She stared at him blankly, jaws busy, chewing her gum.
“Obviously I have the wrong place. Sorry to bother you.” He paused. “Ma’am.” Every muscle in his face strained as he struggled not to laugh.
The lady surprised him by swinging the door wide open. “You’ve got the right place, sir. Gunner Skale, I presume? My name is Cherry. Mr. Hartley will see you now.”
Gunner wrinkled his brow as he eyed the establishment. His question was obvious.
“We value our security,” Cherry responded. “We value it very, very much, and we find it’s better to hide in plain sight, where no one would think to look.” She picked the gum out of her mouth and threw it over Gunner’s shoulder into the parking lot. “Please come in.”
He followed her through the door, heard the jingle-jangle as she closed it, locked it. The waiting room was as drab as the exterior. Three worn chairs, all sagging in the middle. A dusty desk with a phone that must have been a century old—and completely useless for almost that long.
“You guys don’t even try to make this place look like a real business,” he said, surprised by what he was seeing. What do these people do for a living? he wondered.
“We keep meaning to upgrade,” she replied with a wink, a simple thing that for some reason made Gunner not like her. “Follow me. Mr. Hartley is expecting you in the Exhibit Room.”
“The Exhibit Room?” Gunner repeated.
As they made their way down a series of stairwells and long hallways, Gunner started to wonder if he was the biggest idiot in the world for following this woman. He was, after all, famous—a fact about which he’d been feeling sorry for himself all morning. For all he knew, these people were about to blackmail him, kidnap him, ask for ransom, kill him. He felt a sudden and almost exhilarating rush of fear, irrational but thrilling. He kept walking, following his spritely guide.
They finally reached a section that looked modern. The change was abrupt—plush carpet, freshly painted walls, plasma lighting. Soon after, they came upon a set of double doors that looked to be made of heavy steel, like something that’d be on an industrial refrigeration unit. Cherry swiped her finger in funny little patterns on a section of the door, and the heavy steel panels popped open with a hiss.
“After you, Mr. Skale,” she said with a slight smile that seemed to say there was a lot to her he might never know.
Gunner stepped into the room, which was cool and dimly lit. The walls and ceiling were black with tiny pinpoints of white light that looked like stars. It was a moment before he noticed the people. There were three: one woman and two men, their faces in shadow. Their attire was somewhere between business and casual, and oddly, despite the darkness, they were all wearing sunglasses. Cherry, who’d so cheerfully guided Gunner through the strange building, stepped around him to join them. And somehow she belonged. She fit in with the strange group of three, and he was sure he’d guessed correctly—that she was far more than your average secretary.
“Is one of you George Hartley?” Gunner asked, not knowing what else to say. He’d never had a consulting gig quite like this.
“I am,” one of the men answered, stepping forward to shake Gunner’s hand. He had a firm but disconcertingly moist grip. “We’re glad you could come. We have some exciting things to show you, and I think with your help we’ll be ready to take them to market.”
Gunner looked down at his hand, uneasy. The man hadn’t let go. Finally, after what felt like several beats too long, he did.
“So what is it?” Gunner asked. “Sunglasses? That work really well in the dark?”
The man laughed—more like a guffaw—as if their consultant had just uttered the greatest joke he’d ever heard. His partners did the same. The meeting was getting slightly creepy.
“No, no,” George said, taking off the glasses—they were thick and shiny and had metallic parts in strange places. “These are something that were used a little before your time, Mr. Skale. Have you heard of VRSpecs? They were quite the rage fifty years ago.”
“I’ve heard of them, sure. Of course.” Gunner’s eyes had grown used to the darkness, and now he could see that George Hartley was an old man, hair like gray mist on his head, wrinkles cutting up his face. “But I’ve never seen them, except for maybe in a museum one time. So help me out, here. Are you trying to bring these back? Most people can afford a Coffin or rent one—and those who can’t figure out a way to do it illegally. I don’t think—”
“Please.” George held up a hand. “No, that is not our goal, I assure you. Let’s just say that these glasses hold a bit of nostalgia for us. And we didn’t want to take up your time dressing down for a Sink in the Coffins. Just as important, we wanted to meet you face to face. We think we have something that can change the world, both virtual and real.”
Cherry spoke up, rescuing George. “Not to mention that we’re spending every penny we’ve got just staying afloat. But with your endorsement, Mr. Skale, we think we’ll have capital rolling in by the truckload.”
“Is that what this is about?” Gunner asked. “You want me to plug some product so you guys can start making money?”
“Just …,” George said, his hands held out in impatience, “just let us show you what we’re talking about. The old-fashioned way. You’ve met Cherry”—he gestured behind him—“and these are my other colleagues, Marta and Kent.” They both nodded. “Let’s begin.”
Marta—a tall blonde who Gunner guessed to be in her fifties—stepped forward and handed a pair of the dark glasses to Gunner. More than curious now, he was happy to give them a try. When he slipped them on, though, all he saw was darkness.
“Okay, I’m ready,” he said. “Wow me with whatever it is.”
“Kent,” he heard George say, “initiate the VR and Dissolve us into the Exhibit Room.”
There was a click and a buzz and something like an electric shock that ran through Gunner’s temples. Then everything around him transformed, taking him to another world.
It dazed him at first, making his mind spin and his eyes almost pop out of his head. He hadn’t known what to expect with the archaic virtual technology, but what he saw spread before him was almost indiscernible from what he might see in an average VirtNet program. Gunner, George, and the others stood on a massive cloud that was billowy and white and brilliantly lit, glowing and pulsing as if filled with lightning. Mist swirled around Gunner’s ankles.