the viRtual Reality

VR tReatment

The year is 2340. You are the sole occupant of an authorised shuttle dispatched from human occupancy stations orbiting Earth, to land on the home planet’s surface and determine when Terra-firma might again be able sustain life. Yours is one of a number of early reconnaissance flights designated to road-test DRT (Digital Reassembly Technology), which uses AI to reconstruct digital trace events from the distant past. The chosen location for your flight is the river floodplain of what was once a sprawling urban conurbation known to our ancestors as London.

After successfully entering the planet’s atmosphere, a hatch opens and we are overwhelmed with digital information reassembled from centuries of human history; a blizzard of digital noise projected across our visor and an indecipherable cacophony of discordant audio. Our smart suit instructs us to calibrate to a specific date in 2110 when the last traces of human activity in the vicinity have been recorded. All sound falls away and the world comes into focus. This is not the London we expected to find… We are floating through toxic fog, on an acrid floodplain that was once the river Thames, but now swollen beyond recognition in a landscape stripped of its flora and fauna. Everywhere there are signs of a past civilisation and ghostly voices and memories linger – clues to a planetary trauma. Strange buildings emerge from the gloom, their stilted foundations straddling the shattered wreckage of what was once the financial district. We pass under the mangled remains of Tower Bridge and see older heritage sites – The Tower of London and disappearing into the mists and beyond, the stoved-in dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. There is no life here now.  Just an eerie silence punctuated by the sound of floating detritus, as it’s buffeted against the semi-submerged wreckage that emerges from the fetid green waters, or wedged against the underside of a crumbling walkway.

Our life support systems measure fluctuations in radiation, toxicity levels and the like and warn us when we stray from safe passage, restricting our movements and keeping us close to the centre of the floodway, where the current is fastest. Beneath these icons, DRT is working constantly – assembling random bits of information from the flow of zeros and ones which scroll across the periphery of our visor. But when our gaze settles on specific buildings or artefacts, this information crystalises – date of construction, last known occupants, an objects provenance, a serial code. Nothing of value. Just the flotsam and debris that has survived the passage of time – a history of human consumption. Evidence of a civilisation long gone.

Now something new is detected. Something approaching from the north bank. Life or something like it – a ghostly form that passed this way 230 years before. Our visor alerts us with a rotating host of potential identities. An apparition flickers ahead of us, superimposed over the decaying landscape. Just digital fuzz at first – it glitches in and out of sight. It’s a small boat carrying a female figure. No two – one smaller. A child in a distinctive red poncho sits at the back of the boat clutching a toy bear. Now DRT locks on and their identities are revealed along with other vital statistics and a credit rating, which we are informed, sees them fall short of the automatic planetary migration threshold.

The woman guides the boat across our bows towards the Southbank, glancing anxiously over her shoulder into the fog behind. We follow her gaze and there, emerging from the gloom is a third figure – male and clearly in pursuit. He paddles furiously after the woman and child. We are compelled to follow, but our path is strewn with obstacles – beached shipping containers, the rusting carcasses of vehicles hideously twisted against a semi-submerged lamppost. Most of it of course wasn’t there when the young family came this way and they move magically through the wreckage, while we are forced to bob and weave to keep up… We catch sight of them between the crumbling wreckage of London Bridge and as we follow, we hear the first strands of a ghostly saccharine voice on the wind like a siren, beckoning us on upriver. It draws the woman and child towards it.

We catch up with them where the delta spreads out to encompass what was once the Southbank Centre. The big wheel that was once the London Eye, has keeled over at 45 degrees – a few remaining cars hanging precariously over the swollen green water. There’s a huge concrete causeway projecting out into the middle of the delta towards a squat hexagonal building at its end. It’s a brutal building, windowless and functional and the source of that saccharine voice, crackling through the fog from a public address system on the building. It’s stuck on a loop that’s been playing for centuries “A new adventure for you and your family starts here… Make every day, a departure day.”

What is this building? What was its purpose? The grim truth is waiting to be discovered inside the Departure Lounge…