Sample PagesThey descended two floors and came to a set of double doors part way
along a corridor. Heber led them through into a brightly lit open area where perhaps a
dozen people were busy at desks, screens, and white-topped benches. Gray and blue
equipment cabinets lined the walls and formed improvised partitions around some of the
work spaces. Heber led the way to the far side of the room, lined by windows, where a half
dozen or so padded chairs with armrests were grouped near more cubicles and screens. Two
men were seated in the chairs, each wearing an open-frame headset studded with terminals
buried in multicolored wires; also, each had a kind of collar attachment resting on foam
shoulder pads. The head frames and collars connected to electronics mounted behind the
seat-backs, which in turn sprouted tangles of leads going off to the surrounding
equipment. One of the mens eyes was closed; the others were open but showed no
indication of seeing anything. They were engaged in a dialogue that made no sense.
"Hold it over a bit moremore to the left."
"Nah, its slipping again."
"Maybe I can wedge it. . . . Hows that?"
"Better. . . . Okay, keep it right there."
Michelle gave Heber a mystified look. He enjoyed her befuddlement for a
moment, then waved her over to the bench standing alongside. On top was a maze of wires
and meaningless apparatus arranged around a number of tray-like constructions, about the
size of shoe boxes but shallower. They had glass tops and were lit internally to reveal
what appeared to be mechanisms of some kind. But the contents looked strange and were
organized peculiarly. Instead of the kinds of components that would be found, say, behind
an automobile instrument panel or filling a radio, everything was delicately fabricated
and spread out across the floor, as if something incredibly intricate had been
disassembled and its parts laid out on display. The first thing to suggest itself to
Michelle was a scale model of an exhibition hall for machines; then she wondered if it
could be some kind of extended mechanical computer. Moving along the bench, she saw that
while the different boxes all had the same general theme, none were identical. She gave up
and looked at Heber inquiringly.
He turned his head toward the two men seated in the chairs.
"Hello, Dean. Where are you?"
The one with his eyes open answered. "Is that Eric?" Apart
from his jaw he didnt move, and his faraway expression didnt alter.
"Yes," Heber said.
"Were in threealigning the rotary grinder."
"Hows it going?"
"Oh, were getting there."
Heber directed Michelles attention to one of the boxes on the
bench. A red 3 was stenciled outside on the end. Michelle peered down, but still
she was unable to make any sense of what she was looking at. Heber swung a large,
rectangular magnifying lens toward herone of several mounted on hinged pivot arms
attached to the bench. "Try looking with this," he suggested.
She did, and suddenly a portion of the scene leaped out and took form.
It was, indeed, as she had at first conjectured: an incredibly detailed model of a factory
floor or some kind of machine shop . . . except that this wasnt a
model. Michelle didnt know too much about machines, but she recognized the general
form of a lathe from ones she had seen in pictures and museums; and a pillar drill would
be difficult to mistake. There were handles and clamps, tool holders riding on screws.
Everything was there in impossibly realized miniature. . . .
And then she spotted the two figures hunched over one of the machines,
both silver and black like the one she had seen in Hebers office. She blinked
disbelievingly. Even with Ohira having given her some idea what to expect, it was still
hard to swallow. "Oh my God!" she whispered.
"Ahah, yes, I think youve got it," Heber said. He
raised his voice a fraction. "We have two visitors here, Dean. Ohira knows us
already, but its Michelles first time. Can you show us which one you
One of the micromecs centered in the magnifier stood back and waved an
arm. It lifted its head to look up. "Hey, Grandma, what a big eye youve
got!" one of the men in the chairs said. Then the mec turned away again and resumed
what it had been doing.
"These are experimental machining setups," Heber said, waving
at the boxes on the bench top. "Were making a production facility next door.
Our factory is a room at the back of the corporate officesa lot better than needing
acres of real estate and having to handle materials by the ton, eh?"
Michelle shook her head, awed. Ohira, who had been watching
phlegmatically, nodded his head at the figures in the chairs. "You see, its the
way I told you. No ordinary VR helmets here. This connects straight into your head."
"DNC: Direct Neural Coupling," Heber said to Michelle.
"Thats what makes Neurodyne different."
She nodded. "I have read a little about it."
"Would you like to try it?" Heber invited.
Michelle moved her gaze to the empty chairs but looked apprehensive.
"Im not sure. I wouldnt want to get one of your little guys shredded or
caught up in a wringer."
Heber laughed. "Youre right. But I didnt mean right
here. We have a nursery for getting people started." Without waiting for a reply, he
addressed the man in the chair again. "Were moving on, Dean. Ill probably
not be back today. Well talk tomorrow."
"See you, Eric," Dean acknowledged. They left him talking
arcanely again with his companion.
"It needs practice," Heber explained as they made their way
between benches and cubicles to another part of the lab area. "The physics is strange
at reduced size. Your weight gets smaller at a much faster rate than you do. Gravity
becomes insignificant. Surface forces have more to do with how things moveor
wont, as the case may be."
They came to a partitioned space where a man and a woman were in two
more similar chairs. Michelle guessed them both to be in their late twenties. Another
chair stood empty. The man was frowning, seemingly concentrating on something. The woman,
who had yellow curls and was a little on the chubby side, laughed delightedly. Another
man, dark haired, bearded, wearing a plain navy shirt and jeans, stood by the equipment
behind them, surrounded by screens, checking readouts and adjusting settings on the chair
panels. He looked up as Heber and the others approached.
"This is Doug Corfe, our chief technician," Heber said.
"DougMichelle Lang, from the firm that takes care of Ohiras business
legalities and other things that I dont understand. Dougs an associate of mine
from the old days."
Michelle extended a hand, and Corfe shook it. He had clear dark eyes
and a lean, sallow face that didnt immediately smile too much. Corfe nodded at
Ohira, who grunted an acknowledgement. "Erics here with a couple of
visitors," Corfe informed the two people in the chairs.
Heber indicated a large table. On it was a system of wooden terraces at
various levels, connected by ramps and steps. Michelle thought it looked like a model of
an ancient pyramid construction site. Tiny mechanical assemblies and other objects that
Michelle had difficulty making out were scattered about on it. There were more magnifiers
on pivot arms along the tables edge. Curious, she moved one of them to look through
it at a white, squarish shape standing atop several broad steps. "I dont
believe this," she muttered.
"Why not? Whats the best way of learning how to work with
objects?" Heber said. "Build things!"
It was the shell of a miniature frame house, partly constructed. There
were stacks of sheet and strip, piles of white "bricks" that must have been
smaller than salt grains, even ladders and working platforms. Michelle picked out more
mecs, standing motionless . . . and then, up on one of the raised
platforms, one that was doing something. It seemed to be trying to fit a sliver of some
material several times its own length into the unfinished structure overhead. From behind
Michelle came the voice of the girl who had been laughing.
"This is weird. I didnt think Id be able to pick it
up, it looked too huge. But its like nothing. You keep
overcompensatinganticipating forces that you think ought to be there, but
Heber positioned another lens to watch. "You think its easy
to understand when someone tells you, but its a different thing when you actually
"So Im finding out." No sooner had the woman spoken
when something happened suddenly, causing the mec that Michelle was watching to shoot off
the platform and go skidding across the floor. "Eeek!" the woman in the
"But materials still retain their springiness, so you have to be
careful," Heber commented, smiling.
The mec went through a few contortions and managed to right itself.
"At least you dont break anything," the woman muttered.
"Thats one of the benefits of losing most of your weight,
Bel," Corfe said to her.
Bel sighed from her chair. "If only it were that easy."
Heber spoke to the man in the other chair. "John, how are you
doing? Should we be able to see you somewhere?"
"Okay, I think."
"Johns in the pipe maze." Corfe pointed to another part
of the layout, at what looked like a patch of fuzz made up of hairs. On repositioning the
magnifier, Michelle saw that it was a tangle of microscopic plumbing. There was another
mec there, but with no movement discernible. "Its an assembly exercise,"
Corfe said. "A good way to teach motor skills."
"The monitor shows you what Johns seeing," Heber said.
Michelle looked up and followed his gaze to a screen that was showing something. It was a
view of two multi-clawed hands, one maneuvering a part into place and then holding it
while the other turned something against the joint. Michelle shook her head and looked
away. Somehow, just trying to imagine the scale of what was going on down there was
painful. Another screen showed arms hauling their way up a ladder. Presumably that was
what Bel was seeing as she climbed back to her platform.
Heber looked back at Michelle. "Well, your turn. Want to have a
"Sure, see what you can," Ohira said. "Itll
prepare you better for what weve got later."
Of course Michelle wanted to try it. "You dont think
youre going to get me out of here until I do, do you?" she told them.
Heber nodded. "Can you set us up, Doug?" he said to Corfe.
"Is the other coupler ready?" Corfe nodded over his shoulder. Heber looked at
Michelle and pointed to the unoccupied chair. She went over to it and sat down. Her first
impulse was to make some joke about being electrocuted but she desisted, figuring they
probably heard it from everyone. Corfe finished what he was doing and brought another
collar over from a rack by the wall. It was hinged at the front, opening into two halves
like the ends of tongs.
"Its cold!" Michelle exclaimed as she felt the lines of
metal pickups closing against the back of her neck. Ohira sat down on a regular chair,
patted his jacket pockets mechanically for his cigarettes, then thought better of it.
"The collar does two things," Heber explained while Corfe
made adjustments. "First, it intercepts the motor signals going down your spinal
cord. So instead of driving your muscles, they go out to the mec that youre linked
to. Second, it injects feedback from the mec in the opposite direction, which your brain
interprets as coming from your own body. Its a bit crude at present, but enough to
give some feel for reaction forces, pressures in major joints, and things like that. The
main problem is getting a sense of balance. There isnt enough mass to make an
inertial system like the ones in our ears. Youll feel as if youre drunk until
you adapt to it. After a while you learn to use vision to compensate."
"Comfortable, Michelle?" Corfe checked. She nodded as much as
she was able. He turned away to get a headpiece for her.
"The feedback system also injects a signal to inhibit the
voluntary motor systema kind of electronic spinal block," Heber said.
"Your brain does the same thing when you dream. So when you feel yourself moving
its really the mec, not you."
Corfe positioned the headpiece and made connections. Suddenly the scene
inside the lab vanished and was replaced by a test pattern, something like a screen saver.
"Does that look okay?" Corfes voice asked.
Okay? It was outstandingin a different league from any VR
presentation that Michelle had ever experienced. There was no peripheral distortion, and
the depth perception was perfect. The resolution of detail increased unerringly wherever
she shifted her focus. She was in a world of moving colors and shapes. It was
totally real. She tried turning her head; the pattern flowed sideways, then reversed when
she looked back the other way. It worked the same vertically. The illusion was total.
"Its uncanny," she said. "Are you telling me my head isnt
Hebers voice answered. "You saw the others. The signals from
your brain drive the display instead of your neck. Ditto for eye movement. No need for any
optical tracking. . . . Okay, Doug, connect her through."
And Michelle found herself standing on what looked like a rectangular
plain about the size of a football field, lit by a blaze of white light from above and
seemingly standing in the sky like a mesa in a Western movie. Chasms separated it from
other, similar, square-built massifs, giving the scene the appearance of a strange Grand
Canyonscape composed from straight lines and right angles. On the top of the block
opposite stood the partly-built shell house that she had looked down at through the lens.
"Now, maybe, youre starting to understand better what
Ive been talking about," Ohiras voice said from somewhere.
Michelle turned her head and saw a wall with wide steps leading to a
higher level. Assorted objects lay scattered on the terraces: wheels, blocks, and other
geometric forms; sets of bars and ladders resembling gymnastics equipment; pieces of
mechanical assemblies. A larger form caught her eye at the edge of her vision. She began
turning, felt instantly light-headed, and completed the movement in a slow, wary shuffle.
It was strange. She knew that she was sitting still, yet she could feel her feet moving.
She was moving . . . and found herself staring at a mechanical
humanoid standing just several yards away.
At least, it seemed just yards away. It had no recognizable face or
featuresjust a mushroomlike, multi-faceted turret studded with lens openings and
sensor attachments, and a thicket of antennas above. It looked like a walking tool rack
with accessories and appendages girdling its hips, and limbs more intricate than had been
evident on the model shed examined earlier. The mec remained motionless. It
wasnt linked to anybody. But the surprise of seeing it so close had left her feeling
jittery. She wasnt really here, she had to remind herself.
She looked down, and although she was prepared, she couldnt
suppress a reaction of mild revulsion at the sight of the lobsterlike form that she had
been turned into.
"A bit of a shock the first time, isnt it,"
Hebers voice remarked. Of coursethey could follow what she was seeing, on the
Well, this wasnt getting her very far, she decided. She
concentrated her attention, took a step . . . and reeled uncontrollably,
promptly falling over. Somebody laughed.
A huge shadow blocked out the light, and a pair of long silver jaws
came down from the sky to close around her and set her back on her feet. "It takes a
little while to get the knack," Hebers voice said. "We do have
multi-legged models that stay upright automatically, but I thought youd prefer
something a little more familiar. Lets start again. This time well guide you
through it. Its not as hard as youre probably thinking right now."