Larrs’ Ghost by Christopher Kell
Larrs still haunts his make-believe world; he warms his feet on the glittering sands, dodging the bubbling surf like a child. By donning a bio-interface, Larrs’ intricate program will reveal his carefully constructed world to anyone who wishes to enter it.
Many times I sought him to plead his return to the real world. In his world, he looked well. His eyes were bright and his skin was pink and youthful; the real world had clouded his eyes and sallowed his skin.
“This is my world,” he once told me emphatically. I had used a set of bio-sensors to join him. We sat at the beach-head, warmed by a mellow sun. The peaceful sea lay before us like a burnished disc and mares-tails of summer clouds swept the blue sky overhead.
“Larrs, please listen to me. Your body in the real world is deteriorating. As your doctor, and more so your friend, I must advise you to return to it.”
“Why?’ He snapped. “For my spirit to die along with that miserable shell? Here I am free.”
“Free until your body dies of neglect,” I argued. ‘Then what will there be to interact with your carefully programmed world?”
His eyes pierced mine with such intensity that for the first time I sensed his unreality. It frightened me.
“Look around you, and what do you see?” He continued earnestly. “A beach, clean and uncluttered.”
He stepped forward and scooped a handful of water from a rock-pool. “Here the sea is clear, unpolluted. Why is this so? You know as well as I do that in the real world we are in some grubby little room in a decaying building right in the middle of a stinking city. But in my world I can set things right; the interaction between my mind and the computer enables me to live as I wish.”
“It’s nothing more than escapism, Larrs. Like watching television or a film to get away from the real world.”
“It is far more than that, my friend. Remember long ago when I first started this project?”
‘Your enthusiasm was boundless, but you saw it as nothing more than another form of entertainment or educational tool; experiencing images, sounds, smells directly in the mind, generated by a cold and logical machine.”
“I was wrong!” he enthused. “It is more than anything I dared to dream. It is a new life in a new world, limited only by my imagination. The computer not only stimulates my senses to tell me what I see and hear and smell, it interprets my thoughts, my very person, and creates a world tailored for me where the darker aspects of the real world are removed.”
Larrs’ reference to darker aspects of the world struck a chord. He had always struggled with harsh realities, suffered with his fragile mental state. As his physician, I treated him; a his friend, I worried. I feared that this computer-generated world was too seductive, a made up world where he didn’t have to face up to his fears.
It was a make-believe world where imagination became an apparent reality. And it was realistic. I remember shaking Larrs’ hand on first greeting him. It was firm and warm. I had difficulty recalling that grubby little room in which both our bodies reclined on couches. With sensors wired to our heads we looked like futuristic Hydra.
“But how can all these images and. sounds be stored in a limited computer memory?” I had questioned when he first took me there.
“Not all parts of the image are stored,” Larrs explained, “just a train of impulses, stimuli required to trigger the mind into reconstructing images. You see, one does not memorize a scene point-by-point like a television picture. 0nly key parts of it are remembered. The human mind fills in the rest of the detail.”
This seemed true. I remember testing his theory by visualizing the scene behind us – a hill surrounded by trees and a small log cabin tucked in at one side. Then I turned and looked at it critically. I realized that the components were standard images drawn from my memory, put together rather like an identi-kit picture. A few distinguishing features had been added to make the scene authentic.
But to me, it was little more than a techno-biological trick, like sitting in a cinema and pretending that the world outside does not exist. Eventually even the best films end.
“You can’t hide forever, Larrs. Your body needs attention; your muscles need to move. Do you realize that you’re being fed intravenously? You’re loading the responsibility of your body onto others”
“Then kill it!” he snapped with such ferocity that I shrank back from my old and trusted colleague.
The surf hissed through the sand. I told myself it wasn’t real, but to Larrs, it was. As I returned to the real world I began to seriously suspect his sanity.
Later that day, I did a run through the regular medical checks on Larrs’ neglected body. He lay on the couch, his senses isolated from the room around him; they were responding to the brighter music offered by the computer by his side.
Apart from the sensors wired to the bio-interface, other electrodes monitored his bodily functions. A drip was suspended above the couch feeding him. My machines told me of his weakening condition. For the first time I contemplated removing him from the computer without his consent, but fate acted before I did. Larrs’ body suffered violent spasms and before I could stabilize his condition, the cardiograph went quiet.
I tried to revive him, but failed, his body now indeed a miserable shell, empty and dead. For a while I sat mourning the loss of his brilliant mind, and an old and trusted friend, but eventually told myself that his mind had been lost to his computerized world long ago.
I reluctantly removed the electrodes from his head and placed them by the computer which buzzed faintly as though searching the loops and subroutines, looking for external impulses with which to interact. I reached out to switch it off, but then paused as though Larrs himself was forbidding me.
Although Larrs’ main program was permanently stored, its interpretation of his world would be lost forever if I switched it off thus erasing the working store. For months the computer had detected signals from his brain, interpreted them, and reconstructed the basic program to feed back the images of Larrs imagination. It occurred to me that even though Larrs was dead, his world still existed.
I decided to re-enter Larrs’ world to observe the artefacts of his mind. What could I learn of a dead man from the structure and contents of a world as he perceived it?
I lay on the couch, disregarding the somber fact that Larrs’ lifeless body lay beside me. Within seconds, I entered the self-induced trance necessary to isolate myself from the real world and opened my mind to the probing sensors, engaging with the long and complex program Larrs had devised.
I found myself once more at the familiar beach-head. It was day and comfortably warm. Gulls and kittiwakes wheeled and screeched in the sky above the distant cliffs. Close by the hill was the cabin, the only building to be seen. Smoke curled from the chimney. I decided that the cabin would tell me more of Larrs than anything else, and went in.
Inside, I found modest rooms filled with simple furnishings. I could hear music, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (Larrs favorite) but no source could I detect.
Then I could smell cooking. As I passed into the kitchen, I noticed a fireside chair rocking slightly as though someone had just left it. A wholesome smelling stew was simmering gently in a large pot on the stove and I was puzzled to see the pine table set for two.
The outside door suddenly opened and I jumped back as a man entered, carrying logs for the fire. He stopped, and stared at me.
“Larrs!” I gasped. My mind raced until I convinced myself that this was probably only an image; an echo of a dead man, reconstructed in response to my brain impulses.
Then he spoke to me.
“Welcome, my friend doctor. As you can see, I still do the daily chores I choose; the homely chores, you understand, that add to the realism.” He beckoned to the table. “Food?”
“You expected me?” I asked, wondering what kind of interactive answer the computer would generate.
“l felt something,” he replied simply. “A kind of snapping of strings.” Again his eyes pierced mine and I realized that there was more to Larrs stored away than just his image.
I grasped his shoulders, firmly. “Larrs, your body is dead! You died not half an hour ago.”
He sagged slightly and slowly sat down. Presently he looked up at me. “Only my body died, doctor. Please, when you return to the real world, the power to the computer must be preserved. Do not switch the computer off.”
Larrs still haunts his make-believe world; he still warms his feet on the glittering sands and dodges the unpredictable surf like a child. So long as power is ensured to the computer, anyone can don the electrodes and interact with his spirit.
Larrs entered his virtual world in 1980 when microchips and computers were beginning to reveal their vast potential. My friend was stretching the boundaries of possibilities long before the term ‘Virtual Reality’ was coined.
For many years I have been the guardian of Larrs’ ghost. I became obsessed with maintaining and preserving power to an ageing computer system and sustaining continuity of its memory.
Recently, my duties came to a natural conclusion. Now his spirit has been transferred to the cloud and I can finally let him go.