by Roderick D. Turner
"How does it look?"
"Left a little more. I can still see the kitchen counter. Next time do your dishes before a meeting."
Neil grimaced. "Implying something about my living habits?"
"If you say so," Lauren answered. "But for now, just shift the view left a bit. The call will be coming through any second."
Lauren watched the screen, waiting for a shift in the eight centimeter square image of Neil's apartment. Their fifteenth on-line conference since she'd been working with him, and Neil had always been neat, prepared, and confident.
A finger blotted out the camera's view for a second, then the picture was back. Unaltered. She could still make out the remains of a hasty breakfast piled unceremoniously on the counter. Neil's neatly-shaven face swung into view, sporting its characteristic dazed grin.
"How does it look?"
Lauren frowned at him. "Neil, it hasn't moved. I said shift it left."
Again the face moved aside, and again the finger across the lens. When the picture returned, it was....
"Neil -- "
Neil's face was back again, just as before. "How does it look?" he asked.
A wave of impatience swept through Lauren's body. "Neil. What's going on over there?"
"Just trying to satisfy an exacting taskmaster, as usual," Neil replied. "How does it look?"
"Stop saying that!" Lauren shouted. "We're -- "
The words froze in her throat as the picture was blocked once more. Neil's finger moved aside, revealing the same scene as before. Then his face was back, his mouth repeating the words.
"How does it -- "
Lauren stabbed at the power switch with her toe, and the computer whirred slowly down into silence. Had he recorded the sequence, played it back over and over to irritate or frighten her? Neil was a bit squirrelly, but not malicious. Anyway, the response had changed with each of her reactions. All except the ends. The finger over the lens, then his face back. So what in hell was it? Maybe her computer was acting up. She reached for the telephone just as it rang.
"Hello. Is that Lauren Burfield?"
She hesitated a moment before answering. "Speaking," she said shakily.
"This is Matthew Richards from Nethop, your internet service provider. Would you mind telling me what you've been doing? We got a one terabyte drive here, with a four hundred user connection capacity. And in the last five minutes, you shut us down. There's not a byte of memory free, and all our switches are jammed up. Our usage monitor shows your application went through the roof. We'd like to know what's going on."
Lauren stared wide-eyed at the computer beside her. "I don't know. I was using my video conferencing system. A friend and I were waiting for four other users to call in, and -- "
"Listen lady. You were connected to net address 133.354.324.886. Our search engine shows no user at that site. In fact, according to the online directory, that's not even a registered IP address. So. Tell me again about this friend of yours."
Lauren could feel panic rising in her. She slammed down the receiver and raced out into the hall. Frantically, her fingers fumbling with the catch, she tore open her purse and pulled out her address book. She forced herself to lie it on the floor, so that her trembling hands could turn the pages. T, U, V. Van Arle. Neil. The phone was ringing again. She sat and waited until it stopped, then lifted the receiver and dialled.
"Hello." It was not Neil's voice. Lauren stifled a cry.
"Neil Van Arle, please," she said.
"Sorry lady. Not at this number. But listen, if you're looking for a date -- my name's Jim. What's yours?"
She threw the receiver to the floor as if it were a fiery brand. Calm. She had to remain calm. How else could she check on him? He lived thirty five hundred kilometers away, so she needed someone on location. The police. They could send somebody in to make sure he was alright.
Lauren unplugged the phone jack long enough to ensure a disconnect, then plugged it back in. She dialled 911 and gave Neil's address.
"You are not calling from that area," the dispatcher said. "This is an emergency service only. Do you require help?"
"It's not me that needs it," she said. "It's a friend of mine, living in Baxter. I was on a call with him and --"
"You'll have to call the Baxter police, ma'am. We can't tie up this line." The connection went dead.
"Shit," Lauren screamed. "Doesn't anybody give a damn what's happening to you, Neil?"
She dialled long distance directory assistance, got the number for the police in Baxter, and was about to hang up when a thought struck her.
"Can you give me the number for a Neil Van Arle, living on Daintry Road?" she asked.
There was a short pause.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," the operator said. "I have no such listing."
"But you must have," Lauren protested. "I was just talking to him a few minutes ago."
"The only name I have here that comes close has the initial W, and lives on Anderson Court."
"OK, I'll try it. Thanks for your help."
The automated voice droned out a number, and Lauren wrote it down. Then she rang off and dialled. After the fourth ring a woman's voice came on.
"I'm looking for a Neil Van -- "
Lauren stopped as she realized that she was talking to a machine. The greeting ended, and Lauren left a message asking for help in locating Neil. Then she hung up and sat staring blankly at the phone, her head spinning. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. And she was helpless, on the other side of the world.
The jangle of the phone was so close and sudden that she leapt from her seat, and had to take a deep breath to calm herself before answering.
Lauren recognized the woman's voice, the initial W. from Baxter. "Thank goodness you called back. I'm trying to get in touch with a Neil Van Arle, and I thought you might know him."
"Listen, I'm sorry about this but -- can I ask you a couple of questions?"
Lauren hesitated. "I suppose so," she said at last. "Why?"
"Well Neil is -- sort of a relative. I need to be careful."
"Oh God. At last someone who acknowledges that Neil exists. I was beginning to think I was crazy."
"How long have you known him?"
"I met him at his Web site about six months ago. I needed someone to work with me in my consulting business. I know presentations and sales but can't do anything with software code. That was his thing, and our personalities didn't clash. He seemed perfect."
"Can you tell me about his deformity?"
"Listen, I don't care how he looks. He's a whiz with programming. We've got through two hundred thousand in contracts together. What kind of questions are these, anyway?"
"Lauren, I need an answer."
"He's got a squint in his -- " She had to think about it; she'd only ever seen him on-line. " -- his right eye. I guess he uses his left, since that's the one that seems to look straight at the camera."
"Thanks, Lauren. I'm glad it's really you." There was a short pause. "My name is Wendy, Wendy Van Arle. This number is my trap door. My escape route. I normally tell anyone who discovers it that I've never even heard of Neil. This time -- well, this time I called you back for two reasons. First, because I need your help. And second, because I'm scared."
"That makes two of us," Lauren whispered. "What the hell is going on?"
"Just in case you get any ideas, I don't live in Baxter. My number is redirected from there. I'm a private person, Lauren. I like to keep to myself. But I'm good at software, really good. Good enough to make a living at it."
"What does this have to do with Neil?"
"Everything. It has everything to do with him. I need to make a living, but I'm -- I can't deal with people face to face. It was fine when I could get by on-line with files and chat connection. But now everyone on the net wants to do business with an image. So I created Neil."
"Created? How do you mean, created? I've spent almost six months working with him."
"You worked with me. Neil was my on-line image. I created a self-contained, reactive virtual world for him. The apartment: tables, chairs, window with shutters, everything. And he was just a talking head. Speaking my words. Spitting out my software. Neil is me."
It was several moments before Lauren could find her voice. "I've been working with a computer construct. For six months."
"Right. But a live, interactive one. And we've worked well together. But today...."
"What in God's name happened today? It was like a closed loop, and I couldn't shake Neil -- the image -- out of it."
"It's worse than that. I need you to call in to your ISP and tell them to power down their computer system, purge all the memory. Wipe the slate clean. Neil had built-in failsafes. My computer acted up this morning, and now -- now he's uploaded himself to your ISP's server."
"Sure, I can do that. They know something's screwed up, so they've probably done it already. But are you sure that'll fix things? Can you bring Neil up again once they clear him from their system?"
"I hope it's that simple. But Lauren, I told you I was scared. Not of meeting you, or of having to reinstall my software. I'm scared because Neil was programmed to back himself up here, not out on the Net. And if he's installed himself on one server -- "
" -- how do we know he hasn't branched out to all kinds of other sites," Lauren finished.
"Exactly. And there's just one other thing. In Neil's apartment, there was no kitchen."
© 2008 Roderick D. Turner
Bio: Roderick D. Turner has been actively writing fiction since 1990. To date he has written one novel and over 80 short stories. Two of his stories have been published in paper or electronic form, and another recently reached the quarterfinals in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the FutureContest.
E-mail: Roderick D. Turner
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