|Chapter 7: VR 101
Vince Costellos warm feelings about the VR Rocket Man were not shared by the Rocket Man's son-in-lawnot at that moment anyway. The old guy had put Ken in a bind.
Fifty dollars was a lot of money for a married man with a joint bank account to spend on a one hour session alone in a commercial, full immersion, virtual reality chamber. He paid little attention to the "whites only" sign placed discretely in the lower right-hand corner of the marquis of the converted suburban movie house now called the Jim Crow Arcade. He saw signs like that every day but seldom did he run into these kinds of prices.
He was outraged!
Im gonna have to talk to Dad about this, thought Ken as the automated ticket dispenser swallowed his gold bank card. It was a wonder that he could think any thoughts of his own with the irritating cacophony of jungle music leaking from half a dozen cut-rate earlobe receivers. That was the new style, as were the loud, tacky clothes and manners of the loud-talking peanut-tossing barbarians behind him.
Standing in the cold with nothing but unruly white kids as young as 14 holding red junior bank cards, and adults no older than 25 with gold cards like his, had been bad enough. Paying for the privilege was going to be a bear to explain to Barbara. She checked their account twice a day. She was going to notice. She was going to ask what the "Entertainment" expense was for. What the hell was he going to tell her?
Gesticulating youths skipping and bounding around the corner of the ticket booth against the flow of traffic laughed, and gasped, and talked excitedly. Maybe their Virtual Reality Sessions in the Jim Crow had been worth it to them but if Barbaras father didnt come up with a solid excuse for getting together this way, Ken couldnt see how it was going to be worth it to him.
Kens bank card and a stiff, green, plastic ticket popped out of their side-by-side slots. He took them, placing the card back into its computerized place in his wallet as he walked the five or six paces around the corner of the ticket booth. He could now see that all but one of the five entrances had been closed. There, he had to wait for a jostling stack-up of kids at the outer door to clear the automated admittance chamber. When more than one person occupied the space between the inner and outer door, the ticket-reading sensors would allow no one through the inner door. Not all of the young people passing through them obeyed the electronically enforced rule the first time or moved with the alacrity called for by the situation.
Older people holding two or more tickets were grumbling about the wait while younger males, for the most part, laughed and threw peanuts in the shell at one another the way Ken had seen them do in the ticket line. From the reaction of those around him, he had to assume that the peanut throwing was an expected part of the total experience. If that hadnt been enough of a hint, the presence of the old Korean man selling peanuts nearby from a steaming sidewalk vending cart and the black workers sweeping them up, would have delivered the message.
Ken wondered how many of the Jim Crow patrons crowded around him had once been Negroes like he and Barbara or genetically altered in the womb like their son, Sam. Only the hardest of hard core bigots were supposed to think such thoughts, but he thought them all the time and he knew he wasnt a bigot. His conviction that Blue Monday would not have been prosecuted were it not for his race was proof of that. Still, the Negro workers doing Negro work for the white owners and patrons of this establishment made him uncomfortable.
Funny how that hadnt changed since he was a teenager, long before his race reassignment, when it was against the law to bar Afros from public places of amusement. Whenever hed see Negroes in a setting like this performing Negro chores or talking their ignorant talk, hed wanted to shout to all of the white patrons that he was as normal on the inside as they were. Now that his outside matched his inside, he felt exactly the same way, as though his race change operation had never happened and the white people could still see him as the sepia-skinned, brown-eyed, woolly-haired person he used to be. Negroes being Negroes were still an embarrassment to him. They had neither the pride nor the good sense to be embarrassed for themselves.
It was his turn to go through the outer door. He stepped lively. The door behind him closed. The one in front opened. He walked inside where he was greeted by the pleasant aroma of freshly popped pop-corn. The warm, clean, interior was alive with happy chatter in hushed tones as people entering and exiting crossed paths on spotless red carpeting. A young white man in black-face make-up and clothing from a 19th century minstrel show, doffed his stove pipe hat and waved him through with a smile. Ken tried unsuccessfully to follow his nose to the popcorn popper as the kids with peanut bags tossed them into a rain barrow trash receptacle. The barrow was painted with the crossed out face of a grinning, black-skinned, red-lipped pickaninny holding a half-eaten watermelon.
That ubiquitous symbol of zero-tolerance for niggerish behavior was one of the New Economic Zone system's first big success stories. The black man who thought it up and made millions from it's wide-spread use was raised in one. His enterprise is what got him out. But Ken was convinced that the money he was spending on adds to dissuade other Negroes from changing their race, or even their eye color would eventually put him back where he started. Ken thought that the pickanny looked an awful lot like him. He was a Republican. Ken was an American.
Hummm, thought Ken, seeing nothing that resembled a refreshment stand but several signs with the pickannys face prohibiting food and drink; the scent of pop-corn with nothing to litter the carpet. Great idea. I wonder who came up with that one?
Two body-lengths across the lobby which stretched the length of a football field from side to side, were entrances to corridors where a steady stream of people came and went.
Ken followed the lead of the youngsters in front of him who took off their coats and gloves while the people on their way out were putting them on. They entered the first corridor on their right and followed the closed roll-up doors on either side of them against the greatest flow of pedestrian traffic. An "S" turn brought them to a corridor with the first row of open chambers.
Kens heart thumped a little faster as he watched a boy in tight blue buck-skins hop into the front-facing, air-filled, plastic chair in the tiny cell and toss his coat somewhere out of Kens line of view. The door came down too quickly for Ken to see much more than the clear, plastic recliner depressing just enough to take on the shape of the boy's body. The plastic chairs were cheap, strong and comfortable, but they looked so thin and fragile that Ken had always been afraid to sit in one. Today, he would have no choice.
He walked into the next open cubicle, seeing a shelf on the wall like the one the blue-boy must have tossed his coat onto. Ken did the same with his coat and eased himself into the bubble seat. While the door was closing he thought that hed never stop sinking, but before the door came down as far as it could go, so did Ken. At that point, the air pressure in the plastic easy chair increased to provide enough resistance for optimum comfort.
Ken was impressed.
The door closed all the way. The small chamber went black and stayed black long enough for Ken to wonder whether something had gone wrong.
The light came on. Now Ken was sure that the equipment had malfunction.
From a hidden speaker, a womans patient voice said, "Please stand up and face the back wall."
"Please stand up and face the back wall."
Ken rose slowly and faced the wall. There, painted in bold red letters on a square white background were instructions. The speaker-voice explained, "The proper operation of the virtual reality matrix requires a signature body scan." Ken read the words:
PLEASE STAND IN THE FOOTPRINTS
OUTLINED ON THE FLOOR. HOLD YOUR
ARMS OUT TO YOUR SIDES. SPREAD
YOUR FINGERS. OPEN YOUR MOUTH.
LIFT YOUR TONGUE. DO NOT MOVE
UNTIL THE RED LIGHT GOES OFF.
Ken followed the directions. Red light bathed the room. The red letters on the wall vanished. In their place were black letters telling him to blink his eyes as he normally would. Ken held still, blinked twice, and the full-spectrum light returned.
"Your body scan is complete," said the voice. "Please be seated."
Ken turned again and once more sank into the bubble plastic seat. Once more the room went black and stayed black long enough for Ken to wonder anew if the equipment was working properly.
Then, he was jolted by an explosion of light and sound that told him he was in a much bigger room, an old-fashioned classroom with seats joined to wooden desk-tops, teen-aged students on all sides wearing pompadours, ponytails, argyle sweaters and socks. Sounds of girlish whispering, rustling paper and a grinding of a primitive, hand crank pencil sharpener came from the rear. Someone in front sneezed. He could smell the perfume of the pretty girl on his left and the hint of a body odor problem emanating from the tough looking character on his right. In front of him sat a girl with long, black hair in a ponytail and a rose-colored blouse puffed at the shoulders. A prim female teacher in a black frock with a white lace collar and a cameo broach stood before a blackboard. Her face was deeply wrinkled, her wire-frame glasses round and thick, her salt-and-pepper hair drawn into a tight bun. She held a wooden ruler shakily in her bony, blue-veined hand.
All of this sprang out of nothing in an instant.
My God, thought Ken, feeling like a UFO skeptic whod just been whisked aboard a flying saucer on a light beam, this is unreal!
He knew, of course, that it was unreal but it looked and felt and smelled as real as anything in his experience with the natural world. He squinted his eyes, trying without success to see trough the illusion of the classroom to the solid door and walls of the actual room he was in. Knowing that his perception of time, place and people was an illusion made no difference to the perception of reality.
The same could not be said for his virtual reality body which felt as detached from his real body as it was. It was something like being inside of a bulky costume, only the Virtual Reality Persona he had fallen into was a skinny kid in a loose, white knit shirt and tight blue jeans.
Maybe a bulky costume wasnt the best way to describe his VRPs relationship to his physical body. A bulky costume implied slow, cumbersome motion when in fact, those seemed to be the kinds of moves needed to produce a natural, fluid motion in VR. The slightest hint of motion produced a greatly exaggerated corresponding effect.
The stern voice of the teacher arrested his attention. It sounded as if she were talking to him. He looked around, his virtual realty head whipping back and fourth faster than he could stop it or slow it down.
"Young man! You in the fourth row, third seat."
Ken counted the rows and the seats until he arrived at his VRPs seat. The virtual reality boys and girls around him stared and snickered. He stabbed his chest painfully hard with his finger tip, intending only to point to himself.
"Yes," said the teacher. "This lesson is for you."
On one level he knew that he was alone, that he had no cause to be embarrassed by the programmed actions and reactions of light vectors configured to imprint on his optic nerve the utterly convincing images of this imaginary place and these imaginary people. On another level, the truth didnt matter. His emotions ran faster than his intellect, forcing an initial emotional response to whatever messages his senses conveyed to his brain. At that moment, like it or not, he was the skinny kid in the third seat of the fourth row about to get a lesson. A lesson in what?
The chalk letters on the board behind the teacher said, "Movement in VR 101."
Had the message been there all along or had it just now appeared? Ken guessed that it had been triggered by the body scan or by a macro-motion detector to guide newcomers to virtual reality through the basics.
Clever, he thought. Very, very clever. He smiled. He relaxed. Only now did he realize how tense he had been. He decided to sway with the breeze...roll with the flow...take things as they came.
The teacher stepped to the side of the blackboard and pointed with her ruler at a numbered line below the name of the course. It definitely hadnt been there before.
"Rule number one," said the teacher. "Think about what your want to do."
A second numbered line appeared. The teacher pointed to it. "Rule number two," she said. "Watch what youre doing."
This time the teacher pointed to the space below the second line before the number appeared. "And number three," she said, "Recall what you did."
"Is that it!" blurted Ken without thinking.
The teacher glared at him, "Young man," she said, "Raise your hand if you want to speak."
Ken waited, feeling supremely foolish for being singled out and lectured to by an ELFor whatever mindless thing this make-believe teacher should be called. Then he remembered his conversation about teacher ELFs with Bernie the cop. Perhaps there was a real teacher like his wife Barbara at work behind the scenes for the management of the Jim Crow Arcade. Or maybe the VR teacher was the Virtual Reality Persona of another patron of the establishment just as the persona of the skinny teenager in the third seat of the fourth row was his. Maybe some of the other students were the VRPs of other patrons or Jim Crow staff members. How was one to know?
The teacher fixed her eyes on Kens, walked briskly down the aisle toward him and slapped the flat of her ruler against his desk with a loud, "THWACK!"
Everyone sat at attention, including Ken who couldnt escape the fact that he believed the truth of what was happening even though he knew it was an illusion. Besides, he had decided to sail with the wind in this Virtual Reality Session, hadnt he?
"Im sorry, maam." He said
"Dont be sorry," said the teacher, "be attentive. Now, remember the rules and raise you hand."
For a moment he had forgotten all three rules. The teacher was blocking his view of the blackboard where they were written. He started to raise his hand anyway and was amazed when the mere thought of what he wanted to do started his hand in motion. Thats when he remembered all three rules and understood in a flash what was happening.
His artificial body was like an artificial limb, using basic stop and go signals from the brain to stimulate the muscle contraction and relaxation capabilities of the real body that it needed to function. The smallest contractions were making everything happen, some of them so tiny that the animation they gave to their VR counterparts could easily have been mistaken for pure acts of will.
Watching his VR hand move effortlessly over his head while his physical hand practically stayed where it was, Ken got his first glimpse of why anything was possible in virtual reality and why so many were willing to pay so much to experience it.
"Very good," said the teacher, "nodding her approval. "Now, pick up your book...." Ken was about to ask, what book? when a thick volume of World History materialized on his desk. "...and open to page 597"
Ken gaped at the hard-bound object in a wonder-struck daze, then did as he was told with all the finesse of a man wearing thick woolen gloves. He was surprised that his VR hand stopped when it made contact with supposedly solid objects like the desk and the book. The weight of the book also surprised him. But his biggest surprise was in how quickly the thick gloves feeling diminished to more manageable dimensions. None-the-less, it required a considerable amount of effort to turn the pages until he got to the right one.
The chapter was called, World War I and featured a picture with a torpedo in the foreground on a collision course with the ill-fated liner, Lusitania.
"That was fine," smiled the teacher, turning and walking back to the front of the class. "Come up here with me and read for the class."
Standing and walking was his greatest challenge yet. It took him much longer to get out of his seat than he had anticipated, and walking on the virtual reality hardwood floor in his Virtual Reality Persona was like walking on a trampoline with stilts. He was concentrating so hard on each step that he didnt notice the man standing in the doorwaythe black man with the salt-and-pepper Afro, the leather aviator jacket and the bullet-shaped helmet cradled in his arm.
Aaron McPhail announced his presence by saying, "Dont think about each step, Son; think about walking."
The first two words in his familiar baritone voice had grabbed his son-in-law by the head and turned it toward the door with a mixed expression of astonishment and humiliation. Ken had actually forgotten why hed entered this strange new universe, seeing only how inappropriate was the uninvited presence of a middle-class Negro inside of it. It represented everything that was wrong with the arrogant Liberal philosophy of forced integration and everything that was wrong with men like Aaron McPhail who adhered to it. No wonder men like him were so widely scorned! It was their own fault.
The Jim Crow Arcade and all it contained was clearly designed by white people for the entertainment of white people. There was nothing wrong with that. It wasnt like the Blue Monday affair where race was a likely factor in putting a mans favorite body parts in peril. No one was being imperiled and nothing but their own lack of enterprise was preventing blacks from creating their own Jim Crows. It was obvious to Ken why white people resented intrusions like these into their private domain and why the American Party had become as popular as it had.
All of those ideas were so concentrated in duration as to be recognizable to Ken only in a vague sense of emotional discomfort. Now, he thought, blushing furiously from head to toe, what am I supposed say in front of all these people?
By "people" he meant, white people. Aaron McPhail could read it in the boys eyes. He could read his every thought which was written on his face in every exaggerated line, movement and shade of color. This was one of the reasons hed insisted on meeting him in this environment, to take advantage of the deception detector features inherent in its use by a neophyte. He liked Ken, and respected his desire to be more open about the subject of race than he was. But race had always been a barrier to meaningful dialogue between them wherever it was involved. And where wasnt it involved?
Ken looked at the teacher and his classmates, astonished to see that they were motionless like exhibits in a wax museum. He didnt see the bemused expression on his father-in-laws face.
Neither of them saw the slowly shifting eyes of a curly-haired boy in the back row peeking at them over the top of his history book.
Contact the author: Jasper Garrison