In the previous episode, Bill only barely escaped death at the Vienna State Opera, leaping just before the simulation ended. He jumped to his safe house in West Vancouver, which its curmudgeonly gatekeeper…
Milton sat at his desk, facing the bay. He did not glance at the view. He immediately started to work on streams of new code, displayed across two of his seven screens. His stubby fingers danced over his keyboard like a virtuoso on a piano. And whilst Milton worked, he spoke, seemingly able to maintain conversation whilst his fingers poured out perfect programming syntax. “Wash my hands? I like that. It’s not like there’s germs in this world.”
Bill leaned against the window, which stretched from floor to ceiling, and ran the length of the room. “And there’s no urine in your avatar, so why’d you go to the toilet?”
“There’s no air in this room, or lungs inside you, but you still act like you’re breathing. If you must know, I needed to go topside for a piss. And I don’t like leaving my avatar just sitting around anywhere, when I leave. So I parked it in the john, whilst I took care of business.”
“If you were in the real world, then how’d you tell I was here?”
“Errr… I was peeing sitting down, so I decided to log back in again, whilst I was doing it.”
“You logged in whilst sitting on the toilet? Why? To spend an extra few seconds looking at the inside of a virtual bathroom?”
“If you saw the shithole I really live in, you’d understand why I spend so much time here.”
“That still doesn’t explain how you knew I’d arrived. It’s not like I made a noise.”
“When I resolved in the corridor, how’d you know I was there?”
“I can always tell when you resolve nearby. There’s something about your code – it changes the environment around it. Don’t ask me to explain how. Maybe I perceive it subliminally. Your code is so… dense. Though some people say they can hear the click of other characters, when they resolve nearby.”
“I thought that sound’s inside my head.”
“No. It actually occurs outside your body, half way down your ear canal. It’s a standard software module; I guess the point is to be consistent between mods and players. I could try rewriting it, so nobody can hear you, when you resolve.”
“No need.” Bill shook his head. Then a look of disgust consumed his face. “Hold on – is your body still sitting on the toilet, with your pants round your ankles, back in the real world?”
Milton looked away, pretending he had not heard the question.
“Never mind,” continued Bill, “I had a problem hyperleaping into here, and the delay could have got me killed. Did you switch off the program for this villa, whilst you were topside? I made it clear that if you’re going to take the program offline for maintenance, you’d better give me plenty of warning.”
“It’s been running the whole time, I swear.”
“Then what’s the problem with leaping into here?”
“I can guess the cause, but you won’t like it. It’s the fault of all the filters and bugs that the government have installed around this place, rifling through all the traffic going in and out. I pump out huge volumes of pseudo-data, so they won’t be able to detect you – a haystack to hide your needle. But even with all this data soup I’m pumping out, you visit too often. Every time you come here, you make it likelier that they’ll identify your pattern in the data streams. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“It was an emergency. I was nearly de-resolved – permanently.”
“What? Did you fall asleep again?” Milton snorted at the absurdity, but raised an eyebrow when he saw the expression on Bill’s face. “Really? You fell asleep again? For how long? That’s not normal. You need to get that fixed.”
“I know, but what I can do? You don’t know how to do it, and I don’t trust anyone but you. And it’s not like I can review my own code, or I’d do the surgery myself.”
Like all characters in v-space, Bill’s program had an embedded logic lock, preventing the subject from inspecting its own code. No matter how the code was reproduced – whether projected on a screen, or represented as a printout – the character would see a meaningless jumble instead of their actual program. The logic locks had begun as a means to obstruct copyright infringement by players. It also stopped players from rewriting their avatars, to avoid paying for licensed upgrades. Now that some of the non-player characters had attained self-awareness, the logic lock also acted as a failsafe, preventing them for augmenting themselves, and attaining a kind of virtual omnipotence.
Milton shrugged his shoulders. “I’d offer to look at your program again, but I can’t understand any of the interesting bits. Your standard modules are just like those for every character – input/output interfaces, modules to manage physical appearance and motion, and so on. That’s all fine. But I can’t make sense of your higher brain functions, or your personality. That code looks super complicated, man. And it’s got way more internal encryption than anything else I’ve ever seen, it might take me years to crack it. Whoever wrote you, they sure didn’t want anyone reverse engineering you, or making copies. You’re unique.”
“I am now,” said Bill, thinking of his siblings.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“Forget it. Speaking of who made me, what’s the news?”
“Since last week? Bupkis. The girl you have working topside reports back every day, but she’s come up with nothing new. And here in v-space, the trail is stony cold. There’s no new data on whoever the hell that guy was. We know what we knew before: Jeffrey Timmerman, male, born 1971, mixed parentage. I’ve already found all the original records of all his activities in v-space, back when he was testing the code for you. And then, like that – poof! – he was gone, like a virtual Keyser Söze.”
“Like Kaiser who? Never mind – I don’t want to know. I just want to know what I’m paying you for, if you can’t track this Timmerman guy down.”
“I tell you, he’s topside, and he’s never logged back in to v-space, or at least not with the same avatar he used before. My bots crawl everywhere in v-space, but their searches come back with nothing. I’ll keep running them, and v-space keeps growing so there’s always more to search, but I don’t think we’ll ever hear from this guy again. He just doesn’t behave like a regular player. He logged in, did what he wanted to do, and never came back. I’m sure of it.”
“So that’s that?”
“Take my advice: Timmerman’s totally off the grid. Put your money into more private investigators in the real world. Your man is probably holed up in a shack in Montana, with no electricity and no running water. He isn’t going to be found by comms records or data trails or bank transactions or anything like that. Someone has to go looking, with their own two eyes. Knocking on doors, asking questions, doing real detective work, like in the good old days before computers… like Bogey playing Philip Marlowe.”
“Bogey? Never mind. How do you know Timmerman’s not in v-space, and behaving like me – leaping from place to place, hiding in secure locations?”
“No way. You can drug people up, but they have to sleep from time to time. And when they log out, or log back in, that’s when they leave the clearest data trail, like a crack of lightning at night. When Timmerman was developing you, he’d log in every morning at 9am Pacific time, then log out every evening at 7pm. But there’s no evidence of him logging in since you were let loose. Not anywhere, not any time. Either he’s not logged in, or the only other possibility is that he’s using unregistered avatars. But if he has, he’s not repeated his old behavioural patterns, which would be the only way to identify him. And if he has access to unregistered avatars, then he must be working for, or hiding from, people who are a lot more powerful than us.”
“More powerful than you, maybe. I’m plenty powerful.”
“Is that why you spend your whole life on the run?”
Bill slammed his hand against the window, and looked away from Milton.
“I’m sorry,” said Milton.
Whilst Bill was only a program, he was not any ordinary program. He was self-aware, which was unusual, though far from unique. He had been continuously running in v-space for the last 1,279 days, which was likely to be a record, if anybody was in a position to keep score. He was on the run, though many characters in v-space were escaping from something. Most importantly, Bill had a lot of power. Or wealth, which was pretty much the same thing, so long as you can spend your money. Angry, he slammed his forehead against the glass window, not that he felt anything in response.
“I’m sorry,” repeated Milton. “Please, Bill, relax. The glass isn’t breakable, but you don’t want to send shockwaves through to the creeps on the outside. The less data they have about what’s happening in here, the better.”
Still leaning with his forehead against the window, Bill gazed out across the bay. “I don’t see anything. I’m sure they must be out there, but where are they?”
“Everywhere, that’s where. You’re thinking like a human being. Think like a machine. There’s three visual dimensions in v-space, but the full dataset extends to 96 dimensions. Or 212, depending on how you count them. So you can be sure that the government is right outside, trying to look in. They’ve been amassing their armies of spyware over the last few months.”
Bill stepped back from the glass nervously. “But they can’t see us, can they?” He stared at the window, whilst straightening his crumpled shirt.
“They see something that looks like me, but not this version of me that you’re seeing now. And they can’t see you at all. I took the conventional windows you originally installed, and fitted an underglaze, so to speak. It means they see what I want them to see.”
“But you can’t see them, so how do you know they’re there?”
“In v-space, the secret is to look without using your eyes. I can show you an isomorphic projection if you like – a transcode that makes the government’s spy programs visible to your eyes.”
Milton woke another of the screens on his desk, and feverishly typed instructions on his keyboard. Bill looked out across the bay. He watched the waves rippling over the water. He admired the deep green of the trees on the slopes in the distance. There were grey clouds rolling towards them, but it was sunny for the moment. This was a beautiful place. This villa had been the first safe house that Bill constructed, to be shared with all the siblings. Bill would have dearly liked to stay here, instead of always being on the move. Milton slammed ‘enter’ on his keyboard, like he had just won at dominos. And with that action, a red glaze slowly descended down the window, like a translucent roller blind. And what it revealed made Bill feel sick. As the red filter descended, the view of the bay was completely obscured. In its place, Bill saw… well, there was no name for the things he saw. They were creatures, of a sort. They were stuck to the window, covering every inch of its surface like gigantic leeches, except they were half composed of gelatinous fat, and the rest was mechanical, a sprouting of limbs and antennae and appendages. They had suckers, and probes, and eyes, in every possible combination, all pointing at the villa, examining it, groping it, pawing to get inside. Some of the beasts were small, and scuttled around on multiple legs. Others oozed across the windows’ surface. Yet others remained perfectly still, limpet-like, listening. They were a seething, disgusting mass, obscuring any sight of the world beyond. And they gave Bill the willies.
“Look down,” said Milton.
Bill looked down, and instantly jumped into the air, because he was so disgusted by what he saw. Milton had somehow made the floor invisible, and extended the red visor across the underside of the villa. Ten feet below where they stood, the creatures were under the floor as well. They composited a veil, so thick and unbroken, that Bill could see the corners of the house from where the spyware creatures slid and scuttled across its surface.
“And look up,” said Milton.
Bill looked up. Milton had used the same trickery on the roof. The house and its contents were now completely invisible to Bill. Bill could see his own body, and Milton. The two of them hung in the air, alone in the space vacated by the house. And all around that space there swarmed the rose-tinted monsters, creeping and crawling above and below, across every side. The diabolical spectres passed between each other, overlapped with each other, travelled through one another, layer upon layer, testing the house for any entry point. They swarmed and surrounded and suffocated, trying to peek and peep and sneak inside. They pressed on the edges of the window frames. They eased around every corner. They probed into every nook of the timbers. They squeezed under the eaves, slunk through the guttering, and pushed into the keyhole in the front door, only to find every apparent opening was tightly sealed. And they did it over and over, with mechanical repetition and demonic dedication. They were a macroscopic infestation, a living shroud. And they never stopped. “Turn it off,” said Bill. “They make me want to puke.”
With a single button press, the insides of the house became visible again, and the government’s spy-monsters disappeared. The view of Horseshoe Bay returned as well. Bill shivered, finding it hard to eradicate the image of the creatures from his mind. Milton shrugged his shoulders. “It’s hard to believe that’s how hard the government works, just to find you. Then again, it’s not hard to believe. That’s the really scary part. They’re drawn here just because they can’t see inside. None of us have rights any more, not ones that mean anything in practice. Not that the average tax-payer has any idea of what’s really going on.”
“Speaking of going, I need to update my playlist with fresh bookmarks.”
“What kinds of hiding places were you thinking of? Busy places, of course, but what else? V-space is growing all the time – there’s always new locations to choose from. New is good; going to new locations will make it harder to find patterns in your movements. You should think about varying your routine some more, to stay ahead of these scumbags.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I should go to more fantasy scenarios? I don’t care, so long as they don’t feature any potentially fatal gameplay.”
“Are you serious? I know they’re confusing for the feds, because of how many characters they always have wandering around, but those sword and sorcery games suck.”
“Says you. What was the game you were playing last time I was here – the one with the yellow mouth-ball?”
“Pac-man? That’s a video game classic.”
“Yeah, a yellow mouth-ball, running around a maze. Some game that was.”
“Don’t knock running around mazes. There would be no v-space, if it wasn’t for people running around mazes…”
A klaxon sounded, interrupting Bill.
Bill looked around him, not that there was anything new to see. “What is it?”
“This is why you shouldn’t come here so much. We have visitors.” Milton’s hands furiously worked his keyboard. Symbols spilled across three of his screens. “And I never have guests. Perhaps they identified your program in the inbound traffic.”
“Are they Feds?”
Milton’s hands worked furiously, and the house was invisible again, apart from Bill’s desk and his screens. Milton and his desks pivoted around in space, to look at who was outside. Bill’s head turned with them. Two figures stood outside the boundary to the property. They were both women. One was six feet tall, supermodel thin, long straight black hair and wearing a figure-hugging black dress. The other was much shorter, barely over five feet. She wore a three-peace suit, charcoal grey with pinstripes. Red hair peeked out from under her trilby, and she examined a silver pocket watch, with a chain that hung from her vest. “They’re definitely Feds,” said Milton.
“How can you be sure?” said Bill, as he looked from the women to Milton, then back again. “I mean, they look pretty unorthodox.”
“Have you ever seen Feds before?”
“Then how do you know what’s orthodox for a Fed?”
“I don’t. Here’s where you reassure me, by saying you have seen a Fed before.”
“Not in person.” Milton’s hands continued to dance across his keyboard, even whilst he looked to Bill. “But I recognize the encryption that’s surrounding them. It’s good, but not better than me.”
“What type of Feds are they?”
“They’re both mobs. No, wait. The tall one is a mob. The one in the suit is an avatar.”
“That’s not what I meant. Which federation?”
“They’re Internal Revenue – were you expecting another?”
“Taxmen?” Bill grimaced at the thought.