Nerea - Chapter 1

07/04/2226 – The Guilt Experience


Wealth was a curse. It separated her from the suffering and made her less human.

Nerea looked around the office and knew she didn’t deserve its luxury. No one did.

She turned her locket one last time and peeked at the discreet timer. There were only 48 hours and four minutes remaining before the most important Decision of her life.

The unspoken reality of Waldon’s Life Contract was simple: sell your body to a corporation and rent it back one day at a time. Unfortunately, the strain of the next payment was unbearable for so many, and those who chose aging’s cure marched forward in two distinct camps: the rich and the miserable.

Waldon was pure evil; rejecting their offer should be easy, but the allure of eternal youth was undeniable.

Nerea laid back in the egg-shaped simulator and pulled the near-invisible lace over her body and head. Sensors in the neural webbing and bed lining would monitor every cell in her body and transmit new data into countless nerve endings.

She turned to the woman sitting in a second simulator. “Did Clara share the files?”

“Everything is prepared. Are you ready to begin?”

She closed her eyes in resignation. “Yes.”

~

Nerea inhaled with a shiver as cold, beach fog hit her nose. She hunched forward and opened her eyes to an overwhelming grey that hid all color, muffled all sound and dampened all smell. A seaward path disappeared into freezing, moist clouds and left her wondering if the ocean was even there. The wet bench dampened her dress and tiny splinters clawed at her bum—the beach-house garden offered no comfort this morning. Then: the woman’s soothing voice broke the silence. “We will start with a few baseline questions. What is today’s date?”

“April 7, 2226.” Nerea grabbed a blanket as the unwelcoming air needled her skin.

“What do you know about the Decision?”

“In two days, I turn twenty-three and can choose to stop the aging process of my body. While not immortal, a twenty-three-year-old body has a death rate under 0.01% per year and with medicine and risk avoidance, can survive tens of thousands of years.”

“Why do you have the Decision?”

She braced herself. Everyone knew the happy propaganda hammered into their trusting minds as children. Nerea reluctantly recited the answer: “Waldon’s Decision is available to all through governments around the world. Waldon believed death was a preventable sickness and developed medicine that stops aging. Waldon defined the rules for who has access to it and when they can use it. At the age of twenty-three, every person is granted the Decision and can enter into a Life Contract with Waldon. If we do, we agree to pay a Life Tax. If we don’t, we will grow old and die as it has always been.”

Nerea took a deep breath and quietly swallowed her anger. The Life Tax imprisoned so much potential, and the Penalty applied to those who didn’t pay was vicious and cruel. Despite happy brochures that promised the opposite, Waldon’s cure drained hope from its customers.

“Why are you working with me?” For the first time since they met, Nerea looked into the eyes of her Decision Coach. They were golden and held a glimmer of honesty that invited Nerea to open up. Her name was Seren.

“I’m here because you have an excellent reputation and I can afford your fee. You will accompany my journey and help me reflect on the options.”

“The Decision is a big moment in a young life. You don’t sound excited.”

Nerea stared into the grey and filled her lungs with its cool air. “I believe Waldon was wrong to release their ‘cure’ to the world.”

Seren raised her eyebrows. “That was almost two hundred years ago. The government praises Waldon as humanity’s greatest achievement; the savior who gave us eternal life.”

Nerea instinctively yearned to conceal her true thoughts, but today was not a day for secrets. “Governments are part of the problem. Waldon has given them the power to control their people, and enabled tyrants to dominate for far too long. Countries are blinded by their tax revenue and created a system that ensures their people stay silent.” She was shocked by the quaver in her own voice. “In many countries, the Penalty for those who cannot pay is death, and we accept it! We accept the world as it is and no longer seek to make it better. We’re so paralyzed by the fear of dying, that we ignore the lunacy of a corporation controlling life. We need to find the courage to reject their power; we need to stop Waldon.”

Seren tilted her head. “It sounds like you plan to reject their offer. Have you already made up your mind?”

Nerea rubbed her arms and lowered her gaze shamefully to a white pebble on the ground. “No.” The whisper was barely audible.

“So, despite your disdain, you remain open to a contract with Waldon?”

Nerea nodded silently, embarrassed by her weakness.

“What are you scared of?”

Her throat welled. “I’m terrified of finding joy in Waldon’s wickedness.”

“Everyone deserves to know joy.”

Nerea did not agree. “If you’re dancing with the Devil, you’re blind to her evil. Death used to be a great equalizer­—it made things right. But now, the rich can enjoy eternal sin, while the poor suffer endlessly. I just want to do my part to make things a little bit better.”

The coffeemaker beeped.

Seren smiled with a mix of admiration and kindness. “By the time we finish, I hope you will embrace your Decision with certainty. Clara has prepared ten simulations for you to experience and asked that you follow them in order. In 48 hours, you will make your Decision: continue aging as it has always been or enter into a Life Contract with Waldon and live for a very long time.”

Nerea had no desire to die; but like a story with no end, the absence of death seemed to negate life itself—it made no sense.

Seren brought the coffee pot to Nerea. As she poured a cup, she explained what would happen next: “I like to use drinks to start experiences. You will enter each simulation by taking a sip.” Seren motioned down to the coffee, and Nerea understood it was her pathway into another life.

Nerea loved coffee—a lot. And the smell of the dark, earthy roast whisked her back to her favorite mountaintops. She held the warm mug and breathed it in. “What type of coffee is this?”

“I call it Phil.”

Nerea took a sip. Darkness was followed by a flash of light.

~~

14/02/2000 – The Love Experience


Rejection loomed. Phil wanted to chicken out, but my God, those eyes—ocean storms swirling around an undiscovered pole. Then: the buzz of a text in his pocket. It was from Louis: ‘good luck!’

He typed a response: ‘thx!’

The clean, white bathroom was near the museum entrance. It was late, and there were only a couple of staff left in the building. He looked in the mirror and saw happiness staring back. His heart raced, and his dark skin flushed with nervous joy. He cupped water in his hands and splashed it over his face.

Thank God for Louis. When he arrived to university, he was a lonely mess. His high-school crushes had been knowingly unattainable, and he found cruel ways to reject any girls that got past his shyness. The day he told Louis: ‘I think I might be gay’ changed everything. As he let go of shame and bared his true feelings, an invisible bag of rocks fell from his shoulders. He didn’t even realize its weight until it was gone. Louis listened and asked questions that allowed him to gain confidence. He was finally free to embrace and accept his own soul. Phil liked the smell of other men and would catch himself admiring the way they moved. When he was alone in his bed at night, his thoughts would wander inevitably to the shape, movements and strength of men. Yup, he was gay.

But he had never touched another man.

It had been impossible to concentrate on his internship today; the anticipation of tonight had become an uncontrollable distraction.

Phil took one final look in the mirror and had one last pee to relax. He opened the door, breathed deep and affirmed to himself: “This will make me happy.”

He turned the corner and froze. There he was: fifty steps away, floating like a dream at the desk, strong shoulders and long blonde hair pulled back in a bun—a soft Viking. The strongest magnet in the world was simultaneously pulling him forward and repelling him back, but lust was winning. Sven sat unaware and magnificent, eating a sandwich and reading one of Phil’s favorite books, by B.F. Skinner.

Sven worked security and the two had been meeting eyes heavily every night for weeks, but Phil only managed quiet ‘Goodnight’s as he blushed his way out the door.

‘What if he isn’t gay?’

‘What if he’s offended?’

‘What if he gets violent?’

The imagined strength of Sven’s hands shot a dose of fear through Phil’s mind before he recalled their erotic potential. He took a step forward and began the long walk down the hall and into the echoing entrance.

Sven looked up and smiled. His alluring gaze locked into Phil’s. He stood from his desk and the two walked towards each other without glancing away. They met in the middle of the museum hall. Sven broke the silence. “Hello.” His voice was timid; maybe he was nervous as well.

Sven tucked a few loose strands of hair neatly behind his ear and glanced down. Phil almost drowned in the blueness of those ocean-eyes. He summoned the air and courage to finally answer. “Hi.” Suddenly: something was wrong! There was a piece of bread on the upper part of Sven’s chin! ‘Wow, that’s big! Look away! Look away!’ But it was too late. Phil was now 100% fixated on the bit of sandwich that had stuck itself below the corner of Sven’s mouth.

“Workin’ late again?”

Phil responded in a confused, distracted stutter: “Yes.” He forgot what he was there to say. His mind raced. ‘Should I tell him about the bread? We’re almost alone in the building. Holy crap, that’s big! How is it even staying on?’

The two fidgeted in awkward silence. Sven continued to glance down nervously, and Phil’s eyes widened at the sight and confusion of the crumb. It was a full-on crisis! ‘If I can’t tell him about a piece of bread, how am I going to tell him he’s beautiful, and I want to eat him up? Is it rude to say something? Would it embarrass him? Am I being crazy? That is a massive crumb!’

Sven looked like he wanted to speak.

Phil was paralyzed. ‘What should I say?’

The phone rang at the desk. Both looked to it with relief.

It rang a second time. Phil was not sure if it was saving or ruining his night.

It rang a third time.

“I should get that,” Sven announced reluctantly.

“Okay. Goodnight,” answered Phil instinctively and to his immediate regret. ‘Oh, NO! Why did I say goodnight? Noooooooo!!! That’s not what I wanted to say. No! No! No! No! No!’

Sven took steps towards the phone, and Phil followed through with his mistake and unwillingly moved to the exit.

He walked quickly to and through the front door. Before he knew it, Phil was outside the building in a sickening shame. The door locked shut behind him, and he stumbled straight over to his favorite bench in the museum’s garden.

Crushing embarrassment flushed through his body. His thoughts raced: ‘How old am I? Five? Why could I not tell him about a simple piece of bread? Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!’

Phil sat on the bench, put his head down into his hands and whispered: “I’m such an idiot!”

He opened his eyes. “Holy crap.” Phil was staring directly at his own crotch: his zipper was wide open! It could not be any more open; like a giant ‘O’ wide open.

It must have been like that since the toilet.

And Sven did not tell him.

Sven was having the same experience he was: the zipper and the crumb.

“Bastard.” Phil’s shame washed into a soft giggle of relief. He sheepishly did his zipper and laughed alone on the bench.

The universe had spoken: this was destiny. Unhinged inspiration flowed through his body. He turned swiftly and hustled back to the museum.

Sven stood watching him through the glass door and they locked eyes once again. Phil ran until only the thin, glass door separated him from his crush. Sven looked happy. Their stare held each other tight. Sven gently brushed his own chin, letting Phil know that he knew about the bread. Phil mimed the action of doing up his zipper.

Sven smirked. Phil smiled. They both began to laugh.

Sven bit his bottom lip and reached for the handle. He opened the door slowly.

Phil took a giant breath. “Do you want to get a coffee with me?”

Sven glowed. “I do.”

~~

Nerea inhaled desperately and woke in a panicked flash.

Primal adrenaline sought to protect her naked vulnerability. ‘Where am I? Who am I?’ Her eyes darted, and her mind searched for clarity. ‘What’s happening?’ Nerea grasped for the limits of her body. She was Nerea, and the woman beside her was Seren. Sunshine now pierced through the fog. A million questions tumbled though her mind; the first jumped out instinctively: “What the hell?!?!”

Seren smiled. “Was that the first time you experienced an empathetic simulation?”

Nerea nodded. She often entered level-one simulations in her own body, or level-two as an audience to someone else’s life. But she had never before became a level-three passenger to empathy—genuine thoughts and emotions.

“Simulations of other people used to be observational; like watching a movie. Then Waldon created this level-three technique that masks the conscious of passengers and allows you to fully become another person. You start with their memories and live their experiences—in their bodies. It is extremely intense, but you will get used to coming back. How did it feel?”

Intense was an understatement. “Like I traveled to a new planet with different gravity. But beautiful. Who were they?” Phil was incredibly familiar; like she had known him forever.

“They became parents to Yves, one of the founders of Waldon. The morals of Phil and Sven shaped Yves and ultimately, the Decision you are about to make.”

For protection, Waldon’s founders remained anonymous, and Nerea found it difficult to rebel against a faceless tyrant. Now she finally had a small detail about one of them. “Why did Clara want me to meet them? Are they alive?”

“No. Phil, Sven and Yves died many years ago, long before you were born.”

Nerea was puzzled. “A founder of Waldon died? How?”

“Patience. Clara has selected simulations that follow the history of Waldon chronologically. She wants you to understand its creation and the motivation of the founders.”

Waldon had turned life into a commodity and destroyed the joy of living. Nerea imagined a corporate money-dragon smoking a cigar and defining rules that would extract the most profit from the world. How could Phil and Sven have raised a dragon?

She was anxious for answers and curious about the accuracy of what she had lived. “Did Phil’s experience really happen?”

“These simulations are as real as possible based on available data. Waldon’s Artificial Intelligence program, named Aurora, built them.”

“How could they possibly be accurate?” Nerea faded off in reflection.

“Waldon has an exceptional license for an A.I. technology that has long been illegal around the world. Aurora is not like any A.I. you know. She has access to the largest farms of quantum computers, and most importantly, Aurora has the Waldon Record. The Record contains endless information from the turn of the millennium, a period when people ignored the value of their data. She has communication logs, security videos, photos, medical records, brain scans, DNA samples, location trackers and infinitely more sources. Aurora builds simulations starting from a single, known data point, such as a video, or a photograph. She then tests every sequence of events, thoughts and movements that could possibly lead to the next known data point. It is trial and error connecting data in the most probable path forward. The more data points you have, the more sequences you can eliminate. Until there is only one sequence remaining: the truth.”

Seren took Nerea’s hands. “You have now experienced the earliest simulation that Aurora has ever created.”

She was not convinced. “But thoughts? I knew what Phil was thinking! He didn’t walk around with a thought recorder; that data can’t possibly exist.”

“While we are each unique, our thoughts follow patterns. Some are easy to guess, like when we are reading or reacting to a video. Others require an understanding of health, exercise, events and our long-term emotional patterns. With hundreds of gigabytes of data per person per day, Aurora can calculate the personality and unique sequence of thoughts that connect it all together.”

“Who else has experienced Phil? Have you?”

“No. Clara has access to Aurora and asked her to create this unique experience for you. The only other human to have lived this moment is Phil. Clara gave me an overview, but I do not know the details. I must confess that I have never attempted level-two or level-three simulations. While I coach many people, I doubt I have the strength to come back and remain whole. But you grew up on Clara’s island with a simulator and seem to have a keen sense of reality.”

Living someone else’s feelings was an invasion of privacy. It was fantastic but felt so wrong. Even if he was dead, she had explored the most private parts of Phil’s mind. Where did this fit in her morals? How would Phil feel, knowing that others could explore the hidden corners of his soul? Would it enrich the experience of life or kill freedom of thought?

As she wandered through Phil’s memories, a flash hit her: if she could experience Phil, could someone else experience her? What if her life was a simulation, and others were experiencing it right now? Some day in the future when she was dead… what if they experienced her most private moments? Her showers? Her dirty fantasies? Imagining murder and death? Exploring uncertainty and fear? The thoughts were mortifying, and embarrassed blood pumped swiftly through her cheeks.

But Phil may not have cared. He had found a new confidence in life and may have been happy to share. Nerea contemplated the familiarity of his body and embraced its differences to her own. His movements were unnoticeable and liquid compared to her decisive rigidity. His face was itchy, and his pants were tight. Having a penis was not as vulnerable as she had imagined. Openness and freed desire sharply contrasted her own closed heart. While they shared the pained history of disguise, Phil had broken free of his, and Nerea loved the liberty that remained. She longed to return to the smell of Sven as he opened the door of the museum. It was the most intense and pure moment of her life.

Except it was not her life.


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©2020 by James Snow