FICTION: LIVING ON A BUBBLESAFE WORLD IS HARDLY LIVING AT ALL
The bubble balls were quite fun despite the serious nature of the reason they became ubiquitous on our streets. After running through the complete Greek alphabet for Covid variants in the early 2020s we reached our third time around by the 2030s.
Currently, Phi3 is reaping its initial human crop. Half of us are gone, comparing the planet’s population of the 2020s to now.
But those who remained of course, and as ever, made the best of things that they could.
The bubble balls were an essential part of that.
They were part of a happy melee on our streets. Since everything became electric our thoroughfares had become quite something. Cars, or carz as we now call them, were still used for long-distance travel. But in the cities, they had to compete with all of those who had once been pedestrians now careering along in our plastic personal spheres, our PPSes. The electronic force walls ensured all the bouncing around was made safe. The carz were of course self-driving and pre-programmed and able to weave and dodge, stop, swerve and cope with any momentary blindness caused by a careening ball with its screaming occupant.
There was no way you could walk the streets. Covid was so potent now that only your oxygen neutral supply within your ball could keep you from harm. Pre-programming destinations was naturally super slick and easy. However, you could stop-stick to any wall in order to arrange a change and at any time.
I was happily lost in the ambient moment of the renewed Beatles when I realized the change. I flicked on the viewscreen after stop-sticking. All others appeared to be rolling, bouncing, momentarily flying and generally flowing in the usual tide while the carz drove on straight or snake style below them. I struggled to get the realization back from memory. I knew I had realized a change, my enhanced cortex had told me so. I had selected the option for this and the e-flag had been no figment of my imagination. But I could find no record of the cause and this worried me.
Docking at home I came through the lock in a state of nervous agitation.
Could it just have been a bug? But weren’t such things supposed to have been completely ironed out shortly after the AI robots had taken over all that systems junk? (It had proven far too complex for mere human capabilities to process, update and modify.) Our reliance on AI-driven robotics to look after us left us vulnerable. But what were we to do? Of course, this was when it was thought that the population of the planet would continue to rise above 8 billion. No account was taken for the slightly greater proportion of earlier than normal human death rates that had been encountered as the new covid strain got started. Even as late as 2025 the full force of what was to come was predicted only by the few and mostly kept secret from general consumption to obviate the many negatives that would arise through panic.
The interlocking online systems across all societies that emerged and became The Grid spanning functions from education to driverless traffic control to healthcare to food delivery systems to nuclear energy production and all else besides was far too complex for humans to deal with. All those sci-fi movies and books to do with robots taking over the world began to come partly true as the 2020s came to an end. Just before the new wave of covid’s new 57 varieties hit. And hit hard.
We were a complete mess at first. You didn’t need terrorists for terror to be a constant in those days. For some, it was evidence of the existence of God. For others, it proved once and for all that the opposite was true. Nothing new there I suppose. As the 2030s began it was obvious we couldn’t go on as had done to that point. Just as after the Black Death wreaked its miserable path taking out one-third of the Earth’s then population, jobs became easier to come by once again. That is, for those with special skills, all related to providing backup for those early AI systems that were being parallel run with those that were fast becoming archaic.
The global UBI brought in during 2032 proved a lifesaver in the years between then and now. The panic-driven struggle for mere survival as covid took hundreds of thousands per day in the late 2020s right up to that year had created memories no would ever forget and a screaming demand that they would never return. Now everyone had the financial backing through the structure plan plus a monthly UBI to get themselves and their families safed-up. All that could be done online was done online. Drones crisscrossed above the tubeways and highways like fireflies creating a skynet.
The Structure Plan, in coordination with the specialists in the TechHelp Group, meant each household would have its airlock fitted as fast as humanly possible. The transport spheres (as they initially called the bubble balls) were also delivered with full instructions for use.
Once we reached the tipping point where systems became too complex and had to be self-modifying, self-cross-referencing and self-perpetuating there was no going back. It all took off and left us standing in the middle of an electronic maze that was once our planet.
So anyway, here I was, home.
I should have been relaxing in the bosom of my family, the others busy or not-so-very busy, each within their own pod. Our communal pod is where you’d find me, usually ready for some online character transfer within the Metaverse.
But not this evening. This evening you would definitely ask me about the puzzled frown I was wearing. My mind was buzzing with one question only… what was that glitch that had raised an e-flag so momentarily within my bubble as I rode home?
I got little sleep that night. If our systems still had glitches in them then this was evidence of a failure in the AI matrix. In theory at least mere random glitches could not occur. All systems were refreshed, analyzed and checked for possible anomalies hundreds of times per nanosecond. For a decade now bugs and glitches had been totally eliminated. Everything worked perfectly… or was supposed to.
On my way to my pseudo-work I puzzled over the seeming contradiction I was experiencing. We had developed perfect machines to create the perfect e-world that allowed us humans to be released from worry over an entirely too complex system of software that surrounded us. However, worry I did and no matter what I did I could not shake a feeling of foreboding off of me.
Was it possible to log this when it had only been an ambiguous, extremely short-lived blip that told me nothing except some anomaly existed? There was no message as in the old days of hard-metal computers. All were soft interfaces now where AI handled everything. Had AI spotted the e-flag? Was there any way I could find out? I was aware of no interface to the discorporate entities who now ran everything, none at all. All was supposed to be completely self-regulating.
I knew of only one possibility, one connection of mine that might possibly help me throw off my worries over this mysterious anomaly that had thrust itself into my perfect environment.
I wondered if he was still around…
Mr Stefanson had been my physics teacher back in the day. Only a year or so I had happened to bump into his bubble right there in my own neighbourhood. We had recognised each other and stick-stopped to each other to communicate. We’d exchanged our few banal pieces of recent news and then, just as we were about to say bye and disconnect he gave me his address with an invitation to come round sometime.
I had never found time somehow, even though I had plenty of it. I don’t know, maybe age has made me quite anti-social… or maybe it was the deep paranoia that had settled into just about all of us due to covid. At any rate, I had avoided further personal contact. But now I vowed to overcome that reluctance.
His home appeared very similar to anyone else's. He was still alive as his nametag flashed on my wall as I approached. I messaged ahead, then on getting the approach sign I locked. Stefanson’s credentials regarding his various vaccinations and global access pass appeared at eye level and I signed acceptance. The far lock opened. Stefanson had read my own creds before sending acceptance so we knew we could breathe the same air in the same space with virtual total impunity.
“How are you son?” he said approaching me with his hand outstretched. “How are you finding life these days?” “Keeping busy?”
It was a warming experience to be asked these questions while knowing no detailed answer was expected. He was simply signalling that a human to human experience was there to be experienced if I felt safe and secure enough. These were quite rare these days of covid-stricken attitudes and I warmed to the man immediately.
Coffee was ordered and delivered immediately hot and steaming from the organic print unit. We sat in close proximity enjoying the finely crafted taste of the brew.
Shortly he spoke.
“I presume this is not merely a social call Hal. Something’s on your mind... what is it?”
I knew from my time under Stefanson at Uny that he was not a man to beat around the bush so I told him in response exactly what was bothering me.
He said nothing for a while. Then took up an ornate pipe he had on a small chairside table next to him and began to vape. He puffed out some jasmine-scented whisps of smoke with one hand raised to signal he needed a little time to contemplate what I had told him.
After what was probably only a little over a minute’s time he spoke very quietly to me leaning in my direction as he did so.
“It is far from certain, however, taking into consideration everything we know about what we’ve been told of our new masters and their abilities, I suspect you may have been the honoured recipient of the first sign of the fall.”
He spoke the last two words of this sentence with particular emphasis then fell silent once again. After another two puffs of his pipe, he turned to look at me once again after appearing lost in thought. The look in his eyes was deadly serious and I must admit my spirit chilled before them.
I will not relate all that Stefanson related to me that night. Most of it after those initial remarks were conveyed only after the introduction of music in the room and by mouth to ear mode in what was once, before covid, a commonly engaged-in trait known as whispering.
The next day heading to PW I was nervous as hell. What might possibly happen next? I didn’t have to wait long.
It didn’t amount to much that day though that was shocking enough. The perfect image on the GPS viewscreen shivered just a little. Nothing more. That was it. I watched for more but no more came. All else was perfectly operational as usual.
The next day the shiver returned and continued for a second or two longer. In addition, an anomalous sound occurred completely unrelated to the onscreen image at that time. In fact, I had all sound alerts switched off so this made this strange momentary buzz even more anomalous. Heading home in the evening I was sure my bubble made a curious deviation from its expected course and trajectory for no accountable reason.
The next day I was distinctly aware that traffic was not behaving in the normal, albeit to the untrained and inexperienced eye, semi-random fashion. I knew the way of the highways after the decade I’d been riding these waves of travellers. Things were not as they had been and as I looked around I could see looks of some anxiety on some faces and on others the signs of quite obvious consternation. Below us, the straight lines and occasional snakes of the carz showed distinct signs of breaking up with individual cases of drift without reason.
My mind raced. On one hand, I wanted to stop this. On the other Stefanson had taken a fatalistic view, one looking to the far long term… to the days beyond what we knew now and to a very different world to the one we had become accustomed to.
Things got worse from day to day from then on. The situation first became a source of unavoidable demands for explanations when the first fatalities began. Such things had not been heard of since the before the switchdate when all parallel running was concluded. The bitter disappointment at turmoil returning to what had been thought a perfect level of security shook us all. At least all I knew or became aware of… with the exception I knew of old Mr Stefanson.
The MechCovid pandemic took us all back to the terminally dangerous place we had hoped to consign to dark memory forever. The breakdown forced a swift learning curve on us all. Much of our shiny newborn world was abandoned to the loving embrace of Mother Nature once again, a Mother Nature who in romantic minds had been revolted by an alien presence she sought ways to invade and subvert.
Disease followed our re-opening of doors to the dangerous outside, to the uncontrolled world once again. Many millions died as the process of reintegration began. In those dark days, my visits to Stefanson grow to be a common occurrence. I desperately needed some reassurance that there was a positive end in sight even if I myself did not live to see it. For my wife and family, or at least for my children, this was a vital thing for me to believe. Especially so as more and more things began to twist out of synch among us.
Many simply could not cope. Without the predictability of GPS, without being able to rely on our bubbles and airlocks, our organic print units and all else how could we exist, how could we manage, where was the predictability we had come to rely upon to bring us the perfect lives we craved? Suicide rates rose. Demands for help with anxiety conditions, depression and all manner of mental health issues rose inexorably. The streets that had once been so safe and even fun as we transversed our cities by bubble were increasingly abandoned and even bare-faced walking became a routine sight.
Stefanson assured me it was all for the best. As he saw it, humankind was meant to walk essentially naked through life, not surrounded by the masks of online adventurism and soft cell imprisonment. His life was nearing its end and he had waited so many years for precisely this development. Humanity was returning to its roots, to its vulnerability in the face of adversity, to learning to cope with what is without looking for a way to bypass reality. I became infected by his positivity, much to the bewilderment of my wife and children until I explained all Stefanson had told me.
Entire areas of land formerly crisscrossed by freeways lay abandoned, shield walls long switched off. No longer did drones make a patchwork of the sky. No homes any longer had their accustomed warm-glowing nook where the OPU had once stood ready to deliver foodie-goodies as required. Bubbles lay deflated everywhere. In gardens across the land, people worked to grow vegetables in front of airlocks left wide open to all Mother Nature’s many elements. Slowly but surely we began to learn new ways to cope, new ways to share, to play, to reach out hands to one another again and yes, to share the very same air on the very same shared planet that was step by human step, if slowly, becoming truly ours again.