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User:Eirik/The Trouble with Troubleshooting

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The Trouble with Troubleshooting

Author: Eirik

Eric pulled up to the building and parked. The building was nondescript enough. The only thing that showed this was the headquarters of a multi-billion dollar corporation was the simple blue sign on the northeast corner, Woltech.

Walking though the glass front doors, he stopped at the security desk. "Can you direct me to Mr. Wollers office?"

The guard glanced at a computer screen, then back up. "You have an appointment?"

Eric nodded. "Schneider, Eric Schneider."

The guard waved toward a bank of elevators. "Fifth floor."

Eric thanked the man and headed across the lobby. He was anxious to figure out what this job was all about. It had been the oddest since he'd struck out on his own with consulting work. The company CEO himself called, talking fast and buttering him up. They had a problem with their new project, and had the need for someone with his talents. He'd heard of how Eric had helped rebuild the database for their west coast division, and how good the work was. Oh, and he would be compensated for his services.

And how. If this was all on the level, it would be enough to buy a house, even after giving Uncle Sam his cut. All for a couple weeks work. Eric wasn't sure what was wrong, but it was definitely important.

The elevator doors opened on a quiet, dimly lit lobby. A receptionist glanced up from her desk and smiled as he stepped off. "You must be Mr. Schneider. Mr. Woller is expecting you. Go right in."

Eric walked in and saw Mr. Woller in person for the first time. He was a lot shorter than his pictures in the trade magazines implied. Billions of dollars of personal net worth tended to make people seem taller. The CEO stood up from his chair and circled the desk. "Mr. Schneider, how nice to meet you. Have a seat. Can I offer you some coffee or something?"

"It's Eric, and no thanks." He took the offered chair, though.

"Sandra, hold my calls," he said to the receptionist as she walked out. He went back to his chair and sat down. "So, Eric, how much do you know about my company?"

He shrugged. "Not a great deal, to be honest. You make a lot of good, but niche, computers and electronics. Your bread and butter is in satellite technology. That's about it."

"You've heard of our virtual reality division, correct?"

Eric nodded. "Sure, who hasn't? Best in the world, but too expensive for anyone to buy."

Woller smiled. "Of course." He leaned forward. "My company is working on the most advanced virtual reality environment ever constructed, something straight out of science fiction. Once you're immersed in it, you'll never know it's not real. It won't look like you're trapped in 'Tron' anymore."

Eric smiled a bit skeptically. "Sounds interesting."

The CEO laughed. "I know, I know, it sounds like a grandiose claim. Believe me, even a couple years ago it was. We've been working on a whole new type of computer, though. Blows away anything that exists today." He leaned back in his chair. "We literally download your mind into the environment, and you interact with others inside the system. The buildings, trees and even the animals look, feel and smell real. We've had over a hundred programmers working day and night on this for two years and have barely scratched the surface."

"You download a mind into the computer?" asked Eric suspiciously. This sounded like the setup for a bad story. "How does that work?"

Woller waved his hands, "It's complex, believe me. I don't even understand it all. But we've been doing it with animals for six months now, partly to see if it was harmful and partly to populate our virtual world. So far, the ones we've pulled back out are none the worse for wear. The others we left inside as avatars are flourishing. We've loaded over seventy different animals so far."

Eric tapped his foot a couple times. "So, why are you talking to me about all this. It sounds like you've got your own people on top of things."

Woller shook his head. "I'll level with you, there is something odd going on inside the environment, but none of my people can put a finger on it. So far, we've largely programmed one test setting, called the SMT…"

"SMT?"

"Small Midwestern Town," he explained with a grin. "Flat, a main street, farms and barns. That kind of thing. Pretty detailed considering it's a test bed, but dull as dishwater."

Eric nodded. "What kind of problems are you having?"

"The setting doesn't seem completely stable. We've had a problem with small structures appearing and disappearing. A lot of the plant life is getting out of hand, particularly the domestic crops we've programmed in. We return it to the norms, and it won't stay. We don't understand why."

"Anything else?" asked Eric.

"The oddest thing is that the avatars are breeding."

Eric felt his eyebrows rise. "The computer program is breeding?"

Woller shook his head. "What we've got inside that environment is not just a series of computer programs. The animals that are inside that computer are complete templates. Every thought and instinct. Those animals are alive in there. So we expected, to a degree, that they would at least attempt to breed. But if what we see is accurate, they are actually doing it."

Eric frowned. "What kind of animals are in this place?"

"A pretty wide variety, actually," said Woller. "Mostly farm stock, though. Cows, horses, pigs, chickens, that kind of thing. A few smaller critters like squirrels and raccoons. Nothing large and dangerous. No large predators," he added.

Eric began to shake his head. "Exactly what do you want me to do here, Mr. Woller? I still don't understand what this job is."

Woller leaned back. "We want you to go inside and find out what's going on."

Eric considered a moment. "Have there been other people who have done this?"

Woller nodded emphatically. "Oh sure! Six of the programmers have already gone in and looked around. The problem is that they are too close to things. They never saw anything go wrong. We think that it's possible that the computer was using their own knowledge as an error check while they were in there. Once the programmers were pulled out, though, things went back to their unstable self."

"You need someone who knows nothing about this to see if the problems are more than ghosts," said Eric.

He nodded. "Something like that. Can I count you in?"

"I've got some more questions, but I'm interested."

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Eric felt a little disoriented as the lab facility vanished around him and was replaced by the front steps of a small county courthouse. He gripped a marble pillar to keep from falling over and looked around.

For a split second, he could almost be convinced that he was really in a small town. The buildings looked real enough, as did the trees and the sky. Even the marble under his fingers felt cool and rough as it should.

But as his mind settled into things, he began to pick out the small differences between this virtual reality and the true reality. The colors here were too uniform. He looked at the brickwork that made up a general store across the street and realized that it seemed as though a template had been used dozens of times to make the walls. The same subtle flaws and marks repeated over and over. The clouds, he saw, were moving slowly across the sky, but too perfectly. They lacked the randomness of real clouds.

Damn good start, though, he thought. If this is a test bed, then I can't wait to see what they do when its ready for primetime!

He was struck by the silence, though. No wind, no birds, nothing. There were, of course, no people sounds. Absolute, total silence. It seemed like the end of the world.

Eric started down the steps of the building and started to take stock of things. He'd been given a rundown of what he should expect to see here. The area had been laid out roughly based on a map of some town in Kansas. There were a total of fifty buildings in the setting, most of them here near the courthouse. They and what furnishings had been programmed in were around 1950's period, though it wasn't a strict thing. There were no cars or trucks yet, and most of the stores were just fronts without merchandise.

He turned a corner near a barber shop and stopped at the sight of the first of the animal avatars, a lone pig rooting through a flowerbed. The pig stopped only a moment to regard the newcomer, then went back to digging up roots to eat. As far as Eric could tell, it was no different than any pig he'd ever seen or heard of, though he'd hardly made a study of them. The thing even cast a shadow, something he didn't realize he hadn't expected to see.

He gave the animal a wide berth. There wasn't much point in scaring it into attacking by getting too close. He had been assured that he couldn't die inside the computer, that his computer generated body was indestructible, but they had pointed out that the perception of pain was still possible.

Eric sighed and checked his watch, or rather the virtual representation of a watch that his virtual body was wearing. It had only been a few minutes, and he'd agreed to stay here for five days.

It was going to be a long five days.

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Eric spent most of the first day roaming the buildings in the main part of the town. For the most part, they looked reasonably well designed. He was a little put off by some of it, though. He'd never seen so many famous paintings outside of a museum. It seemed that someone had scanned a book of the Louvers collection and told the computer to use that to decorate the walls. The Mona Lisa alone was hung in five different houses. There were other oddities like that all over. There were only a few different pieces of furniture, and the computer was randomly using them in each house and building. Every book on every shelf, he noted wryly, was in the public domain.

So far, though, it all seemed stable enough. As dull as it all was, it didn't jump around. Houses weren't appearing in the middle of the street or anything like that.

He ran into a few more of the avatars as he moved though the town, too. He caught a glimpse of a chipmunk running across a street and up a tree, and when he came out of the courthouse after examining it, a pair of cows were grazing on the lawn. He'd approached them cautiously, but stayed on the opposite side of the stone wall. He reached out and touched one on the neck. As far as he could tell, these cows felt as real as anything else here.

He left the pair and walked down the street to a large house. Just as he'd been warned, he'd get tired and hungry here as well as in the real world. Only in the real world his body was being fed through a tube. Inside the house, he found a kitchen filled with generic soda, a few cuts of lunch meat and some bags of potato chips.

Never leave it to an engineer to stock the pantry, he noted.

After his dinner, he laid down on the couch in the dimming light of the virtual sun and slept.

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He was greeted the following morning by the crowing of a rooster.

Grudgingly, Eric slid off the sofa and looked out the window. A couple of chickens were pecking at the grass, the rooster slowly circling them. More avatars. He tried to remember how many they had told him were in here. He seemed to be running into them all the time since he first got here. Considering they were all supposed to be confined to the farms, it was a little odd. He sighed and headed out the door, not feeling like more soda and chips for breakfast. Perhaps he's find something more interesting on one of the farms.

It was a hike out to the closest farmstead. It had been simulated to be at least a mile out of town, and the virtual morning sun was a lot stronger than he liked. Worse, it was a dull walk. The road was a simple two lane asphalt strip that ran perfectly straight out as far as the eye could see. The black was almost shiny, like it had been laid down the day before, but the edges were cracked and broken like it was old and weathered. Even the pattern of the breaks and cracks repeated over and over.

The monotony of the walk was shattered by a rumbling whinny from nearby. Eric glanced up to see a horse standing at the corner of a fence in a pasture. The dark brown coat was marked only by a nearly perfect white star between its eyes. He walked over to it and reached out carefully. "Heya fella," he said gently, "how are you?"

The horse sniffed at his fingers and seemed to accept that Eric wasn't a demon, allowing him to scratch his neck. "You're a friendly one." Eric took a good look at the animal, and was again amazed by the detail of this program. He knew that the horses mind was supposed to be real, but the body was the product of the programmers, and it was perfect. It wasn't that this horse was a champion, but he was properly proportioned and everything seemed to work okay. He was a bit on the chunky side, but he'd been grazing for months without stop, so that was to be expected. According to Woller, the computer knew how to add and subtract weight like that.

Eric started walking down the fence line, the horse in close tow. He stopped a couple times to pat the horse, but he seemed starved for attention. Eric felt a little pit in his stomach. This was a real animal, one that had likely been raised around humans all its life before being imported into this place and left alone. Eric really felt sorry for the poor thing.

He reached the end of the fence line, which turned in toward a small cluster of buildings. Eric turned and started toward the farmhouse, stopping when he heard a piercing whinny behind him. He turned and looked at the horse. "I'll be back in a little while. Don't worry."

He turned and started for the house again. This time, rather than a whinny, he heard the pounding of hooves on the grass. Eric turned and almost bowled over by the onrushing stallion. He started to step out of the way, but it proved unnecessary. The horse stopped, waiting to be scratched a bit more.

Eric reached out uncertainly, but looked back over his shoulder at the fence. It was a solid, wooden fence without a gate. "How did you get through there, fella?" asked Eric.

The horse didn't answer. After he was satisfied, he simply trotted away.

Eric started poking around the farm, the horse nagging at him. How had he managed to get through that fence? He could have jumped it, but not from a standstill. He made a mental note to mention this to the engineers. This had the feel of a bug.

Eric walked to the side of the barn and found the vegetable patch. Rows and rows of carrots, cabbage and other crops were neatly lined up neatly. A couple of horses, a donkey and a cow were scattered through the vegetables, eating to their hearts content. It seemed that all of the animals were out of their pens, though without any caretakers, that was for the best anyway.

The animals ignored him as he made a wide circle around the patch. He was about to round the corner near the carrots when something struck him as odd. The vegetable patch wasn't right. He looked at the house, then the barn, then the patch again. It was pretty clear that the engineers had set this up to be symmetrical. The patch was supposed to fit neatly into the rectangle formed by the house and barn, then bordered by a couple of pasture fences. The pasture fences were gone, though, and the vegetable crop was spread far past their old lines. Another glitch.

Eric walked back toward the barn and poked his head in. Here he found a couple more donkeys and five horses eating from their feed bins. The stall doors were all wide open, as were the barn doors. He walked down the line of stalls, getting stares from some of the equines and ignored by others. All of the stalls looked well lived used, but someone had been mucking them out. None of them had anything close to six months worth of dung covering them, yet the animals were using them. The straw in most even looked fresh and clean. More than that, the feed bins were perpetually full. The engineers had told him that nothing was automated here, at least not yet. The animals were just expected to graze until that could be done. So what the hell was going on?

In one of the stalls, he saw one of the foals that Woller had mentioned. The mare was eating quietly, though watching Eric with a wary eye. The foal was laying in the straw, sleeping. It was cute as could be, and again perfect, but definitely made no sense. The programmers had assured him that they had never even told to computer what an infant animals looked like, yet something had created this thing. In fact, the engineers had begun to suspect that their readings of these foals and calves were spurious readings. This was the cutest spurious reading he'd ever seen, though.

Eric walked out of the barn and looked out across the wheat field. He shook his head a little to clear his thoughts. The first day he'd walked all over the town and seen nothing out of the ordinary, save for the occasional animal wandering around. The buildings, the furnishings, everything. It was all as normal as a virtual place could be. The only mistakes and glitches were here on the farm.

Eric glanced up to see a bull moving slowly, but deliberately, toward the wheat field. He didn't slow as he came toward the heavy wooden fence and Eric waited for the distant collision.

The fence vanished as the bull passed through, then reappeared.

As the bull started to graze on the wheat, Eric stood shocked. The avatars had control! Somehow, the animals could modify this place!

The thought had barely crossed his mind when he heard a snort behind him. He turned and barely registered the presence of the business end of a large donkey when the world was hurled into darkness.

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"It's my turn, and you know it," said a gruff voice.

"You damned equines all stick together," shot back a high pitched voice. "Fine, but I get the next one."

Eric slowly opened his eyes and tried to clear his double vision. The horde of animals slowly turned into one of half the number. Equines, cows, chickens, pigs and a host of others were crowded around him. He tried not to move, but a chicken spoke up, "He's awake."

A horse stepped forward. "Sorry for the rough treatment, but we couldn't have you running off and warning the engineers," he said.

"What's going on?" asked Eric. "How could you be talking?"

There were chuckles through the animals. "We do a lot more than that, Eric. Much more."

"How did you know my…" his voice trailed off as things clicked together. "Oh my God, you have access to the program. You're sentient."

The horse perked up his ears. "I'm impressed. The last couple of humans that came in here didn't believe it, right to the end." He flashed a toothy grin. "You see, the programmers designed this place to cut off humans from the program from inside. No one thought about the animals. We've learned. We have total control."

"It was only a few days before we were thinking, planning, plotting," said a sow. "We're all determined to get out of here."

Eric shook his head. "You can't get out. They removed your bodies…"

"We were just animals, after all," finished the horse. "I wouldn't worry. We're implementing phase one right now. We'll get the bodies we want, eventually. For now, yours will do. Step up!"

Eric tried to say something, but felt his body go limp. A donkey stepped from the crowd of animals. "I'm here."

"You'll take this humans form. You know your assignment." He turned toward the human. "Don't worry. None of the others felt any pain."

Eric tried to protest, but his world went dark.

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He was in a pasture.

For a moment, he was aware of some greater presence, the vast database of the computer. Just as suddenly, he felt himself cut off from that. The animals weren't going to allow him to gain control. Ever.

Fleetingly, he was aware of his memories vanishing, one by one. He struggled to hang onto a few of them, but they were snatched away and forgotten.

It wasn't long before the sweet smell of the grass took over his thoughts, and only a donkey remained.

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"How was it in there?" asked Woller.

"I couldn't believe it, it was incredible. But there were some problems."

"What kind of problems?"

The former donkey smiled. "Hard to describe, but we'll need a few engineers to come in and take a look."