Virtuality (SF)

The only problem with creating the world of your dreams is having a nightmare.
 The year is 2027 and interactive virtual reality - Virtuality - has come out of the testing labs and is ready for public release. It is actually the merging of neuro and computer sciences and once you’re ‘plugged in’, your body rests while your mind receives all of its input from a computer. You can feel, taste, touch, see, and smell whatever has been programmed.

The leader in the Virtuality movement is George Day, a genius programmer credited with taking it to its current level of sophistication. He formed a team of scientists from around the world to create the most realistic experience possible, driven by the fact that in real life he is immobile and wracked with pain. But the world is still recovering from the Information Wars and politicians are becoming uncomfortable with the vweb being an unregulated industry.

While George is facing Congressional inquiries that he thinks they are the worst thing that can happen to his world, Virtuality users start dying, and a review of their programs proves that they were murdered. Now George has to stop the murderous hacker who devised a way to travel and kill on the byways of Virtuality while keeping the World Congress from pulling the plug on the only reality he can live in.

   George opened the Washington Post to section A, page 12 and folded it back with a satisfying crinkle. He rustled it again to enjoy the noise. Halfway down the page he found the article he was looking for under Cora Perez’s byline. The corner of his mouth quirked at the title she had chosen, “It’s a Brand New Day.”

     Looking at George Day, it could be said that there is nothing extraordinary about him.  Medium build.  Medium complexion.  Medium hair.  Looks that belie any ethnic identification.  He’s a little shy, but when his enthusiasm overtakes him his eyes sparkle with humor and he gestures eloquently with his hands.  Nothing extraordinary.  Except that George has a degenerative disease and has been bed-ridden since the age of twelve.  He is in ‘Virtuality’ and I am interviewing him through a videoconference... 

    A gentle knock on his office door made George look up. “Yes?"
    Melisizwe stuck his head in and seeing George with the paper spread out he laughed. “You know that no one reads paper anymore, right?”
    George shrugged with a grin. “I like it.”
    “The story was released, what, five minutes ago? We’re already getting calls.  The president of MiCorp is on line two to congratulate you, if you want to take it.” Melisizwe’s trademark smile was even broader than usual. He and George just sort of stared at each other for a moment.
    “This is going to change things, isn’t it Mel?” George asked with a mystified smile.
    “Yes, I think so.”
    “Did you ever think that we would end up here?”
    “Not in a million years,” he said with a laugh. Shaking his head he added, “Not in two million.”
    While the office door drifted closed behind Melisizwe, George picked up line two.

* * *
    Cora rubbed her hand unconsciously, waiting for her turn to speak. Joe Harding was an archetypal newspaper editor, tough, demanding, and always barking at everyone. Cora figured he must have studied hours of tapes to develop the perfect newsman style, somewhere between Perry White and Jonah Jameson, although he probably thought of himself as Hearst. She was losing the thread of what he was saying, but it probably didn’t matter because Joe needed to have his say before he could be reasonable.
    “…and the last thing I need is another call from the staff of the World Congress questioning the journalistic integrity of this newspaper. Do you hear me, Perez?  This is the Washington-freaking-Post. Now you tell me you want to do a series on this clown? Are you trying to give me a heart-attack?”
    “No, sir.”
    “Don’t talk until I ask you a question. Don’t look at me like that, rhetorical ones don’t count. Do you have any idea how sensitive this can be? And now you tell me you’re not sure about the validity of the teleconference?”
    “What I said was that I can’t be entirely sure of the validity. During my research I spoke with a lot of scientists and programmers, you know that. But we’ve all seen that where there is technology involved there is always the slim chance of fraudulent claims. Do I know for certain that this ‘George Day’ was in Virtuality? 100 percent? No. Do I believe that George Day spoke to me through a teleconference from Virtuality? Yes. You always say that when a journalist knows something, they know it from their gut, Harding. I’m telling you, this is the human interest story of the century. In under six months Virtuality is going to go from being a science lab toy to an international phenomenon. We need to report on that, right?” She quirked a smile. “I mean this is the Washington-freaking-Post.”
    “Don’t get smart with me, Perez.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “I want you to line up at least three experts on this stuff who will go to print supporting all the claims you make.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “And if you’re going to do this, do it right. I want a weekly series with progressive information.”
    “Yes, sir. What about the World Congress?”
    Harding gave her a grim smile. “We’ve still got freedom of the press in America and over 150 years of journalistic integrity at this paper. If they want a pissing contest, they can come to me.”

    Cora sat down on the edge of her desk with a sigh. At least she had Harding behind her. He wouldn’t be too happy with more questions from the World Congress, but they would soon find out that as far as the public’s right to know went, Harding’s bite was even worse than his bark. The phone on Cora’s waist gave a polite chirp.
    “Cora Perez?  This is George Day.”
    “Mr. Day, what a pleasure to hear from you.”
    “Please, call me George. I wanted to thank you for your article. It’s made us very popular. I’ve had calls from all over the world this morning.”
    “Great. I’ve gotten permission from my editor to ask if you would like to be involved in a series of human-interest stories exploring Virtuality. You know, a day in the life kind of stuff.”
    On his end of the line George’s eyebrows shot up. “Great. Fantastic. Yes. When do we start?”
    “First I need to do my legwork and get a lot of the other scientists and programmers onboard. It’s Saturday now, so why don’t we do a phone call on Monday, then a video-conference on Wednesday to have something to print again next Saturday.”
    “Sure, great, what time?”
    Cora was clicking through the pages on her micro-organizer. “Is 4 p.m. Eastern too late for you?”
    “No, that would be fine.”
    “All right, 4 p.m. on Monday I’ll call you on your office line.”
    “Great. And Cora? I’ll bet when they look back on this, you’re going to be just as important to the evolution of Virtuality as I am.”
    “Uh, thanks. Bye for now.”
    Cora snapped her phone shut and tapped it against her chin. “Maybe I will be, George. That’s what I’m afraid of.” She pulled the desk chair out with her foot and sat down to pore over her Virtuality research again. The Post’s computers were faster than the ones at home and Saturday was her only office day. She glanced up at the bulletin board and shelves carefully segmented into seven areas for the occupants of the desk. Ginny had brought in a new picture of her baby and Ralph’s notes were creeping out of the edges of his space again. Cora smiled and looked back down at her research. 
    George looked at the faces of the twelve developers sitting at his conference table. If it was possible, some of them looked even more excited than he felt.  Clearing his throat, George stood at the head of the table.
    “We’ve been meeting every Monday for the past five years. Each year the room has gotten brighter, clearer, more detailed. Now there is a faint pine scent and I think I can feel a cool breeze of fresh air.” George closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “You couldn’t have this great an office in reality. This week it’s pine and views of Montana. Who knows what next week will hold? Croissants and the Rhine?
    “But the phenomenal news is, ladies and gentleman, for all of our years of struggle and hard-work, for all of our long hours and nit-pickiness, for all of the details that we wouldn’t let go, we are going to be rewarded. The companies that are calling us to find out if they can ‘get-in’ on Virtuality think that they are going to lure us and reward us with money. They don’t understand yet that money has no real meaning in Virtuality. Here, we can be whomever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, for the low-low cost of 800 gigs of memory and a little ingenuity. The reward, ladies and gentleman, is recognition. The reward is being able to share Virtuality with everyone. Companies are contacting us to make the neuro-plugs cost-efficient for the consumer. Companies are contacting us to see if they can host Virtuality sites. The United States military has contacted us to see if we can program Virtuality training sessions.”
    “We still hold the patent on everything, right Boss?”
    “Yes, Perkins, we still hold the patent on everything. We have patents, copyrights, and every other kind of thing coming out of our ears. I’m not saying that I’m refusing money from the companies. We will be negotiating some contracts for work starting this week. What I am saying, ladies and gentlemen, is that the money isn’t really what matters. We are standing on the edge of a revolution. Virtuality is going to change the history of mankind, we think for the better. You are all to be applauded. Without you, Virtuality wouldn’t be what it is today.” George started a round of applause. “Now, just so that you know, I have another interview with Cora Perez from the Washington Post this afternoon.  She’s going to be doing a series on Virtuality and will probably want to start interviewing all of you soon.”
    The developers teased each other about being in the news. George held up his hand for silence. “Back to business. Lucy, are you ready to show us this amusement park you’ve been giggling about the last couple of weeks?”
    The Australian programmer gave them a devilish grin. “Oh yeah. I hope you guys didn’t have a big breakfast.”
    Cora rubbed her hand and looked over her notes again. The clock read 3:55.  Everything was ready. Glass of water, recorder, pen and paper if needed, phone number programmed and ready to hit send. 3:56. She took a drink of the water and rubbed the bridge of her nose. This is what every reporter dreams of, she told herself. Three days since the first piece came out and George Day had, “expressed no interest in talking with other reporters”. She didn’t even ask for an exclusive, but it looked like she was getting one. What did it mean? Did he like her work and want her to represent him? Did he think that she was a patsy, a pushover with no serious investigative background who would be easy to fool? Did he think that she looked good in blue? What? She looked at her clock again. 3:59. She pressed send.
    “Hello, Cora?”
    “Hi, Mr. Day. It’s Cora Perez. I need you to be aware that this conversation is being recorded.”
    “Okay. George, please. We could pretty much set a clock by you, huh?”
    “I know that you’re a busy man, I’m just trying to be respectful of your time. Could you answer some questions for me today?”
    “That’s what I’m here for, fire away.”
    “George, in this week’s piece I would like to address some of the more serious issues that have surrounded the Virtuality project. Is that all right with you?”
    “Of course. Like what?”
    Cora took a deep breath and read the first question off of her list. “Is it true that the neuro-plugs have not been fully tested and are expected, in fact, not to pass Consumer Safety standards?”
    “Yes, that’s true. You have to remember that we are operating under a lab type setting at this point and we’re our own lab rats. We are developing neuro-plugs that we feel will pass those safety standards and hope to sell rights for their production.”
    “So, as of this very moment, the typical Joe can’t just plug into Virtuality and give it a whirl.”
    “Right. Everyone who is here is working under specific contracts and guidelines. Most of us are working under research grants.”
    “Has anyone expired using the neuro-plugs?”
    “Yogurt expires, Cora. People die.” George cleared his throat. “One of the earliest researchers and developers did die from a faulty neuro-plug, that was about twenty years ago now, when I was still running around the house with a baseball glove. That was what I like to call the pre-dawn of Virtuality, it was called the vweb back then, and based on early experiences a lot of effort has gone into making the plugs as safe as possible. But even now, the plugs aren’t idiot proof and you need to know what you’re doing. That’s why the models that we are using in the labs aren’t safe for consumers.”
    “Describe for me again, if you could, exactly how the body reacts to the plugs and Virtuality.” 
    George’s voice immediately warmed for his favorite topic. “Okay, it’s like this. When you put on the plug, which you wear on your hand, a piece of super-fine glass pierces the skin and comes into contact with a nerve. The glass is pretty much like a fiber-optic cable that taps into your nervous system. It transmits information to your nervous system in a language that your brain understands - electric impulses. Once you’ve hooked into the computer, you can have your body 'sleep' while your mind is tapped into Virtuality.”
    “Is it healthy to spend that much time with your body not moving?”
    “We only spend four hours at a stretch in here, with at least an hour off in-between. We aren’t advocating giving up on the real world but there is so much that you can do here, you can’t even imagine.”
    Cora veered off from her list of questions. “So, if I want to live inside a bowl of gelatin with my three porpoise friends, I can do that?”
    George laughed. “Yeah, you can do that. I have to admit I haven’t heard that one before. But we do have a guy who has developed an underwater Virtuality with everything the same as in the real world except that you feel like you can breathe normally. He’s trying to get permission now to plug in a dolphin. Now I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but, hey, we might find out a lot more about dolphins. Who knows?”
    “What about the security of the vweb? It’s been over ten years but people still remember the Information Wars with the privacy debates that set tele-communications back twenty years. If Virtuality becomes available to the public, what assurances do they have for their security and privacy?”
    “Again, we are working primarily in the development and research setting right now. I feel that the current level of security is good for what we are doing, but that additional security would be developed for consumer needs.”
    “That sounds very politic of you.”
    “Thanks, I’ve been practicing.”
    “I have reports that MiCorp has offered you a figure in the range of five billion dollars for development and hosting rights on the software engines that you and your team developed. Is that true?”
    “We have been in negotiations with MiCorp since Saturday on those rights, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the amounts.”
    “What do you think makes you more successful at programming ‘reality’ than any of the other researchers? In my reports and interviews I find almost everyone crediting you with the basic engines and logic that are used as standards.”
    “I’d say that I want it more.”
    “People say that you’re a genius, Mr. Day.”
    “Well, you know, they also say that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
    “Since you don’t hold a degree and are not associated with any colleges, how did you get involved in the vweb research?”
    “I heard about the research in Science Magazine and convinced my parents to let me try it.”
    “How did you convince your parents? My understanding is that you haven’t been able to speak since the age of seventeen.”
    George’s voice became noticeably subdued. “I… my Mother can communicate with me. She read the Science article to me and I reacted to it.”
    “Do we have to go into all that? Trust me, Virtuality is much, much cooler.”
    “How old are you now, George?”
    “Coming up on the big three-oh.”
    “How long have you been involved in the vweb research?”
    “About seven years. Two years working with Dr. Awad at Johns Hopkins and now five years with my own independent research company. Didn’t we cover a lot of this last time?”
    “Yes, does that bother you?”
    “That sounds like the proverbial loaded question. Okay, we’ll cover any question that you want to go over again.”
    “How many people work for your company V-Day?”
    “Today I have 20 people on the rolls, and 14 of us actually participate in Virtuality research. The other six are support staff.”
    “Is there a geographic location for your company?”
    “It’s incorporated in my home state of Maryland but our employees are from all over the world. We meet frequently in Virtuality, and keep in touch with the support staff through computer video-conferencing.”
    “So, in Virtuality it’s like you are all in the same room?”
    “Yes. I try to keep the properties of the V-Day office fairly stable so that people have some familiarity with it. The views change and that sort of stuff, but I keep the furniture and fixtures pretty stable.”
    “So, you could change it if you wished?”
    “Yes. If I wanted to hold an entire meeting in cherry gelatin I could do it. At this point it would only take an hour or so to program that, even with porpoises.”
    “In a way, doesn’t that strike you as a little scary?”
    “Ah, you’re past the fun stage and now you’re looking at the ramifications of this sort of freedom. If what I hear, feel, taste, smell and see aren’t reality, then what is it? Heady stuff. I don’t recommend that you drag your readers into that philosophical debate.”
    “I see that I’ve nearly taken up an hour of your time, Mr. Day. To prepare you for the video-conference on Wednesday I would like for you to consider these questions. First, what is the single greatest opportunity presented by Virtuality?  Second, what is the single greatest threat presented by Virtuality? Do you think you can address those on Wednesday?”
    “Would 3 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday be all right for you?”
    “That’s fine. Do you mind if I bring along some of my developers?”
    “That would be great, Mr. Day. Talk to you then.”
    Cora pressed the end button and chewed on her stylo. He seemed forthright enough. He didn’t particularly like the tougher questions, but he didn’t balk at answering them. The developers were coming into the game already, which meant that she needed to research them in detail. What else is a reporter to do with 48 hours on her hands? Cora drank the rest of the water in her glass and accessed the terminal at her kitchen table.


  1. Great premise! I see you're working on several books. This one is definitely a winner!

  2. Thanks so much Edie! It means so much to me that you say that. Sorry that I missed your comment when it was first posted!