Bing! Jaycee rolled over in bed and looked at the time. 7:30. Time to sign in for the morning news. She sighed and put on her virtual reality headset, which logged her in with a retina scan for the daily report. The Authority’s logo flashed over the screen before the deep voice of the Spokesman started the report. Nothing new: the surface was still uninhabitable, there was a new flavor of nutritional rations, and the stock market was up or down. She made her morning coffee, which was a nutritionally perfect version of the real thing. She had never tasted real coffee; the Descent happened before she was born.
Apparently, humanity had ruined the Surface beyond the point of habitability, and the survivors had to flee to technologically advanced underground apartments, connected only by VR because of the risk of illness. No one ever saw each other in person; no one even left their apartments after they were assigned to them. They wore suits that allowed them simulated physical touch. Food was all specially formulated for perfect nutrition in a lab and given artificial flavoring to mimic old favorites from the past. It meant that you could eat whatever you wanted, as long as it was within the individual allotment. Not that it mattered if you gained weight; no one actually saw each other. The Authorities still made sure your virtual appearance mimicked your actual appearance, even though you could choose make-up, clothes, and other accessories. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded; everyone still had a job, food, relationships, etc. VR made all the luxuries of life cheaper. There were no sick days because no one got sick. No contact, no sickness. Everything was perfectly sterile and safe.
Jaycee finished her coffee as the news finished and suited up for the day. She virtually put on a fun sundress, as it was Saturday, and the newest trend in makeup. It only took her 20 seconds to get dressed and ready. Just in time, as her husband Tim was ringing in to have breakfast at the café.
“Good morning, beautiful! I like that dress, is it new?”
“I got it yesterday! You look good too. Did you sleep well?” The VR integrated perfectly with her apartment’s food dispenser as she ordered her breakfast and sat down. A brief message showed how many calories the food was and how many she had left for the day.
“Not at all; I got a message from the Authorities last night that our results would be in this morning.”
“You sent in the application?” she asked excitedly.
“I did! We should get a reply any minute now.”
“Imagine having a baby,” she said with a sigh.
“Wouldn’t it? I wonder if they will choose for us to have a boy or a girl.”
“I hope it’s a boy.” A message notification showed up to the side of their table. The subject: “Application for Reproduction Results.” They looked at each other excitedly before opening it. Their brief joy was turned to heartbreak.
“Denied,” Tim said. “It says I carry a mutation that could cause a problem.”
“So no baby,” she said quietly.
“I’m sorry, Jaycee… I know how much this means to you.” He thought for a moment. “You could apply for a surrogate father.”
“Tim, I love you. I wanted a baby with you. It’s the only chance I have of seeing your face in person… not just through VR.” He reached and touched her hand, though it was only VR, and she only felt the touch through the suit. She remembered what it was like to have real physical contact when she was a child, and this was nothing like it.
“It’s not fair! I never can see my husband, I never can actually feel another human’s touch… Now I’ll never have a baby to hold.”
“I’m sorry, and I know… it’s for the best I suppose.”
“Says who, the Authorities?”
“You can’t talk like that! They’ll disconnect you, and then we’ll never see each other.”
“I’m sorry, I just… I need to unplug for a moment.” She whipped off her headset and sobbed. She looked at her perfectly healthy waffles and threw them against the wall. She was fed up with this cage they called living. Everything was so perfect until she remembered the Authorities had every say over her life, and she could say nothing against them. Her little slip-up may be forgiven, but she may well log back in and find a warning on her record. Subconsciously, her fingers reach up to her neck, where the one physical item from her husband hung on a gold chain. It was a heart-shaped locket his great-grandfather had given his great-grandmother. It even had their picture still in it. She opened the locket and looked at the smiling faces against the backdrop of flowers. What were flowers really like? There were simulations, but they couldn’t be like the real thing.
Others were content with the virtual version of life, but she wasn’t. Frankly, she was sick of it and wanted out. Operating strictly on impulse, she took off her VR suit. She was a tech specialist for the caves, and she had toyed with ideas for how to escape. She had even come up with an entire elaborate plan. Now seemed as good a time to execute as any.
She crawled through the ventilation system, counted the turns and twists, and went up, up, up. The final vent was all that was left between her and the Surface. No human had been there in years, a century or so. Supposedly, it was uninhabitable. She was ready to test that.
A few turns with some tools, and she was at the Surface. The bright light blinded her temporarily, but her eyes adjusted. She gasped at the sight. The Surface was bright and beautiful. The air was filled with birdsong, which was spontaneous, imperfect, and so much more beautiful than the VR version. The grass under her feet was soft and alive, and insects buzzed and crawled. She closed the hatch and ran through the meadow, basking in the joy of freedom.
The old warnings suddenly rang in her head. Nuclear waste, UV radiation from the destroyed ozone, bacteria, viruses… The Surface certainly didn’t seem uninhabitable, but if there was excessive radiation, she was contaminated now. She knew she could never go back. She had no idea what they would do if they figured out she had surfaced… As far as she knew, no one else had surfaced since the permanent lockdown. No one knew what the Authorities did with dissenters; they just disappeared from VR.
Now that she was out, though, she didn’t know what to do. She knew some plants were edible and others weren’t, but she had no idea how to tell them apart. And as far as clothing went, she was at a loss. However, just as she was beginning to really regret her decision, a young man appeared from over the nearby hill. They both stared at each other in shock for a moment. The man looked either way and then came running toward her. He hid behind a tree and then gestured for her to come. She looked around hesitantly and then ran to him, hiding behind the tree. The boy was blond and freckled but strong and wiry.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Shh! It’s not safe! Come with me, I’ll take you to the others.”
“There are others? You all live on the Surface?”
“Questions later… come on, before they find out you’re gone.” He gestured for her to follow him, and they quickly took off until they slipped through a forest and found a village of treehouses. There were dozens of other people, and Jaycee found herself overwhelmed. She hadn’t seen so many people in person in her life. They all surrounded her with shock, whispering amongst themselves. They were all dressed in handmade clothes made from natural materials, but they looked strong, tanned, and healthy.
“John! I found a new Escapee!” the young man called.
“What is this place?” Jaycee asked, trying her hardest not to have a panic attack. A middle-aged man approached from the crowd. His face was kind, and he smiled at her gently.
“Welcome to the Village of Dissenters. I’m John, the elected leader. Come with me… I’m sure you’re overwhelmed. You’ve never seen so many people in real life, have you?” he asked, gesturing that she follow him to a crude shelter.
“Never… it’s so…” She couldn’t think of what to ask or say.
“It’s a lot, isn’t it? You have questions, don’t you?” She nodded. “Well, first, the Surface is perfectly habitable, unlike what the Authorities would have you believe. Why, you might ask, they still have everyone living in isolation? Control. You see, years ago, the planet was in trouble. People took and took and left pollution in their wake. The results? Depleted ozone, toxic waste, and a population that fought for the next technological gimmick. When things got so bad we lost 90% of the human population, they retreated underground. The Authorities decided to prevent a future collapse by controlling the population through VR, giving them the chance to feel like they have a life even when they don’t. Technology has come a long way, but it doesn’t replace reality. A few of us couldn’t take it anymore, and we Surfaced. The problem is, they don’t want us telling those left behind about the truth of the Surface. On its own, Nature has healed many of the problems we created. We’ve learned from our mistakes and live with nature. We have access to solar electricity, and since most Escapees are engineers or technicians, we know how to use technology without harming the planet like before. We have now started a Resistance, and our numbers are gaining. We have a way to hack into the System without leaving any trace.”
“But… what happens if we’re found out?”
“The Authorities would wipe us out.”
“Is it really worth the risk?”
“To be free? Absolutely.” Jaycee’s mind spun, but feeling the real wood furniture, smelling the real forest, seeing the real person… It was everything she had dreamed of. “You must be exhausted. Come, I’ll show you to your quarters.”
“Wait… My husband is still down there. Can I speak to him? Maybe… I can get him to come too?”
“It’s risky, but I’ll set it up.”
An hour later, she was logged in again. Their hackers were skilled, and her information helped them refine the process. In a few moments, Tim reappeared.
“Jaycee! I was worried; I kept trying to reach you, and you were unavailable.”
“Oh, Tim… I’ve discovered something wonderful and amazing.” She took his hand, which secured their connection. “The Surface is habitable, and it is everything we dreamed of.”
“Tim, listen to me… I can get you out. If we act quickly, we can do it before they found how I got out.”
“Jaycee, you’re just upset over the news… The Surface is dead. All we have is the VR world.”
“How can you say that?”
“I’m sorry Jaycee… what you propose is Dissent… I can’t gamble my life on it.” She sighed and smiled softly.
“I understand, Tim… I want you to know, I love you. I always will. One day, I hope we can see each other for real and hold our baby… together.”
“I love you too, Jaycee. We’ll see each other again, won’t we?” She smiled.
“Someday.” She hugged him, as kissing was nearly impossible with VR, wishing she could hug him for real. A warning flashed, and she was yanked out of the VR world.
“What happened?” she asked.
“They started tracing the signal. I’m sorry,” the hacker said. Fighting back tears, Jaycee just nodded. She looked at the picture in the locket sadly. One day, she hoped, others would wake up and remember what it means to really be alive.