Megan looked around the room, found the largest dome, and summoned it over to her. It was "Sunshine City". It was a giant metropolis, filled with skyscrapers and sparkling streets. Thomas had more access points all over its map than Megan could count.
MeganI've heard of this one. Why does T need so many access points?
VillainSunshine City is one of the many representations of Outside. Much of Outside's gaming and social space is mapped in the form of this incredibly large city. It provides a visual representation of access points to most major game and social worlds. It's a nexus world, which means that many worlds share space with it, providing common ground for players from different worlds to interact with each other or even immigrate from one world to another. It's similar to this room, except with buildings instead of domes. It is one of the largest social spaces in existence. Millions have living spaces there and depend on Sunshine City for socializing and discovering new worlds and innovations. Many live there primarily. Not even counting gaming time, humans spend more conscious hours in Sunshine City every day than in a typical large physical city.
The part of Sunshine City Megan was looking at, street level in the mech gaming district, required the use of a particular portal protocol. She selected a spot on the street and a glowing circle appeared on the ground next to her. As she stepped into it, her environment shifted into the street of Sunshine City. Nearby proxies on the street saw a slab of liquid metal rise up out of the ground and form into Megan's shape as she stepped into the circle. This let Megan preview her spot, and let users nearby see who was coming through. In some cases, this allowed users in certain spaces to permit or deny entry to other players. Happy with her spot, Megan flattened her fully turned hand to signal acceptance into Sunshine City, and began wandering the streets.
It had the sights, sounds and feel of a regular city, although from the overhead view it was far larger than even the biggest physical cities. The sky was filled with people flying in cars, with jetpacks, on carpets and hoverboards, or just by themselves. There was also an extensive series of transparent tubes inside which Megan saw numerous people gliding along on scenic tours through the city.
More than the strangely inefficient travel, Megan was dazzled by the advertisements lining the buildings all down the street. This section was filled mostly with ads and live video from numerous mech and flight sim games. There were other types of worlds, and a few physical products represented as well, but mostly it was massive amounts of mechanical carnage and maps showing strategic maneuvers.
As she walked to one of the tube transports, an ad on the building across the street screamed and pointed at her.
Cutesy ad mechMegan! We need your help!
Megan was taken aback and hesitated before responding.
The ad displayed some pretty impressive mech action.
Ad mechTeam blue is in trouble! Only you can save it! Your record shows you have the skills. Just port to this *link*. There isn't much time!
Cute as the ad was, Megan tweaked her Sunshine City ad preferences to stop similar intrusions during her visit. She moved on and checked out the destinations around Sunshine City that the tube system provided. Each Sunshine district had a mix of social and gaming spaces, but had a predominant theme.
Highlights of Sunshine City:
- A multitude of Gaming Districts.
- The Arena.
- The Arts and Entertainment Sector.
- The Baths.
- The Clubs and Cafes District.
- Sunshine Park.
- Multiple Religious Districts.
- The Shade.
- The Tunnels.
- Sitcom Central.
The only district Megan specifically recognized was Sitcom Central, whose residents attempted to live as situation comedy or skit characters. Everything was recorded, and the right mix of people and environment occasionally created some pretty funny TV shows and movies. She was a fan of several skit comedy shows that had been edited together from events recorded there.
She was about to head to SC when a news report popped up warning that Sitcom Central was currently in the middle of an area wide guerrilla skit event featuring "Upturned Casket Bleeding". Unsure what that meant, Megan entered the tube and picked a four minute ride to the horror gaming district instead, which was fairly distant from her position. She got a feel for the city on the way. She zoomed comfortably through a series of tubes, weaving through the streets and diving through the tunnels below, gawking at the amazing and enticing sights and sounds of Sunshine City.
There were the flashy ads and ridiculously beautiful architecture, which she passing too quickly by to truly appreciate. There were also games being played everywhere throughout the city. Aerial battles with dozens of fighter jets and spaceships raged high above. Mechs and maniac swordsmen clashed in the street below. Most pedestrians automatically filtered them away when they got too close, and games usually occurred in a superimposed layer on the city, so anyone bothered by them could just turn them off if they didn't feel like joining the game's layer and participating.
Megan arrived in the horror district and stepped out of the tube. The street appeared the same as the others except for a vaguely creepy fog effect. Sunshine City required a certain continuity, so the streets and buildings weren't too macabre for those with the default filters. The ads on the buildings were something else entirely.
Megan stared up at the Still Space structure. It was less a building than a pitch black monolith, pulsing like a heart. Under her SC preferences, she showed sufficient interest in the ad playing to allow Still Space to create a mixed state in her proxy. Still Space used this opportunity to give her goose bumps and hit her with expertly crafted infrasound as a forlorn woman covered in bile stared at Megan from the side of the building. A man walked up beside her and glanced up at the ad. He looked sharp, even in his ridiculous yellow zoot suit. His SIS tag said his name was Olly, but all other information was restricted.
OllyStill Space is intensely effective. You ever been?
MeganOne time, but not for very long.
OllyIt's not for everyone.
He bowed low. Megan bowed in return.
OllyI'm Olly. I'm one of T's friends. I see that you must be too, since you're his guest here.
MeganUh, yeah. I was just looking around. I'm Megan.
OllyI wonder if you could help me. I have this surprise gift for T I was going to leave on his doorstep. It's for his new place in Sunshine Park, but T has yet to get back to me with the location. I'm sure you know how busy he is, what with the film and all. He's probably practicing at this very moment, right? So could you get me the address? I don't need a link inside or anything, just need to know where it is.
MeganI'd really have to ask T about that. I could text him now, if you want.
OllyOh, right. Well, never mind then.
Olly bowed again and then turned into a granite statue which crumbled and vanished into the ground after a few seconds. Unsure of what had just happened, Megan left Sunshine City and went back to her original proxy.
MeganThat was odd.
Shrugging the experience off, Megan opened up a window displaying T's collection of shortcuts. Only then did she notice that T had created walkthroughs for many of the worlds, some of which appeared quite extensive. T also provided publicly accessible notes for many other worlds. She realized she was missing something about T's collection.
She walked around the room, up and down the "walls" trying to get a feel for the place, and how T might use it. She could see how useful the room would be to keep track of everything that was going on in so many worlds, especially if you were familiar with the setup and had a grasp on how things were clustered.
She looked through the filters and found one that displayed T's shells. Shells were proxies, either dummies or controlled by ghosts, left in a virtual space to hold your place or perform some task. She filtered for his shells. Most of the world domes vanished, but a huge number remained, now with blinking spots indicating T's shell proxies. She wandered amongst the domes observing T's shells, completely awe struck.
MeganThis is... incredible.
MeganHe's got shells everywhere! In every major game world! Hell Fray, Planescape, Kung Fu Continent, Tron, Yoma, Star Wars, Star Trek, Golden Martyr, Middle-earth, not to mention Ataraxia. It goes on and on.
VillainOh yes. He claims to have some kind of record.
Some of T's shells were sitting around, waiting to be inhabited again. Many more were active. They were killing monsters, surveying the land, gold farming, weaving strings, building, defending positions, and training their capabilities. Megan knew that it was T's habit to train each ghost himself, and it showed. They moved just like Thomas. Good ghosts were like that, at least in physical respects. Megan wouldn't have been able to tell if many of them were ghosts or were being inhabited by T.
T had two dozen shells in Sunshine City alone. They had all sorts of different appearances. Most of them were just walking around, although some were doing machining, maintaining weapons, and doing other things that Megan couldn't wrap her head around. One was digging a hole with a shovel. Another was hitting himself with a hammer. Another appeared to be smoking some sort of drug.
MeganAre T's shells in these games important?
VillainThat depends on what you mean by important. Many of them are important to Thomas.
MeganWhat if they get in trouble?
VillainThomas would be alerted. He frequently intervenes.
MeganAre these shells important to the games?
VillainMany are important to other players, who may not know Thomas is not present. So don't go telling anyone what you've seen here.
MeganI wouldn't. I don't know what I'm looking at anyway. He's got an army of replicants. He's got his fingers in everything. He's like an octopus or something. Or like a god.
VillainThomas discourages worship. It's embarrassing.
Megan pulled herself together and left the shortcut room to continue the tour and found herself upside down in the hall. She reversed gravity and dropped gracefully to the floor.
See the Virtual Worlds" list for some of the worlds and spaces found in T's collection.
Megan noticed a picture on the wall as she went down the hall. It was of T with some woman standing in a giant hall. Then it changed to show T and three others people looking triumphant with smoke rising in the background. It was an immersive picture, so Megan took control of T's head in the photo and looked around the landscape. They were surrounded by the aftermath of a massive battle, with dead bodies and scorched mech parts everywhere.
The next door was closed, chrome, and was giving off a lens flare effect. Megan opened it and was exposed to an epic space battle being waged on the other side. A ship barreled toward the door and she slammed it shut.
MeganThose looked like Babylon 5 ships. Is this door a joke?
VillainYou'd have to ask T about that.
As she stepped into the next section of the hall, music blared all around her and surrounded her with the music visualizer she had seen in Sam's place. T apparently liked strewing things randomly about. She stepped through it and next up was a hole in the floor, which Megan looked into warily.
MeganWhat's down there?
VillainTraining grounds. Shooting range, dojo, dancing arena, race course, mech practice.
Megan stepped over it. The next door on the left was a Japanese grill restaurant. The one after that opened to a tropical island waterfall with a crystal clear pool, perfect for swimming or lounging. There were dark clouds and rumbling in the distance.
MeganWhy the storm coming in?
VillainTo create a sense of anticipation. You can change the weather if you like.
Megan moved on to the hole in the ceiling.
MeganWhat's up there?
The next door looked incredibly familiar to Megan.
MeganIs that ...?
The door automatically slid open as Megan approached it. As she hoped, it was a Star Trek holodeck. She ran inside and gawked.
MeganDoes this thing work?
VillainKind of. Here are some popular modules created by fans.
Megan looked over the long list of scenarios. They included murder mysteries, exploration of alien worlds, full immersion Star Trek episodes, period piece adventures, and Klingon combat training.
MeganComputer, put Captain Picard there. And put Captain Kirk right next to him.
The two appeared, seemingly as real as could be.
MeganComputer, have them fight!
They began trading blows dramatically, in the fighting style of the original Star Trek.
MeganThat is totally badass! Computer, make the winner kiss me!
Holodeck ComputerI'm sorry Megan, but all fights between Picard and Kirk automatically end in draws, as per holodeck regulation 4.
MeganI see. Well, have them make out then.
The holodeck made it so.
MeganI'm guessing they wouldn't be much to talk to, huh?
VillainHolodeck characters are just bots. They copy looks, mannerisms, and even speech patterns of the characters they are patterned after. Unfortunately, bots are not currently able to provide convincing conversations. Artificial intelligence just isn't up to it yet. Even I am only this loquacious because T has trained me as a guide. But there are several good Sherlock Holmes scenarios with guided speech options that usually flow pretty well if you're going for the holodeck experience.
MeganAs awesome as that sounds, I really shouldn't right now. I'm definitely trying this later though.
Megan grabbed the tag for the holodeck and reluctantly went back into the hall, leaving Picard and Kirk feeling each other up on the floor of the holodeck.
Megan saw a closed door with vines for its frame and skipped forward to it over a puddle of liquid cheese.
MeganWhat's in there?
VillainA virtual world. I don't know anything about it, except that T didn't build it.
Megan opened the door to reveal a beautiful, dense, and brambled wilderness with a crude beaten path which branched off into the distance. Intrigued, Megan walked down the path for several minutes before realizing that she was lost.
MeganI think the wilderness changed. V, how do I get back?
VillainI have no idea.
MeganGive me a portal back to T's lair.
VillainI'm sorry Megan, but you don't have porting privileges to the lair. You can ask T for help.
MeganDang, I should have left a proxy behind. I don't want to bother T while he's preparing.
VillainI'm sure he won't mind.
Megan[Text> T] I'm stuck in this wilderness place and can't get back. Could I get a port to your lair?
A second later, Thomas was leaning on a nearby tree.
MeganI didn't mean to interrupt your practice.
ThomasIt's alright, Megs. I was tired of it anyway. I hope Villain behaved himself.
MeganHe's been a perfect gentleman.
Villain nibbled her ear before imploding away.
MeganWhat is this place?
ThomasIt's a gateway to the lair of someone I know. Or knew. Except it doesn't work anymore.
ThomasThe paths are random, but there used to be clues based on movies at each branch. If you knew them well enough, you could follow their movie preference to their lair. Still took 10 minutes of walking, so you had to care enough about seeing them to walk a little.
MeganBut why doesn't it work now?
Thomas looked down one of the branching paths.
MeganAnd you really can't find them?
ThomasThey were always secretive. Probably couldn't find them if I tried, even if I didn't respect their right to disappear. But really, I think... they're probably dead.
ThomasBut this is depressing.
Thomas snapped his fingers and they were back in the dirt hall, outside of the vined door.
MeganSo you just keep this door to remember?
ThomasAnd in case they come back. Anyway, have fun?
MeganOh yeah, I liked your harem. Very impressive selection. Why were some of them highlighted?
ThomasThose are the ones I can have sex with this week.
ThomasWell, I play this game called 'Hero/Dragon'. It involves killing monsters and slaying dragons and such. It's integrated with some other game worlds, so you can make meaningful progress while you play. When you kill a dragon, you then own its castle, along with its gold, food, and sexy princess slaveboys and girls. And then you either go and find a bigger castle to conquer or you play the part of the dragon and set up traps and fight off other player heroes. Hero and dragon are both fun parts. To motivate myself to attain bigger castles, I'm only using sexbots I currently possess in the game. I have nine right now.
MeganThis is beside the human inhabited proxies you might be sleeping with.
ThomasRight. It encourages exploration with sexbots you normally wouldn't have tried. And it's better when you've earned it.
MeganIncidentally, based on your favorite bots, I would say that you don't seem to have a sexual orientation.
ThomasAs far as sexbots go, I'm completely flexible. But I'm more selective with human partners. I actually have an orientation that would have been untenable before Outside.
ThomasI prefer heterosexual female bodies inhabited by male brains. Can't say entirely why, but it's always been that way.
MeganOh yeah, I basically already knew that.
Megan hopped into a puddle of liquefied chocolate chip cookies.
MeganWell, it's a nice collection of bots.
ThomasThey're all freely available on my SIS along with everything else here, except for a few of those worlds and shortcuts that I don't broadcast for strategic reasons. You can start up your own instance of this place anytime and take what you want.
MeganWait a minute! If your lair is available on your SIS, why bother with the secret panda thing?
ThomasThat's just to get to my private instance, run on my computer. I don't care what people do to their own copies of my place, but I don't want to show up here with random wackos running around. Also, I have tons of secret stuff around here.
MeganRight. So this is really all run off your computer?
ThomasYep. My SIS has a copy, but this instance you're in is run local to me. Your computer runs its own buffered copy of this current environment to reduce lag, but the lair data you're getting is streamed from my computer. If the internet somehow went down I could still come here and play with everything except the domes and the shortcuts to other worlds. You should get your own lair, it's easy to set up. You can just copy this *link* to get started.
Megan started downloading a copy of T's Lair.
MeganThanks! I really should build my own and this seems like a pretty good start. It's not crazy like some I've seen. Did it take any coding?
ThomasNah, I never learned how to code beyond the basics. I just use the regular tools. It was all super easy. Most ten year olds could probably beat me at it, honestly. You're a programmer, so you could do some of the crazier stuff.
MeganWhat did you use to build it?
ThomasA program called 'Space Forge' that pretty much does everything for you. It comes with all sorts of sample spaces you can build on, or you can just do a search for existing spaces on the net and copy them. You can also replicate any place you've been in, at least so far as you've recorded it. I have a nice copy of Sam's house from the parties I've attended. Space Forge can automatically copy any space you're in as far as you have access to it, and can even make approximate models of real spaces based on whatever data it can compile. It's a great time to be lazy.
There weren't many doors left in the hall. Megan looked at the hall options and found other representations of the lair, including palace, horror, Flintstones, and starship themes. They weren't just superficial changes, but also reorganized the placement of the rooms.
MeganWhich representation do you use? This space ship one looks neat.
ThomasI actually just pop around to whatever space I need, so I don't use any halls or slides or anything. That's just a practical way to organize tours.
MeganAh. So where do you bring people to just talk?
ThomasThe restaurant or the island pool. Sometimes the reading room.
MeganWhere does your hall fork to down there?
ThomasThe right way goes to my other places.
ThomasThis place is built for function. My other places are for fun, or to maintain a sense of residence in other worlds. There are a few extravagant castles from Hero/Dragon, my candy villa in Happy Land, my place on Mars, my orbiting science station/death ray, my place in Cyrus, my Sunshine City penthouse...
MeganOh yeah! I went to Sunshine City and this guy named Olly asked for one of your addresses, and I didn't know what to think of it. I didn't give it to him, of course.
ThomasOlly, huh? That one is... very tricky. Don't worry about it.
MeganAnd what about the left fork down there?
ThomasGo try it.
Megan ran down the left path of the fork and found herself standing beside T.
ThomasHa! I have to have some secrets.
MeganSpeaking of secrets, your shortcut room was quite the revelation.
ThomasMost of that is available online too. This lair is part of my public face to the world, especially the shortcuts and the harem. You may have noticed my walkthroughs and notes. I've worked hard on those, they're actually pretty valuable and popular.
MeganWell that stuff, yeah. But I was referring to your shells. You're so active in the entire expanded multiverse of Outside even when you're asleep.
ThomasYou know, I feel present in many of those worlds even right now. Of all the omnis, I think I prefer omnipresence.
Thomas paused as if he had just noticed something.
ThomasWant to see something cool?
He superimposed the primary public instance of his lair with his private instance. Numerous people were wandering the main hall and into and out of the different rooms.
ThomasThey can't see us. I really don't know why people turn my public SIS lair into a hangout. It's not nearly cool enough, and I can mess with them. Like this.
Thomas shared a window with Megan showing some guy in the shortcuts room. Suddenly, the Ataraxia dome blinked red, indicating an emergency. It indicated that the guy now had access rights to a powerful agent in Ataraxia. He got excited at the opportunity and ported into what he thought was a character.
MeganWhere did he go?
MeganOuch. That's mean.
ThomasOh yeah? Watch this.
Thomas shared another window, this one of several women wandering around the harem. Suddenly, all of the sexbots went crazy, attacked the women, and tore them into pieces.
MeganYou are a strange, strange man. Just how many people visit your SIS layer on a daily basis?
ThomasI'm a celebrity, so even with a crappy lair I still draw up to a few hundred a day. It's run off my SIS cloud, of course, so it doesn't bog my computer down. Though people keep trying to get into my comp's private lair.
MeganWhy? And how? I asked before, but isn't that only accessible through the door in your throat?
ThomasSomeone gave the address to the panda room out, so they can go there directly. As to why, it's mostly people who want to get access to my shortcuts room, or who think they can access the left fork, or find some other secrets. I guess this place just looks too simple for my colorful public persona. The funny thing is that even if they got in, they'd only have the same rights available on my SIS layer. Some people just have to try.
MeganWhy not change the address or lock people out entirely?
ThomasWhat fun would that be? Several dozen proxies a day drown in millipedes trying to break the code. Most of those are the same few people trying various actions. You saw the panda shooting part, but there's more to it. Trust me, it's impossible to happen upon accidentally.
MeganSo the panda room is just to torture people?
ThomasNot just that. It builds a sense of mystery. You know how many urban legends there are about this place? People think I am so weird, you wouldn't even believe it.
MeganYeah, nothing weird about any of this.
ThomasYou want to see one of my favorite physical places?
They stepped through a portal and were standing on a rickety roof overlooking a poverty stricken neighborhood in Laos. It was night, but there were still people walking around. Megan sat and watched them. It seemed like a strange place for the augmented reality sensors necessary for such immersive telepresence.
ThomasSmell that? Smells like... I'm not sure what that is, actually. But it helps me sleep.
MeganYou sleep here? This roof isn't much of a bed.
ThomasOh, I keep the tactile sense from my physical. This is just for sight and sound until I fall asleep, at which point my plant switches off automatically.
MeganWouldn't it be more relaxing in the ocean, or on a cloud?
Thomas sat down next to her and looked up at the stars.
ThomasThis is one of the few virtualized places in this little village. I come here to remind myself that there's still so much to do, so many places that haven't benefited from cyberization. I trained a bunch of new Plants here in Laos. Probably will again. It's important work, even if it's tedious. Augmented reality is so important for creating strong connections between places like this and the rest of the world. A strong online infrastructure helps broadcast poor conditions or crisis situations like gang warfare or genocide. Pictures are one thing, but telepresence, real time or recorded, makes the situation real.
MeganGeographic distance doesn't mean the same thing it used to.
ThomasNow you can meet people from all over the world, from countries you'd never physically visit. I started working in Laos after I met this guy Makani at a horror film festival. We became friends before I knew where he was located physically. We didn't speak each other's languages, but that's not so important with voice translation. He was using crude, non-implant telepresence while I was an experienced plant user, but we could both see the movies and converse with each other just fine. None of the stuff that would at one time have separated us mattered. All that mattered was our love of horror cinema. And before I knew it, I had a friend who lived in Laos. After that, I paid attention to news about Laos. When there were problems there I asked Makani about it. When I heard about a flood, I donated money and telepresenced in to see what was happening. And it impacted me. It wasn't just a strange place anymore, populated with faceless masses.
MeganI work with people from all over the world. I rarely even think about it. But I guess those places are more real to me because of it.
ThomasWhen you you get to know someone from a foreign country, you realize that country is full of people just like you. It's humans everywhere, you know. Then the next time you hear about trouble in Nigeria or Mozambique or North Korea, you think about the people you know there. And maybe you go check out what's going on. You can go anywhere, no matter how dangerous. You can observe or even participate in protests, for example. The more people that are connected, the harder it is to ignore them. Human connections. That's what Outside's about.
A kid walking down the street with smart glasses waved at them and they waved back.
ThomasI know someone who lives in almost every country on the planet. I didn't go looking for them either. Run around Ataraxia for a month and you'll have interacted with people in a majority of the world's countries.
MeganSpeaking of Ataraxia, isn't it about time for the shoot?
ThomasOh yeah. Mike's already setting up. Ready?
MeganSure. Thanks for showing me all this.
T opened a portal and they both disappeared through it.
Author's note: no offense intended from my portrayal of Laos, which I chose at random from a list of countries currently suffering from severe poverty.