Bubbles were on the way out. That was the word. A new VR experience was on its way for the entertainment-starved populace, but nobody could give it a name, and nobody knew what it looked like.
Even the pseudohipsters were calling it Bubbles Plus, and pretending they kew all about it with ever-increasing and ever-ridiculous hype.
Clouds were buzzing with it. Did you hear...? I heard... Maybe they're doing neurosmells at last. After the last attempt at brain-patching? No way!
Marv steered his bubble away from the gossiping clouds of other bubbles. He didn't need that noise, today. Today was supposed to be a basic supply run with his earnings from the minigames and his odd art sales. Food and supplies for RL.
Preferably before the mandated jellytime break.
Marv, like most people he had to share air with, preferred to spend as much time in VR as possible. It was prettier. The undecorated blandness of meatspace was an unwelcome reality when more pleasing alternatives were available.
Take the bubble filling in time by earning cashier wages. Their avatar, projected on the interface zone of their bubble, showed a face drawn from several arenas of anime. They we're probably a lot less attractive in meatspace. Hell, they probably weren't even female.
Other avatars on the bubbles around him were also pick-and-mix facial allsorts. Almost every last one was one. His own chosen avatar was a cartoon face that showed up often on his doodle sheets. Other appropriated images were pictures from history and the occasional pet's face.
Sometimes, he couldn't help wondering if the network dropped him off in random places filled with AI clones.
But today was not a day for testing the environment. He had deadlines to get back to beating. He cruised his bubble through the aisles as quickly as he could, tapping the representations of the items he needed as quickly as possible. Animated versions of them jumped into his virtual cart with annoyingly joyful noises.
Then he saw one.
It was most definitely not a bubble. It looked like... a human.
He raced down the aisle, shopping forgotten, chasing after the only thing that wasn't a bubble or merchandise.
"Excuse me. Hey. Excuse me!" he tried to tap the stranger, and couldn't. "You're the new thing, right? The better-than-bubbles?"
The stranger turned and smiled. Real-looking face. Real-looking smile. "Yeah. It's called a --"
Suddenly, Marv was looking at a screen that said, Mandatory interface disconnect. And the timer telling him he had thirty minutes before he could reconnect.
The pain of sitting relatively still in a VR couch for four hours was the first thing to hit him. Followed closely by his need to visit the bathroom. The worst thing about VR was coming out of it. The best thing was going back. Marv stretched some of his cramps and aches out before disconnecting from his sensasuit(tm) and hobbling a few steps to the bathroom.
Relief and cleanliness achieved, he found his interface clothes and some food so he could satisfy his other basic needs, and then exited his grey personal space into the equally grey public area.
There, like everyone else, he just sort of milled around and bitched about how the servers were being nasty, forcing everyone to have flesh-time. And there was always one person who made the point that if they we're allowed to spend all the time they wanted to in VR, then they'd probably die from starvation, thirst or bursting innards.
Marv knew all the arguments. People in comas played VR, and they had their fleshy selves hooked up to everything they could possibly need. They also had massive muscle wastage because they couldn't get up and walk around.
He didn't know why, but he blurted, "I think I saw one of the upgrades, today."
Instantly, he was king of his floor. The air filled with noise as literally hundreds of people clustered around him, all asking questions at once.
"It was five seconds before flesh time," he said, projecting his voice so that the clamouring cluster could hear. "I tried to interface with it, but I couldn't connect, and then I got booted."
Most of the crowd dissipated with a disappointed moan.
"What did it look like?"
"I dunno. Like anyone in flesh-time, I guess." Marv shrugged. "Prettier clothes, maybe."
The few who had stayed milled away.
O, how fleeting was fame.
Marv returned, like everyone else in the public area, to sort of milling around and staring at the clock and waiting for VR to be accessible again. He had no real gossip to share. No ideas for physical art. No inclinations beyond getting back into the real world and trying an actual audio conversation with the upgrade he'd spotted in the store.
Assuming he respawned in the same store he left.
Assuming the upgrade didn't have special privileges or a different disconnect schedule, or anything else that meant that they'd moved on while he was stuck in this... holding pattern.
The real problem with eking by on a small talent, Marv mused, was that it left no room at all for optimism.
Time ticked down to zero and the mass exodus towards personal spaces began. Marv, despite trying to shuffle towards his own area all this time, found himself caught in the middle and counting every second between himself and re-immersion.
The upgrade was no longer there.
Marv swore to himself and checked his cart. All the stuff that he'd had there was still there. He finished shopping and got back to the arcadium where he earned the majority of his credit. From there, it was successive varieties of minigames until he got sick of whichever game-in-a-row he was on, or until he got an idea for something more creative. It earned money, but damn, it was boring.
The instant he raised a little more than he needed for tomorrow, he was out of there and into the scenic passes where every other bubble with time off spent time floating around and exploring things. Sure, some extras could be earned by finding secrets... but they could only be found by each user once. Marv had mined out that metaphorical mountain years ago.
He took one of the lower egress-ways, simply because there wasn't enough there to interest anyone, and sought for his personal goal of getting as far as possible from the maddening cloud.
He almost didn't see her until he'd passed her. It was the green dress, he decided, making her blend in with the greens and browns of this path.
He flipped on his speaker. "Hey."
She looked up from the thing that had formerly had her attention. Something the size and shape of a reader, but much thicker. "Hey, yourself," she said.
"Um," he managed, "You're one of the upgrades, right?"
"They call it the simulacrum experience, yes," she smiled. Beautiful teeth against lovely mocha skin. "Walking feels like walking, you get smells and tastes and," she gestured with her thing, "paper books."
"I thought real paper was banned," he said.
A mischievous smirk. "Define reality."
She had him stumped there, he had to admit.
"So how do I sign up for this thing? How much does it cost? Does the procedure hurt?"
"One at a time. Okay. Uhm... A friend of mine got me on. I'm shaky on the details, sorry. As for procedure... The wearing-in process is a heck of a bitch. I ached for weeks. But the good news is that the body acclimates really quickly. I guess you could say it takes a little extra from the metabolism... Uhm. Ohyeah. Once you're in, you have to keep the secret."
The woman tapped her nose. "I can't tell you. You're not in."
Marv vented a noise of frustration. "Can you pass my contacts on to your friend?"
She rummaged in a small bag. "Hangonasec, I need to get a pen."
Wow. They were taking this whole immersion thing to extreme levels. Marv watched, fascinated, as the woman rummaged in her bag for a pen and some kind of notebook. He couldn't see any kind of progress bar.
"Got 'em. Okay."
Marv gave his details, including his real name and delivery address. Ultra-personal, but the new system needed to verify his identity. He certainly hoped that they wouldn't steal it. He'd keep a background vanity search on, just in case there were suddenly two of him.
No other hims turned up. Not for work. Not during his random moments of inspiration. Not when he was shopping. And never, apparently, when he was forced offline for jellytime.
There were no deliveries or messages from the simulacrum experience.
There were also no sites for it, either - despite the masses of buzz generated in the clouds of gossiping bubbles.
Yet, somehow, there were more and more sightings of the simulacrums all over the V-net. Someone had even caught video of a simulacrum playing parkour across one of the upper drift-paths, somewhere. Many more someones were positing that the whole thing was faked.
Marv was starting to wonder, himself, if the entire simulacrum thing was a massive hoax.
Then the parcel came.
It wasn't big enough to be groceries. It was far too small to be furniture. Marv waved off the cluster of curious level-mates when he saw the warning.
It said, "Open in private or you will be expelled from the Simulacrum Experience."
Marv let the others buzz amongst themselves and took the package into his personal space.
Grooming equipment. Strange shoes with thick soles. A list of rules. Tips on how to make his actual self look its best. An envelope marked, The Secret. A tote bag and some useful objects. A hat. A water bottle. Sunscreen. Sunglasses. Two cards. One marked as an access card, the other as a money card. A reference booklet.
Marv sat on the VR chaise and read the rules. He read the reference booklet. He read the tips. Finally, he read the Secret.
If the others knew... They'd be devastated. There may even be some kind of riot.
Marv packed his tote carefully. Followed the grooming instructions and selected his best clothes. Waited for the last of the stragglers to rush back to their virtual lives.
He knew he didn't need to sneak. Once someone was plugged in, they had no idea what was happening in jellyspace.
Yet he sneaked, anyway.
Through the halls and public spaces.
Down the corridor nobody went down.
To the door nobody could open.
His heart was hammering in his throat as he waved the access card over the reader pad. He expected sirens. He expected guards. What he got was a little green light and, when he turned the handle and opened the door, a well-lit ramp way with little else in it but railings and dust.
And now it had him in it.
Marv had to go up, just to see if the book was right. It was. Dull, bare expanses of solar generators. Nothing really interesting. He rode the rails down, stopping at each turn along the way. Easier than walking.
The guide had warned him about this, about his body not being ready for full mobility or extreme stunts for some time. Marv put those cautions to the wind, for now. He wanted to see for himself, and he would.
He finally reached the exit with a sore rear end and ankles that wanted to quit, but he still passkeyed open the door.
Marv hadn't known what to expect. Narnia? The secret garden?
What he got was a road wide enough for a delivery vehicle and a blank, boring expanse of the concrete wall of the building across the way. The meeting of roads revealed little but more concrete pillars in almost all directions.
Marv headed for the distant glimpse of green.
This was so much like the noob zones. Where a kid learned how to pilot their very first bubbles.
In fact, he could spot a few noob bubbles bouncing off walls above his head. He did take rest stops in the shade when his legs ached. Take a drink, cool off. And then start up again before his butt got numb.
It was worth it.
He could smell the clean air coming off the trees. Got inebriated from the perfume of the flowers. Reeled in amazement at the taste of the fruit.
Did he really have to go back?
"No, not really."
Marv almost jumped out of his skin, and whirled to find a splendidly groomed grandmother type with an expansive sun-hat and an apron that bulged in weird ways.
She smiled. "Sorry I startled you, there. I've seen lots of new exports come through my garden."
"This is your garden?" Marv looked guiltily at the remains of the fruit he'd helped himself to. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know it was anyone's..."
"It's there to be eaten, sweetie. I have enough, already."
Okay. His heart could stop trying to bust out of his chest. "You don't have to go back? At all?" it's not like he had much to fetch. Pretty much everything he had was in his tote bag.
"Sure. Just find a space and make it yours. You don't have to move in here, of course. My family and I don't mind if you do, but... Look around. Crash in a few places. Find somewhere that sings to your heart."
"I'm Marv," he said. "I'm an artist."
"I'm Lin. I grow things."
Two weeks later, he was setting up an art kiosk on the edge of a burgeoning artist community when a bubble lowered itself to his eyeline. The avatar on its side was a pick-and-mix face of indeterminate gender.
"You're a simulacrum," said the bubble.
"Hard to miss," he said. He had real paintings. Sketches and prints from a printing press he'd set up with Maya's help. He used the money card for art supply runs and little else, exception the rare occasions he did trade with bubbles.
"Is there a relation between you guys popping up and folks vanishing from their residences?"
Marv smiled, remembering his own disappearance. "I can tell you that it's really nothing sinister."
"How do you know?"
Marv tapped his nose. "Because I know."
The bubble floated off in a huff, leaving another one floating hesitantly on the verge.
"Can I help you?"
The reluctant bubble drew close. The avatar was just a smile drawn in pencil. "What's it like?" said a small, whispery voice.
Marv couldn't help the smile on his face. How to explain the exhilaration of the real world? Of the pain that came with the pleasure, of the work and the play that actually meant something. Of trade with real things. Of the terrible secret... That the bubbles and the monolith living grounds were the last, desperate measure of a planet that was too full and needed time without humans on it to recover. That machines could run on automatic and supply everything, including a careful proportion of the next generation. Kids parented by volunteers. Taught by machines. Raised in worlds seen only through cameras and fed into their heads by more circuits and wires.
Marv found the right words at last. "It's just like being there."