|This story is a work in progress.|
The sprawling, palatial complex of Dreams, Incorporated, is decorated as a monument to the worst kind of conspicuous opulence since the Golden Age of Hollywood: deep pile carpeting in lush crimson; floor-level lighting in polished brass fixtures that bathe the arched ceilings in a heavenly golden glow; and thick folds of red velvet drapery that deadens the murmur of voices to a respectful hush. Tonight the Dreams complex plays host to a special students-only clientele, and all but the most rebellious of them is awed by the luxury.
Hallways lined with red velvet rope curve gracefully away from the central lobby, leading to scores of plush booths. Dreams, Inc., boasts of the privacy of its virtual parlors, and of the quality of its computer simulations. They are so real, claim the advertisers, that they are indistinguishable from, and yet superior in every way, to ordinary reality. It is this promise of fantasy that draws patrons, draws them by the hundreds daily. The technology of virtual reality, once a fantasy itself, is an integral part of modern entertainment, replacing motion pictures and television and theater and sometimes even replacing all but the finest holiday accommodations. Why spend a week on a tropical island, where the weather may be too hot or too rainy, where the sand burns your feet, where there are insects and high prices and crowds, when you can spend it on a virtual island that is better in every way?
What's more, in a Dream, there are only as many others on that tropical island as one might desire, and no more; and only those that are pleasing. Silence can be found, and privacy, and solitude; or, if one desires, crowds of the most beautiful, luscious samples of humanity — of either sex — that one can envision, and yet none of them ever in one's way on the roads, taking the best places at the beach, talking too loudly in restaurants, standing in line ahead of one, or being noisy after hours in the bungalow next door.
Even the Dreamer himself might be different in a Dream, if he wishes. His body may be perfected, altered, adjusted, or revised to any standards he sets. He may become the most beautiful, the most handsome, the strongest, the best, the tallest, the most perfect specimen — of either sex, of any species — that the computer can create.
When a mere vacation loses its appeal, when mere environmental beauty begins to pall, the Dreams may become fully interactive. Many Dreamers feel that the beauty of a tropical paradise could be made more exhilarating still with the prospect of romance, or adventure, or excitement, and thus the Dreams themselves reached their full flower: interactive virtual fantasies, suitable for a group of friends or for one Dreamer solo, in which the Dreamers play the prime movers of the story. Be the hero, or the villain; be the fair maiden or the knight in shining armor. Be any character in any land, real or imagined, in any kind of story that can be wished for.
Some say that the invention of Dreams has stunted humanity's emotional growth, that by hiding from true social interaction in a perfect world eliminates the need for true maturity. That may well have been true with the earliest models, the most primitive of artificial constructs. Today's computers are so advanced, and the interactions so refined, that only an expert in artificial intelligence could detect the difference, and only after careful study. The background characters in a Dream (or bit players, to use the proper terminology) are seemingly every bit as human as the patrons themselves.
Despite the apparent dangers of long-term immersion in a fantasy world, there has been little harm done to humanity. The Dreamers of the world have still learned to grow, and share, and cooperate, and experience things together. Perhaps this is because their social abilities are honed, in these virtual worlds, by the necessities of being the hero in a story: interactions with the computer's virtual pawns sharpens the Dreamer's abilities and sympathies when all consequences are larger-than-life. Or perhaps humanity's social skills have not atrophied because the computers, more intelligent than mankind now by far, create by design the kind of virtual worlds that will challenge them the most.
Tonight, facing the challenges offered by the Dreams computer, are several students of the university. They are about to enter stories of their own. There is Oliver, near the refreshment stand. He is the young bald black man with the quick wit and the charming smile. He lingers near the concessionaire, but not too near, for he hasn't the money to spend on luxuries; simply spending a day in the electronic virtual paradise offered by Dreams is luxury enough. His lack of wealth embarrasses him, especially now that he has a steady girlfriend in Danika, there by his side. Oliver isn't like the other young black men on the East Side, because he has talent: skill with music, and vibrancy in his voice, and an active mind. He won't end up in the dead-end jobs, and he won't stoop to selling drugs on the street, for Oliver has pride — perhaps too much.
By the door, anxiously awaiting his date, is John. His parents wished upon him citizenship, anonymous belonging, and granted him a suitably American name that he might himself become suitably American. John knows that living up to the expectations of three generations of Japanese-American ancestors is difficult, and he has done well for himself in the world. His college studies will take him far, yet still two things he desires that he fears he cannot have: a strong, masculine shape instead of his own slender Asian build; and the girl Lynne, who tonight is John's date, just now arriving with her chaperon.
There in one of the booths on an upper floor, with one leg cocked roguishly upon the central table-screen, is Harley. She has lived for too long as the saintly step-daughter of the local minister, too long been the good girl in the white dress, to play the part with relish any longer. See how she dresses in tight black leather pants and a sleeveless silk blouse. She wouldn't wear that around the house, not yet; but her friends aren't scandalized, as they know her too well. The friend who knows her best is Dominique, there with Harley in the booth, chattering in Spanish about the boy in the parlor across the hall. Dominique knew Harley as a choir girl, it's true, but Harley's rebellion does not surprise her; it has been eighteen years in the making.
Many patrons take advantage of the privacy of the booths to discuss which virtual adventure they plan to take. Since in a Dream, one can be anything one desires, the nature of each Dreamer's adventure can be intensely personal. In one of the comfortable alcoves is a young woman with dark, almond eyes and a swirl of lustrous black hair streaked daringly with violet, but the red velvet curtains are drawn and tied, as if she is embarrassed about her hair, or too shy, despite her beauty, to let herself be seen. She is Danaë, the artist and avid reader who speaks five languages. She desperately wishes to enter the world of fashion design, to express herself with art and fabric and color, but as yet she is too afraid to stand out against the crowd, to speak her mind, to take command of her world. It is odd that she speaks so many languages, and cannot find the courage to speak the words she wants.
In another booth with the curtains drawn, on an upper floor out of the way, is an athletic young man named Damon and his friend Seth. Most other students who attend the nearby college know that Damon is a baseball player, and that he pitches for their school's team. They know him as a talented chess player, as an excellent student of architecture and math, and as a handsome and eligible bachelor to which many of the young female fans would like to attach themselves. However, few would suspect that Damon is gay, and fewer still would guess that Seth is his lover. The privacy of the alcoves here, and the secret nature of one's mental adventures, may one day save Damon's future baseball career.
Zoe does not keep her sexuality a secret. As a beautiful black member of the school's dance team, she makes no polite conversation before turning down a suitor; she does not speak in vague, coy terms. Little about Zoe is coy: she is forward, honest, forthright, and simply not interested in men. Zoe majors in theatrical arts, as well as in dance, and she is not shy about speaking her mind. If offered the opportunity to visit a restaurant, she reminds everyone she is a vegetarian. If she is asked about politics, she is quick to loudly denounce the conservative agenda. But she does not object to electronic fantasy: in a virtual world, beef comes from electrons, not cows, and she and her girlfriend Xandra may enjoy hedonism and excess while hurting no one.
You might also catch a glimpse of Axel, the blond young man dashing up the curved staircase to meet his friend Wyatt. If you stopped him, Axel might explain that he was eager to begin his Dreams, but that mightn't be the truth. In the lobby below is Ray, whom Axel is anxious to avoid — after all, most sensible people do, as Ray is something of a menace. Axel may be almost handsome, and he may be a capable athlete, and an avid debater, but he falls into a category of people whom Ray despises: all those people more handsome, more athletic, and more intelligent than himself. And as Axel dashes away, we might ask ourselves if he is braver in a digital world than he is in the real one.
Choose a Character
Each character below is a self-contained choose-your-own-ending story, and each character gets the choice of three virtual reality scenarios that the computer will recommend.