The virtual world around Jacon glowed with a dazzling display of colors and textures. This was a test zone for cybengineers to try out new looks and new lines of code. It was also a place where the less savory characters could try out new pranks without fear of getting busted by the LinkPol. All things were possible and most things were probable here. It was always cutting edge tech that might become part of the expanding world of the ExtraLink.
Jacon had been lost in the ever-changing world for longer than he could remember. The more he thought about it, the harder it was to remember his real life. He couldn’t recall his parents or siblings. Do I have a brother or a sister? His childhood was a mystery to him these days although he figured there had been issues since he escaped in here. Was he married? He didn’t think so, but there were a few gaps in his memory. More than a few gaps, he admitted to himself.
There was a hypothesis that anyone who stayed in the ExtraLink for more than a few days would suffer what the experts called “E. L. Psychosis.” Basically, it meant that you would lose yourself in the virtual world and slowly forget your real life. Jacon was taking the hypothetical into full-blown theory. I wonder if I will become one of the Laws of Cyber-Nature?
The world around him changed completely. It was time for the hourly reset. Everything disappeared. The upside-down chartreuse pyramid blinked out of existence as did everyone climbing on it. The burning sky, which had spent the last hour trying out differing shades of pink flames, was thankfully snuffed out. Even the Wizard of Oz yellow brick road where he was standing vanished from under Jacon’s feet. It was dark again. He was alone. It was time to savor the silence for the seconds before the next test codes were loaded into the scenario.
Jacon knew that no one else could stay during the reset. One of the benefits of his extended stay in the ExtraLink was the undeletability. He thought for a moment, trying to recollect how all of that worked. He couldn’t remember.
“Odd,” he said into the void around him. “I used to know that. Oh well.” He had become rather philosophical about his memory lapses. “It’s not like I can ever go back now.” What was back in the real world? One of these hours he would have to leave the test zone and go into the real ExtraLink. Surely there were all kinds of people out there. Maybe someone knew him back in the real world. Maybe next hour.
He had been through this enough times to sense the invisible countdown. “Let there be light!” Jacon shouted as the system activated the new test codes. This time was different. Well, it is always different. This one was not what he expected. It was so normal. Above, the sky was blue with wisps of clouds that looked like they were at the edge of space. The warmth of the sun was offset by a gentle cooling breeze making the tall grass roll like green waves across the expanse of the valley. There were tree-covered mountains all around him, the distant ones were covered in a blue haze.
“What do you think?” asked a voice behind him.
Jacon jumped. No one had spoken to him for… he couldn’t remember the last time someone had spoken to him. Any avatars that ventured into the test zone were always more interested in the new sights than anyone who stood statue-still all the time. That’s right. I don’t move anymore. I forgot about that.
“It’s lovely,” he whispered, looking around for the source of the voice.
A man – a normal-looking man – walked up to him. The test zone never had normal-looking avatars. It was always something outrageous, alien or simply stupid. He lost count of the Douglas Adams fans who appeared as Hooloovoos – a hyperintelligent shade of blue. Each one thought they were clever and original. They were neither.
“I’m glad you like it, Jacon. We made it for you,” the man said smiling. “Does it look familiar?”
Jacon had not given the landscape much thought. He was too enthralled by the man who was talking to him. It was not the fact that he spoke to Jacon. Well, not just that. There was something else. The man knew him and Jacon felt like he knew the man. He looked more familiar than the greenery around him.
“Not really,” said Jacon. “Should it?”
The enigmatic man smiled. “Maybe. Only you would know that.” For some reason, Jacon didn’t believe the man. He knows something about me.
“Who are you?”
“Forgive me, Jacon. That was rude of me. My name is Halbert Jameson. Please call me Hal.” The man offered his hand. Jacon tried to reach out for it but his arm didn’t move. He wasn’t sure the last time he moved it.
Have I forgotten how to move my arm now?
With a slowness that was painful to watch, Jacon reached out to shake the hand of Hal. “Are you sure you don’t know me?”
“Maybe. You seem familiar. Did we do that casino job together with nine other guys?”
Hal laughed. “You’re thinking of the second version of the movie Ocean’s Eleven.” He touched Jacon on the shoulder. “Your memory has really gone through the shredder, hasn’t it?”
Jacon realized he didn’t like being touched. I’m probably not married then. He shrugged the hand off and tried to move. He discovered his feet worked. Jacon put some distance between he and Hal. “What if it has? Does it really matter?”
The other man knelt down to pick a virtual flower. He brought it up to his nose, inhaling its aroma. “Can you describe the smell of this flower?” He held the tiny blue bud toward Jacon. “It won’t bite,” he said with a reassuring smile.
His arms had remembered how to move normally. Carefully grasping the bluebonnet he took a whiff. “No. It has no smell.”
“And this one?” asked Hal, holding a yellow and white daisy toward him.
Jacon sniffed gingerly without taking the flower from the other man’s hand. “Nope. Not a thing. Why?”
The long thin fingers of the stranger dropped the daisy as a blood-red rose appeared out of nowhere. “Just humor me for a second. How about this one?”
Jacon looked at the flower and saw pollen rising from the stamen. Allowing the fragrance to enter his nose, Jacon sneezed. “I think I’m allergic.”
Hal’s eyes widened. “Really? How interesting. But did you smell anything?”
“Not really. Well…” he thought for a moment. “I did have a sense of sweetness, I think.” He wondered if his body had sneezed, too. “Where am I?”
“Sweet smell? Excellent!” said Hal, not hiding his pleasure. “This is Cade’s Cove. It’s part of the Smoky Mountain Game Preserve.”
“No. I mean in the real world. Where is my body? Can you see it?”
Hal grinned. “Not at this second, but I can when I’m not in here with you. Why do you ask?”
Jacon smiled. “I was wondering if my body sneezed when I did. I mean, does my body move any while my mind is free in here?”
The broad smile on Hal’s face was one of victory. “Sneeze? Really? I can honestly say that your body has not moved from the spot where you left it.”
“Not even a twitch?” inquired Jacon.
“Not even a twitch,” confirmed Hal. “But it hasn’t deteriorated either if that makes you feel any better. We’re taking good care of it.”
Jacon wasn’t sure what to say so he just said the first thing that came to his mind. “Thanks, but is that necessary? I can’t go back to it.”
“Who says you can’t?” asked the strange man as he casually examined his fingernails. He brushed an invisible speck off his ring finger.
“Well, I thought that once I was in here for… I really don’t know how long I’ve been in here.” Jacon wracked his brain but couldn’t find the number. Wait, I stopped counting a long time ago.
“It’s been four hundred days,” said Hal. “And this is the eighth time we’ve been here having this conversation. We talk every fifty days, as we agreed before all this began.”
“We agreed?” asked Jacon. He had no memory of agreeing to anything like this.
Hal nodded sagely. “This was all part of the plan. Now for the eighth time, are you ready to end the experiment? Or do you want to watch the E.L. for another fifty days?”
Jacon was stunned. He had been in the ExtraLink for four hundred days. That has to be some kind of record. Plus, the chance to go back to his body was something he had not considered in at least… well… according to Hal, at least forty-nine days.
“Are you messing with me?” asked Jacon. He wasn’t sure he could trust this guy. There was a familiar feel to him, but there was also something strange. Hal knew something that he wasn’t saying.
“Messing with you?” chuckled Hal. “No. I’m not messing with you. But you need to know something…”
Here comes the kicker, thought Jacon.
“If you leave, you will never come back to the Link. That’s the deal. Stay as long as you want, but once you’re out, you stay out forever.” Hal was as serious as a heart attack.
“Why? I like it in here. It’s groovy.”
“Groovy?” asked Hal. He looked like Christmas, his birthday and any other gift getting occasion had just happened all at once. “You said ‘groovy’? It’s been a century since that word was even remotely popular. Where did you come up with that?”
Jacon wondered the same thing. He just said what came naturally. “No clue. Why does it matter? Just answer the damned question. Why can’t I ever come back?”
Hal was running the risk of exploding from joy. “‘The damned question’? You said ‘damn’.” Hal burst into giggles. “Are you getting angry?” The question was asked with neither fear nor concern, only excitement.
“Yes I am!” shouted Jacon. “Now tell me why!”
It took Hal a minute to regain some semblance of composure. When he was able to speak, he still had the grin of an idiot in Jacon’s opinion. “You cannot go back because it would be against the law.”
“Against the law?” asked Jacon in disbelief. “There is a law about me going back into the ExtraLink? Why the hell is there a law about that?”
Hal lost it again. The avatar was rolling around in the virtual grass, giggling and laughing. Jacon resisted the urge to kick him. This jerk found his situation to be funnier than vintage Charlie Chaplin or Robin Williams movies. He didn’t need this. The virtual life he was living was just fine with him.
Jacon ran from the madman rolling around on the ground. There were mountains to climb, deer to chase, rivers to swim. Hal, or whoever he really was, could laugh himself to death for all he cared. When Jacon had reached the crest of the nearest hill, he looked back to see the smiling form of Hal waving goodbye. Jacon flipped him off which sent Hal back into hysterical laughter.
“What a nut job,” said Jacon, not looking back. May as well look around until the reset. Or maybe I’ll go out on the full ExtraLink. He thought about it. Let me see what shows up here first. Maybe next hour.
Halbert Jameson opened his eyes in the dark room. “I’m out of it,” he announced. The lights came on to show a nice decor. Hal rose from the airchair and stretched. A door opened as a man and woman walked slowly in. None of them looked older than thirty, but all of them were really in their sixties.
Hal began, “It’s amazing. You are not going to believe it, but Jacon got angry at me. Danny, you were right. I can’t believe it, but you were right!”
The usually reserved Daniel Levin was all smiles. “Are you sure?” There was real excitement in his voice.
“Positive,” replied Hal. “He said, and I quote: ‘Just answer the damned question.’”
Amy Stevens was shocked. “He did not!”
“He did too,” chuckled Hal. “And then he said, ‘Why the hell is there a law about that?’”
“This is better than we dared hope,” Amy said.
Danny asked, “Did he give you any other surprises?”
Hal looked at his cohort. “Is the magic word: groovy?”
Danny was frozen in place. His silence spoke volumes more than his voice could ever share.
“So that really is it?” asked Amy. Danny nodded. “You’re sure?” Danny nodded again.
“He doesn’t remember,” said Hal, confirming their suspicions. “For the first time, he doesn’t remember where he came from.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Danny. “I just can’t believe it.”
Amy took an arm of each man as they walked toward the door. “All those memories are gone. He would never use the word if any trace was left. I think this calls for a toast.”
“Champagne for everyone. I have a bottle of Dom Pérignon 2054 that I have been saving for this day,” said Hal as the three walked out the door. “Good night, Jacon. See you tomorrow,” he said to the zetta-computer in the corner. The status panel had the words “Functioning within normal parameters”.
As they left the JCN building to celebrate, Danny ran his hand along the sign, feeling the words: Jameson Computerized Neuronets: Virtual Minds for a Virtual World.
Copyright 2015 by Doug Romig
Next: PicoTech – The Ghost