When entities bounce out of the Tool, there is a space of eleven seconds in which they are incommunicado. Their eyes are open and digitised. It is believed they re-experience the operation, perhaps in reverse.
Long ago, when the world was varied and there was no Tool, many more man-hours would be lost in the process of escape. Entities would travel to locations distinct in character from their accustomed position, and they would revitalise their systems with the differences. These differences were various.
Culture was fragmented, and entities would experience less advanced societies in the hope of generating something less advanced within themselves.
Climate was fragmented, and entities would experience new sensations of bodily heat or cold.
Monetary value was fragmented, and poorer members of richer societies would increase their wealth for fourteen days, thereby increasing their self-respect. Richer members of poorer societies would willingly forsake spending power for the right to enter more advanced cultures for twenty-one days. The richest entities of the most advanced cultures would recreate their norms within different surroundings.
When our own culture had become so large and efficient that it could no longer accommodate these diverse other cultures, we were fortunate enough to have the technologies available to reproduce them. We could also reproduce our own understanding of the past, when such cultures were stronger and our own did not exist. And we could compact the amount of time it took to appreciate them.
At first, this enabled our culture to simulate entire "vacations" within the space of two days. As our technologies improved, however, the possibilities for escape underwent exponential augmentation. An entire life is now simulated within the space of one hour, and that life can be tailored to suit any whim or desire the entity might have, from Mayan deity to Nubian slave, from Sadean promiscuity to hillbilly incest. The more conservative opt for a life of comfortable obscurity, the more daring for cultural transgression and its terrifying consequences. By the end of their lives, most entities will have experienced roughly equal doses of both extremes, as well as the many shades of "life" that lie between them.
The edifying benefits of the Tool have ensured optimum relaxation and productivity for many years, and will continue to do so, perhaps indefinitely. It has precluded harmful pursuits both solitary and communal; more importantly, for the average working entity, it has made the hierarchical structure of power necessary for the survival of any civilisation appear as illusory as the simulations within which he escapes each night.
Experiencing a sudden sense of disquiet, Alejandro López Martínez turned his head away from the screen and stared out of the window. Above his little section of Pacific America 5, the last evening before the clocks went forward was dragging things out of its own accord. How many times had he done this: watched nothing for ten, fifteen minutes while a half-written assignment awaited further attention? Many, in search of inspiration or the space to work an argument through in his head. This time, however, it felt different.
It wasn´t the bit about "hillbilly incest" that was worrying him, although he certainly wouldn´t be going back there for some time. It wasn´t grades either: sure, that first paragraph was looking less than relevant and needed replacing, but he´d get an A; he always got an A.
Resigning himself to distraction, he began to think about programming that evening´s trip. A bunch of kids from the schoolsite were planning a multi-drop into the twentieth century, ending up as a bunch of homo loners who shoot up their high school on the day of the principal´s retirement. The logic was there, certainly: good sex and then a bloodbath, followed by life in prison to chill out (and get in a lot more good sex) before the bounce. The whole multi-drop scene, though, had Alejandro on edge at the moment.
Upon reaching drop-age, he´d opted for the same as any other young male: chiselled features, musical ability and genitals that verged on the right kind of abnormality swinging between his tanned legs on a Mexican nudist beach, with a healthy trust fund to keep him in dope, Dos Equis and Dolce & Gabbana until he passed away in his sleep next to a busty blonde gringa young enough to be his granddaughter. Though he still counted such experiences among the happiest lives of his days, they represented an innocent, childish memory; simpler times to which he knew he could never return. After a while you began to feel inadequate when you bounced out of such trips. Then you´d overcompensate, daring yourself to the most extreme alienation you could imagine. An Alzheimer´s trip was one you did very occasionally...; as for physical afflictions, you saved those until you were suicidal and your need for post-bounce equilibrium overrode even mortal terror. The consensus among Alejandro´s age group was that multi-drops were the way forward, because they gave you a ready-made support group with which to talk yourself down from the trip the next day.
Unfortunately, this eminently sensible concept of "talking down" was rapidly yielding to a culture of macho bullshit. Although personality was autonomous inside the Tool it developed mimetically from the virtual birth, and thus owed nothing more to one´s actual personality than an atheist´s debt to an existent God otherwise likeable entities nevertheless felt a frequent compulsion to score cheap popularity points by ridiculing the various hang-ups, fuck-ups and moments of weakness that their peers had been seen struggling with inside. Such mindless strutting was becoming unbearably irritating to Alejandro, but he knew he´d never have the guts to speak his mind and risk dragging a slandered sexuality through his two remaining school years. His immediate solution to the problem had been the careful reckoning and stubborn implementation of a socially acceptable minimum of multi-drop appearances, but it was becoming clear that he´d been mistaken either in his tactics or in his calculations, for he felt himself becoming marginalised. If he didn´t work out some sort of alternative plan pronto, he´d be making small talk with the math club until graduation.
It could wait another day. He was going it alone tonight: he needed to relax. A medieval monk? A nun? A nineteenth-century industrialist? Hmm. That had possibilities. Philanthropic... devout...
Alejandro turned around with a start. His sister Dolores was at the door with (Christ!) that dumb grin on her face.
"Go away, Lola, I´m busy."
"I was just wondering . . ." said Dolores, with her idea of seductive charm (she was rubbing herself lightly up and down the aluminium door jamb). It was annoying, this thing of Lola´s (a wet finger was now tracing a line down the centre of her flat chest), but he had only himself to blame. That life in Kentucky when this had been his idea of seductive charm, too really had been the worst mistake of his life. For a week now, Lola had been using all her inconsiderable feminine wiles to try to get a repeat performance. She´d forgone her given name (insisting that her schoolfriends call her Darlene), played footsie at the breakfast table and even slipped knickers of childish design but womanly odour under his sheets before bedtime. Now, with what passed for subtlety abandoned for an equally implausible impersonation of whorishness, Alejandro could hardly believe how stupid he´d been. It should have been blatantly obvious that incest was one thing, and incest with a member of your own family quite another.
"¡Olvídalo!" said Alejandro, "I´ve told you, Lola, never again! You´ve got infinite choice, hermanita. Use your imagination, for the love of "
"You wan´ that I tell Papá, cabrón?"
"Tell Papá, Dolores! There´s no law against it." Alejandro considered. Of course there was no law against it: there was no law against anything, inside. Nevertheless... "Checa. We go in together. You´re a movie star, I´m some loser. A junkie, huh? I have to borrow money all the time. Papá hates me. Mmm?"
"Do´ know. . ."
"You´re beautiful, racked like Lara Croft. I´m disabled. Huh? Autistic? Anyt´in´ you wan´, Lola, but no sex, okay?
"Bueno. Ah do the lítel o´ programa, ¿verdad?
Lola´s appalling Southern accent (was that how Penelope Pitstop sounded when Cartoon Network was still dubbed into Spanish?) sent a shiver down Alejandro´s spine.
"Go to hell, Lola. Tell Papá; me vale madre."
Lola turned away, shouting "Papá!", just too quietly to be heard or believed.
She wouldn´t tell. A thought crept across Alejandro´s mind, and he chuckled slyly. She knows a good time when she gets one... It was annoying, though, this thing of Lola´s. What was it with younger siblings, anyway? Was it the easier exit from the womb that retarded their initiative so? After-effects aside, Kentucky had been, for Alejandro, neither memorably sexual nor particularly sick. A full-blown dirty snigger now passed his lips as another memory came to mind. "One for my baby," he called it. Now that was a sick trip. Caught by the Gestapo, as well: Gehe mal weg, Jude! Worthy of Declan O´Shea himself!
There was an old saying: speak of the devil, and he shall appear on your screen. The tattooed face of his friend was accompanied by the standard invitation, "ANSWER (Y/N)". Y.
Declan lived in North Europe 1, and due to the time difference could call in a post-bounce report of his own evening´s adventures before Alejandro himself had dropped. Alejandro liked Declan, and liked his news from the front even more. Declan went further than anybody else, through a potent combination of fearlessness, imagination and some very serious but as yet undiagnosed psychological irregularities.
In the last week alone, he´d invested his hard-earned recreational hour being: a head kept alive artificially for transplant purposes; the Siamese twin of a murdered infant, starving next to its sibling´s putrefying yet appetising remains; and a schizophrenic dictator awaiting V.E. day with a faulty batch of suicide pills. Beyond the bland icons of the desktop there was no art outside of the Tool these days, but here was a true Romantic in the tradition of Shelley, Byron and Cobain: Declan suffered so you didn´t have to.
"Geezer," he said, "I´ve got a maaaaaaaad one for ya!"
"Well, there´s a surprise." Alejandro hated, and had always hated, that voice he used with Dec - so nasally ironic it could almost be New England, circa 1985 - but somehow he´d never changed it. Perhaps he figured that it would just mess Declan´s mind up further if he started talking naturally. Anyway, how did he naturally speak?
"I don´t think you´ll be tripping tonight, mate. I might have fucked up the system at last."
Everybody said this, or something like it, from time to time: I was out there, I swear the system couldn´t hold me. Sometimes it was bravado, usually it didn´t mean anything at all, but neither of these was anything like Declan´s style.
Declan´s Global Popularity Rating (GPR) was 12. When Alejandro discovered this fact some four weeks before, it had contorted the mestizo´s narrow little body into shapes previously unknown to him, and very probably surprising to all but the most adept yoga gurus. Twelve wasn´t just low, or even abnormal. For all his present social concerns, Alejandro was 1430 the last time he looked (around ten minutes ago). His father, the least socially active parent that Alejandro knew, was 4000-plus. Once the hysterics had passed, Alejandro recognized his mirth as emanating from a basic category error: it was natural to associate a low GPR with nerdishness, but Declan possessed neither the guileless invisibility nor the latent eagerness-to-please of that maligned type. On the contrary, he was well known as a strong character, and it was precisely this quality that lay behind his unpopularity. In a world as shapeless as running water, solid convictions would always be bypassed rather than surmounted, and Declan was simply too true and too intense to go with the flow. People didn´t like him precisely because there wasn´t enough bravado or meaninglessness in what he said. So what was he doing coming out with a line as trite as I might have fucked up the system at last . . .?
"I got hold of some software; whipped it into shape . . ."
It was probably safe to talk like this over the air: the culture didnt conceivably have anything to worry about. The revolution had long been cancelled through lack of interest. What problem could possibly be grave enough to override the compensation of its complete non-existence, irrelevance or inversion for seventy years or more on the very day upon which it had become apparent? "This isn´t hegemony," Noam Chomsky famously whispered on his deathbed, "this is a goddamn dynamo." In the unlikely event that Declan had become the first person in history to jam the Tool, whatever guardians of the status quo existed to address the problem would not be in the least surprised to learn that the fault had been caused not by a saboteur, but by an addict.
Alejandro watched the excitement well up in his friend for a couple of seconds, and was about to say, "¿Pues?" or "Go on..." when a cackling explosion issued forth from his terminal,
"I went CONTEMPORARY! NON-FUCKING-PARALLEL, MAN!"
Ahhh, Contemporary Non-Parallel. The last metaphysics, and a belief system of the purest form. While man was struggling with good and evil, with humility and pride, with casting away stones and gathering them together, he had had religions to match: complicated, contradictory, paradoxical. But man was no longer a paradoxical animal: with limited immortality, he´d become oxymoronic. He was too trite for stories, for grand narratives. He needed no music, no pictures; he needed no form. He simply needed to believe that the oxymoron could be deconstructed, that it was a cultural construct.
It went like this:
All historical data up to 2014 (the year the Tool went on-line) was a composite of the most extensive data and theory available, automatically updated as new research contradicted the old (a less and less frequent occurrence: the last sites of archaeological interest had long been forsaken for the requirements of a booming population, and the flaking heads of the few remaining researchers in what used to be called the Humanities were, one by one, coming to their final rests behind dusty piles of knowledge in analogue format). If you took a post-2014 trip, the world around you would be the Tool´s own projection of what would have happened had it never existed, popularly (and perhaps officially) known as Contemporary Parallel.
"They need to test technical improvements." No matter that the technical improvements themselves were no more than a rumour; such banal layman´s logic was enough to feed a belief that there existed another Contemporary, with highly restricted access, in which the Tool did exist. Just one drop into that Contemporary Non-Parallel would double your life expectancy. Nightly access would square it. And like any belief system, this one had its fundamentalists, its literalists, who would argue that a true Contemporary Non-Parallel would itself contain Contemporary Non-Parallel, and so on and so forth. Ad infinitum. Ad inmortalitas. Not an afterlife, but an intralife; more of the same for the Man who had everything.
Alejandro had no way of knowing whether his friend had really lived eighteen thousand times in one hour or had simply gone mad. (To Declan himself, of course, it didn´t matter; the difference between religious experience and religious hysteria lies exclusively in the realm of the Other; either way, the Self is fucked.) For the last two minutes, O´Shea had been interrupting his silent gazes not with the usual, harmless facial contortions, but with shouts of "SHUT IT!" which, despite the automatic intervention of the compressor on the sound reproduction system, had very probably been heard by most of Alejandro´s neighbourhood. Where the hell did Declan live, where the neighbours tolerated such noise untreated at one o´clock in the morning without alerting the local medical or security services?
Dec switched to semi-coherence, "I tell you SHUT IT, things are going to change around here, hermano!"
"I don´t think so, Declan. Honestly. It´s just another trip, my friend. A very, very mad one, sure, but . . ."
"Not just another trip, Alejandro. You can´t fucking see it, can you? Fairy tales: that´s your trip. Escape. SHUT IT! This is really happening. You can´t fucking see it, can you?" Declan was now standing to attention to shout "SHUT IT", lifting his face to the ceiling and twitching it backwards and to the left with each word, before sitting straight down again to resume his characteristically intense stare and regain his tenuous thread. It was clear that, even by his own standards, the boy was dangerously over-excited.
"Relax, Dec, I was only going to . . ."
Suddenly becalmed, the European looked down at his keyboard with childish regret, his lower lip tucked under his front teeth. Alejandro stopped talking to hear him whisper, "Sorry, mate. But it was a mad trip. SHUT IT. More than a trip. It was weird, you know, bouncing out of all that. I don´t know. SHUT IT. I don´t know, man. . ."
Alejandro did know, or thought he might.
Placing Declan on hold, he struggled to retrace his own accelerating thoughts. Declan was right, he couldn´t know what the mind felt like after all that; he couldn´t empathise. But wasn´t Declan missing the point? Wasn´t this a question of theory? He recognised his disquiet as somehow related to that which he´d experienced earlier, reviewing his homework. His eyes flicked to the left of Declan´s frozen face, to the last sentence of his essay. It was that word "illusory". After flicking his friend off hold, he got out of his chair for the first time that evening, took off his shirt and pants and stared into the full-length mirror on his closet door. Just whose idea of a joke was that? Perhaps it was time to find out.
"¡Lolita! ¡Ven acá!"
They made love or its near equivalent, or its polar opposite on the Disney bedspread he´d long outgrown, with the terminal set to public access. It felt no different to the hillbilly trip; the same number of sensors seemed to fire at much the same time, and only Declan´s babbling brought him back to Pacific America 5, to what he´d always thought of as the here and now.
Pulling on sweats and sneakers, he turned to see the nose of his dozing sister twitch as a mosquito traced a low course toward the window, where it became just another pixel forming the night air. A sudden curiosity gripped him, and he stepped over to the terminal and flicked up his userstat screen. His GPR had soared, and now fluctuated around 4,000. He headed downstairs and to the door.
"Hey," his father shouted from the living room, "What the hell was all that goddamn noise about?"
"Ese güey ," mumbled Mr. López, before adding, "Dont be long. Its seven oclock."
Trains passed by every five minutes at a rapid pace, getting the last of the workers home before drop time. Alejandro threw himself before the blue bullet and saw his life flash before his eyes...
When entities bounce out of the Tool, there is a space of eleven seconds in which
they are incommunicado. Their eyes are open and digitised. It is believed they
re-experience the operation, perhaps in reverse.
|© 2003 Richard Ailes
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Richard Ailes is currently at work on his first novel, for which "The
Bounce" was written as a "first study." A graduate in Spanish and English,
he began writing as a student at the University of North London, and won the
institution´s annual Serpent´s Tail Award for Short Fiction. He lectures in Modern
Languages at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico.
issue 38: september - october 2003