Note: This is an oldie from 2005. I’d forgotten about it until a few nights ago, when Sal mentioned how cheap it would be to do a film adaptation, since everything pretty much takes place inside a single apartment. The story originally appeared in Aphelion #98, and was later included in The Reformed Citizen anthology. Basically, it’s a heavy-handed bit of pseudo-commentary on Internet addiction—with a twist(ed) ending. I was reading Disch’s 334 at the time, so he’s to blame if you notice any overtly newsflash-style narratives along the way.
* * *
It was the last day of school, and Bryan was sitting at the back of the General Ed classroom with his fists clenched and his teeth grinding in his mouth. His shirtsleeves dangled over his hands, his pants felt too big; he couldn’t find socks this morning so he’d just worn his sneakers, making his feet feel sticky. He was suffering, no doubt about it, but it was a palatable sort of pain, for he’d absorbed his lessons, done his homework, earned a solid line of A-minuses across the board. He wanted out already, though it had nothing to do with the inborn urge every teenager has to escape the public education barracks. Most kids just wanted off the map for a few months. Bryan, on the other hand, had a life to live, things to do, people to interact with—he had the Internet.
Two weeks previous, the newest version of SimpliCITY had gone online for all the beta-testers, and Bryan had been hooked ever since—everyone in the quality assurance pools was. All the white-collars with decent broadband connections and premium subscriptions to the city’s mainframe relays got the programs before everyone else did. They got unrestricted access to any web site, any server in the world, political, religious, pornographic, or otherwise—even the stuff that hadn’t been approved by the federal censors.
Bryan looked over one row to where Sarah was sitting. She was staring at him, red-faced, blushing. He knew she was thinking what he was thinking, of what the two of them had done that night a week ago, after he’d e-mailed her the SimpliCITY hack. There’d been two miles of fiber-optic wiring between them, but he’d lost his virginity to her—and his virtual model hadn’t even been finished yet (the sensory inputs all worked, though; he’d made sure of that).
Bryan and Sarah sort of had a thing going, even though in real life he was too skinny and she was too fat. Outside of VR, they’d kissed a couple times, on the rare occasions when the newsfeeds weren’t announcing a pathogen alert, but that was it. Anything further and, well, you were asking for trouble, what with the city so overcrowded and this year’s flu vaccinations being fifty-thousand short. “Offline, Off Limits” was the popular slogan, and it made a lot of sense. Real life was cold, dangerous—your one chance in the flesh before death dissolved you for eternity. Online, however, you could do anything, and there were no consequences: no STDs, no fatal wounds.
SimpliCITY was the most recent virtual simulator to have taken the Internet by storm, and for good reason: No other program offered as many options, as much customization, as much realism, and the interface was a no-brainer. Plus, there were free upgrades for all premium subscribers, all beta-testers (Bryan’s family was privileged in that respect).
Most important, though, was the fact that SimpliCITY had the best sensory input engine available, and, through a set of open-source hacks, felt good—real good, better than the flesh, thanks to new programming techniques and algorithms that supposedly deviated from the recommended allowances.
Naturally, the software was strictly eighteen and over, but, like most kids with enough curiosity and dedication, Bryan had found a hack for his biometric implant. His parents, while adequately funded, had never been keen on regular doctor visits, and so no one knew that, according to his ID chip, he was a 26-year-old computer programmer from the East Side. Of course, he could have gone the extra mile and removed his chip altogether (like many citizens did), but he was a bit of a wimp when it came to cutting and pain and blood. That was why he went online in the first place: to escape the various discomforts of real life.
That’s why we all go online, he thought, smiling. He wished he was there now, with Sarah, both of them in their mods, wearing their custom skins. Bryan’s was a basic David model, with a more muscular build, his own face (with age-progression), and a decidedly larger genital—ominous, in fact. That was his e-name: Ominous. He’d spent half a day on his model’s masculinity, making sure it was absolutely perfect before he’d moved on to the rest of his virtual body. Even without all the right textures, Sarah had taken him (as he’d taken her) in a multi-spa chatroom with two-dozen other netizens frolicking alongside.
He could feel his pulse quickening just thinking about it, though it didn’t matter much. No one could tell if he was aroused because he was small for seventeen, almost emaciated, and his clothes were loose and sagging; they hid everything. His mother always said he’d grow into them, but he doubted it. She was just being friendly.
Bryan sighed, tried to pay attention to the artificial instructor. It was hard. He knew the real score: Life was shit. After graduation, he’d get his white-collar certificate and convert his bedroom into an office cubicle for the city. He’d crunch numbers and process forms for fifty years, right up until retirement. There was off-time, sure, designated recreational hours—white-collars worked from the comfort and safety of their homes—but too many of them fell prey to the grind, the notion that if they did just this much more today, they’d have less to do tomorrow—but when tomorrow came, the central task manager ended up piling on more than today. In most cases, people ended up slightly behind, so they adjusted by stretching their hours, working in their pajamas, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner in front of their computers. However, it was a small price to pay for their freedoms. America was still the safest place to live, to worship, to “be all that you can be,” and to be blessed with a premium Internet subscription and SimpliCITY and uninhibited sex with Sarah whenever he wanted . . . Bryan didn’t mind the inevitabilities all that much.
For now, he merely wanted to live as much as he could, and he wasn’t ashamed to do just that—in the privacy of his own bedroom. The world was one giant back-office; the Internet, SimpliCITY—that was real. That was where he and all his hungry, horny peers went to learn about sex, drugs, heavy artillery, and everything else that made life worth living. In cyberspace, in his Ominous skin, Bryan didn’t have to be lanky and insignificant anymore, an undersized runt foraging in the cracks of society. He could be a double-agent, a movie star, a mobster, a superhero, an athlete; it was all safe, it was all possible in cyberspace.
With his mouth very nearly watering, Bryan forced his attention away from the clock on the wall and resumed his work. Eventually, the end-of-day klaxon sounded and class was dismissed.
Sarah nudged him as she left. “See you online,” she said shyly, and then scurried off homeward.
Already Bryan was blushing—sweating, almost—from such social contact, but it was okay because he knew he could more than make up for it as Ominous.
The shuttle picked him up just inside the school’s security terminal. His forearm was scanned and he was randomly assigned a seat towards the back, where a handful of bullies just happened to be randomly seated as well. These were crude, ill-mannered youths, nothing more than blue-collar fodder from the industrial side of town. Their IQs were nothing compared to Bryan’s, though their bodies were bigger and more muscular, and so, when they poked and prodded, twisted and pulled at him as if he were a rag doll, he could do little else but scrunch his eyes shut and wince.
Let them behave like baboons, he thought. In a few short months they’ll have their mops and soap pails, their hard-hats and drills. Everyday they’ll have to trudge to and from some smelly, dusty construction site while I’ll be snug and cozy, making bank by sitting around in my underwear.
The apartment where Bryan and his parents (George and Leah, respectively) lived was a typical federally-appointed white-collar complex: six stories of brick and steel wrapped in hot chainlink, with a direct line to the county servers. The shuttle dropped him off just inside the security gate; the instant his feet touched the ground he was running all the way inside, up the four flights of stairs to number D-4. He arrived just in time to witness the awesome sight of George installing the new wireless receiver.
“They’ve released you into the wild, eh?” George asked, winking.
“Oh . . . my . . . God!” Bryan yelled, dropping his notebook onto the floor. “I can’t believe it’s here!”
“Yup. The county approved the higher bandwidth for the testing pool—that’s us. 200 gigabytes, both ways.”
It was Christmas, Bryan’s birthday, the day he got his first computer—all wrapped in one. He wanted to say something smart, to swap technical specs; instead he was laughing, looking at his father and seeing the slightly-crazed glint in the man’s eyes, the swollen flesh of his cheekbones. These last two weeks he’s become just as addicted as I have! Bryan thought. He slapped hands with George. It was the closest thing to a religious experience he’d ever had.
After he calmed down, he asked, “When can I check it out?”
“We should be up and running now,” said George. He pointed down the hallway. “Go ahead—take her out for a spin.”
Bryan thanked him, high-fived him again and ran into his bedroom, closing and locking the door. He turned his computer on, hastily pulled off his clothes as he drew on the sensory inputs. Then he crouched beside his bed, felt awkwardly underneath for the safebox where he kept his birth certificate and social security items. Entering the combination, he opened it and withdrew his special input, the hacked version he’d bought online for 99 Patriots—just in time for Upgrade Month. It was a neat little device, sort of like an oversized athletic cup. He fastened it to his groin as he scurried into his chair, raised his left arm for the scanner, and logged on to his premium account. Lastly, he popped in his contacts, overlaying his field of vision with a pair of variable translucency video monitors.
A slightly electric thrill tickled his spine as the megabytes surged through his fingers and toes. One moment he was sitting in a cluttered, musty bedroom, the next he was standing, proud and majestic, in his personal start-zone.
The place was posh, a moderately tweaked parlor template, with shag carpeting and glazed walls, contemporary furnishings and a sky-cam view of the virtual city glittering beyond the balcony edge. There was a sofa pit, a coffee table in the center (piled high with e-mail messages), a wall-screen television; in one corner, a wardrobe with several predefined sets of clothing inside, though Bryan was something of an exhibitionist and so ignored the wardrobe completely as he headed straight for the door.
Through the threshold, into the hallway, he stopped and pulled down his personal menu. He could, of course, walk or drive to the chatroom, but he already had his favorite places bookmarked. He chose the Coral Café and instantly he was there, standing in the aquamarine glow, the seaweed shimmering through the domed glass ceiling above, the subtle synergy of two-dozen candlelit tables glowing in the heady incense. One of the moderators bowed before him, asked if he wanted refreshments.
“No thanks,” he said, moving through the room and catching the attention of several female netizens who, upon spotting spotting his glistening visage, purred or cooed seductively. He found Sarah, with her perfectly lithe hourglass figure, standing beside her table and waving at him, and instantly he attached himself to her, kissing her, caressing her, warming her with his Ominous touch—making up for a school year of ineptitude.
“It’s good to see you,” Sarah said, lifting her arm above her shoulder and clicking on her table’s privacy flag (this allowed the two of them an ample view of the chatroom, while everyone else merely saw an opaque membrane).
Somewhere down the line Bryan remembered his manners and said, “Good to see you too.”
* * *
With the advent of widely-available high speed wireless Internet access across America, true virtual reality (patented by TrueTech and called TrueReality®) was no longer improbable for Bryan’s generation. Without the need for cumbersome goggles, primitive control gauntlets, or ill-fitting bodysuits, one could immerse oneself in cyberspace directly, and the experience was indistinguishable from reality. It had become so good that most people did nearly everything online, work and play—you never had to set foot past your doorstep.
Many white-collar Americans (especially in the big cities) earned their daily bread out of their own homes. This translated to lower overhead for employers, who no longer had to pay to maintain physical offices. Tasks were routed through the distributed network’s automated task manager and made accessible to the blue-collar farms, factories, and manufacturing plants. Medical insurance and worker benefits rested in the hands of the county.
With less commuting in the real world, the public transit budget had been decimated, and funds were diverted elsewhere. Faster-acting allergy meds, new and improved smart pills, more effective beauty treatments and anti-aging therapies—the government could now spend the money where it was needed.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the burgeoning science behind enhanced biometrics. Bryan had a splinter-sized chip embedded just under the skin of his left forearm. His computer’s wireless receiver scanned his personal information and logged him on, connected him directly to the county mainframe. As he used the sensory inputs attached to his computer, real-time nerve impulses were generated by his inputs and processed by his bio-chip, which regulated the release of endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine levels, and so forth. As he experienced movement and action in the virtual world, his cerebral cortex processed it as normal, everyday sensory input: He felt gravity, pressure, skin sensation; he tasted, smelled, heard—all the senses were stimulated from the inside out.
True, not everyone was keen on becoming “wired” (particularly the older generation), but if you wanted to do anything of substance in the city these days, you had to have the chip. Without one, you got the leftover tables at finer restaurants, the rear seats at movie theaters; you wouldn’t get served alcohol at certain night clubs, wouldn’t be allowed near certain popular beaches; hospitals, banks, libraries, public schools wouldn’t accept you unless you were implanted. Driver’s license? Social security? Voting? You certainly needed a chip if you wanted any of those privileges.
Most importantly: If you wanted to beta-test the latest social sims (like SimpliCITY), you needed the chip.
Bryan had had his implanted when he was a newborn. Most white-collars got theirs that way. Circumcision, implantation, vaccination, and he was set for life. If he ever got kidnapped, the feds would know exactly where he was at all times. He supposed, if his kidnappers were really hardcore, they could just cut the chip out, but that was the sort of thing you heard about on the hearsay channels—uneducated urban myths spread to explain the recent statistical increase in child mutilations. Bryan didn’t worry, though: He didn’t go outsi
* * *
It was weird having dinner with his parents.
The first week of summer had already flashed past. Half-dressed in underwear and T-shirt (and wired to his portable audio player), Bryan sat at the kitchen table and dug into a carton of Chinese takeout. George and Leah were there too, though each was absorbed in his or her own world. Somewhere in the background the dirty dishes cast a faintly pungent odor over things, but nobody seemed to care—there was always time for chores later, tomorrow, next week. Right now Bryan was scarfing his food; so was George, who held his plastic fork with one hand and the television remote with the other.
“News flash,” George said after a moment. He turned up the volume.
Bryan turned in his seat and stared at the screen. A political analyst was talking about terrorism and how, without proper economic muscle, domestic security was going to become a sideshow act:
“Cutting electives from public schools, closing down brick and mortar libraries in favor of electronic repositories—these sorts of practices have offered some additional cash flow, but it isn’t enough unless certain underlying fundamentals are fixed to protect America’s mainframes. The biometrics program needs to be rolled out nationally. Right now we have PC cafés, public shuttles, and highways open to anyone who has a few Patriots to spend. That means fundamentalists, terrorists have access to our distributed network, to physical areas of the city without being tracked—and if our computers are knocked offline, we’re knocked offline. Optional identification is not the solution. Rather, we need to take a proactive step: Anyone residing within our borders, anyone entering the country needs to be accounted for electronically. If we secure ourselves, we secure our country.”
Somewhere amidst all the mumbo-jumbo, Bryan felt a twinge of anxiety, and he wondered if his anti-virus program had been updating itself properly, wondered what it would be like to be cut off from the Net for any length of time (outside of school).
“I wouldn’t worry,” Leah said. “They’ve got redundancies for these things, 1,024-kilobyte encryption keys, firewall protection, proxy servers—you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than you do of losing your wireless connection.”
Bryan turned back to the television screen.
The analyst continued:
“The current administration is a work-in-progress. Not enough has been centralized just yet. As long as the state and county governments are free to dance around the issue, your best bet is to keep it simple. Go to work, go home. Stay away from malls, conventions, theme parks—any public place where there are a lot of people gathered. If you want to socialize, go online. These days, the VR clubs are just as good as the real thing, if not better. Take control. There’s no reason any law-abiding American has to place himself in harm’s way simply because of political red tape.”
“Sound advice,” George said, nodding. “Let the blue-collar punks and hippies thumb their noses at the biometrics system, but they’ll be the first to complain when one of their precious rock concerts or midnight raves is sabotaged by a group of nut-headed fundamentalists with an example to be made.”
Bryan laughed and finished his meal before returning once again to his bedroom kingdom.
* * *
Eating in cyberspace was about as nutritionally beneficial as breathing—but it was a social activity that no longer resulted in gluttony, allergic reactions, guilt . . . you could afford to eat out whenever you wanted and not gain a pound.
Bryan and Sarah frequented a place called Peter’s, which was one of the various establishments that had no dress code. Regardless of creed or costume, the attitude was more tolerant here—which was why Bryan was surprised when a trio of punked-out players stepped up to his table and snickered rudely.
“Is this the body you wish you had?” asked one of the players, pointing. He wore a neon green skinsuit over his sleek, athletic model.
Bryan frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know who you are, Bryan,” the neon bully said. “You’re the little shrimp from school. I’m surprised that pretty-boy skin doesn’t slip right off your bony little shoulders.” He turned to Sarah. “And this is Fat Sarah, right? Gee—I didn’t recognize her without her double chin.”
“Watch it,” Bryan warned, standing and clenching his fists. “Or else.”
The neon bully stepped up. “Or else what?”
Bryan faltered. “This is a comfort zone. You can’t do anything to us.”
“Not unless you have the right software,” said the neon bully, and he reached out, grabbed Bryan’s arm as he called up his personal menu, launched a program called “Meltdown”. Suddenly Bryan felt his virtual body shudder, disjoint itself as if he were made of ill-fitting scraps. When the process was over, he stood hunched over, his torso lopsided.
The malicious program had mutilated him, corrupted his model.