–– 004 ––
Amanda woke to a slight tingling sensation inside her left wrist. She rubbed the tiny cross-hatched scar there, beneath her palm, soothing the familiar sensation until it tapered away. As her eyelids lifted evenly, she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of her bed — a polished slab of American beech wood cantilevered from the concrete wall. There was no bedding whatsoever except for a circular pillow, bright white. She lifted the pillow, then kneeled to stow it in a small steel locker next to the bed. An oblong rectangular prism sat atop the locker casting an incandescent glow across her little corner of the room. The glow ebbed and flowed as if the light was breathing faintly while the rest of the space, a seemingly cavernous space, remained cloaked in the darkness of early morning.
She tapped the surface of the prism twice and its glow faded as a message came into view across the face:
Good morning, Amanda
Welcome to day #12.366
Another tap, then:
Today you are assigned to breakfast. Tomorrow is your 13th birthday.
She remembered her assignment. That explained the darkness of the room and silence from the others.
Amanda pulled her daysuit from a wall hook above the bed and slipped it on, feet first. Once she had zipped the suit’s front and tucked her long, blonde hair away into its neck, she reached around to the back of the prism and detached a small handheld device. The glowing light immediately faded down from the prism and faded up in her palm. She placed the device in her left breast pocket and stepped quietly through the darkness, lit only by the pocket-filtered glow. Just as she passed through the door connecting their sleeping quarters to the adjoining hallway, dozens of other prisms blinked to life.
She padded drowsily down the hallway and into the lift. Strangely, there was no attendant. Recognizing the unexpected opportunity, she spent the short ride thinking about her free day tomorrow on the occasion of her 13th birthday, and arrived at an optimistic realization that 13 would be a lucky number for her. She smiled, then made sure to suppress the smile as the lift hummed to a stop at Floor +008.
Silence permeated the hallway as the lift door opened. After a curious tilt of her chin, Amanda made her way to the end of the hallway and into the kitchen. The lights were off as she entered –– another oddity –– but faded up quickly to welcome her arrival. The room was empty. She ran her hand over the nearest prep surface warmer and found it cool to the touch. The cooking surfaces, which she checked in hurried succession, were just as cool and their displays were dark.
“Whitney,” she began, with a quick look up towards the audio sensors embedded in the ceiling, “what time is it?”
“Good morning, Amanda. It is 7:14 a.m.,” a sedate female voice replied from everywhere and nowhere.
“Where is Supervisor Ava?”
“She appears to be engaged elsewhere this morning.”
Another tilt of the chin, then “Ok, thanks Whitney.”
“Pleasure mine, Amanda.”
The fear climbed quickly through Amanda’s chest. She wasn’t credited to operate the kitchen alone and yet she knew that she would be punished if she performed incorrectly. After a few moments of hesitation, she decided to check the monitoring deck on Floor +009. Surely one of the attendants there could help her. After another short solo ride on the lift, she emerged into the open expanse of the monitoring deck, then stuttered to a halt.
She had only been to this room a few dozen times in her life –– once per quarter for her attendant training (since age 5) and once per year for the cumulative review –– and still she knew it well. Or at least she thought she knew it well, until now. This had always been the liveliest floor in the Installation, its entire expanse –– nearly a half-kilometer across –– was filled end to end with monitoring stations, with hundreds of attendants and their assistants buzzing between displays. These stations had been in constant operation for nearly 200 generations of attendants. They had not gone dark for the past 6,468 years.
This is what she, what all of them, had always been taught.
As she caught her breath at the site of the empty stations, she noticed something in the distance. She walked cautiously between the rows of workstations, making her way towards the far side of the monitoring deck. The windowless room was enclosed on all sides by towering, opaque concrete walls, but the rear wall included a small section of shiny panels. These panels had never been mentioned or explained, and she had never ventured near them. But now she could see that something was happening near them, or drifting around them, or emanating from them. She couldn't be sure and so she edged closer.
Amanda inched forward, step by step by step, moving across the room with eyes transfixed on those shiny panels. Every few moments, she would glance side to side and blink as if trying to reset the room. She was completely unable to comprehend the emptiness or the silence, and she was growing less and less certain that she would spot someone –– a lone attendant or supervisor in one of the room’s many alleyways or in a nook between displays. But surely someone would appear and explain everything.
Then she noticed something she barely knew the word for.
Pieces of paper were floating and dancing in midair around the workstations nearest the panels. Some pages hovered and then fell. Others rustled straight from a desktop to the floor. Others simply curled at the edges and held their ground. Still others wound their way upwards circuitously as if climbing an invisible tree. She had seen this before but only in simulations. She had never seen real atoms behave this way. Only digital apparitions of atoms behaved this way. Suddenly she remembered the word for it –– wind.
“Is this wind?”
“Yes, I do sense atmospheric pressure variations in the room.”
As she neared the paneled section of wall, Amanda felt a breeze against her skin for the first time in her life. Then, before she could even process the sensation, the panels sensed her approach and parted silently to reveal a passageway. Another new discovery. This passageway wasn’t at all like the other hallways throughout the Installation. Instead, this one was filled with a bright, warm, ubiquitous light. She had seen this kind of light too, as well as the surfaces that filtered it so cleanly. This had to be, yes it must be, sunlight shining through glass. As with the wind, she knew it only from her studies in simulation.
Her mouth now slightly ajar, she walked through the glass passageway and toward another paneled wall, a mirror image of the wall she had just passed through. Only now, instead of the vast monitoring deck, she was surrounded above by an endless, literally endless, sea of sky. And she realized in the span of a single breath that she could no longer be sure of which world was real –– the space within the glass or the space beyond. The far panels parted, just as before, and she stepped out onto some kind of terrace. All at once, the full force of the open breeze took her breath away. She gazed openly at the sun, then abruptly shielded her eyes and flinched away from the blinding brightness of it. As her tears cleared, she looked out and down through a gap between the paneled exterior and another opaque wall.
She saw an old city from above. The kind of city she’d often visited in simulation. The kind of city she’d known to exist only in a distant past tense. There were buildings and trees. There were automobiles and traffic signals and the avenues that held them. There were people, tiny people in the distance down below. There was a river. And beyond the river, there were even more buildings and trees. All of it sat beneath a sky so wide it made her dizzy. Her first instinct was to run and tell the others, but no, she couldn't move, not yet. The breeze felt so good against her skin.
Amanda realized that there were two possibilities: either she was witnessing the most intricate simulation in the universe, or she was witnessing the world beyond her own simulation for the first time in her 13 years of life.