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Vignette #13 - La Vie En Technicolor

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Contest Judge
Level 51 : Grandmaster Ladybug
This is my entry for An Intelligent Moron's Writing Contest. The theme of the competition is "Future." Enjoy!

Of all the occupants on the ship, Emmett felt that he was alone—or at least among a meager few—in wishing to return to Earth. It was, after all, his idea to begin with to compete for a spot in this electronic sanctuary. Millions would be more than happy to take his place, and he was never short on reminders of this fact.

“Old sentimentality,” his friend Anji called it. But was it really only that? She was right in some respects; he had long outlived any of those who could have possibly replaced him, and even their offspring. Soon, he would even outlive the planet that he longed so earnestly to return to.

Of course, time was of no consequence to Emmett. The years, the decades, the centuries had melded into one continuous, interconnected string of sequential occurrences, a routine-less exploration of all that he could have wanted. Art, music, culture, learning, everything was there for Emmett in his virtual utopia.

From the outside, there was nothing special about the place on this unending flight from Earth that Emmett called home. A large, rectangular room bathed in a gentle darkness punctuated only by the rhythmic blinking of lights on vast banks of processors. Inside these processors, the thoughts, emotions, and memories of a thousand carefully-selected intelligentsia roamed, qubits in a vast topology. But it was inside of a simulated world that Emmett and the others experienced, a world of electric-blue streets and vibrant pink sunrises, of infinitely tall skyscrapers and exquisitely crafted houses, a Technicolor paradise for those who deserved to spend the rest of eternity in a safe, peaceful bliss.

It was at one such vivid street corner that Emmett found himself in a glummer state than normal, pondering what it would be like to return home for one last time.

“You shouldn’t keep worrying about your homesickness,” Anji’s soothing voice sounded from behind Emmett, reminiscent of the bell rings, rain drops, and sine waves from which it was synthesized. “It will fade with time.”

Emmett turned to look at Anji. Her slight frame seemed so out of place in this urban jungle, slender and lithe against the muscular and weighty high-rises surrounding them. Still, her apparent frailty belied the conviction with which she said her words, piercing and straight like a well-aimed arrow. “It doesn’t do any good for you to keep thinking about it,” she continued.

After a long pause, Emmett simply shook his head but remained silent. Anji raised her hand and set it down gently on Emmett’s shoulder, letting the simulated warmth from her touch radiate through him like a probe searching for information. “What’s wrong?” she finally asked.

Emmett inhaled deeply, as if to begin speaking, but seemingly decided against it. Anji stood unmoving, patiently waiting for him to gather the courage to speak. “I can’t help…I can’t help but think that all we’re doing on here is running away, you know?”

“We’re running away from some cosmic inevitable, some game-over like a Big Bounce, or some heat death,” Emmett heard a sharp intake of breath from Anji at this mention, but continued nevertheless, “And to what end? To live in constant fear? To run until we can’t run anymore? Believe me, Anji, when I say that we will likely be worse off from all this running.”

“But is it not better to do all we can to extend our lives and relieve ourselves of the burden of age-related degeneration?” Anji quipped in response.

Emmett shook his head. “For what? Just so that we can run away for longer?”

Anji was silent for a while. “Are we not,” she began tentatively, “then just doing what we would have done as physical humans, in a sense? In eighty, ninety, a hundred short years, we would have strived to get as much done as possible, to see the world and complete our bucket lists before we died. We were running from death. Are we not doing the same here, cocooning ourselves in this virtual landscape full of places to see and things to do in a desperate bid to stave off our eventual demise?”

She had a point. As far as Emmett was concerned, the only things he had to worry about on this ship were technological singularity and the eventual end of the universe, both of which had their own analogies in ancestral humans. But still, there seemed to be something missing, something about the physicality of being human that Emmett missed.

“I just feel like we’re lacking something in our virtual forms. Sure, we perceive the stimuli of this simulated world, but do we really feel them?” Emmett said.

“But then how do you know that as a ‘physical’ human,” Anji threw up air quotes to accentuate her emphasis, “you’re able to actually feel? For all we know, that could just be another carefully crafted virtual world like the one we’re in now.”

Emmett shook his head. “The difference there is that we don’t know any better. Here, we know that this is all a lie, generated from the internals of some incredibly complex technology. Outside, we don’t know so we assume that it’s real.”

Anji opened her mouth to speak, but Emmett continued. “Like this concrete here,” he said as he scuffed the sidewalk with his shoe. “We all know that this is just some clever product of bump mapping and ambient occlusion. Doesn’t that bother you at all, to feel the roughness of the ground and know that it’s all in our imaginations?”

“Emmett, I think you’re making too big a deal out of everything. I mean look at us—we have everything we could ever want, no worries, no illness, no stress. I don’t understand why you insist on making it worse for yourself.”

“That’s because you’re comfortable.” Emmett slunk away with a slight snarl, evidently to fume on his own for a while.

It was not uncommon for Emmett to do such things, especially recently since he’d been thinking more and more on this subject. Anji regarded him with slight unease; it seemed that every day, she was drifting further and further away from her good friend. Nevertheless, she hoped that he would one day see his error and return to the joyous, enthusiastic person he once was. Most of all, she worried about his safety.

Anti-future thoughts were not taken to kindly in these parts.

By now, Emmett was used to getting the same pushback on his thoughts from Anji and others day in and day out, so he was quick to forget the animosity he’d felt the previous day. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, he set about returning to the pace of life that he’d become accustomed to aboard the ship.

Emmett hefted a pot of freshly-brewed coffee from the kitchen counter and poured some into his favorite mug, a matte black affair with the words “#1 Dad” emblazoned across the front. He’d never had any children, but lately he’d been smitten with the thought of having had children if he’d stayed on Earth. The smooth, rich smell of the dark liquid rose gently out of the cup, momentarily bringing peace to him.

He sighed deeply and closed his eyes. They flicked open once again at the pop of the toaster. The golden-brown slabs of bread protruded joyously from the slots at the top of the machine, ready to be buttered. In one deft move, Emmett splayed the two slices expertly on a small plate and spread a thin layer of butter over each. Content, he brought his breakfast to his kitchen table and sat down, gesturing open the virtual newspaper display in front of him.

Of course, on this ship, there was never anything newsworthy in the traditional sense. With no real source of crime or tragedy, the news was filled with nothing more than plaudits for the great achievements of its passengers. Nonetheless, Emmett browsed through the pages, noting Harry Kwan’s new art exhibition that was due to open next week. Perhaps he would peruse that, or perhaps he would go see the new film premiering at the Nugget later this week.

Emmett took an extended draft of his coffee. He still needed to finish inking the cartoon that he’d started a while back. Having finished the last bite of his toast, he swiped the newspaper closed and stood up to put away the dishes. As he set his plate in the dishwasher, he heard a firm knock at the door.

I wonder who that could be, he thought to himself. No one ever called this early, and people rarely called at all. Half-finished coffee in hand, Emmett casually strolled over to his front door and opened it to reveal a pair of machinic droids.

“Dr. Aufseher would like to speak with you,” one droid said in a disingenuously calm synthesized voice.

“What for?” Emmett responded, brow furrowed.

“I’m sorry, I cannot complete that request,” the droid flashed an apologetic LED smile on the screen where its face would be.

Emmett paused for a moment but acquiesced before he got himself into more trouble. There was no point in resisting, anyway. Even if Emmett refused to go, he knew that in this virtual world, he could be teleported to anywhere at any moment. Because Dr. Aufseher was in charge of the entire ship, having been the one to conceptualize it and oversee its completion, it was even more useless to resist her imperatives.

“When would she like to meet?” Emmett asked the droids.

“As soon as possible,” came the reply.

Emmett nodded silently. He tipped the last dregs of his coffee into his mouth casually, briefly disappearing into his kitchen to let the mug soak in the sink. He then reappeared in the doorway, resting his hand on the brass doorknob.

“Please let Dr. Aufseher know that I’ll be there as soon as I am presentable.”

The droids approximated a nodding motion and turned to go, leaving Emmett lingering in his doorway for just a moment longer before he too retired into his apartment. In his bedroom, he quickly changed out of his pajamas into something more respectable before grabbing his coat and heading out of the door.

Dr. Helena Aufseher was, from a distance, seemingly indistinguishable from a crowd. Her mid-back-length brown hair was usually stored in an inconspicuous ponytail and her unremarkable facial features would not have turned any heads in a crowd.

From up close, however, she was terrifying. Her angular jaw framed a hard-set scowl, and her fiery brown eyes bored deep into anyone unlucky enough to meet her gaze. Her voice, though it was synthesized from the same pleasant samples as everyone, always seemed grating and accusatory.

Thus, as Emmett pushed open the dark wooden door to her office, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread descend over him. Even before he had fully crossed the doorway, Dr. Aufseher’s crow-like voice called out to him.

“Emmett Brown.”

“Dr. Aufseher,” Emmett replied.

“Please, call me Helena,” she corrected him with a venomous smile. “Have a seat please.”

Emmett mumbled a muted apology, before seating himself directly across from her. He looked at her expectantly, waiting for some kind of violent outburst.

“Do you know why I’ve brought you here?” Helena started uncharacteristically gently.

“No,” Emmett replied tersely, feigning ignorance.

Helena wordlessly stared at Emmett directly in the eyes with a look so piercing he found himself involuntarily averting his gaze. There was a long, aggressive silence, before Emmett finally caved. “Yes, I think I do.”

“Which is…?”

“You are concerned about my opinion regarding our transhuman state of being,” Emmett replied, gathering the courage to look back up at Helena’s questioning face.

She smiled slyly. “How very diplomatic,” she remarked, “but yes, I am concerned about your anti-future thoughts.” She finished her remark just short of a snarl. There was a heavy pause.

“I’d like you to tell me about them,” she said out of the blue. Emmett raised his eyebrows in surprise. But all of a sudden, Helena’s face wasn’t looking as threatening as they had been before. She flashed a small smile, friendly yet deadly like a domesticated snake.

Emmett could only manage to utter a confused grunt.

“I’d like to hear what you think,” Helena egged him on.

“I don’t quite know what to make of this.” It hadn’t escaped Emmett’s notice that Helena had, in the space of about thirty seconds, completely changed from accusing him of having anti-future thoughts to being suspiciously interested in what he had to say. It would take a complete moron to fall into what he suspected was a trap.

Helena lowered her voice, as if to hide from some imaginary surveillance system. “I know you’re suspicious, Emmett. But part of supporting a free, utopian society is listening to other perspectives that you may not agree with, and so I am doing just that.”

He sighed deeply. She was right, after all. But Emmett still couldn’t help but feel that he was being baited. “I just think that it’s a shame that we aren’t able to feel things in the same way that we would be able to in our physical forms,” he ventured cautiously.

“What do you mean by that?” Helena asked. “Your entire brain has been uploaded onto the machine in which we live. You should be able to see, smell, feel, and experience everything that you could’ve done as a human physically and emotionally.”

“But not metaphysically,” Emmett jabbed back.


“Do you not feel like you’re lacking something about your essence of being? Doesn’t knowing that all of this around us,” Emmett said as he swept his hand around him, “isn’t real? That all of it is just completely made up by a computer?”

“But you knew this coming on, didn’t you? You signed up to be on this ship.” Helena paused. “I suppose that’s not a good argument. You couldn’t have completely known.”

Emmett nodded. He stayed silent, waiting for Helena to continue, but nothing seemed to come. Finally, just as he opened his mouth to speak, she cut him off.

“I don’t think we can reduce our existences, or humanity at large, to some simple essentialist view. There’s so much to human experience, especially in this day and age, that goes beyond the limits of our physical form.”

Emmett tried once again to interject, but Helena paid him no attention. “We can create anything we want, Emmett. Don’t you understand? Once you are freed from the burdens of sustenance…of any sort of maintenance, you’re free—completely free! —to do whatever you want. You’re drawing a cartoon, Emmett! What would have you been doing on Earth? Furiously writing another grant proposal to scrounge some funding for your research lab? Putting in hours upon hours of overtime just so you could keep the water running?” She stared at him, expecting him to crack under her sudden outburst.

“But maybe I would have a wife and kids. Maybe I would be spending the weekends fishing with my friends, going to the movies with my family. I would be living. I would be laughing, I would be loving. As a human.”

“I don’t think you know what humanity means, Emmett.”

At that statement, Emmett rose out of his seat explosively, his frustration finally reaching a boiling point. He slammed a closed fist onto the wooden desk in front of him and pointed a finger at Helena accusingly, lips curled in a ferocious snarl. “I know humanity better than anyone on this ship!”

She was unfazed. “Do you really though?” She clasped her claw-like fingers together loosely and set them on the desk arrogantly. At this, the fire drained from Emmett’s eyes and he shrunk back down into his chair.

He lowered his head, struggling to find his words. “…What do you mean?” he finally asked, his voice returning to a normal volume but still trembling.

“Humanity has changed, Emmett. For the better, I might add. We’re no longer bound to our physical forms in the same way that ancestral humans once were. We’re no longer dependent on chance genetics to live forever. We can spend the rest of eternity as ourselves. Isn’t that worth something to you?” The venomous look had descended over Helena’s face once again.

“But the humans back on Earth—” Emmett started.

“There aren’t any humans left on Earth. Earth, Mars, our entire solar system became completely uninhabitable ages ago. The only humans left alive are us and those like us, floating through space until the end of time. We’re all that’s left. ‘Humanity’ is us, Emmett.”

“Can’t we be pulled out of stasis for at least a little bit? Experience reality for a just a short amount of time?” Emmett pleaded.

Helena sighed. “…No. There’s nothing left to experience.”

“I looked at the plans for the ship before I signed on. I know there’s some space down in the cryo chamber to walk around in.” He looked at her with a pained expression on his face. “Please, it would mean the world to me, it really would.” He paused. “Besides, what do you have to lose?” he asked tentatively.

Helena shook her head. “It’s not about what I have to lose, Emmett. It’s about what I’ve already lost. What we’ve all lost.” Her leather-upholstered chair squeaked as she leaned back, the expression on her face revealing her seeming frustration by something. For a while, all was silent in the room as she stared downward at her hands, deep in thought.

Emmett looked at her questioningly, silently egging her on.

“The cryo system failed many years ago.” Helena sighed deeply, resting her head in her hands dejectedly. When she looked back up, the fire had disappeared from her mud-brown eyes, replaced with the almost-imperceptible glistening of a forming tear. “There was nothing that I could do about it. Believe me, I tried everything. I tried to reboot the systems, I tried looking with the cameras to see what was going on, I even tried to operate the surgical bots to see if anything was out of place.”

“But there was nothing,” she continued. “I’ll admit…” she paused, choking up, “I’ll admit that I knew it would happen, but I didn’t know it would happen this quickly. The cryostasis chambers are old technology, relatively speaking. I spoke with the contractors when they first brought them in. They assured me that they would last forever, that metal corrosion and heat cycles and just basic entropy wasn’t going to be a huge factor. And I believed them. Paid top dollar for these machines that hardly lasted us a century.”

She shook her head in disgust. “Look how far it’s gotten us. The bodies are gone, Emmett. There’s nothing left of us except what’s uploaded into these computers. At least our maintenance machines are specially designed to handle problems arising from the servers themselves. But still…” she trailed off, unable to finish her sentence. The air, the virtual air, the electronically synthesized air that to Emmett was noticeably ingenuine, nonetheless carried with it a weight not replicable in anything but reality.

There was a heavy pause. “So why are you telling me all of this now?” Emmett finally asked. It was odd to him that Helena would shift so quickly from aggressive, to understanding, to aggressive, and finally to the very human display of emotion before him now.

“Because you’re not the only one who’s thought about this, Emmett. I’d shared your sentiment long before it even crossed your mind. I programmed the reconnaissance system of this ship to search for planets suitable for life in the vain hope that one day, we would find someplace where we could settle down, be human again, live out the rest of our lives and go on to start something new wherever we ended up.” It seemed, for a moment, that light had returned to her eyes.

“I don’t understand,” Emmett started slowly. “Why bring us off Earth in the first place then? Why make such a long, tedious voyage to an uncertain end?”

Helena sighed once again, raising herself up in her chair and leaning her head back to look up at the ceiling. “Earth was doomed. We all knew it. It was simply a matter of time before everything collapsed in on itself, societal or natural. As much as we could hide from what was going on, we would never be able to create anything good out of Earth. And so, we left. Struck out for something new.”

“And we haven’t found any suitable places yet?” Emmett asked.

“Space is big, Emmett. We’ve barely gotten anywhere in the time that we’ve been gone. I’m sure you know a little about the SETI project?” Helena paused and looked back down at Emmett. He nodded hastily. “The best planets projected to be genuinely suitable for life were over a thousand light years away. We’re only a tiny fraction of the way there.”

“But now, we’re just drifting…endlessly, aren’t we?” Emmett ventured.

Helena nodded. “Running away from some cosmic inevitable,” she replied. “Running from the end of the universe, running from physical reality, running from the truth. But most of all, running from ourselves.”

She stood up from her chair, pushing it back gently against the wall. “There’s nothing we can do at this point, unfortunately, but to try to make the best of what we’ve got.”

“Are you sure there aren’t any other options?” Emmett asked.

“Yes, there are,” Helena started, straightening the name plate sitting proudly at the front of her desk. “But they aren’t good ones.” She knew that Emmett would ask about them, so she hastily continued. “The only other thing we could do is stop running. Unplug the computer, shut down the systems. Give up, essentially.” She watched as Emmett’s hopeful expression turned to one of pensive apprehension.

He simply nodded, then stood still grasping for words, for ideas, for something. Finally, he spoke. “Could we not build new bodies for ourselves? Don’t we have the resources on board?”

She sighed. “We do. But wouldn’t that defeat the point? We’d just be an electronic people, wandering around a cramped spaceship until the end of time. Inhuman.”

Emmett wanted desperately for something that he could latch onto to push back against Helena, but deep down he knew that she was right. The best that he could do for himself was to just accept the situation as it stood.

Emmett felt the cold steel doorknob between his fingers as he left. He turned it and the door relented with a soft click. It swung open silently, effortlessly, well-greased and good as new. He felt the roughness of the stained wood underneath his soft hands as he turned around to close the door behind him. The diminishing window of view into Helena’s office revealed a woman returning to her desk, proud but defeated.

As the door finally closed completely, Emmett took a deep breath and held it in for a while. He slowly released it, looking around at the office space. It was completely silent, sans the background hum of an air conditioning unit or a ventilation system. It wasn’t needed, anyway. Emmett’s eyes alighted on a small plant decorating a nearby shelf, its verdant leaves contrasting sharply with the smooth black frame beneath it. It sat so peacefully in its fishbowl-shaped pot, happily sucking nonexistent nutrients from the virtual dirt in which it was planted.

On the way out, he stopped for a sip of water from the water fountain. The clear liquid felt perfectly cold against his lips. Satisfied, he withdrew but continued to hold down the button, watching the perfect arc of water jet gracefully from the spout and descend into a turbulent chaos down the drain in the center of the stainless-steel basin.

The hard soles of Emmett’s shoes tapped lightly against the shiny linoleum of the administrative office building, his footsteps approaching the door with a rhythmic regularity. His forward momentum only hesitated when the main sliding doors could not open fast enough to accommodate his speed. He stepped into the fresh air outside, replete with the scents of the approaching autumn. He looked around.

Before him was a complex urban landscape, with tall, imposing skyscrapers rising gracefully into a brilliant blue background streaked with long, icy clouds. Electric-blue streets punctuated the city, the throughways for pod-shaped cars carrying distinguished passengers to beautiful destinations. Further off in the distance, the setting sun reflected off the rippled surface of a peaceful lake, staining it deep hues of crimson, magenta, and a fiery orange.

The grass crunched under his feet as he strayed off the hard, concrete sidewalk. He sat down on a small knoll overlooking the passing cars on a wide street. The soft, yellowing blades of grass rustled in between his splayed fingers, ever so gently cutting into his skin. There he sat, unmoving, contemplating the scene before him.

This was it, then, Emmett thought to himself. For so long he’d been searching for humanity, the answer to all his problems, the elusive concept that had been plaguing him. And yet here it was, right in front of him the whole time. This life in Technicolor.

Author's Notes
This entry has 4,211 words. For this story, I wanted to tackle the concept of "future" in a way that was semi-realistic, but still touching and human. One of my friends is very heavily invested in the idea of mind uploading, so shoutout to him for talking to me about it way back when.

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Wow! This is an amazing story! An amazing idea to think about, that we could “upload” ourselves into a computer and live in a virtual world forever, outliving humans themselves...
  • MuggleWorthy
  • Level 47
  • Master Turtle
  • September 26, 2018, 7:52 pm
oh my gosh.
you're an amazing writer!!! i love your style! you have a good way of sticking clear imagines in people's minds, i have some really strong imagines from your story illris that totally stuck with me! keep doin' what your doing! :D

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