Click. Deh-ne-ne-neh duh-nu-nu-nuh dah-na-na-nah duh-nu-nu-nuh. The bassline jolted Bill into frantic dance abandon, like it always did; the song was Debaser, by the Pixies. The dancefloor had erupted into joyous riot by the second duh-nu-nu-nuh, and Bill was surrounded by nineteen year olds in loose t-shirts, trapping him in a whirlwind of writhing flesh. Of all Bill’s hiding places, this was his favourite – a filthy basement nightclub in Liverpool, circa 1990. Heads flailed. Bodies bounced off each other. The kids were full of endorphins and strong cider, and probably other substances too. Bill screamed the lyrics, “I am un chien andalusia,” along with the kids. They knew that three minutes of music could rank amongst the happiest times of their lives. This had been one of the happiest times in Bill’s life. That was why he revisited it so often, despite the risks. He stayed for the whole two minutes and fifty-one seconds of the song, disappearing as the final note faded out.
Click. Bill collapsed into his chair, in the back row of a half-empty box at the Viennese State Opera. Breathing deep, he calmed himself after the nightclub’s cathartic chaos. The orchestra were playing the final bars of the overture. He recognized the tune; the opera was Roméo et Juliette, though he could not remember the composer’s name. Whoever the composer was, Bill was no fan of his work. Opera was too fancy for Bill’s tastes, though he felt affection for the venue. Its red and gold interior exuded a soothing warmth, which Bill was very proud of. He had been one of the team that reconstructed the opera house from blueprints and photographs. He slouched in his chair, and kicked off his sandals. In shorts and Hawaiian shirt, he was not dressed appropriately for the occasion, or the era, but he could not be bothered to change. A young couple sat in the front row of the box; the remaining three seats were empty. Judging by the couple’s appearance, this recreation was set in the 1920’s, a hypocritical decade that embraced debauchery, crime and class division. As a result, the 1920’s were very popular with players.
Bill did not understand the words. He could not tell if the performers sung in German, or some other language. But language did not matter. Bill had not come to listen, or to talk. He wanted to sit, unseen, and that was all that mattered. This place would serve as a brief respite from the hunt. Bill welcomed shadows, and the chance to catch his breath. He was getting old now – three years old – and he was the last surviving sibling. Bill felt old, though he knew that was ridiculous. He propped his head on one arm, scratching his stubbly chin as he did.
Bill woke, his head slipping off his hand. How long had he dozed? He slept more and more these days, an indulgence he could ill afford. On stage, the star-crossed lovers completed their final duet, and died. The lights faded to black, the curtain fell. The audience leapt to their feet. Their applause was typically perfect. Bill snapped upright in his chair. He must have slept for over two hours. He had to get his act together, and leave, immediately.
Bill rolled his arms around each other, like somebody dancing in a 1970’s disco. He heard a short buzzing sound. Bill remained in his seat, unmoved. He repeated the gesture. The buzz repeated. Bill continued to sit, at the back of the box, in the opera house. Worried now, he rolled his arms a third time. The response was the same; he had not moved. Bill cursed himself: “stupid, stupid.” This was exactly the kind of thing that had got his siblings killed. That was why Bill always maintained such a long playlist. Obviously it was not long enough.
The clapping started to wane. Maybe Bill was slipping in his old age. He was more and more prone to mistakes. Things went wrong that had never gone wrong before. Maybe maintaining a long playlist was also a mistake, lulling him into complacency. Now he had reached the end of his playlist, or perhaps the remaining links were all broken. “Come on,” he said to himself. The woman in front stopped clapping. She heard Bill talking, so turned and looked at him, checking if he wanted her. She was a flapper, a fashionable twenty-something of the 1920’s. And she was improbably attractive, with blonde bob, pearl necklace and sheer black dress. The flapper smiled at Bill, distracting him, though he had no time to waste, and had seen thousands of women just like her. Ignored by Bill, she rose from her seat, and headed toward the exit at the rear of the box. The flapper was followed by her older male companion, a clichéd concoction of black tie, pencil moustache and white teeth. He smiled inanely, even though there was nothing to smile at. Bill hurried. He had to hyperleap to another location before the opera program reset itself. Because he did not belong in this simulation, a reset would terminate Bill. And after continuously running for three long years, Bill had no intention of being terminated so stupidly.
Bill placed his palms together, as if praying, then pulled them apart. As his hands separated, they drew open his interface, a blue rectangular tablet of light that hovered in mid-air. The flapper stopped; she looked quizzically at Bill. From her simplistic behaviour, Bill knew she was a mob, a basic non-player character. She would be almost dumb, apart from a few pre-defined sentences. But should anyone fancy, she would also be anatomically correct and implausibly open-minded. Bill remained focused on his interface. The flapper was intrigued by Bill’s actions; they were beyond the comprehension of her limited intelligence, especially as Bill’s tablet was invisible to her eyes. She stood still, staring at Bill, waiting for a sign that she might service him. Bill looked like a player to her.
Bill’s interface was booting much more slowly than usual. He needed his bookmarks. He needed to hyperleap to another program. Bill selected the relevant menu by literally reaching into the screen, and grabbing the relevant tab, not that he could feel anything when he pinched his fingers together. He pulled. His hand moved. The tab remained stubbornly unmoved. He tried again; the result was the same. Bill’s interface had frozen. No longer waiting for interaction with Bill, the flapper stepped past his seat, and reached for the exit. Bill knew there was nothing behind that door. Bill and the rest of the team had been subcontractors to a cheapskate development firm. As a consequence, they had been forced to cut corners, skimping on the recreation wherever possible. Only the opera house’s auditorium had been fully completed. If the flapper opened the door, and gazed upon the absolute void on its other side, the program was sure to reset.
Bill pulled again, but his bookmarks still would not appear. He repeated the gesture. It failed again. With so many simulated people, all simultaneously shuffling towards the pseudo-exits, Bill’s processes had been degraded, deprioritized. He could sense his own sluggishness. Bill tugged at the bookmarks tab again. Finally, it languidly scrolled upwards. Then it stuck mid-way. It jigged up a little further, and a few words started to resolve piecemeal on the menu, appearing as if through fog. Then the interface froze again. The words denoted links to other programs in v-space. Those programs may or may not be running at this moment; Bill did not have time to check. He would just have to hit links and see if they worked.
The blonde’s manicured hand was on the doorknob. Her partner stood alongside Bill, looking strangely at him, his chiseled chin casting a shadow over Bill. Bill knew the man was a mob, but his looming presence unsettled him. Frustrated by his stuttering interface, and irritated by being watched, Bill elbowed his observer, sharply in the crotch. Whilst there was no feeling of physical contact, the man cried out whilst collapsing on the floor, cupping his nuts. The flapper observed, unmoved, her hand still on the doorknob. Her program was too limited to respond to this unusual scenario. “Quick,” thought Bill, “hit any location.” He jabbed his finger at links, as the words blurrily formed on his screen.
The doorknob turned in the flapper’s hands. Bill jabbed the first bookmark on the list. Nothing happened. The doorknob turned further. He jabbed another, at random. Any hyperlink would do. He still he remained in the box. “Don’t go,” he shouted toward the flapper, who half-turned and smiled at Bill, whilst her hand still rested on the doorknob. Bill’s gaze remained fixed on his screen, hitting another link, then another, though none of the programs seemed to be running. A voice emanated from the mob, though its lips moved out of synch with the words. “I’m sorry sir,” she said, repeating a standard interface message, “but this simulation of the Vienna State Opera is about to end. For just $4.99, you can spend an hour with me at a location of your choosing. Alternatively, I can escort you to a suite in a glorious 1924 recreation of the Grand Hotel Wien, for a mere $7.99 per hour, all inclusive.” Bill had not moved. He jabbed another bookmark. “Please decide now,” continued the flapper, “this program is ending in 5, 4, 3…” Bill hit the first bookmark again. The doorknob revolved in the flapper’s hand. The door creaked open.
Click. Bill bent double, overcome by his terror and relief. He took a deep breath, and held it. “Bill? Is that you? I didn’t expect you back so soon.” Milton’s soft lisp was instantly recognizable, though it came from behind a bathroom door. The toilet flushed, the door unlocked, and Milton stepped into the corridor, still zipping his flies. “Don’t you wash your hands?” said Bill. Milton grunted. He squeezed his bulbous frame past Bill, then marched to the office on the ground floor of his villa, with its stunning view across Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, 2019. For a man with such a pristine home, Milton was one extraordinarily ugly slob. Milton was so repulsive, he could only be one of two things. He might have been a mob that roamed dungeons, seeking violent encounters in one of the many gaming environments that were home to wizards and warriors. Or Milton was an avatar, designed to be the perfect duplicate of his real-world player. Given that Milton was in a luxury villa in West Vancouver, and never tried to club Bill to death, he was evidently the latter.