Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Charley’s InQuanto

Charley knew that two guards would emerge from behind the supply truck as soon as he abandoned the trash pile. His only remaining weapon was a Beowulf rifle. It fired hard-hitting .50 caliber bullets, but it had only four rounds remaining. Charley had exhausted all his other weapons and ammo getting past the zombies at the perimeter. There was nothing else to do but make his move and hope for the best. The longer he dallied, the more certain that some other threat would appear behind him.
Charley jumped from behind the trash pile. The guards appeared. As always, they were armed with 40mm grenade launchers. Charley zigzagged as they lobbed grenades at him. The first four exploded at safe distances, but each round landed closer than the last. Charley fired two rounds at each target, just as the guard on the left pulled his trigger. Both guards dropped amid a grisly spray of blood and gristle. Charley dove and tumbled to his right as the final arcing grenade hit the ground and exploded. Charley was outside the lethal range of the blast, but close enough to take damage. Pain shot through him as his body flashed red four times and his life meter dropped below the quarter mark.
He forced himself to his feet and hobbled to the supply truck. Just as important as the weapons it held were the bottles of life-giving blue elixir. He pulled himself into the back of the classic 2-ton truck. An open case of the blue bottles glowed. He removed one bottle, pulled out the cork, and poured the liquid down his throat. The stuff smelled and tasted like apricot brandy, but it had no intoxicating effects. His life meter went back to full; the pain abated as his shrapnel injuries swiftly healed. Charley altered his choice of weapons from the last time he had reached the truck. He reloaded the Beowulf and slung it over his shoulder, but instead of taking an AK he took an RPG-7.
Charley again marveled at InQuanto’s most recent upgrades to its VR gaming system. The graphics were utterly indistinguishable from real life. All the smells, tastes, sounds, and textures were spot on. A number of unrealistic conventions had been carried over from the old video games in this game, such as the life meter and life restoring elixir, but these were deliberate throwbacks included for their nostalgic appeal. Many of the available games did without them. Charley had reservations about the pain – sometimes excruciating – from virtual injuries, but he supposed it was the price for the equally realistic pleasures to be had in the upgraded VR. Besides, he always could speak his password and terminate a session if the experience became too hard to bear.
He was near the end of this program, and Charley felt he might beat it for the first time. He had the diamonds in his pocket and needed only to get to into the walled heliport, steal the helicopter, and escape. He already had passed the toughest enemy, which was the bioengineered dragon just outside the zombie zone. The zombies were easy enough to defeat individually, but the sheer number of them could cause trouble. If you let them slow you down, they would overwhelm you. Nevertheless, he had gotten past them to this truck several times, only to be killed in the flames at the gate to the heliport (truly an awful way to go) or by something unknown on the heliport grounds. He hated dying. The last save point was way back before the dragon.
He had to move quickly before more guards showed up. Embedded in the walls of the tunnel-like gate to the heliport was a series of automated flamethrowers that shot at intervals. He remembered the rhythm of the flames from the last time. Charley approached the gate, singing to himself This Old Man to keep his timing right. He jumped past the first fire spout just as the flames died. Flames shot behind him as he landed; he could feel their heat. He leapt past the next two during the moment when they were in synch. He timed the next one perfectly, too. He was slightly off on the fifth and burned his legs, but he made it through alive. The searing pain was almost unbearable.
The helicopter was at the far end of the walled space, but some unseen enemy lay between him and the chopper somewhere. It had killed him twice before. He suspected “unseen” was precisely right: an invisible beast was in there and probably was closing on him at this moment. The solution suddenly was obvious. Why hadn’t he noticed the sandy area along the left wall before? Charley ran toward it with all the speed he could muster. He heard panting close to his right and something tore at the sleeve of his jacket. Charley smelled hot rank breath. Several meters into the sand patch he spun with his back to the wall and raised the RPG. He saw huge six-toed footprints appear in the sand. The beast roared. Charley pulled the trigger. The explosion was so close that it threw Charley against the wall and drained nearly all his remaining life. He aimed his Beowulf at the depression in the sand and unloaded a full clip for good measure.
Flickering red, he limped to the helicopter hoping there were no more surprises or enemies. He got into the pilot seat, fired the engine, and lifted into the air. Two more elixir bottles were conveniently placed next to them. He drank them down and let the warm health flow through him. Now it was just a matter of delivering the diamonds and collecting his cut.
Soon after collecting his fee from the cartel bosses, he spoke the password that terminated the VR session. Charley felt himself back in the full body VR capsule. The capsule tilted to the upright position and Charley swung open the lid. He was back in his dingy dimly-lit bedroom in “meatspace”. It was not a pleasant place to be. Doctors had forbade him these VR sessions, saying they put too much stress on his failing organs, but what else was he supposed to do? Lie in bed and stare at the ceiling?
He saw that his housekeeper had been in the room. A tray with bland unappetizing mash and gruel was on the stand by his bed. Charley stepped carefully out of the capsule and sat on the bed by the tray. He ate what he could and then shuffled to the bathroom to attend to his needs there. Charley once again fretted about his finances. He no longer could afford even this modest two-bedroom unit. Though he didn’t know how he could manage without her, he’d have to fire the housekeeper soon. He had spent his last rainy-day reserve on a sort of insurance offered by InQuanto, the VR service provider. He had found the idea irresistible at the time, but he now regarded the purchase as one of the most foolish he ever had made
Charley saw no reason to remain in this room any further. There was a far better place to relax and to take his mind off his worries. He returned to the VR chamber and closed the lid. This moment always disturbed him a little. It felt like being closed in a coffin, but he knew the sensation would pass. Charley spoke the code for his destination.
The warm breeze was wonderful. Charley wound through the hilly roads in his Jaguar convertible on the way to the mansion he had designed for himself. The steel gates to his country estate swung open. The Jag roared up his long driveway. In truth, he had stolen many of the details of the estate from the Playboy Mansion. The resemblance did not end at architecture. Seven sunbathing long-haired bikini-clad beauties waved to him as he entered brick-paved circle by the front door. Unlike Hef’s bevy of blondes, his girlfriends were redheads.
“Last one to the grotto gets hosed with cold water!” he shouted.
All seven dashed toward the heated artificial cave pool. Charley jumped out the car without opening the door. Reveling in his VR vigor, he charged toward the grotto.
“You’re the last one!” they shouted in unison as he entered, and a cold spray from a hose caught him in the face.
Charley laughed and removed his clothes as the girls dropped the bikinis and dove in the pool. Yes, an orgy in the grotto was just what he needed.
Charley opened his eyes. He was in the master bedroom of his mansion. The circular bed beneath him rotated slowly under the ceiling mirror. This was unusual. He rarely slept in VR. In cyberspace his bedroom was almost entirely for erotic purposes. Yet, he was alone. Come to think of it, he didn’t remember going to bed. His last memory was being sandwiched between Gretchen and Louise in the warm waters of the grotto under the waterfall. Charley spoke the password to end the session and return to meatspace.
“Nikstitselpmur.” It was Rumplestiltskin backwards.
Nothing happened. He repeated the password. Again, nothing changed. It was possible there was some temporary glitch in the servers, but another possibility occurred to him.
            When Charley first heard of the Postvita Insurance Policy for his InQuanto account, he was very skeptical of the claims. It wasn’t life insurance. It was afterlife insurance. A purchase would allow InQuanto to collect and store personality info; the purchaser then only need spend a reasonable amount of time in InQuanto space, the brochure said, and the company would be able to generate a fully autonomous cyber you. Your cyber self would be inactive as long as you lived, but would be updated with your most recent memories every time you logged on. If you ceased to log on for more than 30 days, your character would be activated. In effect, you would be resurrected entirely in cyberspace. Charley doubted the thing was possible, but the more he thought about it the more intrigued he became. The mere chance of living indefinitely in the land of his dreams, VR or not, sure beat the alternative. He bought the insurance.
Charley put on his robe and walked downstairs.
“Girls? Gretchen? Amanda?”
There was no reply. The house apparently was empty. A knock came at the door. He crossed the foyer and opened the four-foot wide 8-panel intricately engraved oak door. A man and woman stood outside. Both were young. Charley decided they would be attractive were it not for their conservative blue business suits, severe coifs, and prim demeanors. The woman carried an attaché case. He rarely saw any player dress this way in VR where anyone can do or be anything, so he assumed they were artifacts of the program. Nonetheless they might have some useful information about what was going on. They wore name tags: V. Needles and V. Takewell.
“Can I help you?” Charley asked.
“Hello, Sir. You are Mr. Charles Avener?”
“I’m Mr. Needles, and I’m here to welcome you to your new life. This is Ms. Virginia Takewell. We have things to discuss. May we come in and sit down?”
“Uh, sure, follow me. He led them into the enormous dining room with its cathedral ceiling, granite fireplace, and table that could accommodate fifty diners. The three sat at one end, with Charley sitting across from Needles and Takewell taking the end chair.
“I’m from the Immigration Service, and Ms. Takewell is from the Virtual Revenue Service,” Needles explained. “My job is to greet new arrivals, and Ms. Takewell attends to the financial aspects.”
“Immigration? Financial aspects? By any chance am I dead?”
“Yes, of course. I’m glad to see you are receptive to the notion. Not all arrivals take it so calmly. Your Primary over in meatspace indeed terminated 30 days ago. In fact, he did so while still logged on. That caused a great deal of trouble with the final file update, for which, I’m afraid, we’ll have to assess you. You may have lost a few subjective hours of continuity because of it. However, as per your contract, your Postvita Insurance has been activated, and here you are in InQuanto space, as alive in your own way as we are.”
“You two are not computer generated artifacts?”
“In a sense, we all are, but, just like you, Ms. Takewell and I had lives in meatspace. Our Primaries have terminated, as has your own, so now we are fully autonomous self-aware cyber entities, just like you. Ms. Takewell has your paperwork including your new tax ID number.
“Tax ID? What’s this about taxes?”
“Oh come now. Didn’t you read your contract, Mr. Avener?” asked Takewell.
“It was over 2000 pages long. I skimmed it, but I didn’t see anything bout taxes.”
“You saw the part that said ‘subject to all applicable laws and regulations?’”
“Well, yes.”
“There you are. Taxes are part of the applicable regulations. Besides, surely you don’t begrudge paying your fair share.”
“Share of what?”
“Your share of support for the maintenance of a civil society of which you are a beneficiary, of course,” she answered crisply as though any dunce should understand without explanation.
“But this world isn’t real. There are no economic limits. None we need worry about anyway. It’s all froth: photons and electrons. Everyone can have absolutely whatever he or she wants.”
“And what kind of world would that be?” she asked.
“I think not. Individuals are poor judges of what is good for them.”
“OK, OK. I don’t understand the reason for it, but it doesn’t matter. I have plenty of money. I can pay your taxes.”
“Oh, indeed you will, but I’m afraid your money is not legal tender in the Postvita Zone of InQuanto. Only your persona and your primary residence transfer into the Zone from the InQuanto account you maintained while your Primary was alive. Only notes issued by the Virtual Reserve Bank are legal for the payment of taxes and private services. In addition to income taxes, by the way, your real estate here also is subject to property tax.” She opened her case and removed a blue paper. “Here is your first quarter property tax bill of $32,899.”
“That sounds like a lot.”
“It is a very large property.”
“Um. Where are my girlfriends? My staff?”
Takewell wrinkled her nose and twisted her mouth in distaste.
“Your rights to generate life-simulant artifacts are more limited in Postvita than they were when your Primary managed the InQuanto account. Your ‘women’ aren’t here because your arrangements with them violate fundamental human rights. It’s a hate crime to treat human beings like objects in that manner.”
“Um. They aren’t people. They are constructs of my own fantasy. I’m an autonomous conscious being. They are not. Are they?”
“No, of course they are not. They do not have the data-depth for consciousness, which is why it there was no ethical problem for us when we deleted them.”
“You deleted them? If they weren’t conscious, whose fundamental rights was I violating?”
“Well, mine, for one, and the other autonomous people of good will such as myself who dislike seeing representations of human beings treated like objects. Such acts, if repeated in this Zone, will subject you to fines and possibly jail.”
“You have jails here?”
“Certainly. We have to maintain order.”
“You’ll understand better once you finish the tour,” said Needles. We’ll swing by the draft board while we’re at it.”
“I’m subject to military service?”
“Of course. There are other regions with other afterworld governments. As more cyberspace is made available to us, the division of it sometimes gets testy.”
“You war over it.”
          “Yes. But then you like war games, don't you?"
          "'Games.' It's a little different when it's for fun and enemy doesn't consist of real people."
          "Oh, don’t worry. We follow strict codes of combat to which we agreed in real world protocols. You can’t be killed in cyberspace, which I’m sure was your concern. That would violate your Postvita contract. However, you can be a POW, which I’m afraid is unpleasant, and you can be wounded, which can be unpleasant also. We have to keep score somehow.”
“Wait a minute. Real world protocols? You mean these arrangements were set up by live people over in meatspace?” Charley asked.
“Of course.”
“It all sounds very fascist.”
“‘Fascist’ is rude and, more importantly, wrong,” an offended Needles complained. “Quite the contrary, our policies are democracy in action.”
“How do you figure? I didn’t vote on any of it.”
“But you did. You voted for your representatives in Congress and they wrote the laws which set up the agencies which in turn adopted the regulations. Due process was followed at every step.”
“I didn’t read anything about it.”
“You have only yourself to blame for that,” Needles said. “Pages 856 to 1289 of the Cyber Consciousness Fairness Act explain the VR Commission’s discretion to set standards for the functioning of cyberspace.”
“That sounds like an awfully vague and broad – not to say obscure – authority. Wait a minute,” said Charley. “I’m getting a glimmer of what is going on here. You – and people like you – you were the ones who wrote the regulations when you were alive. You wrote them so that you all would still be in charge over here – even more in charge than you were back in the real world. But why? You could build virtual castles and rule over kingdoms full of digital constructs – people just like my deleted girlfriends – without bothering autonomous folk like me.”
“It just wouldn’t be the same, Charley,” answered Needles. “Surely you can see that. Where is the satisfaction in serving non-entities?”
“‘Serving’ you call it?”
“What else would I call it? People have the right to pursue happiness. You don’t deny that do you? Well, it gives me happiness to serve society: a real society – or as real as one can be over here.”
“What about my happiness?” Charley asked.
“We fully allow you to pursue yours within a just and civil society.”
“As defined by you.”
Needles affected a long-suffering smile, and said “It’s our job.”
“Just how much legal tender do I have, by the way?”
“The first sensible question you have asked,” said Takewell. “None, I’m afraid, but you can sell this place, which will give you something. In fact your estate here violates at least a dozen zoning ordinances, and at the moment you don’t have the resources to apply for variances, so you have little choice.”
“Who will buy it?”
“Newly deceased corporate and government officials always are entering the Postvita Zone of InQuanto. They can afford it. Don't expect a high price, but it might cover most of your tax obligation.”
“How can they afford it if they are newly deceased? I’m newly deceased and you’re telling me I can’t afford it.”
“You must understand that we have to compensate leaders of that stature properly in order to attract the necessary talent.”
“Is that another way of saying that they or their lobbyists got regulations passed back in meatspace that favored themselves? Can they have a houseful of digital lovers without being charged with a hate crime?”
“Certainly not,” answered Needles, carefully avoiding the first question. “That hardly would be fair. Besides, they don’t need to. Residents of such high stature can attract autonomous beings like yourself to fill that role.”
“So you don’t object to treating real people like objects, only fake ones.”
“Real and fake are less precise terms in this world than the last, but yes, we allow conscious beings to make poor choices for themselves by being mistresses or boy toys of senior execs. It’s free choice. We believe in human freedom and dignity here, you see,” Needles explained.
“Meantime,” said Takewell, “we’ll arrange for a homeless shelter bed for you and for subsistence payments while we match you up with a full-time job and enroll you in required education classes for the various licenses you’ll need. Those will have fee, of course. You see, we are a caring society.”
“And when I’m matched to this job, for how long do I spend my second life drudging for you?” Charley asked.
“Not for me. For the community.”
“Yeah, yeah. How long?”
“Why, that’s the upside,” said Needles. “You never have to retire. You’ll be employed forever. Come along. Time to take you on the tour. You’ll find much of this world very similar to the one you left.”
“I don’t doubt it. Your name tag says V. Needles? Does the V. stand for Virgil by any chance?”
Needles smiled a broad smile “How did you know?”
“Lucky guess.”

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