Copyright © 2008 by Tyson Gill
Mariah paused to caress the pristine oval-cut gem that served in the lowly capacity of door knob mounted upon the deeply grained mahogany backdrop of her grand entryway. Unconsciously ignoring the incongruity of the rough, tarnished surface beneath her flawlessly manicured fingers, she glanced back around to take in her magnificent accommodations.
Imperiously she scanned the fine Persian carpet, the impeccable Victorian furnishings, and the classic period artworks featuring “A Reading from Homer” framed upon the far wall. Light took liberties with the laws of physics to flatter each perfect surface with reflections and shadows that accentuated each detail exquisitely. Her silken hair bedded a sparkling tiara upon her head like velvet in a showcase at Tiffany’s.
Glowing with satisfaction that all was exactly as she wished it to be, she rotated the gem of her portal and stepped outside. There was a momentary flicker as the hallway came into focus. While the common passage was clearly inferior to her own opulent quarters, it was clean and elegant. A woman of her taste and bearing would demand no less. There was no indication that anyone else lived in the building apart from the oak-stained doors leading into the less stately quarters of the commoners.
Mariah hurried past the inconsequential doorways, eager to arrive at the department store during the few hours during which they were open for visits. Though there was no real need to walk to the store to shop, her addiction could only be satisfied with a physical experience. Virtual shopping simply did not offer her the same rush of acquisition. Of course she would eventually return most of what she purchased, but that was half the fun of it.
Mariah turned ninety degrees and paused at the top of the stairs. The spacious steps unfolded before her like the opulent entrance to a palatial ballroom. She paused momentarily as courtiers and sycophants appeared at the base of the staircase, reveling in anticipation of her fleeting presence.
Satisfied with the reception, she continued her regal descent. Keeping her eyes fixed majestically on the reception line forming below, she lit her foot upon the first step, innocuously visible at the base of her peripheral vision. When her foot reached it, the edge dug oddly into her arch, barely in front of the heel. It took her a second to realize that she had overstepped the edge, but her sedentary reactions were not quick enough to compensate. Her momentum carried her forward and she toppled over, landing head-first six steps below. She continued to tumble, crashing into the stairs with fragile, porous bones shattering with each impact. When she finally came to rest at the base of the steps, she lay there until a neighbor found her twisted, lifeless body, tangled up in her threadbare cotton frock.
Though it could only be described as tacky and even unabashedly sleazy, Rick was quite proud of his apartment. The walls sported garish colors and tasteless artwork, mostly animated feeds from porn sites. One woman, her long blonde hair cascading down around the black leather collar of her skin-like tights, lounged against a pillow as she regarded him with never-fading lust. Another woman, lithe and catlike, curled naked next to him, purring in satisfaction like a faithful pet.
The cat-girl slipped gracefully aside as Rick suddenly got up from the couch with a grunt of bored irritation. He pulled on a washed out black long-coat that nevertheless made him feel like Neo and topped it off with a tired old knit cap.
“Where you going baby?” it was the blonde offering a seductive invitation to stay. The other turned away with cat-like aloofness to doze.
Rick ignored her tedious interest and left the apartment, walking quickly out of the nondescript building. As he hurried along the city streets, he passed through a Vegas-parody of neon signs and cruising convertibles. The men, all street-gang tough, showed open deference to his presence. The women he passed were all hookers right off a low budget movie set, eying him with the promise of waving any usual fees.
He turned into one particularly ostentatious club, nodding tersely to the indifferent bouncer at the door. As he stepped inside, he paused to let his vision become accustomed to the lighting. Suddenly, relentless jungle-dance beats blasted him like a brisk wind. The crowds within took shape, all clad in sequins and vinyl interpretations of skimpy native clothing. Dancing girls lined the walls like animated statuary and writhed within the confines of bamboo cages hanging from the ceiling.
As he drank, dozens of women approached Rick with offers that covered the full range from conventional to perverse. He didn’t bother to check which of these were real. It didn’t matter. It was all the same. Eventually, staggering slightly at the bar, he downed the remainder of his drink. He didn’t want to check his account, but he estimated it was probably close to tapped-out until he could scam up some more credits.
Back out on the street, lights and sounds drifted by along the fringes of Rick’s consciousness. He paused at the curb across from his building and glanced automatically to the left. A car approached, safely off in the distance. The right was clear, so he stepped into the crossing. Immediately the car smashed into him from the left and his body crumpled over the hood like a rag. As the driver slammed into the brakes, Rick’s body arced off into the night air.
The last things Rick observed in his miserable life were the mundane faces of fascinated onlookers gaping at him as he sailed numbly through the air. He never registered the impact against the inconveniently placed brick wall across the intersection.
For a while he’d been temped to abandon his run early, but a second wind blew in from places unknown, reinvigorating him. As he picked up his pace, Kam noted how unattractive Central Park looked in winter, stark and dead. It was tempting to drop in a nice spring theme to clothe the naked trees, to wake up the sleeping grass, and to brighten the hazy gloom, but he couldn’t allow himself such luxuries. His job was disorienting enough without introducing unnecessary layers of confusion.
But the temptation reminded him that he was on the clock, so he turned the brim of his baseball cap forward and a menu transitioned smoothly into his field of vision. With a tiny flick of a finger, he selected Next and a video frame superimposed upon the wintry park. Kam watched through Mariah McKenzie’s eyes as she walked down the seedy tenement hallway. The image suddenly went wild as she tumbled head over heels down rotting steps before the replay halted suddenly, freezing the accident in mid-tumble.
Over the last few years Kam had reviewed thousands of such death scenes, released by statute to the authorities for postmortem analysis. His assignment to “death watch” duty was the sewer-cleaner rung of the police caste system. It was his job to scan deaths flagged by the system, looking for any evidence of foul play to pass along to the “real” detectives. When he handed them a homicide collar, they got accolades while he got demeaned or at best overlooked for his effort. The job was not only thankless but it was psychologically taxing as they come.
Even as the cracks and ruts of the running path demanded Kam’s attention, something about that last replay nagged at him. He knew he shouldn’t spend more time on it. His queue was loaded and this was just another obvious glitch death. It was apparent that the woman’s theme had caused her to misjudge the depth of the step and she simply overstepped it. It happened all the time. When the size or position of a theme overlay didn’t match exactly, such small surface mapping errors were often fatal.
Case closed. The most he could do was to post another glitch death for the stats, but it would do no good. The courts had ruled long ago that the virtual reality vendors could not be prosecuted for glitch deaths.
But yet the incoherent nagging just wouldn’t relent. Kam stopped, letting his pulse fall back to normal as he flicked his finger to click the virtual replay button. Looking around the room, opening the door, walking into the hall… there… what was that? He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees, and flicked Rewind and Slow in quick succession. As she opened the door, there was a barely discernible flash of static. It was probably nothing. Visual overlays actually produced lots of such artifacts. High bandwidth feeds, especially with complex themes, could cause severe anomalies in the visual or audio streams. But this particular one was familiar. It reminded him exactly of the one he’d just noticed in that car accident.
Bernard Hoob sat on the bench in Battery Park, looking out over the river. In the distance, British Spitfires buzzed down from the clouds like angry wasps, guns blazing. The bullets seemed have little effect on the giant kraken reaching out of the water to wrap its massive tentacles around the Statue of Liberty.
Without warning, a chat window popped up over the scene. Bernard flicked a finger and the battle froze as clouds wandered past, unaware of the mighty virtual battle below. An avatar, kind of a dark vampire knight, appeared in the chat window.
“Dude, Amy uploaded the next episode. Are you ready to get started?”
“Ya, I’m in the park where I left off last time,” ready when you are.
“Ok, one sec Bern.”
Bernard flicked a finger and the Quit button highlighted momentarily. The Kraken, the Spitfires, and the wreckage disappeared leaving a raw view of the island – it held no interest for him. Seconds later, a confirmation popped up, the Statue of Liberty visible behind the semi-transparent display.
“Amy invites you to share a custom theme, do you wish to join?”
Bernard clicked on “Yes” and there was a brief flicker. Suddenly it was dark. The torch of Lady Liberty glowed in the distance, reflecting in the lazily rippling water.
A billowing figure stepped from the shadows to block Bernard’s view, his face barely visible behind a hooded cloak. He held a gun in a latex-gloved hand, directed squarely at Bernard’s heart.
“Did you think you could escape me?” he demanded dispassionately.
Kam stood on the wall, looking down at the cold river. The impassive surface the physical barrier between life and death. He wasn’t authorized to conduct field investigations, but the Hoob replay obsessed him. Although he couldn’t point to anything that would justify the assignment of an investigator, he was sure that the static flash just prior to his misstep into the river linked it to the other nagging glitch deaths he had catalogued over the years.
He had tried to work through the system. He took his suspicions to the Captain who had reluctantly directed the tech boys to analyze the telltale static flashes. But their analysis revealed nothing beyond a signature similarity. There were many vague technical explanations, but they could not definitively explain them. In the end, Kam could not press any harder and was already being mocked as a conspiracy quack. The Captain insisted he get a psych evaluation and enjoy a long vacation.
Ever since that experience he followed up unofficially when he could, keeping his investigations off the record.
“I still can’t see how it could have happened,” Amy lamented, shaking her head. “The role-playing overlay I designed inserted virtual characters, but it didn’t include any visual themes. I wanted the location to be raw. How could he have glitched over the edge?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Kam. “I want to show you something. Do you think you would be able to look at his last moments? I’d like you to tell me if you see anything unusual.”
Amy, her sheer scarf fluttering amongst her windblown hair, bit her lower lip. “OK, if you think it might help,” she breathed.
Kam pushed a pointer over Amy and flicked a finger to bring up a context menu, clicking the Share item. Amy’s avatar appeared in the group area of his visual field when she accepted the invitation.
“This isn’t technically legal, so you’ve never seen what I’m going to show you, right?
Amy nodded solemnly.
Kam clicked a Play button floating in space and they both watched through Bern’s eyes as he was backed up to the river by a hooded figure with a gun. His eyes shifted from the gun, to his feet, slowly drifting with unnerving finality to the unforgiving river behind him.
“Too bad you didn’t play ball,” the hooded man said with matter-of-fact calm. “You would have been more use to us alive.”
As Bern shifted his gaze back toward the cloaked man, the watchers could see a small vial drop from his sleeve into his cupped hand. When the hooded figure was once again in the center of his visual field, Bern’s hand shot forward, tossing the vial into his chest. The ampoule shattered, releasing gas into the hooded face.
As the assassin gagged, Bern produced a small device and pressed a quick combination of buttons. A teleportation gate opened to his side.
“Perhaps another day,” Bern quipped as he stepped into the shimmering blue gate.
Suddenly, the video jerked and water splashed. It went dim, then quiet, and then quickly black as the replay ended.
Amy gasped, slumping down to sit on the cold cement walkway.
“That was so horrible,” she whispered in shock and disbelief.
“This is where he struck his head as he fell,” Kam told her softly. “He was unconscious before he hit the water. I don’t think he suffered.”
“Still,” Amy said, looking up tearfully, “how could that happen?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Kam prompted her gently.
“I had given him the compressed gas vial in episode four,” she said. “I was hoping he’d use it here. He was a good player.”
“But I don’t understand how the teleportation field could have appeared over the edge of the dock,” she continued. “That gob is configured as a land-based object. There should be no way the simulation engine could place it over water.”
“Could it be a bug in the system?” Kam asked her.
“I suppose it had to be,” Amy answered, “but it’s hard to imagine how such an obvious bug could be undiscovered in the 3.0 merge engine. It’s in use everywhere by everyone all the time.”
“Let me show you something else,” Kam persisted, rewinding and resuming the replay for her on extreme slow.
“There,” he said, pausing the video. “Do you see that static flash?”
“Weird,” she said, her technical interest peaked. “I’d swear that artifact wasn’t caused by my simulation.”
Kam was on his way home. He’d just finished investigating SGD number 37. That’s what he called them. It was his code for Suspicious Glitch Deaths. He had to do some fast talking to imply that he was conducting an official investigation without ever actually saying he was, but it hadn’t netted him much. He still could find no relation among the possible victims except for the same signature static flash shortly prior to their glitch deaths.
Unlike the vast majority of people, he didn’t normally use themes. His intimate association with glitch deaths kept him free of the technological addiction. As a cop, he heard daily about the scams and cons associated with the technology. Despite the risks, most people couldn’t live without themes to give reality the visual and auditory style that made them feel comfortable or excited or whatever.
He wasn’t a purist or anything, but he preferred keeping it raw. He didn’t like the thought of his visual and auditory perceptions being preprocessed by some computer array. He didn’t subscribe to the rampant conspiracy theories that the government was looking in on or even manipulating everything the population saw and heard, but he did have a visceral discomfort with the fuzzy line between raw and computer-enhanced realities.
The industry argued that perceptual filters enhanced safety and productivity by providing real-time enhancements and alerts. But safety subroutines didn’t save that guy that stepped out in front of a speeding car. He’d seen too many glitch deaths.
But despite his reservations, he had just used an auditory translation filter to interview the Spanish-speaking witnesses to the last SGD. The reality was that few people, other than the lunatic purists, could simply not get by without real-time perceptual filtering technology.
With a sigh, he glanced around at the bleak raw streets. One of the purist arguments against themes was the resulting neglect of architecture and aesthetics. In fact, most modern buildings had essentially dispensed with any effort to look attractive at all. Why bother when perceptual themes were used by most people to give their environment any look they desired?
One positive benefit to going raw was avoiding advertisements. Advertisers didn’t bother with real billboards any more. Instead, almost all advertising was accomplished by embedded adds in perceptual themes. Most people could not afford network service without accepting some level of embedded advertising, and many of the most popular themes were produced by corporations to promote their products.
But tonight, Kam found the raw city too depressing. With the resignation of a reformed alcoholic reaching for a bottle, he flicked his finger to the theme selection menu. He scrolled through a long list, each one smoothly flowing on top of the environment around him. He rolled past Roman Holiday , The Jetsons, Life in Bedrock, XXX-perience, The Wild, Wild West, and Dark Shadows to stop at Star Trek. Although not a old-school Trekkie, he liked the Star Trek theme. It was the only overlay that reflected a positive role model for mankind. It was a unique vision of a future where humanity had matured into rational adulthood without loosing child-like passion and curiosity. It always made him feel a renewed sense of optimism that the Star Trek theme might someday become raw.
The futuristic architecture around him was clean and functional, but nevertheless open and inviting. The people passing on the opposite side of the street wore high-tech garments that were apparently impervious to dirt or wrinkles. A Bajoran and a blue-skinned Andorian were engaged in an animated discussion on the far corner, the Andorian’s antennae bent forward in interest.
Kam veered down a subway ramp, familiar despite its sleek 24th century theme, until he reached the platform. Two people, probably real, who now looked like Federation officers were the only others waiting in the station. Several minutes later, the loudspeaker politely announced the arrival of the next train. In the distance, there was a soft rumble heralding its approach. The train slid with frictionless grace to a halt and the doors opened with a signature Star Trek sound effect.
The two Federation officers made no move, so Kam stepped forward into the open door. As he advanced, a sudden panic caused him to recoil. He spun wildly to regain his balance as the front of a subway train rushed past just inches from his face. It was only then that it struck him. The flash. Some part of him had noticed an almost subliminal flash just before stepping forward. It had caused him to instinctively hesitate just in time.
The walkways eight stories below their balcony looked just like any other raw midtown street. People hurried with chaotic order in every direction, almost all of them wearing some kind of networked headwear.
Just then, perhaps a third of the people paused, looking up to point at a costumed superhero soaring through the air just above them.
“Protect yourself with Glitch Guard!” the flying figure urged them with a salute and a reassuring smile.
Amy turned to Kam and grinned.
“Looks like our new ad campaign is going to pay off big,” she assured him.
“I sure hope so,” Kam replied, trying to muster an optimistic smile.
“It just has too,” she assured him. “I know it’s been a rough three years getting Glitch Guard off the ground, and you’ve invested everything you have. But I still believe in it.”
“And in you,” she added.
He answered with an appreciative nod. The development was complete, and their ad campaign was officially underway. Now came the hard part.
Lord Graham Haggarty, one of the new breed of anointed American royalty, buttoned his designer housecoat and rose to answer the delicately tasteful ringer of his hotel room door, tipping his virtual receiver cap jauntily on his head.
After a quick glance at the overlay that seemed to give him x-ray vision, he swiped his hand across a virtual lock and the door retracted smoothly to reveal his visitors.
Kam reached out his hand across the threshold in greeting, “Lord Haggerty, so kind of you to see us.”
“Not at all, it’s my pleasure,” the dapper man replied to Kam but his eyes lingered upon Amy.
“Amy Hoob,” she said by way of acknowledgment, emphasizing the last name.
“Charmed,” he told her, taking her hand superfluously to usher them into his luxury suite.
After a few pleasantries the Lord offered his two guests a love seat.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked. “I have a splendidly rare vintage of brandy that just demands attention.”
“Only if you will promise to join us,” Amy answered demurely. “I would not want to drink alone.”
“Perish the thought, my dear,” Haggarty reassured her as he poured three deep amber aliquots.
The host set the fine glasses on the table and took his place opposite, smoothing his slacks across his knee.
Kam set the small bag he carried with him onto the arm of the seat and hurried to raise his glass to his lips with the others.
“To a long life,” Kam said by way of toast.
“Health and wealth to you both,” the Lord answered as he enjoyed a sip. “Speaking of which, I am curious as to what kind of business proposition you have for me.”
Kam answered evenly, with business-like formality. “ Well, as you know, we manufacture and market Glitch Guard. It has been the number one anti-glitch software for the last 6 years.”
“Of course, of course,” Lord Haggerty assured them, a trace of impatience creeping into his cordial demeanor. “But I am just a simple bureaucrat. I am afraid I’m not looking for any investment opportunities.”
“We are doing quite well thanks,” said Kam. “We aren’t looking for any new capital. As a matter of fact, we’d like you to put us out of business.”
Lord Haggerty was suddenly more intrigued, “How do you imagine I could do that, even if I had any such desire?”
“Perhaps your desire will grow when we tell you that we know that you are responsible for at least 278 glitch deaths,” Amy answered evenly.
“That we are aware of, at least,” Kam added casually.
The Lord smiled as if tutoring a pair of slow students and took another sip of his brandy.
“And what evidence, may I ask, do you have to make such an outrageous accusation?”
“None that would stand up against your legal team,” Kam answered frankly. “But nevertheless we know that a secret government organization, conceived and directed by you, has been testing techniques to kill people through manufactured glitches for over a decade.”
Lord Haggarty took a final sip of his brandy and set down the empty glass with assured ease.
“Actually,” Lord Haggerty corrected the record with pride, “the success count is over a thousand. But that is for terminations only. That doesn’t begin to reflect the other forms of covert surveillance, manipulation, and subterfuge that our technology enables. I am quite proud of our superb rate of success.”
“How could such a thing possibly make you proud?” Amy asked, horrified even having known in advance of his hideously untouchable crimes.
“I know it is hard for citizens to accept,” he told them comfortingly. “But you have to realize that we are only keeping this country, keeping you, your families, safe. This research gives us tools we can use to defeat our enemies, your enemies, and to anticipate how they might attack us.”
“Research,” Kam interrupted. “Is that what you call it? Was it just research when you tried to kill me?”
“And why do you think you are still alive? It is because your investigations, your software, helps our mission. Your anti-glitch innovations challenge us to find more subtle methods, to correct tells like that pesky flash you first identified.”
“You’re helping us in your own way,” he added with a smirk. “We value your contributions.”
“You’re a monster,” Amy hissed.
“Perhaps,” he agreed amiably. “But a necessary evil. I hope that it gives you some satisfaction to have this knowledge, but no one will pay attention to any conspiracy theories you spread around. Far too few will ever believe their government capable of such unthinkable activities. And spreading such rumors would only harm your own business – if any slanderous accusations should ever slip through our real-time stream scrubbers of course.”
Lord Haggerty grimaced and flexed his stiff fingers.
“Feeling a bit stiff?” Kam asked solicitously as he rose, retrieving his bag with one hand as he offered Amy the other.
The older man began to rise, but didn’t seem able to stand. He settled back into his chair and looked up curiously. He tried to speak, but his mouth didn’t seem to willing to respond.
“Don’t bother,” Kam told him. “Have you heard of the popular “Last Round” that hit the streets? The last drink for those who have nothing left to live for? You were seen asking about it on the streets tonight. Didn’t you notice the flash just after we came in? I’m afraid our technology is not as sophisticated as yours has become. That was when Amy poured a Last Round into your brandy.”
The soon-to-be-late Lord’s eyes shifted to his empty brandy glass with horror.
Amy answered his unspoken questions as Kam took handfuls from the bag he carried, sprinkling dust about the room.
“Fortunately, by the time the muscular paralysis has advanced to your autonomic systems, enough time will have passed so that our visit will be purged from your terminal buffer.” Amy told him. “There won’t be anything for Kam’s replacement to see except you sitting here breathing your last.”
Amy leaned in close to the face of the dying man, staring him dead in the eyes as Kam wiped the glasses with the empty bag.
“Dust from Grand Central,” she explained. “There must be a hundred thousand samples of DNA in it.”
She leaned closer, her lips brushing his ear as she whispered.
“Say hello to Bern for me.”