Bill Benedict:

At the Virtual Free Market Mall

October 2, 0004 PPE: Hollywood Park, OKC Sector West

 

     "Welcome!" flashed the simulated neon sign on the Wordman's screen.

     "Please place your palm against the glass," a deep, kindly voice advised. Bill spread his hand and pressed it flat against the WordMan's old-fashioned monitor. The electrode headband, wristbands and anklebands chafed against his skin. But that was only until his credit kicked in. And with it a whole five-dimensional world of synthetic sensations that would utterly overwhelm the usual three-dimensional ones.

     "Welcome!" the neon was flashing now in psychedelic ripples of color, "to the Virtual Free Market Mall!"

     Bill drew the elastic headband down over his eyes. He was no longer sitting motionless on his sofabed, legs spread wide for stability on the rumpled sheets. He was stepping forward stiffly on what felt like someone else's feet. While the spotlights played across the fabulous everchanging facade of the Mall.

     "William, your credit-count this afternoon is sufficient to admit you down to Level 44," the deep voice continued. "Shopping is now in progress— won't you join us?"

     But Bill was already through the turnstile and halfway to the escalators. He had to make it down to Level 43 while his credit-count was good enough to shop there. Around him the candy displays beckoned, each chocolate bar and bag of candycorn aglow from within. Even the humblest lollipop here radiated its own miraculous pulsating light. He resisted the sugar-dazzle, snacking on the headlines of the electronic tabloids instead. The Second Coming of Jimi Hendrix: some loopy new online cult. And the Fat is Fun Fad appeared to be back.

     He hustled past Just Desserts, an all-dessert joint across from the elevators. If he could make it past Level One, he was safe. But he hustled past the elevators too. In the Mall's elevators he would be continuously assaulted with sales and specials, hovering like brand-name hallucinations around his head as each Level flashed by. Whispering irresistible jingles in his ears. Wafting seductive odors through his nostril-hairs. The demons of this high-tech inferno.

     Bill preferred the escalators. Slower, hence more expensive. But infinitely more sane. Each Level in turn, as he descended through its ceiling, spread out below him as far as he could see. Aisle after aisle crammed with a twinkling galaxy of objects. The multicolored holo-carts of the shoppers, some driverless. Some— even more startling until you got used to it— piloted by smiling, waving celebrities. A holo-Guard in a purple spacesuit at every major intersection. Everything you could think of, everything you'd ever seen advertised, in every size and color. And everywhere you looked, something new, improved or otherwise unfamiliar. A browser's paradise.

     Unlike the old walk-through mall, however, even browsing here would run up a bill. The invisible shoppers drove their holo-carts like drunken stock car racers, rodeo broncos set loose in bumper-cars.

     Fortunately, if a Guard didn't catch you, you could cheat. Bill's remote control had a fast-forward button. Sort of like the old days, when you could walk down the escalator while you rode. Level 4: Housewares. Level 9: Appliances. Level 16: Sporting goods. Levels 18 through 22: a blur of Entertainment software. Level 30: Office supplies.

     He whizzed a Level too far and threw the remote into reverse. Too late. Level 44 was as far as his credit would stretch today, as a clap of rubber thunder and a pink lightningbolt reminded him.

     Thank god those old shopping malls were a thing of the past! First the acres of asphalt and cars where you wandered in search of an empty slot. Then the miles on foot as you wandered in search of the items on your scavenger-list. Or simply wandered. The epic-scale kitsch of the architecture, like the tomb of a prehistoric high-school prom queen! The faces of your fellow pilgrims: each face or cluster of faces doing its best to pretend the other faces were only part of the decor. Except for the boys and girls, who eyed one another the way they might glance at a nude on the wall in a public place.

     Here, other people actually were part of the decor. You could choose to be invisible-- a thrill in itself till you grew tired of neon shopping carts stampeding driverless through your comfort zone. Or you could choose your fantasy for the day from the Face Rack. Match it to an outfit and accessories from the Costume Closet. You just had to remember to keep an eye on your credit-count, so you could buy a few things while you cruised the Mall as Nostradamus or Hitler or Raquel Welch.

     Bill had pre-programmed his persona for today in honor of a great statesman and explorer. It was Groucho's birthday.

     Level 43: Sex Toys. Bill stepped off the escalator, still tingling with the illusion of movement. Without the forward shove of body-momentum he was still conditioned to expect at the bottom of an escalator, it took him a minute to catch up with the illusion of stillness. Even though he was sitting motionless on his sofabed right now, legs spread wide for stability on the rumpled sheets.

     He checked his count, conveniently provided in a digital readout every time he closed his eyes: sinking steadily, but still above the half-tank mark.

     "Which way to the 3-D enhanced Home Viewing Environment section?" he asked a blonde, dark-skinned vixen in the orange uniform of the Mall. Level 43 version: microskirt reduced to a lacy flounce. Bunny-ears bobbing on the cute cap. The same long suede fringe dangling from the shoulder. But beneath it, instead of transparent polka-dots in orange fabric, giving strategic glimpses of simulated flesh, this vixen wore only the polka-dots. Orange fabric spots somehow fastened to the simulated skin.

     "Aisle 319," she responded with a dazzling smile and vacant, unseeing eyes. "Step onto the slideway if you like. Just be sure to hang on to the moving rail!"

     But Bill was forgetting. The fabric was simulated too. And she didn't really have skin under the polka dots. He bent down to pinch a smooth, illusory buttock, just making sure.

     "Hey!"

     These holo programs got more sophisticated all the time. The dazzling smile vanished and the vixen looked angrily up and down the aisle. Bill followed her glance and saw a holo-Guard in each direction turning to look. Homing in on some kind of holo-signal, no doubt.

     "Thank you, maam." Bill's credit-count had passed half-tank. He crossed to the slideway and stepped on. In the nick of time he remembered to reach for the moving rail. But that was the easy part. Stepping off of this contraption was the trick.

     "Anatomically and demographically correct!" a disembodied voice was murmuring in his ear. "Gender-specific or full-spectrum, choose the customware that pleases!"

     "Hi! I'm Nanci! Who are you?"

     A Nordic blonde leaned on the moving rail, her neckline plunging between brown speckled breasts.

     "Hello, guy! You look lonesome. I'm Tandi."

     A brunette in nothing but black fishnet stockings and a blue velvet cape stood in Nanci's place.

     "Don't cry, big boy. Why don't you tell Rudi all about it?"

     Now Tandi was a redhead in a nurse's uniform, all red neon lipstick and nails.

     "My name is Kahlua. Looking for something a bit more— intellectual than the usual thing?"

     Kahlua was a regal African beauty holding a long-stemmed glass of brandy and a peacock feather.

     "Hey, Captain Outrageous! I'm your co-pilot, Carri. Ready for a little high adventure?"

     Carri had tight tomboy curls and wore a football jersey that almost covered her naked bottom.

     "Buenos tardes, Señor. I am Carlotta. Shall we dance, perhaps?"

     Carlotta was a Hispanic beauty in a classical flamenco gown, high combs in her glossy black hair. Bill closed his eyes. Credit was leaching from his account with every nanosecond he lingered. If he got distracted by all these artificial bimbos, sloe-eyed mannequins that moved—

     Too late! Aisle 319 flickered past in a purple blur, and Bill leaped. A pulsebeat too slow. He groped for his remote and backed up just far enough to revise his leap. Carlotta squeaked backward through her dignified proposal and froze as Aisle 319 came back into focus. Bill stepped clear of the slideway and set it moving again.

     Aisle 319: Home Erotica. No need to flip to the index, triangulate his position on the multicolored floor plan. This part he had negotiated before. Three aisles down. Eight sections over.

     There! No matter how her wardrobe crew tried to disguise her, Bill could spot Faraday in any crowd of nude, oiled vixens. He had seen the ad just last night on Venus and Mars Tonight. Faraday's first canned hologram, just released in a limited collectors' edition. Platinum Club subscribers only.

     He examined the package. Faraday, glowing with a miraculous pulsating light, in red and white candy-stripes from head to toe. There was the jet-black stallion, licking her inner thigh. Bill touched the blue light above the shelf and the display panel came to life. The horse's pink tongue flickered into motion— and suddenly they were galloping across the moors at sunset, Faraday's leather riding-crop falling in sharp, rhythmic smacks. An orchestra on stimulants galloping along. It was the same ad he'd seen last night. Except, Bill noticed now, the riding crop fell across her own flanks, not the stallion's. Kinky. Cut to a closeup of Faraday's half-aware, half-ecstatic face. Then the full moon rising through skeins of mist. That was all; the 3D-enhanced image on the display panel fell still again, tongue and thigh.

     Bill took a bluegreen shopping basket from the nearest multicolored stack and dropped the can of plasmalite in. A thud and a ghostly slosh. He turned and followed the faint trail of phosphorescent dust that marked his path back. Back through the subatomic synapses of the vast, seeething vat of plasmalite that hosted the Virtual Free Market Mall. As a petri dish might host a culture of bacteria, the molecular physicists liked to say.

     Bill hurried back to the slideway, clutching his prize. A thousand siren shapes were calling to him from every direction; breasts, hips, legs. Long and short and straight and curly and black and brown and golden hair. Incandescent eyes and electric lips. The voices of vixens assailed him, ghostly fingers brushed at his inner thighs. Re-tracing his steps with only one item! The holos would give him no peace until he reached their pre-programmed minimum-purchase threshold. The slideway loitered along, lined with ripe, juicy sex-kittens who lured him shamelessly as he passed. No more demure, cosmopolitan personas: these were sleazy propositions involving rubber squeeze-toys and beds of nails. Trying to hurry on the slideway felt like marching knee-deep in molasses. Bill struggled heroically on.

     If he wanted to blow his credit-count for a week or so, he could use his remote control to terminate the program and skip re-entry. He had what he wanted. His package would drop automatically into the padded chamber in Meg's home assembly unit. The Mall would instantaneously debit Bill's account, adding a surcharge for detouring the formalities. That was how the wealthiest shoppers did it. Even Lucy, sometimes, though Bill and Lucy weren't quite in that bracket. Bill always waited in line for a cashier. There was one vixen with short dark hair and lavender eyes that was particularly worth waiting for.

     Technology, he was thinking as he stepped onto the escalator. With one chance breakthrough, the geniuses at Molecular Home Assembly of America had revolutionized the retail industry. The manufacturing industry. The transportation industry. Even the fashion industry was now a wholly owned subsidiary of MHA.

     Only the wealthiest people like Henry Stilson could afford to buy hand-made.

     So what if holo-food tasted a little like the inside of a refrigerator? You simply couldn't complain after a miracle like that. A miracle which was feeding billions around the world who only a decade ago would have been left to starve.

     When Bill's turn came at the register, all he had to do was flatten his palm against the glass. The smiling vixen would run a handheld scanner over his purchase and drop it into a square chute, where it would disintegrate into imaginary atoms. While in the other dimension, down the hall from Bill's unconscious body, non-imaginary counterparts to those atoms were duplicating its precise molecular blueprint. Like iron filings assembling in formation around a magnet. Assuming no bugs in the program, Bill's new toy would already be waiting in Meg's home assembly unit, ready to be plugged in and played with. He could hardly wait.

     "Thank you so very much, William, for shopping with us today at the Virtual Free Market Mall!" The deep, kindly voice would sound so sincerely appreciative that Bill almost always felt a touch of nausea. But that was normal for the re-entry phase.

     Rising slowly through the floor of Level 41, just a couple of levels up, on a sudden nervous impulse Bill stepped off the escalator again.

     Along with Sex Toys, Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs, and Contraceptives, the Mall's Euthanasia Parlor was relegated to the 21-or-over zone below Level 40. "Life begins at forty," the gang at the office liked to say with a lascivious exchange of winks. There it was on the corner, all lit up in animated paisley patterns that traded colors as they swam. The place was staffed with a dozen or more vixens uniformly dressed in white. One of every leading demographic persuasion. Each at least six inches taller than Bill. Of course they were only holos.

     "How may I help you, sir?" The violet-eyed blonde had approached from behind without so much as a step. Sister VirtueTM, the ID plate pinned at her left nipple said. Voluntary Euthanasia Counselor. The white outfit was vaguely nunlike save for the slit in one side that turned into a slash at her slightest movement, revealing smooth tan to the shoulder and a nip of nipple. Suddenly Bill couldn't remember. What exactly he.

     No problem: the little joke dispenser under his tongue could always supply a last-minute substitute for actual conversation. "Just window-shopping," he said with a grin.

     It was amazing how real the virtual eyes looked as they frowned slightly, violet against the seamless complexion, surrounded by neatly woven blonde hair. He saw them flick briefly over his shoulder, and remembered the big NSI Guard at the door. It was not actually necessary to post a holo in every establishment down in the Mall; to post any holos at all. But it cost next to nothing, and served to remind everyone that credit could be yanked at any moment if some infraction of the rules should occur.

     Sister Virtue smiled again. "Would you like to try a near-death experience? Or watch a laserholo first?"

     Not that infractions of the rules were possible. Or so went the theory. Virtual reality, so far, seemed to be just as full of bugs and glitches as the original flavor. "I'd rather just take something home to look at. Some kind of brochure."

     "Brochure?" The holo paused. Her left eye started flickering, but almost immediately focused again. "You can subscribe to our laserbulletin. Just punch it in on your console at home. Weekly updates—"

     "All the latest reasons to die?"

     "—narrated by a famous person who has now passed on!"

     "Tell me, Sister Virtue, is that considered channeling, or reincarnation?"

     "Just punch the code for the spiritual tradition of your choice—"

     "Do you have a code for people who are just plumb crazy?"

     "Excuse me?"

     She attempted to glance up at the holographic Guard behind Bill's shoulder, but only her left eye succeeded. The right eye continued to flutter in slapstick astonishment at Bill, while her lips quivered. That was when they cut his credit. His bluegreen shopping basket blinked and vanished, along with Chris Faraday and her horse. An instant later everything went black and he felt that cold rush of withdrawal from cyberspace.

     Re-entry. He was sitting on his sofabed with the electrode headband cooling and contracting across his forehead. It was emitting sharp rhythmic noises that wouldn't stop. Like a bleating sheep. He pulled the electrode band off his eyes, up and over his bald, sweating scalp before it gave him a headache. Stripped the electrode bands from his wrists and ankles and hurled them all away without watching where they flew. He lifted one leg at a time, flexing his knees and toes. Then, with an effort, he opened his eyes. And grinned, remembering. Like an Indian warrior counting coup.

     Little by little he identified a grating noise in the background. Meg had picked up the teletron and was halfway through her answer-machine routine: a starched and steel-rimmed schoolmarm, perfected over weeks of scouring Data Central's banks of vintage Hollywood.

     "—glad to return your call if you'll just leave your—"

     But an excited male voice on the other end was already talking: some freelance politician's pre-recorded appeal.

     "—due to widespread extinction, whole ecosystems can now be truthfully listed as 'endangered.' Don't you think—"

     As in most conversations between real live humans, each voice canceled out whatever sense the other might have made. The two machines just managed it so much more efficiently. Since neither one had to waste time listening, they could carry on a conversation in half the time.

     "Don't forget to listen for the tone!" Beep.

     "—so send your contribution in today!" Click.

     Like some married couples he could name.

 

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