Today's Terraform explores that question, and more—considering a tomorrow where social media and virtual reality collide to further blur our dedication to reality, and massage our already swelling egos. Enjoy. -the ed
There was a time, before the Harvest, when all my followers were real. I could scan their profiles, see their faces. Little biographical nuggets I never thought to doubt. This was a handle. This, a rendition of a beating heart. One lost his gym card, another preferred raspberries, this one butt-dialed his ex while giving head. In Boise. Or Jakarta. Somewhere repressed. It wasn’t until those faces bled into oblivion that I began to fabricate their backstories.
They billed it as a triumph. A reality all your own, procedurally generated, curated to your vanity. Step into an ocean of celebrity as the hands reach out to worship your every move, reaffirming your every decision. Shall I have the chicken or the fish? A million fawning takes saturate the news. Hashtag #NeverFish. Late night hosts grow beards for #TeamChicken. A teenage girl, half-zonked after surgery, pleads on behalf of the salmon. Viral in an instant. And when you’re tired of it all, the meme, or just the content, you swipe left and it’s on to what you wore last night, what you said last week, what you shared this morning: a black and white photo of the Grand Canyon. The words: “Dare to dream.” It gets 6.8 million retweets. Front page of the New York Times. Who’s real and who’s fake? That’s not the point, and it probably never was.
We ogle what we can’t create.
“Are you my mother?” she asks. I think we’re driving somewhere—or being driven. The car drives itself.
“Not yet,” I say. A hand appears, combs the length of her hair and tucks loose strands behind her ear. I see it warm my daughter’s cheeks, then return to my lap in the driver’s seat, a dull pulse in the through of my knuckles. “We have a lot of ground to cover first.”
“I’ve had so many mothers,” she says. “I can’t tell the difference anymore.”
We drive for hours, maybe days. We talk about school—what she’s learning, how she likes her teachers. Saturn has over 60 moons. There were actually nine crusades, not three. Ms. Fletcher may or may not be real, but when she yells it sure feels like it.
It’s one of many films on screen. It competes with a symphony of visions and queues. But in the center, at least for now, there’s the two of us. We’re on a road trip. A yawning cloak of stars looms overhead, a sight never glimpsed in the city. My daughter looks up at them, bright enough to reveal the road without headlights, and gasps.
“Are they stars?” she asks.
“Do they look like stars to you?”
She shakes her head. “Nothing in my feed could describe this.”
Her eyes glisten as an image is recorded, processed, shared. I see her fall inward as a cast of egos vie for top billing. A million likes in an instant. A recursive spiral of content toward the bottom of the hole, the wishing well, where only a memory remains, an old dream or a friend like the very center of a matryoshka. The tiniest and most precious of all. I, too, close my eyes and fall inward. There’s a remote hope, or maybe just a hunch, that whenever we arrive, I will be there to receive her, stretching my arms out as she leaps into them, certain of a bond that may or may not exist.
One follower told me not to worry, this was nothing new, just the end run of a certain school of thought. Another said it’s what an infant feels. The followers who told me this might have been real, or they might have been born from the contours of an unformed thought, just some untapped nodes in the recess of my brain.
The car knows I’m hungry before I do, and then so does the rest stop it pulls into. Within a minute a service drone has delivered a platter of cheeseburgers and fries to our window. I emerge from a ballet on Titan, the throngs of my worshippers stretched out to the horizon. There’s a red sky above and a plate of overdone patties below. Through a fog of storylines I see her, stuffing fries into her mouth, an absent gaze beyond, and feel my hand stroke the shape of her skull. The embrace startles her. Our eyes meet.
“Are you my mother?” she asks.
“I think so.”
“You’re not like the others.”
“What am I like?”
“You hug me more.”
“You don’t like it?”
“It’s okay, I guess. I don’t know.”
Part of me is on Titan, gazing into lakes of methane from the vantage of some geodesic dome. Another fragment bathes in a pool overlooking a city, the skyline of which I can’t make out. One piece receives an award for Best Actor, the fifth of my career.
It takes a moment to pinpoint the blinking exclamation point. A buzzing alarm draws me to it, strobing the area in fluorescent red. It must be Titan.
But it’s not.
I’ve finished my meal. She’s beside me in the passenger seat, staring at me with expectant eyes, reflecting red. A robotic voice cuts through the din. Something about waiting for the authorities.
My daughter looks frightened.
I exit the car—or attempt to. It’s locked from the inside. I jiggle the handle, bang on the glass, shout for help. There’s a man on a nearby park bench wearing sunglasses in the dark. He ambles over to the car, cups his hands and peers in through the window. I point to the handle, plead for help, shout something about needing to break the glass. He looks confused, the fool. It goes on until he gets the hint, walks away, and returns with a rock. He motions for me to cover my eyes, I do, and he smashes the window in two hits.
She hasn’t moved through all this. Shards of glass dot the fabric of her pants. Her head is lolled to the side, somewhere else. I take her by the wrist and haul her out of the car. The man says or asks something but I don’t quite hear it, not through the din of other stages. So I merely watch as my body drags the girl away from the car, away from the rest stop, away from the strange man, and into the woods.
My hand parts the thicket as the light recedes.
On another stage I’m at an after-party, drinking champagne with the best in the business. Someone makes a toast in my honor. Next year it’ll be the lifetime achievement award.
On Titan there’s a rave. They launch tiny rockets that form geometric patterns in their wake, drawing fractal shapes that fill the sky from east to west. A billion feet shake the ground.
I see now it’s an ancient city, one with Byzantine domes and obelisks. Soon it will be sacked and I will flee with my thralls. The end of history.
There’s an old stone well in the middle of the woods. Moonlight reveals a shallow climb to a false bottom, boarded up since out of use. She’s light enough to carry. Words form in my mouth, but I’m not close enough to hear them. She nods, or appears to nod, and now my arms are lowering her into the darkness. Her eyes look up, beyond my own, to the starlit sky. They are still and distant. In her pupils I see only the flitter of other worlds, other places, somewhere she’d rather be. Algorithms at work.
The limo is full of my favorite people. My arms pierce the wind as it hurtles down the Sunset Strip, a million likes cascading before me. Rich beyond my wildest dreams.
The ship carries me to other moons, reflecting back the mocha sheen of Saturn. It’s bright enough to eat the darkness between the stars.
Heads roll in the sand. A great prince lunges into the thick of battle, never to be seen again. The bodies stack like charred wood.
There’s a light in the distance, spanning gaps in the trees like God rays.
My body huddles by the well and buries my head in my arms. I hear shouting in the distance, the barking of dogs, more flashlights, footsteps crinkling leaves and snapping twigs.
Down below, they are infinite, my followers, all arms stretched upward in awe.
Or are they begging?
The difference is trivial. What more do I have to give?
I ogle everything I can’t create.
I’m hauled away by a network of arms, all adorned with blue jackets and flat-brimmed caps.
They cuff my hands but cannot touch my feed.
As the stone well recedes I see one of the blue jackets fishing my daughter out of the earth, drawn up like some primordial clay. Ghoulish sounds escape me but I can’t make out the words.
I’m returned to the rest stop where I’m placed inside a rotary vehicle with flashing blue lights. Already the memory of my daughter starts to fade as the feed refreshes. The sky is blue, but also gray, black, and, on Titan, blood red. The Pope wants me to deliver the Easter sermon. A small island nation has deified me. I look out the window, see the man with the sunglasses talking to one of the blue jackets, only now his face is bare, revealed. He shakes his head in confusion, but seems to understand something deeper. There is no flitter behind those eyes, only a yawning darkness borne of an untapped mind. Singular, empty, alone—those fiercely desperate things I used to know. Scanning between visions, soaring above distant, lonely moons, I feel sorry for him.
His world is not one to create.