Purples and oranges swept across the alien ridge with the vibrant foliage curving in odd directions, casting unique shadows in the virtual landscape. With a wave of his hand the boy produced magnificent shapes and formed islands out of the empty ocean while standing on the cliff. His eyes were closed but he knew he didn’t need them. He used his imagination without bounds, and without the influence of external stimuli.
Pixel sand of various colors shot out of his fingertips, shifting and scattering like the essence of a dream. They shot out in morphing beams, dissipating, assembling, and gathering in places that he felt were empty. In these places creatures of varying sizes appeared, with long snouts and thin tall legs, of furry skin and twisting gelatinous bodies. An entire universe could be built entirely from his own creativity. He smiled when a small fuzzy rodent nuzzled his leg. When he bent down to pet the creature the simulation ended.
His eyes opened and the digital illusion had evaporated and he was back in the education pod. An argument was occurring outside the rounded door. The teacher must’ve walked out and turned off the mind emulator. The colorful nanos had gone. Returning to the real world was disorientating, everything became muted and rigid.
“You’re really good at this.” Said Miya who had stayed behind when the other kids had left.
“Thanks,” said Damen removing the haptic control gloves. “I just let go and allow my hands to move themselves. People don’t know how I do it. I tell them neither do I.” Miya wasn’t the only one interested in his skills with the emulator. Even some of the parents came to watch him create simulation art. But not all of them reacted so kindly. The real world was divided and cruel. Imagination was the only thing he had. And they feared him for it. Maybe not fear but the expression of fear. At least that’s what their tears told him. The nano pixels that had filled the room a moment ago were a bit unsettling, being subjected to images in someone’s mind.
Miya turned to leave but after hearing the voices in the hall she stopped and waited. The adults sounded angry. Damen thought he might be in trouble and tried to listen. He didn’t understand what they were saying and only heard parts of the conversation. “There is nothing I can do, Karen. The simple fact is that your felicity score is declining. I can’t be held accountable for the headmasters’ decision or your apparent lack of positive mentorship. You know the policies.”
Ms. Smith was quietly pleading but sounded more passive aggressive than sad. She had a tendency to speak low when she spoke to the other kids.
The conversation ended when the other adult said, “Enough is enough. It’s your negativity, Karen. I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this.”
Miya stood back as Ms. Smith entered. The girl quickly exited the domed learning pod. Damen found it odd that the teacher had a smile on her face. There was something crooked about it though, as if she had swallowed a sour candy.
“Are you all done? You’re always the last one to leave for the day. Those worlds you make, do they help you learn anything?” She seemed to grind her teeth when she spoke. Damen always felt like she was hiding something. He didn’t know what.
“Yes. N-no.” Damen stammered. “I see what I feel I need to see, I guess.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” She had that smile again.
“It helps me know myself better. It makes the silence and the boring stuff go away. I don’t like silence.” Damen handed her the haptic gloves.
“I suppose I don’t like the silence either.” She glanced off. “You must know yourself very well by this point. Don’t you think it’s time to stop playing games?”
Damen thought about all the times he used the emulator and how he could repaint the world to his specifications. He was free and that freedom had increased his felicity score. His teacher had taught him that his happiness level was important, that it would help him work with people better and get a good paying job.
“I do it for the wellness of the nation and its people.” He recited a line from the nation’s pledge and considered how Ms. Smith looked when she lied, wondering if she could see his.
“And how do you help the people exactly?” The smile went away as she raised her voice.
“By showing them places they’ve never seen before, like dreams.”
“Yes, but I’ve seen your fake worlds.” She talked softly again. “They’re filled with abstract lines and mismatched landforms. It just doesn’t look right. Haven’t we taught you to color inside the lines? All I see is blobs of color. It’s not really anything meaningful, is it?” For a moment he saw the real her, the person behind the mask. She looked him up and down as if he were a nuisance.
“Some people find different things beautiful. If you could, wouldn’t you want to see inside your head.” He spoke to her like she spoke to him, the way adults do.
She furled her brow and rolled her eyes. “You would create a world for me? How would that work?”
“I just think and the projections come out.” Damen said softly.
Ms. Smith looked down for a moment. “Okay,” she said handing him the gloves. “Show me. Don’t make it silly though. I want it to be realistic. I have a right to reject anything I don’t like.”
She proceeded to list her specifications, limiting Damen on what he could create. Her ideas of a perfect world were filled with cold things, dusty and old. Objects were bland and the atmosphere was familiar, at least to her. It took him several minutes to prepare his mind for the emulator. He told her to tell him a story of her happiest moment and the pixels started to fill the domed pod. She instead described the empty apartment when she moved out of her parents’ house.
“Don’t forget to make it believable.” She noted.
He contemplated for a moment and imagined her uneasy face, thinking about everything he knew about her. He started with a blank blue background. He wanted to use purple but didn’t want to offend her. The blue swirled into a square box, enlarging into the street corner of a large city. There were no cars, no people, and a lack of color. Instead he made everything gray and wordless. The weather was still and felt suffocating to Damen. He made sure there was nothing offensive.
“Where is everyone?” He could practically hear her frowning behind his closed eyes.
The world shifted and disappeared in a flurry of pixels. He tried again, this time creating a plane of people walking in straight lines against a dark gray sky. Expressionless, orderly faces shuffled along in perfectly formed rows.
“Too many people.” She remarked. “There’s nothing else here. There’s nothing going on.”
Again this virtual environment went away and was replaced by a representation of herself sitting in a contraption that had four mechanical arms. The machine had a conveyer belt and she was using the arms to construct robotic versions of children’s skulls, implanting them with her own circuitry, remaking them the way she wanted them to be. The avatar of Ms. Smith was not smiling and wore magnifying goggles to manipulate the intricate workings of the robot heads, filling them all with the same judgmental scrutiny. At least that’s what Damen told himself when he saw the robot faces moving by.
“Stop! Is this what you think of me?” Her voice cracked. “Give me something exciting to look at, something I can be proud of. I want to see color this time.”
Damen focused harder and pretended to be her, trying to imagine everything she’s ever said in class and between her teeth. Red dunes appeared suddenly in the domed space and stretched over a make-believe horizon. The sky was also red with subtle orange and yellow hues. Sand blew in the breeze and collected at the feet of a virtual woman who stood at the peak of a dune. She was blindfolded and her mouth was open, agape with cracked lips. The woman gently swayed in the wind as if she were a leaf, adrift and aimless. A river of sand came over the dune in a strong gale and knocked her down. She lay on the light brown soil and rubbed her hand through it, picking up grainy clusters and letting it sift through her fingers. There was nobody else around and it was completely silent except for the wind. The shape of Ms. Smith, in her digital format, lay down and let the sand wash over her and bury her alive. White lips protruded from the grave and quickly disappeared under yellow waves.
Ms. Smith gasped and grabbed Damen’s shoulder. He opened his eyes and held her hand. The virtual phantoms faded into pixel dust at their feet. She collapsed to her knees and held a hand to her mouth. Damen took note of her expression, it was the same as the other adults seemed to have when they experienced his interpretation of art.
“This is…how you see me?” It was funny that she expressed sadness after everything she put the other kids through.
“This is how everyone sees you.” Said Damen. “Isn’t it important to understand how your behavior affects others?”
She seemed to remember the lesson and quietly pondered. “I think that’s enough for today. I don’t think my felicity scores will — I’m not any happier than I was.”
“You tend to focus on unhappy things and unhappy thoughts.” He grew brave with the power he yielded over others but he knew he didn’t have all the answers. “Maybe that’s why I’m happier than you.”
He only wanted to help. She gave him a bitter look, “That’s a mean thing to say.”
He showed her what a sincere smile looked like and finally said, “Then I think you should learn to let go and color your own world.”
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