I sit in a tree at the top of a mountain. The mountain is stark white rock, jagged marble, the tree is slate grey with its smooth surface reflecting the mint green sky. It grows sideways, with three branches reaching out over the mountain and casting its summit into dappled shade.
With a mere thought, I adjust the bark's shade to a bluer hue. Yes. When I brush my fingers over the branch I'm sitting on, it is rough. Like the salad leaves in hydroponics but dialed up. I have no experience with tree bark outside of virtual space so this will have to do.
I stretch out and lean my back against the trunk. The air is dry and warm, almost electric in my throat. I fish a pale lock of hair out of my ponytail and brush it against the front of my robe just to feel the static. Yes.
The leaves should be pink but understated, gentle against the green sky, I think, and a split second later, they are.
Content, I close my eyes and listen for what else I might paint this holoscape with. It doesn't have to be 100% ocean like my home world but a little water might be refreshing. I remember the pond my unmi used to maintain in hydroponics when I was a child. The water felt warm, the lotus flowers soft under my fingers. Later, she sent me a holo scan so I could see the round leaves floating on the surface, the pastel pink blossoms. I've modeled the tree's leaves after those blossoms.
My unmi was transferred when I started school and the pond's gone now. I still have the scan though, it's my most valuable reference for water that's not stormy ocean or torrential rain.
I blink. It was all but unnoticeable, a tiny glitch in the scape. Was it even there or did I imagine it?
Maybe I'm tired. I've been painting this holoscape for what feels like an eternity although when I check the time, it's only been two hours. Time flies when you're doing what you love… but maybe I should take another stab at my assignments. At least write the lab report that's due tomorrow.
When my unmi left, she said: "Study hard, Nevi. The tests never lie, you'll go far as a scientist one day. You'll be a great asset to the community."
There's no mistaking it this time–another glitch. I concentrate on the memory, burrow into it. Unmi's faint green tea scent. Her dry hands. She'd squeezed mine when she'd said: "Try to understand, Nevi. I know you don't want to be a scientist but you don't have to give up holo painting. If you study hard, you can do it on the side."
Yes. This memory has the bittersweet taste of truth clinging to it, far more than the previous one.
I sit up on my tree. "You won't catch me so easily," I say loudly into the thin air. "This is psychological warfare. I won't fall for your dirty tricks," I add. It feels good to say out loud. I'm not afraid.
Turns out, my unmi was right to be worried. As a child, I scored high in analytical intelligence so education put me into a gifted science program. It never occurs to them that the children they 'educate' might have other plans for their lives. We're not allowed to choose.
I close my eyes. They've been trying to mess with my memories for weeks now, trying to plant a love for science into my head. I still don't know how I realized what they were doing but once I did, I built an alarm tethered to my dreamscape. Turns out, you can hack your brain without wanting to become a scientist, and working with the dreamscape isn't that different from painting holoscapes.
Admittedly, I enjoyed the challenge. It might not be so bad to learn more about the brain, to study it in-depth and try to improve…
Groaning, I fling myself upright and climb out of the tree. Its gnarly roots reach into the pond nestled in its shadow. Building that alarm into my dreamscape was a necessary evil. I did not enjoy it and I don't want to become a neurotech.
Just leave me alone already, I silently plead while dragging my hand through the warm water. This is all I want–getting these sensations, the colors, the textures, and everything else just right so the holo can bring comfort to others. Help them relax for just a moment. Myself, I'll never be able to relax as long as I live and breathe on this planet, jacked into its network. Education is always watching.
The water grows tepid under my fingers. I might as well give up now.
The buzzing is muffled as if heard through a wall. Am I acclimating to their intrusions? It's only been a few days since I activated the alarm. Now I'm desynchronized, I called it proudly. I will be able to remain… apart.
The doubts creep up on me like falling leaves. Afraid to look back at the tree, I take off along the pond and run down the mountain. In this holo, I am fast. Pebbles and stones loosen under my bare feet. Soon I am followed by an avalanche, the avalanche followed by a cloud of dust. As the creator of this holoscape, I sense it even behind my back.
At the foot of the mountain, ochre steppes stretch out before me. Not a drop of water, not a splash of color. My legs are aching, a hallucination that my brain nevertheless accepts as true, but sheer willpower keeps me up. Willpower, the only currency here, is something I have in spades.
I scream into the emptiness, send my war cry out over the steppes. Nothing has changed when I stop but I know there is life out there, roots and lichen and tumbleweed, bugs and rodents, even dust-colored coyotes. I'm going to paint them all into being. Not tonight though.
Now I really need to rest so I lie down.
True, I wanted to finish this project tonight so I could show Ovi tomorrow before class but meat space beckons. It offers respite from education's dirty tricks and so I speak my unique safe word and close my eyes.
When I open them, my legs are fine but my head hurts and everything is blurry. Welcome back to meat space, I think and get up from the daybed.
Still, I vow as I step close to the circular window that reveals only jet-black night and heavy rain streaks. Still, I'll fight them as long as I'm alive and able to experience holos in all their vibrant color. It's worth it.
I spend the rest of the night updating the alarm. No matter what I have to do, I'll stay desynchronized.
Thank you for reading! Please leave a little heart and a comment if you enjoyed Nevi’s story. I love chatting with readers.
Our current education system has a lot of problems but as this little thought experiment shows, more efficient does not necessarily mean better. For a different (more positive?) outlook, you might check out the excellent story Welcome to gulmohur by.
The idea of trying to stay “desynchronized” instead of “synchronized” as a way of being more in touch with your mind (not less) is such a fascinating metaphor swap!
And I love and relate to this line: “This is all I want–getting these sensations, the colors, the textures, and everything else just right so the holo can bring comfort to others. Help them relax for just a moment.”