THE LONG WALK.
‘ONCE YOU’VE BEEN TO PARADISE, YOU WON’T WANT TO LEAVE’.
So the advertisement had promised, and I knew from first-hand experience how right that was.
They say that God created the world, but if so he sure did a piss-poor job of it. Everybody who had experienced Paradise would agree with that sentiment. Compared to the freedom and the opportunities for self-development or just plain old excitement which Paradise offered, the real world was as dreary and dull as could possibly be imagined. Not that I spent much time thinking about the real world. In fact, it could almost be said that I went out of my way not to think about it.
Thing is, though, every now and then its presence did enter my thoughts. This was my own fault, really. Punishment for my cowardice, I guess. You see, for all the enthusiasm with which I had come to adopt Paradise is my reality, thanks to a decision I had taken I could not call myself a true native. No, I was, still, only a visitor.
All Cy’s were merely visitors, and this did not change no matter how much time you had spent in Paradise; how fervent your devotion to its multi-faceted pleasures. I was a Cy, which was short for Cyborg, a reference to the fact that, somewhere out there in real life was my body. A typical, average body with one major technological upgrade. A part of that body’s spinal cord was missing and in its place was a tiny, but extremely powerful gadget (known as the Device) capable of streaming information to the brain. I had absolutely no awareness of my physical body, because the Device interrupted the flow of sensory information from the physical world before it reached my conscious awareness. The information my brain received was of a virtual body moving around a virtual world. I know, I know. Put that way it sounds so very impoverished. But you know how powerfully the Device and the astonishingly vibrant worlds it enables you to inhabit immerses you in the alternate reality of Paradise, right? I bet you too spent a good while in your first few hours or days just running your hands over surfaces or your own body, trying your hardest to detect some tiny sense of nothingness but never once detecting even the tiniest hint that this world you could see and touch and smell and taste was not totally, utterly, fabulously real. And that was before you got around to experiencing sex in a world where your partner morphed into your personal concept of the ultimate Siren, whose every act was perfectly tuned to your every desire, desires which could be exploited indefinitely, thanks to our tireless, beautiful, sensual bodies.
I never quite believed that a virtual world could be as real as Paradise turned out to be, but of course I had heard enough about its unique attractions to be tempted to at least try it out. And that is why I had opted to become a Cy. That way I had the option of an exit. At any time, just by willing it, I could bring up the QUIT: YES/NO option, and the Device would disconnect me and I would be back in the real world. For that reason, I, like any other Cy, was only a visitor.
Virts were different. Virts were natives of Paradise, full-time residents who could never go back to the physical world, having completely discarded their bodies. Somewhere out there in the real world, or maybe in several, in places deep and dark and safe from all conceivable accidents or mischief, watched over by machines of loving grace, there were stored brains in jars. Kept alive and healthy, while the minds of those brains were free to run and laugh and experience, every second of every day, the pure joy of living in Paradise. They could never go back, for what were they in the physical world other than neural tissue suspended in a vat of nutrients and nanobots, the latter working tirelessly to keep their brains in optimum condition? Their physical world was Nothing, not even blackness, for their sense organs were superfluous to requirements. The Device and the global brain it connected to provided them with all the sensory stimuli they required.
A brain in a jar. In another life, when I had been a meatbag who only knew the most pathetic level of reality laughingly known as ‘real life’, the notion of having my body stripped away until I was nothing but a brain and a spinal cord had filled me with immense trepidation. That, even more than my scepticism of the claims of Paradise (Better Than Reality! So Good You Will Never Want To Leave!) had lead me to adopt the cautious strategy of becoming a Cy.
But, now, having experienced the indescribable joy and boundless freedom of Paradise, I was regretting my decision. It was kind of illogical, I knew. It was not as if Cys experienced an inferior version of Paradise or anything. But, still, some part of me longed to take that final step and cast off my meatbag once and for all, and become an angel, forever soaring through the multi-sensory ever-changing infinite landscapes of Paradise. Every day, it seemed, that longing grew, countered by a foreboding of what giving into that longing would require.
Thing was, there was no practical reason why I could not become a Virt. Other Cys had taken that final step, those who had the courage to do what was necessary. They all told a similar tale, the power of which grew in strength depending on how enchanted by Paradise their listeners were. I was really, really enchanted, and so for me theirs was the darkest tale imaginable. It involved a temporary return to the world we had left behind. Back to reality. It was said that, when you returned, the static nature of the real world, not adapting to suit your moods like environments like Paradise, closed in on you until you felt a claustrophobia akin to being buried alive. Out there, in real life, with only your own thoughts locked away inside the prison of your mind, jelly within a fragile meatbag the ugliness of which could scarcely be conveyed, seconds seemed like hours. You had to endure this temporary exile from Paradise while waiting for your turn to be taken to Sanctury, and Virtualised. Although nobody actually journeyed to those secret, sacred places where the brains-in-jars resided forever more by foot, nevertheless the journey, and the interim period stuck in the physical world was known to all as: The Long Walk.
‘But why?’, I had asked once, as my companions and I twisted and turned through multi-coloured clouds across an undulating landscape of Escher-like paradox. ‘Why can’t our meatbags just be taken to Sanctury? Why the need to disconnect from Paradise?’. One of my companions accelerated toward a mountain with a staircase whose top step connected to the bottom, an endless ascent with no final step, and it transformed into countless butterflies which filled the air with the music of angels as they parted like a vast school of fish so as not to impede our ever-accelerating progress. ‘Ah, that question. I must have heard as many answers as I have heard that question asked. Personally, I just think the creators of Paradise were fans of Dante’.
I had never heard the name before, but no sooner had he spoken it then I knew all facts about Durante degli Alighieri, aka Dante, born in Florence Italy, whose exact birtdate was not known but generally believed to be around 1265 from deductions made by analysis of his autobiographic allusions in La Divina Commedia. I could recite, verbatim, everything Dante ever wrote and I understood that my companion was referring to the Divine Comedy. Dante’s journey to heaven by way of hell. Was that the reason? Did the creators of Paradise intend for us would-be Virts to dwell a while in Purgatory before finally letting us become full-time residents, our gratitude amplified exponentially by our Long Walk through the misery of the Real?
How many times had I gotten as far as this, only to lack the courage to begin my own Long Walk? Always, it seemed, I would opt to spend a little more time as a visitor in Paradise, a Cy. And always, in the background of my mind like a lingering sense of disquiet, my urge to become Virt, to pledge my utter devotion to Paradise by way of sacrifice of my meatbag, a meatbag I must return to in order to complete the Long Walk.
It was like an itch in my mind, this desire to be Virt, increasingly impossible to ignore. Oh, to hell with it! Get it over with, suffer whatever misery temporary imprisonment in the physical world would inflict on me. Just keep my mind focused on the goal at the end of my Long Walk. Dwelling, forevermore, in Paradise.
I felt like laying down. A comfy chair materialised behind me and I eased myself into its plush cushion. Tiredness swept over me and the reddish-dark of sleep clouded my vision….
….Breathing. That was the first thing which penetrated my unconscious existence. There was a background of trepidation to the incoherent, barely formed thoughts which ran through my mind. I opened my eyes. Above me, the ceiling. Static. Unmoving. Mindless. Dead. Nothing like ceilings aught to be, synched to my moods and always changing to best complement my moment-to-moment desires. I felt like the walls were closing in on me, as if they were imbued with malcontent and wanted only to slowly crush the life out of me. BACK! BACK! my panicked mind screamed, furious demands met with uncomprehending silence.
I squeezed my eyes shut and focused on my breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Something like calm took the edge off my initial panic, but only to the extent to which somebody trapped within the rubble of a collapsed building came to accept their circumstances and stop wasting needless energy on fear and trembling. There, in the dark place I had retreated to, I became aware of something which had a most alien quality for me. I felt….I…felt…
It was then that I realised I had fled from the tomb of the physical to another place which was, if anything, more isolating. As a Cy I had never struggled to formulate a thought, to express my feelings in language so eloquent it would have stood alongside the greatest works of art of the human species. The instant a thought entered my awareness, its fullest and most complete expression flashed into my mind, complete and refined to perfection. Of course it did. Every mental process going on in my brain was monitored by the Device, streams of information sent to the vast knowledge-management systems of the Global Brain, sent back to my mind as completed thoughts, perfectly tailored to my personal learning style and prior knowledge. But now, with the Device turned off, there was only my pathetically limited meatbrain to rely on. I felt….small. Damn it. That did nothing, NOTHING to convey how I felt.
I opened my eyes. The ceiling, still there, just as static. My eyes wandered around the room. Everything dead. Everything drab. Colours static and so not colour at all. No mood-enhancing visual symphonies of kaleidoscopic dances of rainbows shifting in innumerable patterns throughout my environment. A room frozen in a snapshot of a mood long since extinct. My eyes flitted over this paragon of boredom until they settled on something, and my breath caught in my throat.
I was looking at hands. Logically, they were my own and yet I felt such a disconnect I could scarcely connect these peculiar things to my own sense of self. These were not my hands. My hands were exquisitely shaped, their skin as flawless as the hands of any angel could be imagined to be. The hands I now beheld were grotesque. Skin blotchy, fingers like the gnarled, misshapen branches of some hellish tree. I flexed those pudgy worm-things, forming a fist again and again, trying to make some sense of connection with the horrible body I now inhabited.
I arose from my seat. Of course my body was fine. Forget the silly stories of smiling bags of bone, bodies wasting away due to starvation wile their minds were occupied with the seductive qualities of Paradise. My body had been on automatic pilot, taking care of its fundamental needs thanks to subroutines driven by the Device. My body was healthy, and only looked ugly to my eyes because I had grown so used to the utterly beautiful avatar I embodied in Paradise.
I glanced at a clock, convinced that hours must have passed. 15 minutes had gone by. Just 15 minutes into my Long Walk. It seemed impossible. Surely I must have completed more than just 15 minutes-worth? So it was true then. Here, in the prison of the Real, seconds crawled by like minutes; minutes seemed like hours.
I ate. I was not all that hungry but it kept occupied my mind. Gave me something to do. The food was drab. Each mouthful providing a monotone flavour which I bored of within a few chews. I shovelled this substance into my mouth, dullness sitting in my stomach. I felt full but in no way satisfied. I could not imagine being so limited in my diet. food should taste different with every bite, each new flavour harmonious with the one before. A meal should be a symphony of tastes and flavours, a journey through the gastronomic history of the world. Meals in real life were as static and uncomprehending to my needs as the bricks and mortar that surrounded me.
I kept looking out of the window, not really noticing any of the sights which would probably have impressed a time-traveller from the 20th century. Advances in materials science, and the vast economic wealth of a robotised economy, had given rise to architecture unique and beautiful in a way hitherto impossible to achieve. But still, beholden to unyielding physical laws and so inert and cold compared to the living architecture that typified Paradise. I was interested only in seeing my transport glide over the horizon, ready to take me away to Sanctuary.
For a while my tiny mind was occupied with the anticipation of my craft’s arrival. But increasingly a vague uncomfortableness in the gut regions was becoming harder to ignore. It was like…a pressure. Like something was trying to push its way out of me. Muscle movements I had never needed to perform as my avatar were squeezing inside of me.
I did not want to do it. It was disgusting. But what could I do? This stupid reality would not let anybody ignore filthy urges for long. For once, the sheer isolation of this dead world was something to be grateful for. I would have died of embarrassment if anyone had seen me reduced to this. Shit splashing wetly into the bowl, the stench of it offending my senses and reminding me of what I had become. A pathetic bag of meat which knew only of the minuscule pleasures real life grudgingly provided, an ugly body which could hardly formulate a thought and which expelled stinking wet things from its grotesque orifice.
I tried to rely on my imagination, and escape back to Paradise. Of course it was no use. My mind was so dull, so unwilling to give shape to any dream. The Paradise of my pathetic imagination was a travesty, as comparable to that wonderful world as the scribblings of a retarded monkey were to the works of Shakespeare. It was becoming like a dream, fading away from my memory, the great silence and static nature of the Real worming its way into every nook and cranny of my mind. Somehow it seemed as though my Long Walk was an ever-receding road, its end goal no nearer now that hours had past than it was when I left my real life to dwell awhile in this purgatory.
There! There! That had to be it. My craft, emerging over the horizon, a silver egg with no windows, hovering over the mag-lev track, silently progressing toward me like an angel come to take a dying soul to a better place. If I could have sped its journey with the power of my will alone, it would surely have broken lightspeed to get to me. But instead, it, like everything in this mindless world, did what it did regardless of my needs.
It slowed to a stop outside of my home. I never looked back. Not once did I glance over my shoulder, not feeling even a smidgeon of nostalgia for this place I once thought of as my own. My home lay at the end of the mysterious journey the egg was about to take me on. The top half of it split into two, each half moving smoothly away from each other to reveal comfortable-looking seating area for one. I climbed into this seat, its contours adapting to my body and cocooning me in a pleasant embrace. I could barely sense the movement as it silently began its journey. How long it lasted, I have no idea, for the soft, all-encompassing embrace of my plush seat and the silent progress of my journey lulled me to unconscious sleep.
When I awoke, I was in a vast cavern, the inside of which was ornately decorated as though the space were intended for religious devotion. How apt that seemed to me. I, a meatbag, a traveller through purgatory, now at the last stages of my Long Walk. I confess to almost falling on my knees ready to beg the Guardians to grant me entry to the Sanctuary. Tears streamed down my face as I laid myself down on the bed, an injection finally banishing the dreary static lifeless reality which had been my sole accompaniment throughout my Long Walk.
LIFE! Multi-sensory kaleidoscope of rapturous sound and colour flowing in and around me, myself and my environment harmonious in joyful expressions of a million different emotions. I soared up and up and up past glittering cathedrals of liquid metal, their shapes never static, as if possessed by angelic souls which wanted nothing less than to adapt their physical form to the celebration of true freedom which pervaded my every being. Around me were other Virts, the juvenile’s blissful songthoughts of liberation accompanied by the wisdom of those who had transcended to full angelic status long before. Boundless. My world was boundless. My mind seemingly infinitely amplified so that a billion thoughts simultaneously imprinted themselves on my conscious awareness. Of course I had been made to suffer time in the purgatory of the Real. It was all so obvious to me now, the adulation I felt now could scarcely be comprehended by one who had not taken the Long Walk, banished for a while from a Paradise they had glimpsed and now longed to be part of for all eternity.
Somewhere out in the asteroid belt an unremarkable 60-mile diameter rock silently orbited the Sun. Within its hollowed-out interior, deep and dark below the Cavern-temple of the Transcending, there lay room upon room stacked with steel vats, each occupied by a brain which knew nothing of its actual surroundings, its mind joined with the others in the rapturous journey through Paradise, the infinite joys of this utopia so much richer and fulfilling for having been reached upon completion of the Long Walk.