"No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize,
and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability,"
by Jo-Ann Psoras
Robert didn't know what to think when he received the formal notice. But it wasn't a surprise. Each December, for as long as he could remember, it arrived. Up until recently, there were very few things about life, whatever version, that weren't predictable or calculable -- depending on where you were, literally and figuratively speaking.
The message, a VirtaIntel decree -- official Central Processing, CP, business -- scrolled across his mind's eye like any other downloadable image...except no spam-blocker could intercept a CP notice.
Upgrade 2050 is coming: All desirable VirtaIntel memories backed up or lost forever.
The instructions were pretty simple. The only question posed: What do you want to remember?
He could almost feel the microscopic nanobots in his brain scurrying -- as if packing bags and procuring last-minute travel arrangements.
What to take?
What to leave behind?
So much happened in the course of the last year. Robert had seen the world. Climbed the pyramids of Giza. Safaried in Africa. Ate crème brûlée and sipped café Noisette gazing up at the Eiffel Tower. Finally, touched the hand of God at the Sistine Chapel -- although it didn't prove to be as spiritually-enlightening as one may have imagined.
Notwithstanding, it was still an extraordinary trek -- a life-changing time. He had never felt so alive. Or learned so much. And he didn't once step foot out of his apartment.
The atmosphere was free of pollution -- no need for extraneous travel or for much shipping -- most products and services were no longer organic. Once more, VirtaIntel eradicated war, poverty, substance abuse and offered a veritable fountain of youth. Robert, like so many of his peers, thought it the answer to all mankind's prayers. All things considered, they were right.
Prayers had been answered.
But so many were too awestruck to seriously contemplate what that said about VirtaIntel. What it was. The implications of how it possessed access to its own design. If it was nonbiological, had the power to lift suffering, shed light (there were even suggestions of eternal life) what else could it do?
Robert's wife, Kate, wondered those very things. Didn't feel good about virtual travel. Argued that it was "messing with Mother Nature." That it could be dangerous. But Robert pressed. Told her how wonderful the trips he'd already taken were. How it could've been all the better had she been there.
Reluctantly, she accompanied him to Paris. Fell madly in love with it.
And then never came back.
Her body, sustained by nutritional lines and medical nanobots, remained inactive. Her mind, that was another story. She was a virtual addict. Healthy, but addicted, nonetheless, or so it seemed.
The high of Parisian Shagri-La led to a theory of Robert's: one way or another, some people are just wired to be dependant. With the absence of narcotics, virtual addiction was a kind of collateral damage. Although it was steadily dwindling, he didn't give up all hope that somehow she'd return to him.
Section II of the notice was even more troubling for him.
All emotional matters must be reconciled.
Upgrade 2050 was far-more advanced than the previous year. The VirtaIntel redesign cycle had exponentially matured a million-fold. By the following year, all CP programs were projected to be a billion times more intelligent than a human being.
If Robert wanted to keep up with any of it, he'd have to take the big plunge -- Intimate Merger -- the newly-added standard operative software.
But he had free will. The choice was his to make. He could stay behind. Enjoy the benefits of VirtaIntel as he already knew it, however, rendered a wayward sheep. One of an estimated and predictably lower-intellect flock -- a minority. Or join the greater masses, "the collective consciousness," as it was called.
"Will I be happy?" Robert asked Pearl -- his personalized guide.
"Not as you understand it," her soothing voice pleasantly hummed. "...it will be beyond your expectations."
Pearl held no form. No body, no visage. She was a voice -- an inner voice -- that was the best way Robert could explain it to himself. When they first met, she appeared, briefly, as an icon -- a round, lustrous white gem...then the word, "wisdom," repeated over and over in a solemn mantra.
All he knew, theoretically, was that there was a connection. And Pearl's constant presence was reassuring.
"But will I be the same?"
"Yes," Pearl said. "...and no."
"What does that mean?"
"I can't explain it to you," Pearl added. "You couldn't understand."
"Then how can I be sure that it's the right thing to do?"
"Again, your mind couldn't understand without enhancement. It would only scare you now."
"And after the new upgrade -- it won't scare me then?"
"No more than a star is frightened of the infinite cosmos."
"So, I'll be like a star? Without fear, without thought?"
"No -- it's only a metaphor -- you'll be aware."
This time, she didn't answer with words. He drifted along in an infinite silence as a beam of peace fell upon his head and his thinking quieted. Although he perceived it to be an astral ray...it's light, brilliant and golden...it was just how he distinguished it. He wasn't capable of seeing it any other way.
But Robert had grown cynical. As seductive as it felt, as much as he wanted to trust Pearl, there was a residual doubt that Robert couldn't quite shake. Once burned...look what happened to Kate. After all, what was she if not a manmade angel of some sort? Man was flawed in the past. Corrupt. How could something created by man warrant that much faith?
Confounded, he tossed and turned, albeit in a virtual bed -- a heavenly chamber inexpressibly beautiful.
Abruptly, he sat up...pulled the silken covers from his body.
"Where am I, Pearl?" He shouted. "Is this place real?"
"It is, if you believe in it."
Robert was even more confused. He was hoping for something more substantial. More eloquent.
"That's ridiculous -- what if I believe that I am in hell? Robert sassed. "Does that make this hell?"
"Is that really what you believe?"
Her nonchalant inflection was irritating.
"Ugh, come on!" Robert shouted again. "Can't you just give me a straight answer? Whether I believe in Europe or fucking cockroaches, for that matter...they exist, don't they?"
"Somewhere. But not here."
"Great," Robert huffed. "That's just great."
He stood. At once, he became aware of how young he felt. How pained his body had been in the past.
And then Kate. How beautiful she appeared now. Sleeping next to him, in his billowy bed. The long, flowing satin nightgown. Her brown hair, in soft, fresh curls. The serenity in her smile.
It was far removed from what he knew to be reality, definitively. His need to wash her. Clip her fingernails. Comb her hair. Apply her lipstick. He could never do her justice. Not like this place did.
"And what about her?" Robert asked. "What will happen to Kate if I merge? Who will care for her?"
"Do you really want an answer to that?"
"Of course, I do! She's my wife."
"You poor dear -- my friend," Pearl said with a tone of regret -- it was the first time Robert detected this kind of emotion in Pearl.
"What is it?"
"I'll tell you, but you won't like it..."
"Just spit it out!"
"As you wish," Pearl said. "Kate is dead."
A sudden throbbing shot up through his neck. His body was still connected to his mind. Although this could be the last day he would experience such unpleasantness, he couldn't conceive of it just yet.
"No she's isn't! She's right here," Robert said, lifting her warm hand to his lips and kissing it. "She's right here...in the flesh!"
Deep-down, he grappled with his own inconsistency.
"She's somewhere else, too gone to return...her flesh is real only to you here because you believe it is. You see?"
"Oh, fine! If you want to get technical, Kate is physically at home," Robert explained, his arms flailing. "I'll go there right now and prove it to you."
"Her body is," Pearl said. "But not her mind. And that is everything."
"Wait a minute...she's in Paris," Robert said, pacing, realizing how desperate he was sounding. "She believes she's in Paris so how could she be dead?"
"Robert, I'm sorry...she's not in Paris. That's what it was to you. To her, it was somewhere else."
Robert's head ached at once.
The realms were increasingly intertwining. Barriers, breaking down.
"What do you mean, Pearl?"
"To her, it didn't interpret as a city -- it was much more than that."
"I don't understand," Robert said, his heart heavy.
"Robert, to Kate -- it was nothing short of heaven -- she believed in it. She made her choice. Just as you make the choice of keeping her body prisoner."
Then certain things became unquestionably real to him. Robert began to cry. This was a first in here -- tears of sadness. For anyone. Agony flooded like a rampaging river, pillaging all semblances. The brutish force of sobering disillusionment triggered a crash.
Just like that, Robert found himself seated in his anti-mobility chair.
It gave him occasion to think.
After some time, he listlessly uttered, "disengage."
The machine obliged and he was soon released from the physical restraints. He peered over his shoulder at Kate. No expression. Her hair -- it appeared downright disheveled in comparison. Wearing a dreary cotton robe, she was strapped down. Bounded by time and space. He thought it CP holding her hostage. But he was wrong. The computations mounted. For him, there was a bitter awakening -- she was held by his undying love; he was the captor.
And then it became clear -- her eyes were open -- but she couldn't see him. Her chest slowly rose up and down, but she wasn't breathing. This wasn't even a coma. How could he have been so callous? To inject nanobotic support into a lifeless body? A device intended solely for the purpose of sustaining organ donors?
He lied to himself when he said it was for her own good, that she'd come back and everything would be okay. Again, he held on to a little hope. But he never truly believed.
He opened the message again. Re-read the directions. A simple procedure. As always, backup his annual personal files, or forfeit them. Except this time, the enhancement download wasn't a temporary file. Once engaged, there was no turning back. He would automatically receive periodic upgrades and all of his worries, fears, inhibitions and sorrows would be erased.
All those pesky emotions had to go.
Pearl stood by. Online as always.
He mulled over asking her another question. His decision had been made. No matter the answer. Robert wasn't a religious man anymore, so inquiring about the realness of God or the probability of him reaching Kate -- in heaven, whether her heaven or His, seemed moot. It would have been too self-deprecating for him to acknowledge that it was an inquiry he was too leery to ask in any case.
"Open backup files," he said. "Erase file 'Spring in Egypt.'"
"Are you sure you want to move this file to the recycle bin?"
"Erase files 'African Safari,' 'Rome."
"Are you sure you want to move these files to the recycle bin?"
"Back up file, 'Paris.'"
"Are you sure you want to store this file permanently?"
Robert hesitated for a moment. He considered the alternative. The possibilities. But, no, one can't undo what is already done. Not really. Only forget.
The thought of expunging Kate's heaven seemed an insufferable cruelty. Even if it wasn't ultimately real. Or whether or not either one of them would ever truly know the difference. Robert further wondered, does it even matter anyway? Although he decided he'd travel lightly into the unknown, he figured...at least they'd always have Paris. If he'd opt to remember. It was about as romantic of a notion as he could imagine anymore. It was all the sentimentality that he could manage.
As he disconnected Kate, he resolved to ask Pearl one more thing. He got the picture that once fixed online, he wouldn't have access to her anymore. There would be no need. But he wasn't sure what to ask just then. What should constitute a final inquiry? It was staggering. I'll never ask another question again. There will only be answers -- awareness, as Pearl put it.
He couldn't bear to watch Kate's body slowly expire. The nanobots could only go so far without nutrition. It would take merely a week for her to shut down. He wasn't planning on hanging around that long.
He kissed her on the lips. Whispered into her deaf ear, "I will love you, forever."
But he wasn't so sure how truthful that was.
"And what about love?" Robert asked just before he selected "MERGE."
"You mean, is love real?"
" -- No! I mean, will I feel love again?"
And then, uncharacteristic for Pearl, she seemed to take a moment to think about it. "All I can say, my dear -- the best I can offer you -- is you needn't worry -- you won't feel a thing."
© 2011 Jo-Ann Psoras
Bio: Jo-Ann Psoras' short horror story, "(A Particular) Man's Worst Enemy," will appear in the spring issue of Pulp Modern. This piece also received an honorable mention in Allegory, Volume 16/43. Aside from her shorts, she is currently working on several young adult novels and screenplays. A former assistant managing editor (Times Herald Newspaper in Norristown), Psoras lives in Philadelphia with her husband, photographer Mark Psoras.
E-mail: Jo-Ann Psoras
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