By Mark Bilsborough
Jason turned the corner and the city laid itself before him, lolling gracelessly down the hillside and into the valley below. At first glance, it seemed the same as when he’d left, thirty years before. But as they moved closer, he realized there was something different. It felt quieter than he remembered, but that wasn’t it. And then it hit him. The city’s soul had gone.
“We walked three days for this?” said Hender.
Jason glanced over at his travelling companion. “Don’t be negative.”
Hender just grunted in response. Jason didn’t really care what he thought. He wished he’d stayed behind at the Refuge but no, his friend scented a great adventure, free from the constraining walls of their slowly disintegrating home. Almost as soon as they waved goodbye, though, he started moaning. Jason stopped listening.
By nightfall, they reached the heart of the city, after hours of passing through clean well-kept streets, immaculately serviced by maintenance robots. From time to time, they saw lights shining behind drawn curtains, high in the upper stories of old brick tenement blocks and newer chrome and steel apartments. They’d passed through the vastness of the city all day but hadn’t seen any people.
They reached a restaurant called Lucy’s with light spilling out onto the street. It represented the first real signs of life they’d seen and strongly appealed to Jason’s growing hunger. The place was half full, but any noise there stopped as soon as the two of them entered. The barman nodded as they walked over to a circular bar in the middle of the room, and conversation resumed.
“Not seen you here before,” said the barman.
“We’re from out of town,” said Jason.
“Way out of town,” said Hender.
Jason nodded, and the barman led them to a table. They ate everything laid in front of them, then they ordered more.
The other diners were mostly middle-aged or old, all except a young couple at a table in the dark part of the room, right at the back. They didn’t look tired, they looked exhausted.
A woman entered, dressed in a long red cloak. As she walked over she let the hood fall, revealing long curly auburn hair. She glanced at Jason, then sat in the vacant seat between Jason and Hender.
“Mind if I sit here?” Before Jason could answer, she called across to the barman, who brought over a bottle of Merlot and three glasses.
“We don’t…” Jason started.
She silenced him with a hand on his wrist. “Go on. Live a little.” She poured and sat back, sniffing appreciatively. “Most of the vineyards have closed down now, you know. On account of the dwindling numbers of connoisseur drinkers.”
“We don’t drink,” said Hender, wine dripping from the edge of his mouth. “Usually.”
“You must think us uncouth. I’m Jason. This is Hender.”
“Lucy.” She smiled. “Yes, this place is mine. And I think you’re charmingly different.”
She eased back her red cloak to reveal an expensive dress with pearls round her neck and the distinctive flash of gold in her ears.
“You’ve dressed up. Were you expecting someone?”
She waved dismissively. “My little idiosyncrasy. It’s Saturday night. You’re supposed to dress up on Saturday night, right?”
“Where is everybody?” said Jason. The lighting had edged down a notch, and Hender had disappeared somewhere. Another bottle appeared on the table. ”Last time I came to this city it was heaving. People everywhere.”
“They’re still here, mostly. But like everywhere else you, well, you know.”
“Pretend I don’t know.”
“Where did you say you were from?”
Jason waved vaguely out of the window towards the East. “A community in the hills. We’ve been kind of cut off.”
“No V worlds?”
“Just farming and prayers.”
She laughed. “Should have guessed from the funny clothes. And the fact that you’re here at all. So what brings you to the big city?”
Jason gave her the brief version. About the Community and how it had been set up, years before, as a back-to-basics antidote to the bored listlessness of the robot-serviced paradise that the Elders had seen coming. He skipped over the bit about how the Refuge had reached capacity and the elders had placed prohibitions on childbirth. About the hunger, the deprivation, and the pointless rules and discipline. About the stupidity of thinking you could cut yourself off from the world and somehow it would be all right.
“It’s a little world up there, and times are tough. One day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘ice cream. I want ice cream.’ So here I am.”
“Then ice cream we shall have.” She laughed. “We do an excellent Rocky Road in here.”
The ice cream was even better than he remembered. “So,” he said as he licked his spoon. “The tanks. Tell me about them.” He was vaguely aware that Hender should have been back by now, but the wine blurred his thinking and the food made him slow.
“Boring. Let’s talk some more about farming. You people still grow your own food? Yourselves?”
He could see Hender now, at the table in the back of the room, talking to the young couple. Jason looked more closely at them. They were disheveled, with lank, long hair tied roughly in ponytails. Despite the gloom and the sympathetic candle glow, Jason could see that they were pale, as if denied the sunlight which still peered occasionally through the rain-sodden clouds. “Who are they?”
“Izos. Making a rare excursion back into the real world. Don’t see many of them these days.”
“Immersion Zombies.” She shook her head in irritation. “Damn. You’ve got me talking about the tanks after all.”
“Does that explain why there are no people around here?”
But instead of replying she sat up, pulled her shawl around her shoulders, and made her way slowly to the door. Then with a smile, she nodded gently to Jason and left the restaurant, leaving behind a waft of perfume and the icy blast of the late evening chill.
Hender returned just as Jason finished the bottle. “I’ve got us a bed for the night.” He gestured over to the exhausted couple. “Close, too.”
They headed for the seventh floor of a nearby high rise. The couple clung to each other and did their best to avoid eye contact with either Jason or Hender.
“Jason,” said Jason as the doors closed.
“Butterfly,” one mumbled.
“Drax,” said the other one.
“That your real name?” said Jason before he could stop himself. He was tall, certainly, but he slouched in a way that suggested he wasn’t used to his own body. “You don’t look like a Drax.”
“Kevin,” he mumbled.
Butterfly scowled. “I didn’t know that.”
“What I used to be.” He turned away. “Before.”
The elevator opened into a short, brightly lit corridor. The carpet appeared new, but Jason suspected that was just because not many people walked on it and because the maintenance robots did a good job of keeping the dust at bay. Drax stopped by a dull metal door and pressed his palm against a security pad. They were in.
The blinds were down, and the lighting subdued. The apartment had the feel of a recently serviced hotel suite, stripped bare of anything which made a house a home. There were chairs, a table, even a vase, though it didn’t look like it had seen flowers in quite some time. A slight smell of ozone mixed with a chemical residue that Jason couldn’t quite identify. Half detergent, half… something else.
The girl shuffled over to one of the single large sofas that dominated the open space. Drax sat next to her, leaving Jason and Hender standing awkwardly.
Hender broke the silence. “Say, you guys wouldn’t have any coffee would you?”
Drax shook his head and blinked as if coming out of a trance. “Wha? Oh. Kitchen.” he waved at a closed door. “Good idea.” He got up, quickly followed by Butterfly, and soon Jason could hear percolating sounds and the distinctive comforting smells of a good roast.
“Who are these guys?” said Jason. “They’re deathly pale, and they have really bad acne. They should use cleanser. Or get out more.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think they’re used to getting out at all. I get the impression they met each other in one of those virtual worlds. I think this might be the first time they’ve actually met, in the flesh.”
“They don’t seem to have much to say to each other.”
“They seemed mighty pleased to see me. I guess the alternative to having us around is that they might actually have to talk to each other.”
“Where’d you guys meet?” said Hender as Butterfly came in with a tray of coffee.
“Ragnarok,” said Drax.
“Ragnarok Five, actually,” said Butterfly. “I was attracted to his blue wings.”
Drax smiled. “The same shade as hers. It seemed we were meant for each other.”
Jason noticed they avoided eye contact. “You spend a lot of time in Ragnarok?”
“All the time,” said Butterfly. “Until yesterday.”
“All the time?”
Drax shrugged. “Couple of years maybe. Spring of ’92. There was a heatwave so I closed the blinds.”
Not been opened since, thought Jason. “Drax, that was twelve years ago.”
“You telling me you’ve been in Ragnarok for twelve years without a break?”
Drax looked pained and took another sip of his coffee. “Don’t sound so judgmental, man.”
Butterfly leaned forward. “Drax was already there when I joined. He was in charge, actually. Well, as far as the game parameters would let him. Ragnarok Five’s a benign game.”
“Meaning the system won’t let you screw things up for the other users. So Drax got to rule over one of the Seventeen Kingdoms as long as he kept everybody happy enough to want to stay.”
“You didn’t stay.”
Butterfly started to sob. Drax turned his back. Even Hender seemed uncomfortable.
“Look,” said Drax. “This is painful. Maybe we should talk about it tomorrow.”
“Or not talk about it at all,” said Butterfly.
“Perhaps we should go,” said Jason, ignoring the panicked look on Hender’s face.
“No!” said Drax and Butterfly together.
So Hender took the couch, and Jason curled up in the corner under a borrowed blanket. He assumed the others discovered a bedroom somewhere.
Jason was still bleary-eyed when Hender shoved a cup of coffee in his hand. He took the first sip instinctively.
“Good. Stronger than last night.” He nodded in satisfaction. “Where are Kevin and the girl?”
“You mean the people formerly known as Drax and Butterfly? Presumably still finding out whether they like each other in the real world, whatever that is.”
Sun shone through the slats in the blinds. Jason checked his watch. “I’m going to check on them.” He left Hender trying to work out how to operate the View Wall. He knocked gently at first, but when he got no answer he knocked again, louder this time.
Someone inside was crying.
The door wasn’t locked, and the handle turned easily. Black drapes covered the window, and the only light came from the doorway. The room was crowded; as well as the bed, wardrobe, and other furniture, a large rectangular box shoved over to one side filled most of the available space. Butterfly leaned against it, slumped to the floor, sobbing.
Jason flicked on a light. “Where’s Drax?”
Butterfly gestured over her shoulder, to the rectangular box.
“In there?” Jason walked over and peered in through the glass-paneled lid into the box, filled with viscous fluid. And something else: Drax. “What the hell is this?”
They took her to the park mainly to get her out of the apartment, but also because they were hungry and the only food they could find at Drax’s was way past its use-by date. It was mid-morning, but apart from a solitary jogger and a couple of old women chatting on a bench, they didn’t see anyone until they reached the auto-café at the northern edge. An old man looked them up and down, waved his coffee cup in greeting, and shuffled off, mumbling something inaudible as he left. He wore an old business suit, frayed at the cuffs and collar, too small for him now; but his shirt looked clean and pressed, and he wore a tie which might have been new. Keeping his standards up, Jason supposed. Maybe the alternative was giving up.
She stopped crying after she’d finished the second sandwich. “That’s the first food I’ve had since we came out.”
“But you were in the restaurant last night,” said Jason, helping himself to more coffee.
“Doesn’t mean I was eating. I thought I’d forgotten how.”
Somewhere a dog howled. Jason tried his best to ignore it. “Tell me about Drax. About the box.”
“Box? Oh, you mean the tank.”
Jason gave his best blank expression.
“You really are from out of town, aren’t you? The tank. The V-world Immersion Chamber.”
“Look, Butterfly, or whatever you’d like me to call you out here. Last time I was here, you accessed V-world with a nifty little wide headpiece. I do remember it getting almost so you couldn’t tell you weren’t actually in the real world. But I don’t remember people closing themselves off in coffins.”
“Yeah, well. Progress. The old V-worlds were great, no doubt about it. Or they would have been if you didn’t still need to eat or shit. That meant forty-eight hours, tops. Maybe more with a drip and a game nappy. But you know, it’s kind of a mood breaker unplugging to deal with your own fetid crap. Not to mention the smell.”
“So now you encase yourself in nutrient fluid and you never have to leave the game,” Hender said. Jason shot him a glance. “What? Despite appearances, I do read stuff you know. There are intelligent nanoparticles in the goo that regulate bodily functions and apply electrical stimulus to the muscles, which is why Butterfly here can walk and talk like a normal person.”
Now Butterfly shot him a glance. “I know I look bad to you, but apart from the spots and the whitewash face, I’m telling you I feel better than I’ve ever done out here. I mean, before I hit the tank I was two hundred pounds and getting bigger. Moving to Ragnarok probably saved my life.”
“Then why leave?” said Jason.
She sighed. “It was Drax’s idea. We were in love, and we wanted sex.”
“You can’t do that in the game?”
“You can do anything you want in the game, including and especially sex, in all its forms. Subject to the parameters of the particular world you’re in, of course. Which in Ragnarok means that eight-foot tall blue guys with equipment sized to match and three-foot nothing flying insects were never going to get it on, not really.”
“Hence your brief return to the real world.”
“And what a waste of time this has turned out to be.”
“So I guess Drax has gone back.”
“I think I was a bit of a disappointment to Drax. But that’s okay. He was more than a bit of a disappointment to me.”
”Are you going to go back too?”
Butterfly laughed, but with no smile behind it. “I think the spell’s been broken, don’t you think? Anyhow, you can’t go back, not to the same place, anyway, which is another reason people never leave. Once you leave, the system resets you with a new identity. Drax ain’t Drax any more.”
Lucy, at the bar, sipped a martini. “Hoped you’d be back.”
He smiled. “Only place left in town where a real human takes your coat.”
“Not quite true. But it’s certainly the only one where you’ll get a decent cocktail.”
Hender and Butterfly went to the table Drax and Butterfly had taken the night before. This time, though, Butterfly studied the menu as if she was actually preparing to order something, and absently picked peanuts from a bowl. She seemed more animated and less disheveled too.
Lucy gestured in Butterfly’s direction. What did you do with the other one?”
“Gone. Back in the tank.”
She pursed her lips. “That hateful word again. So I guess you’ve found out where all the people have gone. Why be bored here when you can be a barbarian king, or a beautiful princess, or a slayer of vampires?”
“Because here is real and there isn’t, maybe?”
“Believe me, it can feel pretty real in there. And once they’re in, they stay. It’s amazing how persuasive a combination of the good life, virtual hard drugs, and an entirely rational fear of how fast things are degenerating out here can be.”
“So what keeps you out?” asked Jason.
She stirred her drink with a cocktail stick. “Did you know they first designed the tanks to be used in prisons? With the in-game opt-out protocols disabled, just to make life more interesting.”
“I would imagine that enabled some pretty extreme forms of punishment.”
“Rape, torture, dismemberment, you name it. When you’re in there, it’s real. And if you can’t get out, it might as well be real.” She smiled and crossed her legs. “I used to work for V-Corp, did I tell you that? I worked on the early V-world models, before the AIs got so damn clever they didn’t need us anymore. Then one day I argued with the wrong guy about the morals of zombifying minor criminals and torturing them forever, so they tanked me. They put me in one of the prison scenarios.”
“You mean you got arrested?”
She shook her head. “Nothing so official. They dumped me right on in. No prep, no warning, no nothing. One minute they were forcing my head into the glop, and the next I was crawling on a mountaintop in a blizzard. With no way out.”
“So how did you escape?”
“I’ll come to that. Those first minutes, all I thought about was getting off that damn mountain. I found a cave, fortunately. Otherwise, it would have been all over for me.”
“Are you saying that if you die in the game you die for real?”
She shook her head. “In the prison worlds, you neither get to die nor leave. If I’d collapsed on that mountaintop, I’d have been frozen forever. Alive, conscious, and probably completely mad by now. I got lucky. But then the other prisoners found me.”
“Don’t want to talk about it. Think of your worst nightmare? Not even halfway there.”
Jason waited for her to continue but her eyes glazed, staring into the distance. When she eventually spoke, she talked quietly. “They pulled me out after a week. Laughed about it. Thought it was all a big game.”
“Explains your hatred of the tanks.”
“Just gives me a different perspective, that’s all.”
They ate, then, the four of them, bathed in candlelight. Real food, probably grown in one of the underground hydroponics plants that Jason had heard about. It all tasted delicious.
“So, Butterfly, think you’ll go back to Ragnarok?” said Lucy.
“Sandra. I’m Sandra now. No wings, see?”
“Thought we’d try one of the other Worlds,” said Hender.
“What?” Jason said through a mouthful of food. “’We’?”
“Let’s face it, Jason. This place is finished. Everybody’s gone. I need to go where the action is.”
“Yes,” said Butterfly/Sandra, smiling. “And this time, I’ll be going with someone I actually like on the outside. I think that’ll make a difference.” Jason noticed they were holding hands.
“Why don’t you come with us?” said Hender.
Lucy sighed. “You know that people in the tanks rarely leave, don’t you?”
“I did,” said Sandra.
“You’ve been out barely two days, and you’re going right back in. I hardly think that counts.”
“Don’t care anyway,” said Hender. “I’m done here.”
“Yeah, don’t be so down on it,” said Sandra. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
They ate the rest of the meal in subdued silence. Jason went to the bathroom when they’d finished their coffee. When he got back to the table, Hender and Sandra were gone.
Lucy poured herself a glass of wine and, hesitating, topped Jason’s up too. “Come. Let me show you something.”
They took an AutoTaxi to an industrial estate on the edge of town and pulled up next to a vast, gray, windowless structure. Lucy led them in through a small side door, which Jason could barely see: gray on gray.
They were in a massive, open hangar. They climbed a rampway to a platform suspended maybe twenty feet above the floor where they could see the whole floor area. The warehouse was full, floor to ceiling, with rectangular boxes stacked in shelves and in neat, seemingly endless rows. Immersion tanks. Thousands of them.
“Impressive, eh?” said Lucy. “Didn’t take long for the tanks to move from the prisons to the general population. Back then, we still had an economy that used money, before we could leave everything to the androids and the AI. At first, it was the hardcore gamers and a few curious kids. Then, they became fashionable as a kind of retirement community. A place in the sun at a fraction of the cost, and, more importantly, a place where you never seem to get old, even though your physical body might be falling apart.
“That was maybe twenty years ago, just about the time the wars ended. That meant a lot of young people coming home without work to do. It didn’t take the government long to work out it was cheaper to offer free tanking than to provide social security to millions of the unemployed. So they hit the tanks too. Gradually, other people started to drift in as well. And now, the only people still clinging on in the real world where it rains and you get old and you get ill and you have to look at your ugly face in the mirror every day are people like me and my gradually dwindling band of customers.”
“Are all these tanks full?”
“Mostly they were. But that’s a good question.”
“People die, I suppose.”
“And normally, babies are born to take their place.”
Jason scratched his head. “Ah.”
“Yes. If everyone’s in the tanks living life virtually they’re not out here bringing up kids. The schools closed down a long time ago in this town.
“There’s no purpose for anyone anymore. Hell, they even turned the presidency over to an AI. Just distraction. Like the restaurant. I mean, nobody pays me for dinner because we no longer use money. I keep the place open because it gives me something to do, and I like to see people. I guess they come because they’re trying to pretend things are still normal. It can’t be for the food. It’s excellent, don’t get me wrong. Only you can get better from any of the auto-cafe’s because the expertise of every award-winning chef in history has been digitized and synthesized. We can’t compete on quality. People only come because we’re still human, warts and all.”
“That won’t last forever.”
“I know. I’m already looking for the next challenge. I’ve got some choices to make.” Lucy bowed her head. “There has to be more. Or less.” She let the thought hang.
“So, you’re going to go into one of those tanks?”
She laughed. “What? To become one of those Izos? That would be too sad, after all this time. We’re among the last to hold out, you and me. What do you think will happen to the world if we joined the rest and went to live in fantasy land?” She smiled. “Ever been in the White House?”
The System Room lay in one of the basement layers of the V-Corp building, deep in the heart of the city’s business district. Unlike everywhere else he’d seen, this building was well guarded with an array of automatic weapons systems and tripwires, plus a squad of oversized robot guards. But Lucy had the right ID biometrics, and they passed unhindered.
They entered a large, empty room with banks of machinery lining the walls. She sat cross-legged on the floor and snapped her fingers. Suddenly, they were in the Oval Office. Lucy, still cross-legged on the floor, gestured for Jason to take his place opposite her. Between them lay a dull silver briefcase. “Before you ask, we’re here because this is where all the big decisions are taken.”
“I was more interested in how we got here.”
“This whole building’s covered by a V field, attuned to my neural profile. It means we can access a virtual world here without using a tank or a band. If you ask me, that’s pretty dangerous technology ― I’m just pleased we never had the chance to roll it out.”
“What’s that?” said Jason, pointing at the briefcase.
“The choice. Shall we?” Lucy put her hand on the briefcase’s palm reader. The case sprang open, revealing ancient electronics and a bright red button. “Recognize this?”
“The nuclear trigger.”
“It’s not really a big red button, of course. But I’ve always wanted to press the big red button.”
“What happens if you do?”
“The V-worlds are entirely run by AI super brains somewhere in a mountain in Wyoming. At least, that’s where we put them. I guess they could be anywhere by now thanks to the beauty of the cloud. Somewhere out of reach, anyhow.”
“So, there’s no off switch. No way to turn the worlds off. Except…”
“The red button is your back door, right?”
Lucy nodded. “One of the reasons I got canned is because I kept putting these fail-safes in the programs. I thought by now the AI would have rooted them out and eliminated them, but I guess it likes to live a little dangerously. All I have to do is press this red button and every V-world on the planet switches off, simultaneously. Including that Refuge you think you came from.”
He let the thought sink in and found he wasn’t surprised. “So why haven’t you done it?”
Lucy unfolded her legs, strolled over to a cupboard behind the presidential desk, and brought out a bottle and two glasses. “Scotch. The finest.” She poured and sipped appreciatively. “Did you see how miserable Drax was before he went back in the tank? And the anticipation on Hender and Butterfly’s faces? I’m not sure I want their unhappiness on my consciousness, or that of the millions of other people sitting in those tanks living out their fantasies.”
He tasted the whisky. He suspected it was as good as anything in the real Oval Office. “But in a couple of generations, there’ll be no humans left in the V worlds, just AI. And hardly anyone left out here. The big red button’s the only way out.”
“You see my dilemma.”
“So, you want me to make your decision for you.”
“We could go into the tanks, live out our lives there. Most people don’t even know they’re in VR by now. It’s easy to forget reality when it doesn’t seem real.”
He smiled. “Or to think something is real just because you want it to be. I know why you haven’t pressed the red button now. You can’t.”
“And why might that be?”
“Because you’re not real. None of this is. Not the Oval Office, not the warehouse. Only me.”
She snorted. “Don’t kid yourself. You haven’t got the imagination to invent me.”
“Really? This is my red button, isn’t it? My way out.”
He pressed the button.
Mark Bilsborough is an English writer, living in the shadow of the town destroyed by H.G Well’s Martian invaders. Consequently, he looks up at the sky frequently and apprehensively. You can reach more of his stories via www.markbilsborough.com