“Happy Anniversary,” he half whispered, voice shaky.
She could tell he was nervous and that made her irritable. She was tired from a day of cleaning and her body ached. His soft hands grasped her rough palms, pulling her eagerly into their tiny apartment. It was a third-floor walk up with sloping floors, but it was the best they could afford.
“I-I have a surprise for you,” he stammered.
She rolled her eyes. She wondered if he had navigated into another sexual kink online and was about to propose that it would be the end to their ho-hum everyday simple little life. No matter what it was, she loved their life. She worked hard but it was honest work. He was a coder for P.O.D.S. and one of the few who still lived in the real world. She was proud of them and their choices. They were good people. She was kind. She never abused the people jacked into P.O.D.S., wasting away while their minds consumed data like water passing through sand. She had taken on clients whose previous caregivers had done terrible things to their bodies and homes while jacked and helpless.
“I,” he started, and then took a deep breath as if gathering his strength. “I know we made a promise. And we’ve kept that promise. But-”
“Oh no!” She interjected. “No I told you that swinging was just not for me. Not even if we don’t know the people. I just like being normal.”
“No, no, no,” he reassured her, a smile forming and his confidence growing. “Babe, look.”
He led her into their small bedroom and gently nudged her to the bed. There was a headset and earbuds in an open box with the bold, black P.O.D.S. lettering embossed on the side.
“We’ve been working on the unplugged version and it’s really good. Since I could never afford to send us away for our anniversary, I thought maybe we could take a virtual trip.” He was wringing his hands together like kneading dough.
She started to speak but he continued, becoming more insistent.
“This is not the same. There are no data ports to install, there’s no bio-monitor needed, no dopamine regulators. It’s just old school 3-d. Like watching a movie.” He seemed to grow taller in his courage.
She had never seen her husband this excited about a program. She narrowed her eyes to little slits, forcing his face to shift in and out of focus, as if a change in perspective might give her some clue to his newfound exuberance.
“We’ve been testing it at work and the reviews are amazing. And so far, no one is hooked — well not too hooked — not like P.O.D.S.–”
“NO!” she nearly screamed as she stood up from the edge of the bed. “No, no. We did make a promise. When we saw what social media was doing to people in the 20’s we both vowed to stay offline, in the real world. When game systems started rewiring children’s brains we kept our kids offline until they…” she drifted, remembering the day each of her children picked up a headset and plugged in. “…until we lost them.” Near tears, she sat back on the bed. “No, Jim, I can’t. Not even if it’s just like watching a movie. I won’t! And you promised me you wouldn’t either.”
He stood over her, watching her hold back tears, thinking about his children and their choices. Thinking about his own choices.
P.O.D.S. had taken over quickly. Within six months most of the world population were jacking in. Who knew that a video game would solve world hunger, automation, sustainable energy. People not working directly for the game while plugged in worked in mech suits playing farming games or manufacturing games. In the real world, they harvested the soy and manufactured the tube slurry that was fed in the P.O.D.S. enclosure while the person’s body was incapacitated. To the end user, they might be eating steak or sushi. In the real world an essential amino acids compound made mostly of soy was fed through their nose into their stomach. They felt nothing.
Within a year, most of the world had been moved into tiny apartments which housed their P.O.D.S. enclosure and provided a water source and plumbing for the excrement hoses. Very few resources were needed to house people who had become completely dependent on their online lives. Because there were so few people not jacked in, Sherry and others like her made decent money caring for the people housed in P.O.D.S. communities. End users worked, dated, had sex, played games, traveled — while their bodies became emaciated and useless, their minds consumed endless amounts of data all while chemical reactions of the brain cycled to keep them endlessly entertained.
Jim worked for the company who developed the P.O.D.S. software. He was one of the few outside engineers. He had been offered enormous pay increases if he would agree to jack in, but every time he refused. He loved Sherry, and she was right. The world had become something darker and uglier in the early 20s. With so few people in the real world and with so many jacked in, the world was peaceful. Boring. But peaceful. There were questions about infrastructure and sustainability. Children were nearly extinct and the few scientists not jacked in debated endlessly the implications of allowing people to be cloned or to reproduce and whether or not P.O.D.S. could be a safe environment for the developing child.
Early in product testing the dopamine regulation created horrific side effects. People became deranged and suicidal. A new form of schizophrenia emerged. Victims of early experimentation were warehoused by the dozen, peacefully waiting for a natural death while in an induced coma. The timing of the dopamine cycle was everything. Too much or too little of a good thing and in the wrong order or for the wrong timespan had grave consequences.
The game was extremely addictive, not because it was anything special, but because it was designed to be so. The circuits connecting to the pleasure-center of the brain were programmed to cycle dopamines – happy chemicals. Early in the product launch, people spent a few hours a day plugged in, but noted that they experienced extreme levels of depression and physical pain as soon as they unplugged. Eventually people began moving their lives fully online. As more people were jacked in 24/7, industries had no option but to follow suit. Fossil fuels became too cumbersome to use for energy. Tending to livestock on a large scale became too difficult.
End users were too consumed by the game to notice that even their online lives became more controlled. There were endless options for gameplay and new apps were constantly being released. The end-user agreement changed frequently and must be agreed to in order to resume play. Almost no one read it. P.O.D.S. could insist on doing anything to or with an end user and they would never know or care. As long as gameplay continued and dopamine cycles were perfect, end users were willing to do anything.
Jim picked the box up from the bed and turned to the door. He would return the console in the morning. He couldn’t stand to see Sherry cry, so he thought it would be better to leave her alone. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her lie on the bed as he closed the door. He would spend their anniversary on the couch.