Quantum Wistfulness: a deleted scene from Every Version of You

As they pass through the ticket gate into the bustling atrium, a tour guide pushes a polyester tote into Tao-Yi’s hands.

“What’s this?”

“Our special tour showbag,” says the guide. A slim man in his late thirties, with a wide, pale scalp, tortoiseshell glasses, and a curly russet beard, he resembles a v-log influencer of the Koffee-brewing and kitsch-boardgames-collectibles variety. His name and designation hovers above him in augmented reality: Solomon, Solutions Engineer. He gives another tote to Navin. “Information, souvenirs, freebies.”

A bountiful display of hanging plants dominates one wall of the climate-controlled atrium. Gigantic screens occupy the opposite wall, showering the visitors with facts, figures, and sweeping panoramic views of Neuronetica-Somners locations around the world. Did you know that Somners Reality launched in 2032 with their pioneer product, NeuroSkins? Did you know that the first Infinity Zone theme park in Seoul, Korea had 2,700 visitors on its opening day on 1 December, 2032? Did you know that Somners merged with renowned neuroscience research lab, Neuronetica, in 2058?

A live counter of individuals currently logged into Gaia holds court at the top of the screen: 41,560,734. The number flips up, down, up, up.

A noisy queue snakes back and forth on itself across the atrium, following a maze of movable dividers. It looks like the Australian headquarters of Neuronetica-Somners entertain tourists from all corners of the country, and even international guests. Tao-Yi hasn’t seen so many people in one place in a long time.

She and Navin join the end of the queue, behind a bunch of ReVision-absorbed middle-aged men and women in brightly patterned jackets, chatting in Mandarin. Every few minutes, an electric bus pulls up at an open doorway and takes the front section of the queue on board.

Tao-Yi peeks into her tote. Cheap holo-pods that project e-pamphlets when she flicks them on. A hat with Welcome To Your Future embroidered across the front. A jar of pink lollies shaped like brains. A keychain shaped like a computer chip.

Navin leans heavily on her as the queue inches along. When they finally get onto a bus, he collapses into a window seat, panting. Sydney feels noticeably hotter and more humid than Melbourne; beads of sweat have popped out all over his bald head. Tao-Yi rummages in her bag for a face towel and passes it to him.

“Morph?” he asks, dabbing his brow.

“You had a dose on the plane. It hasn’t been two hours.”

He grunts acquiescence.

As the bus trundles away from the pick-up point, a sign flashes on the display screens along with an audio track: “Please ensure your AR devices are switched on for the complete tour experience.”

Tao-Yi’s ReVision is already on. Harmonic music fills her ears, and a silky voice begins to wax about the history of the headquarters—the acquisition of this piece of land in outer Sydney in 2055 by Somners Reality, the renowned architects who contributed to the retrofuturist design. It’s a city from an imaginary future, all glass and improbable geometric shapes, bubbles balanced atop spindles and transparent, twisting walkways strung between towers. The bus echoes with oohs and ahhs from the tourists.

Once they’ve wound through the main complex, the bus treks across a concrete expanse and into a grid of enormous warehouses, flat roofs glistening like oil in the midday sun, each large enough to house a supersonic jet. They pass another bus going the other way. Tourists on both sides wave enthusiastically.

The bus pulls to a stop outside one of the warehouses. A holographic Solomon pops up before her eyes, surrounded by bubbles to select different tour guide and language options.

“We’ve arrived at our first stop. Please make your way carefully to the exit. Please ring the call bell if you need mobility assistance.”

Everyone stands and files towards the door in a polite and orderly fashion, tightening filters and hats. The middle-aged tourists help each other along; an assistance droid ferries those with difficulty walking. They scurry through a few seconds of heat and swirling dust, into the warehouse’s dim interior. As the door slides shut behind them, the air-conditioning blasts them with crisp air.

Tao-Yi blinks, the remnants of sunlight sparking in her retinas. Hundreds of beady eyes blink back at her—green and yellow and red. As her vision slowly adjusts to the darkness, a city of black towers coalesces from the shadows, stretching to the high and invisible ceiling.

“Our quantum servers live in these warehouses,” explains holo-Solomon. “We have sixty server warehouses in this facility. There are eight other server locations in Australia, and nearly four hundred server locations around the world, with more being constructed.”

The towers are arranged in orderly blocks, like city districts. As the tour group follows holo-Solomon along a shadowy lane, Tao-Yi hangs at the back, listening to the soft whirring sounds of the towers thinking.

Somewhere in these towers are the Quartz District and the Basalt Canal and her frosted-glass office at TRU U and Disembodied by Zacharias Aguilar. After Navin transfers, a piece of him will be in there too.

She presses her palm against the nearest tower. To her surprise, it’s as warm as human skin. She yanks her hand back, as though burnt. Not for the first time, she wonders if Gaia is sentient, in the sense of being aware of its own functions. She knows that Gaia is intelligent—frighteningly, incomprehensibly intelligent—though not in the way we typically conceived of intelligence. People in the twentieth century were concerned about AI evolving into calculating, self-interested killing machines. But Gaia’s not an encapsulated intelligence with an implicit understanding of subjective matter. It’s not intelligent like a human.

She regards Gaia as beyond human. Superhuman, suprahuman. A complex web of algorithms and patterned learning, distributed but interconnected. Fuelled by an incomprehensible arsenal of data—data that includes all aspects of humanity. What you watch, read, hand over your attention to. Which corners and tunnels of Gaia captivate you. Who you talk to. Whose social media profiles you linger over. Your biorhythms—heart rate, cortisol levels, neural patterns. The things that give you a dopamine rush, or an oxytocin calm.

Perhaps, in this way, Gaia already knows us better than we know ourselves. Really, humans are already inside Gaia—giving up our skin and flesh is just the last little step.

Tao-Yi hurries to catch up with the others. Solomon is showing them a diagram of the server’s innards. Everyone crowds around and takes snips and photos of themselves with the servers and uploads them into the cloud. A youth in an Electric Monkeys shirt shakes their head at Tao-Yi and mutters, grinning, “What a fucking warpy world.”

After everyone is satisfied with their zings and comments and upvotes on each other’s posts, they pile back onto the bus and drive away from the warehouses. A large gate gives way to a narrow road, slick with brand-new porous. On either side of the road, steel fences hold back oceans of blazing light.

Navin squeezes his eyes shut and turns away from the window. Tao-Yi curls an arm around his shoulders, pulls him into her chest. His warm breath tickles the dip between her collarbones. Floating cities, silver gates, gleaming roads, lakes of fire—it’s difficult to decide if they’re in heaven or hell.

The bus halts again.

“We’ve arrived at our second stop,” pipes up holo-Solomon, reappearing in the centre of her vision. “As you can see, we’re right in the middle of a majestic vista: the solar fields of Neuronetica-Somners!” He spreads his arms wide, and then harrumphs. “Please ensure you have correctly donned your protective gear before you disembark, as temperature and sunlight conditions are currently in the Extreme range. Please feel free to remain on the climate-controlled bus if you prefer. You can still obtain excellent snips from on board, or download a snip from our free gallery.”

The group disembarks, except for a few of the Mandarin-speaking tourists who cluster around the windows with their ReVisions blinking. Holo-Solomon jabbers on about the square-acreage of the solar fields and how many gigawatts they churn out to power Gaia. Tao-Yi mutes him.

She presses her nose to the steel fence. She’s already dripping in sweat beneath her nylon jacket. As the sun dims behind a swathe of haze, the panels tilt in unison, each cupping a shard of light. She has a sudden image of obedient worshippers, inexorably compelled to bow in unison, bearing offerings to their mother-god. She imagines the sun-children mating, seeding, growing like a pestilent weed, their squat bodies spreading to cover the entire country.

Goosebumps bristle across her damp skin.

She turns to ask Navin what he thinks, but he’s not there. He’s doubled over against the side of the bus, shuddering. The half-digested contents of their aeroplane meal splatter onto the porous.

“Oh,” says Tao-Yi. She rushes to his side. “Hey. Hey.”

His face has a yellow cast, and his lips are trembling too much to shape words. She touches his arm. He’s shaking.

She unmutes Solomon, yells something about Navin being sick.

“Get on the bus,” says holo-Solomon.

The bus beeps until everyone’s back on board. They zip back to the facility at double speed. A couple of aunties gawk at Navin, dictating to their live V-logs, until Tao-Yi glares daggers at them. Navin swallows some paracetamol and water.

“I’m feeling better,” groans Navin, huddling inside his jacket. “Tell them to keep going with the tour.”

“No way. You look like shit.”

“I just need to use the loo.”

They charge through the warehouse grid and pull up outside the main reception. Two staff members run out. The assistance droid carries Navin off the bus and towards the restrooms, fireman-style, without waiting to ask for his permission.

Tao-Yi paces the echoing lobby, clutching the tote bags. On the other side of the smoked glass, tourists pose for photos in a landscaped courtyard. She dims her ReVision. The crowds and the fake plants are still there. She looks around the lobby. The holos have disappeared, only a few employees linger, and everything looks dull. She flicks the ReVision back up.

Five minutes later, Navin emerges, on his own legs now, but looking no better. He makes a beeline for the nearest bench.

“Blood,” he says.

“In your vomit?”

“No, in my pee.”

Tao-Yi sits down next to him, sighs, and rubs his back. Then, once he’s calmer, she says, “We better get you checked out by a Teresa. My bet’s on a UTI and a round of antibiotics.”

“Yeah,” he says, and lets Tao-Yi help him towards a taxi that the front desk has called for them. Just before he climbs into the vehicle, he swivels his head and looks back at Neuronetica-Somners: the glass doors lit with the Gaia green-Earth logo, the glossy lobby, the courtyard peppered with exotic plastic plants, the beaming staff, the bustling tour groups.

“Everything OK?”

“Great,” he says.

As the taxi weaves towards the nearest medicentre, Tao-Yi rests her head against the seat and listens to the rumbling sounds of Navin breathing. In her hand is the keychain from her showbag, the one shaped like a quantum chip. When she presses a little button, it lights up green and makes a noise like a laser gun. She wants to tell Navin how the server towers and the solar fields made her feel—like an ant in an ants’ nest, paranoid about the impending descent of a giant foot—but, after seeing the way he looked back, she knows she won’t. There was a wistfulness in his gaze that makes her feel completely alone.