Winston24601 Resident stirred fitfully on the lumpy mattress, the cold air finally bringing him to shivering wakefulness. Cursing environment physics, he wrapped his arms around himself against the cold. Blearily he gazed at the blaring video feed in the corner of the room, his feet fumbling for the cold hardness of the floor. “Get a move on! Winston24601 – on your feet! Exercise is healthy and ensures your productivity” – the harsh shout disrupted the audio stream, shocking him to his senses. Half-heartedly he went through the obligatory motions, flapping his arms, like a weary battery hen until the session was concluded. The screen changed to the standard Gridwide vidfeed – a pastiche of images that rarely changed in its content from day-to-day: Agni and Aditi forces clashing in some bland, featureless Sim; yet another round of mesh -v- prim demonstrations; more griefers de-rezzed… same stories, just a different day. As he hopped from foot to foot, breathing fitfully, the image of Governor Linden glared down at him from the spybot on the wall – those fiercely piercing eyes, somehow benevolent, despite their cruel intensity.
He felt rotten. Cracking the seal on a new bottle of Linden Lager, he took a large swig, gagging as the bitter, gassy liquid hit the back of his throat – ugh! He tried to remember how proper beer had tasted in the good old days, when life was fun and all of this meant something. Daylight arrived, not as it once did, in the times when things were better, but suddenly, harshly – from midnight to midday in an instant. Again his memories played with him… recalling the days when evening and morning had their place, remembering how residents had once had the option to choose their time of day. Now, it was chosen for them, ‘for the common good’, morning and evening long gone to increase ‘productivity’.
Sighing, Winston called up his LMs and clicked on ‘Minipix’.
The Ministry of Pixels covered several parcels of a single region, although workers like Winston were restricted to just a few small areas. Access lists were strict and the penalties for camming into restricted areas were severe – Winston contented himself with the knowledge that the less he knew, the less he could be held accountable for, and that suited him just fine. Besides, he already knew too much…
There was that day – was it last year, or longer ago? He couldn’t recall. Just a routine batch of changes: Sims that were now out of favour with the Lindens to be erased. Winston was a professional, a methodical worker… within an hour or two, there wouldn’t be a trace remaining: any reference to the former Sim would be deleted, Search re-configured, profiles altered, groups re-assigned and inventories stripped of LMs. Winston took a pride in his work and was known for his diligence – by the time he was finished, even the most intangible evidence that the Sim once existed would be erased permanently – chat logs would be re-written and scripts altered. The only thing Winston couldn’t do was alter people’s memories, but those soon faded… and if they didn’t, there were plenty of ways forgetfulness could be encouraged, failing that, there was always the threat of Sim 451. People always forget, they choose to – the alternative simply allows no option – in Lindenspeak the term was ‘SLelectThink’, it was the only way to survive.
So it was, whilst conducting a routine webnet search, that he found the blog.
Winston hadn’t realised that blogs like that still existed – surely they’d all been removed in the Cleansing of 2012? Yet, here it was – a real piece of historical truth, unchanged and unchallenged in all these years. Furtively, he scanned the pages – knowing as he did so that even the act of reading constituted SLactivityCrime. As he read, tears stung his eyes… stories of a time when people enjoyed leisure time, with music and dancing; a time when the marketplace thrived, even though ‘productivity’ was never mentioned; a time when residents were simply just that… residents of a different world, not Workers, or Party Members but people, choosing to make their virtual home here.
Winston knew what he had to do, yet as his finger hovered over the trash key, he paused. Here was a piece of real, untarnished, un-edited history – the Truth – its’ worth was inestimable, yet also worthless in a world where truth was decided on the whim of a Governor whom it was doubtful even existed at all. ‘Heresy! What are you thinking Winston?’ – shocked at his own SLanderThink, he shuddered involuntarily then, panicking, cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder. Hating himself, but knowing there was no alternative, he brought his finger down on the trash key. Sweating slightly, Winston sat back in his chair, willing himself to want to forget what he’d seen… he couldn’t.
In the canteen, the girl was there again. He’d seen her a few times now and on each occasion their glances had coincided. She wore the denim overalls and green peaked-cap of the anti-freedom coalition but, somehow, she didn’t seem the type. Winston glanced at the clock on the wall: 13:34SLT – he’d better get a move on or miss out.
Sat at the utilitarian table, Winston toyed with the glutinous rice and the wet, greasy noodles and idly wondered how ninety percent of the Grid was able to survive on staples that barely provided the electro-nutritional needs required by most avatars. He, like most these days, chose function over form and used only the most basic of body types – System hair and clothing, with only the attachments necessary for the job at hand, even then, meeting the constantly revised Avatar Rendering Cost limits imposed by almost every Sim was becoming harder and harder. He found his mind wandering back to that day and the impossible blog – re-sizeable prim hair, scripted shoes: It all seemed so removed from his present reality. He smiled, remembering how the blogger had ranted about bling – oh, what riches!
“Is something amusing?” – the unfamiliar voice roused him from his reverie.
“Umm…. no. I was just thinking of Governor Linden’s benevolence in providing so generously for our daily needs”, he replied, gesturing at the soggy mass on his plate with his knife.
“Indeed”, replied the girl, then with a scrape of the chair, she was sat opposite him. She ate quickly and in silence, ignoring Winston’s gaze. He shrugged and tried to follow suit but the girl’s presence distracted him – she was prettier than he had thought – in the end, he was glad when she finished her meal, patted her lips with a napkin and stood up to leave.
Winston looked up, “Governor Linden sees all”, she proffered; “Governor Linden is all”, Winston replied. The girl nodded and pushed her way past, jarring Winston’s shoulder with her tray as she left. The napkin slid from the tray, landing in Winston’s noodles, he sighed, plucking the offending article from the plate – he wasn’t hungry anyway.
Absently, Winston folded the napkin… writing? A note, maybe, to remind the girl of a coalition meeting perhaps? Winston thought to call her back, but she was gone, and anyway the note was no reminder… ‘i want to be free – meet me 19:00slt abbeyfield 555/911/84’. It took just a moment for Winston’s practiced eye to absorb the information and commit it to memory then, crumpling the note, he stood and returned his tray, scraping the remains of his food and the note into the de-renderer. He went back to work.
Winston elected to do a shift at the Voluntary Work Hub at the conclusion of his day’s work. He considered it part of his duty to indoctrinate new residents as a matter of course but today it would act as his cover. To return home, then leave again would only attract suspicion – Governor Linden sees all – however it would be relatively easy to ‘disappear’ in the hectic Welcome Area and, if his presence was missed, it would simply be assumed he was giving one of the NewRezzers the Grand Tour.
It was easy enough to slip away – he decided to use his personal TP, although a record would be kept, he had the means to wipe it, once back in work tomorrow – using a public telepad would be crazy. Taking a deep breath, Winston entered the co-ordinates…
Abandoned Land – Property of Governor Linden: good grief! To be found here was automatic SLexecution. Winston was on the point of TP’ing away when the girl appeared. “I knew you’d come”, she said, “let’s talk”.
Julia4077 Resident was a rebel, an insurgent who was prepared to give her life for the cause. As for what the cause might be, Winston was at a loss – none of it made sense to him.
“What do you mean by freedom?, he asked, “what more is there than this? What is there to be free from?”.
“You really don’t understand, do you Winston? Then I’ll show you!”. Julia took his hand, “Winston, if the revolution is to come, it will be through the Meat People, not the Avatars – we are helpless, but they know true freedom and only they can set us free.”
Winston shook his head – none of this made sense…
“Winston – come with me… we’re going to log off.”
Winston was scared – the horror stories of his childhood ran through his head. Stories of Ghosts: Soulless avatars left to wander SL, strange, empty beings, having the appearance of real people, without consciousness or capacity – the husks of a life once lived. This was the consequence of logging-off – Winston had heard talk of it but had never considered it to be more than old-wives tales, propagated to scare young children into behaving.
“Are you coming?” Winston nodded – he knew he was already in too deep to escape without punishment, he had no choice really. Taking Julia’s hand, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and waited.
The feeling was indescribable: At first a sensation of falling, ever falling, disorientating, complete darkness, a keening whistle just at the furthest extent of his hearing. Then, a sickening twist, as his world turned inside-out. Silence.
Feeling returned – slowly – and it was very different. Julia’s hand in his was soft and warm – his hand was soft and warm!
He opened his eyes to see a changed world, a real world, not of pixels but of solidity and form. His own body had changed – he breathed, he pulsed… he was alive: A real, living, meat body!
Winston turned to look at Julia, elation on his face. She smile at him, took a hesitant step forward and whispered, “Hug me?”
So, this was what freedom was like, thought Winston as they embraced. On the monitor behind them, their avatars stood silently – empty witnesses to their crime – but how could the reality that Winston was now experiencing be a crime?
The evening passed in a blur, the experiences melding together in a frenzy of feelings and excitement. Together, Winston and Julia learned what it meant to be living, breathing beings, unlimited by draw distances and particle limits. They danced, they sang, they listened to music and all freely – they moved fluidly, without AOs, lounged in each other’s arms, without poseballs and absorbed the sheer joy of feeling the world around them as real people.
Then, suddenly, the bubble burst…
A stentorian voice blasted from the speakers – “Stop what you’re doing, stand up and step away from each other!”
In stunned silence, they stood and turned to face the monitor, where Governor Linden’s face now loomed like a portent of doom. Those eyes no longer seemed benevolent but full of ire. “They were watching from the monitor”, whispered Winston.
“We were watching from the monitor”, mocked the voice, “Governor Linden sees all!”
They had been caught, red-handed, and now they would be punished.
Winston had no idea how long the interrogation had lasted – if felt like a lifetime, it may only have been hours, perhaps days, perhaps it was a lifetime… who was to care?
O’Brien Linden faced him across the room. “You see, Winston, your crime was not so much that you logged off… the crime was your choosing to believe that freedom exists. It does not. True freedom is the willingness to be told that two plus two equals five, and to believe it – not to be confined by what you may believe to be the truth. Truth is what we tell you to believe. Now, Winston, choose to believe that there is no freedom and you can walk away… Julia has – she sold you out, you know?”
Winston sat, fists clenched, teeth gritted and slowly shook his head – “Never”, he hissed, “I have experienced freedom, it is real”.
O’Brien looked at him, almost with pity: “Then, my friend, you know what you must face… it’s time: Sim451”
Winston stared, wide-eyed at O’Brien: “What is at Sim451?”
The Linden stood and walked to the door. Pausing, without turning, he spoke, so quietly that Winston had to strain to hear him.
“You know what is at Sim451, my friend. It is the worst thing in your world… the worst thing in Second Life”
O’Brien left the room, leaving the door to close behind him, with a single, soft click.
Winston24601 Resident sat quietly at his table outside the Yew Tree Cafe, his hand nursing a half empty bottle of Linden Lager. His face, lined and pallid showed no emotion and his eyes gazed into the distance, empty and lifeless. A casual observer might have thought him to be AFK, but a closer inspection reveals signs of life. A tremor in his cheek and a barely audible murmur escaping his lips… “heaven, i’m in heaven…” he sings softly to himself, over and over, and over again.
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me
For I must be traveling on now
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see’
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Freebird