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An Escape From Virtual Reality

Harloc, Elmaux waste Sam in hair-triggered digital battle in narrow (plywood) Mars canal

I WAS strapped in the husky Rustler, the pick-up truck of Mars, caroming off the walls of the Red Planet's labyrinthine canal system, desperately trying to get enough forward thrust in my hovercraft to escape the ... excuse me, what am I trying to escape from?

Answer: Main Street in Walnut Creek, Calif., at night, better known as a pastoral, bedroom community on Earth near San Francisco. Escape this alleged dullness for $9. Leave trees and friendly people behind. Abandon rolling hills and real stars. Dump reality as we know it.

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Known as Virtual World, this storefront on 1375 N. Main Street in Walnut Creek is a ``digital theme park,'' an outpost of the Virtual Geographic League where cyberspace adventurers bond electronically in the explorer's lounge before and after bashing and frying each other, digitally speaking, in hovercrafts on the Red Planet.

Frankly, the leap from the electronic typewriter generation to the digital cyberspace computer generation has not been smooth for me. I, a Homo sapiens who still has difficulty balancing checkbooks and setting digital alarm clocks, have been pre-conditioned to accept one low-static reality, yet am lured by the promise of other high-tech realities.

So, I enter Virtual World, on-line for one year. After a wait in the explorer's lounge where veterans of countless missions watch TV monitors of battles under way, I enter a darkened room. My call sign is Sam, a very unimaginative selection by me compared with Harloc, Elmaux, Castor, and Wiener, the names of the other combatants who will try to escape the Red Planet and reduce me to electronic snow.

After a briefing by a young woman with peroxided hair (virtual hair?) and wearing a white smock (smocked virtually?), we watch a TV video, an instructive prelude to what we are about to experience. Then we each sit in a dark Rustler hovercraft or a ``virtual reality pod'' (in reality, a big plywood box screwed to the floor and painted black with a sliding door), and face a big video monitor. I am sitting in a simulated cockpit with red lights flashing, readouts, right hand on a joy stick to control direction, left hand on a thruster (with booster rockets) to control forward and backward thrust.

The object is to rocket down the narrow Mars canal in the Rustler, blast the others, and turn around and do it again. Easier realized than imagined. The directional mechanism has a hair trigger. I mix the thruster button with the booster button. I am in hiccup mode. I thump and bang the walls while slowing down and speeding up. Other hovercrafts whoosh by me. I am blasted three times and obliterated by head-on collisions.

Ten minutes go by quickly in sweaty reality. I manage three laughable laps. Harloc streaks for seven laps. Back in the explorer's lounge we watch a ``mission review.'' A TV monitor gives our statistical results under baffling cyber acronyms. Then we get a detailed printout of the battle with a log of the action and a precise schematic drawing indicating the location of each action. Amazing.

Excerpts from the log: ``Harlock fires and hits Sam in South Easy-Bake 2,'' and ``Righteous collision delivered by Elmaux to Sam in South Tank Farm,'' and ``Sam fires and hits Weiner in North Underpass.''

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I stepped back into the night on N. Main Street, the pilot's log in my hand. Overhead, several billion stars twinkled. Nearby a little Italian restaurant sprinkled the air with currents of real garlic.

My last entry in the pilot's log is, ``Sam embraces the galaxy in the 1100 block of Main Street in Walnut Creek and leaves virtual reality in the dust.''

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