Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable
April June leaned on the bumper of a red taxi, one of many self-driving autonomous units resting in a massive parking lot. Her arms were folded, eyes closed tight, a finger tapping her elbow at rhythmic intervals. Unpleasant sensations brewed within her. She could feel the corner of her lips moving without her permission.
“It’s very pleasant to finally have answers for all my theories over the years,” Professor Eichenbaum spoke through April. “The question about the post-singularity era, where did the old colonies go? And to think that after all these years my daughter is still alive...”
“Don’t get too comfortable in there,” she said. “Once I figure out where your origin point is, it’ll be like you never existed.”
“I’m not really ‘in there,’ so you should really lay off the inaccurate imagery,” Eichenbaum frowned. “For the record, our neural synapses overlap. You can’t trace a hierarchy of data clusters back to an original source, because my existence is as non-arborescent as yours; we both inhabit this body without organs. In fact, one could argue that what I’m saying right now is simply a projection of your new self-conscious.”
“So why can’t you just say it without moving my lips or gesturing with my hands?”
“I can,” Eichenbaum proved it. His words echoed through April’s private audio channels before switching back to using her vocal chords. “But I must admit, I enjoy the sound of my own voice.”
“My voice,” April growled. “How did you do it?”
To respond to her question, Eichenbaum flashed his memories through her visual feed. In the next moment, April June found herself sitting in the middle of professor’s apartment earlier that evening, seeing through the eyes of her double.
At the time, April Browne reclined on a couch. She sipped hot coffee while the professor rummaged through his kitchen cabinets looking for his favorite mug. An open notebook and a blue pen rested in her lap. The soft orange glow of the sunset cast its fading light on the half-written pages.
“Sorry for the wait,” the professor blew short breaths to cool his beverage. He pulled out the rolling chair besides his desk and sat down in front of April. He looked surprised. “You’ve been pretty calm about all this.”
“What am I supposed to say?” April smiled, but her fingers tightened around the cup handle. “You just told me I don’t actually exist.”
“No, that’s not what I said,” the professor held up his hands in defense. “You’re more like...a personality fragment. Whatever thing exists inside you created a deputized alter ego to serve as a cover when they went dormant.”
“Rest assured, I can help,” Eichenbaum reassured. He scooted over to his computer and set his hands over his keyboard. “The difficult endeavor was unearthing the whole charade. That fact that you are…what you are...is very intricately concealed. Any gaps with your memory are always artificially filled. If you hadn’t come to me looking for an interview, if I hadn’t coincidentally tested some of the equipment as a demonstration, neither of us would have been any the wiser.”
“What can you possibly do?” she asked, setting aside her coffee, notebook, and pen. She folded her hands together and held them to her chest.
“For starters, it’s easy enough to wipe your memory of our previous conversation,” Eichenbaum replied. There was a glint in April’s eyes. “You’ll wake up and forget I had told you anything. I can also operate on you and...get rid of the presence within you.”
“You hesitated there,” April observed. “This procedure is dangerous isn’t it?”
“There are a lot of unknowns,” he nodded, still typing at his keyboard. “We don’t know what this ‘Other’ is like. Benevolent? Given the circumstances, that seems unlikely, but I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. It would never harm you.”
“You think the ‘Other’ will attack you if you try to remove it?” she asked.
“That is certainly the big peril,” he concluded. He lifted his wrinkled hands and folded them beneath his chin. His gaze refused to look away from the bright screen of his monitor. “But this is a momentous occasion for science. Pardon my rudeness, but you are a massive discovery. It’s well worth the risk, I’d say.”
“Not sure if I follow, but how would it work?”
“Well, I think we put you under anesthesia, and we can just flash out the last hour or so of conversation,” he replied. “The next step is overwriting the ‘Other’ inside. Remember what we discussed earlier in the interview? My theories on uploaded human consciousness?”
“A little,” April reached for her notebook and flipped to the previous page. “Neural nodes. Mapping. I get the big picture at least. Why?”
“In layman terms, here’s what I think will work,” Eichenbaum speculated. “I can flash a copy of your consciousness. We use that to overwrite the ‘Other’ by simply uploading a copy of it back into your body. It’s like if you...it’s like if you copied a file with the same name into a local drive. It’ll just rewrite the existing version. This should create a continuous version of ‘You,’ in a sense.”
“I’m not gonna pretend like I understood everything. Just give it your best shot,” April chuckled nervously. “Can I just sit here or something?”
“Just relax, Ms. Browne.”
Professor Eichenbaum finished his work at the computer. As he entered the last few keystrokes, he relaxed against his headrest and smiled. An air of finality settled over his countenance. He snatched a slip on paper and scribbled something on it, then let his arms sway by the sides of the chair. From the professor's chest arose a hearty sigh of relief. He leaned over and pulled an electronic headset from one of his metal drawers. Finally, Professor Eichenbaum stood up and, with April’s silent nod, set the visor over April’s face.
“Just relax, Ms. Browne,” Eichenbaum repeated, turning the headset on. April felt an electric sensation that made her hair bristle. “Soon, you won’t remember a thing.”
The memory clip terminated, and April June returned to the empty parking lot. She felt slight disorientation when her ocular senses adjusted from bright to dark lighting.
“Couldn’t have just told me?” April growled. “You had to show me?”
“Just thought you might want to experience it yourself,” Tasha Eichenbaum replied. “And you don’t trust me. It’s harder to lie with recorded footage. You do remember the rest, I presume?”
“But why am I still here then,” April didn’t quite understand. “You said you were going to upload Browne’s personality matrix into mine. If that was the case, I shouldn’t be here.”
“A necessary...white lie,” the professor admitted. “As you have correctly deduced, I did not decide to erase you. I was...fearful, that the information you contained was too valuable to be overwritten. I was also afraid that any attempt to overwrite you with your weaker alter ego would simply provoke an overwhelming defensive response that would ultimately end in failure. I was not, however, completely dishonest. I did wipe Ms. Browne’s memory. She has no idea that you exist. In a way, kind of my own fault that I’m dead actually.”
“You mean if you had erased me, you’d still be alive?”
“Well, that seems obvious doesn’t it?” Eichenbaum replied. “Once I finished bootstrapping my personality matrix to yours, I woke you up. You probably can recall promptly frying my brains with whatever it is that you did. I doubt Ms. Browne would have been so vile and uncivilized.”
“Clearly, I didn’t finish the job,” April muttered.
“If you want to delete yourself in a fit of rage, be my guest,” Eichenbaum shrugged. “But I’m here out of intellectual curiosity. You can kindly keep doing whatever it is that you do, within the boundaries of reason of course. I might also ask that you allow me to see my kidnapped daughter, but that shouldn't be a problem, right?”
Activity stirred in the parking lot. The red taxi that April leaned on sprung to life, its engines revving up and coughing up old exhaust. Its headlights beamed at April as she turned around. Once again she felt that frustrating nausea as she adjusted to new brightness levels. A school bus painted with an older faded vermilion sat next to the taxi, and it was the next to awaken.
“Speaking of curiosity,” Eichenbaum whistled. “I knew being around you was a good idea.”
More and more self-driving vehicles in the parking lot blinked on. Each light outlined the silhouette of another dozen self-activating vehicles. Within a minute, the entire garage rustled from its deep slumber. All around her, April heard the rumble of engines and the anxious electric whine of antiquated headlights, followed by isolated high pitch screeches. One by one, hundreds of empty vehicles filed out of the lot until one mechanical body remained.
When the administrators of Vigil of Venus announced that anyone who contributed to defeating the new boss would receive a Pandora’s Box, the tide turned against Philomela. Almost every guild mobilized their strongest players. Hundreds of solo players with no official affiliation also joined the fray.
Even with so many players, the boss’s health bar diminished at the pace of micrometers on peoples’ screens. And Philomela’s double was not without more tricks. Torrential hails that darkened the skies, hallucinations that bore damage on her behalf, and dark magic that summoned giant mythical beasts.
With the world pitted against her, Philomela developed an acute understanding of stress and anxiety. Fortunately, her broadcast on Maya’s stream bought her precious time. Hundreds of players had donned virtual headsets in the aftermath of the broadcast, with more arriving at a steady rate. When they connected, their computers were galvanized for her rigorous computations. In exchange, their minds were transcribed into the autonomous simulated reality still expanding in the world of Vigil. With the increased processing power and population, the black abyss had near quadrupled in size, forcing the players to retreat to untainted ground.
Philomela noticed a familiar player who had not fled from the expanding reality bubble. Traveler stood at a cliff’s edge, having long abandoned and lost interest in the battle. If his guild mates noticed, his silent private messages didn’t show it. With so many players crowding the area, it had been easy to slip away. From the darkness of his own room, Traveler now gazed transfixed at the abyss with more wonder than fear. Philomela appeared beside him.
“Would you like to see what’s inside?” she asked.
Traveler turned to her. For the first time that night, Traveler spoke with his microphone. His voice sounded diminutive and clumsy; it possessed an unpracticed quality, where the ends of his words trailed off and dissipated into virtual ether.
“I’ve been thinking about what you asked me earlier.”
“Hmm?” she hummed.
“About whether I’d like to play this game forever.”
“For me, and for many others, this game’s been an escape from the real world. Whatever frightens me about the outside can’t hurt me when I’m in here,” Traveler reasoned. “It also gives structure to my day. I wake up, I complete daily guild tasks, fish for at least two hours, and then train for another six to eight. A part of me wonders if I’m simply replacing real life duties with online ones.”
“Some would say this kind of escapism is wrong, that you’re hurting the people who are taking care of you, that you’re a burden on society, that you don’t contribute anything productive. That’s never sat well with me,” he continued. “I think we treat escapism as if it’s the moral dilemma of a prisoner fleeing his cell. We always fail to ask if the prison was the problem. I mean, why else would a prisoner run away? See, escapism should be viewed as a victory, that fleeting triumph when, if only for a moment, your mind is liberated from the horrors, pain, and scars that chain you in real life. To escape should earn you a badge of honor.”
“Only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes,” Philomela recited.
“And then I see what you created here, this giant unknown, and now I realize what escapism really is. True escapism wouldn’t just involve giving up my mind, but also relinquishing my body and soul to the pursuit of leaving this world. This isn't about temporary feeling. I can feel it. What you've made. It's something final. But I have to ask if I am ready for that?”
“Well. Are you?” she asked.
“How many people have you already convinced to join you?” he returned the question with his own. “I tuned into the end of Maya’s stream after I saw your message. I’ve been tracking the chaos in the chats. You’ve done something to them haven’t you?”
“They are overall...willing participants,” Philomela curated her words. “Their entry into the autonomous simulation improves the overall computing performance, yes, but they are all explicitly told that they can choose at any time to leave the universe.”
“You allow them to leave? How many have left so far?”
“Few have rejected the new universe,” she answered. “Some of those who initially ejected themselves have even returned. Many have already chosen a permanent home inside.”
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“Two reasons I can hypothesize, if I may. Immortality is, of course, alluring,” Philomela explained. “The second reason is clock speed. The simulated environment now significantly exceeds the speed at which standard time is rendered. Civilization within the bubble universe has at this point advanced two hundred fifty years and continues to considerably accelerate its pace. The expanding boundaries that you see are a result of the need for Quauhnahuac to accumulate more digital mass.”
“Quau...what?” Traveler widened his eyes. “Wait, fifty years? What do you mean? How many years have passed in Quau-h-...what?”
“It’s what the denizens of that universe named their city. It's a lovely place.”
Traveler bit his lips in uncertainty. He removed his headphones. Helena yelled orders from downstairs. Footsteps rushed up and down the stairs. Doors opened and slammed shut. All that remained was the placid serenity of his room, bereft of the natural sun, the smell of wood chips at the playground, the nostalgic kiss of the ocean breeze. It was clean. Certain. Safe. Unsatisfactory.
“I do have a choice right?” he asked. “I can go experience what it’s like there? And I still have a choice? I can leave as long as I want to?”
“Do you have a headset?”
“...Yeah, I can put it on,” he fumbled with his old model, fingers trembling. He wondered what inspired his choice. “Give me a second...Give it a second. Yeah. Alright. I think it’s on.”
Traveler didn’t feel any pain when he was pulled out of the world. An electric sensation surged through him, one that felt numb and mildly nauseating. He blinked once and his computers vanished. There was no chair for him to fall out of, no tepid filtered air to breathe.
Instead, Traveler found himself overshadowed by the presence of two neighboring mountains. He stood at the edge of a platform, a faraway train disappearing on the horizon. He flinched at the bright warmth of the setting sun and smelled the acrid odor of petroleum fuel. Blades of viridian grass dotted the embankment beyond the station. Wooden planks creaked beneath his feet. A sign that read Quauhnahuac hung above him.