Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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VirtuCom, Inc.

by Kevin King


He could tell this was going to be another cake-walk. You would think these companies would learn, after having their pet projects lifted so many times, to invest a little in security system upgrades. Not that he really wanted them to upgrade, of course, since he made a healthy living off of their stupidity, but at least they could make it fun.

Add-Man, also known as Lifetime-User ADDM, smiled as he heard the soft click of the lock sliding back. Z-Class Code Cards were the best, and his own modified version could crack a lock in 2.5 cycles. It had taken him years to acquire this little tool, and several more years to work out his own modifications to it. It was going to be a shame to retire it after only one big job.

With one last glance over his shoulder, Add-Man slipped into the dark lobby of Crowsoft Corp. From here he could download the last bit of data he needed for his remote access program. There would be no more physical break-ins after this run. The thrill of personal involvement just wasn't worth the risk any more. With a good hideout and a high tech system he would be able to enjoy virtual entries, and failure would just mean redesigning a program instead of resting six feet under.

Halfway across the lobby he paused. Something had moved. He was sure he had seen a cable slide across the floor. Guard dogs were still used in some lower class establishments, usually where there was nothing worth guarding. This place was too uppity for that, and human sentries were long obsolete in a world of laser activated computer security systems.

He was about to go on when he saw it again. A cable as thick as his leg had twitched. Following it with his eyes, he saw that it got thicker toward one end where it vanished into the shadows. He had never heard of a security system with moving parts, but this cable had definitely moved.

Then he noticed the eye. One red eye floated a hundred feet above the place where the cable disappeared. Knowing it was probably too late, Add-Man slowly reached into his bag to find his RLI (RADAR/LASER/INFRARED) Detector. As he switched it on, the "I" began to blink. He sighed with relief. Infrared meant it an older security system, not too hard to fool.

When he looked back up the eye was moving toward him, fast. With it came a huge dark mass, and the cable trailed behind it. As it approached it let out a burst of fire. Before he got fried, Add-Man had just enough time to see the scaled snout of a dragon.

####

Blackout. For a time there was nothing, and then there was a voice.

[L-User ADDM, you have been eliminated. Awaiting your instructions.]

"Life! What happened? Check for errors in sector 27C."

[Scanning... Zero errors detected.]

"There must be an error! There aren't supposed to be any dragons in the Sci-Fi episodes!"

[Zero errors detected.]

"Report this to the A/B-Users. Tell them they have a bug. A big, ugly, fire-breathing bug that should be squashed as soon as possible."

[Zero Alpha/Beta-Users currently active. Your request will be put on hold, would you care to wait for the next available Technician?]

"Forget it, it's not important enough for me to waste time here. Retrieve the latest archive."

[Archive retrieval not permitted, you are two days past the grace period. You must generate a new character.]

"Life! I can't believe it."

[Don't complain to me, I just follow the rules. Please generate a personality.]

"Scan for L-User XLR8."

[Scanning... L-User XLR8 located. Antietam scenario, Galactic Scale Sci-Fi.]

"He always did brag that this galaxy was too small for him. Well then, send me to join him. I'll be whatever passes for a generic human male soldier, with nothing but cash and basic supplies. I'll buy my own weaponry."

[Generating personality now...]

####

L-User ADDM had seen a lot of Science Fiction scenarios, and this one felt small in spite of its claim to "Galactic Scale Sci-Fi." The dusty supply barrack he woke up in was empty except for him, but that was not why it felt small.

Looking around, he analyzed the feeling. It was a combination of a hundred details in the scenery with long experience in both large and small worlds. The story line background provided by the computer was just enough to get him started. It did not spend much time outlining different worlds. So apparently this was a single planet episode, with one basic theme -- aliens vs. humans.

Add-Man looked down at the uniform he was wearing. It was the same as all the other uniforms on racks along the walls. The only variations were in the badges that identified technicians, medical crew, pilots, and other specialized fields. At least that would make it easier to find the friend he had come to meet.

Stepping up to the counter, he began shopping for supplies. The only things that seemed to be in his price range were the basic laser pistols found in every episode. Add-Man was a firm believer that all stereotypes are bad, so he kept looking.

Finally he found a gun that looked different. The price list on the screen behind the counter called it an "Acid-Based Disrupter Stream." The illustration showed the remains of an alien body so badly melted it was hardly more than a puddle of purple slime. The cost would leave him just enough for a standard two-way communicator. He registered his purchase and stood back to wait for delivery.

He was still waiting when the outer door slid open. The Captain who entered was clearly a veteran. Blood from fresh wounds trickled in jagged lines past old puckered scars. The older scars were more numerous and generally deeper, while the fresh cuts amounted to a few scratches. His face was darkened by a week old growth of beard, and his uniform had not been washed or mended in that time. The laser rifle slung casually over his right shoulder was oiled and polished to look factory new, in stark contrast with the rest of his equipment. A professional soldier, with the eyes of a serious player.

Add-Man made the mental adjustments necessary for this type of role-playing. The man before him would settle for nothing less. He snapped to full attention. "Private Manning reporting for duty, Captain."

The Captain squinted, then a grin split his face like one of his scars. "Boy, is that you? I was hoping to find some recruits, but when you ditched me for that Cyber World I thought you were gone for a while. What made you finally decide to play a man's game?"

Add-Man nodded in answer to the first question. A few of his friends amused themselves by making up nicknames, some based on their L-User designation and some based on other nicknames. L-User XLR8 always called him Boy, saying he had to earn the name Man.

Add-Man returned the joke with a tease of his own. "Hi, Speed. Are you getting so old and slow that you need my help? My other game didn't work out too well. Apparently there was a mistake somewhere, and I retired before my time. I now have a personal vendetta against bugs, and I figured this glorified Western was a good place to hunt them."

XLR8 chuckled. "That's Captain Speed to you, Boy. Around here you don't hunt bugs, the bugs hunt you. Were you planning to swat them with your bare hands, or are you going to buy a gun?"

Before he could answer, a conveyer belt delivered his new weapon to the counter top. It was almost rifle shaped, with a slide pump and an old fashioned trigger. There were tubes running out the back of it into two tanks inside a backpack.

Speed took one look at the gun and his chuckle became a full-blown hysterical laugh. "You bought a squirt-gun? You go into a fight using that toy and the bugs will eat you like a picnic lunch. I hope you have enough money left for a real gun."

Add-Man began to turn red as he picked up the pack and strapped it on. "I thought this should do fine. Look at the picture. It seems to be working well enough there. Are you saying they faked the illustration?"

Speed composed himself with obvious effort. The corners of his mouth still twitched as he glanced at the picture of the melted alien. "No, it's a real picture all right. Probably taken just before that little pile of goo ripped out the gizzard of whatever poor fool tried to shoot it. Trust me, if you ever meet something that looks like that, get clear and let me handle it. It wasn't a squirt-gun that made it look that way."

Add-Man finished strapping on his gun, not nearly so impressed by it as he had been before. He adjusted his mental attitude to fit the character of Private Manning. "It may not be much, but I'm stuck with it now. If you could show me to the training grounds, maybe I can work up enough skill with it to keep myself alive."

Captain Speed pressed the release to open the outer door. "Good idea. Start with a little training, then I can show you to the South Fort, where the fighting is easy. The Gnorts can be bad when they swarm, but the acid spray works just as well against them as anything else. It is a harsh world, but no aliens are allowed within fifty meters of the training grounds, so you will be safe until you're ready to go outside."

Add-Man just nodded gratefully and followed him out. The training area was directly connected to the starting room, so that new players couldn't be caught off guard. It seemed bigger that it actually was, with hallways that meandered almost in circles before reaching their destinations. The main practice room was just a shooting range with a row of wooden targets.

XLR8 watched with amusement for a few minutes while Add-Man figured out how to use his gun. After watching him spray streams of acid at the targets for a while, XLR8 turned toward the door. "Since you're new here, I'll do you a favor and buy you a weapon. But you better pay me back someday, and don't start depending on me to baby-sit for you."

ADDM kept his mouth closed and concentrated on the targets. There was no sense upsetting his friend when he was in such a generous mood. Maybe he could even trade in the acid gun for some decent armor if he didn't drain the tanks too badly.

Once he was alone he shifted his brain into a minor subroutine. He couldn't actually skip forward in time, because that would be unfair to the other players. But he could occupy his mind with smaller games while letting the computer take him through the motions of training. Any change in his surroundings would call him back to this body immediately.

He was just getting into a game of virtual poker when he was called back. Judging by the fluid levels left in his acid pack, he hadn't been gone long. The sound that had called him back seemed to be some commotion in the hallway.

Curious, he turned to cover the door. The noise outside drew steadily closer. ADDM wasn't too worried about it, because this room was almost the center of the training area, and anything that might threaten players was forbidden.

Add-Man barely recognized L-User XLR8 when he slammed the door back to stumble inside. His uniform looked like it had lost a fight with a paper shredder. His face had been painted camouflage, but the paint had been smeared into a sticky red mass. His gun apparently had run out of ammunition and been used as a club. It would probably never fire again. His eyes were wild, his breathing like a man trying to run a marathon with a piano strapped to his back.

Add-Man looked him over slowly and laughed. "What happened, Speed? Did you take a wrong turn on your way to the weapon shop? I thought you were going to take me with you to your next party."

XLR8 looked around wildly and braced himself against the door. "Something's wrong. There are bugs inside the training ground."

Add-Man frowned. "I thought you said that wasn't allowed."

XLR8 shook his head. "It isn't supposed to be, but it happened somehow. They seem to have gone crazy all of a sudden. Help me brace the door, quick."

Add-Man started to move to the door uncertainly. He tried to cover his nervousness with a joke. "You didn't see any dragons, did you?"

XLR8 shot him a strange look. "I don't know what that big one was, but I've never seen it before."

Add-Man paled and opened his mouth to reply. Before he could, something rammed the door from the other side. XLR8 slipped a little and braced himself grimly. "Here they come. Computer, I wish to file a complaint." He looked up expectantly, but got no answer. "Computer! I want to file a complaint." His only answer was another blow to the door.

Add-Man reached the door and put his hands against it to help hold it closed. Just as he touched it, it was knocked open violently. XLR8 fell on his back in front of the door, losing his grip on the remains of his gun. Add-Man flew back half way across the room.

The things that crowded through the door looked like man-sized locusts. They swarmed over XLR8 and came for Add-Man. They had serrated leg ridges, and vicious pinchers. Not for the first time, Add-Man was glad that the programming did not include the feeling of pain. The last thing he saw before the room faded was the face of a dragon looking in from the hallway.

####

[L-User ADDM, you have been eliminated. Awaiting your instructions.]

"Not again! What is it with dragons in Sci-Fi?"

[Negative. There are no dragons in the Science Fiction episodes. Awaiting your instructions.]

"I can't believe it! Are you sure there were no errors? I thought that training grounds were supposed to be safe."

[Zero errors detected. Awaiting your instructions.]

"Scan for L-User EV101."

[Scanning... L-User EV101 located. Earth scenario, Middle Ages Fantasy.]

"Fine. At least if I see a dragon there, it will fit in. Send me there."

[Please generate a personality.]

"I don't know, I usually don't do Fantasy worlds. Generate a random one."

[Generating personality now...]

####

Add-Man studied the tavern carefully. This was the stereotypical meeting place for L-Users in a Fantasy setting. The only computer controlled personalities allowed here were the bar-tenders. Between the two player personalities at the bar, the big barbarian woman seemed more likely to be EV101.

As he walked up to the bar, he noticed that it seemed a bit high. He would get a crick in his neck looking up at this angle for long.

"Evie?" He asked uncertainly.

The woman looked down at him. "Who are you?"

"I'm Add-Man. I got munched in my last game, and had to start a new one. So I was hoping you could... What's so funny?"

"You didn't let the computer generate your personality, did you?" Evie laughed.

"I was in a hurry. How bad could it be?" Add-Man hadn't looked at himself yet, and he was too embarrassed to look now.

"Sorry," smirked Evie, not sounding sorry. "I've just never seen you as a woman before. And a dwarf, too!"

"I don't care," Add-Man grumbled, "I'm still upset about losing my other personality. It had to be a bug, but the comp said it couldn't find one."

"Why don't you file a complaint with the A/B-Users?"

"Because I don't feel like hanging out in a waiting room for three years. I think all the Alpha and Beta version Users got stuck in a time warp after they finished the program. Or maybe before they finished. Are you going to help me get started or not?"

Evie smiled. "OK, I have some extra money saved up in the bank. But you will have to help me earn it back."

Add-Man looked relieved. "Great. Money and a partner. I hate doing Fantasy alone. Speaking of alone, aren't you with a group already?"

Evie grimaced. "I used to be, but I'm the only survivor."

"Oh, that's comforting. May I be your next victim, please?"

"Very funny. It wasn't my fault this time. We knew our mage was getting old, but we didn't expect him to flip out and fireball himself. I was the furthest from him, and I almost didn't make it. The others never had a chance."

Add-Man grinned. "Sure, blame it on the mage. Should I call you Black Widow Evie now? Have they come back in yet?"

Evie nodded faintly. "All but the mage started in another world this time. I haven't heard from the mage in two months."

"Maybe he's in hiding. It's been two months? Why don't you have a new party yet? You always have somebody with you."

"Player personalities are getting harder to find around here. I guess Sci-Fi is the new fad."

Add-Man shook his head. "I just came from one of those, and it was as empty as this place. I think there are just too many worlds, it's spreading us thin."

"Maybe we should petition for fewer worlds. It is getting harder to make it as a loner."

"Right. You can take it to the A/B-Users. If you ever get in, you might mention that if they've misplaced a dragon, I know where it is."

"I don't know," Evie frowned. "I haven't heard of anyone succeeding in contacting the Alpha/Beta-Users in years. It used to be easier."

Add-Man adjusted his leather under-clothes. "This chain mail pinches... I heard a rumor that the A/B-Users disconnect sometimes."

Evie's eyebrows shot up. "You mean completely exit the system? Why? Where do they go?"

Add-Man leaned forward and whispered ominously, "To the real world."

Evie shuddered and turned pale. "Reality! How could they stand it? My mother used to have to live there, and she told me how dull it was. I would die if I were stuck in a place like that."

"Me too. Imagine not being able to generate your own body. And never going on a single adventure. Ain't technology great? Hey, what about that cash?"

"Wait here, the bank is just down the road."

Add-Man waited at the bar while Evie was gone. He used the time to check out his equipment. The computer had given him the basic fighter outfit, plus a shirt of light chain mail as a bonus. His money supply was below average, probably to make up for the chain mail. He didn't have a very feminine figure, being a dwarven fighter, but at least he appeared to be strong.

Evie came back in and motioned for him to follow her. "I'll drop the money in the dungeon, then leave the room while you pick it up. That way you get experience points for it."

Add-Man raised an eyebrow. "I never thought you would stoop to exploiting bugs. Why don't we just pass it back and forth for a while to build up experience points?"

Evie shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed. "It's not a bug, it's just a little help for beginners. You get experience for anything you find in the dungeon. But it only works the first time you pick it up, so you can't get experience twice for the same thing."

"All right, I was only teasing anyway. Let's go."

Evie led the way out into the sunlit street and around the corner. There was an entrance close by, nothing more than a hole in the road leading down into the tunnels. Evie pulled a torch out of her pack, and they went in.

As soon as they were inside, Evie took a money bag and dropped it on the floor. "I'll go further in and stand guard. I wouldn't want my newbie to get hit from behind. Pick up the pouch a few minutes after I leave, then just wait for me to come back."

"Got it." Add-Man fingered his short sword nervously. "Don't be gone long."

"Scared of dragons?"

"I have good reason."

"Well there aren't any on this level. Back in five minutes." Then she was gone.

Add-Man muttered, "Right. There aren't any in Sci-Fi either."

He counted his fingers ten times, then picked up the pouch. Using the Infrared vision natural to dwarves, he could just make out the passage Evie had gone through. He waited for several more minutes before he began to worry.

"Evie?" He called softly. There was no sound from the tunnel.

He called a little louder. "Evie?" There was still no answer.

Add-Man crept down the passage Evie had taken, until it opened into a large cave. In the middle of the cavern next to some kind of large fungus, Evie was curled up on the floor, apparently asleep.

"Evie?" Add-Man called, moving toward her cautiously. She did not respond.

Glancing around, Add-Man saw nothing else in the room, so he got a little closer. "Evie, are you all right?"

As he brushed past the fungus it hissed, and a dark cloud enveloped the area. As Add-Man collapsed he saw Evie's body fade away, leaving only her equipment behind.

####

[L-User ADDM, you have been eliminated. Awaiting your instructions.]

"Now I remember why I don't like Fantasy. Scan for L-User EV101."

[Scanning... L-User EV101 not found.]

"She's probably just not back in yet. Scan for L-User XLR8."

[Scanning... L-User XLR8 not found.]

"Contact L-User EV101."

[Error. Cannot locate L-User EV101.]

"What do you mean error? She had to go somewhere. Review program log section F8368-FC001."

[Fatal error detected. L-User EV101 has been erased.]

"Erased? That's not possible! She's a User, not a program. You can't erase people."

[L-User EV101 has been erased. Data sector FA525 has become corrupt. Some User data lost.]

"Contact the A/B-Users, let them know what happened."

[Zero Alpha/Beta-Users currently active. Your request will be put on hold. Would you care to wait for the next available Technician?]

"Access Data Recovery Program."

[Data Recovery is a restricted area. Access denied. Please generate a personality.]

"I can't wait for the A/B-Users, this could be a serious virus."

[Virus confirmed. Please generate a personality.]

"Request emergency access to Data Recovery."

[Access is restricted. Trespassers will be ejected from the system. Do you wish to continue?]

"Yes."

[Are you sure?]

"YES."

[Please enter password. Incorrect response will result in termination.]

"I don't have a password. This is an emergency, you have to let me in."

[Response is incorrect. Disconnect in five...four...three...two...]

####

The first thing he felt was the cold. Then he slowly became aware of the patches and tubes stuck to his naked body. It took him a long time to open his eyes, and even longer to bring them into focus.

VirtuCom: A lifetime of dreams come true.

It was printed on the machinery overhead. He tried to sit up, but his atrophied muscles failed to respond. The only result was that his head fell over to the right, shifting his view.

The world came back into focus. Stretched out along the wall were endless rows of beds like his, each with a mass of wires and tubes attached to it. On the beds lay skeletal figures with their skin stretched over bones like shrink wrap. Veins pulsed faintly through their transparent covering.

Down the line he saw a few xylophone rib cages still rising and falling, but most lay still. Empty sockets gazed into a dreamless eternity while the body crumbled to dust. A relay clicked somewhere behind his head, and the air that had been pumping into his lungs faded to a sigh. As his vision dimmed for the last time, a computer whirred softly.

[Lifetime-User ADDM, you have been eliminated.]

THE END


© 2008 Kevin King

Bio: Kevin King is a 32-year-old database programmer residing in Louisiana (with luck, in one of the non-flooded parts) who writes as a hobby. Aside from this story, he has written a number of poems, and is close to finishing a fantasy novel.

E-mail: Kevin King

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