The landing point, when she reaches it, is grayed-out to her. A window opens in the top-right corner of her viz field, asking for a username and password. This is not a public DRE. So much was clear when Th@ch texted the destination to her — not a web URL, nor any listing in B.org’s extensive directory of renders, but an unintelligible thirty-six character alphanumeric sequence.
She turns her head — this causes the authentication window to double in size and start flashing — and she sees Th@ch standing off to her left. Black and white and dissolving around the edges, but unmistakably Th@ch. A countdown clock appears in her viz window. Ten, now nine seconds before she is chucked out of here.
“It’s okay,” Th@ch tells the open air. “She’s with me.” The cloud over her vision lifts, the clock disappears, and the landscape is sprayed instantly with color.
@Jean turns a 360. It’s nighttime here, but just barely. Birds are tweeting. The sky is deep blue, dark, but in one quadrant — to the east, she supposes — there are inklings of pink, smoldering just along the horizon. She checks her watch. It reads 11:04 PM, but that’s New York time.
“Where are we?” she asks.
“Italy. Circa 150 A.D.”
@Jean’s eyes widen. “This is Rom@,” she says.
Rom@: the subject of so much breathless speculation among online DRE critics, including many with lungs. Ophelia Garrick’s eleven-figure contribution to Rom@ accelerates the push for Peak DRE; Sacked Rom@ developer sues for release from “weapons-grade” nondisclosure agreement; Rom@: will it ever be ready … and who can afford it when it is?
“Not exactly,” Th@ch answers. “But we’re in the neighborhood. The paving under your feet is the Appian Way.”
@Jean looks down at a surface reminiscent of cobblestone, but an order of magnitude smoother, with set stones interlocking almost as tiles.
“We’re fifteen kilometers south/southeast of the City, and fourteen short of the Servian Wall that encircles the Seven Hills. I thought we would walk and talk.”
They follow the road in silence for a period of time. @Jean listens to the birds and looks out over the landscape, largely but not entirely cleared of trees. They are completely alone. She would have expected signs of human life here — farms, fencing, wandering livestock. Horseshit on the pavers, possibly, or a discarded broken wheel by the side of the road. But there is nothing here but the sculpted topography of the naked land, scattered trees, birds, and the suggestions of a rising sun. A work in progress surely, the progress radiating, no doubt, from the City that is Rom@’s first objective.
The road looks fake to her, and she says so.
Th@ch explains: “You were expecting more bumps, something rougher-hewn. But these are Roman roads. And Via Appia is the central artery. It’s not asphalt, but it’s NBT, you might say, given the materials they had. We’ve brought in no fewer than ten archaeologist/ antiquarian-types to inspect this, and we’ve made adjustments based on their recommendations. This is what it looked and felt like.”
@Jean has no ready knowledge to contradict this, and in any case it seems a point of honor to Th@ch.
“Now imagine building this by hand, with stones pulled from the ground, taken as you found them, applying the strength of men augmented only by oxen, maybe horses, if they were available. The Romans were gifted.”
“They killed millions.”
“And brought civilization to millions. Law, public works, trade, production, know-how —”
“They kept slaves.”
“Slavery, war, oppression, and domination: these weren’t features of the Roman Empire. They are bugs in the human condition, and they all arise from the same root cause.”
“Go on,” @Jean says. She has a sense of the logic here, but she’ll allow her host the opportunity to draw it out.
“The PhysWo has limited resources, so we fight over them. The competition for resources calls for tribalism, team-forming, Other-izing; those who practice these best survive, thrive, dominate, and reproduce. Our physical bodies have limited capacities, so we fear for our lives, we inflict pain to avoid pain, and to achieve our grand ambitions we need to enlist the effort of others, often at their expense, and sometimes against their will.”
“But these are excuses,” @Jean pleads, “and we should try to rise above what the PhysWo inflicts upon us. As far as I can tell, the Romans institutionalized domination and suffering.”
“In some ways, but not in others. But don’t get me wrong: I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Because this, here — what we propose to build — it is and it isn’t Rome. We didn’t need slave or abused labor to build and maintain our Appian Way. We won’t expropriate land from farmers to give to our retired soldiers, because we have no need. As with many things, Christianity had it backward: original sin isn’t the cause of our want and weakness. Want and weakness is the origin of all our sins. This place — this Rome — will exist free of want and weakness.”
By this point the sun is just beginning to peek over the hills to the east.
“If my grandfather were here, he would point out that tens of billions of dollars are sunk into this project, at the same time that you say you’re building an enclave here, carved out from the ravages of The Economy.”
Th@ch winks. “Maybe that’s why I’ve never brought him here.”
“But I just did. What’s your answer to him?”
“DREs are code, and code development costs money. But once you’ve built the first unit of NBT sandstone, limestone, brick, marble, you can generate as much of it as you like. Once you’ve designed your first oak tree, it’s only a programmer’s trick to auto-generate variations. A technician we have on staff is tasked with rendering 96 distinct olive types. When he’s done, we will spin the types into our scripts that introduce individual variations. Then we’ll have olive production into perpetuity, at next-to-no marginal cost, and off he’ll go to work on capers. Food is free.”
“But touching it, smelling it, tasting it, swallowing it — all that entails processing, and processing cycles cost money.”
“It does.” Th@ch sighs.
“And that money is paid to carriers, who pad the charges for profit.”
“But the per-cycle cost of processing continues to decline, as technology improves. Ophelia earmarked $5 billion of her Rom@ donation for processing R&D.”
@Jean presses. “And as DREs grow more complex, they require more processing cycles to experience. All the efficiency gains are poured right back into the DREs. And from what I understand, Rom@ expects to blow the doors off any DRE that has ever existed.”
“There’s an answer for that,” Th@ch says.
“Yes. But it’s not on today’s discussion agenda.”
“An agenda,” she says. “So you alone decide what we talk about?”
“You can make suggestions,” Th@ch says. This is the very definition of patronizing. “In fact, you have, for much of our walk.”
“But you have the power of veto.”
“Well, I’m the host, aren’t I?”
@Jean offers no answer to that, because she has decided it doesn’t deserve one. She feels heat run up her neck into her face. Heat altogether different from the flush from her glasses of champagne, earlier in the night. Whether or not Th@ch might choose to make an on-the-fly amendment to this “agenda,” e.g.:
@Jean tells Th@ch where Th@ch can stick it (5–7 minutes) —
she knows from experience that she would do well to keep quiet now, while she cools down. She turns her head ninety degrees to the right, putting Th@ch completely out of her sight line. On a hillock fifty yards from the roadside, there stands an elm tree, swarmed over with sparrows. Stuttering and bleating in their crosstalk, darting in and out among the branches, black check marks flecking against the pink sky.
Five minutes pass, maybe more, before Th@ch speaks.
“The way I talk to people isn’t entirely my fault. The version of me that they copied over isn’t as well advanced as yours.”
Jean narrows her eyes. This strikes her as a weak defense. “You arrived after Henry. After Violet, too, as I understand. The tech was plenty advanced. I don’t hear these excuses from them.”
“You misunderstand me. I was referring to the state of my development prior to death and digitization. The brain all but completely reorganizes itself in adolescence, and this work accomplishes the greater part of the social development that delivers a functioning adult who — who doesn’t alienate people. The Copy Techs take the brain as they find it. There’s no other way. So if you’re like me, and you made the jump early, you’re stuck with an immature connectome. Think of a progress bar stuck, forever, at 30%. Intellectually, I continue to grow; I can learn things, including tips, tricks, and stratagems for navigating social situations. But all those learnings and hacks are overlaid atop the wiring of a nine-year-old.”
Th@ch died at age nine. This fact prompts @Jean to reconsider certain of the conclusions she drew about Th@ch — namely, that in a prior life Th@ch was a cigar-smoking sexist asshole who found smart woman amusing, but unimportant.
“You’ll laugh, but I have a recurring alert written into my calendar, so that every twenty minutes I’m reminded to step out of my self-absorption. Or to try.”
@Jean doesn’t laugh.
“My agenda, as I had conceived it, called for me to walk with you, on the Appian Way, at sunrise, and explain to you where I came from. In the hope that you’ll understand better, then, where I’m coming from.”
@Jean blinks her eyes at Th@ch, twice, and waits.
“I was born into the PhysWo with a rare chromosomal disorder — a partial trisomy of the 18th pair. They call this trisomy Edwards syndrome. When it’s partial, they append the word ‘mosaic’ to the diagnosis. The typical Edwards baby dies in utero, or shortly after it’s born. The mosaic presentation, by contrast, buys a child up to ten years of life, but at a cost.
“The body God gave me came with a cleft palate, spina bifida, and a clubfoot. My heart was malformed, requiring three separate surgeries to repair it, before I was five. I had motor delays and speech deficiencies. I died of pneumonia a week before my ninth birthday. As it happened, this result was something of a blessing, because I was spared treatment for the aggressive kidney cancer my doctors had diagnosed three months before.
“I never walked. I never rode a bike. I never danced.
“Of my nine years, less seven days, in the Physical World, I remember these things:
- Pain, when my mother hugged me.
- Pain, when my father wheeled me through cracked and bumpy streets — what I would have given for a Roman road! — to school.
- Pain, when the sunshine touched my skin.
- Pain, when I swallowed food.
- Pain, when I breathed.
- Fear, when I couldn’t breathe.
- Pain, from every shot, every intubation, every procedure, every heroic measure undertaken to extend my ‘life.’
Probably the only time I didn’t feel pain was when I was having my seizures. But I paid for that respite many times over afterward, when I came to.
“And then it was over. I closed my eyes in a hospital room. When I opened them again, my broken body was gone. I waited for pain, and none came. My mind formed words — mundane words: Hello? What’s happening? — and I prepared myself for the drudge-work of stammering them out. But I spoke clearly and easily, with perfect articulation. I was on a rendered beach. (It’s always been beaches, then and now.) Though it was far from perfect, with only a fraction of the sensory richness we’re enjoying this morning, it was good enough for me. I put my feet on the ground, curled my toes in the sand.
“On that day, for the first time in my life, I stood up and walked.
“So when these PhysWo philosophers go on AM radio talk shows and moralize — when I hear them declaring that pain is part of the essence of life, that life without pain is not life, that the greatest nobility lies in striving against physical impediments, that the likes of you and me are something less than whole because we have escaped the curse of Adam and Eve—
“Well, let’s just say I disagree. Vehemently. And if I could reach into certain of their cell nuclei, to parse the spaghetti strands of chromosomes and lay them straight in numerically-ordered pairs — and if I could have just ten stealthy seconds alone with Pair 18, then I might show them just how thoughtless and short-sighted they are.”
This strikes @Jean as rather harsh. She makes a face that says so. Th@ch cocks Th@ch’s head and splays out Th@ch’s hands.
“Your grandfather is a good man. Indefatigable, really. He tries and tries to change their minds with persuasion, but they aren’t reachable. It takes their own bodies failing them, for their turn to walk in the valley of the shadow of Death — before they come to the fork in the road and they really start to think. On their left, a guaranteed afterlife. As of today not perfect, not Heaven, but we’re working on it. Really working on it, and making progress: progress I will show you today. On their right, the glorious eternity the preachers promise, but that nobody has ever seen or reported back from. How many of them hold the line, in that do-or-die moment? How many of them spurn a present, tangible eternity for the faith-based option? They hate and fear us, yes: they buy their billboards and TV time and Congressmen to grind us down. But the time comes, always, when they will become us. They trade their precious concatenated As and Ts and Gs and Cs for 1s and 0s, or they return to dust.
“They join us or they die, Jean. In this respect we’ve already won the game. It’s just a question of waiting to run the clock out. And we can spend that time petitioning the Some-Bodies to grant us rights and dignity and protection — reinforcing their crazed notion that they are the center of the universe — or we can break free, set sail, and build a real, independent world for ourselves online. There’s precedent for this, you know.”
“I know,” @Jean says.
“And I’ll tip my hat to them, for a good model. Three hundred years, before they made people so completely miserable that they spun off their own independence movement.”
“There was the Civil War. And Liberia and Texas.”
Th@ch harrumphs over these details. “The difference is that this time, we create our continent from scratch. There are no natives to displace, no competing claims for space, and no wars to fight. 1s and 0s, as far as the eye can see.”
@Jean lifts her eyes toward the horizon. She can see the city walls now, the hills bubbling up behind them. And on those hills: sterile buildings, structures awaiting completion, some of them actually hanging in air, built from the top down, waiting for foundations.
“Let me ask you this. What if B.org hadn’t defaulted you straightaway to the beach resort cliché, with its patio and lounge chairs and table service? What if the conceit was instead that you were shipwrecked, and you washed ashore, on a beach that was pristine? Undeveloped, untouched — the edge of a virgin continent that was yours to build on, to transform into the world you wanted. And what’s more, you were unconstrained by the physical limitations of your body, or by economic scarcity. You could conjure any substance, any material from thin air, and with something like telekinetic power you could construct whatever you wanted: a home, a city, an ordered society — a disordered society if you’re into that. Scratch pancakes, except each pancake is a universe. What would you build? What could you build?”
@Jean drops her eyes to her feet, to the pavers layered many times over by now, in the centuries since the road’s first engineer, Appius Claudius Caecus, charted its path. The answer on her lips, which she knows better than to speak aloud:
I would build the PhysWo.