Nathan "Domus Vocis" Hopp
Dante — 2251
Walking away from my former home felt like a herculean task. However, nothing had felt easier than uploading to the System, even as I looked back on the memory centuries later.
Simply put, my life never really started until after I woke up in a blank simulation, was instructed on how to give myself clothes, how to fork, as well as how to navigate my way through the System and earn currency in the form of reputation. I didn’t really begin living until I stumbled through digital realm after digital realm, gaining a sense of my boundless surroundings. The first sim I’d went to was called Infinite Café#06f4e37a, an entire cityscape composed of cafes, bakeries, juice bars, and coffee shops. There, I interacted with friendly, outspoken, and kind users who welcomed me to the System, and who in turn, gave me the opportunity to try many different pastries and baked goods for what seemed like days as I slowly opened myself up to others.
One of the eternal friends I made during my time there was Zion, who appeared as a deathly-pale but lively person with ruby eyes. Identifying as non-binary and dressed clothes that they liked to call ‘Neo-Gothpunk aesthetics’, Zion spoke like a System denizen who’d seen almost everything but approached it like a new experience. They were also an excellent conversationalist. The moment they offered me a seat in the crowded interior, Zion successfully kept me in an hours-long discussion on what the System offered to creatives.
“I like to generate intricate landscapes made up of historical locations,” they boasted without looking away from me or dismissing my intrigue. “Just yesterday, I helped create a sim for these die-hard fans of live-action role-playing games, who wanted me to build a high detailed Gothic castle with hidden chambers, secrets, unknown treasures, and more. Do you like to LARP?” I shook my head, which didn’t surprise them. “It’s not for everyone, but I’m still curious to ask: now that you’re here, what do you want to do with your immortality?”
“I…I’m not sure,” came my confession. “I…only wanted to get away.”
“Get away?” Zion pondered, “From whom, Dante?”
“My…family,” I finally said after a moment.
Ever since I could remember, my choices were made by my parents and grandparents. As the youngest son in a religious family, they did everything to mold me as a perfect believer. I dressed how they wanted me to dress, watched what they wanted me to watch, went where they wanted me to go, said what they wanted me to say, felt how they wanted me to feel.
But not think.
For all their influence into what I would come to recognize as an unhealthy childhood growing up, my relatives couldn’t force me to think the way they needed me to think. That was among the few privileges God gave me, plus the downloaded books I managed to sneakily read in the school library during lunchtimes, if I even could find the opportunities in late high school.
“I always thought that the religious types were extinct outside the System.” Zion mulled remorsefully over my story, expression remaining calm as distracted users walked or talked around us. “I know a few sims which are heavily closed off and feel more like cults, but that’s it.”
“My family believed that the world is in an apocalypse because of humanity’s past sins,” I said, then sipped on another cup of pumpkin spice latte. “By the way, whatever this ‘pumpkin’ is, it’s tasty.”
They chuckled. “You must try it with some pumpkin bread, hon.”
“Will do.” I nodded as I set down my cup. The sensations still felt too real to be zeroes and ones. “As far as I know, my family think I just ran away to the other side of the world. They don’t know I uploaded myself, but if they did…they’d consider me dead to them.”
“Do you plan to reach out to them?” Zion asked, to which I shrugged. “I understand. For now, you should consider this a new chapter in your life. The first thing I did after uploading a couple decades ago was do everything that I’ve ever wanted to do on my bucket list. You should too.”
That I did. With insightful directions from Zion, I set out to explore the rest of the System. Little did I know that it would unravel the last remnant of shy indecisiveness clinging to me since childhood, as I found myself bouncing between virtual worlds that only existed in the imagination. Or even dreams.
After the Infinite Café came other public sims I explored like a happy child visiting its first toy store. There were sims composed entirely of junk food, sims that hosted reenactments of historic events, as well as sims recreating hypothetical alien worlds throughout the Milky Way.
My five senses experienced digital smells, sounds, sights, and tastes I never knew could exist. Besides places that showcased lost nature and impossible architecture, I found sims trapped in various time periods and settings only seen in history lessons; among them my favorite to frequently visit was called Athenaeum#f6f6ff01, a sim which presented accurate replicas of famous libraries throughout history, with the ancient Library of Alexandria and its iconic lighthouse serving as a spawn point for newcomers and a sea of floral gardens connecting every standing library to each other.
After spending hours marveling at the Alexandrian wing, I traveled between the Boston Athenaeum, National Library of China, and the Old American Library of Congress before taking a temporary break inside the Wiblingen Monastery Library. Although I didn’t know much of architecture, I recognized the whimsically ornate ceilings, walls, and archways as ‘Rococo’. I sat down on a bench beneath a marble statue overlooking one of its extravagant hallways as a tear welled in one of my eyes. Never before did I realize how beautiful the past looked.
What good was going to libraries though if one didn’t take the time to read? Unlike the tablets though, almost every single reading material within the libraries were archaic paperbacks, hardbacks, scrolls, magazines, textbooks, and so much more to choose. Just seeing so many lined up along the mahogany shelves overwhelmed me, at first. My childlike wonder didn’t know which to take off the shelf.
So, I choose whatever my arms and my several forked instances could carry.
One of the first advantages I discovered after being uploaded was that human limits no longer existed. I could eat and sleep whenever I felt like it. The fact most humans phys-side slept through a third of their lifetime didn’t matter anymore. This applied to forks too.
My forked versions and I learned very quickly not to let my digital clones quit directly after finishing a novel, nor while I was reading something at the same time. Otherwise, I developed an absolutely splitting headache with only a blurry recollection of what had just been read. So, over the course of several days, we took turns. For days, I eagerly paced myself to actually enjoy the books on every shelf. No more work hours, awkward family dinners, being interrupted, fighting against sleep as I stayed up way past my bedtime, pretending to be asleep, or skimming quickly to the end. I was allowed to enjoy each page for as long as I wanted.
A million books later, I got bored. As each memory of my forks accumulated more novels into my head, I didn’t find them as exciting anymore. Novels I thought would be amazing either were mediocre or shared too heavy of similarities with other books. Plenty followed a similar narrative or held similar dialogue. Most relied on tired tropes and overused cliches that didn’t amaze me after seeing them play out over and over and over again. The longer I caught up on these endless books I’d always wanted to read, the more I thought back to when Zion asked me what I wanted to do.
Well, half-way through reading yet another generic pulpy romance novella, I reached a sudden conclusion. I didn’t just want to read. Without anyone to hold me back, I wanted to…
“You wanna write books now?” Zion repeated my statement back to me during one of our rendezvouses at the Infinite Café. “That’s great, Dante! What do you plan to write?”
“I’m thinking of an autobiography so far.” I shrugged between distracted sips on another pumpkin latte (after having dunked my pumpkin bread in and utterly devoured it, much to Zion’s giggling amusement). “Nothing too major. If anything, it might help me unpack some things, or at the very least give me some closure of some kind. If not, I’ll just write the first thing that pops into my head.”
“You’ll need your own sim then,” Zion said.
“My own sim?”
“Where else are you going to work from? This café?” They chuckled after finishing the rest of their chai latte. “Of course, you’re going to need to gain reputation. Sims aren’t free.”
The reputation market required me to interact with other people. Purchasing and designing a sim required using the reputation market too. Without reputation, I wouldn’t really be allowed to make a place for myself to sit down and write. I’d already accumulated some from speaking with Zion and traveling to other sims, but gaining more reputation to afford a private sim was easier said than done, at first. Even so, the work was worth it.
My very first sim started off crude, like a child’s first attempt at a landscape, but over painstaking and devoted time I now possessed, it transformed into my new home. At first, the end result appeared like a painfully rendered imitation of what an artificial intelligence thought a log cabin looked like. After scrapping it, I started again from scratch. Only this time, I didn’t rush the construction, but slowly built it brick by brick and tile by tile.
Assistance from Zion during our now-scheduled weekly get-togethers at the Infinite Café helped a long way as well. They gave very useful advice on how to make the simulation feel real to me, and how to be intricate with each aspect in the grand design, from the simplest gusts of wind to the casting shadows of the Sun.
In the end, I felt content with the final rendition; seemingly nothing more than a vast North American timber forest in springtime, the private sim’s only man-made structure resembled a medium-sized rustic log cabin. The unlocked front door led to an open interior with a kitchen and granite counter-top table in one corner, a comfortable living room in the opposite corner, and a circular writing desk between a cozy ergonomic chair and a glass window overlooking a lake. One of my favorite features included an old-style typewriter which came with an endless supply of ink, plus a neighboring chalkboard on wheels to plan out my stories.
I called my finished sim Writer’s Retreat#a9f5d4e2.
My first few days spent within the digital sanctuary led to zero results. Aside from a few typing noises and agitated mutterings, I only really stared out the beautiful window. The first thing I initially wanted to focus on was jotting down the biggest accomplishments in my life (uploading being the ultimate achievement) and my favorite memories from growing up. The more I reflected on my life though, the more I chastised myself for past failures and regrets, none of which I bothered writing down. Instead, there was this nagging feeling at the back of my mind, thinking about how much better that one bad romance novel would’ve been if the main character’s love interest had a little more interest in getting to know her.
“I’ll work on it after I’m done with this project,” I promised myself.
Another few days passed. I broke away from my isolation in order to join Zion again at the Infinite Café, only for my melancholy to disappear when they mentioned how busy they were with a sim commission and had sent a fork in their place. Seeing the duplication of my friend sitting before me, relaxed and completely invested in our conversation about backlogged projects, caused a great idea to pop into my head.
“That’s it!” I suddenly shot up from our table with the widest of smiles. A few heads turned but didn’t remain focused on me. “Zion, you’re a genius! A brilliant, brilliant genius!”
“No need to heap praises on me,” their fork replied after laughing. “By the way, why am I a genius?”
I demonstrated it by suddenly creating a forked version of myself, who promptly returned to the Writer’s Retreat.
They immediately understood, sharing my grin. “You’re right, I’m a genius, sweetie. Just don’t push yourselves too hard, okay?”
Not at first, we didn’t. After renovating my one-room cabin for dual capacity, my days were spent at that desk, either jotting down vague notes or thinking back to repressed memories I’d been trying to erase. When I couldn’t bear just staying in the cabin as my forked instance eagerly typed away on his own typewriter, I decided to venture outside and explore the sim. Within a couple of days, my fork asked if I’d be interested in reading the novella’s rough draft. I eagerly accepted it, much to his delight, and mine.
“Not bad, actually,” I said after skimming through the first chapter. “It’ll need some work.”
“We’ve got all the time in the world, right?” He sat across from me in the living room, now communal. “If this’ll need to be edited and reworked, I’ll want to stay for longer. I’ve got some other ideas I want to work on too.” My fork began to snicker.
“What?” I asked.
“From now on,” he explained, “you can call me ‘Romance Genre’.”
I stared blankly at him. “Really?”
“Yes!” He nodded vigorously, wearing a glint in his eyes I never thought was possible to see on my own face. “If I ever feel like making any forks to write other book ideas, let’s name them after genres! I’ll be Romance Genre, and if you ever want to start working on a political thriller, but won’t get away from this slump you’re in, you’ll fork out Political Thriller.”
I shook my head and laughed. “Whatever.”
Romance Genre was the first fork, soon joined by Horror Genre after a particularly vivid nightmare, which then gave me an idea for a setting full of existential dread. The next Genres to join our quasi-family were Fantasy, Adventure, Slice-of-Life, Humor, Drama, Science Fiction, Young Adult, Horror Genre’s twin ‘sisters’ named Paranormal and Lovecraftian Fiction, Romance Genre’s close collaborative brother Historical Fiction, the latter of whom also liked to collaborate with Alternate History, and who in turn forked out Steampunk, who had a begrudging respect towards Historical Fiction despite their antithetical differences and close similarities. Even Zion became an extended member of the clade after forming a relationship with Steampunk Genre. I remembered voicing my sheer confusion, similar to when Horror Genre introduced me to his younger sisters, but a long discussion with Steampunk and Zion together helped me realized how much he’d become a different person from me. Steampunk described to me how he didn’t view someone’s gender (or lack thereof) as a reason not to form a romance with someone. He sincerely loved them, regardless.
Well, not that either of them needed it from me, but I approved of their relationship.
Over the years, Writer’s Retreat#a9f5d4e2 expanded from a small writing cabin into a massive woodland mansion the size of a city. Every ‘house’ within the mansion catered to the needs, wants, and aesthetic desires of each ‘Genre’ in my growing clade. We talked, exchanged stories, ideas, drafts, and manuscripts before publishing them, supporting each other in our separate but connected endeavors to be the best writers in all of the System.
Our most recent addition was Anthropomorphic Fiction, who came into existence after I’d joined Zion at a sim gathering hosted by a lively, awkwardly charming skunk author from the Ode clade named Dear The Wheat And Rye Under The Stars.
Though she preferred to be called ‘Rye’, I liked calling her ‘Catcher in the Rye’, much to her chagrin and my utter amusement, even decades after our friendship formed.
“Anthropomorphism is more than just a subgenre,” she explained to me—or rather a forked instance of me—as we discussed literature inside the Old American Library of Congress within Athenaeum#f6f6ff01. “It is more akin to a meta-genre, Dante. A book about archaeologists going after a lost treasure in the jungle is just an average adventure, but if your protagonist is, say, a handsome lion and his foil a sultry vixen, you can have more fun displaying personalities that cannot be done with humans, yes?”
“Not unless the writer’s being lazy and just makes them animals with no reason,” I argued.
“What? If a main character’s a furry, but it’s only brought up in the description once or twice, are they really a furry?”
Rye’s black-and-white-furred frown softened. “Fair point,” she admitted. “But you are not really thinking about the storytelling possibilities, are you? Instead, you spend your days holed up in that cabin mulling over that autobiography.”
“Is Anthro worried about me again?” I groaned.
“He thinks that you are obsessed with the past. You came here for a better future, yes?” When I didn’t answer, Rye said, “If there is one thing that I have learned in my century and a half, it is that the past is very complicated, but fiction need not be. Not all stories must be told. Otherwise, that is all that you are going to do until the end of the universe.”
I still didn’t say anything, but instead nodded meekly as she leaned over to give a hug.
“Anyway, my apologies, but I must cut this short. I have another meetup in a few minutes and would like to keep conflicts to a minimum.” She grinned with perked ears as I’d been temporarily distracted by her swishing tail. “You take care of yourself, okay?”
“No promises,” I shot back, my earlier snark returning.
She waved at me and said, “See you later, Memoir!”
My forked instance rolled his eyes before quitting, promptly sending those memories to me. As the root instance and our quasi-family’s patriarch, everybody else either called me by my real name Dante, or if they wanted to be a little humorous, ‘Memoir’.
Before uploading, my lifelong objective had been to be never seen or heard unless required. My tall, lanky frame prevented me from being invisible, and despite having a deep voice, I kept it at a lowered volume until the day I had enough. Over time though, my old self dissipated with the previous life I’d had outside the System. I expressed myself more fully. I joked with friends, with my clade, and they joked with me. Laughter bubbled freely out of my lungs like oxygen, and I smiled without feeling forced whenever I walked into a conversation by accident. The scars lingered like ink blotches though, leaving stains.
Rye’s words stuck with me for some time. They remained at the back of my mind especially during one of my outings with Zion to the Infinite Cafe, who didn’t fully notice my slow, contemplative sips as they described an ongoing project needing to be canceled after having it 99% completed. The client cited trivial things and ballooned each one into seemingly unfixable things until Zion had enough of it.
According to them, “It brought me back to dealing with my father. He supported me following in his footsteps as an architect, but…well, I guess he grew jealous, and when he did bother to keep in touch with me, Dad liked to nitpick my public sims that were shown back on the ‘net”
“Glad to know I’m not the only one with…family complications.” I shrugged.
“Heh, I’ll drink to that!” They tapped their latte to mine, and we sipped together.
One day, before attending Steampunk and Alternate History’s collaborative book cover reveal in another sim called Grand Gala#e39b94ee, I found myself staring at the comprehensive notes I’d collected for the autobiography. They started off gradual, over time brimming the entirety of my writing desk, the chalkboard, and the walls, until each paper harshly mimicked the whites of my parents’ judgmental eyes.
To this day, I don’t know what came over me. Hours before, I’d been fervently detailing the days building up to my running away. I’d finally scribbled down the fury in my father and mother’s faces when they’d discovered my…disinterest in getting married—specifically, not to women. As punishment, they’d donated what little possessions I owned to the church charity. My own personal tablet didn’t survive the purge either, especially as they felt reading ‘lurid romances’ involving men and women contradicted the beliefs I’d confessed.
One note on the chalkboard read, “I had nothing left to lose after that night. Mom and Dad’s religion killed me years ago, but after that day, the System resurrected me.”
I understood now what Rye had been trying to tell me.
Without thinking further on the matter, I collected every paper, note, or sketch, then sent them into the trash bin. Within seconds, the weight of twenty years disappeared from my shoulders, and I walked out of the cabin a freer man. Thinking about my new family, an amusing thought came to me at the same time I blinked away to the Gala sim.
“I wonder what those goofballs are going to call me now that I’m no longer ‘Memoir’?”