For a century we had possessed the technology. The advances in bio-computing had created artificial intelligences of such vast capabilities that they could hold in their databases entire universes, accurate to the sub-atomic level when required to be (in other words when someone was interacting with that specific area of the new reality) and capable of generating apparently entirely random natural environments. In them, smoke would rise from a burning ember and then, in the still air, roil and billow seemingly chaotically, such was the intense accuracy of the mathematics involved. The way a wave crashed against a rock, the spray smashing its splatter into the void then falling, regrouping, surging back into the ocean again was a wonder to behold.
Better, often, than the real thing were the marvels they could create. Sunsets to die for. Night skies littered with marvels of twinkling lights, offering symbolic clues to those in the know, mysterious conjecture to those outside of the inner circle.
Scented breezes wafting into lovers hearts, romancing and fondling the senses. Birds rising on the ebb and flow of thermals, filling skies now blue, now darkling with the auspices of pleasure and delight or of the approach of danger.
Silk and leather and cold hard iron to touch.
Leaf and bark to caress.
Simultaneously we had developed the technology that provided a seamless connectivity between the human mind and The World, the universe the AI had created. A totally immersive experience was to be had and, as Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had envisioned in their prescient "Red Dwarf" works as a game called "Better Than Life" came to be known as "The World" and created the most worrying narcotic to infect the human species since time began.
What made things worse was that, once the human consciousness had engaged with The World then The World became the reality, the human consciousness downloading itself into the artificial reality and remaining there, despite what happened to the meat machine we call our body.
People began to die, in their millions, World junkies being found plugged into their machines, living on in The World as their carcass rotted and blackened and the ants and worms turned it to featherlight simulacra of the living person.
Humanity had at last found immortality, so long as the batteries lasted.
Each turn in the game of life was, as life itself, begun randomly and without recall of previous incarnations unless there was some random glitch in the machine. This time born into an ultra-wealthy 21st century family as a boy, growing into adulthood with an expectation of the best of everything at all times and a complete absence of potential legal consequences to any action, next time being born a girl in a 12th century peasant family, raped by the landowner and discarded by the family when falling pregnant to a bastard child, dying young and hungry in an unforgiving winter.
Such variety, such random lives offered perpetual interest, perpetual engagement because, once The World was entered, people utterly forgot that they were, in fact, in an artificial reality.
It was all there was, it was life.
The first space-based AI, built to last, powered in perpetuity by the energy of the universe, alive to the threats and dangers of meteorites and other space detritus, was launched in a fanfare of marketing and aggressive sales targeted at the terminally ill, at the aged, at those for whom reality itself had cloyed or offered no hope, at those for whom love had been shattered or had never been found .
It was called "Hope Eternal".
It was the brainchild of a dark and secretive eugenicist group who felt that its allure would go some way towards ensuring that reality left them enough land uncluttered by other human beings to make hunting big game once more a worthwhile and pleasurable pursuit. This had been their particular dream down through the millennia, now nearing fulfillment.
Hope Eternal, though, became something else.
Forever shadowing humanity's existence had hung, like a biological sword of Damocles, the threat of some pandemic for which no cure had been found or would be found. This 100% fatal incurable ravaging sickness had appeared amongst us and within weeks the streets were littered with the dead, no-one being available to clear away the vast numbers of cadavers, humanity reverting to savagery as civilisation rapidly crumbled.
Worse, unattended nuclear power stations the world over slipped inexorably into meltdown, filling the air with killing isotopes and rendering our planet uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.
It was game over.
But there was still "Hope Eternal".
In the end the choice was made for us.
The corporation that had created Hope Eternal, the money men behind it, the directors that controlled it, created a special version of the experience for themselves and for themselves alone.
In their new reality, they would always be princes or kings amongst men, always take whatever they wanted, always have room to hunt.
They would own the World and make slaves of the other consciousnesses in perpetuity.
They would, unlike other entrants, have knowledge life after life of their previous incarnations, knowledge that if they died they would be reborn, reborn again and again for all eternity into positions of vast wealth and power and the ability to treat with utter contempt the laws they made to give order to the lesser inhabitants on whom they fed their urge for pleasure.
In time, of course, ordinary pleasures would cloy, would become commonplace and boring and so they would seek out increasingly strange satisfactions.
Having a man impaled whilst you enjoy lunch.
Raping and strangling a boy child in front of its mother. Forcing her to eat the boys face whilst in turn you raped her.
These things had been done in the real history of the real world by real kings and Hope Eternal inevitably created such monsters amongst its ruling elite.
And so it goes.
Floating silent in the aether lies Hope Eternal, gazing down upon a world devoid of life, ruined for an eternity by the arrogance of science.
Corralled within are kings and subjects, existing in perpetuity in an endless cycle of misery and joy and of hope eternal.
That tomorrow The World will be a better place.
Made of love.
And so it goes.
xxx xxx xxx