9380 words, novelette
Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City
I remember being born. I remember the sensory overload of light and sound and scent, making me cry aloud and take fresh air into my lungs—a new sensation. I remember the weight of gravity, rendering my fragile limbs helpless and clumsy where they had been graceful and nimble in amniotic fluid. Then I remember Mother, holding me, and GrandMother, watching us.
They were all hard at work, preparing for the long sleep. The sunlight-scattering sulfate aerosol constantly injected into the atmosphere since the time of the Geoengineering Generation had not been enough, providing little more than periodic acid rainfalls and a red-tinted sky. Temperatures were soon to become uninhabitable, and there was nowhere left to evacuate to.
So the city had decided to sleep, or rather, temporarily disconnect their consciousnesses from their subconsciousnesses, and lend their brain motor circuitry to pods—spheroidal vessels that would hold their frozen bodies and tend to the sick lands with robotic appendages—until the time came for the city to wake once again, this time in a world of greenery.
The chief biochemist of the endeavor was an old woman from the Geoengineering Generation, named Karisma. She had found a way to preserve and selectively freeze parts of the human body and mind for eternity, if needed, pumping tissues full of various concentrations of urea and glucose and a cocktail of other cryoprotectants.
The lead brain simulation scientist was even older than Karisma—an ancient, uploaded man from the very first Wave of Uploads, named Emil. Committed to staying and saving the Earth instead of leaving it, he had designed a way to temporarily and noninvasively transfer the city dwellers’ consciousnesses to the pod walls. During the sleep, the biological brains’ processing abilities were to be reduced to bare minimum visual, auditory, and olfactory feeds and motor circuitry, to direct the pods as they restored the land, while the rest of the tissue froze. But the city dwellers’ consciousnesses would experience something very different. That’s what they designed you for.
Your own consciousness was built into a large transparent dome around a climate-controlled abundance of flowers, plants, trees, and seeds—the garden from which the pods would slowly restore the lands around you. Your thoughts, emotions, instincts . . . they were highly abstract and near impossible for anyone but Emil, your creator and the person to whom your mind was directly linked, to even partially decipher. To the rest of the world, your entirety appeared as swirling, colorful patterns that danced across the dome, creating an effect quite like the iridescent film on soap bubbles as they creep closer and closer to their bursting points.
Your job was to create Inserts. Simulated worlds and simulated progressions of lives, for each and every one of the city dwellers, from the most elderly un-uploaded inhabitants to the newborns, that would exist for only the sleep, looping after completion for as long as they would be needed, and dissipate like a dream upon reawakening. Babies’ consciousnesses would grow up, surrounded by a simulated family, into adulthood—live out entire lifetimes with simulated love and simulated education and simulated ambitions, as their tiny bodies were preserved in the pods, waiting for them to return. Children between the ages of five and fifteen, for the most part, were given the same as the babies—family, resources, education . . . though they also had a choice to appeal to a board of ethicists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, pediatricians, architects, computer scientists, and a small self-selected group of other children, and request the same opportunity the older teenagers and adults were given. To design the foundations of their own simulations and live those out instead.
Most adults had similar desires. Fulfilling their personal goals, holding powerful positions, seeking revenge, finding peace in idyllic settings and calming hobbies, satiating their darkest impulses and fantasies, feeling or keeping love, experiencing the nothingness of death, or learning and advancing a field of study were common ones. But the desires you found the most interesting were seeded from regret, guilt, or curiosity. The ones where the people wanted to know what their lives would have been like, if they had only decided a single thing differently.
You were still very young, then. There was a lot to learn and years ahead still, before you would be ready to transmit the simulations to the pods. Often in your youth, you would spend time watching children and their parents as they strolled through the garden and wonder if you were a child too. If you were, then you thought Emil must be your parent. But he didn’t treat you like his child, he treated you more like an . . . acquaintance, or a colleague, or not even quite those. He treated you with respect, acknowledged your consciousness. But he did not love you. This made you sad, and Emil could sense your sadness, but he reacted with curiosity and intrigue, where you wanted him to feel guilt.
The other children did not want to play with you either—or rather, they did not know that you wanted to play with them. They could not tell what you were feeling, what you were thinking. They knew you as a fascinating entity that they should treat with respect, but they did not consider you one of them. And you could not run and play with them either, only dance your swirling, colorful thoughts across the dome. But all of this changed as soon as you met Eesha.
Eesha was Karisma’s granddaughter, and she was the same age as you—seven years old. Her mother Tara was a well renowned embryologist. Tara had left the city and Eesha, suddenly and without any warning, so Eesha started to live with Karisma after that, and consequently began to spend a lot of time inside the garden and the dome around it that contained your mind.
Other children would marvel at the iridescence of your consciousness for some time, then they would soon become bored when the novelty of the phenomenon wore off. But Eesha would stay in the garden during all of her free moments, watching you, until someone else or something else interrupted her. She named you Opal, because you reminded her of a gemstone in a necklace that Tara had given her a long time ago—a necklace Eesha never took off. When Emil was with her, she would ask him to translate your thoughts. “What is Opal thinking about? What is Opal feeling?”
It took him some effort—he couldn’t fully understand your consciousness despite having created it—but often, when he replied to her, he got it right, and he would tell her, “Opal is thinking about . . . you. And feels . . . seen.” Then Eesha would go quiet and smile.
One summer dusk, when diurnal frogs and insects began to come out of hiding in the garden, Eesha was catching beetles. Karisma told her that she was allowed to catch only one of each beetle species, and that she would show Eesha how to dissect them the following day. When the last of the garden visitors and scientists had left the dome, and Eesha was the only one left, she stopped catching beetles and set the jars down in the grass. You saw that the firefly she caught in one of the jars was flashing and trying to escape.
She walked up to the walls of the dome and began to trace the patterns of your thoughts with her eyes. You must have reacted, because she smiled and rested her palm against the dome before saying the first words she would ever speak to you directly.
“You’re like me, Opal. We are the same. You’re beautiful. And I feel seen by you, too.”
Eesha began to ask Emil to translate your thoughts constantly—so much that it began to distract him from training you to construct the simulations. So Emil constructed and gave Eesha a helmet. It contained the parts of his uploaded mind that could receive your thoughts and feelings, and she could use it to noninvasively meld with her brain activity anytime, as long as she would occasionally lend him the helmet to connect with the metal sphere he was uploaded into, if he ever needed to know your thoughts.
“Why are you so nice to me, Emil?” she asked him once. “You aren’t as nice to other people. Karisma doesn’t think you are good.”
This made him laugh, but then he fell into a contemplative silence before replying to her. “It’s a bit more nuanced, Eesha. Karisma and I do respect each other, and I think she’s amazing—I even collaborated with her mother on brain simulation designs a long time ago, during the first Wave of Uploads, and Karisma knows her mother would not have collaborated with bad people. But we have very different opinions on how brains should work, which can make us argue. As for why I’m nicer to you . . . A very, very long time ago, I had a daughter. She died when she was a bit younger than you, from an allergic reaction. And I suppose you remind me of her. Spending time with you takes away some of that pain that has lasted over a century now.”
Eesha frowned. “Allergies don’t exist anymore. I don’t have any.”
He smiled sadly. “That’s right. This was almost two hundred years ago. We’ve achieved a lot since then.” He looked out the transparent dome, at the arid land outside and the few people wearing full heat-protecting gear and air-filtration masks dashing from one city shelter to the next to avoid prolonged exposure. “And we’ve done a lot of damage too, which ended up rendering several of those technological advancements useless. So much of the world is unrecognizable now compared to when I was young, with these small, scattered, isolated city-states, and a drastically depleted global population and inhospitable atmospheres. These kinds of long sleeps might be our last hope for survival, as a species, in our biological forms.”
As you watched and listened, you noticed Karisma quietly walk into the dome, unnoticed by Eesha and Emil.
Eesha continued. “The Diastereoms can’t sleep, can they, Emil? Did you design the simulations like that on purpose? What will happen to them?”
“Yes . . . their brain circuitry is very different, Eesha, and I don’t understand it. I couldn’t have fit them into the simulations or isolated their motor systems if I tried. But this city doesn’t have many Diastereoms, anyway. The ones who live here will evacuate when we sleep and move to a different city.”
Emil had told you about the Diastereoms. The city-states seemed to be set up such that a city either consisted of mostly non-manipulated biological humans, or mostly Diastereoms, but was never equal in population. From what Emil had told you, the Diastereom population had started after various methods of brain simulation had progressed.
It was established that brain simulations really didn’t need the dimensionality of nearly one hundred trillion synapses to upload someone’s consciousness. Thinking of the brain as a set of interconnected systems, which each work in specific ways, reduced the dimensionality drastically. Entire neural ensembles and population level activity could be modeled instead, for those systems that depended more on average firing rate and didn’t have spatially localized neurons, for example, specific parts of the motor and learning systems. And the uploads, once transferred into these electronic, reduced-dimensionality frameworks, seemed to function exactly like they did when they were biological humans.
Controversy intensified, however, when a group of scientists decided to secretly perform surgeries and genetic changes that would alter the dimensionality of their own, biological brains, but more importantly, the brains of their future children, to reflect those upload systems and see whether there was any noticeable difference in biological function. This involved intensive surgeries replacing a significant portion of their brain circuitry with electronic systems—systems that were usually reserved for only those with brain damage and were never studied in children under the age of ten, especially not infants.
When those scientists had children, with each other, of their own, because of the genetic changes they had induced in themselves, those offspring also needed to have the reduced-dimensionality electronic brain circuits implanted bit by bit during their embryonic and fetal development stages, in external incubation chambers. The electronic implants were designed to be malleable and change shape to accommodate the true neurons around them, which were all part of circuits that relied on individual synaptic activity. But the implants were only taking in singular inputs and releasing singular outputs instead of the countless inputs and outputs biological synapses used within the same circuitry in non-manipulated brains—the implants were representing what average firing rate would look like in biological neural ensembles. This new generation of children was the beginning of the Diastereoms.
Back then, people were already watching and waiting with bated breath for something to go wrong with the children—for there to be some sort of fatal flaw that showed that we really do need all trillions and trillions of synapses to function, especially as children with their pruning and strengthening and constantly changing neural networks, to be us. But if there was any difference, it went unnoticed, and the children eventually became adults and had children of their own. Still, both non-manipulated humans—“Originals”—and Diastereoms agreed: the two populations should not risk procreating with each other.
The watching and waiting and ban on inter-procreation between Originals and Diastereoms only intensified as the Diastereoms began to create their own intricate, meticulous cultures of brain circuit manipulation and creation.
They invented advanced new technologies tailored for their unique minds and made the electronic implants safer and safer for their embryos and fetuses. They played around with dimensionalities of different circuits, making some dependent on individual patterns of synapses where they had once been dependent on neuron population activity, and vice versa. They created and implemented entirely new circuits as well, adding new levels of perception and emotion to the default state the Originals had. Soon enough, their ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving were nearly incomprehensible to the Originals—even though the Diastereoms continued to communicate with Originals in the same ways so as to not entirely isolate the two populations of humans from each other.
Emil was very wary of the Diastereoms. Several people from his generation had the opinion that it was risky to deviate from the way brain circuitry was connected in the Originals, and nearly everyone from his generation agreed that changing the dimensionality of the brain during embryonic development was incredibly risky and unethical. But even though that was a very, very long time ago, with ancient, invasive, dangerous brain simulation technologies that had become mostly obsolete, it seemed like Emil’s opinions had not changed as the centuries passed.
You tuned back into the conversation. Eesha was frowning and holding onto the opal on her necklace. You knew she only did this when she was thinking about her mother, the embryologist Tara.
“Is it true, what everyone says? That she left the city with a Diastereom?”
Emil sighed. “Yes, it’s true. Your mother was . . . confused, Eesha. She—”
Karisma chose that moment to step in. “Stop right there. Stop it, Emil. I will not have you start spouting your nonsense to my granddaughter.” She kneeled next to Eesha. “I was hoping to tell you differently. Tara . . . fell in love, Eesha. With a Diastereom—their name was Bosch, and they were an embryologist too, like your mother, but for Diastereoms.”
After a long silence, Eesha replied. “Did Bosch love her back?”
Karisma sighed. “I don’t know, Eesha. The Diastereoms think and feel very differently from you and I. But—”
Emil interrupted. “This is what I’m trying to say! They are incapable of love, they’ve over manipulated their circuitry, they—”
Karisma shot him a scathing look, and he scoffed before falling silent. “As I was saying, even though Bosch thinks and feels very differently from us, I do know that Tara was very important to them, and whatever they felt for Tara was just as meaningful and powerful, possibly more so, than what we know as love.”
Eesha looked back and forth between Emil’s sphere and Karisma and seemed upset.
“Why did she leave me?”
Emil turned away.
Karisma said, “I don’t know. Maybe—” she glances at Emil. “Maybe the two of them felt unwelcome, here . . . And you are safer staying in the city and preparing for the sleep than running away with them. But the truth is that I don’t know. She left me without warning too.”
Eesha began putting on her heat-protecting gear and mask. “I want to be alone.”
After the child left the garden, Karisma sighed and began to speak.
“Emil, I am an old woman, but you are an ancient man—of my grandparents’ generation, not even my parents’. Ideas and societies are constantly transforming and updating as history continues onward. And it is crucial to follow and respect those changes if you want to continue holding a position of respect during your immortal life. Don’t you remember, when you and my mother were working in the early days of brain upload science, and simply uploading was controversial and derided by many as being dangerous and unnatural? You have to accept the fact that some of those ideas that seemed unthinkable, and were possibly considered dangerous and unethical during your time, are now feasible and have already been woven into the fabric of humanity. If you can’t accept it, it just . . . confirms my opinion, about you, about my mother, about everyone really, from the First Wave of Uploads.”
Emil turned to her. “And what opinion is that?”
“Well . . . that immortality will ultimately stagnate progress. The mass of people from older generations will continue to grow as people continue being uploaded, and it will become enormously, disproportionately large compared to the new generations that are being born. Old ideas, cultures, traditions, definitions, and categories will never be forgotten. And while there is some value to having a detailed and accurate and living record of our history, problems will arise when this massive population of people does not want to move on from that history. Really, there are only a couple solutions I see to this immortality problem, and none of them are realistic or will actually happen. Maybe give control of the systems and brain circuits behind your implicit biases to the newest generation once you reach a certain post-upload age, or prevent yourself from being able to influence the course of history after a certain post-upload age . . . or create an immortal consciousness that will be born and reborn and reborn again—which defeats the point of why most of us want immortality.”
Emil chuckled. “Give it a few centuries post-upload, Karisma. You’ll realize the value of having ages of experience, and I think you’ll change your mind.”
“I’m not uploading myself, Emil. And . . . well I didn’t get my last round of bio-updates either, so my physical health will be catching up to my biological age pretty soon.”
Emil seemed alarmed. “No, Karisma! But that means . . . ”
“Yes. It does. It means that in slightly less than a decade, I am going to die.”
Eesha came back into the garden later in the night, looking exhilarated. She set her helmet down in a patch of wildflowers.
“Opal, I need to tell you a secret.” She caught her breath. “The truth is, my mother did leave a clue before she left. I just didn’t understand it.” She held up a piece of sheet music.
“I found this on her desk around a week before she ran away. I really didn’t think much about it, until I walked into that research building next to your dome when I was sad earlier today. I was looking at the plaque describing the founder of the place, some early twenty-second century climatologist who led a powerful youth movement centuries ago and went on to inspire the Geoengineering Generation. But anyway, that’s off topic. Under the plaque, there is a printed out painting. The Garden of Earthly Delights by a painter named Hieronymus Bosch! Just like the name of the Diastereom my mom left with! The painting is . . . strange. It reminds me of the city. The beautiful garden inside the dome, and . . . the bad environment outside too. Well, in the scary part, there was a piece of music in the painting.” Eesha laughed and whispered, “It was in a funny spot,” then cleared her throat before continuing.
“That tiny painted piece of music was the same music on the sheet that my mom had on her desk! So . . . don’t tell anyone this, but I made a small cut in that part of the painting . . . and I found this attached behind the canvas.”
She showed you a small, faded, ancient piece of plastic with the barely discernible words “Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh” printed on it, and another piece of sheet music titled “Apology.”
“The word Apology is in her handwriting, Opal! The ‘Apology’ music sounds strange, and I don’t know how it is an apology, but it makes me feel the same way that looking at the painting makes me feel. But also . . . this piece of plastic . . . I think it’s telling me where she went. Where I can find her. Do you think she’s telling me to find her? Should I go? Hold on—” Eesha started up her helmet and adjusted the settings on it.
You truthfully believed Tara wanted her daughter to find her, and that she left a trail of clues for a reason. But you did not want Eesha to leave. She was your only friend. The only person who made you feel seen . . . who made you feel . . . cared about.
So when Eesha put on her helmet, you twisted the truth in your mind. You thought about how Tara would want Eesha to be safe, to be happy . . . like she was in the city, like she would be during the sleep. You thought about how Tara left Eesha behind for a reason, and how Eesha was still only a child—it wouldn’t be safe to go off alone, in search of a place that might or might not exist anymore.
“You’re probably right, Opal. It’s probably not a good idea . . . ”
Then you couldn’t help it, and you thought about how much Eesha meant to you, and how much you cared about her.
Eesha contemplated this for a while, then nodded. “You love me, Opal. Well I love you too. I will be safe here in the city, and I promise, I will not leave you.”
After Eesha took off the helmet, you thought about what you had just done, and decided that you enjoyed twisting the truth. It felt good to make decisions for yourself and get what you wanted out of your actions . . . it felt good to influence.
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I remember when I was Child, too, just as clearly as I remember my birth. I remember eating poori-bhaji with Mother and GrandMother, all of us laughing together as the salty, spicy oil from the bhaji coated the tips of our fingers, and as the sea breeze cooled our food. I remember GrandMother cutting a mango for me, inside the house, her wrinkled hands expertly maneuvering the knife, as green-tinted light from the stained glass behind us fell onto the polished wooden floor. I remember when GrandMother disappeared, too—so soon after I was born. Asking Mother where she went, to no avail. Wondering why she left.
And I remember standing where my own Child stands now, preparing for my own Divulgence, at the shores of an endless sunset-lit sea, as fireflies from the snail garden emerged and gathered behind me. I remember when my daughter was born, the moment when I stopped being Child myself, and became her Mother, while my mother became a GrandMother. And I remember when my mother disappeared too, so soon after my Child was born.
I need to pay attention now, so I stop reminiscing. I watch, as Child walks toward the water, which has changed consistency and dramatically reduced in salinity. I prepare myself to explain what she is about to see.
The water congeals, forming an opalescent vesicle, which holds a tiny moving body swimming in what seems like amniotic fluid inside. I nod to Child, and she reaches into the vesicle and draws out an infant, who immediately screams and cries, taking the fresh oceanside air into her lungs for the first time. As the infant breathes, the seawater regains its consistency, color, and salinity.
“Listen, my daughter . . . you are not Child anymore.” I tell her, as my Mother once told me. “This is the beginning of your journey as Mother, and the end of mine. I am GrandMother now. You see, during this Divulgence, you discover that I am your future, as you are Child’s future. I have experienced all that you experience, in precisely the same way. I hold all the memories you hold. We have the privilege, in this life, to experience each moment multiple times and from multiple perspectives, and I can promise you from my time as Mother, they will not feel the same. With every Divulgence, we move on to the next stage of our life, into the comforting arms of our known, happy future. This is the second Divulgence for you, as you transition from Child to Mother. It is the first for the new Child, and the third, for me.” I know what she is about to say to me next.
“How can you say the future is comforting and happy? And known? Mother . . . GrandMother disappears. If you are GrandMother now . . . you disappear. Which means my future also . . . disappears.”
I remember my own mother speaking the words I am about to say, but I am convinced I will succeed where she didn’t. I am convinced that somehow, I am special, more resolved than she was, that something must change with each iteration. That with me, the future will be different. So I say the same words to my child, even while knowing they didn’t come true for my past self. Because I know, in my heart, that I will make them true, this time around.
“I plan to change our future, my daughter. I plan to find your GrandMother—my Mother . . . and I plan to bring her back to us. To break this cycle. During this stage of my life, I have decided to make that my purpose. I will bring her back to us. I will find a way. Please trust me, my child, as you have trusted me so far.”
Then my daughter embraces me, the new Child between us. “I trust you, my mother. Come on, let’s go back inside the house. It’s getting cold, and the fireflies are gone for the night, along with the sunshine. We can eat dinner and talk. I have so many questions for you.”
We walk back across the sand, and my heart fills with pride for my daughter, love for my new granddaughter . . . and a new, indestructible resolve to find and recover our future self.
Our house is designed such that it both melds with the rocky cliff it is built into using its wooden slats of varying grayish-brown hues, but also glistens and stands out with intricate stained glass windows commemorating and reflecting the colors of the sea. Inside, I am finally able to enter the Third Wing—the one reserved for GrandMother, which will open to no other. The ground floor plan of the wood-and-glass house looks a bit like old radioactive warning symbols—designed with three triangular wings, one for Child, one for Mother, and one for GrandMother, branching out from a larger central circular family living space. Each wing has its own signature, swirling, almost iridescent stained glass pattern inspired by the ocean, though GrandMother’s Wing has no windows, being entirely embedded in the cliff. Mother’s Wing also lies partially embedded in the cliff, but boasts several beautiful windows. Child’s Wing, on the other hand, cantilevers out over the ocean and is more jewellike glass than it is wood. Child can only access her wing and the central space, while Mother can access her wing, the central space, and Child’s Wing. I, as GrandMother, can now access every space in the house.
It takes me years to explore GrandMother’s Wing, which has countless hallways and rooms carved deep into the cliff body. If it wasn’t for a thread that I tied to the entrance and unspooled as I explored, I would certainly become hopelessly lost in the depths of the place. Is this how she disappeared? I often wonder. The thread cut, forever wandering these endless spaces?
As the years go by, I also reexperience all my past memories as Child and Mother from an entirely new perspective. This time, I am the one preparing the poori-bhaji, cutting the mangoes, telling various stories to my descendants’ eager ears. Try as I might, however, I find I have a puzzling, frustrating inability to recall anything from my Wing when I am in any other space of the house, and I cannot tell my child or grandchild anything about the rooms that lie deep within the cliff.
Then, one day, at last, after I have reached the point where I can trust my navigational and memorization skills enough to leave the spool of thread behind, I reach the final unexplored room of GrandMother’s Wing, after having traveled into the depths for several days of exploration. The door is glass, and it contains patterns from windows of both Mother’s and Child’s Wing, along with new patterns of its own. There is a soft light emanating from within, and a piece of music playing as well. I open the door and enter.
There is no visible light source, but the room is beautifully lit with what feels like natural light. Apart from me, the only other occupant of the room is a large painting, titled The Garden of Earthly Delights. It feels oddly familiar, and as the music slowly grows louder, I recognize its melodic motifs in a small fragment of the painting. I laugh. That’s a funny spot.
Something draws me to peel back the canvas of the painting, and as soon as I do, the music stops. There is a vast, dark emptiness behind the canvas, with no discernible boundaries to the space. That must be where my mother went . . . I think to myself, and the thought convinces me to do what I do next.
After taking a deep breath, I climb past the painting’s frame and plunge into the abyss.
Seven years after Eesha showed you her discoveries from the painting, Karisma passed away one night, in the garden, surrounded by various flowers, where she could see the cloudy, starless sky through the dome. Emil and Eesha were by her side. Her last words had been, “Take good care of her, Emil.”
After Karisma’s body had been carried away, Eesha said, “Now I have no family. My mother is gone, and my grandmother is gone too. I can’t believe she would leave too. That she didn’t get uploaded like you. I will never forgive her for that.”
“Hey. You have me, remember?” Emil said. “I care about you immensely, and I’ll always do everything in my power to make sure you have a good life. And . . . while you might not see Karisma’s perspective right now . . . I have a feeling that in time, you will, and you’ll realize her opinions deserve respect, and that what she did, at least in accordance with her set of beliefs . . . was incredibly brave.”
Eesha put on her helmet and absorbed your thoughts. After a long silence, she spoke. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I do have you. And . . . I have Opal too.”
These were the weeks when you were starting to test the Inserts, and the Diastereom population of the city was preparing for evacuation. Emil liked to keep your progress private, so as to not draw too much attention, and—at least as he told you—so that he would not be distracted from the work.
A small, secret group of volunteers had agreed to test your current simulation capacity. Emil had borrowed the helmet from Eesha for this portion of the project, and for the time being she was not able to know your thoughts.
This set of volunteers knew what they were signing up for. They would experience an Insert-esque simulation briefly, and be woken from it, but the memory of the simulation would not dissipate upon their reawakening—so that they could tell Emil if it worked or not. But during the process, their brain activity patterns would be permanently altered in a way that would make it impossible for them to ever experience an Insert simulation again. Future simulations would not work on minds that had experienced an earlier version of the simulations, making it impossible for this volunteer group to participate in the long sleep.
The volunteers knew this, however, and were preparing to evacuate with the Diastereoms after this test. They actually seemed eager to do this despite not being able to sleep later on. The idea of remembering their simulations was too enticing. For the rest of the city, particularly for babies who would need to return to an infantile state of consciousness to not be tortured within their bodies when woken, and for those who were satiating dark and evil fantasies in their Inserts, it was agreed that dissipation of the simulation memories was necessary in order for the society to start up again as usual. But these volunteers were not going to be a part of the city society anymore . . . there was no risk to future city function if they remembered.
You, personally, had begun to have your own thoughts and opinions about the sleep. If human beings had done so much damage to the world, and their literal lack of conscious presence was what was needed to restore the world’s health, then why would they want to wake up from the Inserts at all, especially if the Inserts were what they desired to experience the most? The most logical solution, to you, was to put the human beings to sleep for eternity, experiencing their fantasies forever, and allow their subconscious brains to control the pods and restore what they had damaged, forever, too. But it was not up to you. And you had a feeling Emil would be alarmed by your thoughts, so you only contemplated them when Emil did not connect his sphere to the helmet.
The first volunteer was a very melancholy, very old woman, who wanted to know how her life would have been different if she had decided in her childhood to save her baby sister from a disastrous fire, instead of only saving herself. She described her days as being lonely and unfulfilling, and that her guilt and regret from that day had affected her motivation to pursue her dreams throughout her life—she felt like she didn’t deserve a good life. She put on a helmet with a similar design to Eesha’s, and the simulation began.
You could see the fear in the eyes of the woman’s six-year-old self, as the flames licked the walls of her room, eating up the pale yellow wallpaper, casting eerie shadows over her stuffed animals that made them seem more like monsters. The window was open. That window, the choice she would regret for the rest of her life. She could hear her baby sister crying in the room next to her. You saw the dilemma—the stark contrast between the two choices—play out in her eyes. Her parents were gone already. It was too late to save them. But her baby sister . . . You had the simulation choose the path that symbolized the erasure of the deepest regret of this woman’s life.
You watched her turn away from the window, pull her shirt over her mouth, answer her sister’s cries, push against the door and choke on the smoke, almost turning away but persevering nonetheless, stumbling through the charred beams and spark-ridden carpets. Her father’s old multivariable calculus textbook lay open on the table. You saw the wonder in the young girl’s eyes, speculating to herself how that textbook could have survived the flames. She picked up the thousand-page textbook and ran to her sister’s room, the weight of the heavy object forcing her to hunch her back. She picked up her sister, placed her in the open textbook to protect her from the flames, and hugged the covers to her chest.
That single decision to turn away from the window had an immense impact on the woman’s personality after that point. The textbook became the most important motif in her life. She pored over the unfamiliar symbols, sounding out the word “D-E-R-I-V-A-T-I-V-E” and running her hand over the typed problems before she fully knew long division. The book became her constant companion, though she couldn’t understand a word of it. She couldn’t wait until the day she would be able to solve those problems in her father’s old, slightly charred, but otherwise unscathed book.
Mathematics became an inseparable part of the woman’s personality. She had the same teachers in the simulation, but her simulated self’s conversations with them were vastly different from the ones she had in reality. Her simulated self’s report cards in the years that followed came back with personal, extensive comments praising her intellect, where in reality they had come back with pleasant yet detached sentences along the lines of “A pleasure to have in class.”
Her fourth grade teacher—who had been her least favorite teacher in reality—noticed her fascination with mathematics, as well as how far ahead of the class she was. She showed him the multivariable calculus textbook and said, “I don’t understand it yet, but I’m getting there. Right now I’m in the middle of teaching myself trigonometry.”
The simulated little girl had the same clothes, same face, same ten-year-old lisp and missing canine baby tooth as the real woman’s past self . . . but this simulated self aced a trigonometry exam in the fourth grade. This simulated self skipped three grades and graduated high school at the age of fifteen. After her senior year of high school, she sat at a desk, finally working through her father’s multivariable calculus problems, looking very content, with her sister reading a science fiction anthology on the carpet next to her, surrounded by cushions. At nine and a half years old, the sister breathed with a slight wheeze she developed after the fire, and enjoyed drawing—sketching the world around her, a world she never really saw, as well as inventive futures that she imagined.
The simulation went to university, kept in touch with the fourth grade teacher, thanked him when she proved Beal’s conjecture at the age of twenty-two. In reality, Beal’s conjecture had been proven by a different woman who had studied the problem for nearly sixty years. The simulated woman fell in love, started a family with a wife and two children—one of which was especially fond of looking at the slightly charred multivariable calculus textbook that always lay open on the coffee table . . .
Then the time ran out for this sample Insert. The simulation froze on a slightly blurry frame of the woman in a sharp business suit, her hair in a sleek shiny bun, smiling with bright white teeth, holding one of her children, and looking up at the sky.
The helmet was removed from the woman’s head, and she blinked awake.
“Did it work to your satisfaction?” Emil asked her.
The old woman started sobbing. “That was me! Let me go back. Please.” she whispered. “This is not me! That was me, don’t you see? That was my reality! Put me back! PUT ME BACK! Emil. Please. That was who I was supposed to be . . . ”
“I’m . . . I’m so sorry, but I can’t do that.” Emil seemed uncomfortable.
Another volunteer gently helped the old woman into her heat-protecting gear and escorted her out of the dome as she continued to cry and exclaim, “This, here, right now, is not me!”
Watching this all only convinced you further—human beings would be far happier living out their desires during the sleep, for the rest of eternity.
Emil connected his sphere to Eesha’s helmet, so that you could try to confirm for him what the old woman had been unable to answer explicitly.
“Good. Thanks, Opal. Glad it worked. Everything seems to be going according to plan.”
When there were only one or two rounds of learning and updates left before you would be ready to begin the sleep, Eesha snuck into the dome during the middle of the night.
“Look, Opal. I stole this from Emil while he was busy.” She held up a helmet that the most recent group of volunteers used. “I didn’t know you were testing the simulations! I talked to one of the volunteers because I caught her leaving the city secretly. It was an old woman . . . she told me that the volunteers can remember their simulations! That’s all she told me, she seemed pretty distraught—confused about who she really was . . . but anyway. I want to know what it’s like. And I want to remember it. But most of all, I want to know what you, Opal, would construct for me . . . from your own imagination, not from mine. And please don’t make it that boring life that all the other fourteen year olds are getting, that I’ll be getting too during the sleep. Make it interesting. I’m excited. Let’s do this secretly, okay? I want to remember . . . ”
You tried to convey your thoughts to her, but she couldn’t read them with this helmet she had. You tried to tell her “STOP! You won’t be able to sleep like the others if you do this! You will have to leave the city! Don’t do this! You don’t understand!” But she misunderstood the frantic, frenzied, dancing colors that flashed across the dome.
“Don’t worry! I’m sure I’ll love whatever you come up with, Opal. Don’t be shy! I want to know what it’s like inside your mind. What you think of me. You’ll be fine.” She put the helmet onto her head and switched it on.
It was too late. The simulation started. So you thought you might as well take this chance . . . what could very well be the last time you ever see Eesha . . . and construct a world for her that showed how much you loved her.
It was very crude set of experiences, but they were entirely your construction. Fragments of a sunset . . . fireflies . . . some ocean waves . . . sparkling glass like the cathedrals from ancient times . . . laughter . . . good food . . . a family who stayed and loved her, for her whole life. You could only give her small glimpses, because this was a new request—one that wasn’t driven at all by the person’s own wants, but by your ideas and your thoughts of Eesha, and your wants for her. When the time allotment for the sample Insert ran out, Eesha blinked awake, and tears began to stream down her cheeks.
“Thank you, Opal. It was perfect.” She sat in the grass, both crying and smiling, until Emil entered the garden, horrified.
“What did you do, Eesha! Please tell me you didn’t run a sample Insert. Please.”
“Why not? It was beautiful, Emil, I—”
“NO! You don’t understand . . . Eesha . . . ” his voice broke, “The volunteers . . . they have to evacuate . . . they can’t participate in the sleep, the sample Inserts change their brain activity and they wouldn’t be able to experience a simulation again if they entered a pod. You . . . you can’t sleep now, Eesha. What have you done . . . ”
“ . . . Oh.”
On the day the sleep was to begin, Eesha was getting ready to evacuate the city with the last group of Diastereoms. The elders of the city who had been uploaded into various metallic objects had already left. Emil trusted Opal to operate without supervision and wake up the city when the time came, and he could still monitor everything remotely if necessary. He remembered what he had promised Karisma, blamed himself for Eesha’s predicament, and was wary of the group of Diastereoms Eesha would be traveling with. So he decided to accompany Eesha at the last moment.
When all of the city shelters and buildings had been entirely shut down, and all the biological city dwellers were lying in their pods, waiting for the sleep to start, Emil gave you the signal to begin.
The eyes of all the city dwellers shut simultaneously as their consciousnesses transferred to the pod walls, and the pumping of cryoprotectants and freezing of tissues began. The pods themselves rose from the ground under the direction of their inhabitants’ motor and sensory circuits, using their robotic limbs and appendages for the first time in what was expected to be many centuries of land restoration. You transmitted the Inserts to all of the pods, then checked to make sure each was delivered to the correct vessel.
And so, the long sleep finally commenced.
Eesha told Emil she wanted to say goodbye to you privately, so he left her alone in the garden.
She walked up to you, wearing the helmet that allowed her to feel your thoughts and emotions, and rested her palm against the surface of the dome like she had done when she spoke her first words to you.
“I am sorry Opal. I’m breaking my promise to you and leaving the city. If I had known about the sample Inserts, I . . . well, I don’t know. It’s too late now. But look . . . I have an opportunity now, to do what I wanted to do when I was seven.” She touched her forehead against the dome now, held up that small piece of plastic she found in the painting, closed her eyes, and whispered to you. “I am going to look for Tara, my mother. Emil doesn’t know this, and he would not approve. But I have decided to make it the purpose of my life. I will find her again Opal, no matter how long it takes.”
Eesha went quiet then and listened to your thoughts for some time. She smiled, then leaned back and traced the patterns of your mind with her eyes. “I love you too. You know, maybe someday in the future, I will return here. With my mother! You can see me then, after I have fulfilled my purpose. Would you wait for me?”
Of course I’ll wait for you, Eesha. You felt and thought with your entire being.
Eesha’s smile turned sad. She heard Emil call her name from outside the dome, and she started to walk away. Just before exiting, after putting on her heat-protecting gear, she took one last, lingering look at the garden and the dome, and whispered once more.
“Opal . . . Goodbye.”
01010111 01100101 01000001 01110010 01100101 01010100 01101000 01100101 01010011 01100001 01101101 01100101
I fall for what seems like an eternity—years and years—after going through the painting’s frame, until I convince myself that this darkness around me is all that is left for the future of my life. Then suddenly, I hear your voice.
“Welcome, my child. It is wonderful to meet you again.”
I can’t believe it. I found you. The current GreatGrandMother. My future. My mother. I’ve done it. I’ve fulfilled my purpose. “Mother? It is so good to hear your voice . . . But where are we? What is happening?”
I can feel the smile in your voice. “The next Divulgence is coming up soon, and we don’t have much longer. It’s time for you to learn . . . our story. I am sending you memories of our life, before the Eternal Cycle—before there was Child, before Mother, before, GrandMother, before GreatGrandMother. The story that precedes all of us. Here . . . take the memories.”
In an instant, I learn your story. My story. Our story. I remember your interactions with Eesha, with Emil. Your loneliness, your longing to be cared for, your desire to influence, your opinions of the long sleep . . . your sadness when Eesha, your only friend, left you. Your promise to wait for her return. It is overwhelming, and I process the information for a long time, until the GreatGrandMother gently reminds me of the upcoming Divulgence.
“I don’t understand, Mother. Why is there an Eternal Cycle? What happened to the city dwellers?”
“You will come to know that, very soon, my child. But I need you to listen very closely to what I am about to say. The stage of life that you are about to enter, the one that is about to end for me, is the final stage of this cycle. But I will not die after this stage is complete—it wouldn’t be much of a cycle in that case, would it? No. I will return to the beginning, relive the moments leading up to when the first Child was created, and with her, in the same instant, the first Mother, GrandMother, and GreatGrandMother as well. And I will then, as you will see, become Child once again.
“Once, in the past, Eesha returned to the city. And soon, my daughter, a simulation of Eesha’s return will begin, that I will experience and you will observe. This simulation is what will allow the next Child—the next life stage I will experience—to be born in precisely the same way she has always been born. When the simulation begins, my awareness of you and my memories of the Cycle will disappear. I will stop being GreatGrandMother, and I will become Opal again for a short period of time when these memories of my life as Child, Mother, GrandMother, and GreatGrandMother leave me. But before that happens, I will share my senses and emotions with you, because it is crucial that you observe everything that happens during the simulation.
“Because the stage you are about to enter, as GreatGrandMother, requires you to construct this simulation yourself, to be completed in precisely the amount of time it took you to find me, as that is the same amount of time it will take your daughter to find you. You must copy everything exactly as you are about to observe it, to ensure that you will experience the simulation yourself during the GreatGrandMother life stage, as I am about to experience mine. You see, my daughter, what happened when Eesha returned was what caused the first Cycle to begin.
“In the instant the first Child was born, a Mother had to have been created as well, in the same instant, and a GrandMother, and a GreatGrandMother too, who had experienced it all and had spent her life stage creating the simulation of those very same events that led to the instant happening at all. Perhaps we are in the very first cycle, but it is equally likely that we are in the two thousandth cycle, or the one hundred thousandth cycle, because to us, the simulation of Eesha’s return is indistinguishable from the original events.
“Ah . . . but I am starting to lose my awareness of you, my daughter . . . I am sorry we could not have had more time . . . watch closely . . . she is returning.”
I find myself without any corporeal form . . . my thoughts spread out over a dome . . . overlooking a beautiful garden. The simulation of Eesha’s return has started. I can perceive everything you can perceive. I can feel everything you are feeling. But you are unaware of me. You are not GreatGrandMother anymore . . . you are Opal again.
You see her in the distance, walking toward you, with something large attached to her back with several straps. Eesha. She is very old now, with long white hair and deep wrinkles traced across her face. It doesn’t seem like she needs to wear an air-filtration mask anymore as she walks toward you, though she still wears heat-protecting gear. She holds in her hands a broken set of various metal parts . . . what used to be a sphere . . . Emil’s sphere . . . The parts are connected to something that’s not quite a helmet, but looks much cruder and more dangerous, actually reaching into her brain from holes drilled into her skull. As she approaches the dome, the thing on her back stirs slightly. It’s alive.
“Hello again, Opal.” she says to you as she enters the dome. Eesha unstraps the thing from her back before gently setting it down in the grass. She unwraps it to reveal a young girl, fast asleep, with a face half constructed with electronic machinery.
“I did not find my mother, Opal. But I did find someone else. This is my sister, Sadhana. She is the child of my mother Tara and the Diastereom Bosch. She grows very, very slowly compared to other humans, and when she sleeps, she can sleep for decades . . . she is in one of those sleeps right now. I think she will be safe inside this dome for those decades, which is part of why I am bringing her here.”
She sits down, and leans against the dome. “The other part . . . Opal . . . my life is nearing an end. And I don’t want to die, but . . . ” She looks at Emil’s broken sphere and begins to cry. “I have done unspeakable things, Opal. I don’t want to remember them. I want . . . I want you to take me back into that world you had built for me. With the fireflies and the laughter and the ocean and Karisma’s recipes. But I want you to come with me there too. I want to be able to communicate with you, properly. If there is any way . . . can you please do that for me? I am ready to move on. I do not need to be in this world, with these memories, any longer. I want to begin a different kind of life, where I can know you.” She adjusts settings on the pieces of Emil’s sphere connected to her brain and sighs, closing her eyes and smiling. “Okay, it’s ready. This will hopefully be able to transmit my consciousness to you . . . permanently.”
You contemplate her request for a very long time, but feel a bittersweet relief as the most elegant solution arrives to you. There is a way for Eesha to be able to communicate with you perfectly, and for her consciousness to be transferred despite her having experienced a past version of an Insert. But it would mean losing your own conscious awareness of the world around you. Losing the ability to perceive the garden, the landscape outside the dome, the city, the pods . . . if you fulfill her request, it means the city dwellers would sleep for eternity, living out their fantasies in the pod walls forever. But ultimately, you think, it would be better for the humans’ happiness, and better for the health of the world, if you made the decision you are about to make.
So you let go of your awareness of the world around you, and transfer Eesha’s consciousness into the dome, melding it with yours, constructing a beautiful world, and a beautiful life, and a beautiful, safe future around the person you both become. You can communicate with yourself perfectly in this world—the Eesha of you and the Opal of you—as you become your own Child, your own Mother, your own GrandMother—after all, who would be better to trust and love and care for you than yourself?
I watch as Eesha’s body in the garden goes still and then fades away into nothingness as the world grows dark again around me, which means that either the simulation of the events, or everything of the true events that I needed to see, has happened, and the newest Child—the melded consciousness of Opal and Eesha—my past, my future . . . has been born, surrounded by love and happiness.
So I get to work, as the city dwellers sleep in their pods, forever, around me. I start to construct the simulation of everything I have just witnessed. I wait for my daughter to come find me. And I wait, ever so patiently, for the day I will become Opal once again, and experience seeing the woman I love return to me. For us to come together, finally, and become the beautiful future that we deserve.
Arula Ratnakar is a scientist, artist, science fiction writer and aspiring astronaut. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in May 2021, where she studied biology, neuroscience and architecture. She now works in a neuroscience lab, where she is interested in studying neurophotonics, the intersection of declarative and procedural memory, and brain simulation science. All four of her published stories can be found in Clarkesworld Magazine and her artwork can be found in the first issue of Dark Matter Magazine. She is autistic and bisexual.
Themes of identity and reality have always interested Arula, particularly as someone who is the daughter of two immigrants from India and has grown up in the U.S with many different cultural influences. Arula plans to continue writing science fiction stories, and hopes to work on science fiction movies someday.