Cubey Terra recently wrote a bittersweet short story called “The Oldbie.” If you’ve ever used Second Life, you should read it.
It inspired me. So I’ve written a similar story. A story about virtual worlds and the future.
It’s called “Jetpack.” This one’s for you, Cubey.
“So it goes,” Smith thought.
The kids were at it again. Jittery blurs of perpetual energy as they danced around a pristine white marble fountain spraying jets of water high into the morning air. Most of them seemed to be wearing fashionably new broadcast jackets. Strobing videos from a live concert flickered across their backs and arms. Angry questions shouted to the world.
From across the plaza in his favorite patio seat, Smith could hear the harsh growl of musical instruments in synch with the videos. It sounded like a room full of broken washing machines stuck on spin-cycle.
A pair of dark-suited businessmen in silver sunglasses walked stiffly past the fountain, visibly annoyed by the disturbance as they attempted to continue their conversation over the noise. One of the kids reached into his pocket and tossed a fuzzerbang. Hundreds of bouncing cartoon characters suddenly appeared in a swarming cloud around the businessmen. “Biz somewhere else!” laughed the boy. He danced in a circle and smiled broadly as the suits angrily waved their hands in the air, hurrying out of the plaza.
Smith recrossed his legs and poured himself another cup of coffee.
Sipping it slowly, he watched the boy dance toward a group of pigeons pecking nervously at the cobblestones. The birds took flight in a flurry of flapping grey wings, rising slowly into the clear morning sky. Suddenly the boy held out his hand, fingers outstretched like a fan. One of the flying pigeons froze in the air in a faint outline of yellow. Laughing, the boy clenched his hand. The frozen pigeon’s body shimmered and turned bright metallic green. Resuming its flight, the bird whirled and began circling the fountain, spitting out green sparks that fell like electric rain on the upturned faces of dancing girls and boys. More laughter.
Smith smiled and put his hand in the pocket of his blue wool overcoat, pulling out a small plywood cube. He placed it gently on the table in front of him. The cube slowly rose and started rotating.
“Is that what I think it is? I scan it as unfreakinbelieveable old.”
Smith looked up and saw the boy standing next to his table, watching the floating cube.
“Yes. This cube is a firstgen artifact. Nice work with that pigeon back there, by the way. It’s pretty hard to hack those public works pigeons. Clever mod.”
“Thanks,” the boy replied, puffing up his chest in pride. “But that firstgen, where the hell did you get it? I thought they were all wiped years ago?”
Smith smiled softly. “I rezzed it myself. Long time ago.”
“Wow. Can you trans me one? I mean, I can just rip it, but then I’d lose the rad rezdate.” The boy shifted back and forth on his feet, and Smith noticed his jacket was now flashing with whirling patterns of metasourcecode. The algorithms looked original, not prefab.
“Tell you what, my friend. I have something else you might like even better.” Smith waved his hand and the cube disappeared. In its place on the table was a jetpack and helmet. Brassy metal glinting in the morning sun, it looked like something out of an ancient Buck Rogers vid.
Smith took another sip of coffee, burning his tongue slightly, and watched the boy’s eyes. “This was made by someone very special. Back on firstgrid. Interested?”
The boy frowned. “Huh. You needed jetpacks to fly on firstgrid? And that helmet looks so recyclebin. The old rezdate is spiff, but what use is this thing now?”
A brief smile flickered across Smith’s face. “I’ve modded it a bit. Go ahead and take ownership of it. I made it fullperm.”
The boy waved his hand over the jetpack. Smith felt a datanet reach out and wrap around the jetpack like a hungry electric sea anemone embracing a tasty new snack.
“What the hell! Whoa whoa whoa my cloud is going crazy!”
Smith watched the boy closely. The poor kid probably didn’t expect to find yottabytes of data nestled cleverly in the simple geometry. Recursive compression and data wormholes to even bigger storehouses of information were unfolding. Smith chuckled softly. Old dogs can still do tricks.
The boy’s jacket suddenly went dark. New images began flickering across it. Images of flight in firstgrid. Groups of people wearing jetpacks, laughing while flying across vast expanses. And buried in the video, Smith could sense hidden fractaldata full of emotional responses and subconscious memories.
Shaking his head, the boy wiped his face and looked at Smith. “You gave me…”
“Yes. I gave you everything I experienced while wearing that jetpack. Now you know how I felt. Now you know the friends I made in firstgrid. And all of our dreams.”
Smith took a last sip of coffee, placing his cup on the table.
“The neural pathway recording process is not perfect. I’m still working on that. I also scrubbed a lot of personal data for privacy’s sake, of course.”
The boy’s face wrinkled. “This is gonna take me petacycles to process. Mind if I trans it to my friends too?”
“Be my guest,” Smith replied. “Now I must meet with an old friend.” A man in a tight-fitting charcoal flight jacket began walking toward them from across the plaza.
“Thanks, oldtimer.” The boy spun around and ran back to the fountain, jacket flickering with new code. Disappearing into the huddle of youth.
The man in the flight jacket walked over and sat in the chair across from Smith. “I see your hairstyle hasn’t changed. Y’know they can fix follicle-deprivation these days. Nano-Maxx-Factor stuff.”
Smith rubbed a hand slowly across his bald head. “Yeah, and you could use a new jacket, my friend. I always thought that gold lettering on the back was kind of disco.”
“Very funny. So let’s talk about this spaceprobe stuff. NASA has me building a pilot avatar interface so earthbound space jockeys can fly the robot over Mars. Still hush-hush, so we’ll have to jump into my personalgrid to test it out. Want to see what I’ve built so far?”
“Just a moment.”
Smith reached up and took off his tortoiseshell glasses. As he rubbed the lenses with a soft cloth, he casually noticed how the chair across from him was vacant. The fountain was still there across the plaza, but bone dry and covered with flaking lichen. The group of kids still dancing around it seemed smaller. Glancing over to the next table, Smith noticed a woman in a crisp yellow dress talking excitedly to an empty chair.
Putting his glasses back on, Smith looked up at his companion. “…and you know you can’t hear me when you take those damn glasses off. I might have been saying something profound. Why don’t you just get the cortical and auditory implants like everyone else?”
“Yeah, I know. What can I say. I’m an oldbie.”
“Speaking of oldbies, what did you give that kid?”
Smith and his companion both looked over at the fountain. The boy had rezzed the jetpack in the middle of his group of friends and were working together to mod it. Giant flexing batwings suddenly sprouted from the jetpack and began to flap, splashing the falling streams of water in the fountain.
“I gave him a message in a bottle.”
“You know, you really sound like a fortune cookie sometimes. Let’s get to work and build something. Mars is waiting.”
“So it goes,” thought Smith.
ADDENDUM: This short story was professionally translated into French and published in Canard Virtuel.