Monday, April 01, 2019

Day 1 - A Place You've Never Been

To step through the ornate double doors that led into the Xanadu Travel Agency was to step into an exotic blend of mansion and theme park; a place where pristine marble walls and flooring somehow organically blended with an array of imaginatively themed geographical areas. On one side of the cavernous room, a miniature tropical rainforest soared high above the polished wooden desks and trilled and echoed with the calls of wildlife. On the far side of the room, meanwhile, the marble floor gave way to perfect white sand and a gently undulating blue sea; in this part of the room the desks were each located on tiny islands that were connected by equally tiny pontoon bridges.

You could easily spot the first time visitors; for they were the ones who stood clustered around the entrance and who were gazing around the room open mouthed. It was a lot to take in. The impossibly high domed ceiling across which small planes and dirigibles ambled amongst fluffy white clouds, the roaming wildlife that would occasionally scamper across the room, and the large waterfall that cascaded down from the second and third floors above.

David Stymes remembered having been incredibly impressed by it all on his first visit here. But that was a long time ago and, these days, he tended to tune out all the extraneous detail. And, while he was prepared to accept that it demonstrated some excellent work by their world builders, he found that it was increasingly difficult for him to get excited by anything virtual.

“Mr Stymes,” said a velvety smooth voice to his right, “We didn’t know you were coming!”

He turned to see the manager of the agency, today dressed as a pirate with a parrot on her shoulder, walking towards him with a smile.

“Ms. Appleby.” he said, with a nod in her direction.

“Oh, I feel so ashamed,” she said, the parrot squawking in tandem with her. “We would have put on a special welcome if you’d told us.”

“There’s no need.”

“But, as one of our twenty biggest customers, you deserve so much more than just the standard entrance package.”

“The standard entrance is fine by me,” said Stymes, waving his hand in the direction of the waterfall. “That’s new isn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” said Ms. Appleby, “Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure how well it would work when they first suggested it, but it’s really gone down a storm. In fact, we’re even thinking about turning it into an attraction, letting people come down it in some kind of a barrel. You know how it is, got to keep moving with the times!”

“I suppose so.”

“So, how can we help you this time? We have a range of new packages in this month; from the thrills of the Wild West to the intoxicating pleasures of 1930s Paris. Your excitement is guaranteed.”

“Well, to be honest,” said Stymes, “I’m looking for something different.”

“Ah, well if it’s different you’re looking for than you should really consider picking something from our new suite of fictional holidays - you can choose to spend a week in the world of Tolkien, Fleming, even King – just imagine the possibilities!”

“Not really my cup of tea, I’m afraid. You see, I’m looking for something really different.”

“Oh,” said Ms. Appleby, nodding and leaning in conspiratorially, “I get it. I do. Something really different. Well, you know, whisper it, but for you we might be able to get our hands on a special kind of programme – how does a harem of slave girls sound?”

“No!” said Stymes, indignantly.

“Oh,” said Ms. Appleby, with a frown. “Slave boys?”

“Look, Ms. Appleby, I don’t want any kind of slaves or fantasy worlds, I want something different. I want something real. And I heard you might be able to get it for me…”

Ms. Appleby opened her mouth and then closed it silently, the parrot on her shoulder cocking its head and echoed “Something real, something real.”

“That’s what I want,” said Stymes, “Something real”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you mean,” said Ms. Appleby in a loud voice as she looked around frantically. “I have no knowledge of this; we are but a simple travel agency.”

“But I was told that…” began Stymes.

“I’m sorry, Mr Stymes, but I really think that you should leave. I’m afraid I can’t help you with this.”


“Please leave now before I have to summon security. Good day, Mr. Stymes.” said Ms. Appleby and turned and walked away, leaving him standing alone save for the cool mist that drifted across from the waterfall.


He portalled home to his apartment, peeling himself swiftly from his stimu-suit before throwing his headset angrily across the room. His contact had assured him that Xanadu would be able to get him what he wanted, as long as he kept things low key. He strode to the kitchen, poured a glass of Zim and walked to his balcony to stare out across the miles of glass and plascrete that were spread out below him. There were only forty three apartments with better views in the whole city but tonight he found the scene more tedious than ever. He slugged the Zim, feeling it burn harsh against his throat. The sun hovered on the horizon, a muddy orange ball through the smog.

His wristband pulsed and stirred him from his thoughts. A priority Alpha message waiting for him from an anonymous sender, full security protocols. He walked from the balcony to his living room, secure shielding the apartment with a wave of his hand and encasing the room in a Level Five EM containment field.

He raised the wristband to his eye, let it scan his iris, before speaking his command code. “Proxima, Beta, Four, Xenon, Alpha.”
The holoprojector hummed for a split second, and then a beam of light lanced from the ceiling and coalesced in the middle of the room in the shape of a small portly man.

“This message,” the man said, nonchalantly, “is encrypted and single play. You will only have one opportunity to view and anti-record countermeasures are in action. Do you wish to play?”

“Play,” said Stymes.

“You would like something different,” said the man. “Something real. And we understand. We can give you exactly what you want. We know who you are, we know money is no object for you. But there are some things even money can’t buy. Well, not legally anyway. If you would like to discuss the terms of a transaction then use a secure line to call Ganymede Mining Services, extension five. Ask for Herman.”

The message went dead, the man frozen for a fraction of a second before the light disappeared and left the room in darkness. It could be a trap, he reasoned. The penalties for even attempting to violate the anti-tourism laws were steep, but he was fairly certain he had enough expensive friends in the right places that he would have received a warning. Besides, it was all too quick; he had only just spoken to Xanadu. No, this seemed legitimate.

He placed the call.

Audio only, the line buzzed twice and was then answered silently.

“I’d like to speak to Herman,”

“David Stymes,” said a voice at the other end of the line, “Please deposit six million of Y-Coin into the blind holding account whose details I have just sent you, this is simply a deposit and ensures good faith negotiations.”

“Done,” said Stymes, with a swipe of his hand.

“My apologies for the cloak and dagger,” said Herman, “A necessary evil in this line of work.”

“I understand. So, can you fulfill my request?”

“We can. For twenty five million Y-Coin, we can take you physically to a place you have never been before. We can take you to experience nature.”

“Nature?” scoffed Stymes. “There’s no nature left.”

“There are a few select sites known only to a few people. We can take you to such a site. You can experience nature in reality.”

“How does it work?”

“We send a stealth floater to your penthouse’s landpad in two hours time. You need to be packed  - one bag of ten kilos only - and ready to go. Zero tech. No implants, no wearables, no nothing. From that point on, we’ll get you to where you need to be and back again inside twenty four hours. The risk is minimal - we pay off the right people - but I’d be lying if I said there was no risk.”

“The twenty five million is already in your account,” said Stymes, “I’m in.”


The floater arrived exactly on time, and David Stymes was ready. He stepped aboard and willingly accepted the null-helmet that was offered to him. If he’d been wearing his wristband, he was sure that it would have been warning him that his heartbeat and adrenaline levels were spiking, but it was a rather elating feeling to be so disrobed of technology. He settled back into the seat and felt, rather than saw, the floater take off into the night sky. An hour later, he was fairly sure the floater had been picked up by something far faster; perhaps a high-altitude ramjet; but he simply sat back and enjoyed the ride before dozing off lightly in the dark.

He felt hands lifting the helmet from him and he stirred.

“We’re here,” said the voice of his guide. “You’ll have eight hours here. No more.”

He blinked against the light that was coming in through the open bay doors of the floater. It was a different character of light, somehow brighter and harsher, and he gingerly stepped across out of the doors with one hand shielding his eyes.

This was it, he thought, this was nature.

They were on a small island. The sea was not like the sea in the virtual, which was always a vibrant blue, but was instead a muddy green colour. And it smelled, a rich salty smell that caused him to wrinkle his nose slightly in disgust. No, this was nothing like the virtual. Beneath his feet was dirt and rock. To his left, wispy strands of grass stood tall in straggly bunches. He reached out to run his hand along them.

“Fuck” the grass blade cut into his finger and he recoiled, an orb of blood immediately welling up from the wound.

Above him, he heard the call of a bird and he looked up to see a seagull wheeling high above his head. It was real. A real bird. He hadn’t realised that there were any left.

Something wet and gelatinous splashed across his head and against the corner of his mouth.

“What the?”

He angled his head to see his shoulder which was spattered with something white and black, and realised what had just happened, before falling to his knees and gagging and retching onto the dirt. This wasn’t how it had imagined it, this wasn’t the nature that the virtual had prepared him for. It was dirty, and sharp, and smelly, and disgusting.

David Stymes climbed slowly to his feet and took a look around him; at the waves crashing against the shore, at the flowers in the wavering grass, at the birds in the sky. This was nature. This was real. He turned to his guide.

“For the love of God, take me home,” said Stymes, “I can’t stand to be in this horrible place even a minute longer…”

No comments: