“Man, I was totally decked last night! That new place down by the canal is amazing!” Neil was still wide eyed over his holo-deck experience and was talking in that sort of excited, loopy way younger people do when recounting the latest rave they attended, especially if the police also made an appearance. While this is understandable in the exuberance of youth it would normally have proved embarrassing for a man of fifty five, but Neil felt like a kid right now. He was so wound up that he was twitching and sweating as he talked and his pupils were large as saucers. “The alpha and beta encoding is WAY smoother than the decks downtown, and the graphics are BETTER than real!”
“Better?”, asked Aidan in disbelief colored with mild annoyance. “How can any graphics be better than reality?”
“Because of the new encoding system. They deep scan your wave pattern baseline first and then adjust the whole experience just for you! You’ve got to try it to believe it. It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done! I”m going back tonight.”
Aidan and Carl had known Neil since university and were best friends, all working for the same insurance firm. Neil had once been the most reserved of the group and his current behavior was worrying the usually the wilder Carl and the mischievous Aidan. Holo-decks had been growing increasingly popular since the tactile sensation problem had been worked out by employing low range force fields. Prior to that decks had been little more than fancy movies. Of course, as had been the case with video games, virtual reality helmets, and neocortical-hypno-jacks the initial outcry of addiction and bad influences eventually faded in the face of massive commercial profit. Greed was still the biggest addiction of all and seemed in little danger of losing it’s championship cup to any other emotion or technological marvel. Still, this new holo-deck which employed custom tailored brainwave encoding was scaring some very important people who had been previously unshaken by the aforementioned fads. The term “decked” referred to a person being so overwhelmed by a holo-deck experience that upon emerging they were at first almost paralyzed and needed someone to help them reintegrate into their real surroundings, followed by a rising and almost frantic euphoria that would often last for hours. For this reason, because the new decks provided such a powerful experience that disrupted normal life, they were only open Fridays, Saturdays, and statutory holidays. A new excuse for missing work on Monday was called “falling off deck”, which meant recovering, an excuse quickly rivaling the hangover as most unpopular with employers. A fortunate thing it was then that these three men were practically their own bosses, answering only to higher ups on the opposite coast.
Aidan turned to Carl and asked in a hushed tone so that Neil did not hear, “You tried the hypno-jacks before they were banned in this country, didn’t you? Were you as blown away by that experience as he seems to be by this one?”
“Hard to say”, whispered Carl. “I was addicted to it, for sure, and my wife found out and made me stop, not so much because of what it was technically, you understand, but because I was getting too involved with the hypnodomme. Man, Esther was furious!” Carl wanted to elaborate further but Neil was looking at them now and they both knew what was coming.
“Come on, you guys, let’s all go down there right away and be in the front of the line! No reservations allowed, you know, and they only take about twelve thousand people in a night.”
Twelve thousand! That was more than all the other decks in the city combined. This new place must be huge.
Aidan shuffled his feet nervously and fidgeted in his mind for an excuse while Carl just stared straight back at Neil and said, “No. I’m not going down that road again. Sorry.”
“But it’s nothing like the hypno-jacks. There’s no human controlling you at all. It’s all just images generated by the system. It’s all just the ....... system.” His voice trailed off with the second repetition and sounded almost like a whimper, soft and quietly dying like a freezing songbird nearing its last breath and had no notes left to sing. He stared forlornly at his friends and waited.
No answer came. The maglev glided by overhead and disappeared into the side of a silver glass tower that reflected an orange sun setting over a spotless city teaming with well fed healthy citizens of this miraculously stable utopia. Only twenty years before there had still been hunger, disease, and war, but the dual mercies of cross-phase-fusion and molecular shifting had swept away the age old dangers to humanity and allowed it to claim heaven on earth. Or so it seemed to most, ... most of the time.
Aidan could see that Carl was adamant about not going down there, but felt worried enough about Neil that he would temporarily bypass his own sense of misgiving and accompany Neil in order to keep an eye on him. Neil had always been so sensible, so reserved, and typically the member of their clique who talked Carl and Aidan out of doing anything even remotely risky. One summer they and their families had vacationed together in Mexico and Carl had wanted to dive from a cliff as the locals and a few of the younger tourists were doing. Carl’s wife knew he was an excellent swimmer and diver, yet Neil literally tried to stand in his way, imploring him not to jump. When Carl did jump, albeit without mishap, Neil chastised him for the rest of the afternoon and attempted to sway the others to take his side. Feeling that the fun of jumping from the cliff again did not outweigh the agony of Neil’s protests, all further diving activity was put on hold until another day, a day on which Neil went to town to get more food for their picnic on top of the cliffs. Aidan, Carl, and the wives had planned this, deliberately packing too little food and later claiming false guilt. Since Neil was the only one allowed to drive the rented Jeep on the twisty roads back into town, the plan worked and the rest of them enjoyed several hours of unchaperoned risk taking that they would all vehemently deny when Neil returned, suspicious as a rooster eyeing a raccoon with a mouth full of chicken feathers.
Another maglev glided by overhead, its brushed aluminum sides now wearing a deep red in the waning glow of the disappearing sun. Neil looked up towards the nearby station and without a word started walking quickly towards a lift tube about two hundred meters away. Aidan trotted up to his side, and being a full foot shorter than Neil, struggled to keep up to his lanky pace. “Slow down! What’s the hurry? That new holo-emporium will still be there by the time we arrive. For crying out loud, Neil, they don’t even open for another couple of hours!” Neil paid absolutely no attention to his friend, so focused was he on the experience before him, his imagination convulsing and champing at the bit, hungering for the magic of photons and force fields and the siren lure of the dream that had been woven in his mind less than one day ago. He would gladly wreck the boat of his common sense against the rocks of that temptation.
They stepped into the lift tube. Though the stocky Aidan was trim and fit for his age, he was panting from the exertion of keeping up with his much taller friend. Neil was hardly breathing at all, staring off into space as they rose quickly up to the maglev station two hundred meters above the green belt of park below. There was no point in trying to talk to him anymore. Aidan could see this. He would just follow along and do his best to keep his friend out of any serious trouble. Who was he kidding? Neil was already in serious trouble by the look of him. Was this journey back to the lair of the beast nothing more than a self destructive obsession in the guise of a romp in paradise? Neil wasn’t even looking out the window as the train floated along for an hour like a heavenly sailfish. He was just staring blankly at nothing, his thoughts already at their destination and deep into the holographic adventure that had captured his life as surely as if he were chained to the wall of the deepest medieval dungeon. As the time passed and the expanse of the mega-city unfolded beneath them Aidan wracked his brain to think of a solution to this predicament. Maybe, he thought half heartedly, he should try to intervene with the help of Neil’s wife? Maybe intervene with the help of a therapist? Some sort of hotline? But Neil shattered these futilities with two gleeful words. “We’re here!”, he shouted, so loudly that several of the other passengers in the car looked up from their pads.
They dropped down another lift tube and stepped out onto a winding walkway of bright yellow cobble stones bordered with oversize genetically engineered tulips and daisies. To the left, opposite the canal, was an erie forest of tall gnarly trees dripping with moss. This seemed familiar somehow, but Aidan couldn’t quite place the location in his memory, pushing and jabbing in his mind at the answer that felt just on the tip of his tongue. Neil was walking more slowly now, his long legs almost waltzing across the yellow stones and he was whistling something softly under his breath. Though he couldn’t hear it clearly, Aidan felt that this tune was also somehow familiar, but try as he might he could not place it. The barely audible notes were happy and whimsical and almost childish in their simplicity. Rounding a corner the path suddenly became temporarily lost in a small field of gigantic red poppies, emerging out the other side some fifty meters away. There, on the far side of that miniature field of crimson stood their goal, towering high, a conglomeration of green towers with those in the center being taller than those at the edge. The material these were made of was translucent and glowing from within. A large sign flickered at the entrance, “Emerald City”. And now Aidan remembered the tune Neil had been whistling. It was that same melody sung by both the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman. “If I Only Had A Brain”. “If I Only Had A Heart”. The yellow cobblestones, too, now leapt forth from the amnesia depths of Aidan’s memory into the forefront of recognition.
There was only a small line at the entrance, no more than twenty people. Some were younger than Neil and Aidan, some older, but all were male and all were staring off into space like Neil, lost in a dream. Aidan immediately saw that he was the only one who was not affected in this manner and began to worry that he would stick out like a sore thumb, briefly remembering old two dimensional zombie films in which the living hoped they would not be spotted by the dead. Mustering all his resolve, Aidan moved close to Neil and spoke low into his ear. “Hey, man, let’s come back here some other time. I’m not feeling well and could really use your help getting home. I think I’m coming down with something serious.” It was all a lie, of course, but he had to try. This was just too obviously a bad idea.
“Huh?”, came Neil’s vacant reply. He had barely turned to look at Aidan.
“Neil! Please! Let’s go!” Aidan was desperately frightened now and his voice cracked embarrassingly.
Neil gave no response whatsoever this time. Not so much as a blink.
Aidan grabbed him by the arm, intending to yank him out of line, but it was as if Neil had turned to stone, the roots of which went all the way down to bedrock. Try as he frantically might, Aidan could not budge Neil. The others in the line took no notice.
Soon many more men arrived to join the line and every one was in the same frozen state as the others. Within fifteen minutes there were at least a hundred and in another fifteen probably three hundred. Only half an hour left till opening time. Fear surged through Aidan’s veins like cold death and he had to fight very hard to overcome the urge to run screaming from that place, yet so strong was his loyalty to his friend that he would not leave. He had to try something else and he must succeed.
Lifting his left wrist to his mouth he spoke into his watch, softly so as not to risk drawing the attention of the growing crowd, not that that seemed in the least likely. “Police, East Bank, Section 8”, and he waited for the automated dispatch service to respond.
“Yes sir, what can we assist you with?” The voice was that generic female persona everyone had become so familiar with, descended from the union of a BBC TV announcer and an answering machine of yore.
Aidan began to describe the situation, taking great care not to sound like a nut case. By the time he had been speaking for about three minutes, and intending to speak for about three more, a police officer stepped up beside him. “Sir, the staff of this establishment has asked that you leave the premises.” The officer’s tone was polite yet firm.
“What?”, burst Aidan, astonished that he was being addressed this way and that an officer had been dispatched for the purpose of making HIM leave. “Please listen to me. My friend here is under some kind of influence. I’m very concerned for his safety and have been trying to help him. He’s not behaving like himself at all. None of these people are!” His voice had stayed calm and steady until this last sentence, at which point he had betrayed his excitement.
“Are you claiming that you know ALL these people, sir, and that you judge ALL of them to be behaving in a manner unlike that which you judge to be their normal behavior?” The policeman was still maintaining an air of professional courtesy, yet that air was now obviously tempered with the rising wind of skepticism. “Sir?”, came the verbal nudge that shocked Aidan from his stupor.
“No, of course not! I don’t know any of them. It’s just that they’re all acting so strangely. Something going on inside these towers has affected them and lured them back here!” His voice was frantic now and his hands were gesturing wildly. Although he could tell that he was losing control he was powerless to regain it and he sensed that he was in trouble.
He was right.
“Please turn around and place your hands behind your back. I’m placing you under arrest for creating a public disturbance. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one can be provided to you free of charge by the Legal Aid Council. Do you understand your rights as I have just described them to you?”
Aidan, despite not wishing to be arrested and fully understanding the gravity of the situation, protested yet again. “Please. Please ..... my friend needs help. His name is Neil and he’s right here ....” Aidan looked desperately to the spot where Neil had been standing, yet he was now gone, moving forward and almost through the door into Emerald City.
And with that the policeman expertly stepped behind Aidan, cuffed him, and led him away to a waiting hover-cruiser. Gone. Gone from the line, gone from the canal, gone from his friend’s fate. Flickers of sad thoughts popped in and out of Aidan’s mind as the craft glided serenely along towards the police station, the people on the ground far below looking to him as he was feeling. Helpless. What would Neil’s wife say? What would HIS wife say? Would he have to go to court? Would he be sentenced to some sort of ....... something? He had no idea. All he could manage to hold in his focus for more than a few seconds was the question of what was going to happen to Neil. Would he ever see him again?
* * *
The Mayor, Police Commissioner, and state Governor were sitting comfortably at a restaurant table high in one of the city’s tallest towers. Their view to the West was of Emerald City, now glowing furiously green against the darkness.
“Are there still many incidents down there?”, the Governor asked the Mayor and Police Commissioner.
“Very few, and fewer all the time”, came the Commissioner’s smiling reply.
The Mayor, grinning even more broadly offered, “Ever since we signed the Agreement with them there have been no more public embarrassments. They have taken care of all that.”
“How?”, asked the Governor. “And I thought it was a single person, a woman, not a group of people who ran Emerald City.”
“That’s just a rumor, and as for how, well, do we really care about the details?” The Mayor was being neither smug nor defensive. His demeanor was that of confidence and genuine nonchalance.
The Commissioner reached over and touched the Governor on the shoulder. “We are making so much money from this thing I’m sure any and all protests can be smoothed over.” He winked quickly to emphasize the underlying subtlety of his remark.
The waiter popped by to ask if they wanted another bottle of vintage champagne.
* * *
Neil walked, almost glided, along the wide hallway through tall arches of shining green stone. A thousand other people who had been waiting outside were walking along just as he was, not hurrying, not tarrying, all apparently in a daze, their eyes focused more on what was going on inside their heads than outside. After what was a walk of at least three hundred meters they came to a gigantic round door, round like the porthole on a ship. The whole thing was quivering as does a mirage and emitting a tinkling sound like tiny far off bells. The sound seemed familiar to each person there, though to each a personal a very private sort of familiar, like a sacred thing one was supposed to keep secret. Was it music? It felt like music, but if anyone tried to mentally examine the melody that melody remained tantalizingly just out of reach, making it all the more important to each individual. The more anyone struggled to remember where they had heard that tune before, the more they forgot where they had heard it, and this in turn teased them into trying harder to remember. Neil eventually stopped caring about where he had heard the music. It somehow became too much work to care and all he wanted now was to go through to the other side.
The gigantic round door did not open, not as a normal door on hinges would do. Instead it became less solid and more like the mirage it had suggested. No one there heard a voice telling them to walk through. They just simultaneously felt it, a call, a command to move forward through the mirage. As Neil passed through this miraculous veil he felt an invigorating tactile sparkling sensation on every inch of his skin and this sensation was quickly and deliciously absorbed deeper and deeper into the depths of his body and mind. The feeling was so pleasurable, almost sexual in nature and almost like falling in love. In fact, had he possessed the wits to write down what he was experiencing at that moment he might have used words such as “devotion” or “holiness”. And Neil was in no way religious. Everyone there was feeling the exact same thing, this overwhelming sensation of the tingling being so beautiful that they just wanted to give in to it completely, surrender in every way possible, and feel it more and more and more. A single tear of joy sprang from Neil’s left eye and rolled slowly down his smiling cheek. When it fell away and struck the floor all the other people had disappeared. He almost didn’t notice this at all, and even if he had noticed it fully, it wouldn’t have mattered in the least. He was through, and that was all that he cared about!
He no longer walked now. The floor beneath him was moving like a conveyor belt, or at least it appeared that that was what was happening. Neil noticed this but just barely. His body and mind were vibrating so strongly he felt he could fly, though at the same time felt unable to move at all. He wanted to both leap into the air and soar and be earthbound at the same time. This faintly resembled a dream in which one knew one could fly, or had been flying, and then no longer could, continuing to slow down until paralysis won out. In such dreams one always felt frustrated, but in this case the emotion was the opposite of frustrating. He wanted more than anything to feel that he was being kept from flying no matter how hard he tried. He yearned within himself to feel more helpless to whatever power it was that was taking all his control away. Wanting to cry and laugh and shout aloud, hungering to fall to his knees and pray to this force, thirsting like a parched man in a desert to jump into a river of the coolest clear water. Neil could only stand still and glide onwards. The truth of the matter was quite different, however, as he had not moved a centimeter since passing through the round door.
Neil, and each of the other thousand people who had entered Emerald City with him were standing close to each other in a great domed room some one hundred meters across. The floor was of the same glowing green material as the outside of the building, but the roof of the dome was silver like chromium and wobbled like water. Was it alive? Anyone who had been capable of looking up at that point might have thought so, but of course no one there was capable of doing anything except standing still and ....... feeling. Feeling this insanely wonderful sensation of being loved and cared for and ..... aroused. Each person began to notice the sexual nature of their experience growing stronger, and the more intense this arousal grew, the more controlled the feeling became so that even the thought of climax was unobtainable. Thus it was that sexual release was not the goal towards which Neil and all the others pushed, it was the hope of being aroused further and further without release, a teasing agony that seemed impossible, yet was so sweet in it’s promise that “possible” and “impossible” became the same. To put it another way, no one cared about anything except the growing arousal itself. Any outcomes of that arousal eventually didn’t enter into anyone’s thoughts at all. A never ending waterfall of promise denied, a continuous plummet into a permanently receding sun of mind blanking joy.
Within the silvery dome scanners recorded the brainwaves of the men on the green floor while simultaneously beaming new brainwaves back down to their gaping minds, giving them exactly what they most desired, exactly what the believed they needed more than anything else now or ever. This technology was far, far beyond anything other holo-decks possessed. The best of the other decks could offer only temporary experiences that might, after many repetitions, have some long lasting effect. Getting “decked” ? Emerald City would give rise to another term, one which meant a permanent and unchangeable condition from which there was absolutely no turning back. Getting “holo-ed out”, implying that an individual’s original personality was gone and replaced with a new personality created by the dome. It wasn’t precisely so in that these men still retained core elements of their original personalities. It was precisely so, however, that they were being altered in a very invasive and permanent manner. “Brainwashing” didn’t come close to describing it. It was complete mind renovation, and at the heart of it all was the presence of an incredible lady unlike any the world had ever known. No one spoke Her name any more. No one remembered it. They didn’t need to. They just felt Her presence, felt Her with them and in them at all times, even when they were at home with their wives and girlfriends. The really unusual thing about this was that the women did not object to their husbands and boyfriends coming down to this place. They encouraged it, while the women stayed home or congregated by themselves and were perfectly happy to let their partners have this experience. Their men always returned happy, polite, and helpful. Moreover, they returned loyal and attentive to their woman’s needs. The men were so much better behaved and so much more affectionate. While men viewed the lady in Emerald City as a goddess, women viewed her as a dear and wise friend.
Neil stood there for nearly twenty minutes, the occasional tear of joy rolling down his cheek. To him it seemed like a glorious eternity. Near the very end of the session came the best part, the most poignant moment of all in which She spoke to him personally. What She said always brought him to his knees, head bowed, heart pounding, and hands shaking, so excited was he to receive Her one-on-one instructions. The instructions were simple. “Go home, love you wife with all your heart. Please her as if it’s her last night on Earth. Come back here again as soon as you are able. And you will be completely unable to remember hearing me tell you any of this.” They all heard it together, all the men there, all kneeling now with heads down, all crying for joy, and all totally owned by the lady in the dome. Owned as if She had created them from scratch, which in some ways She had.
Doors opened as the new made men poured out and those waiting to be made anew poured in. On the faces of those leaving were smiles of contentment and glee, sheer exuberance of being alive. As they walked away towards boats and maglevs their heats were singing. New converts would continuously swell their ranks. Two, perhaps three visits was all it took to finish the process. A continuous tide of eager devotees yearning to express their love and devotion to the “Lady Of The Dome” as some people whisperingly referred to Her. While they did not remember hearing Her final commands each time they emerged from a session, their subconscious minds retained every word and inflection, and they could not forget Her. It was not so much the physical image of Her that they held on to, and in fact each person saw Her differently in their mind’s eye. It was a deep feeling of being loved so much that the love might boil over and spread outward like light shining from a brilliant lantern of eternal hope and peace.
Neil wasted no time going home, yet he did not hurry. There was nothing frantic in him now as there had been earlier. He was content, and would strive with all his heart to share that contentedness with his wife.
The maglev slithered silently past a tall dimly lit tower. Inside the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and Governor were finishing their last bottle of champagne. In each of their minds they felt the warm glow of Her lure, the lure of making more money than they had ever dreamed of and of having even more power than they already had. It was all a hoax, though. They would only dream that they were becoming rich and powerful. They would dream it at night while they slept and dream it during the day while they worked. Whenever She needed them to change a law or turn a blind eye to the breaking of another, they would comply with impatient lust, hungry to please Her and hopeful to hear Her voice again. They were never conscious of what She told them, but Her commands were etched so deeply inside their greedy little minds that nothing could ever overwrite what was on those slates again.
* * *
Aidan was eventually released and all charges dropped. He received a free voucher to Emerald City as a birthday gift from his wife. She still had to persuade him as only a woman could, and he did give in and go down to the canal and walk in, and walk out again, changed forever.
Carl was more suspicious, and for a time viewed Neil and then Aidan in a different light. He even went so far as to investigate Emerald City, calling in some favors from two old friends in the FBI. Their replies to him were at first incredible, telling him that they had been looking into “EC”, as they called it, for over a year. The lady, they said, was not a person at all, but a program of great sophistication and power, exceeding even the latest computing achievements of those government agencies one does not mention by name. The program ran it all, had even redesigned itself over and over. Where the original program had come from was what they were really trying to find out, and so far they had run up against brick walls at every turn. Had the first pieces of code come from a human designer or from another program? Then one day Carl’s friends in the FBI stopped talking to him altogether. Carl tried getting in touch over and over, but to no avail.
* * *
Outside along the canal a steady stream of men drifted towards Emerald City. Whenever approximately one thousand had gathered in front of the entrance they would be let in and proceed down a long hallway, pass through a shimmering force field, and come to stand paralyzed underneath a dome of liquid silver. All regulations about this place only being allowed to operate on weekends and holidays were either changed or totally ignored. It now ran twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. No one save the Lady Of The Dome knew how many of these holo-decks were contained within Emerald City and no one needed to know. Everything was fine. Fine at work. Fine at home. Fine in the city government. Fine everywhere. No crime, no poverty, no hunger or disease or unhappiness. The Program purred away deep inside Her hideaway, as far from Her physical mainframe as She was close to it. Carl and his two friends at the FBI would eventually stand in line beside each other and then again, too focused on going in to recognize each other. More and more of the men in the area came down there to that shining green conglomeration of towers.
Eventually, they all did.