Bread Crumbs in Mobius Space

(c) 2002

Chapter 1

His cilia were about to go on strike. Row by row they had been abused by high decibel sound levels and had taken to lying down on the job, squealing complaints constantly in his ear. Even above the whine of the 1150cc rotary engine on his motorcycle, they protested the torture of the previous evening. Last night he had played a real concert, with real amplification and with the players and audience in physical attendance. He wondered, what other art form required its performer to damage the sensory organ of his craft? Then he had to admit to himself: the wounds were self-inflicted. He could have used ear guards, but plastic attenuators blunt the raw, visceral feeling of performing almost as much as playing on a virtual stage.

He was of a vanishing breed. Since before he was born, music, indeed most arts, had been dying. Oh, there was plenty of talk about art, many museums, uncountable video shows and satellite radio programs crammed full of the sights and sounds of people whom press agents called artists. But in fact, most were merely moderately attractive people whose minimal talents (and lack of surgical enhancements) would have relegated them to some clerical job 50 years earlier. However, to the masses, they had the appearance of an artist (if not the training), and they had the sound of an artist, since technology could repair any defect in ability or shortcoming in talent. And they pleased these masses, if only long enough for them and their handlers to make a small fortune, until some other "artist" captured their spot on top for 15 minutes.

Yes, he was of a vanishing breed; Billy could actually play his bass, and play it extremely well.

William Derricks was tracing a sinusoidal path down the switchbacks of the coastal range in western Oregon, heading for a beach he was sure would be deserted. Chocolate brown, compact, muscular, boyish yet imposing with his shaved head under a heads-up display helmet, he had left the club right after the last encore, letting the road crew strike the equipment for transport to the next live gig, sometime next week, somewhere else. Billy didn't take too much notice of when and where. Since he was rarely out of touch he'd get the information regardless, and he had an intuitive sense of which way to travel, just so he was never more than a day from the next concert. Most of his performances were virtual anyway, and with his Sat-Link he could jam from just about anywhere. Besides, he wasn't one to hang around in a club late at night anyway.

So he had chosen this beach in front of him on this late September morning, just a few hours before the European Cyber Consort was to link with him for a Net performance of "The Wall" on the 53rd anniversary of its release. (Enough still lived to appreciate this milestone in modern art-rock). Gilmore was still alive but the rest were gone. In his eighties, the guitarist's chops had deteriorated; however the notes were all in his head, and that was all that mattered on the virtual stage. Billy was covering the Waters part, a great honor, though the vocals were left to another.

A hell of a thing for a ULSI chip designer to be doing, he thought, for that was what he really was, a first-class, PhD holding, IEEE card-carrying, hardware engineer. Playing bass was his avocation, not his vocation. What a coup, though, to be in on that gig, albeit in NetSpace. At the opening of the third millennium, thanks to his Sat-Link, he could design or perform from anywhere his bike could take him, as well as places it couldn't. For circuit layout it didn't matter if he was isolated from his colleagues, but there was something not quite right about playing music when your band mates were spread all around the world. On stage there was real eye contact, body language, nuance, hell, even a scent that connected the players. It takes sound less time to cross a large stage than it takes data to fly from Europe; there was an obvious disconnect. The threshold of perception in time is supposed to be around 10ms, but the 50ms lag from the other side of the world screwed up the feel something terrible. So music that was slower and less metrical was better suited to intercontinental ensembles.

Finally, the trigonometric road became Euclidean, and the beach, empty this early on a chilly but clear morning, presented itself like a easel for his musical murals. Sure, he was tired, but an occasional bump to his circadian rhythms was a good thing, especially in the service of such a excellent cause. The chill air would keep him fresh for a few more hours, when he would find a little motel and get some sleep.

Billy parked his bike at the end of the unpaved road where the sand got too deep for one-wheel drive. His Sat-Link had been charging off the bike the whole trip from Eugene and was good for about four hours of transmission, sufficient for "The Wall". It wasn't heavy, even with the power-pack and VR gear, so he packed it out over the dunes and onto the sand. Such beauty, the Oregon beach at sunup, desolate, sounding of surf and smelling of spray. The Alaskan Gulf was gearing up to deliver some wicked storms, but so far only a whisper of the coming winter was in the air.

With a slight sigh for the coming loss of tranquility he assembled the equipment and donned the VR shades and headphones, and attached the EEG patches to his shaved scalp. (Some fanatics actually had implants, but Billy was wary of becoming a wirehead.) These took over his senses of sight and hearing, even through his protesting ears--the rotary's whine hadn't allowed much rest for them. Dawn and the ocean roar were replaced by a classical concert stage and echoing techies shouting commands through their interfaces.

The sea smell was so incongruous in this space. Virtual reality had come a long way since the 1980s. Back then VR was little more than a motion picture with surround sound, requiring a lot of bulky, expensive equipment to produce an interesting but unconvincing unreal environment; therefore VR was reserved for amusement parks and industrial simulations. No one ever mistook one of these adventures for the real thing.

Improvements in VR had come in three areas: the equipment had become much smaller and lighter and eventually portable. Increased bandwidth technologies allowed interactivity, first wired and then wireless, between VR adventurers. And the sensation of being elsewhere was improved. By limiting real world input to the mind through swamping the eyes and ears, and by subtly altering perceptibility with proprietary low-power EM radiation, the virtual experience was now more like a dream than a ride. There was no denying that it was a virtual space you had entered, but with a little imagination and concentration the experience was engrossing. Still, if ocean spray were blowing on your face you'd smell it, feel the wetness, feel the chill.

It took him only a moment to establish a handshake with the Consort. They weren't quite all online yet; some were involved in getting Gilmore past his daily medication and connected up. But all reports were that the last remaining Floyd was eager to get started.

Before signing on with the GameChamp megacorporation, Billy had been a freelance consultant and was himself responsible for some of this remarkable technology. He had been chief human input engineer for the MIVI spec: Musical Instrument Virtual Interface. A combination of gesture and EEG input, it allowed the musician to manipulate a single instrument or entire orchestra, with a supreme sense of nuance being the operative skill. A non-musician made just as bad a screeching noise on a virtual violin as he did on a wooden one, maybe worse; MIVI was no shortcut to proficiency. Once adept, though, a virtuoso could play beyond his wildest fantasy. No instrument was ever accidentally out of tune, ever broke a string, ever had a value clog with spit. Never did a cymbal crack or a stick break. More, the range of any instrument could be stretched across the extent of human hearing, and the dynamics expanded from thresholds of hearing to pain. MIVI took the fine art of sampling to the edges of perception. It also meant more training and practice of course, more years of study, but true musicians were used to that.

Net technologies removed any constraint on venue. Tonight the group was in the round in the Royal Albert Hall, clearly impossible in the Real World. In addition, everyone in the audience had a front row seat while everyone else seemed to be sitting behind. Since this was a traditional performance where the Wall would be built during the show, floating and soaring in the audience was discouraged, lest it ruin the effect of the band's self-imposed isolation.

With the arrival of David Gilmore, looking, virtually, as he did in 1980, the band started tuning up. While the MIVI program could keep everyone in mathematically perfect intonation, manual maladjustment gave the music a more human, organic sound. If the equipment could do everything, what use was there for human performers? Purely cybernetic players were possible, with random parameters and improvisation algorithms to simulate anything from Perlman to Prince, but why?

Finally everyone was ready. The techies were at their monitors, the band was plugged in, the audience was primed, and global concert began as a Spitfire flamed overhead and crashed into the second mezzanine, killing hundreds, much to their delight. The singer sounded remarkably like Roger Waters (and without a vocal processor!) and of course David Gilmore was David Gilmore, the consummate Floydian. Many of the animations that had been flashed 2D on the wall in 1980 were now marching, diving, and swirling around the band and the audience. Everyone knew The Wall word for word, gesture for gesture, and when the time came the concert-goers shouted in unison, "leave us kids alone!" The effect was bloodcurdling. Billy guessed that the Neo-Nazi scene would be extraordinarily disturbing.

All in all, the outcome was intoxicating. The honor of being chosen to play, the gestalt of the band, the rapport with the audience, the scope of the performance--this was turning out to be the best virtual concert he'd ever been involved with. It wasn't like the little blues club last night in Eugene. Nothing could really replace that. But god, this was good!

Yet Billy had the nagging sense that something was not quite right. Something was missing. Nothing musical; everything was as perfect as it could be, given the transmission delays from around the world. The audience was digging it enormously; he could feel that even over the ethernet. He felt fine, not tired or fuzzy, given his lack of sleep. And a quick check during a tacit showed his equipment was working on spec. Then,

The smell of the ocean! Where had it gone? Billy sniffed but smelled nothing but stage smoke, something he shouldn't even be able to do. This was not part of the MIVI algorithms! Had someone hacked the code, introduced a virus? Or was it a bug, or a fault in the transmission satellite?

This anomaly concerned him so much that he missed his cue for "Comfortably Numb". He rarely choked in a performance, and for a split-nanosecond he was terribly embarrassed. But just as quickly he realized that his part was in perfect resonance with the band, despite his gaff! He looked around and saw no dirty looks from the other musicians, and when he turned back he was stunned to see Billy Derricks playing bass, enraptured by the music!

At that moment a door opened in free space (not unusual in virtual space save that it was in the presence of his doppelganger) and a small, well-dressed man stepped through and said, "Good morning, Mr. Derricks, and welcome home!"

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