by Tom Dillon
“Ostras!” Emma yelled, and then started to run. “Cat, the ghouls saw me!”
Catalina echoed the sentiment under her breath, and followed her friend as she sprinted through the crowd of undead. The ghouls must have recently fed, because they barely noticed two of them as they ran. She yelled at a ghoul on a bicycle that almost ran her down but immediately regretted it when the nearest ghouls looked at her with expressions of anger. But of course they weren’t angry, ghouls didn’t get angry, they were probably just starting to get hungry again. She needed to get out of there.
“That was a close one,” Emma said when Catalina caught up to her in an alleyway.
“Way to throw your best friend in front of the train, Em,” Catalina said, panting from the mad dash that had been required to catch up to her friend.
Emma threw up her hands. “You were surrounded. If you weren’t able to get out of there on your own, there wasn’t anything that I could have done to help you.”
Catalina punched her friend in the shoulder. “And honor, did you forget about that?”
“Honor is just what boys call stupidity. I’m not going to get eaten over that,” Emma said.
“Whatever. We need to get moving before they find us,” Catalina said.
They started to move again, walking through the deserted alleyway, but with less urgency than in the street. Catalina and Emma relaxed as they made their way deeper into the maze of alleys that ran through Olympia’s Downtown Island. In different circumstances, they could have taken one of the water taxis that clogged the canals, but with the ghouls, that was out of the question. So they walked along their route, keeping just a block or two away from the street away from the deeper alleys that resounded with the sounds of drinking and gambling and other sounds, no less disturbing for their indistinguishable nature. They did see an occasional ghoul in the alleyways, but they just hid and waited and the threat passed.
Finally, they emerged into the brightness and heat of Percival Landing with its food carts and sleek fiberglass ferries. They had made it.
“This is getting too easy,” Catalina said.
“Agreed; we need to find a new game,” Emma said.
“See you tomorrow?” Catalina asked.
The two friends parted ways, Emma heading towards the ferry that would take her up the Deschutes towards her home in Tumwater and Catalina heading towards the ferry that would take her to the Eastside.
As she walked, she held her left hand out in front of her, palm down. A black rectangle was tattooed on the back of her hand, and she pushed her thumb in the middle of it. A moment later, her System had read her thumbprint through the interface pad that had been layered into her skin and verified it.
Immediately, the harsh sunlight dimmed, while the colors of the buildings and plants and everything else intensified. After an hour of staring at the fading colors of the city, it took her brain a few seconds to acclimate. Her System polled the network and information began to populate on the people that were walking around the park, until varicolored icons and numbers hovered over each of their heads. She knew that the same thing was happening with her, and suddenly the people who had been oblivious to her presence glanced in her direction before going about their business.
Catalina boarded a ferry bound for Ellis Cove. As soon as she stepped aboard, two icons appeared in the center of her field of vision, one showing a coin, another an icon of a stick figure rowing. She had the money to pay for passage, but there was no need to spend it, so she focused on the rowing figure, causing the coin to fade into the background. A moment later, the coin had faded entirely. The rowing icon blinked out of existence and a green line that only she could see appeared on the ground in front of her. She followed it and was guided to a vacant oar. It would be a few minutes before the ferry would be full enough to leave so she flipped through the news icons to see if anything interesting had come up while she had played ZomCom with Emma. Nothing had, but her school icon was blinking, indicating that she still needed to put in some school time for the day. She focused on the icon until it was activated.
A moment later a tutor avatar blinked into being on the bench next to her, a figment of her System. The tutor cleared her throat, and began to speak.
“By the end of the twentieth century, the world had–“
The tutor was a woman somewhere in her 30’s of indistinguishable ethnicity. In fact, everything about her was vague, forgettable, with the exception of her voice, full of excitement bounded by precision. The meta for the Academy said that they had scoured the globe to find the best lecturers on any given subject and contracted them to record the lectures. Catalina believed it, but even so, she wasn’t in the mood for history, and canceled the lecture. The tutor avatar vanished.
The rowing icon flashed to the middle of her vision, overlaid by green arrows chasing each other around in a tight circle. The arrows would rotate at various speeds to indicate the tempo, but she immediately banished it to the corner of her vision, opting instead for music that would modulate its rhythm to keep her on pace.
The academy software returned to the center of her vision, a menu of icons arrayed in front of her. Each icon was color coded to show how much time she needed to put into it. Catalina ignored these metrics, and instead chose the only icon that was already green, the branching network of dots that represented Abstract Concepts. Immediately, a Go board popped into view. She went first, placing the black stone by concentrating on an area of the board and then tapping her fingers to select the proper intersection, the fingers on her left hand moving the reticle up and down and the fingers on her right hand moving it from side to side. She knew that she wouldn’t have a lot of time, so she had set the game up on a 13x13 board rather than the standard 19x19. The game was over by the time the ferry reached Ellis Cove, with the System winning by 3 points. A moment later a notification blinked in the corner of her vision, the Abstract Concepts icon overlaid by a green +6, not that she needed the points.
When the ferry neared an image of hands releasing an oar popped into her field of vision, but she had already let go. A moment later, the oar was locked into the docking position, raked down almost parallel to the hull. The ferry’s small motors engaged, swinging it around and bringing it to rest against the dock. People queued up and filed off the boat. A coin notification blinked at her, with a green +3, the minimum payment for a shift at the oars.
There were only a few people waiting to board the ferry for the trip back downtown, which meant that the people staying on the ferry to take it back downtown would make at least twenty or thirty credits. Rowing ferries didn’t pay enough to live on, but for someone still in school, it could make the difference between a fun summer and instant noodles.
From the dock, she walked uphill through the trees until she reached the road. The bicycle traffic was heavy, and she was torn between waiting for an opening and walking a hundred meters out of the way to use the overpass. Finally, a gap opened and she dashed across. Fifteen minutes of walking along a footpath that wound its way through moss-covered trees and she was home.
The next morning Catalina was out of the house before anyone else and was early enough to snag a spot at the oars. Shortly afterwards, the ferry had reached capacity, and her System flashed the rotating green arrows. She flipped through the news as she rowed and before she knew it, the ferry had arrived at Percival Landing and the oars retracted.
It was already hot, and even the light wool blend of her clothes wicking away sweat as fast as possible, she still felt sticky when she met Emma at the landing. Emma, of course, was wearing clothes more stylish than sensible. Her skirt and blouse were made of smart-fabric that was currently programmed for crisp edges and a satin sheen. It looked nice, but Catalina knew from experience that she would look like she had just taken a shower if she tried to wear something similar while she rowed. No one in Emma’s family ever had to row.
“I found the coolest game! It’s called Espionner,” Emma said when Catalina approached, emphasizing the French pronunciation.
The two of them got in line for one of the street vendors and a few minutes later they each had a bagel, for which Emma paid without comment. As usual, Catalina felt a pang of guilt at not paying for her food, but they had been over the argument before and she knew that Emma would end up paying regardless of what she said. At least Emma no longer tried to take her shopping.
“How does it work?” Catalina asked.
“In the game, we’re spies trying to smuggle information out of Cascadia,” Emma said. “The game will have us go and find a flash drive that another spy has left for us, and take it to the next location.”
“That sounds kind of boring,” Catalina said. She also didn’t like the idea of working against her government, even in a game, but didn’t give voice to the thought. Did Emma have a fundamentally different relationship to it? Any thoughts Catalina might have on the subject were cut off as Emma started to talk again.
“There’s more to it. There are other groups of spies who also want to get the drive for their employers. Also, there are side quests where we can get better software, you can make alliances with other groups, all sorts of stuff!” Emma said. “It’s huge in Portland.”
“And people are playing it around here?” Catalina asked. Last time Emma had gotten excited about a game, no one else was playing it and they had wasted an afternoon in the hopes that someone would join them.
“I checked this morning and there are a dozen other teams in the city.”
“I’ll guess give it a shot,” Catalina said.
“Good. I’ve got a copy for you,” Emma said, holding out her hand.
Catalina reached out and took Emma’s hand. The moment their skin touched, the transfer was complete and a new icon in the shape of a stylized eye appeared in the corner of her vision. She activated it.
Unlike ZomCom, the changes Espionner made to her perception were subtle, but in spite of that they were creepier. Everyone seemed to be watching her out of the corners of their eyes, and when she looked at them, they glanced away quickly. The feeling of isolation was immediate and overwhelming. Emma grabbed her by the shoulder and turned her so that they were facing. With Espionner running, looking directly at someone was intense; it looked like her friend was staring her down, trying to decide whether she would live or die.
“Cat, calm down,” Emma said, her voice was no longer excited, but had a menacing edge to it. “We’re allies, right?”
“Yes,” Catalina said. A new icon appeared in her field of vision, it was an illustration of two clasped hands. Next to it were two smaller icons, a green check mark and a red ‘X’. She activated the check mark.
Immediately Emma’s features changed; her eyes got a little bigger and started to blink at a normal rate and her mouth curved upward in a small smile. Catalina narrowed her focus so that all she could see was her friend in front of her and not the crowd watching them in suspicion, and she gave Emma a hug.
“I don’t think that I could do this alone,” she said.
“I’d worry about anyone who could,” Emma said.
“So what do we do now?” Catalina asked.
“I have no idea,” Emma said.
A question mark appeared in front of her, but Catalina bypassed it, even the best tutorials were too slow by half. Instead, she started activating the icons in Espionner’s toolbar. Some were easy to figure out, like the little radar screen icon, which showed a map in the corner of her vision with her at the center and Emma represented by a green dot the left of her. She left it on. There was also a leader board and an inventory, which was empty. Finally, there was an icon with her avatar, a chibi rendering of her face, on it. When she activated it, a man appeared in front of her.
“Would you like to share this presentation with your nearby allies?” he asked. He was wearing a dark suit and had a conservative haircut and pale skin. He was illuminated but the sunlight never seemed to touch him, like he was standing in his own shadow.
“Yes,” she answered. A moment later Emma’s eyes were focused on him as well.
“Welcome to Espionner,” he said. “I am Icarus, your handler. Are you familiar with the basic goals of the game?”
“Yes,” Catalina said. “We are to find a device and move it to a safe location.”
“Exactly,” he said. “We do not know where the device is or which team currently has it. You will have to find it on your own. Once you have the device, we will give you instructions as to what you are to do with it.”
“So how do we find it?” Emma asked.
“The device is a contact drive, about the size of your pinkie,” Icarus said. Catalina thought about it for a moment, a drive that big would hold exabytes of data. “There is no way to directly ascertain its exact location, but if you are clever, you will be able to find it through analysis of other data.”
“Are there any rules?” Catalina asked.
“There are only three,” Icarus said. “Do not place yourself in harms way for the device. Do not harm anyone, player or bystander, in your pursuit of the device.” For the last rule, he leaned in towards them, speaking in a quiet, somber voice, as though he were sharing a dangerous secret. “And most importantly, do not attempt to access the data on the device.” Catalina couldn’t help but to smile, but when she looked over at her friend, she found Emma looking dead serious. “Are there any other questions at this time?” Icarus asked.
“None,” Emma said.
“Should you need my assistance, I am always available,” Icarus said. He faded until he was a mere shadow, and then he wasn’t there at all.
“What do you think?” Emma asked.
“I’m not sure,” Catalina said. “Icarus said that we could find it through other data, but we don’t have any other data.”
“I meant, what do you think of the game? But I’ll take your answer to mean that you like it,” Emma said. “If we don’t have data, we need to earn it. Or maybe we have to buy it.”
Catalina was a step ahead of her, she had already activated Espionner’s marketplace. It was filled with icons, both familiar and unfamiliar. Some of them looked promising, but she didn’t look for too long before she noticed the prices. The cheapest thing on there was 500 credits. A moment later, she had summoned Icarus and he appeared before her and Emma again.
“Icarus, is this one of those leechware games?” she asked, before he had an opportunity to say anything. If she was going to have to lay out funds every time she wanted to accomplish anything, she wasn’t interested.
“I don’t understand,” he said and stood there waiting for her to clarify.
“Do we need to buy the analysis data from the marketplace to find the device?” she asked.
“Of course not. The data is out there, free for the taking. You just have to find it.” He indicated the rest of the city with a sweeping gesture. “Who could say if the data in the marketplace could even be trusted? Anything that can be bought is already halfway to being corrupted.”
“Good,” Catalina said, and banished him.
“Harsh,” Emma said, smiling. “But I told you, the game’s good.”
“True, but that still leaves us at square one,” Catalina said.
“He said the data is out there,” Emma said. “Let’s go find it.”
An hour of wandering downtown brought them no closer to the data that Icarus had talked about. As Catalina spent more time in Espionner, its effects on the environment grew subtler and more disturbing. It no longer seemed that everyone around her was engaged in furtive surveillance of her and Emma. Instead, she would see a face in the crowd, just close enough to see that she was being captured in an unblinking gaze. Then she began to notice glints from the edges of rooftops and balconies.
“Em, we should get out of the street,” Catalina said.
“You’ve seen them, too?” Emma said.
They ducked into an alleyway and Catalina felt the pressure lift. Emma was breathing easier, too. It wasn’t long, however, before they started to hear echoing footsteps from behind them. They were being followed, or the game wanted them to think that they were being followed. Emma couldn’t think of a way to tell the difference.
“We need to get out of here,” Emma said. Catalina didn’t say anything, but just followed her friend as she hurried back towards the street. The footsteps followed them, coming more rapidly the faster they moved.
When they had emerged from the maze, back into the sunlight and watching crowd, Catalina grabbed her friend. “Look.” She pointed up at a GroupBoard.
“Look at . . .” Emma said.
“The GroupBoard, look at the icon cloud,” Catalina said. “Look at the Espionner icon.” When Systems had first come online, someone had had the foresight to ban individualized ads. Advertising was still everywhere, but it didn’t result in a mass of fake people talking to you every time you opened your eyes, as had happened in the Republic of California. One of the workarounds to this were GroupBoards, which polled everyone’s system and created an icon cloud out of all the running apps of the people in the vicinity, scaling them up or down by popularity, and fitting them together like a puzzle.
Catalina watched as Emma focused on the GroupBoard. When you looked directly at an icon, it displayed the information about it and how many people were using it. “There are five people playing Espionner in the area. I told you that it was popular,” Emma said. A moment later she smiled and said, “Oh. Cat, that’s brilliant!”
If the GroupBoards could poll the people in the vicinity, they could aggregate that information from all of the GroupBoards to create a map of people who were playing Espionner. Eventually it would lead them to the device.
Emma summoned her Personal Assistant, Allie, who appeared in Catalina’s vision, as well. “Allie, I need you to find an app that mashes GroupBoards onto a street map for Catalina and I,” Emma said.
Allie disappeared and reappeared a moment later. She handed Emma and Catalina each a small, shiny disc. Emma dismissed her. The moment Catalina touched the virtual disc, a new app appeared, with the icon of a street map populated by app icons.
Catalina activated it, and a map unfolded itself until it took up a large portion of her peripheral vision. When she focused on it for more than a moment, it swung so that it occupied the center of her field of view. Whoever had designed it had given it some thought, whenever her focus moved into the distance, it became semi-transparent. She filtered out all of the apps but Espionner, which gave her only a dozen icons, spread throughout downtown. She looked over and saw that Emma’s eyes were focused directly in front of her, she was likely looking at the same thing.
The mashup was very good. Catalina had expected it to tell her which general areas of the city their opponents were in, but it somehow triangulated their positions so that she could see what looked like people’s actual positions. Every so often the icons would jump as the GroupBoards’ data conflicted of blipped for a moment, but they would reappear a fraction of a second later.
The ten icons that weren’t her or Emma were split into four groups, one with four people and three with two. All but one of the two-person groups were stationary or moving very slowly, and the one that was moving was moving very fast, skirting around the edge of Downtown Island. Catalina tagged the fast moving group, so that their icons were outlined in red.
“I see them,” Emma said. The target group was already at the Southeast corner of the island, moving clockwise, and showed no signs of slowing down.
“They must be on a water taxi,” Catalina said. “Where are they headed?” A water taxi could get to just about anywhere on the periphery of the island, but as she watched the icons move, she realized that they must have somewhere very specific in mind.
“They’re headed to the Landing,” Emma said, and began to walk quickly in that direction.
Her friend’s movement was so quick and decisive that Catalina had to rush to catch up. “How can you be sure?”
“Water taxis only make sense if you’re going to or from the mainland or if you want to get to the other side of the island very quickly,” Emma said. “Since they’re hugging the shoreline and they started on the East side, they’re either heading to Percival Landing or somewhere close by.”
“Makes sense,” Catalina said.
The two of them ran through the alleyways, winding their way to intercept their target. Catalina was so focused on the map and the blood pounding in her ears that she didn’t even hear the footsteps following her. As fast as they were moving, the water taxi was much faster, and it had already hit the landing’s no wake zone by the time they were two thirds of the way there.
But the water taxi didn’t dock. Once it was in the congested marina waterways, two new Espionner icons popped up in the Plaza. Immediately, the water taxi turned around. The new icons, which Emma had tagged in blue, followed. The taxi let off its passengers a couple of blocks away from the Plaza, and the red and blue icons moved to intersect. By that time, Emma and Catalina had reached the area, but remained hidden in the alleyway. If either of the groups noticed them, Catalina couldn’t tell by the movement of their icons.
The two groups met and their icons began to move as one, towards the alleyways, thankfully not the one that Catalina and Emma were hiding in. When the target groups entered the alleyway, they didn’t stop but continued on until they had reached an intersection, where they stopped.
“Come on,” Emma said, and started to make her way silently towards where the other players were meeting. Catalina followed.
There were four people in the alleyway, two guys who looked to be in their mid twenties and a boy and a girl who were probably in their late teens. The first pair had the drive, one of them holding it in front of him and inspecting it, like he had just purchased it. They were talking, but had scrambling software running, so all Catalina could make out was a high pitched buzzing. Everything looked calm. Then the teenage boy took a swing at the one holding the device. It went skittering across the ground, but they were so caught up in the violence that none of them noticed.
“What the hell?” Catalina asked. But it turned out that she was speaking to empty air, Emma was in a crouch, hurrying forward to pick up the drive. Catalina decided that she didn’t want the drive. But it was too late, Emma had picked it up. A few seconds after she had picked it up, Icarus appeared in front of them. They had already started to move away, and he followed them with long, artificially effortless strides.
“Excellent,” he said, oblivious to the fracas going on behind them. “Now that you have the device, your mission is to take it to the commercial docks.” The map that Catalina and Emma were using to track their opponents zoomed out and a green reticle appeared at the edge of the commercial dock compound that covered the northern edge of Downtown Island. “I will give you more specific instructions when you get closer.” Icarus disappeared.
Remembering how they had learned who had been in possession of the drive just a few minutes earlier, Emma and Catalina started to walk North at a brisk pace. They had made it a few blocks when Catalina realized that Espionner’s exit icon had been grayed out. Apparently she wouldn’t be able to log out so long as she or Emma was in possession the drive. The thought made her stomach lurch, but she didn’t see the point in burdening her friend with the information.
“Crap,” Emma said.
Catalina focused on her map. The two teams had worked out their differences and noticed that the drive was missing. Two blue icons were following them at a run, judging by the speed. The two red icons hadn’t moved.
“We need to run,” Catalina said. “Now.”
“I know,” Emma said, but Catalina was already out ahead of her.
The red group was gaining on them. Catalina would have killed for a bicycle.
“We have to cut through the core,” Emma said.
Catalina almost tripped. “What?”
“If we don’t and they do, they’ll catch us,” Emma said. “Besides, we won’t be going through the very middle, we can try and skirt around the worst parts.”
“Em, it’s not worth it,” Catalina said. “Just drop the damn thing. We’ll get it next time.”
But Emma wasn’t listening. She was already heading deeper into the maze. The only thing worse than going in would be letting her best friend go in alone, so Catalina followed.
The light faded as the buildings grew taller, and no effort had been put into virtually papering over the graffiti and dirty concrete. They ran, staying clear of the open spaces that would make natural confluences of vice. They were more than halfway through when Catalina noticed that their pursuers had chickened out, taking a safer, and much longer, route; she would have breathed easier if she had any breath to spare.
Ahead of her, Emma stumbled after looking down an alleyway, but recovered. Catalina glanced in the same direction as she passed, but wary of making the same mistake, she didn’t look long enough to make anything out. She kept her eyes on her friend and the ground in front of her after that.
Then they were out in the open, running across the narrow strip of grass that separated downtown from the harbor. They slowed down as they approached the harbor’s chain link fence. Catalina looked at the guard booth and closed gate.
“How are we going to get in?” she asked.
“Maybe we can hop on one of the carts before it enters,” Emma said. There were always carts going into and out of the docks, ferrying goods between the industrial and commercial parts of the island.
Catalina didn’t respond, because something on the map caught her eye. Their opponents were still bogged down in the alleyways, a couple minutes away, but that wasn’t what had drawn her attention. She looked more closely at the map, and after a few seconds of staring she saw it. Their drop-off location was moving. It was going at a glacial pace, but it was going.
“It’s a ship,” she said.
“What’s a ship?” Emma asked.
“The drop off location. Look, it must just be starting to move now.”
“Then we need to hurry,” Emma said, and took off at a jog, heading West along the border of the harbor. Their route would take them to the massive pier that jutted out of the Northwest corner of the island, curving around the harbor like a claw. On it were the bulk of Olympia’s nicer restaurants. Thanks to the merchant clippers that were constantly coming and going from the harbor, it offered a majestic view. It would also be the perfect place to toss the drive onto the ship from.
“Good idea,” Catalina said, wishing she had thought of it.
When they arrived on the pier, the clipper was pointed north, ready to sail out into Puget Sound. Its sails were furled and it wasn’t moving very fast, but it looked as though it would pass right by them if they were able to wait for just a minute. Emma was so excited that she couldn’t stay still, but at the same time, her eyes looked glassy, like she were about to collapse from exhaustion.
Their opponents had finally exited the alleys and were running towards the piers at full tilt. Catalina had her System calculate their vectors, plotting dashed lines on her map. The ship should arrive first, but it would be close.
“Cat,” Emma said. “You need to throw. Something’s wrong with my vision.” She handed over the drive.
Catalina took the contact drive from her friend. As soon as it touched her skin, her System mounted it. Then she broke rule three.
The drive told her that it contained 7.3 exabytes of data. She didn’t have a fractal file system tool, so she couldn’t navigate the sea of data, but she could sample it at random. Her browsing brought up videos of public speeches, what looked like surveillance footage, maps, grainy audio files, and software. She had no idea what she was holding, but she knew that she didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
The ship was edging closer to them, picking up speed now that it was out of the no-wake zone in the harbor. Thankfully, it was moving faster than it looked. The two men that had been chasing them had just reached the docks and had slowed down to appraise the situation, apparently suspecting a trap. They approached at a walk, and Catalina wasn’t sure if it was them radiating menace or if it was an effect of Espionner’s overlay, but after seeing the violence in the alley, she conceded that it could be both.
“How much do you want for the drive?” one of them asked. Apparently they couldn’t see how close Catalina and Emma were to their goal.
Catalina ignored them, instead focusing on the ship that was now passing by on her left side. She turned, and in her peripheral vision saw that they were dashing towards her. Willing her shaking hands to steady, she tossed the drive as lightly as she could onto the ship in a high arc. It landed on the deck and slid for a couple meters before coming to rest. A man walking by bent low to grab the drive and slip it into his pocket without breaking his stride.
“What did you do that for?” one of the approaching men yelled, no longer sprinting.
Before Catalina could answer, Icarus was in front of her. “Congratulations,” he said. “You have won this round. The next round begins in fifteen minutes.” The two men must have gotten a similar notice; one of them spit in their direction before they both turned around and walked off.
“We did it Em!” Catalina said. “Em?” It was only then that she noticed that her friend had collapsed, unconscious, onto the rough planking of the pier.
Emma had gone completely offline, and without her System telling the world how to see her, she appeared almost as a shadow, seeming to fade out of the world around her. She was still breathing, but that was it. Catalina touched the contact patch on Emma’s wrist. Nothing happened.
Catalina checked the time. It was 10:13. Before long, people on early schedules would start showing up on the pier for lunch. With a grunt she dragged Emma’s unconscious form to a nearby bench and managed to get her propped up in a semblance of consciousness.
Before she did anything, she needed to think things through. She had logged out of Espionner as soon as she had realized something was wrong with Emma, but she double checked anyway. Once she was certain that she was logged out, she summoned her PA. A moment later a grey squirrel was perched on her knee, looking up at her like a puppy.
“Hey Ren,” she said.
“Hi Catalina,” the squirrel, Ren, said. His high-pitched, human-sounding voice came impossibly out of its tiny squirrel mouth. When she was fifteen, she had saved up enough to get a human-shaped PA, but had instead kept her childhood friend, although he now had quite a few more resources and features than did the squirrel she had gotten when she was six.
“I need to help Emma,” she said. Ren knew that she was just thinking out loud, and didn’t respond. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her, and after seeing what was on that drive, I’m not sure if going to the medic is a good idea. She seems to be fine physically, but it’s like her System is locked down. Is that even possible?” With the exception of a diagnostic checkup a couple times per year, Catalina’s System had been running every second of every day since it had been installed when she was six.
Ren went still for a moment as he queried the databases. “She could have caught a piece of malware,” he said. “Perhaps when you were running through the alleys?”
“But we stayed out of the bad parts,” Catalina said. “How could she have caught something? And wouldn’t I have the same issue?” Part of her wondered if it could have been the Espionner software that was messing with her friend’s System.
“A lot of malware enters through the eyes,” Ren said. “She wouldn’t have needed to get very close, and if you were looking somewhere else, you wouldn’t be affected. Several reputable sources indicate that it is a common practice to graffiti malware around the perimeter of vice areas.”
Catalina thought back to their mad dash through the alleys. Emma had stumbled after looking down an intersection. She didn’t want to believe it, but in her stomach she knew that Ren was probably right.
“So how do I fix it?” she asked.
“You need to take Emma to a medic,” Ren said.
“I will if I have to, but . . . How urgent is this?” Catalina asked.
“I have no way of knowing. It could be a simple shutdown script or it could be something worse,” Ren said. “Either way, the longer she’s offline, the greater chance of danger. You need to take her to medic.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” Catalina said. “What other options are there?”
“There are probably people in the vice areas who might be able to help her,” Ren said. The words came out flat, noncommittal verging on disapproving.
Catalina felt a swell of pride at Ren’s suggestion. Since he was registered to a minor, he was prohibited by law from suggesting anything illegal. In addition, he was supposed to act as a sort of role model by steering her clear of dangerous or ethically murky situations. Eleven years of subversive interaction on her part and her once safe and boring companion was suggesting that she might need to go into the dangerous areas in the city’s alleyways.
“Any more ideas?” she asked.
“Just that you should probably have your System checked as well, when you take Emma to the clinic,” Ren said. Then again, her subversions hadn’t been entirely successful.
She wasn’t going to go to a clinic. She hoped that what she had seen on the drive had been nothing more than Espionner-induced paranoia, but she wasn’t sure, and she wasn’t about to get them in trouble if she could help it. That meant that she would have to go into the alleyways.
“Ren, before we go to the clinic, I need to do a couple of things,” she said. “But I can’t leave Emma here. What should I do?” She knew that Ren wouldn’t spot the lie, any sufficiently complex system was susceptible to flattery and he loved when she asked him what to do.
Ren thought for a moment, his digital squirrel brain pinballing through the OmniPedia. “There’s a CapsulePlex less than a block away.”
It wasn’t an ideal plan, but in a few minutes the pier would fill up with the lunch crowd and they needed to be out of sight before then. Even if Emma’s condition made it difficult for people to focus on her, someone would notice a comatose young woman in the middle of a public area. She dragged her friend upright, and with an arm under her shoulder half carried half dragged her to the entrance to the CapsulePlex, Ren bouncing along ahead of her.
The CapsulePlex was a warehouse for people, used mostly by businesspeople and politicians to get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep before the next leg of their junket. It was completely automated, like a huge vending machine that you got into. It immediately read the information off her System and found the smallest available capsule for her. Emma was a bit taller, so she selected the next largest one. Catalina selected a 12 hour package for 276 credits, wincing at the price, it was more than she could really afford. After the transaction had been authorized, the hatch next to the machine opened. Getting Emma inside was easier than getting toothpaste back into the tube, but only by a narrow margin. After the capsule’s lid had closed and retracted back into the wall to whisk her comatose friend into the Plex, she was free to get on with what she needed to do.
“Where are you going now?” Ren asked.
Catalina was spared from answering. She hadn’t made it more than a couple steps away from the CapsulePlex before her system began to malfunction, flickering and distorting.
Ren was having issues, too. “What’s going on, Cat?” he asked. Then he vanished, along with the rest of her System.
Catalina felt light headed and wanted to breathe, but it was like her lungs were drawing in no oxygen. She touched the rectangle on the back of her hand, but her System didn’t respond. When the realization of what was happening had sunk in, she started to take giant gulps of air, and the feeling fed on itself until she had to sit down in the middle of the street. Was she going to pass out, like Emma? She began to panic, thoughts of being found, alone and unconscious, in the middle of the street racing through her head.
Her System had shut down.
She had no idea how long she continued like that, there was no internal clock to query, but people had filled the pier, all of them walking around her like she were an inanimate object. She might have even appeared that way to some them, their Systems filtering out strangers as fire hydrants or signposts so that they could focus. She thought about how people might perceive her, and then realized that she was thinking about it. She hadn’t passed out. Maybe she hadn’t fully absorbed whatever she and Emma had caught.
“Ren, what do I need to know about the alleyways?” she asked. But there was no answer. Ren wasn’t there.
Catalina got up and moved out of the street. If there had been any doubt about what she had to do, it was gone. She didn’t have the credits for expedited medical service and the thought of her friend being dropped out on the street when the package expired or worse yet, waking up in the cramped capsule with no way of communicating with Plex, terrified her. She started towards the alleyways at a run.
Moving through crowds without her System was surreal. No one noticed her, even when they had to walk around her to avoid collision. It was like ZomCom, but more so. In other circumstances, she imagined that she would have had a lot of fun with the pseudo-invisibility.
The alleyways, when she reached them, were something else entirely. Without a map overlaid onto her vision they seemed larger by an order of magnitude, and without being able to see an escape route at a glance, she felt vulnerable. It was scarier than anything she had experienced while playing any game, even Espionner.
After wandering aimlessly through the maze of alleyways for what seemed like hours but was probably only minutes, she looked down an alleyway that ended in a T intersection and spotted a square graffiti of what looked like black and white static. It looked like the thing that she had caught a glimpse of when Emma had stumbled. She immediately looked away, then gave a small laugh when she realized that it couldn’t harm her with her System disengaged.
When Catalina got closer, she heard voices echoing out towards her. Hugging the wall, she made her way towards the voices and peeked around the corner only to find people looking right back at her. She froze, but they went back to what they were doing. They had seen her. But they didn’t care.
Emboldened, Catalina stepped away from the wall and around the corner. Still, no one paid her any attention beyond the occasional glance.
She was standing in an open space formed by the geography of the buildings, although it felt smaller than it looked, crowded by the composite tables that sprouted from every available vertical surface. Someone had installed mirrors that led up the walls, reflecting sunlight into what would otherwise be an oppressively dark hole. In one corner, a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks was fussing with a grill. Opposite him, a man and a woman who looked so much alike that they must have been brother and sister were sitting at a table next to a grid of barnacle-like storage pods that appeared to be growing out of the wall, eating fried fish and tinkering with a small piece of machinery. A half dozen men and women, in everything from shorts to suits, were spread out along the rest of the tables, eating and working on small projects. It slowly dawned on her that she wasn’t in a ‘vice area’, as Ren had put it, but an open air cafe that catered to the people who worked in the buildings that made up the alley walls.
Unsure of what to do, Catalina walked over to the man at the grill. “Hello?” she asked.
“What can I make for you?” he asked, his attention snapping from his grill to her in an instant. She hadn’t realized how good the food smelled until he spoke. Her stomach growled and he smiled. “Excellent,” he said. “Always better to cook for someone who’s hungry.”
“Um, it smells delicious, but I can’t right now,” she said, feeling terrible. “I need to find someone who can help me with my System, first. I had heard that there might be people in the alleys who could help me. If you could just point me in the right direction . . .” As friendly as he seemed, she doubted that it was a good idea to tell him that her System wasn’t on, even though he no doubt knew the instant he laid eyes on her.
“Ah, and you don’t want to go to a clinic,” he said. “I think I know someone who can help you, but first you need to eat something, you look like you’re about to fall over. Chicken or fish?”
“You don’t understand. I need to get my System fixed, fast,” she said. “I can’t access my credits until I do. I can’t pay.” Even as she spoke it was too late, he had put a piece of raw chicken covered in spices onto the grill.
“Too late, hope you didn’t want fish, because you’re getting chicken. As for the System business, go talk to Jenna and Eli.” He pointed at the brother and sister who were tinkering with the machinery.
Catalina thanked him and walked over to them. They didn’t notice her until she cleared her throat and spoke. “Hello? I’m having some problems with my System and was told that maybe you could help me.”
The woman turned towards her. The woman frowned. “Can it wait? We’re in the middle of lunch,” she said.
“Jen, don’t be mean, she sounds like she’s having a rough time,” the man said, turning to face her. “Sorry about my sister. I’m Eli. What sort of problems are you having?”
Catalina almost didn’t register his words, she was too busy staring at his face. He had no eyes. Rather, he had black spheres where his eyes should have been. It made him look dead but not gone. He waited as she got over her shock.
“My System shut down. I think that I caught some malware from one of those posters in the alleyways,” she said.
He furrowed his brow at her words, then said, “We should be able to fix that. But first, your food is ready.”
The man at the grill was waving at her, holding up a plate for her. After she had taken it from him, thanking him profusely, Eli led her to a table and sat down next to her. “So tell me what happened,” he said. In between too-large bites of almost-too-spicy chicken, she told him her story, or at least an edited version of it.
“You think that it was one of the posters that did this?” he asked with a smile. “They’re just adverts. Once your System is back up you can go and look at one. All you’ll get is a sim of Ajani over there telling you how good his grill is.”
She felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. “So how much will it cost for you to help me?” she asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“What does that mean?” she asked, her embarrassment of a moment ago forgotten in a rush of anger.
He looked annoyed. “It means that I’m not asking for payment. Of any sort.”
“Oh. Sorry. It’s been a long day . . .” She knew that it wasn’t an excuse.
“I know how you feel, trust me.” Eli reached up with one hand and tapped one of his artificial eyes, his fingernail clicking against the hard material. The gesture was so alien that it turned her stomach. “Let’s get your System back online.”
“What do I do?” Catalina asked.
“I’m going to enter some commands, and to do that, I’m going to need to touch your input pad.” He looked at the empty rectangle tattooed onto the back of her hand, or at least that was where she thought he was looking, it was impossible to tell with his dead eyes.
Catalina didn’t like the idea. She barely knew this guy, if he knew how to reboot her System, who knew what else he could do with direct access. He hadn’t reached for her hand, had in fact leaned back, as if to give her space while she processed what he was asking. Had it not been for the thought of Emma waking up in the Capsule, offline and trapped and screaming, Catalina might have refused. But her friend needed her; she would just have to trust Eli. She held out her hand.
He leaned forward, but still didn’t take her hand. “Are you sure?” he asked.
She just nodded, lacking the will to speak.
“Alright,” he said. “The reboot should wipe the mal, but it might take a minute or two.”
He took her left hand in his left hand, holding it gently but firmly. He touched her input pad with the tip of his right index finger, with just enough pressure for her System to recognize that commands were being entered. Goosebumps rose on her arms and a tingling sensation moved down her spine, starting at the base of her neck and resonating down to her tailbone. She told herself that it was just her System starting up, but didn’t quite believe it.
His finger traced quick patterns on the back of her hand, and even though she watched closely, she couldn’t make sense of them, much less remember their complexities in detail. He leaned back into his seat. A moment later her world went white, then black, rotating through a series of patterns in order to calibrate her System’s optic interface. A stylized illustration of an ant was superimposed in the upper left hand corner of her vision.
“It worked!” she shouted, drawing looks from the other people sitting in the square. In a much lower voice, she said, “Thank you.”
He gave a slight bow of his head. “Of course.”
With her System back online, Eli’s appearance had changed. His artificial eyes had been replaced by normal hazel eyes, but something was wrong. It took her a moment, but she realized that he looked boring with normal eyes. She wouldn’t have picked him out of a crowd.
“There’s something else that I didn’t tell you about,” she said. His face showed no reaction. “Whatever happened to me happened to my friend, too, but worse. She passed out right away and I put her in a CapsulePlex while I figured out a solution.”
“How long ago?” he asked, anxious.
“A couple of hours, I think,” she said.
“Good, she’s probably OK,” he said.
“The problem is . . . I have no way to get her here. Can you come out with me and help her? It isn’t far,” Catalina pleaded.
“I can’t,” he said.
“I just can’t,” he repeated. “I’m sorry.”
He cut her off. “But I can teach you how to do what I just did.”
Catalina relaxed, a little. “I’m not sure if I can.” She tried to imagine memorizing the complex patterns that he had traced on her pad.
“Trust me, you can,” he said.
With that he started to explain how the commands worked. In essence, the input pad acted as a direct conduit to a person’s System, and if the right patterns were traced on it, someone could control the System directly. It was the same method that doctors used to work on people’s Systems, but of course they would first anesthetize their patient. He taught her the patterns for rebooting and debugging a System as well as a safe mode that would work when everything else failed.
“Is that what you did to me?” she asked, after he had explained the safe mode.
“No, you should be in debug. Do you see an ant icon in your vision?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “What does it do?”
“It allows you to make modifications that would be otherwise unavailable,” he said.
“Just be careful, you can mess things up if you’re not careful.”
“What else can you do?” she asked.
He smiled. “All sorts of things. But that will have to wait for some other time, your friend needs you.”
He had her practice the patterns a few times, and then gave her a template to project onto Emma’s pad so that she had a guide to trace. She thanked Eli and sent Ajani some money then started back towards the CapsulePlex.
Between knowing where she was headed and having access to maps, her trip back to the CapsulePlex was much faster than her trip out. The food helped, too, and by the time she was out of the alleys, she had worked up to a sprint. She couldn’t get the image of Emma waking up alone out of her head, and she covered the space between the Plex and the alleys at a full run.
“I need access to my capsule,” she told the interface inside the building’s lobby. There was a whir and a faint vibration as her Capsule was retrieved. When it slid out of the wall, Emma was just as Catalina had left her, sound asleep. She dragged Emma out, wincing each time Emma bumped into something. Finally, Emma was out, and then Catalina levered her up onto one of the benches that lined the small room.
Catalina took Emma’s left hand in her own, rotating it so that the input pad was facing her. She had her System project the reboot pattern onto it. Even with the guide, her hands were shaking so much it took three tries. Just as she was getting ready to try a fourth time, Emma’s eyes snapped open.
“What happened?” she asked.
“We caught some sort of malware that shut down our Systems and knocked you out,” Catalina said.
“Really?” Emma said. She smiled, but only for a moment before her face turned to panic. “Shit. My System is shutting down again.” She looked like she was on the verge of tears. “Everything’s gone.”
“Here,” Catalina said, grabbing Emma’s left wrist again and projecting the safe mode pattern onto it.
She got it right on her first try and immediately Emma brightened, her System apparently booting into safe mode. A few seconds later, she was staring into the empty space to the left of Catalina as something was explained to her, then she said, “Yes.” A minute later she was grinning and hugging Catalina. “How did you learn to do that?”
“It’s a long story,” Catalina said.
“Do you mind telling me over some food, I’m starving,” Emma said.
“I know just the place.”
Notes: This story came about as a thought experiment about what a post-literate society might look like. It was a fun challenge to write a story in which there was no written communication. I also wanted to take a middle-road approach to the future, with some things being better and some being worse, but mostly just feeling like the present, but more so.
In the end, this has turned out to be one of my favorite stories and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. I wrote a draft of a followup a few years back but stalled out when life got really busy for me. One day I hope to get back to it and turn it into something readable. If you enjoyed this and want to know which of my stories to read next, you might try Drones. This story also reminds me a little of This Alien Shore by CS Friedman and Stealing Worlds by Karl Schdroeder.