Authors: Graham Storrs
Heaven is a Place on Earth
Heaven is a Place on Earth
by Graham Storrs
eBook Edition, Copyright © 2014, Graham Storrs
Book and cover design by Graham Storrs. Quadcopter design by Oberwelz Design, Austria (
). Final cover artwork by Patty Jansen (http://pattyjansen.com/).
Published by Canta Libre.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorised, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
Three brilliant and beautiful women are at the heart of everything I do: my mother, Audrey; my wife, Christine; and my daughter, Katherine. I dedicate this book to them.
I have been extremely fortunate to have had the help of three fabulous Australian speculative fiction writers in polishing this text and producing the book. I would like to thank fellow writer, Meryl Ferguson, for her invaluable comments on an earlier draft of the book and for comments on the cover design. Another writer, Patty Jansen, who also happens to be an artist, also commented on the cover design and then went on to produce the final version. Finally, Perth-based writer Amanda Bridgeman helped with a final review of the text. Also thanks to my wife, Christine, who read and commented on earlier drafts and who bore with me throughout the process of producing this work from inspiration to publication.
Despite all this help, the text is as you find it, and I have to take full responsibility for that.
Virginia Galton kicked off her sandals and let her head fall back, relaxing into the warm Brisbane sunshine. This is what she needed after the stress of yet another disappointing meeting, just to sit in the Botanic Gardens and let the sun soak through her. Somewhere nearby a water feature tinkled to itself while lorikeets squabbled in the trees. Just knowing that the broad Brisbane River was there if she cared to open her eyes, making its slow, cool progress towards Moreton Bay, was balm to her soul.
And balm was in short supply these days. Her money was running out and customers were getting harder to find. Even the ones she still had were playing silly buggers. The meeting with UnReality was typical. Times were getting harder, they said. They were thinking their worldlets didn't really need such elaborate soundscapes. And, anyway, they could buy stock soundscapes by the hour off the Net. Custom sounds were a luxury and one they had to ask themselves whether they could really afford.
She argued with them about branding and production values, all the while thinking that the two guys running the company were probably ten years younger than her, that they were maybe thinking she was not the bright young talent they were hoping for, that, at the very least, someone younger would be cheaper.
In the end, she had hung on to the Old Vienna contract but with the scope pared back to half of what she'd been hoping for. Now she needed to find another contract to make up for it. Life was getting harder just at a time when it should have been getting easier. She had heard that most people reached their peak earnings in their early forties. Well, the way things were going, she might already have left her peak far behind, and she was only in her early thirties.
She lifted her head and peered out at the river, small boats bobbing at their moorings, a ferry chugging its way slowly upstream. Who held meetings at their offices any more? Who even had real offices? For a company that produced high-end wordlets for the corporate market, UnReality was pretty primitive in its business methods. Offices. And face-to-face meetings. They said it was all about security. Protecting their IP. They said their competition was watching them. Ginny didn't believe a word of it. They were simply paranoid and irritating little jerks and she wished she didn't have to have anything more to do with them.
Be careful what you wish for, darl
, she told herself.
On the upside, at least she was out in the sunshine. What had it been? Two weeks? Three? She should probably make the effort to go outside more. She'd read something about it a while ago, about vitamin D and circadian rhythms and how a modern lifestyle was really bad for you. But what could you do about it? It was just scaremongering, anyway. There were laws that made sure food had all the vitamin supplements you needed. Going out was just another time-wasting pain in the neck she could do without. Besides...
Ginny was latched to the Botanical Gardens' augmented reality, which meant her neural implants took a feed from the sensors all around her, created an artificial reality, and overlaid it onto what her own senses were sending to her brain. On impulse, she switched the level of virtual reality down to a simple informational augmentation, so she could see the gardens as they really were.
The neat lawns and blooming rose beds faded away to rough turf and weeds, the splashing fountain dried up and vanished. The trees were still there, mostly, and the quarrelsome lorikeets. The river still flowed, but the rows of gaily painted yachts vanished, replaced by a handful of half-sunken wrecks. The people walking by, who had been smartly dressed, healthy and cheerful, were almost all gone, having been mere simulations. The two that remained were revealed as drab, pale and overweight.
If being outside is so good for you
, she thought,
how come these guys look like they've just come off life support?
She looked down at her own body and found the sight disturbing. When had she grown so flabby and pale? She wore a simple overall that looked as if she had been gardening in it.
Everybody wears them
, she thought, rejecting the guilt that nipped at her. Why would she wear anything else when it was so easy to augment your own image with anything you felt like wearing? Anybody sane was in full AR or full VR all the time these days. Only a masochist would want to see the world as it really was.
She latched again to the gardens' systems. Reality was even more depressing than usual and it was good to get back to normality. She looked down at herself and was reassured by the long, tanned legs, the flat stomach and firm breasts. She tried to pick out the two sad specimens she'd seen while on minimal aug. One was probably the smart-looking guy in the business suit. The other she wasn't sure about. Maybe the good-looking bloke just beyond that group of teenagers kicking a ball about. Did it bother her that her world – everybody's world – was a complete sham? Not at all. What really stuck in her craw was that the music drifting across from the distant and, she now realised, simulated bandstand, was cheap, out-of-copyright rubbish. No-one wanted to pay for real musicians to write new music any more. It was all recycled old stuff or machine-generated pap.
She stood up and made her way out of the gardens towards the CBD. It was a long walk to the Transit Centre but that would be the only place she'd find a cab. She knew that buses and trains had once run from there too, but mass public transport had gone the way of the dodo. Without the need to commute to work, or travel to the shops, or to travel at all for that matter, it was a miracle there were still taxis available for the few poor souls who needed to shift their bodies around the city. Poor souls like Ginny Galton, with her failing career as a soundscape composer, and her crazy, paranoid customers who made wholly unreasonable demands and, frankly, were virtually ex-customers these days.
The little electric robocab took her out to her unit in Toowong. It had once been a fashionable inner-city suburb in the days when location meant anything. Now it was just another place to live. As she got out, the fare was deducted automatically from her bank account, the size of the bill reminding her that physically moving yourself around the city was for suckers. And the desperate.
Her apartment was larger than she needed, but rents were cheap in the post-boomer world and she liked the luxury of having two whole physical rooms. Maybe she should start thinking about finding something smaller. She looked about herself and, perhaps because she had been outside, she turned down her augmentation to the lowest setting again. The smart white minimalism she loved faded away to reveal the dismal reality. Bare floorboards instead of parquet, grimy walls where there had been posters and artwork, and a beat-up old fabric sofa where the leather-and-chrome one had stood. The only thing that did not change was the Roland electric piano, a real electric piano, an antique her parents had bought her the day she graduated from the Queensland Conservatorium. It was depressing but some self-flagellatory urge made her stay in low aug and take it all in.
Despite her little fleet of cleaning bots, there was dust in every crevice, cobwebs in every corner. The microwave was a mess. When was the last time she had cleaned the place? She walked through to the bedroom. It was large enough for a double bed and a tank, a scratched chest of drawers for her undies and a couple of changes of overall, and that was it. At least the tank looked half-way decent. It occurred to her that, when she was a child, people had had wardrobes and dressing tables, they had put on makeup by painting and dabbing it onto the skin, they had worn jewellery, actually hanging precious metals and stones from their necks and wrists and ears. Things were simpler now. Times had changed.
With a sigh, she switched back to her normal, latched state and the apartment was clean and bright and tasteful again. Promising herself she would dust and scrub the place soon, she sat down on the sofa and turned on the display – not a real display, of course, but a virtual one that filled a whole wall. She scanned the news feeds and checked her messages. She knew she should be calling people and trying to drum up some new work, but she was too low to face rejection just then. She'd do it later. The idea of being bright and positive, trying to sound exciting and interested made her want to shrivel into herself.
The news was boring. The messages were boring. The entertainment feeds were boring. She stood up and walked to the window, a slow kind of desperation welling up inside her. The window showed a panoramic view of the city from a camera feed high on Mount Coot'tha. She had the horrible feeling that she needed to do something but that everything she should do was beyond her.
Hardly thinking about it, she popped up a phone and called Cal.
She hardly new Cal Copplin. Not really. They'd met a few times, well, quite a few times, actually, mostly in the company of mutual friends. They'd had coffee, gone for a walk, talked for the odd hour or so at a party. All in VR, of course. He was older than her but only by about ten years, yet he seemed almost like a father figure. Calm and wise and experienced. And very charming, and kind of cute, now she thought about it. Yes, she realised, Cal was exactly the right person to call. They could meet up. She could tell him all about her crappy day and he'd say soothing, sensible things. He might even make her laugh. He could do that. She listened to the ring tone, waiting for him to pick up, and was surprised at how much she was looking forward to it.
When he finally appeared and said, “Hello, Ginny,” she blurted out her own greeting and was half-way to telling him how much she wanted to see him, when she realise it was a recording.
I'm sorry I can't take your call just now,” Cal said in his lovely, English accent. It was funny how she forgot the accent until he spoke and then she loved it all over again. “I'll get back to you as soon as I can, or you can leave me a message.”
His face waited there, looking politely expectant. He had an interesting face, not too handsome, not too flawed, and he looked his age, which was unusual. She had the curious feeling that maybe she was looking at his true appearance and not just an avatar. If so, that would make him unique among her friends. Everybody at least prettied themselves up a bit, took a few years off, added a few centimetres to their height, perked up their tits and pulled in their tummies. And who didn't make their eyes bigger, or emphasise their cheekbones? Of course, the twenty-percent rule meant no-one could go too far. Only in role-playing interactives could you change as much as you felt like it. Some took it all too far and looked barely human when you played them, with coloured skin, or steel hair, an extra eye in the forehead, or a beard of living snakes. Fun, no doubt, but you'd have to be pretty weird to want to look like that.
Cal was different. It was as if he liked who he was. He made all the rest – herself included – look just a bit silly and insecure. Some of her friends seemed to resent him for it. They wrinkled their nose when she said she'd invited Cal. They called him “that friend of yours” as if she were the only reason he was tolerated among her acquaintances. It made her defensive on his behalf. Thinking about that, she studied Cal's features. She really would like to see him today.
Cal, will you stop playing hard to get and pick up? I want you to tell me my life isn't a complete pile of crap. This is not the time for you to go all brooding and mysterious. You have consolational duties to perform. Is that a word? Consolational? Oh well, it is now. Look, call me when you're not doing whatever you're doing that's so damned important you can't speak to me. Bye.”
She popped up a zine and began flicking through its virtual pages. But the news consisted of one politician bagging another, an artificial pop star having to cancel a concert because her software had malfunctioned at the last minute, and some announcement from the Chinese that was going to drive the Aussie dollar lower. She didn't want to hear about any of it. The headlines were like wasps buzzing around her. With a wave of her hand, she shooed the lot of them away. She should work, she supposed. She should work on the Old Vienna project, come up with a track so brilliant that the UnReality jerks would be begging to give her a bigger contract.
She sat at the Roland and doodled her way through some Mozart and Strauss to put herself in a Viennese frame of mind. Then she let her fingers wander free to improvise, searching for an idea that would be a springboard into something wonderful. But nothing would come. How could she compose when she felt like lying on the sofa and crying herself to sleep?
There were places she could go, things she could do, that were guaranteed to distract her. All she had to do was sit down in the tank, unlatch, and travel away into pure virtual worlds were everything was easy and anything was possible. There were sexual fantasies waiting for her there, men with oiled muscles and clever fingers, women with musky scents and smouldering eyes. She knew she only had to go there to feel herself inexorably aroused, for her to be drawn into the wild, passionate tides of her deepest sexual desires until she was fully submerged in them.
She got up and paced across the room, already feeling the urge to yield. But it wasn't what she wanted. She'd done that too often of late and she knew from experience that the relief was only temporary. Afterwards, she would call herself a fool and tell herself she should get a life, get a real lover, anything other than spend her time in the tank doing things she blushed to remember and wouldn't dream of doing in real life.
She called Cal again and got the recorded message. She felt angry at him for letting her down, irrational as she knew that was. “Well, if the mountain won't come to Mohammed,” she muttered. She knew where Cal lived. It wasn't very far away, a couple of kilometres at most. She could be there in no time. It was rude to go calling at people's houses, turning up in the flesh, but that's what people deserve if they won't take your calls. The idea of paying for another taxi made her pause at the door. It almost killed the idea.