email: scorpio_kaur [at] yahoo.com
The puppy half-ran, half-stumbled through the uneven ground in the graveyard. It was a yellow ball of fuzz with legs just long enough to keep its fat stomach off the grass, and completely out of place in this part of the City.
Avatars said a lot of things on looks alone. If this had been in the Entertainment Promenade, near the neon-kebab and disco lemonade stands, he'd have assumed the user behind this face was a casual player, a new kid, or someone with a really specific fetish.
It skidded to a stop at his feet, then rolled over, flailing its paws in the air. "Are you ready for some fun?" it said in the voice of a young girl. "Let’s go."
Someone who was walking around as a puppy could get their account scrambled pretty badly in the wrong alley. The person behind this avatar knew exactly what they were doing and liked to mess with teenerthugs that didn’t know any better.
He picked the puppy up and put it in the picnic basket he was carrying. He didn't have a choice.
The City was supposed to be safe for everyone now. Back in the Hey-Days, where it was all experimental and users paid big money for the opportunity to be the first to have the implant, playerkill had become a real phenomenon. There were consequences in the City back in the Days.
Then safeties were installed and users were monitored and that was the end of the Hey-Days. The cowboys moved on to wilder systems or erased their old names and ids to become 'mongers in the City, and soon it was a cheap recreational playground. Sometimes the rec was childish and fun for the user, and sometimes it wasn’t, but in the end, there were no more fatalities. Sure, the playerkillers went free, but now people only lost accounts and avatars. No one found a loved one brain-fried anymore; that didn’t make money.
"I’m looking for this." The properties flashed in front of him and then embedded in his memory. He knew the shape of what they were looking for now. He started off into the darkness.
The crypt was like the rest of the City: a better version of real life. Here, the torches flamed higher, the rats scurried louder, the water ran wetter and the air smelled more foul than anything he had ever experienced in Yan-gok. Beneath the surface of the fetid water that he slogged through, and in the stone caskets that ran along the walls, lay the old codes and files from the Hey-Days.
The City was built on the crypt and no matter how the Admins in their slick silver towers tried to clean it up, they couldn't get rid of it. Once they'd tried to erase a tomb and they'd erased over a thousand user accounts and a whole City block instead. The crypt was the foundation of the City; they couldn't get rid of the past.
The Admins could restrict it though, and the area was patrolled for people like him, people who were bored with what the City had to offer, but who weren't courageous enough to strike out and run through less regulated systems. He'd never been caught, never been thrown out, never been chased away. He knew this place better than anyone in the City.
And the puppy apparently knew it too. He'd met the avatar as he'd come out of the graveyard yesterday and before he could do a subsurface scan, the puppy had bitten him hard on the ankle. He'd felt the virus corrupting his avatar and his implant in seconds and then that was it. The puppy owned him, brainwaves and all.
He'd been in the City for over twenty four hours now, his body frozen in the implant seat in his dark apartment. He couldn't access his accounts; he couldn't interact with other users. So he'd watched. He'd watched the kids at the virtual curry stands, the users hitting shots of hardwires in the bars, the men and women sneaking into perfumed and leathered alleys to take advantage of anonymity. He'd never been so bored in his life.
Maybe that body in his apartment was grimacing or curling its hands into fists right now, but he could not do so here. He was a docile servant for the avatar in the basket.
"Are we close?" it asked.
"Are you hungry?"
"I don’t know."
"As soon as this is done, you can eat all the processed cheese you desire."
He didn't believe it. This stank of a playerkill. He was going to die in his underwear in his apartment and no one would know for days. He was suddenly glad he didn't have any pets; he wanted his corpse's face to be intact.
He slogged through the stagnant water. He stopped and listened every once in a while for patrols, not because he was afraid of getting caught, but because he was afraid of what the user in the basket would do to them.
Then he could feel it – the shape of the file. It moaned softly in his ears like a ghost, and tasted like tomb-dust in his mouth. When the moaning was a roar, and when he started to sneeze, he stopped. He felt the properties fade and the sensations with them; whatever he had known, the avatar didn’t want him to continue knowing.
"Put me down," it said and he complied. The puppy hopped out of the basket and trotted carefully through the scum-covered water. It sniffed at the walls, nosing into cracks and crevasses. Then it carefully pressed its paw against a stone, which slid aside without a sound. The crypt was bathed in light.
"Come and see," it said, and he obeyed.
It was an armored skeleton, buried with a sword and shield. And then it was a string of numbers and commands. And then it was the dead king again, only he wasn't a skeleton now. He was a man with sandstone skin and long dark hair, wearing a crown. He could see the string of numbers set as jewels in the hilt of the sword and the commands etched in the shield.
Questions bubbled to his lips, but he couldn’t ask them. He could only observe, trying to memorize it all so that when he went to the Admins, they could understand. And then they could find this person and make him or her pay for doing this to him, for using him like a puppet.
"Perfect. Beautiful and perfect," the puppy breathed. It touched its nose to the sword.
He swore that the corpse opened its eyes before it all disappeared, leaving an empty tomb where the skeleton had been. The puppy jumped back into the basket and he picked it up, and they left.
When they walked out of the crypt, the sun was coming up. It would go back down in a half an hour; it was always dark in the graveyard.
He waited for the final blow. Would he see a light before the electricity in his brain scrambled or would it fade to gray, then black? Would it hurt? He couldn’t tremble; he wondered if his eyes were crying at nothing in his dark apartment.
The puppy cocked its head to the side and said, "Thank you."
Then it jumped out of the basket ran as fast as its fat legs could carry it. He could not follow and he stood at the entrance of the crypt for another few hours. As soon as he felt the virus fade, he logged off.
The implant chair stank of sweat and urine. Thirst drove him first and the leather pulled at the back of his legs when he got up to go to his kitchenette. He drank straight from the faucet and then threw water onto his face. He was famished and went for leftovers in his fridge.
While he ate his re-heated food, he realized he should tell the Admins, but he was afraid to go back to the City, afraid that once he entered again, he wouldn't get out.
He prepared an explanation for missing work. A quick glance in the mirror at his bloodshot eyes and gray tinged skin told him he could easily get away with saying he had the stomach flu, but when he checked his messages, he found a message from his boss encouraging him to stay at home until he felt better. The puppy had thought of everything.
He decided to play the sick card for another day. He stayed in, watched the television. He waited for the all-points about a cyb-atomic or a retrovirus that had corrupted every user in the City.
He woke up on his couch, in the dark. The TV flicked blue light up and around him and he caught the tail-end of the late-night news. There was a report of a glitch in the City system. He waited for it, for the death tolls, but the too-slick reimaged reporter just told everyone to stick to the main thoroughfares.
He turned off the TV. He went back to work a few days later, but he never went back to the City or anywhere else in the world-wide. He cancelled all his accounts. He did his banking in person. He paid his bills with stamps. He went to restaurants to eat instead of ordering in. He told his friends he got religion, which was an easy thing to catch in Indasia, and he stayed off everything digital.
He never, ever went underground.
Months later, as he was taking the bus to work, he fell asleep. He dreamed of Geographic, the first user-space he'd been allowed to access as a child. It was the safest space in the world-wide and it hosted all the budding geneticists and mad scientists of the next generation.
He stood in the middle of a digi-savannah, watching the gazalopes and giraphants roam jerkily across the plains, when an ebony skinned teenager, replete with tribal markings, appeared next to him. He knew it was the puppy by the way his brain froze.
"Hey. You're hard to find. I actually had to go outside to track you, virus-host. But I thought you would want to know."
He wanted to scream that he didn't, but he did. And the boy knew and kept on talking.
"The knight? It was one of the dead," he said, playing with the wooden ring piercing his lip. "One of my dead. My brother. They killed him. My parents found that piece of cooked meat in the chair and my parents mourned it."
"They didn't understand, though," the boy said fiercely. "He always told me he had a fail-safe. He was sleeping in the code. And all I had to do was wake him up again. Watch."
He had to turn and look. Colors changed. The clouds rolled smoothly and the animals moved without pixellated jumps between footstep. The gazalopes leapt higher and in tandem, the giraphants stepped and shook the ground.
This was how every child imagined Geographic was before they got their implant. This was what it should have always been.
"That's my brother,” the boy said proudly. He shook his spear at the sun. “There!"
And in the sun, he saw a face. Or a skeleton. Or a jewel. And the sun was hot and the air smelled of animals and dust and he could feel his sweat on his face. This was not a digi-savannah in Geographic; this was Old Africa. It was perfect and it was beautiful.
He woke up on the bus. Someone was exiting at the front. He pushed the other passengers aside and tried to chase after the departing person, but he felt lightning in his head. He grabbed onto a metal pole and held on. By the time the pain faded, the person was gone.
The next day, it started. At first they tried to isolate it, to write it away, but the virus moved inter-system. It would be in the City, then Geographic, then Spaceside before anyone could pin it down. And everywhere it went, things changed.
Systems ran more efficiently, sensations were stronger, and users were happier. Sometimes it panfried someone's brain, but the victim always turned out to be a playerkiller. The Admins hypothesized that some of the playerkillers had been trying to access the virus, figure it out and make it their own, but it was too much for them. No loss there. The selective murdering aside, it seemed harmless if it was left alone. So the Admins left it alone and the world-wide hummed on.
More people joined. People loved the spaces, the systems. They loved it and they stayed.
And he? He was a coward. He didn’t want to live forever, not in real-life or in the code. He had his implant taken out the next day. And he started saving for a trip to Africa.