a real


<short story>

I hate it when my lawyer wakes me up at night.


I know he does not know better - his decency settings are limited due to the outdated script his personality is based on. I could switch him to silent. But as things are, I have every reason to stay in touch with my him:


I am constantly residing at cell 6112, Qibli Penitentiary, Al-Qibliyah, 17°30'24.1"N 56°20'27.7"E, a small island 390 km off the coast of Oman, Arabic Sea. The distance between me and Paris, my place of birth, is 5947 km. Before I was brought to Al-Qibliyah I had never left Paris. And although my public defender-bot is processing international law binaries day and night in order to bring me back, I like to think that I am still there. In a tiny apartment in Paris with my girlfriend and daughter.


Now for the second time, out of the humid darkness of my cell, the algorithmic lawyer asks with a respectful but firm voice if I want to hear the recent update on my case. I want to hear.



"Date: 03.10.2027. Name: Stephane Bellard. Sentenced to 20 years of prison for illegal drug trafficking. Current status: preparing revision. Update on custody legacy: the previous proscription to remote control Class-A Objects has been successfully turned down."


This is good news. I have been waiting for permission to access devices in my far distant home since months. Time for a visit.

I grab from the cupboard a sleeping mask to cover my eyes – a rather symbolic act (the immersive contact lenses also work just by closing my lids). But the fabric’s soft pressure helps me to accept the simulation better. The darkness becomes even darker for a second, but then another world begins to build up before my eyes: an array of different access points, image shields and cloud stored information constitute my apartment in Paris. I am floating in between its different layers, the directory of a multi dimensional space. There is of course more sophisticated simulating software, apparently more realistic, but I prefer this rough sketch, not denying the underling structure.


By bending my head, I am slowly drifting through this tranquil sphere, weightlessly. I see grey schemes of furniture, pass by a window and arrive at the living room. It is a silent, sacred space.No one is home at the moment.


A softly pulsing notification over a plant is referring to its need of water. Gosh, only 12% percent moisture remaining in the soil. My girlfriend in her old fashioned way refuses to use the automatic watering system. In her opinion, taking care of it manually is the whole point of having a plant. But due to my new permission to access control over Class-A Objects, I can now (after accepting cookies) pour some water in the pot, raising the moisture level to 75%. I watch the silver stream of water and enjoy my new power over things. By becoming things.


I want be embody more objects. I want to become the clock on the wall and count the passing minutes in this room. I want to become the heating and warm the floor for my family. And once they returned, I want to become the carpet so that I could feel their weight walking upon me. I want to become the cup on the table so that I could be picked up, held in hand, and eventually be brought to my girlfriend’s mouth and be drank from.

I know that I cannot become the kitchen aid, not a knife, and not my daughters scissor. Sharp and pointy objects are classified "B", and therefore prohibited to me. Due to my status of a criminal, I may not remote control potentially harmful things. Also, there is a ban on communication devices while my case is under revision. For secrecy reasons I am not allowed to communicate in written or spoken language without supervision. But at least I could leave behind drawings as a form of communication.


The fact of my body being held at one space used to frustrate me a lot at the beginning of my imprisonment. What was this ugly conglomeration of cells and micro-organisms, my physical manifestation, contributing to my contentment after all? Would not the mind be more free without it?


But then I had begun to understand how crucial my body was for my imagination. Without my body, how could I ever walk through a room, virtual or not? The multi dimensionality of the apartment's simulation as it is inspired by spatial experience requires the notion of a body - else it could not be comprehended. And how could I ever dream of feeling the touch of my loved ones, without being surrounded by skin? My body, as much as it holds me prisoner, also enables my contentment, my freedom.


I take of the eye mask and land back in my cell. The morning sun is drawing a pattern on the wall next to my bed.


"Where am I?", I say to no one in particular.


"You are constantly residing at cell 6112, Qibli Penitentiary, Al-Qibliyah, 17°30'24.1"N 56°20'27.7"E. The probability for an acquittal, giving you permission to leave this place, is at 78%", my lawyer answers.

He is always on guard.


"Yeah I know, that is where my body is”, I say,” Although a minute ago it felt like my mind was somewhere else. And the contracting tissues on my skin tried to make me believe that even my body was there. But more than that, the fact that I was able to have an impact on things at the apartment makes me wonder. It makes me wonder if there is a difference.”


“A difference?”


“Maybe you are wrong and I am not only at Al-Qibliyah no more. Because part of me just returned home.”

"I am sorry, Stephane, I cannot follow."


"You don't have to follow, it's ok," I say in a conciliatory tone, "just don't wake me up in the middle of the night anymore, will you?"




It is evening now. The window blinds of apartment Rue Defoe No.719 have swept down, conducted by an invisible hand, shielding its inhabitants from the dark night. The living room is at a pleasing temperature of 22° Celsius.


Madeleine is sitting at the sofa, staring into space, absent-mindedly stroking a pillow, her fingers leaving behind fuzzy patterns on the velvety case. It is both delight and discontentment that make her sit here, watching the smallest hints of another person's presence. The possibilities are dawning in her mind, but she does not let them come to the surface. Not yet.


"You will be living with a ghost”, her friend had warned her a few weeks ago.


"Aren't we all living in a ghost world?", she had responded, perhaps a bit too fiercely, "With electronic tissues glued to our skin and sensory implants underneath it, with layers and layers of immaterial content overflowing everything around us. With emptied walls in our apartments so that they can be used for projections, with algorithmic friends and self driving cars? I'm not afraid of one more unreal thing in my life."


Yet, to herself she has to admit that she is indeed wary of new technologies pushing into her daylily life, thus cutting every last link to physicality, to a world of self determined being. That is why she prefers to water the plants herself. Because it re-establishes some sort of bond.


Of course Stephane and her had considered to buy a hologram device. She had tested it for one single day - and had regretted it many more. Seeing the strikingly realistic figure, the three dimensional representation of her loved one walking around the apartment had only unleashed her despair about his physical absence. Seeing him here like this had made the distance unbearable. But maybe, she had thought, encountering him in another shape would work. Could he, by inhabiting objects, become present in a different way? She had liked the idea to strive for a sort of proximity that would endure distance. That would acknowledge distance.

A few weeks have passed. The ghost has arrived. And now she is afraid.


"Good night Maman", the voice of her daughter pulls Madeleine out of her daydream.


"Hey my dear, come I'll get you into bed. Did you brush your teeth?", she says, trying to hide her troubles.


"I ate a dental toffee."


"Hmm, all right, that counts as well I guess."


As Madeleine returns to the living room, it is filled with soft blissful light. The lamp at the ceiling has been switched off, only some spots above the couch are glowing. It reminds her of the way Stephane would arrange the place for a cosy evening.


Someone is in a romantic mood, she thinks and cannot help but smile. Maybe we are living in a world of ghosts after all. But we can choose how they talk to us. And perhaps this makes all the difference.







© 2018 Jonas Althaus