Rick is a scurrilous, irascible scoundrel, with a heart of gold—not because he’s warm and fuzzy underneath, but because his heart is totally devoted to money. His favorite goldmine is his shop, where he vends virtual reality and manufactured novels. He keeps his customers happy, and he always knows the right party to hit to find a pliable college girl with more cocaine than sense. Life is good. But life has a way of doing unexpected things, and the world has a way of changing around the most adaptable people.
Step into Rick’s parlor. Don’t mind the bell on the door or the old fashioned cash register. Buy a manufactured novel, fresh from the computer—a first edition. Sit in the easy chair or lay out on the sofa. Strap on a helmet and a skinsuit and take a swim on Europa. He can be trusted. Really. It says so on the door. In ten foot high letters, right above the shop front, he tells you exactly what they do:
“We Create Worlds”
And they do it on the cheap.
—Story Sample Below the Cut—
We Create Worlds
by J. Daniel Sawyer
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We Create Worlds.
It was the same copy as our radio ads, but in the layout it popped. I arranged the words around a good solid curve. Busty, but subtle. Catchy. Nobody would know why they couldn’t stop looking at it, but when a human being sees an eddie or a zoomer it gets distracted. When the shape is disguised, hidden, or cryptic, the brain won’t let it go.
I was the best damn flyer we’d ever put out. Nobody’d used flyers for years—messy, environmentally unsound, irritating. Well, let me tell you, my dear voyeur, one generation’s headache is another’s heroin. Flyers may have been useless back when everyone was putting them out, but now they’re paper gold. Something tangible, makes the offer real. People can touch it, feel the little texture cues, the scent of the paper, and they believe that what they’re buying from us is also real.
So, for the shop relaunch, I went bollocks-out. Over the top, loading in all the subliminals, pheremonals, visuals, and NLP tricks. I knew they actually didn’t work for much, but it was a special occasion, and the owners appreciated the extra effort.
The crowning achievement was the new name—it’s the real reason the relaunch worked. Gone were the days of “Adult Realities.” It was “Rick’s Virtual Playground” no longer—false advertising anyway, since I never owned more than 3% of the shop and didn’t really want to. I mean, Christ, board meetings with the old Sicilians every quarter? Count me out. They smell like garlic and look like death on a good day, and they know this market about as well as a high-speed hunk of lead knows how to tap dance.
Now the new name…ah, the finest gift the goddess ever gave me for the price of a tab. It was straightforward. It was snappy. It reeled ’em in like pike on a bait chain. It was perfect.
I’d done it up in a sign ten feet high across the front of the building, lit up so you could read it for a mile down the street: “We Create Worlds.”
And we do it on the cheap.
Hey, everyone needs to escape, and slipping off into a world where your brain doesn’t know the difference is a hell of a lot better than slipping your brain down into a needle. I’m a paramedic, and I know it. And, like any good paramedic, I give out treatments. I don’t cure.
Temporary, palpable escape into the worlds made in the closet. They’re gagging for it. Who wouldn’t be? They sit in cubicles, or plugged into net terminals, or hassled to death by their kids all day, and the real world just don’t have the shine it did when they were teenagers.
Everyone—and I do mean everyone—who walks through that door needs me. I mean, they could do it on their own. Most VR shops are self-serve. You walk in, order something up on a screen, and do your business. Most kids buy a home rig – they’re not quite as good, but they’re damn cheap. Nothing’s stopping ’em, nobody’s holding a gun to their head to make them come here. I have to work for my bread. And if the shop doesn’t run well, I don’t eat. If it runs at a loss, I don’t breathe.
Yeah, I know, I know. The suit slobs aren’t good people to owe money too. It’s a high stakes game, but then, where else are you gonna get the money for a place like this? The market conditions are tough—nobody dared to build an arcade after the Xbox, and nowadays, nobody wants to go up against Sony and Disney in VR. Nobody’s that crazy.
Well, nobody that works at a bank, any road.
So, I provide adventure. I provide service. I keep my shop clean and my nose bent and do what I can to keep the customers satisfied. The job is its own reward, and the benefits are brilliant. When they leave here after a couple hours of happy delusion, their nonsensical grins tell me how long it will be until reality gets the better of them and they come back for the next fix.
Most are satisfied with a manufactured novel, though they don’t sell like they used to. Some people like to keep their fantasy at arm’s length, or at least enjoy the illusion that their secret peccadilloes are private. In the old days, they were the hook on a pretty direct route—they’d start out with the books, then move on to a good old fashioned hunter-killer game with a human quarry. A while later that palled and they’d switch sides in the game, and at that point, they’d need a jack for their fix, every time. The route ain’t so direct anymore, and our focus has changed a bit, but we still have something for everyone.
For example, Sunday afternoons are introverted loser day, with men coming in fresh from church for some serious worship with a projection of the pastor’s wife or the dance troupe leader.
You can see it, can’t you? We provide a valuable community service. Our Notorious World Leaders series gives the sadists a way to let off some good steam by officiating a human sacrifice, keeping a healthy harem of captive and unwilling women plundered from neighboring tribes, orchestrating battles, playing Torquemada or Bathory, or having a good old fashioned pedophillic dismemberment orgy with the Borgias or Tiberius. The only serial killers you’ll find operating in this one-horse town are the ones that come in here on Thursday night. People are kept safe, nobody gets hurt, and the owners stay happy.
If Pilate had my shop he’d never have needed a cross. No half-baked desert hippie could have had a chance to raise a ruckus when everyone else got top shelf stress reduction at hand.
Of course, when you keep a shop, each day is pretty much like the next, and that’s all there is to say. But man, oh man. That day started off with a rash of sorority birds lining up to use all the arenas at once. The suits ain’t compatible across genders—form-fitting sensor nets, them—and I ran dry on the fem suits at one point. The things don’t wash themselves, and those girls weren’t having no tea party.
No, for them it was a standard Hunter/Killer program—jungle variety terrorism, nice for working up a good sweat, and let me tell you, those birds are sadistic. Wouldn’t want to be set on them in a dark alley after seeing what they do to their friends over a game. And, holy hell, I had to network all the arenas together at once—when I spec’d the system for this place I didn’t get one designed to handle that much. Hey, I work on a budget, what could I do?
It was a royal bitch getting’ them routed around the fail-safes, but that’s why the the Red Man lost his shirt to the big penguin. There’s always a way. And it was worth it, let me tell you. At a hundred bucks a piece every hour I earned nearly a week’s commission in one day, and that ain’t the half of it. Ain’t gonna forget this’n—average day gets me maybe twenty regs at the outside and a couple itchin’ tenderfeets, but this place was hopping like a cockroach in a frying pan.
With sororities you can always tell the leader, she tugs the others around like a brood of goslings. She was shorter and rounder than the rest of them, but she moved like an empress and her voice was like chocolate.
“What’s the big occasion?”
“Oh, just a birthday party for one of the sisters.”
“You girls in a sorority then?” A blind rabbit could have smelled the Greek solidarity from the mint patch if he still had his nose about him, but it kept her talking.
I swiped her card and glanced down at the monitors. Her sisters were all at different points in the peeling process—did I say those VR suits are like a second skin? I forgot to mention how much they don’t look like real skin. Getting’ them gone was a definite improvement, at least until they finished their shower off and found their street clothes again. Not an ugly one in the bunch.
“Yeah, over at State. We’re having an end-of–the-year party next Wednesday, would you be interested?”
“Interest is my middle name, consider me there! Ah, here we go, your total is three K. If you like I can bill you monthly, or I can put it all in…or rather through…right now.”
“Hell, put it through now. Better than dealing with the bills.”
“Okay,” I punched my transfer auth into the keypad, “Looks like we have a winner. So…” I glanced at her American Express, “Erin, how can I find you this weekend? Saturday nights can be mighty cold up on that old drafty campus.”
She pursed her lips at me and winked, then slipped a card into my hand as I passed the AmEx back. Smooth as a velvet tongue, that girl. “Call me.”
Before I could continue the conversation a gaggle of her cohorts emerged from the dressing rooms. They flocked around her like she was a kool-aid vendor from Guyana—who could blame them? Her voice sounded like it walked out of a sex factory before they’d had a chance to fit it with a good suit of clothes. The other girls might be a pleasant diversion, but Erin…
I waved them out, just in time. Four hours of solid estrogen pollution hangin’ think in the air is enough to make any duffer choke takin’ a breath. Once I recover though…well, let’s just say that Erin’s way of plotting an ambush in the arena gives me the shivers. There was something there with that girl, and I couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
The bell on the door wasn’t my idea, one of the morons who owns a pile of stock certs has a bit of a fetish for things that dingle. His cat, his children, his goddamned cigar cutters, always dingling with those little rancid bells like they crawled out of Santa’s pants for air. Last time I saw him I had to spend the whole night in an arena watching old Beatles concerts until I couldn’t hear the dingle anymore over the constant torture of “Hey Jude” running through my brain. The bell was his revenge—he didn’t like it when the changeover caught him with his pants down in front of the other dons.
At least it’s only Mrs. Alvarez. She’s a regular, comes in here every now and then to fetch a new manufactured novel. She prefers insipid little romances, the ones that feature secret adulteries and long lost lovers cropping up in unlikely places. But I don’t judge, she’s a good customer, brings a lot of class to the place.
She’s plain, always wrapped up in that wool trench, too old to be really interesting. If my commission structure allowed it, I might feel sorry for her, stuck in what must be a loveless—or lifeless—marriage. If she were younger…nah, not worth it, and I don’t get paid for that. She likes her books, and I’m her bartender, not her magic man.
Even so, I programmed a new set of variables into her presets that she should find mildly shocking and very entertaining. I wouldn’t be doing my job if she wasn’t a little shocked, after all.
Way back in the beginning, we were only a manufactured book store. I got the place funded because I wrote the system. Best virtual AI in the world. This one can actually tailor the manufactured novel to the style of a thousand different authors, which set us apart and got us a more literate clientèle.
The literate ones, back when they were still a good demographic, were the ones who could afford the perks we were offering. I kept the easy chairs and couches even since that business dropped off—we haven’t needed the space yet and people do like to sit down and relax while they read, free of charge. Keeping them around usually means they’ll buy more than one.
Problem was that shortly after we opened, the fad died off. Literacy was passe again, and all the real book junkies went back to “sapient” novels, saying that stories written by humans were more “artistic.” That kind of pretentious nonsense was bad for business.
With that kind of boneheaded appeal to “culture,” we could either change our marketing strategy or we could fold. The money men didn’t fancy their investment failing after only a few thousand percent return, so we added manufactured movies and porn, and it did the trick. Business soared. We eventually made enough to install a few VR arenas and a couple of private rooms for those with advanced tastes.
Of course, none of them—especially not Dingle Man—listened to a damn thing I said. They spotted a good thing and ran with it, and they bought all the advertising they could. We were gonna saturate the market, expand, set up franchises. Well, they thought so.
They didn’t reckon with the main problem: VR porn is big on burnout.
At first, we had new customers come in and order full-on orgies, hard-core S&M sessions, and some stuff that still gives me the shudders thinking about it. Caligula had nothing on those morons, let me tell you. The thing is, you drop-shift a guy from vanilla sex with his high school sweetheart who he married in the little chapel down the road into that kind of theater and they’ll just stop showing up after a couple sessions. They knew what they wanted, what they wouldn’t admit to anyone, and they jumped right into it.
You gorge yourself for three days straight on caviar after eating graham crackers your whole life, and you just ain’t hungry anymore. And that’s assuming they lost interest—I spent a good month hiding from one pissed off woman who found her man out when he couldn’t get it up anymore.
So as sure as you get fertilizer out of a politician, when that happened things went downhill fast. That pissed off little missy got the community involved. The Baptists did what Baptists do best, boycotting us, picketing, blackmailing customers, the whole bit. We were gonna have to fold, and if we did it would be my arse in a sling. All that work, straight down the sewer pipes and flushed out to sea, and the money men’s special collection agents rapping on my door. There’s always gotta be someone to blame, and it’s never them.
I had to think fast before they found a better use for my head. I brought the problem to them, suggesting that we change the whole image. We could be wholesale fantasy, cater to everything, family friendly and the whole cartload. We’d change the name of the shop, and restrict the hard-core stuff to regulars who were already so hooked that they had no one at home left to tell.
They bought it, which meant I could stop sleeping with a gun under my pillow.
The re-branding was the last step, and we’ve done pretty well for it all. Saturday is family day—officially, anyway—and we keep the family scenarios fresh. The Hawaii offer from the ad is particularly popular, and it keeps the kids and the adults coming back for more. What starts as a novelty becomes an indispensable family pastime.
I don’t do too badly for it, either.
Damn that dingling door, always bombing the tracks right in front of a good train of thought. “Adds to the homey atmosphere” my eye. Paul—another regular—came in strutting like a peacock with a branch up his arse. About normal. He asked for the Battle of Waterloo. Again. Most people would want some variety, perhaps even a little triumph. Not this master of the financial universe.
“Paul, have you considered trying out one of the battles Napoleon won?”
“No, no.” He dismissed the idea with an aristocratic wave of his hand. “If the first great emperor won the battle already,” he snorted, “Child’s play. I deserve the honor—no, the glory!—of a more difficult battlefield.” His smirk…god…it’s almost as if he likes getting his arse kicked as penance for his success.
“You know, if you want challenge, I could up the danger by having Napoleon captured rather than killed.” Now, to confirm my theory.
“Ah!” sucking the air in like a goddamn elephant, “Give the first great emperor a chance to defeat the enemy from inside their own encampment.” Anticipation grew on his face and he tucked his right hand into his coat front.
“You cut a dashing figure, my lord. Your doom awaits you in arena 2. You’ll find a fresh suit and helmet in the dressing room.” I handed him the code card with the enhancements and he accepted it with an air of indifference, before sticking his puggish nose in the air and striding back to the dressing room. The piglet as an emperor.
Before he did “Waterloo” he played in H/K programs as the prey. The moment he began to outfox the computer, he upgraded to hopeless battles. He’s been doing “Waterloo” for two months, five days a week. The program says the battle lasted the better part of a day and a night, but Paul started out with three hour runs and whittled it down to under one. Every time he and comes out glowing like he’d had the best sex of his life. I think he’s beginning to believe he is Napoleon. Still, he isn’t the most colorful face I see every week.
Falk takes the cake for that. He is our biggest hard-core customer. If what I’ve seen on the monitors is any indication, the man has more imagination and concubines than Solomon. His stamina is almost as impressive as his credit line.
The owners love him, he drops more money here every week than any two other people combined. I love him too; he’s usually around all day, so if I ever get bored, the screen for his booth is only a click away. It ain’t just entertainment, he’s so hooked that I can jack up the prices on him and he doesn’t mind. As long as I don’t pump them so high that I lose him, the owners cheer me on rather than sending me a dinner guest.
I love this business.
I love the people. I love the challenge.
I loved staying after hours. I’d turn off the experience recorders and use a private room myself. I had this program that started with a long massage with a golden-skinned Mexican girl, and I could make that one last until my balls were blue as a summer sky and I couldn’t walk straight. Ah, yes…
The stiff kinda ruined it for me—made me cut back and not go in so much. One of my regulars, should have been outta the store long time before closing—he must’ve paid in advance…it was a bloody mess. Slid a scalpel down his own throat…nasty, nasty. Put himself right out. Eighteen months back, now—last straw for the protesters. Apparently his “Secret Tryst” program was up—why does every lazy two bit git name his program like it was a c-movie?–and he couldn’t take reality any more. Made us shut the place down for six weeks to clean the blood out of the carpet and retool our image.
After all that time, I still couldn’t go back into arena two, it gave me the squeamies just thinking about it. So, I was careful. I couldn’t afford to lose touch like that. Better than the real thing, those created worlds, but I had bills to pay.
Paul finished his battle in only twenty minutes, a new record. Came out struttin’ through the shop glowing like a pregnant woman—you coulda lit a good sized orgy with the smile on his face. I reckoned he’d have to upgrade to the siege of Jerusalem next. I resolved to give his captors some personality next time—maybe some nice broom handles and some Vaseline—let him get his full penance in. That’d keep him happy until he was willing to move to a more hardcore scenario.
The sunlight spilled in over the hills between me and the bay, and I thought about the night at head. I didn’t have anything scheduled. I had to be in early tomorrow to supervise the system upgrade. We were adding a holographic arena in the old hock shop next door. All the demos made it look pretty slick. No helmets, just a latex face laminate for touch sensations. The images are projected in real-time and can be seen with the naked eye. No more retina projectors or VR bullshit. For those with the means, this is the next phase. I may have to try it, just for kicks. Mayhap it’ll ship with a trainer program—or I could use old faithful. Maya, the Mexican massage goddess.
When I went back to get Mrs. Alverez I found her layin’ back on the overstuffed velor sofa. She’d flopped her trench loose over the back so the wool prickled out, and her long peasant boots restin’ on the coffee table like it was a footstool, one crossed over the other under the fringe of her schoolmarm skirt and reading the manufacture I’d programmed for her. But it weren’t from one of the normal readers. She’d sprung the extra ten bucks for a hard copy and was making notes in the margins with a pencil.
In a manufactured novel?
I came close up behind her and tried to read over her shoulder, but her head kept getting in the way, so I cleared my throat. She turned around and looked up at me from her seat on the couch.
“I’m closing up, Mrs. Alverez, it’s time to go now.”
She nodded and closed her book, saying “Thank you, Rick. I’ll be along in a moment.” As she said so she put her book in her handbag and handed me her credit card.
As I walked back to my counter, something prompted me to glance back at her. Her hair had fallen from its usual matronly bun and was cascading in delicate black curls around her shoulders as she used a coffee table to stretch her muscles for the walk home. Her button-up trailed open and the edges hung loosely about her hips, showing a black bodice comin’ up outta her brown skirt. She couldn’t really be in her fifties …could she?
She looked up and nearly caught me staring, but I ducked behind my counter and performed the swipe. I punched in the auth codes, and “Transaction approved” flashed on the screen, and the console spat out a receipt for forty dollars US.
I thought about dialing up a massage program, but as I shifted my weight around on my feet I chucked the notion. I wanted to get moving. Needed to find a party to pull, or something to do. All day sittin’ behind the counter, washing suits, watching the experience monitors…I needed to get out and relax. Find something active to do.
I shut down the console and started the arenas on spin-down.
Mrs. Alverez came out from behind the display case and picked up the card and receipt, and I pushed her out of the store as politely as I could. No customers, nothin’ left to do, and I needed the air.
I punched the lock code, turned to walk off. I nodded at her.
“Good night, Rick. I’ll see you soon.” She gave me an ‘alf smile and kept lookin’ at me outta the corner of her eye even while she walked away. Her heels clopped steadily on the concrete as she walked out to the parking lot.
I needed to go find a way to unwind, but the breeze picked up and I caught a little smell of flowered talc on the breeze. Her boots stopped, I looked back after her and saw her taking a moment to look up at the moon, faint and hazy through the dull red sky.
She’d been writing—writing!—in the margins of a manufactured novel. She’d wasted pension money—you can tell a lot about a bird by the card she uses—on a hard copy when I knew damn well she had a serviceable reader.
She wasn’t moving, just standin’ there on the corner. Hell, I didn’t have any plans anyway. It wasn’t more than a minute’s walk to where she was leaning on the telephone pole.
“What were you doing in there?”
She looked at me like I’d spit on her shoe. “Excuse me?”
“Making notes on the manufacture, why were you doing that?”
Mayhap I was intruding. She arched her eyebrow at me and I suddenly felt like a little kid. Out from behind the counter, not working a party, not trying to chat someone up, I suddenly realized I had no clue what I was doing.
“Why the sudden interest, Rick? I’ve heard of stranger things happening in that shop of yours.”
“It just ain’t…normal. I mean, it’s a machine-made book; why…” It wasn’t a text book, wasn’t a croquet manual, wasn’t a bleedin’ astrophysics paper. It was a manufacture—pure entertainment. “It’s weird.”
She sighed into the night. “It’s a long story, Rick. Why don’t you walk me home and I’ll tell you about it?”
I hesitated, the cold city night tickling the back of my throat.
“Come on, I’ll cook you dinner.”
End of sample. ©2007 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved