The Shell clung to the warehouse wall. Raven looked on through its eyes, if you could call them that — twin cameras, positioned on the humanoid drone’s face, which processed what they saw into a virtual version of the world. It perceived the real world, what Raven saw without a lens, and the virtual world, and to the Shell, both were as real as could be.
The Shell was a physical construct, but the way it processed virtual objects gave its user an illusion that they had weight and form. Raven would be giving the developers feedback on this once she had completed the test run. She found it more dangerous than impressive.
At the very beginning of the test, they had handed Raven both a real object, a coffee mug, and a virtual copy of it, perceptible only in the realm of AR. The Shell limited her movements and factored in a fake pressure response, and at first, Raven couldn’t tell them apart at all.
Curious, Raven had squeezed them both with the Shell’s metal hands. She’d wanted to know what would happen, and besides, the Shell was supposed to be much stronger than her own body. This was her first small taste of that strength. The real cup had shattered, bringing looks of distaste from the researchers. Raven had ignored them. They had, after all, hired her to test their machine. A broken mug seemed like a worthwhile trade.
The virtual mug had broken as well, but in a different way. When her had passed through it, it vaporized into small motes of light, which reformed as a flashing error code in the air where she had broken it. Interesting. She rarely saw virtual objects programmed that way. Normally, they just allowed physical things to pass through them without effect.
The potential danger came from misuse of AR objects. If, for example, someone attacked the Shell with a virtual gun, its wearer wouldn’t know the difference between it and a real gun. Someone could sent an entire virtual person Raven’s way, while she wore the Shell, and if he attacked her, she would be compelled to fight back, not knowing if he was real or not.
Even more mundane AR could be dangerous. At least one of her acquaintances, for example, had AR walls in his loft. A normal person could pass through them with ease, ignoring them as he or she saw fit. Someone in a Shell would think they had physicality, and even if they knew otherwise, the Shell’s programming would make it more difficult to pass through.
Taken to the next level, if the Shell ever went into full production and, as her employers implied, found its way into the hands of the military, canny foes could use its perceptions to their advantage. They could program virtual floors, for example, and the Shell user wouldn’t even know they weren’t real until they walked upon them.
Raven left that unmentioned for now. She wanted to preserve the feeling of excitement that came from the simple fact that the Shell was working as the engineers had intended. The level of excitement in the room as she’d laid down in the immersion chair had surpassed anything she’d ever seen from adults. It reminded her of a room full of elementary school students meeting a famous movie character. Not the actor that portrayed the character, but the character itself, in the flesh.
She wouldn’t mention this to her employers, but she didn’t really understand the point of the Shell, other than as a project to prove that they could accomplish something. The Shell was human in form, though formed of a complicated array of metal and ceramic and other materials Raven didn’t know. She controlled it as she would her own body, thanks to the immersion chair, where her real body reclined, inert.
That had been disconcerting. In fact, it was her biggest holdup regarding the Shell. Her own body was weak and exposed. In a situation where something like the Shell was being put to military use, that meant someone who could have been an active combatant was now stuck, immobile, in a chair, requiring at least one member of their unit to be relegated to protective detail.
Raven was not military personnel, nor did she have a combat background of any sort. She was an athlete. She would include her reservations in her post-test write-up, and she hoped that her employers would take her words under strong consideration, but she doubted that they would. After all, they had already poured so much money into this project, and people were all susceptible to the sunken-cost fallacy.
There were no virtual obstacles in the course they’d asked her to run, for which she was thankful. She would have hated to try to scale a wall only to find out it was an illusion. There were no virtual objects at all, or there weren’t supposed to be.
Raven had taken the Shell through about half of the circuit. She had jumped over hurdles and pits, crawled through a tube on the Shell’s knees and elbows, and scaled a wall covered in foot and handholds. Now she had activated the Shell’s ability to cling to vertical surfaces, which the engineers had tried to explain to her but which she had failed to understand. It had something to do with nanotechnology and ether and not, they had repeated several times, with magnetism.
Activating the function had been shockingly intuitive. In fact, there had been no “activation” required, in the traditional sense. Raven had expected to be able to climb the smooth warehouse wall, and the Shell had done so. Now that she had been doing it for a while, piloting the Shell felt almost exactly like using her own body, only with expanded capability.
The Shell’s eyes showed her the world with greater clarity than her own eyes would ever achieve. When she focused on an object in the distance, they tightened their focus upon it. With a thought, she could zoom in. She had done that accidentally, when she’d first entered the Shell. That was disorienting. Now, she had a better grasp on it.
So when she saw the shadowy figure around the next corner of the course, she automatically zoomed in on it to try to get a better look. The course was well-lit, and the Shell’s programming and illusory illumination made it even clearer. Nothing else in her field of view was cast in shadow dark enough to obscure it, but this figure was.
As soon as she began to zoom in, the figure back up around the corner. Raven dropped down to the floor, her interest piqued. The walls dividing the open space of the warehouse were all very obviously temporary, meant to aid in assessing her navigational capabilities with the Shell. The figure had ducked behind one such wall.
Raven walked toward it. It was along the path she was supposed to take, so it was the right way to go regardless, but there really shouldn’t have been anyone in the course. The engineers had assured her the Shell was not dangerous, so long as she was not dangerous. She had operated it in close proximity to them at the start, after all. Nevertheless, they had insisted on clearing the course of personnel while she learned the Shell’s strength and capabilities, so that she didn’t hurt anyone on accident.
“Who’s on the course?” she asked. Because she intended, the Shell would automatically communicate that to the people watching her. Her own body would speak the words as well, as that was one of the few ways in which it was no incapacitated by the immersion chair.
“Nobody,” Jev said. “What do you mean?”
“There’s someone out here with me,” she said. “They just ducked around the corner. I’m following them now.”
“There’s not,” Jev replied. “We’re all at the command station.”
She rolled her eyes at the term. The Shell rolled its eyes, which made her laugh. “Okay. Why can this thing roll its eyes?”
“So that you can look around,” Jev said, sighing. “Did you really see someone out there, or are you messing with us? The feed didn’t show anything.”
They were monitoring everything she saw, of course, and collecting data on it. The way the eyes responded to her commands was just as important as the way the Shell’s limbs moved.
“Yeah, but I didn’t get a good look at them. I’m turning the corner they went around now.”
“Okay.” Jev sounded incredulous.
Raven turned the corner. The shadow stood there, on the other end of a series of steel bars, which jutted out at all sorts of angles from the floor and from heavy block walls on the sides. She was supposed to navigate it to continue testing the Shell’s dexterity.
The shadow remained still as she approached the forest of bars. “You don’t see that?” she said. “Really?”
“No,” Jev said, drawing the word out to ensure she knew she sounded crazy. “See what?”
She was sure, now, that the shadowy figure existed as an AR actor. The lighting on it didn’t mesh with either the real or the AR lighting of the space. Plus, no matter how hard she tried to focus on it with the Shell’s visual receptors, she couldn’t get a clear look at it.
“There’s some sort of actor here,” she said. “Like a person in dark shadow. You guys aren’t playing a trick on me?”
She honestly didn’t know any of them well enough to say whether that would be in character for them. They had paid her to test their device, but she’d only met them this morning. It felt wrong, though. This test represented something very important to all of them.
“No. Definitely not.” Jev paused. “Are you sure you see something? There’s nothing there.”
“I’m sure,” Raven said. “It’s just standing there, looking at me. I can’t tell if it’s male or female. Average build, I guess. Maybe a bit muscular.”
“Raven, there’s nothing showing up on our end,” Jev said. “The Shell isn’t sending a feed of this.”
“I see it,” she said, getting frustrated. “I’m not crazy.”
“I’m going to get closer to it,” she snapped.
The figure turned around and began to walk away, further along the course. Raven didn’t want to take the time to go through all of the steel bars. Even at the slow pace at which it had begun to walk, it would be far away by the time she got through.
Instead, she walked up to one of the heavy block walls supporting the steel bars and used the Shell’s adhesion to climb it. Climbing with the Shell was an interesting experience. There was no sense of muscle strain, making it seem almost too easy. The engineers had assured her that there would be feedback, of some sort, if she tried to push the suit too far, but she hadn’t yet experienced it. She expected something would test that further along in the course.
She ran easily along the top of the wall, keeping the shadow figure in her sight. She had great balance normally, but the Shell improved upon it even further. She expected she could walk a tightrope with ease that would make a professional jealous.
“Can you complete the course as intended, please?” Jev said. “It might not seem like it, but all of the tests are important to our data-gathering.”
“I’ll go back through it. Don’t worry,” Raven said. “I want to know what this thing is.”
“There’s nothing there,” Jev said, sounding exasperated. “Are you feeling alright? We should test your connection to the Shell. Maybe there’s some sort of unintended side effect from the immersion chair…”
“Test it if you like,” Raven said. “That’s your thing.”
She dropped down to the ground, landing with catlike grace. She glanced back up behind her, marveling at the ease with which the Shell had handled the drop. Then she turned her attention back to the shadow.
It had stopped. It was looking at her, she was sure, though she couldn’t bring its face into focus.
“Hello,” she said. The Shell vocalized with a voice strikingly like her own. She felt a bit odd, talking to what she suspected was an AI actor, but perhaps it would reply.
It didn’t. It also didn’t move away, though. She kept advancing toward it.
“What are you doing here?” She spoke more for her own comfort than with an expectation of an answer. Despite its shadowy vagueness, its movement and behavior were disconcertingly human.
The figure shifted and, to her shock, drew something from it side — something long and thin, which did reflect the ambient light, if only in fleeting glances. A sword.
Raven laughed, feeling a mixture of incredulity and astonishment. “Jev, are you sure you’re not playing a trick on me? This thing just drew a sword on me.”
“Very sure,” Jev said. He sounded tense. “Raven, we just made some adjustments to the way we’re receiving the Shell’s visuals. We can see it now. It is definitely something AR.”
“You sound nervous,” Raven said. That made her feel nervous, in turn, though she wasn’t particularly worried about an AR illusion being a threat to her.
“Honestly? I am,” Jev said. “We don’t know what that is or where it came from.”
Raven paused to consider this. She took another step forward. “Can you hear me?” she asked, though she felt silly asking. “Can you tell us what you’re doing here?”
She saw the tension rise in the shadow, saw it adjust its grip on its blade, but she still barely had time to react. She brought her arms up — the Shell’s arms — to block the blow. She wasn’t thinking about the fact that it couldn’t really hurt her. She did it on autopilot.
She heart the sharp clang as the blade struck the Shell’s metal arms. She felt it jolt the Shell’s elbows and shoulders, felt the edge strike, with a flash of cutting pain, across her forearms.
The force of the blow knocked her back, though it was the shock and surprise caught her off-balance more than anything. She let herself be carried backward, creating space between herself and the shadow.
“It just attacked me!” she said. “What the fuck?”
“We saw,” Jev said. His voice held the same edge of panic she felt in her own.
“I felt it!” she said stupidly. Of course she had — that was part of the intention behind the Shell’s receptors.
“Are you… hurt?” Jev said.
She turned the shells arms so that she could see them. There were no visible injuries, but why should there be? The shadow only existed in AR. “No.”
She dropped her arms to see the shadow had moved in to strike at her once more. This time, she swept the blade aside with one hand. Her arm screamed at her in pain. It felt, for all the world, like the blade had cut deep into her muscles and tendons.
“Can you turn of the pain receptors or something?” she said. “Why even make this thing capable of feeling pain?”
“Pain is generally an important indicator of damage,” Jev said. “It was, um, easier to make it align with the body’s natural warnings than to try to build an alternative system from scratch.”
The shadow struck at her again. She didn’t bother blocking. She took the blow across the shoulder. The blade moved through her as though it were cutting her from shoulder to hip. She felt every inch of it passing through her, like hot lava. It was the worst pain she’d ever experienced.
Raven screamed. She forced her brain to recognize that she was uninjured. She had fought through injuries before, though perhaps foolishly. It didn’t really work. Part of her remained convinced that she should be dead from the pain. A tiny portion of her wished that it had, in fact, killed her, because the pain lingered even after the sword past through.
“Are you alright?” Jev demanded.
She reached out with both hands, grabbing the shadow by its shoulders. The Shell’s hands gripped something solid. By texture, it felt like stiff leather. She tightened her grasp further, and further, as hard as the Shell could grab. She put all of the strength she could muster into that grip, and into squeezing and crushing inward.
Something gave way. For a moment, her visual perception ceased, as though she had gone blind. There was no flash of light or shadow, just a split second of nothingness. Then the Shell’s hands clapped together with an audible clang, and she realized she — the Shell — was standing alone in an empty space in the center of the obstacle course.
“We’re pulling you out,” Jev said. “We… We’re pulling you out. We’ll run some tests but I think we’re done for the day.”
Numbly, Raven sat down, preparing the Shell for her departure, as they’d instructed her to do. The perception provided by the Shell faded away, and she opened her own eyes to see Jev and the medical advisor standing over her in the immersion chair.
Raven turned to the side, opened her mouth, and vomited. When she had finished, she sat up.
“I have some comments to make.”