By: J Edward Neill
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
A thousand years from today, nearly all of humanity is jacked-In. We sleep, connected to machines, dreaming our lives away. For most people, it’s the perfect life. But for the few who never jacked-In, it’s exile. Abandoned, persecuted, and betrayed, the Outs plot their vengeance across the centuries. And when they open the Door, only one way of life will survive…
We’d reached a state of such automatic bliss, such hedonistic indulgence, that when woken by the noise of war, our first reaction was disbelief. Why would anyone think to end our perfect peace? Who would dream of disturbing utopia? We assumed our enemies were envious of our perfection. We reasoned they wanted us out so they could get In. Everyone would want In, we thought. And why wouldn’t they?
But we soon came to our senses. We remembered long ago, before such things as In, emotion, passion, and yearning were a part of humanity. And we remembered the most powerful of all reasons for one human to desire the destruction of another:
The Jupiter Event
Nine hundred years ago, humanity believed it had attained perfection.
The ugly wars of the Twenty-Second Century had ground to an end. New systems of farming and weather-control had eliminated hunger. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, even Alzheimer’s—
cured by a single scientist’s genetic research. Coal, oil, and gas, long the mainstays of ‘dirty’ energy, were eliminated, replaced by nuclear-powered machines which operated like miniature stars, and which were built to last not for hundreds of years, but for millions.
It seemed humanity had climbed a mountain for many centuries dreamed of.
And yet, if it were true, if humanity had finally transcended, it had little to do with the decline of poverty, hunger, conflict, and war. For even with all obstacles removed, people still sought to undermine, to steal, to envy, and to seek power when utterly unnecessary.
Ultimately, what brought us so near to utopia was the ultimate weapon for suppressing human instinct and emotion:
In the year 2116, a technology firm known as pENT (Permanent Entertainment) ended their focus on creating video games. The art had long been in decline. Even with the most immersive games available and with entire city blocks dedicated to round-the-clock gaming experiences, the world’s youth craved more. No one needed to work, after all. No soldiers were required to wage war, and no labor force was required. Leisure time had become all the time. To exist, the world’s youth needed only to rise from sleep, claim a meal at any of a billion free-of-charge food dispensers, and breathe. Nothing else was mandatory. All sectors of labor had become fully mechanized, controlled by robotic automatons, who, even when in need of maintenance, were simply repaired by other automatons.
Life had become easy. Too easy.
And so Permanent Entertainment decided to live up to its name.
And in a matter of months, pENT released a beta version of In.
In, or Imaginary Nature, was at first meant as a life simulator. Early users would plug in for days, even weeks at a time. While jacked into In, users could create every tiny detail of an alternate existence, and then live that existence as though it were their own. Some In testers used it to escape their utter boredom. Others, most especially young men, used it to simulate every imaginable sexual adventure. Women created fantastical lands, many of which lacked men, and nearly all of which gave them the chance to be the most beautiful, most fashionable, and most influential person alive. The elderly used In to be young again. Artists created other worlds to inhabit, some alien, some mechanical, and many that were terrifying. The earliest beta users became so adept at using In’s interface that they created empires over which they ruled and galactic civilizations designed to worship them. Some even used In to recreate themselves as gods, suzerains of everyone and everything.
It was all fantasy, of course.
And yet, ten months after In’s beta ended, In was almost in.
Having anticipated In’s success, pENT tried to make certain its release-day preparations were perfect. In cities around the world, their bots prepared vast volumes of server space. Rows upon rows of buildings were dedicated to housing computers capable of processing users’ imaginations. Elsewhere, automatons constructed apartments designed solely for users to live in while jacked into In. The apartments had tiny rooms. Most were barely big enough to fit a single chair, a few strands of body-sensory jacks, and a feed/waste tube to keep users from needing to un-jack several times every day. ‘Sardine houses,’ an elder pENT executive named them. ‘Fit for sleeping fish.’
Given their preparations, Permanent Entertainment assumed its success. Their webs of wifi satellites and Blacktooth, light-speed data-ejectors blanketed almost every metropolitan area in North America, Western Europe, China, and the unified, Middle-Eastern goliath Iranabia. They prepped thousands of robots to deal with technical problems, retrofit older connections, and to train users to remember to un-jack.
They couldn’t have been more ready.
On the sixth of June, 2120, one hundred and thirty-seven pENT executive officers sat in the top room of the tallest tower in North America. Surrounded on all sides by paper-thin membrane video screens and live-feed holo-generators, men and women in black suits held their breaths as a clock ticked down to zero-hour. If In worked, they knew Permanent Entertainment would become the most powerful company in the world. But if it didn’t, if the system crashed or users died, pENT execs knew their vast investment of money and capital would have been all for nothing, and their careers would be ruined.
The crimson digits hanging in the air ticked toward zero.
When the moment arrived, hundreds of thousands of users simultaneously jacked into In.
The execs paled. But the system held.
In was in.
If ever pENT had doubted their work, on that night they knew otherwise. Every In chair in every sardine house in every city had been bought and filled. Servers lit up with the countless impulses of users’ imaginations, but sped along no slower for it, working at less than one percent of total capacity. Body-sensory jacks invented especially for In ensured that users’ muscles still fired, breather chairs prevented bedsores, while streams of nutrients pumped in via feed tubes, all working as flawlessly as pENT had hoped.
The next morning, whole cities remained quiet.
Fewer than one percent of users had un-jacked overnight.
A week later, more than ninety-seven percent were still plugged in. It was the beginning of something beautiful.
And of something terrible.
Within a few weeks of In going online, the debate began. The world’s remaining politicians, though long marginalized to a fraction of their previous power, thrummed with conversations about In. Was it immoral that so many users had yet to un-jack, that men and women with families had gone missing by the tens of thousands to pursue lives of pleasure and fantasy? Would the system eventually fail, releasing countless users back into reality, their minds forever ruined by an addiction to a world other than the real?
To counter such concerns, some leaders trumpeted, “This is at last the great release we’ve sought. The prison of our ordinary consciousness is broken. We’re all free.”
But others called In the ‘Great Lie,’ and railed against it with vicious determination.
And so the argument raged.
Whatever the debate, and no matter its legitimacy, pENT’s sights were set on larger prize than a few hundred thousand people. In the second month after In’s takeoff, automaton factories fired up in earnest. The factories turned out breather chairs and body-sensory jacks by the million. In pENT’s underground facilities, robots machined and programmed impossibly powerful servers, which were shipped within days to hubs worldwide, connected to nuclear-powered energy sources, and switched on with the intent of never, ever being switched off.
By the time the debate deepened, half the world’s politicians had either plugged into In themselves or given up the fight against it. Those who opposed jacking in waged their wars of words upon deaf ears, empty rooms, and membrane video screens no one cared to watch.
By the year 2126, nine-hundred million people had permanently hooked into In.
By 2142, supported by pENT automatons working shifts that never ended, the number of In users reached eight billion.
In was no longer simply a fantasy.
In was everything.
It became reality, and much more than simple entertainment. With their bodies protected in every way, users spent months jacked into In, then years, and after a time they stopped un-jacking entirely. Before the last of the pENT execs gave up their real-world lives and entered the system, they uploaded the libraries of every nation into the system, every book, magazine, scientific journal, and archaic text. With advanced streaming methods users were able to consume everything humanity had spoken or written in the last hundred years. Even the least intelligent people swallowed so much knowledge as to become ten times as educated as any human who had ever lived before them. With such knowledge their imaginations grew, their fantasies increased exponentially, and the reasons for un-jacking became nil.
By 2151, ninety-nine percent of humanity was permanently jacked-in. Cities were silent but for the hum of servers and the rare incoming march of automatons. The robots once created to replace human labor became caretakers for oceans of their eternally dreaming masters. The world of the physical fell away into nothing.
The world of the mind had won.
Still, ninety-nine percent was not one-hundred percent, and in the far corners of the sleeping world, millions of humans lived free of In. Some had never dared jack-in. Others had jacked-in briefly, but somehow resisted the temptation to fall into forever-long fantasies. These rare sects of society became known derogatorily as Outs. The Ins were aware of them, though only somewhat, and only through the reports of bots and the occasional un-jacked spy. It didn’t matter. In time, the Ins came to assume the Outs were unimaginative, radical, and in the worst cases, heretical. ‘Why would anyone not want to be In?’ they roared within their dreams. ‘There’s nothing left in the regular world. Not for us. Not for them.’
For many years, the Outs existed on the fringes of the sleeping In world. They kept all the technologies humanity had mastered, but strove no further. Even when In scientists streamed messages back into the physical world, hoping to invite, educate, and beguile, the Outs discarded the lessons. The Ins with their exponential capacity for learning clawed at the very boundaries of physics, mastering the sciences behind gravity, quantum mechanics, and even time. But the Outs wanted no part of it. Their lives had become easy enough without In, and with the world so quiet around them, the Outs earned such peace and prosperity that no civilization before them had attained.
And none since.
In 2162, the Outs gathered in the great city that had once been known as Venice. The Pope and his clergy were gone now, having flocked to the ether in search of God, and the pale streets and dark canals had long gone silent. In a tower high above the sleeping city, the most rebellious of the Outs held conclave.
“Unless we put an end to In, those who live in fantasy will eventually destroy us,” reasoned an Out leader. “Whether by misunderstanding, jealousy, or sheer boredom, they’ll want us gone.”
To his surprise, his remarks were met with cheers.
“They’ll want to secure eternity locked away in their minds!” cried one Out woman, a politician from the old days.
“Yes,” agreed another, “and we’re all that’s left. If we’re gone, no one will ever unplug them. Humanity will die.”
“No!” still another shouted. “They’ve got new machines. Haven’t you seen? They breed in their minds. The automatons fertilize their women while their bodies sleep. Their children have never known anything but In. Their babies have seen nothing in their lives but the world that isn’t.”
“Grotesque!” screamed a number of Outs.
“It must end!”
Even in the darkest corners of their minds, pENT engineers had never foreseen the day when the un-jacked masses would rebel. The world of fantasy had been at first good business, then an unprecedented success, and finally a glorious ascension they assumed all of humanity would embrace. That anyone would ever grow to hate their beautiful creation, they never fathomed.
And such was their mistake.
When a band of Out partisans burned an In tower to the ground with two-thousand people still jacked-in inside it, the In world barely blinked. They had no idea what had really happened. The Outs had smashed two dozen guardian automatons and clipped every single body sensory jack in the building. Surviving Ins were so consumed by their separate worlds and endless hoarding of knowledge, entertainment, and sex that even when a thousand of their number vanished, they registered almost nothing. They assumed the vanished Ins had wandered off to a new fantasy or scientific revelation, and that they’d soon be back.
But three weeks later, when a fringe Out group orchestrated the nuclear detonation of an entire sleeping city, the Ins caught on. Darkness grew in their hearts. In an imagined place deep within their minds, they gathered to plot their revenge.
Their thoughts turned to violence.
Within hours, they acted.
Without leaving their fantasy worlds, the Ins reprogrammed thousands of automatons to return to their factories and retrofit themselves with terrifying new weapons. The advances made by billions of dreaming humans were more than the Outs were prepared for. Four days after the nuclear attack, automatons arrived in Out cities armed with lasers capable of carving buildings in half, flechette rifles that spewed out thousands of explosive particulates, and gravity-distortion devices that hurled people, vehicles, and houses miles into the air before letting them tumble helplessly back to Earth.
The Ins’ revenge took the lives of tens of thousands.
Out cities burned.
A war began.
For every city the Ins’ automatons laid waste to, the Outs paid them back in spades. And because of the automaton armies the Ins employed to fight their proxy war, the Outs forgot such things as mercy. Bombs were laid in the hearts of jacked-in towers, and thousands of dreaming men, women, and children turned to ash. Factories were leveled using explosives, and servers torn apart by the hundreds. For each one life taken by In automatons, the Outs severed the jacks of scores of Ins. In the most pernicious of the Outs’ attacks, two hundred men cut the servers of some eight-hundred Ins, waited outside an apartment for the un-jacked to wander into the streets, and bludgeoned them all to death.
Neither side was righteous.
The Outs felt abandoned. The Ins felt betrayed.
But before long, the Ins gained the upper hand.
The turn of the tide began when an In man, Gerrard De Napoli, un-jacked himself in the Old World city of Paris. For twenty years, Gerrard had fashioned imaginary worlds in which war never ended. He knew every tactic of every battle since the medieval days of England’s occupation of Scotland, and had relived them all a hundred times as the general of each side. He was, for lack of an equal, the most accomplished military strategist to ever have lived. It mattered none that he’d never been in a real-world battle. In had trained him far better than any soldiering, any amount of eons spent warring in the physical world.
After making himself a stronghold in the heart of Paris, Gerrard quickly established a connection to every pENT server worldwide. He ordered that the greatest minds created by In be un-jacked and delivered under automaton escort to him. Within a week, several hundred of the smartest humans ever to live were at his side, plotting the end of the Out rebellion. Some were willing. Others were not. But with his huge stature and inelegant forcefulness, Gerrard made them all listen. It was easy for him to communicate, considering that after years of being jacked-In, everyone in the room spoke every language in the world.
“We can’t fight as we’ve done in the past,” he lectured them. “The Outs are burning our fields while we sleep, reprogramming our bots to poison us while we dream, and taking advantage of our unwillingness to wake up. We outnumber them a thousand to one, and they’re using it against us. They know most of us would rather take our chances and stay jacked-in than un-jack and fight a battle street-to-street.
“But that all changes now.”
“How?” argued Thiago Enici, an astrophysicist so thin he looked skeletal. “They’re scattered everywhere. We don’t have enough automatons. And every time they capture one of our weapons, they assume it into their arsenal.”
“He’s right,” said the masterful psychologist, Sara Von Berlitz. Sara was known to everyone in the room as the Mind Mistress, for her In world was a galactic-scale replica of a human brain. She knew the purpose of every neuron, and she understood what everyone would think before they thought it. “Attrition will be the end of us,” Sara grinned a soulless grin. “But what Gerrard is saying, I believe, is that we should not work for the destruction of the Outs, but rather their removal.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Thiago grimaced.
“Not at all,” said Sara. “But I’ll let Gerrard explain. He’ll be less insulting than I would.”
Gerrard steepled his fingers. Sara had been right, of course. She’d known what he’d been planning all along.
Forty three years of In had been more than enough. With most of humanity having limitless access to knowledge and the infinite ability to test and retest every scientific theory, the technological leaps had been vast. The gravity weapons deployed against the Outs were but a fraction of what the Ins had learned. They had mastered chemistry and unlocked the dark secrets of quantum mechanics, but more importantly they had invented higher forms of deep space travel. And although they had yet to test any of their new interstellar devices in the real world, it mattered little. Inside In, scientists had simulated millions of journeys into the cosmos.
“And it’s time we put our brains to work,” boomed Gerrard De Napoli. “The Outs know how this ends. They know we’ll destroy them. They know their future holds only running, hiding, and dying.”
“But they’ll take thousands of us with them.” Thiago Enici flexed his skinny fingers. “It could be any of us who dies next. Me…them…or even you.”
Gerrard raised his chin, and Thiago fell silent.
“Exactly my point, Ser Enici. No matter how many weapons we forge, how many Out cities we raze, they’ll get their victories. They’ll kill twenty here, and two thousand there. But we’ve a way to stop it all.”
“A cease-fire?” Thiago looked incredulous.
“Of sorts,” said Gerrard. “We offer them a deal. They’ll resist the notion at first. They’ll suspect a trap. But they’ll come around. Earth is ours now, and they know it. The only option they have is to leave.”
“But where?” asked someone in the crowd.
“Does it matter?” Gerrard rolled his neck. “No. Not really. But if you ask every scientist here, they’ll say the most likely candidate is Jupiter.”
“We’re sending them into Jupiter?” Thiago glowered.
“Not into it. Around it. It’s not a trap, as you’ve supposed. We’re not going to kill them. We’ll make them a ship…a perfect one. Jupiter’s hydrogen will fuel the micro-fusion reactors forever. We’ve done the tests. We know the answers. We’ll make it elegant, beautiful, and powerful. And then we’ll send them on their merry way. They’ll have food forever. They’ll have technology beyond their wildest dreams. But most importantly, they’ll be gone. No more bombs laid in In towers. No more slaughters of the sleeping.”
“You’re a military strategist,” Thiago argued. “No one here expected you to fight the Outs like this.”
Gerrard looked proud of himself. “Wars are won in the mind,” he said. “What happens on the battlefield is decided long before any soldier puts his boots on the ground.”
“And if they refuse?” Thiago asked what everyone else in the room wanted to know.
“Then we’ll lose a few hundred thousand,” Sara Von Berlitz stepped forward again. “And they’ll lose everyone. It’s a moral option, Thiago. What’s the phrase they used to use? The Outs will have to take it…or leave it.”
About the Author:
J Edward Neill is the author of sci-fi hit A Door Never Dreamed Of. He’s also the author of the dark fiction series, Tyrants of the Dead, the co-author of Hollow Empire, a six-part medieval opera, and the creator of the Coffee Table Philosophy series, spanning ten books and 1,000+ party-ready philosophy questions. He’s published multiple short stories for Kindles galaxy-wide.
Catch up with J via his websites: TesseraGuild.com and DowntheDarkPath.com.
A reader of mass quantities of fantasy and sci-fi, J Edward became obsessed with writing fiction in early 2001. On one bitterly cold morning in the lowest corridor of his cubicle, he set fingers to keyboard and began hammering away on what would become a much larger project than he ever imagined. Since that day, he’s spent nearly all his free time lost in his daydreams, conjuring ways to write the kind of stories he always loved as a child.
J Edward currently lives in the ‘burbs of North Georgia, where he moonlights as a foodie, a sipper of too much pinot noir, and the most cantankerous member of his small but beloved family.
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