In a sunlit valley somewhere in the San Juans, a morning quiet is broken by a strange whirring sound. A young boy peers curiously outside an old, rambling ranch house. Gentle breeze tugs playfully at the pine trees, the poignant smell of evergreen needles permeating the crisp air.
The strange noise seems to be coming from behind the house. The boy steps out to investigate; it’s odd to hear this ancient, mechanic-sounding clatter, and he wants to find out what it is.
His grandmother appears to be leaning over a funny-looking, two-wheeled machine of some sort. It looks dated – something that might have come out of 2010, possibly earlier – in other words, the dark ages; the machine is metal and fiberglass, the frame rusted in places, the two wheels sporting primitive rubber tires. The machine wheezes and shakes, its exhaust coughing up fumes.
“What is it?”, the boy asks, approaching the curious monstrosity.
His grandmother smiles.
“It’s a motorcycle”, she explains, patting the seat of the machine. “It’s…it’s designed to take you places”.
“Oh… You mean it’s one of those old VR prototypes? Or a game? What does it do?”, the boy perks up. He’d heard of the old virtual reality devices, ones that required physical machines and props to work. Now, you simply connected your chip to the VR servers via Bluetooth and stepped into whatever world or place you chose. In the early days of 2020, however, the VR sets were still at their evolving stages.
“No, no, this is before The Escape”, his grandmother says. “Motorcycles took you places, actual places, across countries”, she adds wistfully.
“Geo… geographical places?”, the boy’s jaw drops. He can’t quite get his head around the fact that people used to move – physically – in order to travel. When the 2019 pandemic hit, traveling had stopped to a halt; everyone expected the virus to be reigned in, in time, with vaccines… But as the years wore on, new strains kept appearing, mutating, changing with every new vaccine and every new treatment, until people stopped traveling and then, stopped getting out of their houses altogether.
Automation took over, and only a handful of jobs required humans to be outside. Those were The Indispensables, the few people with jobs that could not be done by artificial intelligence bots. All around the world, people worked, interacted, and relaxed online, and virtual reality has been developing at breakneck speed until, by 2050, there was no need for physical reality any longer. You simply connected your brain chip to virtual reality centers via Bluetooth and were instantly transported to whatever place, setting, scenario, or action you wanted.
The world came to a complete standstill as people retreated into their homes, their physical bodies mere organic vessels for the plugged-in brains, floating in the limitless virtual reality worlds dreaming with waking eyes and never setting foot outside. Sunlight was provided via artificial UV lights, air conditioners worked tirelessly to simulate fresh air, and as the years went by, most of the humankind had forgotten what rivers, daffodils, or night skies looked like.
Some, like the boy’s grandmother, refused to plug in. There were few of The Stubborns left, mostly living out their days in mountain hideouts and remote places, places where they would not bother the Essentials, where their presence would not be felt. The boy’s parents had distanced themselves from the Stubborn grandmother – they were firm Essentials – but once a year, he was allowed to visit.
“Yes. Patagonia with its vast endless pampas, the Indian Himalayas, the deserts of Namibia”, the boy’s grandmother says. “The Mongolian steppes. The Andes Mountains…”, she continues, staring out over the scorched mountaintops.
“But it’s not safe to travel, unless you’re one of the Indispensables. It’s not safe to be outside! And anyway, why go halfway around the world if you can just plug in and be anywhere you want in an instant? And why go on…on this thing?”, the boy asks, perplexed.
This “motorcycle” machine doesn’t even look very steady on its two wheels. Surely, people had better means of transport, even in the prehistoric days of 2010.
“Because this thing has magical powers”, the boy’s grandmother says. “Powers that no virtual reality could ever dream of conjuring up”.
The boy sighs. Perhaps his parents were right, after all. His Stubborn grandmother had clearly lost the plot, living alone in this remote part of Colorado instead of moving into her government-allotted Biomass Protection Pod where she could comfortably plug in and live out her days in virtual reality bliss. She could even visit her beloved Patagonia again, if only she accepted the chip and connected, like The Essentials.
“What powers?”, he asks, impatiently, if only to humor her. He is already restless without being able to plug in to his favourite VR chamber, the one where he can jump a skateboard over the Great Wall of China cheered on by crowds of onlookers. He hasn’t checked into his virtual reality social media places in over half an hour, either. He wants to go home.
Slowly, his grandmother presses the kill switch, and the motorcycle’s engine cuts off. She stands beside it for a moment, her hand on the handlebar. She had just used up the last drops of fuel, and this is the last time the motorcycle had come to life.
“Freedom”, she whispers softly, looking out to the scorched slopes of the mountains.
But the boy doesn’t hear her. He’s just plugged in, and his Personal Biomass Transportation Drone is already hovering over the landing pad to take him back into the City.