Cyberpunk Challenge – Detective Rickard Varriano 5

You can backtrack through my previous posts to read how this story is developing, or go back to the start with the original post Write This! Cyberpunk Challenge.

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Varriano was taken away from the public areas, into a corridor that could only be accessed with a manager’s ID. One side of the corridor had four doors on it, while the opposite side only had two. He wondered aloud, “What’s that about?”

“Single people go into the four doors.” The manager detailed. “Couples or parties of up to four can go into the other rooms. That’s all I can say about these rooms.”

They stopped at a bookshelf with an even dozen helmets on it. The helmets looked like the sort of thing a jet pilot might wear, complete with a thin, ribbed plastic tube coming out of the mouth guard.

“I’ll show you how to put this on once you’re inside.” The manager said.

Varriano noticed she picked up a second helmet for herself. “You coming too?”

“Because you’re a first-timer. It can be a scary experience the first couple of times. We don’t even know what kind of environment is set up in that Q-drive. It could be something that, quite frankly, neither of us is ready for.”

That made sense, the detective figured. He took the offered helmet and followed the manager to one of the party doors. She scanned her hand on the door’s sensor to unlock it. They stepped into a room that had a dull, futuristic gray glow to it.

“Favorite colors?” She asked.

“For what?”

“For creating a theme in this room, something comfortable as a springboard to remind you that this is all virtual. What kind of music do you listen to?”

“Synthwave.”

“How retro of you.” Her good humor started coming back. “Blue, green, red?”

She operated a control panel installed into the wall, changing the room’s lighting to dark lapis lazuli blue, with neon aqua accent lighting running all around the room, about five inches off the carpet. The woman’s hair, face and clothing were all covered that same powdery blue tint.

“How about purple with lavender neon trim?” Varriano suggested.

“We can do that.”

While she adjusted the controls, the detective took a look at the four reclining chairs set side by side in the middle of the room. They’d been dull gray at first, then blue with aqua accents, and now deepened to eggplant, along with everything else.

“That’s a little too dark.” Varriano said. “I’ll feel like I fell into a glass of grape juice.”

The manager fiddled with the controls a little more, getting the purple just right according to Varriano’s personal tastes, before she activated the neon lavender that showed up as edging, not only on the floor, but also around the seats and even the helmet he was holding. The helmet wasn’t even attached to anything yet!

“A Q-server can host hundreds of thousand of drives.” The manager explained. “Each drive is simply plugged into the server manually and the operating system ensures compatibility. Q-drives have their own little micro-environments built into them, so the people living inside have a buffer, or a shell around them that keeps them comfortable, for those times when the drive is being moved from one server to another, for example, or during server maintenance.”

“I read that Q-drives deteriorate if they’re kept away from their servers too long.”

“Do you know how normal flash drives work?”

“Not really. Enlighten me, will you?”

“It’s pretty complicated. Putting it into simpler terms, the Q-drive circulates its storage to keep things fresh. Pretend it’s an alphabet, where the letter A is always at the beginning. Every time the drive is used, it starts at position A and goes on to B and C and so on. After a while, the A partition gets overused and wears out. Q-drives don’t always start at A. They’ll start on B tomorrow and C on the day after that. Are you keeping up?”

“No.”

“Okay, I’ll try to explain it another way. You live in a house?”

“Apartment.”

“Okay, so pretend you’re stuck in your apartment for two weeks. You’re spending the day watching TV, you shower, you eat, you use the bathroom and you do everything you normally do. After that much time of being indoors for so long, you start feeling isolated and fed up. You get depressed because you haven’t gone out. Your cupboards and fridge are empty, and you have trash sitting around that needs to be cleared out. You start feeling like you’re going crazy, and all that emotion isn’t venting out. It’s making the atmosphere even more suppressive.”

“The drive wears down because it’s unplugged?” Varriano questioned.

“Not the drive, the person inside of it.” The manager corrected him. “The person’s angst fills the drive. Have you heard the saying: you get back what you give out? When people become unhappy they saturate other people around them with unhappiness. Getting plugged into a Q-server will fix all that because the O.S. knows what’s positive and what’s negative. It’s like a jack of all trades handyman and a maid service all in one. The O.S. will present an unhappy person with the equivalent of a new car or a promotion at work, something like that to revitalize the person if they’re feeling down.”

“Your gaming machines here can do that?”

“No, unfortunately we can’t. Our servers might have a hundredth of the depth of what a Q-server is capable of. All we can do is talk to the person inside and hope that does the trick, assuming the person is in a negative mood. We can’t give them anything new, and we can’t take anything old out. It’s just us talking. That’s it.”

“All right.” Varriano nodded. “I’m ready to give it a try.”

“Sit down in the first chair.” The manager gestured. “I’ll hook you up.”

It was a complex operation. She went to boot up the ‘puter system first, mounting the drive once it was turned on. After making several adjustments, the manager returned to place the VR helmet on Varriano’s head.

“If you feel overwhelmed, just close your eyes and listen to me.” She said. “You will always have fresh oxygen coming in even if we end up falling into a river, or, heaven forbid, we end up in a fire or volcano or something. If you get thirsty, the nozzle in front of your mouth has a suck-straw on the end of it. You can drink water whenever you want. Don’t drink too much because we have to unplug everything so you can go to the bathroom.”

“What about movement?” Varriano inquired.

“There is no movement. The VR helmet puts you into a dream state where your mind does all the moving and your body lies completely still. A lot of people come here just for the therapeutic benefits. They’ll chill out and listen to music and get an hour-long back massage by their favorite VR celebrity.”

“I do a lot of meditation.”

“That will make things easier. You’re hooked up now. Enjoy the scenery while I get myself into the system. I can do everything we need to do just by thinking it through.”

“I hope I don’t end up falling asleep on you.” Varriano chuckled.

“You won’t. I’ll send electrical impulses your way if you start doing that. That’s not uncommon, by the way; people falling asleep during the first few times in Q-VR. Most people have minds that go a mile a minute. Getting them to relax is the hard part, and then keeping them awake when they do relax… Okay, we’re heading to the log-in screen.”

Varriano wasn’t aware that they were doing anything yet. He thought he could see right through the goggles set over his eyes, which showed the purple walls and lavender neon. All of a sudden, the room faded into a darkness as black as pitch. For an anxious moment, he had the vision of the manager coming at him with a knife, and here he was lounging around and waiting for the blade to puncture his lung.

“Relax, detective.” The manager said. “You’re showing elevated stress spikes.”

“I just got caught off guard, that’s all.”

“We’ll get you into a nice scene in a minute.”

Before his eyes, Varriano saw the Mr. Happy logo, followed by a number of screens that flashed by so fast he could barely read what was on them. The manager was getting past the initial set-up and disclaimers blazingly quick. “How about a warm beach? That’s where I was planning on going right after I leave here.”

“When I tell you to, imagine your favorite beach.” The manager said. “Just give me about twenty more seconds.”

Varriano waited, wondering what came next. When she said go, he visualized the perfect beach. It wasn’t a place he’d actually gone to, but one he’d created while meditating that had the best things from the handful of beaches he’d ever been at. His scene had clear blue water with an expansive stretch of sand, colorful parasols and leaning palm trees with huge leaves. The smell of salty air wafted into his nose.

“Well, that looks pretty nice.” The manager said. “Where is it?”

“It doesn’t exist.” Varriano admitted. “I made it all up.”

“It’s not bad. This is now our micro-environment. If we had a real Q-server, we could create an entire world based on your imagination. That’s what your mystery person is used to, so remember that. I am starting an interface with their micro-environment now.”

“Will this person see and hear the both of us?”

“Yes, just as if we were meeting them out on the street. You should change your clothing to match the landscape. You look too much like a cop.”

“How do I change my clothes?”

“Just think yourself into another outfit. I’m coming in next to you.”

She did just that. The manager appeared, wearing a sundress that was mustard yellow on top and full of red and white flowers on the skirt part. She even had a white flower placed on her ear.

“I thought you looked cute before.” Varriano smiled at her. “You look great.”

“I’m married.” She said.

“Hey, I’m not throwing out lines here. I’m just saying you look nice, that’s all. So, I just imagine myself in some beach clothes, and…” He did it. He went from wearing his street clothes to having on a casual blue button shirt with canvas shorts. “That wasn’t so hard.”

The manager’s gaze lingered on his form, but she quickly shook that off. “You can do all the talking. If the conversation turns technical, that’s when I’ll jump in. Are you ready?”

“I think so. What happens next?”

“This person’s living space will appear here.” She turned and motioned to an empty spot between a few leafy palm trees. “About fifty feet away from us. Cross your fingers. I really hope we don’t get a creep.”

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