NIGHT ON BEAR MOUNTAIN material on a read free website including complete text stories in genres including SF and fantasy; fiction published online also includes horror, strangeness, weirdness and the bizarre. The site also features three complete novels online plus sample chapters of other novels.


Link to click to read SF, fantasy, horror stories online

diary          novels          poems ARC OF LIGHT collection          poetry archive          stories         writing guidance

        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.
        "My 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 began 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?"
        It was another six hours before Roy was granted release. By then, all his students had been discharged from the Plastic Infinity Corporation's Product Development Unit, and were either home or on their way home.
        "We're sorry about the delay," said Geoff Hangolin, smooth spokesman for the Corporation. "But we had, uh ... a glitch."
        "You mean you were warming up Marilyn," said Roy.
        "Say what?"
        "One of my students," said Roy grimly. "Marilyn. The child of Mr and Mrs Monroe. She got hypothermia."
        "Oh, I know it might have felt cold on Bear Mountain," said Geoff, "but there's no possibility that the girl — the, uh, young woman — suffered any physical damage."
        And, try as Roy might, he could not get Geoff Hangolin, or anyone else from the Corporation, to confess that there had been the slightest bit of physical danger. Roy's duty was plain. The product was defective, and, if the defect was not corrected, someone would be killed.
        "You can talk to me or you can talk to the media," said Roy. "Take your choice."         
        "You want to be a whistle blower?" said Geoff Hangolin, softly. "Well, let me tell you something, Roy. You blow a whistle, every dog in the neighborhood's going to come running."  
        A plain threat. But Roy was unimpressed by it. So he went to the media. The newspapers, radio stations, TV — he talked to them all.
        Two days later, he was arrested.
        The charge was rape.
        "Rape!" said Roy. "But that's ridiculous!"
        "I have to tell you, Roy," said Ashley Belno, Roy's portly lawyer, "you've admitted you got naked. Got naked, crawled in her sleeping bag. You said that on prime time TV. That's, uh, a breach of a tribal taboo, I think we could say. Teacher and student, naked in a single sleeping bag."
        "It was that or see her die," said Roy.
        "So," said Ashley. "Guilty, but with an excuse."
        "I tell you, she was going to die!"
        "Yes, but, Roy ... nobody believes that. This mind-body link, it's just your theory. Lots of people have used virtual reality by now. You fall off a virtual cliff, you don't break bones for real. But we'll do what we can."
        "Oh! You can't possibly think a jury would find me guilty! I mean, there isn't even an accusation!"
        "Not from Marilyn. But the Virtual Crimes Act lets other people accuse on her behalf."
        Indeed. The Virtual Crimes Act, framed in haste by a furious Congress after the torturer Scambler walked free, made it possible for someone to be anonymously accused and hauled into court without even been presented with a proper bill of particulars. It did away many of the protections usually accorded defendants. And, when Roy finally walked into court to stand trial, Janet Narlo made the most of the powers that Act granted to her.
        "So you were naked with her?" said Janet Narlo, the prosecutor, a brunette in a severe grey outfit. "Naked in her sleeping bag?"
        "It's the approved method for saving lives on the mountainside," said Roy, unemotionally.
        Despite all that had happened — despite the uncomfortable awareness that he had offended against propriety by breaching one of the taboos of his tribe — he still believed, in an abstract Euclidian sense, that what he had done was right. Survival in the great outdoors was his thing. He was an expert. He said as much.
        "Only," said Janet Narlo, "this wasn't the great outdoors. This was just the classroom in another form."
        "But, the link. The mind-body link."
        "Which we've heard all about, and which is nonsense," said Janet. "There's no evidence for it. It's a figment of your own self-justifying imagination."
        Geoff Hangolin, now not just the spokesman for the Plastic Infinity Corporation but its expert witness as well, took the same line.
        "We don't model the insides of the body," said Geoff. "People have their own bodies, and, besides, only schizophrenics and that kind of crazy are interested in their own innards."
        A questionable statement, that — ever been to San Francisco, Geoff, and listened to people making dinner table conversation about their bowel movements? — and it raised a point which Janet Narlo needed to clarify for the jury.
        "Yet the body is modeled, up to a point," said Janet, "and my question is, does the modeling permit rape?"
        "Well," said Geoff, a PR type who was uncomfortable with any approach to life's gritty details. "We do model the, uh, seagates, as we call them in the trade."
        "The, uh, portals. You know, a cold day, you want to feel cold air coming in through your nose — not that, uh, that subjective impression could have any objective significance in the, uh, biofeedback mode."
        "So?" said Janet.
        "Pardon?" said Geoff.
        "The question," said Janet, losing patience, "is not about the nose. The question is about the vagina. Does a virtual woman have a virtual vagina?"
        "Well ..."
        "Your answer is affirmative or negative. Yes or no."
        Saying it, poor Geoff looked as if he was going to have a heart attack. But Janet was not finished yet. A hard-nosed prosecutor of kidnappers, killers, rapists, arsonists, war criminals and common torturers, she was afraid of nothing, least of all of description. Before they were through, actual models of a virtual vagina and a virtual penis had been produced in the courtroom, and their functions described in detail.
        And the internet audience went wild.
        The slavering excitement of the mob — Roy tried not to know about it. A Colosseum mob. Somewhere, Saint Augustine writes about a friend of his who went along to the arena in Rome to see the gladiators fight. The friend — let's call him Dave, though that was his real name — thought he would be able to watch the blood and gore yet stay aloof from its attractions. But, on the day, the raving roar of the crowd broke through to the innermost core of Dave's sanity, overwhelmed his sanity, and left him a willing slave to the insane attractions of the theater of murder.
        (So what happened to Dave? It had been a long time since Roy had read Augie's "Confessions", so he wasn't quite sure, but maybe these days Dave lived in a beat-up trailer out the outskirts of Sioux City, Iowa, where he spent his days drinking Buds, watching ice hockey, and fooling around on the internet).
        "The thing about the screen saver," said Roy. "It's not true, is it?"
        But it was. Someone had designed a screen saver showing Roy masturbating over Marilyn Monroe's decapitated head, which was impaled on Zinger's penis. The head, tearstained, begged for mercy. Finally, Bean punted it into an anomalous crocodile swamp. Cheerleaders with candyfloss skirts and white cotton panties re-ra-rayed in the background.
        Someone else had written a confession in Roy's name and spammed it across the internet. (Sample: "She started to beg. I grabbed a handful of earth, filled her mouth. Ground it in good. Made problems later, when I needed that mouth. Ever fucked your flowerbed?")
        "The problem is," said Ashley Belno, "that Bear Mountain is effectively imaginary."
        "If you can call a computer model imaginary," said Roy.
        "What I mean," said Ashley, "is that it's a domain the public's mind can play with. A domain of the hidden. It doesn't have any limiting factors. Central Park, there's a limit to what you can imagine happening there. But, Bear Mountain, that's like someone's dreams. Speculating on someone's dreams."
        And the truly appalling thing was that the kids were increasingly being dragged into that arena of speculation. Particularly Zinger and Bean.
        "It is true, isn't it," said Janet Narlo, "that you chose to take a drug addict on this trip?"
        "Objection!" roared Ashley.
        But Janet argued that the facts were important to show Roy's approach to Roy's approach to his teacherly duties. And it came out that Zinger, who had been on probation, had failed two drugs tests, had narrowly avoided getting jailed as a consequence, and yet had been allowed to come on the trip to Bear Mountain. ("I hearby order the suppression of all the young man's personal identifying details," said Judge Vockery, but those details were all over the internet in half an hour).
        "And can you tell us why?" said Janet. "Can you tell us why you allowed this drug abuser to participate in this privilege?"
        "As soon as we start looking on education as a privilege," said Roy, "we can say goodbye to the younger generation."
        His emotion came through. We are the tribal elders. To educate the young is our duty. It is a necessity. I'd like to take them all into the mountains. The real mountains. Give them a real challenge and see how they shape up. Tell them: Hey, guys, now you're responsible for your own survival. And you're responsible for the group, too. Your strength is our strength. We need you, we've got to all hang together, don't let us down.
        That's the dream. And, maybe I was wrong, but I thought that Bear Mountain would give us that, would give us at least a shadow of that.
        "So, okay," said Janet, "can you tell us how a holiday on the mountains counts as education? Or — no, let's take another tack. Tough love, Roy. Ever heard of tough love? Here's a kid who did something wrong. He took drugs. Twice. Yet you gave him a holiday. Is that your philosophy of life, Roy? Hey, don't worry about the law, Roy Pajelva's in charge, it's lollipops all round."
        "I'm running a high school," said Roy."Not a federal penitentiary. There's a difference."
        There was? The jury looked as if this was news to them.
        And Roy wanted to tell them how it really was. He wanted to tell them: Hey, guys, with kids like Zinger, it's an uphill battle just to get them to stash their nines someplace and walk on in through the metal detectors. With kids like Zinger, you're winning big if they're coming to school as much as three days a week.
        But he couldn't tell them that.
        Fact was, the school system was strapped for cash. And there were problems out there in the real world. Problems which could not be kept out of the classroom by some magic make-believe quarantine. Put those two facts together, and you had a bad-news situation. To go on teaching, as Roy had, for year after year, you needed faith. Faith in your kids. This kid can be someone — okay? Even Zinger. Maybe especially Zinger. Don't write him off.
        Roy's conception of his teacherly duty was that he had to embrace the world. If it walks in through the classroom door, I'll teach it. But his jury had a schism mentality. Them and us. Nobody on the jury lived in a gated community, but, given the chance, none of them would have said no thank you. Lock them out. Lock them up. Divide them — and this is one of the essential acts of Creation, isn't it? — into the good and the bad.
        Roy was in a court. Courts exist to create categories. And Zinger was a bad-news kid. That was his category. Zinger broke the law, and Roy rewarded him with a trip into the mountains.
        "The Lollipop Teacher," sneered Janet. "Break the law and Roy gives you a lollipop. Oh, and while we're on the subject of law, isn't it true that you told your students that statutory rape is not necessarily a bad thing?"
        Deathly silence in the courtroom.
        "I did not such thing," said Roy, finally.
        "You told your students," said Janet, "that in New Zealand it is possible for a girl of 16 to get married."
        "Provided she has the consent of her parents," said Roy.
        "But sex with a girl under the age of 18 is statutory rape, isn't it?" said Janet.
        "New Zealand is a different country," said Roy. "The law is different there."
        "And Bear Mountain," said Janet. "Is that a different country?"
        At that, Ashley was on his feet. Right then and there, he asked the judge to declare a mistrial. Not that he had any hope of getting one. But he wanted his client to be given a breathing space. And he wanted, also, to somehow convey to the jury the notion that Roy was being shafted.
        None of this did any good.
        "The fact remains," said Janet, "that you don't accept that society's morals are absolutes. Do you?"
        "I accept," said Roy, "that there has to be a line. We have to draw a line. Between children and adults."
        "But you think that line is arbitrary."
        "I didn't say that."
        "But you're quite happy if the line is shifted back to age 16."
        "That's not for me to decide," said Roy. "That's a decision for a society, not for an individual."
        "So it's okay to have sex with an underage girl," said Janet, "just as long as everyone agrees it's okay. Is that your philosophy, Roy? Oh, and by the way — you took a holiday to New Zealand once, didn't you? Mind telling us what you did there?"
        "I went skiing," said Roy.
        The court room dissolved into laughter, and, hearing that laughter, Roy didn't fancy his chances.
        "So you went on a skiing trip," said Janet, "and you came back with these weird ideas about sex. And you thought it right to discuss those ideas with your class?"
        "They're almost adults," said Roy. "In fact, biologically, socially, in many ways they're being called on to function as adults. They can't legally drink, but, if we were at war, we'd pretty soon be drafting the kids."
        "That's strange," said Janet. "Sometimes you call them children, sometimes you call them adults. Which is it, Roy? There seems to be a little bit of confusion in your mind."
        Back and forth they went, back and forth, grinding into the jury's mind the one key fact: this is a man who has called into question the taboos of the tribe.
        After Roy: a parade of witnesses. All were asked the same question: What happened that night?
        Zinger: "I don't remember."
        Bean: "I don't remember."
        Marilyn: "I can't remember."
        Did he touch you? I can't remember. Did he ask you? I can't remember. Did he hold you? I can't remember. Did he rape you? I can't remember.
        "How many times did he rape you?"
        "He didn't rape me!"
        "But, Marilyn — you've just told us you don't remember!"
        At that, Marilyn collapsed into tears. Weeping hysterically. Reduced, by long weeks of interrogation — family, friends, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, reporters and the police, they had all been in on the act — to a state of absolute raw-bone exhaustion.
        The weeping female victim. The perfect finishing touch.
        Time for the lawyers to make their final presentations.
        "The defence will tell you that there is no evidence," said Janet. "Nobody remembers anything. But that's exactly what the evidence is. The evidence of things unseen. Roy ended up in Marilyn's tent, but he can't remember how he came to be there. Someone told him to go there, but he can't remember who! He can't remember how he got there, Marilyn can't remember what he did there, but, in my experience, two naked bodies don't spend all night in bed without doing something. You're entitled to conclude, beyond any reasonable doubt, that an act of sexual intercourse took place, the age of the girl necessarily making this an act of statutory rape."
        And, while Ashley hammered the innocent-until-guilty line, the fact was that Roy's defence was hard to believe. He was keeping her warm? Oh, come on!
        In the jury room, they took their time. Went over the facts. Fact: Roy Pajelva was naked with Marilyn Monroe. In a sleeping bag. How do we know that? He confessed. Told us himself. Ever been in a sleeping bag with someone? It's a tight squeeze. Skin to skin. Sweaty breath. Naked melons. Hairy catalogue parts. The skin magazines don't photograph that kind of thing because there's nowhere to put the camera.
        Okay, then. Roy was in Marilyn's sleeping bag. In Marilyn's tent. The logical corollary is that he went to Marilyn's tent. For some reason. Question: What reason? He tells us he went there because one of the kids told him Marilyn was cold. But which kid? He can't remember. Is that reasonable? He's a high school teacher, these are his kids.
        Roy's lying.
        Roy doesn't choose to remember and Marilyn can't bring herself to remember, she's too ashamed to come right out and say what happened, but something must have happened otherwise we wouldn't be here, right? Right. The prosecutor must know something she can't say in court. All those picky laws of evidence. They've got hard evidence but they can't tell us in court, illegal search, you know, the judge was drunk when he signed the search warrant or something.
        Convinced that Roy was lying — and quite reasonably, since Roy had indeed perjured himself — the jury brought in a verdict of guilty.
        "Okay," said Ashley Belno. "Here's where we go from here. The two jurors, that's our grounds for appeal."
        The two jurors had consulted with the world via the internet. Innocent or guilty? The world's opinion: guilty. Consequently, Ashley was a hundred per cent certain of getting a new trial. All he had to do was ask.
        "We appeal," said Ashley. "And, this time, dig a little deeper into your memories of how you came to be in the tent."
        "I can't remember," said Roy.
        "Sure you can," said Ashley. "Roy, this is the crux of the whole matter. Somehow, you ended up in Marilyn's tent."
        "One of the kids told me she was cold."
        "Yeah, sure, Roy, that's what you say, and I believe you, but the problem is, you somehow don't remember which kid. Now, that just isn't credible. You were lying up there — right? You were lying, the jury knew you were lying, they formed an assessment of your credibility based on the fact, the patent fact, that you were lying."
        "So I'm screwed," said Roy. "I can't remember now, they'd have me for perjury."
        "Of course you can remember!" said Ashley, explosively. "People forget and remember all the time! That's how the brain works! Sure you remember. New trial, new jury. I ask you: Roy, how come you were in the tent? And you tell me: Oh, one of the kids told me Marilyn was cold. And I say to you: Which kid, Roy? And you give me a straight answer: Zinger."
        "I never said it was him," said Roy, shocked.
        "Aha!" said Ashley, realizing he had drawn blood. "So it was him, was it?"
        "I didn't say that."
        "Roy, Roy," said Ashley. "What are we going to do with you? Do you have some — I don't know, some kinky desire to be a martyr? Well, of course you are! You're working as a high school teacher! What more do I need to say? So — is that what turns you on? Martyrdom? Roy Pajelva as Saint Sebastian? Mouth open — begging for it?"
        "They're my kids," said Roy stubbornly.
        "Yeah," said Ashley, exasperated, "that's it, Roy, they're kids, they're juveniles, the law goes easy on them. So it comes out that Zinger was in Marilyn's tent. Well, hell, so what? Maybe he went there to say hello, who knows? He's not on trial, and, even if he was, the law is merciful."
        The law is merciful, yes, but the public is not. Roy was painfully aware that he had a choice. Someone was going to suffer. It could either be Roy or Zinger. Question: Who is the stronger?
        As a teacher, Roy was all too aware of the vulnerability of his charges. Of the child just a skin beneath that adult facade. Whatever was coming, Roy knew, in his bones, that he had the adult strength to handle it. But — Zinger? Put in Roy's place, subjected to the same crazy transnational gossip craze, who knew what would happen to Zinger?
        "I need to think about it," said Roy.
        "Think?" said Ashley. "What's there to think about?"
        "I can't say it was him."
        "Why not? You took a sacred vow of silence or something?"
        "These are my kids," said Roy, simply. "I'm their teacher."
        "Yeah," said Ashley, "and I'm your lawyer, means I can't let you do this to yourself."
        But Roy was unmoved. He was not going to betray Zinger.
        "Okay, then," said Ashley. "After you get yourself convicted a second time, we go to the Supreme Court. The Virtual Crimes Bill is unconstitutional, the whole thing, all it needs is a test case, the Supreme Court will say so."
        Then Janet Narlo came to them with the offer. Roy could plead to a charge of virtual lewdness, and, by way of punishment, go to work for the Plastic Infinity Corporation as one of the volunteers for the new Alcatraz trial. (A neat concept, this Virtual Prison: physical bodies stashed in maintenance cubicles, virtual bodies in Alcatraz, playing chess and handball, or whatever it is that prisoners do to pass their time).
        "It's a sweet deal, Roy," said Janet. "This way you're out on the street in six months, and, who knows, the Plastic Infinity people might even give you a job as a janitor or something. Certainly you'll never work in a high school again."
        To bolster her case, Janet had even brought along a publicity brochure. While the real Alcatraz sat in the bay off San Francisco, the Plastic Infinity's version would be sited near Bear Mountain in the upland wilderness of the Country of the Mind.
        "You'll even have a view," said Janet. "Pine trees and all. Could be worse, Roy. I don't have to tell you about real prisons, do I?"
        Ashley's advice: Say no. We fight this. We can win in the Supreme Court. We can overturn the Virtual Crimes Bill, have it declared unconstitutional.
        But -
        "It's a deal," said Roy.
        The longer this went on, the more damage would be done to his kids, particularly to Marilyn herself. Marilyn, Zinger, Bean, and Clean Start House itself — the best thing he could do, both for his kids and the school, was to vanish.
        And so Roy was delivered into the tender mercies of the Plastic Infinity Corporation and was placed into a maintenance cubicle. Darkness swallowed him. When it became light again, he expected to see the walls of Alcatraz around him.
        Instead —
        Bear Mountain.
        It was winter, and cold. Roy was standing, lightly dressed, on the snow-strewn site where he had camped with his kids. Nearby was a huge snow drift, evidence of the viciousness of winter. He was already freezing cold and he had barely been there ten seconds. Far away in the icy distance — the walls of Alcatraz. The prison. Could he get there before he froze to death?
        Clothes. Totally inadequate. Summerweight hiking boots, tracksuit pants, T-shirt — he was dressed as he had been on that long-ago school trip. He was even wearing the same Daniel Boone bowie knife, not that that was going to be any help to him.
        "You were right about the mind-body loop," said Geoff Hangolin.
        Turning, Roy saw Geoff standing in a business suit. Geoff was floating in mid-air. From the warmth of Geoff's smile, Roy guessed that Geoff was not plugged into the same subjective reality. Geoff was here as a voyeur, not as a participant.
        "Individual susceptibility varies," said Geoff, "but, yes, the subjective experience of cold can make the body cold for real. In certain cases this can be lethal."
        "Well," said Roy. "You can't hide the fact. You're going to have to tell the world, you know."
        "Oh, sure," said Geoff. "As soon as we've got this problem licked, we'll discover it. Yes, folks, we've discovered a problem,  a real bad problem, but, not to worry, the cure's right here."
        "What's wrong with now?" said Roy.
        "Now?" said Geoff. "Are you crazy? The banks would pull the plug. Our investors are already running scared. You've done us just so much damage, Roy. Why, we've even got a US senator coming to the prison tomorrow, he wants to interview you."
        Yeah. Great. That would be Senator Mikan, finally showing an interest. You left it a bit later, senator.
        "And so?" said Roy.
        "For our convenience," said Geoff, "you're going to die tonight. Our tame pathologist will certify it was an aneurism. Poor Roy. A blood vessel popped and he died. No way to save him."
        "So how are you going to kill me?"
        "You're going to kill yourself, Roy. When it gets this cold, the mind-body loop will kill anyone. If you feel cold enough you'll be cold enough."
        "Why are you doing this?" said Roy.
        But Geoff, having had his fun, merely laughed, and disappeared. His smile lingered for a couple of moments, dentifrice-white, then it, too, vanished.
        "No need for an answer," muttered Roy.
        The "why" was obvious. Experimental data. Roy was a guinea pig. His death would kill two birds with one stone: end the public relations nightmare for the Plastic Infinity Corporation while helping them explore the parameters of the mind-body loop.
        "Okay," said Roy. "How are we going to get out of this one?"
        Night was coming on. If he tried to walk to Alcatraz, the night would shortly swallow him. Lost in the darkness of the snowy wilderness, he would have no hope for survival. It was necessary to spend the night right here.
        "The subjective is the objective," said Roy.
        Yes. If he could keep up his subjective body temperature, then he could stop his objective body temperature from dropping. Experimentally, he did a few jack-jumps. Result: he was still as cold as ever. On Bear Mountain, exercise did not make you warm.
        But, somehow, he had to survive.
        You are alone on a mountain. It is cold. There is snow and ice everywhere. What do you do? Answer: you build a snow cave. That's what you do, isn't it, Roy? In a snow cave, the temperature will rise until it reaches the melting point of ice. Given the proper clothes and a nice warm sleeping bag, you can be perfectly comfortable at that temperature.
        But -
        But you don't have any clothes. No clothes worth mentioning. Even if you dig a snowcave, you'll still be freezing cold. You can't live at the melting point of ice: 32 degrees Fahrenheit, zero degrees centigrade. Without proper clothes, you'll die anyway.
        Push that thought aside.
        "A snow cave, then," said Roy.
        And he started to dig.
        To dig a snow cave efficiently, you really want a plastic shovel with a nice broad blade. Improvising with a bit of broken wood, Roy scrabbled away at the snow drift, and in due course fashioned himself a snow cave of sorts. By then, it was already night, although the night was lit by the twisting green and blue lights of a sky on fire with the aurora borealis, the northern lights.
        In real life, Roy would probably have been dead by then. In the virtual world of Bear Mountain, by the time he was finished his hands were virtually non-functional. He crawled into the cave. Freezing! No, it's no good, you need clothes, a survival blanket, something like that.
        A memory flashed. Tinfoil. A survival blanket is made of tinfoil. The tinfoil reflects the body's heat back at the body. And there was any amount of tinfoil buried in the trash hole three paces east of the crooked pine. During the camping trip, Roy had had the kids police up a whole heap of garbage and bury it there. And it would still be there now.
        "Unless it's been modeled out of existence," said Roy.
        Someone had long since got rid of the virtual tents, sleeping bags and backpacks used by Roy's party, so what chance was there that the garbage would still remain? Well — the garbage had been on site when the school party had got there. That suggested that Bear Mountain was not programmed to digest its own trash. No magic sprite or genie was going to make that garbage vanish. Or was it?
        Well, only one way to find out. Grabbing his piece of broken wood, Roy staggered to the crooked pine and attacked the ground, as furiously excited as Hurtly Turtly and Snugs the Muffin had been when they had started to dig for the treasure of the Pirate Bear.
        The virtual earth was not frozen solid as real earth would have been. Instead, although it was cold, it was still light and loamy. Friable stuff which broke apart easily under his assault.
        And there it was — the treasure!
        Chocolate wrappers and tinfoil used to wrap baked potatoes. And plastic bags. Well, hey, Roy! Great! You can fill the plastic bags with this nice soft virtual dirt, line your snow cave with them. You can patchwork a survival blanked together out of the tinfoil stuff. Or could. If you had hands.
        Yes. Hands were the problem. Virtual snow was not as vicious as real snow. But, even so, by now Roy's hands had become impossibly arthritic. He could just about get a grip on his bowie knife, but there was no way he could do the delicate work which would be needed to unfold scrunched-up tinfoil and make a blanket out of it. Pretty soon, he probably wouldn't even be able to hold the knife.
        Come on, Roy. Think. You're a high school teacher. Surely you can think your way out of this one.
        The Jack London story. That was what came to mind. The story about the guy who has to make a fire in the wilderness. Only: his hands have frozen up. The guy thinks about killing his dog, plunging his hands into the warmth of the dog's belly, warming the fingers so they will flex sufficiently for him to get a grip on the matches. Only the dog senses that something is wrong, and runs away.
        "No good, Roy. You don't even have a dog."
        No dog. No heat. He held his hands to his belly, wishing he could dig them inside, bury them in the inner warmth.
        A memory. The trial. What had Geoff Hangolin said? The inside of the body isn't modeled. Why not? Because only crazy people are interested in their own innards.
        Apply a little logic, Roy. If your guts aren't modeled, what's in your virtual belly? Virtual cotton wool? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe nothing. Maybe you can push your hands right into nothing, glitch the computer system, freeze the program, bring this whole scenario to a crashing halt. Or. What if Geoff was lying? What if they have modeled the guts?
        "It's the only way," said Roy, hauling out his bowie knife.
        He held the knife two-handed. Cut open your own belly? What kind of crazy are you? That history book — yeah. After the Second World War, one of the defeated Japanese admirals disembowelled himself. Then sat contemplating his own guts. And it took him three days to die.
        "But there's nothing inside," said Roy.
        But what if there is, what if there is? What if Geoff was lying, and there's a liver inside? A liver, and two kidneys. And wet intestines. Can you die for real from virtual shock?
        "Let's do it," said Roy.
        The illumination of the aurora borealis, now shifting weirdly from green and blue to a bruised purplish-red, glinted on the blade as he hesitated. Then he did it: he sliced his belly open.
        There was an initial resistance, then nothing. Looking down, he saw a wet mouth opening into blackness. Momentarily, he hesitated. Then dropped the knife and shoved his hands deep into that engulfing mouth.
        Oh, blessed warmth! It was like pushing your hands into the softness of fur mittens. In moments, his hands were warm, and marvelously flexible. (Obviously, Bear Mountain was no place to train for flesh-and-blood survival. In the flesh-and-blood world, no recovery from cold is so painlessly swift, so effortlessly accomplished).
        Then Roy felt something move beneath his fingers.
        With a scream, he whipped his hands out. And a rat poked its head out of the cut in his belly. The light of the aurora borealis gleamed bloody red in its eye. Roy cried out, and battered at it with blood-hot hands. He made contact, and the rat ducked back inside.
        Oh, great, Roy. There's a sewer or something underneath, you've cut into the collective unconscious of the virtual world, and God knows what else is going to come out.
        But he had warmth. That was the thing. A source of warmth he could use to get his hands working whenever they threatened to freeze again. Not that he needed that source of warmth. Right now, his body felt furiously hot.
        Fight or flight. That's what it is. The mind-body link. Your virtual body, or maybe your subjective body, or your virtual body and your subjective body both — one way or another, the fight or flight reaction is working.
        But you'll get cold later.
        So, okay. Let's pack these plastic bags with this virtual dirt, and then let's make this tinfoil survival blanket, okay?
        That was when the rat stuck its head out again.
        First the rats, then the cockroaches, then the wasps. And then, in the absolute darkness before dawn — the darkness after the aurora borealis, a darkness as intense as blindness — the snake. A boa constrictor as fat as a sewer pipe. Bowie knife, do your stuff!  
        All in all, it was one hell of a night. But Roy was still alive when dawn came. The day was crisp and clear. And windless. And Alcatraz was plainly visible in the distance. So Roy set off for it, emitting occasional rats (and other things) as he went.
        Roy arrived at three in the afternoon, just as Senator Mikan's virtual limousine was pulling up at the gate, and the senator recognized Roy as Roy came walking toward the car. So did Ashley Belno, who was sitting alongside the senator.
        "So what's new?" said Ashley, opening the door.
        "Our lawsuit," said Roy, getting inside. Settling down in the warmth of the seat, he clasped both hands over his gashed belly to keep the rats inside. "We're going to sue these guys for a cool billion dollars, that's what's new."
        And, speaking quickly in case the technicians of the Plastic Infinity Corporation suddenly realized just how disastrously they had failed, and unplugged him from the virtual reality scenario, Roy unfolded his tale. And, before Roy was done, Ashley had his calculator out and was pushing buttons. A billion dollars? No, sir. That's chump change. A case like this, I think we're looking at some real money.

Terms of Use

All materials on this website can be read for free online. However, note that the website contents are copyright © 1973-2006 Hugh Cook - all rights reserved. For permission to use any of the material on this website contact Hugh Cook.

Link to click to read short fiction samples free online: SF, horror and fantasy

Link to click to read Hugh Cook books including three full novels