As If We Could Dream Forever
By Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
Consider the falling light on this slow June afternoon. From the heavens there is the blush of the purest blue, precisely modulating at a wavelength of 470 nanometres on the graphene dome of the sky. The light is unparalleled in its brightness and clarity. Like the always-optimal weather, it is meticulously planned and carefully broadcast by the National Environmental Agency.
Yet the sterile light encloses worlds within worlds, bubbles of a child's secret summer idling in the air, still undisturbed by the frenetic pace of the automated, Automatic City. In one of these ephemeral worlds, this perfect, government-crafted light streams through the grills of an old HDB, built during Singapore's 85th year of independence. Like the country, the building is no longer young, yet it remains strong and sturdy.
The falling horizontal light is broken into small moving pools by the blades of a drone-fan hovering over a young woman sleeping on the pineapple leather sofa. She is pale and thin, clad only in a T-shirt bra and an exceedingly fitting pair of micro-pore shorts. Her left arm hangs limply down the edge of the sofa, her hand resting on the porcelain floor. Next to her casually splayed fingers, her media cloud is idling, and on one of the fiber-optic floor tiles, the image of Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long flickers impatiently, fading in and out like a bookmarked ghost.
The drone-fan shifts position and a beam of light suddenly dances over the girl's face, waking her from her slumber. She stretches like a startled cat and flicks the book away. In a few hours her parents will get released from work, resuming their conscious selves as her mother and father, instead of core augmented-intelligence drones from the Automated City. They will fuss and fret over her, their sweet princess, their beloved only child.
Tonight, over a bowl of reduced-fat, low-cholesterol, gluten-free bak chor mee, they will try once again to get her excited about her National Enlistment (which would happen in just two weeks' time). As an NS man she will finally receive her AI brace, the physical link she'll need to mentally plug into Singapore's Grid. For the next 18 months she will belong mind and body to the Automated City.
Her parents will enjoin her not to be scared. They will speak about the wonders of the Grid's big data ocean and the city's flawless cognitive decision-making algorithms. They will repeat the same stories and admonitions that, for some odd reason, they could never remember telling her before.
Later, while crunching on an air-fried cube of artificial lard, Father will tell her how the Automated City keeps both his mind and body in tip-top shape. He will share yet another inspirational middle-age triathlon story. He will reiterate that without the Grid he'd be obese, unable to control his own snacking.
Mother will sip her impossibly PH-balanced lime juice and tell her that she will have everything she needs to be an empowered woman. No more glass ceilings or existential anxiety. In the Grid she will never have to worry about choosing what's best for her career. She will be tested again and again for aptitude, using the Grid's 88 factors of predilection. She will be permanently assigned to the most suitable role.
They tell her that with the brace implanted in her cerebral cortex, she will no longer have to wonder what to say or do. Day-to-day existence will be augmented by the cold light of situationally-appropriate knowledge. No more 'blur like sotong'. No more 'play-play'. They tell her that her life will be perfect, and she will never again be burdened with the quotidian worries of Life.
The young woman will remain unimpressed. She will not know how to tell her parents that she will not enlist for NS. She will try (but fail) to articulate that she had no intention of losing herself to the Grid. Instead, she would volunteer to be a teacher's assistant in the Philippines.
She will notice that when their braces were unplugged, her parents were just ordinary people. They were fallible, moody, and always impatient for evenings and weekends to end. She knew that as soon as they completed the mandatory quota for work-life balance, they will rush right back to the Automated City.
Later in the evening, as she went to bed, she'll wonder what was it that her mother and father seemed so desperate to forget? Was it some stupid choice they made in their youth, or perhaps some bitter or painful memory they weren't strong enough to handle? She will tell herself she will be better than her parents. This wasn't something that happened to kids in her generation. She was different. She is different. She will be different.
The young woman rises from the sofa and heads towards the back of the HDB. She shucks her clothes by the kitchen, leaving an untidy trail leading to the toilet door. The light seems to follow her through the barred windows, marking her with linear shadows. Angry dust motes cough up from the floor, rising furiously as she peels off each garment.
Once fully naked, she stretches, as if trying to uncoil a rusty spring. She waits for her back muscles to pop before stepping onto the cold white tiles. She turns on the shower. The toilet AI automatically adjusts its fuzzy-logic circuits to her usual bathing temperature, between 30 and 32 degrees Celsius. Today, she dials it down to an icy 8. She pulls the plastic stool from the corner and sits, waiting for the mister to fill the stall with a cloud of water vapour.
Under the cascading water she closes her eyes and thinks about her best friend. It would be his 17th birthday next week and she has been planning an extra special birthday sabo for the boy she's had a crush on since Primary 6.
A media tile blinks to her left and she wipes off the condensation to activate it. She selects Voice + Text instead of the usual Synthetic Telepathy.
"Seriously, that purity ring has to go," a friend tells her. "His church's wired it to his dopamine centre. You do know he's never even jacked off. I asked six people… double confirm."
"I tried it on him once," she responds, watching her words form on the media tile. "No reaction. Don't tell anyone!"
"Poor guy. You need to do something before we all get plugged in the Grid. I know you've got other plans."
"My friend told me that if you can short the ring, you'll have a few minutes till it resets. He's done it a few times for his boyfriend. All you need is to find a way to overload its system."
"Wǒzhīdào," she remarks, "I have a plan for next week, when we rent the chalet topside. I'll need all of you to help."
"Sure. Tell me later," her friend answers. "GTG, my parents are on their way home."
"Take care, bye!"
"Bye! <3 <3 <3"
The young woman swipes off the media tile and stands up to face the cold, flowing water. She closes her eyes once more.
It will be raining on the afternoon of her best friend's birthday. The skies over Changi Beach Park will be occluded and grey. The NEA will schedule an unseasonal Sumatran squall at 19:00 pm and it will last for precisely 1 hour and 30 minutes.
After a barbeque and drinking more vitamin-enriched no-calorie, non-alcoholic beer than they should, she will ask her friends to bar the door, tackle her best friend and pin him down to the floor.
One of them will rip off his shirt, another will pull down his shorts. She will straddle him and tickle his ribs mercilessly, ignoring his screams for mercy. Before long, everyone will join in the boy's exquisite torture.
As she will have planned, one of her friends will attempt to short out the purity ring. She will try to give him his first kiss. Her friends will goad her to put her hand down his tight white underwear.
The ring will short and reboot. She will give him an erection. He will suffer an undiagnosed cerebral aneurysm and die before the Singapore Civil Defence Force ambulance can arrive.
Outside, the pre-programmed storm will be at the height of its fury. There will be no light, only a darkness that she will imagine feasting on her bones and drinking the blood of their sacramental moment.
His death will be a totally random event, but she'll never be sure of the extent of her own complicity. Afterwards, she will tear up her volunteer papers. All she will ever want to do is to forget.
A bubble in her left ear pops and the young woman opens her eyes. She spies a shaft of light that had made its way through the toilet window, past the shower spray, and the dissipating build-up of mist. It was now casting amorphous shadows on the wetness of the tile floor.
She lets the shower blow her body dry before walking back to her bedroom. The vanity mirror flashes to warn her that her parents are off work and have already left the Automated City. It will take them exactly 50 minutes to ride the MRT, travelling down the tube to their undersea new town of Pulau Belakang Mati.
The mirror adds that the NEA did not schedule any rain for the evening, only a light wind from the Southwest blowing at 6.8 kilometres per hour. Did she want to know the exact barometric pressure? She dismisses the report and orders the food printer in the kitchen to begin preparing dinner.
Walking back to the living room, she plops herself onto the sofa, holding the papers for her volunteer work. Perhaps tonight she would tell them, she says to herself defiantly. "I am strong. I can do this. Nothing will ever make me go to that stupid prison grid. Fuck the Automated City."
"June is ending," she sighs, booting up the Holosonic. "I want to see the sky."
The ceiling vanishes, the heavens open and a pure blue light pours from overhead. The holosonic's light is cold, clear and well-defined, precisely modulating at a wavelength of 470 nanometres. But the edges of the graphene dome were rapidly greying, foreshadowing the blackness of night.
The young woman stares into the distance, feeling herself growing smaller and smaller until, finally, she disappears.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018