Note: This is a sequel to VRansomwear. To start at the very beginning, click here.
5: Hunter And His Handler
The bar was much busier when Jeff returned, unsurprising for 8:30 on a Saturday night. Jeff found Martin sitting at the same table as before talking with another man sitting across from him. Martin saw him and waved in greeting.
“Would you excuse me for a moment?” he said to the other at his table, who murmured a polite farewell and stood to go. It was at this point that Jeff noticed the third man at the table, who he had not seen before because he was down on all fours at the feet of the man who was rising to depart. Jeff, the son of generations of Brooklynites, was no stranger to other people engaging in odd behavior and had two stock responses in store for whenever he came across it. One was a blistering stream of profanity and the other was a carefully-blank expression and averted eyes. The first was generally reserved for behavior that affected Jeff in some way and so he was preparing to bring up the second response when something caught him off guard: the man on the floor, who was now rising up just like a dog about to follow in the footsteps of its master, was wearing a thick black rubber suit that looked exactly like the one he had seen Bill in yesterday. Jeff’s poker face crumbled and he gaped like a midwestern farm boy on his first trip to Times Square, only realizing he was doing it when Martin chuckled.
“Actually, Bernie, would you mind sticking around a few minutes longer? I was about to introduce my new friend to VRealWorld and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to demo. Bernie, this is Jeff. Jeff, this is my friend Bernie and that’s Hunter.”
“Nice to meet you,” Bernie said, holding out a hand that Jeff reflexively took and shook. Meanwhile, Hunter – the man on the floor – put his face up to Jeff’s crotch and sniffed, then nuzzled at his dangling other hand and would have licked it had Jeff not noticed and pulled it up out of reach.
“OK, this… this is…” Words failed him and he sputtered to silence. Martin chuckled again, joined this time by Bernie.
“I know, this is all new to you. A bit of culture shock for a straight boy to be wandering into a gay bar, especially on VRealWorld night when half the guys you see aren’t even really here, they’re so focused on things that are invisible to you and me.”
“Oh, he’s straight?” Bernie asked. “How do you do it, Martin? You just amaze me, you really do.”
Of course this was a gay bar. Jeff would have noticed sooner based on the look of the clientele, but his mind had been focused on getting Bill out of his predicament.
“OK, Jeff, why don’t you sit down before you fall down,” Martin said. Jeff sat, sliding toward the wall to make room for Bernie to reclaim the spot he had just vacated. Suddenly there was a beer in his hand. He took a sip – it was cool and refreshing and the same kind that he had had yesterday. Martin had known he would be back tonight. He knew a lot, it seemed, about what was going on. After yesterday’s experience in Elmhurst, Jeff found himself more willing to sit through an explanation at whatever pace Martin wanted to deliver it, because the best idea he had been able to come up with on his own was to call the cops and try to persuade them to rescue a kidnap victim who was being held by nobody in an unlocked room. That didn’t seem like it would end well.
“So I told you that VRealWorld is an augmented reality game. Players use digital devices to modify the reality they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. At the low end, any phone or tablet can let you access the game, but serious players like to use headsets or gloves or vests or even full-coverage body suits like the one Hunter has on. The game is capable of altering sight, sound, and touch, so the the more senses you integrate with, the more real the experience feels.”
While Martin was speaking, Bernie had pulled out his phone and brought up an app. He handed it to Jeff. “Here, take a look at Hunter. Hunter, out and stay.” He gestured with his hand to illustrate to Hunter the movement he intended. Jeff held the phone up so that the camera was pointed at the crawling man…
… or rather, at the dog, because that’s what was visible on the screen. Jeff saw not a man in a black suit but an elegant dog of unknown breed, with a thick tan coat of medium-length fur, sharp, up-pointed ears, and a long upraised tail. The illusion was completely convincing. Jeff glanced around the phone to confirm that the creature on the floor really was a man in a black suit taking surprisingly-agile steps on his hands and knees, then looked back at the phone where the thick human arms and legs were displayed as slender furry legs that ended in strong, sure-footed paws. Every movement that Hunter-the-human made was replicated on the screen where Hunter-the-dog made a corresponding movement with the corresponding part of his anatomy.
“That’s… how does it… whoa…” Jeff breathed.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Bernie said as Hunter paused, having reached the distance Bernie had indicated. “It’s even better with a headset because you can see the whole room. Now watch this.” He reached over, tapped the phone and said “Leash.” On the screen Jeff watched as a rope lead appeared between Bernie’s hand and Hunter’s neck. It was so real-looking that Jeff reached forward and tried to grab the imaginary line. His hand, of course, passed through empty space while on the screen it appeared to go right through the rope. It wasn’t just his hand, either – a trio of leather-clad men on their way to the bar walked right through the leash with neither the leash nor the men noticing each other.
“Ready?” Bernie said. Jeff wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be ready for. Bernie gave a flick of his gloved wrist, tugging it toward himself. On the screen, the rope lead tightened up and tugged on Hunter’s collar.
And Hunter turned around and returned to the table.
“How the…” Jeff gasped. “He was facing away from you! He couldn’t possibly have seen you do that!”
“I know, isn’t it amazing!” Bernie chortled. “It’s because of the glove.” He held up his right hand, which was encased in a glove that looked like ordinary black leather at first but which on closer inspection turned out to be laced with silver wires. “The glove is VRealWorld-linked so the system knows what to do when I move my hand.”
“And on Hunter’s end,” Martin said, “the suit generates a pressure at the collar region that Hunter perceives as a tug. And being the well-trained animal he is, he comes trotting right back to his master’s side. Isn’t that right, boy?” He reached down and scratched the rubber-clad head. Both Hunter-the-man and Hunter-the-dog leaned in to the attention and after a few moments reached out to give Martin an amiable lick, which Jeff found looked totally unremarkable on the screen but was deeply unsettling off it.
“With the suit on, everything Hunter sees, hears, and feels is 100% consistent with the role he has taken on. When he cocks his ears forward, he can feel it in the muscles of his scalp. When he wags his tail, he gets a sensation at the base of his spine that exactly simulates what he would feel if the tail was real. When he looks down at his arms, he sees the same paws you see on the screen. He sees a muzzle rather than a nose between his eyes. The colors are washed out to mimic a dog’s color perception range – dogs can’t distinguish between reds and greens so reds, oranges, and greens are all various shades of yellow to them.”
“It does sound too,” Bernie broke in. “We’re talking now and he can hear us, but he can’t understand the words. The suit parses the sounds that reach it and scrambles any voices it finds, then pipes the result to the headphones in his ears. What he hears are still recognizable as voices but with all meaning removed. It’s like listening to a foreign language – he can use tone of voice cues to tell whether the speaker is pleased or angry or curious, and after enough repetition he can learn to recognize certain combinations of sounds the way other dogs do, commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’, or ‘back’, He recognizes his name as well. But there are no complicated sentences for him when he’s in dog mode.”
“When he’s in dog mode…” Jeff echoed faintly. “So he’s not always like this? He’s sometimes… jeez, I don’t know how else to say this… a normal person? If that’s offensive, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be. This is all…” he gulped in a big breath of air. “… all very new to me.” He grabbed for his beer before he could say anything else.
“No problem, we get that question a lot,” Bernie replied. “Hunter has a conventional job on the weekdays. It’s actually a fairly high stress one and you’d recognize the name of his employer. He’s good at it, but it wears on him. Becoming a dog on the weekends helps him relax. Dogs have no stress at all, right? They live in the moment, they don’t care a hoot for tomorrow. Before we got into VRealWorld, we used to just pretend. We went the furry-costume route for a while, but this is so much better. It makes it so much easier to fully sink into the role. For him and for me.”
“And… if I can ask… what do you get out of it?”
“Ha! What do I get? Man’s best friend with benefits, that’s what I get out of it! No, seriously, I get what any other dog person gets – in exchange for feeding and exercising him, I get unconditional affection and undivided attention. When he’s being Hunter, he is constantly aware of me, paying attention to my state of mind, my mood, my well-being. He’s there for me, sometimes even before I know I need him. And best of all, I don’t have to scoop up after him. Find me any other dog that’s toilet trained!”
He laughed long and hard and Martin joined in. Jeff chuckled to be polite, then reached for his beer to cover up the fact that this was all more than a little weird, especially with the knowledge that even as he sat here, Bill was locked into a suit just like this one and Jeff had no idea what sort of lies it was feeding into his eyes, ears, and skin. He realized the beer was half gone already. When had that happened?
“Well,” Bernie said. “I get the feeling that Martin here is about to start getting all boring, explaining in excruciating detail how all the techno-mumbo-jumbo works. That is my cue to move along. Nice meeting you, Jeff.”
“You, too,” Jeff murmured, running very much on social autopilot. This was a lot to take in already and he had a feeling he was still only at the top of the rabbit hole. Martin thanked them for the demo they had provided and then the pair disappeared into the growing crowd.
“So this is what Bill is doing?” Jeff asked. “He’s pretending he’s a dog?”
“No,” Martin replied, “Bill is in a different game altogether. You saw the room that Bill is in, right? You were in there with him. A perfectly normal bedroom just like any of ten thousand others in this city. But that’s not what Bill is seeing.”
He fiddled with his phone for a bit, then handed it to Jeff. “That’s what Bill is experiencing.” Jeff saw stone walls and a figure pacing the floor. The lighting was dim and the black rubber of Bill’s suit soaked it up, making it hard to distinguish any details. It looked nothing like the room Jeff had been in earlier. Jeff tweezed his fingers on the screen to swing the view around… there was the wall where the window should be, only there was no window in this view. Over there was the door, but in this view he saw just a short hallway that led to the toilet and sink. The gap that led to the living room and kitchen didn’t exist. In its place was just more stone.
That was why Bill couldn’t get out. He couldn’t see the door. The suit probably prevented him from feeling it, too, making him think the stone wall completely surrounded him. As far as he could tell, the door didn’t even exist.
There was a number at the top right of the screen, 327. It changed to 326 while Jeff was watching.
“OK, I think I get it now,” he said, handing the phone back to Martin. “The suit prevents him from finding the exit. And he can’t unlock the suit. Catch-22. So I just have to go drag him out even if he doesn’t want to go –” Martin held up a hand and Jeff trailed to a halt.
“I know you’re eager to go get him, but you tried once already to pull him out of the VRealWorld from the outside and it didn’t work. Trying again would only have the same result. The only way you’re going to get Bill out is to do it from within the game. You’re going to have to go into the VRealWorld yourself.”
6: The Dance Floor
It took ten minutes to get the VRealWorld app installed on Bill’s phone and to set up a user account for him. He chose the name “AvengingTurtle” not because the term was special to him but because it wasn’t, and therefore was not something Bill would associate with him. Jeff was fairly sure – and was hoping – that Bill would welcome his rescuer with open arms and a hug of gratitude once he understood that he was being rescued, but after yesterday’s reaction Jeff could foresee possible outcomes where he might want to keep his involvement anonymous. Best to leave his options open.
For the next half hour Martin gave him an introductory tutorial on how to use the controls and the interface. He started with the phone and then tried on a headset and a pair of gloves, rented from a supply the bar kept available for guests. “For your purposes, a headset and gloves will be enough. Players who want a deeper, more realistic experience might add a vest or a pair of shorts or long pants, and the really committed players get those full-coverage suits like Hunter is wearing. Those are very expensive, but they provide the fullest, most satisfying experience possible.”
“Bill’s in one of those suits,” Jeff observed, trying to get the hang of how to pull the control interface into view and make selections from it. The headset worked by tracking eye movements and Jeff needed to train himself to be able to look and blink in a way that the system would be able to understand what he wanted. “Yes, he is” Martin agreed in a soft, neutral voice.
At last Jeff had mastered the interface well enough that Martin declared him ready to explore. “Now you’ll need to decide what you want to look like.”
“Can’t I just look like this?”
“You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You would be like an American tourist who goes to a foreign country and insists on speaking only English and eating only at McDonald’s. The signal you’d be sending to the locals is ‘I don’t belong here; please pick my pocket.’ I’d recommend going with the default avatar instead. That still says ‘I’m new’ but without the undercurrent of contempt. Wearing the default avatar says ‘I’m new but I’m trying; please be patient with me’, like a tourist who makes an effort to learn a few phrases in the local language. Or you could choose any of a million pre-made avatars or do what the serious players do and create your own. But I don’t think you want to invest that much effort.”
“Not really, no. That’s fine then. I’ll go with the default.” Martin reminded him which menu options to blink and Jeff made the selections.
The bar had grown crowded now and music was pumping in another room. “I know it’s going to be tough to do,” he said as Jeff was preparing to venture forth into the crowd, “but please: try to resist the urge to take off the headset. You’re going to want to. You’re going to want to see what’s quote-‘really’ going on. But doing that would be a mistake. The point of this exercise is for you to practice being in the game’s world. If you bail out every time you encounter something that makes you uncomfortable, you’ll never learn how to play by its rules. That’s the skill you need to learn before you return to where Bill is.
“So here’s what I suggest. Go around that corner into the next room over there – that’s usually the dance floor but on nights like tonight it becomes the VRealWorld hall – without any augmentation. No headset, no phone app. Walk around, see what it looks like. Spend ten, fifteen minutes, then come back here and put on the gear and go back in. Sound good?”
Jeff agreed and made his way through the crowd. This was only his second time in a gay bar… and come to think of it, the first time had been with Bill and a group of his friends. At the time Bill had said he was just tagging along with one of the others, who said she thought it would be fun to go see how the other half liked to hang out. Now he couldn’t help re-thinking that entire episode in light of what Martin had told him… what if it wasn’t that girl’s idea, but Bill’s?
No. Couldn’t be. Bill had never dropped any hints that he might be gay. Not that it would be a problem if he was, it just didn’t fit… unless…
… unless that’s exactly what that episode had been? Bill’s way of dropping a hint? If so, Jeff had totally not picked up on it.
He resolved to think about that later and for now kept weaving his way through the bodies. There was a full range of guys here, some normally dressed, some formally dressed, some barely dressed… more than a few were decked out in leather outfits and Jeff saw three of those full-body rubber suits on his way to the dance floor.
The dance floor – the VRealWorld hall – was not as full as he had expected it to be. It was strange to know that the air around him must be full of virtual add-ons that only existed in the VRealWorld, like Hunter’s invisible leash, and yet to not be able to detect any hint of them. It seemed like walking through stuff like that should leave some sort of trace, the way that passing through a ghost supposedly gave people the shivers. But Jeff felt nothing like that. This was just a room full of guys standing around, talking to one another, sipping their drinks, dancing.
There were lines of bright yellow tape on the floor and a sign at the door instructed unaugmented visitors to stay on the walkway defined by the lines. Perhaps he would be walking through someone’s imaginary wall or table or chair if he didn’t?
The tape lines made a rough circuit around the room, which Jeff followed. A few things caught Jeff’s attention as he walked. There were more, many more, of the the rubber-suited ones here and many of them were standing peculiarly still or were sitting or lying down on the floor while those around them were standing. One was leaning on a metal table, head and both hands on the table while the rest of him was bent at the waist. It did not look like a comfortable position. Others were dancing with odd, aimless motions; still others were sitting in chairs or at small tables making incomprehensible gestures. Presumably whatever all these people were doing made sense if you could see the augmentations but without them Jeff couldn’t even begin to guess what was going on.
One area he passed had bright spotlights shining down on it, though there was nothing happening at the point where the lights were focused, just two normally-dressed guys sitting on the floor and a suited one lying down. Not far past that he came across Hunter, down on all fours in his suit next to Bernie, who was laughing with a group of friends. In various places around the room some of the men were getting kinda handsy with one another in a way that struck Jeff as just fundamentally wrong, but he reminded himself that this was their space and he was the different one here. All in all, he encountered no real surprises on his tour. He made sure to cover every side of the room, then headed back to Martin’s table.
“Okay, now remember,” Martin said as he helped Jeff get the headset and gloves in place, “you are going to be tempted to take these off. Try to resist that temptation. You were just there, you saw what it looked like outside the game. The point is to learn how to work inside the game. So… you’re all logged in… try standing up. Now turn your head side to side. Any dizziness? Good. All right, off you go. Anything you want to ask questions about, I’ll be here whenever you get back.”
Jeff retraced his steps back to the other room. The headset was not heavy, but he was definitely aware of its presence. He looked down at himself. Apparently the default avatar was a black leather outfit with a few bits of shiny metal here and there. He put his hands on his chest and damned if he didn’t feel the leather through his gloved fingers! Freaky. It was very tempting to do exactly what Martin had told him not to do, to take off the headset and watch his fingers touching his cotton shirt and feeling a leather jacket. But no, if he was going to give in to temptation and peek, it wouldn’t be five seconds in and five steps away from his starting point.
He saw only a few sights on his way to the dance floor that were obviously virtual constructions – one man was sporting an enormous pair of viking horns that would have broken his neck had they been real; another had donned a nearly-naked body with body-builder muscles, cheese-grater-ripped abs, and a posing pouch stuffed so full that if it were real, the skimpy fabric would have long since torn apart under the strain. Other things caught his eye that were harder to peg as either real or fake. That guy in the cowboy costume with the hat, the boots and spurs, for instance… had Jeff just not noticed him before, or was the outfit a digital overlay? Jeff shook his head quickly back and forth, trying to overload the headset’s ability to adjust what he was seeing, but it made no difference – the cowboy looked just as solid as the guy in T-shirt and jeans next to him. If it was a fake, it was a darn good one. “Augmented reality” was a good way to describe this – reality plus a little bit more.
Then he turned the corner.
7: Into Wonderland
The dance floor – the same room that he had just walked through a few minutes ago – looked nothing at all like it did before. Impossible constructions filled far more of the space than actually existed. That castle in front of him, for instance, had to be an illusion and yet it looked as if he could cross the drawbridge, enter the gate, and explore the inside to his heart’s content. Or the palm trees whose crowns were poking up overhead… they would have broken through the roof. Or over to his right, those flames leaping up from the floor in violent explosions couldn’t possibly be real. Neither could the volcano puffing ominously impossibly far away.
He stood blinking at the Escher-scape for a moment and then decided it would be insane to try to take in everything at once. He would visit mini-scenes one at a time. Less overwhelming that way. The castle area was closest, so he headed in that direction first. He looked for the yellow tape lines to follow and realized they were gone. After a moment’s confusion, he realized the headset must be editing them out of his view – now that he could see the virtual constructions, he wouldn’t need any other visual cues to avoid walking through them. As he drew nearer to the castle, he stepped from hard floor onto soft grass… no, it was still hard floor under his feet, it just looked like soft grass and the expectation of his eyes led him to actually feel the softness underfoot for a moment. Someone in one of those full-immersion suits probably would feel grass on his feet. The thump of the music faded as he crossed the border and was replaced with the lilting sounds of pipes and lutes. All of a sudden, he had left Manhattan and had been transported to a miniature Renaissance Faire.
He turned around and, to his great surprise, the green lawn stretched out behind him until it disappeared into mist-shrouded forests and low mountains in the distance. Halfway to the forest, mounted knights were charging toward one another and when they struck, the wind carried the sound of clashing steel to his ears. He took a step toward the knights, back the way he had come, and immediately the VRealWorld hall faded back into view. He took a few steps back and forth over the border, seeing how the rules worked: once he was on the castle grounds, he existed wholly in that world. Only by stepping across a boundary that was invisible from inside could he get out of the illusion.
He crossed once more into the castle world and this time kept going. A half-dozen knights or squires or lords or whatever hung about, idly conversing. They were all dressed in the multi-colored, poofy-sleeved style of RenFaire reenactors. As he neared, one of them festooned in a purple hat broke away and took a few steps toward him.
“Hail and well met, good fellow,” he called. “I see by your raiment that you hail from a foreign land.” Jeff glanced down involuntarily at his T-shirt and… no, at his leather outfit. “Might I offer assistance in finding garb more befitting a gentlemen of your mien?”
“Thou presum’st much, Sir Andrew!” shouted another of the Renaissancers. “Mayhap yon traveler doth seek gainful employment, not idle fripperies!” This remark, while confusing, seemed innocuous enough to Jeff, but it sparked roars of laughter from the other men gathered around. They began making catcalls aimed not at Jeff but in another direction, beyond where the group was gathered.
“Harkest thou, boy? Belike thy replacement draws nigh!” said one.
“Aye, tend thou to thy labors, lest thou find thyself keeping company once more with knavish Darien!”
Jeff stepped forward and to the side, trying to peer around the group and wondering what these comments meant and who they were directed at. He was most definitely feeling lost, but was his lack of understanding due just to the old-timey mode of speech or was there something more?
Ah. Something more, definitely. On the far side of the group was a man sitting in a chair, dressed as splendidly as the others with near-knee-high boots propped up on a log in front of him. He looked relaxed, confident, and quite in his element in his archaic clothes in front of an imaginary castle.
There was another man in front of the one in the chair. This one was dressed in tattered rags, looking very much like a medieval peasant compared to the lords around him. The peasant was down on his hands and knees and was polishing the gleaming boots of the seated lord.
With his tongue.
Jeff stared, mesmerized, watching the peasant guy pull his tongue into his mouth, get it slick with saliva, then stick it out and lovingly slide it along the side of one of the lord’s boots for a bit, then repeat the process. He was seriously into it; this was not a punishment for him. He was going to town on that boot like it was the world’s rarest, tastiest, most extravagantly expensive ice cream flavor. Shit, I always thought boot-licker was just a metaphor… He realized suddenly that his Brooklyn poker face had failed him once more and closed his mouth with an audible snap.
“What say ye, good sir?” Purple Hat was standing right next to him. “Lord Henry would glad yield his seat to you should you wish’t, and we shall see whether yon boy Kent might yet be persuaded to do better than his customary piss-poor job on your tired feet.” Then the tenor of his voice changed. “Or was Sir Thomas correct in his assessment? Wouldst thou prefer to claim Kent’s spot as thine own and banish Kent to tarry a while with Darien?” He gestured off to the right and Jeff turned to look.
Darien was standing there, dressed in the same sort of colorless, shapeless tattered rags as Kent. He was bent over at the waist with his neck and wrists locked in a pillory. His face and the aged wood around it were dripping with the juices and pulpy splotches of rotten vegetables, the corpses of which littered the ground around his feet.
“Uh…” Jeff said. He had come in here expecting weirdness. But he realized now that he had been expecting cartoon weirdness. Video game weirdness, where you knew that what you were seeing was fake. But this… damn, this weirdness so freakin’ real.
Purple Hat flicked his fingers and a tomato appeared in his hand. “Or perhaps you would care to practice your toss? I fear Darien doth grow dry…” He held the tomato out to Jeff.
“You know guys, I, uh, verily, I was just passing through. Thanks, though.”
“No problem,” Purple Hat – Andrew? – said. “Hope you find what you’re looking for – there’s plenty here to choose from.”
“Yeah… uh… thanks,” Jeff repeated, taken aback for what felt like the tenth time in two minutes, this time by Andrew’s casual switch to modern-day English. He was suddenly glad that he had taken Martin’s suggestion to go with the “I’m new; be kind” costume rather than the “please pick my pocket” one he would have chosen without that guidance and wondered how this encounter might have gone if he had made the other choice.
He turned and left Kent to his boot-licking, Darien to his humiliation, and the rest of them to their camaraderie. As he was walking away, he heard the unmistakable splat of what could only be a very soft tomato making impact, followed by a muffled “a thousand thanks, m’lord.”
The green grass of the castle yard gave way to a techno-metallic floor and the music faded back on as he crossed over. Three men were… well, dancing was probably the best word for it, but it was like no dance Jeff had ever seen. Their limbs were moving in ways no human limbs could possibly move. Their arms and legs stretched to twice, three times their normal length, then shrank back. Heads rose up impossibly high on bendy necks and oscillated back and forth before returning to “normal”. Knees and elbows flexed in directions no human joints could manage. They would touch or stroke one another from too far apart when their arms were extended, not in a sexual way but definitely in a sensual one. It was graceful, but alien-looking.
Too weird. Jeff kept moving. He next encountered a foursome.
No, a fivesome. “Here, do you want to hold him?” one of the men asked as he neared, holding out a hand with something chipmunk-sized in it. Jeff lifted a hand and accepted the offering before he could think not to.
Holy shit. It was one of the rubber-suit guys, only he was four inches tall. He sat on Jeff’s outstretched palm, looking as if this sort of thing happened to him every day. Was he real or some kind of CGI creation? Jeff couldn’t tell.
“How the hell?” he said, afraid to move.
“Size fetish,” the man who had made the handoff said. He was dressed in a slightly fancier version of what Jeff was wearing, the same leather but with a few more decorations. “He loves being tiny. Used to go to a hypnotist to get his fix; now he comes here instead.”
Apparently he was real, at least in some sense of that word, because there was no way a full-size man was sitting curled up on Jeff’s palm. “Uh, so what do I do with him?” Jeff asked, hoping the answer was “give him back”.
“Don’t have to do anything,” came the reply. The other three had already headed off elsewhere and the man who – it was clear now – had dumped his burden onto Jeff was hurrying to follow them. He called back as he went. “Carry him around with you until you don’t want him any more, then give him to someone else or just set him down somewhere he won’t get stepped on. You wearing a vest? Ah, shame. If you had a vest on you could put him in your pocket, let him ride around that way.”
Then he was gone and Jeff was alone with his pocket-sized companion. He peered in close. The level of detail was incredible. Five miniature fingers at the ends of two matchstick-sized arms, tiny and perfect and delicate like a doll made by a master craftsman. But it moved! As Jeff stood, a passerby jostled his arm. He closed his fingers slightly to make sure the miniature rubber figure didn’t fall off, and at the same time the guy reached out one of his Lilliputian arms and steadied himself against the pillar of Jeff’s index finger.
There was no way this could really be happening. Jeff was more tempted than ever to take off the headset and see the reality behind the illusion. But he resisted the urge. What would he see, after all? His empty, gloved hand and nothing more. He would learn nothing about where this guy actually was, if there even was a real human behind the character, or about how the trick was done. No. Just stay in the game. Roll with the weirdness as it came.
He brought his hand close to his lips. “Hey… dude… can you hear me?’ He wondered what his voice would sound like to a four-inch-tall person. Deep and booming, or normal? But the guy showed no sign that he had heard. Jeff lowered him down to about bely height and continued along.
The floor gave way to sand. Once again, the thumping music faded away and was replaced with the sounds of the shore – gulls, wind, breaking waves. Palm trees over head, the ones he had been able to see from the entrance. Beyond them lay a placid, iridescent blue sea, and beyond that, far off in the distance, was the smoking volcano he had seen. The stretch of beach was not large, but the sun gleamed down bright on the golden sand. Once again he was tricked by the sights and sounds of the environment into thinking that the surface beneath his feet was soft and pliant instead of the hard floor that he could actually feel if he focused on it. It actually felt warmer here, too, as if there really was a tropical sun beating down on his leather-encased skin.
He looked back. Like the castle, the beach was a three-sixty-degree illusion from the inside – sand and shore in all directions. It appeared he was on an island surrounded by sea on every side. He retraced his path for a few steps and sure enough, the hall re-appeared, so he reversed course once more and continued on to the beach.
A trio of men were relaxing on towels and a fourth was stretched out on the sand. All were dressed in swim trunks and looked nearly identical. “Welcome to paradise, Mr. Turtle!” one of them called as Jeff approached, raising his nearly-empty beer bottle in salute. Right, other players could query his name through their interface to the game. That had been included in Martin’s tutorial but there was no way Jeff would be able to remember how to do it and carry on a conversation at the same time. He’d have to figure that out later – it would be useful to know who the people around him were.
“So what are you seeking vengeance for?” another asked.
Maybe he should change that name. If that was possible to do once it had been chosen. Aw, screw it, he was only going to be in this game long enough to get Bill out of it. “Eh, a family matter,” he replied.
“Ooh, Machiavellian intrigue, I love it!”
“Or mafia stuff!”
“Yeah… gay mafia!”
“Breakin’ kneecaps and lookin’ faaaaah-bulous.”
Jeff stopped worrying about how to discreetly use the game interface to learn these guys’ names because it didn’t really seem to matter. All three looked alike, spoke alike, even sounded alike. They spoke rapid-fire, one starting the instant another had finished.
“Oh, look, he got stuck with Dougie!” one said.
“Oh, piffle,” said another. “I bet whoever gave him to you didn’t tell you much, did they?”
“Got that right,” Jeff answered. “Said I could put him in a pocket if I had one, which I don’t, or I could give him to someone else.”
“We’ll take him,” said the second. “So rude of them to dump him on a newbie! You are a newbie, right?”
“Of course he’s a newbie!”
“He simply must be!” All three were now looking at him with eyebrows raised questioningly.
Jeff nodded. “Yup. Brand spankin’ new.”
The triplets laughed at that. “Oh, for spanking you probably want the dungeon, not the beach!”
“Although if you ask nicely we might be willing to help you out!”
“Regular spanking only, not monkey spanking.”
“At least, not here.”
Then, in a low, conspiratorial voice: “Gotta go to one of the private rooms for that, y’know?” followed by a broad wink.
Jeff face burned at the direction his thoughtless remark had sent the conversation in, but he’d lived through enough such teasings to know that if he tried to protest, he’d only make it worse. Better to just suck it up and change the subject as soon as possible, so he let them laugh and tried to laugh along with them. Joking was fine, just as long as everybody was clear that Jeff actually getting flipped over onto some gay guy’s knee and swatted on the ass was NOT going to happen.
“So what can I do with my li’l pal Doug here?” Jeff asked when he could get a word in.
“Oh, just set him on Mark. He won’t mind.” He pointed at the fourth man of the group, the one who was lying down and had not moved or spoken since Jeff arrived.
“Right on top of him?” Jeff asked to a chorus of “sure! Right there, yeah. It’s fine.” He set the tiny rubberman down on the prone man’s chest and straightened up. That’s when he discovered the reason why Mark hadn’t moved yet.
He wasn’t lying on the sand, he was staked out on the sand.
Jeff froze, his eyes tracing the rawhide straps that were tied around the man’s wrists and ankles. Each was stretched out to a stake that had been pounded into the ground. His skin was raw and red; sweat was beading and trickling all over his body. His limbs were stretched tight, his belly was a concave bowl, and his muscles quivered with the strain they were under. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow.
“Uh…” Jeff said, stepping back. “Hey, is this guy OK?”
“He’s fine,” a new voice said. Jeff spun around to see a new figure on the beach, this one a tanned California surfer type with shaggy blond hair and an aw-shucks expression on his face. He was wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian print shirt and carrying two beers with him. He handed one to one of the triplets. “Sorry,” he said, “if I knew we’d be having company I’d have brought one more back from the bar.” His voice had an unexpected lilt to it, one that Jeff couldn’t place. It wasn’t quite an accent, more like a slightly different cadence to his speech. An unusual rhythm.
The more puzzling thing about what he said was his count of the number of beers. Presumably he would have been bringing four back, not two? But as Jeff watched, the triplet with the beer made a “cheers” gesture toward the other two, who echoed it with their empty hands. At the point where contact would have been made, there was a shower of colored sparks and when the hands pulled away, two more bottles had appeared. All three took long pulls from their identical drinks.
“Wait… only one of them gets a real beer?” Jeff spurted.
“Heh. Yah.” The newcomer took a long swallow from his own. “‘S ’cause only one of them is real.”
“That’s right,” one of the triplets said. “And that’s me!”
“You big faker. I’m the real Howie.”
“Don’t listen to them. I’m the real one. See?” He flicked his fingernail against the neck of his beer bottle, making a decisively solid tinging sound… but then the other two did the same to their own bottles. Then, adding to the confusion, each reached over to one of the others’ bottles and flicked it. Plinking sounds filled the air. Jeff gave up trying to follow and turned back to the recent arrival.
“He’s just showing off for you ’cause you haven’t seen his act before,” Hawaiian Shirt said. “He is good, though, gotta give him that, at controlling three bodies at once. Back in th’ other world, Howie has enough energy for three people. Trying to have a conversation with him is exhausting. The words, they just pour out of his mouth the way they did for Robin Williams. Believe it or not, he’s actually easier to follow in here, yah? You only have to listen to one-third of what he says!” All three Howies blew him wet raspberries.
“But this guy,” Jeff said. “Mark, is his name? You’re sure he’s… I dunno, not gonna die of heat stroke or something?”
“Nah, like I said, he’s fine.” He prodded the staked-out lump of sweating meat with his foot. “I’n’ that right, boy.” It was not a question.
“Mark here neglected to get his chores done three days over the last two weeks. He knows that means one hour of stakeout for each day missed. He’s only halfway through hour two now, so he’s still got a while to go. But don’t worry, he’ll be fine when I let him up. A little hot, a little stiff, a little sore, but OK. And maybe next week he’ll do a better job with his chores. But then, maybe not. Sometimes I think he slacks off on purpose.” He nudged Mark’s ribs with his foot again. “Whatchoo say, boy.”
God, what a place.
Jeff still couldn’t place the surfer’s accent. There wasn’t anything obvious about it, but every once in a while, it felt like the sounds coming out of his mouth just didn’t quite belong there. Like, not the sort of thing that a surf bum would be saying.
“Come to think of it, though, I’m getting a little warm. You guys mind if I call in a cloud?” The Howies chorused their approval and he gestured at the sky. Overhead, a tiny cloud blossomed into existence and rapidly expanded in billowing puffs. In seconds, it had grown large enough to cover the sun and filter its punishing rays down to a soft glow. Jeff immediately felt cooler, though once again that had to be a psychosomatic effect. Didn’t it?
Then he glanced down at Mark and saw that there was no relief to be had for him. The full glare of the sun was still shining down, creating a rectangular patch centered on his splayed body. Jeff tentatively stuck a hand in the beam area and it actually felt warmer. “How does it…” he started to say, then stopped himself.
Too late, though. “How does the trick work? ‘S nothing fancy,” Hawaiian Shirt said. “I could tell you how it’s done, but why not just live in the moment? Someone went to a lot of effort to make this beach believable – why you wanna go peek behind the curtain?”
“Now, let’s see what we can do with Dougie here…” Jeff watched as he and the tiny rubber figure stared at each other for a bit, then all of a sudden Dougie’s rubber suit disappeared and he was dressed in his own miniature pair of swim trunks. Hawaiian Shirt gently laid him down on the center of Mark’s chest and then stretched out his arms and legs until he was a tiny copy of the larger man beneath him.
Hawaiian Shirt made careful, delicate gestures with his hands and as Jeff watched, more rawhide ropes blinked into existence. Tiny leather threads appeared on Dougie’s left wrist, right wrist, left ankle, right. More gestures, and four tiny wooden stakes materialized, looking like toothpicks. Jeff suddenly knew what was about to happen but still gasped when it did. With firm pressure from his fingers, Hawaiian Shirt drove the toothpicks right through Mark’s skin, two of them an inch or two above the nipples and the other two into his abs. Mark moaned; thin trickles of blood seeped out of the wounds, then stopped. More gestures secured the rawhide to the stakes and then there were two splayed-out captives roasting in the blazing heat, one atop the other.
Jeff realized he was staring again.
“So, Turtle,” the blond surfer said. “Maybe I’m guessing wrong, but I’m thinking that not only are you new here, you are way out of your comfort zone. ‘Zat how it is?”
Jeff let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Yeah,” he sighed. “That’s for sure.”
“So why you here then? You don’t have to tell me details, but I’m curious what brings you here when it’s so obviously not your scene.”
How much to tell? The minimum was probably best. “You’re right, I don’t belong here. I’m only here to learn how VRealWorld works so I can help… someone.”
“Help someone. Help this someone do what?”
“Huh. That’s interesting. Because in theory, anyone can get out any time. Like, if Mark here decided he really couldn’t take it any more, all he needs to do is tell his suit to stop letting me control it. Same goes for Doug. Of course, they lose all the points they gathered since I took over. And in Mark’s case, I’d just find some other way to punish him for screwing up his chores. But that’s the relationship we have. It’s not anything like what most straights would call a marriage, but it works for us.
“But now you… your case is different. You’re helping someone get out… why? Because he can’t get out on his own? Or because he won’t? It’s a he, yah?”
“And he’s a rubberlad?”
“I don’t know what that means. He’s in one of the rubber suits, and it’s locked on.”
“Yah, that’s a rubberlad. And which is it? Can’t or won’t?”
“I… that is… I’m not sure. I went to see him… outside the game, I mean, I didn’t know anything about VRealWorld then. He didn’t want to leave, but now I think the suit might have been hiding me from him. I just want to get the suit off and ask him for real whether he’s OK with what he’s doing.”
“Makes sense. The suit controls everything he sees and hears, for sure. Interesting.”
He paused a moment, looking up at the blue sky, thinking. A seagull cawed in the distance.
“OK, Turtle, here’s what you need to do. You need to transfer points to this guy, many as you can. Go find the prison – down the beach that way, just past Mos Eisley. They’ll teach you about points there. After the prison, you go visit the dungeon, down the far corner of the hall, opposite side from the door you came in. The dungeon is going to be crowded and you’ll probably find the people there have some pretty twisted tastes from your point of view, but they’ll show you effective ways to transfer points to someone else. Got it?”
“Yeah. Prison next, then dungeon. Got it.”
“Off you go then. Oh, hey, Turtle? I’m curious to hear how it turns out for you. Send me a message afterward, let me know?”
“Uh… how do I do that?”
“Heh, right. New guy. One sec.” His eyes lost focus for a few seconds and his lips moved slightly. Shortly afterward, an overlay appeared in Jeff’s vision. It said:
Message from KingstonTop Leatherman: Just reply to this message.
“OK, I see it,” Jeff said. “Hey… thanks, man. I appreciate the help.”
“No problem, man.”
Jeff turned and headed off down the beach.
8: Pocket Prison
Within a few steps, the sand turned back into floor, the thumping music returned full volume, and he found himself in the biggest freak show yet.
This stretch of the hall was decorated like a bar-within-a-bar with some patrons sitting on stools or chairs while others stood around them. Not a single one looked human.
There was a blue-skinned human-ish creature with a small trunk for a nose playing something that looked sort of like a saxophone. A four-armed drummer and a two-headed guitarist accompanied him. Other patrons were covered in fur, or scales, or feathers, or dressed in armor or… was that a stormtrooper uniform?
It was! And then recognition hit: Mos Eisley was the bar in the Star Wars movie, the “biggest den of scum and villainy in the galaxy” or something like that. These transitions were getting disorienting. At least he didn’t have to stay in this one. He squinted his eyes, focused on the floor, and sped through at as quick a walk as he could manage.
There. A concrete wall with barred windows. He headed for the door and walked inside. A corrections officer was seated at a desk in a crisp black leather uniform. He rose as Jeff entered.
“Evening, sir, you here for a cell?”
“Ah. No,” said Jeff. “At least, I don’t think so. A guy I met said I could learn about points here?”
“Got it. New guy, right? You came to the right place to earn points, but I have to say you’re not exactly dressed right for it.”
“No no… I’m not looking for points for myself. I’m trying to learn how to give points to someone else.”
“Hmm. Maybe I should ask you first, what do you already know about the scoring system? So I don’t waste your time explaining what you already know.”
“Nothing. Until about five minutes ago, I didn’t even know there was a scoring system.”
“Huh. OK, from the beginning then. VRealWorld points are the game’s currency. They’re very much like dollars in that they are both a status symbol by themselves, or they can be used to purchase things you want. Just like with dollars, there are guys with a lot of points who flaunt their wealth, and there are those who are more discreet about how much they have.
“Where points differ from dollars is that their value is much more fluid. A dollar is always a dollar, but a point’s value changes depending on who has it and what they want to do with it. There’s a whole complicated algorithm that makes the determination and it’s constantly changing with time. Based on lots of observation, I’ll tell you what I’ve been able to deduce about how the game’s designers made it work.
“They like to encourage people to mix things up and get out of their comfort zone. Let me give you an example. If you’re a guy who, say, is into being tied up, then you can give control of your suit to someone who’s willing do the tying and you’ll earn some points for that. Meanwhile, the guy controlling you will lose some points. In effect, he’s paying you for the right to control you. It’s set up so that you’ll gain more than he loses so if you have, say, a half-hour session with him, you’ll gain something like 50 points and it’ll cost him 20.”
“But then, if you go and do the exact same thing the next day, you’ll only gain maybe 40 points. And he’ll lose 22. And the more you repeat the same action, the less it’ll be worth for each of you, each time, until it’s hardly worth anything at all.”
“So what do you do? You could wait a week and that would nudge the rate back up a bit. Wait a month and it’ll nudge up even more. Better yet you could change up the activity a little. Instead of him tying you one way, he puts you in a different position. Maybe a hog-tie instead of a spread-eagle. Best of all is to change things up entirely. You tie him up instead, and suddenly we’re back up to the original rate so he gets 50 and you lose 20. You follow so far?”
Jeff nodded, pretty sure he didn’t understand everything yet but hoping he was getting enough of the gist to accomplish his purpose.
“You can also buy points, but you run into the same problem. The first time, you might spend twenty bucks to get 200 points, but the next time, that same twenty only buys you 150, then 100, and so on. And you can sell points too, but the rate is much worse going that direction. They used to pay a lot better. I heard that one of the first guys to use a suit was actually able to make a couple thousand bucks when he started out, earning points and then selling them in blocks of a thousand at a time. You could actually get paid a dollar a point then, if the rumors are to be believed. Of course, as more people signed up, the rate started to fall. The guy would make eight hundred, five… got to the point where it wasn’t worth his effort. These day the rate is more like a penny a point. If you’re selling, that is. If you’re buying, like I said, it’s more like ten cents a point, so if you’re thinking of getting rich through point arbitrage, there’s a million guys before you had the same thought, and it didn’t work for any of ’em.
“Anyway, in one oversimplified sentence, the point system works like this: if it’s something you do often, you won’t earn much from it. And the consequence of that is, the things you tend to do often are the things you like doing, right? So if you only do the things you enjoy, there’s no reward in it. The way to earn points is to step outside your comfort zone and experiment, try some things that you don’t really want to do. Now this causes a problem for those members of our community who consider themselves to be exclusively tops or exclusively bottoms. The tops in particular don’t much like giving control to someone else. The bottoms are on average a bit more agreeable about taking charge when they have to, but even then you can tell their heart’s not in it. But the tops… they’re in a real pickle, because the things they like to do generally cost them points, and you can only go so far into the red before you get into trouble.”
Jeff had almost interrupted to ask what “tops” and “bottoms” were but was glad he didn’t – the rest of the explanation had been detailed enough that he could figure it out for himself. Damn. Not only was Bill wrapped up in gay shit, he was wrapped up in gay S&M shit. In hindsight, Jeff could probably have figured that out from Bill’s rubber suit and the way it was locked on. Not to mention the castle with its boot-licker and its pillory, or the stakeout on the beach. Each instance by itself was just an isolated weirdness among all the rest of the weirdnesses, but taken together the pattern was distinctly visible.
He was beginning to get an uncomfortable idea of what he was going to have to do to set Bill free.
“Now points aren’t everything,” the CO continued. “If all you want to do is sit on a virtual beach or hang out with aliens, you can enjoy the game without worrying about points at all. But a lot of the fun of the VRealWorld is doing shit, right? Magic! Marvels! Wave your hand and anything you want to happen, you make it happen! Thing is, that costs points. Where are those points going to come from? You gotta bring ’em in somehow before you can spend ’em. That’s where this place comes in. You want a tour?”
“Sure,” said Jeff. It’s what he was here for.
The CO stood up. “Come on back.” He led Jeff a few paces along the concrete wall to a door made of steel bars. He placed his palm on a handplate next to the door. Jeff was expecting the clank of a bolt being drawn back, but instead, the bars shimmered out of existence entirely. They walked through into the cell block. It was not a large space and it was packed tight with naked bodies, three vertical, four seated. There was barely enough room for Jeff and the CO to stand without bumping into somebody. And… wait… were those feet sticking out of one of the walls?
“Welcome to the Pocket Prison, a bare-bones, no-nonsense facility where we distill the scoring system down to its essentials. To put it bluntly: the more you suffer, the faster your score goes up. But, obviously, not everyone’s capacity for suffering is the same, so we offer different confinement options for different tastes. That also helps with the variety, because the more you change things up, the higher your point accumulation rate. Now, all the naked prisoners you see are actually wearing full immersion suits. It’s the suits that enforce the confinement, but they present as nude because that bumps the score rate up just a bit. Let’s start here on the left.”
Three men were standing in cages barely large enough for their bodies to fit in. The cages were so tight there was no way for the men to move or even turn around. Two of them had their hands at their sides; the third’s were held up over his head.
“This is our ‘standing detention’ option. Comes with the standard sensory deprivation package – no sight, no sound. The earphones cancel every noise that reaches them so the inmate hears only the sound of his own blood pumping through his ears. Of course, that’s not perfect. Guys have told me they can still feel the beat of the club’s sound system right through their bodies. It’s good enough, though – it blocks voices completely and the visual blackout is likewise total. And the cages make sure these guys don’t move until their sentences are up.
“This one here is enjoying our deluxe experience. Check out the floor.”
Jeff looked down at the feet of the third man, the one with his arms over his head. The rubber suit ended at his ankles and his feet were bare. He was standing on a metal grate covered in blunt-toothed ridges, the kind of surface you see on steps at outdoor construction areas. The metal was rough and uneven, designed to provide good traction for booted feet even when covered in ice and snow. To stand on that with bare feet? Damn, that had to hurt.
“His hands are up overhead holding a real-world bar to give him the option of lifting himself up when his feet get too sore. Of course, that tires out his arms so it’s a classic predicament bondage position. He’s got choices, but he loses no matter which choice he makes.”
Jeff was way far down the rabbit hole now. Surely no one could be desperate enough for points as to voluntarily undergo this torture? “And he’s there… as a punishment?” he asked.
“No, he volunteered! Every one of these guys is here because he asked for it. He picked his punishment and the duration of his sentence.”
“And this is earning them points,” Jeff said. It made sense, in an unpleasant and unsettling way. “They’re doing it because they believe the trade-off is worth it.”
“You got it. The standing detention cells earn you anywhere from 25 to 50 points an hour, maybe 10 more if you go with the deluxe option. Now over here” – they moved to the right to where the feet were: four pairs of them, bare, sticking out of eight holes in the concrete wall – “these guys are in ‘the hole’. I know it’s considered bad form to peek behind the scenes when you’re in the VRealWorld, but you’re here to learn so I’m going to turn off the overlay for a second to show you how we do this.”
The concrete wall disappeared and Jeff saw four rubber-suited men lying down next to one another. A long board had been propped up so that it covered their heads, maybe an inch away from their noses.. Each one’s arms were stretched out above his head. They all lay there, unmoving. One let out a soft groan and then the wall flickered back into being.
“You saw that board over their faces?” the CO asked. “That’s there because the mouth and nose are the one place that the suit doesn’t cover. The illusion we’re creating here is that these guys have been put into rectangular holes in the wall and sealed in with concrete. Only their feet are left sticking out. I’ve wondered sometimes if we couldn’t do this up off the floor so their feet would look like trophies, like those stuffed animal heads you see on the walls of hunting lodges. Might have to look into that, or else just fake it with VR. Anyway, they’re sealed in these concrete coffins and the board makes it so they can feel their breath lingering by their faces. Makes the illusion even more real. They’ve got their hands clenched into fists and embedded in the concrete wall, their ankles locked in more concrete, and concrete walls close around them on every side, so they’re not going anywhere. The rate for the hole is about 30 to 60 points an hour, so about the same as the deluxe standing detention. But again, variety matters. If you keep coming back to the hole over and over, eventually you get to the point where it hardly helps your score at all. You gotta mix things up.”
Jeff found himself wondering what it must feel like for those men in the suits, buried alive in solid stone with only your bare feet exposed to the air. It seemed horrifying and yet he couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to try it. Not for four hours, no, just a minute or two would be plenty. Just to see…
No. God, this bizarro-world was actually getting to him. He needed to stay focused.
The CO had moved on to the next set of prisoners. “And over here we’ve got the less-intense options. Two of them are in yardboxes. They’re transparent to us but opaque to the guys inside. Three feet by three feet by three feet, one cubic yard. They’ve got the same sensory deprivation as the others but a bit more freedom to move around.”
It didn’t seem like freedom to Jeff. A three-foot cube was still pretty cramped confinement. There was no way to stretch out, no way to unkink your neck when you got tired of holding it bent. Better than the other choices, sure, but still a punishment. Which, of course, was why they could earn points for enduring it.
“The rate for these is lower, something like 20 to 40 points an hour. And then there’s your basic stocks for 15 to 30.” The last two men were sitting with their legs flat on the ground, held in place by steel stocks around their ankles. “No sensory deprivation for these guys, so they can see and hear us but they know better than to try to say anything. They’ve got the most freedom to move but they still get pretty uncomfortable after a while.
“Worth mentioning, because everyone asks at some point: no, you can’t sleep through it. Lotsa guys come in here, think they can sign up for the hole and have a nice cozy nap while they rack up the points. It doesn’t work that way. We set the suits to monitor their occupants for signs of sleep and if it detects that you’re starting to doze off, you get a blast with what feels like a taser. The standing-up and sitting-down guys get it on the thigh or the calf; the ones in the hole get it right on the sole of the foot. Hurts like a son-of-a-bitch. Your muscles cramp up and there’s nothing you can do to uncramp them. However bad you thought you had it before, it just got ten times worse only your score doesn’t go up any faster. Believe me, you do not want to be drowsy when you start your sentence.
“So there you have it: the Pocket Prison. We offer one of the most space- and time-efficient ways of earning points in the whole VRealWorld. Sure, you can earn points faster in a one-on-one scene, but here we scale it up. Mass point production. We can fit a dozen men into the space of the average bedroom and none of them is even aware the others are there. Your privacy and anonymity are guaranteed. We offer one-, two-, and four-hour sentences, non-changeable once you start. So… you interested? It’s too late to start a four-hour term, but we could still get you into a one- or two-hour cell.” He gestured toward a spot next to the three standing men, a questioning invitation in his eyes.
“NO!” Jeff shouted abruptly, then softened it. “I mean, no, thanks. Really, I’m just looking around. But… what do you get out of this? I mean, if I understand what you said, it should be costing you points to keep these guys locked up like that, shouldn’t it?”
“You’re right, it does,” the CO said. “But not as much as you might think. See, I’m not actively doing anything to any of them the way they do over in the dungeon. I’m just sitting here bored, or at least I was until you came by and gave me an excuse to not be bored for a while. But I’m not touching these guys. I just locked them up and left them. I haven’t worked out the math, but eleven guys and a mix of two-hour and four-hour sentences… there’s going to be something north of a thousand points handed out here tonight, and it’s only going to cost me about fifty.”
“But still, that’s fifty points you’re giving up. Why?”
“Ah. My friend, I am building our community! Each of these prisoners is going to go out later and spread the points he earned here all around, indulging his own whims as well as fulfilling the fantasies of other guys he meets up with. It’s a big net positive. I don’t do this every time – there’s a half-dozen of us who take turns volunteering. In two weeks, on the next VRealWorld night, someone else will be CO and I’ll be free to do whatever I feel like doing. There’s plenty of ways I can make up the points. I could do a stint in the hole myself. Or go visit the dungeon and earn some points there from a guy who maybe happens to be in one of these cells right now. Plenty of options.”
Jeff mulled this over. “So… you’re a volunteer… imprisoning people… painfully… as a community service project?”
The CO beamed. “Ha! Yep, that’s it! Here, since I’m already doing community service, why don’t you take this.” He flicked his fingers and conjured a small orange card into existence. “We hand these out to visitors who decide not to stay.” He handed the card to Jeff, who reached out and took it. It felt real enough in his hand and looked very much like the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card from Monopoly, right down to that exact wording. The only difference was that instead of a stripe-suited convict, the card held a sketch of a hooded rubber drone.
“Just in case you change your mind,” the CO continued. “If you ever decide to come back and commit to a four-hour sentence and then find after an hour that you just can’t stand it, this card lets you get out without forfeiting the points you earned in that hour. It lets you ease into the prison mindset, gives you an ‘undo’ if you need it. It’s honored at just about every prison, even the ones run by NPCs. But it’s only good once, so use it wisely.”
Jeff wasn’t quite sure what to do with the card. If he tried to put an imaginary card into the pocket of his real-world jeans, would it disappear? His puzzlement about what to do with it must have been visible on his face. “Put it in your inventory,” the CO said. “Either use the headset menu or double-tap the card and choose ‘Put in inventory’.” Jeff tapped and the card winked out.
The CO escorted Jeff back to the intake area of the prison. The barred door materialized back into place at the touch of the CO’s hand on the scanner. “Thanks for the tour,” Jeff said, trying not to think too hard about the men on the other side of that door, trapped together in a too-small space already but each further trapped in a much more confining private prison of his own. Just as he reached the door to the outside, a blood-curdling scream tore the air. Jeff spun around. The scream tapered off into a long, drawn-out moan. The CO looked at him and shrugged nonchalantly. “Somebody got drowsy. Happens at least once a shift.”
Jeff turned once more toward the door. The surfer guy had warned him that the dungeon would be unsettling, but apparently the prison didn’t rate a mention. Jeff hoped his stamina would last long enough at his next destination for him to get in, learn what he needed to learn, and get out.
9: Film Festival
Outside the prison Jeff paused to orient himself. He could see the Renaissance castle and the palm trees, which meant the entrance door had to be… there, on his left. He turned to his right, toward the far end of the room. The dungeon was impossible to miss; there was nothing else that the large, forbidding-looking stone wall with the gaping gate in it could possibly be. Jeff swallowed and headed for the gate.
There was a guard waiting at the gate, dressed in a style that wouldn’t be out of place back at the castle and propping up a large pike with a bored expression on his face. As Jeff neared, he lowered the pike, blocking Jeff’s path. “You are entering a private area. A waiver is required to proceed.” He flicked Jeff a piece of parchment that materialized in front of his face like a pop-up window. There were two pages of tiny text. Jeff tried to read it, but it was all legalese.
“What am I signing?” he asked.
“By passing through this door you are leaving the public area of Terra Nova Bar And Dance Club and entering a suite of private rooms regulations that apply to public spaces do not apply in private rooms by signing this form you affirm that you are of legal age and consent to forgo the protections that apply to public spaces within the City of New York.” It all came out in one breath, rapid-fire and toneless.
It took Jeff a moment to parse this. “You’re saying guys who want to get dirty with each other need to do it in here and not out there.”
The guard’s bored expression didn’t change. “Club management requires a signed waiver before you may proceed you may subvocalize your agreement or sign with a VRealWorld-linked digital device such as a phone glove or stylus.”
This was too much. Before he could stop himself, he lifted the headset and peered out from underneath. To his surprise, there was an actual person standing there dressed in a tight dark grey security T-shirt. Which, of course, made total sense – a virtual guard would be no use against an unaugmented visitor. He dropped the visor back down. “Shit. You’re real. I’m sorry.”
“I get that a lot,” the guard dead-panned. “You goin’ in or not?”
Jeff signed the form and flicked it back with a blink of his eyes. The guard lifted his pike, set the butt on the ground, and leaned on it, looking for all the world as if Jeff had never been there.
Passing through, Jeff found that like the castle and the beach, the dungeon was a full-immersion space. The music once more faded away and all he could see behind him was a dark passageway. He pressed on ahead through a corridor with doors on either side, most of them closed. From behind some, sounds emerged: voices or grunts; once, a shout that bordered on a scream. One door toward the end of the hall, however, was open with bright blue light pouring out of it. He edged near and peered inside.
Three men were flying in mid-air. The room had no floor, no walls, no ceiling. Standing at the threshold, Jeff saw puffy white clouds floating above, below, and around on all sides. Looking down he saw green fields and forests far, far below. He actually got a case of vertigo hovering at the edge of what looked to be a guaranteed-fatal drop and had to put his arm up against the door frame for support. In the center of the room, one man was lying… falling?… on his belly, arms and legs spread out as if skydiving with no parachute. Without any clothes at all, for that matter. The other two were naked as well, one standing… floating… upright in front of the horizontal one, the other behind, right between his spread legs…
Oh. With a sudden flash of understanding, Jeff realized what the group was doing. They had their own version of the Mile High Club going on, only without the airplane.
Before he could back away, one of the trio, the one being orally serviced, noticed him and beckoned him in. “Hey, you wanna take a flying fuck?”
Jeff didn’t trust his voice and just shook his head, holding up his free hand in what he hoped would come across as a “no thanks, I’m good” gesture.
“You sure? The rubberlad’s pretty good… needs some motivation from time to time, of course.” He held up an arm, squeezed his fist then threw his fingers open. A lightning bolt flared into being in his palm. He closed his fingers around it and gave Jeff a broad wink. Then he plunged the lightning bolt into his fellator’s bare back, where it dissolved into hissing, spitting sparks. A muffled shout emerged from around the fleshy plug in the victim’s mouth and he redoubled his efforts to please. Meanwhile, the man at the other end didn’t break his rhythm.
Jeff mumbled something that even he didn’t recognize as words and turned away, He continued down toward the end of the corridor, shaking his head, trying to erase the image that he had just seen from his brain. There was light and noise around a corner up ahead. He turned and found a fairly large crowd of men, twenty or thirty of them, all facing the same way. Jeff eased toward them and looked between the shoulders of two of the spectators.
In front of the crowd, in an area like a small stage, a naked blond man was tied to a chair that had had most of its seat cut away. Another man was standing a short distance away holding a long cord with a thick knot tied in the end. Jeff arrived just in time to watch him swing the cord with an underhand motion, sending the knot out and upward to collide with the seated man from beneath, emitting a sickening wet thud as it struck. The target jumped in his ropes, setting the chair bouncing. Veins and tendons popped on his face and neck as he clenched teeth and fought to not cry out. When he had calmed a bit, he said, in a voice far too confident for a man who had just had his nuts bashed, “A little more to the RIGHT!”
Suddenly Jeff recognized the scene. “Daniel Craig!” he blurted, for that’s exactly who the seated man looked like. And this was the torture scene from that James Bond movie… what was its name? Jeff couldn’t remember the title, but he knew he had seen it.
On of the two men in front of him chuckled and slowly turned toward Jeff. “Yeah, you got it, but you coulda just looked at… oh. New guy. Did you just get here?”
“OK, the theme tonight is torture scenes from movies and TV, rewritten to suit our tastes. You know how in movies the scene always ends just as it’s starting to get good? The hero always finds a way to escape and somehow turns the tables on the bad guy? Or else they don’t even show the scene, they just imply it, leave it to your imagination. Such a waste, right? So tonight we’ve got eight groups who’ve rewritten various scenes and are playing them out. This is number four, Casino Royale. There’s the program up on the wall.” He gestured, then turned back to watch the show.
Jeff glanced up at the wall, where a poster read:
- Rambo: First Blood – John Rambo vs. Viet Cong
- The Empire Strikes Back – Darth Vader vs. Han Solo
- The Princess Bride – Westley vs. The Machine
- Casino Royale – Bond vs. Le Chiffre
- Superman vs. Lex Luthor
- Strike Back – Stonebridge and Scott vs. Cattle Prod
- Proud Mary – Reluctant Informant vs. Nail Gun
- The X-Files – Fox Mulder vs. Extra-Terrestrials
What, no Saw? No Hostel? How come those gore-fests didn’t make the cut? Then it dawned on him – those movies already showed plenty of what the guys here would think of as “the good parts.” No need to re-invent the wheel, as it were.
The rising volume of Bond’s screams brought Jeff’s gaze back to the stage area. Bond’s balls were taking solid hits, over and over and over. Jeff was pretty sure the original movie only showed one or two hits before something intervened to save Jimmy’s manhood from destruction, but not here. Here the punishment just kept coming. Bond’s nut sac swelled to the size of a grapefruit, hanging down like the globe of a lamp between his splayed knees while his face contorted with pain and his entire body convulsed with each blow. Jeff knew… he hoped… it was all just VRealWorld fakery, but like all the other fakery he had seen tonight, it was so damn believable. Bond’s agonized shrieks only added to the realism. Jeff felt like curling up and cupping his own nuts in his hands.
There was a brief pause to let Bond catch his breath, and then the guy with the cord took one more mighty windup and let fly. The knot sailed out and made contact… and Bond’s ball sac just exploded. Blood and bits flew everywhere, striking the inner ring of onlookers. Bond’s screams rose to a supersonic pitch and he flew backward to fall on the ground, still tied to the chair The lights went out; applause rose up from the ring of spectators. Jeff tried to keep the bile from rising in the back of his throat. These people were sick fuckers, absolutely twisted…
Then the lights came back up and both the torturer and James Bond – untied, fully dressed, and miraculously restored to good health and glandular intactness – took their bows, accepting the applause and accolades from the crowd.
His neighbor in front turned around again. “So wha’d you think?” he asked.
Jeff paused, wondering whether he should play along and pretend to have enjoyed it and, if so, what his reaction would be if he were actually into this sick crap, then realized that in pausing he had already conveyed his honest reaction and that it was now too late to say anything but the truth. No lie would be believable at this point. “Uh, to be honest, it wasn’t really my thing. I mean, they did a great job, the actors look just like the originals. But the, uh, explosion at the end?” Jeff trailed off, shaking his head.
“Yeah, I hear you. The really intense stuff isn’t for everyone. You’ll probably like the next one better, the Superman scene. I expect it’ll be less hardcore, more like a comic book. But then the one after that? That’s the one I’m most looking forward to – I saw the original when it was first released and it was HAWT just as it was. The two leads are shirtless and bloodied, tied back-to-back and then this Colombian guy just goes to town on them with a cattle prod. He zaps the one to try to persuade the other to give up whatever information he’s hiding and for a TV show it was good stuff. He even blasted the guy right in the crotch, but of course for the TV version it was pants on with a side view. I can’t wait to see what these guys do with it.”
The lights on the stage went on – Superman’s scene was about to begin. Jeff’s conversation partner turned back to face the stage.
A hand brushed across Jeff’s cock.
Casual contact in a crowd was to be expected. This was not casual. Jeff could tell by the way the fingers rubbed across the front of his pants that this was deliberate. He reacted immediately, instinctively, spinning toward the direction the touch had come from. “Dude, what the hell?” he said as he turned. There on his left was another of the rubber-suit guys. As Jeff glared at him, he sank down to his knees and held his hands up toward Jeff.
Jeff was already getting control of himself, though. This was a gay bar, and he was in the private section, having waived away the “protections” of the public areas. He wasn’t into guys, but everyone else here was, so unless he wore a sign that said “straight dude here, no touchie”, he had to accept that stuff like this might happen. Of course, wearing a sign like that would probably just bring even more attention down on him.
He could make clear that the attention was unwelcome, of course. “Dude, don’t do that again,” he said to the kneeling rubber guy. This prompted the man in front of him to turn around once more.
“He can’t hear you,” he said. “You might want to brush up on VRealWorld interactions. Check the manual for rubberlad.” He turned back to the stage. Dramatic music began playing.
Ignoring the still-kneeling rubber guy – or “rubberlad”, that was apparently the proper term – Jeff did as suggested, pulling down the help section in the headset’s menu. It only took about a minute of reading time to learn some useful pointers.
One, rubberlads – anyone wearing one of the full-body suits – could not speak to leathermen. Apparently Jeff counted as a leatherman. Maybe leatherman was just a general term for “any VRealWorld player who isn’t a rubberlad”?
Two, rubberlads could hear ordinary sounds, but the earphones in the suit cancelled out leathermen’s voices. All communication, both ways, must take place through the app.
Three, rubberlads could initiate contact with leatherman – and earn a small number of points in the process – by “tagging” them. Apparently the dick-grazing was just the rubberlad’s way of saying hello.
And four, when a rubberlad knelt and held his wrists up like that, he was inviting the leatherman to take control of his suit.
Well, that was not going to happen. Even if Jeff wanted a rent-a-slave, he couldn’t afford it. Anything he did to the rubberlad would cost him points, and as far as Jeff knew, he not only had none to spare, he had none at all. He could probably just ignore the guy long enough that he’d go away, but this seemed like a good opportunity to learn how to use the message system.
It was not hard. He first had to turn on the show-IDs toggle (which he should have done long ago) so he could get the rubberlad’s name, which turned out to be “4srvce rubberlad” as announced by a cartoon-style thought balloon that appeared over his head. Then Jeff dictated a message by sub-vocalizing, which was very similar to the speech-to-text feature on his phone, only he didn’t have to say the words fully out loud. All he had to do was move his mouth and throat as if he were speaking and the system was able to figure out what he would have said. He wrote a brief “not interested”, sent it, and was gratified to see 4srvce rise and wander off elsewhere.
He turned back to the front of the room, where the next movie scene was underway. Superman had somehow been captured by a super-villain who Jeff might have been able to identify if he had cared to watch comic book movies when he was younger, which he had not. He glanced up at the program listing again… ah, this must be “Lex Luthor”.
Superman had been rendered helpless by a glowing chunk of kryptonite that hung from a chain around his neck. His hands had been bound behind his back and he had sunk to his knees, strength depleted by proximity to the green mineral. (That much of the Superman mythology Jeff knew about.)
“Well, Superman,” Luthor said, “I must confess that when I first conceived of this trap, I envisioned myself giving you a choice: serve me or die. I so looked forward to watching you have to decide between two equally-unpalatable choices. But then, as I thought about it over the time it took to set the trap and wait for you to fall into it, as you have now so obligingly done, I realized that letting you make a choice was all wrong. You see, you are in my power now, and you no longer have the ability to make any choices. From this point on, I make all the choices for you. And I choose for you to serve me, whether you like it… or not.”
He reached down, grabbed the front of Superman’s costume, and yanked the feeble superhero to his feet. He pressed Superman up against the wall to hold him upright, then thrust his hands apart, still clutching the uniform fabric tightly, tearing a giant gash right down through the center of the red-and-gold letter S. Superman’s costume fell to bits as the villain continued shredding it until his powerfully-muscled chest and shoulders were fully exposed. Luthor next tore at the suit’s legs and soon the hero leaned against the wall completely bare-skinned.
Completely. An impossibly large schlong was dangling down halfway to its owner’s knees, backed by a pendulous pair of bull balls sized to match. There was no way that package had been stuffed inside that outfit, no possible way.
Luthor grabbed him again and hurled him to a table, where he lay face-up with his crotch pointed toward the audience. From nowhere, the villain produced another chunk of green-glowing rock, this one long and slim, smooth and slightly curved, like a finger.
“I need to ensure your compliance long-term, and this will do the trick nicely,” he crooned. He squirted some liquid onto the kryptonite and then seized Superman’s fat, meaty dick. Oh no, Jeff thought. He’s not going to…
He was. He did. Jeff squinched up his eyes at the sight. Slowly, firmly, implacably, the kryptonite rod went up into the helpless hero’s cock until it had been completely swallowed. “Now to keep that in place,” the villain crowed as he locked a metal cage over the hero’s dick, confining it in a space that would have fit most men’s cocks with room to spare, but was a tight squeeze for the Supersnake.
“‘Man of Steel’ indeed,” Luthor sneered. “Now to make sure that stays put… permanently.” Superman’s formless groans turned briefly sharper as a nail-sized spike was driven through his cockhead and then spot-welded to the cage at both top and bottom. When he had finished, Luthor yanked the hero to his feet to show the result to the crowd, which roared its approval. Superman’s cock was completely encased in a metal cage. The skin of his dick pressed up against the bars of the cage and squeezed through in places, illuminated from within by a sickly green glow; the rock stuffed up his urethra shone brightly enough to be visible right through the skin and meat.
“Don’t worry, there’s a hole drilled through it so you can piss, though probably less comfortably than you are accustomed to. You’ll get used to it. Now for the other end.” A new piece of kryptonite appeared, similarly shaped to the last one but much larger, and Jeff had no doubt where it was going to go. With much grunting and moaning, Superman was able to take the entire green plug up his ass, whereupon it was fixed in place with a set of straps that were secured to his body with locks. Now his entire lower belly glowed faintly from the rock embedded in his bowels. Luthor then removed the kryptonite pendant from around Superman’s neck and shoved the hero down onto his knees.
“That should do nicely indeed. Be assured that I have done my research on this most useful of minerals. Over time, due to being in constant contact with soft, mucous membranes, the kryptonite is going to leach into your body and lodge in your cells, rendering you permanently weak, helpless, and mine to command. Naturally, the areas closest to the point of exposure will experience the highest concentrations. In your case, that would be your dick and your prostate gland, though your testicles will soak up a fair amount too. Within a week, you will find that your once-colossal cock has begun to shrink, starting down a path that ends with it becoming tiny, shriveled, and utterly useless. That condition will be permanent. Even if I were to take the cage off at that point, you would find that the ability to experience an erection – let alone an ejaculation – is no longer one of your superpowers.
“But the cage won’t be coming off. Well, no, that’s not quite true. In a month or so, I will indeed take it off, but only to replace it with something smaller, more appropriately sized for the shrunken nub that your cock will have become. I might even have to repeat the process again a few months after that. I suppose it’s possible that some day, your dick will be nothing more than a thin layer of skin over the rod that it’s impaled on. We’ll just have to wait and see.
“Meanwhile, your prostate and balls will be similarly atrophying. Now, I do like the way a full set of balls looks hanging fat and low in their sac. Once yours have shrunk to the size of peas and are no longer any use to either of us, can you guess what I intend to replace them with? No? Well, I suppose the kryptonite is too close to your brain, affecting your thinking. I plan to replace them with… these.”
He held up a pair of egg-sized kryptonite rocks, sized to match the stones currently occupying the hero’s scrotum. Superman’s eyes rolled in his head and he struggled to remain upright on his knees while the villain hovered over him and cackled. “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaah!”
Jeez, what corny dialogue. Well, monologue – Superman didn’t have much of a speaking role. The crowd was loving it, though, cheering and clapping.
“Now, Superslave… suck my dick,” Luthor commanded.
“Nnghhh… nnnever…” Superman groaned.
“Perhaps not today, my pet. But one day… one day soon… you will. Oh, yes. You will.”
The lights went out and the scene ended. A moment later, they came back up and Superman (fully dressed once more in his skin-tight costume, grinning and waving) and his arch-nemesis stood side by side, arms on each other’s shoulders, taking their bows. His pelvis seemed completely normal, which made Jeff wonder… which parts of what he had just seen were real, and which were illusions? Did the bowing actor really have rods shoved up his dick and ass, a locked cage on his cock? They wouldn’t be glowing green, of course, but was the hardware really present, just hidden by a virtual superman costume? Or was it the reverse: the costume was real and the hardware had been faked? Or were both fake? There really was no way for Jeff to know.
At least this one was less disturbing than the previous scene. Even though the subject matter was still heavy on the gay S&M, it came across more as camp than horror. That was vaguely reassuring. It said that perhaps the guys here weren’t total sociopaths but just liked their fun on the rough side. As long as they kept it strictly virtual, Jeff supposed it wasn’t really a problem.
Nevertheless, he was pretty sure he’d seen enough now. It was clear, at least in general outline, what it was going to take to set his brother free. There was no reason to stick around and watch the next scene. (Not to mention the one after that. “Reluctant Informant vs. Nail Gun”? He definitely didn’t need that image stuck in his brain, no way.) It was time to get the heck out of here.
10: The Nightmare
Leaving the movie fans to their next showing, Jeff headed back down the hall. Sounds continued to slip out from behind the closed doors and Jeff really did not want to know what was making some of them. But as he passed one, it suddenly opened and a rubberlad emerged (“digitox rubberlad”, according to the bubble over his head), walking swiftly but unsteadily. He turned toward the exit and stumbled toward it, bouncing off one of the walls and barely keeping his balance on stiff, awkward legs.
Another man peered out from the door, facing the rubberlad and thus away from where Jeff was. Jeff tried to sidle around him and the man noticed him with a start.
“Oh! Sorry about that.”
“No trouble,” Jeff assured him, glancing at the hovering bubble to get a name, which turned out to be “Nightmare Leatherman”. Jeff nodded down the hall toward the retreating rubberlad. “Is that guy OK?”
“Mmm. Yeah. We just finished a scene. He left a little sooner than I’d have liked, but he’ll be fine. The one thing I wish I could change about the VRealWorld interface is the rule against talking with subs, because after what he’s been through, he could use a little aftercare. But… they built the app, so they get to make the rules, I guess.”
“A little aftercare…” Jeff echoed. “From what?”
Nightmare’s gaze swung around to meet Jeff’s. “You sure you want to know? I mean, I’m happy to answer, but I enjoy talking about this stuff so much that once I get going, it’s sometimes hard to stop!”
This might be of use – a way to learn what was going on in these private rooms without having to witness it firsthand. Fewer disturbing images to rise up and haunt him in his dreams later. “Nah, actually, that’s fine. I’ve gotta learn this stuff somehow, so anything you can teach me would be a great help.”
Nightmare gestured Jeff into the room he had just left. It was not large and mostly bare with only a table and a floor mat as furnishings. Nightmare sat down on the mat and rested his back against the wall. “Here, have a seat. Is there anything in particular you want to know, or should I just describe what I just did with digitox and you can ask any questions you think of?”
“I’m so new I don’t even know where to start, so that second option sounds good.”
“You got it. First thing is, I like to set my face so the rubberlad can’t see it. Like this.” As Jeff watched, the man’s face warped and distorted. Soon it was a pulsing, ominous-looking blur with no solid edges or fixed features, like a thundercloud or some kind of sci-fi space warp. Everything was in constant motion, a churning, bruise-colored mass of light that almost hurt to look at. Jeff averted his eyes.
“Yeah, that’s the reaction I want them to have,” Nightmare said. He turned off the distortion and his face returned to normal. “So even before the scene starts, I’m this faceless, nightmare figure to them, something too terrifying to look at for long. Hence the name, yeah?”
“It’s effective,” Jeff had to agree.
“So we’re in here, he’s on his knees after offering me control of his suit, I’m circling around him like a pacing cat. A predator eying its prey. I let the rubberlad look-slash-not-look at me for a while until he’s starting to get tense, wondering what I’m going to do to him. I hit him with some sub-sonics through the earphones to get him even more on edge. Then, once he’s starting to really get tense, I ramp it up. I make this dramatic wind up gesture, point both hands straight at him and hit him with a flash of light, a thunderclap of sound, and a jolt to the chest from the suit. It usually knocks them off their feet when I do that so I have my avatar do it from where he thinks I’m standing while the real me goes behind him to catch him when he sags. Right as the jolt hits, I shut his world down, sight, sound and touch. Sight and sound are near-total wipes; touch is not quite 100% – if he bangs his hand into something, the suit can’t completely damp it out so he’ll still feel it a little. But all gentle touches are suppressed by the suit. If I rub his arm or he puts his hand on his own belly, there’s no sense of contact. I leave him like that for about ten minutes, and by then he’s starting to get really disoriented. It’s as if his whole body went away and he’s just a brain floating in a jar somewhere.
“So now he’s wondering… am I dead? Did the nightmare kill me for real? Eventually, he’ll start to try to stand. That’s my cue to turn on scene 1. Bit by bit, lights appear. Specks at first, then larger objects. He finds himself floating through space, no ground under his feet. Stars, nebulas, distant galaxies whirling around him. He’s spinning, flying totally out of control. I help by physically moving him around so it messes with his inner ear. He can’t feel me doing it, but his head is spinning to match what he’s seeing. No sense of up and down; no control over what’s happening to him. I have to hold him up at times because his sense of balance is totally shot.
“At some point, one of the dots around him starts to get bigger. He probably doesn’t notice at first, but soon it’s quarter-sized, then softball-sized, and soon he can’t help but notice it because it’s starting to look like a ball, not a disk, and he’s heading right for it. I adjust his orientation so that his spin stops and he’s facing this steadily-growing planet. It’s not earth; it’s totally alien. Blues and browns and greens and whites, but subtly wrong. The green has too much purple in it, the blue is too dark. He gets closer and closer and at some point the ball stops being a ball and becomes the ground and he’s falling, helpless, totally powerless to stop it.
“He’s over water and the surface comes up to meet him and he crashes through it and now he’s in scene 2. He’s still falling only now he’s underwater. What little light there was soon fades away and he’s alone in a thick black sea. Disorienting sparkles of luminescent sea life flicker in and out of his vision. I set the suit to squeeze him around the middle. Doesn’t stop him from breathing, but makes him work hard for every breath, like he’s pulling against resistance… kinda like trying to breathe water only without the inconvenient death-by-drowning that follows. He holds his breath as long as he can but eventually he has to give in and takes in a giant, shuddering gasp. Then another. As far as he’s concerned, he is breathing water and drowning without dying, which he thinks maybe can only happen if he’s already dead, and there’s still no up or down, he’s completely lost and I am basically tearing his mind down to atoms.
“After a while in the water, he finds himself washing up into a cave and we transition to scene 3. The water goes away, changing to air so gradually that he can’t perceive it happening. By now I’ve got him lying down on his back on that table and he is as limp as a dishrag, a dead fish, an empty vessel waiting to be filled. And now I give him light. Jets of red flame burst up from holes in the floor near the walls. He can see where he is if he opens his eyes and looks, and after a few seconds he does just that. He lifts his head. He looks around. And now he knows he knows the answer to the “am I dead?” question because this is what every pop-culture image of hell looks like.
“That’s when I make my entrance. More flames shoot up, a giant wall of them, roaring in his ears, and I step right through them into the cave with him. I’m fucking enormous, 20, 30 feet tall and I’ve got the body of a demon. I’m so big my horns scrape the rock ceiling overhead. I’ve got dark red, almost black skin, eyes that burn with flames inside, huge fangs that stick down outside my lips. Fingers that end in yellow claws, sharp-tipped tail slashing the air as I stalk toward him.
“He’s petrified, paralyzed. And of course, I’m helping that illusion because I’ve activated the magnets in the suit to glue him in place on the metal table. He tries to roll away and can’t, tries to get his legs under him, can’t do that either. I leave his arms free to move because his helpless flailings as he bats ineffectively at my gigantic paws are sooooo fucking hot.
“So in reality, he’s lying on that table with his ass right up against the edge. In the VRealWorld, I pick him up in my giant hand as if he weighed no more than a feather. He feels himself lifted up into the air; the walls of the cave move down in his vision, so he must be moving up, right? I lift him to my lips, open my mouth, stick out my enormous tongue between those two giant fangs, lick his body. He feels it all over, the coarse, raspy rubbing on his skin. I make sure to stick the tip right into his asshole while in reality, it’s my fingers lubing him up.
“Then I tip him down so he can see my cock. It’s gigantic, must be four feet long, longer than his body from ass to neck, and it’s almost as thick around as his waist. There’s no way that monster is going to fit inside him. Then a little trick I like to use. You noticed the suits cover everything except the mouth and nose, right? And the ass, of course, but that opening is not as obvious and can be zipped shut. But the mouth and nose are open, and so the rubberlads know that anything on or in their mouth is real. Some of them use that to remind themselves that it’s all an illusion, but I don’t want that. I want to make them enter my reality fully. So after giving him a long look at this giant dick, I lower his face down toward the tip of it and I put my arm over his mouth. This part, right here, a couple of inches up from the elbow on the inside. I’ve had a heating pad over it all while he was floating, so the skin is good and hot and there’s no hair on it. From his perspective? He can not only see that giant dick, he can taste it, and he can feel with his lips and tongue that it’s way bigger than his mouth, that it’s steaming hot, and that he’s only touching a tiny part of it. If he had any lingering idea that this was all faked, that’s gone because I just ‘proved’ to him that what he thought was his one remaining infallible reality-detector agrees with what the rest of his senses are telling him.
“So after letting him lick my elbow a bit, I lift his legs up with my thumb (in the real world, they’re propped up on my shoulders), and I line myself up. He’s got his head raised. He’s looking at me, at my demon eyes, the red skin of my hugely-muscled demon chest with tits the size of his face. And he’s looking at this gigantic cock that’s about to split him apart and that’s it: whatever thoughts his mind was thinking before this began, they’re gone now. His entire sense of self has been obliterated. I am all that’s left, I am his god, his demon, his avenging angel, and I am about to fill his emptiness up.
“And I do. I position the tip of my cock at his ass and I slowly, slowly force it inside him. And he watches as every single inch of that four-foot-long beast sinks into his asshole. It takes over a minute to get it all inside and as it goes, the suit squeezes down on him again, starting at the waist and working toward his neck, making him feel like it’s his body that’s swelling up from the monster inside it. Gets tough for him to breathe again. Then I’m sliding it back out and he feels the suit easing up the pressure bit by bit from his neck down to his waist. That keeps up with every thrust – the suit squeezes him to match whatever depth my real-life cock has penetrated him to, so he can easily believe it’s really filling him up all the way to his throat.
“So I thrust in once more and hold it a moment, and then I’m building up a rhythm, slow at first, then speeding up. By this time, I’m close anyway because I’ve been stroking myself while I’ve been tearing his mind apart. So the actual fucking doesn’t last long, maybe five minutes. Then I let loose with a roar, which he perceives as a bass rumble so deep that it rattles his bones, and I’m shooting into the condom. I sometimes wish I could let the rubberlad come too, but those suits make that impossible with that built-in chastity lock. Still, I make sure it gives him a nice, satisfying buzz the whole time while I’m building up to my own orgasm, and only let it fade away after I pull out.
“Here, this is what it looks like.”
Jeff’s interface dropped down to announce that he had been sent a link. He followed it and found a video clip that depicted exactly what Nightmare had described – a gigantic demon holding a limp, naked man in his huge hand and impaling him on an impossibly long, fat, thick, cock. If anything, the image was worse than what Jeff had been picturing – Nightmare hadn’t mentioned the velociraptor-like feet or the smoke curling up from the point where the thrusting penis made contact with the overstretched ass. Or the look of blank terror in the eyes of the victim. Well… no. It wasn’t exactly terror, or rather, it wasn’t merely terror. That look went beyond terror. It matched exactly what Nightmare had described. That was the look of a man who had reached a state of “I am nothing; you are everything; own me” and had gotten his wish. Jeff blinked the video out of sight.
“The only downside,” Nightmare continued, “is that after an experience like that, you really want to give the sub some aftercare. Bring him back to earth slowly, let him come back to himself, reassure him that everything’s OK. But the suit doesn’t let that happen. I do what I can – I let him lie there quietly for a while, fade the cave out and slowly bring this room up, exactly as it is, including me. No augmentations. I unlock the suit, release control of his eyes and ears, turn my face disguise off. But I can’t talk to him, so I just hold his hand a while, rub his chest, let his breathing and heart rate calm down. Sometimes it works, other times the sub bolts as soon as he’s free to go. This one was midway between – he left too soon, I think, but he wanted to go. I’ve been doing this for six years now, since the VRealWorld first came out, and experience tells me this one’s a little shell-shocked for the moment, but he’ll be OK. And he got a ton of points from the encounter, thanks in no small part to the mind games I played with him. I hope he found what he was looking for. I certainly got what I wanted from him.
“So… that’s how my evening went. Does that help you get any ideas?”
Jeff could only stare. For all that he had seen tonight, this topped it all put together. He sat trying to think of something to say for a long half-minute, opening and closing his mouth and finally asking “So… you do the same scene every time?”
Nightmare grinned. “Naw. I like to mix things up. I do have favorite scenes that I’ll come back to, and this is one of them, but part of the fun is thinking up something new to do. Pretty much the only thing I consistently do is, I fuck with the guy’s head at least as much as I fuck with his body. That’s my kink, that’s what gets me going.”
Jeff could certainly see that being the case with the scene that he had just heard described.
“OK, I can tell this was a bit heavy for you,” Nightmare said. “I understand. Very few people get off on the level of intensity that turns me on. But I’m not apologizing for that. I spent a lot of years feeling like I needed to apologize for being born gay until I realized that wasn’t something I needed to feel guilty about. Then I spent an even longer time feeling ashamed about being into kink. I finally got over that, too, and I’m a lot better off for it.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m actually a decent human being. I have a stable job over in Jersey. Once a week I make deliveries for Meals On Wheels. I power-washed my 67-year-old mom’s patio for her this afternoon because she’s a stubborn old cuss and would have done it herself otherwise, and then we went out for dinner. Totally normal human stuff. And after dinner I came here to unwind and have some fun. I understand that the VRealWorld is a great big illusion and I use that illusion to satisfy itches in a way that would be criminally irresponsible in the mundane world. This is all fake, and I know it’s fake, and the guys I play with know it’s fake. No actual rubberlads were harmed in the fulfillment of this fantasy. You follow?”
Jeff digested that for a bit. “Okay,” he said at last. “Yeah, okay. I get it.”
Nightmare stood up and Jeff followed suit. “Best advice I can give you?” Nightmare said. “Set up your scenes as much as possible ahead of time. The interface is good, but you don’t want to be fiddling with it in the heat of the moment. Plan ahead. It’s much easier to say ‘cue scene 2’ than it is to say ‘I want a dark dungeon theme with this furniture and that light source and blah blah’. But don’t worry if your plans get screwed up at show time. They always do, so don’t get mad about it, just roll with it. Improv. Make sense?”
“All right. Good luck, then.” He headed out the door and Jeff barely remembered to call out a “thank you” before he disappeared into the hall. Nightmare lifted an acknowledging hand in reply but didn’t stop walking.
11: Company Town
Jeff sat a while, digesting everything he had encountered since putting the headset on. There certainly was a lot of it. Hopefully enough to set Bill free. Speaking of which, it was time to get started on that.
Out the door, down the dark hallway, through the dungeon door and out into the main hall. He was almost bowled over by a trio racing past, one in the lead, two dressed in black SWAT uniforms in hot pursuit waving what might have been paintball guns. They disappeared up ahead while he made his way toward the entrance. It was tempting to take the headset off right away, be done with this whole Alice-In-Wonderland world, but Jeff made himself keep it on all the way to the door.
Past the prison, through Mos Eisley, there’s the beach over there, there’s the castle, almost out. Just before the door, he came upon the trio of runners again. The one who had been in the lead was now lying on the floor, blood spraying out of a severed artery in the side of his neck. Struck once more by how incredibly real these simulations were, Jeff almost stopped to reassure himself that it actually was just a simulation, but then he heard what could only be one of the Terra Nova security guys haranguing the three runners.
“I don’t care. You can’t do that in here.”
“Aw, c’mon, man! They’re smart bullets,” one of the two chasers protested. There was something comical about a burly, conspicuously-armed SWAT team member whining with a high-pitched, nasal voice like a thwarted three-year-old. “They pass right through anyone who isn’t their target. No one’s getting hurt.”
“It’s not the bullets, it’s the running. You want to play cops and robbers, take it outside. Go to a park or something.”
By this time, the bleeding man had stood up, blood still fountaining out of his neck (though not, Jeff noticed, puddling on the floor), and started trying to mediate between the bouncer and the friend who had just shot him. “Turn that off!” the bouncer snapped, referring to the spurting red stream. Jeff reached the door and passed through, removing the headset as he did, glad to be back in reality. What a place…
He felt as though he had been gone for days, but Martin was still sitting at the same table. Did the man ever leave that booth?
“Ah, you’ve returned,” he said as Jeff approached. “I hope you had an edifying time.”
“If ‘edifying’ is anything like ‘mystifying’ or ‘terrifying’ or ‘weirdifying’, then yeah. Question for you – when you showed me that view of Bill’s cell, there was a number on it. That number was his score in the game, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. That’s correct.”
“And while I was watching, that number changed. It dropped from 327 to 326. That makes no sense to me. From what I learned back there” – he jerked his thumb toward the dance floor – “someone is controlling his suit, keeping him in that prison. His score should be rising, not falling. And he should be able to set himself free once he gets to a thousand. So what’s going on?”
“A very astute observation,” Martin agreed. “That was what I found so intriguing about this arrangement when I first learned of it. You can find it yourself now that you have the app. Search for ‘Prisoner On The Edge’.”
Jeff did so. In a few moments, there was Bill on the screen of Jeff’s phone, lying down now and seemingly asleep. His score had fallen further and now stood at 298.
“The relationship between points, dollars, and value is a complicated and fluid one,” Martin said. “You are correct that when a rubberlad grants someone else the right to control his suit, he earns points for that on a scale that varies according to how long, what actions, and so on. But players can also be charged points for certain actions. It can cost points to use someone else’s space, for instance, or a virtual environment that someone else created. Here’s what I think is happening: someone convinced Bill to agree to be imprisoned until he earns enough points to get out. But he is being charged ‘rent’, as it were, for the use of the real-world space in which he is imprisoned. I would expect that he is also charged for the food that he eats, and possibly for the water he uses.
“In other words, Bill is stuck in the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century ‘company town’, where he gets paid for his service but has to turn around and pay his employer for his upkeep, and the upkeep costs as much as he can earn. He can’t leave until he pays his debt in full, but he can never earn enough to pay his debt. It’s actually a very clever abuse of the system.”
“Oh, yeah, very clever,” Jeff bit out. Maybe he’d be able to be more detached, to better appreciate the cunning and even artistry that went into thinking up such an arrangement if he didn’t have a personal stake in it. But he did, so to hell with artistry. “But Bill can revoke his consent, right? He could tell this guy to fuck off and just walk out? Why doesn’t he do that?”
“He could, yes, but there would be a big price if he did. If he revokes his consent, then he forfeits all the points he’s earned since granting consent, but he does not earn back all the points he paid out for room and board. After almost two weeks, he would be thousands of points in debt. The game does not take kindly to those who go that far in the red and he would need to work off what he owes in service.”
“Well, but so what? What can they do, try to get him to pay? I’d like to see them try that in court. ‘We’re suing you for 4,000 points.’ ‘Yeah, and I’m suing you back for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment’.”
“Oh, I don’t think it would come to that.” He took a long sip of his drink – not a brick this time, Jeff noticed. “The VRealWorld designers wouldn’t take such a public approach, I don’t think. From what I’ve seen, they prefer to work more behind the scenes, and they sometimes play a little loose with the idea of consent. Bill’s situation is a perfect example of that, but it’s happened before. In fact, there’s a story going around that the very first rubberlad was a straight man who was either tricked or blackmailed into locking himself into one of the suits and then had to go find leathermen so he could earn enough points to set himself free.”
Blackmail. That was very, very believable.
“Of course, I never really believed that story,” Martin continued.
Jeff thought it through out loud. “So… they might threaten to send some photos or videos to Mom, for instance. Of the stuff he’s been doing over the past two weeks. If Bill’s straight, he’d be desperate to not let that happen… and if he’s gay, the same because she doesn’t know yet.”
Martin nodded. “The closet is not a healthy place to live.”
“How did he get locked into that suit in the first place, then? Don’t tell me he locked it on himself!”
“Actually,” Martin replied, “that is exactly what he did. You rented that headset and gloves, right? Those were expensive enough and they only give you a taste of what the VRealWorld can offer. To get the full experience, you really need to be wearing a full-body suit, and those are far, far more costly. Hunter can afford one, and if you noticed, his was not locked on. There are many people who want to play the game who can’t afford to buy or rent suits, but the game designers want people to be playing, so they offer the suits for free to anyone who is willing to lock themselves into one. The catch is that it costs a thousand points to request an unlock code.”
Ah-ha. There it was. That was the missing piece of the puzzle. That’s how Bill got himself stuck. He wanted to play this game so bad that he agreed to become a rubberlad, a faceless drone available for use by any of the other players. He probably figured he could make a thousand points in a couple of days and set himself free. But what would that get him? From what the Pocket Prison guy had said, there was no way to get rich quick by selling points, so Bill wasn’t doing this for money. Which implied that he was OK with getting himself locked into a pillory or forced to lick boots or staked out in the hot sun or raped up the ass by a giant demon.
Which implied that not only was he OK with those things, those things were probably exactly what he was looking for.
They were the reason he put the suit on in the first place.
His brother was gay.
Jeff shook his head. Gay or not, he still needed help. Jeff stood up to go. As he was rising, a pair of men passed by the table on their way out from the dance floor. The one in the lead was tall, dark-skinned with dreadlocks hanging down to his shoulders; the shorter one trailing behind was a rubberlad and therefore interchangeable with all the others. “Don’t forget, Turtle,” the leader called with the unmistakable lilt of Jamaica in his voice. “Let me know how it goes.”
Jeff boggled a bit, then thought to bring the phone up and point it at the pair’s retreating backs. Through the screen he could read “KingstonTop Leatherman” and “propertyofKT rubberlad”. He boggled even more. That was Hawaiian Shirt? Suddenly the surfer’s funny way of speaking made sense, but it was kind of scary that Jeff couldn’t recognize a Caribbean accent just because it came wrapped in a blond California package. Every time he turned around, the VRealWorld found a new way to knock his legs out from under him.
His thoughts must have been visible on his face once again. “Don’t read too much into that,” Martin said. “I suspect he carries no more deep-seated desire to really be whatever you saw him as than any of the aliens or medieval fops or superheroes do.”
“Yeah… right… it’s a game. They’re all acting, playing out roles. I’m definitely getting that now,” Jeff answered, once again getting up to go.
“One last suggestion, if I may?” Martin said. “Timing matters. Every now and then Bill receives visitors. I mentioned I was with a group of them some time back – it’s how I got your name from his phone. His score tends to go up during these visits, then starts steadily dropping again once they are gone. If you want to maximize your impact, you should go see him right after one of these other visitors departs. Just keep an eye on the app and you’ll know when.”
He held out a small bag. “Here. Some things you might need. Make sure you bring the headset and gloves back by next Saturday or they’ll charge you the full purchase price. Best of luck, Jeff.”
Jeff took the bag. “Yeah. Thanks. Hey, I appreciate you helping me out with this.”
“Oh, no problem. Happy to help.”
It was most definitely time to get the hell out of Terra Nova.
To be continued …
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