Anzel took a deep breath and closed his eyes as the cooling fans whined down, mentally calming himself with a meditation technique he’d learned in Tibet 3,000 years ago. A three-dimensional model of the student’s brain slowly rotated in the space beside the chair, the infusion of accelerant stem cells still swarming around it like bees around a hive, working overtime to finish all the last-moment neural connections necessary to accommodate the wealth of data the organ was struggling to soak up. In a few days, they would implant the network connection to remote data storage that would serve as a cognitive prosthesis for all the data soon to come.
The model vanished. The student had died, and now the system was resurrecting him.Fijn’s eyes fluttered open, as if from a lifetime of sleep, but it was only a few minutes since he’d gone under.
Fijn cast about, momentarily disoriented before focusing on his guide. “Hello Anzel,” he whispered uncertainly.
Anzel grinned warmly and nodded. Fijn did not refer to him as “Mr. Anzel,” as he had just a few minutes ago, before going under. His experiences in the simulation had made them social equals. Loosing his status as an authority figure was Anzel’s favorite part of his responsibilities.
“The colors were off and things didn’t taste right,” Fijn said at last.
Anzel nodded to signal his sympathy with the complaint, but corrected, “That’s how your ancestors sensed things.” Anzel remembered the era of Fijn’s simulation and catered his explanation to the jargon he would best understand without getting too technical, “Their brains weren’t wired the same as ours. They lacked the digital enhancements that give our perceptions and memory such clarity.”
“It wasn’t very real,” Fijn countered somewhat indignantly.
Anzel gave another sympathetic nod, but countered, “Were you aware of the simulation?”
“I…” Fijn looked down, recalling, “There were times when I had my suspicions.”
“I think you mean you had your doubts,” Anzel ducked his head, trying to restore eye contact. It was important to establish a connection to the real world during this period of acclimation. “Everyone has doubts, even today. You won’t truly grow suspicious until the 2800s, even the people who actually lived in that time period, and all those after them, believed they were living in a simulation. Today we take it for granted that all this,” Anzel gestured around himself, “is a simulation of some sort, but we cannot prove it.”
Fijn was frowning away into space. Anzel knew what was coming and tapped into his meditative conditioning for strength.
“My life’s work…” Fijn muttered at last, “it was all for nothing.”
“The knowledge you took from your life’s work wasn’t for nothing,” Anzel reached out and placed a firm hand on Fijn’s shoulder and shook him gently. “You have an entire lifetime of learning under your belt now. Soon you’ll have several lifetimes--”
Fijn cut him short, shrugging off his hand, “All those people, they weren’t real. My mother, my father… wife… daughters… That isn’t right. I spent that entire lifetime thinking I was going to be reunited with Sanya after I died, but she never existed.” Fijn finally met Anzel’s gaze, “That was very cruel of you.”
Once, when Anzel was new to this responsibility, he had told a student that life could be cruel, but that was not fair. What the students experienced was engineered, purposeful, and there was no way they could consent to entering the simulation until they knew what they were going into, and there was no way to know what they were going into without having them actually go into it.
“People will continue to enter and leave your real life too,” Anzel said carefully. “You’re real mother and father will eventually die, you might find someone to love, but you’re time together will be brief. You are very aware of this now, and you will grow ever more aware of it through more simulations.”
“You mean more lifetimes,” Fijn countered, “more meaningless lifetimes.”
“Not meaningless, no experience is meaningless,” Anzel held up a hand at the imminent objection, “but I understand what you’re saying. In addition to the education you have taken from your lifetime as a paleontologist, you have also touched thousands of lives.”
Fijn’s eyebrows lifted curiously at this.
“You weren’t alone in there,” Anzel explained. “You were living on a planet with 6.5 billion other people on it, and we run several billion students through these simulations worldwide every day. I can guarantee you that, in a few years of schooling, running an average of 500 simulations a day, you will have developed a lifetime relationship with millions of people alive right at this moment.”
Fijn sat up suddenly, urgently, “My wife. I want to see her.”
Anzel held up a hand to pause the student. He logged into his ocular implant briefly and shook his head, “She’s gone back in, and is well into another lifetime. This might be difficult for you to hear, but you were not her first love.”
“I’m aware of that, she was heartbroken when I met her—“
“No, I mean she’s at a higher grade-level than you,” Anzel pressed the understanding into Fijn’s mind, trying to get him through the inevitable pain as quickly as possible. “She’s been running simulations since last week. She has more than 10,000 lifetimes worth of experience inside her now.”
Fijn turned dark, “Are you saying my thirty years of marriage was just a fling to her?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Fijn trembled, his fists clenched and he appeared about to strike Anzel, but stopped, staring at his tiny hands. He frowned, pushing his eyes shut against the reality around him, and shook his head.
Fijn waited quietly, remembering his own first lifepartner. You never forgot your first.
“You took it all away from me,” Fijn muttered at last. “You didn’t have the right.”
“As your elders, we decided what we thought was best for you,” Anzel said. “Just like you had to decide whether to send your children to public or private school, discipline them in what you thought was best, and you made mistakes. This seems like a mistake to you right now, but you’ll soon understand.”
Fijn squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, refusing, “But the ethical questions! I had no idea what I was getting into!”
“You had no idea what you were getting into when you were born,” Anzel countered.
“You didn’t consent to existing, you were just thrown into it and you adapted. We’re simply accelerating your adaptation. People used to only get one shot at life, now we’re giving you a few million practice-runs on it before you have to deal with the real thing. Modern living is far too complex for anyone to live successfully with only a single youth to prepare them.”
Fijn was obviously trying to fathom this, so Anzel pressed ahead, coaxing, “What you need to do is go back into the simulation, live another lifetime, and then another one. Trust me, things seem bad now, but you’ll see it all in a whole different light after a few more lifetimes. Believe it or not, it will become quite routine.”
Fijn absentmindedly picked up the toy dinosaur he’d brought with him into the school, fidgeting with it the way he had before the simulation. This was a good sign.
“Are you ready to go for another ride?” Anzel prompted.
Fijn continued to shift uncomfortably, “I… I don’t know. I mean, I realize that lifetime was only a few minutes real time, but living an entire life time again feels like such a huge commitment.”
“Every minute your not in the simulation, it’s running without you. A hundred years have cycled through while we were having this conversation,” Anzel explained. “You’re missing out.”
Fijn shook his head, “Maybe I could just wait and hop on the next ride? How long until the whole of human history, past to present, runs through?”
“It will finish tonight, and tomorrow we’ll run through the whole thing again. You can come by tomorrow a little before this time and jump back into the timeline where you left off.”
“Are there other simulations?” Fijn asked.
“You mean realities where there are four spatial dimensions or where gravitational, strong and weak nuclear forces are slightly different?” Anzel grinned mischievously at this teaser of worlds to come. “You have to live through the whole of modern human history first before we can expose you to living in one of those universes. You’ve only lived one lifetime in our reality. You need to compile more wisdom before you can experience the completely alien.
“The healthiest thing for you to do is to go back in right now,” Anzel leaned in, trying to assure the student, “spend the rest of the afternoon getting more life experience. I know you’re wise enough from you first lifetime to know I’m speaking the truth.”
“I know.” Fijn acknowledged. “It’s just that—That last simulation wasn’t always nice.” The student became distant, recalling. “It was really scary at times. I remember that one point in my life, right after my wife had passed away, and I was having to declare bankruptcy… I—I don’t want to live through something like that again.”
“The simulation will never give you more than you can handle,” Anzel recognized the look Fijn was giving him, as if he were something alien. Anzel had wisdom no 16-year-old had in the 2000s. It was commonplace for the student to have an elder so young, but a lifetime spent in an era when wisdom came only with decades of physical life made it seem uncanny.
Reading this, Anzel tried to assure Fijn, “This world will seem familiar to you again with time. Trust me. You’ve spent eighty years living a thousand years ago, and only eight years in the present. You may be an elder there, but you’re still a child here, physically and emotionally.”
Fijn noticed the toy dinosaur now gripped in his hands. He gave it to Anzel, “An eighty-four year old man doesn’t play with toys.”
Anzel cradled the toy in his own hands, considering as it blinked and cooed softly at him. It was a simulacrusaur, a dinosaur unknown in the 21st century, and it was only discovered within the last two centuries through computer simulations, no fossil had ever been found.
“You know,” Anzel finally broke the silence. “Knowledge is a toy. Do you think you’re interest in Paleontology was purely academic?”
“I enjoy paleontology,” Fijn said with a hint of defensiveness. “That doesn’t make it any less an intellectual pursuit.”
“Not at all,” Anzel agreed. “The advanced intellectual nature of the interest only serves to make the game that much more engaging.”
Fijn frowned darkly, “My life was not a game.”
“If you look at it a certain way, you could—“
“My life was not a game!” Fijn shouted with adult rage his immature vocal chords could not manage and he almost choked on it. Gasping, he managed to continue, “My life was not a game. I was Edmond Gillcrest, paleontologist. I had fourteen pages worth of citations in my curriculum vitae. I had a loving wife, who I stayed up with for two days as she died. My daughter, Deja, is a professor of microbiology and Olivia works in nanotech. I have… I have… five grandchildren, who I left college funds for. Every one of them! I built a house with my own two hands! It will stand another hundred years or more! I left my fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in Aurora!
“I have spent my whole life trying to be a good person, to leave my world a better place than I had found it, to believe there was a purpose to it all, but now… now… Why?” Fijn looked up to him, pleading.
Anzel was silent. There was nothing he could do at the moment. Fijn had to work it out for himself. Analogies and metaphors for life were fun perspectives on it, but Fijn was still too young to appreciate them. Anzel didn’t have the ultimate answers anymore than anyone else.
Fijn swallowed and blotted at the tears on his cheeks with his sleeve, when he spoke, his voice was tired and ragged, “How old are you?”
“Old enough to stop keeping track,” Anzel leaned forward and pressed the toy dinosaur back into Fijn’s hand. “Keep this. The more lifetimes you live, the more you will cherish knowledge over material gains, which you can’t take with you out of the simulation; however few people ever seem to grasp that concept. Keep this as a single memento of your journey’s first step, remember how you once cherished it, but no more.”
Fijn cradled the toy and it gurgled at him sweetly, blinking it’s amber-colored eyes.
“I want my mommy,” his whisper was barely audible.
In the blink of an eye, Anzel had contacted Fijn’s family to come retrieve their member. Fijn was an adult now, however an inexperienced one, and could make his own decisions. He was in his family’s hands.
“I’m allowed to let you go home tonight,” Anzel spoke as they waited, “but be sure to come back as soon as possible. Right now the person you are is defined only through the experiences of a single lifetime. You’re not a paleontologist who lived at the turn of the 21st century. You are an eight year old boy living in the 31st century, an eight year old boy who must live countless more lifetimes and age many more real-time years in order to finish his education. Do you understand?”
Fijn did not make eye-contact, and Anzel could detect tearing in the child’s eyes. Several very tense moments later, a young woman, maybe a few years older than Anzel, appeared in the classroom.
Fijn ran up and wrapped his arms around her legs, “Mommy…” he cried into her knees.
She smiled politely at Anzel, who smiled apologetically in return, before she shuffled out of the classroom and down the hall, leaving Anzel to contemplate tomorrow’s sessions with the child.
Anzel knew it wasn’t a failure. The child’s reluctance to live another lifetime in the simulator was natural. It still happened to Anzel from time to time.
He powered down the simulation port and considered it quietly. Some lifetimes were like really good books, they changed the way you looked at the real world, and you needed some time to appreciate that newfound perspective, enjoy it, assimilate it into your person, before you could pick up the next one.
Anzel nodded at this thought, he had seen the phenomena so many times, he did not question the truth of it. Fijn had simply picked up a really good book, and needed a little time to digest it.
Then he would return to the library for more.