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Night on Bear Mountain

(complete text full story - 7,903 words)
(first of three sections)

        Roy Pajelva liked the great outdoors, so he was a natural to ride herd on the kids when Clean Start House, New York's cutting edge high school, got the chance to trial the Plastic Infinity Corporation's Bear Mountain. So Roy and the twelve Chosen Ones ("I'm giving you a chance, Zinger, despite the drug test") lay down in the maintenance cubicles and were transitioned.
         "What are these things?" said Zinger.
         "Those are trees," said Bean. "Haven't you ever been to Central Park?"
         "Saddle up, guys," said Roy, pointing to the backpacks. "We've got twelve miles to hike to the first campsite."
         "Okay," said Zinger. "So where's the subway?"
         "It's a mountain, stupid," said Bean. "They don't have subways, you gotta get a cab."
         "Come on, guys," said Roy.
         And set off, leading the way. Okay, it's not real, but it still feels real, almost. Yeah. The bowie knife, that feels real. The bowie knife, and the heat of the sun on your neck, and the slight chafing of your pack against your T-shirt. Almost real.
         Twelve miles later, Zinger and Bean were still doing their city-slicker-in-the-wilderness routine, and Roy was still mildly amused by it. Sort of. Even at 40, he could still relate to the kids, which didn't alter the fact that he was actively thinking of quitting. Recently, a run of incidents - the dogmeat hamburger affair, the Thomas scalping and the thing with the AK47, for instance - had reminded him that there were less stressful occupations.
         "Mr Pajelva," said Marilyn Monroe, "could you help me put up my tent?"
         Helping her, Roy couldn't help but notice the subtleties of her perfume. This virtual world had perfume but not sweat. On a real mountain, they would all have been pretty grungy after 12 miles. Even fragrant Marilyn would have stunk like a grunt, and the sweat would have dried salty on her skin, so when you licked it - hey, hold it, boy! You're a teacher, you can't think that kind of thought!
         Though, watching Marilyn Monroe (just what had Mr and Mrs Monroe been thinking of?) it was hard to keep that Adam and Eve stuff out of mind.
         "Mr Pajelva ...."
         Marilyn again. She wanted Roy to help get the fire started.
         "The wind, just, like, blows out the, like, matches."
         "That's what the candle's for," said Roy patiently.
         And, having first lit the candle, he used that steady flame to light the fire. That was what he liked about the great outdoors: the possession of that set of techniques and competencies which gives you a sense of having autonomous control over your own destiny.
         A problem, though. This virtual wilderness was a tad tame. Out in the real wilderness, you can get killed. That's part of what gives it its edge. And, in the real wilderness, after 12 miles you start confronting the cellular reality of your own body. Here, when they ate, the food didn't have the same shock of taste which you get when you eat a meal in the real wilderness. Their bodies were not getting tired: they were just lying in maintenance cubicles. There was not, then, the same cellular need, the same unfakable craving for fluids, sugars, proteins, carbohydrates.
         But, all the same, the mountain was too real for Zinger and Bean.
         "Guys," said Roy. "What's with the computer game?"
         "Hey, we're just having a little fun," said Bean, as Roy confiscated the hand-held computer game. "Zapping aliens. You stop us now, the aliens are gonna overrun the planet, is that what you want?"
         "Guys," said Roy, "we've got a near-to-real mountain to play with, what do you want to fool with that thing for?"
         "Because," said Zinger, "this near-to-real mountain is near-to-real boring, that's why."
         Hard to argue with that. On a real mountain, there's an edge. That underlying knowledge of the possibility of your own death. It imbues your every action with significance. And, at the same time, liberates you from worrying about day-to-day stuff like the electricity bill.
         But maybe Zinger and Bean would have found even a real mountain boring. Maybe, on a real mountain, they would have ended up playing exactly the same computer game. Pajelva's Axiom - he formulated it on the spot - states that a virtuality which is as real as reality will necessarily be as boring as reality. There was a necessary corollary, which is -
         "Mr Pajelva!"
         Marilyn again. She wanted to know what they should do with the garbage.
         Garbage. Incredible the amount of trash a bunch of kids could generate. Lots and lots of plastic bags. And tinfoil - chocolate wrappers, and handfuls of charcoal-stained stuff which had been wrapped around baked potatoes. Leave it where it is? It's not a real mountain, Roy. But then the kids will do exactly the same if someone ever turns them loose on a real mountain.
         "Okay, guys," said Roy. "Let's police up the trash and bury it, okay?"
         And they did, burying it in a shallow hole three paces east of the crooked pine. ("Three paces east of the crooked pine" - that was where the Pirate Bear had buried his treasure in a cherished story Roy remembered from his childhood).
         Then twilight, and sleep.
         And then, unexpectedly, it begain to snow. Roy was awakened in the night by an unendurably real sensation of cold, and found unseasonable snow floating down from the moonlit sky. The combination of falling snow and a full moon was disorientating - snow falls from clouds, but there was not so much as a scrap of cloud in the planetarium sky above.
         Time? Oh ... 2 am. Assuming that his watch was being correctly emulated. But, given that the machineries of the Plastic Infinity Corporation were sophisticated enough to emulate the hand-held computer games machine which Zinger and Bean had smuggled onto Bear Mountain, there was no reason to doubt the accuracy of this timepiece.
         It was Zinger, flushed and anxious. Marilyn had collapsed. Hastening to her tent, Roy wondered how come Zinger had been the one to discover this. But never mind. That could wait.
         The tent was so small that Roy had to pretty much lie on top of Marilyn to do any kind of examination. She was hard to rouse, incoherent. And cold. Naked hand to naked belly - he needed to know what was going on, and know fast! - Roy found her cold as bones underwater.
         Hypothermia. The body's temperature drops. The body can't keep its vital core warm. The vital core - heart, lungs and brain - starts to cool. The person begins to die. If they are still conscious at this stage, their subjective impression is probably a treacherously seductive sensation of luxurious embracing warmth. The body, starting to die, forgets how to shiver, and feels warm.
         But -
         "Hold on a minute, Roy," muttered Roy.
         To have hypothermia, you need a physical body which can suffer cold. And Marilyn Monroe's flesh-and-blood body was still in the controlled environment of her maintenance cubicle. True, that environment was cool rather than hot, temperate rather than tropical. But any body left there would be safe enough. Wouldn't it? Sure. The whole process was so safe that the Plastic Infinity Corporation specifically stated in its literature that no bio-monitoring was necessary. This is a funhouse, not an intensive care unit.
         Then Roy remembered the thing with the basin of cold water. You can cool your body by the simple reflex of dunking your face in cold water. The action triggers an ancient hard-wired response which causes the pulse to slow and the body temperature to drop.
         The temperature of the human body is controlled not by any intrinsic property of the body's cells but by a thermostat located in the brain. Feel the brain the right sensory data, and the brain turns down the thermostat. And Bear Mountain is feeding Marilyn's brain sensory data.
         Fact: there was a mind-body loop. That was simple biology. You could demonstrate it with a bowl of cold water. Beyond that, he couldn't help but remember what he'd read about psychosomatic symptoms. Classic experiments in which, for example, people touched by entirely harmless substances developed burn blisters after being told they were actually being touched by something red hot. Marilyn's feeling cold. Her brain controls her body. What's to keep the brain from making the body freeze?
         But - how dangerous could it be? It's cool in the maintenance cubicle. Cool, not cold.
         That was when Roy remembered old Auntie May, who had to be taken to hospital when she came down with hypothermia one cool autumn night. In old people, the brain's thermostat is sometimes faulty. The body cools, but the heater doesn't come on. Hypothermia becomes a danger at temperatures which a younger person would simply register as cool.
         "Marilyn? Marilyn!"
         Roy shook her. Response: nothing. He shook her harder. She muttered a couple of incoherent words, then groaned, like someone dying.
         "Treat it as real," said Roy.
         That was the only responsible thing to do. There was no way to escape from Bear Mountain before 9 am. If Marilyn was actually fine, he would do no harm by trying to keep her warm. On the other hand, if she was locked into some weird mind-body death spiral, in which subjective sensation controlled objective fact, then maybe he could save her life.
         "What I can do, I will do," said Roy calmly, just as he had said on Mt McKinley on that cold night on which Ellen had died.
         Calm. He had been so calm, then. Sleepwalking calm. Doing all the right things. Doing all the right things while his wife died, despite his best efforts to save her. And the same lucid, abstracted calm descended on him now as he crawled into Marilyn's sleeping bag. Naked skin to naked skin. The warmth of human life to save a human from the threat of death. He had done it before.
         Only this was not quite the same as on Mt McKinley. There wasn't that same burnt-out exhaustion. There wasn't that same sense of cellular depletion. The girl was cold, but she was fragrant, and he wanted her. Put your arms around her. But I can't. But you must, Roy. Otherwise she's going to die. You're keeping the girl alive, Roy, this is innocent, you're keeping the girl alive, that's all that this is about.
         In the morning, Marilyn was only semi-conscious.
         "Can you hear me?" said Roy, shaking her. "Marilyn, speak to me!"
         Then - snap! - she was gone. She had vanished. Roy was left alone on Bear Mountain. Extricating himself from her sleeping bag, he found that all his students had vanished. Presumably, they were repossessing their bodies in the maintenance cubicles.
         "Hey!" said Roy, shouting at the wilderness. "What about me?"

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This story, "Night on Bear Mountain", was first published in Challenging Destiny No. 5 January 1999 (ed. David M. Switzer) (St. Marys, Canada, ISSN 1206-6656) (pp 94-114; 7,903 words) (science fiction virtual reality story).

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