“Feelings of superiority always stem from an illusion.”
(Posted: January 14)
He blinked a few times, becoming aware he was staring at his reflection. For a moment he had zoned out. The automatic sink in front of him was running but he wasn't washing his hands. Behind him it looked like the bathroom stalls were empty and the urinals unoccupied. He cocked his head for a brief moment to remember what he was doing. That's right, he was about to wash his hands. He pumped the dispenser and a dollop of odorless soap squirted out onto his palms.
Harrison Burr eventually stepped out of the men's restroom into a hallway adjacent to the airport baggage claim area. A man in a slightly wrinkled suit caught his eye and raised his hand in recognition.
“There you are!” he called as Harrison walked over to him. “Took you long enough,” he said in a low voice, “thought you were jerking off in there or something.” The man grinned under his small mustache. “Your wife know you do that in public bathrooms?”
“Screw you Rich,” Harrison replied with a tired smile. “You know I'm not married.”
“You'll get a woman one day,” Rich teased him. “Hell, I did.”
“Thanks for watching my bag by the way,” said Harrison, changing the subject.
“No problem kid,” Rich replied, “Ready to find our ride?”
Harrison sighed. “Lead the way, I've never been here before,” he said, quickly gazing down the deserted hallway. There was a lot of construction in this part of the airport, giant temporary wooden walls covered nearly everything but still pointed to the baggage area where he remembered they'd just come from. The wall to his right proudly proclaimed “Welcome to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.”
The two suited men headed towards the exit and walked into the California sunshine. “Much better than D.C. this time of year!” Rich exclaimed, enjoying the balmy temperature.
Lines of cabs jammed the nearby curb as Harrison and Richard scanned over them for the private car pick-up. At midday, the pick-up curb was strangely devoid of pedestrians, though plenty of idling cars filled the road. Just then Harrison glimpsed a lone man holding a sign that read “SunCorp.”
“You're our ride?” Harrison asked as he approached the man. The suited man, his face hidden behind sunglasses, looked over the couple.
“Are you Richard Colgate and Harrison Burr?” he asked.
“Sure are,” replied Rich emphatically.
“Then follow me,” the man replied curtly. “I'll be your driver today, I'm Victor Chen.” Instead of reaching out a hand to shake, the man reached for the door of a nearby black Lincoln Towncar and opened the back passenger door. Harrison and Rich both got in as the driver loaded their small travel bags into the trunk of the car.
Once the driver was in the car he asked his passengers, “First time in San Jose?” Harrison and Rich replied simultaneously with opposite answers.
“Haven't been to California for a couple years now,” Rich continued talking as the car navigated out of the airport, “but I always make sure I stop by In-N-Out to grab a burger while I'm here. We going to have a chance to stop before we head to SunCorp's facility?”
“Unfortunately no,” the driver quickly responded, “our head of development has you on a pretty tight schedule and wants to meet with you two within the hour. There will be lunch provided.”
Harrison was surprised. “You mean we're going to meet with Leo Starr?”
The driver snorted. “I don't think so,” he intoned, “but our head of development Vanessa Bright runs the Dreamland Laboratory and she's who I'm taking you to see.”
“Yeah kid,” Rich said to Harrison, “doubtful we'll meet the big man. No one gets to see him these days. This is just supposed to be a quick government peek into whatever the hell SunCorp has been working on these last few years.”
“Yeah I guess you're right,” Harrison resigned himself to admit. No one had seen Leo Starr in months, coming close to a year. Some people speculated that the reclusive tech mogul had gone insane, was in a coma, or even simply dead.
Leo Starr, as the New York Times once put it, was an “arrogant cad that our world can't afford to not tolerate.” A business and technology genius, at only 27 years old had sold his start-up VidTalk to Google in 2005 for a cool $1.2 billion dollars. Since then he'd been behind numerous new technologies, patenting algorithms he'd sell to the biggest names in Silicon Valley, including Facebook and Apple. The guy had a knack for creativity, but he was completely zany and unhinged. A colleague once described Leo as “the kind of guy who makes Elon Musk look normal and Jack Dorsey look like a stingy prick.” Leo was unpredictable and all over the place.
Harrison started thinking back on what he remembered from the small case-file they had on Leo back at the Department of Energy. He'd hardly had a chance to see much before this trip, mostly he was just ecstatic the assistant director chose him to escape to California for a few days in February, and by himself. Representing the Department and the Office of Artificial Intelligence and Technology on a field trip was a big step and huge resume-builder for the three-year employee. He couldn't quite figure out why they'd passed over much more experienced and obvious candidates for the mission, especially one so secretive, but the giddiness of being chosen distracted him enough from questioning too much.
He'd had a chance to meet Rich before they left the capital. Rich was one of the Department of Defense's private-sector liaisons when it came to scouting experimental equipment. Harrison didn't mind being in a supporting role on this trip, especially since Rich had been doing this sort of thing for over twenty years. That got Harrison thinking...
“Hey Rich,” he asked the man sitting next to him, “How much do you know about this program we're seeing at the SunCorp place? Did they tell you anything? My briefing was hardly that.” Harrison wasn't exactly sure why they needed a computer systems expert like himself going out to some lab for a weapons test. He figured it'd be something electronics based involving some kind of networking scheme.
Rich grunted. “Not much really. Had a weird meeting yesterday with some army guys and another lady I'm convinced was CIA, though she never said. Anyways, you read the file, it's supposed to be some training weapon or program the army wants to buy off SunCorp that's going to put our military light-years ahead of everyone else.” He paused, and looked over his mustache at Harrison. “But whatever the fuck that means, I have no idea. You know DoD likes to keep its contracts all hush-hush and stuff.”
“Yeah,” said Harrison, “I'm just impressed they let Energy in on this one. Heard the secretary went bitching and moaning to the chair of the Senate Armed Services committee a few weeks ago. My boss didn't even give me this assignment until last Friday.”
“Shit that late?” Rich replied. “Well fuck that makes two of us then totally in the dark.” There was a brief pause in the car. The driver seemed focused on the freeway on-ramp.
“Oh that reminds me,” Rich continued, “I heard that the Armed Services Committee is sending one of its staffer out to the lab at some point when we're there. I think Senator Holmgren has some obsession with Leo Starr's business and wanted to make sure he was kept in the loop on all this shit. Don't know who this staffer is or if we're really working with him, but just keep a heads up for him if he shows up.”
Harrison laughed to himself, then replied, “Why does it always seem like government stuff is thrown together at the last second?” He was smiling as he watched the freeway rush past him.
“It's always been like that kid,” Rich mused. “I've been in this game for over two decades now, and nobody running the government ever has any clue what the hell they're doing.” He looked at Harrison. “That's why it's up to guys like us to make sure it all works out in the end.” Harrison chuckled, but it was that kind of forced laugh a person gives when they realize they're the only sane person in a world full of idiots.
Highway 101 heads south out of Silicon Valley eventually towards Los Angeles about 400 miles to the south, through rural hills and small towns. Office parks and suburban homes slowly turn into rolling fields and farmland, the grassy hillsides in February turned green by the winter rains. On the road south to Gilroy, about half an hour outside of San Jose, the Towncar exited the freeway and began taking back roads west into the foothills of the mountains separating the valley from the coast. After reaching a point where Harrison noticed his iPhone had lost reception, the driver flatly announced, “We're here.”
Harrison looked up at the tall fence surrounding what looked like a massive complex of warehouses. Guard towers dotted the perimeter to give it the feel of a concentration camp. The car pulled up to the gate and the driver flashed a badge to the guard booth and the clanking gate slowly slid open. A large white sign nearby read: SUNCORP ENTERPRISES. NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULLEST EXTENT.
“Real inviting place you've got here,” Rich joked to the driver. His habit for wisecracks was undeterred. Twenty plus years in the government will do that to you, Harrison thought. The driver did not reply.
As the car pulled up to one of the nearest buildings, a woman came out of the main door to greet them. Harrison and Rich stepped out of the car and approached her.
“Welcome to the SunCorp Laboratory,” the woman said with a professional smile, “I'm Vanessa Bright, head of development here at the lab.” She extended a hand out to the two men.
“Richard Colgate, Department of Defense. Nice to finally meet you Ms. Bright,” Rich said with a smile.
“Harrison Burr,” Harrison said, “Department of Energy.”
“Glad the two of you could make it,” Vanessa replied. It was then Harrison noticed her hair that seemed a bit too red to be natural, and her purple dress that seemed out of place in this bleak office complex. “How was the flight?” she asked politely.
Harrison let Rich and Vanessa make small talk as he took a look around. Most the buildings he could see were incredibly plain, the entire place feeling morosely drab. There was absolutely nothing memorable about this site, except for of course Vanessa. She looked to be about 40 years old, and in her bold purple dress and high heels, she looked very beautiful in a strictly formal way. Harrison couldn't help but think that by her look and demeanor she certainly wasn't working for the government. She carried a confident air that rivaled her beauty, certainly nothing possessed by anyone working in the public sector. Perhaps the next few days wouldn't be completely boring after all, he thought.
“Follow me,” Vanessa said to the men as she led them into the building. “Victor will get your bags to the dormitory where you'll be staying. Did you gentlemen eat yet?”
“Not at all,” Rich replied.
“Great!” she exclaimed, “We had some food catered today in anticipation of your visit, it's just in the conference room down the hall. We can get you two a bit acquainted with the facility in the meantime. After we eat we'll get you a short tour, and then we can give the United States government a little taste of the project we've been working on here in our laboratory.”
They followed her down a hallway with beige walls. “So this really is it,” Rich said, in mock awe. He looked at Vanessa. “So this is the famous SunCorp Dreamland Laboratory!”
Vanessa paused and looked amused. “Oh Mr. Colgate, I think you will see there is a lot more to Dreamland than meets the eye.”
Lunch was just the three of them. The conference room looked pretty corporate and unremarkable, but floor to ceiling windows covered one wall, giving a view of some of the complex's buildings and the wooded hills beyond.
After some introductory small-talk, Rich finally blurted out, “So when do we find out what SunCorp has been working on?”
Vanessa paused for a moment and looked up from her food. A thin smile formed. “Well Mr. Colgate, since you're so insistent, let me tell you.” She straightened her posture.
Taking a a breath, Vanessa began, “For the last nine years, Leo Starr and SunCorp have been working on the world's most state-of-the-art virtual reality simulator. At the lab we call it Virtual Electroneural Reality Simulator Alpha, or VERSA, for short.”
“A VR system?” Rich cut in, trying not to act unimpressed, but clearly intrigued and a little surprised. Harrison was surprised too. He figured they were going to be looking at a weapon test or... well, quite frankly, he really didn't know what to expect at all.
“Yes, you could call it a VR system,” Vanessa said, clearly pleased with herself at the surprise she caused. “But this isn't some smartphone VR system you wear like goggles...” she trailed off. “It's much deeper than that.”
“Ma'am, I have to admit, you have my colleague and I intrigued,” Rich said, sitting back in his chair. Nobody was touching their food now.
“Can you tell us what's so remarkable about this VR system?” Harrison asked politely.
Vanessa turned her head to look at him, a wicked grin painted on her face. Harrison wasn't much a man for hunches or gut feelings, but he suddenly felt a stab of apprehension is the way her gaze faced him.
“Tell you?” Vanessa said amused. She leaned a bit over the table. “We'll show you!”
She sat back straight again and looked down at her food. She picked up her fork but kept talking, “What we've accomplished here at SunCorp in the last nine years with VERSA has been nothing short of remarkable. I don't believe in magic, but we're playing with the edges of science here. It's incredible.”
Harrison saw Rich raise an eyebrow. Rich wasn't one to be impressed or shocked, and he displayed a nonchalant demeanor at the table. But Harrison could tell he was really, really, interested in what Vanessa wanted to show them.
Vanessa continued, “I'll have my lead developer on the project run by you a lot of the technical stuff this afternoon, but what VERSA is, well, it's a fully-immersive conscious-altering simulator. It's not just something your eyes experience by watching a screen in front of you like other commercial VR systems out there. Your entire mind enters this sim.”
Rich's laugh caught both Harrison and Vanessa off guard for a moment. Amused, he leaned back a bit and rested his hand on the table. “So what you're telling us, Ms. Bright, is that SunCorp built the Matrix?” He grinned.
Vanessa pursed her lips and cocked her head. “You're referring to the movie?”
Vanessa rolled her eyes as if she was thinking for a moment. “Well it's not really the same... but similar, I could admit.”
“Holy crap,” Rich said gleefully. “This is going to be wild.”
“Is it safe for testing?” Harrison asked. He figured if Rich would play the incredulous one, he'd at least get down to business.
“At this point, yes,” Vanessa replied to him curtly. “As I mentioned before, I'll introduce you to our lead developer later, he's more of the hands-on systems guy. But as far as we are aware there seems to be no long-term issues or neurological damages caused by VERSA.”
“Is SunCorp going to have to drill into our spinal cords for us to tap into this machine?” Rich asked. Harrison couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but he did have a grin on his face. Vanessa either looked amused or irritated. She wasn't letting down her poker face in front of two big contacts from the federal government.
“No Mr. Colgate, I can assure you we won't be sticking anything in you during your time here at Dreamland,” Vanessa said. The group paused for a moment as a waiter made the rounds to fill their water glasses. “Why don't we finish lunch here so I can show you the lab?”
“Sounds good to me,” Harrison replied. He glanced out the window, then turned to Vanessa. “Ms. Bright, I did have a question about Leo Starr... is he here?” He didn't exactly expect a real answer from Vanessa, but he was surprised when he got one.
“Mr. Starr is not at the lab, but he does supervise our work here. Do you see that house up on the hill?” she gestured out the window. Looking out, Harrison noticed what looked like a large building far away atop one of the flanking mountains.
“Is that his home?” he asked, surprised.
“That's Dos Palos,” Vanessa explained. “It's Mr. Starr's residence here in northern California. Him and his daughter Claire have lived up at the estate, permanently now, since a few months ago.”
Harrison caught a look from Rich that seemed to say “really?” Rich didn't appear convinced.
“Mr. Starr is a bit of a recluse these days, I'll admit,” Vanessa explained. “But his daughter makes regular trips here to the lab to oversee our progress and bring his directives down the mountain to us. Up there they have no communications, no phone, no internet, no cable.” With the tone she spoke about him, Harrison could tell Vanessa revered Leo, but couldn't exactly figure out why.
He tried recalling what he knew about Leo's daughter. He had forgotten her name was Claire, she was his only child with a mother that was either dead or long out of the picture, he couldn't remember which. Much of her young life was pretty mysterious, Leo must have had her when he was quite young and before he because fabulously wealthy. There was a time she would routinely show up on TMZ trashing some party or crashing some million-dollar car, but now in her early 20's she recently left the celebrity party scene to help with the family business. It must have been at least a year or two since her last DUI.
After a few more minutes of idle conversation, the three finished eating and Vanessa showed them out of the conference room. When they reached the ground floor and exited out a door, a small vehicle greeted them. It looked like a glorified golf cart, maybe a little bigger, with no doors or hardly sides for that matter. It was canopied though.
“Hello Delvin,” Vanessa said to the muscled man at the steering wheel. He greeted her back, his face covered in large sunglasses. Harrison climbed in behind the driver while Rich took the seat next to him. Vanessa naturally sat up front. “Take us around the complex please,” Vanessa asked the driver. Harrison had to admit she looked a little out of place dressed so nicely and riding in an electric cart outside in February.
As the cart gained speed they began maneuvering between a group of glass-sided builds. “These here are our offices and laboratories,” Vanessa gestured. “Most of the research work we do in there. Your dorms are in that building there,” she said, pointing to another generic building.
The cart turned and began heading down a row of impossibly long warehouses. The buildings looked completely plain with no windows, instead each displaying a large black number painted on the side. Nondescript gray doors occasionally dotted the walls. If the Dreamland Laboratory was trying to resemble an industrial yard, it was doing a great job, Harrison thought.
“These fourteen warehouses,” Vanessa said over the noise of driving, “are the what VERSA is in physical form. They're all essentially server banks handling the load of running such a complex system. It's by far the largest cloud computing system in the world.” Harrison couldn't see but he was sure she was smirking.
“IBM must be jealous of you guys,” Rich said.
“They are,” Vanessa replied deadpan. She continued, “When interacting in VERSA, users essentially download the entire contents of their mind into the system, so we need a server load that can store, process, and run the computer data equivalent of what you have in your head. And then on top of that, we need to run the actual virtual world the pilots are inhabiting.”
“Pilots?” Harrison asked.
“Yeah pilots,” Vanessa explained. “It's just what we call someone experiencing VERSA from the inside. When you're in VERSA, depending on the setting, you can usually control to some degree what is going on. But you'll learn more about that later.”
“How much computing power do you even have here at Dreamland?” Rich asked over Vanessa's shoulder.
“Industry secret, Mr. Colgate,” Vanessa replied.
“Aww you can't even let the DoD know?” Rich asked playfully.
“Not even Uncle Sam gets to know that,” Vanessa said. “Unless you want to subpoena me.” Harrison saw her smile.
After a few more minutes of sightseeing, the cart wheeled back around to one of the office buildings, pulling up to an entrance. Vanessa took a phone out of a pocket and began making a call. As she held it up to her head, Harrison noticed some type of smartwatch on her wrist. It didn't look like Apple had made it or any other company he knew of, so he assumed it must have been some special SunCorp thing.
“Does that dress have pockets??” asked Rich, mocking shock. “SunCorp is really embracing cutting-edge technology these days!”
Vanessa laughed. She was having a good time. “Yes Mr. Colgate, we are quite advanced here.” When the phone connected, she told the person on the other end to come out to meet them. After about a minute, a squat man came out of a glass door to greet them. He was casually dressed in a polo with a trim goatee on his face. His smile stretched from ear to ear.
“Hello there!” the man said enthusiastically, sticking out his hand as Harrison and Rich walked up the steps to greet him.
Harrison grabbed his hand first, “Good to meet you, I'm Harrison Burr.”
“Sujay Rajeev,” the man replied, “Lead Developer. Please just call me Sujay.” He turned and greeted Rich similarly.
“Mr. Rajeev,” Vanessa greeted him, “these are our guests from the government I told you to expect, they'll be with us a few days. Please get them acquainted with VERSA and show them what SunCorp can offer.”
“Ahh yes, this will be good!” Sujay replied. “You two will be our first pilots from the outside. You are in for quite an adventure I must say.” He paused for a moment. “I thought there were supposed to be three?” he asked Vanessa.
“Yes there will be one more,” she replied, “the Senate liaison won't be here until... tomorrow.”
Not at all bothered, Sujay continued talking to Harrison and Rich “Very well then, let's get started. We have a little bit of time to demonstrate the program to you two before the staff goes home for the day. Come with me!”
They left Vanessa at the door. Once again, Harrison found himself walking into another building with another person he just met.
Harrison and Rich made some small-talk with Sujay as they navigated the maze of corridors. At one point they met two guards armed with pistols before Sujay badged them through a door. Overhead the sign merely said “RESTRICTED ACCESS.”
Through the door and then passing through a small anteroom, they walked into a much larger dimly lit room. “Well this is the VERSA control room,” Sujay said in a casual voice. “Let me walk you through a few things and then we'll see if we can get you guys in VERSA today for a little bit.”
The room looked like an typical office but with the lights turned off. There were computers and lots of humming machines with blinking lights along the walls. Through the dim light, Harrison could make out a series of doors on the far wall that looked like they led to small offices. The doors were numbered with large numerals. A few technicians worked at the computer stations throughout the room, pouring over screens and hardly taking notice of the trio. Sujay walked over to one. “Hey Kevin,” he said, getting the man's attention.
A man dressed in a plain t-shirt wearing glasses looked up at Sujay and then at Harrison and Rich. Sujay said, “these are the government guys. Kevin, meet Mr. Burr and Mr. Colgate.”
Kevin stood up and introduced himself, “Kevin Cho, nice to meet you,” he said shaking their hands.
“I'm Rich, DoD,” Rich said.
“Harrison Burr, Department of Energy.”
“You guys here to play with VERSA?” Kevin asked, grinning. “I think you're the first guests from the outside we've gotten to test this thing. It feels like it's done but we've still got years of development to go to iron out some of the kinks.”
“Well, show us what we're dealing with,” Rich said.
The group moved over to the far wall of the room, taking care to step over random cables that meandered across the floor. When they reached one of the doors, Kevin opened it. The group peered into a small room, no bigger than a closet, full of equipment mounted to a wall with an odd-looking couch taking up the floor.
“So this here is one of the ports into VERSA,” Sujay began explaining. “Vanessa probably told you that VERSA is completely neurologically immersive, so while you're in the simulation with your mind, you body if left behind.” He pointed at the couch. “Because it's easier to transition the mind into the sim with complete sensory deprivation, we have our pilots sit on these waterchairs. They're basically modified waterbeds filled with a supportive synthetic jelly-like substance to give the user the feeling of weightlessness.”
Next he pointed to the rig on the wall. “That helmet-like piece swings down to cover the user's head. It will block out sound and use magnets to begin analyzing the user's electromagnetic brain signature. From there, the helmet administers a concoction of gasses to put the user in the lightest of comas.”
“Wait you're inducing comas with this thing?” Rich blurted out.
“It's the only way to get someone primed to get into VERSA,” Kevin explained. “We have to shut down all external stimuli in pieces so that once their brain is relatively inactive, we can start manipulating it electromagnetically. To go from conscious to VR usually takes about ninety seconds.”
“Trust us,” Sujay reassured, “we've tested the hell out of this. It's very safe at this point. But much like scuba diving, you don't want to dive down or come up too fast. With VERSA, if we're going to trick your brain and manipulate it with a false sense of reality, it must be done carefully and gradually.”
Harrison and Rich stood silently. Finally Harrison muttered in awe, “This is some hardcore stuff.” He looked at Sujay. “I see why SunCorp has kept this under wraps.”
“Exactly,” Sujay said with a smile. “What we've spent the last decade developing is beyond anything any other lab is doing. Just wait until you get into VERSA and you'll see how real it is.”
Harrison and Rich looked at each other. Sujay laughed. “You're not chickening out already are you?”
For the first time Harrison wondered if he'd been selected for this assignment because the department wouldn't miss him too much if SunCorp fried his brain with this experimental technology.
“Fuck it, I'm in,” Rich said. He put is hands in his pockets trying to act cool about it. Harrison could tell he had no idea what he was getting into. Harrison felt the same way. Despite the cool temperature of the room, he felt a bead a sweat trickling down the back of his neck.
“Coming back out of the sim is just as tricky,” Kevin explained. “We basically have to get your brain to readjust to the real world, hence the low lighting in here.”
“Ok wait, so before we go under, I have a few questions about this thing,” Rich said. He was done joking and had returned his role as a representative of the United States government. “How exactly are you guys marketing this to the military?”
“Training, mostly,” Sujay replied. “You can run battle simulations, recreate any real place in the world. You could train Navy Seals or whoever to raid a compound on this thing a hundred times before sending them into the real thing.”
“Can you die while in VERSA?” Harrison cut in. Sujay immediately went quiet. Kevin looked at him.
After a pause, Sujay began speaking slowly. “You're technically asking the wrong question Harrison... the real question is, can VERSA kill you?” Kevin looked like he was about to say something but Sujay cut him off, “In theory it could. But we control all the settings of the virtual interface that your brain interacts with. We've currently set up the most recent version of VERSA to terminate the user's experience moments before they would experience a virtual death situation. Not that dying in the sim would actually kill you, we're just taking every precaution. Fail-safes kick in to eject you out of VERSA before any irreparable damage could possibly occur to your actual brain.”
Now it was Rich's turn to ask another question, “What about pain, or any other senses?”
“So, right now we have every other sensory feeling present in VERSA, including pain,” Sujay said. “It's something we've debated quite extensively over the years, but we felt that omitting some fundamental human experiences could result in mental disorientation and ultimately cause psychological discomfort.” He laughed. “Think about what it would do to you to fall off a building and feel nothing when you hit the pavement! That would mess your mind up. Especially when you went back to the real world.”
“Has anyone, well, 'died' in the VERSA?” Harrison asked Sujay.
An awkward pause followed. Sujay's face twitched. “Yes,” replied coolly. “Actually two people, one on purpose to sort of test it out.” Sujay looked around the room. “There he is. Hey Ernie!” he called out.
A big man sitting at one of the computers looked up. “Yeah?”
“Ernie come over here for a moment,” Sujay asked.
The heavy man lumbered out of his char and came across the room. “What's up?”
“These are the government guys taking a look at VERSA,” Sujay explained to the man. “Rich and Harrison, this is Ernie James. He's a VERSA tech, been with us since the beginning.”
“How's it going guys,” Ernie said. He didn't stick out a hand to shake.
“Harrison here has been asking about... dying in VERSA, and I figured you could tell him what happened to you.”
Ernie's beady eyes glazed over as he looked past them. He snapped out of it finally and scratched the back of his head, looking at the floor. “Yeah it's not fun. First time I shot myself as a test. I thought I was really dead. Woke up in the lab and was throwing up everywhere. Had a massive headache. Took them a couple hours to prove to me I hadn't actually died.” He looked at both Harrison and Rich. “Don't die. It'll mess you up.”
Harrison asked, “Have you died more than once?”
“Oh yeah, by now I've done it more times than I can count. But for you guys, don't test it out. It's not worth it. But the most important thing you can remember when you're in the sim is that none of it's real. It's easy when you've been under for a long time to forget about the real world, but don't fall down the rabbit hole in VERSA, it's too easy to lose your frame of reference.”
“Yeah speaking of which,” Sujay took over, “time passes differently when you're in VERSA. Have you ever woken up in the morning, just to fall asleep again in bed? You have a dream that seems to last hours, but then you wake up again and find only ten minutes passed? That's because your brain works so much faster inside itself than the real world does. So you experience the sim at a much faster rate than reality.”
Kevin added, “It varies quite significantly, depending on a lot of circumstances, but for instance one hour in the machine can sometimes only take a few minutes here in the lab.”
“You guys going in today?” Ernie asked.
“Yeah I was just giving them the intro before I showed them the inside,” explained Sujay.
“You need me to be your Tower?”
“No that's ok Ernie, I already asked Kevin to do it this morning,” Sujay responded. “I'll go in with them this time, and if you want, maybe tomorrow you can be our Tower.”
“What's a Tower?” Rich asked.
“Oh yes,” Sujay said. “The Tower is the person we have stationed outside the sim while we have users or 'pilots' inside the sim. They basically set up the entry to VERSA and monitor how the system operates while we have pilots inside. They can't really manipulate the world directly, but one thing they can do is manually disconnect you if something is going wrong.”
“Think of it as your guardian angel while you're inside,” Kevin said.
“Or the mom picking you up from soccer practice,” Ernie added.
“Are you two ready to go in?” Sujay asked his guests. “We won't go into VERSA for very long today, we're closing the lab for the day soon anyways.”
Harrison and Rich once again looked at each other. Harrison felt like he was about to go skydiving for the first time.
“Yeah, we're in,” Rich said. “Tell us what we have to do now.”
“Number one rule,” Ernie said over his shoulder, walking back across the room, “go to the bathroom first.”
Kevin laughed. Sujay explained, “That's not a bad idea, though when we induce your coma we also insert triggers into your brain to shut down more of your nonessential bodily systems, like digestion and your bowels. If you're only in it for a few hours, you won't urinate yourself while in the sim, but you might get out and have the urge come back quickly and uncomfortably.”
Rich looked at Sujay for a moment until Sujay got the message. “There's a restroom out the door we came though.” He pointed back towards the way they came into the room.
“Do we need to change?” Harrison asked.
“No you can keep your suits on,” Sujay said. “Though if you want to take off your jackets you can leave them on that table over there.” Sujay turned to Kevin. “I'll go into Stall Five and hook myself up to the sim. Launch me in and then if you wouldn't mind helping Rich and Harrison I will be waiting for them on the other side.”
“You got it boss,” Kevin replied. “You guys use the bathroom and then I'll get you two set up.”
Harrison and Rich walked alone back into the anteroom. “This is some insane shit,” Rich said to Harrison.
“Yeah I don't even know what to think,” Harrison admitted. “I wasn't even paying attention back in Washington when they had me sign all those waivers for this trip. I just figured it was routine stuff.”
Rich sighed. “Looks like nothing is going to be routine anymore. Well, I better drop the kids off in the pool now so I don't shit my pants later,” he said, pushing the bathroom door open.
A few minutes later they were back in the dark room. Sujay was gone, presumably behind the door that said “5” on it.
“Harrison you take Stall Three and Rich you take Stall Four,” Kevin ordered. “Just go inside and lay down on the waterchair with your head at the far end. I usually take off my shoes too to get more comfortable. Take off any watches or jewelry you have on too.”
Harrison entered the closet, removed his shoes, and lay down on the waterchair. It gave him a strange, goopy floating sensation. The gel inside must have been thicker than water, but not by much. He could hear Kevin talking to Rich in the stall to the left of him.
After a minute and the sound of a door closing, Kevin appeared in his doorway. “Alright Harrison,” he said, “the first time is always weird, so make sure you keep taking deep, regular breaths. I'm going to put the rig over your head now.”
He climbed around the waterchair against the wall and moved the large wall-mounted helmet down over Harrison's face. It wasn't airtight by any means, but Harrison's already dim world went totally black. He heard Kevin's muffled voice speak again. “Ok, now keep breathing as normally as you can. And relax. Try thinking about nothing, but I usually think about outer space and that usually does the trick.” Harrison tried to turn his brain off, but his mind was spinning.
“I'm going to hook up a few monitors to you,” Kevin said as he abruptly put a clip on one of Harrison's fingers. “Alright now you're good to go. I'm starting the timer here in your stall so when you wake up you'll know how much real time has passed. See you when you wake up.”
With that, Harrison began to hear a faint sound coming from the helmet above him. Was it hissing? Or humming? He couldn't tell. He heard Kevin leave the room, and the last sound he could precisely make out was the door to his stall shutting closed.