Part III — Confrontation

I launched a few search agents to look for more information about the location; I had the infodumps from SignpostMarv, but either he hadn’t been thorough, or just uninterested in figuring out more. There are an infinite number of role-playing areas in the Metaverse, a lot of them private, but surely someone had posted a review of this particular one somewhere?

Surprisingly, the answer seemed to be “no”. Like Marv had found out, all that was recorded showed people moving to this particular location, but never coming out of it. It was hard to get any factual data, though; the records were anonymised and didn’t show much beyond numbers. No profiling data at all, which was surprising these days; Faceworld and GooglePlex were always keen on profiling everybody and everything, and a lot of places carried dumps from their data. But not in this case. There was really no other way but to jump to the location and visit it; after all, what harm could it do?

I arrived at the entry point, which featured the hospital which was visible on the location tracking device that Marv gave me. It was not crowded; a few avatars hovered around it, curiously unresponsive, either to voice or text messages. But then again, some proxies are programmed not to reply to strangers, so this didn’t tell me much. The atmosphere was eery and gloomy, and it seemed to depict an asylum of the late 19th century or something like that — very much the kind of environment that role-playing addicts adore. But it seemed pretty harmless. They clearly subscribed to the school of “discover as you walk around” — there was no information about the location, no contact, no interactive panels, nothing. And the other avatars remained silent. They walked up and down the stairs, apparently unaware of my presence; a few bumped into me and didn’t even apologise, they just went on their pre-programmed paths. But it was clear that more avatars entered the building than left them.

Well, that was certainly a clue. I dumped the sound — the wails and screams were getting on my nerves after a while, and they didn’t seem to emanate from any of the visible avatars — so they were very likely just “scenario sounds” to create an atmosphere for role-players, although most seem to come from the building itself. I walked up the stairway, looking around for any clue on what this was all about, but I still couldn’t figure out how this was related to SignpostMarv’s discoveries.

After a while I started to believe that this was just a waste of time. A lot of locations in the Metaverse are mostly empty of people, but this one seemed to be extremely empty: all avatars seemed to be just constructs, proxies, AIs, ‘bots, or merely scenario. If this was a role-playing game, it was the most boring role-playing game ever devised. Rooms after rooms exhibited exquisite torture chambers, definitely appealing for anyone who liked ‘gothic’ RPGs, but after opening the twentieth door, listening to a wailing scream, and seeing some avatar being submitted to electroshocks or similar physical abuse, I was getting annoyed. There seemed to be no purpose to the whole place; no “central area” where any clue was to be given. The non-playing characters were totally unaware of my presence and seem to be independent of any “plot” — they didn’t interact and didn’t offer any clues. On the other hand, the mere absence of any typical role-playing features — except for the overall look of the space — was at least suspicious: who would take pains to recreate all this without a purpose? It was not even a realistic, historical exhibit of late-19th century torture methods, since most of them were clearly invented. It could be a prototype for a new game, but in that case, it would make sense to keep it closed to the public — and in any case, game designers required beta testers, and beta testers are supposed to give the designers some feedback. None of that existed in this place, and that was certainly strange.

The twenty-first room just featured a plain metal bed; it was empty otherwise. But when I was prepared to leave it after opening the door, a rasping voice suddenly said: “Lie down”. Ok, this was definitely a change! None of the environment sounds so far had given a clear command; and I was immediately aware that the door had closed behind me and fell into the lock. That was promising! Of course, I could always teleport out of the room at any moment, but at least I seemed to be making progress: whatever this “game” was, finally something started to pay attention to me and interact — that was surely a clue of some sort!

So I obeyed. For a whole minute nothing else happened. I sighed in despair. Another false alarm! But it was when I tried to stand up that something weird happened. Like most Metaverse internauts, I was wearing a full range of haptic devices, and somehow the gesture triggering the standing up wasn’t reacting. You could override it with a simple keyboard command — haptic devices sometimes fail, too! — but for some reason I couldn’t move my fingers to the keyboard. Great, the force-feedback motors were failing! No — they were actually locked, and this was a bit strange, because the usual response from a failing haptic device is that everything unlocks, so you can easily dispose of the device. But in this case, it seemed that all electric motors were locking down, and with surprising strength, too! And it happened instantly, which is not usual for the force-feedback motors — they tend to fail over a period of time until giving up completely, and that usually does not mean they lock down, rather the contrary, they just don’t work as force-feedback devices.

In this case, some command had triggered them not only to stop moving, but to prevent me from moving, by locking down and engaging the gears that would keep the motors in place.

Annoying. I had to fall back to voice commands. “Haptic override”, I said, but what actually was picked up and echoed in the Metaverse was a muffled groan. What was happening? This seemed just like a computer virus — hackers had that kind of sense of humour sometimes. Without keyboard input and voice commands, however, it would be tricky to engage the anti-virus software. Tricky, but not impossible.

I was patiently going through my options, looking for a way to unfreeze the haptic devices and regain control over my rig, when the door opened again. Three avatars dressed in white lab overcoats entered and came to my bed; I noticed now that the bed had sprouted some metal chains around my wrists, legs, and waist. I yelled at them, saying that this was not funny and that I wasn’t playing the game anyway, but only muffled sounds were audible — my avatar was gagged! Frustrated, I tried to kick, but to no avail — all servo-motors were locked down. One of the avatars approached with a syringe, inserted it into my own avatar’s arm, and suddenly the screen went blank.

Oh, fun. Just like a bad RPG! Still, having no visuals, my attempts to launch the anti-virus software were even harder. I had no way to know if any of my commands were having an effect or not.

While I was musing with what to try next — I was considering yelling to the home robot to simply unplug my rig — the image returned, but at the same time, the soft electronic whirr of the motors inside the haptic devices moved my arms into a different position: they were held in place, fully stretched, above my head. At first I thought I was going to get released by the system, but no, they clearly intended it to be like that. The image came slowly into focus, showing my avatar suspended inside a jelly bag of unknown pseudo-organic matter. I was slowly losing my patience. “Ok, guys, this is not fun any more!” I yelled, and to my surprise, the voice didn’t come out muffled as I had expected, but it rang, loud and clear, back into the earphones — causing intense feedback. Worse than that, I couldn’t take them off, and I couldn’t turn the sound down!