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EYECATCHER by Frank Roger


    All at once the burning man vanished, as if he had never
been there. As a matter of fact that was probably very much the
case, Cynthia thought. She let her gaze roam about the glimmering
cityscape. Most of it didn't seem real. Much of it wasn't real.
None of it felt real.
 All around her the city sprawled. It extended to the horizon
and beyond, a vast, amorphous expanse of concrete and stone and
metal. It was teeming with life, although at times it looked
deceivingly empty and quiet. As the gigantic megalopolis grew, it
extended its fingers and pushed its limits further and further,
greedily gobbling up other cities and incorporating them within
its boundaries. After some time it proved no longer useful to
refer to them as mere cities. They were now labeled Urban Areas,
as opposed to Desert Areas and Woodland Areas. As more and more
people fled the south and flocked towards the Urban Areas, their
growth continued unabated.
    Not all was well in the Urban Areas, though. Only the happy
few lived in the rich City Center. Around it was a series of
concentric rings. In the one closest to the Center, the "rim
area", there was still a semblance of wealth and a spark of hope.
Further down things grew bleaker and poorer. The inhabitants of
these slums had dubbed their part of town Nowhere City, probably
because it bore a striking resemblance to the slums around all
other Urban Areas. Nowhere City could be anywhere. As long as you
weren't in the city center, it didn't make a difference in which
particular Nowhere City you happened to be. They were probably
all exact lookalikes. And feelalikes, she added grimly. If you
lived here, there was a fat chance your life was going nowhere
  Despite all it had meant to her in its better days, now
sadly gone by, she was glad she had been offered a chance to
leave this neighborhood and move into the Real World, as she saw
it. The endless stream of holograms and all sorts of visual
effects had never been able to fascinate her, but now she had
really grown sick and tired of their unrelenting presence.
    A few minutes ago a hooded mugger had darted from behind a
portico, had rushed towards her only to pass straight through
her. It had been a hologram, obviously, in all probability not
more than a warning sign. Some inhabitant had constructed it to
warn all passers©by that his dwelling©place was best left alone.
The thing was that you were never quite sure what was real and
what was a hologram.
  Some of the cyberpets, as all sorts of mechanical and
computerized watchdogs were affectionately labeled, who were
roaming this neighborhood were quite real, for instance. They
could inflict genuine injuries which caused real pain. Some of
the cyberpets were quite smart, others were dumb machines, some
were malfunctioning. Of the latter you could only expect the
unexpected. A few moments ago she had seen a limping wolflike
pet crash into a wall, crushing its skull in the process. Its
legs had kept on thrashing and twitching, as if in unbelief. So
both the creature and the wall had been real © unless the whole
scene had been a holographic projection.
      She had no idea what the burning man might have been.
Another warning device? A malfunctioning piece of art? An
elaborate joke? Solid proof of someone's bad taste? Actually, it
didn't really matter. As long as you survived you didn't ask too
many questions in Nowhere City. You simply had to accept the fact
that the streetscape was mostly fake and that you weren't likely
to figure out what was real until it was too late. Some living
experience here did help, though.
     Cynthia took a sharp intake of breath and set off again,
carefully picking her way through the debris and obstacles
scattered all over the place. Even if it wasn't real, it was
better not to take anything for granted. Some of this social
twilight zone's inhabitants she passed by, both human and
otherwise, were quite real. Lots of street vendors were peddling
their wares, a great variety of stuff, most of it probably either
illegal or stolen. There was quite a bit of hardware and all
sorts of high©tech equipment. Stacks of disks and computerЄrelated stuff. Loads of edible and drinkable material, depending
on your definition of those terms, and not all of it good for
your health © or your survival, for that matter. The sales raps
weren't the only sounds to rupture the silence.
       You often came across street bands playing live music in
this part of town. Most bands enhanced their high©energy act with
holo setups, and solicited audience participation. She was under
the impression that she hadn't seen all that many bands strutting
their stuff in recent times. That was a bad sign. Had they become
victims of the recession? Or had they drifted off to other parts
of town, or other Urban Areas where there was still room for
street musicians? That was hard to imagine. This place was as
good as any © or as bad, to put it more correctly. Maybe they had
just gone out of business, had grown discouraged, and were now
waiting for the right time to reappear on the scene. Who knew
what these guys would be forced to do in the meantime. It
reminded her very much of her own situation, and the sullen fate
she had been given the chance to escape.
      I've been lucky, she thought. I shouldn't complain. Just as
the going was getting tough she had been discovered by an IЄcatcher, a talent scout, of Eyescape Inc., who had been quite
impressed with her artistic endeavors. This had to be her chance
to strike it big, and she had grabbed the opportunity with both
Times were getting lean and mean as the War grew bigger and
harsher. A recession had become inevitable, and the inhabitants
of Nowhere City were among the first to suffer from the ensuing
crisis © and among the most fiercely stricken. She had been a
professional visual artist all her life, but recently her
shoestring budget had dwindled away into a no©budget. Life was
becoming impossible ; she would have had to look for another job,
horrifying as that prospect was to her, if the offer from
Eyescape Inc. hadn't arrived, as if heaven sent.
      The megabuck bio©business was prospering as never before.
Eyescape Inc., the I©catcher had proudly informed her, was the
leader in that particular field and was expanding at an
astounding rate. They were hiring new forces all the time © and
she had been singled out especially. Eyescape Inc. could use
creative artists for a variety of purposes, the man had
explained her. We need people with a vivid imagination, people
who had a fresh outlook on things, people who came up with new
insights and approached projects from unusual angles. He used a
lot of words like "bold" and "daring" and "startling". He had
sounded so very convincing.
   Of course she had accepted the offer. She realized it was
her only way out of the mess her life threatened to become. And,
at least she hoped, she would still be an artist. A commercial
one perhaps, but an artist all the same. The life she left behind
was a shambles. She had severed the links with her relatives long
ago. She just didn't fit in with that crowd, and had preferred
quitting rather than being rejected. Her artistic ambitions had
always been frowned upon by her parents. "It's a tough world out
there," they used to say, "and you better get hold of a decent
job instead of whittling your life away with so©called art." No
one among her family had any artistic talent. No one accepted the
fact that she had. Her parents had fought a lifelong struggle to
work their way up in society © the wealthy City Center with its
awe©inspiring business district was at the core of their dreams
and hopes. Only hard and serious work could get you there. Art
didn't lead that way. Art was part of life's seedier side, and
the brand of art she was into flourished too much in the squalid
streets of Nowhere City. So her choice had been a simple one :
drop her artistic endeavors © or drop her family. It had taken
her some time to make that decision © a time filled with friction
and conflict © but she had never regretted her decision. It had
changed her outlook, however, on "normal" work and the struggle
uphill in the real world it supposedly made possible. If she ever
made it "up there", it would be on her own terms, through her
art, otherwise she would rather stay down where she was. At the
time this had seemed to be solid thinking.
    The world she would now leave behind was one of crime,
unstability, loneliness and fake surroundings. She hoped that one
day she would never have to set foot in Nowhere City again. She
detested its garishness, its hopelessness, its emptiness.
     She cast furtive glances all around her as she went along.
She had passed through here on many occasions, and each time it
had changed beyond recognition. Nothing lasted long in Nowhere
City. Or maybe they changed the holograms a lot. This was a world
where continuous change was the only constant. And she was glad
to move on.
   She was supposed to present herself at The I©Site, the
headquarters of Eyescape Inc. She had been provided with special
passes, for one didn't simply stroll from Nowhere City into the
privileged City Center. A face to face in©depth talk with a highЄlevel executive had been scheduled, she had been told. Be there
at 1100 on Monday morning. And so here she was, on her way
towards bigger and better things. Well, she presumed they surely
couldn't be much worse than what crisis©ridden Nowhere City had
in store for her. At the very least it would feel more real.
Holograms and other eye©deceivers were frowned upon in the Real
World. That was one thing she would be glad never to run into
Slowly, carefully, methodically, Cynthia Raythan kept going
on her way out of glimmering, ever©changing Nowhere City, into
her future.


      "So," Sergeant Scrimshaw said, "you've all made a very wise
decision. There should be more people like you. If we are to
survive at all, we will have to make a statement. A very eloquent
statement at that. It will be up to people like you to go and
make that statement. And you better make sure it is heard loud
and clear."
   Words, Jim Reicher thought, words, as Sergeant Scrimshaw
rambled on. That wasn't what he had joined the War Force for. He
had a vision of the future, a bright and promising future, and he
had felt to the marrow of his bones that something had to be done
in order to safeguard that future. Responsible people had to
stand up and show some action. His father, a City Center CouncilЄlevel politician, had backed him all the way. It was nice to see
his vision and ambitions supported from ground level onwards. He
had been allowed to build towards this ambition, and was
determined to go all the way now that the first hurdles had been
successfully taken. After he had gotten his degree, his selected
curriculum being a well©balanced mix of science, history and
sports, he had embarked on an extensive War Force preparation
course. It had certainly proven to be well worth the time and
effort spent on it.
   He had passed the tests, as he had known he would all along.
He was eager to start the military training program now.
Fortunately that wouldn't take up too much time, thanks to the
state©of©the©art©technology the Special War Institute had at its
disposal. The old time©consuming approach to military training
was now a thing of the past. Things went ever so more smoothly
now with custom©made VRTs, Virtual Reality Trips, which yielded
better results in a shorter period of time without any loss of
personnel due to injuries and all sorts of accidents. Only the
psychologically unfit would drop out © if any had made it,
surprisingly, through the preliminary tests.
  The first few days in the Institute had been filled mainly
with all sorts of introductions and speeches. Lots of speeches,
way too many words. Jim hadn't been told anything he didn't know
already. He knew very well why he was here and what he had set
out to do. He didn't need the Scrimshaws of this world to point
out the obvious.
      So there was a war going on, labelled the War because of its
tremendous importance. Africa seemed like a faraway place where a
local war wasn't likely to influence world affairs let alone
daily life in the civilized world. But this was no petty local
guerrilla war. It didn't merely send ripples through the African
jungle © it shook the very foundations of western civilization.
The war had to come to an end © and it had to be won. That was
why he was here.
      The enemy consisted of a motley crew of outcasts, a loose
consortium of anti©western forces. About any species of antiЄcivilized scum was represented in this slapdash army : it
included former terrorist groups, drug gangs, left and right wing
extremist revolutionaries, oppressed ethnic and religious
minorities, criminals and native population grouplets threatened
with extinction. There was not one enemy. The enemy was an
amorphous many©faced force. That didn't simplify the task of the
War Institute's divisions, centered in the Lower East Coast area
of the United States of North America and in Great Switzerland in
Europe respectively.
  There was one more thing of vital importance and of ominous
proportions to be taken into account : the cause of the war, and
the effect it had had on the battlefield. Colonel Scaglione had
devoted his entire speech to this topic, central as it was to
Operation Eye Witness, as their part in the War was to be
labelled. Recollections of various documentaries came flooding
back to him.
  Some ten years ago something had been discovered in the
heart of Africa. Its true nature or origins had never been
clearly explained, as far as he could recall. Most of that kind
of information was strictly classified. Scaglione, however, had
told them a fully detailed account would be given them at the
start of Operation Eye Witness. Whatever the cause might have
been, the face of Africa had been changing ever since at a
constantly increasing rate. Both flora and fauna were touched as
the "bio©catalysts", as they had been labelled, exerted their
ongoing influence.
    The bio©catalysts appeared to be byproducts of new strains
of mutant vegetation that had sprung up in Africa in an everЄwidening area now referred to as the Afflicted Area. Most people
didn't know how they had come into existence or how their
capabilities could be explained, nor did they really care. All
that mattered was that the bio©catalysts speeded up or enhanced
cell growth and cell differentiation, and allowed tissue
regeneration, drastic damage repair, and the development of newer
and more efficient techniques for a variety of purposes. Because
of their characteristics they were used in the field of medicine
and bio©technology. As they presented certain risks in their raw,
natural form, Research and Development Centers had been created
in the Afflicted Area for study and refining.
 One thing had been very clear to all concerned : the bioЄcatalysts were hot property. And more than that, everybody had
found out soon enough and had set out to reap this miraculous
harvest. The remnants of the original population of the stricken
area quickly fled, leaving the place to a variety of foreign
interested parties. A specially created trust of western
companies had claimed sole rights to the bio©catalysts © but soon
an irregular army of dubious intentions had countered the claim.
Trouble had started brewing, tensions had evolved into conflict,
skirmishes had escalated into war, war had finally led to the
War. Everybody knew it had to be brought to a stop before it
devolved into utter madness.
  After the first few days of general introductions in the
Institute they had been split up into groups of twenty. These
units would be trained as quickly and efficiently as possible,
and be dispatched to the Afflicted Area in due course. The purely
physical exercises merely intensified Jim's impatience to get
down to serious business. The first VRT was what he had been
looking forward to ever since he had arrived here. He was
familiar with some commercial ones, but these tailor©made
military trips were said to be gritty, realistic and quite
  As he and his nineteen cohorts plugged in for the first one,
his eagerness soon changed into mild disappointment. The
landscape they found themselves into was the old unchanged
African jungle. The battle they fought was a traditional armed
combat raid against a comparatively weak enemy. They won an easy
victory. It had felt real enough © but this couldn't be the War.
They had discussed it afterwards in the Institute bar.
"It was just an introduction, to get into the spirit of
things," a guy named MacLyle had suggested. "Wait till we're
launched into the rest of the series. You'll see."
    "Don't be silly," Jim had said. "Didn't we get enough
introductions already? What are they waiting for? Who do they
think we are? Why do they think we're here?"
  "The real thing would piss us off," a man called Giancarlo
Frianelli had said. "You don't realize what we will be up
against. There's something real ugly out there, something badly
depressing. It would turn us into jelly. Believe me; I should
know. I've been told. I talked to a lotta people about this, I
haven't been wasting my time, I picked up a lot of stuff from
guys who know the things they won't be telling us."
   Jim had shrugged it off. Each group of twenty people was
bound to include one of these goddamned cynics. Those guys
thrived on this sort of paranoid crap. Better to let them babble
on and ignore their ramblings. He wouldn't let these bastards
interfere with the job at hand. It didn't matter what they
decided to do © he would get on with it and end up where he
wanted to be.
 With the second VRT came second thoughts. They had been
told to expect a "more realistic background, more fully developed
in tune with the current situation in the Afflicted Area". It
wasn't to be a pure combat situation, rather a reconnaisance
mission with some skirmish scenes. It was supposed to offer them
a glimpse into the universe that was to become theirs soon. There
was only one aspect of the briefing that pissed him off :
Frianelli's sardonic grin. If only he could wipe it off the man's
face. Preferably forever.
     So they had plugged in, expectantly.
  This time it wasn't possible to tell if this was the changed
jungle or not. Heavy mist swirled around them, obscuring the lush
vegetation. Undefinable, dull sounds reached their ears. They had
been split up into groups of four. MacLyle, Carvalho and
Frianelli accompanied him. They wore the custom©made protective
clothing that was said to be a necessity here. They carried light
but effective modern weapons, called MH©38s, unofficially
labelled Molly Hatchets. They carefully picked their way through
the shades of gray and green the junglescape consisted of. Their
feet made eerily squishing sounds with each laborsome step.
   When they exchanged words, their voices sounded muffled and
warped. After a few minutes Jim could no longer tell apart his
three cohorts. They had become as alienated, as unreal as the
fog©draped foliage around him. All at once Carvalho (no, MacLyle,
or perhaps Frianelli) lifted his hand and they stopped in their
tracks. Jim squinted in order to see better, to no avail.
     Something moved in front of Carvalho, or whoever the first
man was. Jim wished he could see more clearly. He tried to sweep
away the shreds of mist, but his sudden arm movement only made
the whitish streamers swirl around him furiously. He took a
hesitating step forward, peered at what now vaguely appeared to
be a vine©encrusted tree in front of which Carvalho was standing
   The tree was changing shape and color. As green and brown
were turning into pink, it slowly and mesmerizingly took on an
increasingly human shape, as if mimicking the figures in front of
it. A torso was becoming visible, limbs, a crudely shaped head.
As more details became apparent, he could recognize the shape as
a sensual naked woman. The four men stared, unmoving, silent,
uncomprehending. The figure wasn't totally human; the hair was
tendril©like, and instead of arms pseudopodlike extensions
protruded towards Carvalho. Jim wanted to shout a warning, but
proved unable to utter a sound.
       The pseudopods had now reached Carvalho's immobile figure,
coiled around it, engulfed it. Soon it was totally enveloped, and
was pulled toward the tree©creature. Carvalho didn't resist, fell
heavily to the ground. The pseudopods rippled and coiled around
the motionless body, as if caressing it. Now Carvalho started to
change, his figure became a blurry image. Under their very eyes
Carvalho dissolved into an amorphous blob, which in its turn
collapsed into a bubbling puddle spreading across the mossЄinfested ground.
   By now the pseudopods had crawled and twisted towards the
two other soldiers. Jim was glad he was at the back, but proved
unable to retreat further. The process seemed to repeat itself
with the second soldier, although the enveloping process this
time around bore a striking resemblance to love©making of a very
esoteric kind. As the third soldier also started to be affected
Jim noticed something stirring in the foliage all around. He
noted that various plant lifeforms had started to mimic parts of
the ongoing process. Leaves, twigs, vines and trunks were now
interspersed with uncoiling and shapeshifting limbs, faces,
breasts, sexual organs.
      Especially the faces were an unsettling sight : pouting lips
appeared for an instant and vanished quickly, replaced by a
sardonic grin here, a soundlessly screaming mouth there,
terrorized eyes and bared teeth, evil stares and voluptuous lips
begging for kisses. The most blood©curdling sight was a replica
of his own stunned face.
      He shifted his gaze back toward the dissolving soldiers, as
all at once everything disappeared. The VRT had come to an abrupt
end, for some reason as yet unknown.
  Afterwards, in the bar, Jim and his three partners huddled
together around a table to discuss the matter. They had been told
they had been exposed to a "damaged" VRT, and that such an
accident was unlikely to produce itself again for the remainder
of the training period. The three others had had a similar
experience, but each had been the guy at the back. No solid
explanation of the details had been given. The matter would be
looked into, they had been told, and eventually everything would
be sorted out.
"I can't for a moment believe that this was anything like
what they had in mind," Jim said. "I know we were supposed to
expect something different, something changed beyond recognition,
but there's no way this was a solid reflection of the real thing.
I'm just not buying this story."
      "You bet you're right," Frianelli said. At last that
sickening grin had disappeared from his features. He was looking
dead serious now, clasping his beer tightly, locking eyes with
Jim's. "I've been told some of the VRTs have been tampered with."
     "Tampered with? By who? Is that what they meant by
  "Exactly. The guys responsible for this know how to do their
job properly. These hackers are cyberspace wizards, know what I
mean? We were the first to find out this particular VRT had been
"infiltrated". It'll be wiped now, but those hackers won't care.
It's done its job already."
   Jim mulled it over. It sounded too much like Frianelli's
usual paranoid nonsense, but he couldn't think of another
explanation right now that made sense.
"Who are these hackers?" he asked. "And what are they trying
to do?"
       "I've been told they're war opponents," Frianelli said, and
the grin started coming back, to Jim's dismay. "They're trying to
disrupt the training programs. They hope we'll be scared shitless
and end up demoralized and will drop out of the War Force, or if
we don't we'll be worthless once we've been shipped over there."
      "Goddamn fucking bastards," Jim said. Whatever the case
might be, he wouldn't let them have their way. He would allow
nobody to stand in his way. Whoever they were, whatever their
means or purposes were. They were bound to fail. He was a winner,
a survivor. They would find out sure enough.
  Still he had some nagging doubts. Was Frianelli right? Or
had all this been supposed to happen? Was it a test in order to
find out how well they could cope with something unexpected,
something unreal, something unsettling? Were they trying to find
out who was psychologically able to live through these
experiences? There was only one thing he was sure of : it was no
reflection of actual reality out there. Those bio©catalysts had
admittedly lots of capabilities, but they couldn't come up with
the special effects extravaganza he had witnessed. He concluded
they had merely been tested on their reactions to all©out
weirdness. At least that theory made some sense. Yet, Frianelli's
idea of infiltrating hackers hadn't been completely dispelled.
It sounded too downright bad, too sickening to be dismissed out
of hand like that. Anyway, they were bound to figure out the
truth about it soon, so he shouldn't allow these ideas to
disturb his peace of mind.
    He would continue his training program as best he could.
Whatever they would throw in his way, he wouldn't be deterred.


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