Friday, February 24, 2012

Breaking Up

Java Café's avatar–appearing as a taller, svelte version of Vanessa and looking more like a sister because of the flawless skin tone and perfect facial symmetry–materialized when Vanessa disabled her privacy settings. Virtual environments could perfect reality in most things, but failed with coffee in Vanessa's opinion. Sure, it captured the taste, but without the juice it was too much of a tease. Her fingers were pudgy topped with chewed fingernails, a good sign Stanton had been messing with her avatar. She sighed. He meant the best, but he didn't understand how Lucia and Tiffany would react.

Lucia materialized with a grande cappuccino. "Oh girlfriend, are you still with that monster."

"Stanton wants the best for me."

Lucia's fingers twirled a ringlet, a coruscating luminescence flowing from scalp to ends. Lucia could afford the latest styles, but Vanessa knew Stanton was right. One should invest in their future.

"Listen to me, girlfriend. He gets off on controlling you. You don't need a man like that."

"He knows how to actualize our lives. A few subtle hints can change your life. So, I got too busy to go to the gym yesterday. A pudgy avatar will help me remember, encourage me to make it a priority tonight. It's good reinforcement."

Tiffany appeared with coffee as dark as her eyes. "Sorry, I'm late. I just inked a new deal and the lawyer routines identified a few red flags I needed to negotiate out of the agreement. I wish they'd do something about boilerplate with screw clauses."

"Majors, this time?" Lucia asked.

"It's indie. But, that's where the action is these days. You'll die when you hear this. They've got rights to Sorrentino's likeness."

"For real?" Lucia and Vanessa chorused.

"And I'm playing his partner." Her eyes grew dreamy as she slammed half her coffee.

"Oh girlfriend, that's wonderful."

"Well, I'm interrupting. What were you talking about when I arrived?"

"Nothing," said Vanessa.

"Girlfriend, it isn't nothing." Lucia turned to Tiffany. "Look at what Stanton's done to her."

Tiffany tut-tutted. "That skin tone doesn't go with your hair and you don't weigh that much. It's an avatar, wear what you want, but at least look good. I know this place that's good with avatars. They work all the indies."

"I couldn't."

"They'd comp me."

"It's not the money." Vanessa loved her friends. Even when they were difficult, they meant well.

"It's Stanton," said Lucia.

"That creep? Don't let him play you."

"Cut it out. You think you know him, but we've got everything planned and --"

"Look," said Tiffany. "He's lying to you. I've got proof."

"You've been spying on my Stanton."

"Hey. What are friends for." Tiffany snapped her fingers.

Stanton entered the Java Café. He had a Louis Vuitton designed avatar and Vanessa straightened in her chair feeling her legs extend and the chair become more comfortable against her back. Obviously, Tiffany had called him, but Stanton glanced around the room not noticing Vanessa or her girlfriends.

Tiffany snapped her fingers a second time. She must have security controls over this virtuality. That contract had been good. "Lucia cut that out. It's all designer-wear laced with pheromones. You're almost as bad as Miss tied-around-his-fingers."

"What did you do to my Stanton?"

"Froze him. It won't hurt --"

"You did what? Unfreeze him, now!"

"I was trying to say, freezing someone's avatar doesn't hurt anyone. You need to see this, and understand what he's doing to you." Tiffany turned to Lucia. "Look at Vanessa's legs and her wrists."

"They're longer and thinner."

"Exactly. Stanton's trying to make Vanessa dependent so that she only feels strong and secure in his presence."

"That's a lie. I'm sure there is a rational explanation and if you released Stanton, he'd tell you."

"Calm down, Vanessa. I'll release him as soon as you've seen this." Tiffany palmed a neuro-scanner and ran it over Stanton's avatar. She returned to her friends and tossed her scanner onto the table. It cast a three-dimensional holo of Stanton's timeline. She flicked a finger over the time and various images scrolled past including bondage scene with Vanessa tied up.

"Hey, that's private."

"TMI," said Lucia.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to show that. Look here." Tiffany stabbed a finger at a portion of the timeline that was blacked out. "Black market privacy mods. He's worried someone's going to snoop."

"He has good cause."

"Not me," said Tiffany. "You. This wasn't a time he was doing anything with you, look at the timeline. Were you with him at that time?"

She hadn't been with him. Vanessa accessed her memory journal and found a memory surprised that it had taken him so long to go to the market on what he'd told her was a simple errand. "I'm sure there is a good explanation." Vanessa's voice hitched and tears pooled in the corner of her eyes before the avatar's emotional override blanked her face.

Blowing the hair out of her eyes, Tiffany pushed a datachip across the table. "Use this on Stanton."

"What is it?"

"Custom programming. He'll see you the way you are."

"It won't hurt him?"

"Not a bit. Trust me. Lucia and I want only the best for you. Don't we, Lucia?"


The two woman at the table had been Vanessa's best friends since forever. Stanton was always on her about how he knew what was best. But, he also wanted her to stay away from these two, and it wasn't like she was going to hurt him, she was just going to let him see her the way she was. There couldn't be any harm in that. She pocketed the datachip.


Lucia waited until Vanessa's avatar disappeared and then enabled a custom privacy shield shared solely with Tiffany. "What was on the datachip."

"Sometimes the best lies are mostly truth. Stanton's going to see her the way he makes her look."

"OMG, girlfriend."

"Exactly. It'll crush Vanessa's heart when he breaks up with her, but at least she has us."

Friday, February 17, 2012

Driving Code

"What do you mean no residential address?" Aldo hated coders who thought keeping the important bits in wetwear meant job security. He'd need to remind them at his Monday morning team meeting that if his job was subject to off by one errors, so was their job.

"I shouldn't even be showing you this." Laura locked her screen.

"I can't believe the --" Aldo had enough ingrained years to catch himself from swearing at the last moment, at least when talking to HR wonks. "Look, the market is going to eat us alive tomorrow if we don't get this fixed tonight before Anonymous gets whiff of our blood. It's not just my job, it's yours too."

"After the 2015 Yahoo! Legislation, my hands are tied."

Aldo slammed a chair out of his way and it ricocheted down the alley between cubicles until it caught on an ethernet cable and crashed onto its back. Just because some Yahoo! boss showed up on the doorstep of one of his direct reports and squeezed fifteen shots into the poor schlock, it didn't mean there weren't times you were supposed to overlook the law. He had control of his emotions. Aldo stepped over the fallen chair.

His workspace had the team's spreadsheet opened with the row containing Bill's phone number highlighted, but he hadn't answered the phone when Aldo called. He ran his finger down the column of FindMyPhone passwords. Good thing the company issued corporate phones. It'd left the team no choice but to provide Aldo their passwords.

A flag representing Bill's phone moved along Highway 80 away from their offices. Catching Bill would take hours. Aldo looked at the code, but it wasn't just that it was Hungarian notation, it had two layers of macros that resulted in the code looking like something encrypted. Aldo shrugged and grabbed his car's fob.

The team might think he was past his prime, but Aldo had hacked his Audi to disable the speed governors and cleverly inject false position data into the DMV's database spew so they wouldn't send a speeding ticket based on logged data. He engaged the automated driver, and gave Bill's current position. He'd update it when he got closer.


Tailing Bill hadn't been enough to get him to pull over. Aldo had needed to pull in front of Bill and slow down like some LA police chase until Billy took notice and pulled over to the side of the road.

"Hey, bossman. Didn't see you. Must be serious stink to get you chasing my tail."

"Your code has gone haywire. It's the financial transactions routine. It's stripping money off the foreign exchange."

"No biggie."

"Losing us cash each time it goes through. If Anonymous gets wind of this, it'll fund their operations for a good six months."

Bill shrugged. "Nothing I can do. IT regs don't let code junkies through the VPN."

"I've got VPN on the dash. Get in the Audi."

Once Bill had pulled up the code, made a one character change and committed it and pushed it out to the production servers, Aldo grabbed his sleeve before he could disappear out of the car. "I want to see that it works this time."

"Hold your pants." Numbers spun on the real-time display and Bill flicked his finger at several numbers. "See that, bossman. It's working."

For the first time in hours Aldo took a deep breath. He would have a job tomorrow. Bill was about to slam the door shut. "Wait. Where do you live, if you're all the way out here and not home yet."

Bill scraped his foot on the rocks on the shoulder. "Couldn't afford a house, so the car is all I got. Put it on autodrive and get out of the congestion charging zone and drive all night. Anything else, bossman."

"No, no." Aldo started to plan how he'd pitch this to the VP. He'd find the angle where he'd appear to be the hero. He pulled the door shut and ordered the computer to call an extended management meeting for tomorrow morning.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Neurosynaptic Spider

I hated war. I hated the stench of battery acid staining the desert. I hated the neurosynaptic spider that crawled out from behind the wreckage of a battle bot. I grabbed the spider, slapping peace jelly on its receptors so the bristling rockets beneath its carapace wouldn't fire. I spun like a man throwing a discus. The neurosynaptic chip was a good aerodynamic and the spider floated out of sight. I logged the battle bot as a casualty.

"Peacekeeper, your report is due."

I hated my commanding officer. He wasn't any better than the flea-bitten bureaucrat who'd proposed using robots to fight proxy wars. I figured it was better than my fighting on the front lines, but jotting hashmarks for casualties was a brain killer. As well as my calves. "The bots no longer stand still. They chase all over the place. I've only tallied half the valley. Whoever is programming these things needs to teach them not to run."

"Whining won't speed the report. Get cracking." The radio crackled out.

The smoking remains of a three-story tall leg towered over me, the torso shredded by rockets. Second-generation tech no longer won wars. I counted the casualty, this one might lose them the war even if I didn't mark another loss against them.

Something flickered, I didn't get a good enough glance to tell what it was. I hated the war. I might not be fighting, but I'd heard too many stories of peacekeepers letting their guard down. I might not be the enemy, but the robots didn't seem to care.

A squad of neurosynaptic dragonflies divebombed me when I came around the corner. Behind them, I saw the jerky motion of a spider. The carapace oozed jelly. I should've known it would find friends.

I buzzed the command and control center, but no one answered my hail. Bullets strafed my position. One of the barbs cut through my battle armor. My arm exploded with pain. "Stage two. Stage two! Someone get me out of here."

I rolled across the sand and found an iron scrap I could use as a bat. I swatted the first dragonfly that followed me. It sputtered in the sand. I slapped more jelly on it, but this time instead of letting it escape, I connected a wire to its micro-USB port. I downloaded a standard interrupt pattern and the helicopter blades spun up ready to defend me. Who was I kidding, one droid wouldn't save me.

"Peacekeeper, follow standard operating procedures."

Dragonfly bodies spun to point in my direction. They had heard the radio. I ripped the swatch from my wrist and threw it at them. It hopped across the desert as they fired at it.

I wished they would outfit us with weapons, but that wouldn't have made us look like peacekeepers. Instead, I was supposed to use this jelly and my tally log against these creatures.

The interrupt pattern blocked the dragonflies as they flew closer. I watched it fly, timing my swing outside its pattern to temporarily stunned another bot into the sand. My hands flew repeating the interrupt procedure.

Iron tapped against the hard bone of my neck and I rolled over finding myself face-to-face with the spider. It pricked my skin and the spider's joint hissed as something hot and stinging shot into my bloodstream. I rammed my head forward pinning the thing into the sand.

I rolled away and trailed the USB cable connected to the second dragonfly. I was wired and I used its weapons to fire on the spider. The other creatures pulled back, all except the two dragonflies that were mine now. I suppose I was an army of three.

The maps I'd downloaded from headquarters before heading into the desert showed a cave up ahead. It wouldn't be long before the next proxy war, and I might be able to upgrade some of my own fighters. Free agency seemed like a good plan. Much better than working for my boss who evidently didn't care much about my life. I was going to like working for myself. And maybe, I wouldn't hate war after all.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Soul Deals

The years leave a stain, whether it's the liver spots on Alin's skin or the coal soot layered over the cathedral's stones. Even with the sun shining through the low-hanging clouds like a pale dandelion gone to seed, even with the dearth of men due to conscription for the church's holy wars, even with all the villagers voices raised in a throaty disharmony, her skin itched and she wished she was home in her rough-thatched lean-to on the barrow plains. She shook her head, not ready to give up so easily. She needed a youth and had delayed too long already, trying to convince herself she could be self-sufficient, remembering the mentor who had coerced her apprenticeship. When she first learned the ways of harvesting the deathwalkers, she'd promised herself she wouldn't force servitude, but age warped a person. Here she lurked, waiting to harvest her own apprentice.

The cathedral's bone bells announced the end of services. Alin stretched the shawl over her shoulders, retreating into an alley's darkness, her fingers casting id -- not her own, but that of the harvested deathwalkers -- to weave a glamour ball into reality. Villagers spewed from the maw of the great cathedral's doors. Their eyes flickered and skipped past Alin's alley.

The boy, Tavian, straggled with a handful of other young children. Alin nodded at the way the others abandoned him, leaving a separation between them. She knew his father had been drafted and Tavian had received no notice of life nor death since the spring thaw took his father. But their real fear came from what the summer rotting months had brought his mother. The Black Death. Orphaned, the church would see he was assigned guardians. But the losses would fester.

She prayed the crust over his emotional wounds would be weak, would allow her to poke through, would not require coercing. She played the glamour ball into the square. Only Tavian would see it.

"Yes, my lifewalker. Yes, take hold of destiny." The others slipped past him. His guardians neglected to watch for him. She drew the glamour ball towards herself, and the boy followed.

His hands trapped the ball. He squeaked. "Where did you come from?"

"Tavian --"

"How do you know my name?" He twitched as if trying to retreat, but the glamour had him.

She promised herself using power to coerce him to stay wasn't breaking her promises. She would leave him to make the decision, but she needed the id's power to get this chance to make him the offer. "Not important. Your mother is dead. Your father is dead."

The boy gulped.

Alin used more of the id and wove a miniature image of the battlefield, men strewn across it like rocks on a moor. Tavian's father lay on his back with his hands clutching at the spear wound. The illusion crowded out the reality of the alley. The boy loomed over the body. "Your life is dead. But it doesn't have to be."

"No... no."

She blinked. She needed strength. He wasn't refusing this opportunity, she hadn't even made her offer, but rather he denied the truth. A finality he'd already accepted.

"The soul dies, but it leaves behind the id."

"You... you're a souleater."

"Not the words I like to use. We do not eat souls, but release the essence. Otherwise, your folks will wander the earth as deathwalkers, cursed with an id unwilling to leave, haunted by the echoes their senses leaves them, jealous of the life you live. They will shamble beyond the villages walls, drawn by the cathedral's life force."

"My parents --"

"Only their id remains."

"I want to see them."

He wouldn't enjoy discovering their deathwalking shell. "I can take you to them, but first, you must agree to owe me service."

He would make a strong apprentice. His life id was strong. She was using his emotions, but she hadn't coerced his response with magic. She tried to convince herself that was what mattered. Her hand was warm on his back and fed on his id as she led him toward the barrows.