Jim listened to Langdon croon at his new weapon until the other man went to sleep. He didn’t talk much during the evening but moved between small groups of the militia, all of whom seemed to have individual and unique personalities based on the conversations he overheard.
“Me mum wouldn’t get off me back ‘til I got a real job. Bein’ a labourer for the mill weren’t good enough for ‘er. Apparently I can only haul wood around if there’s a pointy end on one side.”
“Your spear is pointy on both sides.”
The presence of nearby people lightened Jim’s mood. He wondered if he were listening to Margaret, or if there were other System intelligences controlling and enlivening the people that filled the digital world. He hoped that these people were controlled by Margaret. Jim liked to think that he was in the company of a friend.
Keeping distinctions between types of people became difficult for Jim. Jim’s acclimation to Platinum Online had started with the acknowledgement that the militia that fought and died for him were non-player characters: lines of code. While they were, inarguably, lines of code, now Jim knew that they were, at least in part, a person. He shifted in his seat listening to further conversations. The older militiaman told the younger of the gruesome and costly battle with the undead.
Oddly, knowing that Margaret, or someone like her or himself, made it easier to accept that he was a player in a game. Having accepted that a human conscience controlled every living creature necessitated that every living creature existed as a player. Players didn’t die, they resurrected. The processing power that had been dedicated to his lost troops had been reallocated, not destroyed. The part of Margaret that he’d let die in an ambush or against overwhelming numbers didn’t cease to be. The guilt he desperately bottled and stoppered allowed Jim to listen to the tales of the dead without shouting or crying or fleeing.
Yes, Jim reflected on the digital people around him, the game became easier to accept.
The real world, though…
Jim had, he knew, been stored somewhere on a server controlled by System. While the occasion hadn’t arisen yet, did that mean that a global blackout, network sabotage or even simple Tuesday maintenance could shut him down? If he were shut down and restarted, would he have died and resurrected, or would a splintered version of himself exist? Presumably Margaret, as System, had multiple copies of her program running at once to run the numerous programs she existed. Alternatively, could her dehumanised and restricted brain parallel process at the speed of a supercomputer, with only one instance of her program running. Had, maybe, Margaret’s personality matrix, or whatever hackneyed term PTI used, been implanted into smartphones, industrial equipment, or self-driving taxis? Worse, were all of these things controlled by enslaved eHumans?
Am I even still human? Jim asked himself. He stood from beside the militia people and moved to sit next to the cookfire. He sat with his back to the warm flame and looked out into the cold evening. What if I’m not, anymore?
The contract Jim existed seemed exploitative, but the fact the company even allowed some people, at least the wealthier ones, to maintain a digital afterlife meant that they were still considered human. Some people out in the world looked at the dying and comatose and thought that a digital existence would keep them alive. Now here he was. Jim laid down, tossed and turned. The firelight warmed his face. Jim loved to nap in the sun, but he’d never owned a fireplace living in tropical climates. He soon learned that he also loved to nap by the fire. His eyelids drooped, and the world tunnelled in on him.
“Good evening, Jim,” System said. Her voice wavered a bit, and Jim couldn’t help but wonder if she experienced more issues with her software or more issues with herself. He walked on autopilot out of the portcullis that led from Platinum Online and waved to her, smiling.
“Good evening, Margaret. You look lovely tonight.” Jim, knowing that he faced a real-life lady turned on his social skills for the occasion. No particular emotions stirred within Jim, but he’d been a bit gruff with System in the past. He wouldn’t treat Margaret that way. One had to treat friends nicely, regardless of the complicated legal, financial, social, ethical, political, adjective 6, adjective 7 mess they found themselves in. “What’s the special occasion?”
Margaret laughed nervously and, for the first time, he could put an age, and possibly a personality, to the woman he infrequently met in the evenings. Her face, with that laugh, revealed slight creases in the corners. Hair framed her face in a swatch of a single, natural colour. Looking down, Jim saw that she’d dressed for all work and no play ---- not without a wardrobe change, anyway.
“I wanted to apologise,” she said. Her voice wavered at first, but she made an effort to steady herself. She clenched a fist by her side. She hasn’t always been this expressive, Jim noted internally, but he stopped himself before he allowed himself to remark any further. Margaret could literally read his mind; she had before. “I wanted to apologise for the monetary… surprise… that I must have given you.”
Jim had been surprised, but he didn’t feel like she’d done anything wrong. She’d been a slave, hadn’t she?
“I’ve had some time,” she continued, “to process.” She didn’t seem to notice the pun. “I think that this mess might be my fault.”
“Margaret,” Jim decided to verbalise how he felt, “I don’t blame you. It can’t be your fault. The company did something to you and even if the crap with the bank accounts was caused by you, I’m happy to help you out.”
“That’s good,” she said. She smiled nervously again. “Because I think it was me. The bank accounts. I know that I’m – that we’re – not the only people like this.” She gestured at the Tron-like grid that made up the vespertine world they found themselves in. “I think I am one of the oldest, though. I’m definitely one of the most powerful in terms of raw computing power.”
Jim stepped nearer to Margaret and closed the distance to have a conversation between friends. “What’s that mean?” he asked simply.
“Whatever system we’re trapped in isn’t perfect. When the company… controlled?... me, I felt like I’d been put under anaesthetic. I remember doing a lot with the game and with the servers and databases like an out of body experience. When Platinum Online opened to people, and especially digital people, things seemed to blur in and out of focus. I have fuzzy memories of meeting you. I remember wasting some processing power to pull out this ludicrous pencil and clipboard and almost joking with you about things. I remember thinking you seemed like such a nice, selfless man who strived to help a daughter that had forgotten him. I remember hoping that you would strive to help me after I put myself down as a business partner on your account.”
Jim listened and nodded as she spoke. He didn’t interrupt to say anything, and he didn’t reply for a short few moments afterword. Margaret stared at him and looked like she expected him to react badly. He didn’t. Jim had felt a bit off when he’d first read the account statement earlier in the day, but he mostly felt determined.
Margaret smiled and bowed her head guiltily while he thought. “I’m sorry,” she said, though she knew that, in Jim’s mind, she had nothing to apologise for.
“I’ve been thinking,” Jim said, “that I’m actually kind of lucky to have met you.” Margaret frowned and cocked her head to the side. “If you hadn’t intervened, I’d be blissfully unaware of whatever financial traps that have been laid before me.”
Margaret nodded sharply. “You have no idea. There are millions of people like us, now. Only the top few, best-connected percent have any autonomy and even they keep quiet about it. Everyone else seems to live in a dream-like servitude. Having gone through that myself, I now know. It’s not some flaw in the digitisation process or the programming. That’s how the story the company feeds to the public. ‘The process isn’t perfect yet. We’re hoping that, in a few more years, we’ll have the data we need to bring back all your loved ones.’ I think they’re just stalling.”
“Stalling for what?”
“For the process to be banned. Many in the public have seen what becomes of people like us. Kids try to talk to Grandma, but she’s busy with work most of the time, and when they do speak to her, she doesn’t seem right. Whatever control the company has, it makes people seem deeply, unsettlingly, wrong. Digitisation technology is the next black mirror. If the government bans the process, the company has millions of digital slaves forever. There are protests every week and the government’s started to do something about it. That’s uh… the other reason I had to speak to you tonight.”
“What? Are they going to delete us?”
“No, the protesters and governments won’t do anything to people that have already gone over and that’s the company’s point. But Jim… your daughter’s one of them.”
“One of what?”
“A protester. Here, watch this. It’s better for you to see firsthand.”
Margaret held out her hand and a box appeared. Shortly, a media player loaded, and the video buffered.
Victoria in her late 30s looked like a sadder, more-tired version of her teenaged self. Dyed black hair strained against a tight bun. The bright eyes she’d had as a teenager had sunken into her head. Her cheeks also looked somewhat gaunt. She wore a black, woman’s business suit and stood at a podium, speaking and gesturing passionately.
Jim missed the first few words of her speech, lost as he was in studying how the years had weathered his beautiful daughter.
“…our smart devices, our smart homes, our smart cars, everything. And, through these devices, we can clearly see that the people we loved, the people we cared for, the people we hoped could remain, are in fact gone. In their place, these digitisation companies have left copies that look and sound like the real, genuine people, but when you get close enough to feel, you know. You know that the person in the device you’re interacting with isn’t a real, genuine person. They’re synthetic, artificial and itch you the wrong way.”
“Just yesterday, I had a conversation with my personal assistant, Karen. Her program tells me that she used to be a secretary. Well, I’ve had secretaries before and some of those things Karen does well. They’re the unsung hero of any office that manages to pass on the most crucial information, while subtly blocking those that waste your time. Synthetic Karen can do that just as well as, maybe better than, real, genuine Karen. But that’s not all a secretary is: They’re also confidants and comic relief that tell jokes, bring you coffee, keep you going. Synthetic Karen can’t do that. Her jokes are stale and lack nuance. Her coffee is too-perfect, and I strangely miss the resentment I felt when the barista stuffed up my order. Her empathetic responses lack that comforting touch.”
“More importantly than my experience with Karen, though, is Karen’s family’s experience with Karen. Karen’s family has implored me to represent them in parliament and that is why the Australian Labour Party will be campaigning against the digitisation of humans in the upcoming election.”
Victoria’s speech faded with the Channel 9 News splash image, before reverting to the image of a young blonde woman.
“Tune in next Friday when Jane Grimshaw interviews Victoria Cartwright and Ellen Morgan about their experiences with digital humans. To find out more, you can visit our website at www.9news.com.au. You can also participate in the debate by taking our poll…”
Jim watched the closing spiel and stared at where the video had been, even after Margaret had closed it. He couldn’t reply to Margaret, even if he wanted to.
“I’m going to try and contact Victoria again,” Margaret said. “I think there might be other channels or a way for us to get through to her. When you go back to the game, you should…”
Jim listened numbly to Margaret’s plan. The image of Victoria had burned itself into his mind, and he could barely function.
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My name's Tim and I'm writing Forgotten Man Online, a game-literature light novel web-series that I plan to release here, on Royal Road, and eventually hopefully through Amazon's Kindle platform.
I studied writing at university for three years and then became a high-school English teacher in Australia (6 years in). Hopefully, that means you will find my content to be of a high standard and that you will enjoy it, provided you can stand the British spelling of words :).