Jace Smith propelled himself smoothly along the ocean floor with slow, even kicks, his arms trailing loosely by his sides. The warm water was so clear it was nearly invisible, but he could feel it sliding and rippling along his body as he passed through it.
He was mesmerized by the white sand sliding past below him and by the sound of his own slow even breathing, and when the bottom suddenly fell away into a sheer coral cliff he gasped with surprise, feeling his sphincter contract and goosebumps break out on his arms. He hung there in the still water, two hundred feet above the sea bottom, feeling like Wile E. Coyote just before another plunge into the desert.
"Awesome," he muttered to himself.
He gazed down along the cliff, noting the way the water slowly gained a deeper shade of blue with increasing depth. Far below him, sinuous shapes moved in slow circles, forming and reforming into small groups, never stopping.
He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and then arrowed his way straight down along the cliff with powerful thrusts of his fins. As he approached a depth of a hundred and fifty feet the sharks resolved into view, and he paused to study them with a critical eye.
There were three different species in this particular habitat - nurse sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerheads. As he watched, a large silver fish strayed too close to a tiger shark, and was ripped in half by a single savage snap. The tiger shark began swallowing the upper half of the fish, while the lower half, still twitching, was immediately set on by several smaller nurse sharks.
The commotion attracted the attention of one of the big hammerheads, which glided over and surveyed the situation with a baleful stare from one hideous yellow eye. Then it torpedoed into the fray and seized the remaining scrap of fish from the nurse sharks. A few seconds after the initial strike, the ocean returned to its deceptively calm state.
Jace allowed himself to drift down into the layer of water containing the sharks, and soon found himself surrounded by dozens of the gray, incurious creatures. He studied their movements carefully, noting the interactions between members of the same species and of different species. Then he identified a few individuals by their scar patterns and followed each for a few minutes, studying their behavior.
There was a beeping sound in his ear, and a voice said "Five more minutes of air."
The warning distracted him for a moment, making him lose track of the twelve-foot hammerhead he had been watching. As he scanned around for it, he realized to his surprise that the sharks were swimming away, dispersing along the cliff face and leaving the ocean suddenly empty. Then he saw it. A shadow, rising up from the shady blue depths, growing in size as it approached.
"What the fuck... ?"
He felt a queasy trickle of fear in his stomach, and he forced himself to breath evenly and remain where he was.
The creature was immense, easily twenty feet long, and he had never seen anything like it. It vaguely resembled a shark, but its tail was horizontal instead of vertical. It had a head like an alligator, with knife-like teeth overlapping the lower half of the jaw. And it was purple.
He watched it with a grim smile of disbelief on his face, rotating his body to face the nightmare as it circled him. After three circuits, the creature flicked its tail and surged directly toward him, jaws agape. It veered at the last second and passed within a few feet of him, and as it rocketed by he saw its smooth purple skin resolve into a geometric pattern of polygons. He braced himself for a violent shaking from the creature's wake, but the water remained perfectly still, as if it had been a ghost.
The creature swam directly away from him, its curiosity apparently satisfied, and disappeared back into the depths.
"Thirty seconds of air," said the calm voice in his ear.
He shook his head and grunted with amusement. Then he started kicking for the surface, suddenly anxious to get back to his lab.
At about eighty feet his air ran out. Enjoying the challenge, he kicked harder and accelerated upward toward the shimmering silver ceiling. Then, not ten feet from the surface, he felt a sickening lurch as he popped upward and then sank back down again. He was stuck, unable to move up to the surface no matter how hard he kicked, and now his lungs were burning like fire.
"You're on the surface, Jace!" crackled a loud voice. "Take off your regulator and breathe."
He spit out his regulator and sucked in a breath of dry laboratory air. Unsettled by the sensation of breathing underwater without a regulator, he ripped off his mask. The ocean disappeared like the mirage that it was, and his laboratory resolved into view. The violent transition was too much for his brain to handle, and he vomited violently into an orange bucket next to the VR station, placed there for just that purpose.
When he was done, his assistant Todd spoke with a worried look on his round face.
"What happened? Why didn't you breathe?"
"Because I was still six feet underwater, that's why! The program must have gotten screwed up on my depth. I can't imagine why, can you?" This last was delivered with more than a little sarcasm.
Todd was visibly crushed. "You didn't like the Barnesaurus?"
"If you're referring to that purple monstrosity, no, I didn't."
As his stomach settled down and his eyes focused on the familiar environment of his company's testing lab, Jace felt his normal equanimity returning. He saw that Todd, who was the best VR programmer he knew and a fiercely loyal employee, was pale and close to tears.
"Listen, don't mind me," he said. "I just hate getting cybersick. The Barnesaurus was actually pretty cool. Although it deconvoluted as it went by, and didn't leave a wake."
"It's not done yet," said Todd. "I finished the prototype last night, and thought I would surprise you with it."
"It surprised me. Did you come up with that design yourself?"
Todd shook his head and grinned, his good spirits returning. "Sure looks that way, doesn't it? But it's actually a dinosaur. Creatures that looked a lot like that guy actually existed a hundred million years ago. I downloaded all the physical specs from the Smithsonian Archive."
Jace peeled off his custom skintight VR suit, and began wiping the thin layer of conductive jelly off his lean, fit body with a towel. In his early thirties, he ran his own company, Custom Virtual Environments, and was one of the leading minds in the field. He was a handsome man with a lean, tanned face and alert blue eyes that radiated intelligence and curiosity.
"So these dinosaurs were purple?" he asked.
"Well ... that color would have camouflaged it at very low depths," said Todd, not sounding very convincing. "But it's just a guess. The real name is a mouthful, so I named it after Barney, that kids' dinosaur everyone used to hate."
"Well, it was actually quite impressive, Todd. But this ocean environment is supposed to be accurate down to the smallest detail. The scientists at Woods Hole wouldn't be amused."
"Right, right. But I thought we could market a version of this environment to the arcades. I think people are gonna jump at the chance to swim with the sharks, and having the occasional sea monster drop in like that will kick ass."
Jace grimaced. "Until someone has a heart attack. Then it's our ass that gets kicked by a lawsuit."
Todd shrugged. They both were fully aware of the recent trend of people dying in VR. Recent improvements in the technology had led to an unforeseen quantum leap in the quality of the experience. At the current level of sensory input, the human brain was interpreting the artificial surroundings as reality. Customers in the VR arcades were forgetting that they were in a game environment, and were responding to monster attacks, gunshots, and car crashes as if they were real.
Jace finished toweling off and stepped into a pair of faded jeans. "It's late," he said. "Why don't you take off and get some rest. Don't worry, we'll find some use for the Barnesaurus. Maybe we'll toss it into the next version of our SCUBA training course."
Todd smiled dutifully, but looked uncomfortable. "Are you coming back later tonight?"
Jace was tying his running shoes and didn't respond right away.
"Yes, I've got some stuff I'd like to work on alone."
"You're going into V-World to see her aren't you?"
Jace sighed and nodded.
"You shouldn't do that alone. It's too dangerous. You're totally submerged in an environment that's generated somewhere outside our lab. If their environment crashes, or goes haywire, our computer here may not be able to compensate. It could cause..."
"A brain seizure or a heart attack," finished Jace. "I know the dangers."
"Of course you do. You contributed to the original medical journal article on cybertrauma. What I'm trying to hint at here is that you shouldn't trust Xanadu to have your best interests at heart. No offense."
Jace smiled. "I appreciate your concern, Todd. Really. But I have an excellent working relationship with Xanadu Software." He didn't tell his assistant that what he was going to do tonight was riskier than he even imagined.
After a quick dinner at a local restaurant, Jace returned to the nondescript warehouse that housed his company. All the available floor space was covered with computers, biophysical testing equipment, and prototype personal VR stations, leaving only narrow aisles for moving around. Only in its fourth year of operation, Custom Virtual Environments was already outgrowing its third location.
Passing by the older-model VR station he had used to test the ocean environment, Jace walked over to an advanced prototype station his company was developing. He switched on the interface computer and used voice commands to launch the control program as he stripped off his clothes and sprayed conductive fluid on his body.
"Virtual Explorer ready," said a soft female voice. "Please state destination."
"Bradbury Hub," said Jace. "I'm going to take the scenic route to the Club."
He pulled on his VR suit, and after a moment of deliberation he removed the fabric panel covering his groin and replaced it with a larger unit that fit around his genitals. Then he stepped inside the station, which resembled a small shower stall, and pulled the door shut behind him.
The muted hum of servomotors filled the station as padded sections of biomimetic plastic molded themselves around his body. Jace dropped his visor into place and watched the glowing text scroll by as the configuration program ran. He was asked to flex his arms and his legs, and then to turn his head from side to side. Then a series of geometric shapes appeared in front of him, and he manipulated them as asked.
"System calibration complete," said the female voice. "Contacting Bradbury Hub."
After a few seconds of total darkness, Jace suddenly found himself in a small room with a shiny metal door directly in front of him. He reached out and activated the door latch, noting with satisfaction the perfect visual match between hand and lever and the realistic feel of the smooth, cool aluminum against his palm.
The door slid open, revealing a huge corridor that resembled a crowded airport terminal. This was Bradbury Hub, the central point of the rapidly growing entity known as V-World. From the earliest days of VR, people had felt the need to organize different VR environments into a three-dimensional grid of locations, like a real city. Now V-World spread out around Bradbury Hub like a bizarre, dreamlike metropolis. No two people experienced V-World in exactly the same way, but many people thought of it as their second home.
Jace stepped out into the corridor, joining the stream of virtual citizens who were using the Hub to move from one location to another. Many of them looked like normal people, although most wore strange costumes. Some took on exaggerated physical characteristics, and a few weren't even human. As usual, Jace chose to simply resemble himself.
Walking behind three Imperial stormtroopers who were no doubt heading to the popular Gaming Level, Jace located the central tower on the detailed overhead map. It wasn't necessary to walk anywhere in V-World, of course, you could always just "zap" directly to your desired location. It was an interesting sociological phenomenon that people often preferred to move around the old fashioned way.
A few minutes later he stood in front of an unobtrusive door made of polished green wood. He touched a yellow panel next to the door.
"Welcome, Mr. Jace Smith," said a male voice. The door dissolved from view with an elegant shimmering effect that bespoke high-level programming and plenty of throughput. Jace stepped forward into the small, old-fashioned elevator. As the door resolved back into place, a wiry figure wearing black ninja garb made an acrobatic leap into the elevator.
"Bad idea," said Jace with a grin. "Security here is very tight."
The ninja didn't reply, because he was already frozen in place, disconnected from V-World by the Club's control program. There was a low pitched buzzing sound, and the ninja disintegrated into a small pile of charred ashes, which then vanished.
"We apologize for the intrusion, Mr. Jace Smith."
The elevator door shimmered opened again, and Jace stepped out into the 21st Century Club, the most exclusive private club in V-World. Membership was exclusive, and the cost of the required personal VR equipment was prohibitive. Many of the members were celebrities and politicians who used the Club to socialize anonymously or to satisfy their kinkier cravings without being caught by the media. Other members were successful entrepreneurs and executives who found the Club an excellent place to make contacts.
The throughput assigned to each member when they were inside the Club was much higher than in Bradbury Hub, and the citizens milling around the bar in the middle of the large circular room appeared with a correspondingly greater amount of detail. As Jace smiled and greeted people, he could see individual hairs, sparkling eyes, and smooth, realistic skin.
He drifted toward the curved outer window, which afforded a spectacular 360-degree view of V-World from the perspective of a hundred-floor skyscraper. A riotous, hallucinogenic quilt of flashing lights, tangled streets, and gravity-defying architecture extended as far as the eye could see.
Just west of the central tower was the huge Adult Village, a sea of glowing pink neon advertising every sexual service that could be conceived by the fertile human imagination. The fact that virtual sex was a mediocre experience at best with current technology didn't stop it from being the number-one activity in V-World.
To the south stretched a long row of virtual casinos, where more money was wagered every day than in Las Vegas. A growing chorus of social commentators warned that V-World was creating a community of modern lotus-eaters who would drag society down into a morass of unproductivity, and the view from the 21st Century Club was often used to illustrate their point.
Jace's heart was beating rapidly, but not because of the view, which he was quite familiar with. His eyes scanned the crowd in the Club continuously, but as usual, her voice came from directly behind him.
"Looking for someone, Jace Smith?"
He turned and smiled. "Karma. You're late as usual."
The woman who stood facing him was breathtaking. She had an exotic heart-shaped face with high cheekbones, a small nose, and large, widely-set eyes of constantly changing color. Tonight she had long black hair which was wound into an intricate knot that echoed the design imprinted on her blue silk dress. Her appearance was slightly different each time Jace saw her, and this time her features had been subtly morphed to give them an Asian cast.
Her physical beauty was not unusual in a world where citizens chose their own appearance, of course. What set her apart was the quality of her image. While all the patrons in the Club had an image quality higher than the average citizen, Karma appeared with a level of perfection that was stunning. A living, breathing woman down to the tiniest detail, she seemed to be lit from within by a primal glow.
After a few seconds spent absorbing Jace's gaze, Karma raised an eyebrow and said "You like the dress?"
Jace nodded, glad he wasn't programmed to blush in this environment. "Can I touch it?"
He brushed his knuckles along the side of her ribcage. The silk was cool and slippery, but he thought he could sense the warmth of her flesh underneath.
"Incredible," he breathed.
She pouted playfully. "I only wish it was me you thought was incredible, and not just my dress."
"Everything about you is incredible" said Jace. "You're better every time I see you."
She smiled and twirled playfully, causing the dress to float up around her thighs and then settle back in place. "Thank you. I wouldn't be possible without your new biointerface technology."
Jace smiled at the common V-World indulgence of treating one's virtual self as a separate entity from the real version. He didn't know the real person behind the beautiful image he was facing. Curiously, he didn't really care. The entity he knew as Karma was intriguing, sexy, and self-consistent. To use the old V-World expression, Jace was virtually in love with her. That she was a rep for a huge software company with whom he was currently negotiating an alliance was a fact he tried not to dwell on.
"You've used our biointerface technology and taken it way beyond anything we've been able to accomplish," said Jace. "I'm glad I lent you the prototype."
Karma tilted her head to the side and purred "With our software and your hardware, we hold the future of V-World in our hands."
"So why are negotiations between CVE and Xanadu Software going so slowly? The outlined plan on the table is fair, but you keep stalling."
They smiled at each other like old friends who have been having the same argument for years.
"Oh, Jace ... let's not talk business tonight. You should experience the new software from the inside. It's like nothing you've ever imagined."
She stepped closer, almost pressing herself against him, and whispered in his ear. "I want to give you a demonstration that will show you the full potential."
Jace nodded, and they walked hand-in-hand to an elevator unit. He could feel jealous stares from other patrons as they waited for the door to open. Once inside, Karma spoke the coordinates of the main Xanadu campus, and added "Garden of Tranquility, please."
The elevator dissolved completely, leaving them standing in a small, formal garden. In front of them was a smooth rock wall with a small waterfall cascading down into a round pool. A tall, perfectly-trimmed hedge enclosed the garden on the other three sides. There were no physical entrances or exits to the garden, creating an atmosphere of privacy and solitude.
The grounds consisted of a thick, closely-mown lawn from which small fruit trees grew at artfully random intervals. The level of graphics was equal to the image of Karma herself, and although Jace had been in environments created by Xanadu's new software before, he once again found himself marveling at the glowing, jewel-like perfection of every detail.
"They wanted this environment to create a feeling of relaxation and inner peace," said Karma. "It's based on a real garden on the grounds of the Japanese royal palace. Come here - I want to show you something."
She led him over to the pool beneath the waterfall and pointed downward. Beneath the rippled, shimmering surface swam several colorful koi. They were as realistic in their appearance and motions as any artificial creature Jace had seen in V-World.
"Beautiful," he said. He dipped his hand into the cool water and reached toward a large white one with orange spots. Instead of swimming away, it ignored him completely, and his hand passed right through it. The minor discontinuity made his heart pound and his stomach lurch, and he realized how deeply he was embedded in this alternative reality.
"They're visual only," explained Karma. "There's a real pool with real koi in it, and these fish are a real-time mirror of that."
Jace remembered Todd and his shark programs, and was comforted by the thought that they could still teach Xanadu a thing or two about VR programming.
"This place is beautiful," said Jace truthfully.
"You haven't really experienced it yet," said Karma seriously. "Are you ready?"
Jace nodded. "How does this work?"
"Xanadu's computer is standing by to take over. You just need to open a direct interface to your own computer and tell it to switch you over."
Jace took a deep breath and said "Jace Smith to control. Request direct link to Virtual Explorer."
He heard a soft beep in his left ear and his female computer said "Control to Jace Smith. Direct link open."
"Requesting transfer to the local control program. Maintain current status and position."
There was a pause, and Jace had the silly notion that his computer was going to refuse, or give him a motherly lecture on the dangers of outside control programs.