Want to try a sample of Utopia Five, the first book in my scifi Panopticon Series, for size? Here’s the first chapter.
Chapter 0ne — Rain
Utopia Five 2053
I materialised in front of Big Ben in grey, freezing drizzle. Even in a Utopia it rained occasionally, but this world seemed relentlessly wet. Did it have a sky? Or had Nemo not bothered?
I pelted inside the nearest pub, shivering, annoyed, and deciding I was an idiot for not appearing indoors in the first place. Cold water trickled down the inside of my collar and I grimaced. Why on earth did my suit emulate a damp neck? You could clearly take virtual reality too far. My hulking avatar was dressed in a noir-style trench coat, which was artfully unbuttoned. As a result, it wasn’t a great deal of use. I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the interior’s dark mirrors. I looked soggy.
This would be my ninth trip to this sim and I hadn’t spotted a single thing that was good about it yet, never mind utopian. I was starting to question why I’d let my little brother pivot this world. How was this murky version of the planet something to aspire to? Whatever the clever reason, that kind of subtlety was not part of our brand. To be honest, it wasn’t usually part of Nemo’s either.
I walked up to the bar and ordered a drink. On the wall, a TV was playing at low volume. The screen showed a pink chat show host interviewing a mahogany-tanned celebrity. It was a distracting contrast to my otherwise colourless surroundings. I guessed they’d be discussing entertainment gossip. Utopia Five appeared to have an endless desire for it. I’d already worked out this was a standard capitalist society. No free beer but plenty of free speech, of a sort.
The barman was a greasy-looking guy who was holding a grimy cloth and appeared to be pretty miserable about both those facts. For a utopia, this world had plenty of shit jobs. Undeterred by his gloomy demeanor, my avatar gave him a (literally) patented winning smile, “Busy day?”
He merely grunted. “The name’s Eloi.” I continued cheerfully and put out my hand.
While he stared in slight bewilderment at my friendly gesture, I pondered his attractiveness. It was unusually low for one of our worlds. A sim denizen being less than Brad Pitt in the looks department told me quite a lot about his real life counterpart. As all VR programmers knew, in an emulation everyone had to be a lot better looking than they were in real life. We humans liked to kid ourselves. Everyone’s virtual versions had to be heavily airbrushed. Otherwise they wouldn’t play.
Unfortunately, by Dystopia Two Nemo and I had also reluctantly realised our games needed some normal-looking denizens or the world wasn’t convincing. We couldn’t add any non-player characters so some of our emulated folks would have to forego their looks upgrade. It was sad but necessary.
We knew the human counterparts of unairbrushed inhabitants would never visit, because who wanted to be in a world where everyone was great-looking apart from the local version of you? Only people with a teflon-coated ego or a personality disorder. It would be demoralising and probably embarrassing. Nemo wrote an algorithm to identify the real-worlders we were going to sacrifice to verisimilitude. They were usually poor, dull, and lacking in prospects. We wouldn’t miss them as players and they had to be low value to our sponsors.
Those selected denizens stayed looking exactly as they did in life. If you come into one of our emulations and the sim version of you looks like the real you, I hate to break it to you, you’re either exceptionally attractive already or a loser. I leave that to you to decide. I had drawn some conclusions about the man in front of me.
The bartender eventually shook my outstretched hand. That gained me his attention and a frisson of goodwill. I’d need it.
“Weather’s pretty awful. Must be affecting business?” I glanced about the almost empty bar where a lone family in baseball caps were huddled around mugs of hot product placement opportunity. I mentally winced. We’d never sell these slightly depressed locations to our usual sponsors. Unless a mutant was about to burst through the door and slaughter everyone with a machine gun? I looked around hopefully. The only action was an ad break on the TV.
The barman shrugged, “When isn’t it?” He handed me my requested beer along with a handful of change. I placed my pint on a mat advertising umbrellas and pocketed the cash.
“The Government, eh?” I usually found bland comments to be useful for eliciting information from the locals without giving away I knew nothing at all about the world. Of course, Utopia Five might have been an ungoverned anarchy but I could usually spot those. No beer mats for a start.
The barman nodded in vigorous agreement with my content-free statement,, “Yeah, bunch of crooks. All in it for themselves.” I sighed. I’d noticed this world of Nemo’s seemed populated with opinionated but uninformed denizens. No wonder this character was wiping down tables. I wondered what his alter ego did in real life.
My avatar raised his cloudy beer and took a large, demoralised gulp. I’d learned surprisingly little in this so-called utopia by wandering around questioning simulated inhabitants. Since my first visit, I’d realised the newspapers and TV stations were entirely filled with bland celebrity tittle-tattle. They weren’t going to tell me much either. I swirled my remaining pint. I needed a starting point and I was fast running out of my usual options.
My job in Utopia Five was the same as any player’s. I had to figure out how Nemo had changed the past to create the world I was now in. In about half our games it was me who altered time. For this sim, the world builder was my little brother. It was merely my job to test it out and decide if it was worth pouring marketing money into and releasing. I had to determine if it would be the next blockbuster from Nautilus Games. I’d judge whether it was ready for our army of loyal players, or fit to be dumped in the virtual trash bin. I knew what I was currently thinking.
My plan had been to play the world through, do some investigating, and discover the pivot Nemo had used to divert the course of history. An easy job. Or so I’d thought. As my avatar, I could do anything in the game a real detective could. Oh, plus instantly transport myself in space and time and change my appearance. I could also make myself invisible by turning down my opacity from one hundred percent to zero. You’d be surprised how handy all that was. Apart from the fading in and out. That was completely pointless. I just liked it.
I’d started as I usually did in a new game by talking to denizens and visiting landmarks. Nemo liked something iconic to get blown up in a pivot. He believed there was nothing more poignant than the smouldering ruin of an iconic building and he didn’t think a metaphor could ever be too heavy-handed. I’d now played over forty of Nemo’s games and I had to agree. I’d discovered a jagged Eiffel Tower or a toppled Statue of Liberty was an excellent conversation starter. That made it a good place to begin when you were tracking down exactly where history had gone off the rails. To my irritation, I’d found everything in this world to be frustratingly intact.
My avatar frowned at the lacklustre bartender and looked around the dingy pub again. The silent family were now staring at the TV screen. Out of the window, through the rain, I could see the disappointingly whole Big Ben. I suddenly realised I didn’t want to play this damp and depressing game any longer. It was time to do something I normally avoided. I needed to go and take a long, hard look at myself.
One of the ways Nautilus VR was different from the real world was players didn’t have a wise, all-seeing, all-knowing presence they could get advice from. Nemo and I deliberately hadn’t installed a deity in any of our sims. After all, God was a well known spoilsport and would certainly have given the game away. To be honest, we also couldn’t afford the license fees. We already handed a fortune over to Omniscience Industries for Panopticon data, we couldn’t afford anything else. The divine word wasn’t cheap.
Fortunately for me, talking to the local version of Lee Sands usually had the same effect as speaking to Deus and was considerably more affordable. No me would ever fail to give me a free opinion, at length, on the state of world affairs and how we got there. I knew how to push my own buttons. I also knew talking to my own denizen to get the lowdown on a sim world was kind of cheating. What the hell, Nemo didn’t need to find out.
Before I spilled all, I wanted to try one final trick. My destination would be the North London flat in 2043 where Nemo and I had lived back then. If everything was exactly as I remembered in ’43 I’d jump forward to 2048, halfway between 2043 and now. If it was still identical then I’d jaunt to 2051. I could hop about like that until I’d worked out where history started to diverge. In my opinion, that definitely wasn’t cheating and it wouldn’t take me long. I was entering my first jump into the player interface when my sixth sense kicked in. A faint tingling in my spine told me someone in the seemingly empty pub was watching me.
If I accepted it for publishing, Utopia Five would be our 56th commercially available simulated world. It didn’t matter if it was a Utopia or a Dystopia, the Nautilus promise was the biggest change from the smallest pivot. As soon as you stepped into one of our sims it was always blindingly obvious how that world’s now differed from ours back in reality. Giant dinosaurs fighting in the streets, a takeover by a bloodsucking zombie elite, a talking dog for President. ‘Go big or go home’ was the Nautilus credo and our legion of fans clearly agreed.
When Nemo or I were building a new sim, first we’d decide what we wanted. Let’s say a cure for age. Then we’d work out who we would’ve had to persuade, pay, or assassinate in our own world’s past to get it. That usually took a few months of research. We had a few tricks to help us out. Of course, we didn’t know what would’ve really happened if we’d changed the past. Our new world was just guaranteed to be 100% possible given the Panopticon data we had.
Our speculative fiction algorithm extrapolated out from the pivot. Once we’d changed things we ran the recalculations, rippled the consequences through to the present time, and that was our sim. Sometimes it was a Utopia. Mostly it wasn’t. If it was cool enough we released it. “Age is Cured!” was Dystopia Nineteen. It was one of our biggest hits. Everyone loves a horror.
I’d been struggling to build Utopia Five for a while. My past utopian worlds had been modest successes: an ecology hit, a cool solar system exploration sim, and then I finally got superpowers working. I’d even had a surprise cult hit with “Utopia Four: Talk to the Animals!” That was a bit of an accidental find. The problem was, Utopias were hard to generate at all, never mind with a small change. Dystopias were easy. They also got a bit depressing after you’d done twenty in a row, even if they did sell well. I was struggling to work out what I wanted for my next Utopia when Nemo told me he’d had an idea. Six months later, he announced that Utopia Five was ready to launch and I just needed to test it out. He’d even created me a new avatar: Eloi.
The trouble was, for a game to be successful the difference between it and our world had to be bleeding obvious. Guessing how a sim world differed from the real one was not the point. It was the hook. If we didn’t grab players inside 30 seconds we’d lost them. They needed a spectacular or at least intriguing idea to suck them in. I’d been playing Utopia Five for nearly 50 hours and I hadn’t worked out how it was significantly altered from analog reality yet. I couldn’t see what Nemo was getting at. Half a year of investment and this world definitely wasn’t going to be a hit. What the hell was he thinking? Nevertheless, I could hardly let him win. I’d decided to solve Utopia Five if it killed me.
When I talked about my “sixth sense” it wasn’t entirely a figure of speech. Nemo wouldn’t let me give my avatars any special powers, “In the game, every player is equal.” he used to say sanctimoniously and fairly frequently. I never broke his rules. I merely coded up a lot of publicly available avatar features. Anyone could install them if they wanted.
In release 34.762.08 I added a brand new ability. It was on general release, not even premium. ‘Ear Wiggle 0.1’ allowed any avatar to agitate their lobes on demand. Oh, and feel the presence of other players in their vicinity with zero opacity. Well, if people didn’t read the documentation all the way to the end that wasn’t my fault. I was apparently the only player who’d turned on the feature.
It wasn’t unusual for me to detect invisible avatars in my prox. I was well known. Lots of players followed me around hoping to pick up clues about pivots. That could have worked, which was why I’d snuck my sixth sense, masquerading as a frivolous customisation, into the games platform. I wanted to be able to avoid tipping anyone off about a change I was researching. With my faux-supernatural power enabled, I was used to getting notifications about hidden onlookers in the other worlds. In Utopia Five however, I was supposed to be the only person with a login other than Nemo. Who was silently watching me?
Disturbed by the mysterious observer, I flipped up my visor and exited the game. That left me standing in a dark neoprene suit, looking at the inside of the small flat I had been about to visit in the fictional past of an alternative world. If that was confusing I was more than used to it.
The real-world room around me was empty as usual and featureless save for a huge photo-array of world leaders in politics, business, science and the arts. I frowned. They were due for their annual refresh. Then I wrinkled my nose and sniffed. Something wasn’t right.
Now that my mask was raised, I could clearly detect the room was full of what smelled strongly like gas. I glanced briefly at the door, 20 feet away, and leapt straight out of the open window next to me. My suit could handle a fifteen foot fall. A close quarters explosion was outside the specs.
I dropped unexpectedly out of the sky onto the road in front of my house. As I thumped to the ground, it passed through my mind it would be ironic to miraculously escape being blown to smithereens only to get knocked over by a passing car. The odds, however, were good. Hardly anyone drove anymore. I landed with just a touch of servo-assist, started sprinting, and looked around at the empty street. That was good, if an…
“Woof!!” I had no time to finish my thought.
My suit wasn’t the best money could buy. It was a long way from that. Nemo might have liked to spend his earnings on real estate. I’d always thought, “What’s the point of money if you can’t take it with you?” Plus, I preferred my consumption to be less conspicuous. And less kitch if we’re being brutally honest about Nemo’s home decor choices.
A wall of force pushed my suit forward hard. I went with it and we kept a running grip on the tarmac. The visor had snapped down in the jump and the proximity detector gave us plenty of time to dodge the larger chunks of descending masonry. Did I anthropomorphize the suit much? Shh. You’ll hurt its feelings.
In less than 10 seconds, the scanners gave me the all clear on falling debris. I stopped running and turned back to see the charred ruins of the tenement that had been my home for a decade. I sighed. Damn.
If I seemed unconcerned about my apartment neighbours it was because they were servers. That wasn’t a euphemism for people who walked around in high heels on laminate floors and whom I would be glad to see as smouldering piles of charcoal. No, Nemo and I had solved that particular problem in ’45 when we bought the building and turned it over to our test systems. My fellow residents in that building were all machines. The only human in the place had been me.
A gas explosion. It was a classic accident. They happened. Except, I wasn’t on gas. The whole country had stopped piping gas to homes in the early ’40s, and a gas canister was relatively easy to turn into a makeshift bomb with a remote trigger. We’d all done that. I scowled. Like most people I never locked my apartment. Why would I? No one robbed anyone anymore. You’d trivially get caught and what was worth stealing in my flat? I thought about the spare room, which I hardly ever used. I was pretty sure I hadn’t been in there since Nemo last stayed, well over a month ago.
On consideration, it was obvious someone could walk right into my place, plant anything they wanted in Nemo’s old room and I wouldn’t spot it for weeks. The odour was obvious, but I hadn’t smelt anything with my visor down. If someone could ensure I was in a game before they triggered the gas, they could turn me into ten thousand tiny pieces before I even noticed. If my mysterious watcher hadn’t freaked me out in Utopia Five, right at that moment I would be gently coating London in a light layer of ash. But why on earth would anyone want me dead?