Jeffie Wyatt was not in the mood to go to work. He was one of the lucky ones — he actually liked his job. Usually, he was perfectly happy to find a comfy spot on the couch in his tiny apartment, settle in and unfocus his eyes. His implanted connection to the everywherenet allowed him online access anywhere, everywhere, without any additional hardware. He just thought about what he wanted to do and he saw the screen overlaid on his vision.
Jeffie’s implants weren’t unusual. He didn’t know anyone without the implants — you couldn’t get any job without them and he wasn’t sure how you’d even be able to find your way around. He’d only ever seen a paper map in a museum, and to be honest it was a reproduction of a map in a virtual museum. But it was still the closest he’d ever come to seeing one.
Jeffie went online and logged into M City, and felt his virtual body materializing outside the door to his unimaginatively-named shop, “Discount Personalized Sexbots.” Jeffie designed individually tailored bot avatars for virtual sex which were, frankly, cheap in all meanings of the word. But enough people liked them that he made enough money to be able to afford a private apartment, which meant that this was his full time job. This was unusual, and Jeffie was mostly quite thankful for his good fortune.
But this morning, he just didn’t have any excitement for the sexbot business. He didn’t want to deal with the clients, didn’t want to talk up the various options available on the models, didn’t want to code the product. He just wanted to sleep and try to forget.
He’d known for weeks that his relationship with Vonnie wasn’t going anywhere good, but he still wasn’t ready for the drama that happened the previous night. Two hours of screaming was a record even for him and he had terrible luck with breakups. His head still hurt in the morning and work didn’t feel like a great distraction. But when you’re self-employed the boss is a real ball breaker and there are no sick days, so Jeffie flopped on the couch and logged into M City.
What he saw when he rezzed into the virtual street where his shop was located was actually enough to make him forget about Vonnie completely. Too bad it was a million times worse than just a bad breakup.
• • •
“Why did this have to happen to me?” Jeffie whined. René Biagini patted his friend on the hand and flicked a finger up to the waiter for another glass of synth-wine.
“Can you tell me exactly what was done?” Biagini asked, setting his system to record the conversation. He didn’t really think he’d be able to find whoever vandalized his friend’s store, but he’d promised to try so he ought to put a little effort in. “Do you have a recording of the instantiation?”
Jeffie nodded. “I record every work day. Prevents a lot of disputes over price quotes.”
“Good,” René said. “Send me the vid.” The wine arrived and René felt a download drop into his system. “You drink this,” he said, handing Jeffie a large glass of red, “while I look at it, okay?”
Jeffie sniffled and nodded, sipping the wine. The vid showed a blurry image of Jeffie’s storefront as it materialized in front of his vision. René had visited it more than a few times, and expected to see the familiar yellow and orange sign over the green portal door. Instead, there was a disturbing electrical buzzing sound and the door was distorted and pixellated. It did not look safe to enter, but Jeffie must have gone in anyway as the vid’s point of view moved through the portal and into what should have been the small shop.
From his previous visits, René recalled that Jeffie would have two or three of his models out and available to interact with walk-in clientele. There was even a small cubicle where clients could try before they’d buy. In the vid, the walls of the cubicle appeared to be slashed and the two models — it looked like Mintra and Oolo to René — were cut into pieces and lying on the floor. There was no blood or gore, but René couldn’t shake the disturbing feeling that he was looking at a murder scene. He understood now why Jeffie was so upset.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and reached out for his friend’s hand again. “That’s just horrible.”
Jeffie nodded. “I checked all the code,” he said putting down the half-empty wine glass. “It’s all still there and the links are fine. I don’t know how anyone cracked into my private disk space, but I’ve reset all my passwords and tokens. I can fix the door in a few hours and I’m pretty sure I can repair the boys and girls, too.” He looked at René. “It’s just the sense of violation, you know?”
“Of course,” René said. “Not to mention the lost business.”
Jeffie shrugged. “If I’m closed for a couple of days I can manage. But I just don’t feel safe anymore. If I lost the shop, I don’t know what I’d do. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, and I’ve been without a regular job for a year. I’d never get anything over level two now. I’d have to start over from scratch.”
Jeffie looked like he was going to start crying again, so René patted his friend on the shoulder. “Don’t think like that,” he said. “If whoever it was wanted to destroy your shop, they could have done a lot worse. It was probably just kids or some fucked-up stim-head. You’ll get over it, Jeffie. It was just pixels and code after all.”
“This time it’s just pixels and code,” Jeffie said, “next time it could be my whole livelihood.”
“There won’t be a next time,” René said, but he didn’t know how he could promise that. He ordered two more glasses of wine, and turned on the Biagini charm. If he couldn’t fix Jeffie’s problems, the least he could do was help his friend forget them.
The sun beat down on their bronze bodies, as Annabelle and Dex floated on the turquoise water. “Look at that mountain,” Annabelle said, turning on her side and pointing into the sky. A huge rock spire pierced the blue sky, its jagged edge looking sharp as a knife, groves of coconut trees fringing the base. Dex followed Annabelle’s extended finger and smiled. “Check this out,” he said, grinning. He flipped over on to his stomach, then dove headfirst down into the cool salty water.
He was naked, as was Annabelle, and they didn’t have any other gear with them either. They didn’t need anything, since they had no need to breathe here, in this shared dream world they’d bought the week before. Neither of them were spontaneous shoppers, but they’d been unable to stop talking about the dream holiday package they’d seen offered at Marci’s Memory Mart and finally decided to splurge.
Dex swam downward effortlessly, looking back once to see Annabelle matching his pace. He swam a few strokes, then stopped and pointed over to his left. Annabelle swam up beside him and turned her head quizzically toward him. Through some mechanism Dex didn’t understand, he heard her say, “What? I don’t see anything.”
The water in which they swam was crystal clear, but distance made objects more obscure. “Just look,” Dex replied somehow. “Look for the white parts.” Annabelle focussed and made a gasping noise when she realized what she was looking at.
“It’s a whale,” she said, agog.
“Actually, it’s two whales,” Dex said, grinning. “A humpback and her baby.” Annabelle looked closer and saw the two giants, slowly gliding down in front of them. Their head knobs were clearly visible, along with white streaks along their jaws and flukes. They arced their bodies, unbelievably slowly and gracefully and almost effortlessly swam down into the depths, passing below Dex and Annabelle as they floated metres under the surface. They hung there in the warm water watching the mother and child for what seemed like an hour before the giants swam away.
“That was amazing,” Annabelle said, swimming a little closer to Dex and wrapping her arms and legs around him as they met. “But I think it’s time to get back to the real world.”
“You’re probably right,” Dex said and he held Annabelle closer. “See ya soon, kiddo,” he said and woke up.
• • •
Dex was finally starting to get used to the quality of the sunlight in Nice — it had a bright yellow tint, compared to the greasy grey glow that had squirted through his windows back in Namerica. In comparison, it had been more an absence of darkness than anything Dex would call real illumination. And here the sunlight was actually hot, the climate appreciably changing from winter to summer and back again. This afternoon, still a cool spring day, the light that came through his window was strong enough to wake him on its own, before his system got to the task. At least, it seemed to Dex that the Mediterranean sun was what pulled him away from his dream of the Pacific and into the bed he was sharing with Annabelle.
He rolled over and looked her face, unlined and beautiful, pale in the morning sunlight, scrunched into her pillow. Her gold hair fanned out on the pillow, framing her face. He smiled, savouring the seconds he’d have to watch her sleep before her own enhanced mind woke her according to the instructions she’d have programmed the day before. He carefully moved his body slightly away from hers, knowing that it still took her a moment or two to remember that she wasn’t alone. He heard her take a deep inward breath and smiled as her eyes fluttered open. She focussed and saw him, flinching back into her side of the bed only slightly, then breaking into a smile.
“Good morning, Mister Fish,” she said, moving her body slightly closer to Dex and allowing him to pull her toward him.
“Good morning yourself,” he said, lightly kissing the top of her head. “That was a pretty nice little holiday we had there, wasn’t it?”
Annabelle smiled. “I can’t believe that there is anywhere on Earth that is really so beautiful,” she said. “And those whales…”
“I had no idea, either,” Dex said. “I wonder what it would have been like to really see that, with real eyes…” He felt Annabelle stiffen slightly, then relax into his arms again. There was a time, not long before, when he would have apologized for being insensitive, for reminding his lover and best friend that her preference for living in a simulation of the world was as opposite to Dex’s own desire for physical presence as possible. But since he had moved from Namerica to Europa and into a tiny independent apartment only a short train ride from Annabelle’s top-tier employee housing, they had begun to accept each other’s differences a little more. Which was why Dex found himself luxuriating in Annabelle’s expensive sheets at half past two in the afternoon.
Annabelle lay in his arms for a moment longer, then stretched and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She stood and walked to the small lav off the bedroom. Dex silently watched her go, wanting to follow her, to soap her body in the minute of hot water she was entitled to and then wand her hair as the blower dried them off. He wanted to be next to her, touching her silken skin, smelling the sweet fragrance of her. He never wanted to leave. But he knew that he was lucky to get the time with her he did and knew when to leave her alone, when to give her space to herself. And he was smart enough to know that the little time with her he got in the physical world was so much better than not getting to be with her at all. So he lay in the bed, enjoying the softness of her linens, waiting for her to be done with the shower.
Dex heard the water stop and the blower kick in and took that as his cue to get up. He would get cleaned up back at his own apartment, using his own water ration rather than making Annabelle share or pay for an extra shot. He walked over to the wall separating the bedroom from the lav and opened up Annabelle’s double size autoclave. He pulled out yesterday’s clothes, now clean, and got dressed. Now that he no longer worked for one of the firms, he no longer was issued a uniform that he’d wear most of time. Not exactly the king of sartorial splendour, Dex’s casual wardrobe had never been particularly stellar. When he’d arrived in Nice, Annabelle had decided that Dex ought to look at least as good in the physical world as his avatar did in Marionette City, the global virtual world where they spent most of their time, so she’d forced him to go shopping.
Dex was never going to pay the kind of money that was required to replicate his virtual outfit of a charcoal pinstriped suit and dark grey fedora, but he did allow Annabelle to buy him a couple of very nice dark shirts of some kind of shiny soft material that went reasonably well with the black striped trousers he favoured. He slipped the shirt on and marvelled, not for the first time, in Annabelle’s good taste. In clothes, at least. He still wondered every day what she saw in him.
“What’s on tap for you today?” Annabelle called from the lav when the blower stopped.
“I’ll head home when you go to work,” Dex said, heating up a cup of the tea Annabelle was currently fond of in her stainless-look zapper. “I’ll probably go into the office later. I need to go over the Light of the Simulacrum case again.”
“Did something else happen over there?”
“Not that I know of,” Dex said. “But I’m just getting started. That menace from the M City squad only sent the files over yesterday.”
“What’s wrong with Mack Larsen?” Annabelle chided. “Last I heard he was trying to get you to go work over on his squad.”
“That’s part of the problem,” Dex said. “If Larsen wants detectives on his squad, well… fine. Maybe there should be a D division just for M City cases, I don’t know. But it doesn’t have to be me. I’m happy where I am.”
“I know,” Annabelle said, “but that doesn’t mean you have to be nasty to Larsen.”
“The man just rubs me the wrong way,” Dex said. “It’s obvious he wants to be a detective himself and this is just his way of trying to go about it.”
“Well,” Annabelle said, changing the subject before Dex got into a proper snit, “my offer still stands, if you want me to help out.” Annabelle walked out of the lav, dressed in her uniform. Dex wondered how she managed to make the tan and cream one-piece look like something that would cost a week’s wages at a boutique on the waterfront.
“I’ll take some copies of the code,” Dex said, “and if I can’t get anywhere the old fashioned way, you can have a go at it.”
“Those poor people,” Annabelle said, sipping her tea. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to destroy a religious space. I mean, it’s just a place for people to gather. Ruining the building doesn’t stop anyone from meeting. It’s just stupid.”
“We don’t even know if whoever did it even knew it was a church,” Dex said. “It could just be some budding cracker practicing.”
“Oh, please,” Annabelle said. “No one needs to prove their chops by ruining someone else’s work. Not to mention that it’s a hell of a lot easier to wreck something than it is to make something. That’s the same in M City as it is out here.” She waved her now empty mug toward the small window. Annabelle’s eyes took on a faraway look and Dex knew that she was online, checking something on her personal system.
After a short moment, she refocussed on Dex and smiled. “Gotta go, old man,” she said. “I have an early meeting this morning and it’s going to be a killer. The plans for the new Eastern tracks are getting out of hand. You’d think by now they’d realize that spending a million euros today to save four million over a couple of years was obvious. But it’s still a fight every time.” She sighed. Dex started chuckling. “What’s so funny, smart guy?” Annabelle asked. “Just because you’ve gotten out of the corporate machine doesn’t make you so special, pal.”
“It’s not that,” Dex said. “I just love how you have your own personal sense of time.”
“What are you talking about?” Annabelle asked.
“You said ‘early meeting this morning’,” Dex said. “It’s almost three o’clock in the afternoon.”
Annabelle scowled, but couldn’t conceal a slight smile. “You are so linear, Andersson Dexter,” she said. “Clock time — as if that means anything. If it’s the beginning of my workday, it’s morning. How hard is that to understand?”
“Oh, I understand it just fine,” Dex said, following Annabelle to the door of her apartment. “I just think it’s funny, is all.”
“Well, I think you’re funny,” Annabelle countered, as she swiped her left hand over the outside jamb of her door. Dex heard a sharp snick as the lock drove home. “Come on,” she said, taking Dex’s hand in hers. “Let’s try not to argue for the minute and a half it takes to walk to the train, shall we?”
• • •
When Dex got back to his apartment, he was still smiling. He loved the nights when he stayed over at Annabelle’s. He checked himself; they were the mornings, really — now he was doing it, too. When he’d first arrived in Nice, he had been sure that it would never get to this stage. After everything that had happened, he was amazed at Annabelle’s progress. When he’d moved to Nice, Dex had decided that she was worth any sacrifice, and he put an effort into spending all their time together in Marionette City, even though to him the virtual world felt like a shallow facsimile of real life. It still amazed him, on days like this, that they’d ever come this far.
They kept odd hours, hence the three pm ‘mornings,’ but all cities were twenty-four hour propositions, so they had no trouble keeping normal lives even though they lived on a Namerican time schedule in Europa. Annabelle was a programmer for Omnitrack, which ran cross-continent high speed maglev trains, and even though she and her teammates lived in Nice, the firm’s head office was in Toronto, so she and her co-workers were all on a Namerican schedule.
Dex, on the other hand, had managed to leave the working life that the vast majority of people shared, where not only income but health care, housing and security were all tied to employment. People’s employment contracts dictated where and in what conditions they lived and what kind of legal protection they could enjoy. If an employer was unconcerned about a particular issue, people had nowhere to turn for protection or security. Nowhere except to people like Dex.
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