Mike was at the front door, finally arriving with the beer. Megan opened the door for him. Mike entered looking mostly like his usual self except for his fedora, which sported a buzz saw on a robotic arm. Megan hugged him anyway.
Fighting specialty Mecha. Giant robots all the way.
Pertinent facts Physical body present.
Agent Tenchi the tachikoma (tactical robotic spider).
Current appearance Weaponized fedora, nice jacket. 1920's-ish. Virtual glasses (to complete his style). Black and white.
Environment filter Ultra-Epic Crash Forest. Shoujo for proxies.
MeganHeyo. What's with the hat?
MikeProtection. T knows what it means.
The buzz saw whirred ominously for a second before disappearing into the hat.
MeganWhy not just filter T's nonsense automatically?
MikeWhat fun would that be? I'm going to go put these beers down.
Mike said hello to T's second proxy, still standing by the glass case, as he walked to the kitchen. But he was captivated by the sand wall and put the beers down to play with it. He felt the sand run through his fingers via his haptic gloves. T's second proxy jumped over beside him.
ThomasIt smells like sandalwood. Very relaxing. And apparently it has sound.
MikeActually, I'm pretty sure this is a music visualizer.
Thomas yelled as loud as he could at the wall and then blasted music at it, to no effect. Mike played Mozart through the speakers of a nearby bug he moved close to the wall, and also through his jacket, to no effect.
SamWhat is going on in there?
ThomasMike says this sand thing is a music visualizer.
Sam came into the living room, put her arm around Mike, and scanned through the sand garden's settings. She started playing a death metal song through the wall speaker. The effect was glorious. The sand melted into expanding, sloshing seas of molten glass. The seas ballooned from the wall and expanded rapidly into the room, pulsing and throbbing with the music, splaying out in myriad forms. The living room was filled with crashing waves, whipping plumes, and effervescent bubbling towers, physically pounding out the heavy music. It even extended into the kitchen. Mike felt the beat of the music rattling his ribs. The proxies in the room felt the waves flowing through them, synchronizing all of their sensations with the spirit of the music.
MeganHoly crap! That's beautiful.
Tendrils snapped through T in beat to the music. It kind of tickled. Sam stopped the music and turned it back into a sand garden. The forms filling the room collapsed into the wall, leaving only chaotic colored trails through the sand and its 9 rocks.
SamI just hadn't looked at it, it's got all sorts of settings. I'll have to play with it later.
Sam sent a short vid of the visualizer to Dex and accompanied Mike into the kitchen. Saitou had watched the event through the kitchen wall. Saitou's lion agent Mr. Naps, noticing his interest, automatically saved the sand visualizer for him. One of Thomas' proxies followed Sam and Mike into the kitchen. Megan sent her proxy walking through the kitchen wall after them.
Chester's sock puppet agent Sifl alerted her that Sam's party had reached a critical mass of interesting people. Chester decided to leave the 2nd party she was attending, which had gotten kind of lame. Of course, it was 6 a.m. there. The 3rd party she was present at was projected to be awesome around 1 a.m, but that was in three hours.
At the moment, Sam's party was just right. Chester sat up in her chair and looked around the room, pretending to stretch. Her painted face smiled in greeting to Thomas and Megan. Thomas was always surprised at how expressive and engaging a painted face could be. Her chia hair was kind of endearing too. Thomas' 1st proxy, sitting on the coffee table, turned to face her.
ChesterOh, hi Thomas.
Chester leaned over and hugged T. Her body was soft and warm despite its appearance. Chester practiced enhanced hugs, which transferred physical warmth, a soothing full-body constriction, and temporary intermingling of certain body senses when the other person's setting allowed. She settled back into her chair.
ThomasNice crotch flower, Chess.
ChesterCarved it myself. Hey Meg.
ThomasI think she's in the kitchen with Sam and me and everybody. Primarily, I mean.
ChesterOh yeah, she got Planted. Very nice. What's with Keen?
T looked over his shoulder at Keen.
ThomasHe... it... Keen's here. It's just ignoring everything but the game. Which I am sitting on. I don't know why it's watching it here. Keen could be on the field experiencing it, or at least hovering over it. Screw it, he's "he" to me from now on.
ChesterWell, maybe it doesn't communicate, but just likes being around people.
ThomasSoaking it all in, are you? Contribute!
T jumped up and down on Keen's head, but Keen did not care to react. Thomas sat down on the table and shoved some cheesecake into his mouth. Many miles away, his physical body did a shot.
ThomasSo, Chess, how are things in New Zealand? Still got that lag problem?
ChesterThey mostly fixed that, but lag is inevitable proxying from New Zealand to anywhere in the United States. Quarter second delay at the best. Speed of light and routing delays and all that.
ThomasWell, I've said it before, but your proxy fills in for you quite nicely. At least as far as body language and reflective gesturing goes.
ChesterWell, it's got a lot of data to work with.
One function of proxies was to fill in the gap for the user in cases of lag. Spoken communication is more flexible in terms of lag. Except in cases of being slow to deal with interruptions, it can just appear as if the person speaking is taking a short pause to think. But subtle things like eye contact, non-verbal communication and reflexive posturing could make lag during conversations, or other intimate social interactions, awkward.
A well-trained ghost could help fill in the gaps for its user so that the other side may not even know there's lag. They even help with sex, where a quarter second delay could be very annoying. But if your ghost knows you well enough, they can partially fill in for you. This can be a strange sensation to the user at first, like experiencing an echo of something you were about to do, just before you did it. But if it fits with what the user was going to do, the user's brain more often than not simply gets used to trailing some actions, almost as if it actually had done it. Because it kind of had. Luckily, people's social interactions were, for the most part, limited in their variety, and capable of being modeled to various levels of success. Matching gazes, maintaining appropriate eye contact, angling toward a speaker and generally mirroring other users were commonly compensated for by ghosts.
ThomasGo check out the kitchen. It's the happening place.
Chester teleported into the middle of kitchen, shimmering Star Trek style. T wondered if he was the only one with restricted porting privileges. Chester said hello and passed out enhanced hugs to everyone.
Thomas switched his attention to his second proxy, which was standing by the kitchen table where Sam was seated. Saitou was doing the moonwalk for some reason. There was much merrymaking.
Eventually Thomas noticed that Sam was mixing drinks with a mid-priced rum on the kitchen table. Many miles away he took another shot.
ThomasI really don't understand why you buy expensive alcohol. Why not get cheap vodka and change its sensation like I do? It's not like any of us have money to burn.
SamIt's not that much more expensive. Besides, Mike appreciates it.
MikeThat crap you drink is terrible, whether you can taste it or not.
ThomasThat's the whole point! Alcohol is nasty no matter how expensive it is, but the cheap stuff works the same.
SamI'm not arguing with you. Like, about anything. Ever.
Mike got a message from Dexter and excused himself to see what was going on outside. While Megan wasn't paying attention, Mr. Naps sniffed the back of her knee. The cold lion nose caused her to yelp and jump to the other side of the room.
MeganSaitou! Does your lion really eat people?
SaitouI don't have to answer that... Maybe it does. Sometimes.
MeganWell, put it away or shrink it!
Saitou picked up Mr. Naps by the scruff of the neck. Naps purred and meowed softly.
SaitouSee, Mr. Naps is just a big kitty. He only eats people if they're incapacitated. Like T will be if he keeps drinking.
ThomasHow could you possibly know how drunk I am? Everyone knows I use drunk masking.
SaitouYou're being a little too smooth, T. You haven't even agitated Mike yet.
ThomasHe's been here like 4 minutes. And he's outside now.
Thomas[Text> Saitou] I am planning revenge against Mike, just you see.
Saitou[Text> T] What is with you and revenge?
Saitou turned away and continued talking to Sam about politics. Chester had moved over to the fridge and had been gesturing for T to come over, so he did.
ThomasIs Zuul in the fridge or something?
ChesterSomething in this fridge is being filtered. You know what?
ThomasI don't know, what?
A large window opened up above Thomas' head and a waterfall of green slime drenched him, but without touching anything else.
ChesterYou've been green mustard-ed!
Chester walked away to Saitou before T could respond. T wiped a donut on his chest and ate it. It was not the taste sensation he had hoped for. T filtered the slime away. Proxy Megan jumped up and sat on the island counter between the fridge and the kitchen table.
ThomasMy eyes still sting.
MeganWhy doesn't anyone set it so stupid crap like that is automatically filtered?
ThomasHow realistic would that be?
ThomasBesides, now I can get revenge.
MeganWhat is with you and revenge?
ThomasIt's fun and stuff.
Chester and Saitou stood talking by the table. On a layer private to Meg and himself, T used his index finger as a laser (an ever popular device) and cut the top of Saitou's head off. It fell, molten, onto Chester's leg and set it on fire. Megan snorted in suppressed laughter. Chester looked at T suspiciously while her body blackened and then melted down like the Wicked Witch of the West. Chester's melting body flailed its arms impotently as Saitou's half-head spurted blood on the ceiling. On the same layer, Meg drew a mustache made of cartoon caterpillars on Sam.
Thomas[Private> Meg] Lame!
Megan[Private> T] Yeah, how about this...
Megan restored everyone on their joke layer and created a copy of Chester's proxy next to Chester. It was complete with her ghost (from her SIS). The Chesters started dancing around each other. They started making out (as only marionettes can). Lush tree branches grew out of the Chesters' indicated erogenous zones and wrapped around their bodies until they merged and became a single Chester again, the branches being absorbed back into its body.
Thomas[Private> Meg] Very nice. And pretty. Not really funny though. Watch what I'm going to do to Starman there.
Megan[Private> T] Starman?
ThomasSaitou. Wait, are you filtering his proxy's special application?
MeganI just force everything to be my favorite flavor of anime.
ThomasYou should give special applications an exception and at least look at them first before filtering them. You never know what you'll miss.
Megan removed all of her filters affecting Saitou.
Megan went over to play with Saitou's stars. Thomas noticed that a panel had appeared on the panorama wall, ruining a nice space view of Earth. The panel featured a terminal display complete with a keyboard sticking out beneath it. The terminal simply said, "Keen: Available for chat. Please use the keyboard." Thomas was the only one who noticed it or cared.
ThomasI'm not typing anything. Villain, go punch the keys for me.
Villain ran over and jumped up on the keyboard, ready to hop on the keys to enter T's messages. T sat down at the kitchen table and duplicated the display in front of him so he wouldn't have to stare at the wall.
ThomasHey Keen, how's it going?
KeenWho is typing?
Thomas[To himself>] You have got to be kidding me.
ThomasIt's me, Thomas. You know.
KeenOh. That Thomas. You are famous.
KeenGames. Some call you Hanged Man.
ThomasYeah, people call me all sorts of things. Why are you a chat room?
KeenAnthropic bodies get in the way of multiple conversations.
ThomasUnlike keyboards? Bodies work so nicely with the human brain. Non-verbal communication contains a high bandwidth of tasty information.
KeenThat information is extraneous for my purposes. It speaks of character and social standing, but not of higher truth.
ThomasJust how many people are you talking to right now?
KeenIt varies. About 30 that are meaningful shares of information.
ThomasWhat kind of information?
KeenToday's prepared topics are: Middle Eastern archaeology, neurology, growing brain babies, and contemporary politics in Britain.
ThomasUh... let's go with the babies one.
KeenThere are projects underway to grow babies without physical bodies. Brain vats would sustain and nurture their brains while they inhabited virtual infantile bodies through specially designed brain implants.
Keen displayed a schematic for a baby brain vat, and below it an animation of a genetically modified brain growing from a single cell and being integrated with cybernetics. Then it showed a happy virtual baby, unaware that it existed only Outside.
ThomasBrain vats are very much relevant to my interests. It would be nice to not have to worry about my physical. But I think we should better develop brain vats for mature brains before we start thinking about crazy projects that people will freak out over.
KeenVat babies will be superior. Babies with physical bodies are a pain, and their physical bodies limit them and hamper their development.
ThomasYeah, babies are a pain. You could probably grow their brains larger than regular in vats too. It's limited now by the birth canal, I have heard.
KeenWith bio-engineering, probably. Although it is uncertain that size alone would appreciably affect intelligence, due to its many contributing factors. The primary reason for growing brain vat babies is that fewer and fewer people want to raise a physical child. Eventually, we could have a population crises due to having too few babies to replace the aging populace, even with automation fulfilling humanity's physical needs and supporting our infrastructure.
ThomasBut if babies don't have bodies, what will I eat?
KeenMost people don't eat babies.
ThomasDo you know what a joke is?
KeenWhat is "joke"?
ThomasOh.... huh.... Keen, are you a chatbot?
KeenNow who lacks a sense of humor?
ThomasSee, this is why people don't talk to you.
KeenYou're just a low priority conversation, that's all.
ThomasAre you sure you're not a chatbot? Oh wait, I have to go. "See" you later Keen.
Mike was coming back in to get a new beer.
Thomas[Text> Megan] Oh, oh, oh, I think Mike's coming back. Check this out. Mike's been physically abusing me! He ejected me from a car and I got run over! So I'm going to teach him a lesson by means of revenge!
Megan[Text> T] How much of that cheap vodka have you had?
T did not answer. He moved over by the kitchen sink just before Mike got to the refrigerator and began to whistle the Ghostbuster's theme. He had carefully positioned a bug on the ceiling in front of the refrigerator, but it refused to fall when Mike opened the fridge to get another beer. Falling bugs were too light and soft to hurt anyone, and sometimes having one let go of a surface was the fastest way to move it into a different position, so people were generally allowed to drop them. Sam had, however, added a house restriction against bugs falling near physical people. Probably because of T.
Unfortunately for everyone in the kitchen, the falling bug was only the first part of Thomas' plan, and he had contingencies. The bug began to beep at Mike. Mike didn't even look up. Then the kitchen sink turned on. Mike turned it off with a finger flick. The bug continued beeping. T turned the faucet back on. Mike turned it off. The bug beeped. T turned the faucet back on.
ThomasWhat? How do you know it's me?
MikeStop wasting water!
Mike lightly punched T in the chest. In response, T's chest exploded into a raging geyser of blood that splattered half of the kitchen. As he dramatically crumpled to the ground, the rupture across his chest spread to his stomach, and his insides (including his brain) splayed across the kitchen floor, carried by a cascade of blood. His organs and guts were based on his medical scans, so they were fairly accurate. It was disgustingly realistic, except for the ridiculous amount of blood and the strong smell of cinnamon.
Saitou continued talking with Chester, trying to ignore whatever was going on behind him despite being splashed with blood. He took a step back to emphasize a point and slipped on the expanding pool of blood. He nearly hit Sam as he fell. The stars of his body mixed with T's blood. Mr. Naps came over to help him up and lick blood off of his elbow, and then strated lapping the blood on the floor. Mike buried his face in his palm while Thomas lay writhing in his own guts. Megan face palmed.
MeganWhat is this, grade school?
ThomasOh gods, I'm dying! Why Mike? Why did you have to brutalize me yet again?
Sam calmly watched the entire thing happen and let T shame himself for a few more moments before filtering the mess from her house's primary layer. T stood up in his renewed body and brushed himself off. He noted his restricted house privileges. It had been worth it. He should never have had access to the sinks to begin with. But Saitou was an unfortunate casualty.
SaitouI've come to expect such things from life in general, and from you in particular.
T turned to his older brother and grinned maniacally.
ThomasMike, have you learned something here?
MikeI... think several things. Probably.
ThomasMaybe you'll think about how fragile I am the next time you eject me from a car.
MikeYou could have just said something.
Mike walked back outside. T yelled after him.
ThomasGraphic lessons are more effective.
MeganI think we all got the point.
ThomasMegs, sometimes I just don't know why I even try.
MeganBut where would we all be if you gave up trying?
ThomasOh yeah, that reminds me...
Mr. Naps was prowling around the kitchen. The blood had fueled his appetite for human flesh and now he was looking for someone to eat. This had given Thomas an idea.
ThomasYou should let Mr. Naps eat you. He's always hungry for human flesh.
MeganI don't know about that.
ThomasCome on. Just turn discomfort off.
MeganIs this like a rite of passage or something for new proxy users?
Sam & ChessNo!
MeganSo it's hazing, then?
SaitouI don't think it even counts as hazing.
ThomasAw, come on! Look how hungry he is!
Mr. Naps did look pretty hungry.
MeganFine, whatever. Come here Mr. Naps.
Megan turned her discomfort all the way off and was pulled to the ground as Mr. Naps set about eating her. He started with her left foot.
MeganThis is actually not so bad.
ThomasWhy would it be? Hey Naps, can you chew off the right leg at the hip and wait a second.
Megan's right leg came off after a few chomps. T held it up in the air, took off her sandal, and tickled her foot. She jerked her leg and hit him with her bloody stump.
MeganWhat the hell? That's worse than being eaten.
ThomasTickling is a separate option from discomfort. It can be turned off in an instant, but that instant might mean your death.
MeganYeah, gotcha. Go ahead Mr. Naps.
Mr. Naps started to eat again. Thomas threw Meg's leg into the air and vaporized it with his finger laser. Its ashes fell to the ground. By this point Naps had eaten up to her belly button. He was careful not to let too much viscera spill out on the floor.
MeganWhat is this for again?
T stepped away from Megan's expanding pool of blood. Naps gulped down Megan's arms, leaving only her chest and head.
ThomasMr. Naps was hungry, is all.
MeganMy legs feel weird.
ThomasHaven't you ever turned your body off before?
Now only Megan's head remained.
MeganYeah, for meditation. But being eaten is different.
MeganIt just occurred to me how silly this is.
Naps swallowed her head whole and Megan drifted for a moment in the void. She reinstated her physical body's senses and found herself on the couch in the living room. T sat on the coffee table looking at her.
ThomasGood work. Some new Plants would have freaked out.
MeganI've been eaten in Zombietown any number of times. I usually even leave discomfort at slightly above mild settings.
ThomasBeing eaten by zombies is always good. Alright, so it was a dumb test. You know what diving is?
MeganOh yeah, I've gone a few times. I know it's not the same if you're just getting the tactile feedback from a haptic, but it was fun.
ThomasIt really isn't even remotely the same thing. Even with a Plant, you have to develop flexibility in your body sense to get the whole experience. All your senses get played like a musical instrument if you can really stretch yourself out in the stream. I think you should try it. You could go with us on Saturday, after the movie shoot. It'll be fun!
Megan rubbed her legs thoughtfully. They still felt a little numb.
MeganI'm interested, but I don't know. I wouldn't want to get in the way.
ThomasOh, you couldn't if you tried. That is, we're going to leave you behind. But it'll be fine.
MeganDiving can create some pretty strange distortions. Or so I've read.
ThomasYou only have to relax to what you're comfortable with. And how do you think people get flexible in the first place? Eventually, your brain has to adapt to some crazy physical distortions if you're going to get the most out of living Outside.
Chester's living room proxy raised its head.
ChesterYou should come and see Club Omni if nothing else. Largest ongoing orgy outside of a sex club.
MeganHasn't everyone already seen that?
ThomasOh, sure. But have you felt it? Participants on the floor often share their proxy's sensory feeds. Just the dancing is pretty incredible by itself.
MeganI've been experimenting with experiencing other user's feeds. It's weird having the senses of a body that someone else is controlling.
ChesterShare a feed and shut out your own senses and it's like you're just some impotent voice in somebody's head. Like a roller coaster ride. But you don't have to go that far.
ThomasYou'll need to start riding feeds if you want to appreciate the best movies and shows, not to mention all the worlds that involve sharing.
MeganAlright, yeah, I'll go.
ThomasHa! I knew it. You're gonna get totally washed. It'll be great.
ThomasOh my gods, you live in a cave. Getting washed is losing your sense of yourself when you become an experience. It's a Zen thing or something. It's great fun. Shouldn't your agent have looked that term up for you?
MeganI don't have an agent.
T looked quizically at her.
MeganWhat? I like to do things myself.
Thomas[Text> Sam] Megs doesn't have an agent.
Sam[Text> T] That makes sense, actually. I always get her or voice mail when I call. How could we not notice that?
Thomas[Text> Sam] What should I say?
Sam[Text> T] Just fix it, Thomas! Geeze.
Thomas bit his lower lip. Choosing to not have an agent was like choosing to wash all of your dishes by hand. He looked to Chester for help, but he seemed to have left the living room again.
ThomasUh... you should really try a basic agent. They're indispensable once you get used to them.
MeganI've got a set of programs that do the same things.
ThomasYou'd still use the same programs, but the interface... it's hard to explain until you work with one. It's a relationship. They're like extensions of your mind. I'd be hobbled if I lost Villain.
Villain appeared on T's shoulder just long enough to be petted.
MeganThat's kind of why I don't want one. You extend your mind too much and the scaffolding could give out.
ThomasWell, I understand that. That's why you have to thoroughly understand your agent and the programs it interfaces. Agents don't obscure how programs work, they actually illuminate them. Agents help train you in new programs and optimize settings. Also, automating communication is really nice. They're like 24 hour secretaries.
MeganMaybe I'll try one when you give up being... uh...
ThomasMe. I'll have you know that I am me only occasionally. I'm only me right now by Sam's special invitation.
MeganWhat are you all the rest of the time?
ThomasWhatever the situation calls for.