It didn't feel like much, he thought as the straps released and the door opened. A surly character—a total stranger—was standing there scowling at him, a signal that at least something had happened. It worked, he figured. He's back.
"Come on, pal. People are waiting."
He got up, steadied himself, and walked past the strange man and a long line of customers waiting for their chance to experience "The greatest trip you'll ever take!" What a joke, he thought. But he didn't have time to warn the poor suckers. He had to get back to The Center.
When he stepped outside it was raining, and late—too late for the bus. He'd have to walk back. If only he'd taken an umbrella, he thought. And then he laughed. Who takes an umbrella? Besides, with the thick Autumn foliage, he wouldn't get too wet. (Was it Autumn already?)
He wondered how long he was in there. It seemed like an eternity. He started walking a little faster. Only a few more blocks, he thought. And then, he forgot his name. He forgot his name! That had never happened before. Think! he thought. What was his name? What was it? Talk about an identity crisis—an I—an I—there's an I! Ira? Irv? Ilya? Isaac? Ivan? Ivan! Ivan! Of course! What a relief. But... Ivan what? Ivan what? Now he couldn't remember his last name! How odd, he thought.
Bond tried to get the waiter's attention. "Another martini—shaken, not stirred."
"That's the fifth one you've had, James," Ann reminded him. "Let's get out of here."
"Nonesuch, my dear. How about a game of femin de cher?"
"That's chemin de fer." This wasn't fun anymore, she realized. Maybe King Arthur's Court, or Bloomsbury would have been a better idea. Instead, she's stuck in the sixties (the 1960's) with a fictional superspy and a couple of midgets who came from who-knows-where, and the nagging feeling that she'd spent three months of her salary on what the late American author Tom Wolfe once described as a "bummer."
Speaking of midgets, they were back, standing so close she could feel their steamy breath on her kneecaps.
"Let's go, bro'," said one to the other as each grabbed a hand. She couldn't stop them. They pulled her to her feet and dragged her away from the table and across the crowded dance floor.
"Where are you taking me?" They just giggled. Still, she had no reason to be frightened. What had she ever done to a midget?
"I don't recognize you. Should I?"
He'd never seen her before, either. "Can't you check the computer?" he pleaded. He wanted to take a shower and go to bed.
"We don't have a computer. What's your name?"
"I don't know." She looked at him warily.
"I can't explain—just do me a favor and check and see if there are any Ivans registered here. You can do that, can't you?"
"As I said, we don't have a computer, which means I would have to go through all the folders, one by one—and I don't feel like doing that right now. It's two in the morning, you know."
Ivan thought for a moment—about what he'd been through, and what he'd done in the past to extricate himself from situations like this—and he realized that the one thing, the one thing that always worked, was the element of surprise.
"What's your name?" he asked her.
"I beg your pardon?"
"What's your name?"
She just smiled. "You got me. Better have a seat—this could take a few minutes." She disappeared into the back.
Ivan scanned the lounge—the faded furniture, the coffee table covered with old magazines, the rusted-over water fountain—it all seemed so drab and depressing. Was this really The Center? He picked up an old copy of Real Time, called, simply, Time back in—and then he noticed the date—August 22nd, 1982! That's almost eighty years ago! He started thumbing through it—then she returned.
"I'm sorry, Ivan. No Ivans. You'll have to leave."
The midgets had somehow managed to drag Ann backstage, down a dark hallway and into a dingy coat closet. They tied her to a chair and gagged her (using an expensive silk scarf she was thinking of buying last week, but didn't).
"What's your name?"
"Where are you from?"
"Why are you here?"
"Who sent you?"
She tried to answer every question, although she didn't have to.
"All right, let's come to order. Everybody? Please? Quiet down, please. Quiet, please... "
Bob, the Chairman, finally got the Board's attention. I was in the back of the room, crouching down—hiding.
"I'll remind everyone," Bob began, "that this is a confidential briefing. Anything said here stays here. A lot is at stake. Ned will explain."
Ned, one of the original designers of the program, stepped up to the podium.
"Folks, I don't know how to put this... " He looked at Bob, who nodded subtly, and then continued.
"Well, folks, we've got a problem. A couple of people have... disappeared."
A big gasp. This was a surprise to just about everyone. I acted surprised too.
"As a result," Bob added, "we've had to shut down all the booths until the problem is solved."
A much bigger gasp.
It was almost dawn. Ivan had been sitting at the bus stop for hours, just staring at The Center and the other buildings and the surrounding scenery. It all seemed so familiar at one time, and now it seemed so—unfamiliar. Déjà vu in reverse? What would that be? Après vu? He laughed—and then he stopped laughing. Where was he?
A bus silently pulled up to the curb and opened its doors. He decided to get on. It was empty, except for the driver. Ivan handed him a dollar.
"What's that?" The bus driver looked at it as if he'd never seen money before.
"It's a dollar. Not enough?"
"Bread, sonny boy! Bread! Dough! Lettuce! You got any of that?"
"Bread? You mean, like, white bread? Rye bread?"
"Now you're talking. I'll take celery too, if you've got it."
Ivan considered his next move carefully. The bus driver wanted the slang equivalent of money, and he only had the real thing.
"How about my wealth of information? Get it?"
The driver didn't react immediately, but then shrugged.
"Okay, that's not really proper, but, you can take a seat."
Ivan sat by a window and watched the world as it silently floated by. But there was something strange about this "world." Everything seemed flat and grey, like faded photographs in an old scrapbook. His old scrapbook. And then the obvious finally hit him: He wasn't back. Something had gone wrong. Which meant... what? And, if he wasn't back, where was this bus headed?
"Mmmph?" Ann answered for the umpteenth time. After a brief argument, the midgets decided to remove the silk gag.
"Can I keep it?" she asked them.
They looked at her and laughed.
"Are you dreaming?"
"I know it's expensive, but—"
"No, no... Are you dreaming?"
"Well, not really, no."
They grabbed her—much more forcefully this time—and dragged her down another dark hallway, through another door, and then outside into the alley where they dumped her onto the cold cement. This was beginning to hurt, she thought.
"We don't need any dreamers in here!" they snarled, and went back inside.
She'd been told to expect some pretty weird things in virtual reality, but nothing as bad as what occurs in an actual dream, where you're at the mercy of your own subconscious. In VR, supposedly, all the fears and phobias are screened out, allowing the vast amount of information residing in the memory to be easily called up—without the residual problems. "No nightmares," the salesman promised her. Where was he now? she wondered. Probably floating on a very real boat on a very real body of water, drinking a very real beer. ("Never trust a salesman," she'd been warned by her father, a salesman himself. He sold memory chips—back when they were surgically implanted. If he were still here she'd have never taken this trip. He'd have told her to wait. "Wait until the technology is proven," he always said.)
The door opened again. The midgets were back, this time dragging a helplessly sloshed 007.
"He's probably just a figment of your imagination," said one.
"But why take chances?" said the other. And with that they hoisted him over their heads and—after a short running start—tossed him into a large garbage bin. Then they jumped in the air, gave each other "high fives" and went back inside, slamming the door behind them.
That's enough! Ann thought, getting to her feet. Should she give Bond a hand? No, don't be ridiculous. He wasn't real. Was she real? Now, that's a good one, she thought. Very metaphysical. Something a Norman Mailer might know about, were he alive.
Just then, a street cleaning truck, its spinning brushes spitting garbage in all directions, turned the corner and headed down the alleyway—directly towards her! She hated these things. Once, when she was eight or nine, she was sitting on the curb waiting for her parents to take her to the circus when a street-cleaning truck—just like the one bearing down on her now—sprayed horrible brown muck all over her, ruining one of the few pleasant memories she remembered having. (This was before the enhanced memory chips—the ones her father gave her for her twenty-first birthday—supposedly erased all that.)
The truck's big brushes were whipping the alley into a cyclone of garbage. She was trapped. It maneuvered into position and—Pow!—blasted her with its best salvo. It was gone before she could get a good look at the driver. Probably Freud himself, she thought.
Covered in brown muck, she stood up, took out her wallet, searched for her VR card, found it, scanned it, flipped it over, found the number and took out her phone and dialed. (No Implant-a-Phone for her—not perfected yet).
"Hello," said a voice a lot like hers, "you've reached the Virtual Reality Help Line. How may we help you?"
She was surprised that they could operate within virtual reality, but then, how would she know? This wasn't her field of expertise, which happened to be late 20th, early 21st Century Anglo-American Literature. (Fleming, Wouk, L'Amour, Vidal, King—The Best Sellers.)
"Hello? I need help."
"What kind of help?"
"I want to leave."
"You don't know how?"
"That's why I called you."
"I can't help you."
"I don't get it."
"Then neither do I."
"But you're the help line. I called you—for help!"
"I understand. But I can only give you answers to questions you already know the answers to. If you don't know—then I don't know."
Ann was getting impatient. What kind of a help line is it, she thought, that can't even tell you how to exit the program?
"Program? What program?"
"I didn't say anything about a program."
"Yes you did."
"I was thinking about the word 'program,' but I didn't say it."
"Same thing, as far as I'm concerned."
"To whom am I speaking?" (It's smart to "get a name," her father always said.)
"Me? I'm you."
"No. I'm you. You're me."
"Right. And I'm you."
Ann had to think of a way out of this.
"Help line? What would you do if you were me?"
"Hmmm... that's a tough one. Give me a minute."
While she waited, Ann took a bite out of a steak sandwich she'd been thinking about.
"Here's what I'd do," the voice returned. "I'd locate the nearest VR booth and go home, have some hot cocoa, and get into bed."
"Thanks," Ann thought. She put the phone away and looked at her VR card. It was hard to focus on the small print—especially under the circumstances—however, she thought there was a booth listed at "64 Grand," and she was on Grand, so it had to be nearby.
"How does somebody simply... disappear?"
"This is what we think... " Like everyone, I leaned in to hear what Ned had to say.
"If the mind, or the imagination, is called upon to mimic a self-replicating organism, it can, conceivably, create another—and separate—reality within that reality."
Blank stares all around. "Simpler," Bob whispered loud enough for me to hear in the back of the room. Ned tried again.
"All right. Very simply it's like... dreaming that you are dreaming."
More blank stares. Ned tried again.
"Put it this way: You know how, when you take a trip in virtual reality, everything is there—everything from the world as you know it is there—except that it's all arranged a little differently?"
A few nod, but most Board members have never experienced virtual reality. They're money men—too old, and cautious. Bob, sensing their growing discomfort, tried to move things along.
"What actually happened, Ned?"
"Well, in the one case we're following, we believe that a man named Ivan—we only know his first name—anyway, while in virtual reality, Ivan somehow imagined himself entering a VR booth—an imaginary VR booth—and, somehow, disappeared. At least from this reality."
No one, myself included, was following this, but Bob took a stab at it.
"You mean—he imagined himself entering another virtual reality?"
"Well, where the hell would that be?"
"We have no idea. If he really is in a world of his own making, a fantasy world inside a fantasy world—the one we sold him—then he could be almost anywhere."
Ivan stepped off the bus and onto the sidewalk of a pretty, tree-lined neighborhood, just like the one he'd lived in when he was first married. One of the houses looked familiar, too. As he remembered it, a woman lived there—a beautiful woman, a Mrs. Something-or-other. Her husband had walked out on her. Disappeared. She was alone and probably lonely. (What the hell! He was dreaming, wasn't he?)
He walked up to the front door, pressed the doorbell, and waited. Would anyone be home? Would she remember him? What was her name? She was so beautiful and—whoa!—the door suddenly opened.
"Hi," she purred, standing there in a suggestive pose—and stark naked. (Exactly as he'd fantasized it for the last six years!) But, would she invite him in?
"Come on in." (Dreaming's not so bad—sometimes—he thought.)
Ann wasn't sure what to do next. There was a booth at 64 Grand, all right, but it was closed. The only people around—squatters, the homeless—were all asleep. She could go somewhere else, but where? Besides, she laughed to herself, the bus service in her imagination was lousy.
She peeked through the window. It was dark, but what she could see looked like any other VR booth in her memory—the seat, the straps, the slot for the card, the big screen, the keyboard, the acoustic-tile on the walls and ceiling, the overhead light, and the heavy, heavy door. This was about all she could summon up, but it was a fairly good replica of a VR booth. It should work, she thought. If she got all the details right, then, why not?
She opened the door and a man's body toppled out, settling at her feet. Fortunately, he was only sleeping. It was her fault, of course, for thinking about the homeless in the first place. She knew that if she simply stopped thinking about them they would go away—so she did, and they did. Then she stepped inside the booth and shut the door and sealed herself off from—well, she wasn't sure what.
"Here's the thing," Bob summed up, "we've got this problem: People have disappeared. Who's at fault? Are we responsible? We don't know yet. The lawyers can figure it out. What we have to do now is hunker down and treat these disappearances as nothing more than your average 'missing person' reports and, when the time is right, get back to business. As long as it's confined to just two—"
"Or three," I said to myself—but Bob heard me and stopped, and soon everyone was aware of my presence, stepping away from me as if I had the plague. Who did they think I was? A corporate spy? A terrorist?
"Who are you?" Bob asked.
"I don't know," I answered truthfully. "That's why I came here. To find out who I am—or was—before I stepped into one of your booths."
"He's a spy!"
"Hang him!" A couple of security guards jumped me and wrestled me to the floor.
"Wait!" It was Ned. "Maybe he's another one. Let him stay."
"Another one what?" someone asked. The silence that followed was so total I could actually hear them thinking.
"This changes things," Bob finally intoned, somberly. "This changes things—considerably."
"Mind if I watch the tube?" Ivan asked. "I just want to see the news. It'll only be for a minute."
"Go ahead," she sighed.
He looked around for the remote control, but she'd already picked it up and—click!—the set was on. It was one of those silly game shows from the early days of broadcasting, with phenomenally big (for that time) prizes and difficult questions. He remembered that there was a scandal of some kind—answers given to contestants in advance. But this wasn't the news.
"This isn't the news," he said, grabbing the remote control away from her. But she grabbed it back and held it, teasingly, just out of his reach. He lunged for it, and missed. She took off and he followed, chasing her upstairs, downstairs, and through an endless maze of hallways and corridors—an extraordinary number for such a small house, he kept thinking.
Ann was ready to slip her card through the slot, but she wanted to try something first. As an exercise, she wanted to see if she could remember a complete passage from Youngblood Hawke, the seminal Wouk novel (Middle Period, Post-Marjorie Morningstar) which she practically memorized while writing her doctoral thesis (half-finished). She owned a first edition that had been passed on to her by her father, who had received it from his father, who had received it from his father—and so on for generations. She knew her father would have preferred having a son to pass the book on to, but he loved her anyway. So what if she didn't become a "big" novelist, like Youngblood Hawke, "who came out of the mountains like a wild mule, braying and kicking in all directions." She did earn her Masters—and he was proud of her for that. And she was halfway to her doctorate until, well, she got married.
"When do we re-open?" someone asked.
"Soon, I hope," Bob answered as he and Ned and some security guards hustled me out, leaving a bunch of anxious millionaires grumbling to themselves. I was taken down a long, institutional hallway and into another wing of the building where Ned and Bob stopped to confer. After a short chat they separated, Bob leaving with the guards, Ned staying with me.
"Let's go in here." He took me into a small room with a table and two chairs and an overhead light and nothing else. It was a room that could only be used for interrogation. We sat down. He smiled amiably and took out a pencil and a pad and wrote "NAME" at the top—and then he chuckled to himself and crossed it out.
"When did this first happen?" he asked. "When did you first enter the booth?"
"I don't know. It could have been this morning—or yesterday—or last week—or last year. It's hard to tell when your reality ends and your virtual reality begins. Time distorts."
"But you do have memories, don't you?"
"Sure." I was bluffing.
"Good. Then let's see where you've been for the last how-many-hours and re-trace your steps. Let's go backwards, say, from the moment you showed up at the meeting."
"Okay... " I had to think of something.
"And now the news, the headline stories, the top stories making news, the stories that are making headlines, the headline stories in the news, the top headlines... "
Ivan waited for the anchorman to get to the point—and the news—but he never did. So he clicked to another channel—and another newsman—who was stacking and shuffling his news stories, about to begin. Or at least it seemed like he was about to begin. Instead, he kept stacking and shuffling his papers, stacking and shuffling, and smiling helplessly—in a kind of sad, forced ballet. Click! The game show again.
"You've got thirty-two thousand dollars. You can keep it and go home, or return next week and try for—" Click!
"... the top stories making news, the headline stories, the top stories, the top headlines making news... "
He threw the remote control out the window.
She opened her eyes, the straps released, the door opened... Did it work? Was she back? She stepped outside, looked around and immediately knew—yes! It worked! She was back! Everything seemed okay, just the way it was when she left. No midgets, no squatters, no Dopplers. In fact, her little town (what was its name?) never looked better—the drug store, the barber shop, the corner newsstand—aha! To make sure she was really back she'd buy a newspaper.
"How much is the paper?" she asked without looking up from her bag—which seemed to contain everything she'd ever kept in it for the last twenty-five? thirty-five? forty-five? years. How old was she? (Why didn't she know?) She could only find a nickel and two pennies.
"Seven cents," said the newsy, whose face was obscured by racks and racks of magazines.
She took the paper and handed over the change—but she was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. Seven cents for a paper? The newsy's voice sounded familiar, too—but she was tired and she'd been through a lot. Perhaps she should just go home, have a cup of cocoa, read the paper and get into bed. She would—but first, a peek at the headlines.
"YOUR NAME HERE," it read in large caps. (Uh oh.) She opened it, afraid of what she might find inside. "STATE BEATS TECH, 100-0!" read the headline on the sports page. Where was she? (And what about tomorrow's weather?)
"I can't think backwards," I said.
Ned smiled understandingly. "Why don't you just tell me where you were at this time yesterday and work your way forward from there?"
No more bluffing—I had to deliver. "Okay. Yesterday at this time... I was in my room... at The Center."
"The Center? What's that?"
"It's where I live—well, where I used to live—but, for some reason they don't remember me there now, so—"
"Just tell me where you were and what you were doing at this time yesterday."
"All right. Where was I?"
"At The Center."
"Okay. The Center." I stood up and took a deep breath. I tried to remember what I was doing at The Center, or why I left The Center, but I couldn't even remember what The Center was.
To stall, I started pacing around the room. Ned didn't mind, he was too busy writing. Then, for the hell of it, I tied the shoelaces of my shoes together. When I tried to walk, I fell flat on my face, knocking myself unconscious.
When I awoke Ned was gone, my shoes were no longer tied together, and I was in my home, sitting at my desk, still staring at an unfinished—and overdue!—article about this stupid "virtual reality" craze. My wife, Ann, suggested I do something about it, "before it blows over—like disco, or flying saucers." Well, I've tried. Believe me, I've tried.
"Ivan?" she said, startling me. "Are you going to work all night?"
"I fell asleep. Had the weirdest dream, too."
"Weird? Or just erotic?" She smiled.
"No, no—it was weird, believe me. Not in the strict Freudian sense—although he was in it."
"Freud. He was in it. And of course I was in it—and you were in it... "
"I'm flattered. Who else?"
"Well, let's see... Freud, James Bond, midgets—it all took place in the future, and... oh yeah! Who played Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes movies?"
"Nigel Bruce. Nigel Bruce was in your dream? And James Bond? And midgets?"
"Identical twin midgets."
"Excuse me. Go on—what else?"
"Well, I'm starting to lose it, but it had to do with this virtual reality stuff, and dreams, and I came up with a riddle, a conundrum: What happens when you dream that you are dreaming?"
"I can't explain it exactly but, in the future, if you want to leave this reality, all you have to do is step inside a booth, strap yourself in, and—bzzzt!—you're someplace else!"
"Bzzzt? That's it? That's all you have to do? I like that. Bzzzt!"
"You can laugh, but—"
"Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Bzzzt!"
"Stop it, Ann." I was getting a little annoyed. And hungry. "Do we have any food in the house?"
"Steak, from last night. Would you like a steak sandwich?"
"I'd love one."
She held out her palm.
A steak sandwich appeared—out of nowhere!—scaring me half to death.
"Wake up. "
"You were dreaming."
"Yes, and you're making noises too, and it's keeping me up."
"Sorry, bro', I must have been dreaming."
"I just said that."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"One question, and then it's back to sleep."
"What does maitre d' mean, in English?"
"I don't know—we took Spanish—what's the difference? We're maitre d's. We'll be ex-maitre d's, however, if we show up late for work tomorrow. Comprende?"
"Besides, I like this job. The money's good, and—don't forget—not too many places will hire midgets. You don't want to go back to the circus, do you? Now, let's get some sleep. Okay, bro'?"