Virtual Reality

My avatar was chilling out in the virtual room that I had built with credits gained for beating the most complex and difficult online game ever devised.  A labyrinth of tunnels deep inside a computer-generated asteroid converged to form my underworld home.  Pock-marked with impact craters, the three kilometre wide asteroid was in Sector Fifteen of a simulated galaxy — one of thousands — built by the biggest and wealthiest company in existence.  Microsoft started building computer operating systems in the eighties, and by 2031 controlled most of earth’s electronic systems and nearly all of virtual space.

I am a loner.  Only two people were allowed to visit me here.  One of them was a school and gaming friend.  The other was a girl that I had never physically seen but had fallen in love with.  We met in a chat room dedicated to the game that I had defeated.  Soon we were dating online, our avatars socializing at first but then becoming more intimate.  Modern body-hugging clothing and gloves impregnated with synthesised neurons transmitted even the most tender of sensations to one’s avatar, so that making love with a virtual person felt real — indistinguishable from reality. 

Education too was an online experience controlled and run by Microsoft.  Thousands of virtual schools and training centres — located in various galactic sectors — were staffed by highly sophisticated three-dimensional figures based on the famously quirky 1980s character, Max Headroom, complete with his characteristic dark, shiny suit, chiselled features and swept back blond hair.  Gone was the stutter but his sharp wit remained.  The software designers thought Max’s character would grab the attention of pupils whatever their age.  They were right, of course.  As soon as he was introduced, replacing the T3 series of stuffy professor-type tutors dressed in tweed suits, he was a hit.  Students like me — too young to have known the original tutors — were bowled over by his waggish humour and artificially sampled voice. 

I was one of a hundred and fifty pupils in such a computer generated school on a world called G9 in Sector Fifteen.  My tutor’s name was Mr Holt.  There was nothing he did not know about the subject he taught, and he conveyed his knowledge in an arresting, witty and humorous way.  Advanced artificial intelligence gave the tutors a life force of their own, answering queries just as if you were talking to a real person.     

The names of pupils hovered above their avatar’s heads in little elongated bubbles, which followed their movements wherever they travelled in the building.  Mine was Arkanian, after the flying dragon from the planet Arkania in the Star Wars universe.  My friend called himself Sandor, the mythological defender and helper of mankind.  And my girlfriend’s name was Gwenevere.  She too was into legends.

I had finished lessons about three hours ago, and so I sat gazing at the universe through electron generated cameras fixed to the surface of my asteroid.  Each projected an image of space onto a wall-sized screen at the far end of the room, my material body at home and dressed in sensitizing clothing and my virtual self here in the place of my choosing.  I was wearing the latest CS2000 head and face visor, which beamed ultra-high definition images directly onto the retinas of my eyes and enabled me to see the virtual world that my avatar existed in.  Being was a construct of the quantum world where infinite possibilities collapsed into one reality.  To me this meant that all things were possible.  The virtual world of subatomic particles was my idea of heaven. 

My prize possession was a neutrino generated high-density holographic vase of Chinese origin.  It is of the Qianlong period, circa 1740s and stands sixteen inches high.  The ovoid body is decorated with four circular cartouches each masterfully rendered — though the original is carved and enamelled with exquisitely painted fish — and topped by a beautiful primrose yellow trumpet neck.  I am one of three people lucky enough to possess an electronic reproduction of this copyrighted piece owned by the Microsoft foundation and gifted to me along with the credits.  The vase sits majestically on a simulated mahogany table inlaid with replicated mother of pearl and placed in the middle of the room — since the hologram was unbreakable I had no fear of accidentally knocking it over.  It had one other outstanding feature.  Inside there was a powerful nanoplasmonic device.  Programmed to look like a genie, the device was in fact a super-high-speed optical computer that used photons to process information.  Its database contained the knowledge of every reference book, newspaper article and scientific paper ever written. 

As I contemplated these things, Max — my nanoplasmonic genie — emerged from the vase and announced that Gwenevere had sent a message.  “She will be here within the hour,” he said.  “Is there anything I can do for you, Arkanian?” 

“Thank you, Max,” I replied.  “Just make sure we’re not disturbed.”

“Lockdown in progress.  I’ll complete the process when she arrives.”

* * *

Gwenevere teleported into the visitor’s chamber, a sealed off area that prevented space hackers or other undesirables from entering my underworld home.  Max verified her presence and dropped the force shield.  Watching on a video link, I saw the shield shimmer and then vanish.  She stepped forward and entered a short passageway that led into my room.  Her movements were fluid and graceful.  To my delight, she was wearing the same skin tight suit she wore when we first met.  It sparkled as she moved.  A shock of red hair flowed over her shoulders and tumbled down her back.  I could not help but think how beautiful she looked.  I also wondered what she looked like in real life.  Was she as attractive and shapely as her avatar suggested?  What was her real name and where did she live?  How can I be in love with an electronic simulation, a three-dimensional imitation of someone?  But it wasn’t her avatar that I was in love with, I reminded myself.  It was her mind, her soul.  These were the things that mattered.    

My heart beat fast, a sensation transmitted through the neurons of my sensitized suit and right into the chest of my avatar.  I had already forgotten that I existed in a material world — a world that was dull by comparison.  I was here in cyberspace with my love and nothing else mattered.

“Hi, honey,” she said appearing from the passageway, her arms reaching for me.  We embraced and kissed.  I felt the subtle warmth and softness of her full lips, transmitted to mine via a series of neuronic sensors in the visor.   

* * *

My real name is Eric Brady.  I am nineteen years old and live with my mother in a two bedroom apartment near Marion Wilson park in South East London.  My father is dead.  He was murdered in a shopping-arcade terror attack when I was nine years old, held hostage by a group of Islamic fundamentalists and then executed when their demands were not met.  He had gone there solely to buy a magazine.  It cost him his life.  According to Max’s database, five other shoppers were killed that day, two of them children.  Of the nine terrorists, just two survived.  They are serving six consecutive life sentences in a maximum security prison.  There has been one other terror incident since then: a mosque that was firebombed in Birmingham.  The atrocity was perpetrated by white extremists.

From my bedroom window I can see the park and the dilapidated two acre enclosure that used to house animals — sheep, ponies, deer and pigs.  The crumbling stone pens are still standing, albeit tenuously, and so are a few of the concrete posts that once secured the perimeter fence.  A fast-flowing brook used to run through the surrounding woods.  My mother recalled that as a child she would join with friends and play in the park, damning up the brook and watching the water rise until it broke through.  Now, of course, it’s all dried up like the rest of the parched landscape.  The only signs that it ever existed are the overgrown channels that cut through the withered trees and grassland, and the eroded iron grills that marked the spot where the brook went underground.  Even the squirrels have disappeared.  Global warming has changed the environment not just locally but all over the world.  I learned from a search engine that when Marion Wilson presented the land to the council in 1891, it was a dense and flourishing wood.  The area had a rather sinister but interesting history.  Apparently highwaymen who robbed people on Shooter’s Hill used it as a hideout.  I can just imagine some masked raider skulking among the dense trees, a pair of flintlock pistols tucked in his belt.  No wonder it acquired the name of Hanging Woods.  I wonder how many criminals were caught and hanged there?  I guess I’m privileged to live near a place with such a fascinating history. 

For all the wonders of my surroundings, most of my time is spent in cyberspace.  The World Wide Web acts as a sort of multi-threaded umbilical cord, connecting me and my avatar to a virtual world shared by billions.  Each user has a unique identity, a name that is chosen, given by the government or passed on when a person dies.  I was therefore able to adopt my father’s username, which I did with pride and relief — relief that it spared me from having to choose a name that was far less agreeable (catchy names without numbers were in short supply).  All usernames have to be registered with the Global Internet Agency.  Once it has been accepted, it’s yours for life and can only be changed by a mind-bending process of online form filling and identity authentication.  Then comes the big wait as they delve into your affairs.  The agency, which is in charge of all internet activity, is notoriously bureaucratic.  It is also incredibly distrustful.  Some fear, as I do, that a handful of elite members within the organization are actively controlling or suppressing access to information or online publishing.  It seems that not a month goes by without some new internet freedom restriction being imposed.

People rarely disclosed or shared their real identities when online.  Apart from the authorities, and record keeping institutions like colleges, no one knows who I really am.  My acquaintances, even those close to me like Sandor and Gwenevere, regard me simply as Arkanian.  Likewise I don’t know their real names. 

My studies end next year.  By then I’ll be twenty years old and entitled to work.  I don’t have to worry about a job.  Microsoft have already signed me up.  Their contract ensures that I don’t seek employment anywhere else.  I receive a monthly retaining fee in return.  Winning the game had brought a lot of benefits; it had also created a lot of interest from smaller but more specialized companies.  I turned them all down.  Microsoft had made me an offer I could not refuse.

* * *

I was just a child when the Covid virus hit.  It wasn’t just the pandemic, it was the civil unrest caused by BLM and ANTIFA, the anarchists who caused major disruption throughout the Western world.  Both groups — who often worked in tandem — aspired to overthrow the state, defund the police, destroy capitalism and create a dystopian dictatorship similar to ISIS, who in 2017 formed the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.  Portland and other areas in America were destroyed in the process.  The UK experience many riots, with genuine people who were concerned about racism beguiled by BLM, into thinking that it was merely an antiracist group.  According to my mother, who often reminisce about the old ways, the Western world was on the brink of anarchy and destruction.

Before all this mayhem, people worked together in offices and factories.  Shoppers would interact in stores.  People would go freely to restaurants and pubs, fly abroad for holidays.  That all came to an abrupt halt when the coronavirus escaped from a biological laboratory, called the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.  It quickly spread all over the world, killing millions of people.  Mutations in this deadly virus are still with us today. 

The pandemic accelerated work on robotic technologies and artificial intelligence.  It wasn’t long before millions of jobs were eliminated.  Driverless buses and lorries now carried goods around the country.  Trains and taxis were driverless.   Drones flew people’s shopping from huge warehouses to their homes.  Doctors interacted with patients via robots and avatars.  And in hospitals intuitive machines performed complex operations with an unprecedented degree of accuracy. 

Nowadays people spend their lives indoors.  Wearing our synthesised clothing, we happily exist in cyber space.  Thank God we are able to interact with others through our avatars.  This is the way of things in 2036.  One day, you too will join us.  Until then, be prepared for the many catastrophes which are coming your way.