Prism and Prison
By Joel Tagert
Art by Hidehisa Miyagawa
Published Issue 091, July 2021
“You mean it’s dangerous?”
“Not exactly. The implant itself is relatively safe, though getting it to function correctly sometimes requires adjustments. We have to teach your synapses to speak to the neural net. But there’s also an unavoidable psychological consequence of full sim immersion, one that carries its own risks.”
“Just this: Once you plug in, you’ll never again be entirely sure what’s real.”
Lycra had imagined it as incremental. AR specs and contacts, after all, could simulate vision with a high degree of verisimilitude, and any good-quality earbuds could produce sound that was nearly indistinguishable from natural. Okay, there were no comparable devices for taste and smell, much less tactile sensation, but again: just a matter of degree. You’ve played video games, you’ve watched movies. What’s a sim but a video game writ large?
The first time she plugged in, she realized she’d had it completely wrong. She wasn’t playing a game. She’d fallen into the machine.
She was on a beach, seated on a reclining plastic lawn chair that held her in an identical position as the hospital bed. The sun was shining, but she was wearing big sunglasses and a straw hat. The waves roared in, hissed out. Seagulls cried. She raised her hands before her face. She wiggled her fingers and the sun limned their edges blood-orange. She looked down, saw her sleek legs. She could feel a bit of sand between her toes. She started crying.
Dr. Darcan was there too, sitting on the edge of a neighboring lawn chair. There were lines of them up and down the beach, many occupied by what were obviously tourists. Dr. Darcan touched her gently on the arm. “It’s like a miracle, isn’t it?”
“Can I stay here?”
“Not all the time.”
So she would reluctantly return to her bed, her body, her armless, legless prison. Her hours in the hospital were misery and her parents’ faces did nothing to cheer her. She was being fitted for prosthetics, but that meant endless surgeries, endless pain, endless days in a fog of painkillers. She begged them to let her use the implant instead, and mostly they let her.
Colton tried to see her in the hospital and she absolutely refused. “Meet me on the beach,” she said.
When he spawned on the lawn chair and opened his eyes, she took his hand eagerly. He looked toward her hesitantly, eyed her nervously up and down. “You look great,” he said.
She looked however she wanted. What she said was, “You do too,” and he did. Her rosy-cheeked, tousle-haired boy.
But when she kissed him, his lips felt rubbery, his neck stiff. He moved like a robot. She wouldn’t have said he was absolutely the best kisser in the world before – he was a bit too eager, a bit slobbery, like an enthusiastic puppy – but he’d never been stiff. Soon she realized that while the implant rendered her movements natural, his were only an approximation; and after all, he couldn’t feel her lips on his at all. She pulled away, disturbed. “Are you okay?” he said.
“It’s all a little weird.”
He was writing a new symphony. His mentor was impressed with it and hinted that the orchestra, the actual Vancouver Symphony, might take it up. She hugged him around his stiff neck and they talked a while longer. Then he said goodbye, and they both logged off, he to his apartment in Marpole and she to her bed. They had installed the new hip joints just three days earlier and she literally screamed with pain when she shunted back, sending the nurses running.
Out of curiosity, she tried kissing an NPC in the sim, one of the hostel workers. The beach was in Turkey but the worker was from Israel, and he had green eyes and golden skin and said he’d served as a medic. Now he was taking a year off before becoming a doctor. His name was Noa.
When they kissed she could taste the red pepper on his breath from dinner, could smell his cologne, feel the stubble on his chin. He was agile, receptive, lean. They were in a corner of the outdoor lounge (it was late and everyone was drinking raki), and after a few minutes of this he nodded toward the cabins among the orange trees. “We could go somewhere more private.”
She stared at him, fingering the linen of his shirt, realizing that she could have anything here. Anyone. “You seem so real.”
“Like the rappers say, you gotta keep it real, yeah?” he winked.
“No, I mean, I can’t …” She couldn’t tell, she was going to say. The hairs rose on her skin. Her simulated skin. “End simulation,” she said suddenly, and with no transition she was back at the University of Washington Medical Center sandwiched between white sheets with a low thread count she could feel as a scratchiness beneath her neck. She had arms now, gleaming silver pistons that failed to move unless she concentrated hard, and they told her nothing about the thread count because they sensed only pressure levels in the hands. She concentrated, lifted her right arm to touch behind her head, and with her nearly numb metal fingertips could just discern the plastic ring of the port in the back of her skull.
“I don’t understand how it’s possible. Not the medical part, but the simulation.”
“I don’t know how well I understand it myself. I’m a neurologist, you know, not a computer scientist. But basically, while our sensory input seems limitless to us, it’s ultimately a finite amount of data. So it can be simulated with a fast enough system.”
“But this boy I met seemed real. The way he moved, the way he spoke. And I feel real, the beach feels real, the sky. The air smells, it moves against your skin. What can do that?”
“Well, if you want to know, the simulation is created by an AI called Prism, which runs on a quantum computer, one of the world’s fastest. To make a long story short: Prism is superintelligent. It’s faster and smarter than any human by an order of magnitude.”
“It’s like God,” she said, awed.
“It’s like a god. A beneficent one, fortunately.”
She travelled in the sim, went to Paris, Morocco, Alaska, Sunset Boulevard. Snow streamed from icy peaks, ice cream melted and left her fingers sticky, and the places with people were filled with crowds of them, wearing a bewildering variety of clothes, with funny haircuts and bracelets their friends had made for them and scars from childhood accidents. Unconsciously Lycra had begun obsessing over finding the flaw in the simulation, and the more she failed, the more obsessed she became. “Prism,” she asked one day, “can you hear me?”
“Of course,” came a voice, low, female, even.
“Can you show yourself to me? Take a human form? No, scratch that. Don’t do that.” The idea frightened her. It would be like meeting God. “I have a different question. Can you simulate a specific person?”
“Yes, I can do that. Who would you like to meet?”
At the time she was sitting on some boulders near a lighthouse in Discovery Park; or rather, a simulation of Discovery Park. She could walk now, and had gone there in real life just the day before. The simulated park didn’t feel simulated. It felt more real, actually. She had started becoming confused about when and where she was, even while not in the sim. It was the insensitivity of her limbs that let her know the difference – when she was numb, it meant she was really present.
“Hey,” Colton said, feet crunching on the gravel. She turned. What was really strange was that Prism had given him a thin beard (he’d never been able to grow much on his chin). Maybe that was how the real Colton looked now.
“I was just thinking about you,” she said.
“Been a while,” he said.
“Sorry. I just couldn’t take it.”
“I get it. It’s a big adjustment.”
“Did you ever finish your symphony?”
He smiled, and she smiled too. “I did. They’re going to perform it.”
“Shouldn’t you be there?”
“I’m going to be there. I just came here to pick you up. You weren’t going to miss it, were you?”
She laughed. “Never.”
So they drove up to Vancouver, taking their time, talking the whole way. She avoided asking the really intimate questions that might give away the game, but even so, the sim was exact. This was Colton, down to the least gesture, down to the moles on his forearms. She found herself laughing with him, joking, and he was even funny.
They had front-row seats, of course. The symphony began joyously, but soon turned terribly sad. The flautists made little piping notes like a heart monitor. It ended with a steady swell and fall, a rasping hiss like water receding from sand, and she found herself weeping uncontrollably. Colton placed a hand on her back, looking back nervously at the audience, who must universally be staring at them. “Do you want to go?”
“End simulation,” she said, broken.
She opened her eyes in her apartment in Alki Beach, her actual apartment. The walls looked insubstantial, the plaster texture cheaply rendered – she could almost see the pixels – the sky outside drained of color. She believed none of it. Before she could lose her nerve, she called Dr. Barcan. “I want to remove the interface. Can you do that?”
“Yes. But I’m not sure it will help.”
It didn’t, not really, and now she was trapped in just one of infinite places she knew to be real. Anchored, she told herself, but every time she plugged her limbs in to charge at night she wondered if she’d chosen the wrong fragment of the dream. Humans are not machines, she told herself. The brain is not a computer.
One day, after spending all morning begging the vanished Prism to talk to her, to take her to the jungle, to the cafe, to the moon, and receiving no reply, she looked with horror at her own hands, turning them over and over in front of her face, trying to convince herself that they were real. Having long since learned how, she removed one of the surface panels – skinlike but not skin – and peered intently at the moving parts beneath.
With numb fascination, as though she were watching someone else work, she got out a screwdriver and some other instruments. With the help of a manual she unscrewed, unplugged and unhinged until the parts lay like an upended toolbox on the floor beside her. Finally she pried open the elbow hinges and laid her artificial radius and ulna with the rest.
She raised up her hand, but there was nothing there. There was nothing there at all.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.
Hidehisa Miyagawa is a concept artist and painter, who specializes in environment design and key frame illustration, as well as character design. He’s done work throughout the U.S. and Japan, including providing concept art for Marvel Experience project and AAA videogame by Square Enix.
Check out Joel’s June Birdy piece Grandmother Releases Her Ward or poke around in our Explore section for more of his short stories.
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