John was relieved that he had invested in a holographic keyboard. His palms pooled moisture where they met the fabric of his trousers, blotting against the skin on his thighs.
He took several deep breaths and surveyed the counsellor’s office. He had a 360-degree view of it from within his VirtuoPod.The walls were painted white. The occasional happy kitten frolicked within its mounted frame. Motivational quotes cycled across the walls to his left and right.
“Persona is Prime.” “Conform, don’t Question.” “Progress is Perfection.”
For several seconds, he wished he’d attended this session via his unidirectional flat-screen monitor. Instead, a perfect cylinder of glass cocooned him in its curvature, the Bell Corp insignia discreetly etched onto its surface. It simulated his surroundings to a fault.
John had invested in his set-up at home. He could transport himself to any Bell-approved location in the world and it would surround him, immersing him in high-fidelity reality.
He’d experienced sweeping Hyper Reality views from atop the Bell Towers in Crown City, awestruck as its nano-fibre constructions reoriented themselves with clockwork precision. They crested and descended, swivelling to make the most of their solar-harvesting capabilities, absorbing snatches of power from the sunlight that peeked through whips of rain lashing down from the sky.
He’d experienced a Hyper Real reconstruction of Apex City from decades ago, when it had still been named Bangalore. The immensity of the azure sky had left him speechless, arcing dome-like overhead and reflected in thousands of mirrored-glass buildings rising into the sky. When Bell Corp had taken over the city, they’d redesigned its architecture to eliminate all its heat islands. Now Bell Corp’s twenty-six towers mushroomed over the streets, a bio-mat canopy that all but obscured the clouds. John would never forget his brief glimpse of the infinity that lay beyond the city’s skyscape.
If he made it to the top twenty percent of society, he’d gain admission to far more elaborate experiences; rumour had it that the apex of the Curve could access olfactory simulations.
Mrs Naidu cleared her throat. John returned to the present.
She was probably seated in a set-up similar to his own.
She looked at him indifferently. “John Alvares, I want to get to know you.”
“Okay.” His throat felt dry.
“I’m going to project a series of images onto your screen. Name them.”
“Okay. His throat seized up. He wasn’t expecting a test. “Ready?”
A sequence of cards appeared on the screen. The first was open-faced and had a timer beneath it. He surmised he had ten seconds to guess who each figure on the cards was.
He stumbled through his guesses.
“The Vindicators, that superhero group. Um. Barthöven, I dunno, all neo-Acousta composers look the same. Um, Steel Man. Er, wait, I know this one...I really do – no, let’s skip it. Um, Battle Arena champion who’s a famous VR fighter? I dunno, I really don’t follow the League of Champions. Star Masters, the sci-fi franchise, not sure what the bad guy’s name is. Ahh. Clash of Empires, the docudrama. I think this one is a start-up queen from the 2000s...the founder of FreshGoodz? I give up.’
He fell quiet. He didn’t recognise the next ten characters.
Mrs Naidu let him fail. Repeatedly.
She could have stopped the sequence at any time, but she seemed to revel in his inadequacy.
When the sequence ran out, she didn’t say a word.
She typed away soundlessly on her holographic keyboard.
“Is that all?” John broke the silence.
Mrs Naidu looked up at him.
“Hardly.” She paused. “Tell me, John, is there a specific reason you refuse to engage with the contemporary and the classical alike?”
“Do you believe yourself superior to your peers? Or perhaps superior to the creators of all these cultural phenomena?”
“Or maybe you think this makes you special? Your non-conformity?”
“No, er,” John stammered. “I mean, I guess I’m just not interested in this stuff. My interests are different.”
He couldn’t tell her the truth. This meeting might be off the record, but truth was more valuable than BellCoin, and his would be his undoing.
“How did you come to possess this very specific disinterest?” Mrs Naidu probed. “Is it because you have very specific interests?”
“What? I like the things I’m into.”
“The world around you doesn’t like the same things, so how did you come to be so special?”
“I...I don’t know.”
“Are you a rebel?” she spat.
John flinched, and pushed his chair back. She was looming over him, a terrifying presence, even though they were only conversing through the technology of their VirtuoPods.
“A closet punk? An Outsider activist? An Analog sympathist?”
“What, no...” John was horrified. Were therapists supposed to display such obvious biases?
“What’s your position on Outsider immigration?”
“I...er – ”
“What’s your opinion on the Analog world?”
The words scrambled their way out of John, rushing out in a single breath as he rose to his defence.
“It’s a terrible place. People don’t have access to technology. To portals.They have printed newspapers. They’re forced to talk to each other in person every single day, experience the weather without being able to control it...Many of them are used by the twenty percenters in their Pleasure Domes, and many of them are forced to serve us – the seventy percenters, I mean – whenever we demand it of them. And the most Unproductive Analogs, they’re, well...the vegetable farm...”
“Hmm.” Mrs Naidu seemed to nod in approval.
“I’ve never belonged to it, and I never want to,” John finished conclusively and, he hoped, convincingly.
“You’re a seventy percenter, John. Life is good, yes? Well, it can get better when you belong to the top twenty percent. You do want to make it, I suppose? You want legal avenues to get married, be popular, own property, travel the world?”
She waited for him to supply a nod.
“Then you need to know this. Your opinions, your interests, they’re not just infra-Bell, they’re positively anti-Bell. I could write up a report that states the same. Of course, it will only ensure that you never make it to the twenty-percent club.The rest of your downward spiral will be your fault.”
“I’ve seen it all before. You’ll be so demotivated that your Productivity will start to slip. Before you know it, you’ll be downgraded to Analog status. Maybe you’ll make a living on the other side, somehow...but it’s far more likely that you’ll wind up in the vegetable farm.”
“So why don’t you tell me the truth? What went wrong with you? Were your parents rebels?”
“My parents died when I was young.”
Muscle memory took over.
“I was raised by their housekeeper. An Analog woman.” Lies.
A spasm shot through the nerves in his neck as he felt his humanity crack.
“That explains your non-conformist streak.” Her tone was sympathetic with notes of contempt.
John watched her eyes scan something on her screen.
She clucked twice.
“Peace Riot, really! That’s as cultured as a bottom feeder. Subscriptions to Outside Matters and a history of streaming HoloTube shows about their lot. A signed petition for trade negotiations to resume between the Delhi Aqua-Soc and the Krishna-Godavari Agro-Soc...Why does it matter to you if Krishna-Godavari’s drought remains unresolved? So what if Delhi refuses to supply them with water?”
“I believe in being informed – ”
“I’ve got the entire report here, you know? Nearly every search term you’ve ever typed into your devices has been flagged on the Nebula by Bell Corp’s Seditious Activities Unit. All the conversations you’ve ever had with your co-workers have been recorded. You’ve raised several eyebrows, and not in the right way.”
She paused, encountered stony silence, and pressed on with her interrogation.
“Are you a nationalist?”
“What, no –” John almost rose to the bait, but caught himself.
“Then you know this, John Alvares. I repeat it for your benefit. The Outside is none of your concern. Your allegiance...your focus should rest on all matters within the Bell Corp domain, particularly within Apex City. Do you understand?”
He seethed in silence.
“Good, good, you’re learning.”
The woman’s gaze was appraising.
“That’s good. Mouldable, pliable, you’re open to changing.”
“Changing what?” John snapped, caught himself again, and repeated the words more civilly. “Changing what?”
Every single thing about yourself.”
John felt hollow. It had been this way since he had first crossed the border from the Analog to the Virtual world. The lies, they ballooned.
Soon, they would slip from his grasp and float away. What would be left behind?
Excerpted with permission from Analog Virtual And Other Simulations Of Your Future, Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Hachette India.