|1. A new partner
The interface room was a rather unappealing, institutional space, used for interfacing Avatar Agents into the virtual Webscape system. Gray-green paint covered the walls and the ceiling, and the pock marked linoleum flooring showed its age. Physiology monitoring equipment lined the walls on all sides.
Vera Butler, my new rookie partner, sat next to me in her own dental-style chair. Since I was one of the most experienced Avatar Agents in the department, the Director had been saddling me with raw recruits for training purposes. So far I had washed out three rookies, but there seemed to be an endless stream of them. Vera, however, was not a garden variety rookie. Her emerald green eyes and pretty girl-next-door face were captivating. She was tall but rather skinny in that malnourished runway model way. She would be a nice package with a few more donuts in her.
Doctor Malcolm Peabody ambled in with his usual loose limbed energetic stride and said, “Another victi--I mean, rookie to train, Kenny?”
“Hey doc. Yeah, this is Vera, my new partner.”
Looking down at Vera he said, “Pleased to meet you, Vera. Hmmm, the skin around your neck jack looks a bit swollen. Is it new?”
“Yes, I had an older model jack. They told me I had to get it upgraded to qualify for this job.”
“Then--you haven’t used the new high band width interface system before?”
“No, this is my first time. I hear it’s quite an intense experience.”
“That it is. Well then, since you’re new to this system, a brief safety lecture is in order. The high band width of this system creates a full immersion experience that is a lot more intense than you are probably used to. That creates an advantage for law enforcement agents. It gives you in-system speed, agility, and access to far more virtual weaponry and shielding than the casual user and hacker. The down side is that it has been known to cause death. The leading theory is that the mind becomes so engrossed in the virtual environment that it gradually loses its sense of body function. The shortest time period that has caused death was just over eleven hours of continuous system immersion. For that reason we limit immersion to eight hours.”
Vera pondered for a moment. “So, you would pull us out at eight hours then?”
“No, we can’t do that. Involuntary withdrawal has caused insanity and even death in some cases. We will alert you when eight hours has expired on the outside, but you must be the one to pull yourself out of the system.” Seeing her expression of concern, Malcolm said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be watching over you for your first hop. You’ll be fine.”
“What about my avatar? I haven’t built a law enforcement avatar to use. I have my personal one, but that’s not likely to be much use.”
“We always build enforcement virtual persona, or avatars, from personal avatars because of user familiarity. You will find that we’ve made a few enhancements to your avatar. Kenny here will show you the additional features. Are you ready to begin?”
We both nodded in agreement and reclined in the chairs. Malcolm plugged thick fiber optic cables into each of our neck jacks. After a moment, Vera looked over at me with a confused expression. “Nothing’s happening…I’m still here.”
Malcolm smiled as he touched a monitor. “Not for long…”
2. Vera in Wonderland
I emerged into the Webscape’s enforcement office before Vera. In many ways it was a mirror of the interface room, but the differences were far more noticeable. Colors were on steroids; everything just popped with intense color. Edges were hard. Surfaces were perfect, without blemish or signs of wear. But by far the most amazing difference were the people. I’ve always been fascinated by the avatars people create for themselves. Since they are a reflection of who people think they are, or want to be, avatar designs range from flamboyant to downright scary. Avatars that look like normal people are extremely rare. Vera’s avatar lay motionless in her virtual couch, and my jaw dropped when I saw it.
Vera’s avatar resembled nothing less than a giant hedgehog. A roundish body with spines sticking out everywhere, and a dark snout. As she opened her emerald green eyes, I realized that they were her only recognizable feature. I said, “Um—please tell me that that’s not your usual avatar…”
She looked down at her…paws. The sounds that came out of her mouth were somewhat garbled, but I thought I heard her say, “What the hell….?”
I heard a muffled snort come through the communications console. In a loud voice I said, “Malcolm, this isn’t funny. I’m going to send her back through so that you can fix your mess.” Then a completely unexpected thing happened. Vera’s avatar began to morph into a different shape right before my eyes. In slow motion her torso elongated, her spines retracted, and she gradually began to resemble my partner again. She was briefly naked on the couch, but she didn’t stop at her normal shape and appearance. She filled out in a very sexy way, thigh high leather boots appeared, a red mini-skirt and halter top, her hair changed from brown to flaming red and lengthened down to her waist. Metal studs popped up all over her clothing, what little there was of it. A dragon tattoo appeared on her left bicep and did continual pirouettes around her arm. The effect was entirely mesmerizing.
I said, “Malcolm, are you doing this?”
Malcolm, his voice sounding slightly strangled said, “My God…no. I haven’t touched a thing.”
Vera turned to me, and amazement was clearly visible on her face. One word at a time I said “Vera, what—did—you—just--do? I have never seen anyone do that before.”
She looked down at her transformed hands. “I’ve always been able to do small transformations, like making my fingernails and hair longer on the fly, but never anything like this. I’m as amazed as you. Maybe the high band width of this interface is amplifying that ability.”
Malcolm’s voice boomed into the room from the console. “There’s no source code in her avatar for this. The way Webscape is set up, avatars should be static from the moment they enter. And there was no increase in her data traffic as she did it.”
I said, “Vera, you’ve got to teach me how to do that.”
She looked me up and down. With her eyebrows raised she said, “Now why on earth would you want to change that. You—look—mighty—fine. Although I could do without the blue hair.”
I looked down at myself, then back at Vera. “Hey, I’ve got to fit in here too you know. I can’t be the best undercover avatar cop if I actually look like one.”
I took Vera next door into the armory. Gizmos, weapons and shields of all sorts lined the walls. Picking a shield about the size of a trash can lid off the shelf, I said, “All the equipment in this room exist as source code, and manifest themselves here as physical objects. Your avatar has been modified to permit interfacing with them.”
She said, “Ugh, I don’t want to lug all this stuff around.”
“Ah, but you see that’s the beauty of it. Pick the item you want, and concentrate on the avatar command ‘integrate’”. Holding up the shield I did exactly that, and it promptly disappeared. If I want to use it, I call it to mind and concentrate on the avatar command ‘deploy’.” The shield popped back into existence.
“Sweet.” Vera picked up an ominous looking short barreled weapon. “What’s this?”
“That my dear, is a derez gun. That’s short for de-resolution. At the low intensity setting, the victim’s avatar is deleted over the course of about a minute. That gives the avatar’s operator enough time to safely exit the system before the avatar is completely deleted.”
“And on high?”
“Remember when Malcolm said that involuntary withdrawal from Webscape has caused insanity or death? The recipient of a full intensity blast from the derez gun is forced into an immediate disconnect from the Webscape. It’s basically the same thing and the consequences are the same, insanity or death.”
Vera’s face contracted in concentration, and the gun disappeared into her hand. A moment later it popped back into existence.
I put my hand out and said, “You won’t be carrying that for a while. They don’t let you carry one without special training, and then you have to pass the qualification test.”
Chagrinned, Vera gingerly placed it in my hand. “So what can I carry?”
“For now just defensive equipment, which is everything along this wall. Let’s go out onto the practice floor and I can show you how to use dummy armament.”
I spent the next several hours showing her the various dummy armaments, and how to use them. In turn, she tried to teach me her morphing technique. She was a great teacher, but the most I could do was grow a tiny wart on the back of my hand. It wasn’t even close to what she could do.
And there was something exceptionally attractive about her avatar. When it finally dawned on me what it was, I asked, “Vera, are you broadcasting virtual pheromones?”
She looked up, startled. “Oh crud, I forgot. I’m sorry. My avatar’s set up to broadcast by default. I’ll turn it off, but first tell me—how does it make you feel?”
I thought for a moment. “Like a kitten drooling over a dish of warm milk.”
Vera snorted, “Then I guess I’d better turn it off.”
I could feel it the moment she did, and I immediately missed the sensation. I said, “Umm, could you turn it back on, maybe on low?”
She beamed at me. “My pleasure.”
3. Training Ground
I didn’t see Vera for another week, as she was undergoing intensive training and indoctrination into the specifics of avatar enforcement. Her degree in criminal justice was good preparation for the job, but she had a long way to go before she was promoted to avatar field agent. While that training would go on for several more months, she was scheduled to join me once a week in the field as a kind of job shadow. In the meantime, I practiced her morphing technique. I was making some small progress, too. Now I could grow my fingernails, albeit one at a time.
I was already awake in the Webscape’s enforcement office when Vera’s avatar appeared for our next weekly session. I should have been ready, but how can you be ready for the abrupt appearance of an Emperor penguin. “Malcolm…”
Vera wasted no time in morphing into her normal avatar. Once again I had the pleasure of observing the intermediate stage of her morphing process. I could tell that she was broadcasting on low, and surmised she was doing it for my benefit. Not that I minded. Oh no, I didn’t mind in the least.
Vera said, “Malcolm, must you be so crass?”
Malcolm’s voice echoed through the room from the console. “My apologies dear lady, I meant no disrespect. I merely did it to get a careful recording of your morphing technique. We hope to understand it enough to develop an enforcement tool.”
“Yeah? Well next time just ask, OK?
In the armory we each picked up our gear. I integrated three offensive type weapons out of the thirty or so available. At one time or another I had used them all, but by now I knew what worked best. Then I integrated a number of scanners and shields.
Vera was done integrating her defensive armaments by the time I turned around. She said, “Can’t I have some kind of weapon. How about a knife?” I shook my head. “Brass knuckles?” I shook my head again. “A squirt gun?” I chuckled. “Sure, a squirt gun would be fine.”
“Before we head out into Webscape today, I need to give you a few ground rules. First, keep a bit of distance from me—you don’t want to be so close that you can’t see in every direction. Second, if you need to tell me something privately, talk to me through the comm channel, and don’t move your avatar’s lips. And last, try to look like you are here for a reason. Nothing screams cop more than someone scanning the crowd.”
I had one more thing to integrate before we hit the streets. I picked up a gold disk about the size of a quarter, integrated it, then deployed it.
Vera stared at me for a long moment, then said, “A gold lamé suit to go with your blue hair. Now you’ll fit right in. In fact, I think I can see myself in it. Maybe I’ll wear something that matches.” With that she morphed her own mini skirt and halter top into an equally dazzling silver lamé. “Let’s start a new fashion trend.”
I wanted to protest, but she briefly turned up her broadcasting up to full blast, and I was momentarily discombobulated. “Not fair, not fair.” Even though she turned it down again, her double-wide smile had the same effect on me.
4. Life on the Streets of Webscape
Webscape is a massive place. Like a hundred New York cities all rolled into one, and three times as dense. Dress that up in Las Vegas lights, and you haven’t even scratched the surface. It wasn’t unusual for first time visitors to get sick from disorientation. The streets, buildings, people, signs—everything was slightly translucent. If you looked hard enough at the street, you could see lower street levels below you. Ditto if you stared up. Virtual dinosaurs roamed the streets gobbling up the unwary avatars. Of course they didn’t die; their avatars were just instantly transported to the Dino theme park. Giant hands emerged from voyeur parlors and hauled avatars in. All legal in the Webscape so long as the avatars weren’t held longer than a minute against their desires, weren’t prevented from withdrawing from the Webscape entirely, and weren’t derezzed.
Vera stared around her in utter astonishment. “I’ve been here loads of times, but it’s never been like this. So… seamless, so…smooth. My old neck jack’s low band width made everything jerky. This is bloody amazing.”
“If you’re trying to look like a tourist, you’re succeeding. Have a care though; tourists are the ones the dinos eat.”
“So, what are we looking for?”
“Well, while the Webscape is pretty safe from a health perspective, your money is just as real here as it is outside. Your retirement fund can be gone in an instant if you aren’t careful. Today, we’ll start with the simple offenders. Deploy your A4 scanner.”
As I deployed mine, the layers of visual deception applied by individual avatars peeled away. Avatars lost all but their most basic appearance. Horns, plumage feathers, tattoos, gaudy clothing all vanished, leaving just the basic avatar. A glowing number about the size of a fist appeared in the middle of each avatar’s chest.
Vera said, “Oh yuck, everyone seems so—ordinary. What a bummer. What are those glowing numbers?”
“The number is the avatar’s registration identifier, and its glow is a representation of the data traffic, or transfer rate through the link with the controlling mind. Blue means low, and white means high.”
I glanced over at Vera. To my astonishment, her appearance was completely unaffected by the scanner. “Vera, how come I can still see your full avatar appearance?”
“Huh? Really? Well maybe it has something to do with my morphing ability. As Malcolm said, it’s not part of my avatar code, so maybe the scanner can’t see through it.” Looking at me she said, “Awww, I really miss the gold lame.”
I looked down at myself. “Me too.”
“So we’re looking for what?”
“Hustler’s use tricks to deceive their prey, just like in the real world. As a matter of fact, I see a likely candidate now. Come on.”
Vera followed me to a small crowd gathered about an avatar standing on a small platform.
“…and Gentlemen. Prepare to be amazed. I stand before you completely unadorned by avatar deception. And yet I, a shaman of the Ungati Tribe, can read the thoughts of each and every one of you.” A murmur went through the small crowd and they began to pull away, most thinking him a charlatan, others not wanting their innermost secrets revealed in public.
He went on, “Or, you can ask me anything about anyone else here.” While most kept on going, three couples remained before him, and one of each couple seemed to be restraining their partner. “All for the miniscule price of 100 creds per question.” Two more couples gave up and went on their way, leaving a man and his apparent girlfriend. He touched palms with the shaman, transferring the money. “And what is it that you wish to know, kind sir?”
He looked at his girlfriend, then looked back at the shaman. “Has she ever slept with my roommate?” She scowled and tried to pull away, but he held her fast.
Using the comm channel, I told Vera “Watch the data traffic glow of his registration number.”
The shaman raised his arms and stared intently at the woman. His data traffic glow flared to brilliant white.
I said, “The only time it’s possible to get data speeds that high are when avatars are running outside code. He’s running a search algorithm. Hang back and watch. I’m going to take him down.”
Turning on my direct link to the Director, I said, “Sir, we have observed avatar Six-Alpha-Romeo-Four-Nine engage in deception with the intent to defraud. Do you concur?”
Half a minute went by as I awaited the Director’s response. I knew that he was scanning the shaman’s system log. During that time the shaman pronounced his answer, and a fight broke out between the couple. They each stormed off in different directions. The Director said, “Concur. Permission granted to derez.”
The shaman looked my way and said, “And you sir, did you want a reading?”
I grabbed Vera’s arm and pulled her up to the platform with me. “Yes sir, I would.” I placed my hand up, and the shaman reached out and touched my palm to transfer money. He didn’t get any. Instead, the hand that touched mine began to derez. The smooth skin was replaced by roughly drawn pixels, then the hand became translucent. He stared at his hand, and watched with horror as it spread up his arm. I said, “By authority of the Avatar Enforcement Bureau, you have been convicted of deception with the intent to defraud. Your avatar and all related code is being permanently deleted from the system. You have one minute to withdraw from Webscape. Failure to do so will result in insanity or your death. Have a nice day.” I turned away and pulled Vera with me. The Shaman screamed obscenities at me from behind. Realizing he was wasting what little time he had, he withdrew from Webscape. His avatar popped like a soap bubble, and he was gone.
Vera turned to me. “Have a nice day? You said--have a nice day? I love it! By the way, how did you derez him like that?”
I smiled at her. “Once you’re an agent you’ll be able to integrate a contact derezzer, which is what I used. It’s just as powerful as a derez gun, but you have to actually contact the avatar. When used on the low setting, which is what I just did, it’s the quickest, least disruptive, and safest method for the person behind the offending avatar.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the speed of due process when it comes to avatars.”
I said, “Having and using avatars is a privilege, not a right. You abuse it, you lose it. It’s that simple.”
“Remind me to be a good little girl in here while you’re around.”
With a wink I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I might make an exception for you.”
5. The assignment
While Vera was elsewhere getting her training, I practiced her morphing technique. I was beginning to get the hang of it. It was nothing like running auxiliary avatar code or integrating virtual weapons. It was more like visualizing what you wanted, and pouring yourself into that image. The visualization was the hard part, because you had to keep a full picture in your mind of what you wanted, and then simultaneously pour yourself into it. If you lost concentration while morphing, the normal avatar code would kick back in. Whatever you were morphing would pop back to normal. Once a change was done though, it stayed all by itself. And it was very easy to change that part to something else once it wasn’t part of the normal avatar. With hard concentration I could now change any feature of my avatar, but just one feature at a time.
The Director was sitting at his big mahogany desk when Vera and I walked in and sat in his visitor’s chairs. He said, “Thanks for coming. I’ve been watching you Kenny. You’ve been practicing that morphing technique. Malcolm is still baffled by it. How does it work?”
“I have no technical explanation for it, and I have to concentrate extremely hard to make it work at all. Vera here makes it look effortless. I’m not sure I can even explain how it works. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Can’t Malcolm plug in some auxiliary code into our avatars to monitor the change? Maybe that would provide some clues.”
“Maybe so. If you’re willing to do it, I’ll mention the possibility to Malcolm and see what he can come up with. In the meantime, I have a job for both of you.”
In unison Vera and I said, “Both of us?”
“Yes. Although you’re not fully trained yet Vera, your unique abilities have given us a golden opportunity. We’ve been trying to catch a certain avatar for two years now, but he comes up clean whenever observed. His misdeeds have been thoroughly documented by verbal account after they occurred, but nothing concrete has shown up in the system logs. We think he’s running some new kind of cleanup code. To get him, we need to catch him in the act.”
Vera looked excited. “Do I get to carry a gun?”
In some ways my assignment was harder than Vera’s. We both had to morph our avatars, but I had never tried anything remotely like this. It took me a full three hours to get it right, one piece at a time. The in-between stages must have been hilarious, at least to hear Malcolm’s sniggering. Malcolm said that there were no avatar templates for these specialized body shapes, and building and integrating them with our normal avatars would have taken weeks of preparation and training to use them. Malcolm’s practical jokes on Vera were more like avatar costumes than useful avatars. This way was far simpler, or at least that’s what they told us. Like they knew anything about morphing. From my perspective, this was a bitch. Law enforcement had never used unusual avatar body shapes before because of these problems. That was all about to change, and it gave us a huge advantage.
Vera whipped me across my snout with her tail. Words were impossible in these three inch mouse bodies, so we had to either squeak at each other or use the comm channel. In this case I squeaked at her. It just felt right somehow. Vera squeaked back in short barks that sounded like laughter.
Through the comm channel in my best drill sergeant voice I said, “Agent Vera Mouse, a-tennnn-shun”. She sat bolt upright on her hind paws, snout pointed at the ceiling, her tail pointing straight back from her body. “Sir.”
“Private, you’re fur looks like you’ve been in the garbage cans again. And do I smell rotten fish on your breath? You’re a disgrace to the species. Don’t you agree, Private Vera?”
“Sir, yes sir”
“I can’t hear youuuu.”
“SIR, YES SIR!”
Then she turned on her pheromone broadcasting full blast. Never in my life have I ever been attracted to a mouse. And I hope I never will be again. Yuck. Vera’s laughter crackled across the comm channel.
7. On His Tail
Vera followed on my tail. Literally. We made our way along Webscape back alleys, generally making our way to the lower levels. We had to avoid getting kicked by visitors several times. You couldn’t get physically damaged while in Webscape, but it could definitely hurt. A lot. People seemed to forget that anything living in Webscape had to be human directed. I guess instinct takes priority.
Vera asked, “So who is the target?”
“The avatar we are after goes by the name ‘Katana’”
“As in the Japanese sword?”
“Yes. We think he fancies himself a modern day Samurai, or maybe he likens his work to cutting people away from their money. We aren’t sure, and it probably doesn’t matter.”
“So how do we find him?”
“Not easily. We know he has spent a fortune accumulating and building a huge virtual wardrobe of avatar bodies. We never know what he’s going to look like until after he has struck and is long gone. The only thing he leaves in his system logs is an extremely high data traffic rate. Since few people use it consistently that high, we may be able to spot him by the brightness of his registration number. He also has been stealing and using other people’s avatar registration numbers, so we haven’t been able to track him that way.”
“Is that all we have to go on?”
“No. His modus operandi is to build new, apparently clean businesses, promote the most outrageous products with high salivary factors and even higher price tags, take advance orders along with payments, then disappear. Webscape is fertile ground for him because he can promise the world in here with special effects, and it costs him very little.”
“Sweet. Any leads?”
“Just one, but it’s very promising. That’s why the Director assigned this to us. A new business has just sprung up that calls itself “Immortality”. They claim to be able to remove the brain at the time of death, place it in a sealed vessel that sustains brain function, and link it into Webscape. Presumably people can live forever in Webscape that way. The usual eight hour limit doesn’t apply since there is no body to die on the flesh side of the link.”
“Sounds ghoulish. Why would anyone want to do that?”
“Probably desperation. Ah, here we are.”
The virtual building was, in a word, hideous. A giant brain the size of a six story building sat wetly on a circular base along the thoroughfare. Two giant eyeballs were suspended in front of it, connected to the brain by optic nerves. The eyeballs rotated to follow avatars on the thoroughfare. All in all, it was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen in Webscape. And yet a steady stream of avatars walked through the doors into the base of the thing.
Vera stared dumbfounded at the building. “You have got to be kidding me. That thing is horrid.”
“Right. Follow me.” A man with an eager expression on his face stared up at the brain, then approached the doors. We followed silently behind, and slipped through the doors before they could close behind him. We slipped stealthily into a corner to observe. Vera said, “Watch me.” I turned and saw her change color to perfectly match the beige floor. I concentrated to do the same, and somewhat to my surprise I managed it fairly easily.
The room looked like a doctor’s waiting room. All the seats were taken, and several people were standing. The man we had followed in was at the reception desk filling out a form. A female avatar in a nurse’s uniform entered the lobby from a side door, looked down at a chart and said, “Mr. Anderson?” An extremely elaborate avatar featuring clothing of the most intricate embroidery stood up and followed her through a door. We followed at a discrete distance, making sure we weren’t observed. Over the comm channel I said “turn on your A4 scanner.”
As I turned on mine, I looked over at Vera. Not surprisingly, she still looked like a mouse. No glowing registration number marked her chest either. She said “Hey, Kenny. You’re still a mouse.”
“Huh? What?” I looked down at myself through the scanner. Sure enough, paws and fur. “That’s not possi…” I stopped myself. Of course it was possible - Vera was a living example. I just never thought anyone but Vera would ever be able to do it, least of all me.
Vera and I followed Mr. Anderson into a large examination room. We slipped into the shadows under a visitor’s chair. A thin, silver haired avatar dressed in surgical whites occupied a seat next to a bank of physiological monitors. He said, “Mr. Anderson, I presume?” The man nodded. “Welcome to Immortality. I’ll be your Doctor, and I have your chart right here. I do not see anything that would prevent the procedure from being successful. How long has your primary care physician given you?”
Mr. Anderson looked decidedly uneasy. In a halting voice, he said, “I…my doctor says I have two months, tops.”
“Well, we should have no trouble accommodating you, Mr. Anderson. We’ll run a few tests, and then give you instructions on when and where to meet our surgical team. On your way out please stop in our financial office to make the arrangements. You understand our fee schedule?”
“Yes, it’s a bit steep, but I’ll have no use for the money when I’m dead anyway.”
The doctor looked amused, “Quite so.”
The doctor had the man lie back on an inclined couch, and fitted a hemispherical device over Anderson’s head.
Over the comm channel, I said, “Vera, this is all smoke and mirrors. There is no way he can do any sort of physiological testing through the man’s avatar. It’s just not possible. And look at his data traffic rate. It’s off the scale. Time to call the Director.”
Turning on my direct link to the Director, I said, “Sir, we have observed avatar Four-Gamma-Alpha-Twenty-Eight engage in deception with the intent to defraud. He is a perfect match to the profile of Katana. Do you concur?”
Dead silence on the Director’s channel. Just then a loud siren went off, and two burly avatars dressed in orderly smocks came running into the room. “Doc, our sensors just picked up and blocked unauthorized data traffic coming from this room.”
Katana’s eyes narrowed. With a snarl he said, “Check all the patients. And take Anderson here to another examination room and make sure it isn’t him. Look for anything out of the ordinary.” One orderly dragged a frightened Mr. Anderson out of the room, but his foot snagged on the chair we were under, knocking it over. We were exposed. Katana screamed and pointed. “There! Get ‘em”.
Vera squealed and ran for all she was worth for the door. The orderly was too quick though and managed to grab her tiny mouse body with both hands. As I backpedaled into a corner, the orderly held Vera up to show to Katana. A morphed spiny projection erupted from the back of the orderly’s hand. He screamed in pain and dropped Vera, who shot through the door with blazing speed.
Katana yelled, “You idiot! It’s just pain in Webscape. Forget that one. Help me get this one.”
While the orderly made sure I had no avenue of escape, Kantana reached down and grabbed my avatar body around the middle with both of his hands. He squeezed with all his strength, and while it hurt like hell there was no way he could actually hurt me short of derezing my avatar. He screamed in my face, “Who are youuuu!” There was only one thing I could do. I deployed my contact derezzer, and set it on high power. Since his avatar was already in contact with mine, the effect was instantaneous. Both of his hands erupted in a brilliant blue light. With blazing speed the light ate all the way up his arms and engulfed his entire avatar. He screamed, but there was no way he could withdraw from his avatar. Half a second later his avatar pulsed in a flash of blinding light, and vanished.
I fell and hit the floor with a smack. I was a bit dazed from the discharge of the full power contact derezzer, but at least I had the presence of mind to bolt for the door. All the screaming had scared the clientele in the reception area, and as I got there the last of them were making a fast exit. I shot through the closing doors and out onto the thoroughfare.
Through the comm I said, “Vera, where are you?” No answer. I tried several times but got no response. I tried the Director’s channel again, but got nothing. Now I was getting worried. Assuming that Vera would make for the enforcement office, I ran back as fast as my little legs would go.
9. Observing the Dead
Twenty minutes later I was back in the Webscape enforcement office. Vera was there and had already morphed back into her usual avatar body. Since morphing something that had already been morphed had been easy before, I concentrated on my entire normal avatar shape. I held that image in my mind, and poured myself into it. This was the first time I had tried a full scale morph, and I wished I had kept my eyes closed. From my perspective, the room appeared to shrink around me at an alarming rate. But it worked. Within moments I was back to my normal size and shape.
Vera looked relieved. “I thought you were a goner. What the hell happened after I got out? Are you OK? I couldn’t reach you through the comm.”
“I’m Fine. When he grabbed me, I deployed my contact deresser on high. Katana’s either gone psycho or he’s dead. I don’t care which. And the comm system seems to be completely down. I couldn’t reach the Director either. By the way, pretty impressive, that thing you did with the spike. Remind me not to hug you too tightly.”
She smiled at me, and lay down in the chair. It wasn’t absolutely necessary to withdraw from Webscape in the chairs, but she seemed to prefer it. She said, “See you on the other side”, and closed her eyes.
Nothing happened. Half a minute went by, and still nothing happened. Vera opened her eyes and with a tremble in her voice said, “Something’s wrong.” Raising her voice she said, “Malcolm, what’s going on. Why can’t I get back?”
Through the console Malcolm said, “Hang on, let me get down to the interface room and do some checking.”
Vera got out of her chair and came over to hug me. “Shit, I think I’m screwed.”
The minutes dragged on in silence. Vera hung onto me the whole time. Finally Malcolm said, “There’s a problem. And it’s not just you Vera, it’s Kenny too. Neither of you have any data traffic between your avatars and your brains.”
I said, “How can…”, but then I knew. “Oh, shit.” I turned to Vera. “Remember when I tried to contact the Director from Immortality and set off the alarm? I’ll bet they shut down all data traffic from the building except for their own and their clients. Our data traffic dropped to zero in that instant. My God, we should be dead. Or insane. In any case, we definitely shouldn’t still be here in Webscape.”
Malcolm said, “Your logs says that both of you went off line at exactly the same time. That would explain it.”
Through the console we heard alarms begin to go off, and a commotion of running feet. I turned on the video monitor, displaying the interface room in the real world. Two doctors and four nurses were clustered around our bodies performing CPR. “Clear!” My body jerked as a bolt of electricity shot through it. Moments later, “Clear!” and Vera’s body was shocked too. After two minutes of frantic activity, both resuscitation teams gave up. “Time of death…” One of the doctors looked up at the wall clock. “Three Oh Seven P.M.”
Vera sagged in my arms. In a small voice she said, “Why are we still here? I mean, in Webscape. Why aren’t we dead here too?”
“Not sure I know, but I can guess. Remember when Malcolm said that the morphing wasn’t increasing your data traffic? That can only mean you were doing it here, in Webscape. My guess is that our high system bandwidth enabled you to invest your avatar with most of your conscious mind. That enabled you to morph. Instead of your consciousness being in the real world controlling your avatar, it was here in Webscape. The Webscape system removes avatars only when they are no longer active, so you’re still here.”
“Then why are you still here too?”
“Apparently you taught me too well.”
“So we’re stuck here?”
I looked her in the eyes. “This may be selfish, but if I have to be stuck in here forever, I’m glad that you’re here with me.”
Vera looked at me and shivered. “I guess that makes me selfish too.”
I turned to the monitor, and looked at our cooling bodies. “In any case, there’s no going back.”
In a whisper, Vera said, “My God, we’ve managed to kill ourselves.”
The End. (6,337 words)
(The last line was a requirement of the contest)