There had been rumors about VNet circulating around the message boards and chat rooms, stories about a virtual world that felt more real than reality. And while some of the claims were wild and their sources questionable, one common thread always seemed to come up—the idea that when the two services were put side-by-side, it was VNet where the user felt more present. The Net was home to many wonders, but some claimed those wonders were at arm’s length, especially after having walked a few paces in VNet.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
The immersion, they said, was absolute.
Parker felt it immediately, even as the darkness around him suggested a construct of infinite emptiness. The weight of VNet pressed on him, almost womb-like, such that he truly felt as if he were inside something. For a moment, he stared into the depths of the VNet ether as it shimmered with potential. Then the sparks came, golden and bright, to give the construct shape and form and scale. The world built from the outside in, drawing first a horizon and sky, then streets and trees far below, as if he were flying above them. A floor came up, its individual threads sparkling and growing, as it spread across an invisible plane.
The closer the constructors came, the faster the build went, until large swaths were snapping into place faster than Parker could discern. He blinked once, and it was done. His avatar swayed slightly from the sudden reorientation, but he found his balance after putting a hand out to the wall.
It felt so real.
He ran his fingers over the painted drywall, admiring the texture, as he took in the room. He had had little in the way of expectations of what VNet might look like, but he was somewhat disappointed to find himself in what looked like the conference room of an office building. Three plain walls surrounded a large, oval table surrounded by high-back chairs. A tray with a pitcher of water and two glasses sat on the polished wood, alongside a spider-like conference phone whose black wires disappeared into small holes in the table.
The fourth wall was all glass, a window that looked out over a sprawling metropolis too vast to have been any real city. The varying heights of surrounding buildings looked like frozen waves of evercrete, building to a crescendo in the deep distance where comically tall skyscrapers threatened to blot out the sun. Parker couldn’t tell if there were people or cars far below at street-level, but there were no planes in the sky, no birds flying from perch to perch.
Was he the only living thing in the construct?
There were no doors in the conference, or at least, there weren’t until one appeared on the far wall. It snapped into place like the flicker of a light bulb, one moment not there and the next opening as if it always had been. A loop of generic office noise spilled into the room, like something out of the bullpen of the newspaper, all clacking typewriters and rustling papers. Someone called out for that thing while another complained about the deadline.
The door appeared to open on its own, folding itself to the left while a woman entered on the right. As she cleared the threshold, the door swung again, closing with a soft click behind her. She was carrying a small palette in the crook of her elbow, seemingly disinterested in Parker, but when she looked up, a friendly smile spread over her face.
“Good morning,” she said, her voice tinged with a faint Indian lilt. “I apologize for being late. My name is Anjali Harishandra, and I’ll be conducting your interview today. Please, make yourself comfortable.” She gestured to the chair at Parker’s end of the table while taking the seat opposite him.
She was tall and thin, almost to the point of being skeletal, and yet she seemed to have a presence that permeated every square inch of the room. Her clothes reminded Parker of the defacto PA uniform Felicity had worn—black on white, thin blouse, tight skirt. But that’s where the similarities ended. Felicity had been a stock avatar with a face generated by committee. Anjali had the presence of a real person.
A thin eyebrow came up as she noticed him still standing awkwardly by the table.
Parker opened his mouth to speak, but he had no idea what to say. There was something about the situation that was driving him to play along, some kind of social impetus to not rock the boat during what was clearly supposed to be a job interview, even though he hadn’t been on one since applying for a cashier position at Sam Goody some years back. Then, he’d been a nervous 16 year old in a too-large button-up and his hair held back by mom’s hairspray.
“Thanks, but…” The words tasted weak in his mouth, as if he could barely get them out. “I think I’ll stand.”
“No, you’ll sit,” said Anjali, flashing a less than pleasant smile.
His perspective shifted, dropped a few feet as his avatar ported from a standing position to the chair in front of him. His forearms thumped on the polished wood.
“Now, the first items I would like to cover are your professional history and aptitude. I don’t seem to have a copy of your resume in my files. Could we start with your name, please?”
“John,” he replied. “John Sweeney.”
“Your real name, please. By all means call yourself whatever you like, but payroll is not going to put the name of a secondary identity on your paycheck.”
“I’d rather not say.”
Anjali lowered the palette to the table and folded her hands over it. She made a sound like an annoyed laugh. “Well, then I’m not sure how I’m supposed to conduct an interview if you won’t tell me your name.”
“An interview for what?” asked Parker, though he believed he already knew the answer.
“For a position with the company.”
“Vinestead International, of course.” She shook her head. “Or did you not know whose private beta test you were breaking into?”
“I did.. didn’t not?”
“How charming, Mr…”
Anjali groaned and pushed back from the table. She walked along the tall windows until she was closer to Parker’s chair. Now towering above him, she seemed all the more menacing.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “You have the same confidence of every wannabe hacker who breaks in here, and it’s because you have all spent your lives toiling away in the Net, thinking you’re gods, thinking nothing can touch you there.” She leaned against the window, looked wistfully toward the outside world as if it were a real place. “But what you fail to realize is that you’re not in the Net anymore. VNet has you now. We have you now.”
The threat was clear, but Parker wasn’t convinced. In the back of his mind, he could feel the proxy path still undulating, still fanning and contracting like an accordion. There was definite pressure of someone trying to break down the path, but it was holding solid. If anything, Anjali could only see what Apit had seen, and that was almost nothing at all.
“I…” said Parker, rapping his knuckles on the table. “I can understand why you believe that. But I wonder if that’s not such a great thing. Vinestead has a habit of just reaching out and taking whatever they want, thinking they have impunity thanks to their size and power. This is one of those cases where having something isn’t such a great thing. A human can have a virus—that doesn’t make the human powerful. You forcing me into a chair is a nice trick, but you have no idea what you’re playing with. I am…”
“Yes?” asked Anjali.
He chuckled. “I am no friend of Vinestead. I want your secrets, and I want to sell them to the highest bidder.”
“I see no reason why that can’t be us. I assure you, what a salary might lack in size it will more than make up for in legitimacy. As you get older, you’ll begin to understand why that is important.”
Parker shook his head. “I’m old enough to know only posers work for Vinestead International. I’d rather starve.”
“You just might,” said Anjali. She pulled the chair next to Parker and sat down. “I’d like to share something with you, one hacker to another. You can liken yourself to a virus all day but it’s not going to scare me. There is not a minute that goes by that someone isn’t trying to break into the VNet beta test, and you know what, that’s the way we want it. What better way to identify the threats and poach the assets than by giving the world the largest and most complicated coding test it’s ever seen? That’s all this has been—a test. And you passed it. You can wear that as a badge of honor, yes, but the next step is to leave behind your amateur world of hacking and cracking and join us in changing the world.”
Parker stubbed a finger into the polished wood; as if responding to the presence of a hot poker, the wood began to bubble and ash.
“Which do you think I am?” he asked. “Threat or asset?”
Anjali sat back in her chair, folded her arms. “That depends entirely on you.”
A small flame flickered up from the table, an icy blue tongue lapping at the air.
“VNet is not so different from the Net,” said Parker. “The code behaves pretty much the same. I’m not sure what you think the game-changer here is going to be.”
Anjali leaned forward and blew at the flame as if it were a candle on a birthday cake. But instead of extinguishing the fire, her breath gave it more fuel. Parker watched it spread until the heat became unbearable. He pushed back from the table and stood up. It took a moment for him to understand what had just happened, and when it finally hit him, he saw Anjali smiling at him as if he were a puppy learning to sit for the first time.
“Game changer,” said Anjali.
She was right. Without realizing it, Parker had felt discomfort from the proximity of the flames, a discomfort that was building to pain. The Net had no concept of physical pain, no way to hurt the users who floated in its ether. And what would have been the point of it anyway? To hurt users?
Only Vinestead would insist on such a capability.
“Why?” he asked.
Anjali crossed one leg over the other. “Reality is painful. When you simulate reality, you can’t just leave out the unpleasant parts.”
A roar echoed in the room; the entire conference table went up in flames. The heat coming off it had begun to warm Parker’s skin, but there was also smoke in the air, and the more his virtual lungs took in, the harder it was to breathe.
“I will say this for the last time,” said Anjali. “Despite your arrogance and immaturity, you do show a certain potential. Breaking into VNet is no easy feat, and I want you to tell me how you did it so I can close that hole. And if you won’t tell me, then I will hold a match to your skin for the rest of your natural life until you do. So that is my offer, Mr. Sweeney. Join me at Vinestead… or burn.”
Small tufts of flame sprang up from the carpet around Parker’s feet. They feinted and attacked like rodents. One managed to take hold of his shoe and ignite the plastic sole. The smell made Parker recoil.
“It’s not real,” he said.
“The pain is not,” agreed Anjali. “But the suffering is. You have a lot to learn about VNet.”
Parker reached into the proxy path and took hold of the last hop. There were certain commands, cutouts he could use to sever his connection to the network. All they required was for him to imagine them, to think of them, but every time he loaded a virtual command line in his head, all he saw was flames.
Flames and… his apartment?
How could he be seeing two things at once?
Anjali noticed too. She spun in a slow circle.
“You’re not working alone,” she said. “Someone is trying to pull of your immersion rig.” The smile from the start of the interview returned. “I assume this is your home.”
Parker felt himself screaming, could almost hear his anguished cries in the far, far distance. But it wasn’t the heat or the burning or the perceived physical pain that made him cry out—it was the exposure.
Anjali was learning about him. How long would it take for her to glean something from his apartment?
“I see we’re eating well,” said Anjali. She walked through the conference table to a counter that was both there and not there. She plucked a smoldering piece of paper from the top of the pizza box. “I’m sad to say that we are out of time for today. I will have an employment offer drafted and sent to the Village at Starwood apartments on Canyon Street, Provo, Utah. That is your correct address, isn’t it, Mr. Babbage?”
Parker felt something slice through the tender skin behind his ears. The flames dancing in front of his eyes disappeared, and as his immersion rig fell away, it pulled the umbilical from the back of his neck.
The pain cut out, but Parker could still feel it, like the motion of the sea after a day at the beach.
After a few blinks to clear the tears in his eyes, he saw Daya towering above him. She was straddling his hips and had one hand raised above her as if she were going to slap him.
“Thanks,” he sputtered. “Thank you.”
Eyebrows that has been raised in alarm plunged into anger.
“Don’t fucking scare me like that!”
The sting of her hand hitting his cheek shook him free of all memories of fire.