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 half way 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 any more. 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?”
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