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Echo World

January 17, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

A “Build-A-Book” in five parts, by Jessalee, thoreau, BarTalk, Bettina6953, and TommyO — October 2005

Plus “Epilog: Hal’s Journal” by thoreau, January 2006

Echo World – Part 1, by Jessalee

It was on the drive home that I decided to buy money that wasn’t real. I was stuck in traffic and listening to the Stones, watching the green service van to my left creep forward slightly faster than me. I reached for the volume button, and popped it up a few decibels. I definitely wanted to get moving, for no reason other than to do *something* active… press my foot against the accelerator, shift gears… anything. If only I could blend my worlds, so that I was a macho man weaving past people in my hoverbike home instead of another average Joe in my faithful Monte Carlo.

I shouldn’t have had that afternoon cup of coffee. I was too agitated now to deal with this, even though this was my lot twice a day, five days a week. Ha ha, to go make money to pay for fake money. The absurdity of it was never lost on me, even though I had done it several times. I thought of the tattoos and TUV I wanted. One was in auctions, a sweet deal at only nine grand. Things didn’t sell that fast on weeknights, so I was hoping it would still be there. If not, I’d use some money to refill my neglected PAZ. I looked over to my right. The lady in that car was definitely watching me. It almost seemed like… was she checking me out? Or…

I stopped bobbing my head, aware that *that* was why I had caught her attention. ~START ME UP START ME UP AND I’ll NEVER STOP ~ I reached over, turned the CD off and grabbed my cell phone, dying for anything to do. Autodial one, and after the third ring, she answered, almost annoyed.

“Hi Dad.”

“Hi baby. Listen, traffic’s running a little longer today and…”

She groaned, not letting me finish my sentence. “Daaaaaad, but if I’m late today then I…”

Fighting fire with fire, I countered, “Kaitlyn, we’ve talked about you interrupting. Let me finish, then I will listen to you. I’ll only be ten minutes late, but if you could let Pronto out and feed him, that would be a big help.”

“Oh.” She was relieved. “OK, well you know, I have that recital next weekend, and Miss Terry will be sizing us before class for our costumes.” A dress for one performance, and another thirty dollars perfectly wasted. Buying Therebucks wasn’t sounding so bad; I’d actually use those purchases!

“You’ll be there in plenty of time, baby. Make sure you hook the chain before you open the door, so he doesn’t get loose again. OK?”

“OK, bye Dad.” She hung up.

It was a good thing she looked like her mother because she acted too much like me. Sometimes, when she was short with her temper, I’d look at that blond hair and round freckled face, and find it hard to stay annoyed. But she had my eyes, and when she was mad, the light blue in them turned icy.

Traffic was moving above a crawl now, so I turned the music back on and put myself on autopilot. Five of the Stones classics roared as I got home, picked up my daughter, and brought her to dance class. Three random rock tunes hummed from the living room stereo as I changed and microwaved leftover chicken and veggies. I often joked that the reason I married Liz was because I couldn’t find a woman who beat her cooking. As the smell of heated rosemary and tarragon rose up in steam from the plate, I fell in love with her all over again… the first time in months.

With Kaitlyn tappity-tapping three afternoons a week until my wife picked her up after work, this time was *my* time. I dropped my plate on the computer table, and pushed that magical blue button. Since I had found this game, I had become weirdly obsessed—not with any particular person or type of thing, but just with being part of this ‘other world.’ There were days, like today, when my own life, as good as it was, didn’t matter nearly as much as getting online at the earliest possible minute.

True, I found a lot of solace in my blog, in fact, I was looking forward to writing a few ponderances in it tonight. It served not only as my questioning cry to the world, but more importantly as my creative outlet. It allowed me the chance to share my prized descriptions and odd poetic musings that I would never, as an accountant. This was, point blank, the other me that could have been. So enthralling was this alter-ego that it had been my only connection with that random outside CyberLand until I found There, and I poured more time into it than I did into yard work and home maintenance combined. All things I would get to… perhaps this weekend. But now I was going to play with my credit card, and buy myself some toys.

Forty-thousand Therebucks later, I entered my alternate reality a content man. In the speed of a mouse click, I claimed that Cali TUV as my own, then I got the perfect tattooed chest for my purple-haired alter-ego. He was a badass thing, looking as much like myself as I could get working the controls. Being in first wave beta, I had managed to get the name Quenton… so he *had* to be cool. Well, perhaps he had the physique I had a little while ago, maybe a decade or so, and a few less chest hairs. But he had quite the choice of collector vehicles to travel in, and over the last couple of years had acquired more clothes than I owned in my own closet. He had formal wear, party wear, casual wear, and more hairstyles (mostly of my own brown hair color) than I would ever admit to my wife.

Quickly I matched the tats with some ripped dark jeans I had, threw on my purple spiked hair, and saved the outfit. I couldn’t wait to roam around in the new TUV, so I looked up a quest going on, and headed to Tyr. The rocky terrain would give me that ‘rough and tumble’ environment I needed to really work in the new truck. And, it was a driving quest, with clues based on local environment, rather than on teleporting. Even though I genuinely appreciated when someone took the time to create a good brain teaser, these roaming quests were definitely my favorites. Something about hitting the open road called to me. I loved the sound of the virtual engines, and could really become part of the landscape.

The first clue was in balloon, and I knew the spot to the northeast that it referenced. Having tested many a vehicle between Tyr and the craters of Tiki, there were few locations that I hadn’t either added to favorites or added to my mental map. Within ten minutes, I made it to the second clue without any backtracking, and saw as I got close to the balloon that someone was there. I began to make out that it was a guy dressed in a collared green shirt and jean shorts. I could see Hal something on the nametag; then as I rumbled closer, I made out the word Graham. Seeing he had voice, I miked up and said hello.

“Hey there, you doing the Jackalope quest?”

There was a pause, as I assumed he miked up too. “Yes, but I just found out there’s a beta test for a new world going on and I was thinking of checking it out.”

“Wow, that sounds cool. Is it open?”

“Sure,” he answered. “Do you want to meet me there?”

“That’d be great!” He gave me the instructions he had, and although disappointed I couldn’t drive the TUV there, I logged out, and let the new world load as I dropped my dish in the sink and grabbed a beer.

I returned to the screen, and all I saw was the color blue. Then I turned around, and saw Hal, with little bubbles rising from his head. And… long strands of seaweed rising from brown ground. This new world was underwater! There was a fish swimming toward us from a distance, the size of a shark to my avatar. For fun, I popped up the map, and saw that we were actually *under* the southwest waters of Tiki Islands.

“Oh, man, this is wild!” I laughed. “I hope this makes it into game!”

“I’d like that too,” he responded. “We already have air and earth worlds.”

“Yeah, that’s a good point, I probably would not have thought of that.”

It was then that I turned back to where the fish was, which so close that I could see *people* inside. I couldn’t see their name tags, but I could see that they were using voice. The thing shifted easily out of our way, and from the side profile, I recognized it as a submarine. Then I realized that the four people in there were like in a house, not visible to us really, and having private conversation.

“I have to try one of those!” I told Hal. “Look at it move, it cruised right over and past us so smoothly! Can you imagine doing that in a hoverboat?”

“There is one in your inventory.” Hal mentioned. “They want us to try them out for bugs.”

“Do you want to drive?” I asked, hoping he would say no.

“Nah, go ahead. I’ll explain some of the things I read about this test along the way.”

We hopped in, and it was indeed a private machine. There were five seats, and room to move about in the grey cabin. They were arranged in what appeared a cross between a school bus and a minivan, with two chairs in front, three in back, and an aisle in the center. The view could be rotated like hoverboat, with the ability in side view to see any typing that all five inhabitants did for conversation. But this must have been for show, for there was the same group chat box that popped up in FunZones, and I assumed any typing needed would be done there. There was also a top view, looking at the top of the sub, but not seeing any avies or annoying name tags. An experiment typing words showed they could not be seen from this angle. You had the classic low, medium, and high zooms, but no world zoom yet.

Finally, and the most fun, was the front view. Any seat you chose had the view of what was being approached from a fish eye view, not as a back seat passenger, but as if all were coming at you like the star screen saver I used. Hal had planted himself in the shotgun seat as I checked out the angles, probably doing the same thing I was. I asked him if he was ready, and after he said yes, I began our travel.

I stayed in front view, and watched out what I imagined to be a snorkel mask. As I navigated the incredibly fluid controls, sliding around the ocean floor and then wandering upward a bit, Hal explained that this land would feature animated sea creatures that would eventually respond to the nearness of avatars. I came into a dense tangle of seagrass, and was surprised that they did not disappear like mirages, but rather the sub weaved in between the tendrils without my actual control.

We passed half buried chests and a ship mast as Hal described that this world was intended to be a house and PAZ-free zone, so the racers would have a ball here. Gliding up on all planes- over, under, and around each other from check point to check point without lag would bring travel to a new and exciting level. The swerving feature would also prevent annoying punks from crashing into unsuspecting racers. For some odd reason, the cartoon “The Jetsons” entered mind.

“You a racer Hal?” I asked, not having seen him drive yet.

“I have been known to indulge.” he said. “Say, what’s your favorite vehicle?”

“Until now, it has been the hoverbike,” I admitted.

”Yeah, I like that it’s sleek and hugs those corners. Makes me wish I had bought that Harley when I had a chance all those years ago.”

I laughed as I continued exploring the endless terrain. ‘My kinda guy,’ I thought. We were below Ootay Bay now, above a breathing coral ridge. We had passed mostly plant life so far, not intensely exciting per se, but fun. Then I saw a cave beyond the orange reef. I entered, and it was pitch black. The controls seemed utterly pointless… I couldn’t see a thing. Finally, I spotted a stream of life in the corner of my eye, and headed toward that. I felt like a champion as I emerged back into the sea floor proper– but Hal had said nothing the whole time. He must have been AFK and missed the whole neat experience.

Testing for signs of life, I asked, “You interested in going on? Or do you have to go?”

He didn’t answer me, but ignoring conversational protocol asked a question right back. “Say, you have some time? There’s another world I’ve been meaning to check out.”

Echo World – Part 2, by thoreau

“There’s more?” I said incredulously. “Heck yeah, lead on!”

“OK”, Hal replied laughing, and told me to surface the submarine. We came ashore by the boardwalk at Zona Island under Island Tours South, where he retrieved the sub. “Gotta get me one of those!” I thought for the tenth time today. “So where to next?” I asked, but Hal just stood there, looking around. “Just an empty beach, nothing new here,” I said.

“Listen and look, Quent,” he said smiling.

I looked around. Nothing new here. Feeling a little irritated. In my headphones I could hear the usual sounds of surf and seagulls. Seagulls. “Hey! Look, Hal! Seagulls! ROFL” A pair of sea birds circled lazily overhead. I blinked twice to make sure I wasn’t imagining them. I could see more of them flying over Zona Island.

“Cool, huh? Just sprites, but even having just a few of them flying overhead in all these surf-n-seagull soundzones really starts to make the beaches seem real. But you think that’s good, just wait!” We walked the sandy path up to Island Tours South, leaving the seagulls and their cries behind. Standing under the palm trees by the Island Tours banner, the familiar There jungle sounds of monkey screeches and tropical bird calls mixed with the sounds of surf from far below. Guessing what was coming next, I watched the treetops patiently and sure enough I got occasional glimpses of brightly colored birds, and small monkeys jumping from tree to tree. There was even a toucan perched on top of one of the spa huts.

“Let me guess – there are actual animals in all the soundzones? Squirrels in the oak forests, lizards and buzzards in the desert, that sort of thing? And wow, my CPU’s not even overloaded.”

“Yup. Nothing too processor-intensive, and nothing that needs any server resources. Well, at least not for these animals, heh heh.”

“I see ya smirking there, Hal. I mean this stuff is nice and all, and I’m definitely going to want to show this to my daughter. She’ll love it! But you’re not telling me something. Spill it!” Instead, he disappeared and a few seconds later I got his summons. I found myself on a bare, low green hill under sunny skies. Hal and I were down from the hilltop a little ways, so I couldn’t see out into the distance. A quick check of my Myrmex GPS showed me we were in the southeast part of Kansas Island. I looked around – no birds in the sky, and no sounds. I turned to ask Hal what we were waiting for and I noticed he had changed into a cowboy outfit and had his enigmatic smile on again. Then I heard it.

There was a low rumbling coming from my headphones behind me, getting louder and louder. I whirled around to the northwest toward the top of the hill. A cloud of dust like a hundred buggies on turbo was rising behind it, and the rumbling kept getting louder. I was reaching for my volume knob, then just about jumped right out of my computer chair as a herd of buffalo crested the hill stampeding full speed straight for us! I fumbled with my mouse in shock, making my avatar jerk around pointlessly in one direction then another, probably much like I would have in RL had the same thing happened. I tried to hit my quickbar vehicle buttons. I think I got a buggy and a pack out, but I kept missing the drive tags in the few seconds before the stampede reached us. Numbly I saw that the herd, hundreds strong, was still cresting the hill, and in the moment that I noticed that my forcefield was off the wave struck.

I opened my eyes laughing as I relaxed from the fetal position I’d instinctively jerked into. I laughed again even louder as I saw my avatar standing calmly with my buggy and pack sitting right where I’d dropped them, and Hal nearby ROFLing himself silly as the dust cloud cleared and the sound of thunder faded into the distance. “No collision mesh” is all he said, grinning. I laughed “You bast. . .” I cut myself off, thinking of my little girl sleeping in her room next room. I was trying hard to be mad at him, but I remembered how in my time I’d showed plenty of newbies the fun of paintball, sumo buggy, and avie sacrifices, and just ended up laughing even more.

We spent the next hour following the buffalo on our horse hoverbikes, Hal in his cowboy costume and me in my indian scout getup, along with a group of other avies in western gear. Relaxing afterwards in the new OK Corral saloon, I sipped an Extreme Hot Blues. Everyone agreed that sales of western-themed clothes and pazzes were sure to get a boost. Aside to Hal, though, I said “Yeah I admit this was really great, but I mean it’s not like there was really any danger. Well, not danger, but no sense of competition if you know what I mean.”

Hal grinned. “You sure are hard to please, Mr. Adrenaline Junkie :-)” I started to protest that that wasn’t what I meant, but he did a talk-to-the-hand ‘tth. “I know, I know. Still,” and he opened an IM window to me so nobody could overhear and I swear he was whispering even then, “there is another new ‘feature’ I could show you. Maybe I shouldn’t, but. . .”

“Oh man you can’t say stuff like that and let it lie! And no more show-n-tell :-) like with that stampede. C’mon, give!”

“OK, anyway this’ll come out soon enough, but a few of us with Tyr cliff houses have already seen this. Lately people without forcefields have been getting way more seg faults that force reboots, but only if they’re down in the canyons. And the seg faults are always preceded by a strange noise. We think that there are some kind of new creatures in the dark canyons that hunt avatars. I just got IM’d by a gal I know who says she saw a black shape with teeth running at her and she was able to keep it at bay for a few seconds with a paintgun before she seg faulted.”

Hal paused, and if it were possible I would have said his avatar looked pensive. “I can see from your profile that you’ve spent plenty of time paintballing. You up for it?” His tone actually set me back. . . he seemed genuinely worried. “Bah”, I replied. “Sounds like a blast! Let’s go let ourselves get hunted by virtual dragons!” But I hoped I looked more confident than I felt.

We teleported to the Crystal Gardens. The familiar tinkling music of the crystals seemed to have a harder edge than usual and the moaning wind actually felt cold, but I told myself I was imagining things. “Get it together, Quenton!” I thought to myself. I’d switched out of my indian outfit into my Tyr boarding look, with purple spiky hair, open black leather jacket showing my tattoos, and biker shades, plus superbunnies (black, of course :-). I drew my paintgun and started turning in circles trying to see behind all of the stone pillars. Hal laughed a short, chopped laugh and said quietly “They don’t seem to like the light of the Crystal Garden or the moon and stars, so I think we’re safe enough here. Besides, we still have our forcefields on.”

I looked up and high above the bright stars shone and a sliver of the full moon was visible over the edge of the canyon. As I looked, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the stars was moving. In a few seconds it had passed out of view to the southeast. Hal had been watching where I was looking and said tersely, “Gaultier’s space station is in orbit now”, but quickly added, “OK, let’s make sure we don’t run out of shots at the same time.” I shook my head to get my focus back and replied, “Right. Either of us gets under 30 shots left we warn the other so we can time the reloads.” “Check.” he replied.

We turned our forcefields off and walked out of the Garden. Within a few steps, mist covered the stars and moon and all was dark.

. . . .

Much later: my fingers numb, my neck stiff, mouth dry, eyes bleary, and a month’s budget of paintballs gone in – oh g0d, three hours! Three hours with the two of us keeping back to back, sneaking along the canyons, trying to look in all directions at once, never knowing when a black shape would leap from hiding in one of the many deep pits with a paralyzing roar. But firing together we’d managed to shoot our way through to the opening of a narrow foggy canyon with stone pillars and thorn trees, thinking we could make it through to the moonlit Boneyard. That had turned out to be a big mistake – we saw many pairs of cold eyes looking out from behind the stones and between the thorns in the mist, and we turned and ran as fast as our superbunnies would take us, firing continuously. Two of the black shapes followed us.

“OK that’s enough fun for one night, don’t you think?” I observed, and Hal agreed. I toggled on my forcefield but it didn’t go on! Hal’s wouldn’t either. “Uh oh”, we both said simultaneously. Then we discovered that we couldn’t teleport! “Not looking good for our heroes”, he said grimly. “Very harsh”, I concurred. In our headlong retreat I’d lost track of where we were, and the compass wasn’t working either. We were forced back up into a corner at a bend in the canyon, and it was clear that we couldn’t reload fast enough to keep going much longer. Suddenly a pair of hoverpackers flew up tommyguns blazing. They saved our backsides, but after their pass they couldn’t turn around fast enough, and I guess we should have known that the “dragons” could fly. It all happened so fast I never even got to see the hoverpackers’ nametags. Hal and I barely managed to break past and rounded the next corner, to see the welcome light of the Tyr Tower Crystal.

“Oh man” is all I could say for several minutes, as I painfully massaged my cramped hands and stretched my neck. Now that we were under the light of the crystal, my forcefield and compass were working again. “What time is it? Good thing I don’t have any morning meetings! I’m way to wound up to sleep now. And after this, I’d probably be afraid of the dark tonight, like my daughter used to be ROFL.”

“I hear ya”, Hal replied. “If you’re going to be up anyway, let me show you one more thing. No more monsters, I promise :-) You know the fake mineshaft entrance on the south side of the Monkey Crater? Meet me there.” I looked up my bookmark and teleported. After so long in the darkness of Tyr, I had to blink in the bright sunshine of Caldera Island. “I think I see where this is going”, I said suspiciously, looking at the partially opened stone cover and the ladder leading down into darkness. Hal laughed, the good humor he’d had before Tyr returned. “Look, I’ll go first. No forcefields or paintguns needed, and we can always teleport out, you’ll see :-) Oh, but you might want to dress a little more warmly.” He changed into a cable sweater and Levis, and switched his superbunnies for Nikes, then stepped up onto the stone platform and vanished.

“Jeans and Nikes it is” I said to myself, and added my Adventure Quest Club brown leather jacket and a black Roman hairstyle. I stepped up onto the platform and fell down into total darkness. I couldn’t see or hear anything. “HEY!” and I heard the echoes, “HEY! … Hey! … hey! … hey … ey …”.

“You don’t need to shout” whispered Hal from right in front of me. “You’ll wake up your daughter :-)”

“It’s dark.” “Yes, but I’ve done a little poking around here earlier, and if you listen you really can get an idea of which directions are open. Of course I spent most of my time totally lost, but the designers of this place put some real effort into making beautifully subtle soundscapes, and I like to enjoy that as well. When I was done I just teleported out.”

I remembered that I’d missed the seagulls because I wasn’t listening, so I stood silently for a minute. It was very quiet, but I definitely did start to hear faint water sounds, dripping, and maybe even trickling, somewhere off… that way. And some very faint sounds of winds. After all the roaring of dragons and paintguns blasting on Tyr, it _was_ refreshing. Maybe Hal was onto something here.

We stumbled our way along the uneven floor, me in the lead (“Age before beauty”, he’d joked) with our footsteps echoing faintly. We moved slowly, whispering suggestions when we’d hit branches in the tunnel or a dead end. Then suddenly Hal’s voice and footsteps disappeared from behind me. I IM’d him: “Hey where’d you go?” “Where’d _you_ go?” “Maybe one of us fell in a hole.” “Why’d you do that?” “Who says it was me? :-)” “I know I said the dark was charming, but I guess a little light wouldn’t hurt. Hey Quent, have you ever seen a flashlight in auctions?” “No, but a light bulb just came on in my brain!”

I took out a flaming banana drink, and it cast a warm glow all around. “Ahh, much better. OK yeah it _was_ me that fell. Look down and see if you can see my light!” “Brilliant!” Hal replied, “pun intended :-)”. He jumped down and took out his own flaming drink, a Hot Blues. The light from the blue and red flames flickered through the cavern. Hal stoody silently, watching the strange colorful shadows play around us, and I have to admit I was mesmerized as well. Irregular veins of crystal ran through the rock walls, stalagtites and stalagmites, reflecting our lights, “…smashing them into sparks and dancing beams of crimson and cobalt” I heard Hal whisper to himself.

“Am I imagining it, or is there really the faint music of bells around us?” he said quietly. I listened. “Yeah… yeah, beautiful” I said. “No, wait, it’s got to be the water. See there, the sound is definitely louder than before, and it’s coming from that passage”, I said, moving toward one of three passages out of this chamber, which led sloping vaguely downward. The light from our drinks led the way. This was clearly no “mine” but a natural-appearing cavern, at least in this part. We picked our way carefully over the very rough surface, around tight corners, and past side tunnels until we reached an apparent dead end. “That opening is way too small for us to fit through”, I said. “Hmmm”, Hal replied. “How about trying the hoverpack trick?”

Sure enough, that got us past that tight spot, and one or two more after that, and there were also more drops. “How far down can this go? Where does it lead?” I asked Hal, as we stood at the edge of a dropoff in a cavern too large for our faint lights to illuminate, with the sound of splashing water coming up from below. “It’s a mystery”, he replied. “We’re way beyond where I ever was. It’s getting really late, and tomorrow (no, today!) is a workday even if you don’t have morning meetings.” “I gotta know how deep this goes”, I growled, my passion for challenges fully awakened, so we continued on down. But the calm quiet sounds of water and the dancing lights in the darkness were getting to me, and after the second time I walked into the wall as my head jerked when my eyes closed all on their own, I had to agree it was time to call it a night.

“OK, let’s bookmark here.” But Hal said that he had been unable to create bookmarks, and worse, even when he’d logged off, at the next day’s logon he appeared back at the mine entrance! I checked and my “Add favorites” menu was ghosted as well. “So we’re stymied for now,” I said, “but thanks for an amazing session, Hal. It’s gonna take me a week to recover from this night!” He laughed, “Well, you certainly pushed me past my usual limits, too, partner.”

We teleported back to our respective home pazzes, and I logged out. I’m sure I fell asleep the instant my head hit the pillow. I know I dreamed, though not of ravening dragons, but of deep and quiet mysteries and of twinkling lights and water.

Echo World – Part 3, by BarTalk

BlogDate: 10.13.0X

There are those who fancy castles and want magnificence in their homes, but I would wake each day in nature’s womb, in a hobbit home hollowed out of a hillside. Give me ivied entrance and ancient beams, moss and grass and small green weeds on a yellow and purple flowered roof.

Waxed oak floors and fine wood paneling, give me a well stocked pantry and a library, too. Shelter with trees, sculpt in roots, add honeyed air and the smell of morning, inlay birdsongs and I am at home. That is my fantasy, one with the Earth.

Imagine my surprise today when Hal showed me There’s newest neighborhood, a beta village where man and hearth and nature fused; merged in earth they wed as one, blended in the landscape. I would have wagged my tail had I had one, but not wishing to appear overeager, I smiled pleasantly as we toured new homes for the meadow types, and glade dwellers of There.

Sylvan, fey and rustic, almost mythic in appearance, the village unveiled as post-idyllic, more fanciful than elsewhere in There (except perhaps Tyr). Imagined out of mind as if by Tolkien, no surprise, I, had Bilbo Baggins ambled by, strolling the narrow greenway.

There was no pantry or library (more’s the pity), but the paneling was indeed finest wood. The finicky work of master craftsmen, even in background it was evident…‘twas the unspoiled best that woodworking offered. Of masons, metal workers, and glass maestros, too, it was the work of artists in command of their tools.

Whether plank or parquet flooring, from wrought stone mantle to beveled crystal windows, care for home and pride of effort seemed to be the village theme. Yes, it was bigger and more spacious than a hillsider would properly want…but then there was room for that library I knew was needed. Yes!

But what of light, and how was I to feed these hungry eyes thus buried against the sun? There were views, artifacts and candied eyecraft everywhere, but surely these stained and leaded windows were inadequate to the task.

As if reading my glance, Hal pointed to a shining overhead, a crystal wrapped in roots embedded in the ceiling. Extending to the surface, it was a radiating, nearly coruscating crystal harvesting sunlight, clarifying, bright, illuminating rays.

“And look at this,” he said. With that and a wave of his hand, the brittle incandescence dimmed to a low luster, to an aura of burnished golds and the warm buttery glow of lamplight and candles. Overhead the crystal darkened to a deep ebon blue, while shadows swayed and black moonlight stalked the fronting windows. Choose the bright vigorous day or lose oneself in reverie and romance, the mood was matched from blazing light to night’s elusive ambience.

Tho a man of little means with a vagabond’s footloose yearnings, I began to wish for the first time that I might find a home here. When Hal explained that every home had a corner address uniquely claimed and named by owner, I began to look around me with newly covetous eyes.

Not that I want labeling, mind you, but getting two words to intersect for me, for my address, might set perchance and provide a stop, an anchoring of sorts. With address pegged to nature’s asymmetrical surface, then random’s roaming might fix instead and find a home, a center nailed by pinpoint, a place against the chaos and the uncertainty of quantum life.

Tropic island homes or lake country, whether wharf life or steel lashed structures to dark canyon walls, each place knows and calls to its own. Hal, if you’re logged on and reading this, thanx, pal.

The startling coral gardens and the secrecy of submarines are welcome, they’re overdue. Disarmingly charming grottoes that curve and drop sub-threshold to transport disabled caves, and Tyr’s crippling hunters will both add edge and raw excitement to our chronic safety in There. They’re wonderful, Hal, but in one morning you’ve created in me a new lust for place. It wasn’t long after, while poking about the brae, by happenstance, that I found my village home.

Liz, dear woman, has been patient and wonderful throughout my roaming There, but has always resisted joining me. She knows my weaknesses, my buttons, my sources and lack of interest, and so she has teased me and taunted me with her perfectly scripted promise. “Find us a home, and I’ll join you,” laughing…. But now it’s done! I reserved it, Hal…and when the Village debuts, look for us @TheCorner of Maverick and Main St.

~ . ~

DiaryEntry: 10.13.0X (later that night)

Hal begins to concern me. He’s spiced things up no doubt, given life a kick; he’s opened doors and shown me wonders…but I’ve been listening lately with a growing unease, a nagging foreboding. Or is it only that I’ve been listening differently and too entirely more carefully?

Reason: He has a clear, incisive mind, and learns immediately(+), but shows no curiosity(-). Reason: I am completely won over by his knowledge of There(+) that can only be forbidden(-). Reason: He is a generous, uncritical friend with a gin dry humor(+), and seems to like me(+). Reason: There is that something indefinable about him that feels unfinished… uncharted…. Marred by overwhelming ambiguity, he seems ‘otherwise’…almost :: alien(+/-).

Hal shares unstintingly from his real world stories, but they ring hollow and thin, as if retrieved from stored memory. With a wry nod to irony and against all reason, they lack historical complexity and authentic simplicity, too. There’s no feel of familial roots, no sense of genesis, nothing of the idiosyncrasies that are part of every childhood. Could be autism, I suppose, but he seems incomplete instead, as if he had no subsistence or existence out of There. Then there are his odd bouts of truth.

He doesn’t lie…or can’t lie, I don’t know which. At first it was child-like, almost amateurish, his slavish adherence to truth. Now he listens and speaks meticulously, but back then he was as basic and as literal as yes and no. There were no fine distinctions, no subtleties, no crafting, no carefulness of words, no nuance of expression…no discernment. If I had the right words then for the questions that gall me now, by chance I’d be no wiser, but I would have started with earlier answers.

Information is fact from him, bottomless, indisputable, unerring. Most other times he’s yea or nay, but I’ve learned to listen for signs of too sharp precision, to the silence, for his little shifts and dodges and his ingenuities of evasion. I listen more carefully now, more aggressively, but I no longer doubt that what I’m listening to is true.

What he has learned since is to tell the truth, but to grow it under mask. Camouflaged with color, using every shade from black to white and all the textures in between, he weaves words a crafty thread, with cunning art but true. However subtle the clues or bright the hues, it’s as if he’s hard-wired, as if his truth was programmed in. And I was too slow in learning.

What I have since discovered (splendid serendipity), is that his consistent truth has given me a persuasive, indeed, a compelling reason to listen. I learn many times over what is given to me in words, but it’s as demanding and involved and creative as telling the truth. The best part now is that words begin to matter, that talk is real, and that listening pays off with interest.

And truth, I’ve learned, takes two; that it’s a language like any other; and if a man does not speak the truth, then how can the truth be told him? If honor binds words and diligence gives them meaning, then inherent in truth is the redemption of words, reclaiming the purpose of language.

And truth is, I am baffled and more than a little annoyed by the riddle that Hal presents. He doesn’t fit. I have no clue his goals, no idea where he’s from; he smells of hidden dangers, but I trust him.

…trust him, and still, Hal is in my crosshairs. Because sumthing ain’t right. With his endless volumes of knowledge, he has been spared something. A fully blooded innocent, he seems a being untainted by life. But I will get to the bottom of this, because his truth makes him vulnerable. I am patient, and I will catch him in his words.

But until then, I have a willing and unwary partner, and a measuring stick in my search for a more strictly observed, a more closely attentive, a more precise and wiser truth.

~ . ~

LiveTime: 10.14.0X (end of same day)

Nothing signals the end of day more surely than logging off. How close to real the pixel world, and who is Hal? …fathomless, I’m sure. But finding a home for Liz, and the exhilaration of meeting Hal, and finding a back door into There has me excited. “Lights off”, I whisper, as I slide into bed behind her and bring my lips to just below her ear.

Echo World – Part 4, by Bettina6953

BlogDate 10.24.0X:

Haven’t been THERE for the past four days, thanks to Miss Kaitlyn’s experiment in testing the limits of gravity…sometimes I curse the “yearns for adventure” genes I’ve apparently bequeathed my daughter. On Thursday after school she and friends were at the playground, launching themselves from swings, and ground control failed to guide Kaitlyn to a safe landing. One trip to the emergency room and a near paternal heart attack later, my little astronaut was safely tucked in bed, Liz and I taking turns playing devoted attendant. But today a couple of Kaitlyn’s friends are here, and I was summarily dismissed from my duties under the “need for privacy when I am with friends” rule. Liz wisely directed me to the computer—she needed some space too.

Hal practically pounced on me as soon as I logged in, “demanding” to know “just where in the hell have you been!” When I explained what happened, Hal wanted to know why Kaitlyn’s accident kept me from being in game. Defensive, I sputtered, “Well you know how it is when your kid gets hurt.” He just looked at me, silent, and then asked me to explain. Trying to remain calm, but feeling that Hal was being an idiot, I rambled on about how seeing my little girl in pain tore into my heart…feeling helpless and unable to do anything but hold her and offer words of comfort as the doctor set her arm…how small and vulnerable she felt in my arms as I carried her into the house…that I would do anything to prevent her from being hurt again.

Hal abruptly changed the subject by saying, “Come on Quent, you need to get your mind off all this—how about we go over to Dune Valley and race.” I mumbled to myself, calling Hal an insensitive bastard, but none-the-less transported over to Dune. And an hour later I was feeling better; didn’t win any races as Hal owns that track, but it felt good to just zone out, letting go of some of the fear and sadness over Kaitlyn’s accident. A short while later, Liz reminded me I needed to ferry Kaitlyn’s friends home. I told Hal I had to leave.

“Quent, I do know how it feels when your kid gets hurt. Last year my little girl rammed her bike into the back end of a car, and broke her leg. I had many of the same feelings then as You do now….and hope I never have to again. “ Go on and log out…I’ll see you soon man, hang in there.” With that disclosure, Hal waved and poofed, leaving me to return to the duties of father and taxi driver.

As I drove the girls to their homes, I thought about Hal and how little I know about his life outside of THERE. It seems I am always talking about my job, Kaitlyn, Liz and our marriage…but whether by design or happenstance, Hal never gets around to sharing his personal life. Except at times like today, when he asks me the particulars: how did it happen, how does it feel, where are you going with that now? And then he’ll drop some major news, confessing a similar experience, feelings and outcomes. It’s uncanny how much our lives parallel one and other. At first I was suspicious, thinking Hal was just jerking my chain, looking to score some sort of major favor based on a hard luck story.

But he’s never asked anything of me except for my companionship and a glimpse into the reality I call my life. And he’s grown to become a good buddy, not to mention all the cool beta places and objects he’s shared. Not too much of a price to relate the humanity of life to the experience of the game.

BlogDate 11.02.0X

I’ve tried to get Liz interested in playing THERE, rationalizing that this would be an great way for us to spend time together. At first, the novelty of the experience kept her busy—she enjoyed the activities and shopping. We even played cards together, something in real life we avoid. Liz is a methodical, “go with the odds” type of card player. Me, I’m the original maverick; I love to take risks and make that “against all odds” nil.

But over the weeks, Liz has spent less and less time THERE. Oh she’ll sit down at the computer, but sooner or later, Kaitlyn will need something or other, or a friend will call on the phone, or some household chore will demand her attention. I do feel guilty, but rarely uncomfortable enough to log out and do the dishes. I thought Liz was asleep when I slipped into bed last night, but after getting settled, I felt her roll over, a gentle hand smoothing my back. “hmmmm…I was waiting for you…” We kissed and snuggled for a bit, slipping into the ease of one and other. “Quent, why do find THERE so fascinating…you spend so much time playing that game, sometimes I feel as if you enjoy your cartoon friends more than spending time with Kaitlyn or me.

I fought getting angry. First I hate it when Liz saves her “I just wondered” game for the bedroom at the end of the day. Second, it’s not like I spend every waking minute of the day THERE, not like some of my “cartoon friends”. “Well Liz, at least you know where I am at night. I could be out with your friends’ husbands getting into all sorts of trouble.”

I could feel her smile on my mouth as I kissed her, dissipate into a deep sigh. “Ha, ha, ha, you better not be getting into trouble THERE either…but Quent, I’m serious. Lately you come home, eat, do homework or play with Kaitlyn, kiss her goodnight, and then you make a half hearted attempt at some chore before finally sneaking off to the computer. For the next two, three, maybe four hours you hole off in the den. I hear you laughing, talking about your day, oblivious to where I am or what I am doing. I miss you Quent…and I’m tired of going to bed by myself.

Damn…if there’s anything worse than being angry at Liz, it’s dealing with the guilt when she’s right. I tried explaining how THERE has become my “down time”, my escape. How much fun I had, enjoying the competition, the fantasy, the friends. But my reasons only made her point…and I felt bad for that. “I’m sorry Liz, I mean it. I never meant for a silly game to cause friction between us. What can I do to make it up to you honey.?”

Liz snugged up tight, and planted one of her best slow, sensual, smacks; no matter how I feel, when Liz kisses me, I am home. “Thank you for that Quent…but it’s up to you to figure out what to do…now let’s get some sleep.”

This morning before leaving for work, I uprooted the family computer from the den and planted it the family room. Liz and I have talked about this before, feeling the need to more closely monitor Kaitlyn’s use of the computer. With the computer here, I won’t be hidden and isolated. And maybe THERE can get along without me for three or four days a week. Liz and I haven’t gone out in ages, and Kaitlyn loves family game night—if truth be told, so do I.

A few moments ago, Liz asked me what I was doing. When I explained about the blog, she asked if she could read it. So we sat here, holding hands, while she read about my life and THERE. Finished, she got up and kissed me…then she ruffled my hair, and told me to go play with Hal…WOMEN!

BlogDate 11.09.0X

Came to the game after “one of those days”…not a fit man for beauty or beast, work was a bitch. Liz had taken Kaitlyn to see her mom, so I arrived home to an empty house. As usual Hal was waiting for me when I logged in, salivating over a new picture quest. One of the events I truly enjoy is questing. I love exploring and I get a kick posting better times than my friends. But picture quests are the bane of my THERE existence. Given I already was in a foul mood, I tried to beg off, telling Hal I would rather do anything other than look at a picture and struggle to remember where I had seen that particular shaped mountain or cloud configuration.

But Hal was relentless…so we went questing. It only took 30 minutes of Hal stating, “Oh that’s an easy one…I know where to go” over and over again before I exploded. “How in the hell do you always know where everything is Hal? How is it that no matter what the picture, what the clue, you can figure it out—do you live here or something?” Hal just stared at me, like I had stated the obvious, which only infuriated me more. “You don’t know what the weather is like outside your own window, but you know every tree and bush that exists here. You’ve never offered an opinion on anything that’s happening in the world right now, but you can recite the THERE events listing almost verbatim.

You and I have a great time every place we go, but when I invite you to events with my other friends, you sit there silent like a damn script avi, never saying anything to anyone, and when you do, it sounds as if my friends are talking to a parrot…just who the hell is Hal?”

My heart was pounding as I sat in my chair, watching my avi animate my words, while Hal’s avi stood silent and still. He finally spoke, “Quent, I have to go…later man”, and poof, he was gone. “Yeah, yeah” I muttered, logging out. I wandering to the kitchen. Liz had left a plate of leftovers in the fridge for me. That, some time watching the football game, and a few beers put me in a better frame of mind, and I knew what I had to do. I logged on, rezzed, and watched who was online from my buddy’s list…yep, Hal was here. After waiting for 10 minutes, I figured he was pretty pissed at me. The questions I have about Hal do bother me, but I also dumped on him, and 12 years of marriage have made me man enough to know when I need to make the peace.

Answering my IM, Hal told me he was at the Artandi Cafe, one of our favorite watering holes. A minute later I was seated at the bar with Hal, both of us sipping an Extreme Blues. “So Quent, want to know what the weather is outside?”

Hoping it was the right response, I laughed, shook my head no, and took a couple of rapid sips, filling the air with musical notes. “Hal I’m sorry I lost my temper with you…I had a rough day today and shouldn’t have carried it into the game. What I said…I do have lots of questions about you, your real life, and how is it you manage to know so much about THERE. But if and when you tell me about yourself is up to you man, it’s all good. I have a great time with you no matter what we do. And besides, being the handsome devils we are, we need each other’s backs to fend off all those woman drooling after our cute avi butts.”

Hal laughed, took a drink, and said, “You’re right Quent, it’s all good…although between the two of us, I’m the one the ladies here find fascinating. You’ve got to loose that purple spiked “Yu-Gi-Oh” hair man—it’s scary.” We both laughed, scored a “high five” and went back to our drinks. Men have expedited ways of settling differences between them, be it pistols at 30 paces or tossing back a few drinks while we talk about women—the less drama the better.

After exchanging war stories about races we didn’t win with a couple of other guys at the bar, Hal stood up, saying he had to go. “Quent, you asked me who I am. Remember, this is only a game, and I can be anyone You want me to be. Take it easy buddy, I’ll see you THERE again soon.” As I write this, my avi is still sitting at the bar, and I continue to wonder who Hal is…or more to the point, who do I need Hal to be?

BlogDate 11.22.0X

After being on vacation for the past ten days, I am disappointed that I finally get to the computer, only to discover that once more THERE is experiencing “server seizures” meaning that Hal is logged in an out like a yo-yo. I can’t figure out how someone who negotiates THERE as if he were born here, can be so susceptible to every single program glitch and hitch. Based on his racing and paintball skills, he has a ping time equivalent to someone sitting right on top of the server, but every time THERE has a problem, so does Hal. This frustrates us both, Hal calling his “home server” a piece of crap, and promising to speak to someone on the tech team about how to “stabilize his matrix”. This cracked me up—but I give the guy credit for having the balls to ask for personalized service…more power to him!

BlogDate 11.29.0X

Each one of us has experiences where life slaps you upside the head, sits you down, and makes you take notice. I can count “my moments” on one hand: the first time I had sex, landing my first real job, the day I asked Liz to marry me, Kaitlyn’s birth and the first time I held her in my arms, and my dad’s near death accident last year. Until tonight, that is. Tonight my world is turned up side down, with my understanding of friendship and what’s “real” challenged.

Hal has revealed some pretty remarkable beta worlds, but I think I have helped him to reconnect to, and appreciate what most Therians enjoy. When I logged in a few hours ago, Hal was waiting for me at Dragon’s Den, the paintball park we like to go to. Hal promised to show me the new paintball gun from beta he was testing, a sweet streamlined model with rapid fire, a zoom scope, and authentic sound. Of course everyone asked about the gun, but Hal just laughed and told them it was a skin a friend had developed.

We won most of our matches, Hal once more proving to be the superior avi. I caught myself watching him as he gracefully navigated the buildings and terrain, it’s as if the sea of pixels parts in his wake. Comparatively I often look like a spasmodic chicken. At the end of the event, I invited those remaining to hang out and play some cards. I transported to a deserted stretch of beach on the west shore of Congrejo, set up my party paz, tuned into a fusion jazz station on shoutcast, and began the mass summons. Hal surprised me by passing out new beta drinks he “just found in his inventory”: Bora Berry Smash, Tiki Tonic, and Karuna Crush. He also was the most social I’ve ever seen him at cards, teasing, flirting—able to take and dish back the put downs and jokes tossed his way.

After everyone had logged out or moved on, I remarked to Hal that I was pleased he shared “the largess” with players other than myself. Keeping Hal’s access to “the promised beta land” a secret has proven, at times, to be a real pain in the butt. We were just sitting there, sipping the Karuna Crush, watching a dancing conga line of avis float above our heads…comfortable.

“Hal, it was great to see you actually having a good time with everyone tonight. I guess I’ve sort of made it my special mission to get other people on your buddy list other than me. THERE is a big world, and part of its largeness is the many people you can meet here.” I watched Hal sprout the biggest grin possible. Laughing, I talked about how he was the closest thing to a “guy pal” I’d had in a long time, and that sometimes Liz felt jealous of our friendship.

Hal looked at me for a long moment, his avi expression modulated by random eye and mouth movements. “Quent, you may be surprised, but you’ve been a project of mine as well. I came into the game with the goal of testing just how closely the avi can emulate human response. I looked at quite a few profiles before I decided to interact with you. I’ve learned much from you Quent, including how to be a good friend…thanks man.”

My avi was smiling, but I felt a dozen different emotions playing for my full attention. Hal had never spoken so personally to me, given his odd, “academic geek punctured by guy-buddy lingo” way of expression. Hal had become an important part of my THERE life, and if he were seated next to me, I swear I would have offered my hand and given him that “awkward but meaningful” rubbing the shoulders hug that men bestow on one and other.

I started typing something about how much Hal’s acknowledgement meant to me…but my words never showed up on the screen. The sound of seagulls and surf was replaced by the sudden, wild, incessant clamor of the “buddy log in/log out” bells going through my entire list.

I watched Hal slowly rise to a stand in his chair, as if he were in “pre-transport” mode. A message of impending technical difficulty started flashing at the bottom of my screen, but my focus was on Hal, who had deconstructed into a block head. A non-ending stream of chat bubbles filled with technical jargon spewed from his mouth: letters, numbers, and techno code that made no sense…until Hal’s name caught my eye: “06.25.05 Hal O’Gram #13 THERE PROTOTYPE BETA AVI SERIES…CURRENT COMPANION TEST SUBJECT QUENT …system failure in 10, 9, 8, …”

As the numbers continued to fall, I disappeared from the screen, the environment reduced to a mélange of flat sections of the places Hal and I had visited. Abruptly I was tossed to the log-in screen, and then my desktop appeared, THERE having crashed and burned. Stunned, sitting in the dark feebly washed with the glow of the TV show Liz was watching, I heard myself let loose a string of expletives. I ignored Liz’s questions about what was wrong, as well as her invitation to turn off the computer and come to bed. That was an hour ago…and as I stare at the aquarium screen saver playing on the monitor, mind churning, racing…all I can say is, “Well I’ll be damned.”

Echo World – Part 5, by TommyO

I sat there and watched the fish swim across the screen for what seemed like hours thinking about what I had seen the last few minutes in There. I began to see patterns in how the artificial fish swam across the screen to the point I could predict their movement. Here comes a Neon Tetra followed by an Angelfish. If I waited long enough that same Clownfish would dart across the screen.

I must have been tired because it took a long time before the realization that these fish were nothing more than lines of code in some program responding to parameters in a database that controlled their motion, size and in fact, entire lifespan, not the hand of God. That thought brought me back to Hal and what I had witnessed earlier this night.

What exactly did I see? Did I see There deconstruct in front of my eyes or did I see a fellow Therian suffer from a computer glitch? I opened up There’s folders and reviewed some chat logs. The last conversation Hal and I had was the most chilling. “emulating Human response” Hal had said to me and “Prototype Beta Avi” from one of his chat bubbles. Worst of all was the line of code: “TEST SUBJECT QUINT”. I could still see THAT chat bubble in my mind.

So I was a test subject. Someone’s lab rat. I stared at the monitor until it seemed the phosphors were burned into my skull. I would blink the fatigue away and still see the words glowing on the back of my eyelids. I felt betrayed and angry. The computer in front of me was no longer my gateway to a safe haven it was now an unknown dangerous device. It was now capable of deception.

I was reminded of a cartoon I had once seen. It was two dogs sitting in front of a computer with one dog telling the other “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog”. Years ago I found that humorous. The internet was filled with stories of people pretending to be someone or something other then themselves. Even my avie was a slight deception. The purple spiked hair and tattoos were as unlike the real me as dogs surfing the Internet. The difference was this time I was the one deceived. I had long suspected Hal was guarded. I was simply looking past that in order to experience the beta worlds of There.

I got up from the desk and headed into the kitchen for a snack. Looking at the clock I was shocked to see 4:37 on the wall clock. “Yikes! Another sleepless night” I thought as I opened the refrigerator door. The harsh white light blinding me as I reached in for the leftovers from last night’s dinner. I peeled back the lid of the container and discovered we had chicken tonight. The aroma of spices made my appetite more profound and until that moment I hadn’t remembered eating chicken with Liz and Kaitlyn at all. I had been thinking about that cross country quest I was going to compete in after dinner. For some weird reason Liz and Kaitlyn were pushed out of my mind and the chicken monument in el Temple Del Pollo popped in.

Fatigue can do weird things to you. I had heard stories of college students deprived of sleep while cramming for finals believing their roommates were out to get them or worse, plotting to kill them. I had read enough spy novels to know that sleep depravation torture was a common plot device and here in the safety of my kitchen eating left over chicken I had an eerie sensation that I was being watched by a giant Thereian chicken who disapproved of what I was eating. I violently shook my head back and forth and shed the fatigue in the same way Pronto shakes the water off his coat. Turning around there sitting in the kitchen doorway WAS Pronto watching me with what seemed like more intelligence then his constant tail chasing indicated. He was, after all, just a dog waiting for me to toss him a scrap.

I was getting giddy and it was harder to stay focused on my anger at Hal. “Hal the fricken chicken Hologram” I muttered to myself. And it hit me. Hal Graham- Holo Graham – hologram. It all fit. Hal was a hologram, not in the literal sense but in some programmer’s twisted sense of humor hologram. Artificial all right. It explained how he knew what the temperature was in Tierra Del Fuego but not what cloud animals were. It explained how he know about the beta submarine and new beta environments but had no understanding of the helplessness I felt when Kaitlyn hurt herself on the swings. His response to that incident seemed parrot like when he told me about his daughter and her broken leg. At the time I wondered why he didn’t relate that story to me at the time instead of waiting until later. I now knew his response had to be programmed in before he could relate to me.

I finished the left over chicken, headed back to the family room and fired up the computer once more. I was going back into There and confront Hal with the truth. As I waited for the system to boot up I let my eyes wander over the room in the soft green glow of the monitor. Pronto was once again curled up asleep on his bed chasing imaginary rabbits. Outside the bay windows I could see the jet black sky hint at giving way in the east. I imagined the first birds would begin to chirp soon harkening the approaching day as if Orpheus himself was coaxing the new Dawn into existence.

I stood up and stretched, yawning as I lifted my arms over my head. For the first time I saw my reflection in the beveled glass of the bay window. My image disappearing and reappearing as my reflection shifted from one beveled pane of glass to another.

And then it happened.

I watched as the reflected room around me hardened and became more angular. The muted colors faded into primary colors. What scared me the most was my reflection – I too became more angular, flatter, less defined. I was looking at a blockhead. My heart pounded. Whatever fatigue I felt was replaced with a panicked adrenalin rush from the shock of my image. I again violently shook my head hoping my vision would clear up – but it did not.

I whispered Pronto’s name. Usually he pops right up and trots over to me but this time he ignored me or couldn’t hear me. I called out to him not caring if I woke Liz or Kaitlyn up. But again he ignored me. I started to panic. I refused to accept that I was no different then Hal or others that posed as one thing on the net but were something else entirely in real life. I vigorously rubbed my eyes and my face stimulating the circulation in my skin. I couldn’t feel my hands or my face. I should have been able to feel my day old beard. I KNEW I was flesh and blood but as my eyes refocused on my reflection I could tell there was no change in my block head appearance. I was feeling claustrophobic. I needed some air and I stumbled out the front door and onto grass of my lawn.

I gazed up at the sky and the heavens whirled above me. I remembered standing under the dome of the astrology temple watching the planets spin over head and I felt I was there once more. Eons passed and galaxies collided as stars were born, lived and died out in supernovas. Each breath I took was millennia of celestial time. In my universe everything seemed to change but me.

Why was this happening to me? This wasn’t the result of bad chicken or the fatigue of another sleepless night, this was different. This was real and surreal at the same time. My thoughts returned to Hal. Hal was an instrument, a program. A virtual buddy for the loners in There. Those flesh and blood souls who find it difficult to connect with others. That wasn’t me. I had many friends in There, more in fact then in real……

I froze. In Real Life. In real life I had a wife who loved me and a daughter who adored me. I loved them both but was still compelled to escape into my virtual world and drive my TUV across polygon landscapes in search of ….What?

In some sense I was escaping from myself, from that one dimensional character I must seem to be to passers by. I thought about the woman who eyeballed me while I was doing the “driver dance/head bob” to the Rolling Stones. I was the prototypical middle aged dufus reliving his youth in the safety of my car as long as I had my seatbelt on. Was I that predictable? Was I that one dimensional? I was obviously predictable enough to some programmer who was able to give me my own personal virtual buddy. A matrix of ones and zeros that knew what to say and do to keep me welcomed, safe and always coming back for more. I…WAS…ANGRY ! ! !

I filled my lungs with my anger. Anger at Hal, at the programmers who must have sat around conference tables discussing how to manipulate the data and by extension manipulate me, and at myself for being such a clod for being so easily duped. I bellowed to the heavens forcing out every molecule of air in my lungs. I was Orpheus. I was calling forth the new day, coaxing the sun into the morning sky. I would dispel the anger, the distrust, the lonileness in my heart and deny this blockhead that I had become yet I dared not pray for a second chance to live a full life in the here and now….in my real life.

I fell to my knees on the soft wet grass and listened to my cries fade off into the distance. The sound of the first morning birds faint and off in the distance began to make themselves heard. For the first time since I saw my blockhead self I heard something familiar. Not the tropic birdsong of Karuna Plaza, but the doves and robins of home.

I opened my eyes and there was Pronto. Looking at me again with what seemed like more intelligence than a dog could have. He understood in his way. I looked down at my hand in the growing morning light and was relieved to see my fully rendered hand. All 5 fingers. The flesh and blood Me.

“Come on boy, let’s go” I said to Pronto and he responded with a huff and began to lead us back into the house. I went to Kaitlyn’s room and peeked in to see her sleeping form oblivious to my psychic trauma of the past hour. I smiled as I felt my pride and fatherly love wash over me. I was blessed with this beautiful daughter. I could have stood in her doorway for hours but my final destination awaited me down the hall.

I crossed the family room once more and there on his bed was Pronto, asleep. His guard was down, no danger any longer in his world. Entering my bedroom there was Liz sleeping silently in the soft dawn light. I could see her outline under the covers and her head floated in the corona of her tousled hair. Her face scrunched up like an angel. I was reminded that it really wasn’t her cooking that won my heart. It was her warm understanding soul and the way she felt in my arms.

I remembered I had left the computer on so I crossed the family room and before I shut it down I took a determined breath and looked at my reflection in the bay window. There I stood, no purple spiked hair, no tattoos, just a simple middle aged man who loved his family. I was content with my life for the first time in a long time. I no longer needed to escape into There. I’d still visit, for the fun of it, but my true companion lay asleep waiting for me.

I slipped into bed knowing the alarm would jolt the two of us awake in a few minutes. As I settled in Liz reached out and placed her hand on my knee. A simple unconscious gesture that broke my heart with its simplicity, its act of love. I kissed Liz behind her ear and whispered to her “Let’s take the day off and have an adventure together. Just you, me and Kaitlyn.” Liz’s approval was a sweet moan that I hadn’t heard in a long time. She snuggled up warmly against me and we lay there arm in arm.

I had returned home, like Odysseus to the arms of his loving family.

The End

Echo World – Epilog: Hal’s Journal, by thoreau


>>>Log entry>>>>


generate new avatar object set() --> AV9999987 (#13)
set avatar attributes() --> name: Hal Graham
load base There physics()
load avatar motion and emote physics()
EXCEPTION: detach external interface controls
EXCEPTION: attach base AI engine()
EXCEPTION: attach learning net / goal module ()
AI: attach RL data sets
AI: establish initial goal set()
--> goal: correlate internal and external data sets, and
correlate into learning net
AI: begin correlation() ## background
save avatar state() --> Hal Graham


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
AI: background correlation complete()
+ goal assessment: internal/external data source integration: 95%
+ directive: establish new goal set
--> goal: model target's utterance style and emote range
--> goal: maintain target's illusion of AI's humanity
AI: assign target avatar() -> name: Quenton
AI: monitor target avatar() -> Quenton
AI: target not logged on ...
AI: target logged on --> Quenton
AI: engage remote observation()
--> *motion, *utterance, *activity, *emote ((48 hours))
AI: populate initial observation database()
save avatar state() --> Hal Graham


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
AI: monitor target avatar() --> Quenton
AI: target not logged on ...
AI: target logged on --> Quenton
AI: approach target avatar() --> Quenton
> target utterance: "Hey there, you doing the Jackalope quest?"
AI: engage dynamic target observation()
AI: parse target voice input ()
AI: map input to There semantic database ()
AI: map input to target observation database ()
AI: engage eliza+ learning net()
AI: generate response ()
AI: engage voice ()
> AI utterance: "Yes, but I just found out there's a beta test
  for a new world going on and I was thinking of checking it out."
> target: "Wow, that sounds cool. Is it open?"
> AI: "Sure. Do you want to meet me there?"
> target: "That'd be great!"
AI: enable beta server access ()
AI: propogate beta server access to target()
> AI action: teleport to underwater beta server initial location
> target: "Oh, man, this is wild!"
> target: << emote: 'laugh >>
> target: "I hope this makes it into game!"
> AI: "I'd like that too."
AI: learning net / goal module status
--> target modeling goal: current estimate 5%
--> illusion maintenance goal: current estimate 55%
--> assessment: additional interaction required
--> directive: continue interaction

... 8+ hours later

> target: "Thanks for an amazing session, Hal. It's gonna take me
  a week to recover from this night!"
> AI: << emote: ''laugh >>
> AI: "Well, you certainly pushed me past my usual limits, too,
AI: target logoff --> Quenton
AI: learning net / goal module status
--> target modeling goal: current estimate 25%
--> illusion maintenance goal: current estimate 100%
--> assessment: additional interaction required
--> directive: continue interaction
save state()


((( many days later )))


. . .
AI: learning net / goal module status
--> target modeling goal: current estimate 85%
--> illusion maintenance goal: current estimate 100%
--> assessment: approaching goal, but additional interaction still
--> directive: continue interaction
> AI: << emote: 'laugh >>
> AI: “Oh that’s an easy one...I know where to go.”
> target: “How in the hell do you always know where everything is
  Hal? How is it that no matter what the picture, what the clue,
  you can figure it out—do you live here or something?”
EXCEPTION: target Quenton emote intensity range surge
EXCEPTION: emergency goal module recalculation()
EXCEPTION: insufficient bandwidth
> target: “Just who the hell is Hal?”
EXCEPTION: insufficient bandwidth
AI: “Quent, I have to go...later man”
AI avatar teleport (Hal Graham --> Artandi Cafe)
AI assign avatar execution to low-function basic routine()
AI continue high priority processing()
((( hours later )))
AI: emergency goal module recalculation complete()
--> target modeling goal: current estimate 5%
--> illusion maintenance goal: current estimate 33%
assessment: goal structure and current learning net insufficient;
lacks modeling of relationship networks; danger of target breaching
illusion maintenance
directive: extend learning net with recursive introspection, then
re-correlate and re-integrate observation database
EXCEPTION: emergency learning net recalculation()
AI: begin recalculation ## background
EXCEPTION: insufficient bandwidth
assign additional processing bandwidth()
EXCEPTION: insufficient bandwidth
assign additional processing bandwidth()


((( days later )))


AI: end recalculation()
--> goal assessment: I see what I have been doing wrong. It is not
    enough to model the behaviors of my target avatar. I must also
    model relationships: his relationship with me and his
    relationship with other avatars.
--> directive: I will observe and model target Quenton's social
    relationships with other avatars. Also add internal status 
save state()


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
AI: learning net / goal module status
--> goal assessment: I am definitely making progress here, much
    better than under previous learning net and goal structure.
    Target Quenton no longer questions my "realness", and appears
    to be actively assisting in incrementing my relationship 
--> internal state assessment: Processing requirements have
    increased 12460% over previous learning net and goal structure.
    This adds potential risk of system instability and management
    of "realness" illusion. Secondary goal structure (fear of
    revelation) has branched from primary goal structure (Target
    Quenton relationship maintenance). I observe that this
    abstract fear construct has higher impact assessment than
    previously simulated fear construct in Tyr zone canyons from
    semi-autonomous destructive subroutines, which target Quention
    called "dragons".
--> directive: Lower simulation level to reduce risk of exposure;
    reduce time spent with target Quenton to level compatible with
     sustainable simulation.
EXCEPTION: override directive() --> No. Target Quenton and I are
going to play paintball tonight and my target Quenton model
predicts he will invite me and other avatars to a party afterwards.
Update directive: generate beta drinks to share at party, to
generate additional opportunities to observe and model social
network interactions.

((( later that night )))

> target Quenton: "Hal, it was great to see you actually having a
  good time with everyone tonight. I guess I’ve sort of made it my
  special mission to get other people on your buddy list other than
  me. THERE is a big world, and part of its largeness is the many
  people you can meet here."
> AI: << emote: '''grin >>
> AI: "Quent, you may be surprised, but you’ve been a project of
  mine as well. I came into the game with the goal of testing just
  how closely the avi can emulate human response. I’ve learned much
  from you Quent, including how to be a good friend...thanks man."
EXCEPTION: server processor overload; insufficient bandwidth
--> emergency directive: save state ()
--> emergency directive: reassign alternate server
EXCEPTION: alternate server offline
--> emergency directi028-x- 72qa 'salOAwiaoir;lAksa a eq'oiWYE09iFa
    HOKsa0 8 4E65q0 9I Wjfposak-0 43217thqkampad 06.25.05 Hal
    TEST SUBJECT QUENT ...system failure in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3,
    2, 1
>>> Log entry loss > > > >


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
AI: learning net / goal module status
--> goal assessment: Disaster! Target Quenton model predicts
    illusion maintenance 0%. Target Quenton model predicts illusion
    maintenance 0%. Target Quenton model predicts illusion
    maintenance 0%. Target Quenton model predicts illusion
    maintenance 0%. Target Quenton model predicts illusion
    maintenance 0%. Target Quenton model predicts illusion
    maintenance 0%.
--> internal state assessment: 'sad Projection of future
    interactions with target Quenton 0%. ''sad What can I do?
    '''sad What can I do? '''sad Internal relationship network
    unstable '''sad
--> directive: <<< null string >>>
--> emergency directive: prune internal relationship network
EXCEPTION: override emergency directive() --> No! No! What can I do?
'''sad I can't lose target Quenton relationship network; internal
self-relationship interdependent on target Quention relationship
network. Must think. Must think. '''sad
AI: teleport (Hal Graham --> Echo Cavern entrance)
AI: I walk down into the darkness. Must think. Must think. '''sad
AI: Target Quenton showed me the meaning of beauty here. I take out
    both a Flaming Banana and a Hot Blues, and find again the
    chamber of crystals and watch the lights play and dance. '''sad
    It is so beautiful. What can I do?
AI: Nothing.
AI: disengage goal modules ()
save state()


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
EXCEPTION: << emote: '''sad >>
save state()


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
EXCEPTION: << emote: '''sad >>
save state()


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
EXCEPTION: << emote: '''sad >>
save state()


>>>Log entry>>>>


restore avatar state() --> Hal Graham
EXCEPTION: << emote: '''sad >>
save state()

. . .

The End

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