Moon found herself waking up in a humid cave with barely a light peering in from the outside. The sound of dripping water gave away the presence of long stalactites hanging above her. With every painful move of her muscle, she pulled herself across the cave until she felt the taste of water. She laid there, mouth agape until she passed out again.
In a barely conscious state, Moon overheard two men speaking. They were in the cave, too, somewhere closer to the entrance, it seemed.
“How many units are available for purchase?”
“As many as you want.”
There was a moment of silence.
“I’ll take a hundred units first. If everything goes well, we can do ten thousand units… quarterly.”
“Deal. In the next shipment, your men will find a hundred units at Manila Port.”
Another moment of silence.
“Send my regards to your father.”
With a quivering voice, the younger man replied, “Thank you.”
As footsteps quietened, Moon fell back into unconsciousness.
The Creature fed Moon with sea algae until she regained her strength. And though she had given up the flaming pearl to the Yuta, in return, the brief meet with Ma gave back Moon her spirit. It was as if the thick black fog that had consumed her since Ma’s death had finally dissipated, and she could breathe again. Ma was dead. But Ma would always live in her.
With the Creature by her side, she pulled herself together, walked out of the cave, and traced the winding beach. Faint sounds grew louder; soft lights grew brighter. She followed them and found herself in a sprawling marketplace.
Like a boat floating on a calm lake, the crescent moon hung quietly in the night sky. It cast a gentle light over Shuri Castle with just enough illumination and warmth. Yet, within seconds, the winds and clouds moved in and concealed the moon from sight, turning those unexpected moments into memories.
For the first time, Kinjo-san and Lynn had a quiet dinner. For once, they could hear broadcasters on TV talking. It was Lynn’s last night in Okinawa, and they both were unable to find the right words to speak to one another.
When dinner was over, Lynn volunteered to clean up and busied herself washing the dishes in the kitchen when she heard a loud shriek from Kinjo-san. She rushed out to the tatami room where Kinjo-san was. Mouth agape with soap water still dripping from her hands, she saw the main hall of Shuri Castle engulfed in flames on the television.
The news reported about the strong winds and electricity that caused the fire. But Lynn could make no further deductions from the information. By now, Kinjo-san was crying. Lynn put her arms around Kinjo-san and tried her best to comfort her.
Lynn did not remember how long she sat in the tatami room with Kinjo-san. They watched the venomous flames, strengthened by the strong winds of the night, burn through the surfaces of the Castle buildings. Like an innocent giant set ablaze, roaring in pain as the fire burned through his flesh, revealing for all to see the shadows of his skeleton. It was his final act of death.
They followed the news until it reported no more of the Castle. Almost after that, Kinjo-san began to run a fever. By daybreak, Lynn was making her way to the pharmacy for medicine. On the streets, the mood was heavy and somber, older men and women in funeral wear were making their way to the burning Castle. A few families, hand-in-hand with their little ones, were headed that way too. They wanted to pay their final respects. Back in Kinjo-san’s place, Lynn tried her best to care for Kinjo-san. It would take Kinjo-san three days for her fever to subside and another week before Kinjo-san could climb out of bed.
When Kinjo-san regained some strength, she put on a long black dress and walked with Lynn to the lake by the Castle. The pair stood still silently. The once proud and dignified brick red architectural emblem was now nothing more than a pile of burnt remains with large swirls of impenetrable black smoke rising from it. And though Lynn was a visitor to this foreign land, she felt emotional. She hugged Kinjo-san. Like a daughter who lost her father, Kinjo-san hugged Lynn back and cried in her arms.
The keys turned softly, and the door opened. Lynn walked in, visibly confused. Amy’s father, Benny, looked up, smiled warmly at Lynn, and continued making his tea. While Lynn looked at Benny, then Amy, and then the house she knew to be home. Upon which, Amy ran up from the orange sofa and hugged Lynn.
“Mama! You are home. Where did you go this time? Tell me, please!”
Lynn thought for a moment, yet nothing came to her mind.
Benny chided her, “Didn’t you go to Okinawa again?”
Lynn nodded her head slowly and said, “Yes…”
“Where did you go in Okinawa this time? Tell me!”
Lynn got excited. The smell of Kinjo-san’s antiques permeated the room. She replied, “Oh, you want to know? I went to visit Kinjo-san, of course! She’s really old now and can barely leave the house. But she is in good spirits.”
“What did you do in Kinjo-san’s house!”
“Oh, as usual! We talked and talked. Ate and Ate.”
“What stories did she tell you this time!”
A large wooden box appeared by the orange sofa. Before Amy could react, Lynn looked at the box and frowned. Was that Kinjo-san’s box she just saw? Yet, the wooden box was no longer there in a blink of an eye. Benny placed a hot cup of tea in front of her and sat next to her.
“Mama, what stories did Kinjo-san tell you this time?”
Lynn sipped her green tea slowly. This was unexpected. Amy was never interested in Kinjo-san’s stories. Especially since they were always the same to her.
I walked into the room 30 minutes early. Everyone involved in the trial was already there making final checks. Jake was there too. Beneath the front of professionalism, I could sense a mix of sympathy, ambivalence, and mostly frustration from my colleagues. Jake was right. People were unhappy. People wanted to move on to other patients. I could not blame them. We were like the nurse bees in the hive; only potential queen bees came to our team of neuroscientists, psychologists, doctors, and interpreters. We selected and nursed the best cases to be high-performing queen bees. With my mother’s case taking up 8 months of our time, we had lost many potential queen bees.
My mother was seated on one of the two chairs with a blanket over her. Her face was wrinkled and lifeless. I kneeled by her side, and for the first time in 13 years, I held both her hands.
“Ma, I know you are in there. Listen, you have to tell me everything you know about the red orb. You know, the time you used the V-Skin GX and created a red orb in the metaverse. I was 22 then. You told me how amazing the experience was and that the people loved it. But I was so angry with you, so angry at your betrayal of not keeping your promise. Why did you fixate on the red orb, the ‘flaming pearl’ as you called it…”
“Ma. Please tell me everything about the flaming pearl when we put on the V-Skin later. I want to hear it this time. Tell me all those stories like you always did when I was growing up, about all those adventures you had when you were traveling the world. I want to hear it! I really do. If you don’t, you are going to…”
At that moment, I could feel Jake’s eyes on me. I did not disclose everything I knew about the red orb to him after all.
I had nothing more to say. I walked to my seat and downed a glass of water. I grabbed the lightweight headwear with the words “V-Skin GX” printed on its side. I switched it on and placed it on my head. Instantly, emptiness enshrouded my senses while gradually, white light grew with a soft hum and a brewed coffee smell.
An angelic voice spoke, “Hi Professor Chang, welcome back to Blackbox 61 of Sosi Labs. Shall we pick off from where we left?”
I replied, “Log in a new case file, please. Name it ‘Oki Times.'”
“New case file, ‘Oki Times,’ created.”
And then, I imagined my childhood home, the olive green walls, the white wooden stairs, and the warm orange furniture. The colorful carpets and rugs and the smell of fresh tropical spices hanging in the kitchen. The background jazz music, and my tall and lean father who was always contented and easy-going. He was making tea, as always. On this day, a sudden and ceaseless storm appeared. These thoughts, my imagination, came to life in the metaverse. I took my seat on the well-worn orange sofa. With a thought, I transformed my avatar-self into a nine-year-old me and waited patiently for my mother to come home.
Lynn was satisfied with the tour of the Shuri Castle. As she walked out of the site, she skillfully took a selfie with the vermillion buildings peeking out from the stone walls, cropping and adjusting its lighting.
She shared it on Instagram with the caption:
“First day in #Okinawa and already visited this beautiful #UNESCO site! The old palace of the once Ryukyu Kingdom~ Love it! #ShuriCastle”
She wondered if she should finally call home but decided first to get a drink. Her eyes searched the area, skipping past crowded gift shops and touristy cafes until she caught sight of a vending machine across the street. While making her way toward it, she fished from her coin pouch a hundred Japanese yen coin and wondered if she should have a bottle of cold water or oolong tea. She inserted the coin and pressed for cold water. Down fell the bottle of cold water, and with it came an unexpected beeping sound. She was caught off guard and wondered if she could have made a mistake during her purchase. In her limited understanding of Japanese, she tried to read the message on the vending machine screen, and to her amazement, as she was the 7777th customer of this vending machine, she won a free drink of her choice. Without hesitation, she pressed for oolong tea and was exuberant to share her luckiness with Instagram.
Dosing down the bottle of icy cold water, she made her way down the stone steps behind the vending machine carefully and threw herself and her backpack on a stone bench. She searched GoogleMap and checked the time to plan her route to the guesthouse when she saw a large black butterfly fluttering toward her. Her eyes followed it, and it flew behind her and up the stone steps from where she came down.
“HAI-YA!” An old lady steadied herself on the stone steps and swished and swashed her net several times in her attempts to catch the butterfly. Though the old lady was nimble, she was not quick enough to get hold of the little creature. Within seconds, it flew further up and disappeared. The old lady was relentless. She waited, and in a minute or two, the butterfly came back. She smiled and waited for the butterfly to come closer. Yet, it tactfully landed on a tree branch, entirely visually yet unreachable. It was mocking the old lady.
“Don’t just stare! Carry me up!”
Lynn looked around, and there was no one else but the old lady and herself.
“You! Yes! I am speaking to you! Come carry me up!”
Lynn hurried towards the old lady and carried the old lady on her shoulders. The old lady was barely half of Lynn’s height, so Lynn managed. She steadied herself as carefully as she could on the steps.
“Go nearer to the tree! Nearer! Yes! HAI-YA! WE GOT IT!”
The old lady caught the butterfly with one swish of her net. But in the process of coming down off Lynn’s shoulders, the butterfly found a chance to escape, and it did.
“Hmm…” The old lady pouted and panted, “Can’t be helped…”
Lynn knew she should not stare, but she found the whole scene amusing, and she laughed heartily. The old lady smiled too. She asked, “What’s your name? Where were you born?”
“I’m Lynn, and I am from Singapore.”
“Haisai! That means hello in Okinawan dialect!”
Seeing the old lady panting from her butterfly chase, she offered her the bottle of oolong tea.
“Thank you, but no thanks.”
“How may I address you?”
“You can call me Kinjo.”
“Haisai, Kinjo-san! It’s nice to meet you.”
“You speak very good Japanese.”
“Ohh, no, I don’t!”
“Have you eaten? Would you like some tea and desserts? I live just here.”
Lynn felt easy around the old lady, unlike other uneasy encounters she had. And so, she smiled widely, and in polite Japanese, she agreed and followed her home.
Jake, the department head, was in my office. We had both been silent for a while now, waiting for the other party to make the first move. He looked at me with the hint that at any moment then, a storm could break the clear sky. But I had applied a protective glaze over my eyes, one that masked everything within me from the outside world. No one could peer into my soul or my thoughts now.
He looked at the engraved nameplate on my desk:
CHANG MIN CHU, AMY
Without raising his eyes it, he said, “Professor Chang, it is about the comatose case that I wish to speak to you about.”
Jake was no more qualified than I was. But he was better with people, and he had the right pedigree in the organization. And so, from colleagues to superior and subordinate, we became.
“What about it, Professor Lim?”
“I am sure you understand; you have been in our star department as long as I have. We can’t allow a singular case to use up such an extensive amount of our resources and time.”
I nodded my head as understandingly and deliberately as I could. Jake was no longer a scientist or a friend; he had become a bureaucrat. Perhaps he was always a bureaucrat.
He continued, “Management is pressing.”
I replied, “If I may, I would like to put up a case for one more trial.”
“You do know we have done twenty-five trials. A first, for our department.”
“Yes, I am fully aware of that, and I would like to put up a case for one more.”
“You know, Professor Chang, given your relationship with the patient, there is a conflict of interest. I made the appeal myself to Management to have you lead this case because you are the best in the field.”
“Thank you, I am deeply flattered.”
My mother was the first human in a coma to be plugged into the metaverse. We discovered that deep in the recesses of her unconscious mind, there was still a conscious mind or in my contemplations, a soul. It could be brought to the surface, spoken to, in the metaverse. However, we learned too that experiences in the metaverse of a comatose human did not form memories. In other words, each time my mother entered the metaverse, it was like a fresh new player entering the game. She had no memory of her previous plays. Nonetheless, it was an apparent Nobel-worthy breakthrough, but there were other things at play here.
“I know what you are thinking, Professor Chang. We need more breakthroughs and faster. Else, we have to force a breakthrough.”
Jake’s eyes softened. I was caught off guard. He said, “As you are aware, the patient was brought in here because of the stories she created in the metaverse. At the heart of her make-believe worlds and characters is the red orb, or as she termed it, ‘the flaming pearl.’ The red orb is the key to cellular regeneration, rebirth, ‘rising from the ashes’ or so is the hypothesis we need to prove. The patient needs to tell us exactly where the red orb is in the physical world or how it can be made, else-“
Jake stopped abruptly in his tracks and hesitated as though something foul was in his mouth, and he could not speak of it. After looking away from my nameplate, he finally continued, “we would have to administer Anticreatine on the patient.”
“You can’t. The drug is still in clinical trials.”
“This qualifies for exemption. I have received the order to do so.”
“From who? You can’t. The drug would kill her.”
“Order has been given.”
“On what grounds?”
“Medical improvement. Exceptional medical improvement.”
My lips quivered. On what grounds for medical improvement? I ran through everything I knew about the situation and the drug. I held onto all the science, observations, and knowledge that I knew. And I understood right before Jake proceeded to explain.
“As you know, Anticreatine was invented to bring everyone back into the metaverse. It quietens the neurochemical change of brain cells to not go into ‘creation mode.’ When the brain is not in ‘creation mode,’ it cannot go into hyperdrive, metaverse-induced delirium, and all the negative stuff that comes with the metaverse. The brain retains all its other functions- memory, processing, decision-making, etc. It is less apt to create new thoughts, feelings, and actions. And so, Management would like to see if Anticreatine can ‘quieten the active mind of the patient, and by doing so, induce it to simply regurgitate everything it knows about the red orb.’ “
“How do you know what she created was even true? She’s a Genesis 0! Aren’t they known to be highly deceptive and great performers!”
I did not even believe in my words. Those were words of emotional Amy, not words of Professor Chang.
Jake smiled and said, “You know as well as I do that everything in the metaverse is almost fictional and that every creation in there stems from something accurate and factual. This organization was built out of stories from the metaverse. Stories that were distilled, crystallized to their truths, tested, and built out. That’s how we have the empathy drug, the sonic hearing aids, the superfruits, and now, we are on our way to having the rebirth drug. “
How could I argue against this? Dreams that turn into reality. Imaginations that propel the advancement of our kind.
“Amy, listen to me. I know this is hard, but the patient only has a 1% chance of waking up. You know what that means. With or without administering Anticreatine, her legacy to this world-”
“Give me one more trial. I will get the patient to share about the red orb.”
“Else, we proceed with Anticreatine.”
“Thank you, Amy.”
“You did not need even to come here today. So thank you.”
Technology in 2063 has developed to the extent that “what you think can exist” in the metaverse. Due to the nature of the metaverse, audiences, especially fan-based communities, often equal the creative and technical prowess of Genesis 0 people with their personalities and characters. Sometimes, Genesis 0 people intentionally encourage such make-believe too.
There are in broad, four camps of people:
One camp of people, especially educators and parents, believe that metaverse creators, especially Genesis 0 people who garner the attention of hundreds of millions of followers, must be “clean and moral.” This is because their influence in and out of the metaverse is immense. In their words, “they can light up a match, they can start a riot.” These people tend to think that the metaverse has corrupted society too.
Another camp of people is entirely against such control on a person’s private life, and that control should only apply to the performed content within the metaverse. Their argument for controlling the performed content within the metaverse may be fictional, but there are actual actors at play, i.e., us. Their prime example will be cyberbullying. You cannot discount cyberbullying just because it is virtual, can you? In addition, the sensory experiential nature of the metaverse is so profound and realistic that the human brain can hardly distinguish it from a real-life experience. “When a person commits violence, such as rape, in the metaverse. It is as if it happened. No, it happened. There are to be real-world consequences.”
Another camp of people argues that though the metaverse is a public space, every human should have freedom of thought and expression. The beauty of the metaverse is that it is not the real world. And hence, it does not have real-world implications or impacts. And so, “don’t confuse fact and fiction, you cannot fault fiction either. We have two lives: your real-life and your superhero life. Live out your superhero life.” Not every thought is a product or representation of the person too. We cannot incriminate or hold a person accountable for every (private) thought and creation surrounding the creator in the metaverse.
This camp of people argues that technology does not corrupt human nature but reveals it. We should continue to grow metatechnologies, and it’s applications for the benefit of humankind. For example, conduct extensive medical simulations and social-economic models within the metaverse to maximize real-world resources and successes. They believe the metaverse is a great equalizer for the world because those who can enter it interact via brain synapses. Their goal is to make the metaverse experience affordable for everyone to “increase the conversion rate of ‘on-screen audience’ to ‘in-screen audience.’ In other words, breaking the fourth wall, allowing more people to experience the metaverse within instead of experiencing it via their screen devices.
Amy stared stone-cold into the water, her body lightly touching the surfaces of the bathtub. She was barely floating. She looked up at the digital clock on her wall:
7 more minutes left. She was not one to waste a second or two. And so, she closed her eyes and slipped entirely into the water, anxious to feel some sort of weightlessness. Yet, like an amniotic sac of fluid that carried a child to her mother, all that came to her mind were the day’s flashbacks of her mother’s avatar in Sosi Blackbox of the metaverse. In her age 30 form, her alluring presence evoked every floral note and beautiful blooms. Scents. Not something Amy liked in the metaverse. They were disarming to her. She remembered the anxious-inducing hug; the change of mood when her mother realized she was working for Sosi Pharma; the theatrical burst of flames.
It was the 25th trial. The 25th time Amy was with her mother in the metaverse. And yet, no progress on understanding the red orb. She had no clue what she should do. She thought of her mother’s cold, frail comatose body in Sosi Lab, and she felt time behaving like the merciless night tides washing away a ship from shore to the disappearing horizon.
She had to steel herself. How could she convince her mother to speak of the reb orb? Or as her mother called it, the flaming pearl. And then, Amy remembered her mother jumping onto a fire-spitting dragon’s neck and staring down at her with angry tears.
“Send my body back to the hospital! I will not have anything to do with Sosi!”
With that, the dragon and her mother disappeared into nothingness.
Short of air, Amy pushed herself out of the tub and struggled like a fish out of water.
She did not feel so strong, and she did not know what to do.
John’s latest article is a fantastic read to fire up our imagination on the growing opportunities for writers in the metaverse. We are talking about access to virtual communities, worldwide discoverability (with lots of cross-product marketing), more monetization opportunities with the blockchain, virtual reading experiences, and creative gigs.