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July 04, 2022

Levels of Reality 2

By Sailor Jim Johnston

"Oh, well, I suppose it would be more fun to kill you slowly, check by check, month by month. When Pete arrives, say 'Ishkabibble Tallywacker' to him. Ta!" She hung up at the exact same moment she disconnected from the company's system.

The door blew up a scant second later and Robo-Jenkins stomped hard across the threshold. He grinned and raised his bazooka. I threw myself to the floor and screamed, "Ishkabibble Tallywacker" at the top of my lungs. When I looked back up, all of his armor and weaponry had vanished, leaving him standing in slightly effeminate underwear and a slowly fading sneer. Before he had a chance to do anything, four security officers ran in and gang tackled him.

A few minutes later, while Jenkins was still trying to shake himself loose from the virtual embodiment of our security programs, a uniformed officer walked into the room. Pausing to nod to me, he squatted beside the squirming Jenkins and read him his rights. As soon as he was finished, both he and Jenkins disappeared. The security men left my office and my door magically reappeared, still sealed.

I picked up the phone and called Patty in tech support, a very nice teenage girl from the sounds of it, who confirmed that a very sophisticated vr program had taken control of our local vr programming, creating a bubble of virtual reality around two individuals... me and Peter Jenkins. Oh, Jenkins was really in here, but he'd been busy gunning down duplicate vr versions of the mid- and upper-management in a separate virtual reality, seamlessly set within our own vr programming. Nobody was actually dead or even aware that anything amiss had happened.

I thanked her and asked if the program was available for the police forensic programmers. Predictably, it wasn't. It completely vanished at the same moment Jenkins showed me his thong underwear. I ensured that our security programs were already beefing up the various layers of firewalls and plugging all access, then thanked Patty and hung up.

I spent a few tense seconds debating within myself, then pulled out my private cell phone, the one not routed through the company system, and punched *666. It rang twice and then a mocking laugh rang in my ear. Hunch confirmed again, it was the same laugh that had plagued me at the beginning of this little adventure.

"Dian, I know you're there, so listen carefully; do not attempt to decode my files. Any attempt will destroy your computer system, either your home system or your business one, whichever one you have them on. Seriously." I waited for a moment.

"Bullshit," she finally replied, as the maniacal laughter faded out. I knew she'd had to be listening, expecting me to scream in anger and wanting to enjoy my misery firsthand.

"Nope; honest Indian and cross my heart. I wasn't going to even warn you, but decided that since you handed over Jenkins and saved me the trouble of having to play out the entire scenario, I had to be at least as fair with you."

"Bullshit," she repeated, snarling into the phone. "You can't even spell Indian and you haven't got a heart to cross!"

"Kid, I knew you were behind it the minute I was able to reach you by phone. No outside lines, but I got you on the first try. Once I reached you, my only question was just how nuts had you gone, if you really figured out a way to kill people in a vr environment, and whether or not you'd kill innocents just to get at my records. Regardless of the answers, giving you access to my files was never an option. Oh, you have them in your computer, but the moment, the second, the instant you do anything even close to their security system, your system is toast. Period."

"Bullshit," she repeated for a third time. "You don't have the skill or the training, Jim."

"Nope, but I do have the connections and the ready cash," I replied. "It cost me exactly $67,452.48 to have it done; does that tell you anything?"

"THAT BITCH!"

"Now, now... Carla still speaks very highly and fondly of you, you know. I spoke to her yesterday and she was sending her usual Mother's Day card." I sighed and spoke as honestly and compassionately as I knew how. "Y'know, Dian, she still loves you and wants to reconcile. Even when you threw her out for attending that Culinary Institute behind your back, she still loved you. She's going to be head chef over at 'Mullins' by the end of the month, Kid. Her signature dish, the one that got her the position, is called 'Peaches Dian.' Do yourself a favor and give her a call, okay?"

"My daughter, a cook," she moaned over the phone. "I trained her to be the best and she threw it away on pots and pans... damn. Still," a sniffle, "Head chef at 'Mullins,' you said?"

"Starts on the 28th, Kid. I'll even bite the bullet and pass on being there opening night, if you want to drop by. Just say the word."

"Th-thanks, Jim." She muttered something to someone away from the phone. "Damn if she didn't do one hell of a job on protecting your files, too! A real chip off the block! Audio and visual keys, as well as multilayered protections... you have to sing and dance to access your files?!?"

"Walk a certain way approaching the desk, sing a specific song a specific way while logging on, then whistle in a certain fashion while typing... and you should see what I have to do to log off!"

"You've been going through all that since our divorce?" She laughed long and hard. "Damn, that's almost as good a revenge as hauling your sorry old ass back into court." Another muttered conversation away from the phone before she concluded, "Okay, you win. She pulled your bacon out of the fire and did it with style."

"Yup, then grilled it up and served it with veal medallions and chickpeas." A dish that Dian used to make and one of the first that Carla ever learned. "She also saved you, Kid. I was going to let you kill your computer, but couldn't live with the idea of having to tell her, afterwards. Call it even and forget about it."

"Deal."

"Oh, by the way," I glanced at my watch, "you really should make a point of deleting the program sometime in the next sixty seconds from... Mark. It also carries a time bomb feature."

"You bastard! That doesn't leave me enough time to confirm if it even exists!"

"Sure it does, just wait forty more seconds and you'll find out for sure."

She called me a name that I hadn't heard since the service and yelled at someone to delete the program, all copies, now! A second later, she came back on the line to report, "Done! Now, was there really a time bomb feature?"

I waited until there were only thirty seconds left and quoted, in a sing-song voice, "'What if Mr. Pretzel wants more time to study the lock that protects the saltshaker, Sweetie?'"

"NO!" She shrieked, immediately screaming at somebody named David to delete the program, NOW! A tense fifteen seconds later, she returned, breathless. "You deliberately waited until the last damn second before reminding me, didn't you?!"

"Yup. I used to love to listen in on your lessons. You and her, sitting in front of that little play computer... mean Mr. Pretzel, who wanted to steal all the saltshakers... some of the best memories of my life. You did catch it in time, then?"

"With only a second to spare, but you knew how long it would take to... wait a minute, you couldn't have known how long it would take to delete the backup copies. How did you know thirty seconds would be long enough?"

"I didn't... but, since there wasn't any time bomb feature, it really didn't matter, did it?"

I hung up in the middle of her tirade and made a note to have a time bomb subprogram incorporated into my security system. Maybe when Carla came over on Saturday. In the meantime, however... I clicked my glove mouse and the room went black. With an audible sigh of relief, I lifted my vr helmet off and slumped back in my chair. My wife, supermodel Sandy Kilbourouge, looked up from her book and smiled. She was wearing the latest in sexy underwear, only dressed if one used the most strictly technical terms.

I walked over to the sofa and sat down next to her, running a glove covered hand over her silky thigh. The fireplace crackled warmly to the side of the sofa; she must have come in and made a fire while I was involved with work. It was a little warm for me, but -- considering how she was dressed -- I was willing to suffer a bit for her sake.

A room temperature cognac sat on the oak end table, waiting for me. I picked it up with my free hand and, feeling a tad gauche, drank it all in one gulp. Well, it'd been a tough day. Sandy frowned slightly at the crudity, but immediately followed it with a smile and laid her hand on top of my still stroking fingers. The cognac smelled like imported heaven, but -- appropriately enough -- tasted like a cheap cola. I set the crystal back down and returned my wife's smile.

She was waiting for me to speak first. I leaned back on the leather and enjoyed the rich opulence of my den for a moment longer, then sighed and said, "Game control mode. Evaluate."

"Congratulations, Jim," she said, setting the book down and removing her hand from mine. "You scored well enough to move onto the CEO levels." "Thanks, Sandy." I nodded, peeling off my leather vr gloves. "How many levels until I come back and you're naked?"

"Topless, final level, CEO. Completely nude, level two, Congressional, played either as a Congressman or as a Lobbyist." She smiled and sat up, easing her fine thighs off of the couch and making a tease of the movement. "If you make it to the White House, sex enters the picture," she winked.

"Often, if history teaches us anything," I sighed. I regarded her for a moment longer, left clicking for a printout of her pose, and then double clicked my right glove mouse to end the program. The room froze, the company logo superimposed on Sandy's face, then faded.

I reached up and took off my vr helmet, tossing it onto the battered steel desk in front of me and carefully tucked the gloves into it. The clock on the wall showed that I had another fifteen minutes for my session, but I called it a night anyway. I stood in front of the locked door, indicating to the security camera that I was ready to leave.

Murphy had the hall and escorted me back to my cell a few minutes later. "How'd it go tonight, Roberts," he asked, conversationally, as we walked. I shrugged and replied that I'd made it through the session without killing my wife. He nodded approval and opened my cell door.

"Keep it up, Roberts. Every level you complete without killing her is another week off of your sentence and, even with a murder rap, every bit helps. Oh, by the way, your kid called during your session. She can't make it this Friday, but promised to come for a visit the following week. Sorry."

"Not your fault, Murph. Thanks for passing the message." I stepped back into my cell and sat down on my bed. Murphy waved towards central and my cell door clanged shut. He said good night, then paused as he started to leave and pointed at my right hand.

"Odd sort of a twitch, Roberts. You need to see a doc or something?"

I looked down at my right hand. It was double clicking an imaginary vr mouse without my thinking about it.

"Naw," I said, looking back up. "Just testing, I guess."

Sailor Jim is retired from the U.S. Coast guard and lives on a farm near a small town in Texas. In addition to his fiction, he also has written many humorous real-life vignettes which have been enjoyed by his online audience for years. He is the author of a collection of short stories entitled "Naked Through the Snow and Other Bits of Silliness", published by Quarternion Press, ASIN 0967253535.

Sailor Jim has been, in no particular order, a stand-up comic, magician, juggler, impressionist, photographer, programmer, yeoman, coxswain, boatswain, helmsman, killer, drug addict, alcoholic, smoker, mental ward prisoner and superhero.

Article © Sailor Jim Johnston. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-07-17
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