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Afterthought - A Science Fiction Novel

Chapter One

By Bob Webb


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Copyright Robert Webb - 2001


Each hair on the cat glistened a deep blue-black, reflecting light

in all directions, like the facets of a diamond might, if diamonds came

in that color. The cat, pure Persian, purred contentedly as Herbert

finished working the light carnauba wax into the last few hairs of its

tail. His forehead was drawn tight in absolute concentration. Finished.

With a sigh, he set the brush, tortoise shell colored, with a perfectly

tapered handle, every bristle identical, onto the immaculate,

scratch-free, cherry wood dresser.


What next? Herbert looked methodically around the room, not missing

a detail. Pastoral oil paintings came alive on perfect pastel walls.

Furniture, seemingly wet with polish, stood at attention like happy,

well trained puppies awaiting their master's next command. Every item in

the room focused its attention on him, ready, willing, waiting. The

tension resonated painfully near the top of his skull, spreading down

his neck and spine.


"There must be something I missed. There has to be something." He

felt the familiar tingling sensation around the edges of his

consciousness. Uninvited thoughts, looking for and finding chinks in his

mental armor, attacking his control. Suddenly, the light wood floor

beneath his bare feet convulsed and fashioned itself into terra-cotta

tile. His toes had a firm hold, but where planking had existed an

instant before under his heels, now six inches of airspace lay upon the

glimmering surface of a swimming pool. Herbert fell backward into the

pool, splashing water in every direction, soaking everything in the

room. But within seconds, drops became rivulets, running across

horizontal and down vertical surfaces, returning through the grooves in

the tile to the pool. In moments, the room was dry. Herbert was not.


He sat cross-legged on the bottom of the pool. Here in Hybrid Space

he knew he could hold his breath indefinitely. "Command note. I need

still more persistence in all objects. Tweak it about five percent. End

note. Execute." He looked up through the water, appreciating how well

the Arbitrator was handling the water's affect on his vision. "I do wish

I'd learned how to swim, though. I don't have much underwater experience

to compare this to." Slowly, a large, generously illustrated book

floated down, settling into his hands. "How to Swim. Nice touch, guys,

but I'll walk out, thank you." He floated to a standing position and

ascended a marble staircase that had made itself available. As he rose

from the pool, water drops practically leaped from his bare skin to

rejoin the larger volume. He walked across the room, newly expanded to

accommodate the pool, and with a dry hand, placed the new book on a dry

shelf next to several other "how-to" books, none of which he had read.

"Maybe I need a new how-to book," he mused, "on how to have an

out-of out-of-body experience, so I can watch this experiment from the

outside." He laughed. "Wouldn't that be a kick." Three new books

appeared on the shelf, Zen and the Art of Reality Management, Out of

Body-Out of Mind, and Meditations for Artificial People. He shook his

head. "You guys are too funny."


He turned and continued around the room to the wall across the pool

from the bookshelf, where a vid screen displayed his lab--the real one,

in base reality, as opposed to this room, which he called "First Room",

his artificial lab in the artificial reality of Hybrid Space. In the

center of the vid screen's image stood the Womb. It looked to Herbert

like a crystal fifty-five gallon "drum". A shade over six and a half

feet long, it lay on its side on a stainless steel stand. The Womb was

responsible for providing the body with nutrition, elimination, muscle

condition, internal organ maintenance and circulation, and a hundred

other essentials while the mind was in HySpace. Within the drum, a man

floated on his back, immersed in a pinkish gel. "That would be me," he

said. The man within was covered from toes to crotch and waist to neck

with a green tinted, nearly transparent, wetsuit-like membrane. Another

membrane, disk-shaped, a quarter of an inch thick, encircled his waist

and extended out in all directions to the edge of the drum, isolating

the below-the- waist segment. An identical disk bisected the upper drum

at his neck. A clear plastic helmet, similar to those used by astronauts

in the '70s and '80s, enclosed his head and neck. It was large enough to

allow for a feeding tube and the complex cap -- the interface with the

Arbitrator. Monitoring sensors, electrical stimulators, IV tubes and

other indecipherable objects were affixed to various spots on his torso

and limbs.


The nether region of the drum, dedicated to replenishing nutrients

and filtering waste products, had been tinted to ease the stress on

sensitive stomachs. A pair of fat hoses ran from a complicated looking

tank and pump assembly a few feet away to connections on the drum near

his upper thighs. Affixed to its upper, inside surface, a pad of

buttons, within reach of the occupant, allowed initialization of the

immersion and HySpace processes. Entering or exiting alone was not a

recommended process, but the design made it possible with some difficulty.

A second complete system sat in place next to the primary, for

prototyping and as a backup. Against the lab's near wall, facing the

side of the occupied drum, a control console overlooked the room from a

raised platform. Wrapped clusters of fiber-optic cables ran from the

under side of the console across the floor to the two drums and to a

monitor screen which occupied most of the far wall. Racks of wet and dry

chemicals, medical equipment, spare parts and supplies lined the lab

wherever space permitted. The walls were otherwise bare, except for a

large calendar clock mounted to the right of the monitor. The calendar

clock was blank.


Herbert fought off rising claustrophobia. No one else was in the

lab. "This isn't right. Where is everyone?" He took a final look at the

screen, turned and walked quickly over to a sofa and lay down trying to

focus his thoughts. He closed his eyes. "Command note. Terminate HySpace

sequence. End note. Execute." He opened his eyes. Nothing. He closed

them again. "Command note. Emergency terminate. End note. Execute."

"Miaow," said the cat, waxing Herbert's chin and cheek with its back

and tail. Herbert sighed and scratched the cat between the ears.


* * *


Herbert came up with a few new command sequences to create, then

another and another. He experimented building larger and larger elements

from collections of smaller ones. Between tasks he would re-execute the

termination sequence, attempt to access calendar and timing functions,

or to communicate with his staff--with no results. He'd about run out of

ideas when the woman climbed into the room through the vid screen.

Well, this was certainly different, he thought. The most

sophisticated living creature he'd conjured to date was his well waxed

cat, a sophisticated evolution from earlier artificial reality modeling.

And anything that had shown up uninvited, subconscious creations, he had

unconjured, made go away.


He let his laptop roll up into a cubic icon and set it on an end

table. "Hello?"


She ignored him, walked to the bookshelf, pulled a book down, opened

it, flipped through a few pages, then placed it back on the shelf.


"Excuse me."


She ran a white gloved hand along the top edge of the bookshelf.

"I don't allow dust here."


"How convenient." She continued her examination of the room,

inspecting the paintings on the far wall.


"You can talk." Fascinating. An unexpected sophistication. He stood

and walked up behind her. Not very tall, maybe five foot four in the

real world. "Can I help you?"


She turned around and regarded him. Ho! Iridescent irises--golds,

greens, deep browns. Large blue-black pupils, a pale oval face, pouty

lips. Hair flowing everywhere, red one instant, deep brunette the next.

She was wearing a straight teal blue shift. No telling what kind of

figure she had. She looked him over, head to toe, then reached out a

delicate, long fingered hand, extended her pointer finger and poked him

in the chest. "You could start by putting some clothes on."

Red faced, he quickly wrapped a soft teal terry cloth towel around

his waist.


"Nice touch." She almost smiled.


"What, your finger on my chest?"


"Hardly." She scanned the room. "I'm amazed

how...natural...everything seems."


Herbert backed up a step. "You're not a creation, of mine, or the

Arbitrator. You can't be."


"How perceptive. Dr. Emily Trufenow, at your service." She offered

that delicate hand. "I'm here to help you."


He automatically extended his hand. Sparks jumped between palms as

they met. "Wow," he laughed, rather nervously. "But how could you be

here? I designed the program for one person."


"We added a second processor and changed the rules tables. We're

relying on the Arbitrator to learn to sort out the inputs. We also

restricted my ability to, um, alter things."


Not totally, he thought to himself. He walked back to his chair and

slumped down. He noticed her puzzled look. "I think better when I'm

sitting." She smiled. He took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. "Okay.

How long have I been here? I can't get a reliable reading on time or

date, no matter what method I use."


"Most of the weekend."


He stood back up. "What? I was only supposed to be here for a few



"It's been going so well I told them to leave you here."

He threw a plate against the far wall. It crashed, shattered and

faded into nothingness.


"Feeling better?" She walked over and sat in his chair. His chair.

Her shift had shortened considerably. Her legs were on a par with

everything else he'd seen so far. Lean, well muscled, but pale.

He took another deep breath, conjured an invisible stool and sat

facing her, two feet off the floor. He suddenly realized how stable the

room had become. "It appears you've retarded my powers, too."

"Just a precaution. We'll adjust it as appropriate."


"What gives you the right to meddle in my experiment?"


"Simple. I'm your new boss."


His stool sank to the floor. Better view. Yes, she'd taken very good

care of those legs. She watched him watch.


He continued to look her over. "Tell me, Emily. Am I seeing you as

how you think you look, or how you'd like to look, or how you think I'd

like you to look?"


She frowned for a moment. "Does it really matter? You seem to like

what you see."


"I'll reserve judgment."


"Not very honest, are you?"


It was his turn to frown. He re-levitated the stool. "So now what?"

"So now, so now I'll return to the lab for a bit. I need to check

your vitals."


"You're leaving me here?"


"You're okay for now. There's nothing pressing out there for you.

We'll pull you out when we think it's appropriate."


"How may I let you know when I think it's appropriate? This was

supposed to be a timed mission."


A large pair of ruby slippers appeared on a table between them. "You

could click your heels three times and say There's no place like home."

She followed that with a Cheshire Cat smile.


"Not funny," he said, watching the slippers fade away. He was

relieved to know his still had some control.


"Bye," she laughed, wiggling her nose. She vanished with a slight,

but obviously theatrical, pop.


It seemed to Herbert that her shift vanished an instant before she

did. He wondered which of them had caused that effect. He threw a dart

at her photo on the wall, catching her between the eyes. Right now she

looked better that way. He walked back to the vid screen. The view

remained unchanged. He tried the termination sequences again. No

response at all. He yawned and yawned again. Time to sleep. He wasn't

particular about when or where. When he was tired he curled up,

expecting support, visible or otherwise, and he received it. This time

his stool expanded into a queen size pillow top bed with silk sheets, in

teal and dusty rose. He hardly noticed. By his fourth yawn, he was out.


********** Interlude (think italics) ***********


As he walked to the podium, he could see the auditorium was less

than half full. He stood for a moment looking for familiar faces. Only a

few. Okay, let's get this over with.


"Ladies and Gentleman, I'll get directly to the point. We have taken

the science of virtual reality to a new level with the successful

development of a direct holographic interface between the brain and a

computer. Concepts, language, feelings, images, can now be passed

directly between the computer and the brain. It is also possible, using

this interface, to override for short periods of time, the connections

between the brain and the body's five basic senses, and replace them

with inputs from the computer. The universe perceived by someone so

connected is therefore a joint creation of brain and computer. We have

named this universe Hybrid Space, or HySpace for short. The computer

system developed to share this creative responsibility is called the

Arbitrator. It has been given rules which allow it to provide stability

and resolve inconsistencies in the implicit and explicit commands and

requests generated in the human brain. It is also able to add or create

new rules as required for unforeseen situations. In addition, it

maintains the information which defines the extent of HySpace at any

given time." Everyone seemed lost or disinterested. This was going to be

the toughest sell of his life.