“The first thing we gotta do,” said Bomber as they crowded together in Jock’s machinery-packed room, “is figure out how they tracked us. Every bit of ID I got is fake, even the Feds would need at least a day to match my picture to a real address. No crime org could have that capability.”
     Gina had been right about her identification of Jock. She couldn’t guess his age; his chocolate skin was free of wrinkles, but his eyes had a vicious squint to them that would suit any bitter old man. Now he sniffed, indignant, and said, “I could do it.”
     “We ain’t counting you, Jock,” Bomber growled.
     “Fine, fine.” Muttering under his breath, Jock reached for a pair of black goggles studded with electrodes and slipped them over his head. A small black wire ran from the headset into the huge bank of processors along the wall. Gina marvelled at it. This was the first time she’d seen a modern VR crown for real instead of on a TV screen, and it fascinated her. The last time she’d used VR equipment was as a little girl, ten or twelve years old, in–
     No, she told herself. She didn’t want to think about that, she was done with all of it, all the old things dead and buried.
     Furtive fingers passed her a crown of her own, and Bomber helped her put it on. “Jock hates spectators,” he explained. Jock only grunted.
     “What was all that about owing the Emperor a favour?” she asked, only an hour late. Bomber looked at her silently through the semi-transparent goggles. Then Jock threw a switch, and they exploded into another universe.
     Everyone in the modern world knew about this place. It had been described to her a thousand times in exquisite detail, but now it proved that mere words couldn’t do it justice. The splash of riotous colour before Gina’s eyes almost blinded her. They called it ‘the Forum’, the central communications hub of the entire GlobeNet network. Rumour had it that the Forum had been around since the late 20th century as a primitive, communal bulletin board for written text. Hard to believe for someone like Gina who had grown up with the bright three-dimensional graphics of what people fondly called ‘cyberspace’. But even she had only ever experienced the Forum on a screen, like the majority of people who couldn’t afford VR. Now she was standing in the middle of it, shocked and awed.
     Everything was glitzy, glossy, shiny like plastic. When she looked up, the sky flashed advertisements at her in three different languages. Bright colours and white smiles beamed down at her from the little gods of TV. The actors were Asian, Arabian, black and white, yet so relentlessly bland that Gina couldn’t tell them apart. The only thing they said was “Buy.”
     Skyscrapers of every shape and colour towered against the neon sky, unburdened by gravity or other mundane restrictions. Orange spirals rose miles high next to straight-laced black office buildings and Roman temples more fantastic than anything the ancients could’ve imagined. Further down the street, things only got crazier. Glowing blue pyramids stacked on top of each other which constantly rearranged themselves, a medieval stone tower so tall and thin that a mild breeze would’ve knocked it over, a giant eyeball supported by columns of gooey green flesh. Geometric spheres and cubes hovered around the cityscape like blimps, shouting out their corporate logos and offering access by the illusion of long rope bridges hanging down to the surface. The only limit to their imagination was bandwidth, and bandwidth was cheap.
     “Wow,” she said, full of childish wonder at the spectacle before her. She turned to Bomber, but where she ought to find his face there were the generically handsome features of a well-known actor, all dressed up in a black tuxedo and bow-tie. Then she looked down and found herself covered by layer upon layer of thick Victorian frock. A reflection in a nearby glass panel told her that she, too, wore the carefully-sculpted and utterly generic face of a film star.
     “Here’s the rules,” said Jock. She heard both his real voice and the words vibrated into her skull by the VR crown. It sounded like an echo without background noise, the same words only separated by a slight time delay. “Don’t say your name, don’t try to touch anyone, and don’t try to change your avatar. We’re completely anonymised through fifteen nodes, so don’t fuck that up.”
     “What’s this skin I’m wearing?” Gina asked, watching the reflection as she touched her face. The flesh seemed to respond like her own.
     “Your avatar,” he replied. “‘Julia’. Half the goddamn ‘Net uses that goddamn avatar. We’ll look pretty nondescript while wearing these, a custom avatar’s a dead giveaway and a perfect lead if you want the Feds to track you down. And I am not in the mood for that.”
     Gina made an ‘ah’ with her mouth and went back to studying her reflection. She could certainly understand wanting to avoid attention from the Feds, also known as the Federal Police or, more colloquially, the government’s jackbooted enforcers, stormtroopers and secret police all rolled into one.
     She didn’t much want to think about them, though, and her attention was quickly drawn back to the incredible simulation. Even her fingertips believed the illusion as she ran her fingers along the mirrored glass — she could feel everything, the crown sent a convincing sensation of force-feedback into her brain. Now she understood how people got VR addiction. Tearing herself away from the face she wore, she feasted her senses on the places around her, trying to take in and comprehend as much as she could.
     The entrance area resembled a garden gazebo encased in glass, and the path leading out of it looked like real gravel, disappearing into the perpendicular black line of the central avenue. She immediately knew it for what it was, recognised it from a thousand bad TV dramas. Main Street.
     Even from a distance, Main Street was perhaps more shocking than the skyline. Literally hundreds of avatars crisscrossed it in every direction, a river of human and inhuman shapes flowing both ways. Gina wondered how they kept it from getting congested, then saw it explained as a large walking tree turned down one of the side streets. It waded through other avatars as if they were ghosts. Whenever avatars touched they simply passed through each other and turned transparent to allow their users to disentangle themselves.
     Gina had to hurry to catch up when the others started down the path. There was something unnatural about their gait, subtle cues that broke the illusion of reality. Every step they took was the same and their identical avatars moved at exactly the same speed. There was no variation, no hint of individuality at all.
     “You two’ll need names to get onto Main Street,” Jock said. “They’re important. Pick one.”
     Bomber’s avatar shrugged. “I’ll stick with ‘Bomber’.”
     “Beauty,” Gina murmured. She twirled and watched the frock spin around her in a way that was almost realistic. A moment later she noticed Bomber’s nickname floating over his head. The letters popped into existence whenever she looked at him, and disappeared again when she turned away. That’d be a handy feature in real life!
     Jock rubbed his hands together and snapped his fingers. “Done. Follow me.”
     “Where are we headed?” asked Bomber.
     “Everywhere,” Jock said with a thin smile.

***

     Main Street faded into a distant echo as Jock led them off the central avenue and into a side alley. Despite its utterly clean appointments and plentiful sunlight, there was something shady about that alley. It reminded Gina of places leading off the Street of Eyes. The kind where the old-timers told the greenhorns gross-out stories about whose toes and fingers you could find if you looked in the storm drains.
     She was so busy looking at the tall, dark office-type structures around her — they were so drab and lifeless they had to be Fed buildings — that she almost missed Jock pulling a small credit card out of his pocket. He slotted it straight into the wall and said something she couldn’t make out, a password of some kind. A hole appeared just large enough for them to step through and Jock beckoned them inside.
     The building was apparently empty. The three of them stood in a space as large as a football field, two stories high, which contained nothing except a single computer terminal in the middle of the room. Gina snorted at the irony, a computer terminal inside VR. They approached it while the wall closed itself behind them, sealing them in.
     “Don’t ever tell anyone we were here,” Jock said curtly. He took his place at the terminal like a master pianist getting ready to punch out a symphony.
     “Where is here exactly?” asked Gina. She positioned herself so that she could look over his shoulder.
     “Fed database, logs of everything that’s ever happened on the ‘Net. I hacked in that entrance when I was thirteen. It’s crude but it works.”
     Gina allowed herself to look impressed. “So you could, like, take people’s passwords from here? Or see their credit card numbers, or how much money they’re stealing from the boss, or find out the name of the prime minister’s mistress?”
     “Yep,” Jock replied. “They let the Feds monitor pretty much anything nowadays. Some of the stuff in this database is so hot, maybe five people in the world have full access to it. Officially.” He smiled. “And now we’re going to find the source of your little problem. We can talk freely here, the room is clear.”
     A wave of his hand summoned three floating displays into the air, flickering blue screens like holograms, all requesting a password. Jock slotted his card into the console and the password request disappeared, replaced by a gateway into the deepest guts of the system. The interface was grey, basic and functional, typical Fed design, and it gave its user the power to do anything. After this Jock’s hands moved too fast for Gina to follow.
     “Let’s see where you’ve been, buddy.” He sifted through the data with quick motions of his wrists and fingers, absorbing it all with near-superhuman speed. “Got some camera footage from the Hilton. Looks like your friends already raided your room, made a real mess. Hope you didn’t leave anything there.”
     “Nothing that can’t be replaced,” Bomber replied.
     Jock nodded. “What else have we got here . . . Oh! My oh my, you’ve been a naughty boy, Simon! That was definitely you, it’s got all your hallmarks. Why Seoul?”
     “Seoul?” asked Gina. “What were you doing in Seoul?”
     A warning growl rumbled out of Bomber’s throat, and Gina was instantly reminded of his stone-carved face half-hidden in the dim lantern light, moments after he’d executed two people in cold blood. A cold shudder crept up her spine. Bomber said dangerously, “None of your damned business. Either of you.”
     “Fine, fine.” Jock continued the search, unworried. He had a powerful crime lord backing him and no cause to feel intimidated. More data flashed on the screens, scraps of video footage and grainy photos. Gina couldn’t imagine anyone’s brain working fast enough to follow all of it. It was as chaotic and disturbing as poking around inside someone else’s head.
     “Here we go!” Jock zoomed in on several highlighted lines of figures, access records and ‘Net identifiers. “Someone has been casting for you in the past two days. Damn, he’s a quick one, too . . . He had you down to your birth records in ninety-seven minutes.”
     “All fake,” Bomber reminded him.
     “Doesn’t matter. There’s maybe three people I know who can track someone this fast, and I’m one of them.” The tuxedoed avatar rubbed its manly stubble, then pointed to a single isolated bit of shaky video. “This is where he nailed you. Amateur vid, a couple of backpackers sent their travel log to someone on the ‘Net, and there’s the pair of you going into this building here. Once he got the street name . . .”
     The scowl on Bomber’s face could’ve curdled fresh milk. “Fucking tourists.”
     “Don’t feel too bad,” Jock half-teased. “It took some serious talent to pin you down so quick. What do you say we pay him a little visit, maybe trash his system?”
     “That sounds lovely,” said Bomber with revenge in his heart.

***

     Jock pulled his card out of the console and let his arms drop, killing the screens. The next moment they were somewhere else.
     There was nothing visually affronting about the blank hallway where Gina found herself. At first glance it could’ve passed for a corridor in any number of ordinary tourist-class hotels, all drab colours and uninspiring fittings. However, the similarity broke when you looked further, noticed how the corridor stretched on and on into infinity in both directions. Gina and the others seemed to be standing in the middle of it, with endless numbered doors on either side.
     “Would it be bad if I were going to be sick right now?” she asked in a small voice.
     “Yes,” said Bomber. “Very bad.” He blinked into the distance a few times and shook his head as if to clear it. “Where the hell are we?”
     Jock stepped past Bomber and counted down the room numbers. He explained while he walked. “Visual representation. We’re inside my system, these doors are all just ports, possible connections from my machine to the one your guy’s using. Right now I’m listening very quietly to see which ports he’s got open to the ‘Net and what kind of data he’s pulling in. There’s a lot of ways to hack a system, but it’s easiest to masquerade as legit data.”
     As soon as Jock finished his sentence, a loud pinging sound rang down the hallway, and one of the doors glowed red. It seemed a mile away to Gina, much too far to walk in any kind of useful timeframe, but suddenly, with a sickening visual effect like a TV camera zooming in, the door was right in front of them. Or they were right in front of it. Gina’s brain simply wouldn’t accept this kind of motion. She caught herself on the wall, her head spinning, trying to fight the crawling sensation between her ears.
     “Come on, no time to lose,” Jock said as if there was nothing wrong. He opened the door and stepped through. Bomber took Gina by the arm and followed.
     Into blackness. Gina could still see herself and the others with perfect clarity, but she was walking on ink-black air in some no-place between computers. She felt her own footsteps distantly, as if through a haze of sedatives, all simulated by the VR crown. It carried the same subtle undercurrent of unreality. Nothing in this world existed, not the identical avatars of Jock and Bomber, not the doorway fading away behind, not even the near-perfect sensation of touch being fed into her brain.
     As they went in deeper and deeper, the dark seemed to fill with horrifying sounds and images from her experience in Gabriel’s head. The words “you shouldn’t do that” rang impossibly loud through her head, and she clamped her virtual hands over her virtual ears to try and shut them out.
     Maybe I finally pushed it too far, she wondered. One too many pills, one too many eyes. Am I going insane?
     Then it stopped. The black fell away and Gina blinked in shock as she felt sunlight on her face. Smell of fresh grass and flowers, the green glow of perfectly-rendered vegetation, all the sights and sounds of a jungle pulsing with life. All these forests were gone from the world, Gina knew, chopped down or burnt or bombed to ash. This was just a fantasy, a place that couldn’t exist in real life. But, she had to admit, it was certainly impressive as fantasies went. She reached out and held a leaf in her hand, tracing her finger along the dark, asymmetrical veins. Its intricate detail took her breath away, far more intense than anything she’d seen in VR. Her gaze travelled up along the back of her hand — her avatar’s hand, pink and perfectly-manicured — and realised she could now see every pore in the skin.
     Somewhere in the background, she heard the growing whine of Jock’s computer cooling system, struggling to cope.
     “God,” Jock said, breathless. “Who the hell coded this? It’s . . .” He gave up trying to describe it. No word in his vocabulary would do.
     “Jock? Is this supposed to happen?” Bomber asked. Even he sounded impressed.
     Jock shrugged. “This is the lobby, I think. I’ve never seen architecture like this.” He glanced around, then parted the foliage in the direction of what looked like a path. “We better move quick, tying up this much power for long won’t go unnoticed.”
     They walked, and Gina realised she could even feel the breeze on her face. Distant, but sweet all the same. Her avatar walked with supreme grace, never in danger of tripping or falling on the uneven path. It wasn’t programmed for accidents. She dragged her fingertips across the wet leaves and rubbed the dewdrops between her fingers just because she could.
     The path turned into an overgrown road of yellowed marble tiles, then into a gently curving stairway carved into the rising promontory in front of them. Gina had to stifle a gasp when they reached the top. The promontory looked out over an ocean, but not one that ever existed on Earth. The cliff they stood on was impossibly high, the drop completely vertical, the ocean such a perfect blue that it shone like a great sapphire. The distant sky burned gold with the setting sun.
     Ruined columns of the same yellowed marble lay strewn about the promontory. The centrepiece still stood, however, a small tumbledown temple right at the edge of the cliff. Once it would have been impressive, but little was left of it now, just a circle of crumbling statues arranged around an altar stone. Grass and shrubs grew out of the cracks, and colourful insects made their home in the pits and holes of the marble. It filled Gina with a powerful sense of loss, sadness, something beautiful now gone from the world.
     Again, the detail got to her. She could see every whirl of colour in the marble, every elegantly-chiselled flourish. And even more beautiful than the columns and statues was the serene marble face protruding up from the altar top, gazing sightlessly at the sky.
     “Welcome, weary travellers,” it said in an androgynous voice as smooth as silk, stone lips moving fluidly. “The Angel recognises you. Please present your offering.”
     “Our offering?” Bomber and Gina echoed in near-perfect chorus.
     “Password,” Jock said dismissively, drawing the little credit card out of his pocket. He placed it on the altar top, tapped it smartly with a finger and stepped back. Gina frowned at it. The way Jock used it, there had to be more to that card than met the eye.
     The stone face puffed out a happy sigh. “The Angel accepts your offering. Pass, and be blessed.” The card hovered off the altar top and deposited itself back into Jock’s pocket.
     A shimmering doorway of light appeared between the two farthest columns right at the cliff’s edge, a portal into another world. Gina caught a glimpse of bright colour on the other side. In the real world, anyone trying to step into that illusion would plummet screaming to their death on the rocks below, but in VR the illusion was reality.
     They moved through one by one, Jock leading the way. Gina blinked at the sudden and complete change.
     The blue sky gave way to pure black, starless, the colour of a dead monitor. The ground was the same except for a grid of silver lines drawn across it to give it perspective, like some ancient video game. The only piece of scenery was a giant blue cube hovering in the distance, larger than most mountains. It was connected to the ground only by a small silver line.
     The vastly different environment bewildered Gina, a bit lost from the new images thrown at her in rapid succession. There were no limiting factors in design or construction in VR. Anything could be built here, and anything got built here. It took another moment to adjust her senses into accepting what she saw.
     Squinting, she realised there was movement, so far away that it became hard to make out. Parts of the cube were shifting and moving around inside the main body, rearranging at lightning speed, never using the same shape twice. And, mounted on a tall pyramid on top of the cube, a lidless electronic eye surveyed the landscape from a god’s eye point of view. It turned around its axis several times while Gina watched.
     Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Jock’s ashen expression, wondering what might upset him so much. When she followed his gaze back to the cube, a surge of alarm jolted into her system. A moment later the eye abruptly stopped spinning. A deep voice boomed out of nowhere, and the eye whipped around to regard the group with terrible judgement.
     “I am the Angel’s Sword,” it said. The words choked all breath from Gina’s throat. The voice was Gabriel’s. “In His name, I recognise you. What do you require of me?”
     “Jesus Christ!” Jock shouted. He got the card out of his pocket again and yelled into it, “Run program Black Watch, condition red, execute!”
     Everything spun and whirled in front of Gina’s eyes. Agony and sickness threatened to overwhelm her as the virtual world seemed to fall away from her, tumbling into nothing. She saw Gabriel’s smile waiting for her, his skeleton city littered with ash under its dead sky. Gina cried out and violently tore off her crown. It skittered into a corner and hung limply by its wire while she curled up on the floor and wrapped her arms around her head. Fumes of burning plastic filled the room. Another fan went on somewhere, slowly sucking the smell away. The molten remains of Jock’s networking hardware congealed into a clear glass bubble by the door.
     The sound of shouts and argument intruded into her private pain. Jock’s voice was near to panic. Bomber sounded pale and rusty. She didn’t want to listen, but her ears would not obey.
     “That’s an AI!” Jock bleated like a distressed sheep. “What the hell are you messing with, Simon?! What have you done?”
     “I don’t know!” said Bomber. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
     “It’s bigger than you, Simon. It’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than me, and I don’t want anything to do with it!”
     “Come on, Jock, you’ve got to help me figure this thing out, we made an agreement.”
     “No.” Teeth chattering, Jock paced around in a circle and rubbed his hands together. “No, no, you’ve got to go. I need to get to a terminal, a public terminal to wipe out the logs. If I’m fast enough I can intercept it before it can trace anything to my connection. And then . . .” He turned on Bomber again, furious. “Out! Get out, leave me alone! And don’t come back.”
     Brow curled into a deep frown, Bomber picked Gina up in his arms and left the room, leaving Jock to grab his coat and gibber to himself in pure terror.

***

     Later, alone in the room prepared for them, Gina sipped a cup of tea and stared at the wall. It was hung with interesting tapestries, but Gina never saw them. She was much too preoccupied with her own woes. Bomber sprawled on the bottom bunk looking as deflated as Gina felt.
     A sour smile crossed her lips. “So I’ll be going home tomorrow, huh?”
     He glanced at her with his simple, guileless brown eyes. “Sure, if you wanna be hacked into a million pieces with a machete. No problem.”
     “Well, we’re not going to find out anything sitting here,” she pointed out. Her head still throbbed from the virtual nightmare. She couldn’t close her eyes anymore without seeing ash statues in the streets, smoking and crumbling in the acid rain. Small wonder she couldn’t sleep. Just lay awake shivering and sweating on her sheets.
     “Nope,” he agreed. Of course he said nothing else. Gina thought about it with black humour, and quickly lost count of the silent seconds slipping away. Finally he stirred again. “You saw somethin’ back there, didn’t you? Again?”
     Gina swallowed, putting her cup down. “Yeah.”
     “Wanna talk about it?”
     “No.”
     He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
     A flash of irritation crept up her spine. She’d been putting up with this bullshit for some twenty-four hours now, and one Bomber was just about annoying the fuck out of her. She was tired of it, all of it, pushing to her feet with wrath on her face.
     She started off at a shout, saying, “Why the fuck do you even ask if you’re not going to press for the answer?! Do you even care?! God!” It only got louder from there. “You got me into this, it’s your fault, I’ve never done any wrong to anyone! I don’t believe this! I, I just,” her voice cracked, “I want to go home . . .” A dry sob forced its way up her throat. The rush of emotions was too much to contain. Moisture filled her eyes, and she covered her face with her hands, sniffling.
     “Hey now, no need for that,” he said, standing up to put an arm around her shoulders. “Listen, we’re gonna get through this. We are. First thing, though, we gotta get you some help.” He put a finger under her chin and made her look up at him. “I think maybe you picked up somethin’ while you were inside his head. I don’t know. Somethin’ like that. D’you know if there’s anyone on the Street we could go to that knows about this stuff? That maybe can find out what happened to you?”
     Scrubbing at her eyes with the heels of her hands, she rallied herself, getting her feelings back under control. She took a deep, sniffling breath, and let it all out. It relaxed her a little.
     “Not on the Street,” she said, turned away from him to dig a paper towel out of her purse. “Someone, though. Retired. Used to show me the ropes when I was new there.”
     Bomber raised an eyebrow. “Retired? Ain’t many telepaths that make it to retirement that I know of.”
     “I know. I wasn’t planning to, myself.” She bit her lip, wondering why she’d said that. “Anyway. She might know something, if we can get to her place without running into any machetes.”
     “They’ll keep their heads down for a while. They know we’re dangerous now. No, they won’t make their move until they’re good and ready.” He seemed to reach a decision. “We’ll head on over there in the mornin’, first thing. Okay?”
     “Okay,” she said, unsure of how to show gratitude. It wasn’t something she had cause to do very often, not on the Street.
     In a rush she kissed him on the cheek and whispered, “Thanks,” then dove headlong back into her bunk without waiting for a reply, too afraid of what it might be.

4 Responses to “EMPATHY: Part 3”

  1. Sahira d'Aqua says:

    I think the word “whirl” in this section should be “whorl” – that is what would make sense. Am enjoying the story.

    • Ryan A. Span says:

      Fair point! ‘Whorl’ would probably be more accurate. It’s just that, given how long Empathy’s been in print, I’m hesitant to make corrections that would make the website content different from the paper and ink edition. However, when the whole trilogy comes out in an omnibus, this will be on the list of edits thanks to you. 😉

  2. Smurfton says:

    I’m struggling to understand something here. If your computer has melted, how can anything be traced to it after the fact?

    • Ryan A. Span says:

      Fair question! It’s about the way computer networks work, both in the current day and in my imagined future. (I don’t know how much you know about the underlying mechanics of the internet, so forgive me if this explanation seems pretty basic.) Connections between two distant computers are made by bouncing along a line of intermediary systems, leaving identifying information at each one, and their records aren’t deleted by killing your own machine. Try opening up a Windows command console sometime and running the command ‘tracert’ to a website of your choice. It’ll show you how many other machines the connection hopped or routed through to get from your computer to that website. Each one of those spots will keep a temporary log of pass-through traffic, and an AI would be able to sort through that information really quickly to identify the origin point.

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