Starlequin climbed into the pod with practiced ease, exhaling as he felt the ExperiGel mold against his body. His skin tingled as the pod calibrated itself according to his specifications, generating measurements of his height, weight, mass, stimuli sensitivity and musculoskeletal systems, all information vital to rendering as realistic an experience in VR as possible. It didn't take long; this was his personal pod, or at least, the one he'd worked with the most often, and it held much of the core information in its RAM already. Star called up diagnostics and triple-checked the pod's systems to make certain all programs were running at optimal levels. No resource conflicts, no corrupted files, no redundant data to strain processor workload. All systems were nominal.
"All right, let's jack in," Starlequin said, muttering under his breath. He closed his eyes and relaxed into the 'Gel, a pleasant vibrating sensation spreading from the back of his head down into his whole body. This wouldn't be the first time he'd gone virtual, but in all of his prior dry runs he'd been the only one in the environment, working to ensure all local area instantiations were as lifelike as he could get them. He'd never had the opportunity to interact with any of the objects or NPCs; those were other people's departments, although he'd heard great things about some of the scripts his coworkers were implementing. He just built the frame; filling it with pretty was up to the others.
His entry experience was probably quite similar to many of the others', and within the space of a few blissful moments Starlequin went from a state of full sensory deprivation to near-total sensory overload. Haptic and synaptic feedback barriers did a beautiful job of preventing his mind from burning out as the cityscape materialized around him and Starlequin suddenly found himself at the center of an onslaught of stimuli he could never have hoped to experience, let alone withstand in meatspace.
Audio and olfactory inputs were the first to register as he apparated onto a busy sidewalk, late in the evening. Sounds of vehicles and pedestrian traffic, honking horns and rustling footsteps and swishing fabric and rumbling engines, squealing tires and mingled, murmuring voices that blended into a dull roar. The scents of seven different ethnic cuisines wafted through his thoughts, Chinese to Indian to Italian to Russian and others he couldn't even recognize as anything but delicious, blended with the usual city odors, oil and grease and rubber and electricity. Tactile sene was next, and Starlequin would have sworn to anyone who asked that he'd gone instantly from an air-conditioned office to a balmy, humid street corner. Breezes blew against his skin from passing cars and out of the canyons between towering skyscrapers, and the NPCs that surrounded him felt real, had weight. The 'people' jostled past him like fish swimming around a stone as they traveled along their locally randomized routes to their programmed destinations.
Taste and sight incurred last, although with a time lapse of less than .0000000000004 seconds there wouldn't be another user on Earth who wouldn't know it wasn't perfectly instantaneous. But as lead programmer for environmental rendering and designer of the sensory immersion architecture, Starlequin's inside knowlege allowed him to fully appreciate just how powerful the chamber's processor was working (fast enough to replicate every single work of visual, musical and written expression in human history with perfect accuracy in less than a second). As the computer interfaced with his visual cortex, Star took in the sight of glittering glass and steel edifices, shining streetlamps, glowing neon and dull paint and wild dancing shadows cast by moving headlights and bustling people, and he tasted the impossibly clean air as his tongue ran over his teeth.
Starlequin felt himself smile all the way back in meatspace as he looked down at his VR body, idealized and perfected. Full, luscious hair. No glasses or acne scars. A tight black shirt wrapped around an obviously sculpted chest and deep-cut sixpack, supple black leather pants that showed a thick...well. Idealized. He took his first steps in the now fully interactive environment. His foot hit the sidewalk and it felt perfectly real. He set off down the street, noting how naturally the crowds seemed to part to give him moving room. Better than a real city; no need to even worry about pick-pockets!
The sky above was a deep midnight blue, dotted with millions more stars and satellites than could ever begin to fill Earth's skies, and they shone together with a brilliance that nearly rivaled the sun. Night was Day. Nothing was Something. Illusion was Truth.
"...We've done it. Sweet Gibson's balls, we've done it!" Starlequin exclaimed to the passing NPC masses. Some turned and looked at him, some smiled, some shook their heads in confusion, but all continued to walk by. He struggled to restrain himself, to hold onto his dignity during this solemn and deeply historical moment, but he just couldn't stop from breaking into a goofy, pathetically uncoordinated and rapturously joyful jig right in the center of the teeming crowd.
"I, I, I, I'm gonna be rich, rich, rich, I'm gonna be rich, rich, rich, I'm gonna be--Whoo!"
Star spent the next several hours (VR time; in AR he stayed perhaps 20-30 minutes) wandering what he'd privately dubbed Chiba City. He tested everything
he could think of, from building solidity to alternating temperatures, walking and running speeds to the freefall physics of small objects. He stopped at every diner and sampled every item on the menus, enjoying the physical and tactile sensations of every delicious bite. He grabbed NPCs off the street and touched them, shook their hands, shoved them around, hugged them, punched them, kissed them, just to see their reactions (physical reactions were almost 100% accurate, but psychological/emotional reactions generally ranged from friendly to confused; perhaps the scripting team would need a little more time to finish implementing the rest of their code). He even walked out into traffic to test object reactions to user pathway interference; he couldn't stop himself from flinching as a beautifully rendered Aston Martin raced down the street directly at him with no signs of stopping or slowing, but he was pleased to confirm user priority as the virtual vehicle came to an immediate dead stop less than a millimeter away from his person.
All right. Good enough for a test run. Next time he'd activate debug menus and test the environment with above- and below-average user parameters; there would be no point in shipping a perfectly realistic VR system to users who would inevitably hack their chambers to give themselves super strength or speed or invisibility, so the system had to be able to keep up with even the most unreasonable demands. And by the time they shipped, it damn well would.
Starlequin sent the command to the system to log out, and he felt Chiba fade away around him until he returned to the sensory deprivation state. The ExperiGel connections shut down and within seconds, Star felt feeling return to his real body. Everything felt so dim and dull after a VR session, and he had a feeling they would have to provide strict protocols to prevent user addiction. That was all they needed, some little Johnny or Jilly Nobody jacking in and turning into a full-on gogglehead and their parents following close behind with a big fat lawsuit. No thanks, chili franks.
Climbing out of the pod, Star scooped up his tablet and called up the performance monitor to get readouts on both his and the pod's activity. Streams of numbers scrolled past his eyes and he drank them in, running the math and marking every anomalous reading he spotted (not many, thankfully). Most of the others looked to already be out, congregating near one of the other pods and he ambled towards them, attentions mostly still focused on the screen in his hands.
"Hey, Remiel, Sasha, can I get the numbers on your pods' immersion protocols? I'm seeing a few readings on mine that are still just a skosh outside normal margins; it's nothing major, but I want...to...check some...hey, what's going on? Is Bigglesworth okay?"
Learning that Biggles was indeed stuck sent a chill down Star's spine. How the hell did this happen? He called up the full overview of the processor strings' performance and scanned through the security protocols; nothing looked out of place. At least, not that he could see. Which meant one of two things. A fluke accident, a one in a trillion event...or there was a black hat among them. The chill grew into a full-blown blizzard as Star realized just how little he knew about most of his coworkers. He backed away from the others quietly, clouds of suspicion now hanging over many of them in his eyes. Sasha was probably trustworthy, as was Niferbelle; he'd worked with them long enough to believe they were the loyal sort, focused more on the project than the payday. And Moriarty, while he didn't know the fellow too well, seemed a stand-up guy. Hell, probably more than most, if he really was hosting some kind of artificial intelligence in his brain. At least, he hoped
so. But that left an awful lot of suspects.
"What the hell is KingBear
doing, going on about duct tape at a time like this?" Star mumbled to himself, eyes on the man with the fuzzy coat that he suspected concealed the heart of a villain.