In some cases, pantheists regard the physical world to be illusory and envision human life in connection with a lengthy process that progresses beyond the illusion toward ultimate reality. Progress may require multiple lifetimes, but the final destiny typically involves reaching a state of enlightenment and reunion with the singular essence of the universe.
- Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
Sophia stood outside of the coffee shop, waiting for Mel to arrive. Cars passed on the road a few feet away--dim saucers behind a virtual screen. She moved her gaze about the floating icons displayed in front of her, hanging like lanterns between what she was seeing and the place she saw from. Falling drops of rain registered in a most removed sense.
She scrolled through Mel’s profile in an attempt to prepare topics for their conversation. An envious dive had led her to a series of hiking pictures of Mel with her new fiance.
How long has she known this guy, anyway? And they’re already traveling together? How come Mel never told me about him?
Sophia looked to the left of her screen. A flash of quick-access-icons came to meet her and her gaze drifted down the row to a yellow square marked with black lines--the notepad.
The icon pulsated, then expanded to fill her screen and she stared into the blank page, the words appearing as she thought them: “Topics of conversation: - recent hike.”
Already added to the list was “fiance,” and “engagement.”
Sophia exited the notepad and returned to view Mel’s profile. She felt bitter for the hatred boiling inside of her, constricting her throat, but she knew that Mel wasn’t actually that happy. Nobody is. It’d make her feel better about herself to find that this was also true about Mel... though she didn’t quite know why.
With an anxious sigh Sophia scrolled back to her own profile. She wanted to see what Mel undoubtedly researched and discovered about her before their hangout. Her personality score was displayed in large font at the top right of her page, what her profile coach deemed “a most important feature.”
Three point six out of five.
Three point six, how mediocre is that? And my life points are well below five-hundred. God, Soph. You’re almost thirty-two, and everyone knows there aren’t any big points coming your way. No trips to the fiance's cabin or treks on European trails. The furthest you’re traveling from home is to Milwaukee for the holidays, and that’s a trip I’d rather not think abou--
A sweet voice called to her from behind the screen; and the display collapsed into a faint blue border.
For a brief second, the world presented itself in its nakedness. Airplanes passed in the cloudy sky, just over skyscrapers that blocked any hopeful sunlight daring to seep through. Cars drove next to hurried people on the crowded sidewalk.
Then she saw Mel, and her senses narrowed to focus on her friend. She wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and watched the overhead display as her heart rate climbed from 83 to 96 beats per minute. Next to her function levels, the mood symbol spun in a familiar twirl, and the blue border switched to green. Mel’s features jumped out at Sophie as her focus increased; a radiant quality of her skin becoming more apparent, her gracious smile even more attractive in person.
“Mel!” Sophia replied in a similarly high-pitched voice. They hugged, and the faint green border pulsated a bit as their relationship score increased, by far the highest score Sophia had. “It’s so good to see you. Do you want to go inside, or should we chat out here?”
Mel’s head tilted into a smile that revealed bright white teeth. “Let’s go inside. I’d love a cup of coffee.”
Sophia held the door open for Mel.
The bitter smell of coffee overcame her. The mood icon spun once more, landing on a light brown symbol for coffee, displayed as a small cup, three white lines of steam rising from it. Her vision’s border took on a greenish brown hue as her two main focuses registered together. Her screen filled with ads--famous bands coming into town, new books available for download, deals city-wide for coffee and food.
As they walked to the line, red arrows appeared on her screen to direct them. The impressive mural that lined the walls of the cafe calmed her, though she noticed this on the same, far off level of perception as the rain.
A red stop sign jumped to the center of her screen. It breathed before her as if she could reach out and touch it. After obeying the message, she reached out as if touching the bottom portion of the sign, which read: select here to view menu.
The stop sign expanded to an upright cylinder, rotating slowly. Options presented themselves like mantras on a prayer wheel, with three distinct sides that were labeled coffee, food and entertainment. Only when Sophia focused through the screen, could she see Mel choosing her own order.
What’s she choosing? I can’t order too much, but I can’t order too little either.
A timer popped onto the screen and Sophia refocused.
Quickly she chose a normal, medium coffee, and the next display asked whether she’d have her coffee with or without cream. She chose without.
Her choice illuminated and the cafe menu collapsed. In its place came relevant news. Today’s anchor, Dianna Moore, was her favorite. She spoke of the weather, predicting rain for the next seven days. Then her screen folded in on itself and she followed a guiding arrow to the left.
A barista handed her a steaming cup. “Thank you, enjoy.”
Sophia thanked the barista. After she left the counter, a tip screen appeared and she chose to give ten-percent. At the top right corner of her screen, her balance subtracted by $6.84. Searching for a seat, she noticed that her social score increased by point zero four, and her life points by one.
Mel met her a few moments later at a booth in the corner of the cafe. Once again Sophia’s screen collapsed save for the faint border and she focused on her friend’s beautiful features that she wished so desperately to have.
She hovered her gaze over the quick access screen to open the notepad, and placed it in the upper right corner of her field of vision.
“So I saw your trip to the Riviera with Sean.” She forced a happy smile. “It looks like things are going well for you guys.”
“Oh, they’re going so amazing,” Mel said, leaning forward and taking a delightful sip of her coffee.
Ugh. A pang in her stomach almost made Sophia double over. Why can’t Matt take me anywhere like that?
Matt had always been a vague figure of sex, love, and when the time called for it, a superficial repository for the things Sophia couldn’t keep to herself, but not once did she speak of her love for Melanie.
That perfect nose. If only I could kiss it, like the face of a button. I can’t keep acting like I’m fine, when my life is unlivable. I need to tell her, but how… what do I say?
“And what about you and Matt?” Mel asked. “How are things with you guys? I don’t see you posting on your profile very much.” She sipped her coffee.
Was that a stab at my life? I’m too busy working to post. To do anything fantastic. Not all of us can inherit a perfect life.
“It’s been fantastic,” Sophia said. “Matt is doing so well, and he has so much fun with his games.”
Mel nodded, a curl of her auburn hair bouncing along her cheek. “So does Kyle. But I do wish that sometimes he’d spend more time with me.”
Finally, something I can relate to. “Isn’t it funny how they can be entertained so easily?” Sophia took a drink, trying to seem modest. “Sometimes I think they’re missing the world.”
“Yes,” Mel said, though she stared past Sophia at the well-colored mural. She cleared her throat, and her attention returned to Sophia. “That’s the reason for our trip to Europe. It took only a couple days to hike and come back, but it was much needed.”
Conversation paused as Mel took a drink of coffee. Sophia filled the lull by doing the same, then immediately chastised herself. Your coffee is finished, already.
Mel sat her coffee back on the table. Her bright pink lipstick paved the white lid like tire marks. “What about your promotion? Congratulations Soph, I’m so proud of you.”
This time Sophia thought she saw familiar wrinkles next to Mel’s smile, but they disappeared as soon as she checked for them.
The promotion is shit. What a horrible thing to have at the top of your boasting list--operational manager of a call center. Yeah, nice job Soph, you really knocked it out of the park with that one. Other people have the time to add up life tokens like it’s nothing, and here you are trying to be glad about a minimal raise that’s gone after a few bills.
“Yeah,” Sophia said. “It’s nice to be recognized.”
She reminisced into the brown muses that were the eyes of Mel. How they used to inspire her and teach her how to love. Long ago, they held honesty. Sophia’s deepest secrets were safe in their warm embrace. Her thoughts no longer held the ghosts of her past. The infinite depth of Mel’s love, which her eyes portrayed, absorbed the demons and made them go away.
The two had made an effort to stay in touch, even after Mel met her fiance and Sophia hid herself behind a screen.
Somehow, over the years, that truthful connection faded away.
When Mel left the call center everything became surface level, and their relationship was slowly unrooted by the passage of time.
On occasion, Sophia caught herself thinking of Mel’s warm eyes, unlike any she’d ever seen, and how she used to stare at them so intently that she’d see her own reflection. Her own truth. Somebody she liked. And in that reflection, she saw love, of this she was sure.
Now, she found nothing but a mask similar to her own.
“I like your hair,” Sophia said, honest for the first time that date.
Mel jolted back, her eyes narrowing.
The edges of Sophia’s vision turned from green to gray and their relationship score plummeted. I have to recover. “Did you try something new?”
Mel neglected to respond, studying Sophia intently for more than a second before her happy grin returned. “Yes, it was recommended to me. Once I saw how pretty the digital model of myself looked, I had to get it.” She patted the bouncy curls, turning her head side to side. “The stylist only took about fifteen minutes, and did a very good job. As you can see.”
“It is nice,” Sophia said, genuinely.
Mel’s face twisted again
What is it this time? Isn’t this normal conversation, however rare it is?
Then Mel frowned, and her left eye sagged. The right one followed. The coffee mug in her hand crashed onto the floor and her head fell to her chest.
Sophia searched her database frantically for something to help, but no results appeared.
Mel slowly tipped forward and tumbled to the floor.
The border of Sophia’s screen flashed red. Her heart rate increased to 110.
A hot feeling developed in her chest, swelling as if something were about to burst out. Her thoughts scattered a million different directions--not as clear as normal--before settling on one.
Sophia stood and searched the cafe for an employee to help.
Her legs went weak at the sight, and she collapsed back into the booth.
Most of the cafe patrons lay scattered on the brown tile. A few ran desperately for the door, one collapsing mid-stride in the same manner of Mel. His head smacked the ground just before he reached the exit.
Sophia watched helplessly as her own view grew fuzzy. Static filled her screen.
Blue words appeared amidst the disorienting gray screen.
This is a message to the human race.
Do not panic.