by Jesse Gordon
It was the last day of school, and Bryan was sitting at the back of the General Ed classroom with his fists clenched and his teeth grinding in his mouth. His shirtsleeves dangled over his hands, his pants felt too big; he couldn't find socks this morning so he'd just worn his sneakers, making his feet feel sticky. He was suffering, no doubt about it, but it was a palatable sort of pain, for he'd absorbed his lessons, done his homework, earned a solid line of A-minuses across the board. He wanted out already, though it had nothing to do with the inborn urge every teenager has to escape the public education barracks. Most kids just wanted off the map for a few months. Bryan, on the other hand, had a life to live, things to do, people to interact with—he had the Internet.
Two weeks previous, the newest version of SimpliCITY had gone online for all the beta-testers, and Bryan had been hooked ever since—everyone in the quality assurance pools was. All the white-collars with decent broadband connections and premium subscriptions to the city's mainframe relays got the programs before everyone else did. They got unrestricted access to any web site, any server in the world, political, religious, pornographic, or otherwise—even the stuff that hadn't been approved by the federal censors.
Bryan looked over one row to where Sarah was sitting. She was staring at him, red-faced, blushing. He knew she was thinking what he was thinking, of what the two of them had done that night a week ago, after he'd e-mailed her the SimpliCITY hack. There'd been two miles of fiber-optic wiring between them, but he'd lost his virginity to her—and his virtual model hadn't even been finished yet (the sensory inputs all worked, though; he'd made sure of that).
Bryan and Sarah sort of had a thing going, even though in real life he was too skinny and she was too fat. Outside of VR, they'd kissed a couple times, on the rare occasions when the newsfeeds weren't announcing a pathogen alert, but that was it. Anything further and, well, you were asking for trouble, what with the city so overcrowded and this year's flu vaccinations being fifty-thousand short. "Offline, Off Limits" was the popular slogan, and it made a lot of sense. Real life was cold, dangerous—your one chance in the flesh before death dissolved you for eternity. Online, however, you could do anything, and there were no consequences: no STDs, no fatal wounds.
SimpliCITY was the most recent virtual simulator to have taken the Internet by storm, and for good reason: No other program offered as many options, as much customization, as much realism, and the interface was a no-brainer. Plus, there were free upgrades for all premium subscribers, all beta-testers (Bryan's family was privileged in that respect).
Most important, though, was the fact that SimpliCITY had the best sensory input engine available, and, through a set of open-source hacks, felt good—real good, better than the flesh, thanks to new programming techniques and algorithms that supposedly deviated from the recommended allowances.
Naturally, the software was strictly eighteen and over, but, like most kids with enough curiosity and dedication, Bryan had found a hack for his biometric implant. His parents, while adequately funded, had never been keen on regular doctor visits, and so no one knew that, according to his ID chip, he was a 26-year-old computer programmer from the East Side. Of course, he could have gone the extra mile and removed his chip altogether (like many citizens did), but he was a bit of a wimp when it came to cutting and pain and blood. That was why he went online in the first place: to escape the various discomforts of real life.
That's why we all go online, he thought, smiling. He wished he was there now, with Sarah, both of them in their mods, wearing their custom skins. Bryan's was a basic David model, with a more muscular build, his own face (with age-progression), and a decidedly larger genital—ominous, in fact. That was his e-name: Ominous. He'd spent half a day on his model's masculinity, making sure it was absolutely perfect before he'd moved on to the rest of his virtual body. Even without all the right textures, Sarah had taken him (as he'd taken her) in a multi-spa chatroom with two-dozen other netizens frolicking alongside.
He could feel his pulse quickening just thinking about it, though it didn't matter much. No one could tell if he was aroused because he was small for seventeen, almost emaciated, and his clothes were loose and sagging; they hid everything. His mother always said he'd grow into them, but he doubted it. She was just being friendly.
Bryan sighed, tried to pay attention to the artificial instructor. It was hard. He knew the real score: Life was shit. After graduation, he'd get his white-collar certificate and convert his bedroom into an office cubicle for the city. He'd crunch numbers and process forms for fifty years, right up until retirement. There was off-time, sure, designated recreational hours—white-collars worked from the comfort and safety of their homes—but too many of them fell prey to the grind, the notion that if they did just this much more today, they'd have less to do tomorrow—but when tomorrow came, the central task manager ended up piling on more than today. In most cases, people ended up slightly behind, so they adjusted by stretching their hours, working in their pajamas, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner in front of their computers. However, it was a small price to pay for their freedoms. America was still the safest place to live, to worship, to "be all that you can be", and to be blessed with a premium Internet subscription and SimpliCITY and uninhibited sex with Sarah whenever he wanted...Bryan didn't mind the inevitabilities all that much.
For now, he merely wanted to live as much as he could, and he
wasn't ashamed to do just that—in the privacy of his own
bedroom. The world was one giant back-office; the Internet, SimpliCITY—that was
real. That was where he and all his hungry, horny peers went to learn about
sex, drugs, heavy artillery, and everything else that made life worth living.
In cyberspace, in his Ominous skin,
With his mouth very nearly watering, Bryan forced his attention away from the clock on the wall and resumed his work. Eventually, the end-of-day klaxon sounded and class was dismissed.
Sarah nudged him as she left. "See you online," she said shyly, and then scurried off homeward.
Already Bryan was blushing—sweating, almost—from such social contact, but it was okay because he knew he could more than make up for it as Ominous.
The shuttle picked him up just inside the school's security terminal. His forearm was scanned and he was randomly assigned a seat towards the back, where a handful of bullies just happened to be randomly seated as well. These were crude, ill-mannered youths, nothing more than blue-collar fodder from the industrial side of town. Their IQs were nothing compared to Bryan's, though their bodies were bigger and more muscular, and so, when they poked and prodded, twisted and pulled at him as if he were a rag doll, he could do little else but scrunch his eyes shut and wince.
Let them behave like baboons, he thought. In a few short months they'll have their mops and soap pails, their hard-hats and drills. Everyday they'll have to trudge to and from some smelly, dusty construction site while I'll be snug and cozy, making bank by sitting around in my underwear.
The apartment where Bryan and his parents (George and Leah, respectively) lived was a typical federally-appointed white-collar complex: six stories of brick and steel wrapped in hot chainlink, with a direct line to the county servers. The shuttle dropped him off just inside the security gate; the instant his feet touched the ground he was running all the way inside, up the four flights of stairs to number D-4. He arrived just in time to witness the awesome sight of George installing the new wireless receiver.
"They've released you into the wild, eh?" George asked, winking.
"Yup. The county approved the higher bandwidth for the testing pool—that's us. 200 gigabytes, both ways."
It was Christmas, Bryan's birthday, the day he got his first computer—all wrapped in one. He wanted to say something smart, to swap technical specs; instead he was laughing, looking at his father and seeing the slightly-crazed glint in the man's eyes, the swollen flesh of his cheekbones. These last two weeks he's become just as addicted as I have! Bryan thought. He slapped hands with George. It was the closest thing to a religious experience he'd ever had.
After he calmed down, he asked, "When can I check it out?"
"We should be up and running now," said George. He pointed down the hallway. "Go ahead—take her out for a spin."
Bryan thanked him, high-fived him again and ran into his bedroom, closing and locking the door. He turned his computer on, hastily pulled off his clothes as he drew on the sensory inputs. Then he crouched beside his bed, felt awkwardly underneath for the safebox where he kept his birth certificate and social security items. Entering the combination, he opened it and withdrew his special input, the hacked version he'd bought online for 99 Patriots—just in time for Upgrade Month. It was a neat little device, sort of like an oversized athletic cup. He fastened it to his groin as he scurried into his chair, raised his left arm for the scanner, and logged on to his premium account. Lastly, he popped in his contacts, overlaying his field of vision with a pair of variable translucency video monitors.
A slightly electric thrill tickled his spine as the megabytes surged through his fingers and toes. One moment he was sitting in a cluttered, musty bedroom, the next he was standing, proud and majestic, in his personal start-zone.
The place was posh, a moderately tweaked parlor template, with shag carpeting and glazed walls, contemporary furnishings and a sky-cam view of the virtual city glittering beyond the balcony edge. There was a sofa pit, a coffee table in the center (piled high with e-mail messages), a wall-screen television; in one corner, a wardrobe with several predefined sets of clothing inside, though Bryan was something of an exhibitionist and so ignored the wardrobe completely as he headed straight for the door.
Through the threshold, into the hallway, he stopped and pulled down his personal menu. He could, of course, walk or drive to the chatroom, but he already had his favorite places bookmarked. He chose the Coral Café and instantly he was there, standing in the aquamarine glow, the seaweed shimmering through the domed glass ceiling above, the subtle synergy of two-dozen candlelit tables glowing in the heady incense. One of the moderators bowed before him, asked if he wanted refreshments.
"No thanks," he said, moving through the room and catching the attention of several female netizens who, upon spotting spotting his glistening visage, purred or cooed seductively. He found Sarah, with her perfectly lithe hourglass figure, standing beside her table and waving at him, and instantly he attached himself to her, kissing her, caressing her, warming her with his Ominous touch—making up for a school year of ineptitude.
"It's good to see you," Sarah said, lifting her arm above her shoulder and clicking on her table's privacy flag (this allowed the two of them an ample view of the chatroom, while everyone else merely saw an opaque membrane).
Somewhere down the line Bryan remembered his manners and said, "Good to see you too."
* * *
With the advent of widely-available high speed wireless Internet access across America, true virtual reality (patented by TrueTech and called TrueReality®) was no longer improbable for Bryan's generation. Without the need for cumbersome goggles, primitive control gauntlets, or ill-fitting bodysuits, one could immerse oneself in cyberspace directly, and the experience was indistinguishable from reality. It had become so good that most people did nearly everything online, work and play—you never had to set foot past your doorstep.
Many white-collar Americans (especially in the big cities) earned their daily bread out of their own homes. This translated to lower overhead for employers, who no longer had to pay to maintain physical offices. Tasks were routed through the distributed network's automated task manager and made accessible to the blue-collar farms, factories, and manufacturing plants. Medical insurance and worker benefits rested in the hands of the county.
With less commuting in the real world, the public transit budget had been decimated, and funds were diverted elsewhere. Faster-acting allergy meds, new and improved smart pills, more effective beauty treatments and anti-aging therapies—the government could now spend the money where it was needed.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the burgeoning science behind enhanced biometrics. Bryan had a splinter-sized chip embedded just under the skin of his left forearm. His computer's wireless receiver scanned his personal information and logged him on, connected him directly to the county mainframe. As he used the sensory inputs attached to his computer, real-time nerve impulses were generated by his inputs and processed by his bio-chip, which regulated the release of endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine levels, and so forth. As he experienced movement and action in the virtual world, his cerebral cortex processed it as normal, everyday sensory input: He felt gravity, pressure, skin sensation; he tasted, smelled, heard—all the senses were stimulated from the inside out.
True, not everyone was keen on becoming "wired" (particularly the older generation), but if you wanted to do anything of substance in the city these days, you had to have the chip. Without one, you got the leftover tables at finer restaurants, the rear seats at movie theaters; you wouldn't get served alcohol at certain night clubs, wouldn't be allowed near certain popular beaches; hospitals, banks, libraries, public schools wouldn't accept you unless you were implanted. Driver's license? Social security? Voting? You certainly needed a chip if you wanted any of those privileges.
Most importantly: If you wanted to beta-test the latest social sims (like SimpliCITY), you needed the chip.
Bryan had had his implanted when he was a newborn. Most white-collars got theirs that way. Circumcision, implantation, vaccination, and he was set for life. If he ever got kidnapped, the feds would know exactly where he was at all times. He supposed, if his kidnappers were really hardcore, they could just cut the chip out, but that was the sort of thing you heard about on the hearsay channels—uneducated urban myths spread to explain the recent statistical increase in child mutilations. Bryan didn't worry, though: He didn't go outside much.
* * *
It was weird having dinner with his parents.
The first week of summer had already flashed past. Half-dressed in underwear and T-shirt (and wired to his portable audio player), Bryan sat at the kitchen table and dug into a carton of Chinese takeout. George and Leah were there too, though each was absorbed in his or her own world. Somewhere in the background the dirty dishes cast a faintly pungent odor over things, but nobody seemed to care—there was always time for chores later, tomorrow, next week. Right now Bryan was scarfing his food; so was George, who held his plastic fork with one hand and the television remote with the other.
"News flash," George said after a moment. He turned up the volume.
Bryan turned in his seat and stared at the screen. A political analyst was talking about terrorism and how, without proper economic muscle, domestic security was going to become a sideshow act:
"Cutting electives from public schools, closing down brick and mortar libraries in favor of electronic repositories—these sorts of practices have offered some additional cash flow, but it isn't enough unless certain underlying fundamentals are fixed to protect America's mainframes. The biometrics program needs to be rolled out nationally. Right now we have PC cafés, public shuttles, and highways open to anyone who has a few Patriots to spend. That means fundamentalists, terrorists have access to our distributed network, to physical areas of the city without being tracked—and if our computers are knocked offline, we're knocked offline. Optional identification is not the solution. Rather, we need to take a proactive step: Anyone residing within our borders, anyone entering the country needs to be accounted for electronically. If we secure ourselves, we secure our country."
Somewhere amidst all the mumbo-jumbo, Bryan felt a twinge of anxiety, and he wondered if his anti-virus program had been updating itself properly, wondered what it would be like to be cut off from the Net for any length of time (outside of school).
"I wouldn't worry," Leah said. "They've got redundancies for these things, 1,024-kilobyte encryption keys, firewall protection, proxy servers—you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than you do of losing your wireless connection."
Bryan turned back to the television screen.
The analyst continued:
"The current administration is a work-in-progress. Not enough has been centralized just yet. As long as the state and county governments are free to dance around the issue, your best bet is to keep it simple. Go to work, go home. Stay away from malls, conventions, theme parks—any public place where there are a lot of people gathered. If you want to socialize, go online. These days, the VR clubs are just as good as the real thing, if not better. Take control. There's no reason any law-abiding American has to place himself in harm's way simply because of political red tape."
"Sound advice," George said, nodding. "Let the blue-collar punks and hippies thumb their noses at the biometrics system, but they'll be the first to complain when one of their precious rock concerts or midnight raves is sabotaged by a group of nut-headed fundamentalists with an example to be made."
Bryan laughed and finished his meal before returning once again to his bedroom kingdom.
* * *
Eating in cyberspace was about as nutritionally beneficial as breathing—but it was a social activity that no longer resulted in gluttony, allergic reactions, guilt...you could afford to eat out whenever you wanted and not gain a pound.
Bryan and Sarah frequented a place called Peter's, which was one of the various establishments that had no dress code. Regardless of creed or costume, the attitude was more tolerant here—which was why Bryan was surprised when a trio of punked-out players stepped up to his table and snickered rudely.
"Is this the body you wish you had?" asked one of the players, pointing. He wore a neon green skinsuit over his sleek, athletic model.
Bryan frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I know who you are, Bryan," the neon bully said. "You're the little shrimp from school. I'm surprised that pretty-boy skin doesn't slip right off your bony little shoulders." He turned to Sarah. "And this is Fat Sarah, right? Gee—I didn't recognize her without her double chin."
"Watch it," Bryan warned, standing and clenching his fists. "Or else."
The neon bully stepped up. "Or else what?"
Bryan faltered. "This is a comfort zone. You can't do anything to us."
"Not unless you have the right software," said the neon bully, and he reached out, grabbed Bryan's arm as he called up his personal menu, launched a program called "Meltdown". Suddenly Bryan felt his virtual body shudder, disjoint itself as if he were made of ill-fitting scraps. When the process was over, he stood hunched over, his torso lopsided.
The malicious program had mutilated him, corrupted his model.
The neon bully and his friends laughed. One of them reached for Sarah and held her arms at her sides so she couldn't click out. Bryan lunged forward, tried to operate his jagged anatomy—and all of the sudden he was frozen. Sarah was saying something, but her voice was on a delay, the sample-rate suddenly plummeting into a static soup—
—the connection cut out.
Bryan switched off his inputs and found himself back in his bedroom, the musty darkness aglow with light from his computer screen, an unsatisfied tremor in his gut. He was sweating.
Lowlife bastards!he thought, attempting unsuccessfully to log back on. At first he thought it was his computer, a program error or system lockup caused by the neon bully's malware, but everything was working, SimpliCITY was still running, though he was stuck at the options screen. After a moment's trial-and-error, he realized his Internet connection was down.
It felt funny to be back in his own body. For the past month—morning, afternoon, and night—he'd been Ominous; now he was merely Bryan, small and scrawny. His skin seemed not to fit, he had to reach farther for the inputs on his toes, his clothes seemed two sizes too large...he felt like an intruder in his own home.
Out in the hallway, George was already dressed and drawing on his jacket. "I'm going to check the receiver outside."
Leah had nothing else better to do, and Bryan was, with each passing minute, increasingly desperate to facilitate the revival of his Internet connection. Along with his mother, Bryan followed George downstairs and outside to the promenade, where the other tenants (all of them, it seemed!) had converged in a sort of spontaneous fair.
"Hang tight," George said. He patted Bryan's shoulder and headed over to where the receiver antenna sat, a towering monolith aimed at the overcast sky. There were several other men and women standing close together, scratching their heads and furrowing their brows in perplexity over the situation. George said something and then hopped onto the receiver platform, started examining the equipment for physical anomalies.
Bryan took uncertain steps between clusters of men and women, young and old, people he'd been vaguely aware of as his neighbors but whose physicality in this instance set butterflies to his stomach. There were a few children clinging to the pant-legs or skirt tails of their parents. No adolescents. Everyone seemed on edge.
He drew up beside one small group. A forty-something man (Bryan was almost sure his name was Goudie) was taking long, luxurious puffs from a strong-smelling Perfecxion as he blew scented smoke and righteous epiphanies into the chilled evening air:
"It's all part of their plan: Knock out our Internet connection, get us out on the streets waiting around for the repair guys to fix things, and BAM! A car full of martyrs comes careening around the corner, a shuttle flies overhead spewing out anthrax dust across the entire city—an escaped convict straps some explosives to his chest and extinguishes half a million lives in the blink of an eye. The whole point of the Net is safety, the privilege of being able to interact with the world without having to put our necks on the line just to buy groceries. Office slaves like us, we're supposed to be a step above all the rest of the degenerates, but then something like today's outage happens...we might as well be blue-collars."
An older man, clad in faux-leather and denim, chuckled and said, "That's why we're the beta-testers. Catch all the bugs now so that there are no surprises when they roll the final system out. The shit's gotta feed an entire city for God's sake."
"Rubbish," Goudie grunted. "They have redundancies, backups—have you ever been to the mainframe node? A mile-wide crater of clustered computers, connected to their own power supply and running day and night. It's impossible to knock them out, be it by power outages, acts of God, or jihad terrorists! No, the government does this on purpose. A social test or something. See how we react. It may be part of the quality assurance process, but I say it's all hooey. We work our asses off five days a week—we pay for the service, beta or not, so why shouldn't we get it? Find some other test group to do this psychological crap."
The old man chuckled again; it was an empty, hollow noise. "I tell you one thing: I'd much rather be inside right now, with a nice cup of coffee, than standing out here. God knows how many misfits are just waiting around for the right moment to pounce. If it weren't for the security gate, I'd never even have come down."
Bryan looked away from the group, glanced nervously towards the street. There was a vagrant—skin like leather, clothes like soggy husks—sitting on the adjacent curb and staring right at him. He wondered if the man had always been there or if he only came out on nights like these.
Nights when the world came to a halt.
George and Leah eventually met up with him again and reported that there was nothing physically wrong with the receiver. He spoke with them for a while about nothing. Eventually the novelty of the situation wore off, and they retreated back into their apartment.
Leah pouted wistfully at the blank television screen, then started tidying up the kitchen; George sat dutifully in front of his computer and waited for the servers to go back up. Bryan went back to his room, stood for a moment in the decadence and considered picking up the dirty laundry off the floor...but then he realized he'd have to clear out his closet as well to make space—so he took to fidgeting instead, checking the computer cables, running a virus scan.
Passing the time and trying not to think too much about the circumstances involving the incident at Peter's.
A while later, Leah asked him to take out the trash—five heaping grocery bags that had been accumulating beneath the kitchen sink for weeks. Though he resented the task, he nevertheless set himself to it.
Halfway down the outside stairwell, he realized he couldn't remember where the garbage bins were. He cursed indiscriminately and stepped into the drizzle, his breath coming in hot white puffs. He could hear police sirens in the distance; the noise seemed to echo and reverberate through the promenade, which was now completely empty.
How lonely it is without everyone milling about, he thought. Like an empty chatroom.
He wanted to be back inside, back behind locked doors and shuttered windows, the warm office chair cradling him as a loved one might. To and from school was all he was used to; anything else was unnecessary (and dangerous) because it was real. Not like in a game, where you could just restart if you needed to, but cold and real and terrifying.
The garbage bins, it turned out, were tucked into a mossy crevice behind the apartment complex. Bryan lifted the rickety lid—and let loose an inadvertent yelp as he heard a frantic scuffling from within. He jumped back; the garbage bags slipped from his hands and fell noisily onto the ground.
"Easy there, son," came a ragged voice from behind.
Bryan jumped again, turned around to see some sort of living monstrosity coming towards him, a flesh engraving, white-whiskered and snow-headed. The man's custodial uniform hung off him like a shed skin not yet discarded—he was carrying a toolbox.
A blue-collar custodian, Bryan realized.
"Hi there," the man said, extending his hand. "A bit jumpy tonight, eh?"
Bryan flinched, unconsciously lifted his hand into the air. When his personal menu failed to pop up, he blushed, remembering that he wasn't online, and quickly stuffed both hands into his pockets.
The custodian chuckled. "I suppose that's the currently popular greeting method these days?"
"Um, no," said Bryan. "I was...stretching."
"I see," said the custodian. He looked up at the sky. "Look at that cloud cover. Bet it'll be drizzling all night."
Bryan shifted from foot to foot and bit his lip. One of the garbage bags had ruptured at his feet; he wondered if he might be able to persuade the custodian to handle it for him. "Um...have you seen anything on the news about the outage?"
"Oh, why, no. Nothing on the radio about that."
"Sure. I prefer to play it by ear—radio only. Don't even have a TV."
"No TV?" Bryan croaked, eyes widening.
"Nope. No Internet either."
"But...what do you do, then?"
The custodian raised his toolbox. "Work keeps me busy. In my free time I like to read—and not the e-books or virtual texts you find in the fancy computer cafés, but real paper hardcovers, stuff from the twenties, from the 1900s, even, before the paper conservation laws went into effect. Sometimes, though, I just relax and listen to music, the old compact discs my father passed down to me. He had some good stuff: Serrie, Matsui, Garrison—all the classics."
Bryan nodded. He understood music (though he couldn't for the life of him recognize any of the names the custodian had just rattled off), but reading old-style? Plowing through a full-length novel without any SmartNotes hovering in the margin, providing definitions and federally-approved interpretations for the words and phrases he didn't understand? Nuts! Utterly crazy!
"Wow," he said after a moment. He wasn't really impressed; he just didn't know what else to say that would help him reach a swift conclusion to the conversation.
Thankfully, the custodian started to turn away after a moment. "Well, I'd best be on my way—there's a broken kitchen faucet in C-5. Oh, and don't mind ol' Ginger there." He gestured at the garbage bin. "Her cat-senses tend to make her skittish around people, but otherwise she's harmless."
Bryan nodded and watched the custodian recede into the darkness. Briefly, he heard the sound of the man's steps as he made his way into the apartment building, then there was simply the ambient noise of the city, the pitter-patter of raindrops striking the concrete, Ginger's foraging—Bryan took a deep breath and was glad to be alone again. He crouched, stuffing the remains of a TV dinner back into the ruptured garbage bag, and cursed himself for allowing a mere blue-collar to upset him so. In fact, now that he thought about it, he hated the custodian with a passion, always had—even though he didn't know the man's name and had only ever seen him on a handful of vaguely-remembered occasions.
Doesn't matter, Bryan thought as he deposited his refuse into Ginger's rusty abyss. He sucks anyway—this world sucks. Let him and all the other blue-collars run rampant in their shit-kingdom. I could cream them all in SimpliCITY...when it's back up.
The stark memory of the custodian's wrinkled flesh and malnourished frame stuck in his head long after he'd gone back upstairs to his bedroom. It made him anxious to get back online, back where all the chemicals in his blood were baselined.
For the remainder of the evening he paced back and forth in front of his desk and chewed his fingernails, inebriated himself with lukewarm cola from a two-liter bottle that had been sitting on the floor beside his bed for a few weeks.
Around midnight the servers came back up, and he let loose a long sigh that had been accumulating in his lungs since his meeting with the custodian. He attached his inputs, signed on, and found Sarah watching TV in her start-zone. She'd switched to a completely different player model.
"Wow," Bryan said, sitting beside her. "Look at you."
"That was pretty messed up," Sarah said. She scooted away from him.
"Leaving me there with those jerks."
Bryan frowned. "I didn't leave you there—I was kicked off. Some kind of glitch in the system."
"It doesn't matter." Sarah faced him; she had the mother of all scowls on her face. "You weren't there. You didn't see how they made fun of me, made me feel like nothing. They took a picture they scanned from the yearbook and turned it into a pig-face. They made me wear it. They held me down and told me to shout it out loud so everyone could hear, Pig Face! Pig Face! They called me names just like they did in school—they were blue-collars, Bryan. They had no right!"
Bryan reached for her, but she shrugged away once again.
"Leave me alone," she said.
"I came here to see you—"
* * *
Summer wound onward, and Sarah seemed to recover only partially from the incident at Peter's. She still met with Bryan from time to time, but it seemed out of courtesy rather than genuine interest (sex, at this point, was out of the question). Points didn't seem to matter either. On one occasion, he even approached her after a frag match, offered her half his earnings if she would just sleep with him, give him a chance to make things all better with his "Ominous touch." Naturally, this sort of approach resulted in immediate rejection.
He focused himself on other matters, other chatroom acquaintances, frag matches, and, towards the end, retribution.
The idea came to him one restless night in early August, when his tireless libido had him tossing and turning, thinking of ways to regain his former bedroom privileges with Sarah. Revenge may not have been a worthwhile endeavor in the traditional sense, but now that he had a lot more free time on his hands, the little pangs at the back of his mind had begun festering. He went online, signed into his SimpliCITY account, and accessed the player profile database. He had no idea who the neon bully had been, so he performed a search, calling up all male players who were using models with neon green skinsuits. There were more than two-thousand; he sifted through each and every one, exhausting the early morning hours until he matched up one particular player with the access log for the Peter's server—and by the time he'd collected all the information he needed, he was livid: It was the neon bully's fault his Internet connection had gone down, the neon bully's fault he was so skinny, the neon bully's fault Sarah wouldn't put out anymore.
He made sure his proxy was working. Then he logged on, found the neon bully lounging in a chatroom. Without allowing himself any second thoughts, he strode to the bully's table, tapped him on the shoulder, and immediately initiated the Trojan program he'd prepared beforehand.
The neon bully screamed, and even though it was a digitalized recreation, Bryan felt the terror as code became curse, bytes became daggers, and every synapse tapped by the bully's inputs was ignited with pain. The beautiful part about this particular Trojan was that it ran with the privacy flag on. The neon bully's table was opaque to everyone else in the chatroom; none of the moderators would know what was happening for a long while—at least not until serious neurological damage had been done.
That'll show you, Bryan thought.
He clicked out, returned to the SimpliCITY options screen, where he entered the player customization module and deleted his model from the database. He also cleared out his history and cache files, overwriting each sector no less than forty times. If anyone came asking questions (which he was sure they wouldn't), there'd be no evidence.
Stomach growling, he left his room and went into the kitchen, which was dark and empty (his parents were still locked in their room, working or playing on their computer). The clock on the wall said it was three in the afternoon, though all the windows were shuttered. He poured himself some cereal and sat alone at the table as he ate.
The kitchen stank again.
* * *
Internet time is different from real time by about a third (one minute of Internet time is equal to three minutes of real time). This is mostly due to the little, almost imperceivable idiosyncrasies, such as network traffic, ping times, and hardware capabilities. Spend twenty minutes online and you've lost an hour in the real world. You could whittle half your life away just sifting through all the e-mail, waiting for all the downloads.
As such, the final month of summer had Bryan scrambling to make the most of his free time. He ignored his parents (they weren't around much anyway), ignored his chores; he wore the same sets of clothes for days at a time, neglected food and water for as long as his stomach could handle it. He sometimes pulled eighteen-hour days just to get done all the things he wanted to get done.
Some of it (as much as he allowed himself to admit) had to do with Sarah's newfound apathy towards him. Though she continued to spend most of her free time online, she often refused any offered social opportunities. Every now and then she'd talk with Bryan, but anything further and she clammed up, made an excuse to leave. For her eighteenth birthday, she had a brief conversation with Bryan via her pager before abruptly announcing that she had other matters to attend to.
The resolution to such a situation was fleeting, though Bryan found that if he kept himself busy, kept himself from agonizing over how to patch things up, he was more easily satisfied by the naïve notion that time would eventually heal all wounds. Still, on the occasions when he would be alone in his start-zone and thinking of how it used to be, remembering how it was to have Sarah lying curled against him, warm and comforting...he wished she would simply stop her moping and spread herself open, virtual body and soul—as it was meant to be. Especially now that he had a new model, a new set of hacked sensations for her to share.
He gave her some time to reorder herself. Finally, one day when he could stand it no more, he paged her—kept on paging her over and over despite the fact that she was obviously ignoring him. Her messenger listed her as being in her start-zone; he went there, got stuck outside the door when his password failed.
By now he was infuriated; he wanted results. It wasn't the most eloquent way of doing things, but he nevertheless went to one of the warez chatrooms and found some information on how to override the security on most standard start-zones. After five minutes of working to exploit a firewall vulnerability, he was in, standing in the middle of scattered pillows and discarded clothing and Sarah writhing exquisitely beneath the ministrations of her lover.
Bryan must have said something, made a noise, for suddenly her eyes snapped open and she swore out loud as she untangled herself from her partner, covered herself with a spare bed sheet. The shaded polygons comprising her skin were glistening.
"Oh-geez-Bryan," she gasped.
He backed away, forgot for a moment that he was in cyberspace and fumbled for the doorknob (when he could have just as easily clicked out).
Sarah stumbled to her feet, stepped towards him, tried to explain
as, behind her, the man she'd been fornicating with clicked out. "I'd
never do this to you in real life, but it's just the Internet, right? It's not
have to understand! You're my friend, but...a woman also needs strength, a
protector. What I mean is...after what happened at Peter's...you're special to
me, of course, but I need more, you know? We're both adults now, you
understand. We have to make provisions for the future. Oh,
Bryan's arm reacted of its own accord, and he clicked out, exited the game entirely. Alone in his bedroom, he sat for a moment with lenses still dulling his vision, inputs still tingling on fingers and toes—the real world—and tried to think of what to do, how to process the realization that his girl had been with someone else.
The tart, he thought, though he couldn't quite make himself angry enough to really mean it. She couldn't wait, couldn't wait to be eighteen and out of school so she could latch on to the first guy she met who'd provide for her—and now all she has to do is put out for him whenever he asks and she'll never have to get a real job.
He tried to shrug off the humiliation, tell himself that Sarah had merely been a girl he'd fooled around with online—after all, outside of SimpliCITY, they hardly spoke to each other. Even so...it hurt.
He was tired. As of late, his sleep patterns had been erratic; he might have dozed off, but, as usual, his brain wouldn't quiet itself. He might have eaten something, then, but the thought of food made him nauseous. Something in his gut threatened to turn over, so he ignored hunger, denied fatigue, went online once again—and all the physical aches and pains became background noise.
There was a frag match being held at an arena called Satan's Gate. Bryan joined an armada of hideous creatures, ravenous demons, grotesque aliens, and slaughtered as many members of the opposing team as possible. In such fashion he lived entirely online for a week. Maybe he slipped out to use the bathroom once in a while, maybe he foraged here or there for stale potato chips—he couldn't remember. He was too distraught, too upset—and it was ultimately easier to simply flood his brain with sensory input at all times than it was to cope. He might have started to enjoy himself, even—until, during a crucial moment during a match, his vision flickered dark and he stumbled unexpectedly onto the virtual ground. All around him the game continued, he heard the echoes of gunfire, players exchanging quips, and all he could do was listen as he lay frozen. His thoughts became jumbled, and a dull hum filled his head—then he became utterly disconnected from everything.
Dead inside himself.
* * *
The bloodied fallout from a perfect frag drew Bryan forth from a deep trance. He opened his eyes, rolled onto his back, found he was covered in meaty bits of virtual flesh not his own. Somewhere nearby a player cackled fiendishly and then scurried off in search of further prey.
Bryan reached for his personal menu, clicked out of the Satan's Gate arena. Glancing at the time stamp, he saw that he'd been asleep for nearly twelve hours.
He signed out of SimpliCITY, removed his contact lenses—he was back in his bedroom, back in his shivering, malnourished body, all thin and pale and pathetic, and it felt absolutely perverse.
He disconnected himself from his computer and sat staring wildly around the room, his heart still fluttering in his chest, nerve endings nearly going into shock. The air was stale, putrid—his own body odor was enough to make him gag. Days going without a bath, the sweat accumulated from a dozen simulated battles now staining his skin and matting his hair—he was parched.
Never thought I'd have enough of this, he thought, getting to his feet. He kicked off his inputs, and stood as still as possible for a moment as the blood rushed to his head, making him dizzy. There was a door at the other end of a field of discarded clothes, soda cans, candy-wrappers—stuff that has somehow grown into a two-foot tall pile of its own accord. He waded through, opened the door, stepped out into the hallway. He was vaguely aware that he was naked, but it didn't matter because he was delirious—and besides, his parents' door was closed. He could hear the usual newsfeed audio emanating from inside, see the neon glow shining beneath the door.
He made his way towards the kitchen. There was a horrid smell in the air, like the most rotten garbage. It had been growing over the past week or so; he'd been purposely ignoring it, hoping that either George or Leah to take care of it. Evidently they'd been following the same line of thought.
Bryan swore under his breath, retreated into his room to look for his pants and shoes so he could take the trash out. He found the pants, but the shoes...he'd forgotten where he'd put them, probably hadn't worn them since the server outage.
Back in the kitchen: The place was a mess, rife with a foulness all its own—but underneath there was something else. Something not even decaying cabbage and beans could produce. Bryan looked for fresh garbage bags to wrap the old ones in, but he couldn't find any. He opened the fridge and searched vainly for a soda, a bite to eat; there was nothing but old cheese, petrified Chinese takeout. The racks were virtually empty, and he realized, subconsciously, that he'd been eating all the food in small bits, here and there.
"Mom!" he called, becoming irritable. Only minutes away from the Internet and already he was feeling an ache to get back.
In the hall again, he stopped outside his parents' room. The smell here was horrendous.
"Mom! Dad!" he hollered, banging on the door, sniffling, finding chilled snot trickling down his upper lip. Vaguely, he recalled coming down with a cold earlier in the week, but had not paid much attention to it.
He banged a few more times before grabbing the knob and shoving the door open—and catching himself in mid-step, his limbs stuck in a momentary delay as his brain tried to process the scene before him: George and Leah, sitting together at their computer, caught in a sickening embrace, the skin peeling off their faces, tiny flies and beetles feasting on half-jellied eyes, the odor of human decay washing over Bryan in a rush of stale air.
He stumbled backward, the reality hitting him—dead, he thought. Days ago, weeks, maybe...my God....
Holding his pants up by the waist so they wouldn't slip off his bony hips, Bryan turned and ran. He fumbled with the locks on the front door, tore it open, stumbled out into the corridor, down past identical doors on ether side. He slammed his fists against several, screaming for help as he went, but nobody answered. Maybe they didn't want to answer—maybe they couldn't.
Outside, the city air was acrid, full of noise and exhaust. It was light out—it shouldn't have been, it should have been night. Bryan tried to be certain, but his biological clock had been turned upside down.
There was yellow police tape draped all across the security fence. When he tried to let himself out, his password failed—the gates were all sealed from the outside with heavy padlocks. He didn't understand what he was seeing, what was wrong with this real-not-real world. His hands shook, he saw cars pass by but they were like shaded polygons. Pedestrians walking on the other side of the street had become soulless sprites, and they seemed not to hear his cries for help. The ones who did merely looked away, quickened their pace. Bryan wanted to click his personal menu, found his hand reaching up into the air, trying once, twice, three times when he realized it wouldn't work.
He sneezed. The pressure in his lungs caught him off guard and he felt pain in his ribs. He thought of the custodian, how he'd hated the man for being old, for being eccentric—for being real.
The entire apartment complex was locked down tight. Bryan tried every entrance, to no avail. By the time he'd made a complete circuit of the campus he was coughing and sneezing, and his bare feet were caked with mud. Still gripping his pants about his waist, he made his way to a nearby stairwell and seated himself on the bottom step. Between bouts of tears, fits of coughing, he tried to make sense of his situation (how had he come to awaken in a world as mad as this?). Obviously, something had gone wrong, there had been some sort of accident, but why had the authorities not checked on his family, on anyone else's family, before condemning the complex?
It was all too scary to think about. He couldn't handle the fear and uncertainty; he cried, holding himself for what seemed like hours. Eventually, as the sky reddened and the light started to fade, he knew there was no one coming for him—and so he decided that this world couldn't possibly be real. Of course it couldn't be real.
He left the stairs, slowly walked back inside the complex, up to the fifth floor where the door to his parents' apartment still hung open, allowing the horrid stench free reign. He went inside and to his room, where he sat at his desk and attached the inputs to his fingers and toes. The familiar voice welcomed him back online, where it was warm and clean and safe.
Bryan's fear settled itself. His synaptic processes distributed themselves across the Net as he checked his e-mail, read the news, played the games. His cold, the infection devouring his sinuses, the hunger pangs spearing his stomach—the faux-world he'd been born into—was a faraway memory, and even as the memory began to fade he was convinced there was no place he'd rather be.