Afterthought - A Science Fiction Novel
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
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
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.
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
"Nice touch." She almost smiled.
"What, your finger on my chest?"
"Hardly." She scanned the room. "I'm amazed
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
"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.