I am a cop for Lifeland,” I told the cute woman in the turquoise suit.

She was not impressed. “So you are a security guard at that place on Route 1, near the Staples? What are those people going to steal, the chairs?” She sniffed. “As if anyone there cared about anything but getting a fix, anyways.”

“It’s an alternative recreation for safety and environmentally conscious adults.” The company’s politically correct PR sounded hollow to me, but they paid the bills. “Besides, I work at the headquarters in Ewing.”

Apparently that was a worse crime, as I saw her rapidly retreating back. A lot of people had that reaction, but they sure did like the high tech jobs and booming support businesses that revived the formally moribund economy.

Lifeland is the ultimate virtual world, or collection of worlds. The software is wired directly into your brain, so for all practical purposes you really think you are there. It is like something out of science fiction stories, although I will admit most of them are dystopias.

The first trials were individual virtual worlds, but people got tired of talking to machines. Some were so freaked out, the psych bills and lawsuits almost bankrupted the company. When we introduced multi-player shared universes, we hit a gold mine. Not all customers were addicted Lifeheads, but it did happen.

My job was as an NPC –– a live, so to speak, non-player character. Like the typical Lifeland NPC, I was undercover.

When I got back from lunch, my boss Vera called me over. “This one is a bit delicate, Nate.”

“Not High Castle instance again!” I shuddered. As a real U.S. Army veteran, I couldn’t see the fun in virtual battles with mayhem, death and a light dose of real pain. “Having to tread lightly amongst players that delighted in killing off our NPC medics is more customer service than I think they deserve.” Sometimes cultural norms fly out the window during games, but in that case art had followed life. Vera shook her head. “No, this is one of the persistent universes. We have been running it for about six months, and it is very popular. It is one of the stress busters –– “Lion & Lamb.”

“Isn’t that the hippy dippy, Garden of Eden-type Lifeland? Peace and Love and everything you want without working for it?”

“To some extent, but it is more like ‘each under his own fig tree’ instead of a commune. There are a variety of simple homes to choose from, lots of each type to go around. There are plants that keep supplying all kinds of delicious foods and simple clothes. There is no pressure and no competition -nothing to buy, trade, or make.”

“So what is the problem? People punching each other out of meanness?” “No. We safeguard against that, and a few other things. If you try to hit somebody, it causes you pain and the other person is unhurt. It has been part of the program since the beginning. We are not sure what is going on, but anxiety levels are rising, and lots of long-time customers aren’t coming back. They won’t talk about it.”

I remembered it took me weeks to get my friend Larry, back in fourth grade, to tell me that some bully was stealing his lunch money. I doubted these people were going to be any more forthcoming. It was time to get inserted.

Down in the barracks, I climbed into my comfy virt chair and made small talk with the technician. A moment later I was in Lion & Lamb, complete in an unassuming persona six inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than my formidable real self.

To my right was a strange sunflower like plant, with purple petals, red seeds and a white stem. Ignoring my NPC cop database, I randomly touched it in a few spots. Instantly a steaming eggplant parm came out on a bed of pasta with tomato sauce. I sat down on a large mushroom and started to devour it. It was excellent –– no calories and I became slightly full, with always a bit of room for dessert. Someday I am going to ask how they do that.

A nervous-looking tall man came over, checked over his shoulder, and placed his order. A full five minutes went by while he became more anxious and I calmly finished my lunch. He literally ran off, then came back to reorder. This time it took seven minutes.

I did some electronic snooping. The program was set to constantly increase the time between helpings, and reset after 24 hours. This prevented the boredom from continuous gratification. The man was literally on his 15th helping in two hours. He must be wolfing it down.

I decided to follow him quietly. He practically ran over to a group of about a dozen men. He gave the food to one, and ran back to the plant. I beat him back and pretended to finish my lunch.

“You must really like the eggplant,” I said. His head jerked up. “Please leave me alone!” he practically whined. Then almost defiantly, “I’m working for Eden Corp.”

“Who are they? I am new here.”

He looked relieved, but still a bit leery. “Oh, I thought you were a morlock from a different gang.”

“What’s a morlock?”

“Sorry. Gotta go.” He ran off with the food.

Moving along, I checked out the housing in the area. It ranged from natural tree house looks to thatched huts. I expected to see barefoot hobbits coming out of one of them, but I checked, and that wasn’t part of the programming. Everything was open, and some people had stacked a small variety of clothing and items inside. I finally chose an abode shaped like a pine tree and went out to collect a few tunics from a set of plants across the way.

When I came back, I thought hobbits were allowed after all. A small dark-haired woman barred my way.

“This here is Amazon Corp territory,” she said. “If you want to keep this place we will need you to do a few things for us.”

“If I don’t?”

“You can always try shoving me to get past the door,” she said sweetly.

Game exploits predated Lifeland, and I was sure they predated computers. One thing I couldn’t do was override –– I could call up data, even make a few changes –– but I had to play by the rules.

“I’ll just leave.”

“Suit yourself.”

I came back two hours later, only to find another hobbit standing guard. I was getting a strong feeling this was going to be the same all over, so might as well play along.

“You win. What do I need to do?”

“You can keep the house, but every time you sign in we get the first 20 items, delivered as we request. If we catch you on without our payment, all your stuff will be gone.”

“Why can’t you just get your own stuff? It’s free and there is all you can use.”

She shrugged. “It is easier this way. Instead of figuring out the flowers, we just get it delivered. And if we didn’t take this turf someone else would anyway and we would have nowhere safe to go.”

Once inside my tree, I did some more database checking. Then I winked out to the real world.

“So,” asked Vera, “Did you find the snakes in Paradise?”

“Barracudas.”

“What?”

“Barracudas. Not snakes. Did management give a special contract deal to Employee Health Enterprises?”

“Yes, about three months ago. They were looking at using our services for stress management for some really high level teams. Three companies, two nonprofits, a law firm, and two powerful government agencies, last I looked.”

“So they put all these super aggressive teams into an environment where they had nothing to do and expected them to relax?”

Vera looked defensive. “It was a peaceful world, where they had no need to compete and there was nothing to compete over.”

I looked at her. “There is always a way. And the people who were there before –– they really were looking for their own fig trees –– not kumbaya and sharing everything they had. Too many of them are stressed from always having to share, whether they want to or not. They may have thought they were dreaming of a world where they didn’t have to lock their doors, but what they really want are good secure locks.”

“What about the Health Enterprises people? That is a lucrative contract.”

“Get the psychs on that, but I would break up the teams as a first step. Then I would put them in worlds where they can enjoy competing. There is a lot less stress when lives and billions of dollars are not on the line.”

Vera nodded. “I guess we are still better at the technical aspects than the people part.”

I didn’t tell her that if we get that figured out it will be really, really scary.

Andrea Mandel has lived in West Windsor for over 20 years. She is active in Girl Scouts and is a member of the West Windsor Bicycle & Pedestrian Alliance. An independent packaging consultant, she lives with her husband, Richard, daughter Lauren, and assorted pets.

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