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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fiction: A Picnic at Mt. St. Cardiac

This is one of the five or so short stories I found when cleaning up the outbuilding, getting it ready for its new carpet, and the second to appear on the blog.

I wrote it in the early 1990s, I believe. Cyberpunk had by then established itself as the up-and-coming sub-genre of science fiction, although by then some people thought it was well in decline. Me, I thought people were missing out, treating “cyberspace” strictly as the habitat of criminals and mega-corporations. Certainly, people would work, play, and perhaps even work out emotional issues in cyberspace as well.

So click the “Read and Comment” link, and see what happens when a family takes...

A Picnic at Mt. St. Cardiac

The VR headset magnified the circuit board until it looked like... well, a miniature city. Clich├ęs, even at the microscopic level, Mike grinned. But an exotic ghost town of copper streets and black epoxy buildings was just what it looked like.

Mike lifted his viewpoint above the board’s surface — and there was the problem. A hairline crack in a solder joint, although at this magnification it seemed big enough to slip his hand into, on pin 3 of chip U407. He reached up with gloved hands and brought down a huge — or so it seemed at this scale — soldering iron and a line of solder as big around as his arm. In a few seconds, the crack was patched.

As Mike was about to start diagnostics on the board, his phone chimed. The status area in his headset said simply, Dad. Mike smiled and opened the video onto one corner of the display. His father’s puzzled face appeared in a window on the side of one of the chip-buildings.

“What’s this? You playing that new VR City game, Mayor Mike? Patching up potholes? But where’s the media with their photo-ops?”

“Nope,” Mike grinned even wider. “Hey, why don’t you join me?” His image froze, one finger held up toward Dad in the universal gesture that meant Wait a minute, then reanimated; a pair of silvery benches appeared behind him. “Link up and come sit for a few. Remember that RW-4 factory rework unit you helped me pick up last week?”

Dad raised one eyebrow skeptically as he stepped into the rework unit’s VR, the window dissolving behind him, and sat on the bench opposite Mike. “Naw. You couldn’t have got that thing working, could you? I thought you bought it for scrap.”

“I did,” Mike chuckled. “In fact, I opened up the power supply first to see if there was anything worth salvaging in there. What I found was a mouse nest and a bunch of chewed wires. I thought ‘what the heck,’ spliced everything together, and it came right up. I think it has repair maps of most everything built through last year.”

“Quite a find. And a steal, for fifty bucks. I’m impressed. Y’know, you could go into business with this, fix up stuff —”

“Or buy up rejects and sell ’em as refurbs,” Mike finished. “I already have a flyer out, looking for a batch of boards.” He looked around to see if the slow fade he’d set up was noticeable yet. Sure enough, the circuitry was starting to look grainy and rippled, the benches grew darker and rougher, and his clothes were fading away completely.

“Good. If you need a little help from time to time, let me know. I’ve gotten down to twenty hours a week at work now.” Dad looked around him, went Wait a minute, then returned with a grin and a different look. This image of Dad was younger and thinner, with black hair (only one or two grey strands) down to his shoulder. The appendectomy scar was still there, though. Mike’s next thought started him: He used to look like that when he was younger. And it’s how he still sees himself.

Dad brought Mike out of his reverie. “I’ll go along with the nude beach. Better be careful with the wood benches though; wouldn’t want virtual splinters in your old man’s backside.”

“No probble,” Mike said, then subvocalized. The benches became canvas beach chairs. “Better?”

“Yeah, but you forgot the babes.” A volleyball game popped into existence nearby. “And this is kind of a generic beach — may I? Thanks.” Wait a minute, then the sand became coarser and darker with grassy dunes marching up from the shoreline. “I always liked Lake Michigan; too bad they didn’t have nude beaches up there.” They watched the volleyball game for a quiet moment.

“OK, Dad,” Mike said to break the silence. “I give up. I didn’t shock you with the nude beach. So what’s happening?”

“Shocked you, though,” Dad grinned. “I pretty well know you, son. You’re not much different from me when I was twenty-eight, even if you were on the way by then. Anyway, I was just going to make sure you were coming by —” Wait a minute, a prolonged one. Dad’s image reanimated with a worried look. “Trouble,” he said.

The volleyball game disappeared just as Mom popped in, sporting a grainy image that indicated a real-time meatspace scan. “Hi, son, I — God!” she gasped. “What do you two think you’re doing?”

Mike and Dad quickly added swim suits. “And a good afternoon to you too, Mom,” Mike replied. “Dad and I were just playing Shock Each Other. He won.”

Dad glared briefly at Mike, then stood to face Mom. “You ought to try it some time,” he said. A quick subvocal, and a four-foot schlong sprang from his swim suit, complete with sound effect.

“You wish,” Mom hissed. “Fifty-six years old, and that’s still all you think about.”

“Uh, Dad,” Mike said. ”You broke the rules. No caricatures.”

“Woop,” replied Dad, and returned to normal proportions. “You’re right. Congratulations, hon; you won your first game of Shock Each Other by default.”

Mom ignored the attempted deflection. “So when did you ever look like some long-haired idiot?”

“When we met,” Dad said evenly. “Don’t you remember?”

Before Mom could respond, Mike spoke up. “Good to see you, Mom. You don’t usually visit by VR; what’s the occasion?”

“Well, I was going to make sure your dad didn’t forget to ask you if you were coming by tonight —”

“Which is what I was about to do before you butted in,” Dad snapped. “Besides, didn’t you ever figure out that this is what VR is all about, to be what you always wanted to be?”

Mom smirked. “You never wanted to be a nudist. Besides, the resort is just a few miles up the road, where it’s always been.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Dad retorted. “You’ve got to stop looking at just the face value of things —”

“Uh, you guys are running up a tandem bill with this little discussion. Maybe a change of scenery would be appropriate,” Mike suggested. “How about the golf course?”

Mom looked skeptical. “I don’t golf —”

“No probble, Mom. You’ve never come to visit our masterpiece; just sit in the cart and enjoy the view.” Dad laughed and nodded as the beach dissolved and all three stood before a black iron sign. The sign read, in animated dripping blood:

The golf course from Hell!

Mike and Dad had created this elaborate construct several years ago as a practical joke on a few golfing friends of Dad’s. The friends thought it was hilarious, and told other friends. The word spread, and father and son quickly found themselves adding and refining. Soon, Mount Saint Cardiac became the place for people who wanted a break from real-world golfing. It was one of the most popular golf-oriented constructs in VR, running neck-and-neck with the authorized virtual St. Thomas. The visitation fees they made from Cardiac usually paid the entire family’s monthly VR connect charges with enough left over for a weekly gold outing in meatspace.

Mom looked even more skeptical. “I don’t think I’ll enjoy this. It doesn’t look like my idea of a good time.”

Dad rolled his eyes. “Just come on, will you? You won’t enjoy it if you don’t give it a chance, that’s for sure. Here, hop in the cart.”

That’s a cart?” Mom goggled. The golf carts at Mount Saint Cardiac looked like a cross between a black 1970 Corvette Stingray and a plain golf cart. It had an open top and the back end was rebuilt to hold a pair of bags, but the rest was one evil-looking vehicle. It purred menacingly as it rolled, driverless, to where they stood.

“It’s safe, Mom,” Mike reassured her. “This is VR, remember? You can’t get hurt.” Mom climbed into the passenger seat, Dad took the driving position next to her, and Mike grabbed handholds on the back. “Hit it, Dad.” The motor roared, tires squealed, and they fishtailed up to the tees on Number One. Dad grinned like a maniac and whipped the cart into a power-slide that slung the rear next to the tees.

“I see your driving hasn’t changed much,” Mom remarked dryly as they climbed out of the cart.

“One big difference,” Dad deadpanned as he and Mike selected Cardiac Drivers — clubs with heads roughly the size of a bowling ball sawn in half. “No tickets here, and nobody wrecks.”

Number One was typical: 570 yards to the green, with the tees on the edge of a sheer cliff far above the fairway. The sign, which showed the layout and the hazards, named it Over the Edge. Dad and Mike both teed off and watched their balls land in the fairway below, then everyone climbed into the cart.

“Another good thing about this course,” Mike chattered. “You can’t lose your ball even if you try.”

Mom looked around. “So how do we get down there? I don’t see a path.”

“Here, I’ll show you,” Dad grinned. “Remember the name?”

Over the Edge — nooooooooooo!” Dad floored the accelerator. The cart roared, tires howled as they spun around, and Mom shrieked as they vaulted off the cliff. Before they dropped more than a few feet, the cart spouted wings and became a glider. As they descended, Mike picked himself up from the back of the cart, laughing hysterically. “Mom — you should have seen — your face,” and again fell giggling to the floor.

“I ought to slap you,” Mom growled, then allowed herself to smile as the cart landed and folded its wings away. “So what other surprises do you have in here?”

“Oh, every hole has its own little personality,” Dad replied. “Like Boa Boa. When your ball hits the fairway, a big snake slithers out and swallows it. If you stomp on him, he coughs up the ball and goes away.”

“Your snake phobia gave us the idea for that one, Mom,” Mike continued. “Another hole is pitch dark, except that the green and your ball glow in the dark. The idea is for you to remember where you are — in VR where you can’t get hurt. Here you can overcome whatever fears you might have, since they really aren’t here.”

“Psychotherapy?” Mom looked skeptical and a little sarcastic.

“Funny thing, Mom: some shrinks actually bring their clients here. We get email all the time from people who said this place has helped them out some way.” Mike chattered on about other comments they received, while Dad steered them to a picnic area in the shadow of an erupting volcano. They sat in the lush grass and watched the lava flow endlessly down.

“But what’s the point of all this?” asked Mom. “Just entertainment? Or is there something else to it? You know I don't go virtual, or whatever you call it, very much.”

“Sure, it’s entertainment,” agreed Dad. “But are you talking about the golf course, or VR, or the entire Net?”

“All of it, I guess,” Mom sighed. “I know people go to work over the Net all the time, and there’s lots of games, and stuff like this place — but why do you go around looking like that, twenty and hair down to your back?”

Dad sighed in turn. “What’s the whole point of an illusion — or a fantasy world, if you’d rather — if you can’t control it? There’s a part of me who’s still twenty, and will always be twenty no matter how old I get on the outside. Here, I can let him out.

“But what about you? Haven’t you ever wanted to look different?”

“Well, you know I’ve always wanted to lose weight,” Mom grimaced. “But what’s the point? I could look like a supermodel here, but that won’t change anything.”

“It might change how you see yourself,” Dad replied. “Here, let me work your image. Now don’t look at me like that; I’m not going to do anything weird in front of your own son.” Dad went Wait a minute, then reanimated. “You wanted to be thinner? Here you go.” Dad reshaped Mom’s image into a young woman’s, made her hair longer and pulled it back into a tail, then replaced her generic floral print dress with overalls and a flannel shirt.

“Hey Mom,” Mike grinned. “You look gooooooood.” He subvocalized a full-length mirror so Mom could see herself.

Dad winked. “You know, women in overalls always did turn me on.”

“Uh, guys, I’ve got a board to finish fixing,” Mike said, recognizing his cue. “See you tonight in meatspace.” He dissolved and was gone.

Mom looked at Dad and grinned shyly. “So now what?”

“We go for a ride,” Dad replied. He whistled, and two horses with full tack trotted out of the woods. “Somewhere a bit more traditional. This can be your fantasy, too.” The scenery shifted, becoming a grassy meadow, with hazy mountains in the distance and a chuckling stream nearby. The horses ambled over and drank.

“Let’s go somewhere different,” Mom countered. “How about that beach? We can build a driftwood fire when it gets dark.”

“You’ve got the idea,” Dad replied happily. They mounted up and rode across the dunes.

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