I was scared of noise till I went deaf. That is what Mama told me. My mother gave birth to me in a dark and damp underground bunker surrounded by strangers who had fled their homes and hearth but could not escape their land of birth. Those strangers called me Hope. My father was fighting somewhere on the borders, leaving my pregnant mother with her mother in the bunker. I never saw him in my life.
Mama narrated how I continuously bawled when she ventured out of the bunker for the first time with me, ten days after the day of my birth, to get some food and water. The sounds of sirens and explosions were too much for me. Then a building exploded somewhere in the vicinity, and I went quiet. So quiet that Mama was afraid that my heart had stopped beating. But it turned out to be a case of too much noise for my ears. She silently returned to the relatively quiet bunker below what was once a metro station. After that, I was always a calm child, as she doesn’t tire saying to whosoever listens to her.
Well, I don’t remember this bit of my life. What I do remember is wearing these elongated AR headsets ever since I was five years old. Both Mama and I got one each a few days after the war ended, and we left the familiar underground territory after five years.
The bright, vast barren land hurt my eyes at first. As Mama walked through the fallen rubble to reclaim our life, she was afraid that I would turn blind in addition to being deaf. Though the world did get dim for me, my eyes eventually adjusted one day, and Mama breathed a sigh of relief. Having lost her mother in the bunker, I was her only world.
Then life took over. The new unity government comprising heads of fifty erstwhile countries that had fought the war together decided the way out of the mass destruction was to create an augmented reality of a beautiful world rather than spend billions they didn’t have on reconstruction and rehabilitation. The debris was cleared, but instead of skyscrapers kissing the horizon, compact mobile homes, schools and hospitals filled the ground. Each family was allotted a mobile home with a unique number to take anywhere within this new nation. Mama told me that similar steps were taken in other parts of the world.
Hi-speed public WiFi was made available everywhere, and every living person—newborns included— was handed a laptop and AR headset. One could log in to select their work and workplace at any location falling under the jurisdiction of the unity government. Those elongated augmented reality headsets that covered most of our faces could transport us to a different corner of the world each day from our mobile homes if we wanted to. The choice was endless in a meta world where the living beings were real but making a living and having a life virtual. Mama got decision-fatigue with all the options and opted to permanently work with one employer after a month. She was paid in cryptos at the end of each day for her effort.
I must have been about twelve when I visited Mama’s office for the first time. She was working in the same room of our mobile home where I was studying but did not have a chance to take a break. So, I decided to pay her a visit. Or, to be precise, my avatar paid a visit to her avatar in her meta office. The metaverse was so pervasive that the virtual world appeared real, and the world our bodies inhabited seemed an unattractive fantasy by then.
“There is a parent-teacher meeting in our school tomorrow. The teacher has asked you to come,” I said.
“Ok,” she sighed. “What time?”
I could hear everything in the meta world, an advantage for me. Technology could fix the defects in metaverse that were beyond the powers of science on earth. The click of the mouse took my avatar to corners of the world where my feet didn’t dare to tread. The headset made me experience the sights, sounds and smells of these corners as if I was there.
I was so fascinated with computers that I studied them while growing up. By then, most of the nations in the world had entered into a pact facilitating the free movement of highly-skilled avatars within the boundaries of the meta nations. Unchartered vistas opened up for me, and I took up work in a faraway corner of the world, sitting in the same mobile home where I lived with my mama. There I met Roby.
Mama gasped the first time I introduced Roby and her to each other in a quaint coffee shop in the meta town where my office was. She and I sat at one side of the round table, with Roby looking at us from the opposite side.
“I will pull off my headset,” she threatened. “I am not sure whether my eyes deceive me or something is wrong with the headset. Are you actually dating a robot, Hope?”
“I haven’t looked at Roby that way, Mama. He speaks and looks like a man. He certainly has more feelings than men have.” Well, the last statement was a bluff. With no other male in my life, I didn’t have any references for this claim.
“His body looks like metal,” Mama whispered.
“Well, I am made of metal,” Roby chipped in his mechanical voice. So much for whispering.
“There are more robots than humans in the world now. How long can you avoid them?” I asked her. Homo sapiens, especially the male species, were in short supply after the Great War. Those who survived didn’t seem to be interested in procreation. Nation after nation, facing a manpower crunch, was replacing humans with robots for tasks that required boots on the ground. The population of robots had proliferated by millions in the twenty-five years after our foray outside the bunkers.
Mama looked at Roby to me, then back at Roby. She shrugged and ordered some green tea with honey.
“What do you do, Roby?” she asked.
“I work in the army,” he replied.
Mama kept quiet after that. She had enough of shocks for one day.
Later that evening, we quarrelled in our home wearing our headsets; arguments come easier when you can hear what the other person is saying.
“War took away everything from us, Hope. It is better to stay single for another thirty years of your life than to date a robot who will participate in another war.”
“I am dating Roby only because he is in the armed forces, Mama.”
I finally gave in and confided my plans to her, her eyes widening with each sentence I spoke.
Even after overcoming the restriction of boundaries through technology, humans still had memory limitations. Robots didn’t. Further, all the robots of the era were created from the same available metal. As a computer science expert, I had figured that this makes it possible for the robots in the world to communicate with each other simultaneously. This also made them vulnerable to malware; a malicious program fed by a clever hacker into one of them could affect them all. I intended to be that hacker.
“It seems I don’t know you, Hope,” Mama said after I finished speaking.
I didn’t reply. My eyes were fixed on the end goal, and no moral equations or ethical dilemmas could force me to make a detour.
Three Years Later
“You are the best lover in the world, Roby,” I said, kissing Roby’s metallic chest after making love in a meta hotel room. After dating and teasing Roby for two years, I was ready this year and took my relationship with him to the next level. Making love in the virtual world was in vogue around me—convenient, experimental and exciting. There were also more partner options available, not that this was a factor for me.
“How do you know?” he asked in his mechanical tone. “You were a virgin before I made love to you.”
I felt my cheeks go red. “Oh, so you know.”
“I know everything.” What a boast! If only he knew.
It was then I decided to go for the jugular.
“Roby, even though the virtual realm has superimposed and taken over our lives, it is still not real. Do you not want to live somewhere where you wake up beside me every morning and look into my eyes? I mean, look into them real deep, without the headset? Do you not want to touch me and explore my body to your heart’s content?”
His eyes glowed. “I so want to. But how? We are from different countries. All nations have restricted visas for physical international travel to keep their carbon emissions under control,” he said.
“I know all this. The environment is the ostensible reason for restrictions on travel, yes. However, the reality is that nations don’t trust each other. They have hence taken this step to protect their borders.” I said.
“To protect their borders,” he repeated.
“Yes. They all fear another war like the one we had forty years ago. And you know why? Because all countries have weapons. All weapons destroy, some more than others. No country wants to start a war, but no one wants to be easy prey for someone intruding on their territory either. The fear will go with the destruction of these weapons. So would be restrictions. Then we will be able to meet in person and stay with each other, Roby.”
“Stay with each other,” he echoed, his machine brain absorbing my every word.
I got up and dressed, showcasing every contour of my naked body to Roby. It has never failed to amuse me that the creatures of machine and metal were swayed as much by desires as their flesh and blood counterparts. I intend to examine the underlying reason someday.
“Don’t go now,” Roby begged, much to my delight. My plan was working.
“Anyone can walk into this room any moment,” I said. “There’s no privacy in the virtual world. Whereas if we were to be in a physical room, no one would invade our space without consent. Someday perhaps.” I fluttered my eyelashes before making my way to the door.
I hated weapons of all shapes and sizes. They took away my father. I was deaf before I understood the meaning of the term. True, my lack of hearing was not an issue in the virtual realm where I spent most of my time. But I didn’t get a chance to see my father and would never have him back.
I hoped for a world where there would be no sirens and explosions, no killings of innocents, and no displacement of families. And I was working towards it.
Over the next few months, I spent enough time with Roby to stimulate his senses while not giving him a chance to realise his desires. I teased, and he thawed.
“Please, let’s have sex,” he pleaded one day, not for the first time, when we were meeting in our regular coffee shop.
“I want to, Roby, but I do not want to take a chance of someone walking upon us while we are doing it. We will do it when we meet in person.”
“How and when?” he asked.
“Very soon, if you want.”
“If I want? How?”
That was the opportunity I was waiting for.
I held my breath lest he could sense my excitement.
“You are in the army. You know the whereabouts of all the weapons of your regiment. I can program you to destroy these weapons, and you can communicate to every other robot in the world working for the armed forces to imitate this action. They are not programmed to disagree with the instructions transmitted from a fellow robot. I have the coordinates of all your robot colleagues working in armed forces worldwide.”
Roby paused for some time before replying, “We take instructions from our masters.”
“But you do have the ability to think on your own. After all, you have fallen in love with me.” I was not going to tell him that I had manipulated him for the same.
“But what if they interrupt the exercise?”
“You will do it when they are asleep. By the time your masters wake up, the deed will be done. They will condone this incident upon knowing that weapons all over the world have been destroyed. The restrictions on movements would cease then. We will be able to meet.”
“We will be able to meet,” Roby echoed. He had bought into the idea.
“So, should I feed you with the program?”
Roby looked at me for some time before slowly nodding his head.
I took his right hand and started to input the program for wrecking the weapons of mass destruction on the palm, where a touchscreen keypad was located to send instructions to Roby’s CPU. It took me less than thirty minutes to send thirty-three years of my hopes to his Central Processing Unit. We would have appeared like any other lovey-dovey couple to the other avatars at the cafe.
“Do this tonight,” I said after I had finished.
“Tonight,” Roby reiterated.
I looked at Roby’s face. My eyes stung with tears that threatened to come out, much to my surprise. I grabbed Roby and kissed his lips with full force to divert my mind.
He responded earnestly before gently pulling me away. “Everyone in the coffee shop is watching,” he explained, his eyes full of love.
And the dam holding the tears burst.
“Why are you crying, Hope?” Roby asked.
Why, indeed? I don’t know to this day.
“I want to hug you,” I said.
“Very soon. For real.” He flashed his pearl white teeth, breaking my heart.
“See you soon, darling.”
That was the last I saw of Roby.
I cried myself to sleep that night, only to be woken up by the deafening synchronised implosions that shook the world. The world was different when I dragged myself out of bed the following day.
Governments of all nations were in a common huddle, a first in my lifetime. The destruction of weapons had achieved what their existence could not.
Without any arms or ammunition, all nations were equal. They unanimously decided to pull the plug on robots and the technology that powered them. In a matter of days, all the world’s robots vanished from the earth’s surface.
An agreement was reached towards a new, more equal order in the real world where there was no space for weapons. The cost of building weapons from scratch was something no nation could afford.
Countries opened their boundaries for physical travel once again. The metaverse was here to stay, but governments also decided to build and augment physical infrastructure. There were talks of promoting domestic and international tourism, just like the good old days I read in the history textbooks.
“My hopes and dreams have come true,” I told Mama.
“Are you happy, Hope?” she asked.
Roby’s face flashed before my eyes, and I quickly closed them. I had not been sleeping well; Roby’s mechanical voice requesting me to meet him had invaded my dreams.
“The world is a better place now,” I shouted.
She raised an eyebrow, clearly not convinced.
- Metaverse- A network of 3D virtual worlds focused where people can work, play, shop, socialize —in short, do all the things on the internet that humans can do together in real life. It is facilitated by the use of virtual and augmented reality headsets.
- Augmented Reality- An enhanced version of the real physical world that is achieved through the use of digital visual elements, sound, or other sensory stimuli delivered via technology. This technology superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.
- Mobile Homes-A prefabricated structure, built in a factory on a permanently attached chassis before being transported to site, either by being towed or on a trailer. Used as permanent homes, or for holiday or temporary accommodation, they are often left permanently or semi-permanently in one place, but can be moved, and may be required to move from time to time for legal reasons. They are in vogue in the United States and are upcoming in parts of Europe.
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