by Ron Simmonds
It was just like a drug, really. Or worse than a drug. With drugs there were only short periods of euphoria, but this was a constant high, no let–up. Norman would have never even stopped for meals if his wife had not still managed to exercise some degree of control over him in the beginning. He had been warned about that, of course. The man from the computer company had been most emphatic about it. Only one hour each day, maximum, or you’ll get hooked.
The trouble with Virtual Reality was that it was better than the real world. Trouble may not be the right word—perhaps attraction might be more fitting. Once you were firmly planted on the Walker Pad, with the headset in place, the other world was yours to manipulate. You met computer–generated people, perfect down to the last detail. If you didn’t like them you made them disappear. You could travel from Virtual Alaska to Virtual Australia in a split second with the flick of a finger. You could even travel to the Moon, and Norman had done that already, several times, with Neil and Buzz. He’d watched them blast off, back to Earth, and pottered about for a while, alone on the Lunar surface, before returning home with the flick of a switch. Nothing was impossible, and he loved it. And he hadn’t even begun to explore the possibilities of this marvellous new medium. It was space and time travel without all the inconveniences.
The new Giga microchip had made it all possible. Before that came along the process had been laborious. The models had been crude, movement restricted, and the whole thing, even in its infancy, astronomically expensive. The new chip, and the latest fast computers had brought it all into the range of Everyman’s pocket. All Norman had to do to afford it all was to write cheques. They had plenty of money. There was still his wife, of course. She was the unknown factor in all this, because it was all her money, really, inherited from her father, who had been a very successful stockbroker.
She had hinted at her displeasure at breakfast that very morning. He was neglecting her. ‘You don’t need me any more,’ she cried. ‘Of course I do. What a silly thing to say!’ he replied, and tried to comfort her, but she kept on snivelling and griping until he lost his temper. ‘I’m a pensioner!’ he shouted. ‘What do you expect me to do? Potter in the garden? Play bowls with all the other geriatrics? This is my hobby, dammit!’ She retired to the bedroom, weeping, and a few minutes later he was back in the computer room.
Later that day while searching for a pencil in one of the drawers of her desk he had come across her diary. The entries of the past few weeks had been filled with her shorthand notes, but recurring in almost every sentence were the letters VR. They could only have one meaning. Why she would have written everything in shorthand was beyond him. He hadn’t even known she could write in shorthand.
He stepped on to the Walker Pad and put on the headset. The two small display screens right in front of his eyes in the headset lit up, and he was in the other world at once—a world absolutely free from nagging or weeping women. He gripped the handrail of the walker and stepped forward, through the Virtual Reality door. At once a huge sign blocked further entry.
YOUR VR SIMULATOR RENT IS IN ARREARS! READ CONTRACT BEFORE PROCEEDING!
He pressed the OK button and the sign disappeared. Plenty of time to worry about that later.
Norman punched in the relevant codes on the handset attached to the Walker Pad and spent the rest of the day poking around in the database of his pensions fund. For some time now he had been looking for a way to increase his monthly payment without raising suspicion. It would be nice to be independent of the old bag. As usual he saw other ghostly figures who seemed to be intent upon doing the same thing. Norman obviously wasn’t the only one around in possession of a simulator and the illegal entry codes. One of the figures passed him in the Corridor, which was the simulator’s name for the electronic links in the databank. The ghostly shape nodded at him as it went by. Norman found the correct door for his surname and went in. To his consternation there was no sign of his files this time, but a note in place stated that they had been removed for a runline error investigation. Damn! So they had twigged that something was wrong.
Two shadowy figures materialised beside him in the narrow room. One of them held a card up in front of his face. It said: Security Check. His fingers felt for, and pressed, the panic button on the Walker bar. At once he was back in the safety of his den, shaking. He tore the headset off. That was a close one, he thought, simulation or not. Then the incident was blotted from his mind, because when he went out of the room it was to discover that his wife had gone; packed her bags and left him. There was a short note, saying that she had blocked the bank account. Now he could no longer write cheques. This was really bad. A short telephone call to the bank confirmed his worst fears: the cheque for his monthly payment to the Virtual Reality Company had indeed bounced.
Norman had spent most of his working life with computers and had long been proficient as a hacker. He possessed an extraordinary skill at worming out secret passwords, ciphered entry codes and entering other people’s computer banks. Unfortunately he had never managed to get into his own bank’s files, or those from any other bank, so he couldn’t make money appear as if by magic in his checking account. He got out his contract with the Virtual Reality Company and read it again. A clause he had not noticed before stated, in fine print, that non–payment of the rental fee could cause the computer link to be severed at any time. It could be dangerous, it warned, if the client should be actually in the VR World at the moment of severance. The company could not be held responsible, etc., etc.
Norman allowed himself a small smile. One thing he had managed to hack with success was the computer link to which the contract referred. He had typed in the rest of the machine code two days ago. Now they could cut him off if they so wished, but he could still get into the VR World by the back door any time he liked. No one would ever know and he need never, ever, pay for the rental any more. The next day he moved everything he possessed, including all his computer equipment, out of the rented apartment to another in the next town. He rented the new apartment under a false name and left no forwarding address.
From that day on Norman spent all of his time in the virtual world simulator, only emerging reluctantly for a bite of food now and then. His back door entry remained undetected.
One of the most exciting aspects of the virtual world, apart from hacking into databanks, and exploring time and space, was the ability to be actually present in the action of full length feature films. There was a library menu available to all users, and regular movie films which had been adapted for the medium could be selected at the touch of a button. The user couldn’t actually interact in the films: that would all come later in the development. For now it was exciting enough just to be in there mixing with the actors.
For the remainder of that week he went through all the Indiana Jones movies, standing only feet away from Harrison Ford, actually inside the scenes, experiencing all the thrills and dangers of the action and all the excitement and dangers of the impossible situations that cropped up for the hero. If at any moment he felt so frightened that he began having fears for his own safety he pressed the big red panic button, and brought himself instantly back to the real world. Of course he was never in any real danger because it was only a simulation, after all, but some of the situations were realistic enough to set his heart pounding. During those few days he pressed the panic button no less than twenty times.
On the Saturday of what he called his Great Liberation Week he called up the library menu to discover that only one film was available. Whatever he did, however much he searched in the menu, however many buttons and icons he clicked with the mouse—it still came back to that one film. He chuckled to himself. This simulated library had obviously loaned out all the good films for the weekend, just like any regular video rental store! He’d never seen this one before anyway so he took it down. The film was Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.
Soon he was right in the action with Chaplin, vicariously experiencing everything Charlie went through with all his various female conquests from a standpoint distance of only a couple of yards. He had a great time of it, especially in the greenhouse scene, laughing until his ribs ached. At one spot in the film he found himself pressed up close to Martha Raye, so close, in fact, that he was not a little surprised that she failed to notice him. He caught Chaplin looking at him, though, once or twice, and he could have sworn to a flicker of recognition in the famous clown’s eyes. He dismissed the thought at once as rubbish, but for a moment it had been quite unnerving.
The film progressed, and finally, after about an hour and fifteen minutes, Verdoux, the serial murderer, was caught, tried and sentenced to death. Now this should be interesting, thought Norman. Death by guillotine, up close! Inches away if I feel like it. He experienced the dialogue with the priest in the cell at first hand.
‘May the Lord have mercy on your soul.’
Verdoux: ‘Why not? After all it belongs to Him.’
Then it was time for the long final walk. He edged closer. Rough hands seized him. Wow! This was getting to be like the real thing! He let the guards march him along the stone corridor.
The other prisoners on Death Row were banging their mess tins on the bars as they passed. He caught sight of his reflection in one of them, saw the small, distinctive black moustache on his upper lip. Now he was Monsieur Verdoux! He was actually living the part. He felt a sudden queasy thrill of fear. No mind. There was always the panic button. He felt along the rail for its smooth, slightly concave surface. It was there, of course, just as it always had been. Even though he was now (but only virtually!) handcuffed he could still reach it.
They passed through the grim iron door and there it was: the dreaded guillotine. Madame Guillotine, the French called it. He looked around, half expecting to see the gloating masses, the knitting women, but there were only the three guards, the prison governor, and the priest. Things happened very quickly then. He was strapped down on to a hinged board which threw him down flat on the bed of the guillotine with his neck on the wooden block. He saw a large straw basket below. That would be for his head! He giggled. This was really something! He had determined to experience everything to the full, just as he always did. He kept his finger on the panic button, though, just in case. The blade couldn’t hurt him, that was clear. It was all make–believe, right? But it sure as hell looked real. The queasy thrill shot through him again.
The priest was mumbling something, but he couldn’t make out the words. The man of the cloth stepped back. The prison governor, who had now been magically transformed into Charlie Chaplin himself, nodded gravely to one of the guards. He looked over at Norman, and Norman could have sworn that Charlie winked at him. Above his head something clicked and creaked, there was the painful moaning sound of a soundtrack dying down, and then everything went into cinematic slow motion. He heard the huge blade begin to descend, slithering down along greased rails at a snail’s pace. He watched one of the guards bring his hand up to his mouth agonisingly slowly. That man is going to be sick, he thought.
The button nestled under his finger reassuringly. Just in front of his face a small holographic display popped up, floating in space. It was pale blue, square, like a computer screen and it contained an error message, like the ones he usually received when the computer went on the blink.
CANNOT FIND ESCAPE FILE ESCP1995.DLL
it said. And underneath:
VIRTUAL SYSTEM LOCK–OUT
DATA TRANSFERENCE CORRUPTED
ACTIVATE SHUTDOWN AND RESTART
Above him the great gleaming blade slipped quietly down the rails. The message blinked on and off rapidly in big red warning letters. Norman stared in bewilderment at the display. He was suddenly incapable of rational thought or movement, as if the slow motion was affecting him, too. He felt the slanting edge of the blade caress the back of his neck. In the distant, dark recesses of his mind a small voice kept repeating escape file, shutdown, escape file, shutdown. As he desperately tried to fathom out what it all meant another voice whispered urgently that this was surely altogether too real. The priest’s face swam into his field of vision. He was shaking his head sorrowfully. Norman suddenly recognised him. It was the salesman from the Virtual Reality Company who had rented him the simulator.
The blade dug deeply into Norman’s neck.
Norman shook off his lethargy and finally pressed the panic button with frantic, shaking fingers.
The button popped out from under his hand like a small bar of soap and detached itself from the Walker Pad rail. He watched it as it fell slowly towards the basket, landing in there just before his head did. There had been no wires attached to the button, so this time nothing happened.
Faces appeared over the rim of the basket, looking down at him. Charlie was there, the priest, a couple of guards, then his wife’s face peered over with them.
‘No pay—no play, Norman,’ murmured the priest, sadly. He stepped back slowly and bowed his head, crossing himself at five frames per second.
Then there was nothing. Really nothing.Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved