Copyright (c) 2014 by Alex Feinman. All Rights Reserved.
"Two wands for a coin?" Eral offered, showing me a pair of oblong stone tiles in his palm.
"No deal," I said. "Three pents?"
He nodded, and dropped a trio of pentagonal tiles in my palm. I reached into my pouch and pulled out the playing piece he wanted, fingering its smooth edge before handing it over.
Eagerly, he plucked it from my palm. "That's two-four-six for me," he said, spilling the contents of his pouch out on the edge of his cloak.
I rolled my eyes. "Don't even know why I play with you any more," I said.
"Perhaps the heat has baked your brain." He grinned widely as he poured his tiles back into the game bag. "That's two night shifts you owe me."
"I won't forget," I said, pulling the last of the day's water rations from our cart. Cooling winds heralded the end of the desert day; welcome, but drying. Dust clouds surrounded us, striding across the hills, dodging sand dunes on their way across the border and into the Southlands.
I waved the flask of water at Eral, but his attention was out on the plain, where a streak of sand revealed a caravan heading down the trail towards us. The dust cloud it kicked up indicated it was fairly small--perhaps one wagon and two horses. Together we squinted into the setting sun, trying to make out details.
"Just a lone Cartagian, I think," he said after a moment.
Eral knocked his broad-rimmed hat back a bit, revealing a distinct line of grime and tan across his forehead. There just wasn't any way to stand out here all day and not get covered in desert; we'd both long since given up trying. "He'll be lucky to make it to Cognas before full dark. Hey--is that the last of our water?" he asked accusingly.
I smirked and handed him the rest of the water. "At least till evening shift gets here."
"Righto. Maybe this time they'll be early, and I can get home before the bars close," Eral said, sarcasm dripping off his voice.
"Have a good time."
He leaned on his spear. "Why do you do it, Lucas?"
"Stand guard, here. You could have any post in the empire you wanted. You could be sitting comfortably behind a desk in Dit, shuffling papers for a few hours each day before heading out into the town and carousing. But instead you work twelve-hour stretches here, far from the major trade ports, and half a day's journey from the nearest town."
"I guess I like the quiet," I said.
He rolled his eyes. "We talk the entire shift."
"Why do you do it?"
"The pay's good, and you're the best boss I've ever had. Now quit dodging the question."
I thought it over. The heat and sand quickly turned a man's skin to a rough red, and the sameness was enough to make a city-bred guard insane. The other senior watch officers saw front-line positions as anathema.
"Earnest labor," I said, finally. "Guarding the borders of our great civilization." Never mind the responsibility I felt, for the very necessity of those borders; never mind what we were keeping out.
But there was more to it, more that I didn't want to say. The simple comfort of Eral's company, the idleness of a cool evening out on the open flat: these provided a comforting stillness in my frustrating life.
By this time the caravan was close enough to make out detail. It became obvious that it was indeed just a single wagon, two horses pulling it at an easy pace through the flat sand. Eral and I took up our positions across the road, waving our spears at the driver to force him to stop.
Under protest the tired-looking horses pulled up and stopped, snorting a bit and stamping their feet. The sand on their hides and the weary way they hung their heads showed me they'd been driven all day, on low water rations. I'd be surprised if they make Cognas at all.
The driver, a short, oily-looking merchant, dismounted from his perch at the front of the wagon and set the wheel brake. He barely came up to my chin; Eral could have rested his elbows on the guy's head. He waddled over to where Eral and I stood, spears crossed. "What is all this? I'm pulling flour here--nothing for the Empire to concern itself with! Not even taxable!" he spat, pacing back and forth before us. He seemed awfully impatient--and impatience was a deadly sin in this unforgiving climate.
I was unimpressed. "Nothing personal--we stop everyone," I said, and walked over to the wagon. Eral went around the other side; standard practice in case someone tried to duck out the back. The merchant scurried along right behind me, like a small dog so afraid of being left behind by its owner it ended up underfoot. He flipped back the tarp covering the rear opening of his wagon.
"Nothing! Nothing. Eight sacks of flour. Two sacks of rice. I'm nearly empty! I'll be lucky to make enough to feed my horses. Now, can I go?" the merchant whined.
"Just a minute." I said tiredly, and pulled myself up into the little wagon. The setting sun made the man-sized sacks cast long shadows into the interior. Nothing unusual, per se. But the hair on the back of my neck started to rise. And I'd learned to trust that sort of thing.
I stepped down again and waved to Eral. "Want to help me get one of these down?"
Eral walked over; he'd been checking under the wagon, where weapons smugglers often tied their bundles of steel. 'Leaf springs', they'd say if challenged. They were a dangerous sort, these merchants of death, but they had a particular air of nonchalant cruelty this annoying fellow didn't evince.
Between us, Eral and I managed to twist the enormous sack of flour out of the wagon and onto the ground; it nearly outweighed us both. The merchant cursed at us through all of this: the damage to his goods, the unfair harassment, the heat, and the effort it would take to the sack back into the wagon. The air itself seemed to thicken around him under the weight of his words. I didn't relish the thought of putting it back myself, but we had to check one of each type to comply with orders--and given that I'd written them myself, it would look pretty bad to blow them off just because I was tired.
Eral shouted and leapt back. He pointed at the bag, which rippled as the flour inside boiled out. The rough cloth of the outside stretched and twisted against whatever force inside propelled it. I grabbed my spear from where it was leaning against the wagon and retreated to where I could keep track of Eral, the sack, the wagon, and the merchant all at the same time. The gentle wind now seemed a nuisance, swirling the dust around us, obscuring my vision. The bag started to smoke, filling the air with awful stench as the flour inside began to smolder. The merchant fell silent, finally, his unshaven jaw hanging open in wonder.
Eral walked forward, wary, spear out, and jabbed as if trying to poke a hole in the sack--but with an alarming suddenness a skinny arm thrust out of the bag and grabbed the end of the spear. Eral jerked it from side to side, but despite his strong build he couldn't seem to break free from that diminutive grip. I got a queasy feeling, and started backing up a bit further, looking for what cover I could find.
The merchant stood entranced, swaying side to side, his mouth open. Just as flames seemed inevitable, I heard a rending noise and an evil cackle.
I knew that laugh.
The bag disintegrated to reveal a horrid skeletal form, trailing indecent shreds of the flour sack. I closed my eyes and tried to looked away; but before I could, the sight burned itself into my eyes: the skeleton ripping the spear from Eral's hand, snapping it effortlessly, and jabbing the two shattered ends into the belly of the merchant. The fat fellow didn't even scream--only a squeaking noise escaped as the skeleton worked the sticks around in small circles, ripping open the merchants abdomen and spilling his intestines out on the dry sand.
Eral dropped back, fumbling for his belt knife. "In the name of Hexal, Nastor, Reven," he shouted, his voice ringing out across the desert, "I bind you, I dispel you!" He stumbled back and brandished the tiny bit of metal. Blue light surrounded Eral's knife, weaving in an intricate pattern in front of him.
He was using the wrong incantations, I knew. But there were none that knew right ones, not if the Four had returned from their bound slumber. None save me.
The skeletal figure looked at him in mute amusement. Instead of recoiling in fear, or being banished from our land, the sallow creature instead approached Eral's blue ward the way a lion might approach a barking dog: with cruel indifference toward the ineffectual weapons of a lesser. I slunk back, wanting to help, but knowing the best I could do would be to flee, to spread the word. Under my breath I started my own chant, calling upon the spirits of the air and the breezes of desert to gather around me. The air around me grew still, quiet and attentive.
The skeleton, Piolo Grogiano--just Paul when I had known him--finished toying with the dying merchant, and turned on his heel. He reached into the wagon and grabbed an enormous sack of flour in each hand, casually tossing them over his shoulders onto the dusty desert floor.
Brave, doomed Eral took this opportunity to charge him, planting his knife right between the skeleton's shoulder blades in a thrust that might have killed a mortal foe. The blue lines of the wards flashed around his knife, reaching up and coiling around skeletal ribs. The Twisted One ignored it, and bashed Eral with a bag of rice, sending him flying to a hard landing some fifteen feet away.
Piolo turned and waved dismissively with one hand, clawing upward into the air, directing enormous lines of energy. Eral, still picking himself up from the devastating blow, stiffened and screamed. I felt my stomach wrench, and nearly lost my summoning; the breezes shifted around me and swirled, pulled in two directions at once.
The other sacks burst to reveal their dread cargo: Gregorius, Tomas, and Robere. And there they were: the Old Four, reunited again. Their powerful forms shed the crude disguises they had been encased in. I nearly wept, both from fear, and from relief of a larger catastrophe prevented. If they had crossed the border--but I dared not even think about that.
Robere turned, dusting himself off, and looked toward me coldly. I slammed my eyes shut as quickly as I could: no mortal could come away unchanged from that terrible gaze. I whirled my cloak and sought to hide myself in the swirling sand, brown on tan. Had he seen me?
But Eral's agonized screams brought my eyes open again, against my will. He had collapsed to the sand, spiky growths bursting outward from his bones, through his flesh. Blood pooled up darkly on the sand around him. His face was a warped caricature of the handsome young guard I had picked as my second, sharp points of bone jabbing cruelly out from his cheekbones and eye ridges. At this I did weep; for he had been irrevocably set upon his way to becoming a servant of the Twisted One. Once the pain had driven him mad, his flesh would be flayed from his new bone structure, leaving a new lieutenant for Piolo's unholy army.
But sorrow could be fatal, here; I had bigger problems. Gregorius had noticed me, too, and was standing with his arms spread and fingers stiffened. I could feel the pressure drop around me, and so I ran. My breezes pushed me along, sending me flying across the dunes. Behind me I could see the Weathermaster's commands ripping open the sky, sending boiling thunderhead clouds skittering across desert skies that had not seen an inch of water in the last year. I chanced a glance over my shoulder to watch forks of lightning licking along the desert floor, a rapid-fire burst pursuing me.
I turned, and prayed for the speed and strength of my spirits to carry me across the plains of Marrow. All around, the terrible laughter of the Four followed me across the dunes and into the settling night.
Drenched in sweat, I ripped off my headset and threw it onto my futon. That had been much, much too close. Carefully I read back the last few lines on the text console:
> /fly nne
You fly north, over the plains of Marrow.
> /exit -xlp expedite
Don Lucas Fernandez (Rgr14/Rog20/Plt10/Spc10)
[Logged out from dffe:2d3f:1337:213d:41f0:47d0]
[ Account overdrawn: $12,314.35 Due Jan-01 ]
[ Last payment: $-999999 on #ERR Thank You! ]
[ REMINDER: you must have a POSITIVE balance ]
[ to be able to log in ! ]
My whole body was shaking slightly. I hadn't logged out in a day, and I was as drained as my character was. And the quick exit I'd just pulled would probably draw too much attention. Might even be enough to let them discover the backdoor I'd been using to log in, dammit.
The Four. This was bad. I had to find out more. But mostly, I needed some air.
Three AM is a bad time to realize you haven't eaten since breakfast: even if you do manage to find food, you'll be up for another few hours digesting; and if you don't, you'll starve as you try to get some sleep. I opted for the former solution, being far too tired to argue with my stomach. But I could already feel the migraine developing--flashes of light in the corner of my eye, and an unsteady feeling in my legs. A handful of nuts and a swig of soda gave me the strength to head out into the Cambridge night; but it was only going to last so long.
I shunned the glare of the monitor as I cut its power, and hung my headset up on the hook next to the remnants of my ancient CD collection. One look out the tiny casement window reminded me that October often brought cold rain during the night, and so I shrugged on my beat-up duster, a hat, and a pair of sunglasses. Evening shades: nothing too dark, just enough that the streetlights wouldn't bother my eyes.
Neon beer signs lit up the dark street light carcasses above: privatization in action. This part of the city hadn't seen a street cleaner in years, instead trusting bits of old newspaper and lottery tickets to fill in and level the potholed streets. But it was one block from the data warehouses, and so a class-A feed went right through it; ripe for a little friendly bandwidth-sharing, if you knew which palms to grease. Rent on my basement hellhole was ridiculously low, and even with an equal amount in protection money it was a steal. Once I'd barred over all the windows.
A cold misty rain was falling, steady but not hard enough to actually wash away the encrusted grime on the sidewalk. Every patter on my hat caused a jolt I felt down to my shoulders. I plodded up the dark corridor of Mass Ave--past the ancient pizzeria, past the head shop, past the empty staring eyes of the firehouse's double archways. Past the bondage shop, the package store. The crappy Chinese place that only made its rent by selling little girls to businessmen in town looking to fund the Media Lab's Next Big Thing. Past the closed-down art supply place, its windows temporarily taken over by a blizzard of blue signs with white letters heralding the next great so-and-so that wanted to win an election.
My mind wasn't sure where I was headed, but my feet knew. It was a little after midnight by the time I found myself outside Krissy's apartment building, looking up at her window. The light was still on--she was probably still logged in, raiding with her west-coast friends. It was a bit old fashioned, but I found a bit of gravel and winged it at her window.
It took two more, but eventually she slid open the recession-era window, with its black plastic sash and cracked seams, and peered out at me. "Oh, for fuck's sake," she said.
I shrugged apologetically.
The door buzzed with a vibrating wail. One hard shove and I was through; the damn thing stuck like no one's business, but the building super was crap at mechanical stuff and never got around to fixing it. During the day the thing would be propped open anyway--not that I'd been here during the day recently.
Krissy met me at the foot of the stairs. The entryway smelled of bad carpeting and faintly like cat piss. "You drag your sorry ass here and just expect me to be waiting for you?"
"Good to see you too. How's the raid going?"
"We were doing fine until Tobias and his crew showed up. That asshole killed the whole party and took our shields--we had to rez back to town and walk home."
I winced at the name. Tobias was one of the griefers, him and Jonas and their pack of weaseling shits. Assholes who got their jollies off of making things difficult for other players. In real life we'd lock these people up, but somehow in the Game we let them slide. Krissy was more of what I'd call a Socializer; she was there for the people. It'd been how we'd met, after all.
Her apartment looked like someone'd tossed the place; situation as normal, in other words. She'd lost custody of her kid in a really nasty piece of divorce litigation, and it'd dead-ended her here. Stacks of DVDs, nabbed when a local video store went under some years back. Two weeks worth of pizza boxes piling up next to the garbage cans. Plus a red t-shirt, with "World's Worst Driver" in yellow letters on the front. Not mine.
I watched her walk into the kitchen; probably the best view of Krissy, a fine ass and strong shoulders. "You pick up some new clothes?"
"New to me," she said, "yeah."
I held up the shirt. She colored slightly. "Oh, yeah, that's a friend's shirt, a girl friend left it over here. Jolene. You know her."
"I do know her." What I didn't say was that there was no way in hell Jolene would be wearing this shirt. Which begged the question: what was Krissy hiding?
She came over with two glasses, a little bourbon in each. She kissed me strongly, pressing the glass into my hands. She already smelled of alcohol; must have been raiding drunk. "You going to worry about that, or are you going to fuck me?"
I was hungry, but I found I was horny, too. My feet had known; hadn't they brought me here, first? Some company would be nice after--but no. Not the time to think about what had happened in the Game.
I threw back the glass; the bourbon burned on the way down, so I distracted myself with a hand on her hip, where her ass met her back. She had on a wide belt, which made it easy to grab hold and drag her up and into me. She squirmed up against me, then pushed me away to put down the glass. "Careful--don't want to break anything."
After she had her balance back I dragged her back to the futon in the living room, shoving aside a stack of magazines and a box of tissues and laying her down. She was already breathing a bit hard; she'd known what I was here for the minute she'd heard the first pebble. Krissy was my go-to girl right now, and she loved it. So why was it feeling so mechanical?
I stared down at her as she took her top off, stared at the smooth skin sloping down to her pale nipples. She still had great tits, plump, and she jumped nicely as I took them in my hands. Somehow my pants came off--I was paying more attention to getting a pillow behind her head before she smashed it open on the arm of the futon. She circled my cock with her thumb and first finger, just gentle pressure, then pulled me upright so she could lick a long line from tip to root down each side.
"So what brings you here?" she asked in a low voice, mouth close enough to the tip that I could feel her breath. She reached around and grabbed my ass with her other hand.
I was hard, so hard. "Oh, you know..." I struggled to speak as she pulled back my foreskin and teased the tip with her lips.
"You only show up here when you're upset," she said, mouth half-full.
"Can we--talk about that later?"
"Sure, honey," she said, before pushing her whole mouth down around me. I leaned back as she worked her tongue around inside her mouth, my eyes coming to rest on her monitor. Her character was in the deep caves, down in Adlin, where the grey miners sell magma blocks to the tourists. The only raids down there were--
She saw me looking, grabbed a hold of my balls and pulled. "You're here for me," she said. "Not the Game."
I nodded, and sank down beside her on the futon, hands finding her pussy's lips wet and swollen. She was as drunk and horny as I was. It was part of what worked about our relationship.
I straddled her thigh and shoved her other leg up onto my shoulder. She settled back, closing her eyes, as I shoved myself into her. Her hips arched up, wanting to go deeper, but that was why I had her leg trapped; this'd all be over in a minute if she got her way. I sank in halfway, then out again, as she shuddered and squirmed. After a minute I realized my erection was slowly failing, getting softer by the second. I looked down to see her lit up like fireworks, twitching at my every touch; but to me she just looked like a lump of flesh, a sack of weirdly bulbous meat with knobs I knew how to tweak.
I shoved down the revulsion; no sense in having both of us be disappointed tonight. Releasing her leg I dragged her onto the floor and gave her what she'd been asking for, shoving my dwindling length deep into her and squeezing her nipples hard. That plus a few slaps to the side of her ass usually worked. It took a few moments of thrusting, during which I had to be careful of the geometry; lacking much stiffness I had to shove straight or my dick kept folding between us, painful and ineffective. She came, a wet rush that soaked the towel she used as a throw rug--I'd aimed for it when I'd dragged her on the ground. That much teasing and she was going to soak the futon, and those things never dry out.
She clawed at my back, her mouth searching wordlessly for a kiss as I meticulously thrust into her, working myself toward an exceptionally unsatisfying orgasm.
I planted a slightly drunken kiss on her lips as she slowly settled down. We rested for a while; then she pulled herself off of me to lie beside me, squeezed in between the coffee table and the futon's legs. "Luke, you need to be less drunk when you show up," she said.
"I just had the one shot," I said.
She stroked my belly, down to my limp cock. It was still thick, but floppy, a fact she demonstrated to me. "One shot?"
"Yeah. I don't know," I said, and looked away.
"But you don't want to talk about it."
She pulled away from me and got up. "I'm going to the bathroom. Then I'm getting drunk. You're welcome to stay or leave, your choice."
"You're already drunk."
"More drunk. Drunk enough to put up with this shit."
"Fine," I said.
"Don't you 'fine' me," she said. "You started it." The door closed--not quite a slam, but not gentle either.
I suddenly realized we hadn't used a condom. Krissy wasn't the sort I could trust to stay on her birth control, not with forty staring her right in the face and a dearth of suitable husbands. My stomach went very cold. Was she setting me up? Or was she setting up Mr. Unwashed T-Shirt? I fished it out of the pile again, gave it an experimental sniff. It didn't smell like man; more like old stocking sweat.
I washed up in the kitchen sink and pulled on my clothes. They felt damp in the cold, clammy room. Too many things were exploding in my mind. The room seemed to close in on me, pizza boxes and DVDs and a shelf still, I realized, full of baby toys.
I let myself out before she got out of the bathroom, feet skittering down the steps. My legs still felt a bit wobbly, but I needed to get away. This hadn't worked at all.
Ahead was that bastion of late-night Western civilization, McDonald's; its wan bluish lights called to me, and I found my feet heading in automatically. The pimps by the door sized me up as I dithered over my order. I nodded to them: they were in the same business I'd been once. Selling fantasies.
A burger and fries made the cold outside air more manageable, but my destination was still unknown. I needed to walk. I could smell the trash aroma wafting in from the bay: the weather was changing. Snow on its way, with my luck. Far behind me, blue flashing lights heralded one of Cambridge's Finest tearing through the fog. The big white cruiser whipped past, boiling a hole in the fog as it went.
I pulled up in an alcove to get out of the wind, ripping my ancient mobile out of my pocket to kill a moment while my stomach dealt with the blow I'd given it. I thumbed through the notifications on its tiny screen:
From: Game Control 14 Nov 3:26 AM EST
Connection ended in non-game fashion at 0825GMT
5 rpp has been deducted from your account.
To appeal this finding, contact RPolice
within 24 hours.
Five demerits? Whatever. I had such a large balance built up over the years it was just a drop in the bucket. And it meant nothing, not if The Four were up and around again. If they were, really, and it wasn't just some sort of in-Game subplot. That'd be a very cheap in-joke, something the new management must've thrown in for us old-timers.
But the twisting in my stomach wasn't subsiding, and it wasn't just the crappy burger. The way Tomas had looked at me, through me. And the way the keyboard had stopped responding for a second--that really worried me. That wasn't something a subplot could do. That took access to the back doors we'd left sprinkled throughout the code. Back when I worked on the side of the angels.
Good times, it had been. The four of them--and me, always feeling like the fifth wheel. A coffee maker, three futons, a foosball table, and some high cube walls cutting us off from the mother company. Grungy keyboards stained with last night's sweat and bits of last week's danish. Paul on my left shoulder, Rob over my right, with Greg bouncing all around the office and Tom waking up late from his nest in the futon pile. Dim lights and thick blinds to keep out the stark afternoon sunlight. Working from eyes-open to sundown, heading to Li's for some ravs, then back to the consoles to plug away deep into the productive nighttime hours. I think Paul had a girlfriend through the main push, but the rest of us were wedded to the Game until the alpha shipped.
Rob brought me into the company late, on Greg's say-so; Greg and I had hit it off at a local career fair. I was never sure if it was some sort of affirmative action bullshit that landed me the job--I barely had enough real experience under my belt to qualify--but there was a mountain of work to do and the team started depending on me from the go, so I put it out of my mind. They had laid down most of the core functionality already, and just needed someone to go through and do cleanup, and address the giant bugbear of consistency.
It was a daunting task, but not impossible; the guys had always been tight, tidy coders, even in the inner loops where a microsecond wasted on resource allocation during screen refresh could mean the difference between jerky and smooth, between immersive and disruptive. And it was one of those perfect projects, where everything seemed to click into place. There weren't a lot of gaps to find, and the first few months saw me mostly getting my bearings and completing test suits.
So mostly I vetted out complex interactional heisenbugs--the worst kind, ones that only showed up every so often. I'd get two or three of my friends in to hop on some early consoles and hook up the voice link, then turn them loose in our play-test battlefield to see if together they could fritz the system.
I bribed them on free coffee and biscuits, asking them to do crazy things: dance while swimming, or swing a sword while hanging from a rope underwater, or land on another player in mid-air just as the setting sun was eclipsed by the moon behind them. That sort of thing. We were looking for edges in the code, weird unforeseen combinations that could lead to problems. Resource contention, deadlocks, buffer overflows. Or race conditions--two processes fighting to see which could get to some protected section of code first.
It led to bizarre errors. Take, for example, the hop-along bug. For a while there, players that jumped while running would get into a skipping, hopping mode of transport where only their left foot touched the ground. The distance calculations went nuts, and the player would skim along at about three hundred miles per hour--handy, but certainly not something we wanted to leave in. I found the unruly thread of execution and locked it down, putting tight preconditions to prevent users from encountering it. I didn't eliminate it completely, of course; it was handy.
Then Rob struck a deal with some of the bio nerds at Harvard, and the interface got fancier--a headset with biofeedback sensors, sensory pads tuned to monitor your stress and attention levels; eye tracking, lip reading, even a rudimentary scent generator. Greg busted his ass for two weeks and got the eye tracker to work with the AIs, and the experience went from wearing a headset to wearing a world.
Oh, we left the older interfaces in, text console and SMS, for the hard core old-schoolers and the Topeka grandmas still connecting on, for all I knew, 2400 baud Hayes modems. But it was the immersive headset that tipped the scales for us.
It was breathtakingly involving. I almost lost one of our play-testers to dehydration one night; I'd fallen asleep at console and woke up late to find her still plugged in and wandering, so lost in our virtual world that she'd forgotten that she could just reach up and pull the headset off. I unplugged her cable and she looked at me flatly for a minute, typing quick commands on the disconnected keyboard on her lap. I gently pried it out of her hands, replacing it with hot tea until she blinked and looked at me, slack-jawed.
She didn't come back after that; but weeks later I saw her, once, in a coffee shop. She wouldn't quite meet my gaze--a former addict in the presence of her old dealer. That was when the full measure of what we were making started to sink in.
My team of testers grew, and grew more hardcore--gaming for hours on end, and insisting on maintaining the logical fiction of the world of Scythia. Andre and Sylvia and Guy and Tess and Rahul and Anne--I could still remember all their faces, all their sordid stories, in and out of the Game. They called each other by their character names, and drummed out fellow testers who broke character. They handed out badges, formed little gangs. I joined right in, leading their merry games despite the glares from Tom and Paul.
Sometimes it was good--all that playing and building meant finding more bugs--but sometimes we would require more focused testing, and it was impossible to pry the gamers loose from whatever crazy quest they were engaged in. We needed to know what they were doing, and subtly guide them to explore the code more thoroughly.
Finally, I developed some code that would let me leap into another player's character remotely--controlling its actions, observing its behavior. It let me manipulate the free testing pool into the bizarre situations I needed. Possession, Greg called it, and told me I was the devil in disguise.
I found myself walking in circles, down to MIT, past Random Hall, where I'd grown from the smart-ass black kid with a golden ticket into a full-fledged geek. That'd been a hoot. Random was...random. One time I'd nearly gotten expelled for helping the ORKs break into the third-and-a-half floor of Building 10. It didn't help we'd ended up in the Admissions Office; oops. I'd found my application, in a folder still hanging in the antique filing cabinet behind the dean's desk, my hand-written admission essay still in it.
It almost hadn't happened. I'd won a scholarship through the Rising Local Stars program, a chance thing--my dad's friend worked under the Dome, polishing the floors, and saw a flyer. But it had happened, and it changed my life. They'd pull in a dozen kids each year from the schools around the area, most of them rich kids who already had a leg up. Well, not rich, but they seemed that way to me. But there were two of us legit from the street, Rubio and me. He washed out after sophomore year, dragged back into the street life; last I'd heard he was bringing in heroin from Maine and cutting it up in Revere.
And then I'd dropped out my last year, and thrown it all away, all for a little startup that was never going to amount to much. And that one folded, and the next one, and after four years of living job to job I despaired. But then there was that one career fair, and Greg was there. Freaky long-haired mutant, always a bit too friendly, with a shaggy red beard that went untrimmed for months at a time. He was tall and gangly in a way that made you worried to be near him--like he was going to break an arm the first time he moved too fast. He did everything too fast--talked, made friends, coded way too fast, but he'd seen something in me; and then I'd got the call. Funny how it hadn't meant leaving these Cambridge streets.
My wandering feet had almost brought me back to my apartment, the fog closing in around me. A silent police cruiser was sitting in front of the all-glass building down the block. A second unit was snugged in behind it, lights flashing silently. Behind them the lights were all on, the bio labs on the second floor lit up like it was open. Man-Machine Enterprises; I hadn't heard a thing from them in a dog's age, but they were still up and running. The Game had moved on since then, become our own supplier for the eye-based implants that represented the state of the art for interaction.
A pair of officers stood guard over three guys face down on the sidewalk. Inside I could see two more officers running up the escalator to the second floor, where the expensive electronics hid behind the security gates. The closest officer tore his eyes away from the pile of bodies and looked me over. He was still in crisis pose--gun-hip cocked back from me, one hand wavering between the pepper spray and his pistol, the other out in front between us. "You want to step back a few paces?" he said aggressively.
"Hey, uh, no problem," I said. The caffeine and sugar were hitting my bloodstream, and I felt as twitchy as he looked--not a good combination. I tore my eyes off the bleeding dude on the ground--no one I knew, some guy in a red jumpsuit--and instead watched the officers running past rows of display cases on the second floor. Florescent overheads flickered on in their wake, stirred into automatic action by infrared sensors. I couldn't see quite what they were doing up there--chasing someone, perhaps.
I blinked. The officer had walked right up to me while I was spaced out watching the action. "Uh--my apologies, officer. Am I still too close?" Last thing I needed was him hooking me for loitering on the street in the middle of the night.
"You been drinking?"
"I had a shot. I think I just broke up with my girlfriend," I said. Walking While Black And Intoxicated could be an arrestable offense around here, depending on the cop, and I needed some sympathy.
He nodded distractedly, and to my relief seemed more concerned than not. "Sorry to hear that. Can I ask you a few questions? You see anything? Hear anything?" He'd keyed his headset and stabbed the chin-mount mic in my direction.
"No, sir, I was in the Mickey D's back there"--I gestured over my shoulder-- "and saw the cruisers heading up this way."
"You live around here? Hey, what's your name?" he said.
He knew the answer already, most likely--I'd given him enough sample for a good voiceprint, and my info should have been scrolling up his screen, but some cops seem to just like asking the questions. "Yeah, about a block that way, on Windsor. Luke Viridian. Uh, Luke Green." No doubt they had me under my legal name, not what my Game credits read.
He nodded, "Yeah, yeah. Nothing about no shots fired?"
It suddenly came to me that the street-cams were probably useless in this fog, and that the cops could be flying totally blind on the case. "Sorry, I didn't hear it."
"Sure. Look, we might want to ask you some more questions, so don't go anywhere, okay?" He was looking strongly over my shoulder. I succumbed an irresistible urge to follow his gaze, and saw the pair of pimps from the fast food joint heading toward us at a slow pace.
"Can I go?" I asked. I really didn't feel like standing out in the fog all night, and cops gave me indigestion. It was best not to pay too much attention; with any luck, it didn't even have to involve me.
"Yeah, take a walk," he said dismissively, and shouldered his way past me. The 'record' light on his helmet flickered briefly and went out. I was guessing he had some words to say to those guys that he didn't want on the record. Police cameras had a hard life, and were prone to convenient malfunctions from time to time.
I turned to go--then froze. Down the street, I saw a man running, a white dude in his nightshirt. Just running, flat-out, no shoes. He was leaving a bloody trail behind him, one foot cut and leaking, but he was fixated on his target. Fixated on me.
I flinched back, trying to duck into the alley, but the cop was just coming out of it, and we bumped into each other. We both noticed at about the same time that the white dude had a gun, not pointed, just in his hand, pumping up and down as he ran.
I got down. The cop drew and yelled at the motherfucker to drop it, but the guy wasn't listening. Kept coming. A gun went off, which one, I wasn't sure. The guy kept coming, though, and with a final lunge grabbed at my belt, sliding down my legs and yelling. Yelling my name. The voice was inhuman, a horrid sound, the man's gut being pushed in with the force of each breath.
One of the other cops tackled him, slamming him to the ground. He let out a groan as someone's knee found his kidneys, but he was still yelling my name: "Lucas, Lucas, Lucas Ferez..."
Except that wasn't my name. Not here.
I shivered and tried to sneak away, but the first cop, the one with the faulty electronics, had a hold of my elbow. It was time for a ride.
At the station there were questions, and answers, and more questions, and long forms to fill out. Cambridge police spent their weeks rotating through the midnight-to-eight shift, alternating it every third day with afternoon and morning shifts, leading to a perpetual state of sleep-dep. After the cop apologetically explained this to me the third time, I was beginning to feel better about my own mental state.
My phone had buzzed twice more during the interview/interrogation, but they wouldn't let me answer it. After about sixty questions--most of them pretty inane and horribly procedural--they let me go, on the condition that I was an 'essential witness' and that they would be requiring me to testify if this went to court. Whatever. Probably needed me to swear they hadn't just thrown the guy to the sidewalk and beaten him for no reason. I sure wish I knew how he'd recognized me; even among Game-players, my face wasn't all that recognizable.
But the guy wasn't answering any questions; he was barely conscious, and not just from having his head bounced against the pavement. He sure didn't look familiar. I was seriously itching to look him up in-Game, but I had precious little info. The cops wouldn't even give me his name. I'd hoped they'd be a bit more helpful when someone was trying to kill you, but damn if it wasn't the same story all over again.
At least they'd let me go.
My phone throbbed importantly against my thigh as I headed out into the dawn. It hated to be ignored for long. I fished it out and thumbed through its log. Two calls from Krissy, sounding apologetic and less drunk. Balls. I'd have to deal with that later. Delete, delete. A note from First Urban Credit Union, probably wanting their piece of the rent action. Delete. And a missed call from Kieran--he hadn't even left the default message. Hmm. I punched dial-back as I headed east.
"Luke, what's up?"
"Just got out of the police station. You?"
"Aw, man, what'd you do? Busted for messing with the ladies again?" he asked. Kieran had bailed me out one night when my date turned out to be playing in the professional leagues.
"Nah, wasn't locked up, shit just happened in front of me. Look--mind if I just swing by your place?" He had a working shower, which was a plus over my place, and--more importantly--was six blocks closer.
"Uh--sure. Let me put on some clothes. Don't want you getting too excited, my man."
"Oh, and Krissy called me, trying to get a hold of you."
"Aaah, fuck her. Fucking--just tell her you don't know where I am."
"Sure thing. Where are you, anyway?" I could hear him pulling on a sweater.
"Told you, police station. I'll be there in like fifteen."
"You got it. Here, let yourself in." There was a burst of static, a squeal of data exchange between our phones, as he authorized mine for temporary access to his condo. I pushed my way out of the station, and put on some speed.
Kieran was everything I wasn't--thin, muscular, able to attract women who weren't psychotic. He kept his hair long and curly, hovering on the edge of dreads without ever actually crossing over. He also had a wardrobe that contained colors other than black, but I forgave him the character flaw.
I'd originally met him at one of Rob's parties--back when Rob had friends--and we'd hit it off in a sort of a casual kind of way even before he started working with us. It took me weeks to figure out he wasn't hitting on me--I didn't mind per se, but I sure didn't want to give him the wrong impression. Then he stole Megan from me, and that kind of cleared some things up and made others hazier. We got over it.
Currently he was wearing some god-awful Cosby-esque sweater, with blue and green triangles fighting for dominance on his chest. Unfortunately it just made his scruffy face look even more handsome.
He'd also put on some coffee, so I followed the scent into his kitchen. "So--why'd you call?" I asked as I poured myself a cup. The minuscule caffeine dose from the soda had long since worn off.
"I saw you'd beat feet online, thought I'd find out what's up."
"You working for the Role Playing Police now?"
"No, man, no." He shook his head, his curls bouncing. "Saw it on the wire. Just wanted to check in on you, you know? I, ah, worry."
Right. More like, Megan guilted him into it. "Well, it's a bit complicated."
"What, another girl?"
"No, nothing like that." I thought for a minute. "Krissy's--dunno. Something's not right."
"That was never right," he said. "You need to let that girl go."
"Yeah," I said. "Soon as I make sure she's not pregnant."
He looked at me funny. "You know she lost her ovaries, right?"
He shook his head slowly. "Luke, man, you need to start paying attention to something other than yourself. Girl got herself snipped after the divorce."
The meaning of the previous night shifted in my head. "Maybe it's best. I think she has someone new anyway."
"She's got a lot of people, Luke. You're just the one with the most juice."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He put his head in his hands. "Luke, man, you'd be a catch if you'd just stop fucking hiding."
My eyes got narrow. "Whatever. I think I'm not going to see her again."
He let out a long sigh. Sometimes I wondered why we were still friends. "You going to tell her that?"
I didn't say anything. It wasn't a conversation I was looking forward to.
He softened a bit. "Look, man, we can talk about Krissy later. Give me a clue what's going on. You fly across the sky like a shooting star, land somewhere in the Ghost Territories, dig a little hole, and spark out like your whole block lost power."
"Look, I don't fucking want to talk about it right now. Okay, 'man'?"
He seemed a little uncomfortable. Conversation stopped for a bit. I felt bad, but I wasn't going to go into it until I was really sure what was going on. For one thing, Kieran had been way closer to Rob than I had--they'd worked together at Rob's previous company, before Paul sucked Rob away. If the Four really were back, in Game and out, I was worried about Kieran's loyalties.
Finally, he said quietly, "Look, Luke, I have to go to work. You're welcome to stay here and take a shower if you want--smells like you need one. Just don't take anything."
"Okay," I said quietly.
"And stay away from my Game feed."
"Yeah, sure." I grumbled. "Thanks."
He got me a set of towels, a shirt and pants made of some sort of hippie woven fabric, and a spare sweatshirt that would hang down to my knees. I waved him goodbye and started peeling off the layers I'd piled on. Everything of mine stank of my sweat and the lingering stench of the police station, so I got naked and threw it in the wash as I headed for the shower.
Poets often write about the splendor of sunrise, or the glory of a rose, but in my book far too many gloss over the uncommon pleasure of hot pressurized water. On Kieran's dime I slouched in the shower for a good half-hour, feeling the heat limber up my spine and tear away some of the layers of depression I'd worked myself into.
By the time I was done the small bathroom was warm and foggy, and the fresh clothes already a bit damp. I shrugged into them anyway--the sweatshirt smelled like old hay, which I assumed meant that it was made out of some esoteric grass fiber. More Kieran shit. But at least it was clean.
The eWash had turned up its nose at the stench of my old clothes and switched to deep clean; nothing to do but wait.
He'd said not to use his feed. But...well, if I connected through my phone, it wouldn't really be his feed, would it? I pulled the plug off the back of his spare console and stuck it into my phone's network port. The connection meant a trade-off in fidelity, but I wasn't planning on fighting or fucking, and could stand a little latency.
A few quick tweaks of his connection profile and I was on. It was simple enough to subvert his character, possess it as I'd possessed characters of old during testing. Slowly I eased the headset over my eyes and ears and settled in.
Nicoli--Kieran's character--ran a shop in the grand market city of Dit, on the western edge of the Southlands. Unsurprisingly, given Kieran's gift with a paintbrush, he sold character portraits and avatar makeovers. As I looked around the cluttered shop I saw avatar skins parked neat rows on the shelf, like empty doll husks, waiting for their owners to pick them up and put them on. With a little devilish grin I grabbed one off the shelf and carefully painted a yellow smiley face high on its left butt cheek, then pulled its tunic down to cover it. A surprise for the customer, when he picked up the commission.
The shop wasn't due to be open till the evening--Kieran worked as an on-demand graphic artist for an ad company in the real world, so like most people his Game business was open in the evenings. He had a Korean kid that manned the booth during the overnight hours, when PacAsia was online and starving for culture, but it looked like I'd managed to miss him.
I cloaked his character in No-See-Me, one of the simplest of all my old hacks, and slipped out the carved wooden doors.
The streets of Dit were rich and detailed. It was hard to believe that the entire city had been built by players--built from the ground up using our original routines and pieces. A whole second world, constructed from the dreams of those dissatisfied with the original. The streets were narrow and lined with row upon row of cobblestone. Someone had written a laying routine with built-in decay; I could see the artistically misplaced and missing cobbles breaking up the regular pattern as I glanced down the avenue. The buildings above slanted together, emphasizing the claustrophobic feel the city planners had desired.
I didn't know much about Dit these days--hadn't really bothered to visit it since it had sprung up, decayed, and been revitalized by new trade with the seafarers. I did recall that this area had been built by a core team of players based in Portugal, who had subsequently abandoned it, only to have it be re-inhabited by a burgeoning tribe of Portland-based artists anxious to sell their wares to the fishmongers, traders, and factory workers in the industrial harbor district. God only knows how Kieran ended up with the west coast crowd. Some sort of shared artist insanity.
After a short walk I found myself on the main street--like Boston, this city didn't believe in street signs on important thoroughfares, but a quick (and illegal) peek at the source code revealed it to be tagged as Rua Centro. Center Street. So original. There were a few folks out, hurrying around. One was painting a mural on the outside wall of his shop--it looked like nothing so much as a naked woman being attacked by a giant chainsaw, but I just didn't care enough to bug him about it.
I instinctively nodded at a gentleman in white robes as he approached, then remembered I was slipping along unseen. The trick was simple--just a reversal of the polygon faces of Nicoli's avatar, so that the computer rendered them as see-through. It worked fine in good lighting, but broke up in complex or dusty environments where the computer had to recalculate polygon visibility more carefully. With the sun rising, and the smog of the riverside industries starting to roll in, the illusion was going to fail--I'd appear as an inside-out man made of shattered glass, and that would never do. Instead I ducked into an alley and popped out of No-See-Me. The system blipped, and the connection dumped error messages all over my console, but I countered with a quick clean-up script and managed to stay connected. The image of the back alley wavered and solidified in the headset.
"Hey, where'd you come from?" I heard from behind me.
Crap. I turned around to find a boy, perhaps eleven, peering out from inside one of the wooden crates. Carefully I tugged at the log files to try to get a handle on whether he really was a juvie user, or just a mock-kid played by some grown-up.
"Did you just appear there? I was watching--first you weren't there, and then you were. That's like magic!" he said. I could almost feel him composing the letter to the Role-Playing Police.
"No, no, that's not what happened at all," I said. "Are you sure you weren't asleep?"
"No, senhor, I sure don't think so. Are you um magico? 'Cause you know that magicians are illegal around here," he said.
Of course I knew. We'd had to change the rules after a player-kill war between mages had nearly wiped out half the world, after the Sin Virus had infected ten thousand accounts. There'd been much hemming and hawing until we decided split the world up, exiling the barbarian PKers beyond the Desert, while the creators and explorers got to keep the land they'd made.
Rob had been insistent that we NOT hard-code it, though, and let the players work it out. Eventually things settled on the model that still survived, with the border guard--my border guard--protecting the status quo by whatever means necessary. As Don Lucas Fernandez, I could have blown this kid off, told him I was working a deep mission for the Guard in Southland territory; but as Nicoli, I had no such recourse.
Finally the report came back: mock-kid. No more Mr. Nice Guy. "And you know that children are not to be let out on the streets unescorted during school hours--which I am sure it is for you. Unless, of course, you want to become a ward of the state. Now, will you run along yourself, or should I summon the Guard and tell them what preposterous tales you have been spinning?"
"It's not school hours!" the kid shouted.
"I believe it is. See, there, the sun above the mosque spire, even from this low vantage. I'd have to say you're late. Now scram!" I stood over him and looked imposing.
"I hate you!" he said, but crawled out of the box and trudged down the street. Well, at least he'd kept in character. Mock-kids liked the freedom of youthful behavior, but usually tried to skip out on the responsibilities that went along with the character. Half the time they'd make up some lame excuse about work to get out of going to school again. I couldn't really blame them--but then, I didn't play a kid, either.
Paranoid now, I reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out a local pinger. In game the device looked like a tiny microphone, jarringly out of place in this city of wooden ships and flowing robes. I turned in a sharp circle as the device sent out commands to any local clients, requiring them to report their position and status. On its closest setting--about 20 feet--it was essentially foolproof at locating lurking characters. The sweep revealed nothing, and so I sat down to make up a better disguise for Nicoli. I didn't want to ruin Kieran's character, but the opportunity to explore a new demesne was irresistible.
I switched from pinger to disguise kit, a variant on the same routines that Kieran used to make custom avatars, and rearranged Nicoli's features and garb just enough to conceal his identity. Instead of merely short, a bit tubby. Long hair instead of Nicoli's short-cropped style. A wider nose, and a prominent wart on the chin to distract the viewer. And a quick change to the robes of a Khameri nomad gave me quick explanation for the presence of a stranger walking through town.
The city was growing again. New construction down by the piers made for a busy boardwalk, with vendors on all sides. I did my best to stay out of the active zone, enjoying observing more than participating, and wended my way down the sea's edge.
"Twenty pents! All virgins, guaranteed! All eighteen, all the time, only the best from Asia!"
I looked up. The street hawker had been merely flirting with the edge of legality, until he mentioned Asia. I wondered how he stayed in business; the Role Police would auto-flag the character violation and dock him some RPs. Then I saw how rezzed the avatar was--stolen feed. Some poor schmuck was getting charges against him right now, and anyone who touched the hawker would likely find themselves hacked as well. I wondered vaguely what new hole he'd found in the connection code.
Ordinarily I'd have cared more, but I was a bit preoccupied; I flagged it for the mods to look at, and moved on. Eral's ruined face kept coming back to me. I knew it was just in Game, but he wouldn't; his brain could be looping now, stuck inside itself, victim of an induced psychotic break.
I thought about tracking him down in the real world, but he was in Philly, and I didn't feel like traveling that far. You cross a few state lines on short notice and the real world cops start asking too many questions, especially after this morning's incident. And didn't he have a girlfriend or something who could check up on him?
The edge of Dit was a mess. Old shops had been abandoned, their openings poly'd over with crude constructs. Shoddy workmanship; I could see a few microgaps around the edges. Before long some squatters would edge-slide in, and then the admins would have to root them out. Cleaner to just unmake the whole region--but then you get locals complaining of the blank spots.
"You, sir. Excuse me! Would you like to trade for some time alone?"
I'd nearly walked into another salesman, this one selling intelligent secretaries. The ragged-edgers couldn't stand to be away from the feed for more than a few moments--get too far behind, and you fall out of your social group forever as it learns new things and new memes, bootstrapping the members up to a new level of cool every moment--but the secretaries kept you up to date, summarizing and skimming and sending out standard responses. A good one was crucial if you were running ragged like that, or for times when the meth wore off and the sleep debt caught up. I made sure I stayed back from that gulf of madness. "No, thanks. I like my sanity."
"Exactly! We sell sanity--time to reflect. So essential, in this modern world."
"I, uh, I got one already. Five hundred thousand." I yanked a ridiculous number out of my ass.
"Ah, yes, you are out of date. Two-mil units will be available later this week, and of course I can hook you up with a one-mil right now. Just stamp this document, and it will be all yours." He smiled widely; he must have paid good coin for those white teeth.
"No, sorry, what I meant to say was Fuck Off," I said, tracing the beginnings of a banishment spell. The air grew bright for a second around my left hand.
"Ah, yes, of course. I understand! Well, if the strain becomes too much for you--and," he continued chidingly, "it sounds like it's getting there--come to see us!" He smiled again: pure fakery.
I resisted the urge to blacken and crumble those expensive incisors with a ray of pure bit rot, then shook my head. Fuck, out of date by sundown. This was why I didn't run on the ragged edge.
Instead I pulled myself away from him before he could 'accidentally' slam my hand into his document and bind me in its license. Shrink-wrap licensing had only been the first step down a slippery slope of coercive practices. Instead I trudged through the cloud with my robe pulled around my hands and eyes. I wasn't quite sure what I was looking for, but spammers in the commerce sector? That wasn't it.
I found my something a few minutes later, as I neared the central bank. Streams of avatars flitted into and out of the grand concourse, hurriedly exchanging game chits for dollars or euros or won. It seemed busier than normal--or perhaps Kieran's link was just lagging. At one counter, a tidy line of identical ghosts flowed by so fast they were stuttering, flickering against my display's refresh rate like a bicycle wheel in a strobe light, until they appeared to be flowing slowly out of the entrance. I'd never seen so many ghosts in one place; usually they came and went so quickly as to be invisible. Here the queue was so long it stretched out the door.
I reached out and tagged one with a sticky-trap, pulling it out of circulation for debugging. It was a trader-bot, an automatic subroutine that the Game permitted to simplify boring things like currency exchange. The ghosts themselves had only rudimentary intelligence, but tried to react in-character as best as possible. This one cursed and writhed against the pale light of inquisition I was visiting on it. Its baleful blue eyes marked it as belonging to a traveler from the Northlands; I casually pulled up the user file while glaring the ghost into submission.
Dirty, dirty. This was about as bad as Game-hacking got.
The fellow had closed a loop, selling high and buying low, connecting buyers across the world at top speed to take advantage of a marginal price differential in knit socks. Trading, with profit to be made in the potential difference in prices between the regions. That was all well and good; we encouraged middlemen. It made for an interesting economic experiment.
But the hack became clear as I examined the ghost. It wasn't just carrying the results of the trade--it was carrying the socks. That wasn't supposed to happen. Ghosts were short-lived things, fire and forget, meant to handle a single, bounded transaction--to make precisely this sort of mega-trading impossible. But this one had already made the six-week trip a dozen times in the past few minutes, ferrying virtual cartons of socks to the frozen toes of the north, and high-tailing the proceeds back here to buy just a few more. Someone was short-circuiting the ghost code, and pulling in a huge profit.
The thing was, the user profile wasn't showing any of the usual signs of a ne'er-do-well; certainly no hacker, probably no script-kid. Hacked? No. No signs of intrusion or hostile takeover; the account profiles matched normal patterns of reaction and response for the player. It was as if this young woman had simply gone off the deep end, building a million ghosts and releasing them in a self-destructive act sure to get her booted, canned, del'd, and probably thrown in actual, real-life jail.
Technically I wasn't employed by the Game any more, but I still had some loyalty; this was wrecking the economy of a dozen small towns in the north, bankrupting the automatic merchants as they dutifully bought goods for the market price, and disrupting the local economy. Something had to be done. It could be an hour or more before the GCPs showed up; walking away from this would be like walking away from a house on fire. I threw a note to the mods using Kieran's profile then set about disrupting the stream. A quick sending spell contacted Northland Regional Control; after a quick negotiation they tweaked the buying price for wool socks, shutting down the currency flow. But the ghost stream continued unabated; sooner or later they'd find a new hole, ferrying ice from the arctic or freshwater fish to this desert port.
I reached into my--Kieran's--knapsack and pulled out a small blue crystal, which I thrust into the forehead of the ghost. It shattered, and summoned the ghost's master; a puff of blue smoke enveloped the ghost, slowly coalescing into a plain, slightly plump young woman with long brown hair. She blinked confusedly at me, then smiled tentatively.
[[Hella way 2 ask 4 a date. U want 2 cyber?]] she sent in the out-of-character channels.
Oh, boy. OOC. My favorite. I ignored the vile channel and put on a grim face, pointing at the stream of ghosts. "Lady Peltier, these, your ghosts, are in violation of the banker's code, and the Guide to Good Conduct. Shut them down immediately."
She scrunched her forehead. "Ghosts? I don't understand."
I waved my hand impatiently. "Ghosts. In the bank. Don't play dumb. Shut them down or I will have you banned. NOW." I leaned in and glared at her as I said this last; Kieran's character had a huge suite of expensive and demonstrative emotives available.
Under this onslaught she flinched and fell in on herself. "But--I don't know how. I usually just say deposit 50 gold and the ghost goes off and does it." She looked ready to cry. I wasn't falling for it.
"Look, I don't know how you did it. Fix it, or you're out." I reached into Kieran's handy knapsack again and sent for my plonking stick, an impressively carved wand with a large, smoke-filled grey ball on the end. Stout and strong, it had sent many a troublemaker to the login screen, eyes and ears smarting from the garish scintillation it imposed on their connection on the way out. I held it over her head. "Last warning."
She looked up at me, and then her face twisted, her mouth gaping in an exaggerated grin. She sneered, "Go ahead, Luke."
That was it. I bopped her, square between the eyes, full force. She crumpled to the floor--then began to melt, and flow, into a gooey mess. It was about then I realized she'd called me by my actual name, but it was too late. The goo spread, enveloping everything it touched and turning it into more goo--growing, growing, and reaching for me. I leapt backward, dropping the wand as it, too, sagged and started to turn to goo. The boiling lavender mass started creeping up the walls of the bank, turning each large brick to mush before starting on the next.
The oozing mass started laughing, a booming, bass voice. I knew that voice. That voice used to sign my paychecks. It muttered things in my ears, things I didn't need to know about people I used to love, memories I hadn't thought I remembered. My knees started to shake. I forced my mind to see the outside world, reached up, and yanked the plug on my headset.
Around the headphones I could hear sirens outside Kieran's apartment. Tearing off the headset I limped to the window on wobbly legs. What the hell? Three squad cars were piled up out front, as if the bumpers were magnets locking the patrol vehicles together. I could hear the boys pounding up the steps of the apartment building.
My attention was caught by a flashing on the far side of the room--Kieran's alarm system, triggered by my presence. Had he accidentally armed it when he stepped out? If so, this could be a quick misunderstanding--if I could get the cops to let me say a few words before they jumped me, tied me up, and dragged me back to Cambridge Central Concrete. Somehow that didn't seem likely. And one night in that stink hole was enough for the week.
"Police!" BANG. "Open up!" BANG. The front door, a nice solid chunk of oak with a steel-clad lock receiver, held up to the first two shots from a battering ram. That didn't sound promising. I shoved my feet into my boots and sprinted to the bathroom window. It was small, but it did overlook a small courtyard. I couldn't really see very well out the still-moist window, but from what little I could gather it looked like a short drop on the deck below, and then maybe a ten-footer to a small garden. Not going to be fun. I pulled the laces on my boots tight--I'd picked them up in the Army/Navy, before the damn thing went under. They were supposed to help you avoid breaking your ankles when parachuting. Well, maybe they'd help with leaping out of a second-story window, too.
The front door cracked as I eased my back leg out the tiny window. The small size made it easy to hang on, but meant I'd had to crab-slide my way through. The little deck of the floor below looked a lot farther from this vantage; it took a bit of swallowing before I could convince my fingers to let go and let me drop. But I could hear the cops shouting tactics to each other up above--so like team-chat, really!--and that gave me impetus. I fell hard, hitting both heels at once, stiff-kneed, and felt something twinge in the left one; it had never really healed after a tough tumble playing two-hand-touch in college.
The deck hit me while I wasn't paying attention, sprawling me on my face. My belly took most of the impact, a painful shot to the front ribs. Above I could hear more shouting, but it didn't sound like anyone was in the bathroom. The temptation to hide here was strong--there were some plants, a table, and a set of chairs on the deck. But I'd seen enough TV to know I needed to run and keep running; you hid, they found you. So I bent the knee a few times, wincing, then dropped myself another eight feet step to the soft dirt of the garden. That wasn't so bad; the boots took the impact, like they were supposed to, and I was able to slap the ground to soak up the rest of the impact. I kicked at the perfect boot prints I'd left behind, then whirled around to assess the situation.
A guy in a grubby beige jacket cupped his cigarette. He eyed me, then smirked. "You probably want the service tunnel," he said. "That's where all the back door boys go."
"Uh, thanks. Did they come through here?"
"Nope. They figure they'd get you at the courtyard gate"--he pointed across the yard--"if you came this way. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch some police catch a crook..."
I gave a wry smile as he sauntered out the way he'd pointed. The cops probably wouldn't hassle him too much--odds were they knew him anyway. I'd probably seen him around the area a few times. He looked pretty good for a homeless man; maybe a canner or full-time beggar, someone with enough income to afford an intact coat and a shower now and then.
The midmorning sun made the courtyard's shadows deep and black, and I had to squint to find the exit he'd pointed at. It was hardly a passage; it was a square-mouthed garbage chute, propped open with a chunk of wood. I pulled the flap door open a bit, wincing at the stench, and clambered in. It was dark, but I could see the far end.
Carefully I crawled--more of a controlled slide, really, down the incline of the chute--before being dumped into a thankfully empty dumpster, out in the alley behind the apartments. It dumped out onto Green Street; I squeaked around the corner just as a paddy wagon, flanked by two motorcycle cops, went whizzing by. They were either really bored, or really serious.
I grabbed for my phone, to call for a pickup, and realized in horror that I'd left it on the counter, still plugged into Kieran's headset. No phone, no money. No money, no cab. No cab--well, one foot in front of another. East Somerville seemed really far away, especially with a pack of cops to avoid, but I'd be damned if I was going to turn myself in. A long walk, unless...
Megan? She didn't live that far away--west, then across the bridge into Allston. Away from my apartment, but also away from the police and that mess. And Kieran had said she was asking about me. Right, then; time to play up the pathetic a bit, and see if I could scrounge an honest meal off her. And maybe a feed--I needed to know what was going on.
A mile seems like really short walk until you do it on an argumentative knee. By the time I made the Weeks Bridge the cartilage was screaming, and the whole joint felt hot. I could see the City Blocks ahead, its towering gates opening on an art-deco cube plunked on the edge of Harvard's old stadium lot. In a past life the space had held WGBH, been responsible for some highly decent television, then part of Harvard until the housing collapse. Now it was a yuppie high-rise, plunked down in the middle of some of the poorest neighborhoods west of the Fells. Mondrian-inspired rectangular bump-outs faceted the sides, making the whole thing look a bit like a chest of drawers that someone had been rummaging through.
I shambled up to the doorman--an actual live human being, though of course backed by the best in security software. He peered through his shaded spectacles, packed with electronics. I could see the faint outline of a targeting reticle on the fronts of his lenses, a glint of the red squirming box as it swam across his vision seeking to find the bridge of my nose in the cluttered visual search space of the busy street. Hadn't been upgraded to the full implant yet: a temp, or just a newb.
I gave him a minute--I'd blanked out the actual records for my face a while ago, cashing in a little birthday present from some years back for a backdoor to dive into the Official Distributed Database of Faces And Features and play with their algorithms. Patiently I waited to find out who the system thought I was today.
"Mr. Linney? Can I help you?" the doorman finally asked.
"Uh, yeah. I'm sorry; I've lost my phone. I'm here to see Megan?" I said. I couldn't remember her new last name.
"Ah, yes. I will send your request along. Please wait here," he said.
We waited. I tried not to leave his field of vision, lest the system have to re-acquire my face and end up picking a new random name. It took a few moments. Finally, he smiled a firm but compressed smile, and indicated toward the door. "You may go in. She is expecting you."
Well, that wasn't a good sign. The door buzzed as I squeezed in, click-locking behind me firmly. Inside, a lit track guided me to the elevator, with the fifth floor preselected. My stomach took a bit of a lurch as the doors closed; no way I was jumping out a window and climbing five floors down the outside of this monstrosity. Better play it cool.
Megan--Megan Furley, according to her mailbox; I filed it away as best I could--was waiting in her doorway. She smiled at me, then looked a bit concerned as I fumbled at the elevator's lip, tripping over the mismatched levels. I caught my weight on the injured knee, and winced.
"Oh, shit--are you okay?" she asked. I realized my pants and boots were still covered with dirt, and Kieran's fancy woven shirt was soaked through with sweat.
"Yeah, yeah, just had to walk here, and I hurt my knee. I lost my phone, and I couldn't get a cab..."
She helped me into her apartment. True to the theme, the place was a maze of rectangular spaces, built-in cabinets and islands jutting into an open-plan living room. Rounded rectangular panes of glass looking out over the Charles brought the late morning light into the space, filling up the white-walled living room. It was a million-dollar view. I was pretty sure I could see the warehouse next to my rat hole from here, but it all seemed unutterably far off.
"Let me get your boots. And would you like some ice?" she asked. I could tell the inquisition would start in a minute, but for now her hosting genes were kicking in.
"Uh, sure. Yeah." She sat me down on her sofa--after subtly shifting a blanket under me, to protect the white leather of the couch. Very smooth; but then, she always was, even when she dumped me.
We'd met, of all places, in the market. Perhaps 'met' was too strong a word. I'd seen her, straightened hair gently tied back and hanging down to her tight butt, fashionable-but-durable knee boots clacking softly on the linoleum as she pitched free-range, hand-fed junk food into her cart. She was darker than me, not much, but enough to notice. I myself was on an organic kick, again, after hearing that enzymes in the new beef were making people fat, but I was lost in the narrow aisles.
This girl was way out of my league, so I settled for tailing her around the store, pretending to be buying whatever it was she had just looked at. Astonishingly, this didn't work, and she didn't immediately turn round and ask me for a date. Eventually I had to check out, with a basket full of granola crisps and soy shakes. In retrospect it should have been a sign; but I was almost two years out of a relationship, and full of false self-confidence, and determined to get this girl. All I needed, I figured, was a hook.
I'd palmed her SSID, of course, phreaked off her card at the register. It was a short step from there to finding her in Game; two accounts, one main, one auxiliary, both social-types. The main character, Yvonne, was a mid-power Metal Mage, with flashy blue hair and a shining smile. She'd gone for a full cosmetic makeover, everything from her personal appearance to her spell's special effects, all juiced up and twinkly. But the actual spells she'd chosen were the safest, most run-of-the-mill collection. They were guaranteed to grind a character up through the ranks if you just played it straight. In short, she liked it to look fancy, but she liked it to act, well, boring. Predictable.
It just might be possible to pull off, I thought. All I needed was a way in.
And that was how I ended up playing at being a butler at Mercantile Market, shopping for groceries in a three-piece suit, top hat, and white gloves. I dawdled in the store every day, annoying the staff and taking lunches at their small self-service tables.
It took a week of waiting; but finally she came back. It was on a sunny Thursday. She flounced in, chucking a latte as she entered, grabbed a basket off the rack, and started down the bread aisle. I slid my own cup of joe into the trash, donned my hat, grabbed a cart, and circled around to catch up with her at the back. I'd long since decided against a basket; the luxury of having both hands free outweighed the intrinsic dorkiness incurred by wheeling around a shopping cart.
So I hurried to the end of the row, threw a few things in my cart, and waited for her to catch up. I mirrored in front of her this time, trying to predict whether she'd turn left or right based on what she had in her basket.
Eventually she figured it out. "Yes? Can I help you?" she asked, a look of perplexed curiosity in her eyes.
I smiled and tried to look sheepish. "Salsa?"
"Are you following me?" she asked.
"You know you're not fooling anyone."
I made a wry face. "Maybe I wasn't trying to fool anyone. Salsa? Or extra creamy ranchero dip?"
"I saw you in here last week. You were following me then too. There are easier ways to meet women, you know."
"Name one," I said. It was already going well.
"I hate bars. Everyone's there just trying to get drunk enough to not mind bringing home a skank."
"Oh, so only skanky women go to bars?"
"I was talking about the women." I said. "Doing the bringing home, I mean."
"I got it." She seemed amused, which emboldened me. "While you're standing there, how about those corn chips on the top shelf?"
I did have some height on her. "One bag or two?"
I caught her checking out my ass as I reached for the top shelf. "Do I look like I'd eat two whole bags myself?"
Land mine. "Well--maybe you're having a party." Dodged, and riposted. She was two steps away from being interested. And strange as it may sound, this was a lot further than I'd gotten in a while.
She shot me a tentative smile. "Now, who would I be having a party for with"--here she pawed through her cart--"a six-pack of toilet paper, two boxes of granola bars, a bottle of shampoo, toothpaste, dental floss, six frozen dinners, and two six-packs of vegetable juice?"
I paused for a moment. Her tone was pretty harsh, but I figured it was just natural defensiveness. I was picking her up in a grocery, after all. But then inspiration hit, and I looked up with renewed self-confidence. "A...party for health-conscious hygienists?" I swallowed, and stalled for a minute before getting the next line out. "Or...you--we could have a party."
"We?" she asked, an eyebrow quirked.
"A party. With you. And the white gloves. And the--the groceries."
"If you're into that sort of thing. Or...well, how about coffee?" She pointed at the occupied coffee cup holder on her shopping cart. "Some...additional coffee."
She dithered. We were definitely crossing into stalker territory--but I'd looked her up. She knew almost no one her age in town. And she wanted to. I tried to act non-threatening. The whole thing could go poof with one crooked look.
Finally she smiled, but not the condescending smile that would have soured the whole deal. More of a 'well, let's see' smile. "Tomorrow," she said. "After work. Pop that cell of yours out of the holster and I'll give you my number."
Of course, I had her number, but I smiled anyway and reached for the phone. "Can do. I'm Luke, by the way."
Of course that had all been a million years ago, before the double-bubble-crunch and the forced evictions, when Boston tore itself apart in the name of 'affordable' housing. Nowadays she'd never do her own shopping. Her computer and her doorman would do it all for her--and probably get her a better deal than the sales at Mercantile.
"How did you lose your phone?" she asked, snapping me out of my reverie. She handed me a glass of ice water, which I drained. It tasted over-filtered and flat after the 'colorful' water that poured out of my apartment's ancient taps.
"Oh, it was stupid. I had a hole in my pocket, and it fell through...I was crossing the Harvard Bridge, and it slipped out onto my foot and before I knew it, I'd kicked it into the Charles. Damnedest thing." Well, at least lying to her still came easy. "Do you think I could borrow your feed for a few minutes? I just need to check in."
She furrowed her brow at me as she stared into the corner. "No, your phone is still in Cambridge, at Kieran's. Why are you lying to me, Luke?"
She had gotten an implant herself, I realized; I could see the tiny square of bio-neutral plastic embedded in her cornea as the sunlight caught it. Figured. Her husband was rich enough to get her the surgery, and she was crazy enough to want it. Damn things gave me the willies.
What I couldn't figure was how she'd known where my phone was. Back on offense, then. "You spying on me again? What, can't get enough of me? Set up an agent to track me and my phone?"
She sighed, and blinked, focusing another sliver of her attention on me. "When are you going to learn? Luke, I'm still not interested. I never was interested. I let you lure me in, but you were just--I was just bored." She looked away suddenly, then back at me with renewed force.
I scratched at my suddenly very itchy nose, not really able to meet her gaze.
Megan sat down, knees together and hands clasped tight in her lap. "What's going on? All I know is that Kieran dropped me a line a few minutes ago, telling me to look out for you. So I asked my doorman to look into it, and he found your public record. That's all."
I nodded. "Okay. No bullshit." I drained the rest of the water and stood up, staring out across the river. "It's bad."
"How bad? I couldn't get him to tell me anything. He kept staring at the feed camera like it was going to bite him. He--he had a nasty bruise on his eyebrow." She looked away distractedly.
"Damn. Hope that wasn't the cops." I sighed. "What am I saying? Of course it was the cops."
"The ones at Kieran's place."
She shook her head, a sharp, dismissive gesture. "Why would the police beat him up?"
"To get to me?"
"There are police after you?" She looked off into the distance. "That's not what Kieran said. Whoever smashed in his door--"
"Look," I interrupted. "It's true. I ditched his place, because they're back. They're all back, all four of them, and I think they might have the police in their back pocket. They sure closed down on me fast."
Her forehead wrinkled. "All four...what are you talking about?"
"You remember Rob? And Tom?" I asked. "You remember the red meanies?"
She shivered. She remembered.
"Yeah. Look, can I use your feed? I need to find out what the hell is going on," I said. "Have you logged in recently?"
She looked away for a minute, a strange expression on her face.
"You're in the Game right now, aren't you?" I asked accusingly.
"What?" she said, distracted, then smiled. "Yeah, yeah, I am. Damn addiction." She blinked, focusing both eyes on me for the first time since I'd come in the door. "What's wrong, Luke?"
"They're in the system, all four of them. They've got the banking info for ten million people, and they're funneling funds through loopholes. They're up to something. And I don't know what."
"And you think I can help you?" The question was soft, longing. She did want to help. Good. That made this all possible.
"I know you can. I need you. And your console. The good one. And Kieran, if you can get him." I grimaced. The next question was tough, but necessary. "Are you sleeping with him?"
"Who said that? I--it's none of your business."
"Look, I know it isn't, but it's really important." I almost said, 'unless you want to sleep with me', but I knew that would end all rational discussion. "It's complicated. I need you, and him, and the full-immersion gear. I assume that implant you've got is hooked into your hypothalamus?"
"Of course. Why else would I get it?" She shuddered. "It's been so long since I used the external interface--do people still play without feeling the game?"
"Some of us just use our imagination. Now, get Kieran over here. Tell him we need to save the world." I smiled. This just might work. "But first I need to borrow that rig--do a little scouting."
She showed me to her rig, taking up half of a back bedroom--a full-body system, only one step down from the implant. Of course, with the implant, you had to sign up for the full service--remote hosting, with the bulk of the processing power on centralized servers. Expensive; but then, she had this rich new husband.
I didn't bother putting on the boots or torso attachments--hands and head were plenty for me. Rob had written groundbreaking code that let the system adapt to whatever input device you used--it leveled the playing field for those stuck on wrist-phones and low-bandwidth terminals, while allowing a richer (and correspondingly more expensive) experience for those with the wherewithal to buy a posh setup like this. Still, there were some things you could only do with a full interface--or an implant, like Megan's.
"Do you know the marketplace in Camil?" I asked. I needed to meet them on neutral ground, not somewhere under the constant surveillance of the RPolice. Camil was a halfway point, a canal city on the border between South and North; between civilization and insanity.
She nodded. "I have lunch with Kieran there sometimes. I mean, Nicoli." She blushed subtly. I wondered if her husband knew who she was fucking online.
"Great. I'll meet you west of the marketplace, under the arched bridge. The phrase is 'Omnis mutantus.'"
"'Omnis mutantus.' Don't believe it's me unless you hear me say that."
"That's 'omnia mutantur'," she said, slightly bemused. "'...nos et mutamur in illis.' 'Everything is changed; and we are changed in it.' Didn't you take Latin in high school?"
"Yeah, sure," I said. I jammed the helmet on my head and slid my hands into the armature.