Jack Herbert

The Birthday Girl
Photo Credit: Maria

Have you ever seen yourself when you’re immersed in virtual reality? Trust me, you look like an idiot. Mouth slacked open, a line of crusted drool running from the corner of your mouth all the way down your neck, your eyes frantically rolling around under closed lids , and (if you were too cheap to spring for the neural blocker) your arms and legs twitch every so often because your body is too stupid to know that the impulses being generated by the brain are only supposed to apply to the fake world you’re living in and not the reality of you strapped to a bed covered in wires and tubes. Even so, I would trade places with you in a second.

It’s my first stop of the morning and I’m about to ruin someone’s life. The repo paperwork got me through security into this guy’s apartment and now I’m standing over his living corpse while his brain is currently somewhere else. Unless you’re one of the ultra-rich trust fund crowd, you have to make time to earn a living while you’re inside. More often than not, people get too caught up in their electronic fantasies and forget there are bills to be paid out here in the real world. If you happened to buy your VR rig on credit (and everybody buys their VR rig on credit), then you’ll probably wind up on my call sheet so I can ruin your life, too.

I took another look at the paperwork: Scott Degman, age 36, no wife, no kids, payment five weeks overdue. We don’t even bother sending reminder notices any more.

They would have just ended up in the mountain of mail I had to climb over to get into the place. Once you’re that deep into the sim, nothing out here matters any more.

I pulled up the status display and it was pretty much what I figured. He’d been under for almost ten weeks, hardly a marathon session but enough to get you in trouble. I tabbed over to the portal view so I could see what was going on in this guy’s fantasy. Yes, it’s a major violation of privacy, but I was well within my rights and I just loved to torture myself this way, to see exactly what I was missing out on. Good ol’ Scott was currently in the midst of an orgy with a who’s who of stacked starlets, women like Marilyn Monroe and Scarlett Johansson heaped into one big writhing mass of naked flesh.

Of course it was sex. It’s always sex. Everyone swears they will take the high road, that they will have the mature fantasy encounters windsurfing off Hawaii or climbing Mount Everest or discussing politics with Abraham Lincoln, but it doesn’t take long for your baser natures to start running the show, for your trip to the Forum to turn into a party at Caligula’s place.

Of course, it was originally designed to be just a vacation, but what was supposed to be a relaxing getaway for a few hours quickly became days then weeks then months. Those with the resources to do so took up permanent residence while everyone else figured out how to turn in just enough work to keep up with the payments so the fun would never end.

I really can’t complain. I was just as bad and, given the chance, I’d be right there with them. Thanks to an aneurysm, the docs tell me that going back into VR, even for a minute, will almost certainly kill me. There are days when that seems like a pretty good trade. So, yeah, I get a great deal of perverse pleasure in the unplugging process. Chalk it up to misery loving company.

I kicked off the shutdown sequence and then kept an eye on Degman’s vitals. This guy was pretty young for a heart attack, but being yanked back to reality against your will can take a pretty hefty toll on both the body and the psyche.

“Wha… who… what happened?” Scott’s eyes were half open, his face skewed by disorientation.

“Sir, can you hear me?” I asked as I shined a flashlight in his eyes to check the pupil response. It didn’t look like brain damage was an issue, at least not yet.

“What happened? Why are you in my house?”

“Repossession, Mr. Degman. If you buy stuff on credit, you need to make the payments. I have been authorized to take your VR equipment with me today unless you can pay me the balance due right now.”

This is the part where it starts to get embarrassing. People swear the payment must have been lost, that their bank was the culprit, that they would have the money in a couple of days if I could just wait. But, of course, it’s almost always a bunch of desperate lies from people trying to hold onto their dreams just a little bit longer, the addict trying to keep the fix going. Trust me, once you’ve spent that long inside, reality will never be enough to make you happy.

Degman went through all the expected excuses and even made a couple of half-hearted phone calls. The first told him his bank account was overdrawn and the other informed him that he had been fired from his job for not showing up. Ten minutes later, I had his rig strapped to my handcart and was heading for the front door.

“What am I supposed to do now?” Degman asked.

“Try living for a change,” I responded as the door closed behind me. The next stop was halfway across town, but thanks to a nearly complete lack of traffic, it hardly took any time at all. These days, the streets are almost deserted even in the middle of the day. Newsweek called it “The Ghost Town Effect” in their big cover story about how VR was destroying America. Not that it did any good. Two weeks after that article ran, both houses of Congress voted unanimously to hold all future legislative sessions in VR. Good riddance.

Next up on the call sheet was Luis Sanchez. I took the elevator up and entered his apartment with the master I picked up from the building manager, just one more stop on the Loser Express.

Right away, I could see this was going to be a bad one. Sanchez was completely emaciated, nothing but skin and bones. I checked the drip and saw that his IV feed bag was bone dry which meant that no one had been by to replace it in weeks, probably because he had also stopped making his maintenance payments. While his brain was off partying, his body was back here starving to death.

My first surprise came when I noticed the sticky note stuck on the screen that simply said, “Please let me die.” Great. Just great.

I peeled the note off, then pulled up the status display. This guy had been inside for almost seven months. What a mess. If he had been able to make just one more payment, he would have successfully managed to off himself before I even got there. I wondered what fantasy could be worth dying for and pulled up the portal. It wasn’t sex. It was so much worse.

Sanchez was sitting at his kitchen table next to a small girl in a frilly dress and a woman I assumed was his wife. A birthday cake was aglow with candles and they were telling her to blow them out. I looked through his paperwork and then wished I hadn’t. His wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident eight months ago. Two weeks later, he had bought his very first VR rig.

I hated him for a moment because he reminded me of myself. I understood all too well what it means to torture yourself with the unattainable, but also knew what it meant to try and hold onto it, too. I knew what it was like trying to grasp your dreams then wind up with nothing more than a fistful of smoke.

On the screen, the scene shifted to a park and a family picnic, Frisbees being tossed and everyone laughing. Abrupt transitions like that are a sign of neurological issues and a quick check of his vitals bore that out. His brain activity as erratic, his vitals were sketchy, and it was nothing short of a miracle that he was still able to maintain the sim. He probably just willed himself to remain conscious, to keep living with these ghosts, these bits of unreality that were the last remnants of his life before the fickle finger of fate took it all away.

I felt something new as I stared down at this man: pity. I actually felt sorry for him. Trust me, that’s the last thing I expected, too. I kicked myself for going soft, but still stood motionless, letting this go on minute after minute. Anyone else would be awake now, the paramedics checking his credit to see if he could afford medical care while I whistled a jaunty tune and took away his box of stupid dreams, happy to shatter his perfect little fantasy and drag him back into the real world with the rest of us working schlubs.

The scene on the portal switched to a swimming pool, the three of them splashing around on some nice sunny day sometime before he was left alone with his grief, unable to let go of the family he should have had until he died. I guess that was the real fantasy here, what he was trying to accomplish. Why couldn’t this guy just eat a bullet or become a raging alcoholic like anyone else? Why did he have to end up here on my call sheet forcing me to drag him out of this?

As if someone had flipped a switch, my mood crystallized and I suddenly hated my job, all of the wonderful bitter joy I got from unplugging people suddenly lost. Screw it. I don’t get paid enough for crap like this. I scribbled “unable to access residence—revisit in 30 days” onto the work order then walked out and locked the door behind me.

Maybe I’d get lucky and my next call would be living out some really perverted sex fantasy. Buoyed with that small bit of hope, I climbed into my van and got the Loser Express back on track.

pencilJack Herbert’s work has previously appeared or is upcoming in a number of publications including THEMA, Tales of the Talisman, Bloodbond, and Down in the Dirt.  He currently lives in Chicago. Email: janetsch11[at]gmail.com

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