In a Virtual Reality
“No offense, honey, but you look like shit,” I said.
Sean laughed, a high-pitched nervous sound. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, babe. I’ve been in survival mode—no time for self-care.”
“But that’s when you most need to take care of yourself.” Why don’t men understand this? “Have you been eating well?”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve been wining and dining like royalty in this castle beneath the biosphere.”
Through the lens of my webcam, I studied him. Fine lines bracketed his blue eyes, and although they were still brilliant, there were dark circles. The shadow of stubble across his chiseled jaw made me wonder if he was too stressed to shave. I’d never seen him look this way.
We were on a Zoom video chat despite the security issues Sean mentioned during our last call. We’d decided that if the three stooges could get into the bunker, they’d be able to hack into any internet call. But we had to see each other.
I’d narrowly escaped a mass shooting myself a few months ago. Were any of us safe anymore in America? Sean and I live in among the most upscale, peaceful areas; Sausalito and Los Altos Hills. Yet, were both near casualties of gun violence.
“You’re still the most handsome man I’ve ever known. I just hate seeing you this way and don’t want you so deep underground—or so far from me.”
Sean ran his hands through his messy brown hair. His thick, dark eyebrows bunched close together above those striking eyes. “Hey, going underground is part of California history. Gold miners dug deep for the mother lode.” His eyes darted around the room, which like Sean, was gorgeous but unkept.
“Is that a real waterfall I see and hear in the background?” It was like his own mini-cave, a Medieval wonder.
“Yes, it’s very relaxing.” He moved from the screen and I could see the waterfall flanked by two urns of white marble, filled with flowers.
Sean obviously lifted his laptop up and walked around with it. I saw flashes of classic white and ivory walls, a large flat-screen TV, and an eclectic array of artwork. The room was not small, which I found astonishing in an underground bunker.
Then his webcam rested on a huge painting of an amazing winery. Or was that a window? How could anyone see outside?
A castle straight out of a childhood fairy tale rose out of the hills and rolling vineyards. It had impressive turrets, fortified stone walls, hand-painted frescos, and classic gardens. I was imagining swordfights, Lords, and Ladies dressed elegantly for a ball, and a fire-breathing dragon.
“Wow, that winery is spectacular. Is that a painting? It seems too real to be one.”
“It’s a computer screen. They’re all over this place to make it appear we’re looking out windows to the real world.”
I remembered the mess —and not the mess that comes with magazines, newspapers, or unpaid bills cascading off desks. It looked as if the civil unrest or natural disaster the elites are hiding from happened. “Why is everything strewn around the room? Are you so stressed you’re throwing things?” I asked. I’d never seen his house messy, and it seemed strange.
“I didn’t tell you yet… after Helm and Company chased me through the tunnels trying to shoot me and I made my way back inside, I realized they had ransacked my room. They weren’t just looking for the flash drive with my software, since it’s not a material thing—”
“The documents showing the secret military mission!” I blurted. “Of which has a codename you won’t tell me—all you say is it’s like a swarm of programmed humans, acting like killer bees. Aren’t those rooms locked down?”
“Supposedly this entire place is ’locked-down.’ But the head of the CIA’s venture capital firm—and the other two top defense dogs— likely had the combination for the main door. And… they’re masters of spotting any ‘insider threat’. Heck, they probably sent a mini robot the size of an ant through the cracks to scope me out. I was outside for a while until the armed security guard threatened me to stop ‘loitering’ around the grounds. They had plenty of time to go through my room.”
“Why would Stoddard give the bad guys the combination—.”
“Jules, please! You know these guys are not seen as bad guys in the public eye. In fact, they’re seen as American heroes!” A type of corporate heroism that transcends the multi-national corporation itself. They’re President Crown’s henchmen to carry out our nations’ global AI dominance.”
I put my head in my hands, then looked directly at Sean’s handsome, tired face on my screen. “And you were seen as a threat to the business mission.”
“Yup… I pulled out of a critical revenue stream,” Sean said, his blue eyes filling with tears. I realized that on top of the physical danger to his life, this ordeal has been a social-emotional strain for Sean.
“Did they find any pieces of the condemning puzzle?” I asked.
“No. I stashed the documents and flash drive in a hideaway storage compartment in the floor behind my bed—”
“Oh my God, how many hidey-holes does that secret bunker have?”
Sean raised his hands and looked at the ceiling or his surroundings. “This place, I’ve discovered, has escape tunnels, hidden rooms, and little secret boxes in floors, walls, and corners all over the place. It’s not surprising three billionaire villains found their way in.”
“How do you know they won’t come back,” I asked nervously.
Sean placed his fingers under his chin, and his forehead crinkled. “Between Stoddard’s monetary powers and the incriminating documents, they won’t risk it. And soon… Stoddard will hold knowledge about this secret mission. I think they’re gone for good— a few guys at the bar said they saw them leaving.”
“Where do you think they might go?” I tried to chase away the thought of them coming here.
“Maybe they’re at the nearby bunker. There’s another of these billionaire bolt holes in Napa Valley. That one has horse stables. I think I’ll go join them, bring my new gun and go riding. I can do some cowboy mounted shooting! Heck, I’ll grab Stoddard’s cowboy hat and shirt and go out in style!”
I loved to see Sean laughing again, “Go get the bad guys, honey!” I turned to grab my glass of wine, deciding to make this a virtual happy hour with my man.
“Fucking Helm,” Sean said. Something in his tone made my head snap up to look at him.
Then I saw his eyes. I recognized the haunted, hunted, lonely gaze staring back, and my heart crumpled.
“I know Chris was your friend for a long—”
“He’s no fucking friend of mine.” Sean took a big swig of his bourbon.
Virtual happy hour could turn into an online battle if I didn’t soothe Sean’s emotions. My mind flashed back to seeing Chris at Sean’s party. I had come around the corner, and they were standing near the pool, laughing. Sean had patted Chris’s back saying, “If I marry Julie, you’ll be my best man.”
I heard heavy breathing from Sean’s end and said, “I’m so sorry, I don’t understand why Chris came after you like that.”
“I angered some powerful men, Julie. Men who have amassed more power than Washington. The princes of Tech Disruption.”
“Don’t blame yourself.”
I waited and watched Sean’s expressions, allowing him the space to talk more if he wished. Deep inside, I blamed myself. I’d told him if he didn’t pull out of receiving military money, I’d leave him.
He put his face in his hands, then looked straight into the screen. “Jules. When I was in the hospital, Nurse Lee left me alone for hours at a time. I mean, she knew I’d be okay—”
“Oh my God, how awful, why’d she—”
“No! No Jules, how awful of the hospital administration. I didn’t know, too drugged out, but they had her spread way too thin. She was taking care of Cloud Virus and trauma patients, which is unprecedented. She saw a Cloud Virus patient die. She had no time for gunshot victims.”
“That’s horrible, no time for gunshot victims? Our healthcare system is killing people more than the virus. As if your life is less critical than other patients? I can’t believe—”
“You don’t understand, Jules. It was like a warzone in the ICU. The nurses and doctors have become like our next soldiers without protective gear, medical fascism on the rise. I felt bad for her—in fact, I bought her flowers.”
I felt myself choke up; tears filled my eyes. “You bought Nurse Lee flowers? That’s so sweet!”
“And a thank-you card. Got them at the gift shop.”
“That’s one of the many qualities that made me fall in love with you, Sean.” I wished I could hug him.
“I… I know I haven’t bought you flowers in a while. When this is over, I’ll bring you the biggest bouquet—”
“Oh honey, it’s what you do for others I love. I saw how you took care of your friends at your party.” I stopped. His friends. Including Chris Helm.
Sean shook his head, then spread his hands in front of his face with a look of frustration blended with determination. “Jules, I’m planning on doing some amazing things. I’m tired of this merger between Big Tech and Big Government power, manipulating students throughout our universities. I’m convinced that’s where it all starts—I saw that myself at Stanford.”
“What are you going to do?”
“It’s what I won’t do as much as will do. I won’t let my software reduce humans to a few lines of code, which is what too many AI applications do. It’s become Wall Street meets Apocalypse Now. I want it to be used to help people—not dehumanize them. You’ll see, I’ve got big plans! I’ll start by visiting university labs across the country, working with students. I’ll direct them toward inventions in disaster recovery and medical technology—away from destructive warfare technology. I’ll focus on sustainable rare Earth mining.” Sean rambled on with excitement.
I thought of his father who slaved in a Kentucky coal mine and died of black lung disease. All I could think of to say was lame. “If they don’t steal your software first—”
“It’s not them ‘stealing’ my code I’m concerned about; but what they’d do with it. Software is not a tangible product, it’s not physical. But if they got a hold of it, they’d be able to edit the text in a file. The same hunk of silicon can become a robot-killer, an autopilot using my mapping capability to target their prey. No way!”
“Sounds like the flexibility of the software is both a miracle and a curse. So, it’s not really the code or secret documents they’re after since they can copy both. It’s—”
“Control,” I added.
“Power and hiding secrets. Ever since President Crown signed the executive order for America to take a global lead in AI technology, the heads of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), DARPA and the CIA’s VC firm have been pushing hard for our nation to take a lead in machine learning—”
“Oh my God, the guys that came after you head those agencies.” I creeping sensation ran along my spine. “They’re a freaking political tag team wrestling trio, maneuvering for the kill.” I realized sex was used to gain all these desires, as the three men were involved in the masked orgy at Sean’s place.
“And here we are, tied to our machines, kids ‘are distance learning,’ everyone in virtual reality.” I decided after this call I’ll smell my roses.
“Jules, think about it. We are now relying on multi-billionaires and the Pentagon to ‘bail us out’ of the Cloud Virus. The people in these bunkers aren’t afraid of the virus. No, they’re afraid of the civil unrest that happens when AI takes all their jobs away or the military dance of power attacks innocent American citizens in the streets.”
“Seems to be happening already. Look at the flag-waving protestors in the streets begging to reopen their businesses, or against militaristic-style police brutality.” I said. The masked violence is scarier than the virus itself. “When will you be able to start your university transformation efforts?” I liked the term I came up with.
“I already have an appointment with the Stanford research lab. It’s mainly virtual, but it’s a start,” Sean said.
I heard what I thought might be an audio echo, pounding from my laptop. “Do you have your cell phone near you?” I asked Sean.
Sean became distracted, turning his head to face the opposite direction. Then I realized the pounding was someone at his room door. The pounding became louder, quicker, urgent.
“Shit,” Sean uttered. “That’s no Stoddard knock. Jules, I love you, I gotta go now.” And with that, the video call went dead.