This story was originally part of my novel Pacifica which if all goes well will be available in some form or another by early 2017. This entire story line has been removed from that novel, so hey, I guess I can put it up here.
People have used a lot of words to describe Julian Baum. People who see him on the street with a data feed flickering on his mirrored shades would call him a tech rat. Cops call him a street punk. People who work for him call him an optimistic idiot, and people he works for generally call him “number one” or “lieutenant” or “that smarmy guy we hired”.
Oddly, very few people call him the names that are most descriptive, like “philosopher” or “poet”. They see his bright, cunning smile and short-cropped blond hair and they rarely see beyond those.
These days, Julian generally called himself a sinner.
Not that Julian was religious, far from it. But in his travels and studies he had come across the concept of sin and he couldn’t help but apply it to his current behavior.
Every new technology brings three things with it: a great help to humanity in general, a great diversion, and sin. Take television (Julian said to himself to distract himself from where he was going, the place his heart was racing to get to). Television gave us the ability to share audiovisual information across the globe. People could see places they could never afford to go in person, and the whole global community got closer. It also gave us mindless television programs, which ultimately overtook the original noble purpose. And it also brought late-night sleaze that was sinful, in the sense that it subverted the standards of the society that had created it. Ditto the internet. Did the internet change the world for the better? Yes. Was there a lot of mindless fluff on the net? Sure. Was there a lot of sleaze and sin on the net? Yes. It happened every time.
And it had happened again. (Julian thought about what had happened again, and turned a corner into a slightly less well maintained area of town) When the Spine had been invented it came with a neural interface that changed everything. Doubtlessly, it had brought a lot of good with it into the world. People had direct access to their information, interfaces were smaller and rapidly becoming cheaper than ever before, but already the world had shifted and new art forms were being created, as well as new ways to teach, new ways to operate on other people, new ways to build…the world had changed because of the Spine.
And the games were only a little bit behind the invention. There were tons of games for the Spine, tons of ways to disconnect from your immediate surroundings and let yourself explore a new and different world. There were great games, artistic games, but the majority of them were simple basic shooters that hadn’t changed much since the first computers. People still liked to pretend to blow things up without the risk of being hurt in the process.
And the sleaze had followed, as it always does. But even that wasn’t the bottom in this case. Something else had come. Something that wouldn’t have worked in any previous medium. And there was no other word for it than Sin.
It wasn’t any of the temptations of the flesh re-created in digital form. It wasn’t art, it wasn’t poetry or math or anything else so mundane. All those things worked through the senses, but this bypassed sense entirely.
Julian entered the house, the next few moments an unholy ritual. He paid the person standing at the desk, he got a small gray square of metal and a single, spoken number. He entered the door with the number he had been assigned. Inside the room was a…nest, a soft place where he could lay down, all his limbs supported. He sat back, uncovered the access port on his Spine, and attached the square to the access pad. Then he lay back.
The square wasn’t a program; that would have been distributed over the Internet. It wasn’t something that could be replicated in software; though many had tried. inside that small box of metal with its golden contact points was a wafer of graphene with imperfections in it. The graphene was a perfect conduit from every contact to every other contact point, meaning that every sense that flowed across the Spine’s neural contacts was relayed not only to every output, but also to every other input, where it would be reinterpreted and generate a new signal. The Spine would usually shut down the person’s actual motor controls at this point, sensing that such a feedback would send them breaking their arms and legs and head as they flailed like crazy.
But the sensations flowed. Sensations that had no earthly analog. Light color sound music violence love death heat death learning dying living hating exploding running every sense you’d ever had and more were poured into every sensor in your brain, echoed and reverberated over and over into sensations and thoughts and colors and patterns that couldn’t and wouldn’t exist anywhere ever again.
Because of the imperfections in the graphene sheet. As the impulses flowed across the sheet it would heat up, and impurities in the carbon would heat at different rates, making holes in the sheet, changing the flow of signals, repainting or reorchestrating the patterns as they flowed at differing speeds around those holes. The experience would change, would mutate into something brand new, but still similar, still carrying echoes of the previous experience. the longer you left it connected the more imperfections would blow out, until at last the sheet was in tatters and the gold connectors starting to melt. The chip had one logically wired chip that would sense when the sensations were starting to die down. It’s job was to slowly exclude various inputs from the sensations flowing across the graphene. Sight would slowly return, then hearing, then feeling, then smell, then taste. Finally you would be left back in the real world, usually close to where you lay down originally, but not always. You would lie there, spent, heart racing, your mind still swirling with color and feeling and light…and you would pull the small rectangle off of your Spine’s input pad and drop it in the trash. the rectangles were expensive to manufacture, and could only be used once. Every subsystem in the square was burned out by the heat of the graphene destroying itself. Occasionally the chip that was supposed to bring you back to earth malfunctioned and you would just black out when all the connections broke, your Spine forced into a reboot.
But you would throw the chip in the trash and walk outside into the real world and try to cope with the dull predictable colors and feelings and sensations and cause and effect and all the things that made the real world so boring.
Not many people had Enhancements yet, and fewer still would waste the obscene amounts of money this form of entertainment cost. But those that tried it always came back, because it was that good. And the fourth time Julian found himself considering killing a rich-looking person just to pay for another square he realized what it was.
It was Sin. It was the real essential thing. These days nobody outside of Bonneville actually believed in “sin” as a concept. If you weren’t hurting someone else you weren’t doing anything wrong. As long as everyone involved was happy with what was happening you were fine. This was definitely how Portland thought of most things. It was a most tolerant city.
But Sin wouldn’t leave you there. You could try to control it, try to budget for it even, only buying a square when you could afford it. But it wouldn’t let you. You would imagine it every moment of the day, mentally walking back to that place where you experienced it, reattaching that square in your mind’s eye a million times a day, letting the wave roll over you, disconnect you, take you to where everything was amazing. Your heart would race, you would almost feel as if you were really there again.
But only almost. It wasn’t the same thing. And you would look up, realize that at your current budget you were still a month away from being able to afford it, and you would reason that you could do without a few things to afford it right now, because then you would make it a month, no problem.
And that’s when you realized you were addicted. But people have been addicted to things forever, and humanity was pretty good at dealing with addictions. But addictions were bad things, right? Things that would eventually kill you. Things like booze, or…drugs. Julian had always been straight edge, partially because he didn’t like the idea of addiction, partially because “straight edge” sounded cool. But this was so far beyond that. This wasn’t anything that actually harmed your body. It was just feelings, and you can’t get hurt by feelings, right?
Only then you realized you needed those feelings again. You needed to get back to where you felt like that, because this life wasn’t a real thing. Only those feelings were the real thing.
And that was the Sin. You got the bait first, and then you discovered the hook. You got dragged along by it, you would do anything to have it again. You, a person who was definitely a “good” person, would cheat, lie, steal, whatever, just to get to that next little gray square. Every time you would tell yourself it was over, you had finished. Every time you would go back. You would find yourself walking randomly around town, right back to the same house. You would tell yourself every step of the way there that you were going to turn aside, you were going to go do something else, but you never did, you never did.
The nameless thing hadn’t existed for very long, maybe a year. And Julian had only discovered it four months ago. The people who ran the house were careful to keep people from seeing one another there, but Julian had been there often enough to see people, see what they looked like after they had used it. And he was starting to look that way too.
So he would go back to work, work hard, work with his mind clear and fight to keep it clear. But a week, or a few days, or even a few hours later he would find himself mentally walking those roads, back to that place, his heart racing as he imagined getting that little gray rectangle between his fingers, imagining its cool surface, imagining the sheet of experiences that hid within. And soon he would be back there, shaking just a little as he got ready for another three hours of the only thing that actually mattered.