PsyBot is every programmer’s nightmare: the bug that gets loose on the user side of the interface. Virtual reality, Joe Norton discovers, is not confined to hardware. Is the only way out, to go further in?
The Dream Car
> > >
I stumble against the broken asphalt, skid on the scattered gravel of the parking lot. Overhead the wires moan under a dirty-sheet sky murky and full of damp October air as sour as old beer. Along the deserted street overseen by restless, bored security cameras, garish poster ads hang from peeling, soot-grey walls:
Tired of feeling tired? Drink Jolt. Wherein two bored teens perk up.
Reverse Aging: Biotrain Boutique. Wrinkles melt into premium bliss.
Live the Adventure—Enlist Now! A blood-red maple leaf flag planted in desert sand.
Myrtle awaits me, her sleek lines of moulded steel a lovely polished green. But what’s this? A square of white notepaper flaps from the driver’s side mirror. Approaching it I spot, propped against the door, two pieces of a disassembled scope rifle, and on the asphalt, a compact leather carrying case. I glance around: no one else observing. I pick up both stock and barrel, greasy to the touch, and glean from the blue-metal sheen that the gun is new. From the opened case on the ground, specially packaged in shrink-wrap, one silvery bullet winks up at me.
A bullet—for whom?
Though I’m a stranger to guns, this question pops clear into my dreaming head, even as I dutifully return the two halves of the rifle to their slotted beds in the case’s yellow velvet.
Maybe the note… A blustery wind kicks up and snatches the flimsy paper away, teasing, and as I give chase it gusts over the warehouse and gone, a virtual 2-D gull.
I stand at first exasperated, then relieved. That’s all right; now I can hold onto my ignorance. But the question of a target, with its implication of a required mission, raps with bony knuckles on the back of my brain—from the inside. In a slow funk I slide into the car, putting the gun case on the back seat; casual yet deliberate, as if it were a small hydraulic jack or evening newspaper. Without identifying source or destination, I’m mesmerized by that vague sense of purpose. There is only the next action ahead, what I know to do. Pulling the key out of my pocket, I insert it into the ignition, and give it a twist…
< < <
In my waking sweat I thought I might have chosen a way out: an alternate future, enticing as a carrot to my donkey mind. A matter of a step or two, to cross a vital channel and follow a different timeline. But no; my incidental choice, however far back on this progression, had already been recorded, logged, tagged to my profile. I’d already committed, somehow, to this strange fork in the road, and it was too late to go back.
Like saying to Moira, “I’m sorry,” after sleeping with Sheila (even if I wasn’t sorry). Or telling my boss Gerald, “I told you so,” after our company had been dissolved in the great merger. Or at any point along the way, finding that the heaven I’d been promised (or promised myself) turned out to be another version of hell.
In Moira’s circular bed, with the covers off, I could see my moderately hairy middle-aged body shivering in my shorts. I grabbed the covers back from Moira. She lay breathing heavily beside me, her pink nightgown rising and falling with the rhythm of sleep. I’d nearly surfaced to the comforting familiarity of Moira’s bed; the dream persisted. I had the distinct feeling I was stuck in that green dream-car for the duration of the ride. My eyes drifted shut again.
> > >
Dead oak leaves swirl in the rearview along Tourney Crescent. I lean back in my driver’s seat, satisfied with the automatic motions of steering, my two-forefinger method. Everything in the drab outside world of East Vancouver seems normal. Light traffic in this part of town, mostly residential. I pass a light blue garbage truck, am passed in turn by a Hardacre cab, growling from a faulty muffler. I crank the window down for a breath of the dank breeze. The vanished note ripples against my conscience, unread, a duty shirked. But for now, I’m content to watch the rows of grey wartime houses and shabby duplexes file past.
Time-beaten love songs filter down from upstairs apartment windows. Men in charcoal sweatshirts and red-and-white windbreakers, women in babushkas and plastic boots, generic dogs pissing on mutant trees. A normal day in East Van, driving home from work.
It’s all a kind of echo, déjà vu. A private sector of my brain rebels. My instincts call me back to waking light—but an eerie mechanical voice intrudes, crackling like a drive-in movie speaker: “Wanna see a new film, chum? Come on in. Just step through the revolving door.”
What? There’s no window speaker at this drive-in. No revolving door. No one in the back seat, with the gun. There was a voice, though. With an indefinable accent resonating of Brooklyn, Chicago, LA.
My eyes focus ahead, seeing nothing different but this grey-glassy city with its green-grey backdrop of mountains and clouds. I want no part of any invisible hitchhiker’s scenario. My foot remains on the accelerator; my fingers continue steering; the dream persists. I begin to realize that I’m accepting this smarmy voice’s invitation, still without knowing what’s in it for me.
Underneath my anxiety I sense a kind of grace, the kind that accompanies what is inevitable. A peace which settles in beyond the moment of choice; though in this case, I can’t see where
there was a choice to be made. Unless… well, I did pick up the gun.
I glance behind to double-check that it’s still there. Mute black leather case—funny, I imagine it purring—at rest on the vinyl upholstery cover.
How did this happen, I wonder; my fault? I didn’t deliver this artifact to my car in the first place. Finding it staring me in the face, I took the next logical step.
When the drink is mixed by another’s hand, it can go down oh, so smooth.
The voice chimes back in: “By the way, did I tell you? It’s a horror movie. Depending on your point of view. In any case, a thrillah. Don’t fret: you’ll have a leading role. Hmm—what’s the mattah? You prefer romantic comedies? Ah, too bad! There are, sad to say, no refunds. No exit doors in this here show.” Then, hollow, metallic laughter.
By rights I should panic. Instead, I drive on, an automaton in my own flesh, at one with my ’78 Olds, lulled by the hum of her motion. Opening the power window, I notice the autumn air has changed in the course of a tour around the block from tasting like stale beer, to a cocktail hinting of latent snow, with notes of soot.
The voice consoles: “Cheer up, chum! There’s a perfect place for you, right over the horizon. In fact, my friend, that’s where we’re headed right now.”
Friend? My skin puckers like used aluminum foil. Why me? I want to protest. I didn’t ask for any damned horror movie or romantic fantasy. I want to get on with my life. I’m happy right where I am.
I imagine the voice scoffing at this relative lie.
How to answer truthfully? If it were a human passenger I could confide in, an actual and sympathetic hitchhiker, say, I would confess the more objective truth of my safe, mundane niche in the universe: “It’s a circular bed, y’see, which takes getting used to. You sometimes wonder where you are, half-asleep in the middle of the night. Moira’s a large woman and she tends to lie smack in the middle, sprawled with her heavy arms out. She likes the fact that she bought this bed, that she owns it. Anyway half the time I’m not there—on furlough, we call it, over at my man-cave—so we figure it doesn’t pay to sink a lot of cash into a bigger bed, even a conventional king. One of these days, we might get serious, and I can move in with her on a more permanent basis, instead of this kind of semi-commitment we have going at the moment. Make that the past four years. But hey, Moira still insists on paying the rent…”
My present listener, no human I can discern, indulges my inner chatter only so far, then interrupts, this time adopting a more, shall we say, managerial register:
“We’re selecting a few of the most deserving… call them souls if you wish. Introducing them, one by one, to an old friend we call Uncle River: the river of time. We like your potential, your flexibility, your openness to new ideas. You do have choices, and we mean to help you arrive at the right one, each one in its turn. To board this boat requires your free ticket. No deposit, no return—”
“Yeah, I get it,” I spit back, my voice audible this time. “No purchase necessary.”
To hell with his would-be chumminess. I’m determined to offer nothing gracious of myself to this faceless, schmoozing huckster.
The voice keeps on talking, takes on a resentful edge with the flavour of transistor static: “Look. Every experience, even on your blessed Earth, is a doomed adventure if you only care for your own desires. Time’s cutlass marks every face. Have you no social conscience, no will to serve the greater good?”
I clam back up instead of sparring with this nobody, but the questions multiply. Greater good? That’s all fine, but under whose definition? What does he mean, “on your Earth”? And who is this “we”? Myrtle—trusty Olds Cutlass in your own right—what have they done to you, and where is this dream-pirate taking us?
Shivering, I grip the wheel and force the green beast right, merging with traffic on Kingsway. The voice has gone silent again. I breathe easier.
This is my Earth, my ancient Earth, I console myself. Good old Vancouver, in fact. This is without a doubt my own and only green vintage Oldsmobile, with full-sized retractable and reclining seats, chrome trim, power to burn. I know I walked up to it as I do every weekday afternoon, in the parking lot outside the computer consulting office where I work, in the same tacky part of town: bits of newspaper blowing around, stray mutts roaming, homeless beggars huddled against the walls of abandoned warehouses…
Christ, I’ve circled the block. We’re back at the parking lot ringed with scraggly young oaks wrapped in anti-dog cages. I pull over and stop by the curb, taking stock. The voice remaining silent, my head rattles in its cage.
How and why have I ended up back here? Have I forgotten something at the office, something I was supposed to bring home? Did I neglect to turn off my computer before I left? Strange, I can’t remember…
There’s a light on up there—in Gerald’s office. He’s working overtime again. The grey blocks of warehouse stone surround him.
Who said that?
This time I settle the mystery as nothing but my own conscience; see myself prostituting for… for what? Gazing up at the virtual prison wall before me, I overlay an image of the Bastille, from A Tale of Two Cities—painted in numerous scenes by Dickens and burned into my brain by dogged study for my master’s thesis in English lit at UBC. Which degree got me precisely nowhere, except a reality-shunt over to BCIT.
And now, twice as old and half as smart?
I do my job, and then punch out.
Is that why I’m not farther ahead in this once-promising career?
Is that what this other voice <Enlist!>, this circuitous route home, is telling me, to get back to work? Nudging me to get on board with the great merger that’s supposed to save our insignificant silicon ass?
I’m forty-eight. So yeah, it’s crunch time, as they say. Now or never. Maybe it is time to pay the extra dues.
Thing is, about this car, and this gun, out of nowhere—I’m supposed to do something, to someone?
No. I’m going home.
Home… now where the hell is that?
< < <
I felt the cold sweat again, bringing me to wakefulness in Moira’s bed. Only much later, farther downstream in that dusky river, did I come to discover that you can go home only for a while. You think you are waking up with a chilly memory, that your body and the body beside you are rousing from an actual sleep, at worst “disturbed.” Meanwhile the jealous other, the “nightmare,” let’s say, this certain other affair, tugs at your soul in the unending dark, telling you that you can’t cancel your return reservations, not anymore. You’ve already chosen, or been chosen; it comes to the same thing in the end.
Again the choice will beckon. Only tonight, the next night and the next, it’s not really the same time or place, not the same size or shape of choice, because you’re farther along, deeper in.
You tell them, you tell yourself, you’re just doing a job. Forget, for now, whether it’s your job or their job. The problem is, the supposed target always eludes the roving window of your scope, their scope. The silver bullet never gets fired, not quite yet. Because you’re looking for the sure way in, the way back home.
You go to visit, for instance, the other, the next secret object of your desire, her green eyes vibrant and alive. Then you see in those eyes also windows to a farther shore, twin discs headed out in a one-way night speckled with stars. To enter her, those eyes, is to enter the spiralling path, with no backspacing, no escaping the hungry parasite in the computer mind.
Only later could I give it this name: the name it was given. When I first came awake—which is to say, more or less but not yet truly awake—I heard the echo of its voice as warning:
<Coming soon, to an interface near you.>
Yeah, right, I said to myself, shaking off a poor night’s sleep. Then rubbed my fingers together, and they felt like vinyl. Took a whiff, and smelt gun grease.
See also: Mind-Control: Fiction or Nonfiction? – related research in neuro-experimentation
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