Ringside Seat

Craig Chalquist

An archetale of the Assembling Terrania Cycle


It’s tough to box off blubber. Maybe I would die trying.

Being indoors during a pandemic made it hard to keep weight off, especially given my naturally slow metabolism. So I had turned to virtual reality for exercise ideas.

Ringside Seat had just come out. After going through the brief training regimen—talking to a burly coach with a Bronx accent, jumping virtual rope, punching a virtual dummy wearing knockout spots that lit when struck—I faced a taller opponent whose muscles gleamed beneath the artificial amphitheater lights. The crowd behind him chanted his name.

“I want a clean fight,” began the ref. I made a pawing motion with one glove (in real life my hand encased in a controller) and the starting bell rang.

Even with a martial arts background, it was heavy going. Not at first; I had set the boxer AI’s difficulty level too low and knocked him out. Start over. By the end of the round, I was sucking air.

Good. I would kill myself with exercise, eat nutritiously, sleep, do it again, and keep doing it until I regained my athletic self. No reason a middle-aged programmer shouldn’t look and feel fit.

Whenever I landed a punch, the AI boxer grunted. After a while, a cut opened above his left eye. I’m a southpaw with a fast right hook. When he got through my guard and hit me, the helmet and vest I wore gave me a tap, and my VR vision blurred momentarily.

I slipped and ducked more punches than I caught, gave plenty back, and won by TKO in the sixth round.

When I peeled off the equipment I was covered in sweat. That I expected. But when I wiped my face, the towel showed a smear of blood.

The nose in the bathroom mirror was bloody. How had that happened? Sure, I was somewhat out of shape, but not that much.

As I staunched the red flow with toilet paper, I recalled being hit in the nose a few times. I shook my head. A tap or two would not make my nose bleed like that. Once the bleeding stopped, I went off to make myself a smoothie.

The next day I fought a larger, tougher opponent. He actually knocked me down, with a fast jab-hook combination I failed to evade. The hook produced a tap on the left side of my chin, and the VR vision went dark as the ref counted me back in. After that I was more careful and won in seven, panting. Good workout.

While toweling off I noticed more blood. Another nosebleed? The mirror disclosed broken skin along the left side of my chin.

At this, I inspected the helmet, expecting to find I had somehow cut myself against one edge of it during the heat of battle. I found no trace of any such accident.

This startled me. The whole boxing adventure had inched from rewarding to puzzling to eerie. Faulty equipment? A quick Internet search turned up no similar accidents. I reached out to the game’s tech support with a question about my uncanny injuries.

Instead of showering and changing, I decided on an experiment. I put everything back on, strapped in, pulled up the boxing program, got in the ring, and waited for my opponent to hit me.

He came in with a big left lead hook, most of his power behind it. I blocked it with my right forearm, head tucked low, a tap indicating where the punch had landed and expended itself. Then I paused the program, took off the suit, and inspected my arm.

Yep. A red mark on the outside of my right forearm throbbed steadily, warning of a colorful bruise to come.

As I inspected it, tech support’s email arrived. They appreciated my joke, they said, but no: infliction of real damage had never been reported by any user. “Be sure to wear a cup,” the note went on with a wit intended to match my own, “because not all our virtual champions fight fair, and you probably like your voice at its current pitch. Have fun!!”

Now what?

I’m a programmer, which means getting paid to solve problems and figure things out. What the hell was going on here? How was it possible, and what could cause it?

I decided on another experiment. Back in the ring again, I started a new round. My real body crouched in front of the mirror. The timing would need to be near-perfect.

Two of my jabs drew a counter in the shape of an overhand right, a large looping one aimed at my mouth. A mere instant before the blow landed, I tapped the headset to make it transparent.

The mouth in the mirror turned bloody. I spat out a tooth fragment. I felt no after-punch pain, as one would in a real fight, but the overhand had obviously landed.

Removing the equipment again, I applied an iced compress to my battered face and sat on the couch befuddled. Had I stumbled into an old episode of Twilight Zone? I half-expected Rod Serling to step out from the bedroom and announce, “Picture a confused programmer…”

I suppose some would have doubted their sanity at this point. I didn’t. There was no blurring of senses, no chaotic swings of mood. No voices from nowhere spoke to me. I did not think I was God, Ms. Jesus, Iron Man, or a purple dragon.

No: just a set of unexplained injuries inflicted in a virtual arena.

Over the next few days, I examined every aspect of Ringside Seat I could think of without getting back in the ring. I ran the startup over and over, looking for anything strange. I touched, pushed, pulled, and studied the training equipment. I examined the ring itself. I talked to the training AI, who said little beyond the usual encouragements (“I know you can win this one!”) and threats (“Get that hand up or he’s gonna make your head a speedbag!”). I broke into the equipment with precision tools and looked for anything suspicious. Nothing.

An idea hovered above the Los Angeles traffic far below and floated in through my window.

These days you can stream your VR adventures to a phone, tablet, computer, what-have-you. I set that up, but with a few essential sensors disconnected.

When I armored up again, I knew it would all be recorded to my laptop, but without the VR itself knowing it.

Taking a deep breath, I got back in the ring.

In some ways, this round felt more like a real fight, at least in one way. I was determined to get damaged as little as possible, slipping, ducking, parrying, and blocking with real enthusiasm and care. Even so, I got clipped twice. It didn’t hurt, but I knew it would.

I pulled off the helmet and shut down the VR. My lip and left eye were starting to swell.

The recording baffled me. I had set it up for simulcast: me in the arena and the real me, together on one screen. There was the real me all right, but the arena extended beyond the program and into my immediate environment. It was as though the ring were somehow real, my apartment a mere appearance laid over a canvas mat surrounded by thick ropes and cheering spectators.

Odder still, whenever the virtual boxer hit me, the virtual me—trunks, gloves, etc.—stood briefly encased in what looked like a second VR suit. Not just a vest, arms, and helmet, but a suit covering every inch of me. It glowed gray every time my opponent struck me and vanished, glowed and vanished.

This suit, I saw, and not my own VR rig cut me, bruised me, made me bleed…

And then a brain circuit closed. I breathed in and shuddered, a long, rolling twitching that passed through my entire frame.

“I need a drink,” I said out loud, and I went to fetch a stiff one.

“Don’t bother,” said a voice out of nowhere. “I’ll get it. Let me shut this down first.”

My apartment disappeared.

—“Let’s get that off you,” said the ref, now dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt. He peeled layers of plastic circuitry from my head, neck, hands, arms, and the rest of me.

“How’d you like being a programmer?” he asked as he worked to free me.

“He didn’t do much with his life,” I said, looking around as the memories flooded back, “besides work. Boxing fake opponents was the most exciting part of it for him.”

I stood in “The Vault,” a test bay within one wing of the immense Cambian Corporation headquarters attached to Palo Alto like a kraken gripping a cachalot. Under dimmed ceiling panels, banks of test equipment surrounded me, some of it lit with colorful flickerings. The lights were not necessary for testing, but installed to impress visiting VIPs with deep pockets.

I drank down a freshly dispensed White Cloud while the fading remnants of the programmer reintegrated within my own personality: that of an engineer trying out a new VR program. I was my old lean self again.

Vic, the project lead, finished stripping off the suit and turned back to me:

“What gave that you the idea for jimmying the recording? Was it the real suit inflicting wounds on you?”

“Intuition. You know the drill: when in doubt, throw ideas at the wall and see which stick.”

“How did the memory erasure work? Anything poke through?”

“Not a thing. I was really him.”

“Whew! I really sweated that part. The C suite will be glad to know.”

I chuckled. “We can’t make it intuition-proof, but I’d guess that to be the last of the potential revealers to iron out. The average user will be able now to move into whatever life and self they desire.”

He nodded and smiled. “Looks like we’re ready to mass-market it finally.”

He flourished forth a beer bottle. We clinked to success and drank.

Then: “You know what I worried about the most, going in?” I confided. “That the safety timer wouldn’t work and/or you’d be delayed getting here, or maybe never get here at all. Then the program would run until the end of my life, with me stuck in there forever. Stupid, huh?”

“Not really. It’s scary when you think about what could go wrong.”

We drank again, morbidly musing. The lights flickered hypnotically.

“Like, what if all this is a sim?” I went on.

“That’s OK. I kind of like it,” he said.

After a mutual chuckle, we happened to lock eyes, trapped by the same arctic thought: But what if it is?

All at once, the lights went out as the testing room seemed to melt into rainbows and white fog.

—I awakened as Smee, an archetypal Power of the cosmos, remembering wistfully that on Earth, I had once been an engineer….

And I wondered: Who in all the vast stellar reaches might be dreaming me?