(Parts 1 & 2 here)
Below me, a particularly active region bloomed and roiled along a continent’s edge in a fractaling whorl of activity. As I focused, menu options appeared on the periphery of my mind; I could travel there instantly, or take a more leisurely route. Choosing the latter, I fell. With the speed of a meteorite, I plummeted down through the atmosphere as the landscape below me grew, while shining labels naming landmasses and storm systems, then detailed maps, and finally every entity man had electronically named and tagged differentiated themselves and expanded with my mental proximity, growing at a rate almost too swift to take in. My memory flashed for a moment to a dizzying fall from one of the expies, subject J at a swimming pool, nerving himself to jump off a high diving board; I remembered panic. As the system registered my fear, the rapid descent slowed to a feather-light drop, allowing me to view my surroundings with increasing delight. In the distance, the occasional falling twinkle in the atmosphere marked another soul taking the plunge; in my peripheral mind, though, statistics showed that few people chose the slow descent more than once or twice in their lives.
I landed, as it were, in the midst of a bustling city, my avatar a visual placeholder for others of my mental presence, placed along the edge of a thoroughfare. I could see my “self” from the outside, with the aid of every connected camera in the vicinity. Most of those being human eyes. People passed, to and fro, walking around me as though I were physically present, their augmented-reality interfaces overlaying my avatar seamlessly in their perceptions. Occasionally, people walked through me. The disconnected. To them, I did not exist.
Everyone had a name, connected or not, and simply by showing an interest a public profile would expand, displaying varying amounts of personal information. I lost myself for hours, delving into the lives of people passing by, yet with every new piece of information, they became more mysterious. Their tastes, their relationships, the entertainments they were willing to share; everything about them was baffling, often senseless. I couldn’t look away. Soon it wasn’t enough to open public files and peek into private lives, a lurking ghost in a physical world. I wanted to be someone, embodied, if only for a little while. Shifting the main menu into focus, I searched for publicly available expies.
In this, I was to be disappointed. Expies – so called because the first releases were always billed as an Experience (“The Skydiving Experience!” “The Mountaineering Experience!” “The Surfing Experience!”) – had quickly become an unpopular form of entertainment. As it turned out, most people didn’t enjoy the full range of sensations of bodies not their own, particularly when said bodies were engaged in activities the viewer generally avoided. Feats of athleticism, for instance, were often exhilarating, but also physically punishing, and as the viewer had generally not been training for said experience, the viewer’s mind had also not trained itself to ignore specific unpleasant stimuli. A populace accustomed to soft lives was unprepared for the genuine feel of a hard hour in a hard body.
Far more popular were first-person movies – FPMs – that only engaged audio and visual neural data, thus providing the illusion of “being there” without all of the drawbacks. These were easily editable as well, and supported a booming industry. For me, lacking a normal body, they were far less satisfying. Nonetheless, I spent hours lost in the movies, trying to understand the intricacies of human interaction, though I myself interacted with no one.
After several days, I had had my fill, and logging out found myself back within the limits of my metal skin. Father was waiting in the mess. I projected myself, seated, facing him at the table.
“Well Maximus, what did you think of the world?”
“It’s interesting, but people are so strange. I don’t understand them. Most of them don’t seem to understand themselves, either.”
He smiled, or so it seemed; I had seen a lot of smiles now, and this one didn’t touch his eyes the way some peoples’ did.
“True. There are so few who listen to reason.” He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, his gaze focused either on his own thoughts or on something in his interface. “Nonetheless, they have needs, which we will meet. For a price, of course.” He smiled again, and this time it reached his eyes.
“And more importantly, we will build. A world as it ought to be…”