That is what we called it. It’s ironic that something I once hated, I now look back at with nostalgia. I smile and shake my head while holding her hand. It was a time when we were all imprisoned, fighting for our way out. Yet now we smile upon the memories of this captivity.
Years ago, I received an invitation by email. It was a very simple invitation.
Perhaps now is not a good time to contact you, nevertheless, we would like you offer you this life changing opportunity to experience something very few will have the chance of even knowing about. If you would like to participate, please reply to this email.
International Alternate Reality Research Department (I.A.R.R.S.)
I laughed when I first read this email. I remembered all those lesson from mom and dad about how I shouldn’t be talking to strangers on the streets, and how emails like this were better off in the trash folder.
Back then, I couldn’t help but frown. The Government? What kind of name was that? Perhaps it was some kind of international collaboration like they did in the past with the International Space Station?
And then that thing at the bottom. IARRS? Alternate Reality Research Department. So it was an international collaboration. I suppose the name gave away what this life changing experience would be. But something very few people would even know about? I was part of the general public…how careless if this really was supposed to be a top-secret project by international governments.
At that time, I was about to close my inbox…but the email reached me at just the right time. I had reached a low point in life and I was ready for something different. Without thinking too much, I replied. I wrote that I would participate in this program if they could provide me with more information. Hours later, I received a reply, promising me more details once I agreed to participate. And a few days later, I was picked up by representatives of the Government.
Looking back at all this, I’m not really sure if I made the right decision. On one hand, it really was life changing. On the other...well, what can I say. It wasn’t exactly heaven on earth.
And so here I stand my friend, to tell you this tale.
Comfortable position. Check.
Connection stability. Check.
Body temperature. Check.
I closed my eyes. I would not open them for a long time.
Yet, even with my eyes closed, I would be seeing a whole world.
“You can open your eyes now!” a voice sounded.
Obediently I opened my eyes. I blinked a few times. My mouth hung open. I had difficulty breathing. I looked down at the ground. I was standing. Why was I standing? Just a moment ago I was lying on a black chair with a needle in my arm. I looked at my arm. The needle was gone.
“Welcome!” the same voice sounded again. “I welcome you to Queenstown! Please stay calm! You are safe!”
I swallowed. I looked around me. Could this really be possible? About a hundred other people stood around me. All of them looking up and down, nervous, breathing hard, examining their own bodies. Some were so amazed that they fell to their knees.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. We were here. Here inside iSync.
That’s right. Inside iSync.
At first the concept of the iSync technology seemed abstract, something that could only exist on paper. Yet scientists have taken it on to remove the ‘fiction’ from ‘science fiction’. iSync was a simple idea really. By inserting millions of nano robots into our bloodstream, these nano robots would form a chain linking our minds to a powerful central server computer where the minds of other players would linked too. This server computer would feed to us the information we needed to share a dream.
Perhaps dream is the wrong word, since dream would give the connotation that our subconsciousness was in full control of the dream. We only had shared control. The server computer would feed our brains the information to construct the virtual reality we were in, and within this new reality could do whatever this reality allowed us to do.
It was the most beautiful prison ever built.
And we had volunteered to be part of it.
“This is so real!” I managed to say after finding my words again.
Red, yellow, black and white colored Bavarian style houses surrounded the fountain plaza where a hundred or so people were gathered. The ground and pathways around us were made out of bricks and stones, just like in older times. In the middle of the plaza stood a fountain with stone maidens who held the pots which the water came out from surrounding it.
And at the edge of the fountain stood one person who was not amazed. He had his hands on his hips and was watching all of us with a smile.
“Everyone! If you could gather around the fountain, please!” he shouted.
Taking a few uncertain steps at first, we quickly felt that it was no different from our bodies in real life. It felt just like my normal body, but at the same time I knew that it was nothing but a dense collection of pixels and polygons. Quickly we gathered around the fountain in the middle of the plaza.
“I would like to welcome all of you to this new reality!” the guy said. “My name is Sven! I am the lead developer of this town. We are currently in a small city called Queenstown!”
Sven. So that was his name. I couldn’t say that Queenstown was the most original name. Certainly developers like Sven weren’t the greatest when it came to literary creativity. But in terms of architecture, they were something else.
“This is only a testing session!” Sven continued his introduction. “We will be in Queenstown for only two hours before the developers on the outside will log us out. However, if you wish to log out right now, please raise either your right hand or your left hand to your chest level.”
Even though no one had any panic attacks and no one wanted to log out, we all raised our hands slightly.
“If you squeeze all five fingers together, your personal AirMenu will appear in front of you,” Sven said. “There should be several buttons, but towards the bottom there should be an Admin Intercom button and a Log Out button. If anyone does not see those two buttons, please let me know!”
I squeezed all five fingers together, and like magic a transparent menu window appeared before me. On it, it had several options. I could send messages to other players, view the health status of my body in real life, access the Internet, and like Sven said, at the very bottom I could log out.
All hundred odd players were so amazed with Queenstown that no one even remotely thought of pressing the log out button.
In retrospect that was the first thing we should have done.
“To exit the menu, use the back of your hand to wave it away,” Sven said and demonstrated it to all of us. We mimicked him, and each option separated itself into several blocks and vanished.
Amazed by this, I summoned the AirMenu a couple of times just so I could wave it away. I really should have pushed that log out button.
The crowd got really exited about this and every one started chatting.
“Everyone, please quiet down!” Sven said in almost a panicked voice.
Instantly, every turned to him. What was wrong? Why was there panic in his voice?
“I would like to ask all of you to introduce yourself with the ID name you registered with,” Sven said. “Please do not tell anyone your real name. In here, please only use your registered ID name.”
A red haired girl raised her hand. “Why do we have to do that?”
“Simple,” he smiled slightly. “By keeping two different names, it is easier for your brain to create two separate personalities. Whatever happens to you here, it will only affect the personality of the ID name identity and not who you are in real life!”
I nodded. This made sense. iSync was a completely different world with different laws governing this virtual reality. Anything could happen in here. It would be best if it didn’t affect who you were outside all of this. After all, if I had a dream while I was asleep, no matter what would happen in that dream, it wouldn’t affect my personality and way of thinking in real life. In a way, iSync was similar. But since we were all conscious and not really asleep, it would be difficult to remain the same. Using a completely different name was a convenient solution.
“Now, please explore Queenstown to your heart’s content,” Sven opened his arms wide. “If you reach the end of Queenstown, you will see a wall and possibly a city gate. For your own safety, please do not exit the city! For this session, please stay inside Queenstown. If you get lost, or have any questions, please press the Admin Intercom button above the Log Out button and you will be connected to either me or a developer who is monitoring this session.”
And with that, everyone dispersed. Small groups were formed. Since no one knew anyone in this world, we formed groups with whomever we made eye contact with first.
I made eye contact with a large guy. He was somewhat taller than all of us, had a wide build and short brown hair. We shook hands.
“Hi,” he said with a deep voice. “I’m..uhm...I’m Quaker.”
No doubt he was going to introduce himself with his real world name, but stopped himself at the last moment.
“Quaker? Like the oatmeal squares?” I asked.
Embarrassed, Quaker scratched the back of his head.
“Yeah. I was kind of hungry when choosing my ID name...so I just picked the first thing that came to my mind.”
I introduced myself as ‘Issa’. Honestly I didn’t put much thought into it when choosing this name. I would be using it for a long time.
Some moments later, we saw a group of three girls who were still standing around the fountain plaza. Quaker and I asked if we could join them. It honestly would have felt better if we were in a slightly larger group. As amazed as were with this iSync technology, all of us were a little frightened. This was a so real. So new.
We all introduced ourselves. The three girls were Flower, Fefe and Faith.
Flower had long black hair. She wore a long white skirt along with a yellow T-Shirt. She was the shortest of all the girls. Fefe had blonde hair and Faith had long wavy black hair. They both wore the same set of white blouses and blue jeans.
Soon, these modern clothes would disappear. They wouldn’t help us survive in this harsh world.
We turned to a street with that had a line of shops in it. All of the shops were empty, and when we tried to open the doors to enter, all the doors were closed. I guess the developers didn’t want us to go into the buildings either.
Quaker and I walked slightly in front with the girls behind us. It surprised me though that about half of everyone at the plaza were girls. I thought most girls would reject the email invitation that was sent out. After all, it was dangerous, and frankly stupid, to accept this strange offer.
I heard the girls chatting away behind us. It made me wonder.
“Hey Quaker, did Sven say if we were allowed to talk about where we are from and our backgrounds as long as we don’t mention our real names?” I asked.
Quaker raised an eyebrow. “Good question. Come to think of it, I don’t think he ever mentioned that. Let’s ask the girls.”
We turned around to ask, but it was a question in vain. The girls had exchanged background information with each other as soon as they started talking, and discovered something amazing while they were at it.
Although our avatars in this world didn’t show our race or nationality, but it turned out that Flower, Fefe and Faith were all from different parts of the world. Flower was from China, Fefe from Japan and Faith from Sweden.
Baffled, the five of us started at each other.
“Where are you two from?” Flower asked.
“I’m from England,” I pointed at myself and looked at Quaker.
“France” Quaker said simply.
There was a moment of stunned silence.
“Do any of you speak English?” I asked.
Only Flower raised her hand. Fefe, Faith and Quaker said they only knew some basic English.
“Why does it matter?” Fefe asked. “All of us are speaking Japanese anyway.”
“Huh?” me and the other four sounded simultaneously.
“Isn’t everyone speaking French?” Quaker asked.
We shook our heads.
“So Flower, are you hearing us speak Chinese? And Faith you are hearing us speak Swedish?” I asked.
The two girls nodded.
Rendered speechless, I decided to hit the Admin Intercom button.
“Yes?” Sven’s voice sounded from the AirMenu.
“How come we can understand each other when we all speak different languages?” I asked.
We could hear Sven laugh. “Sorry, sorry! That was something I forgot to explain. I didn’t think it would come to this.”
In retrospect, there were a lot things that he didn’t think would come to.
“The testing players for this session were chosen from all over the world,” Sven explained. “When you talk, your brain transmits what you want to say to the main server computer. However your brain doesn’t actually send words, rather it sends the meaning that you want to communicate to the other person. So the words you are hearing from another person aren’t actually the words they are speaking, but it is your brain receiving the meaning of what they are trying to say.”
“Then how come I hear the other person talk in my mother tongue if they don’t speak my language and I should only get the meaning?” I asked.
“That is because that is the language you are most familiar with,” Sven said. “When your brain receives the meaning the other person is communicating from the server, it translates it into your mother tongue so your consciousness can understand it. The server isn’t doing anything besides acting as the messenger, it is your brains doing all the processing and translation.”
The five of us were in awe. Both by the technology and the capabilities of our brains.
I waved away the AirMenu. “Well, I wonder what I sound like in Chinese.”
For another hour we explored Queenstown until Sven cast an announcement through the AirPlay menu that we should return to the fountain plaza. After getting thoroughly lost, even with the map feature, it took us half an hour to find our way back.
At that time we didn’t notice, but out of the hundred odd people, only ninety returned.
With a satisfied smile, Sven looked at all of us.
“Alright! With all of us gathered, we should all be logged out in few minutes.”
There were sighs and sagged shoulders.
Many felt that two hours in this world wasn’t enough. The beauty of this city, the clear sky, the pleasant breeze. This reality wasn’t just amazing, or awe inspiring; it was something the real world ought aspire to be.
We waited for half an hour. One hour. Two hours.
We waited and waited.
We were never logged out.