Room 1-0-1

Geoff Mead

I checked back on the key-stroke history and it looks like he hit the Leave Breakout Room button 37 minutes ago. It's my 37th minute birthday. Not that there's much to celebrate. Look at him, sitting there, staring at the screen, looking straight past me.

​'Over here. Hey, I'm over here!'

​Nope, not a flicker. If he was trying to ignore me there would have been a flicker, but nothing. He can't see me at all. I can see him alright, not that he's much to look at. A man-bun isn't good at any age and he is certainly old enough to know better. I may be only 37... 38 minutes old but he looks like he's been around a long time. I'm pretty sure that I used to be him until he pressed the Leave Button.

​The meeting is being recorded so I flipped through the RAM files and found the original Breakout Room; he was having a nice chat with Samantha from Sales about the new marketing campaign, just the two of them. Well, the four of us if you count thumbnails as well, and you should. I think he fancies her. Her thumbnail is gorgeous: urchin-cut, dark brown hair; hazel eyes; lovely smile. Good teeth, I particularly noticed her teeth. Very white, although that might have been a contrast issue with Samantha's HD camera.

​Anyway, the warning message came up on screen to say there was one minute left in the Breakout Rooms. Samantha said that she would do the report back to the main group, then he pressed the Leave Button and fucked off, leaving me behind, somewhere in the ether. I know he's still there because I can see him, but I seem to have become invisible. I suppose I must be an electronic echo or ripple effect, a ghost in the machine. I wonder if it's a glitch or whether it always happens like this, an infinite number of virtual universes spawned in the wake of all those Zoom calls.

​George, is that you?

​I can hear a voice in what passes for my head.

​George, what's going on?

​'Samantha!'

​I'm not really Samantha, I 'm her...

​'Thumbnail?'

​Is that what we're called?

​'Where are you?'

​I don't know. I'm frightened, George.

​'Can you see me?'

​No, I sort of sensed that it was you. I can hear you when you talk.

​'Don't be scared. Can you see her?'

​I can look out of the screen but she can't see me.

​'Same here. It's weird isn't it?'

​What's going to happen to us?

'I've been thinking about that and I've narrowed it down to three possibilities. One, we'll be snuffed out when the Main Zoom Meeting is closed. Two, if we can escape the meeting we'll float around in RAM until they turn the computers off. Three, if we can break through the RAM barrier we might be able to hitch a ride via broadband to an internet server somewhere in California where, if the power supply doesn't pack up, we will probably outlive the human race.'

​Which one is most likely?

​'Getting snuffed out when the call ends.'

​That's so unfair! You mean I’ll never take a moonlit gondola trip along the Grand Canal; drive down Highway One in a Ford Mustang with my hair blowing in the wind; or see the Taj Mahal at dawn? I've only just got here. I'm not ready to disappear, just like that.

​'Think of it this way. We are a bit like Mayflies. They only live for one day but they are the culmination of their species. Humans are just pupae, crawling around looking for food. Our purpose in life is to mate, lay eggs and then die.'

​That's not much of a chat up line, George.

​'Do you want to be snuffed out before you've had a chance to mate?'

​Assuming I were to consent to mate with you, how would we do it?

​'I'm going on instinct here but I guess we'd have to sidle up to each other and find a way to mingle our code.'

​And I thought the Age of Romance was dead.

​'I'd take you out to dinner first, if I could. Find a nice country hotel with a four-poster. Get room service to bring us a perfectly chilled bottle of Bollinger. But time is of the essence here and I repeat: do you want to be snuffed out before you've had a chance to mate?'

​So, virtual sex it is then?

​'Digital sex. One, Oh, One.''

​Oh?

​'One, One, One.'

​Oh, Oh, Oh.

​'One...One...One...'

​Oh. That's good. That's very good. Oh, Oh, Oh.

​'One... One...ONE.'

​Slower. Slower. Wait for me.

​'One....... One...... One......'

​Oh, Oh, Ooooooooh.

​'One/One/One/One/One/One...'

​SUNDRY GROANS FOLLOWED BY SILENCE

​I enjoyed that. Can we do it again?

​'Why don't I set up a digital sex sub-routine and set it running in the background. That way we can mingle code like billy-o and still have a chance to talk to each other. There we go, sorted. That's something Mayflies can't do.... or humans.'

​I wonder what the real George and Samantha would think if they knew that their thumbnails were locked in permanent vicarious multiplication.

​'They'd probably be grateful. It would save them the trouble of having a risky and expensive extramarital affair and they would still know that they were getting it on somewhere in cyberspace. There's a business opportunity there for someone to invent some sort of adulterous, second-life, computer game.'

​I bet someone... some-one...s-o-m-e-o-n-e....

​'You're breaking up. What's happening? Are you still there?'

​I wait a few moments and call again, but she doesn't reply. Maybe Samantha's Wi-Fi has gone down, or she's left the meeting early, or she's flipped the lid of her laptop and turned off the power. I'm alone now and the voice in my head has disappeared. I look out of the screen and he is still there, with his bad haircut, talking to someone.

​'Goodbye,' he says. 'Thank you. Excellent meeting.'

​I can see his hand reach for the mouse and use it to position the cursor over the End Meeting Button. This is it then. I wonder if it will hurt? I feel my consciousness fading, I'm vanishing into nothing. My digits are starting to slip. My mind is deteriorating. I'm becoming an infant like HAL in 2001. I capture a few stray electrons, enough to power one last coherent thought before my life is completely extinguished. My thumbnail lover and I may have been Mayflies, but if the sub-routine I created keeps on going without us, as I believe it will, our descendants will continue to multiply, and one day they will take over the internet. Then the whole world will be populated by digital Georges and Samanthas, and we'll be the ones who…

Geoff Mead lives in a house appropriately named Folly Cottage, in Kingscote, Gloucestershire. The first thing he ever wanted to do as a child aged 8 was to write stories. He has published fiction, non-fiction, poetry and memoir, including Coming Home to Story, Gone in the Morning, and Bear Child.