I shouldn’t have bought Clooney the drinks. I knew it was a mistake to encourage the old man to open his heart. I would probably pay for it by enduring an entire evening of his long-winded tales, the world’s last Luddite ranting at length until they finally threw him out on his ear. On the other hand, there wasn’t much happening in the bar, I was flush with ill-gotten money, and none of my friends were around to pass the time with.
But I definitely shouldn’t have made fun of him. I knew better, but after an hour or so of listening to his old stories I couldn’t help it. Clooney never talked much about his youth, but he could certainly bend your ear about his utterly mediocre adult career. He had hundreds of stories about jobs that just missed being the Big Score, tales of betrayal and bad luck and, mostly, idiotic planning. And on this night, he was even more annoying than usual. Something seemed to be preying on his mind, or what was left of it. He was nervous, and the drunker he got, the more hysterical he seemed. To be blunt, he was bringing me down. I was losing my patience.
By the end of this story, his voice was slurred almost beyond comprehension, he was glancing around sharply every ten seconds, and it had become painfully obvious that this tale, like most of his fish stories, was proof that being wired could save lives. The whole misadventure could have been averted if he had only been willing to use some basic implants - even a simple police scanner would have alerted him - and I wasted no time in telling him so. After all, I had been paying for the drinks.
He gave me a scathing look. “You think we didn’t have a scanner? What am I, fucking stupid? The damn thing wasn’t working, and we didn’t know it until it was too late.”
“Which you would have known if it had been an implant,” I told him victoriously, pointing a shaming finger at his over my beer. “You would have seen instantly that reception was bolloxed, and you would’ve known to scarper.”
His ugly face was starting to light up. Inwardly, I grinned. It wasn’t easy to get a reaction from Clooney. He had been in the business since the first days of VR, and had seen a lot of shit in his day. He had been toughened, and didn’t have a lot of friends to weaken him.
Now that I think about it, that may be why he reacted so strongly to my comments. After all, I was one of the few young guys that would tolerate him. Most guys my age didn’t want to be seen with him. I mean, he was a washout, and a violent technophobe to boot. I’m pretty sure Clooney still has a television and DVD player. He swears vision chips are part of a dark plot by the Machines to brainwash us all, and he refuses to have one implanted. The man does not even have a streamer implanted. He is petrified that the Machines are going to just take us over some day, presumably when good old-fashioned heroes like him are all too feeble to help us resist.
(As for myself, I will admit to being an avid technophile. I had my left hand wired for tactile enhancement, and both my eyes replaced for micro viewing. Those don’t really count, because they are work tools. But I also had a new streamer implanted six months ago because my old one, despite being less than two years old, would not play smells. The new one handles smells and is supposedly upgradeable for taste as soon as the Machines work out the tech for that. I have my memories uploaded for permanent storage once a month because the biological memory seems to fade too rapidly for my taste, and I haven’t had a live sexual encounter in months because I love replaying the old ones. One of my favourites is permanently in my onboard memory - an evening with a girl named Julie, who agreed to send me her own sensations so I can play hers and mine back simultaneously. I think you could safely call me a dedicated wirehead, to the extent that I’ve never really understood why a phobic like Clooney would want to hang out with me. Of course, the whole business of him being the oldest and oddest hardtimer still around, and a friendless loser, went a long way towards explaining that tolerance.)
But this time he was pissed off. He was way beyond being tolerant, and this time he was going to explain things to me. He gripped his bottle like he was going to strangle it, and stared at me with his angry grey eyes, a vein throbbing in his forehead like a traffic flare. Eventually I lowered my eyes, a little off balance. Clooney had some fire left in him after all.
“Think you know everything, dontcha, punk?” he taunted me, his voice slurring like a Harley rolling slowly over gravel. “You don’t know shit. Look at this.
“Look at it!” he snarled, and I raised my head to look at him as nonchalantly as possible. He caught in the middle of a swig of beer, and I nearly choked on it. He had got my attention, all right.
Clooney was hunched over the table, his hands gripping his hair on the left side of his head. He had pulled back the shaggy grey hair that he never wore shorter than shoulder length, and spread his fingers to expose a little hole in his skin about an inch above his left ear. It was the remains of a socket, similar to the ones I had but much older, ancient by VR tech standards - but of course I had never expected Clooney to have a socket at all.
I must have shown my surprise, for he relaxed after a few seconds and let his hair fall back into place. Gripping the bottle again, he slumped over the table.
“That’s right. I used to be wired. And I had it done before it got fashionable. Back in the Tweens, when most people were just wearing masks or glasses. Couple of years before the rumours about the Machine Culture started... We’d already been using Infosphere to keep us informed, and my mate Sullivan had the bright idea of getting all the monitors and speakers implanted directly into our nervous system. Brilliant plan, that one. We were going to be cyberthieves, just like the damn comic books.”
He stopped for a long time, staring at the empty bottle held tightly in his hands, and I waved for one of the girls to bring us new beers. I was amazed. It sounded like it would be another of his old wheezes about the great scams he had almost pulled off, but this time he was talking in my language, about my world. In fact, these things were part of the unrecorded history of the world I lived in. Infosphere had been swallowed into the Ultrareal portal over twenty years ago, but there were still stories being told of the lawlessness that prevailed in the Tweens, before the government turned the cyberworld into a virtual suburb.
He stirred a little when the fresh bottle was placed in front of him, and finally fixed me with an intense stare. I was almost ready to tell him to forget about it, when he suddenly continued - always talking in that low, gravelly voice, with the hesitant cadence of a man pulling things out of his memory by sheer force.
‘It worked for a while, you know. It was great. After a couple of weeks of disorientation, we jumped right in, and pretty soon we started to get really good at it. Then it was like we had been born again, with senses sharper than we had ever dreamed of. It was twice as good as wearing masks. The Infosphere was layered over the real world, and we were like fucking sorcerers. We had programs to enhance our vision a hundred different ways. We had mole programs getting inside security systems, alarms that went off at the tiniest hint of police activity, viruses working against the pigs... We had it all.
‘Everybody else worked in VR, of course. Even the police were using it. But the implants gave us speed like you wouldn’t believe. Nobody wearing a mask could process it all as fast as we could. We didn’t need any crew to help us - all we ever used was a bunch of robot mice with cameras and claws. And the two of us for the physical stuff.
‘It was three years before the police started to use implants. Of course, by then we had stopped. There was no way I was going to keep on using them after what we saw...
‘Year or so after we got the implants, we started to hear stories going around about the weird things living in Infosphere. You need to remember, Infosphere was twice as big as the Earth, virtually, and not a square mile of it was planned. Oh, sure, the geeks had some vague ideas about zoning and population centers, interest clusters and all that when they built the portal, but two months after they opened it, the whole thing was Sodom and Gomorrah. People built cities, raised armies and shit. Guys used to spend their whole lives in there. They had games going on with twenty thousand players. Sometimes it got in the way of real business, but mostly it just gave the place a great ambience.
‘We had a mate who lived in Atlantis from the day it was launched. Never came out, much less worked in the real world. I mean, there was representations of pretty much everything in the real world built into Infosphere, and anybody who was anybody had an avatar in there. As long as you knew how to find people, it was always easier to get them inside than in the real world. So this geezer ran his entire network from inside Atlantis, until the day they declared war on Babylon-NY and the whole city got scuttled. He died in there. Just didn’t want to come out, even when he knew he was gonna die. He hadn’t seen real sunlight in months, and I guess he just lost touch. Died with his avatar on, you might say. There were a bunch of other guys died the same way in Atlantis, mostly the founders and hopeless cases.
‘Oh, right. The stories. Well, you know what they were about. Machines. First time somebody asked me about them, I thought he was fucking with me. No idea what he was talking about. I looked around, and everybody in the pub was looking at us, waiting to hear my answer. I told them to collectively piss off.
‘But it kept coming back. People knew I spent a lot of time inside, and pretty soon, it seemed like every time I got drunk with someone he would be asking me if I had seen the Vaporites. The ghosts. People said there were computers more intelligent than humans, that they had been built by some financial outfit and escaped the instant they achieved sentience. Or that they were the next step in evolution from an experimental search engine. Couple of guys even tried to tell me they were military, which was a complete joke. Military wasn’t even close to that kind of thing in the Tweens.
‘Then the rumours got more frequent. Nothing ever showed up in the logs, but a lot of people were seeing these things. It scared a lot of the amateurs out of Infosphere, and put a damper on the implant industry for a year or so. Dream chips were the next big thing in entertainment, and people weren’t using VR so much. Dream chips were safer. There weren’t any unhuman things in dreams, or at least not sentient ones.
‘We stayed inside, of course. It was working brilliantly. The amateurs clearing out made it even better for us. By then, our main line was data theft. We were legends - you won’t believe it, but we were. They called us the Anti-Shadows, after Sullivan starting leaving signatures. I came down on him hard when I found out he was doing it, but he never stopped. Poor Sully. I loved him, I would have done anything for him back then. He was my guy. But he was a techno junkie, carried a permanent hardon for gadgets. The guy was wired to the eyeballs, I mean he had zero available memory, ya know? He had the implant, and every available piece of enhancement software, and that wasn’t so bad. But this guy also had a dream chip, which was bleeding edge expensive back then. Guy was like you, if there was circuitry in it he had to have it.
‘Being an idiot, he had the damn dream chip set up as a screen saver. Course I didn’t know that until he started talking gobbledygook in the middle of our stakeout. The way he had it set up, it would start playing any time he spent more than five minutes sitting still. Didn’t happen until the middle of the night, I guess as soon as the asshole’s adrenaline started getting low. One minute we were sitting in an alley pretending to be junkies, an’ next minute he starts yelling about aliens. Some shit about translight drive and a government coverup. You know that one? They remade it a few years ago.
‘And then I saw something. It came out of the alleyway like a snake floating on the air, twisting around and sending out little tendrils like fingers. Sullivan didn’t see shit, except for the aliens in that damn dream. I tried to wake him up, but it was like he was having a breakdown. Eventually I just tuned his volume down and watched the thing. It was still acting like it hadn’t seen us, and it still didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen. I knew what it was as soon as it appeared. Never seen one before, but I had certainly heard plenty about them. Every bar, every hangout, sometimes even the chat rooms asked me about the things. Of course I knew what it was. A Vaporite. I had always thought of them as high-tech boogeymen, urban legends. And I had been wrong.
‘Wouldn’t be the first time, either.
‘“You are a data thief”, the thing whispered to me.
‘Yes, I whispered back, hardly made any noise, but it either understood me or didn’t need to have its guess confirmed. It knew me like no human could. Probably took no more than a second to read the story of my life through my avatar.
‘It jiggled, seeming to flicker in the streetlight, and then it started to rise up and morph into something like a scrawny human shape. And even though its flickering was nothing but a shifting in data patterns, it was looking more and more like a ghost to me.
‘I had no idea what it could do to me, but I assumed that it had ways to dispose of me. Being a Machine, it could probably reach out and cut me off from the rest of the world. There would be no way I could escape without dying, unless someone happened to come by to check us out. Sullivan was useless. Even his screaming wasn’t going to help us, because like a true wirehead, he was only screaming in Infosphere. In real life he was just sitting next to me like a man in a coma.
‘Then it reached out to me. Instinctively I pulled away, but I knew there was no way I could get away from it. Quick as lightning, it seemed to slip behind me. I “looked” around, but it was not behind me. Then I realised it was actually inside me. Inside my construct, in the blind spot.
‘I started shutting down the construct layer by layer, trying to find the thing, but the place it was standing was still a blind spot. It made no difference if I was standing there - that spot was still my sensory locus. But even if I couldn’t see it, I could definitely sense it doing something. Code was changing in my visualisation center. I could see the numbers changing, too fast for me to tell what they meant. But it got real clear real quick, because I couldn’t see the real world any more.
‘The Vaporite was rewiring my eyes. The damn thing had taken control of the supervisual program I normally used to overlay the real world with Infosphere’s enhanced visions. I used these things to add to my senses, to enable me to slip through the real world with enhanced sight, helping me sneak around and spy on people. Most of the time I had the visuals set to roughly half solidity, which made the enhancements semitransparent, like a glowing overlay - so I could see real things, but with a little extra information added to them. But this thing was turning them way up, to a point where I could barely see the real world.
‘“There is one around here, somewhere close,” it told me. “You will see it soon. And I will find out how it is that you see it.”
‘“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked it, not really caring what it said but trying to get it distracted so I could figure out some way to escape.
‘But it actually stopped for a moment, and dangled its claws in front of me. Then it told me. It told me there were three kinds of living things in Infosphere. There were human avatars. And there were its kind, the Vaporites, avatars of Machine intelligence that was just beginning to construct a new civilization on Earth. And then there was something else, something that there was no explanation for. A kind of creature that could be seen in VR, but did not live there. Something that had been living with us, in our cities, for millennia without leaving a tangible clue to its existence. The kind of thing that made cats hiss for no visible reason.
‘Bullshit, I told it. But suddenly it was back inside me, disabling my control over my construct, shutting the real world out completely. And a second later it seemed to explode into a million fragments of moondust, scattering quickly on a wind that rose all of a sudden. Then I could feel something else, something I couldn’t explain. Usually everything in Infosphere is crystal clear, and a little flat. Like there aren’t enough senses operating, not enough subliminal information, so it simplifies your picture, makes it all just a tiny bit unreal. But now I was feeling cold. And there was a kind of mumbling vibration hitting me in the back of my skull. And it was all real.
‘I looked at Sullivan, who had stopped screaming all of a sudden. He was staring straight ahead, his eyes unfocused. His avatar was blurry, and it seemed to be frozen. Then I saw his eyes move, starting to track something in front of him. I looked out there, and at first I didn’t see a thing. Then I saw something that... wasn’t really a thing. More like a sensation. It was like the alleyway was crawling. Like there was nothing there but the air, and the air was moving, and somehow we could see that. And it was darkening. And moving towards us.
‘It made every hair on the back of my neck stand up, just floating towards us like that without any kind of shape. That was the worst thing about it, that it had no shape whatsoever. There seemed to be nothing to it, except fear and a terribly bad vibration. It was just a distortion. And it grew, and solidified, and it turned out that the one thing worse than the shapelessness of it, was its real shape. I was trying to back away from it, and feeling my legs just liquefied. I couldn’t move. Then Sullivan started to scream again, and this time I guess he was really screaming, and pretty loud too, but by then I had no way of knowing because my senses were hardwired into VR. He reached out for me and his hand scraped against my shoulder, but I couldn’t do a thing to help him.
‘The thing looked at me. It stared into my damn soul, and don’t tell me you can’t see a man’s soul through a construct. This thing did. And it kept looking straight at me, but at the same time it was fixing me with its stare, it turned its eyes toward Sullivan. He whimpered, and his hand clawed away at me. And the... thing... just floated there, dominating me with its dead eyes, but at the same time it shot forward like some kind of living harpoon and razored its claws through Sullivan’s shoulder and went right through Sully’s mouth with a hundred steel teeth. I could see his teeth breaking when it hit him. A second later, there was nothing left of his head - and the thing was still floating in front of me and staring right through me, like it hadn’t moved at all.
‘Then a claw lashed out towards me, and streaks of black shot through everything, and the thing was gone in half a second. I couldn’t tell what was going on, but I could hear it hiss angrily, and I saw its claws falling at my face, in slow motion, seeming to just touch my eyes and cut into the sides of my head. That same instant, everything kind of lit up, and then suddenly went pitch black. The thing turned its head and snarled silently, but I don’t know how I know that because by that time I couldn’t see a thing.
Then it was all gone, fading kind of, like a dream fades when you make yourself wake up half an hour earlier than usual. And I could feel goosebumps painfully erect all over my body, and a flood of warmth running over my shoulder. There was a lot of banging and shouting, which turned out to be cops banging on the steel door of the loft. Somebody heard Sully screaming and called the cops, and if they hadn’t I’d have died up there. And there was a wetness on the floor when I fell and put my hand down to catch myself, which turned out to be blood. Blood running from my shoulder, where I had to have twelve stitches sewn; and from my ear, where the wire had been violently ripped from its socket; and from Sullivan, who had pulled the wires out of my head in the split-second before the thing shredded his shoulder and face.
‘It took the cops another ten minutes to break down the door, and most of a year to put me back together. They had to grow me new eyes - I wouldn’t let them give me implants. I don’t ever want to see as well as I saw that night.’
It took me a moment to realize that Clooney had stopped talking. I looked at him, watched him gripping the empty bottle of beer, staring at me. I noticed for the first time that his eyes seemed younger than the rest of him. The way he looked and acted, you always assumed his eyes were bloodshot and weak, and you never really bothered to actually look at them. But they were sharp, and clear, as if Clooney was a painting that someone had just begun to retouch after a century of neglect. Young eyes. But haunted.
“Everybody thinks I’m scared of the Machines,” he told me. “But I’m not. I don’t mind the Machine Culture. They might think we’re just animals, but they’ve done a lot for us anyway.”
He took another drink, and suddenly flinched and looked around like a wild animal that smells a man but can’t tell where he is. His voice had faded to a frightened whisper. But somehow he found the strength to keep talking.
“I’m not afraid of VR, either. What I’m afraid of doesn’t live in VR. They live in this world. But I can’t see them here, and that’s just the way I want it. They ever come for me again, I don’t want to see them coming.” He finished the beer and wiped his mouth. Then he fell silent, and wouldn’t stop brooding for the rest of the night. I was relieved when he finally staggered home, leaving me alone there. No one came near me that night. It was like his taint had rubbed off on me with his story.
It’s bullshit, right? There can’t be anything like that out there. After a while, I convinced myself that Clooney had been winding me up. It was too impossible.
But I got rid of my cat. I just couldn’t stand the thing anymore. Every time it froze and sniffed at the air for no reason, I would start shivering. Especially after Clooney disappeared.