Annie waits, watching the man in the middle of the room tremble, his body jerking with minute motions, a strangled moan dribbling from his lips. The eight dozen markers taped to the walls, the ceiling, and the floor dot every surface, like reflective goose bumps. It’s cold in here. She can feel it through her fine cashmere sweater, even behind the thick sheet of glass separating them.
“You’re doing so well,” says Annie into the microphone mounted on the wall. Maybe he can still hear her. It’s doubtful; his eyes are wide, seeing something else beyond her. Images swirl around him like static, flickering in and out of focus. They flash bright across his glass box, like shards of lightning, then ghost away with a sizzle.
Annie frowns. The visuals are still too muddy, the shapes unclear. That won’t do. She reaches for the light board on the table before her. She twists a knob gently, and the images sharpen into focus.
Something dark explodes out of his chest, a mass of tentacles that writhe around his body. He screams, buckling. His body hangs loose in the rig, fixing him to the ceiling. It’s supposed to keep him anchored to this reality, so his mind can find its way back from its deep dive into the maelstrom of the neuralnet. Once the glass box is closed, and he’s stepped fully into the image that they’ve carefully crafted, it’s too easy to slip further and further into the fantasy. Easier, still, to let the fantasy permute and change, growing into something powerful and alive.
He claws at his torso, trying to grasp the tentacles. The hazy projections float through his hands, but to him, they’re real. His pale, wrinkled naked skin is stark against the black harness straps, soft and vulnerable. It reminds her of a bloated corpse. The sounds he’s making might be words, but the sound is being drowned in his own throat, viscous and guttural and meaty.
“Beautiful,” says Annie. “You’re a true artiste.”
The thing about the films they used to make, she thinks, is that they really were art. The technology was always evolving, and capturing the fantasy in a way that linked mind and body was tricky business. The two of them had always felt a savage sense of satisfaction when they succeeded and created something beautiful. The cameras rigged around the set captured every bit of physically based data—specular, albedo, translucency, ambient occlusion. Every hair and pore rendered, but in a way that adjusted for human expectations. You could look better, smoother, more airbrushed, or rawer, rougher. Wetter, redder.
Everything has its place. Everything has its audience. Some are much more niche than others, but it was never about the money.
It still isn’t. No, Annie supposes. It’s about art, capturing the last gasp of a man who spent his life manipulating the physical, the mental, and the fantastic, before he is eaten alive by his own body. And then, broadcast live via the neuralnet, eaten alive by innumerable consumers hungry for something to satisfy their own carnal pleasure. That’s the idea behind all this. To feed them with his body, and to live forever.
He’s always been a pretentious shit.
Inside the glass box, the tentacles rip through him, multiplying and growing in thickness, like a tree growing layers of bark in fast-forward. He’s babbling now, talking. Pleading. There is only the faintest sound around him, muffled by the layer of glass, but it sounds like another voice, deep and heavy and cruel. It sounds almost like his, layered over itself again and again, in concentric rings. It keeps growing.
Annie glances at one of the four screens mounted above her, at the images he’s experiencing. If she put on the headphones hooked up to the computers, she could hear what he’s hearing too. She leaves them untouched.
He’s been in there for almost an hour, flickering through memories and experiences carefully curated by her, and then expounded on by his own mind. Fears and fantasies, conquests and children. Real, and unreal. And then this monstrous, hungry beast, a torment that grows with him.
He’s started to drool, and she’s starting to get bored.
Annie runs her hand across the modified soundboard almost lazily, turning every dial up to max with a single motion.
The box explodes with sound, light, color. Images flash in jagged fractures across the glass, only to be swallowed up by others. Voices scream through the box, and its walls shudder, and he trembles, convulses, howls. The tentacles rip through him, tearing themselves from his phantom split rib cage and leaping into the ether. Ghostly hands follow, and the first fury claws her way out of his body. Her dark hair pours out of him like ink, and when she turns her face toward Annie, Annie recognizes her.
And then the next and the next and the next. There are so many of them, and she knows them all, except...