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by Bob
Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Sci-fi · #1713969
A small story that ponders some big questions about reality.
Level 25

Chapter 4 – Cosmic Billiards

         The Belt. A broad band of rocks—quasi-planetary riff-raff—flattened out, the rim of an imaginary disk, the brim of a celestial hat, a flange; but don’t be misled—a substantial, though grainy entity of three dimensions: a circumference of some three billion kilometers; a breadth of several million kilometers. And how many asteroids make up this wondrous ribbon? Oh, somewhere between ten and twenty thousand. The number is always increasing as large asteroids are broken up into smaller ones; but this increase is short-lived as the smaller chunks of space-ore are scooped up by the huge orbiting mining ships and processed.
         Twenty years earlier it would have taken about two years to travel to the asteroid belt, located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. But when Nick left on his hastily arranged trip to Tantalus-5X on Columbus Day, 2018, it took only two weeks to reach this incredible distance. The Space Shuttle “Compromise” in which he rode was outfitted with NASA’s recently developed “Tangor-Fontanus Worm-hole Excavator”, a remarkable piece of gadgetry which enabled man to tunnel through the space-time continuum like some manic mole burrowing madly through the Universe, carving out shortcuts in the dark, empty vastness.
         After he arrived at the Kirolevsky-Akron NASAir Spaceport on Tantalus-5X, Nick was put up for a week at the Hilton where he underwent an orientation especially designed for first-time info-worker arrives. Those confusing, whirlwind days behind him, he had been working (quite assiduously, free from his Earthly distractions) for six weeks now in the Supra Software R&D Department’s remote lab on the outskirts of Akron, the industrial hub of Tantalus-5X. He was making the first clumsy, tentative dry runs of the Level 25 prototype. By no means was the program ready for use with real-time mining equipment—it wouldn’t be for another four to six months—so Nick’s team had to make do with software simulations. In effect, they were using digital signals to effect further digital signals which they then analyzed using yet more digital signals. It was a closed cybernetic loop of unreality. And it happened in non-real-time. Or so it seemed to Nick: his spirits were low, his motivation poor—it was all a big waste of time, up here on this freaking rock, he thought; life sucked and then you went to the asteroid belt.
         Many things got on Nick’s nerves these days. First, he’d been unable to adjust to the total lack of natural nights and days on this crazy asteroid. It didn’t rotate on an axis like Earth—hell, it wasn’t even spherical like any normal planet deserving of the name. It was an immense slab of rock, shaped like a mesa from the American West. Only bigger. Much bigger. The surface of Tantalus-5X (flat, like Earth before Columbus came along) was roughly the size and shape of Crete—about 100 kilometers wide by 500 kilometers long. And it was tilted away from the Sun, so it would have always been dark were it not for the countless banks of floodlights which flicked on simultaneously at 0600 hours and likewise off at 2200 hours. Thus the basis of Nick’s complaint. His proposed solution to this problem? Use a dimmer switch to turn on the lights gradually, simulating sunrise, and stagger the switching-on process to simulate the Sun’s westward march. The “roidies”, as veteran asteroid inhabitants were known, looked at Nick like he had two heads when he made this absurd suggestion.
         There was also no gravity on Tantalus-5X, so everyone had to wear special gravity suits designed by NASA’s prolific Tangor-Fontanus team. These took a little getting used to and quite a few times would Nick “fall” sideways into the wall when sitting, not carefully enough, in a chair. The lack of gravity, the artificial days and nights, these and myriad other significant details of asteroid life were supremely annoying to Nick, who after all, was an unwilling guest on this floating chunk of space junk.
         But what truly galled Nick in this private hell of his was what passed for “culture” here. There were no techno-punk dance clubs—at least, not after the fashion of Earth. Here the roidies had their “cantinas”, as they called them, rustic roadhouses set on the edges of the commercial districts. They had bars stocked with the usual alcoholic beverages found throughout the Milky Way and there were small tables and chairs arranged around a linoleum dance floor. Most nights, the hard-working roidies gathered at these cantinas to quaff a few cold ones, play a few hands of “Take It Back”, and exchange the latest gossip. They were usually too tired to engage in any drunken brawls and last call was required by law at midnight.
         To appease the younger crowd, the cantinas’ proprietors would now and then host a rave: a mirror ball would descend from the ceiling over the linoleum; the bartenders would serve drinks spike with DMZ, Extortion, Shutterbug, and all the other synthetic hallucinogenic/stimulant additives developed by NASAPharm, approved by the Corporate Victuals and Medicinals Authority, and marketed to the bars and dance halls; and a DJ would roll out the “Synthecrom”, a fully programmable techno-punk dance music generator, complete with a MIDI link to the DJ’s bioimplant. These raves were generally rather joyful and raucous, but Nick never went—he scorned the dances as “derivative and crude”, although they were essentially similar in all respects to their earthly counterparts.
         But there was another attraction on Tantalus-5X which was a very big draw for the young people (“roikies”, as they were known), be they native-born or immigrants. That was the huge, enclosed woodlands which had been erected on the rocky surface of the asteroid. The roikies marveled at and delighted themselves in the pastoral beauty of this synthetic forest, dubbed “The Sherwood Forest” by its creators. It took up ten square kilometers and featured plastic trees and brush, ponds and streams of glass and fiber optics, and the whole thing was populated by “wild” robotic critters. All this artifice did not offend roikies--it was all a wonderful rendition of scenery such as simply did not exist back on Earth, except on video discs or in holograms. The young workers often spent their one day off during the week in Sherwood Forest, having picnics, hiking along the trails, identifying the flora and fauna, and just lying on their backs in the meadows of waving plastic reeds and cattails, staring up at the dome of the manmade Eden and telling each other what they saw in the shapes of the laser-generated clouds projected there. They gossiped, flirted, argued, made alliances and rivalries; sometimes they fell in love.
         Nick had no interest in Sherwood Forest: frankly, it scared him. It was an alien landscape--the rocky surface of the rest of Tantalus-5X looked more like the Earth he was familiar with than the gentle, rolling green hills and blue, limpid ponds of NASA's "BioSphere IX", as it was known in the technical documents. Besides, he had no time for "getting back to nature"; up here he still had the 'Net--the 'Net! Of course!--it was everywhere in the Milky Way, that's why it was known as the GWW, the "Galaxy-Wide-Web". After all, he thought, he was the "Ultimate S.R. Warrior", the "Master of the S.R. Domain".
         Right now, though, he was just another overworked NASA employee. In a new state-of-the-art S.R. lab, painted in sickening lime-green and custard-yellow, and situated on the edge of the infodustrial sprawl where Akron meets the rocky barrenness of the Kirolevsky Plateau, Nick strapped himself into Workstation #3 and booted up his working copy of Level 25. Almost instantly he was transported to a simulated asteroid mining scenario.

         The manner in which iron ore was currently extracted from the asteroids was both inefficient and dangerous--a potential cataclysm, some said. It was a crude technology. Workers would fly in small inter-asteroidal spacecraft to a targeted asteroid. They would plant copious amounts of high explosive on the orbiting chunks of rock and, after retreating to a safe distance, would detonate the few million tons of TNT (the detonation of nuclear bombs in outer space was prohibited by the Baku Accord). The resulting blast would send asteroid fragments sailing off in every direction. Some pieces would exit the asteroid belt away from the Sun--these pieces the miners did not concern themselves with. Every once in a blue moon a sliver of this space rock would crash into Jupiter and provide the workers with a dazzling light show, but apparently NASA had little concernm for the cumulative effects of such collisions with Jupiter. They were much more anxious about the bits of debris that flew off in the opposite direction--towards the orbit of Mars, where both the C.S.A. and the N.R.O. maintained several burgeoning colonies, and, of course, Earth. To prevent potentially lethal catastrophes on these two planets, NASA had in orbit an extensive array of remote-controlled ion-beam guns (left over from Ronald Reagan's 20th-century "Star Wars" initiative) which could be trained on offending bits of stray asteroidal matter and vaporize them before they even left the belt. The remaining pieces of the blown-apart asteroid which were suitably "bite-sized" were scooped up by huge orbiting mining ships which processed the pieces--extracted the ore and pureed and ejected the effluvia through their stern-chutes.
          Level 25 promised to change all this, to make the whole process a lot more effiecient and a far sight safer. As the usual cybermist cleared and the neurostimulant kicked in, Nick found himself standing over a green felt-topped pool table in a seemingly endless and vacant dimly lit hall. The balls on the table lay scattered about, unracked; they were all black and bore no markings--no numbers, no stripes. One by one, he picked up the balls and with a small paint brush he electronically painted a glowing number from "1" to "15" on the balls. After marking each ball he replaced it in its original location. He then took a white cue ball from the large slot in the bottom of the table and, after studying the layout of the table for a few moments, placed it in an advantageous position on the table. From his vest pocket he produced a collapsed telescoping pool stick, extended it, then hunched over the table, took careful aim, and sent the cue ball crashing into the "1" ball. It broke up into six smaller spheres, each of which went rolling into one of the table's pockets. Nick repeated this process fourteen times more and then pocketed the cue ball and the collapsed cue stick. Then he twisted the faceplate oh his wristwatch and when he opened his eyes, he was strapped to the suspensor chair in the small S.R. lab, quite alone. The only sounds in the room were the almost inaudible drip of the neurostimulant I.V. and the bleeps and buzzes of the biorhythm monitoring equipment attached to his arms and forehead. He removed his datagloves, took off his S.R. helmet and thought to himself, not bad--it's getting there, thank God Almightly...can't wait 'til this shit's done with!


         On his way home from work that afternoon, Nick stopped by the company store to stock up on neuro-stimulant. He went through a lot of it these days, since he spent most of his off-duty time engaged in S.R. role-playing games. As he stood in line to pay for the merchandise, a gruff voice whispered in his ear, "Hey bud, I got some stuff'll knock your socks off."
         Nick turned around, smiled in recognition, then feigned scandalous shock. "My good sir, whatever are you implying!?"
         They both stared at each other for a moment, deadpan, then broke into uproarious laughetr. Everyone in the store turned in their direction to see the reason for this unusual display of levity. Nick shelled out his cash at the register, then left the store together, into the street-tunnel, and headed towards Nick's apartment building, a twenty-minute walk away.
         Nick's companion was a man close to sixty who called himself "Jimbo". He was definitely a foreigner, Nick had surmised, although he wasn't exactly sure where we was from, maybe Eastern Europe, judging from his accent. And Jimbo wouldn't say either, offering only that he came form "behind the lines". Nick had met him a couple weeks before in an online chatroom where the two engaged in a weighty technical and philosophical discussion about programming for S.R. They had then gotten together the next day in real-time, whereupon Nick discovered that Jimbo was a rather weatherbeaten old drug addict. That was fine with Nick, because he had decided that that was what he wanted to become; he seriously doubted, however, that he would make it to the same advanced age as Jimbo.
         After they had walked a small distance, Jimbo held up a small vial with clear liquid inside and said, "But seriously, folks...lookit this shit, man, fresh from the lab. Care to partake, mon frere
         "You know you ain't gotta twist my arm," Nick said. Saliva crept slowly from the corners of his mouth.
         "We'll boot up...and then we'll boot up!" Jimbo said, referring to their new hobby of cruising the 'Net while high.
         They walked the rest of the way in silence, eyes glazed over, with that look that spike addicts get when they know that in a short time they're going to be shedding stifling reality once again. "Spike" was slang for the enhanced neurostimulants that could be bought in the street-tunnels of Tantalus-5X. The neurostimulants manufactured by NASAPharm were used only to facilitate data transfers to and from cerebral implants and they induced no other side effects, either harmful or euphoric. Spike also acted as a "data lubricant", but in addition, it gave the user one hell of a rush--head rush, body rush, soul rush, you name it. It was a dangerous drug and it was illegal; its use, however, was limited to the small circle of S.R. fantasy role-playing enthusiasts on the asteroid. Most of the rest of the adult roidie population was content to escape via alcohol.
         Back in Nick's apartment, the two junkies finished shooting up and were sterilizing their inoculation guns.
         You'd better sit your butt down, kid, or this shit'll knock you on your ugly mug," Jimbo warned.
         Nick did as he was told, just in timer. Wave after intense wave of panchromatic ecstasy washed over him and he forgot first time, then space, and finally self. When he resurfaced he was soaked in sweat.
         "Man, oh man, oh man!" was all he could manage for five minutes.
         Coherence returned and Nick, giddy as a teenage girl from the valleys of Southern California, started talking a kilometer a minute: "Oh-man-check-it-it-was-really-cool-I-went-to-the-to-the-to-the-oh-whaddya-call-it-oh-yeah-the-swap-meet-all-the-crazy-son-of-a-bitchin'-fanta-fantasy-dudes-were-there-we-got-wasted-and-tripped-on-the-laser-lights-the-argon-the-ruby-xenon-quartz-the-whole-spectral-deal-it-was-orgasmic-trippin-man-oh-yeah-what-was-I-gonna-tell-ya-give-ya-show-ya-this-I-bought-these-really-cheap-it-seemed-like-a-good-deal-at-the-time-but-now-now-...oh I don't know..."
         He was panting like a dog on a hot August day. Jimbo thought he was going to O.D., but finally Nick's body untensed and he relaxed on the couch.
         "Hoo-wee, that's some righteous shit, man!"
         The manic wave had passed, for now. Nick reached under the couch and pulled out a box of CD's. There were about twenty of them; they were old--mainly from the opening years of the millenium. "This is what I got at the swap meet. They're cool, dude." He pulled out a CD and passed the box to Jimbo to inspect.
         "Nice, nice," Jimbo said, flipping through the small collection.
         "This here's the Presidents of the United States of America. They were kinda big in the C.S.A.," said Nick, shaking the CD in front of Jimbo's nose. It was entitled: "Don't Feed The Crocodiles!" and the artwork featured a photograph of a naked man running from a very large crocodile which was poised to take a chunk out of the man's rear end. "I heard that if you adjust the sampling rate on your holoplayer just right, a green, glowing skull appears and the lyrics come out sounding like: 'Chew rancid flesh, chew rancid flesh!"
         "Charming," was Jimbo's response. He flipped through the CD's, then let out a gasp and pulled out one of them and showed it to Nick. "Ooooh, this is very good. This singer was from my country, his name was Ivan Rasputin. Let's listen to this while we suit up for our game."
         "Alright." Nick took the CD out of its case and popped it into his holoplayer. He hit 'play' then studied the artwork on the CD's case. It consisted only of three words in white lowercase letters on a black background: "death of data". Nothing else.
         The music started playing while Nick and Jimbo prepared their I.V.'s, donned their gloves and helmets. The lyrics were both in English and a language which Nick didn't understand.

"Sto eta, sto eta?
Ya nye zhnaiyo.
I plugged into the phantom network,
Now I can't get back.
I lost track, time to take a new tack,
System overload, download brain attack,
Stack overflow!
Ya bezoomny, ya bezoomny!
Ya nye zhnaiyo, zhnaiyo.
Oh man, what can I do?"

         Gradually, the music faded from their drug-addled consciousnesses as they into warped Supra Reality. This time the cybermist was very thick, opaque, and they dangled in limbo while waited for it to clear.
         "Stand and deliver!!" Nick was screaming frantically as bright sunshine broke over the lush countryside. Nick and Jimbo, eighteenth-century highwaymen in England, stood in the muddy wheelruts of the post road, blocking the passage of a stagecoach. Nick held flintlock pistols in each hand; Jimbo was armed with a broadsword.
         "Avast, ye perfidious bourgeois scum! Alight from yon coach and unhand yer jewels and precious metals! On with it now, make haste, or I'll blow yer bleedin' 'eads off yer shoulders!!" Nick was livid with rage; Jimbo stood silently and fixed a malevolent scowl on the coach driver and his guard. The horses could smell the tension with their flared nostrils and stamped their hooves. It was obvious the two brigands had the drop on the coach's crew and passengers.
         Suddenly, the coach door burst open and a large and very ferocious Bengal tiger sprang through the air and leapt onto Jimbo. He was about to take a chunk out of Jimbo's head when Nick opened up with the pistols. Despite the fact they were made in 1743, the sidearms emitted steady bursts of machine fire, efficiently splattering tiger's huge head. Nick and Jimbo, now garbed as nineteenth-century East India Tea Company officers, complete with pith helmets, stood over the smouldering remains of the neutralized predator.
         "I daresay, we best beat feet. Don't you agree?" asked Jimbo.
         "I agree wholeheartedly, my good chap," answered Nick.
         So they set off down the steamy mountain trail, anxious to see what further disjointed neuroenhanced S.R. adventures awaited them. They hadn't gone 100 metes when the ground gave way beneath them. They were falling, falling fast, down a churning, frothing waterfall, and they knew they were going to die.
         "The jig is up--or so it would appear!" Nick shouted over the roar of the cascading water.
         "Yes, indeed. Well...pip, pip, cheerio!" Jimbo replied, rather subdued. He knew from experience not to get too excited. Don't stress the heart unduly.
         And just as quickly as it started, it was over. They both sat on a rock on the riverbank, fifteen meters from the waterfall, quite unharmed, quite safe, and now attired in the medieval trappings of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. They shared a picnic of roast hare and boiled goose eggs.
         The villagers will be quite pleased with today's haul," said Friar Tuck.
         "Yes, they should be," agreed Robin Hood.
         Once again they were in pleasant English countryside--Sherwood Forest, in fact--enjoying a gorgeous summer afternoon. They heard someone splashing about in the river and turned to look. There in the sparkling water was the most beautiful vision of loveliness that Robin had ever beheld. Friar Tuck blushed and averted his gaze, but Robin continued to stare. It was Maid Marian, naked as a jay, bathing in the river; she was standing and her full maidenly figure was expose from the waist up. She held and earthenware ewer aloft and poured water on her head. The water coursed over her face, ran down her graceful neck, then splashed over her ample breasts. Liquid crystal drops fell one by one from her cherry blossom nipples. She noticed Robin watching and dropped the pitcher; she took her time covering her breasts and let out a silent giggle. She gave Robin that ageless "come hither" look, then cast her eyes downward.
         Robin dropped his food and stood up. He rushed down to the river's edge and shouted, "Oh, Marian, I love you!!" He came closer and a look of shocked disbelief filled his face. "Oh my God! It's you! Lorraine, it's me, Hubert, from Rick's Place...remember?"
         "Do I ever! You're all I've thought about since that morning. I thought you were gone forever."
         "Wait right there, I'm coming in."
         "No, don't!!"
         But it was too late--Nick was diving through the air, Norma was his target. The hunter had become the prey. Then he ran into a wall, one as substantial as brick--the interface between Supra Reality and real reality. Maid Marian aka Lorraine Bridges aka Norma was in the real-time synthetic theme park known as Sherwood Forest while Robin Hood aka Hubert Burns aka Nick was strapped to a suspensor chair, bathed in chemical and electronic additives, just a sedentary cybermind. Real is real and cyber is cyber, and never the twain shall meet...and so it was no surprise when he hit the interface and a sonic boom rocked his world. Everything went jagged, like the lines on an old analog television when a fist smacks it hard. Norma's voice was just as jagged when she cried out, "I'm in real-time! Meet me in the Sherwood Forest! The Biosphere! I want you! I want you real bad!"
         When he regained consciousness, Nick was on the floor of his apartment, the suspensor chair overturned, the I.V. bottle broken on the floor, neurostimulant gathering in a puddle. His helmet and datagloves lay across the room, in the corner, thrown there apparently. Jimbo's S.R. station, in contrast, was in perfect order. The I.V. stand stood upright, the rubber hose clamped off. The datagloves were rolled up and stuffed inside the helmet, which was placed upside down in the suspensor chair. But Jimbo was nowhere to be found.
         Nick's temples throbbed like an electric power station. What the devil? he wondered as he massaged his bloodshot eyeballs. "The forest," he muttered to himself and pulled himself off the floor and staggered to the door.

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