Authors: Brian Stableford
Tags: #virtual gaming, #VR, #virtual reality, #boxing, #fighting
Copyright Â© 1976, 2012 by Brian Stableford
Published by Wildside Press LLC
It was late when I left the studio, and I'd missed the worst of the crowds. I'd also missed the worst of the afternoon stink because the sun was low and there were clouds blowing from the east. Around noon it had been hot enough to cook the garbage in the alleys, but it was cool now and the flies were settling down.
I walked to the monorail station with my hands in my pockets and my eyes fixed on the ground about ten feet in front of where I was walking. It hadn't been a great day, and I wasn't feeling like looking the world in the face. At long last, though, we'd put the knights-in-armor thing to bed. The feelers could move in on Monday and the techs could cut the tape inch by inch into consumer packages. Our part was done, and I had seen the last of all the fancy tinfoil for a good long while. The producer was due for another stroke of self-declared genius, but the one thing you could say for him was that he was inconsistent. Whatever he came up with would be a change.
Personally, I didn't even believe that the travesty we'd just done would ever reach the public. Network might have no taste but they were sensitive as hell about clumsy E-tapes, and no matter how hard the feelers worked they'd never make those tin-clad idiots seem remotely human. It was all too absurd.
So much for chivalry.
When I got to the station there were ten minutes or so to wait. Twenty or thirty other people were thereâalmost all Network staff of some sort. They looked bored and tired, and stared at the tracks or the down line platform with a uniform glassiness. Even the ones that were talking didn't look at one another. The whole scene was completely enervated. It would never be allowed to happen inside a sim. Simulation is far more alive than life.
I nodded to a couple of techs who worked along with me, on and off. They nodded back and didn't smile. Keyboard staff spend so much of their time enveloped by the miracle of MiMaC that they no longer know how to communicate with one another. They take off their headsets and switch themselves off right along with their machines.
But there was one man in the loose knot who saw me and who moved over to stand close to me. His name was Jimmy Schell, and he'd recently moved in across the corridor from me in stack 232. He had a job with Network as a feeler, but they were still testing him out.
He was excited, which meant he'd dubbed a tape.
“I thought you'd've gone,” he said, without bothering to say hello. He presumed a lot on the fact that we were neighbors, but he was new into cap living and probably hadn't cottoned on to the disposability of neighbor relations. The turnover is fast.
“Wrapping up King Arthur,” I muttered, leaving nothing in my tone to suggest that I might welcome his following up that particular line of conversation. I needn't have bothered. He didn't want to talk about me.
He opened his mouth to say something, as if he were in a hell of a rush to pour the words out, but nothing emerged. Jimmy had a stammerânot the kind of stammer which makes you repeat letters or syllables, but the kind which catches you up as you try to form a sound and stops you dead while your face goes red and you look like constipation is killing you. His mind seemed to be prone to the same kind of jamming from time to time. He didn't live on his thinking. That's what made him into a potential feeler. Feelers mustn't thinkâit gets in the way.
a job,” he forced out at last, the G bursting like a little bomb and all the other sounds lurching as they toppled.
“In the can?” I said, fairly pleasantlyâfairly pleased, come to that. I was glad to see the kid getting himself up off the ground. Six months and he could be a household name. I wasn't likely to do any handling for him, but I could well be playing opposite.
He was nodding vigorously. “On the Net,” he said. “Next week.”
“Commercial?” I asked, trying not to let it sound like a dirty word.
“Beer,” he said. “On a beach. They had me in the sweatbox forâ
God, it tasted good!”
“It would,” I said.
His face clouded slightly, though I hadn't meant to sound cynical.
“You thinkâ” he began. He had to stop. He didn't know what I thought.
I shook my head. “It's work,” I said. “It'll show what you can do. Everybody begins the same way.”
They have to. Commercials live on naÃ¯vetÃ© even more than the plastic drama. It takes quite some simplicity of mind to be able to generate wild enthusiasm over some bland crud. It takes a kid who
to feel goodâcan't get through the day without it.
The people know it's fake even when it's honest, of course. They know that sun-bronzed Apollo pouncing about the beach is being puppeted by a bored handler while some callow kid radiates his glamour. But if it's good, if it feels
they play the game. They go out and buy the crud. They buy the plastic drama too. It isn't real but it's comfortable. It feels okay. Some even prefer it that wayâthey like the pap and can't take it straight. Even the addicts of the authentic adrenalin high don't live on an undiluted dietâit would blow their E-sodden minds.
So Jimmy was doing a real public service. Keeping the wheels of modern life in motion. He'd be a hit, I was sure. Up like a shooting star. And, by the same token, burned out as fast. Fame kills feelers. It dispels the simplicity of mind, the
which is so essential to their ability to radiate good feelings.
The train came in and I stepped forward reflexively, short-circuiting Jimmy's next remark even better than his stammer could have. I elbowed my way in through the sliding doors with practiced ease, trying to beat the comptechs to the seats, but it was no good. Standing room only. It wasn't
I grabbed a strap and hung hard, making the tendons in my wrist go rigid. As the train accelerated I was thrown back, then had to lean into the movement. Starting like that made some people sick but the monorail had a schedule to keep up, and even these days the trains ran on time. They really used their speed between stops.
There's always a big demand for speed between stops.
Jimmy was behind me, and once we were under way I edged round to face him. He was looking at me as if he expected something. Congratulations, maybe. Or a funny story.
Anything to keep the word-flow going.
I grinned at him.
“I think I did it good,” he said, confidentially.
“Sure,” I said, nodding. “They give you a hard time?”
“No. I think they liked it. I didn't have to go back in theâ
A thirst is a thirst. It wasn't that they were paying him for, though they'd sweat him up to get it. They were paying him for
âall the things that go into feeling how wonderful a can of beer can be. That's what they'd be sending out good and strong over the beach scene.
“You know,” he said, “I thought they'd need lots ofâ
for a thing like that. But only the guy is real. The restâ” He tailed off, not because his glitch had caught up with him but because he realized he didn't have to tell me. I'd been in the studio since he was an infant.
“The girl doesn't need a handler,” I told him. “She's what they call a visual cue. She isn't called upon to move, let alone feelâshe just has to be there. The crowds in the fringesâwell, they're just phantoms. Just an illusionâa flicker in the walls of the sim. There's a general-purpose procedure in the computer to make crowds. They're just something that has to be vaguely sketched in. Nobody pays them any real attentionâthey're always in the background, mentally as well as physically.”
There was a short pause. Then, in a neutral voice, he said, “You don't handle commercials.” There was a question implied, but he wasn't sure enough of himself to ask.
I shook my head. “It's not my bag,” I said. “I was never into moving suggestively. The body language I talk is made of rougher stuff. I did some heroes when the fashion was for tough parts, but mostly I do bad boys and spares.”
Spares are characters which aren't B-linked. They act in the sim but the characters aren't made available to the vampires so there's no feeler dubbed in over the action. I can move a sim as well as anyone, but body language is importantâa feeler needs a lot of help from his handler, lest the vamp-appeal and the ratings should ever-so-slightly decline. My movements don't talk feeler language, so I generally get the villain or the mug to hustle around. I don't mind. Who wants to be a plastic hero?
“You're good,” said Jimmy, tentatively.
“How d'you know?” I asked. Handlers don't get their names on the credit reels.
“I know some of the stuff you did,” he said. “I looked it up in records. Some of the shows I used to like best when I wasâ” This time he gave up, maybe figuring that I could complete the sentence on my own.
“Why?” I asked. “You want to find out who was living across the way?” I tried not to sound sour about it.
He nodded, knowing somehow that the words just weren't going to come for a moment or two. I let silence settle.
My eyes lingered on Jimmy's face for just a few seconds before being driven away by embarrassment. It looked like a curious kind of mask. It was the face of a small child blown up to size and pasted on to an adult frame. Jimmy wasn't tall but he was stocky and solidly builtânot the kind of guy an anemic mugger would single out as a natural victim. His wide eyes and his little nose and his all-around cuteness looked slightly grotesque on a body built for wielding a sledgehammer.
I let my gaze lurch drunkenly to the window, passing over the dull, vacuous creatures who filled the carriage with a faintly offensive aroma of acrylic plastic and cheap deodorant. They wore with absent-minded unanimity the expression of utter boredom, of transit between phases in their lives. They were in the process of translation from context A (work) to context B (home) and they had no script to govern the intermission. It had never occurred to them that these were minutes like any other minutes, to be lived. To them, it was a time to be endured, a time to be waited out with all senses switched off. They sat in suspended animation, their eyesâlike mineâextending to stare at the blurred world dragged across the window-frames at two hundred KPH. I couldn't figure out what made me any different, but I always had the idea haunting me that I ought to be.
At that kind of speed, there's nothing solid outside the train. Everything beyond the traveling microcosm becomes liquid, unable to linger long enough on-the retina to form a hard image. At two hundred KPH the world is ultra-soft, dissolving into chaos. The sun flashes from a billion windows, and there seems to be a glittering sea outside, immune from action and change.
Time, someone used to say, is for spending, not for saving. Or for killing. But today's people are mean with their time. They can't pile it up in banks or nursery-rhyme counting-houses but they can staunch its flow, forcing it to clot before they pick the scab and let it go again.
Sometimes I wonder how the hell they think they're ever going to collect the interest on their savings.
“Who do you think will win the fight?” said Jimmy, finding his voice and cutting into my thoughts with it.
I froze slightly. It was a bad question. But he wasn't to know that.
“Herrera,” I said, clipping the syllables.
“They say Angeli is hot,” he said, rejoicing in the way he was getting his sentences out and failing to pick up the hint.
“Herrera will win,” I said.
He must have caught the inflection that time. He knew he'd somehow hit a nerve.
“You going to watch theâ
?” A fatuous question, hardly worth the agony of the stammer.
“Aren't we all?” I replied.
“Plugged into Herrera?” he said, not stopping himself in time. It was an indelicate question. Not the kind of thing you ask in mixed company. He realized, too late, and I could almost see him asking where the hell his vocal censor had got to. Stammers have no loyalty. I made no move to answer, thinking that maybe to him it was a natural question. Maybe to his generation there was nothing to keep hidden, nothing essentially private and personal about B-linking. He'd grown up with it, had been plugging into the sims ever since he could see and feel on his own account. It wasn't something that had stolen into his life like some kind of succubus or social disease. And he wasn't what you might call socially sensitive.
What can you expect from a novice feeler?
But to meâand I don't deny that I'm way behind the timesâB-linking was still a vice. It was still something that happened behind closed doors. So far as I was concerned, there was still virtue in not doing it.
Because he looked confused, and slightly bewildered by the way I'd clammed up, I finally said, “I don't use the link.”
“Not for fights?”
“Not for anything.”
He suddenly looked away. Perhaps he was angry. After all, the B-link was his career. It was his reason for living. And I'd just dissociated myself from his way of life as if it was something dirty. I wondered how to repair what I'd said.
Then, unexpectedly, he laughed. For once in his life he'd discovered a crazy thought. He laughed.
Then he said, “It's aâ
thing there aren't more of you or I'd beâ
“So you would,” I muttered, looking over his head at a wasp circling someone else's face. The threatened individual was maintaining a sturdy dignity, but a girl with silver eyelids sitting next to him was tensing her jaw and praying hard the insect wouldn't drift her way.
Nobody dared swat the thing. They didn't want to get involved.