many meters. She looked at him, slightly irritated.
‘You can turn yourself into an alien or experience to be born again inside there, but being separated afterward is still the part the freaks me out the most.’
‘You turned yourself into a child to re-experience birth?’
‘I also gave birth to an alien.’
‘Jesus, I mean, I guess I’ll have to put that on my list.’
The digital world was quiet tonight. No outrage, nothing going viral, no events. It was rare these days.
Oljac walked down the virtual streets of the lower city. The digital representation of the world was as accurate as the real one but connected to the grid, internet, and every server out there; he could see the data trails flowing through the city. He could see the connections made, the files that were sent and received, and the GPS data stored in the cloud.
Three women had stopped and passed through. Their digital trails alongside their government profile were clean, too clean. They must have encrypted their data stream. Someone else had been here. A man, mid-20s, augmented, with a strong emotional profile. His trail was not encrypted and way too detailed. Somebody must have uploaded his implant data to a government server.
The trail was crossing with the ones from the women but did not correlate. The emotional data of the man intensified, then crossed another trail, also encrypted. They both moved up the street until only the encrypted remained. The abrupt ending reminded him of what he had seen too many times down here; Death.
The other trail moved towards the upper city. Several outgoing connections. It swiftly moved from corner to corner into a vacant building, up the stairs, and towards the roof. He could identify black space around the trail. Someone else had been here but had removed himself.
Behind a small wall, he saw him. He was sitting with his back against the wall, barely breathing, several bullets in his chest. He pulled up the gun next to him and shot Oljac several times.
Nothing happened. Oljac was here in digital form, and the bullets passed right through him. The man understood that his implant only projected Oljac before him and coughed out blood.
“Who are you? His boss? Wanting to make sure I die up here?”
“I only followed your trail and found you.”
“Fuck. That’s boring. Can you call an ambulance or something?”
“Hey, smartass. This is still the lower city. My calls won’t get answered even with the best insurance. You are not physically present. You can call and guide them here. It’s only two blocks from the grid, so it’s legally within the range they are allowed to move from the origin of the call.”
“I’m afraid it is too late for that.”
Oljac had already scanned his vitals. It would be a miracle if he would survive another minute. By the time the ambulance would arrive, his brain would have already turned into a vegetable. The man understood and sighed. A swell of blood came out of his mouth.
“I knew it would end like this someday. Double-crossing gangs isn’t such a smart idea after all.”
His face went pale, and Oljac noticed his legs and arms getting stiff.
“I’ve tried my best. Maybe in another life I won’t be such a disgrace.”
His face faded, and a last swell of blood existed his mouth. Oljac could not find any data about the man from his implant. He also seemed to be a ghost.
“Did not expect you here.”
V was standing behind him. She walked over to Hagger and touched his implant.
“What are you doing here? How do you know him?”
“You knew him too. Was a long time ago. I guess it gets hard to identify people when they have cleaned implants.”
She closed her eyes and he could see the digital data getting extracted from Hagger’s head. A moment later, the body disappeared.
“He killed himself many years ago. We moved him into a digital world, let him retry. At first, he kept killing himself, then at some point, he advanced. He looked for a job, first illegal, then legal. He learned and grew from his previous failures without ever knowing them. Every time he dies, we reset him to his old memory. It’s interesting watching him grow. Maybe there will be something important to learn from his struggle one day.”
“That sounds like some twisted way of torturing him.”
“Maybe, maybe not. It is not what we do to him, but how he chooses to interact with the world, bringing him pain and joy.”
She stood up and walked past Oljac. She was about to disappear again as he became aware of the obvious.
“If he is in your digital reality on some server, how could I see and meet him? It should not be possible for him to interact with anything outside your closed system.”
She finished his sentence.
“Unless you are on the same system.”
She was looking over the vacant apartments of the lower city and saw the ocean in the distance.
“When did you do it? When I visited you? I never left the building, did I?”
“Your servers had been compromised long ago. Maybe even before 1B. You had many enemies who did not like you playing god. Someone must have infected you without you noticing. We found the code, but the people responsible are long gone. They simply forgot about it. The code had already started to remove you. You would have disappeared without noticing or knowing why. We put you into our digital world so we could stop the code. Once you get connected to the grid again, it will continue. We can’t guarantee that we will ever find a way to remove it, but for now, this is the only solution we could find.”
She streamed him the data of how the code had slowly infiltrated him over the years.
“You are just as vulnerable as anyone else, even if you forgot.”
“Then why help me? It is my past catching onto me, not yours. And why not tell me? Why let me live here all this time without knowing?”
“To be honest, you were the perfect candidate for testing this world. If you could not even notice the difference, then who else would?”
“I’m not mad. I’m just…”
He thought for a moment to find the right words.
“Melancholic. For a past in which any of this still meant anything. Neither of us is human anymore. We can’t die. The digital worlds you create will render every other meaningless.”
“Reality changes. People change. Everything around and inside us constantly changes. Your idea of this world is what is holding you back and makes you suffer. You can always revert to old ideas of how the world used to be, but it will only keep you from enjoying how it is right now. You can adapt and embrace change, or reject and deny it. We are not forcing you to stay here. If you want, we can load you back into your body and back on the grid. Or you can stay here for a while and experience everything there is to offer. You know how this world works. It’s not that different from the one out there.”
Oljac stood there in silence, observing her face. She was honest with him, and he understood.
“What about Kaiser? Is he in this virtual world as well?”
“Yes. The only way he could work for us was to die physically; else the government would have stopped us. He understood and agreed. I’ll leave you his address. You two are neighbors after all.”
A sad but loving smile came onto her face.
“Take care. May we see each other again soon, one way or another.”
She vanished, and he was alone again. He sat down on the edge of the roof, dangled his enormous feet, looking into the distance. The world is constantly changing, maybe too fast for his taste. He had to laugh. A nostalgic and conservative AI-human hybrid, living in a digital world. He could not make it up better himself. He took a deep breath, then jumped from the edge of the building and fell towards the grey concrete.
On the concrete below, a circle grew until his body could fit through. On the other side, fractals of all colors mirrored into people, worlds, planets. He greeted them with a wide smile.
At least he could try.