It was to have been his greatest work – his magnum opus. Groups of his students coalesced throughout the campus; generated heated discussions, and dispersed as their energy was spent. And from the towers of learning other eyes looked down; some cynical, some concerned, but all of them alert for further trouble.
The cause of the trouble still lay where he had fallen, on the floor of his laboratory workshop. Patrick Michael Terrence O’Day Ph.D. was dead. He lay surrounded by his paraphernalia, wires and components still attached to his body. They had taken off the elaborate helmet to attempt first aid but he had not responded. His dead face wore an expression of bliss, of extreme happiness. His lips were parted in a half smile, and his blue eyes, with their huge pupils, seemed to be fixed onto some glorious vision.
“What exactly was he working on?”, asked Regan, the police inspector. Travers, the vice chancellor, still flustered at being dragged away from his dinner party, endeavoured to explain.
“Dr. O’Day was a computer scientist, a brilliant man. He was experimenting with Virtual Reality; a computer generated world that seems quite real to someone wearing that equipment. O’Day had been making improvements that stimulated all the senses, not sight alone.”
“And that means?” The inspector raised an eyebrow.
“Well, touch and smell for example. Those gloved he has on press on the finger tips if the computer perceives you as touching something, and the breathing mask of the helmet generates odours to match the three dimensional pictures of the eye pieces. It’s just like being there.” The v.c. made a hopeless gesture. “Though where “There” is we have no way of knowing. Perhaps one of his graduate students will be able to enlighten us.”
“Thanks,” said the inspector, “Perhaps you can give me some names.”
“Gee, Inspector, I don’t know if I can be of much help.” Bill Clancy looked at the equipment, a heap of wires, plugs and bizarre garments which formed a small heap on the lab floor. The body of Dr. O’Day had been removed and was now in the hands of the forensic pathologists. “He was the only one who knew for certain what was in the program. He wrote it. Do you know anything about computer languages?”
The inspector shook his head. “Not much,” he admitted.
“Well a program like this is a very complicated thing. It takes thousands of lines of code to create just a few minutes of virtual reality. If we didn’t have the help of the computer itself it would take several years to write a half hour program. Dr. O’Day was a genius in the field of modular programming.”
“What’s that?” asked the policeman.
“In the old days of computing, a programmer would nut out a program, using one of the old languages like Fortran. They all did it their own way, and some of the methods were pretty way out.
“Trouble was, if the programmer fell sick or left, no-one else could work out exactly what he was up to, and it was back to square one. Then they thought of splitting the job up into modules; a series of little programs that could be linked together. That way they could have teams all working on different bits at the same time. Dr. O’Day was like a film director and editor rolled into one. But there was a difference; He wrote a special coordinating program himself which enabled the computer to generate endless variations on the themes we were writing. This is a big computer you know, not one of your lap-top jobs!”
“Why can’t we just take a look?” asked the policeman, feeling impatient. “Just put on that helmet thing and see what he was into when he died?”
“Don’t forget, Inspector, even if it was a heart attack, something triggered it off. You can run into some pretty weird stuff in O’Day’s imaginary world. He used to write Dungeon and Dragon games in his spare time, and he used one of them as a basis for his VR world! Besides,” he added, “We don’t know which way he went once he got inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you switch on you find yourself in a room. There may be three doors. They are swing doors that you can push, and feel the push in the gloves, it was easier than programming handles! You go through and find yourself in another room, or a garden, depending on your choice. When you turn your head your view changes. You are liable to meet people, or THINGS.” he shuddered. “I’m not keen to risk it!”
“Then I suppose it will have to be me. Can you fix it up? Ah yes, one other thing. Can you wire me?”
“What do you mean?” asked Clancy.
“Fix me up with a radio lapel microphone and tape me as I go into this World of yours. We had better have a record of what is happening.”
“No problem! We’ve got a full electronics lab here. But you’re a braver man than I am inspector. I wouldn’t do it for quids!”
“We’ve got an expression in the force, ‘it’s all in a day’s work!”
[To be continued]