“You’re late, Ginny.” The Sister Counselor scowls and taps a ruler in her palm. I follow her into the office: 2 chairs, a desk and a memorial hologram of the late Surgeon General with his late chat-cat Omar. When I enter, Omar yawns and says, “Get it off to get it on!” The bemused S.G. musters an undead smile. Sister Counselor barks, “Well? Hold out your hand. No—your right hand.” She slaps my hand with the ruler once, and then my forehead twice, just enough to sting. I get the orange Ping! behind my eyes and smell cream corn. Nobody knows why net damping fields make you smell cream corn, but you can tell a lot about an Off-Line Counselor by how they close you down — with a handshake, a pat, or a blow. And their get-up of choice.
I’ve already seen a dozen nuns and Marine drill instructors, prison guards, crossing guards, football coaches, cheerleaders – even a dentist. Underneath their get-ups counselors tend to be old geek squad re-enactors , retired barristabots or licensed Peds, or maybe one of those granny rappers who entertain at Euth Centers while kidney pimping on the sly. But minus the habit and glasses Amber doesn’t look old enough for the offline rant of, “When I was your age there was on line, and there was off line and we knew the difference” etc. etc. Of course, it might be an enhancement, but that’s way beyond your typical fixed income C.O.L.T. counselor, most of whom are one paycheck away from brain-stemming a chat cat or ho-ing for the pharm.
“All right, Ginny. You know the drill. We watch the film, we talk. Ready?” She doesn’t wait for an answer and taps it up. It opens with some dong-bunny gangsta tagged Realidad-E, trancing a cautionary to high school crew Pete, Julie and Linc about how
My Biyatch Gone To Online-Ghoul!
An’ It Ain’t Cool, To Squeeze Some Drool!
She Sippin’ Lean, Fer Nuthin’ Seen!
‘Cept In Her Spam!
She Twerk Duh Work!
But Damn, She Rank!
It Wack, It Jack!
It Lapdance Skank!
Sim Jim’s In Charge!
Bill-G’s At Large!
I Gone Got Glazed
By On-Line Poke!
And It Ain’t No Joke!
etc. etc. The slang’s pathetically outdated (not to mention Realidad-E ‘s pushing 30) but the basic translation reads something like, his girlfriend is 24/7 online and in her head (spam), addicted to sim sex games with virtual boyfriends (Sim-Jim’s and Bill-G’s) while the meat dept. (actual biyatch) just sits around drooling, doesn’t bathe, won’t give him blow jobs anymore, and everybody knows it’s just masturbation (Wack’n’Jack) so, yo, hands off my ho, etc. etc. , which triggers avid testimony from Pete, Julie and Linc about other, far less compelling complications of the online life: 1) It mess wit yo eyes; 2) Yo got no concentration for real knowledge (the deep shit); 3) Food ain’t cool (an added bonus for some); 4) Books ain’t cool (an added bonus for everybody); 5) It promote over-all physical degeneration and the aforementioned b.o. ; 6) It mess wit the birthrate and the GDP, (and, not incidentally is the number one cause of death for Gen. Onliners, large numbers of us continuing to believe we can drive, operate heavy machinery or serve in the military while simming , swimming or anything online). The clincher is saved for last: the friends draw together to look into each other’s eyes, then hug, sobbing rapturously. Then a close-up on Realidad-E squeezing Julie’s shoulders and beaming past her blond hair into the camera. “Online friends can’t do this!” They tongue and grope and she licks her lascivious overbite to coo, “Or this!” She clutches his legs and slides down out of camera range, followed by Realidad-E ‘s bugging eyes, gasps of pleasure, and quickening moans cheered on by various chortles, fist-bumps and “gestures” from Linc and Pete.
“So,” Amber slaps her habited knees and says, “Pretty bitchin’, eh?” She’s still bobbing her head to Realidad-E’s rap and fixes me with bright, agreement-seeking eyes. I concur with a mumbled, “bitchin’.” She softens and says, “Look. I understand. I know what you kids call C.O.L.T.” She rolls closer.
“Sure. The ‘Meat-Meet.” She touches my arm and I cringe.
There’s talk that Compulsory Off Line Time will ease up here soon enough. In an environment where net access points and data relays ride air molecules, and a six-pack of disposable interface implants goes for 29.99 at Walgreens, compulsory offline time (to foster that “authentic, individual identity” — not to mention getting Realidad-E’s ho back) is beyond pointless. And enforcement of the C.O.L.T. laws hasn’t had a chance against 11 years of industry lobbies and consumer demand ; online’s got all the money and all the arguments, like, “What’s so ‘authentic’ about being cut off and alone, with nothing but your pathetically limited, ‘individual’ sense organs and brain to experience the world?” Most people say that by now there really isn’t any offline at all; choosing unconnected is the new disease. Of course, with a counselor I’d have to feature it in a much more confused, inarticulate way, because when we’re offline, Gen. O’er’s rhetorical, expressive and reasoning powers are notoriously “underdeveloped”. (O for nobody home). Not that C.O.L.T. sessions ever become spirited debates on the epistemology of internet consciousness, or anything. Mostly they’re just about reaching the youth of today with a message we can understand, like, “fucking and the online life do not mix”, (or, as the government pop-ups say, GET IT OFF TO GET IT ON!!). Looks like Amber is following her training.
“Close physical contact is kind of…gross to you, isn’t it? This…” She strokes my arm and I flinch again, “is just a raw pork chop rubbed against your arm, right?”
Her fingers close tight around my arm. “It’s all sim-sex this and sim-high that. You’ve never actually met most of your ‘friends’ and never will. Your muscles and your memory are so atrophied that… Tell me, Ginny, who were we fighting in the Iran War? When was President Disney thawed? What’s 7X9?”
I pull away. “I can tell you in a second if you just let me back on.”
“Of course you can. You can access everything and anything at anytime. But what do you really know without it?”
Hey, Amber the epistemologist.
“Ginny, can you even write your name?”
“Of, like, course!”
Amber takes out a pad and pen from the desk and holds them out to me. The pad has a MacWorm logo on it. I fold my arms. “I can just tell a scribe. It’s faster and easier. Why should I do it that way?!”
She puts the pen and paper away. “Good question. Let me play devil’s advocate…”
“Is that a sim game?”
“Let’s just say you’re right. Life is not only more real online than off — the distinction doesn’t really exist anymore. Let’s say that, instead of being trapped in your own ‘Private Idaho’ – see, I know all the lingo! – you’re connected to billions of other minds, unlimited information, infinite sim worlds and soon, with a fine enough mesh, any and all sensory impressions ever experienced.”
“It’s all so exciting!”
She smiles kindly at my dim compliance. ”Right. Now Ginny, if the neural nets are becoming fine enough to access any sensory experiences, then Realidad-E doesn’t need his Ho, or Julie, (or Linc or Pete) to give him his blow jobs, right?”
“And if the current projections on spontaneous neural interface growth are correct, and computer enhanced life is a natural evolutionary step, then government imposed offline time is not only philosophically indefensible and socially useless, but maybe even destructive.”
“That’s…uh, a good point!” Very tech avid.
Her eyes glitter for my new found spirit of rational enquiry.
Well, enough of that. Here I go:
“But didn’t Surgeon General Allin say that, like, as long as online is an expression of corporate hegemony, it can only serve ‘control of the many to the profit of the few’?”
The light goes out of Amber’s eyes. “Why yes, Ginny. So he did. If only he hadn’t signed a No Resurrect . He could be with us now…”
He was murdered. The No Resurrect Order was forged.
“…but his legacy lives on in the C.O.L.T. laws.”
“I don’t think so, Amber.”
The air feels sucked out of the room.
“What did you say?”
“We never talk about privacy. The S.G. said the most valuable right of an enlightened society is the right to be left alone. Privacy.”
“Privacy…” She handles the word like it’s some weird, antique surgical device. After a glacial minute she puts the thing aside. “I guess, Ginny, the real question is, when were you last on?”
A chill runs through me, then a burn. Seems we’ve both been made. I get another Ping! and I can’t move.
“Ginny, I don’t know how you did it, but I’ll find out. You’re obviously not as stupid as you act. Ask yourself what would happen to that enlightened society, to law enforcement, or HomeLandSec, or education, or the economy — god, the whole social fabric!—if off life caught on?”
“Freedom. Freedom would happen.”
“Freedom? You’ve got your safe zones. When you sleep, when you chill…” She lets up and I can breathe again.
“The zones are ghettos. With taxes.”
Her shock looks almost genuine. Maybe it is genuine. ”But we award you points for time online! What more do you want?!”
“You lose points when you’re off. Pretty soon you’re in debt.”
“There are generous loan programs! God, Ginny, you don’t get what we’ve achieved here! Back 2.0 time, it was all ‘you pay and stay, you don’t you go.’ Now we’ve turned it around!”
“How many C.O.L.T. counselors are telecom agents?”
“We’ve got a product to sell, and a market share to defend.”
“I’ll never be your market.”
She lunges forward. I get a swat on the head and I’m back online in a sim. I third-person my avatar. I’m a big breasted candy striper pushing a cart of books down a long polished corridor. The cart squeaks. I seem to be in a hospital training film, Courtesy First! or, Nanohazards: No Joke! (My Friends–the loser ones –and I used to find endless diversion backdooring stuff like this, running a bongo interface with porno/horror sites so when patient X got cranky you courteously opened their chest with a chainsaw and ate their heart. I kind of miss those days). No such options for me now. In this sim I’ve got one mode: follow Sister Amber, clomping 5 feet ahead in sensible shoes.
Amber finally stops outside a room and says, “Mom loves books. Read loud and slow.”
I go in and yell hello to an old woman, her tiny head dwarfed by twin pillows. She opens colorless eyes and blinks at me. “Is that you, Amber?”
I turn back to Amber but she’s gone. “No, it’s Ginny. I brought you some books.”
“What did you bring me?”
I roll the cart to the bed and shout out the titles. “The Collected Emily Dickenson by Phillip K. Dick. Leaves of Grass by William Burroughs. Moby Dick by A.E. Van Vogt. Starship Troopers by Flannery O’Connor. Martian Time Slip by William Faulkner…”
I sit down and lean in close so I don’t have to yell. “Hey, you’re dead, right? How long have you been in upload?”
Her pale eyes skid over my face. I’m close enough to smell baby powder, and her age. “Ginny, is it? I’m Alice.”
I open the Dick-Dickenson and flip through blank pages. “I remember when they had words.”
She whispers, “It’s happening.”
“Ginny, hold my hand.” It’s light and fluttery, like a tiny bird with a broken wing.
“It’s OK, Alice.”
She shakes her head. Her eyes look through me, and far away. “My lease is up. They’re dumping my file. First the color fades. The books go wrong and blank. Then everything loses texture. It gets cold…”
Somehow I haven’t noticed we’re in black and white: some programmer’s nostalgia for shutdown on a Windows XP. I don’t think it’s colder yet, but I tremble anyway. “What about Amber?”
“She can’t make the payments. Now they won’t even let her see me. The only visitors I get are strangers like you, on free complimentary passes. When the words drain out of the books it’s 12 minutes to purge.”
12 minutes. I’ve already been here 3 or 4. “Your daughter could make a lot of money fast.”
“Signing me. Becoming my Life Time Service Provider.”
“Don’t you dare let her, Ginny! You’re an off girl! Stick to your guns!” Alice grips my hand. The air is chillier. She must notice it, but she’s too busy getting worked up to care. “I want you to know. Before my time’s up. I was an off girl myself, before anyone used the word. When Amber took a job with the telecoms it near killed me. I let her talk me into an upload when I was too sick to think straight. They say there’s no time here, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I’m not afraid to let them purge!”
I start to protest but she won’t hear it. “My own daughter! You know what she tells me? She says technology is trying to fit us as much as we’re trying to fit technology. It’s a ‘creative relationship.’ After all, it took 50 years for the telephone to become a truly user-friendly, and who could be against the telephone? But you know what I tell her? I say, Implant-enabled online isn’t the telephone! Ambient access isn’t the telephone! Digitized life signatures and resurrection contracts and remote sensory jacking aren’t the telephone! Soldier cyberwolves and spy flies and epidermal advertising and viral advert gang wars and logo leprosy and neonatal RFID are not the telephone!”
The air smells like ozone. The room and Alice’s face are getting that smooth, rubbery sheen that says, GIGABYTE HEMORRHAGING IN PROGRESS. Her voice quavers with her image. “Oh, yes! They all tell us the ‘enhancements’ are inevitable and right. They say that once we accept the change a new, final chapter in human evolution will be born. Well, I think we’ve adjusted just fine, thank you very much! The new step’s been taken. But like the Gibson said, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. That’s what the telecoms can’t abide – uneven distribution. They just can’t believe that some of us like being alone. Some of us like the silence inside. And not just like, need. It’s what makes us human – the silence. And not a telecom-constructed ‘White Box’ or ‘Safe Zone’ – we all know they’re tricked with subliminals no matter what the government says! And those horrid government C.O.L.T. affairs! They’re all in bed with the telecoms! Good God, what a farce. Just because they’ve had their little singularity doesn’t mean that everybody else is invited, too!” She falls back in her pillows, invigorated with rage. But then I see it’s not the flush of life but the data drain, gradually smoothing the texture of her withered features in a caricature of youthful skin. Or maybe she’s just cussedly defiant, right down to the last ping. I feel like I know her, and I want her to know me. That doesn’t happen very often.
“Alice, listen. You don’t have to be purged. I can sign with Amber right now. And it’s not just me, it’s my whole off line network. The telecoms want us bad. All together we’re worth a fortune.”
“Don’t you see this is just what Amber wants you to do? You can’t betray yourself and your friends! Once they have you…”
“No one’s betraying anybody. We run clone doubles that the telecoms can’t read. When I sign everybody on, Amber will get an advance on her commission, and pay for your download and a full reconstruction into your our own body, at 30 years old, say, or 20. After my friends and I are signed, the program kicks in, and our doubles live out ‘our’ lives as registered on line entities. Meanwhile we’re free to go on living off line, and nobody knows the difference.”
Alice sinks deeper in her pillows and sighs. Her eyes close. “I don’t know…” But I can see some tension leaving her face, and a tentative smile appearing.
“We can do it. Let me buzz for the nurse.”
I take the antique buzzer from the side of the bed and press for the nurse. A funny plastic grill on the wall snarls static and says, “Can I help you?”
“500 virgin friends and I want to contract lifetime. Designated provider Agent Amber. Funds to be entered into Alice’s account for an immediate termination of her purge and initiation of download, effective now.” I give her my ghost code. It’s written on a shifty template that looks like the 4 wisdoms but isn’t worth spit. The nurse gives a cheery, “Certainly Ginny! I’ll bring confirmation forms immediately!”
The color springs back to the room and Alice’s face. Warmth fills the air. I check the books. The Collected Emily Dickenson is by Emily Dickenson, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. While we wait for the nurse Alice says, “I’m worried about you, Ginny. I don’t want you to do anything that might get you or your friends in trouble.”
“But I am worried. You’ve got to explain how you can do this, or I won’t let you go on.”
“It’s a simple set of protocols.”
“It’s not what, but where. They’re embedded in ‘Psychotrance Berlin.’”
“Dear God, that’s the most heavily surveyed programming in the world.”
“Which means it’s the last place anyone would look for a just another government surveillance barnacle. One of them is a chaperone for sleeping Casper Clones.” The nurse appears, a zombie with a black beehive, green eyes and a smile. Her oversize name badge says NURSE MORA. I commit my signature in a nano dedicated ferro fluid that looks like ink. It goes to work tripping locks on my ID, only it won’t be me that’s trapped on line, not once I summon Casper.
Alice watches me sign, breathless. She returns my glance and laughs. “So that’s where you had it…in Psychotrance Berlin!”
I squeeze her shoulder. “How are you coming back, Alice? At 20? 25?”
Her body tenses and I let go. She studies me as if from a steep, cold place. “How old are you, Ginny? 17?”
“What about a 16 year old body? What about that?”
“Sure. What’d you look like when you were 16?”
“Actually, I wasn’t planning on coming back as me, to tell you the truth.”
“You’re building from scratch?”
“Goodness, no. That’s far from a perfected process. Way too dangerous and expensive. For that matter there’s no such thing as reconstruction of your original body, either. At least not at a practical, commercial level.”
“Then… I don’t get it. How does anybody resurrect?”
Nurse Mora asks Alice, “Can I fluff your pillow?”
Alice gives her a magisterial “No, thank you,” and then turns back to me. “Haven’t you ever wondered what makes Off Girls and Off Boys so valuable to sign?”
“We’re the last virgin market, is what they say.”
“Of course you are! But even your 500 virgin friends can’t leave a big enough consumer footprint to download the dead. C’mon Ginny, you’re a smart girl. Think.”
“I was meaning to ask you how you knew.”
“Knew what, dear?”
“Knew that I was an off girl.”
Zombie Mora asks Alice, “Would you like some water?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Could I help you to the toilet? Do you need to have a bowel movement?”
“No! Thank you! If you would just give the young lady her receipt and go…” Alice eyes me with a look that can only be called ravenous.
I have to fight to keep my voice level. “You don’t want us to sign on at all. You want our ghost clones.”
“Well! As we used to say: ‘Duh’. Now that you’ve signed, we have them. And you.”
“So when you do a mind flay and steal our bodies for your downloads, you’ve got our duplicates on line, covering your tracks.”
Alice sucks mournful cheeks. “These are strange, tragic times. More and more of our young people are becoming net runaways, electronic urchins taking up permanent residence on line and abandoning their bodies to who knows what terrible things! No one knows the numbers, but it’s a profound social crisis, don’t you think?”
“There’s plenty of off line people who’d take a mind flay willingly.”
“Of course. But who are they? 99% of them are over 60 years old. Why would I want a 60 year old body when I could come back younger?”
“I am truly sorry, Ginny. You’ve got spunk. And spirit. I think I’m going to like having red hair.” I start to tell her that I’m really sorry too, but then Nurse Mora produces a meal tray out of nowhere and crows, “Time to eat, Miss Alice!”
“Would you please get the fuck out of here, moron?”
“Call me anything but Late to Lunch!” With her Courtesy First! Smile unfazed Nurse Mora puts the tray on a bedside table that wasn’t there a moment ago and lifts the lid off a steaming bowl. The room is crowded with a warm, sweet aroma.
Alice’s eyes get big in a frozen split second of recognition and fear. She knows cream corn straight up means a bounce straight off line, only Alice won’t have a new body ready for her on the other end. What she will have is a default setting back to her original body, (which might be chilling in a cryo-wrap, but from the look in her eyes has probably been cremated, or maybe even buried…).
Alice flips the tray onto the floor. The splash of cream corn sears the air with spiked plot compasses and aborted nanopeptide narratives –not the sort of thing you want to have for lunch. Nurse Mora produces another bowl of cream corn and holds it above Alice’s reach. I jump onto the bed to hold Alice down. I might as well be trying to restrain a baboon. In a second I’m pinned, with my arms numb under her dagger knees. Her hands close around my throat and she hisses in my face, “Die, little shit!” But then Nurse Mora grabs Alice’s white braid from behind and yanks her head back to chirp, “Get it off to get it on!” aiming the cream corn at Alice’s mouth. Alice sputters and thrashes and most of it slops over her face and gown. But not all. Just when I think Alice is about ready to go at Mora, Alice’s spine bows backwards and her eyes poach white. Mora is tugging at her but somehow she keeps rocking and groaning on top of me like somebody’s sick party. I can’t loosen her grip or breathe. I pass out for a second, and when my vision clears again I’ve pried her hands off my neck, except they’re not attached to her wrists anymore –they’ve gone brittle and snapped clean off, weeping something white and curdled from inside. I fling them across the floor to clatter and bounce like gag hands. Her body’s nanopore sequencing has been truncated into a shell, like a Pompeii pedestrian captured in ash. I wiggle out from under it, gasping on the floor while Nurse Mora rolls the husk off the bed and strips the soiled sheets from the mattress. She says over her shoulder, “You OK?”
I rasp something like yeah and she flips the mattress on top of the carapace that was Alice. It crunches a little under the weight. Mora/Omar says, “Quite a mess! I guess Alice doesn’t live here anymore.”
“It’s just an old movie.”
“Jesus, Omar. That’s cutting it kind of close, don’t you think?”
She/He/It smiles and says, “Close.” Omar dumps the sheets into a wheeled laundry bin that also wasn’t there a second ago and adds, “C’mon, I’m hungry. Let’s get out of here before Amber’s back.”
It sounds like a good idea but I can’t get up. I start to shake and can’t stop. Much softer this time Omar says, “Hey, Ginny,” and strokes my arm. Omar isn’t even corporeal, yet his touch has more warmth than Sister Amber’s did in the Real World. He/she sits beside me and I feel a little less alone, maybe because Omar was a cat before he was a Mora, and a Zen roshi before he was a cat. At least that’s what the S.G. had told me in upload. Omar never says much about himself, and when he does it’s cryptic or inane or something about food. I don’t know if that’s his feline neural architecture or Zen mind or both. Most studies say that Zen practitioners make the best chat-cat implants, but nobody knows exactly why. It’s a mystery right up there with cream corn — just the kind of thing that kept me busy back in the day. That’s how the S.G. and Omar found me, following my wiki trail from cream corn to cats to Zen roshis and back. Then the car bomb got both of them around the same time that I started to notice my friends were disappearing. The S.G.’s No-Resurrect order has kept him out of body, but from a secure undead backup he and Omar have kept up the fight against the telecoms’ body -snatching cartels. I became one of their star decoys, baiting the telecom agents who use C.O.L.T. sessions to kidnap off girls — and their Casper Clones – for wipes and neural grafts. I’ve lost count of how many C.O.L.T.’s I’ve done, how many agents I’ve “retired.” But now I can’t get off the floor, can’t stop shaking, can’t stop crying. “I don’t belong anywhere, Omar. Not on. Not off. I don’t like anybody. I’m…”
“It’s OK Ginny.” I wipe away the tears but they just come flooding back. After a while I’m cried out and feel as empty as Alice’s corpse. I look at Mora again and imagine I can see a weird little sad smile on her face, but that’d exceed a Mora’s expressive repertoire. “You know,” he/she says, equally out of programming, “nobody belongs anywhere because everybody belongs everywhere. And it’s a good thing, Ginny, to know that in your gut. It’s good because it’s the beginning of realizing what it is to be really, truly alive.”
“How would you know? You’re an undead cat hologram.”
She does the smile again and rests her head on my arm. I push her away and get on my feet. “I don’t want to hear your Zen shit.”
She nods and her eyes shine like I’ve just answered the big koan. The program is closing down, inching into a cold black No that’s nobody’s koan and everything’s answer. Or maybe not.
“You’re late Ginny.” The C.O.L.T. Counselor is dressed like, well, a person. And she’s smiling. “C’mon in.” The office is the same, but different. It takes me a second to see why. In the center of the desk is a flower vase with a single red rose. The glass is tinted blue. I sit down and the counselor takes the flower out of the vase and hands it to me. When I don’t move she smiles again. “It’s OK, Ginny. Just take it in your hand. It’s our damping field.”
I’m cold and sweating and it’s not the field. I shouldn’t have come back. I can’t move. Then the memorial holo cycles awake. Surgeon General Allin does his bemused smile, and chat cat Omar yawns and says, “Get off it, and get over it!”
The counselor is still holding the rose. I take it.
Gregg Williard’s fiction, non-fiction, poetry and visual art have appeared in The Collagist, Diagram, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Your Impossible Voice, and Bad Penny, among others. He lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin, and teaches ESL to refugees. He is also the producer and host of the spoken word radio show “Fiction Jones” on WORT community radio (wortfm.org).