|In this isolated, plain little town built on the radioactive ashes of the Cold War, old-timers from the halcyon days of nuclear testing reminisce about the manmade maelstroms that left behind piles of twisted steel and chunked concrete, the stuff of post-apocalyptic fiction frozen in time. One can sit in the bowling alley here sipping coffee with scientists who can describe the "Sedan" blast that left behind a 300-foot deep crater in the desert, or tests of nuclear rockets that were intended to take humankind to Mars and beyond in a future where anything seemed possible. Mercury, Nevada is a town of dreams and of nightmares, and it's not always easy to separate the two. Those in the know become strangely silent about above ground tests conducted during the 1950's whose fallout rained down on Southwestern towns like Saint George, Enterprise, Fredonia and Cedar City, leaving in their wake a legacy of cancer and birth defects for years to come. Many of the army personnel camped in the desert adjacent to Mercury became unwitting statistics (like so many radiated guinea pigs), in tests staged to determine the effects of nuclear battlefield scenarios on foot soldiers. In Mercury, the promises and the horrors of the atomic age exist side by side.|
In Mercury's little post office, the decor of which hasn't changed much since the 1960's, Post Office Box 46 is designated for Flaxon Alternative Interface Technologies. This mail slot probably sees more traffic today than all of the other Mercury P.O. boxes combined, consisting mainly of virtual reality industry junk mail, surplus catalogs, and private correspondences from individuals eager to penetrate the mystique of what is one of the most secure research labs in the world, perhaps second only to the Nevada Test Site itself in its isolation from outside scrutiny. Once a week, a lab-coated figure emerges from a dilapidated Jeep to enter the Mercury Post Office and retrieve the bulging stack of mail that, by week's end, will have been crammed and wadded into the tiny compartment just to make it fit. This figure is a stranger in Mercury, even though the Postmaster, Charlotte Jones, knows him by sight. Having worked at the Mercury post office for the past 19 years, she's seen just about everything.
|He's a paradox: in a town so small that everyone knows each other and outsiders are quickly recognized as such, the FAIT errand boy is a local who no one knows. He rarely lingers in town, but he always makes a stop at the soda machine outside the bowling alley for an orange Nehi. The change box comes up a little short every week; the machine always provides a soda for the lab-coated stranger, but somehow he never seems to pay. An observer from behind might notice a telltale motion of the elbow or a handheld black box being returned into a lab coat pocket following the transaction, but otherwise there are never outward signs of tampering on the machine to trace the nature of the exchange. Each week he approaches Mercury trailing a cloud of dust, picks up the mail, has his soda, and drives off into the distance until the Jeep disappears behind a hill or a pile of wreckage, as if the desert has swallowed it up.|
If the desert had eyes, it would observe the Jeep entering a hole in the side of a bombed-out stone building, one of many such buildings used to test the structural damage inflicted by "our friend, the atom," during the 1950's. The desert would watch for hours, anticipating the reappearance of the mail boy after sheltering his Jeep, but would eventually become bored and turn its gaze elsewhere when the boy failed to materialize. It's just as well that the desert lacks this kind of focus, as the boy won't reappear for another week. By now he's far underground, still driving the jeep, through a tunnel whose mouth is concealed beneath the dilapidated structure on the surface, and whose outlet is just ahead, at the FAIT motor pool's parking bay. He spins the wheel deftly, and parks the Jeep expertly in its designated slot. Grabbing the stack of mail, he heads for a security door built into the north wall of the structure, to the right of which is an electronic control panel with a triangular slot about 2 inches wide. Pressing his nose into the slot for a brief moment, he is granted entrance and the door slides open noiselessly. This nasal scanner is just one of the many innovative security systems in place at the FAIT facility, ensuring entry by authorized personnel only.
Inside, facing a corridor which extends 150 feet north and is adjoined by rooms and hallways on both sides, he is met with a busy scene. Two laboratory assistants are wheeling a test subject toward him, while three more are pushing various smaller carts loaded with the strange machinery associated with this experiment: a stack of computers, life-support gear, and various other monitoring devices. The test subject (or "Volunteer", in lab parlance) is easily distinguished from the lab workers: he's the one strapped to a wheeled 45-degree platform, with wires and catheters jutting out everywhere connecting him to the apparatus. His face is mostly obscured by a hideous head-mounted display and a stainless steel contraption that is fitted over his nose, with two tubes leading out to a smallish black box mounted next to his head on the platform. His head is whipping from side to side, as if to shake off this odd set of accoutrements, and he's muttering continually, through foam-caked lips, "No more pancakes... Please..."
|"Out of the way, Teagues!" snaps one of the workers at the mail boy. "We've got a Code Red here!" Teagues, nearly dropping the stack of mail, presses up against the wall of the corridor as the group makes an abrupt left into one of the adjoining rooms. Intrigued, he watches the group through the doorway as they work feverishly to bring the subject out of his psychic shock state. Just before the door is closed, he hears the volunteer scream, "No... Not the syrup! Aaaaagghhhh!"||
'Another normal day at FAIT ', Teagues thinks to himself. He can only imagine what kind of strange world the volunteer had been immersed in, but he's been around the lab long enough to know that the experiment had probably gone on one day too long. It would be several weeks before it would be safe to remove the volunteer from the intravenous feeding system and allow the consumption of solid food again. IHOP breakfasts would be out of the question for years, probably only possible after many sessions with a good therapist. 'A small price to pay for valuable scientific data ', Teagues muses, as he continues toward the elevator doors at the end of the hall.
Pausing next to the elevator, he feeds the stack of mail piece by piece into a clear plastic vacuum duct which carries the mail upward at a blinding speed, to be deposited in a receptacle in Dr. Flaxon's private office. "Mission accomplished", Teagues mutters, as he feeds the last envelope into the slot. For him, it's time to unwind. Mail pickup is his last official task for the day, and now his time is his own. Entering the elevator, he turns to push the button marked "Level 3".
Level 3 is the area where the lab's staff and guests live. Deeper underground than the Lab level by another fifty feet, it provides housing for all 22 of FAIT's laboratory assistants, third-tier lab helpers, non-laboratory workers such as gardeners, chefs, and maintenance persons, FAIT "Volunteers" (when they're not participating in research projects), and invited VIP's. The center for all non-work-related pastimes, Level 3 also contains the Activities Hub, a cavernous chamber whose main feature is "The Pit", a circular lounge where FAIT's residents gather for relaxation and social interaction. Emanating radially from the Hub are passages which offer access to a theatre, indoor raquetball courts, pool, sauna, and various other leisure activities.
The elevator doors open onto the Hub, facing the lounge. Teagues is tempted to stop in and have a quick drink, but decides to invigorate himself first with a game of raquetball followed by a refreshing shower. Entering out onto the circular rotunda which traces the outer contour of the lounge, he takes the first left into the Athletic Facilities wing and makes for the locker room.
The first thing he notices upon entering is that his locker, and all of the other lockers, have been wired since his last visit: a magnetic contact switch of the type used in burglar alarm systems has been mounted to each of the doors, with wires trailing up and out of sight over the top of the steel cabinet. Things like this are always happening at FAIT; it's just a natural condition of working with eccentric geniuses. As he opens the locker, he can't help but wonder what kind of event he may have just triggered in some poor volunteer's world. Trading in his FAIT lab coat for his raquetball attire, he slams the locker door and heads off in pursuit of a good game, again wondering about the ultimate effect of this strange human interface.
|Upon reaching the raquetball court, however, Teagues' intentions are
thwarted; the court is already in use. Through the window in the
observation room overlooking the court, he watches the game in progress,
noticing that both players are wearing DEMON Biocontroller units, with
small electrodes mounted over their major muscle groups via elastic
straps. The DEMON, or Digitally Enforced MIDI-Operated Neurocontroller, is
a clever wireless device that converts MIDI events into bodily movement by
mapping these events to preassigned electrodes and converting them into
electrical impulses whose strength is determined by MIDI note velocity.
This is a new experiment - the court's floor and wall surfaces had been wired the previous year, providing yet another source of input data for the FAIT Cube, so that when games are in progress, each impact of the ball sends a data burst containing its x-y grid position to the huge parallel processor, built down on Level 4 in the early days of the facility's existence. Teagues is not high enough in the FAIT hierarchy to know how this data is used; this information is under the purview of the upper-echelon science team, known around the facility as "The 22". One thing he does know is that here at FAIT, anything can become a human interface.
Suddenly, one of the players is waylaid in a midair leap as the ball glances off the wall ahead of his extended right arm. Instead of returning the shot, the arm suddenly pulls down across his chest and over his abdomen, as he crashes headfirst into the stone surface, falling to the floor in a heap. Within seconds, several lab-coated figures enter the court from a side door and begin administering aid to the would-be victor. Teagues decides to go down to the court and offer assistance. Halfway down the stairwell, he passes the sweaty opponent of the fallen player. Not knowing what else to say, Teagues calls out "nice game!" over his shoulder, as the fatigued raquetballer lumbers off in search of a shower.
* * * * *
|Waiting at the door to the Weight Room is the new Trainer, who greets
him immediately. "You look as though you could use a good upper-body
workout! Hi, I'm Derek Thorpe, the new athletic facilitator. Might I
suggest some high-energy pectoral work with our brand-new SoloFlax 5000
Teagues wonders where the Trainer came from. After all, FAIT isn't exactly featured on the Nevada road maps -- no Jehovah's Witnesses have ever come knocking on the door, although two Mormon missionaries once made it on bicycles as far as the motor pool parking lot. After being picked up on the video surveillance system trying to figure out the nasal scanner's purpose, they were "volunteered" on the spot and immersed in "Hindu World" for some much-needed religious reconditioning.
Something about Thorpe makes Teagues wary. Not just his muscular build, or his vaguely aggressive posture. Not even the strange glow that seems to pulsate from the surface of his skin, although that in itself is a bit unnerving as well. Thorpe looks almost too healthy - that glow almost looks... Noooo, it can't be... Teagues' malaise is one of those undefinable intuition things, the phenomenon New Agers call "vibes". He keeps his third eye wide open as he approaches the device to which Thorpe is gesturing.
As far as exercise equipment goes, the SoloFlax is relatively simple, consisting of a bench with a vertical bar mounted at one end supporting a reconfigurable horizontal resistive yoke assembly. The arrangement is vaguely reminiscent of a crucifix, a thought which provides Teagues little additional comfort. The machine's moving parts have been fitted with rotary encoders, and there is a headmountable display dangling from one arm of the yoke. A small control panel is mounted behind the yoke, and a bundle of wires coming out of the base of the SoloFlax trails along for a couple of feet before disappearing into a floor conduit.
Wary, but still intrigued, Teagues allows Thorpe to strap him into the SoloFlax yoke assembly, as Thorpe explains the virtual reality augmentation concept of the exercise equipment. "The idea behind athletic VR augmentation is to provide the user with visual and auditory feedback, something more compelling than staring at a gym wall. Each exercise has its own custom-tailored virtual world associated with it, accentuating its inherent physical characteristics. For example, in this pectoral workout, you will become a honeybee, flitting from flower to flower in your quest to collect pollens for the hive. As you flex your pecs, you will be moved forward in the direction of your viewpoint, which is controlled by the orientation of your head, allowing building of the neck muscles as well. You'll be fighting wind resistance to stay on course, but I'll be monitoring the session, controlling the machine's resistance so you won't overextend yourself. I think you'll find the experience interactive and very exciting."
|With this, the setup is completed, and Teagues hears Thorpe step behind him to the system's control panel. "I'll need you to pull your arms forward and back a couple of times to calibrate the machine," the disembodied voice of Thorpe instructs through the earphones. As Teagues complies, he feels a momentary stiffening in the yoke, followed by 2 short beeps. Suddenly his display lights up, and he finds himself hovering over a colorful flower garden. A small bar graph in the upper right corner of the display shows that his pollen load is empty. After briefly surveying the scene, he flexes his arms, and finds himself propelled forward toward an arbor overflowing with honeysuckle. As Teagues gets the hang of coordinating his head movements with his arm movements, he finds he can zero in on a particular flower with ease, and notices the pollen count increase with every landing. He marvels at the complexity of the world; although each flower's basic form is similar, there are variations in position, color, size, symmetry, pollen content, and stamen/pistil length. He also notices that when he transfers from a stamen to a pistil (thereby pollinating the flower), he hears a tiny beep, and the pistil changes color. The process is fairly simple, except for the fact that often while making his approach, he is swept aside by a sudden gust of wind and blown off course. Therein lies the inherent challenge of this exercise, and the motivation to continue trying.|
As fascinating as this simulation is, Teagues begins to tire, and asks Thorpe to end the session. As Thorpe is removing the yoke, he asks, "would you like to try another exercise? There are several other simulations available." Teagues looks around the room at the other machinery, and notices a woman on a treadmill wearing a headmounted display and walking very briskly, waving her head around and slapping various parts of her upper body every few seconds. Feeling sufficiently tired, and still wary of Thorpe, Teagues decides to save any further workouts for another day.
Going back to the locker room to retrieve his clothes, Teagues decides to go home, change into some suitable evening attire, and go to The Pit for a drink. As his locker door goes through another open/close cycle, hundreds of virtual vultures begin their slow descent in Mr. Ralph Kudgel's world. Sadly, Kudgel is in danger of becoming one of FAIT's forgotten experiments.
Out on the rotunda again, things are picking up, as FAIT's day crew members return to their Level 3 homes after work. The Pit's outer ring of tables is becoming moderately populated with people in lab coats playing chess or backgammon over drinks with soft jazz being piped in through a network of overhead speakers. For many, The Pit is their first stop on their way home. When Teagues first arrived at FAIT two years ago, The Pit was his nightly stop as well, but when he found himself slipping into a pattern of alcohol dependence at the tender age of twenty-two, he forced himself to avoid the lounge scene for a while. Now, a year later, he can take it or leave it; he often chooses FAIT's delicious iced sun tea, brewed underground using an ingenious system of fiber optic conduits which conduct sunlight from collectors on the surface down into the kitchen's Solar Containment Vessel, where the tea is brewed in ten-gallon glass bottles twice weekly.
Teagues makes his way past the elevators along the rotunda toward the eastern edge. There, he makes a right turn into a corridor leading into the Residential Wing, heading for the Third-Tier Section. The living areas of the various FAIT workers are separated by security clearance, not so much for the purpose of social segregation as much as it is an attempt to provide incentives for those who wish to move up through the ranks at FAIT. While non-security staffers are by no means deprived in their living conditions, there is a certain amount of prestige associated with living in a upper-security borough, increasing proportionally with one's level of clearance. Teagues' third-tier clearance allows him access to seventy-five percent of the research projects currently underway at FAIT; the rest are the closely-guarded territory of "The 22" and of course Doctor Flaxon himself, who lives in his own private residence up on Level 1.
Third-Tier living isn't bad, although Teagues yearns for the day he can become one of "The 22". He still revels in the fact that he merits the third-highest security clearance in the world's most secret research laboratory, and wears his white lab coat with the FAIT emblem proudly. The standard dress for all lab workers, these "colors" show all others that one has made the grade and is on the inside track with the notorious Doctor Flaxon. No FAIT worker takes this honor lightly.
When Teagues gets to his apartment, he closes the door and makes his way to the small kitchenette, where he pours himself a tall glass of cool, pure water, pumped from an aquifer deep beneath the desert's surface. As he sips the cool, refreshing liquid, he ponders the day's events. Before his 3-hour round-trip to Mercury, Teagues had been charged with the task of admitting the lab's most recent group of "volunteers", which took up most of his morning with paperwork and the minutiae of overseeing Leviatron interfacing procedures, a tedious task for anyone connected with it. At least he didn't have to perform the sensor placements himself - those days are long behind him, now.
The desert drive, however mindless in itself, still seems like a chore, since he's been making the run for almost a year now. He reminds himself that, although mundane, it's a vital part of FAIT's daily activities, and he's part of the working team. The scene in the raquetball court was just a bit of daily madness in the world of a scientific genius. But that new weight trainer, Thorpe - he'll definitely need some closer attention... Something about that experience has Teagues a bit rattled.
Teagues finds himself wondering whether he really wants to go to The Pit after all -- it's been a full day, and he's thinking he can use some relaxation, alone. Finally making his mind up to stay home tonight, he opts for some virtual meditation, utilizing the equipment on whose design he and Dr. Flaxon had collaborated the previous month.
Consisting of a compact HMD with a wireless receiver and Flaxon's proprietary 3-D headphones, the system provides a soothing environment whose gently pulsating light forms and sound waves sync with the brain's natural alpha rhythms, inducing a relaxing, euphoric state.
Written by Douglas W. Faxon (the "good" cousin) © 1996 by Douglas W. Faxon/Inflaxonation. All rights reserved.