It was cold, and it was raining. I pulled my coat closed and waited for it to have some small effect. It was thin and threadbare, but it had been as good a quality as my parents could afford when they had bought it for me. The thinness wasn’t an issue; it had been designed like that for lightness and convenience. It was lined with a silvery material, a little like aluminium foil, but lighter and more flexible, the idea being that it would reflect back your body heat. For the most part it worked, even after all these years, and after a short while, I stopped shivering so much.
I looked across the street at the entrance to a particular building. In a world where so many businesses were going to the wall, where so many people were free-falling into poverty and beyond, it seemed almost obscene that any organisation should be profiting so much as to be able to afford a frontage like that, but I guess in any world there are winners and losers, and when the majority are losing, that generally results in larger profits for those able to make them.
There were times when I hated my parents for the morality they had instilled in me. Usually it was when I was cold and wet and hungry as I was now, when I regretted not being selfish and cut-throat enough to be able to squeeze a little bit of profit out of the less bright and discerning of my neighbours. These lapses usually only lasted a few brief moments though. I was too aware of the misery I would have to cause in order to line my own pockets, and the concept of right and wrong my parents had nurtured in me had grown to prizewinning proportions. So instead I stood out in the cold and the rain with my stomach growling its complaint at me, comforted at the very least in having an untroubled conscience as I looked across at the pink marble façade of New Life Incorporated.
Actually it wouldn’t be fair to lump NLI together with the casino and betting shop owners, the loan sharks and the con artists. As a company, they had never tried to swindle people out of their money, but in the same way as Microsoft, Google and the like, they had been the first to develop a new product for which the world was more than ready. They had gone public with their idea – software based as so many of the big money spinners were – and found themselves filling an immense vacuum of need, or possibly desire. They had expanded to meet the market’s demand and had grown fat despite the famine.
Like so many good ideas, its initial intent had been dramatically different. The increasing population and dwindling resources in the world led inevitably to poverty and a surge in crime rate. The prisons were already bursting at the seams, and the steady increase in the number of indicted criminals required a new approach. The government had been reluctantly considering bringing back capital punishment when a new idea was proposed.
They hadn’t called themselves New Life Incorporated back then. In keeping with what they had been trying to achieve, they chose the name Virtual Prisons Limited. It still makes me smile, that. I mean, it never ceases to amaze me that so many corporate boardroom types are so naïve that they don’t pick up on possible alternate meanings for their companies’ initials. I worked for them for a while when they outsourced some of their research and development – more on that later – and I still think of them as the Visible Panty Liners.
But I digress. The idea had been simple. It costs a lot to run a prison. Making it secure enough to keep the inmates away from society, and at the same time comfortable enough to meet each prisoner’s human rights is prohibitively expensive. So what if you could put them in a box and drip feed them sustenance? You wouldn’t have to pay guards to keep them locked up, you wouldn’t spend money on exercise yards, recreation facilities or canteens with a reasonable quality of food. You’d be able to cut the cost of caring for a prisoner by a factor of ten at least.
But what about their human rights? I mean it wouldn’t be right just to lock a person up in a box and leave them would it? What if you could plug their consciousnesses into a virtual world? You’d be able to give them something approaching freedom, even a greater freedom than they might enjoy in prison itself. No walls, no bars, no guards, no keys. Just a world with programmed limitations to its size. No way of escaping, because even if you could will your body to wake up in the real world, you’d be locked up inside a small box where the alarms would go off automatically.
The government jumped at the idea, and virtual prisons rapidly replaced conventional ones. VPL became rich overnight supplying the necessary software and hardware to put the whole thing into practise.
Then something happened which, in hindsight, should have been expected. The number of criminals sky-rocketed, and the percentage of repeat offenders rose to almost one hundred percent. It seemed that despite the relatively primitive nature of the virtual worlds created as prison environments, they were vastly preferable to normal life, especially if you happened to be near the bottom of the ladder wealth-wise.
And so New Life Inc was born. The company ploughed all its profits from the prison venture back into R&D, developing new, faster, higher capacity hardware and new more complex, randomised algorithms to make the virtual environments more realistic. They kept the primitive model for the prisons, and marketed the new one as “more real than the real thing.”
To start with, they created virtual holiday destinations, unrestricted by closed borders, or even by time or imagination. Prices were high to start with, but as the number of facilities grew and the number of programmable destinations increased, they became affordable by the general population – at least for a while – and everyone was able to afford and enjoy an annual two week stay anywhere they wanted, from The Caribbean to the Himalayas, from the Wild West to the Forest Moon of Endor, you could go anywhere you liked, as long as someone had through the place worth creating in the virtual world.
Then, of course, things changed again. One rich so-and-so made the inevitable next step of thinking beyond vacations and into retirement. How much would it cost to live in a virtual environment for the rest of a person’s life? The question was asked and answered, and NLI had a new clientèle. Anyone and everyone who managed to save above a certain amount was able to buy the retirement of their dreams. This usually meant those unscrupulous enough to rip off their fellow man, but there were a number of honest hard-working sorts among them, my parents belonging to the latter category.
It may even have been my dad who came up with the idea of using the technology as a retirement option, because he started squirrelling as much spare cash away as possible the moment I told him what I was working on, and that was way back when I had been contracted to develop the prison environments. He was always able to see the possibilities in an idea, my Dad.
They put off going in as long as possible. One of the downsides of the process was the lack of communication following insertion. The technology was there, don’t get me wrong, but the cost of using an interface was prohibitive, and they wanted me saving all my spare cash so I could join them sooner rather than later. So they waited until they were certain I was set up with a decent job and a good enough career path that I should be able to afford virtual retirement in the not too distant future, then they left me to get on with it.
Of course the battle plan is usually one of the first casualties in any conflict, and this was no exception. My parents headed off to their retirement villa on a virtually terraformed Titan (complete with breath-taking views of Saturn in the sky), and Western economy steepened its nosedive.
The cost of virtual retirement was high, and an enormous amount of the Western World’s ready cash went to NLI in order to pay for the long term escapism of the well-to-do. The rich became richer, or disappeared into virtual worlds where money no longer had any meaning, and the rest of us were left with considerably less cash to go around. So much of NLI’s resources were used up maintaining the retirement worlds, that virtual holidays all but ceased to exist, with those that did continue becoming so expensive that only the truly filthy rich could afford them.
Despite having a good job and very desirable skills as a software developer, even I slipped below the poverty line and saw what had begun as a promising start to a retirement fund eroded to nearly nothing in just a few short years. Food was horrendously expensive, and horribly bland even at its best – result of the lack of international trade that came from developing countries closing their borders, reneging on their loans and keeping their national produce to feed their own exponentially increasing populations. Fuel prices soared as demands for energy by NLI caused the world’s resources to dwindle at an alarming rate and pushed up the price of what remained. I went through a succession of moves into smaller and smaller flats, taking some solace from the thought that with people living all around me, we were at least sharing each other’s heating bills.
Then three years ago, one of the experimental fusion reactors finally cracked the problem of sustaining a reaction for long enough to get a good yield of energy. The need for fossil fuels dropped off and, as conventional power stations were rapidly replaced with the new fusion reactors, one of the major costs of living fell back into the affordable range again.
I was able to save once more. I worked hard and built up my little nest egg almost as quickly as I had seen it gnawed away to nearly nothing.
Then my real break came. NLI were recruiting software engineers to work inside the virtual worlds. They weren’t offering a free pass so much as a vastly reduced semi-retirement package. My savings along with my past experience working with them just squeezed me onto the program, and a few words with the right people in the right departments had me earmarked to join my Mum and Dad on V-Titan.
That’s what had brought me to this point. All bridges were now irrevocably burned. I had sold everything I owned except for the clothes I was wearing right now, given notice on my flat and transferred my entire wealth to New Live Incorporated. It was just enough to pay for my pod. Now all I had to do was walk across the street and start my new life.
So why was I hesitating? Why was I so nervous of crossing the road and taking the next step? After all, this had been the plan all along – get enough wealth together to be able to leave this decrepit cesspit of a world and join my family in a better place, even if it wasn’t real. After all, when all was said and done, what was reality anyway? I’d still be offering a worthwhile service, working on software problems from inside VR.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s one of those things we learned about in psychology. A person operates at the level of the lowest unfulfilled need. For ten years now, since Mum and Dad disappeared from my life, I had been struggling to keep flesh on my bones, so had possessed neither time nor inclination to think about less survival oriented matters. Now that my needs were met, that part of me that had troubled me in my youth resurfaced. I had one more request to put to the people at New Life, and the thought of voicing it terrified me.
When I had done my original work on the virtual prison concept, I had been asked to head up a team looking into an alternative to simply locking a criminal up. It had been postulated that if a person could be made to relive his or her childhood in a more supportive and wholesome environment, perhaps they could be more readily retrained into a non-criminal mind-set. It had been further postulated that the more aggressive male criminals might benefit from living as little girls for a while.
I had volunteered as a test subject for the trials, explaining that I wouldn’t ask a member of my team to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself, but in reality feeling more than naturally excited about the prospect of being able to live as a little girl.
It brought back memories of younger days when, as an only child, I had spent long hours with my mother. I had asked her one day why it was that women got to wear pretty dresses and be gentle and kind while boys were always competing and fighting. I think it followed yet another time at school when I had been targeted by the class bully, but in general I felt more at home playing with girls than with boys. Football had never interested me, and the only part of playing with action figures that really got me going was dressing them up.
My Mum, being something of a deep thinker and not inclined to automatically accept the popular view on anything, had asked me if I would like to dress up and find out what it was like to be a girl for a while. I had jumped at the chance and for several glorious months, I went about wearing the pretty dresses I had always found so attractive and spending time with girls my age.
Childhood is a time of innocence and delight, but it reaches its end. Before puberty hit, my mother put a stop to this particular experiment. I think she was concerned that she was pushing her own desires onto me and setting me up for future hardship by letting me play out the fantasy. Regretfully, I accepted her decision and went back to being the boy I had been born. The world was becoming a harder place to live in, and I suppose she thought I would be better able to survive if I was able to fit in.
I compensated by throwing myself into my studies. I had always known that the future prosperity lay in software development and, being naturally interested in and gifted with computers, the direction of my life became set. I found that when I applied myself fully to a problem, I could blank out the more unpleasant aspects of my life and find the solution needed faster and better than most. My work became my solace, and I became good enough that I won the contract to lead the team researching alternate strategies of rehabilitation in the virtual prison environment. Which also meant that I was able to revisit some of the happiest times of my childhood.
The technology worked well enough. While I was under, I had been given testosterone blockers so that I wouldn’t be troubled by the hormonal effects of an adult male while I was in the virtual body of a young girl, and I had actually felt myself regressing and embracing the new life. I was too willing a subject though, and while I totally immersed myself in the experience and managed to produce very positive results from the trials. When they were first tried on aggressive male criminals, the results were very different, causing severe psychological trauma and bringing an abrupt and premature end to the particular trial.
It also brought my working relationship with NLI to a fairly abrupt end. Since my own results were so much at odds with the prisoner trials, they were not pleased with me and accused me of falsifying my data. I denied it, and we parted with heated words and the issue unresolved.
For the next few years I scraped by on the work I could get from other organisations, but NLI was the biggest and best paying software developer around, so that left me with slim pickings. Pride and righteous indignation drove me though, and for those years I wouldn’t even consider applying for another job with New Life.
My Mum would have said I was cutting off my nose to spite my face. It’s an odd expression and I’ve never really understood it, but I guess the long and short of it was that I suffered and New Life Incorporated got by just fine without me.
It wasn’t until they advertised for techs to work inside v-world that I had reason enough to take stock, and in doing so I discovered that pride wasn’t too bitter a pill to swallow. I applied for the job and had an impressive enough resume, despite having done no work for NLI in the previous few years, to end up on their short list.
Before the interview I worked myself up into quite a state, running over and over how I would respond to the inevitable question about what had gone wrong with my research all those years ago. I had to be able to justify myself without seeming to criticise them, and I sweated over how I would do so almost to the exclusion of everything else. Then, as you might expect, on the day they didn’t even raise the subject. All those years fuming against the injustice of it all and in the end the company had completely forgotten the incident. Either that or ignored it in favour of more recent evidence that showed me to be…
…just the person they were looking for. They offered me the job, after which I found I still had some friends inside New Life Inc, some of whom had risen to positions of not insignificant responsibility. I bought them a couple of drinks and asked for a favour or two, and before long I was confirmed as inside technician for V-Titan.
That had been two weeks ago – time enough for me to put my affairs in order, sell everything I had of any value whatsoever and give it over to NLI to pay for my pod.
Now I was standing outside the entrance to the main building, about to say fair well to my old life struggling to make ends meet on the broken down and decrepit mess we had made of our world, and to start my new one in one of the most advanced and meticulously designed virtual environments in existence.
And yet I hesitated still.
If I didn’t ask now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.
Dad had told me once that courage isn’t so much being fearless as overcoming your fears. I marshalled what courage I had. It was just enough.
I crossed the street and entered the richly appointed building, gave my name at the reception and sat to wait.
A surprisingly short time later, a suit with a smile marched towards me, hand outstretched. I stood and shook it, then followed him into a spacious and exquisitely appointed office.
There were a few boxes to tick and then I was facing a dotted line, pen in hand.
By rights I should have signed then and there. The deal was such a good one, I shouldn’t have risked letting it slip through my fingers.
Ask now or regret it forever.
I cleared my throat and tentatively asked if there was just one slight change I could make to the arrangements.
The smile froze for a moment – an automatic reaction while its owner pondered the impossibility that, Oliver like, I could have the temerity to ask for more. I was too nervous and took his silence as permission to explain what I had in mind.
The rictus smile remain for a few seconds after I finished speaking, then with a nervous blink of his eyes, the suit bade me stay where I was and disappeared through the door.
I had blown it. I’d had a foolish notion, and in asking for that peculiar added extra, I had talked myself out of the best job I’d ever been offered and any hope of joining my parents any time soon. I fidgeted nervously for what seemed like aeons before the door opened once more.
This time the suit consisted of a skirt, jacket and blouse and it was being worn by a formidable enough woman that my first thought was that she had been sent to throw me out, bodily if necessary. On second glance there was something about her though. A slightly heavy set about her facial bone structure, something in the way she moved, I don’t know. The germ of a suspicion was forming at the back of my brain when she told me outright that yes she was a post-op transsexual.
You have to understand, such people were rare in this day and age. Ever since health care had been privatised and basic health insurance – the sort most people could afford – only covering physical illnesses and potentially life-threatening conditions. This meant that most people with a gender identity disorder generally just shrugged shoulders and got on with living. As I said earlier, Maslow et al dictated the manner of most people’s lives these days, and since most people were struggling to stay warm and fed, they generally didn’t get so far as to consider matters of gender and sexuality.
To find someone affected by GID was a rarity, to find one who was prepared to do something about her condition even more so. To find one who not only had the inclination but the means to transition as well, I mean the odds were astronomical. You might as well do the lottery as believe that such a person existed, but here she was.
We spoke for a long while. She told me about all the operations and procedures she had gone through, to the point that several times she had nearly given up on the whole thing. What had kept her going on more than one occasion was the option to spend a few days or weeks every now and again in a virtual world as a girl. She had made use of the parameters I had programmed as part of my earlier research to help her realise how much this would be worthwhile, and to give her some memories of the childhood she had always felt she should have had, and now she was only too delighted to meet the person responsible for making those particular v-trips possible.
It delayed my departure some additional months because she wasn’t prepared to authorise what I was asking for until she had professional confirmation that it was right for me. I was given temporary lodgings and a psych evaluation was arranged. My trans-woman friend in upper management – LGBT liaison for the company amongst other thing – told me that the additional expense was being met by the company health insurance, but I suspect that she may have paid the bills herself.
In any case, I survived the shrinkage and managed to convince the doctor that this was the right thing for me. At last everything was set. I went through the minor surgeries necessary for long term virtual living, changed into my immersion suit and was led to the tank that would be the home for my physical body for the rest of my life. Wires and tubes were attached. They felt uncomfortable at first, but from past experience I knew they would become unnoticeable after just a short while. I stepped into the tank, the fluid already warmed to body temperature, and allowed myself to be attached to the webbing that would hold me away from the sides. The lid closed down on me and the universe ceased to exist.
That’s how it felt. No light, no sound, no sensation whatsoever; well perhaps a slight feeling of movement as my tank was moved into position alongside the thousands of others plugged into V-Titan. You lose any sense of the passage of time without an external reference. Minutes seem like days, and it’s not uncommon for an immersed subject to panic, thinking they have been forgotten, or that something had gone wrong with their tank and no-one has noticed. The trick is to listen for your heartbeat. Total sensory deprivation is one of the rare situations when you can become aware of it. It takes some concentration, but once you have it, it gives you the necessary time reference by which to gauge how long you have been waiting. Even so, it seemed to take longer than normal – perhaps because this was a long term immersion and they needed to double-check everything was alright, perhaps because of my particular requirements and the different parameters necessitated by the hormone mix they were adding to my particular soup.
Eventually the first virtual sensations started to come through. Flashes of light and bursts of sounds at first, then images and music. Tastes and smells followed, accompanied by spoken words and images to match, each requiring a verbal response from me to match my brain to the stimuli, then lastly the physical sensations of my body. This was the tricky part. Up until now the sensations had been familiar, but from here on things should feel different, and I had to embrace the difference. I felt odd, off balance with the additional weight on my chest and the wider set of my hips. I ran virtual fingers over my body, feeling the softness and smoothness of my skin, the heightened sensitivity of my new breasts and nipples, the unusual emptiness between my legs. I felt a wave of delicious sensation rush through me and knew that, had I not been taking hormones, a certain part of my anatomy would be standing erect and ready for action right now.
I stood and tried moving around. Long hair tickled my back and a thousand minor differences had me stumbling about clumsily at first. It didn’t take long for the awkward differences to turn into an easy grace though, and before long I was pirouetting around the room like I had been taking ballet all my life.
It was a small room and plain, holding nothing more than a bed, a wardrobe and a mirror, all of them functional rather than decorative. I stepped in front of the mirror and saw my new self smile back at me. That in itself felt strange. It seemed like years had passed since I had really smiled, and it felt great. What’s more, it took an already attractive face and lit it up with a beauty that shone from deep inside me. I cupped my breasts, enjoying the feel both of their weight in my hands and of my slender fingers gently caressing my nipples. Next I explored the other new region of my body, gasping as my finger disappeared inside me, feeling the dampness and marvelling that I could actually sense my finger inside my body. The virtual model had advanced considerably since my early work on it.
A heaviness lifted from my shoulders. I had been carrying it so long I had forgotten it was there. I was complete – whole in a way I had never thought I could be and it felt wonderful. I twirled around and leapt up into the air. Real Titan has a gravitational field about one seventh that on Earth, which would have taken a lot of getting used to. The designers of V-Titan, not being constrained by anything so mundane as the laws of physics, had opted for a level about half that of Earth. It meant I had to put my hands out to stop myself colliding head first with the ceiling, but then I settled to the ground quickly enough, landing a little awkwardly, but safely.
I opened the wardrobe to find a selection of women’s clothing hanging from the rail, and a stack of drawers containing items of underwear, all of it in my size. It had been so long since I had played dress up as a child, but everything came back to me as though it had been only yesterday. Bra and panties went on with no great difficulty given my newly enhanced flexibility, and immediately everything felt more comfortable. I’d never worn nylons before, but I remembered watching my mother get dressed when I was very young, and I did as she had done, feeling the soft fabric cling to my smooth legs like a second skin. Next came a full cotton slip which caressed my legs with a cool sensation that sent shivers through my body.
I chose a dress made from a delicate, floaty material with a floral pattern in lilac and turquoise, and the light gravity had it dancing about my thighs as though it were alive. I finished off with turquoise sandals and matching handbag and went to stand in front of the mirror again.
I could hardly breathe. There standing before me was the image of how I had always wanted to look. Okay, that shouldn’t have surprised me since I had spent some time designing my new body while I was waiting for the beginning of this adventure. I had never really let the girl inside come to the surface before, but here she was making me realise all those years up until now had been a pretence, the body I had been given to wear a horrible practical joke played on me by the universe.
I looked around for the door, too excited to stay inside anymore. It opened out onto a large glass covered dome with benches and exotic flowers growing from baskets all around me. This was the terminal, the port of entry into V-Titan. It was designed to give a gentle introduction to life on a new world, the surroundings looking like any of a number of geodesic arboreta on real Earth. The main difference was the brilliantly blue sky and the striking view of Saturn overhead, faded to a ghost in the brilliant blue sky with its rings tracing a silvery streak around its waist.
“I don’t understand,” I heard a familiar voice say. “I thought we were supposed to be meeting our son.”
“Don’t be such an old fool, dear. We talked about this, remember?”
Mum. And the twinkle in Dad’s eye told me he was just messing. Mum’s smile was so wide it almost reached her ears.
“Hello sweetheart,” she said, holding out her arms in welcome. “The message was a little garbled so we didn’t know what to expect, but I was so hoping to meet my daughter at long last.”
I buried myself in her soft embrace, felling my father’s strong arms wrap around us both. I was home. For the first time in my life, I was truly home.