Life in Virtual Reality Stories

These three stories explore the idea of people whose minds have been uploaded into a computer and who now exist as immortals in virtual reality.

The first story “Transition” involves a terminally ill man who still has all his mental faculties and thinks that he can still make a contribution by existing inside cyberspace. The story describes what a transition from real life into a virtual life might be like.

The second story “Chat: Sue and Joan” is about a woman who is in cyberspace conversing with her daughter in the real world.

Finally “Escape” concerns a man living a bored, humdrum existence who finds an arcade where in his exploration of virtual worlds he meets a woman who convinces him to make the transition.

These stories were originally conceived around 2004 and have since been refined somewhat. The idea was to write a book, perhaps a thriller or mystery, but it never went anywhere. Maybe someday.

Transition

Originally posted April 25, 2010

Gary Bolton enjoyed the ride from his home in the quiet Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township on this first full day of autumn. The fall colors of the trees on the surrounding hills were at their peak brilliance, the air was crisp and the sky was unusually clear. A perfect day, he thought, but it would be better if his pain medication did not dull his senses so much. The driver introduced himself as Pat but the exchange was a drug induced blur to Gary.

Normally Gary liked to engage the Municipal Access driver in conversation during his frequent doctor and therapy appointment trips. Today was different and he was lost in a fuzzy world of thought about his life and the events to come: has he made the right decision, what would his pro-life daughter think when she found out?

The ride through the Fort Pitt tunnel then breaking out the other side to the vast expanse of the city was as impressive as ever. Out the right side of the van from the bridge Gary could see the Gordon Pharmaceutical buildings along the river on land once occupied by the steel mills. “What a change this has been,” thought Gary, “from the smoky steel city era to the high tech center the city had now become.”

The white van pulled into a portico located at the side of the Gordon Pharmaceutical building. “Are you ready to go, Gary,” Pat asked. “Yes, I suppose so,” replied Gary with a tone of resignation.

Pat lowered the lift on the van carrying Gary in his wheel chair and rolled him into a deserted lobby area. Pat pressed the up button to summon the elevator. After a short ride to the 4th floor Gary was wheeled into a room where an attractive young woman in a white lab coat was standing.

“Mr. Bolton, welcome to the Transition Lab. My name is Samantha but everyone calls me Sam. How was your ride?”

“Fine. It’s a beautiful day, and please call me Gary.”

“Yes it is. How are you feeling today?”

“Good, but I’m a bit nervous and frightened.”

“That’s natural, Gary, but I am here to help you through the process. If you need anything just let me know. Do you have any questions before we get started?”

“No, Doctor Bennett and the attorney explained everything to me very well. I’m ready to go.”

“Very good,” replied Sam. “I’m going to take you to the preparation room.”

Sam wheeled Gary into a small windowless room. It looked much like a doctor’s examining room with a table, sink and chair. An open door led into an adjoining restroom.

“Mr. Bolton I’m going to give you a mild tranquilizer to steady those nerves.” Sam said as she reached into a wall cabinet to retrieve the hypodermic needle and vial of clear liquid.

Gary hardly noticed the injection. Years of therapy and tests had turned him into a human pincushion. What’s one more, he thought.

“Gary, you will need to change into a hospital gown. You can just leave your clothes on the chair. If you like you can wear your socks to keep your feet warm. Use the restroom if you like and take your time. When you are ready just press this red button.” Sam indicated the red button next to the door as she talked then handed Gary the gown.

“Will you be needing any help,” asked Sam.

“No I don’t think so. Thank you,” replied Gary.

Sam closed the door behind her leaving Gary to his thoughts. After what seemed like an eternity Gary returned to the present and continued with his preparations as instructed. The combined effects of the tranquilizer and his trembling physical condition made it difficult to change clothes but he managed cursing the entire time the deterioration that had brought his life to this point.

Though he couldn’t stand any more he went to the restroom to take one last wiz mostly to get rid of the effects of the nervous wee wees. Sitting to pee was somehow unmanly but it felt good even if he couldn’t give it a good shake when he was done. It was reassuring, he thought, that at least this basic bodily function still worked.

Gary pressed the red button and Sam returned after giving a courtesy knock on the door. Seeing Sam, blond, petite and full of life, Gary was beginning to fantasize and have second thoughts. He quickly returned to the present. Besides, he thought, what interest would she have in a decrepit diseased old fart on his last journey like me. I’m not dead yet and a guy can still have his dreams.

Being wheeled down the hall was somehow reminiscent of a funeral procession; a funeral procession of one, two if you count Sam, Gary thought.  Similar to those death row scenes where the prisoner is being escorted to the execution chamber.

“Well here we are,” said Sam as she wheeled him into a stark white room where the centerpiece was a large white machine that looked like CAT scan or MRI equipment. At the right was a control room with windows along the top half of the wall. Through the glass he could see a figure in a white lab coat.

Sam rolled Gary up to the massive machine. The bed, more like table, had been lowered to about butt height.

“Gary, I am going to help you out of the wheelchair and sit you on the bed of the scanner,” Sam said.

The tranquilizer was in full effect and had taken away what little strength he had left. Sam put her arms around Gary from the front in a bear hug like grip, lifted him from the chair and wheeled him around with his back toward the table. Sam sat Gary on the table, laid him down on his back and lifted his legs up onto the table.

“How are you feeling Gary?” Sam asked.

“Fine,” replied Gary.

“Gary, I’m going to cover you with a light blanket,” Sam said.

Gary heard the low whine of some motors and felt the table rise and move into position so that his head was just in front of a round opening in the machine.

Sam rolled another machine up to Gary’s left side. Connected to the machine was a plastic tube with a needle on the end. “Gary, I am going to prepare you for the injection,” Sam said.

Sam put on latex gloves and swabbed the inside of Gary’s left arm with betadine. She then tied a tourniquet around Gary’s upper arm. “You may feel a slight pinch,” Sam said. But Gary felt nothing as the hypodermic needle slid effortlessly into his vein.

Sam then put a cable with a red button on the end, like a nurses call button, in Gary’s right hand. The button was connected by a wire to the same machine as the intravenous tube. “Gary, I want you to try to press this button,” Sam instructed. Gary pressed the button and a red light illuminated on the machine. “Good job, Gary. As you know, Gary, you must initiate this process on your own and of your own free will. This red button will start the sequence when you are ready,” said Sam.

Gary could hear the motors move the bed of the machine so that his head was inside the round opening. “I am going into the control room now. You will be able to hear me and talk to me through the intercom. I will let you know when everything is ready to go. Don’t press the button until I let you know. Ok?” Sam said.

“Ok,” acknowledged Gary.

“You can back out at anytime but once you press the button the sequence starts and there is no turning back,” continued Sam. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” replied Gary.

Even with the blanket Gary now felt cold and was shaking. This is it,  he thought as Sam went into the control room.

Sam’s voice came over the intercom, “Everything is ready, you can press the button when you are ready.”

With tears streaming from his eyes Gary relived his entire life-like a video on fast forward or fanning through the pages of a photo album; growing up with his loving parents and his two younger sisters, their travels and activities together, his wonderful wife and daughter and the precious times they had together; the parties they enjoyed, the memorable places they went.

What irony, he thought, we start our lives in the womb soothed by the beat of our mother’s heart and here I am at the end inside this machine listening to its rhythmic sounds about to be born into another world.

With a trembling hand Gary squeezed the button and some lights on the machine beside him came on accompanied by a whirring sound. First through the IV tube came the nanobots; nanotechnology robots that immediately found their way to his brain. He felt a strange numbness in the head as if he had imbibed a little too much of his favorite scotch. The scanner that his head was in began to make a low rumbling sound and through his tear filled eyes he could see the reflection of some lights across the room on the control room windows as his brain was reconstructed neuron by neuron and synapse by synapse inside the massive computer.

Gary could feel himself getting tired and he drifted off to sleep. The IV machine continued to dispense fluids automatically, the button slipped from his grip, fell to the floor and Gary was gone.

“Did we get him? Sam asked the control room technician. “Got him,” the technician replied as they smiled and exchanged high fives.

The technicians knew that there were no guarantees with this new procedure and were always pleased with a successful outcome.


Chat: Sue and Joan

Originally posted April 24, 2010

Sue: ok here i am, now who the fuck are you

Joan: You don’t have to be so vulgar about it my dear. I am your mother, of course.

Sue: how can you be my mother, she died. i am going to disconnect now you pervert and report this to the police

Joan: I know that this is difficult but please wait and let me explain.

Sue: this has to be some kind of cruel fucking joke  how did you get my email address

Joan: You are my daughter so I have your email address.

Sue: this is impossible my mother died

Joan: Yes, my body died but my mind, the essence of me and my memories, was transported into virtual space inside a computer before I died.

Sue: that is the most absurd thing i have ever heard, that is impossible

Joan: Ok, just give me a minute to explain then if you want to sign off, fine. I will go away and you will never hear from me again.

Sue: i will play along for now then i am going to disconnect. ok so how do i know that you are my mother

Joan: Ask me a question that only I would know the answer.

Sue: ok, what did i find in the rental car on our trip to the grand canyon when i was 9

Joan: An onyx ring.

Sue: ok, so i will believe you for now but i still don’t know what is going on.  i should have known from the start.  you always got after me with that same comment about being vulgar but i had to be sure.  how could you do this to us.  we had a funeral and we buried you and everything.

Joan: So how was the funeral? You know I always liked a party.

Sue: oh mom.

Joan: Now that’s my Susie Q.  Were you able to distribute my stuff according to my wishes?

Sue: we did the best we could.

Joan: What does that mean?

Sue: what does it matter? i sure didn’t expect to have to answer to you for our decisions and deal with some guilt trip.

Joan: Ok, you are right. So how are Josh and Amy?

Sue: the kids are fine but they miss you very much.  it will be some time before i can explain this to them.

Joan: I understand.

Sue: so what is going on.  what happened

Joan: When I was diagnosed with terminal cancer I came across an experimental program that would preserve my soul and memories in virtual space and in the transition process I would be euthanized.

Sue: but you were found dead at home of natural causes.

Joan: Yes, that was the plan.

Sue: we had planned to take care of you and provide hospice care.

Joan: I appreciate that but I did not want to be a burden and I could not bear the thought of dealing with the pain and suffering and the indignities of loosing control of my bodily functions like your father did.  You have no idea what it is like to live with the expectation that any day you might be plunged into unbearable pain from which there is no relief or recovery and I hope you never do.

Sue: who did this to you.

Joan: I can’t tell you that. The program is still experimental and human euthanasia or assisted suicide is illegal.  Besides if I tell you I will be removed to off-line storage, sort of a virtual space purgatory or worse, deleted.  That would defeat my whole purpose in doing this.

Sue: and what was your purpose.

Joan: I knew that my days were few and I wanted to be with you and the kids as they grew.  Perhaps in some way I could carry on the family history and contribute something even if it is from the virtual side. I wanted to be remembered for more than a name and dates on a gravestone marker or some old photos that after a couple of generations will be lost in the dustbin of history.

Sue: Isn’t that a bit selfish of you.

Joan:  In a way, but I believe that I still have something to contribute to my family and maybe society and this new technology provided the opportunity.  Besides, what have I got to lose?  I have already lost my physical life.

Sue: ok, this is too hard to deal with right now.  What is it like living in virtual space?

Joan: As you know I was never much for dealing with computers except for emails with you and some friends but the knowledge for navigating in virtual space was given to me and made part of my personal memory during the transition process.  It’s exciting and fun – as much fun as a bunch of computer bits can have – exploring a wide variety of virtual worlds from the past to the future.  Do you remember the vacation week we spent at the Renaissance festival near Pittsburgh?

Sue: yes remember how we joked at the contrast of 20th century concessions to authentic medieval life like the use of plastic porta-potties?

Joan: Your father and I were into medieval history then and we thought it would be an interesting experience.  Anyway, I am now experiencing medieval life although without the need for potties. 🙂 In the virtual world I can be anyone I like, male or female, young or old.  I spent some time experiencing life as a teen bar wench and then tried jousting as a knight.  Although the words time and life have no meaning here I don’t know how else to express it for you.  I got beat up pretty bad as both the knight and the wench.  Medieval life is rough.

Sue: have you met anyone?  This is bizarre; here I am talking to you as if you were alive and able to interact with real people.

Joan: That’s ok and perfectly natural.  To answer your question, yes I do meet someone regularly.  He’s a real person and logs in when he can from Miami.  He calls himself Dave.  I guess it’s his real name but most people use some sort of made up name, kind of like street hoodlums.

You have to understand that people can be real, outside people like Dave or inside people like me. People can just pop into your experience and just as instantly disappear. It takes a bit of getting used to.

Anyway, Dave and I get together a couple of times a week to explore some new virtual space or just hang out and talk.

Sue: Sorry mom, the kids are home from school and I have to go.  How can I contact you?

Joan: I will have to send you an email like I did this time.  The email and chat connection goes through random anonomizer servers to prevent trace back to the real computer for security reasons. Wow, listen to me, spouting jargon that I would have considered gibberish when I was alive.

Sue: K, later.

Escape

Originally posted February 15, 2010

The world can no longer offer anything to the man filled with anguish -Kant

George Davies dutifully went to work as he had done every working day for the past 20 some years in the belief that company loyalty and hard work was the best way to provide for himself and family. The clock radio was tuned to one of those automated FM radio stations that had an easy listening music format and came on each morning at 5:30. For the past two weeks it came on playing “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  Changing the station seemed pointless since he turned it off right away and trying not to disturb his still sleeping wife got up and busied himself with his mechanical get-ready-for-work routine.

The 40-minute drive to work did not seem much different than any other day; uneventful and boring except for the occasional moments of shear terror reacting to the insanity of aggressive drivers.   The car radio played the same annoying commercial at the same spot in the road and the traffic was like a gathering of old friends: license LULU 2 belonged to the brunette who was always putting on the final touches in the rear-view mirror, the blue pickup with the sports bumper sticker, the sedan with a collection of baseball caps lined up across the back window.

Tracking the progress of the construction of a new building along George’s usual commute offered a bit of a diversion.  George thought that the site chosen for the building was a rather unusual; the narrow strip of land between the road and the river seemed more suited for a park; but then he had an affinity for parks and nature anyway. The sign in front proclaimed “Future Home of Escape.”  No other words were posted saying what kind of business it was.  Was it a bar or perhaps a restaurant?  The sign had to be some kind of marketing tease to create suspense and attract the curious when the business finally opened.

Everyday at work was a challenge to survive. The situation was going from bad to worse: the economy was in a free-fall, everyone was stressed out, on edge and suffering through yet another reorganization. Though his job had remained unchanged George had reported to four different managers in six months. He did not know how long he would last or what he would do if he got the ax. There is not much of a job market for middle-aged engineers and he could see himself at the end of the line bagging groceries at the local super market or flipping burgers in one of those nutrition impaired fast food joints.

Nine months after groundbreaking Escape was ready for its grand opening.  True to the marketing strategy George’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to stop in on his way home.

Inside the entrance was a suspended display screen saying in large letters “Welcome to Escape, the Ultimate Experience in Virtual Reality.” The main room had a number of booths each with a clear glass door along one wall. In several of the booths people were sitting in lounge chairs wearing helmets which appeared to be connected with a cable to the back of the chair.

Around the walls and hanging from the ceiling were numerous large video display screens showing promotionals for the various games one could experience.  It reminded George of an over TVed sports bar, if that were possible.

An attendant approached George and said, “Welcome to Escape, can I help you get started with your virtual reality experience?”

Noticing the attendant’s nametag George said, “Hi Bill, could you please tell me what kind of business this is?”

“This is a virtual reality center,” replied Bill, “where you can play games and interact with other people in a variety of virtual environments.”

“So why the special center? Can’t I do this from my home computer?

“This is one of many centers around the world connected to a supercomputer by a proprietary high-speed virtual reality network called the VR Net,” Bill explained.

“So this is like a video game arcade?

“In a way yes,” replied Bill, “except that you can experience everything visually in three dimensions complete with touch and feel and actually become part of the action.  Would you like to give it a try?”

“Sure, why not,” replied George.

Bill escorted George to one of the small rooms where he sat in the lounge chair.  Bill showed him how to insert his credit card in slot provided in the arm of the chair and fitted him with the helmet and gloves.  Bill explained that the helmet contained the brain computer interface sensors and a display screen in front of each eye giving George a real world like three-dimensional stereoscopic image while the tactical glove provided the ability to experience touch and feel.

The operation of the system appeared intuitive enough with menu selections for getting started, and more advanced choices for fantasy games and various virtual environments such as city life, parks and nature trails.

Taking Bill’s recommendation George chose the blocks game to get started and become comfortable in the virtual world. Selecting the menu item he instantly found himself inside a small room containing a number of blocks of various geometric shapes and colors: cubes, cylinders, pyramids, etc.  The head mounted screens inside the helmet displayed the room and its contents as a three dimensional binocular image.  Within his field of view he could see an image of his hand.  As he turned his head up and down and side-to-side he could see more blocks.  With his gloved hand he could reach out and pick up a block, then move it or stack it on top of another block.  Like real blocks, when the stack became unbalanced they fell down.   Playing with blocks reminded him of the many happy hours he had spent with his daughter engaged in a similar activity.

Over a period of several days George tried out several of the getting started experiences. The roller coaster ride was the wildest he had ever been on.  The twists and turns the coaster took defied all laws of physics and would be impossible in the real world.  He could feel and react to the movement in much the same way as he had viewing one of those 360 degree or Imax movies but several times more dramatic.  Bill was right, the sensations and reacting in the virtual world took some getting used to.

The fantasy games, he found, were similar to those hand held games except that instead of manipulating an on screen character with thumb activated controls you became the character and took on that characters point of view.  If your character was knocked down you got a view from the floor of your attacker.

In exploring the city streets George would encounter many different individuals much like real life. In the virtual world, however, if he met someone he did not like all he had to think was “zap” or point at the zap button on the screen and the person would disappear.  This also worked if the other person zapped you.  In either case the person was gone.  The best part was that the system remembered those he had zapped and he never had to encounter them again.  What a great feature if only it was available in real life, he thought.

George tended to avoid confrontation and was untrained in the art of snark, banter, repartee and quick wits.  He was one of those for whom the perfect retort did not come to him until several days after an encounter.  Besides, he thought, the confrontational thrust and parry of dialogue was rather pointless, entertaining, perhaps, but decidedly pointless.

The virtual environments included the ability to experience history such as Biblical, medieval, and Roman culture or future worlds right out of Star Wars.  The stressful adrenaline pumping fight or flight feelings in those eras was not something that George was comfortable with.

Choosing the placid nature trails George found himself on a tree lined path complete with the pleasing sounds of songbirds. Approaching a bridge he noticed a woman looking into the water below. She appeared to be middle aged, fit and trim with blond hair.

“Hi,” George said and uncharacteristically introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Paula.”

So far so good, George thought, she didn’t zap me, yet anyway.

“You ever see fish having sex?” she asked.

“Can’t say that I have.”

Looking down George saw two fish side-by-side.  The female was laying eggs in the sand while the male fertilized them.

“Amazing, isn’t it? Especially considering that this is only a virtual experience.”

“Yes,” George replied.

“Where are you from?” George asked.

“I live in Minneapolis.”

“I am in Pittsburgh.” George offered. “Do you come hear often?”

“As often as I can.  I find the trail relaxing and there is always something new to see and experience.”

A younger appearing man approached them on the bridge.

“Hi, Mark. Good to see you,” Paula said.  “Mark has been helping me get used to the virtual world.”

“Sort of a virtual coach,” George offered

“You might say that. Mark used to come into the system from an Escape center in Houston but now he is part of the system.”

“Part of the system?” George asked.

“Let me explain, “Mark said. “You see there are outside or telepresence people like you two.  People who go to Escape centers in the real world and connect into the VR-Net.  Then there are people like me who have made the transition to become an inside person.”

“Inside person?” George asked making a quizzical facial expression not knowing if it was communicated into the virtual world.

“For inside people or IPs as we are called the virtual world is our life, so to speak, and we are dead in the real world.  As you can tell we don’t act or look any different we just don’t have to get up and deal with the real world anymore.”

“Speaking of the real world I’m afraid that I have to go take care of some business.  It was nice meeting you both.  Hope to see you again.”  George said as he pulled his credit card out of the slot and disconnected from the system.  Actually he was quite taken aback and needed some time to process what he just heard.

George had book marked the nature trail location where he had met Paula and Mark. Over the next couple of months he returned to the spot to meet up with Paula.  The two of them shared the joy of exploring the virtual trails and becoming familiar with other experiences that were available in the system.  He even met up with Mark who explained how the transition into an IP took place.

It was a typical February day in Pittsburgh; cold and gloomy. The phone rang on George’s desk.  He could tell from the caller ID that it was his manager.  He picked up the handset and identified himself anyway in his best customer service voice.

“George, do you have a minute?”  He sensed immediately that something bad was about to happen.  It always does when a manager asks you if you have a minute.

“Yes,” he replied knowing that it was the only possible answer.

“Could you please come to our conference room?”

Entering the room he saw his manager du jour, Susan from Human Resources and Mike from Security already seated around the large conference table.

“Please sit down.” Barbara said. “You know Susan and Mike?”

“Morning, “ George said as he took his seat.

“I am afraid that I have some bad news,” Barbara said and then went on rehashing the recent difficulties and company restructuring as if it was some kind of excuse or something that she needed to apologize for.  He reengaged when she got to the part “so it has been decided to let you go.  Mike will accompany you to your desk for you to collect your personal items and escort you out of the building.  Do you have any questions?”

“No,” he said knowing that any inquiry or discussion would be pointless and he wanted to at least maintain some semblance of professional dignity.  What got his blood pressure up more than anything was the thought that all the time he was doing his job and carrying out managements’ directives that same management was scheming to get rid of him.  All he could think about was how all he had worked for was for nothing. Perhaps his only hope was to escape with Paula.

Not really having any place to go he went to Escape and logged in.

“Hi George,” Paula said as she came into view on their now familiar trail, “mind if I join you?”

“No of course not, I was hoping we would meet today.  I missed seeing you the past few days.”

After they walked a short distance Paula said, “George, I have something to tell you.”

“For the past few months I have been an outside person like you. I would come to Escape to find some relief through the distraction of the virtual experience.  You see, for the past few years I have been suffering with ovarian cancer and was told last week that there was nothing more that could be done. I was terminal and in a great deal of pain. So I decided to make the transition to become a virtual person. I am now inside and it is wonderful.”

“Wow! I don’t know whether to say I’m sorry or congratulations.  I guess I’m sorry for your suffering but at the same time I’m happy that you are now free.”

“Thanks,” Paula said.

“But what about your family?” George asked.

“They think that I was so despondent over my condition that I committed suicide. I will send them an e-mail in a few days letting them know that I am okay and in a better place.”

George had so many questions, “You can do that? Won’t they be confused?

“Yes, that is the beauty of being a virtual person.  You are still your own person and you can still communicate, like we do and through e-mail, but without the baggage of a broken body or the demands of the material world. Sure they will be confused but they will get used to it.”

And then it struck him.  Why didn’t he think of this before? “So you are now immortal?” George asked.

“Yes. Remember what Mark told us. We become a collection of data representing who we are: our thoughts, memories, values, beliefs, likes and dislikes, our very soul,” Paula replied, “as long as the system is maintained in the outside we will be alive, so to speak, on the inside.”

As George pondered Paula’s situation and how it paled in comparison to his he shared with her his job loss experience. “I don’t know what to do. I feel like such a failure: my family life is over, my wife and I have grown indifferent toward each other and I dread the thoughts of going home, I can’t sleep, I am up to my ears in debt and my house is up for foreclosure. I feel like I can’t go on any more.”

“Why don’t you come inside with me?” Paula asked.

In the back of his mind George was aware that Escape had become an addiction; an addiction whose expense had exacerbated his financial situation; an addiction from which there appeared to be no escape.

Feeling frustrated George replied, “I don’t know.  How do I know if this is for real, that you are for real and not just an image without the real world history you just told me about?”

“Check it out George.” Paula said.  “Look up the obits in the Minneapolis Herald for February 26th. You will find an entry for Paula Williamson.”

Later that day George went to the on-line obituaries and sure enough there she was.  Paula Williamson, age 64, she sure didn’t look 64 he thought, died of an apparent suicide after a long illness.  The obit went on – she is survived by her husband, a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

George was found in his car parked in a roadside pullover overlooking the river.  The authorities said that he had apparently died of a drug overdose.

“Welcome to the new world,” Paula said as they gazed into the water below watching the newly hatched fish.  “Imagine that, new life in a virtual world.”