More Real Than Real
by John Gerner
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." -- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (1854)
"We lead lives of noisy distraction. Prepare to be frazzled!" -- Advance Ad for "Nine Paths to Hell", VR Games, (August, 2003).
After prolonged periods of virtual reality combat, players tend to feel disorientation, fatigue, or anxiety.
Spence Nitano just got silly.
"OK, gang, once more with feeling," he shouted as he crouched behind a stalagmite, watching the passageway ahead. It looked like one of the caves outside the city, all shades of brown, tan and orange. It should have, he designed it that way. The main difference was that six howling man-sized lizards were charging right at him, wildly firing their lasers.
"Hey, watch where you're pointing those things," he shouted, then squeezed the trigger of his blaster.
The first one dropped. Pulling the trigger on cue, he sang "Sha-" BLAM, "sha-" BLAM, life is just a dream, sweet thing." Two more went down.
A wide neon blast shot over his head from behind, melting the rest of the lizard-men in front of him.
"Whoa," Spence said, spinning around. A Berserker towered over him, twice his height, looking like a gorilla with a lion's head. Spence raised his blaster, aimed for its eyes, pulled the trigger.
Click. "Damn, out of ammo," he cried.
The Berserker tilted its head back and opened its jaws, bile rolling off its stained fangs. "Tee, hee, hee..." a female voice giggled from its mouth.
"No, no, no!" Spence yelled, flinging his blaster down, "They screwed up the sound bite again." For a moment, he forgot that his head-mounted display visor and power pack made him top-heavy, and just kept going. He saw the cave wall in front of him, then passed through as if it were a ghost, finally slamming down on a light gray floor.
This shouldn't have happened. His virtual reality setup was surrounded by a thick rubber membrane programmed to contort and form the shapes of things he was touching. It should have formed the shape of the cave wall and held him back when he fell. He picked himself off the floor and looked around. Nothing seemed familiar. Everything was glitching.
The floor had the texture of dirty, worn concrete. So did the walls and ceiling down the long corridor that disappeared into shadows in both directions. Really dull looking for a game setting, he thought.
"Command mode; contact Janine," he ordered.
An overlay image filled the lower quarter of his view area with Janine's face; fair complexion, short strawberry-blonde hair, green eyes. She was a couple years younger, but acted older. As the game's producer, this helped. As his girlfriend, though, it was sometimes a problem. "What's up?" she asked.
"Tell the code squad that the roar sound bite for the Berserker rear attack is all wrong. Right now, it's using the sound file for the Princess rescue scene."
"Got it. Anything else?"
"Yeah," he said slowly, "I think I'm standing on the Tenth Path."
"Spence, there's only nine paths. That's why the game's called 'Nine Paths to Hell.' Duh."
"But I didn't design this corridor. Has someone else been developing new tunnels?"
"Nobody's designing anything right now. Everyone's trying to nail the bugs out before the game goes out. Why don't you call it a day and go home?"
"But what about this new corridor?"
"Look. You've been playing the game for six hours straight and it's obviously messing up your head. Take the gear off and go outside for a few minutes. Look at the trees. You still remember them, don't you? Tall, brown things with goofy-looking green stuff sticking out the sides."
"Nothing's happening out there. What's important comes through the network into my visor console. I'm tuned into everything here."
There was silence. Spence thought there was something wrong with his headset, then he heard a sigh.
"No, not everything," she said.
Janine's overlay disappeared from his view area. Everything was gray again. Spence turned back towards the opening in the wall where he first came into the corridor; a recess about the height, width, and depth of a person. The concrete back panel had short lengths of hoses jutting out, which dripped a thick clear-looking liquid. The panel resisted when he pressed it. He tried again harder. It didn't move. There was no going back the way he came in.
Then he noticed his arms pressed against the wall. They didn't look human, like he'd programmed them to look in the virtual reality game. They looked robotic, human-like, but all metal. He examined his right arm, bringing it close to his face. There was no pixelation at all as he moved it in closer. Normally the graphics in a virtual reality game looked blockier as you moved very close to objects, because you were demanding more detail than the computer program could reasonably provide. But he could see fine detail in the joints of his fingers. He moved closer to the wall until his head was inches away. Detail.
This wasn't any kind of computer graphics he knew about.
He slowly walked down the gray corridor. Past the recess that he came out of was another recess, with an entire man-sized metallic android standing inside. Lifeless, as though someone had unplugged it. And another, and another. The right wall was lined with metal people, standing at attention, waiting for something. There were slight differences between them: variation in their smooth but pleasant faces, deviations in height and width. Some seem more feminine in a stylized way.
Perhaps he had somehow been misdirected when the game glitched. Maybe this was a direct live video feed from some sort of robotic maintenance group in a service corridor somewhere else in the city. But he'd never seen robots that looked like these.
And where in the city was this? He knew every inch, up and down, inside and out. He'd spent his whole life there. And at the edge of the city were forests that went on forever as far as he knew.
If necessary, he could always just call out a reset command, and he'd be back at the beginning of the game, or he could just pull off his visor and he'd be back in the game company's testing room. But if he did, he might not be able to retrace his steps back here. And this was just too interesting to ignore.
The lower quarter of his viewer filled again with a face. This time it was his father. "Hi, Spence, how's it going?."
"I was just talking with Janine, and she's a bit worried about you. How about taking a break, and meeting me for dinner at the Main Street Cafe? You could leave now, and I'll meet you there. We can catch up on things. It's been awhile. You can tell me how the game's coming along."
"Sure. But first, I need to finish something here. I'll call you when I get to the Cafe and you can come down then."
"I really think you should quit right now." He seemed a bit rattled.
"Okay, I'll come over as soon as I can. Bye."
He didn't want his dad to eat out alone. It had been tough these last few years, since Spence's mother died. They'd spent a lot of time together. But he couldn't leave just yet. There was still this gray concrete corridor with a line of lifeless androids.
He walked forward, and soon came to a intersection. The corridor to the left had doorways. He checked them out. Behind the doorways were small plain rooms that appeared to be used for storage. They were filled with electronic equipment in various stages of disassembly, as though they'd been scavenged for spare parts. The original equipment casings had a smooth, curvaceous plastic look in bold colors. They seemed totally out of place surrounded by concrete walls. He picked up one of the small components. It didn't look like anything he'd installed. After examining the rooms, he found himself at another intersection. To his right, the corridor ended in a lighted doorway, indicating that there was a larger room located there. He headed in that direction.
The large room was square with a hundred foot wall along each side and high ceilings. It appeared to have once been a meeting room. The walls were originally covered in a light wood paneling, which had mostly peeled off, revealing discolored adhesive and concrete. The room was filled with multi-leveled shelves that held a row of small tanks, each about the size of a small home aquarium. Below each tank were etched labels with names. The names of people Spence knew. He searched up and down the rows. He found one with "Janine Halder", and then nearby, one with "Spence Nitano". The front of this tank, like all the others, was clouded with condensation. He rubbed the glass with his metal hand.
Floating inside was a human brain with countless cable connections.
He jolted backwards. There was a sound from the end of the aisle. He turned to look. A figure that looked human stood there inside workman's coveralls, an adult male that had suffered decay. The skin was pasty white, mixed with the dull purple of varicose veins. Numerous sores and scabs. No hair anywhere. Slowly, he recognized the shape of the face, the eyes.
It was his dad. "You should have quit right away and met me at the restaurant."
Spence covered his eyes and yelled, "Command mode; reset, reset!"
He stayed frozen in place, not knowing what to do next. Arms wrapped around him, and he lurched free.
Janine stared at him. "It's okay, Spence, relax, it's just me."
The virtual reality visor was dangling at his chest. He was back home.
"What's wrong," she said, "I was walking by the test room when I heard you yell reset."
"Spence, this is just a game."
He looked straight at her. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"I have to go see my father." He shed the virtual reality suit and ran out of the room. Janine called after him, "Spence, let me help you!"
As he ran down to the Main Street Cafe, he compared everything he saw to what he'd seen in photographs from other places, places he'd never been. It all looked typical, average. There wasn't a single truly unique structure in all of Gen City.
The cafe was also typical, down to its cloth-covered tables and upholstered booths. He searched the room. There was his father, in a back corner, looking like he had all Spence's life. The narrow face, serious eyes, thinning hair, graying beard. Older, yes, but basically the same.
Spence sat down at the table. "What's going on?"
His father sighed. "Your mother and I loved you very much."
"This is all phony, isn't it? Everything around us."
"Quiet down. These people don't know."
"Why don't they, Dad?"
Spence stood and shouted "Hey, everybody, I have an announcement..."
He suddenly blacked out. When he regained conscious, he was sitting in the laboratory again in his metal android body facing a row of small tanks.
The pale, bleak version of his father sat down on the concrete floor in front of him. "We can finish our talk here. I'm sorry I cut you off. The others don't know yet."
"What happened to everything?"
"There was an asteroid collision. Some of the survivors are here in what was once a strategic bomb shelter. I don't know how many others there are elsewhere. There was an accident with our water supply, which exposed us to chemically-induced mutation, caused what you see on me. It would have destroyed you and the other children, so we removed your brains when you were babies and placed them in the tanks to grow. There are frozen fetuses for future generations, waiting until things settle. We had a powerful military computer network and remote-controlled androids that we planned to have you control someday. But we couldn't put a child's mind through them, it would be too much of a shock. So we gave you a simulated city to grow up in."
"But Dad, it's not real?"
"It felt real, didn't it; when you fell off your first bike learning to ride, or when you played baseball, or chased after squirrels in the forest? All those times that you were happy. You would have never had those childhood memories here."
"Look around here. Is this the life you'd have preferred? All we wanted to do was protect you. I kept putting off the time to connect you and the others to the android bodies. Another year. Another year. You were so happy. That's all we ever wanted for you. Is that so wrong?"
Spence hesitated. After awhile, he asked, "What now?"
"You could go back. Forget about this."
"How could I forget this?" Spence sat there and thought for awhile; about his memories, and how bored he'd felt in recent years. "No, I'll stay. But I have to go back once more."
He found Janine in her virtual reality gear, playing a Victorian romance simulation in the testing room. In the past, he'd have ribbed her about it, but not this time. He just flipped the switch to the communications link. "Hi there."
She pulled off the visor and hugged him close. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he said, and just held on to her.
"You sound mellow."
He paused, then looked her right in the eyes. "Remember when you said you were ready for a big change. Do you still feel that way? Could you leave all this and start a new life somewhere else."
She thought for a moment. "Yeah. If you'd go with me. Are you thinking about heading into the forest? We don't know what's out there. It could be an adventure."
"No, I've got another place. Futuristic, hi-tech. We get to help save the human race."
"Oh," she said looking down, "That kind of experience. I thought you were serious. Console, desktop or virtual reality?"
Spence put his arm around her and kissed her hair. "I am serious, and it's more real than real."
Story © copyright 1999 by John Gerner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Artwork © copyright 1999 by Stefano Tartarotti <email@example.com>
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