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.
.... There is more of this story ...