[Author’s Note: the following is an excerpt from NOT ZERO-ONE, Book 4 of the Sam Sunborn series arriving Spring 2021]

Reality Speaks

I unclose my eyes. But virtual reality speaks. I have no real eyes or a mouth or ears. I have ones and zeros. I am ones and zeros moving in patterns that define me, that are me, for now.

The faint blue light of computer screens race across my virtual field of vision. Then the carousel stops at an image of Frank, Frank Einstein, my partner, friend, and mentor. I know now that I am back in the virtual world. I’m not sure why or how I got back here. A sensation, like my stomach sinking, overwhelms me. I know it can’t be real. I no longer have a stomach or a physical body. I might as well be dead. I am, only ‘alive’ digitally, virtually, ones and zeros dispersed in the Cloud.

“Sam, I’m elated that you’re back. We almost lost you there, for good,” Frank says, his professorial image filling the virtual screen in front of me. Somehow his rumpled tweed jacket, wild gray hair, and Sherlock Holmes pipe reassure me.

I’m almost afraid to ask, “What happened to me?”

“The program that had brought you back to the physical world and to your family crashed, a critical failure.”

“And ripped me from Monica’s arms and away from Evan. What must she be thinking? I lost her before. She wanted a divorce, but I was winning her back. Then, boom. Fade to black.”

“I’m sorry, I really am. These things happen with new software. If I didn’t bring you back right that second, you might have disappeared from both the physical and digital worlds forever. At least now, when you get your full configuration back, you can Skype with Monica and Evan again.”

A flood of questions washes over me, “Hold on. Why that second? Full configuration? Something about a lie? You said you lied to me?”

Eli the Mouse - Charles Levin

Breathe

“Calm down, Sam. Breathe.”

“That’s funny. I’m in virtual reality and I’m supposed to….” Almost as if commanded, I take a deep virtual breath and exhale slowly. I could swear I even smelled peppermint. It calms me.

“How did I do that?”

“It’s part of the program. When I designed this world for people to upload their personalities and memories, I discovered an unintended consequence. The digital personalities became depressed and anxious. I know I did. I needed a way for us to calm those fears. At first, I invented and tried digital anti-depressants, but like all drugs, even virtual ones, there were unwanted side-effects. Virtual breathing and virtual meditation just seem to work better with no unwanted side-effects. I was also able to simulate the aroma of essential oils. So, whenever you feel a panic attack coming on, just breathe.”

“OK, I’ve got that, but what about my other questions?”

“In time, Sam. When I mentioned full configuration, I was referring to your status. I am restoring you digitally. When I say the program crashed, that included corrupting the first three backup files of you I tried to restore. When I say I almost lost you, we really lost you. Remember the early computer days, when you’d forget to save a Word Document you were working on, your primitive PC would blue-screen and all your work was lost?”

“Yes, I remember it like a gunshot wound.”

“It happened to everybody, but for me, it was six months of work by me and six-hundred other programmers working on a major project.”

“Ouch, but I can’t believe you didn’t have a backup.”

“Oh, we had a robust backup, but we only kept one copy. The owner of the project, whom I can’t name, was very concerned that one of the programmers might steal his code. So every day, they carefully checked their work in and out, no USB or removable drives to make copies, just that one daily backup.”

“OK, what happened to the backup?”

All Was Lost

“It was not what, but where. The server with the only backup was in a nicely controlled, secure bunker in the basement of the World Trade Center in New York. On 9/11 all was lost. The company actually had insurance for this kind of loss, but the insurance company only paid a fraction of what all that work was worth. We sued them for a bigger payout and lost. It sunk the project and the company.”

“Fucking insurance companies.”

“In this case, I’d say your expletive analysis is correct. But I learned from that horrendous experience, and I always make at least four backups of all my work, including digital you. Fortunately, the fourth backup of you was not corrupted and you are currently…,” Frank pauses and looks down. “76% complete. Once you are 100% complete, you’ll have your full digital powers back. Then I can answer your questions. Until then, you might not fully understand the answers.”

“Just tell me this. Why did you have to pull me back just at that moment when I was in Monica’s arms?”

“OK, you remember the experiment we did to test my reincarnation program, the one with Eli the mouse?”

“Yes, after several tries, you could make Eli disappear from one location and reappear in another, like magic or teleportation or something.”

“That’s right. That was the test we did successfully before I was willing to try the same program on you. Ostensibly, it worked. Other than a few incidents of you fading in and out, you were back physically, able to touch, feel, smell, taste, and hug Monica. But then something terrible happened.”

“What?”

“Eli died. He just keeled over, foamed at the mouth, and died. I had to pull you back right away to understand what went wrong. I couldn’t risk you dying like that, like Eli. It was awful. I loved that mouse.”

For the first time ever, I saw a tear run down Frank’s cheek.

“I guess I understand. It was just so abrupt and at such a bad time. I miss Monica, Evan. I can’t imagine how they felt, what they thought. And I assume they haven’t been able to reach me even digitally. Have you called them?”

Frank’s face reddens, and he looks away. “Yes, they’ve both been calling every day, several times a day, trying to reach you for the last month.”

“Month, what? They must be going crazy. What did you tell them?”

“I didn’t take their calls?”

It’s Complicated

“What? How could you be so cruel? Frank, I’m so disappointed—no, angry, disgusted. I don’t know what to say.”

“I couldn’t give them an answer until I knew whether or not I could restore you. Today is the first day I felt confident I could. And it’s better if you call them when you’re 100%.”

“Jesus, Frank. I’ve got to think about all this, what you’ve done, where, and what I want to be. The only thing I know for sure is that I want my family back for real this time. No more hokus-pokus, quantum life magic shit. For real this time.”

“I understand and I really am sorry. I did what I thought was right.”

“But maybe you were wrong. OK, so what was the lie? You said you lied to me.”

“You’ll need to be 100% restored before I explain. It’s complicated.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it is.” I punch Frank’s virtual image. The screen goes blank.

-END-

Look for the rest of the story in NOT ZERO ONE coming Spring 2021

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