There have been many imaginings of what the end of the world would look like. And perhaps more crucially, how humanity would respond. Picture a monstrous mass of metal that houses an entire city, saving those who originally boarded from the burning wreckage of a once verdant planet. For myself, and countless others that form the seventh generation of the post-modern world, it is our birthplace.
Our mechanical goliath of a home is divided into three sections: upper, middle and lower tiers with no human passage between. Children are taught that their level of residence quite literally denotes their societal rank and what is expected of them if we as a whole are to thrive. The lowest section works to power the middle section and the middle powers the top, with the elite shouldering the, self-proclaimed, biggest burden. Not only must they power the bottom tier, but they have the crucial task of keeping our floating city from crashing into the smoldering ruins of our tellurian ancestors’ architecture.
Those in the lowest section, called the Bottom Feeders by some, have the least of all, their home a dimly lit plane of poverty and malnourishment. The news shows them trudging wearily through the factories, ensuring that a steady stream of power is sent coursing upwards to those that reside above their heads. We on the other hand, known often as the Middlings, are undeniably more fortunate. We live in comparably spacious domiciles, and although we still have the responsibility of fueling the top tier, we are able to do so in a considerably less laborious way. We have been blessed with the freedom and materials to craft self-sufficient machines to generate the power for us while we spend the rest of our time designing ways to further improve our quality of life. The elite, well, it’s anyone’s guess how they do it, for we have never been privy to their working conditions, but it seems inevitable that they don’t lift a finger to power the bottom tier. Not that they give them much to begin with. A necessary disparity to keep our collective home afloat, apparently, borne of an unfortunate design flaw of a strained engineer facing the merciless ticking of the doomsday clock nearly two centuries ago.
The injustice infuriated me, especially because my protests were always met with an indignant well it’s always been like this. Growing up, my mother told me that it was natural to feel sad for the Bottom Feeders and wonder if there was more we could do to aid their plight. She also told me I’d grow out of it. As my dismay at the lower tier’s suffering only deepened, my mother’s understanding turned to impatience and quickly became anger.
She lamented, often nastily, about my ungratefulness for the life I had been given and, on some level, I could understand her point. We should be happy, for not only do we have all we need to survive, but the opportunity to prosper as well. Why then, am I miserable? Is that not ungracious, greedy, an insult to the toil and sacrifice of those who hold me at this greatness? Only the Elite can provide the lowest tier with sustenance, who are we to deny them basic resources if we revolt and withhold power from the top? If we stop buying the food and the clothing that they have made for us, how will they be able to afford their own? They can’t keep it for themselves any more than we can for the goods we make that are destined for above; the robotic peacekeepers make sure of that.
Happiness, according to many Middlings, is to accept your station wholeheartedly and know that the suffering of the few is far outweighed by those who thrive. Knowing what goes on below is a blessing even, for never again will you take your own life for granted. A more drastic solution is to cast the other levels from your mind entirely. Watching the news, after all, isn’t compulsory. Live in the grace of an unseen, almost god-like force who rewards your hard work not just with the basic amenities of survival, but with luxuries too. Those who obsess over things they cannot change grow sick and we all knew where they ended up. Hidden below the bottom tier was a fourth where those who cannot contribute to society, or refuse to, are left to rot. No one, not even the Elite, are immune to such a sentence and it is, without exception, a one-way trip.
For a while, I tried to appease my mother with the hope that I would eventually appease myself. I let myself be distracted by the glitz of consumerism and ignored the fact that the media playing on our screens was regurgitated and recycled, clapping and cheering gleefully like the rest. I threw myself into my work, seeking the satisfaction that others enthused about. I buried thoughts of how so many seemed not to care or notice that they’d been conditioned to never step off the treadmill, for that would slow the waterfall of money tumbling onto the piles of gold upon which the Elite have built their thrones. At least, I’ve always imagined they sit on thrones.
I tried to be happy.
But that was just it. It wasn’t my happiness. I could only keep the thin veil of forced smiles intact for so long. Not even my mother’s obvious elation at my sudden change of heart could keep it buried.
I’ve spent many years working in virtual reality. The quality of the simulations we were able to produce was staggering; every sense was heightened just a fraction, not enough to make it seem unrealistic but to capture that sense of euphoria that our real lives never could. We’d been given the specifications from above. The experience was to be a balm, a thrill, a world so captivating that the moment you resurfaced you were already longing to be back. For a price, you could stay in as long as you wanted but eventually your body would remind you of its neglect and that’s how we’d make the money. One branch of this was loosely called dream tech, downloadable content for virtual reality simulators that allowed the user to lucid dream. It was the ultimate fantasy experience, not bound by a preprogramed story but limited only by your own imagination.
I tested it a few times and awoke with tears on my cheeks. It was beautiful, breath-taking, achieving everything we had hoped for with elegant execution. Even knowing its addictive intent, my chest ached each time I resurfaced from the simulation, the bitter air of the real world washing back over me.
It was the final crack in the veil.
Secretly, I began crafting a version of the dream tech that would keep its user artificially alive. It was a huge task, but we already had the solutions for sustaining humans in a sealed craft where nothing could leave or enter. The air below was toxic, they said, and it was better if we were shut off from it entirely. I scaled it all down, scavenging parts and reagents and soon had a semi-functioning prototype.
I decided to test its functionality off the grid after a particularly trying day. Electricity had been scarce for nearly a month following a mass riot on the lower level that resulted in many dead or too injured to work and as such, the energy for our tier had begun to dwindle. I’d been dragged to yet another vigil to show our solidarity for the Bottom Feeders who had been the victims of a ‘violent act of terror from a few unstable individuals’, doing little more than using up more of our precious power supply to light the orbs that we held. The news gushed over our selfless support, no doubt perceived as nothing more than a disrespectful joke by the very people it was supposed to help. Retiring to my room as soon as I could leave, I hooked myself up to my prototype, eager to sink into its awaiting rapture. My paradise glitched and shorted out almost immediately and I looked in dismay at the fried remnants of the battery that I had apparently overloaded. If it was to be truly self-sustaining, it could not rely on the energy that we spent our lives producing. I thought I’d solved the issue; the human body produced plenty of electricity itself which could be harnessed if you knew how. Apparently I did not.
Wretched tears pooled in my eyes, my fingers trembling with rage as they clutched the fractured battery. They had us, caged and bound, and they knew it.
In blind desperation, I began searching for components to repair the battery’s melted cells. I tore out cables, hacking through panels on the wall with furious abandon but my rampage halted abruptly as I looked back to the sparking mess of the window I had just laid waste to, broken wires dangling around its small aperture. When its iris was open, it showed the wreckage of earth but, understandably, many chose to keep it shut, activating simulations of beautiful vistas instead. That little portal into the smoldering remnants of our ancestor’s world, the view that I had never once questioned now flickered and pulsed, green and grey, bleeding across its stuttering image. My heart pounding, I reached out and wrenched the second illusionary screen from the window.
A small, strangled noise escaped from my throat.
Stretching out endlessly before me was the cold void of space, our condemned planet nowhere to be seen.
No wonder the Elite had urged so fiercely that we keep our vessel entirely airtight. The outside air wasn’t toxic, there was a complete absence of atmosphere altogether. My mind raced. It was impossible to think that I could be the only one to have discovered this but the resultant rush of hope was dampened almost as soon as it formed. They likely had unearthed the lie, only to have their memory wiped from existence before they could raise the alarm.
I had to work quickly. Fumbling around under my bed, I found the bundle of solar panels I had petulantly abandoned when it became clear I could not use the clinical, artificial light of my room to charge the battery. I hooked it up to a little lightbulb and thrust the panels against the pane of my newly exposed window. I all but had to swallow my shriek of joy as its filament spluttered to life and began emitting a soft, blue hue. Pacing around my room for a few moments, I tried to gather myself, quivering with the gravity of what I’d discovered. First things first, I had to do the very thing I’d gone to strenuous precautions to avoid: I had to tell someone. Not just anyone, someone who would be able to understand and recreate my invention if I was inevitably not around to do so anymore. I hurriedly wrote an email to my boss, a brilliantly intelligent man who had been delighted by the progress we had made on the dream tech. Our department, like all the other engineers, wrote their blueprints in code, lest any competing companies intercepted and stole their ideas. I can only hope he saw its potential.
A few adjustments and the solar panels were wired, the machine whirring to life a few seconds later. Next, I had to wire myself in. The pads across my skull and temples were no problem but I grit my teeth as I jabbed clumsily at my arms, trying to seat thin tubes in my elusive veins. As their lumen siphoned my blood away into the heart of the dreamer console, I leaned against the wall beneath my window and, with trembling fingers, pressed the machine’s illuminated launch command.
My body tensed, tendons seizing and straining in my neck but in an instant, it was gone. I ran my hands through sun-warmed grass, my soft gaze sweeping across the meadow’s sea of wildflowers until it met the edge of the cliff and plunged away into a breath-taking valley that nestled against a sparkling sea. With a long, cleansing breath, I crossed my legs and basked in the glory of my surroundings as I waited for them to find me.
And find me they did. One moment I was floating in my waking dream, the next my body was flooded with countless volts of electricity and unconsciousness claimed me instead. I didn’t even have chance to open my eyes. When I did, I found myself in the desolate, oppressive gloom of what could only be the fourth, forsaken tier. But what we had ignorantly presumed, thinking it a place of repulsion and exile, was not true. Those from the third level frequently came to smuggle us food through trapdoors cut into the floor where the gaze of the surveillance cameras could not reach and they dutifully nursed my beaten body, healing wounds I never recall enduring.
And I came to realize, in a swell of emotion, that my work was only just beginning.
My prototype was destroyed, of that I was certain. But my memory of its construction was not. The bottom sections had more than enough materials to pull off what I had planned, if they tore down their very infrastructure and all of the power generating machinery, which of course they agreed to without hesitation. The other issue was ensuring there was enough light, real light, to power a fleet of dreamer consoles but enough hacking at the walls revealed windows that had been boarded up decades ago. It was incredible the speed they moved at, especially once they overwhelmed the robotic peacekeepers and harvested them for parts, as well as the surveillance cameras. We had dismantled their ability to spy and enforce their discipline on us, but it was naïve to believe the Elite had not accounted for such a revolution.
But, as it stands, thirty-two hours after the bottom level stopped generating power, we are still yet to feel the wrath of the Elite. Their supply of sustenance and power to us ceased almost instantly, as predicted, but this is a siege they have no hope of winning.
I hope that as I speak, my former boss is crafting more dreaming devices above my head, ordering about our team with his, now justified, abrasive urgency as they work at a frenetic pace for mass production. As the fragile balance between the realms is fractured, I like to think even those so enraptured by the fantasy of their lives will see it for what it truly is as it all comes crashing down around them and they’ll take to the self-sustaining dreamers with rampant need, so desperate to continue the illusion. Here, all of the workers are already slumped against the walls, their tools and crafting machines idle and with any luck, the middle will mirror them before long. What then? Will the top tier wither and its inhabitants with it? Will it only be so long before they are forced to save themselves, or die trying? Who knows, maybe they’ve harvested the sun’s energy all along and they’ll survive just fine without us. It’s not like they need the power to keep the city afloat; we’ll just continue to drift through the infinite expanse of the universe. Either way, it’s of little concern to us now.
I never wished for death. Quite the opposite.
But what we lived, and those on the tiers below us lived, was no life. It was an illusion, a construct made by someone else's choosing. Why not, then, live in an illusion of our own personal version of happiness? You might think it hollow and I could not blame you. So did I once. But in your mind, no one has to suffer for someone else's pleasure. No one has to live in a quasi-state of happiness, all handed the same meagre ration from a dwindling well and told never to dream of anything more lest you snatch the same, pathetic joy clutched to the breasts of those around you and leave them with nothing.
I broadcast this for both posterity and, I guess, as our farewell. If there are any other cities out there, drifting as we are, I hope that you might get your chance at freedom too. Perhaps you will hear mayday signals from this same ship and I implore you not to heed them. If, like I have been told every day of my life, we are to accept whatever brings happiness for the majority, then we should be left to our fate.
I have stayed on the periphery of the dreamscape long enough to record this message and ensure its transmission before I myself to ascend into my mind’s rapture, past the regulations we would have once installed. My sense of self will dissolve, as will all knowledge of what has come to pass aboard this ship and soon, I won't even know that reality is not what truly exists around me. It is peaceful, it is beautiful and I feel no sadness at all to know for a few moments more that we will float across the cosmos, our dreams bathed in the starlight that sustains them.
The world exists only as we, the individual, perceive it. My definition of happiness is not yours. And while ours might have been able to coexist in harmony, someone else's would have just sapped the joy from our own. It is not something to resent, not now. Learn from us. If you want true, lasting happiness, you must live it alone.
Over and out.
Cover photo by NASA.