New Dawn

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Manchester in the year 2236. Detective Nelson Slater investigates a missing person. He delves into the murky world of the major computer gaming corporations.

Submitted: January 16, 2014

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Submitted: January 16, 2014

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The detective stared down at the corpse. No obvious cause of death. As dead bodies went it wasn’t the most gruesome thing Nelson Slater had seen in his years twelve years working for the murder squad. At least the body was in one piece. Manchester in the year 2236 was not a nice place. In the years he’d spent investigating the city’s murders he had been kept busy. He’d seen and learned a lot, and none of it was pleasant.

He glanced at his Explorer77. With this handheld device he could go online, download games, music and films, receive and send email messages. It seemed to him there was nothing he couldn’t do with the thing. If it could make him a mug of tea-substitute then it would have been perfect. He checked the details of the deceased he’d received from the police department.

The dead man’s name was Lloyd Bennett. Forty two years old. Single. Like most of the population he had worked for one of the major computer companies. These days the internet and gaming was big business. You could go on-line on anything from wrist-watches and mobile phones, to home television screens via the remote control. People used the internet all day, every day, for everything. There were even websites for people who did not know what they wanted to search the internet for.

Since the last trees had withered away and died over a century ago the use of paper had died out with it. Today, everything was stored on-line. There was simply no need for paper. To Slater the idea of reading the morning’s headlines on sheets of printed paper, and not on an illuminated screen, seemed old-fashioned and decadent. With the massive demands being made of computing, gaming, and specifically the internet, there had been a massive shift in employment. I.T. had cried out for personnel and the population had flocked to the huge computer corporations the same way they had flocked from the countryside to the cities’ factories six hundred years previously.

Lloyd Bennett had been one of the countless people who worked shifts in front of screens and tapped keyboards for hours at a time. Slater sighed, he would rather take his chances with the city’s criminals, murderers and gangsters than stare at a screen behind a desk all day.

The body lay on the the bed. Fully-clothed in faded jeans and t-shirt, the corpse was in a natural position. Head on the pillow, arms by the side. If it wasn’t for the eyes, open and staring at the ceiling, Slater would have thought he was sleeping. The face was relaxed. No mask of terror frozen on his features. Death had not come as a shock or surprise. Perhaps it had even been welcome. But the actual cause of death was a mystery. That was why he’d been called in. The Murder Squad were called in every time there was an unexplained fatality.

These days Manchester was a dark, foreboding city. It was assumed that any death which was not obviously, and certainly natural causes or clearly accidental was murder. Murder. And unfortunately, in the brutal city, most of the time the assumption of murder was correct.

Slater turned his attention from the dead body to the apartment. He looked around the place as the Crime Scene people, in their white protective suits, swept over the flat with their scanners. The pale blue rays from the scanners picked up and analysed everything. It was beyond Slater. He did things the old fashioned way. He always found that the forensics technicians and scientists only went so far. You couldn’t beat honest detective work. The scanners and sensors could tell if someone had been in the flat, could tell the fabric of their clothes. But, Slater argued, they couldn’t detect a motive. The hi-tech gadgets could not tell if two people had exchanged cross words over a jealous lover.

As he looked the place over he noticed something. Something that the scientists and analysts wouldn’t pick up. It was not what was there. It was what was lacking. The apartment did not seem like a home. There were no personal possessions. No home cinema television, no stereo equipment. No digital photo frames displaying a slide show of family and friends. No bits of tat picked up from a foreign holiday years ago. Nothing. The place just didn’t feel lived in. It had the feel of a vacant hotel room. The wardrobe held one faded black suit, three white shirts, and half a dozen t-shirts and a pair of worn out jeans.

In the kitchen he noticed that the kitchen appliances were hardly used. They looked like new. He checked the fridge and freezer. They were empty. This was unusual. The average person’s fridge and freezer would be stocked with at least some food, depending on when they went shopping. Most people stocked their freezers up, pack them full of frozen meals. The supermarkets stocked a wide variety of food that, to Slater, all somehow tasted the same. His own freezer was rammed full of Chinese, Indian and Thai meals. He also had meat substitute steaks, burgers and sausages.

He checked Bennett’s recycling bins. In one bin were some take away wrappers. The deceased had had what smelled like Chicken curry and chips. Of course the food was all man-made. The animals had been wiped out centuries ago. The killer flu which had wiped out almost a third of the world’s population had killed off the planet’s animal life. Since then food was manufactured in factories and distributed to the Tesco supermarket stores across the country. Take aways and restaurants prepared their dishes from scratch, and used the freshest artificial ingredients. In the next bin he found one can of Coke. The guy seemed to live on almost a temporary basis. According to the records he had lived there for six years yet had not settled into the flat at all. Slater shook his head. He’d had visitors to his home who had left more of an impression. There was nothing in the place to give any clue as to what kind of person he was. Satisfied that he’d seen all there was to see he left the Crime Scene guys to it.

By the time he left the flat the coroners had arrived to examine the body. They would then take it away to the mortuary for further inspection. He nodded to the armed police officer stationed outside the door. He knocked on the flat next door. A second later a guy in his early twenties opened it. He had shoulder length hair, and stubble lined his jaw. He poked his head around the door.

‘Yeah?’

Slater flashed his police ID. ‘I want to talk to you about your neighbour, Lloyd Bennett.’

‘What about him?’

‘As I’m sure you know, he was found dead earlier today. What can you tell me about him?’

‘He was just this guy, y’ know?’

‘Great. That’s a big help. Did you see any of his friends or family visiting him either today or yesterday?’

‘You’re joking. Nobody ever visited him. Ever. No family as far as I know. And no mates. He was a real loner.’

‘Any idea how he spent his free time?’

‘No idea. You’d have to ask him.’

Slater shook his head. Turned away. Made his way down the corridor to the lift.

 

He rode the lift down the hundreds of floors to the basement carpark. The apartment tower block was identical to those all over the city, and across the country. Countless towers stretched up through the rain toward the grey skies. There were no longer any seasons. The weather stayed the same all year round. After decades of chaotic and drastic weather conditions, things had calmed down. The weather had settled down to a steady 35 degrees Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky was always a murky grey colour. And it rained constantly. Some of the pizza parlours did still did a pizza called Four Seasons. A bit of nostalgia for the days when people used to enjoy warm, dry summers, and crisp, cold winters.

He crossed the underground parking lot. The stark light overhead did little to illuminate the gloom. He found his car, a Fiat Reacher. Modern cars ran on electricity. Vehicles were propelled by electric motors and controllers. The energy was stored by something called an ultracapacitor. Slater had no idea how it worked but it all sounded very complicated. He ran his thumb over the ID panel. The door to the low, gleaming black car clicked open. He climbed behind the wheel. The dashboard lights flickered on. He pushed the start button. The engine coughed to life. The car whirred, made a low humming noise as he backed out of the parking space and headed for the exit.

He pulled out onto the main road. Rain lashed at the windscreen. The wipers came on automatically, the blades batted the heavy drops off the glass. He fought his way through the afternoon traffic. The roads were busy. Workers headed home after an exhausting shift, parents made their way to or from an equally exhausting shopping trip. As he drove Slater tapped the dashboard computer screen. Went on-line. Called up information on Lloyd Bennett. According to the records his only family had been his mother, Sylvia. She had died just over twenty years ago. No other family. The neighbour had said he had no friends. A loner.

He kept one eye on the zipping flow of traffic, but the other eye, and his thoughts were on what the computer screen was saying. More to the point, what it was not saying, about Bennett. What did he do with his time? Outside of working hours it seemed like Bennett was nothing more than a shadow, a ghost. What had happened to him? Nelson Slater shook his head. He wasn’t the most social creature himself but he had something of a life. He liked a drink and a smoke, enjoyed watching films. But Bennett, outside of work, had been little more than an apparition.

Which left Slater one avenue. Work. With no other option to explore Slater decided to start there. According to the records Bennett has worked for a massive computer company called The Lewis Corporation. He double-clicked on the name. The address was in Trafford Park. The area was full of industrial estates. These days most of the buildings were used for information technology.

He hit ‘go’ on the navigation system. Followed the directions. As he joined the vast, twenty four lane motorway that was the M60, he hoped that the answer to the puzzle that was Lloyd Bennett lied with his employers.

The late afternoon traffic was heavy. The slow queue of cars snaked and crawled through the rain. Nelson Slater was what his superiors call a grafter, a hard working detective. He really got into the case he was working on. He was obsessive about his work. Some of his colleagues said he was too obsessed about the job. They said that the case worked on him as much as he worked on it. Maybe they were right but as he always told them, ‘You can have a go at me when I stop getting results.’

He couldn’t explain why he became so engrossed in the cases. He just seemed to immerse himself totally. Perhaps it was that, in a world where there was corruption in all aspects of society, from television and film, to business, even the Government and the police force, he wanted justice to be done. He felt that he made a difference, no matter how small. He would do all he could to see that the victim whose murder he was investigating did not die in vain. He wanted the perpetrator brought to account for their crimes. Maybe the answer to his dedication lay in his own, not-untroubled past.

 

Forty minutes later, having parked in the basement carpark, he approached the reception desk of the Lewis Corporation. The receptionist looked stressed. Slater guessed that like a lot of people, she was overworked and underpaid. She looked exhausted. He could have carried a weeks shopping in the bags under her eyes. Her dark brown hair which he was sure had been perfect at the start of her shift was now bedraggled.

‘Can I help you?’ she growled.

‘My name’s Slater. I’m a police officer.’ He flashed his police I.D.

‘I’d like to speak to someone about one of your employees.’ he said.

‘Of course. If you’d like to take a seat someone will be with you shortly.’

The receptionist made a phone call while he took a seat on the uncomfortable sofa. As he waited he glanced around the reception area. Judging from the grim, grey welcome the company did not receive many visits from members of the public. Most things were done online these days. It was all free downloads and next day delivery. So who cared if the run down building could use a lick of paint?

Slater’s thoughts were disturbed when a man approached him. He was balding, in his fifties and overweight.

‘Mr Slater? I’m Perry. Let’s talk in my office, shall we?’

Slater nodded. Perry led him down twisting corridors. The rooms leading off it were lit only by the light spilling from computer monitors. As he passed the open doors he could see armies of workers silhouetted against an endless number of screens.

Perry stopped at one door. Waved for Slater to enter. He followed him in and closed the door behind him. Perry took his seat on the far side of the large imitation oak desk. Slater took the seat facing.

The office was an improvement on the bleak chambers he’d passed. The desk had a state of the art computer terminal and a complicated looking telephone. The walls were cluttered with digital photoframes. Perry and what was presumably his family grinned out at him from various tourist attractions and several birthday parties. This office was more homely than Bennett’s flat had been.

‘You know why I’m here?’ Slater asked.

‘It’s about Lloyd Bennett.’

‘That’s right. How long had the deceased worked for you?’

‘I mean, such a shock. You don’t expect to lose a member of staff.’

‘I understand. How long?’

‘He started here seven years ago. I’ve been his supervisor most of that time.’

‘What can you tell me about him?’

‘He was a hard worker. Conscientious, always punctual. Good at his job.’

‘And what about Bennett himself? As a person.’

‘He was a very private person. Kept himself to himself.’

‘Was he close to any of his workmates?’

‘No, not as far as I know. He just came in, worked hard, and when his shift was over he went home. I’m afraid that’s really all I can tell you.’

‘Thanks for your time.’

 

Back in the car he called the mortuary. Got through to the officer working on Bennett’s corpse.

‘Cause of death?’

‘Still undetermined.’

‘What?’

‘We can’t say what he died of. We’ve done the usual tests and examinations but we can’t trace what killed him.’

‘Can you tell me anything?’

‘Not really. His diet could have been better. He was one for the take aways. And he smoked a lot but not in sufficient quantities to end his life.’

Slater thanked him. Hung up.

As he pulled out of the carpark he longed for something, some clue to go on. So Bennett liked a take away. He couldn’t see his local take away chef killing him over non-payment on a chicken-substitute Madras. And the cigarettes. Like everyone he was a smoker. Everyone smoked. The smoking bans of the early twenty first century had been relegated to ancient history. Smoking was popular. You could smoke wherever you wanted. It was your right to be able to smoke. What harm could smoking do? Surely if it was that dangerous they wouldn’t let you smoke. The tobacco industry was big business. The companies were almost as wealthy as the computer corporations. And they advertised constantly everywhere. Marleys, the biggest brand, advertised on television, online and on the sides of many tower blocks. Surely even these massive companies could not get away with selling a harmful product, could they?

Slater joined the motorway. Drove through the rain. The sky was now a darker shade of grey. It would be dark soon. He did not work set, strict hours but with nothing concrete to work on he decided to call it a day. He headed for home. There would be little point in burning the midnight oil with no leads to follow. It would have been a waste of time. He knew there were times to go without sleep to get the job done but he also knew there were times when all he could do was go home and rest.

He drove past the sprawling neon of the Trafford Centre City, a vast shopping complex containing miles and miles of malls and thousands of stores. He rubbed his jaw. He was tired. He could hear his sofa calling him.

 

He closed the front door behind him. He sighed. It was always good to come home. He tugged his tie loose as he headed through to the kitchen. Grabbed a beer from the fridge. Took a long gulp. Having changed out of his work clothes and thrown on a tracksuit he collapsed on the sofa. He drank his beer as he scrolled through the hundreds of television channels. He searched for something to distract his attention from the case. He went through the film channels. One channel was showing a Charlie Chaplin film called Modern Times. Perfect. The voice-over said that the film was being shown to mark 300 years since the films release.

Slater shifted on the sofa. Made himself comfortable. Minutes later he was engrossed in the silent film. He could relate to the tale of the tramp and his struggle in the hard world he lived in. It occurred to Slater that despite the film being three hundred years old the world hadn’t changed all that much. Despite technological advances life was still hard but people were still people.

He drank a couple of beers and ordered a Domino’s pizza. Half an hour later the hot, spicy pizza arrived. It tasted great. Slice after slice of cheesy heaven. And with a few beers to wash it down. Delicious. He watched Chaplin as he ate. Tried to concentrate on the flickering black and white images and forget about the case.

He pushed the case to the back of his mind. He thought to much. He knew he did. If something was on his mind it ate away at him. His life had not been easy. When he was nine years old his father had been murdered. He had worked as a taxi driver. From what Nelson Slater knew his dad had been an honest man trying to earn enough money to look after his wife and young son.

One day his father went out in his cab and never came home. He didn’t answer his mobile phone. Then the police came to the flat. Slater would never forget that evening. The two grey faced police officers sitting in the living room. They told his mother that his father had been found behind the wheel of his cab with a bullet in his forehead.

Slater swallowed back the lump in his throat as he recalled the way his mother had fallen apart. His sheltered, cosy childhood had ended that day. What still tore at him to this day was that his father’s killer had never been found. No-one was made to answer for the murder.

After a few more beers he headed to bed. With unsolved cases past and present whirring round his head he drifted off to sleep.

 

The beep-beep of the alarm woke him. He rubbed his face. Threw the quilt aside and padded to the bathroom. Ten minutes later, showered, shaved and dressed for police work, he went through to the kitchen. Breakfast. As he got stuck in to bacon, sausage, beans and toast, he went on the Daily Telegraph website. He drank a mug of tea and went through the headlines.

He really should be watching his diet. He wasn’t trim but wasn’t massively overweight either. Chasing Manchester’s murderers must have helped burn off the calories but he wouldn’t exactly recommend it as an exercise regime.

After breakfast, with a full stomach he was ready to get cracking. He felt more positive about the case. He would find out what the deal was with Lloyd Bennett. He went online. Logged onto the police website. From there, with police clearance, he had access to records which would otherwise have been classified. He checked out Bennett’s bank details.

He scrolled down the figures. Wages coming in, bills going out, card payment transactions. Most of it was the usual stuff. But there were also frequent payments to a company called New Dawn. The payments were large amounts. The figures ranged from 4000 to 10,500 Digits. That was a lot of money. 4000 D was a month’s wages for Bennett. So, to who or what would he hand over that kind of money?

People no longer used cash to purchase anything. Even the smallest transactions were done with credit or debit card. Because of this reliance on cards Sterling and all other currencies had gradually faded out. Currency no longer existed. Money only existed on screen. Digits was the new currency. People talked about Digits. They spoke of things costing them nine point five digits instead of what had been nine pounds and fifty pence. In supermarkets all the check-outs were self service. Shoppers filled their trolleys, filed through check-outs, scanned their items and swiped their payment cards. In bars people ordered drinks from bar-staff and handed over their cards to be swiped.

Slater felt the adrenelin kick in. He had something to go on at last. The deceased, Lloyd Bennett had been paying regular, large sums of money to whatever New Dawn was.

Slater went on Google. Tapped in New Dawn. Hit the enter key. A second later the website told him it had found zero results. Slater shook his head. That was impossible. Everything had a website. If you mis-typed and hit search you would still get thousands of matches.

He tried another search engine. No matches. His initial elation at having something to go on was starting to turn into frustration. He called up a lesser known, more obscure search engine. Typed in New Dawn again. With a sigh he hit enter. Waited. No doubt this site would come up with nothing. A second later the screen changed. One result.

New Dawn. No description of the site or its contents. Just the two words. Slater held his breath. Clicked on the website.

The company name was written in large, friendly letters. They layout of the site was welcoming. They made the user feel at home. Slater read the text.

‘At New Dawn we offer our members the ultimate experience in Virtual Reality. Take a trip. Let our world become your world. You won’t believe your senses.’

So, Bennett was into Virtual Reality. Slater knew nothing about VR. It was supposed to be mind-blowing. Gaming and the internet were big business but VR was a small, almost clandestine corner of the market. VR companies did not advertise. They spread by word of mouth. You found them. They did not need the publicity. They provided a service for their customers. These customers were happy, and the VR companies made a tidy profit.

It fit with what Slater thought about Bennett. Wouldn’t someone in to Virtual Reality have a sparse, empty, almost soulless flat. He nodded. He clicked on the ‘contact’ icon. New Dawn’s address, phone number and email details popped onto the screen. He tapped the address into his Explorer77. Shrugged into his overcoat and left the flat. Rode the lift down to the basement carpark. Drove out into the rain. He lit a cigarette. Took a long drag. The offices of New Dawn were in York city centre. According to the navigation system he would be there in just over and hour.

 

Seventy minutes later Slater walked into the gleaming reception area of New Dawn. Inviting imitation leather sofas lined one wall. The settees surrounded shiny coffee tables. The reception desk had the company name written in the same lettering he’d seen on the website. The pretty woman behind the counter looked up as he approached. Her shoulder length dark brown hair was flawlessly styled. It reminded him of melted chocolate. She flashed him a killer smile.

‘Good morning, sir. What can I do for you?’

‘My name’s Slater. I’d like to speak to somebody about the death of one of your customers.’ He showed her his police badge.

‘Of course.’ she purred. ‘If you’d like to take a seat.’

Slater nodded. As he headed for the sofas the receptionist dialled a number on the desk telephone. Spoke quietly into the receiver before hanging up. She told him someone would be with him as soon as possible.

 

There was an A4 size electronic book on one of the coffee tables. He picked it up. The title said ‘Welcome to New Dawn’. He spent the next five minutes scrolling through the company’s brochure. It made fascinating reading. They offered various deals and packages. It seemed that, like with most things these days, the more you were willing to spend the more you could get out of the experience. First of all you had to pay for the connection strap. This was a chunky, watch-like device which the user strapped onto their wrist. The strap punctured the skin with a tiny needle. Once in place the user was wired into New Dawn’s virtual world. And, according to the bumph, once their client was ‘in-world’ they could fulfil their fantasies and desires. Slater shook his head. This all sounded very intriguing.

A woman in her early thirties appeared. She had long blonde hair and a movie star figure. She wore a business suit that showed her curves off perfectly. She gave him a killer smile of her own. Slater couldn’t help wondering if the staff here practised it. He stood. She held out her hand. He shook it. She held onto his hand for a moment longer than necessary. Had they been in a bar having a couple of beers Slater would have asked her back to his place.

‘Good morning, sir. I’m Lucille. If you’d like to come with me.’

Slater nodded. Wherever you say. He followed her down a plushly decorated corridor. Soft lighting glowed from smooth curved light fittings. The carpet under his feet was so thick it felt like he was walking on cushions. They went into an office. There was a homely yet professional feel about it.

Lucille sat behind the desk. Slater took the seat facing. He sank into the padded chair. It was almost as comfortable as his sofa back home. The walls were light cream. All very welcoming.

‘So,’ she said. ‘What’s all this about?’

She cocked her head to one side. Confused.

‘A man was found dead. We have reason to believe he was a customer of yours.’

‘I see. What was his name?’

‘Lloyd Bennett.’

She tapped at the computer in front of her. Then nodded.

‘Yes, Mr Bennett was a registered member.’

‘What can you tell me?’

Lucille glanced at the screen then at Slater. She waved a manicured hand.

‘Our records show that Mr Bennett was a satisfied customer. Like most of our users he was very happy with New Dawn’s service.’

‘Anything else you can tell me?’

‘Not really, I’m afraid. Specific details are strictly confidential but I can assure you that everything was above board. There is nothing to concern you here.’

‘Right. Aside from this specific case, perhaps you can tell me how it all works?’

‘Of course.’ she beamed. ‘The user attaches one of our connection straps to their wrist. They will then be immersed in the virtual reality world of New Dawn. Firstly they enter the Menu Chamber. From here the user select the realm they wish to visit.’

‘The realm?’

‘Yes, these realms are different environments. You could visit America of the 1880s for a taste of the Wild West. Or perhaps Medieval England is more your cup of tea. There are hundreds upon hundreds or realms to chose from. There is even a duplication of the modern world. Or you could visit the futuristic splendour of a space station. Not to mention the more fantastic, magical worlds of wizards and goblins. Our users enjoy exploring the universes we have created for their pleasure. Once ‘in-world’ the user interacts in the virtual world with other visitors. Imagine meeting people over milkshakes and burgers in a 1950s American diner.’

‘Woah. It certainly sounds very impressive.’ said Slater.

Lucille smiled, nodded.

‘I really should be going. Thanks for your time.’

 

Back in the car he lit a cigarette. Took a drag as he left the carpark. His mind was racing. He headed out into the rainy streets. The answer had to lie with New Dawn. He felt that in order to solve how Bennett died he first had to examine how he had lived. From the little he’d discovered the Virtual Reality corporation seemed to be a large part of his life. Judging from his flat and what his employer had told him Bennett hadn’t had much of a life. The only thing in his personal life was New Dawn. Nothing else. If Slater went back to New Dawn and demanded more details he knew they would clam up. They would give nothing away. They would not co-operate and they were a big enough fish that if they paid someone higher up the police ladder Slater would be told that the case was over and he’d simply be assigned a new case.

The system was corrupt, he knew that. Justice was optional, selective. If you had enough Digits in the bank you could basically do as you pleased, you could literally get away with murder.

As he drove Lucille’s words about the New Dawn product played over in his head. It sounded so interesting. Hundreds of worlds that were not real yet at the same time seemed so very real to the user. According to the brochure and the website it was quite an experience.

The traffic was heavy. The cars crawled along. Slater’s mind and his engine ticked over as he snailed along the motorway.

 

It was mid-afternoon by the time Slater eventually got home. As he closed the door to his flat he’d already decided what he would do. He logged onto the New Dawn website. He was going to delve into the unfamiliar world of Virtual Reality. He told himself the main reason was to investigate exactly what Bennett had been embroiled in. But that was only part of it. He was extremely curious about the shady corner of technology that was VR.

He tapped in his name, address and bank details. Double-clicked and it was done. He was registered as user. It was very easy. Slater was surprised at how straight-forward it was. Mind you, he thought, the whole set up centred around making their customers feel welcome. They were bound to make the registration process as painless as possible. A message flashed on the screen.

‘Congratulations on becoming a member of New Dawn. A whole new virtual world awaits. Your start-up package will be with you shortly…’

 

After forty minutes of pacing his living room there was a knock at the door. Slater’s heart pounded in his chest. What was he about to get himself involved in? He opened the door. A tired looking man in a crumpled courier’s uniform stood in the corridor. He handed Slater a plastic package the size of a shoe box. Slater pressed his thumb on the guy’s receipt scanner, thanked him and closed the door.

 

He sat at his kitchen table. Stared at the package in front of him. Reached out a hand. Drew it back again. He couldn’t take his eyes from the box. He’d never suffered from nerves in his job. Working in the Murder Squad he’d not exactly seen it all, but he’d seen a lot. He’d seen enough. During the course of investigations over the years he had been threatened by pimps, shot at by hitmen, beaten up by gangsters. And he’d seen the terrible things people could do to each other.

Yet this, his first venture into virtual reality, had him trembling. The thought of it fascinated him yet freaked him out. Come on, Nelson, he told himself. He popped open the plastic container. Tipped the contents onto the table. There was a connection strap like he’d seen in the brochure, and a small electronic booklet entitle ‘User Guide’.

Slater picked up the electronic booklet. Pushed the power button. The screen came to life.’Your adventure starts here…’ This faded to a list of contents. He scrolled down and scanned through each chapter. Went right through from getting started, choosing a realm to visit and finished with leaving VR and FAQ’s and trouble shooting. He switched the guide off. Put it back in it’s box.

He picked up the connection strap. He shook his head. How could this chunky watch-like device transport him into an imaginary word? He chewed on his lip. This was it. He was going in. Terrified yet compelled, he secured the strap to his wrist, felt the needle pierce his skin. He pushed the button on the side of the strap. Then his kitchen disappeared. The walls simply faded away.

 

Slater felt like he was falling. He was surrounded by a pure white light. From nowhere he was suddenly standing in a large room. The place had a futuristic feel to it, all silver and chrome. It reminded him of the decks of space ships he’d seen in sci-fi films. Thick silver lettering hung in the air. These words floated in front of him.

A gentle female voice asked him to select a realm. He looked at the words. So many worlds to conquer. He chose the first one that screamed out to him.

‘I’d like to go to the Wild West, please.’

‘Thank you.’ the voice said. ‘To return to this menu at any time please say the word ‘Menu’ then spell it. To exit please say the word ‘Home’ and then spell it. We hope you enjoy your experience.’

The room drifted away as though blown by a wind Slater could not feel. Once again again he was wrapped in white light. A second later things came slowly into view. Sounds rattled in his ears.

He gasped as things came into focus. Unbelievable. He was standing on the dusty street of a wild West town. Men on horses trotted past, others rode in horse pulled carriages. Horses? Long since extinct yet they swept past him. People went this way and that, all dressed in period clothing. The men looked like real cowboys, they wore jeans, waist-coats and hats. The women wore frilly dresses which hugged their curves.

He felt the sun beating down on his skin. He looked up to the blue sky. He’d never seen the or felt glorious sunshine but here he was baking in the warmth. Slater was shocked by it all. He went to run a hand through his hair. He was wearing a cowboy hat. He pulled the hat off and held it in his hands. It simply added to the whole feeling of being in a Clint Eastwood film.

It all felt so real. His head told him that this was a projection, a fabricated virtual world. He knew that he had subscribed for this, this dream-like experience. But all the while his senses screamed this is real. He looked down at himself. He wore faded blue jeans and a worn check shirt. Round his waist a pistol hung from a gun belt. No way! He shoved his hat back on and reached for the pistol. The gleaming silver six shooter was cold in his hands. He sighed. This was mind-blowing. He tucked the gun back in its holster. Looked up and down the street. There were white painted buildings stretching away on both sides. The roofs of the white walled buildings were made of curved orange-red tiles. From the signs out front and what he could make out through windows there were several stores and also a hotel. And a church at the bottom of the street.

The whole town had a Spanish feel about it. Slater guessed he was somewhere near the Mexican border. Mind you, his American history wasn’t that good. He was sure areas surrounding the border were taken by one side and then taken back by the other. Depending on where and when he was he could even be in Mexico. Hold on, he thought, he wasn’t in or near Mexico. He was still in his flat.

Across the street he spotted a battered sun beaten sign. Taverna. A bar? The faded sign hung above swinging saloon doors. Slater nodded. He could do with a drink. His boots crunched on the dusty road as he crossed. He felt the scorching sun on his neck.

He pushed the swinging doors open and went into the taverna. It looked so authentic. The dingy room had a bar running along one side, and was dotted with tables and chairs. All the men were dressed as cowboys. Some chatted and played cards. Others leaned on the bar and supped whiskey like the archetypal strangers in town.

A shiver went through him. The flawless replica of a border town saloon seemed as real to him as the flat he lived in. He went to the bar. The barman was a small man with thick, curly hair and a drooping moustache. He looked so Mexican.

According to what he’d read these realms were staffed ‘in-world’ by computer programs. These ‘programs’ interacted with the users while they were in the realms. They worked behind bars and worked in hotels. In the more modern realms these programs drove taxi cabs and did things along those lines. They think of everything, Slater thought. After all, would working behind a bar or driving a cab really be someone’s idea of a virtual reality fantasy?

‘Hola, senor.’ said the barman in a thick Spanish accent. ‘Not seen you in these parts before.’

‘No,’ Slater said. ‘I’ve just arrived in town.’

‘Welcome to the town of Nuevo Sol, senor. Can I get you a drink?’

Slater summoned up as much western machismo as he could. ‘Gimme a whiskey.’

The barman nodded. Grabbed a bottle, poured a measure into a shot glass.

‘One dollar, por favor.’

‘I don’t have my payment cards.’

‘Check your pockets. Money will be deducted from your account.’

Slater reached into his jeans pockets. Pulled out a wad of dollar bills. He flicked a finger through the notes. Cash. He’d never seen cash money except on television. Once again this virtual reality world stunned him. The barman cleared his throat. He wanted paying. Slater peeled a dollar from the wad. Tossed it on the bar, the way he’d seen done in countless films. The barman scooped it up. ‘Gracias.’

‘By the way,’ said Slater. ‘You know a man called Lloyd Bennett?’

The barman just shook his head and went to serve another customer.

Slater took a sip of his whiskey. The liquid burned his throat as it went down. Nasty stuff. He didn’t mind a drop of the hard stuff but this was something else. They could use it to strip the paint from the walls. He picked his drink up, careful not to spill a drop on the bar in case he damaged the varnish, and took a look around the taverna. He went over to a round table where six men, all dressed in similar cowboy attire, played poker. Some of the men puffed on cigars as they played. It was like something from a Spaghetti western. He recalled a line from a Clint Eastwood film. Clint, as the bounty hunter, played his intended victim at cards. He beat him and the guy asked what the bet was. ‘Your life!’ said Clint. Quality. The card table in front of him had the same air about it. The men studied their cards and tossed dollars onto the pile of cash in the middle of the table.

A couple of women, dressed in frilly corsets and suspenders hovered at the players shoulders. Slater was unsure if these were ‘programs’ fabricated by New Dawn or if they were real people. As the game went round the table Slater heard the different accents of the players. He could make out a thick Scottish accent, one scouse and another that sounded Spanish. Some of the other accents were tricky to place. They might have been German but could just as easily been Scandinavian.

A few minutes later the Scouser, a scrawny man in his mid-twenties, slid his cards together. Told the table he was out. He turned to the heavily made up girl by his side. Told her he was taking her upstairs. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Slater smiled. If ‘upstairs’ felt as real as the rest of it then the lad was in for a good night.

‘Hey pal.’ said the Scottish player. ‘You want to play?’

‘Why not?’

As he took his seat to play cards with these people from across the world it occurred to him that this was so much better than playing games online. How could that compete with this? Here he was actually sitting here playing cards with these people. Online seemed like a poor relation compared to Inworld.

‘What’s your name, mate?’ he asked the Scott.

‘My real name?’

‘Upto you. You can tell me your real name or you can use an alias. In this realm I call myself Chris.’

‘After Yul Brynner’s character in the Magnificent Seven?’

‘Aye, that’s it. But my real name is Ian Stewart.’

‘Pleased to meet you. I’ll call you Chris. My name’s Nelson Slater.’

He spent the next couple of hours playing hands of poker, drinking whiskey and chatting to the other players. He found himself getting totally engrossed in the card game and his current surroundings. The flat, his real life, and the case seemed like a distant memory. He could see why people would spend their free time and their hard earned money in VR. It was like taking a holiday, a break from the everyday, to go exploring. And that’s what it was like, exploring, discovering new realms and meeting new people.

He won a few hands of poker and lost a few. He was never the most prolific card player. It was gambling, all down to luck at the end of the day. It wasn’t like football or snooker where if you practised you’d come good. It was all about the fall of the cards. The luck of the draw.

His fellow player Chris had more luck than him. He won more than his fair share. He would scoop up his winnings with a chuckle. It amused Slater but he could see scowls on the faces of a couple of other faces. The Mexican player was fuming. He tutted to himself and muttered under his breath.

The next hand was dealt out. A few minutes later Slater folded. Couldn’t play with such a bad set of cards. A better player might have made more of it but he knew he didn’t stand a chance. He waved the barman over. Asked for a whiskey and a cigar. The barman nodded and popped back a second later with his drink and cigar.

Slater sipped his drink and puffed on the cigar. He watched the card game unfold. As before, the Scottish man won. The Mexican leaped to his feet. He was raging, eyes wide. He cursed in Spanish. Then spat on the table.

‘You are nothing but a cheat!’

‘Calm down, son.’ said Chris.

The Mexican snatched his pistol. There was a loud bang. Chris flew back in his chair. He hit the deck. The Mexican holstered his smoking pistol. Chris lay on the floor, clutching his shoulder. Tears ran down his face, blood spilled from the wound.

Slater recalled from what he’d read, that pain could be felt in the VR world. It made for a more genuine experience. All the user had to do was say the word Home and then spell it and they would emerge from the VR world in tact. The same thing happened if you died in-world. It was just like game over. You would come out of the realm you were in and go back to reality. Then if you wanted to go back in you’d have to enter again from the real world.

Chris swore and dabbed a handkerchief to his wound. Despite not being real the pain he was feeling would feel as real as anything. He nodded to Slater, then said ‘Home. H.O.M.E.’ And then he simply vanished. He just disappeared. The empty chair lay on its back and a dark red pool of blood spread on the wooden floor. The barman came over. He mopped up the spilled blood and set the chair back on its legs.

Slater felt a mixture of emotions. He was confused. None of this was real. It was VR, almost like being in a realistic dream. In one way he felt strangely liberated. He could not die or be killed. If anything happened to him he’d simply return to his flat unscathed. But on the other hand, he’d just watched this guy put a bullet in Chris’s shoulder and he was angry. Was he right to be angry? Who knew? It was a bit like someone offending you in a dream. When you wake up you’re annoyed with the person yet you know you really can’t be because it wasn’t real. But when you first wake up you can’t help being angry. Also, while he was here this world felt real to him so his grievance with the Mexican stood. Slater got to his feet. The adrenelin rushed through him like electricity. He couldn’t take his eyes off the Mexican.

He watched as the Mexican holstered his pistol. And then smiled. A horrid, sneering smirk. That did it. Slater snatched the empty chair. Swung it as hard as he could. His arms felt a jolt as the chair connected with the man’s chest. He was flung through the air by the blow. He hit the floor with a crash. ‘What a crazy place!’ Slater thought. He put his hat on and left the taverna.

As earlier the sun beat down mercilessly. Slater squinted as the harsh sunlight stung his eyes. Before he could decide where to head next the Mexican came rushing through the saloon doors. The guy clutched his chest. His face was a mixture of pain and anger. He took a step to the side. Tilted his head back in a well-practised stare.

‘What’s up, ese?’

‘Do what, mate?’

Silence.

The Mexican moved his arm. His hand hovered over his gun holster. Slater breathed in. A gunfight. He was actually going to do this. He nodded. Shifted his weight. Adopted the wide stance he’d seen in films. Perhaps it was the police training kicking in but he was calm and totally focused. He tuned everything out but the guy in front of him. The guy moved his arm again. A voice in Slater’s head screamed Now! He yanked his pistol from his holster. He quickly took aim. The guy’s gun was rising. It was level with his stomach. Slater pulled the trigger twice. The noise was like two sharp claps of thunder. The guy shuddered as the bullets tore through his flesh. He fell backwards to the floor. He didn’t move as the blood pumped from his body. Slater sighed. What a rush. A high noon shoot out. He smiled and holstered his six-shooter.

Unsure of exactly where he was headed he took a step onto the dusty road. Still buzzing from his shoot out he decided to check out the buildings across the road. Someone approached on Slater’s left. He was on edge because of the run-in with the Mexican. Slater turned to face the footsteps. A man was standing in the road. The blinding sun shone from behind the man turning him into a silhouette. All Slater could make out was that he was tall, broad, and wearing a cowboy hat. Everything else about him was obscured by the dazzling sunlight.

‘You ask too many questions, Slater.’

‘What? Who are you?’

‘You come here sticking your nose in things that really don’t concern you. Asking about Lloyd Bennett. If you know what’s good for you then you’ll leave and never come back.’

‘What do you know about Bennett?’

‘Again with the questions, copper! Let it go.’

Before Slater could reply the guy stepped behind a passing horse and carriage. Slater darted after him. Reached the far side. The man was gone. Slater turned three-sixty degrees. He swore. So, the answer to the case lay in the maze of the virtual reality world. But the guy who’d warned him off had vanished. He needed to think. He couldn’t get his head together while in-world. And he couldn’t very well traipse through the realms of New Dawn hoping to bump into somebody who could tell him something about the case. No, time to call it a day.

‘Home.’ he said. ‘H.O.M.E.’

The street around him shimmered and shook. The world blurred. It was as though he was viewing the scene through a rainy window pane. Then everything faded away.

 

After drifting through the white light the walls of his kitchen returned. Everything was exactly as he’d left it. It was dark outside. The clock on the microwave flashed 1.25AM. It was late. He hadn’t planned to spend so much time in-world. Perhaps he should have set an alarm. He recalled reading that if you had somewhere to be you could set an alarm to flash up and let you know what time it was in the real world. Then you could decide if you needed to exit the VR realm. Slater stretched. He was stiff from sitting in the same position for so long.

His mind was racing. He grabbed a beer from the fridge. Drank it down. As he drank he went over what had gone on. The virtual world was amazing. He felt like he’d actually visited a Western town. Although he knew that the town of Nuevo Sol was not real he felt as though he knew the place and had really been there.

He was tired. He needed sleep. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands. Time to get some kip. A good night’s sleep and then back to New Dawn in the morning. He told himself that the reason for going back into VR was purely to do with the case but deep down he knew that he was itching to get back to the fabricated realms. It was addictive.

He yawned. Headed for his bedroom. The last thing he did before his head hit the pillow was remove the connection strap. He placed it carefully on his bedside table.

 

After a night of dreamless sleep he woke when the alarm went off at eight o’clock. He showered and shaved. Dressed in jeans and t-shirt. No point in dressing for work. He didn’t plan to spend the day in the real world. Thirty minutes later, having breakfasted on tea and toast, he lay on the sofa in his living room. Attached the connection strap to his wrist. Then pushed the button.

 

Once again he was bathed in the brilliant white light. Slater felt excited. He knew what was coming. Next would be the Menu Room. And then he would choose a realm. Fantastic. He could not wait. Except he did not appear in the Menu Room. Images came flooding into focus out of the whiteness. He looked around. He was standing in a deserted train carriage. He was rocked side to side as the train rushed ahead. The sky outside was black. Something wasn’t right. Then it clicked. There was nothing outside. No streetlights rolling past, no houses with lights burning in their windows, no apartment block towers reaching for the skies.

And the train rocketed onward. The speed he was travelling at was unnerving. He steadied himself on the seat nearest him. The carriage was totally empty. He swallowed. Something was so not right about all this. He walked forward. Reached the end of the carriage, and went through the sliding door into the next compartment.

An identical carriage. Deserted, starkly lit from overhead, pitch black outside, the train thundered on. There was something deeply sinister about the scene. Something unsettling. A shiver went through him. The last time he’d been in the VR world it had been magical. This time it seemed dangerous, wicked. He had to get off the train. It was freaking him out.

‘Home.’ he said. His voice was the only sound apart from the metallic rattle and clunk of train against track. ‘H.O.M.E.’

He waited. Any minute now he would return to his living room. Any minute now. And he would not be coming back to this world. It was all to strange. He just wanted to be home. Any minute now. But nothing happened. Nothing. He was still on the awful train ploughing through the darkness. He could feel himself starting to panic. He took a lungful of air. Marched to the end of the carriage. Went through the door. He entered another identical carriage. He just wanted the whole thing to stop. He ran to the end of the carriage. Entered yet another identical compartment. He rushed through this carriage and the next. Kept running. He had to get to the front of the train. Had to do something. He ran and ran through the carriages till his chest burned and his legs ached. And still the carriages stretched on. He shook his head. He could spend an eternity rushing through the train. He slowed to a walk. He still kept going. Didn’t know what else to do. Kept walking, hands on hips, his head hanging. Would this never end? Carriage after carriage. He went through the sliding door at the end of one carriage.

He gasped. He was no longer on the train. He found himself sitting on a rickety old wooden roller coaster. The car he was in and track frames in front of him were painted red but the paintwork was faded and flaking. It was daytime and the blue sky was dotted with clouds. The roller coaster car headed up a steep incline. There was a click-clicking sound as the car was pulled forward. Up and up. Higher and higher. He reached the top of the rise. He could see miles of sandy beaches and the sea stretched away on his left. Then the roller coaster car plunged down at a break-neck pace. He held on the the rail in front of him. Tried to remain in the seat. His stomach churned. The car hit the bottom of the drop and slammed into the bend. He was whisked off to the right. A succession of sharp left and right turns and ups and downs followed. He tried to shout out but couldn’t catch his breath. He felt like he was going to be sick. His head hurt and his arms ached from clinging to the safety rail.

The roller coaster threw him this way and that. Slater wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. He started to wonder if you could black out while you were in-world. Technically, weren’t you already out cold anyway? Round and round he went at a speed he wouldn’t feel safe driving at. Up and down, left and right. Round and round. All at furious speed.

‘Home.’ he managed to mutter. ‘H.O.M.E.’

He prayed that it would work this time.

Again nothing happened. Nothing. He was trapped. He had no control. The dream had become a nightmare. And all the while he was thrown about by the ride. It seemed to last for hours. He closed his eyes but that made it worse. It made him feel more sick than seeing the scenery rush past and around him. The ride turned a bend and plunged down into a black tunnel.

 

The ride vanished. The seaside was gone. He was standing in a large room. The place was decorated with an oriental style. The walls were thin and seemed to be made out of paper. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling, they were emblazoned with what looked like Chinese writing. Slater was dressed in a dark blue mandarin suit. It was the kind of thing he’d seen people in the Far East wearing on television when they practised Tai Chi. He sighed. He was glad to be on solid ground again. He didn’t think he could have taken the roller coaster ride for much longer.

From nowhere a figure appeared in front of him. One minute Slater was on his own, the next this figure was there. The person was dressed head to toe in black. His head was covered with a hood, and only his eyes were visible because of the black mask he wore. Slater had seen enough martial arts films to recognise the outfit. He was a ninja. And Slater knew he was in trouble.

Ni hao!‘ said the figure.

Slater shrugged.

The ninja shifted into an elaborate fighting stance. His legs bent slightly and his back was arched, his open palms faced out.

‘Home.’ Slater shouted. ‘H.O.M.E. Come on.’

Nothing. The ninja’s eyes were fixed on him. They were the eyes of a predator. It occurred to Slater that if he is trapped in this world, and he can feel pain then, this world was as real as the world he had come from. Who was to say what was real? Despite knowing that this was all an illusion he was still at the mercy of this world and its rules. So, wouldn’t it be fair to say that while he was here, that this world was real. He was trapped and no-one knew he was in the virtual world.

The ninja clenched his fists. Then launched himself at Slater. As he saw the ninja flying towards him Slater dropped to the ground. He heard the ninja land on his right. He rolled away to the left. Got to his feet. Before he could ask the warrior what all this was about the ninja ran at him. Slater raised his arms to protect himself. Kicks and punches rained down. The blows felt as real as anything he’d felt back in the so-called real world.

He was forced backwards by the ninja’s attack. He tried to retaliate but it was useless. The guy moved like lightning. As soon as Slater threw a punch the guy would side-step to avoid the blow and return with a hard flurry of punches and kicks. Slater was pushed back against the thin wall. The ninja stopped attacking. Took three steps back. Slater tried to catch his breath. Raised a hand. Wait! The ninja’s arms spun in wide arcs. He flicked out his right leg. There was a crack as the fabric of his suit was stretched taut. He let out a piercing cry. He leaped at Slater.

Slater felt the guy’s foot slam into his chest. It drove him through the wall. He fell. He seemed to be falling for such a long time.

 

The ground he landed on was soft and wet. He got to his feet. Looked around. He was standing in a field. The edges of the field were lined by thick rows of hedges. The sky overhead was cloudy. It wasn’t too warm. He shivered. He noticed that he was wearing tracksuit trousers and running shoes. His chest was bare. Okay, he thought, what now?

He was in the countryside. He recognised it from television and films he’d seen. It all had been wiped out long before he was born but in the mixed up realms of virtual reality that didn’t seem to be an issue. He heard sounds to his right. It came from the other side of the hedge. He could make out the sound of dogs barking, raised voices, and horns. The horns were strangely familiar. He’d heard them on a music track. That was it. Sergeant Pepper by the Beatles. Then he remembered what the horns and the dogs meant. Centuries ago these sounds symbolised a fox hunt.

Just as this occurred to him men on horses, and packs of dogs leaped over the hedge. The sound was deafening. Horses hooves thumped, dogs howled and barked, the riders shouted to be heard and others blew horns. The men wore red jackets. One of the men raised an arm. Pointed at Slater. No way! He shook his head. He turned and ran.

He dug the balls of his feet into the soft earth as he pushed himself forward. He had to get away. The pack chased after him. He gulped at the air as he raced across the field. His chest and legs hurt. He was still weak after the train, the roller coaster and the attack by the masked man. And now this. The stitching pain in his stomach felt like it was cutting him in half. He risked a glance over his shoulder. The pack were a couple of feet away from him. The dogs snapped their teeth, gnashed at the air with manic fervour. They were gaining fast. His tired legs could not compete with the horses and hounds.

This was it. He didn’t know what would happen first. Would the dogs tear him to shreds first or would the horses run him down. The rules seemed to have gone out of the window. He couldn’t escape from this horrific world so would have to accept his fate. He hoped that he wouldn’t suffer too much before returning to the real world. He pushed himself on. He clutched his stomach. Stumbled forward. His legs felt so heavy. It was like trying to run through water. He tripped. Again he landed in the grass.

He rolled onto his back. The pack was upon him. His ears hurt with the sound of the dogs’ barking. In a few seconds he would be in such pain. He hoped that it would be quick. He closed his eyes. He waited for the attack. Tried to brace himself for the pain. The sound of the attacking throng filled his ears, drowned out his thoughts.

 

Then silence. Total silence. Slater didn’t know what to think. There was no way the pack could have been this quiet. It just wasn’t possible. He opened his eyes. He was standing in a dark alleyway. It was night. He was wearing a double-breasted pinstripe suit and a fedora hat. Up ahead on the left was a doorway. He headed for it. It was a wooden door. There was nothing near the door to give any clue as to what lay on the other side.

He took a breath. Pushed the door. It opened. He stepped over the threshold. He was in what appeared to be a club from the 1930s or 1940s.The place was full of people. Men wore suits and some wore fedoras too. The women were dressed in tight ¾ length skirts and silk blouses. Cigarette smoke hung in the air like fog. A jazz band at the far end of the room played a tune that Slater thought he recognised.

Then something else about the scene struck him. The whole scene, the room, the people, everything was in black and white. It was as though he was starring in and old black and white film. There was no colour in the room at all. He looked at his hands. His normal pale pink fingers were now a light grey.

He made his way through the crowd. Reached the bar. The barman, a bald man with a toothpick dangling from his lips asked Slater what he wanted. He ordered double bourbon. As he poured his drink Slater tossed a dollar on the bar. He took a slip of his drink. He sighed. He needed the drink. He was glad that he had chance to rest up. He didn’t know how but he’d managed it but he was relieved he’d avoided being savaged by the hounds. He really needed the chance to catch his breath.

A small, weasel-faced man caught Slater’s eye. There eyes met for a second. Then they guy quickly looked away. He headed for the guy. When he neared the man went to move away. Slater grabbed him by the arm. He wanted answers. If he was stuck in this awful world then he was damn sure he wasn’t going to find out what had happened to Bennett and why the VR world was roughing him up so badly.

The guy was small with greasy hair and teeth that looked too big for his mouth. His eyelids drooped over his eyes. Everything about the man was shifty. His appearance seemed to say ‘do not trust this man’.

‘I want to know about Bennett.’ Slater said.

‘I don’t know nothing.’

‘Tell me or I’ll break your arm.’

‘I can’t.’

Slater drove his fist hard into the guy’s stomach. He bent double. Slater pulled him upright. Drew back his fist to hit him again.


© Copyright 2018 CTPlatt. All rights reserved.

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