In American high school, if you're not an underclassman during our world-famous standardized tests, you get to sit in one room for three hours and fuck around. It's a wild time. No, you can't just come to school later. That'd make sense.
I got a really weird idea one sleepy March morning while I sat on my ass, wondering why tax money was being used so fruitfully: what if I lived in someone else's head, in the worlds they make up? What if I was one of billions doing that?
I cranked this out in two days. I'm not saying it's good, but I like it.
There was little separating the man in the tank from a corpse.
Years of being exposed to nothing more than the blacklight ruined his complexion, leaving him with a dreadful pallor. The tube extending out from his spine pulsed gently, if you watched it long enough. If there was anything behind the eyes, it kept well hidden. He bobbed passively in the gel. Most incredibly, though, the man supported life.
"Incredible, isn't it?" said the Premier. "Twelve billion men simulated in the mind of one." He hovered around the tank like a moth, admiring the handiwork from every which angle. A panel displayed his vital signs. All were reading healthy.
"Who was he, sir?" asked Rosa, his assistant.
"He did machine programming for the data-mining companies." Yet the man was something else entirely; he was an artist. The man's mind was host to millions of worlds, each lying parallel, each whetting an appetite for something else fantastical. Dystopian nightmare cities with volatile uprisings, with each person kept inside as the hero, lie next to the idealist pinings for the Old World, the one of swords and wenches the Premier looked on in disgust at but ultimately allowed. The man in the tank was once an artist, but now, he was a mere synth, kept alive only so his creations could be reservoirs for the population overflow.
The processes keeping the man's body in perpetual equilibrium were carefully monitored. Each hormone was kept in perfect measure so as to not disrupt the delicate, unstable faculties of the mind. Every neurotransmitter regulating emotion was kept not a milligramme above or below the optimal. Iced down with a smattering of opiates, and some would argue the drugs were the ones simulating the worlds, with the man in the tank acting only as a vector, but the Premier wasn't one for specifics.
Just then, his robotic server hastened the Premier and his assistant to the dining hall, and the lights on the tank fell dark once again.
With the spare key he nicked from the guard tower, Cedric Cohen made his way through the main hallway of the Venona building. It was Antártis-controlled territory, a former satellite of the Nona region's main surveillance center that was abandoned some 20 years ago. There was no need for a second center; after all, the region had finally seen the peace and stability it desired since its inception. All that was left inside at the time was the transmitter and some radio logs, both of which were quickly made useful once more by Antártis forces.
Cedric pressed against the door of the transmitter room and listened for the buzzing. As a channel marker, Nona 2 broadcasted, at most hours of the day and between transmissions, the output from an old, metallic tonewheel, a robotic approximation of cattle being mutilated with a cheese grater. Cedric slipped the longwave radio from his belt, held it up to his face, and increased the volume. What fools! They'd been broadcasting off of the same frequency Nona 2 did all those years ago. A normally unmarked frequency, it would've been trivial to jam it.
A voice interrupted the buzzing. Cedric listened closely.
"There is suspicious activity in Venona. Keep close watch on transmitter room."
Cedric hid away in a dusty corner of the hallway and kept silent. Clad in the green jumpsuits of the Antártis underlings, three men marched in lockstep, passing by Cedric's hiding spot without as much as an aside glance. Their breathing was controlled and their motions measured, as if handling heavy explosives. Cedric watched as one punched a ten-digit passcode into a nearby keypad, but something prevented him from seeing the final six digits.
The man began to flicker out of existence.
Under the warm, candle-toned synthetic flames of the candelabra in the dining hall, the Premier and his assistant sat as the robotic servers brought out two plates of shrimp étouffée. It was a dish the Premier had learned about in his travels and wanted it served for this occasion in particular; after all, it was not often Rosa missed the evening transport pods.
"You've never been this deep in the facility, have you, Rosa?" the Premier asked.
"No, sir," she answered obediently. "I didn't even know it existed."
The Premier smiled. Another server zipped along the floor on a gyroscopic base, carrying with it a diamond-adorned bottle of rare Cognac. Filling a glass, he continued. "It'll be quite the treat then."
In short order, he began to explain how the man in the tank came to be. Approximately fifty years ago, the men of this country began to perfect a species of robots so advanced that, aside from the top engineers of the world and those who employed them, humanity was suffocated out of the job market altogether. The working man vowed to rise again, angered by the poverty, the unemployment, and the rising cost of living he saw around him. After the third or so prime minister to have his throat slit, those in Parliament begged those who created the robots to solve the issue. The Premier, once an entry-level quality assurance manager, went from CEO to world controller overnight.
In return, he promised the masses something greater; their every fantasy fulfilled, their every desire satiated. No longer would they have to spit and claw at a world which saw them inconsequential and redundant in order to eat and breathe easy once more. Their lives would now be simulated and sustained in the minds of their favorite creators, those raconteurs and showmen they watched nightly through their TV-colored walls. It took less than a week for over 75% of the population to become part of the single consciousness. The man in the tank was not alone, either. Rosa had yet to see the others.
The Premier slouched in his chair and stared off into the distance. "I doubt we got them all, though," he said.
"Do they know they're being simulated, sir?"
"I find the notion irrelevant, personally. My concerns lie more with keeping the synths alive. Lives depend on it."
Cedric Cohen escaped the Venona building in short order. Exiting out of one of the service doors in the back of the station, things began to feel less and less...correct to him. He swore he felt his foot go into the ground slightly, and the gravity that normally bore down upon him grew lighter and lighter. That the woods at the back of the complex were still standing was something of a miracle to him. He wasn't going crazy. Maybe the Antártis had reality-bending technology at their disposal now.
A voice came over his radio once again.
"Cedric, come in. Cedric?"
It was Alyson. Alyson was a Nonan Intelligence Supervisor, an operator assigned to monitor a specific field operative. She was assigned to Cedric years prior, and he was only too happy to hear her voice once again.
"Alyson? I'm here. Nona 2's still in operation."
He heard typing. "Putting in a jamming request as we speak," she said. "How'd the op go?"
"I feel dizzy. Must be one of the reality-benders or something. I didn't know they had those at Nona 2, though."
"Could've been from the equipment breach. We got reports of Antártis forces breaking into a northern warehouse a while agggggggggg—"
What the hell? Bad connection, he hoped, but even when he tried to turn the volume down, Alyson's stuttering voice continued to ring in his ears. He tried to smash the radio, but rather than shattering, it only bent.
Cedric ran out into the forest. Something had gone horribly wrong. He knew the Outside was dangerous, but it had to be better than here. He considered the possibility it was an Antártis nerve agent, only they weren't known to use nerve agents. He waited for the swelling, the suffocating, something to sink in, but it never came.
Cedric awoke in a forest clearing some undetermined period of time later. His head hurt and his vision blurred. He took deep breaths, trying to steady his sight. Birds chirped overhead, and the woodsy smell of the trees finally made its way up his nostrils. He was concerned, but all seemed quiet. He was at peace.
In fact, it was actually quite peaceful. A warm glow began to overtake the scenery, and the chirping slowed, curling up into repetitively beautiful rhythms that looped through the skies above. The ground pulsed, its heartbeat growing still. Arcs of fizzling, fizzling, sizzling tingled Cedric's skin and warped the tree bark. All went silver and crimson.
Giggling, Rosa and the Premier entered the chamber of the man in the tank once more. They couldn't tell how many glasses they had, but it was quite a few. Even in his intoxicated state, however, the Premier noticed something was amiss. The man in the tank was reading flat, and his slight movements ceased.
The Premier pulled out the larger console and began to type at it. It was steady at first, but soon, his typing grew furious. Someone other than him had access to his account. A worm had infected all of the terminals in the facility, gathering keystrokes. He could only stare in horror, and Rosa could only stare with him.
"Sir, does this count as genocide?"