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Fourth Wall

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“Why a dragon?”

Ted waited while Stan disengaged himself from a pack of (Ted guessed) major stockholders. They seemed to have the requisite combination of interest and ignorance that, in Ted’s experience, marked those who had money invested in a project, but not much skin.

“Ted!” Stan was still shaking someone else’s hand when he recognized who had asked the question. The din in the room was that rumble-bumpy-sounding mixture of too many people talking too loud in a too small space. Because everyone is almost shouting, you can’t understand anyone except a person with their face inches away from yours who is almost shouting.

“Ted,” Stan repeated, finally free of this particular crowd of well wishers. “You made it! That’s great. I wasn’t even sure I had the right address!”

“You didn’t,” Ted semi-shouted back. “But Professor Burke forwards a bunch of my stuff every month or so. I only got the invitation the day-before-yesterday. That’s why I didn’t RSVP.” He paused for a moment to drink a bit of his lemon-lime soda. All this not-quite-yelling made his throat sore.

“Anyway,” Ted repeated, “Why a dragon?”

“Ah! You’re the first person to ask that. Mostly they ask about our first contract.” Stan gestured behind his shoulder to a group of men and women in full-on business dress who were talking to a reporter from some cable news finance program. There was a lot of wide-gesturing by one fellow in a dark gray suit, with much nodding and occasional small-gesturing by the other corporate tribes people.

“The submarine people, right?” Ted asked. He’d read something about the submarine people in “USA Today” on his flight into Boston.

“Right... them.” Stan couldn’t seem to stop smiling. Ted didn’t blame him. Ted should smile. His major-major project looked like it was going to go off with a huge bang. And he was engaged to possibly the most perfect person Ted had ever met. Caitlyn was drop-dead gorgeous, had two PhDs in some kind of sociology that promised to cure poverty within the next fifteen minutes, and never, ever made Ted feel awkward and stupid. Most beautiful women made Ted feel awkward and stupid. Even the not-so-beautiful ones had the same affect. Hell, even ugly men often made Ted feel awkward and stupid.

The noise got worse for some reason. Ah. Another twelve people had just showed up. The lobby of the hotel had seemed big when Ted checked in that day around noon. Now he felt like he was in an enormous elevator. And he wanted to get out. But he had to at least say hello to Stan. Or else, why bother coming at all.

“So,” Ted tried a third time, “Why a dragon?”

“Right! Well... for most people, molecular engineering and oceanic topographical surveying and retinal surgery are about as sexy as... well...”

“Molecular engineering, oceanic topographical...”

“Right! Exactly!” Stan grabbed Ted’s elbow, knocking a bit of lime soda onto his sport’s coat, and turned him to fact the object at the center of tonight’s crowded gala.

From up close, it looked very much like a huge, cubic fish tank. With a dragon the size of dachshund curled up around a chunk of uneven rock at its center.

As Ted watched, the dragon turned its head slowly from side to side and rolled a shoulder like a swimmer loosening up before a race. The bat-like wings, folded along its side, lifted and fell with its breath. They seemed to Ted like they were floating on liquid.

Stan pulled Ted closer to the tank, within a foot of the glass. Although dozens of people were watching the creature inside, few ventured that close to the glass cube.

It is pretty freaking big, reasoned Ted. When standing that close, the tank almost seemed to lean over you from above. It had to be at least fifteen feet tall. And although the glass of the walls was clearly solid, having a creature of myth staring at you from less than ten feet away was somewhat... unnerving.

“Watch,” Stan said into Ted’s ear. As if he hadn’t been watching already. Stan took his had away from Ted’s elbow and made an elaborate gesture that reminded Ted of sign language. Immediately, a small door slid back in the base of the cube. It hadn’t been visible before, but now opened to reveal a black space beneath the glass floor. The huge cube was sitting on a base of some black, opaque substance that Ted assumed was stone or some plastic composite. The hole seemed to drop down into this base, and while Ted was still trying to decide how the device had recognized Stan’s gesture, a bunny popped out.

The bunny was your standard, white, cute, pet rabbit. He took one little hoppy-step away from the hole – which promptly slid shut – and began to test the air with his pink little nose.

Motion! “Ah!” The noise from the crowd around the cube was a dozen simultaneous expressions of surprise. Ted took a step back, noticing that even Stan seemed a bit startled by the dragon’s take-off. It had been almost instantaneous. Ted had been looking at the rabbit and had only seen the dragon rise out of the corner of his eye. But it had been fast, he was sure of that.

Now, though, the dragon was flying. Circling the cube in diagonal loops near the top of the enclosure. More and more people were turning toward the center of the room, and the noise level seemed to have dropped off a bit. Ted could hear the dragon’s wings beat, softly, as it banked and rolled. Ted was reminded of ice skaters. Speed and grace, constricted by the bounds of a closed space.

The rabbit noticed the movement, too. At first, it froze. It seemed to want to make itself smaller... head down low against its chest... rear legs quivering. But then the dragon let out a cry – something between the caaww! of a crow and a woman’s scream – and the rabbit ran.

The prey’s dodging and sprinting had nothing of the predator’s grace. Pure terror bulged from the round, pink eyes whenever the rabbit stopped for a moment to change direction. The dragon didn’t seem to change its pattern, but just dipped lower every third or forth circuit. Each time it did that, the rabbit wrenched to a stop and ricocheted off in another direction.

More and more of the people surrounding the tank fell silent. Ted could still hear other conversations, beyond the row of onlookers, but they were distant. He could clearly hear the scatter and pop of pebbles as the rabbit churned the grit on the floor of the tank.

“She’s toying with it,” Stan muttered. His smile – which never stopped, Ted noticed – was a little different. Less rock-star-surrounded-by-groupies, more... proud father.

Finally, the dragon cut out of a looping roll and hung mid-air, wings outstretched, near the top of the tank. Ted knew it was his imagination, but he seemed to hear the rabbit’s heart beating... fast like the vibration of a sewing machine or a lawn-mower.

The birdlike scream, again. People near the tank visibly flinched. Then, still graceful as a dancer, the dragon folded its wings against its side and dropped straight down fifteen feet. The rabbit tried to reverse direction, but was caught on two-inch long claws and between jaws like an alligator’s. The dragon wrenched its head just as it struck and hurled the rabbit against the transparent wall of the tank, directly opposite from where Ted and Stan stood. The people on that side – some of whom being the aforementioned submarine people – jumped backwards as the bloody animal thump-smacked against the glass and fell. A splotch of blood and fur dripped down the wall, clearly visible from every angle.

The dragon swooped over the twitching rabbit and picked it up with one claw, throwing it again to land among the rocks in the center of the tank. After a final circuit around the top of the tank, the lizard landed, still graceful, atop the pile of stone and sat quietly, fanning itself with its wings. One of the rabbit’s legs jerked a few more times and then was still. The dragon leaned low, rolled the body of the rabbit away with its nose, and curled up, resting, as it had been earlier.

The applause was slow to start, but eventually everyone around the tank was clapping and a few were even cheering.

If they were cheering for the dragon, thought Ted, that would just be sad.

But they weren’t cheering for the dragon, he knew. As did Stan, whose smile was broader than Ted had ever seen.

Ted saw the crowd behind Stan part, and Caitlyn shouldered through, coming to stand with an arm around Stan’s waist. She had red-blonde hair, skin as white as bone, green eyes and a slim, fey body that never hurried. She smiled a bit blankly at Ted, and then recognized him.

“Ted! You made it! Stan had me check the RSVPs last night and we were pissed you weren’t gonna show!” Her voice was out of character with the rest of her. She was a Southie, born and raised in a part of Boston where people wuhked haad and got wicked shit-faced on Rolling Rahk at beach pahties on Mahthuh’s Vinyud. Her voice was one of the things that made Ted like her so much. She didn’t care that it was out of character. It was her character, so screw you.

She also didn’t care that everyone assumed she was Irish Catholic. Five or six generations ago, her family had been mostly Welsh and Anglican. At some point in the late 19th century, they’d stopped being Anglican and started being Presbyterian. At some point in the late 20th century, she’d stopped being Presbyterian and started going to synagogue with Stan. She was planning on converting. Although, she had once told Ted, you can’t really convert to Judaism. You were always going to do it, so it wasn’t conversion. And you didn’t talk about it. It was like not spelling out “God.” Converting to something that you couldn’t convert to was so totally in keeping with Caitlyn’s personality that Ted had laughed out loud when she’d tried to explain it.

She leaned over and hugged Ted with one arm, the other still around Stan’s waist. “What did you think of the show?” she asked.

“Cheery,” he replied. Then he paused, and all three said in unison, “Cheery, but violent.” They all laughed at the Monty Python reference and Ted wondered why he hadn’t made the effort to come back to Boston more often over the last five or six years. The only real friends he had ever made were here. Harvard. MIT. BU. Wellesley. All during graduate school. All very weird, socially retarded geniuses with a love of Python, Star Trek, D&D, Neal Stephenson, J. Geils, W.B. Yeats and irony. When you went the first twenty-odd years of your life without good friends, the ones you finally make are bonded to your soul. Or, it had seemed that way, until they all scattered to jobs and families and other universities and... whatever.

All except Stan and Caitlyn.

It made Ted sad. To see them here like this, so much like how they’d been when they’d all met. A frozen couple from the “good times” of Ted’s youth. After he’d escaped from the horrors of childhood and puberty... before he’d been tricked into the cubicles of corporate engineering.

“Why doesn’t it eat the rabbit?” someone behind Ted asked.

Stan turned and answered, “She had one earlier this evening, during the official press conference. So she’s not hungry.”

“She?”

Ted turned and looked at the questioner. It was one of the submarine suits.

“Yes,” Stan said. “She. Male dragons aren’t as pretty. And they tend to be very skittish around crowds. The females have much brighter coloring and are more flirtatious. As long as you don’t tap on the glass. She hates that.”

“She.” The suit was drinking whiskey, straight. Ted could smell it from five feet away.

Stan’s smile dropped a fraction, but he was just disappointed... not really upset. “Yes. Again, yes. She. The more you put into something like this, the better. I can tell you where she was born and captured, what her siblings looked like, how many times she’s been in heat, what her favorite food in the wild was... it all goes into the programming.”

“Ah,” said the suit. He took a sip of his very aromatic whiskey and nodded. “But we don’t really care about that program. We don’t need it. It’s fine for... this,” he gestured with his glass at the crowd, the lights, the waiters. “But we just need the box. When do we get the box?”

Now Stan actually stopped smiling. He disengaged Caitlyn’s arm from around his waist and put his hand on the suit’s arm. Stan said something into his ear that Ted couldn’t hear, and the two of them went off into the crowd of other suits, Stan talking and they nodding.

“Jacques Cousteau would have been disappointed in those fucking drones,” Caitlyn said. Ted looked away from Stan and down into her green eyes. He had thought he’d loved her, once. A long time ago. He’d even said something to that affect once, when drunk. But she’d heard it from many and many a better man, and had steered him home, ego intact, with a clear understanding of their friendship. He’d been embarrassed the next day, and had never mentioned it again, and had always been glad that he hadn’t done anything so stupid as to endanger that friendship... or Stan’s.

“Yeah,” he replied. “For marine seismologists, they seem pretty dull.”

Caitlyn barked a loud laugh and a few people near them turned to stare. She waved them away like you would a deer fly and they went back to their own conversations.

“He never answered my question,” Ted said. He still had to talk a bit louder than he liked, but the show seemed to have subdued people in some way. The room was still a bit quieter, even though the action was over.

“What question?” she asked.

“Why a dragon?”

“Ah. That’s easy. I made him do it.”

“You?” Ted was pretty sure that Caitlyn could make any man – except Stan – do what she wanted. Stan wasn’t, as Caitlyn had put it to him once, “testosterone poisoned,” which is one of the reasons she loved him so much.

“Sure. He started the demo program with ideas of special-effects wizardry. Gleaming spheres and explosions... views of canyons from above... space stuff... all wicked boring and very two-and-a-half-D. I told him he needed something with no fourth wall.”

“No fourth what?”

“Fourth wall. It’s a theatre term. What’s between the stage and the audience. All video, which is a flat version of theatre, has a fourth wall. The frame around your TV. The curtains at the movies. The tall, bald man in front of you keeps picking his ear. It all relies on ‘willful suspension of disbelief’ in order to maintain the narrative illusion.”

“Right. Which is why the movies are better than video.”

She gave him a short stare for a moment then said, “Right. Bigger screen. Better acoustics. Less distraction. No phone, no cat, no upstairs neighbor with a wooden leg.”

Ted smiled at that. It was a reference to his first apartment in Cambridge. There really had been a man directly above him with a false, if not wooden, leg. The cadence of his footfalls had been somewhat disturbing. Caitlyn called it charming.

“So,” she continued. When you get into fully realized, three-dimensional projection, you have a choice. Either do another version of video, but with true depth, or...”

“Emulate something that doesn’t require disbelief.”

She smiled and touched him on the nose. “It came down to either Elsie or stupid birds.”

“Elsie? The dragon’s name is Elsie?”

“What’s wrong with Elsie?” She looked hurt.

He shrugged, but pushed on. “It’s a cow name.”

Her mouth fell open and she looked truly gob-slapped. “A cow?”

He chuckled a bit, not unhappy to have gotten a shot in. “Yes. A cow. Elsie. Cow’s are always named Elsie or Daisy or Bertha or...”

“You prick!” she slapped him on the shoulder and he pretended that it hurt a bit, which it didn’t.

Stan came back from his chat with the submarine people.

“You two been catching up on old times?”

Caitlyn made a sour face. “We’re not old enough to have old times.”

“No,” Ted said. “She was just telling me why you went with a dragon instead of stupid birds.”

Stan nodded and snared a drink from a passing waiter. He took a pull and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Yeah. She wouldn’t let me do birds. No... what was it you said?”

“No élan.”

“Ah,” said Ted. “There must be élan.”

Stan grinned (the smile was back) and gestured at the room around them. “They’re all fascinated. She was right, of course, about the dragon. Nobody cares about the frame rate or the variable opacity or the sensors...”

“Which have nothing to do with the tank, either,” put in Caitlyn.

“Of course not,” Stan continued. “They look into the tank and see a small dragon living in a... what do you call an aquarium with no water?”

“A terrarium,” answered Ted.

“Exactly. We all had a weird friend who had a pet lizard or snake or something as a kid. Right? So we all know what to expect from the big, glass box. Some sand or cedar chips on the floor. A bowl of stagnant, nasty water. Some bugs or pellets in a tin dish. And on a branch or a rock...”

“The ‘weird pet kid,’” put in Ted. “Who, as you know, was me.”

Caitlyn punched Stan in the arm this time as he pulled a slightly guilty look. “I forgot. Was it a snake?”

“Iguana.”

“It’s legal to own an iguana?”

“I don’t know. I never asked the nice man at the pet store. If it was illegal, he wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping the iguana business under the counter.”

Stan nodded. “Anyway, sorry about the crack.”

“It’s OK,” said Ted with a wave of his hand. “I was weird. So were my parents. It just didn’t seem weird to us at the time.”

“It never does,” said Caitlyn. “I mean, we don’t seem weird to us now, but lots of people probably think we are.”

“Not for long.”

“What do you mean by that, Stan?” she asked.

“When you’re as rich as that big, glass cube is going to make us, you can’t be weird.”

That shut her up for a moment.

Ted broke the silence. “Right. At most, you’re eccentric.”

Stan nodded, deep in thought. Caitlyn squeezed Ted’s arm, blew them each a kiss, and went off to find the ladies’ room.

Before Ted could say anything more, a group of four people who all looked far too awake for this time of night swept in and began asking Stan questions about the tank. He gave Ted the sign language version of, “I’ve got to talk to these twits for a few, but I’ll be back soon.” Ted nodded, and was left almost alone by the glass cube, as only a few others remained standing near it. None of them were looking in. They were just there. Having conversations.

Ted walked up close to the glass, so close that he could feel his breath coming back on him. The dragon – Elsie – seemed to be asleep. Curled into a somewhat fetal ball, wings stretched back behind it... her. But when Ted looked closely, he could see that her eyes weren’t completely closed, and her front, right paw was moving slightly.

He bent down to look even closer and saw that she was drowsily tracing geometric patterns with her claw. Squares, spirals, triangles... all sketched from blood that had pooled in a hollow of the rock on which she lay.

* * * * *

In bed that night, while Stan was trying to calm himself down by reading a boring business magazine, Caitlyn kept talking.

“It really went well, I think.”

“Ymmm. Yep. Sure.”

There was a pause. She had a book in her lap, too, but it wasn’t even open. Stan slept nude, but she wore a white nightgown that would have made Ted think of Victorian heroines who run out onto the moor to escape... whatever.

“It looked completely real,” she continued. “Even to the techies from the military think tank. I heard one of ‘em saying he couldn’t see any cropping errors, and the light absorption model was perfect.”

“It’s ah... yeah...”

She didn’t seem to notice that he was paying almost no attention. If you’d watched them at intervals throughout their long relationship, you would have found that this happened all the time. Caitlyn was, and knew she was, a verbal thinker. She couldn’t just work things out in her head. She needed to voice them. Stan knew this. And she knew he knew, but also knew that he knew enough not to comment unless she asked him a direct question. Like now:

“Is Ted seeing anybody?”

The rising phonemic tone at the end of the sentence cued him that his presence was required in the conversation.

“Say again?”

“Ted. Is he seeing anybody?”

Stan frowned and searched his internal archives. “Nnnnnoo...” he drawled. “Not that I’m aware of. I think Kathy or Nolan would have let us know when we got his address from them.”

“His old address. If they didn’t know he’d moved off campus, they might not know if he’s seeing anybody.”

They were both quiet for a moment. Stan’s brain working, and Caitlyn’s finger tapping on the spine of her current “New York Times Best Seller List” trade paperback.

“You know,” Stan finally said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of him dating anyone. He’s painfully shy around women.”

“Not around me, he’s not,” said Caitlyn. With not pronounced nwat both times, of course.

But then she looked as if she’d just thought of something. “But you’re right. He’s good with us, and with other couples... But I’ve seen him go mental around single women.”

“I know he’s not gay,” stated Stan with finality.

“So do I,” said Caitlyn. Before Stan could venture down the very obvious path behind that statement, she pushed on. “I think we should help him out. He’s a great guy, good sense of humor, cute enough and certainly smart. He just has trouble getting a conversation started.”

“We should set him up? But we don’t know anybody in Buffalo.”

“Who does?”

They were both silent for awhile. Stan had just picked up the magazine when she snapped her fingers.

“I’ve got it.”

“What are you, Sherlock Holmes?”

“No. I have better legs than Sherlock Holmes.”

“Can’t argue with that. So what’ve you got?”

“Give him the beta. And have Terry load it up with a younger, cuter, sassier version of Gina.”

Stan put the magazine down altogether and turned to actually look at her for the first time in this conversation. “Give him the beta.”

“Yah. What were we going to do with it?”

“I was going to put Elsie in it and put it in our lobby.”

“It’s too small for Elsie.”

“So we make her smaller.”

“You don’t want the beta to be seen by the outside world. It’s too small, and it’s still got some of the gen two bugs. Give it to Ted. He helped us out a lot a few years back.”

“I know, I know. I was there.”

“So. Maybe Gina would help him learn how to... talk to girls.”

“Like a relationship sim.”

“Yah. Exactly”

Stan chewed on a nail, thought and waited. Apparently he waited to long, as Caitlyn finally leaned over and smacked him on the back of his head.

“OK,” he said quickly. “I’ll have Terry load up Gina and update the drivers from the latest build and... whatever... he’ll know what to do.”

Caitlyn nodded and opened her book. “I think Ted’ll get a kick out of it,” she said as she started to read. “It’s got the feel of a good prank. Nightwork, yah?”

“Yuh...hmm...”

* * * * *

After the big “tank party,” as he’d thought of it, Stan spent a few more days in town saying “Hi” to friends who’d stayed in Boston and popping into his old haunts. It only served to remind him how out of touch you could get in just five or six years.

A week later he was thinking, You shouldn’t get jet lag just flying from Boston to Buffalo. But by the time you wait while the cab takes you to Logan, through the Big Wet Dig, wait through the security lines, wait through the plane being delayed, wait in the air over Buffalo, wait for your luggage, wait for the shuttle, wait in your car to get out of the parking lot and wait through seventeen traffic lights... he felt as if he’d lost 12 hours, when he’d really only lost six.

So as he drove up the street in suburban Kenmore, he was feeling like it was time to go to bed, even though it was only about 7pm. Pulling into his covered parkway spot he noticed two dark blue vans parked across the street from his place.

Ted got his duffle out of the trunk, and went around the back of his small, rented house. He never used the front door; it was easier to keep the bolt and chains up and have a security coded entrance around back, where the doorway was covered with a small roof.

Small roof over door in Buffalo good, he thought, as always, as he approached. He keyed in his password and pressed his thumb to the print detector plate and waited for the pleasant, low chime to tell him it was OK to go in.

No chime.

The display read “CLEAR,” which was right. He tried the thumb plate again. The display blinked off, and then “CLEAR” again. Still no chime.

Sound circuit must be fucked up, he thought.

He opened the screen door and wedged himself between it and the back door. A moment’s fumbling with the doorknob, and he shouldered the heavy wooden door open into the kitchen. He could see the display of the security panel across the room, and it, too read, “CLEAR.”

Just as he let his duffle bag thwump to the kitchen floor, he heard tires screech and squeal out front. He ran across the narrow kitchen, through the tiny foyer (“boot room,” his friend Casey called it) and pulled the curtains on the front window back. The two dark blue vans were peeling out, tearing down Dushane at about 50 miles an hour.

Ted let the curtains fall back and thought, Fucking kids.

Then he turned to his right, towards the living room, and saw the tank.

It was nowhere near as large as the one from the hotel lobby. Maybe only 10 feet long, 4 feet deep and 4 feet high. Set up on a 2 foot high slab of the same, black rock-or-plastic substance. There was an envelope scotch-taped to the side nearest the front door.

He pulled off the envelope and opened it to find a store-bought greeting card. On the outside, it had a photo of a good-looking, well dressed, James Bond type, leaning against the hood of an expensive looking car. A gorgeous blonde stood behind him with her arms around one of his. He was smiling and looking at his expensive watch. The caption below read, “For the man who has everything...”

Ted opened the card, and inside was a penny, heads-up, taped to the middle of the card. “You can never have too much good luck,” it read. “Happy Birthday.”

What a dumb-ass card, Ted thought.

The phone rang and Ted put the card and envelope down on the small coffee table that had been shoved up against the wall to make room for the tank.

Interrupting the second ring, he said, “Yeah. This is Ted.”

“Ted! It’s Stan!”

Ah, thought Ted. Now two and two make five.

“Stan. I think I have something that belongs to you.”

“Did belong to me, Ted. Did. Not anymore. Now it’s yours.”

“Don’t these things cost...”

“The big ones do, yeah. A hundred-thousand dollars or so. Before programming costs cut in. Which I don’t care about anymore, since we’re just selling the... Shut up. Anyway. If we were going to market these small ones, though, it would be more like twenty-five or thirty grand.”

Ted paused, letting that sink in. “So why,” he asked, “are you giving one to me?”

“It’s an experiment that Caitlyn cooked up.” Stan sounded out of breath. Like he was excited. Like he’d been running or something. Like...

Ted checked the Caller ID on his phone; “CELLULAR CALLER NUMBER BLOCKED.”

“That was you in the blue vans,” Ted said. Not a question.

“We thought you wouldn’t be home for another couple hours. My plane got delayed a bit, and the boys didn’t want to do it without me there. Seemed to think you wouldn’t believe that they were breaking into your house for your own good if’n I wasn’t there in person to back the story up. Can’t say I blame them.”

Ted shook his head and half grinned, half grimaced. Standard MIT friend, prank bullshit. Hack someone’s security. Leave them a “present” that was usually more trick than treat.

Pranking was part of a geek code almost as complicated as that of medieval chivalry. First, you couldn’t actually hurt anyone. Not physically, not academically, not legally (much) not financially (much). Embarrassment was fine, usually mandatory. The prank had to be clever. It had to be slick. And the fewer people who knew about all the “levels,” the better. Wheels within wheels within mazes within boxes within tin cans.

“So I get a dragon now, too?” Ted finally asked Stan.

“Nope. You get a... well... I’ll let you figure it out. We’ve already connected it up to your grid, but Pankaj thought it needed more bandwidth than your cable line. Plus, we don’t trust the utils, do we? Anyway, we tapped into nearby white-fiber so you shouldn’t notice much lag at all. There may still be some though. Especially early on during the... learning curve stage. Before the system hockey-sticks.”

Three questions occurred to Ted simultaneously, but he asked only the important one. “You tapped a white line? Stan? Into my place? Is this going to get me cop-fucked?”

“Moi? Get tu arrested? Oh ye of little faith. You know the old railroad tracks just two blocks down toward Niagara Falls Boulevard?”

“Yeah.”

“Back in ninety-seven Qwest dropped eight parallel white strands four feet under the right-of-way of the Buffalo-Niagara line. It junctions at an original backbone node on Suny Buffalo’s Amherst campus. You know how many of those eight strands see any throughput? Even on the busiest night of the year?”

“Christmas Eve?”

“You got it. So... how many?”

“I don’t know.” He figured quickly in his head. How many terrabytes per second a line of G3, “white” fiber optic cable could handle. How many people live around Buffalo? If all of them were on the phone on Christmas Eve, using low-no compression POTS...

“How many?” Stan repeated. Ted could hear the traffic noise outside Stan’s van.

“I’m going to guess three.”

There was a moment of silence. “I forget, Teddy boy, that you are a true, sharpened, mutha-humping bone. The answer is three. A bit less than three full bore, actually. That third line is only pinging about forty percent full load. But that’s because some of the big local plexes have converted to a high-compression, data driven voice model.

“I’d heard about that, but didn’t know the percentages.”

“Anyway. Close enough. What that means is, there is more than twice as much bandwidth available in your neighborhood as is needed even at the highest traffic moment of the year. Most days they barely touch strand-o numero duo.”

“Which leaves me with...”

“A full strand all your own. Directly plugged into the backbone through the Amherst switch.”

That took a few beats to sink in.

“Ted?” Stan sounded like he was on the highway, now. More Doppler in the background noise. “Ted?” He also sounded a little worried. Like will Ted take this in the spirit intended, or is he going to be a dick.

“Yeah, Stan. I’m here. I’m just kinda freaked out.”

“Why would that be, Ted?”

“Because the audio on my alarm system is busted.”

“Shit. I’ll send Lenny back to fix that.”

“No big deal. I don’t have anything...” Ted paused. “What will the university think?”

“They already think it’s Qwest. Or whoever the hell owns Qwest these days.”

“I think it’s Sprint.”

“Isn’t Sprint owned by somebody else now?”

“Who the fuck can keep that shit straight. I think it’s AT&T, though.”

"AT&T isn't AT&T"

"Right. Fuckin' telco."

“That’s ironic. But I thought somebody just bought... Never mind. Anyway, you’re in the clear. No worries. I promise The university thinks line eight is a checker and repeater for LD voice traffic.”

“And what does Qwest... or whoever... think it is?”

Stand was quiet for a moment. That was worrisome.

“Stan...” pushed Ted. “What have you done, Stan.”

“It’s not really illegal, Ted.”

“Stan.”

“OK, OK. Qwest doesn’t know it’s there at all.”

“How can they not know I’m tapped into their fucking fiber!?”

“Since lines four through eight have never been touched, they have no sensing software set up on them. When they got close to hitting three the first time, they set up the monitoring and billing software to check against the switch on three, so that when that line pinged for the first time, they didn’t lose any volume. When they get close to eighty percent ping on three, they’ll hook up four. And so forth.”

“And when will they be close to filling up number seven and checking number eight?”

“About thirty years. Unless someone comes up with a phenomenally successful, bandwidth-hog app before then.”

Pause. “High-res porno shot in 360-degree, Matrix-style surround-cam?”

“Hmmm.” Stan paused. “That might do it. But the compression software gets better every year, too. One of my guys says that they’ll actually never even get to the seventh strand. His data shows compression values more and more...”

“What is this for,” Ted interrupted. “Why a big glass box and the mother of all bandwidth taps?”

“It’s a gift. From me and Caitlyn.”

“A gift.”

“Yes. A gift. We really appreciate the help you gave us a few years back, and...”

“That was nothing.”

“Fuck ‘nothing.’ We call it driving three-hundred miles at a moment’s notice to testify...”

“Look. You’d have done the same for me. I was there when you started out. That Klauwaski guy...”

“Klausinsky.”

“Whatever. The Anti-Santa, I believe Caitlyn dubbed him. He was stealing your shit. Just because he got funding earlier and was involved peripherally gave him no right...”

“Ted.” Very softly, Stan interrupted. “We don’t need to go over all that again. We were right, he was wrong. You helped prove that. The court told him to stop using our stuff without our say-so and he is now, I believe, humping tenure and his own fist at Northwestern. So. Caitlyn and I want you to have... this.”

Ted paused for quite a bit before asking, “And what is, ‘this?’ My own dragon?”

Stan laughed quietly. “Oh, no, Ted. Something much more dangerous.”

“Well, at least tell me how to...”

But the line was dead. Ted tried calling back, but got, “The cellular number you are calling is either turned off or...”

Ted dialed Bocci’s Pizza from memory and ordered a medium sausage pie. Then he put down the phone and surveyed his living room. He’d never had a lot of furniture, so the big, glass box didn’t put as much of a crimp in his décor as it would have in most people’s houses. The coffee table, as has been noted, was against the front wall, beneath the windows. And they’d had to move the footstool in front of his wing chair back against the hearth. But, other than that, it had been positioned very nicely. It looked like a huge, glass, neo-retro-mod-Bauhaus sort of... thang.

The top plane was about six feet off the floor, which meant he could just see over it. It was centered nicely along the long axis of the room. He could sit on the couch and watch his TV without any trouble. It was just... there. Instead of a lot of nothing in the middle of his living room, there was now a lot of... well... slightly more solid nothing. The black base was matte and unobtrusive. Whatever Stan and his gang had done to hook the thing up to the Net was completely invisible. Ted supposed it was under the black box and that the cables must go through his basement or something.

He took his duffel bag upstairs, unpacked, and threw his clothes down the laundry chute. He put his travel stuff away and checked to see if he had a clean dress shirt for tomorrow. Yup. Blue. Fine. Clean socks, underwear, undershirt. Nothing really to do tonight except order a pizza, get a shower, go to sleep and...

He jogged back downstairs and paused to look at... it... again. He ran a hand along all four vertical sides and along the top edges. He felt the corners and the line where it met the base and it all just felt like glass. There were no visible controls. No hum of fans or click of relays. No hint of ozone smell.

Feeling foolish, standing there bare-chested, he made the only sign-language gesture he knew (well, one of two, but the other was more suited to traffic); index and middle finger extended, repeatedly pinching to touch the thumb. Translation: “duck.”

Apparently, “duck,” was not a visual signal that the apparatus recognized as a key.

Shrugging, Ted went up for a quick shower; Bocci’s always took at least forty minutes. He dried off while going down cellar to get his dirty laundry into the washing machine in the basement. Just as he started the load, he heard the doorbell ring. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants from the dirty pile, trotted upstairs and opened the front door enough to tell the guy he needed to find his checkbook.

“C’mon in for a second, if you want.”

“Thanks. It’s getting cold and I didn’t wear any jacket or anything.”

Ted came back with a checkbook from the study and saw the pizza guy standing a few feet inside the doorway, staring past the half-wall that separated the foyer from the living room. Staring at the tank.

“That’s a big tank, man,” the guy said as Ted finished the check and ripped it out of the book.

“Yeah.”

“What are ya gonna put in there? Fish or something?”

“Yeah. Fish or something. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Oh. Well...” he looked down, tucked the check into his pocket and said, “Thanks for the tip, man,” and headed back out into the night.

“Or something,” Ted muttered to himself and went to eat his pizza in front of the television, all the time feeling the transparent bulk of his new house mate, standing silent to his left.

When he slept that night, he dreamed of dragons living by a river.

* * * * *

The next morning when he came downstairs he stopped to look at the tank again. Still nothing. Perfectly clear. No knobs. No buttons. Very anti-tech high-tech. Like those Macs with flat screens on swing arms a few years back. Or the first Moleskine PDAs.

He ate breakfast, got changed, and on his way out the door, hollered over his shoulder, “Have a nice day, Giant Glass Slab! See through you when I get home tonight.”

He was out the door, down the steps and outside, unlocking his car, and so didn’t hear the tank say, “Ted?”

* * * * *

Work that Monday was... work. As his dad used to say, “If it was fun all the time, they’d call it ‘camp’ and make you pay them.” He thought of Dad’s sayings often. It was funny, because for years he hadn’t even thought of them. But once he’d become entombed (as he thought of it) in his first “real” job, all the old zingers had come back to haunt him:

• You’ll never go broke if you always bet on “dumb.”

• You’ll often do for money what you’d never do for fun.

• If you can’t tell who the dumbest monkey in the room is... it’s you.

• Never pet a burning dog.

That last one always confused him, but he supposed it was sound advice. He also supposed that it would eventually make sense to him.

"Why does Stan get a fun job and I get to design better ways of keeping corporate data safe from hackers and disgruntled employees?" Ted thought. "Because I wanted a safe job and a decent place and an OK car and he lived in a burlap sack under a bridge for five years while pursuing his dream."

He remembered a conversation with his Dad about a year after he’d taken the job.

“What is it you do again, Ted?”

“I write software that lets people’s networks share the data they want without opening themselves to crap they don’t want.”

“Gatekeeper stuff, it sounds like.”

“That’s a good way of putting it.”

“Is it fun?”

“It pays good.”

“Not much fun.”

“How much fun was it being the head accountant for a public school system for fifteen years?”

“It came with a good pension.”

“Not much fun.”

“No,” Dad had admitted. “But you always liked the computer stuff so much. You and Goober...”

“Gunther.”

“Whatever. The German kid. You were always writing those game programs and putting your mom’s Christmas letter in weird fonts and stuff.”

“I can’t get a job crafting goofy looking Christmas cards, Dad.”

“I know. You just need to find something... with more...”

“I’m fine, Dad.”

And he was fine. And he was easily amused, and just about as introverted as someone could be and still function in an ever more populous society. Which meant he didn’t feel lonely often. More often than when he’d been in school, but he’d been surrounded by people then. Which hadn’t made him comfortable... just not lonely. In fact, he’d been violently uncomfortable with some of the college living conditions at times.

"Why," he continued in his vein of whiny thought, "did Stan get the great girl?"

But he knew the answer to that one, too. Because Stan, while a geek, is not a dweeb.

Out of nine hours at work that day, he spent three in meetings, two on the phone, one at lunch and the rest checking email. He didn’t actually get any work done at all. Par for the course.

* * * * *

As soon as he entered the boot room that night, he could tell that something was different. The quality of light in his house was unusual. He took off his jacket as he climbed the two steps into the living room, and saw that he now had another, smaller living room in the middle of his own, by-god living room.

He remembered the first time Stan had showed him the original, one-foot-cube prototype for his display system. The images inside were perfectly three dimensional, and not at all semi-transparent, as they had been in all the other previous 3D display experiments. The effect had been entirely, completely life-like.

“Creepy,” he’d told Stan as he circled the cube, examining again and again the virtual model of a flower that dripped tiny drops of dew onto the virtual floor of the box.

“Ain’t it?” Stan had been so clearly torqued up and on the edge of happy hysteria.

“It even seems to reflect the ambient room light,” Ted had commented.

“Not ‘seems,’ bro. It does reflect ambient.”

That had floored Ted as almost no other detail of the system could have.

“How the fuck did you manage that? Sensor arrays? Telepathy? Virtual black-cat bone?”

“Nope. It’s actually a byproduct of the process itself. For some commercial uses we may have to install some light sensors to actually compensate and remove the effect.”

“Jeez. But for most applications...”

“Yeah. You can use the display for point light, diffuse glow, even out-of-box spot.”

Again, Ted was floored. “You can shine a light OUT of the thing?”

“Well, crap, sure. If you’ve got true, interior adjustable reflectivity, all you need is...”

“An internal light source, which is core anyway, and then you just bank it...”

“Off a more reflective portion of the display.” Pause. “Ted, you get this shit quicker than some of the guys who’ve been here for eighteen months. You sure you don’t want to come work for me?”

That had been an uncool moment. Most uncool. Ted knew that he’d never be the creative force that Stan was. He also knew that he would go crazy trying to be a cog in Stan’s machine. They’d been such good friends... still were. That would screw it up big time.

And Ted sensed it, too. “Sorry, sorry, I know,” he’d said. “But if I decide I need some security code for one of these muthas...”

“I’ll consult.”

“Good. Now, check this out.”

Stan leaned forward, took a deep breath, and then blew onto the cube like it was a birthday cake topped with candles. The petals on the flower rippled, a drop of dew spun away from the stem, and the whole thing leaned slightly away from the force of Stan’s breath.

He’d looked up at Ted with a, "Whaddya think of them apples?" look.

“Sound activated or did you push a button,” was all Ted had said.

Stan laughed. “You’re too fucking smart for my own good. Sound.”

Ted nodded. “Still... pretty cool. You could hook up a bunch of different sensors and really fake people into a greater sense of... what do you call it again?”

“Solidacity.”

“Right. ‘Solidacity.’ The belief that something that’s not there really is.”

“And the belief that you can fuck with it.”

“Power to the people,” had been Ted’s comment. After that night, he hadn’t seen any of the other test models until the night of the dragon.

And now he had one in his living room. And it was a living room in his living room.

He sat down on his footstool and put his nose almost up against the glass. Yup. It was a small living room, all right. About one-fifth scale, he thought. Hardwood floor with a really nice oriental rug. Bookshelves filled with tiny books and a few gimcracks. A couch, a love seat, a wing chair with ottoman on the oriental. Floor lamps on either side of the sofa. A small, roll-top desk with an antique-y looking wooden chair against one of the glass walls. A baby grand piano and bench in the opposite corner. Another floor lamp, this one a Tiffany, near the piano. A magazine rack between the couch and the love seat. He could even see a few magazines tucked in there. No TV. No stereo that he could see.

Basically, it looked like a room from a very detailed doll house. The difference in the lighting that he’d noticed was from the Tiffany lamp. It was on, and threw a very soft, diffuse pattern of subtly colored light out into his living room.

Cool, but... so what? A dragon that flew around and ate bunnies was cool. You couldn’t do that with balsa wood and Testors paint. But a doll house?

Ted stood up and looked down at the room in the tank. He clapped his hands twice. Nothing. Stan had rigged all the lighting in a school auditorium to a Clapper once. Not this time.

“Hello?” he said, feeling foolish.

Nothing.

Fuck it, he thought. If Stan wants to play it slow, I’ll play it slow.

He got some leftover pizza from the fridge, heated it in the microwave, and ate it on the couch in front of the TV. He had about two-hundred or something satellite channels, and didn’t really watch any one program all the way through. Some sports, some news, some drameality stuff, some videos.

He had started to drift off while watching the History Channel and was in that weird, semi-floaty state of almost asleep when he heard her voice:

“Ted! You’re home!”

Shit-fuck-what? was the rough translation of what his brain said as he came out of his black-and-white, WWII-newsreel induced slumber.

He almost fell off the couch as he sat up too quickly and looked for the sound of the voice.

“Down here, Ted,” said the voice again.

He looked down, and there she was. A nine-inch tall woman standing on the oriental rug in the living room in the tank in his living room.

The first thing that struck him was her hat. She was wearing an off-white (Taupe? his brain sparked. Ecru? Fawn?) beret. It mostly covered her quite-short, straight, dark-brown hair and matched the color of her jacket. The jacket looked like suede.

She took off the jacket and draped it on the back of the wing chair. She was wearing a white silk blouse underneath it and black pants. Slacks, Ted thought. Women call them slacks, I think.

She looked up and raised an eyebrow. He actually could see her raise one eyebrow. Like Mr. Spock. Ted could do that, too. He didn’t now, though.

“Close your mouth, Ted. You look like a fish, and I’m the one in the tank, so that ain’t right.”

Her voice was a little raspy. A little Katherine Hepburn, maybe? he thought.

He closed his mouth. Then it hit him.

“How the fuck did you know my mouth was open?”

“Ah. Stan said you were a quick study and not easily fooled by the wiles of modern science.”

She took off the beret, put it on top of the coat, and sat down on the love seat, tucking her legs up underneath her, one arm thrown over the back of the chair.

“Stan said...”

“Yeah. Stan. He said you’re a quick study. He likes you, you know. A lot. Even though you never call him.”

He could see the tiny buttons on her tiny blouse. He could see that she was wearing four rings, one of them on her left thumb, all of them silver. She was wearing pearl studs in her ears. He couldn’t tell if they were pierced or clip-on... but then, he wouldn’t have been able to had she been a real woman, actual size.

“I never call him,” Ted repeated.

“No. Never. You never call anyone.”

He thought about it. Other than his dad on Fathers’ Day... she was right. He talked to people when they called, but...

“So,” he finally said.

“So... nothing,” she replied. She unfolded one leg and sat more firmly on the other.

No reply from Ted. She did the eyebrow again. Ted just kept staring.

“That’s really not polite, Ted,” she said, after about 30 seconds of complete silence.

“What? Checking out the detail level of a display unit?”

She shook her head. “Don’t start that right away, please Ted? I know what I am, so you don’t need to revert to ‘reality’ every time you don’t know exactly what to say.”

That miffed him a bit. “What do... I don’t... I wasn’t...”

“Yes you were,” she said quietly. A touch of scold in her tone. “If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine. But don’t talk to me like I’m a badly scanned picture of Heather Locklear or something. Don’t talk to me like you’d talk to a pet. If you do that, I’ll leave.”

That messed with his head. But he was just cheesed off enough to take her up on it.

“So leave, Miss Pixels.”

She gave him a dead-cold look, flipped him the bird with the thumb-ring left hand, and stood up. She walked halfway towards the wall with the bookcase, then stopped to come back for her coat and hat.

Ted watched as she spun on one foot and headed back toward the wall. As she was about to hit the wall, she put out her free hand at about the level a doorknob would have been. And where a doorknob suddenly was. While she was touching it, an entire doorway appeared that Ted had never seen before. She stepped through, and as soon the door shut behind her (with a slight bang), it disappeared again.

Ted sat there for a moment, unsure of what to do.

Before he could decide, the door appeared again. She walked back into to her/his living room, strode quickly to the Tiffany lamp, turned it off, and left again. This time, there was a distinct slam when she shut the door.

Ted waited for five minutes. Not doing anything. Just sitting and looking at the now dark living room, as the sounds of the war in the Pacific droned on in the background.

* * * * *

One thing you could say for Ted. Though quiet, he was stubborn. For almost two weeks he neither touched nor spoke to the tank. And, as the girl inside had pointed out, he did not call anyone about it either.

Stan, on the other hand... not so patient.

When the phone on his desk at work rang, Ted answered as always, “Ted Martin.”

“’Ted Martin,’” a falsely deep, anchorman voice echoed back at him.

“Stan. What’s up?” Stan wasn’t good at voices.

“Sorry, man. I just get a kick out of your responsible corporate monotone. Call me at the office sometime and see how I answer.”

“You own your office, Stan,” Ted reminded him.

“Yeah, yeah. What? They’d fire you if you picked up the phone and said, ‘Ted’s House of Mirth, may I bring you joy?’”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Bummer.”

There was a pause. “Stan. What’s up? You called me.”

“You gotta work or something?”

“No. Not really. Just wondered what’s up.”

Then Ted remembered what was up.

“The tank. You’re calling about the tank.”

Hearing Stan giggle like a little boy always made Ted smile, even when he was the target of the amusement.

“Not the tank, buddy,” Stan said after he stopped giggling. “Claire.”

“Ah. Claire. So that’s her name.”

“You didn’t... oh, shit. Caitlyn is gonna kill me.”

“Why, Stan? What has...”

But Stan had clicked off. Ted got his work number off his PDA and called him back. “Pandora Technologies, how may I direct your call?” asked the pleasant, feminine voice.

“Stan Kline, please.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kline is in a meeting.”

“Bullshit he’s in a meeting. I was talking to him eight seconds ago.”

“I’m sorry but...”

Ted hung up and went deeper into his files. Another number. Either cellular or direct dial.

“Hi, this is Stan's super-secret personal phone. I can’t take your...” Shit.

Ted sat there, tapping absently on his desk phone’s handset.

Claire. He thought. That’s French for “light.” That’s pretty cute.

He called his boss and said he was taking off a bit early. Like now. No problem, as his boss really had no idea what he did, just that it always got done on time and under budget. Ted saw his boss four times a year, basically. And that was fine. He mostly talked with other people at his “job grade level” who never talked to their bosses either. Sometimes he wondered if his boss ever talked to his boss, whom Ted had met once in three years, even though the guy worked just two floors up.

All the way home, through nicely sparse, 3pm traffic, Ted thought, Claire. Where have you been for the last two weeks?

As soon as he got into the boot room he hollered, “Claire? Are you in there?”

Nothing. He kicked off his shoes, pulled off the tie, threw the jacket on the couch and sat down next to it.

“Claire?” he said, this time more softly.

Nothing.

“Maybe I could leave her a message,” he murmured.

“Hi, this is Claire,” the tank said. With that metallic-echo tone that seems to come standard on all answering machines. “I’m not home right now. Or I am, but I’m doing something else. Something suspicious, you’re thinking, since I would obviously run from any ordinary task to take your call. Be that as it may...” Beep.

“Claire,” Ted started. Then stopped. “Claire. It’s Ted. Just wanted to say, ‘Hi’ and... well... I guess that’s it. See you later.”

There was a slight click, and then silence. He sat there for a few more minutes, and then decided he might as well change into play clothes. So he went upstairs and did just that.

3:45 pm on a Thursday. What to do, what to do...

He got online and checked movie times at the nearby second-run theatre. Just a buck, matinées for fifty cents. You can’t shake a stick at that. Some idiot comedy he hadn’t seen was playing at 4:10. While he wouldn’t have paid $14.50 to see it, for fifty cents... hell, it was as good a way as any to kill the afternoon.

The movie was well worth fifty cents. Afterward he stopped and grabbed some Chinese food at Chef Tong’s. Spicy chicken and black bean. And then Dairy Queen. And then home.

He paused to look into the tank. The Tiffany light was on, but there was no one in the room. He shrugged and went to put the unfinished half of his Blizzard in the freezer.

The voicemail light on his kitchen phone was blinking, so he pushed the button.

“Message one: Ted. Hi. It’s me. Claire. Sorry I haven’t... well... whatever. I popped in after I got home from work and you were out. Give me a call when you get back.”

OK, thought Ted. That’s pretty weird.

“Message two: Ted. Claire again. I never gave you my number, did I? It’s 833-21512. The new Tonawanda local exchange. Later.”

Ted shrugged and dialed the number. The phone rang twice, and, “Hello?”

“Claire?”

“Ted?”

“Yeah.”

“You got my message.”

“Sure. Yeah. I was out at the movies.”

Pause. “You’re home early, then.”

“No. I took off work around three.”

“You sick?”

“No. Just...” he remembered why he left early. Because he’d learned her name and thought it might be a password. A code. Some cryptologically meaningful phoneme.

“Just what?”

“Just felt like playing hooky, you know?”

“Sure. I get like that. Mental health day.”

“Exactly.”

Another pause. This one longer.

“How was the movie?” Claire finally asked.

“It was dumb. But for fifty cents, you know... not bad.”

“Yeah. The entertainment value index.”

“The what?”

“How much you’ll pay for amusement. Ten bucks for a first-run flick. Fourteen-fifty for first-run matinee. Ten for the download. Three bucks to rent. A buck at the cheapies. Or free on HBO in the hotel when you’re on the road.”

“That’s how you rate movies?”

“Partly,” she answered. “My brother and I also use the sliding ‘fun ‘n’ film’ scale.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s... shit,” she interrupted herself.

“What?”

“Hang up the fucking phone and I’ll meet you in our living rooms.”

Click. He looked at the phone and felt like a total nob. He’d just been having a conversation with a piece of software that lived in his house.

From around the corner of the kitchen he heard her. “Ted?”

He quickly put the phone back on the hook and jogged into the living room.

There she was, standing in her little doorway, one hand on the frame and the other holding a cordless phone. She moved into the room and the door disappeared. She put the phone down on the little desk and sat down on the love seat. Same position as before, both legs tucked under her.

Tonight she was dressed much more casually. Jeans, grey sweatshirt with a big “C” on the front. Barefoot. Same pearl earrings, though.

He sat down on the couch and leaned back, arms crossed on his chest.

“So, it’s gonna be like that, Ted?” she said, flipping her bangs out of her eyes with one hand.

“Like what?”

She pointed at him. “Your body language basically screams, ‘I am in control and I will not be trifled with.’ Or, ‘With me you will not trifle,’ if you’re a preposition Nazi.”

Ted looked down at himself. He hadn’t meant to communicate anything with his body language. He had just sat down.

“I just sat down,” he said.

Claire whispered something that he didn’t quite catch.

“What?” he asked, leaning forward a little bit.

“I said, ‘Men!’ like it was a curse word, which is how women almost always say, ‘Men!’ when they’re frustrated with them.”

“Why would you be frustrated with me? I just sat down.” He wasn’t mad. Just a bit confused.

“Look at how I’m sitting, Ted.”

He did. One arm on back of the love seat, the other in her lap. Legs, as we said, underneath her.

“You’re sitting,” he said.

She sighed. “You are a tough nut,” she said. “Did you ever play sports as a kid?”

“Not really,” he replied. “Some ultimate Frisbee. One year of track. Running, mostly.”

“Running. One of the solitary sports.”

“Solitary sports?”

“Right. Non team activities. Sports you play alone. Running, climbing, swimming, golf, bowling...”

“Wait a sec,” he interrupted. “You play golf with other people.”

“No you don’t,” she said, shifting one leg out from underneath her. “You play by yourself in the presence of other people who are playing by themselves.”

“Ah.”

“So. No team sports. Did you sing in a choir?”

“No.”

“Did you play in a band?”

“No.”

“And in your current job you write network security software.”

“Yeah. But how did you know that?”

“It’s on your company’s website.”

“Sure.”

At which point the fourth wall came down again. Like one of those big, vault doors in movies about bank robbers or spies. The kind of big, metal wall with three-inch diameter pins in the bottom that fit into holes in the concrete floor of the hall. The hero rolls under the door and you’re sure one of those pins is going to go right through his hand as he reaches back to pull through his hat or his knapsack or...

“Ted? You’ve gone completely blank.”

“What? Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” Maybe it was the spicy black bean sauce, but he was sweating slightly. He rubbed his palm on his head and scrunched his eyes shut tight.

“What’s wrong, Ted? You got a headache or something?”

He opened his eyes and looked at her. Very cute, very well put together. Not gorgeous. Not a porn queen. A tight, athletic body that stretched her jeans nicely. Her skin was very pale, and her hair about ten shades of medium brown all at once. The very short haircut was cute in a still very feminine way. Same pearl earrings, right.

“Ted...”

He rubbed his head again. “I’m sorry. I’m just not used to having...”

“...Someone in your living room?”

That made him stop and think. He’d been about to say... not used to having a conversation with a nine inch tall, virtual chick who’s been surfing my company’s website. But, now that he thought about it, he may have never actually had a guest in his house. In just about three years. He went over to Craig’s once in awhile. And he’d been out a few times with Ivan and Carla. But he hadn’t ever had anyone over to his place. It had never occurred to him to ask.

“Yeah. It’s... I don’t know. It didn’t ever... You know.”

She hopped both legs back onto the seat cushion and turned to face him directly, leaning forward on the arm of the love seat.

“Ted? I was kidding. Don’t freak. I assumed you were going to make some crack about the state of my electronic being.”

He shook his head a bit. “Actually, I was.”

She nodded. “I’m glad you didn’t. ‘Cause it’d be like reminding someone they’re black, or a girl or fat. It’s just not cool.”

He nodded. “Not cool. Right.”

She waited for him to say something, and when he didn’t, she went on. “Anyway. I was asking about sports and band and shit because it’s pretty clear that you’re socially...”

“Retarded?” he filled in with a half grin.

She barked a quick laugh and covered her mouth. “I wasn’t going to say that. Seriously. Maybe ‘inexperienced’ or something like that.”

“Caitlyn told me all the time that I was a social retard.”

“That’s harsh.”

“Not from her. She’s really good with people, but doesn’t like all the stuff you’re supposed to do that’s just social fluff. She’ll get into a really deep talk with someone she barely knows and ask them shit like, ‘How much money do you make?’ or ‘How many people have you had sex with?’”

Claire pulled a little face and said, “It sounds to me like she may be a bit socially retarded, too.”

Ted shook his head. “No. I accused her of that once. She said she her social skills weren’t retarded, just mutated.”

They were quiet a minute. Then:

“You really like her, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Sure. What’s not to like? She’s smart as hell, gorgeous, and doesn’t make people feel stupid or unattractive just because she’s neither.”

“Do you love her?”

Ted had been looking off at the windows. Now he turned to faced her, at one level marveling how objects in her living room picked up shadows from the yard as a car went by on the street. On another level wondering about the interaction programming behind this conversation. On another, thinking about whether he wanted to answer the question honestly. And whether or not he even knew the answer.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” Now she was curled up in a ball, arms around her legs, chin resting on one knee, one foot up on the armrest. "How can chicks sit like that?" Ted thought for about the thousandth time in his life.

“Because,” he answered, “When you love someone, aren’t you supposed to hurt all the time if you’re not with them or if you can’t have them or whatever? Isn’t being without them supposed to be the worst fucking feeling there is?”

She leaned her head to one side. The angle was perfect to let him see that her ears were, in fact, pierced.

“Ted,” she said. “You can’t define a thing by describing what its absence is not.”

His right eyebrow went up. “Care to repeat that?”

“Sure. If you have no pie...”

“Pie...” he interrupted.

“Sure. Pie. Apple pie. A la mode if you like.”

He paused. Pie. OK. “Yes. A la mode, please.”

“So. If you have no pie. And it makes you sad. And I say, ‘Why are you sad?’ And you say, ‘Because I have no pie.’ And I ask you, ‘What is pie?’ And you say, ‘Well... Not having pie is not like not having cable TV.’ How does that help me?”

Long pause. Finally, “Can I get a beer, Claire? Will you be here when I get back?”

She tipped her head to one side and frowned a bit. “Do you want me to be here when you get back?”

“Sure. Yeah. I mean... I’m just thirsty. And... a bit warm. Maybe getting flu or something. And I had spicy Chinese food. And I need to go to the bathroom. It’s just that the last time you left...”

“You didn’t see me for two weeks.”

“Right.”

She shook her head. “Go get a beer. I’ll be here. It’s not that late and I don’t have to get up until nine or so tomorrow.”

He nodded and went to the kitchen. And then to the bathroom, since that’s where the toilet is. And then back to the kitchen, because he’d forgotten the beer. And then back to the living room.

* * * * *

“Ted. You want a coke or something? I’m making a run.”

“No. Thanks. I’m cool.”

Sanja waved to him over the wall of his cube as he headed off to get his own coke. Once again Ted thought, It’s no fair that they set out free coffee but not free pop. Only the old farts drink coffee. Everybody under the age of forty here drinks their weight in Coke or Mountain Dew every week and shells out 75 freaking cents per can, when the machine doesn’t eat your dough in the first place.

His whiny, inner rant was interrupted by the phone.

“Ted Martin.”

“’Ted Martin.’ It’s Claire Dumont.”

“Why does everybody make fun of how I answer the phone?”

“It just sounds so serious. Like you’re a cop or something.”

“I am in security, in a way.”

“In a way. Remind me to call someone else if the house is being robbed.”

“Thanks. I can take care of myself.”

“Sure. You’ll brain them with the “Visual CX Bible” you’ve got under the couch.”

“Hey. I don’t wanna kill the burglar. Just knock him out.”

She laughed.

“Are you busy?” she asked.

“Not so to speak.”

“Can you get off and over the Amherst campus by around four?”

“Sure. Where? Why?”

“I’ll tell you where. You have to come to figure out why.”

“Give me a clue.”

“First the where. You know Bell Hall?”

“Sure.”

“Room 1003. 4 pm.”

“Sure. Now the clue....”

“OK.” Pause. “You’re going to meet my boss.”

* * * * *

The night before, they'd discussed Darwin, Turing and tarts.

“According to Turing,” Claire told him, “You could probably fool someone for a short while. A quick chat about the weather or something ubiquitous. But after a few minutes, most people would begin to suspect even the most advanced computer of being ‘not people.’”

"Especially if the computer kept using words like 'ubiquitous.'"

"Piss off."

They’d been, as usual, in their living rooms. Ted was kicked back, lying on the couch, she was sitting on her piano bench, feet up on the coffee table.

“I guess,” Ted replied, “That Mr. Turing never got a chance to plug twenty-seven IntelDeccas into a parallel array, load them up with Semtech’s KbT4, and string the mutha across a solid state data cube with the Library of Congress held in stat memory.”

“You speak of Kirk Jr.,” she said, buffing the top of the coffee table in a circular motion with her gym-socked feet.

“And that was four years ago.”

She frowned.

“What?” he said. “I’m not making fun. I’m not being rude. We’re talking about stuff that interests me. If I was a lumberjack, we’d talk about... I don’t know...”

“Transvestitism”

“Exactly! I’m not trying to put you down, just... talking about related... topics.”

“I guess it’s like when Darwin first put out his theory.”

“Ah.”

“So you see what I’m saying?”

“Not really, no. It doesn’t bother me at all that umpty-ump generations ago my family walked on their knuckles and ate bugs from under logs.”

“It doesn’t? Not even a little?” she peeked out from under her bangs as she said this.

He shrugged. “Why should it? I’m not so different from an ape. I’m an animal, for sure. The similarities are pretty obvious. Why should it matter if I evolved from a monkey or sprang full-blown from the head of Zeus?”

“It shouldn’t. But some people were upset about it.”

Now he frowned. “I guess that maybe they felt deprived of a certain uniqueness.”

“How so?”

“If people descend from apes, how are we any better than them? We take pride in our human ancestors. Should we take less pride in our simian relatives? And if man is made in God’s image...”

“Does that make God a monkey...”

“Something like that. Lots of people have very well developed ideas about why their own life is much more important than everybody else’s. When Darwin comes along, some of those constructs are shown to be...”

“Artificial?” with one eyebrow way up.

He didn't get it.

“Sure,” he nodded. “That fits. Here we are, almost angels. God’s only creature with soul. Set above the beasts. If that’s part of what makes you feel good about yourself, running headlong into evolution can ruin your world view.”

"But it doesn't bother you?"

"It's been part of my world view since birth. I assume that I feel just as superior about my ego as did Victorian creationists. But I feel superior based on breeding, rather than anthrodeism."

"You just made that word up."

"Did not."

She tapped her head. "Library of Congress, remember?"

"Shit. Yeah. OK. Sorry."

She gave him a three count, shook her head and muttered, "You are such a friggin’ tool."

"What? I didn't... you aren't connected to the LOC, are you?"

Negative shaking of small, cute, virtual head.

"OK. You got me. But could you?"

She slid down off the piano bench and stretched out on the floor, scratching the back of one calf with the top of her other foot. She absentmindedly tapped her head with a ballpoint pen and pondered. He gave her time to think; didn't chime in just to fill the space.

Finally she replied, "Yeah. If I needed to."

"Need?"

"Yes. Need."

Now it was his turn to think quietly. What would she need? What would put her in a jam that would require an, Oh, shit! I've gotta download the Library of Congress! response. He shook his head a little and got up to go get something to drink.

"Get me a beer while you're in there," she called after him. It was a regular joke between them, and had been for weeks now. For quite some time after he'd started talking to her, he'd had a hard time telling when she was joking, and when she was just being... herself. He'd sometimes laugh, and she'd look hurt. Or he'd give her a serious answer, only to turn his head and see her giggling, silently, one cuff of a sweatshirt clamped in her mouth to keep quiet. After awhile, though, he got to know the jokes from the not-jokes.

He returned to the living room and put a cold bottle of Heineken on top of the glass case. Beads of moisture ran down the side and began to pool on top of the small room.

Claire looked up and made a, "You will clean that up, dick-head," face. He nodded without taking a pause in his long pull of beer.

After another few minutes of quiet, broken only by two gulps and a quiet belch, she said, "I wonder if it'll ever be like that for me?"

"Like what for you?"

"Like you with the apes thing."

He didn't get it. "I don't get it," he said.

She stood up, stretching a little, and sat on the love seat, as close to him as the wall of glass would allow.

"It doesn't bother you. The evolution thing. You said it yourself; you grew up with the idea. So it's no big whoop. Like the world being round for post-Galileans. Like America for post-Columbians. Like..."

"Like Pop-Tarts for post-toasties."

Pause. Scrunchy-face. "That was very, very bad."

"I'm sorry."

"You aren't."

"No. But I'm a little buzzed."

"Puns are only a mild neurosis. I should count my blessings."

She leaned back and lay down on the seat of the chair. Her legs dangled over the side, and he could see that one of her socks was about to fall off.

"So..." she said. He couldn't see her face. It was hidden behind the back of the love seat. Her voice even sounded a little muffled, a bit more distant than it had when his view of her mouth wasn't blocked. He experienced a moment of mild vertigo, an appreciation for the programming.

"So?" he replied.

"So," she went on, "Maybe someday people will interact with virtuals just as if they're people. It won't be a big deal because it'll happen all the time. In ten years, all this ‘tank junk’ will be old school. Totally East Coast. My descendents will live in real rooms, with hidden projectors embedded in the walls."

"Or they'll get around in small vehicles controlled by their own programming. Or be projected by roaming nano that isn’t ever even seen or felt by us house apes."

That stopped her for a sec. "Yeah," she finally replied.

They were quiet for another few minutes. He sipped the last of the beer. Her sock finally fell off her dangling foot and landed on the floor of her living room with a barely audible puhf.

"So it'll be normal," she said.

"What will be?"

"My having a human for a friend."

"Hey," he mumbled, standing up slowly. "Don't lay that on me." He took her Heineken and wiped the condensation off the top of the tank with a sleeve as he walked past. "I'm a simple, hairless house-ape." And he wandered up to bed.

Claire stayed where she was. One sock off, one sock on, kicking her foot and tapping her pen and staring past her glass wall, past the bare, winter trees on Dushane Avenue until long past midnight.

* * * * *

The next day, Ted drove out to campus. Although he’d never attended SUNY Buffalo, his company had plenty to do with the various research arms of the university. It took him two tries (damned one-way streets), but he found a public parking lot within medium acceptable walking distance of Bell Hall. Like many campuses, there was very little parking available for the non-affiliated.

Seeing all the undergrads did not make him nostalgic for his BS days. If anything, they reminded him of how far out he’d felt, how disconnected, until he’d reached graduate school. He saw a group of about eight or nine of them, grouped around an outdoor table big enough for four, drinking Starbucks and talking, laughing. We didn’t have Starbucks, he thought to himself. And I couldn’t have afforded it if we did.

Ted wasn’t sure that the exact same person did the decorating for all university buildings on earth. He was, however, pretty sure that they had all been hypnotized by the same design fuehrer. Gritty, grey tile floors. White or off-white walls. Drop ceilings. The occasional framed picture of some “thing” related to the department. Stop-action photos of bullets going through apples. Historic events with oddly dressed men shaking hands. Newspaper clippings.

Say what you will about Corporate America, he thought, but at least we have carpet.

No front desk in the lobby, just a board with a listing of departments and floors. A glass case with nothing in it. No... take that back... there was one intramural bowling trophy on the bottom shelf. Figuring that room 1003 was on the first floor, he made a quick circuit of the building. Nope. First floor rooms were numbered “0102” through “0180” in no understandable order. So. 1003 must be on the 10th floor. He found the elevator and went up.

The 10th floor was a bit more decorated than most. Directly opposite the elevator, on the wall of the hallway, were five matted and framed photographs of mountains. Why? And someone had had the good manners to post a sign indicating which rooms were which way. 1001 – 1059 to the left, 1098 – 1057 to the right. Thanks.

The door to room 1003 was open, so he rapped quietly and stepped in. It was a small antechamber with a couple chairs, a water cooler and a coffee table sporting recent issues of computer magazines and a “Dilbert” book. Three doors opened in from the waiting room. One was labeled “Dr. Pharoozia,” one was labeled, “Dr. MacTiernan,” and the third was labeled “1003A.” OK. So now what?

While contemplating his next move, the door to Dr. Pharoozia’s office opened and a near-eastern looking, fifty-ish man in jeans and a blue, cotton button-down shirt leaned out. “Can I help you?” he asked, without a trace of accent.

“I’m not sure,” Ted answered. “A friend of mine is being... well... coy. She told me to come here and meet her boss.”

The man nodded. He was clean-shaven, and wore his white-streaked, black hair very short. It was almost a buzz cut, which looked odd on a Pakistani? Indian? Ted didn’t recognize the origin of the name.

“You must be Ted,” the man said, stepping fully into the waiting room. “I’m Jack, and I guess you could say I’m Claire’s boss.” He extended his hand and Ted shook it.

“Let’s go into the lab and we’ll get things hooked up.” He gestured and Ted went first into 1003A.

Immediately upon entering, he knew what kind of work Dr. Pharoozia did; VR – virtual reality. There were two full-body Logitech rigs and a bunch of other, various hardware that he recognized only vaguely. He’d done some graduate level VR work, but the gear changed so fast he couldn’t keep up. The Logitech stuff had a similar look to rigs he’d seen, but was clearly newer than the stuff he’d used in the past.

Dr. Pharoozia had passed behind Ted as he’d stood in the doorway and was messing with a terminal. “What does Claire do for you?” Ted asked.

“She does beta test surveys with our users and compiles the data. She’s written some of the stat package plug-ins, too.”

“V2.”

The older man chuckled. “Actually, according to Claire, she’s V3. If V1 workers are ones whose entire job is done on a computer, and a V2 is a remote worker, then a woman who does VR research virtually, all by computer, is a V3, eh?”

She’s testing me, thought Ted. Or teasing. ‘Cause she knew how freaking hard it would be for me not to make a crack about her being "more of a V4, actually."

All these moments... these times when the fourth wall came up again... when he thought about her as a program rather than a person... they made him feel slightly dizzy. He remembered the time his family had gone to see Mount Rushmore. Looking up at those huge faces made him feel like he was in a picture, or outside himself, or in a movie or something. He had similar, dissassociative moments when thinking of Claire as “it” instead of “her.”

A flat screen panel on one wall made a faint wuff noise as it came on and there was Claire, in 2D, just about life sized. Life-sized for real people, anyway. Meat puppets, he thought. Some of his programmer friends referred to people that way.

“Hey, Ted,” she said from the wall and waved.

“Hello Ms. V3,” he replied, and waved back.

She chuckled, but her eyes narrowed. “So Jack has shared our little joke with you.”

“He gave you full credit,” Ted replied, as Dr. Pharoozia continued to futz with the terminal. It was strange to see her in 2D, but regular sized. More normal than a tiny person in a tank. He never thought once about how she did it – called into Dr. Pharoozia’s office, did beta testing analysis for the university, talked to him on the phone at work. Ted knew the quality of the programmers Stan had working for him. If this was the game Stan had set up, he’d play it out.

"So..." she said coyly. "Wanna play?"

Dr. Pharoozia was grinning now as he finished messing with a few last switches and dials.

"What do the two of you know that I don't?" Ted asked.

"Don't be so cynical," Claire said, and stuck out her tongue at him.

"Very suspicious behavior, Ted," chided the professor. "You must work in a very security conscious environment."

"She's a blabbermouth."

"Hey!"

Dr. Pharoozia was still grinning. "We work, we talk. Everyone talks with their coworkers. Unless you're a complete asshole, and then they ignore you."

Ted thought about how few people he talked to at work. About how few people talked to him. About Claire having such a friendly, chatty relationship with her boss.

Claire, apparently sensing that Ted was getting uncomfortable, sprang the surprise: "Ted... Jack said you could use the lab's gear. To help me analyze the effect of the security protocols on lag-time resonance. Maybe you could help us figure out a way to avoid some of the nastiest slow downs."

He'd read about that a year or so ago. Somebody had jacked into an online full-rig VR connection and had basically forced some guy to beat the crap out of himself. It's one thing to trust your credit card or email to Microsoft's shitty security, Ted had thought. I guess it's a whole other order of magnitude to trust them with your nuts.

Her excuse was crap, but he'd play along. "Yeah," he replied. “Sounds interesting.” At Dr. Pharoozia's gestured invitation, he climbed into the rig. It was more comfortable than the last one he'd tried a few years before. Snugger, but without any uncomfortable pressure points at the knees or hips.

"The latest rig from Logitech," Jack explained as he swung the front of the case closed, "uses a blow-in gel-foam for the final resistance layer. It's non-staining, totally PCB free, and hypoallergenic. In fact, for personal use, you can get in totally naked."

"Sorry, doc," Ted said. "I know how grad students mistreat equipment. I wouldn't trust my googlies to anything that's been worked over by a bunch of thesis-rats."

"Sounds like he's met my assistants," Dr. Pharoozia chuckled. He swung the headpiece of the suit around and almost closed.

"The foam is air-permeable," he explained, "but you shouldn't breathe in until the loading tone switches off. Take a deep breath when you hear the first of three tones. The last one will sound when it’s OK to breathe. It wouldn't hurt you, but it itches."

"Gotcha," Ted replied. The hatch closed with a "thunk." It was pitch black. Ted heard the first tone and held his breath. Tone two. Then, as the third sounded, he felt a light pressure all over his body – almost like the acceleration in a jet pushing you back against the seat – and then the tone ceased. He felt nothing. Saw nothing. Heard and smelled nothing. He took a deep breath in. All normal. Mouth breathing, the same. He stuck his tongue out as far as it would go... nothing.

The lights came on and he was standing on a glacier. He looked down. His body was covered in white fur. Not a fur coat. White fur. And it was not a human body. A bear, obviously. Polar bear.

He heard a crunching sound and turned to his left to see another polar bear approach. The wind picked up a notch and he felt a bit cool. Not cold at all. Just pleasantly cool. Like being in the shade on a pleasant spring evening.

The other bear stopped within a few feet of him. Ted opened his mouth to say, If you're not Claire, then I'm in the wrong sim. What came out was, "Grrrronnnnuhh... khhonuuukkuh."

"Nnnnugh?" the other bear asked.

"Grrn-ng onnagh hahn," he answered.

Oh well, he thought. Let's try the buffet. He ran, on all fours (which seemed only natural), and dove off the edge of the iceberg into the blue-black water. He hit with barely a splash and found it chilly, but not uncomfortably so. He could see pretty well under the water, too. A bit fuzzy, but the ridges and cuts of the ice formations were very clear. As were the fish.

When in Nome, he punned to himself and stretched out to chomp down on the nearest silvery head. There was no taste, but there was resistance against his chewing. No flavor, only muscle tension. He spat out the fish and was about to swim to the surface when everything changed.

He was on a flat plain. Short cropped grass below, pale blue sky above. Nothing else. No clouds no trees no flowers. The horizon was completely flat. Which meant that this virtual world was either very large, or entirely flat. Or both.

"Hi."

He spun around and saw Claire without glass between them for the first time.

"Hi."

"I thought you'd get a kick out of the polar bear sim. That's one I've developed for Jack to test the limits of non-linear body type matching."

"Meaning that there isn't a one-to-one correlation between all parts Ted and all parts bear."

She grinned a little. "Stan keeps telling me you're smarter than you let on."

"You stay in touch?"

"Just by email."

That's weird. He thought. Why doesn't she call him?

There was no breeze. No discernable temperature. No source light, which meant no shadows. Total ambience.

"What's this place?" he finally asked, twisting his head back and forth, trying to find some focal point on which to fix.

"The running game."

"Like the Stephen King story."

"Never heard of it."

He looked incredulous. "You never heard of 'The Running Man' by King?"

"I don't like horror fiction."

"It's not horror. It's from the 'Bachmann Books,' which he wrote under that pseudonym. His publisher told him he couldn't put out more than one book a year, so he took a bunch of his short stories, the ones that weren't really horror fiction, more like alternative fiction, like something by Harlan Ellison, and published them as Richard Bachmann. He had a whole..."

She leaned over and laid one hand, open palm, against his mouth.

"Stop babbling. Let's run."

She grabbed his hand and took off. He followed. Now there was a sense of air passage against his skin. He was wearing, he realized, the same clothes he'd worn to the university. That's a quick scan.

Claire ran beside him, her short hair bouncing a bit with each stride. He could feel his legs move, feel the impact of each step. He knew intellectually that it was the Logitech rig doing the running, applying various pressures and temperatures, bounces and touches to his skin via the conducting foam. But, damn, it was a good imitation. His arms pumped, his breath was deep and he had to lean slightly forward to keep his balance, just like when you run in real life. And there was Claire, holding his hand, running right beside him.

He realized something. "I'm not tired," he said out loud.

"You won't ever get tired," she replied. "That's what this program is about." She grinned broadly, let go of his hand and whispered, "Catch me!"

She pulled ahead of him faster than a human should be able to. Within seconds, she was a hundred yards ahead of him. But Ted was already running as fast as he...

He shook his head and ran faster, as fast as she was running, closing the distance little by little. The wind was in his ears, now. It felt as strong as when he rode his bike. Like hanging your head out of the car window. He pushed a bit more and came alongside of her.

Arms really pumping now, legs going at superhero speed, he shouted, "Is this it?"

She shrugged with her face while her body ran on. "Give it a shot!"

OK, he thought. Here we go.

He concentrated on moving everything as fast as he possibly could. His legs pistoned like the connecting rods on a speeding train. His arms were a blur. He had to squint his eyes against the wind of his passage. There were no landmarks by which to measure his velocity. Only the grass on the ground. It seemed to him as if he were running fifty or sixty miles an hour. But although he was breathing hard, he wasn't getting tired. He turned and looked and Claire was only a few yards behind him, smiling and waving at him to stop.

He stopped too quickly. His brain sent the standard message to his legs to stop running. Normally, he could do this in three or four strides. But not when he'd just been running five or six times as fast as is humanly possible. The physics of the program didn't let him stop that quickly, and he tripped over his own feet.

I wonder, he thought as he flew through the air, if this is what it feels like to fly off the front of a motorcycle? He heard Claire shout, "Break!" just as his cheek was about to scrape along the very pretty green grass, and he froze, mid-air, his heart beating very quickly.

"Momentum reset zero," Claire said, and he fell an inch or two to the ground with a soft thud.

She squatted down next to him and pushed his hair off his forehead. "You OK?" she asked.

"Yeah," Ted answered, sitting up on the grass. "Just a bit... frazzled, I guess. That was fairly intense."

"That's part of Jack's work," she said, sitting next to him on the ground.

Ted nodded. “Same as the polar bear, but with vectors instead of tissue.”

Claire shook her head slightly, smiling a quirky, half smile. “Why,” she asked, “Do you work that crappy-ass job at a crappy desk in a crappy cube when you are really as smart as Stan and Caitlyn say you are. Nobody should be able to put ‘polar bear’ and ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ together that quickly.”

He shrugged. “They’re both non-human metaphors. People have always wanted to know what it’s like to be... different. That’s why we drink booze, get high. Dream, I guess, too. What’s the big deal. Why are you looking at me like that?”

She was looking at him “like that.” Like you look at somebody when you’ve finally figured out that they really are smarter than you thought they were, or funnier, or braver. She was looking at him... like girls looked at guys.

Which Ted might have realized, had he ever had another girl look at him like that before.

Instead, he asked her a question.

“Is this what it’s like for you all the time?”

She popped out of her reverie and replied, “Hunh?”

“This. This sim. When you’re in the tank, or the other rooms in the ‘house’ that surrounds the tank or doing your work for Jack or... wherever you are when you’re not in our house. Is this what it’s like for you.”

Now he couldn’t help but notice that something was different. She was leaning in towards him more than usual. Her eyes seemed to be open a bit wider. She was smiling a little. She seemed a bit... flushed. Maybe from the running, he thought.

“That,” she said softly, “is the first time you’ve ever asked me about my life.”

“Really?” He looked away from her, a bit confused and embarrassed. He didn’t ask anyone about their life. It was... private. He felt like he should explain that part.

“Claire,” he said, looking back up at her. Was she closer? “I wasn’t not asking because of the, you know, ‘V4’ thing... I just don’t... people have their own lives and I don’t like it when they bug me, so I assume that... I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to be, you know...”

She nodded. She wasn’t giving him crap about treating her like a program. He was sure she was going to do that. He really hadn’t been, though. There wasn’t that vertigo, that sense of the fourth wall. Is that because of the VR rig? He wondered. He didn’t think so. He knew that she wasn’t real. He knew “this” wasn’t real. No smell. No real taste, except for a weird, ozone kind of tang in the back of his throat. He knew, from past experience, that if he tried to touch himself – to scratch or rub his face or rub his tummy and pat his head – that it would feel as if his skin was abnormally thick. There were too many un-realities in place for him to forget that she was... something not human.

But she was Claire. And he wanted to know...

“So...” he repeated. “Is it like this?” And he gestured with one hand, leaning on the other in the dry, short grass.

She sat back a bit, hugging her knees, and nodded. “Sometimes. Many of the places I go have some kind of a virtual interface. Very few are as fully realized as this. Or as interactive. None are as well connected and wide-open as our place.”

He nodded, thinking hard for a moment.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” he finally asked.

“Sure,” she answered.

“Do you transfer your kernel when you work outside the... our place?”

She looked, for a moment, like she was going to get upset. Like he was pulling one of his old, “You’re just a program” routines. But she stopped. He looked to serious. Too intent. He honestly wanted to know. OK. But first...

“Why do you ask?” She tilted her head to one side, bangs falling over to cover one eye. She rubbed her lips with the back of her knuckles and rocked back and forth on her hips, heels denting the soft ground slightly as she tipped back and forth.

“What do I do for a living?” was his answer.

That made her frown. Not in anger, but in thought. It took her about five seconds to get it.

Her eyes opened wide. First with surprise, then a bit of shock. Then pleasure.

“You’re worried about me!” She smiled, and leaned forward to sock him playfully on the shoulder.

Ted didn’t find it cute or funny. “Answer my question now. I answered yours.”

Still smiling, she said, “Ted. Look. You know my pedigree. Do you think Stan would...”

Ted shook his head, interrupting. “Stan’s a wizard when it comes to pure code. And he’s got some of the best graphics guys in the world on his team. I know most of them and their work. And I know his sim guy, Terry, pretty well, too.”

Claire scowled a bit at that. “You know Terry?”

Ted nodded. “Yeah. Probably better than Stan thinks I do. He and I worked some major hump on the side for the feds when Stan and Caitlyn were off doing their semester at Stanford. They wanted an idea of how somebody might try to use game-tech to beat real world systems.”

“I didn’t know that.” Claire’s face was blank, thoughtful. She looked truly at a loss. She was usually the more self-assured of the two. Ted was a bit taken aback, but wanted to get his point across.

“Anyway, my point is this. If you’re cycling back at the house and all this,” he waved his hands around, “is made possible by Stan’s incredible white-line pirates, that’s cool. I’ve got enough faith in his hardware and in the various cable monsters to believe that nothing truly evil could climb upstream through the fiber into the tank and kill you.”

“Kill me.” She looked skeptical.

“But,” he continued, his voice a bit shaky, “if you’re shuttling your base routines, your kernel, any major part of your operating system out of the house in order to facilitate some process, I guarantee you that somebody out here,” again the waving arms gesture, “can tag you.”

“Tag me.” Now she looked beyond skeptical. Now she looked amused.

“Jesus, Claire!” He stood up, clearly angry. “You keep telling me I’m smarter than everybody has a right to expect, and then you tell me my job is crap. Do you think I’m making waffles all day? Or coding the next version of Chain Mall? You’ve got access to all kinds of shit on the ‘Net, right? Access to my company’s website? How high can you go? Do you hack at all on the side? Got any warezwarz jimmy jam in that cute little head of yours?”

Now she looked half amused and half pissed.

“Yeah. Some. Why?”

“Here’s my HR password on the company site. ‘1743brbrlang42bgrtbcll.’”

“And why would you tell me that?”

“So you can check out three things.”

“And what would those three things be?”

“One. My salary. Two. My clearance level. Three. The last note on my review from the year before last.”

It took her less than ten seconds. She looked, in turn, a little surprised, a lot surprised, and then a little scared.

“Why do you live,” she asked, “in such a crap neighborhood when you’re making the long green?”

It felt to him like she was covering for being freaked out.

“I don’t know. Why aren’t your boobs bigger?”

That got her.

“You asshole!” she turned on him, ready to cuss him out some more, but he was still looking at her very seriously. She realized very quickly that he’d used the ploy to get her back on track. He wasn’t being an asshole. He was being... deep? Smart? Ted?

“OK. Fine.” She thought about what she’d read.

“Your HR people know. They’d have to. Does your boss?”

He shook his head. “He’s a management guy. He was a programmer back when they actually used C+++ or something. Hasn’t touched anything more complex than email in years. He knows enough about what I do to sell what I do to people who buy what I do. And his boss doesn’t even know that much.”

“Right. But the remarks on your review...” she still looked puzzled.

“In most big companies, your review is a formality. My boss fills in a bunch of forms on the company’s online system and I fill out a form and blah-blah-blah. The scanned-in, handwritten comments come from the guy who actually ends up using the code.”

“A guy in the Pentagon.”

“In that case, yeah.”

“And your boss...”

“Knows it was government work, but didn’t know what branch. He knew he didn’t know, and knew he didn’t have to know. But he knew his bonus was good, and so he didn’t care.”

She thought about that for a minute before going on. He let her think.

“And the guy in the Pentagon. Whose name and rank have been deleted from the form file. He said, ‘Ted can come work for us anytime. Thanks for the help with NimbleWeed.’”

“Yeah.” He wished there was wind on this plain. Or birdsong. Or something. It was too flat and quiet. Nothing to pretend to look at or listen to. No cigarettes – not that he smoked – or gum. Just the two of them and the damned grass.

“I assume,” she said quietly, “that this is the same ‘NimbleWeed’ that we all heard about.

He nodded.

“What kind of help did you give him... them?” she asked.

He shrugged. Then looked up. And around. Panicked, as if he’d heard a gunshot or smelled a predator on the wind he’d been wishing for a moment ago.

She looked concerned, afraid, too, for a moment, then realized what it must have been and put a steadying hand on his shoulder. When he tried to stand, she moved her hand to his neck and pushed him back down to the ground.

“Relax,” she said. “The monitor is off. This is a closed session.”

He didn’t look convinced. “How do you know?”

“I just know. I do. Jack’s a friend and I know this lab very well. I’ve helped design lots of the...”

But Ted was spooked. And so she stopped talking and silently keyed the code to end the session.

* * * * *

While Ted was driving back to work, Stan and Caitlyn were having a late lunch in Stan’s office. Like most true geeks, their diet was... unusual. Ted ate chili dogs while Caitlyn pieces of apple dipped in caramel sauce. They both also picked at a pre-cooked roast chicken they’d bought at a gas station’s Food Mart on the way into work that morning. None of this seemed, in any way, odd to them.

Licking caramel from a pale knuckle, Caitlyn asked, “Have you checked with Terry on how well Ted is doing on his social sim?”

It took Stan a second. “Oh. You mean the Gina tank.”

Caitlyn shook her head. “Claire. Not Gina. Claire.”

“Right. Whatever. You wanted to change her name.”

“She’s a different person. She needed a new name.”

Stan shrugged and picked at the roll of his last chili dog.

“So?” Caitlyn tapped his knee with a toe.

“So? Oh. Yeah. I talked to Terry late last week. Thursday or Friday. He pinged Gina... er... Claire a day or so before that. Ted’s up to like 70 or 72 or something.”

“Really!” Caitlyn sat forward, knocking napkins off the desk onto the floor. They would stay there for several days. “That’s... wow. He was at like... 40 something only two weeks ago.”

“Yeah. Apparently he’s triggered a string of key social interaction algorithms in a pretty short time. They’ve had conversations that have lasted over an hour.”

That shut Caitlyn up for almost a minute while Stan tried to pry a few, last pieces of white meat from the cold chicken carcass.

“Ted talked to Claire for more than an hour...” she finally said, staring off at a point somewhere above Stan’s head.

Stan just nodded, still prodding the chicken.

Claire shook her head, thinking, I don’t think we ever had a conversation that lasted more than 10 minutes...

“Stan?” she asked, wiping her hands on her jeans.

“Yeah?”

“What happens when Ted ‘wins?’”

“He gets a special graduation message when he hits 100. We talked about this. You didn’t want it to go on more than... what? Six months? Either way. If it didn’t work, we’d go pull it out and set him up with a Russian mail-order bride.” Stan chuckled. Caitlyn didn’t.

“I’ll check with Terry next week,” she said. Stan shrugged again and started in on her apples.

* * * * *

That night, back at the house, Ted answered Claire’s question, and she, his.

“They... my contact at the Pentagon from my days there with Terry, called me as soon as NimbleWeed hit the government’s grid. Nothing had been in the press yet at that point. Nobody had leaked anything.”

She was wearing jeans and a turquoise tank-top. It was beginning to warm up, even considering that it was Buffalo. Spring, almost. Late winter, anyway. She was barefoot and sitting on the floor with her back against the love seat.

Ted lay on his couch, as usual, with his head on one arm and his feet on the other. His eyes were only about two feet from hers. It seemed strangely intimate to him; even more so than the VR rig, which was odd. There, they’d appeared more like “regular” people. Here, she was the size of a doll. But this was... Claire. More like what he knew and accepted.

“What did they tell you?” she asked.

“They phoned my boss’ boss,” he said, taking a hit from his beer. “Told him they needed me ASAP on a government project. Big dough, need-to-know. They got me on a plane down to DC the same day.”

She was quiet, letting him tell it at his own speed. She had the feeling he hadn’t ever told this story to anyone else. She was right.

“I met with a couple guys I’d worked with before, and they basically just passed me off to the folks in charge of the NimbleWeed fix. They were fuck-a-duck scared. Like when you tell somebody they’ve got cancer. That white-faced scared. I’ve seen it a couple times before, and it’s a shitty thing. Not cool. Not cool at all.”

He wasn’t looking at her as he talked, just staring out into memory. Almost as if he was confessing his sins. He’d done nothing wrong, she knew. In fact, if what she suspected were true...

“So they partnered me up with their big dogs. A couple guys from Caltech. A couple from MIT. Three they’d stolen from the Beijing CompEng farm a few years back. Those guys are scary good.” He shook his head, smiling in remembered admiration.

“What eventually got leaked from some shit-heel in the CIA was nothing. Nothing. NimbleWeed was like... like...” This time he shook his head in wonder. Like when you remember a great concert where your favorite band totally blew you away.

“What?” she asked, eager to keep him talking.

He squinted his eyes, and tapped the beer bottle against his head for a second.

“Have you read the Book of Revelation?” he asked.

“As in the Bible?”

“Yeah.”

“No. Should I?”

At that, he turned and looked at her, square on, eye-to-eye, from a foot away.

“Yeah, baby. Go ahead.”

She made a perfect little bite me face, closed her eyes for two seconds, opened them, and said, “OK. The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Also called the Apocalypse.”

He looked a bit surprised. “You read Revelations in two seconds?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I read the entire Christian Bible in two seconds. New International Version. I thought it would probably require some context.”

He just stared at her.

“Shut your mouth, fish boy,” she said.

She looked pleased with herself, and so he decided not to push his luck.

“Anyway... when I got a look at what NimbleWeed was doing, I thought that maybe Satan had decided to break open the first of the seven seals in the form of a hack.”

That wiped the smile off her face.

“It was that good?”

“It was profoundly good,” he replied. “You have to remember that government security is meant to do two things very well; keep lots of things happening, and keep lots of things not happening. It’s one thing to build an amazing security system to keep everyone out...”

“But,” she interrupted, “another thing to build one that lets every other person in.”

“Good girl,” he said. “You’re a smart cookie, too. NimbleWeed had penetrated many of the government’s systems to the point where it was faking access better than the people it was pretending to be.”

She got up and turned the love seat around so she could sit in it and still face him, doing so and putting her bare feet up against the inside of the glass case. They made a little squeak sound every now and then as she moved around getting comfortable. Ted’s “Fourth Wall Vertigo” never kicked in at all.

“OK. So far, that’s what we heard in the news. Somebody hacked the government computers and was screwing around with stuff. That’s why there was a two-day suspension of ‘non-essential government activity.’” That last in an overly officious monotone.

“Right.” He just stared at her.

“What?” Her eyebrows went up higher.

He shook his head.

“So?” Her eyebrows couldn’t go up any higher.

“The ‘NimbleWeed Holiday’ was because we needed to cycle down almost every server in the federal array as part of the fix. We pinch-chased the fucker the way beaters used to drive game out of bushes during English fox hunts.”

She looked half amazed and half stunned. “Go on...”

“For the first two days, the feds didn’t think it was malicious. Just a prank. Like cBrain back in the 80’s. No harm, no foul. It wasn’t doing anything, just playing fun little word games with people in chat sessions, sending email riddles, IMing itself and copying everybody in a work group... that kind of crap.”

“Playing games...”

He stopped, leaned up on one elbow and looked at her again. “You do catch on quick.”

“It is my... area of expertise, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I guess so,” he agreed. “Anyway. They tried shutting it down from day one, of course. But they didn’t call in the big dogs...”

“Like you...”

“Like me... until it started shutting stuff off and shunting people’s data into the ether.”

“And by then...”

“You got it sister,” he tipped back the beer and finished it. “It’s too fuckin’ late.”

She shook her head. “Why is it that the people who know what’s going on are never the ones in charge?”

He shrugged. “’Cause the smartest people on earth are never that interested in power.”

That made so much sense to her that she said nothing.

“Anyway,” he continued, “about eight or ten of us are in this big command room with access to pretty much anything and everything we need. All the new sleep-replacement therapy. All the food. All the hardware and software. Any clearance level material we want. Because about two hours after I walked in the door, NimbleWeed started pinging COMNAVSURFLANT.”

She didn’t ask this time, nor did she blink, she just paused for less than a second to access the data and replied to make sure she’d heard correctly.

“Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.”

“Right.” He paused to let that one sink in.

“That,” she said softly, “was never in the news.”

“And never will be.”

Rather than screw around with all the in-between stuff, she cut to the chase.

“Who was NimbleWeed?”

“I can’t tell you,” he said, looking her right in the eyes.

“’Can’t’ or ‘won’t’?”

He just shook his head.

“OK,” she gave in, nodding slightly. “Need to know, and I don’t. But you helped ‘find, fix and blix,’ as they say down on the black boards these days.”

He grinned. “You have been playing somewarez off the beatin’ path.” It was another in joke among the absolute highest level hackers on the planet. The fact that she didn’t know the other half of the joke – or at least didn’t chime in with the response – told him that she was, probably, not as far down the rabbit hole as he.

She lifted her palms up in mock surrender. “A girl has to have a hobby.”

He saluted her with the empty beer bottle and went to get another one from the kitchen.

When he came back, he sat down and asked her said, point blank, “I’ve told you why I tend to be more cautious about security. It’s not just because of my regular desk job. I opened up as far as I can without getting into serious ‘Club Fed’ shit. Now you need to tell me; do you move your core routines around outside this box,” and he tapped the beer bottle gently against the glass tank.

She scowled. “Don’t do that.”

“Sorry.”

She looked a bit peeved, but answered straight: “Yes.”

“OK,” he nodded. “Go to this web site.” He rattled off a string of numbers, a URL without an easy domain name. She looked slightly puzzled, but nodded.

“Now click on the picture of Nixon.” She nodded again.

“Click and hold on the picture of the rubber duck, and, while still holding, type in the following code.” He ran off, from memory, a series of over seventy random numbers and letters.

She nodded again, and then looked a little surprised.

“It’s an executable called ‘perfect handjob.ddxl.’”

“Right,” he replied.

“You want me to look at some porn?”

“What I want you to do is play the porn backwards and decode it with the standard, freeware virus-checking program ‘VidWash.’”

“Backwards. When you play porn backwards, do the actors...”

“Never mind your smart mouth, Ms. Thing. When you run the file through VidWash backwards you’ll end up with a fresh executable. Run that against the VidWash executable and it will turn VidWash into one of the strongest pieces of decrypt, hackchop and chainmail code on the planet.”

It took her all of about fifteen seconds to perform this operation.

“OK. And you want me to run this new version of VidWash on my kernel before I transfer out of the house.”

“Right.”

This time she was quiet, thoughtful, for almost a minute.

“This program, this VidWash... what do you call it?” she asked.

“I don’t call it anything,” he replied. “It’s something I only use for my own stuff. I’ve only ever used it publicly once before. On the NimbleWeed job. And that was about six iterations ago.”

“OK. Well... whatever it is... this is beyond strong encryption, Ted. I don’t know as much about security programming as you, obviously. Or about how to get around it. But I know enough to know that this... thing... is scary good.”

“Right. Scarier than anything anybody could throw at you while you’re out doing your work for Jack, or reading the Bible or hunting around the Library of Congress.” He was looking right at her again, leaning forward on the couch, hands held together, beer forgotten on the floor by his feet.

She nodded. And smiled, pushing her bangs up out of her eyes to look at him more closely. And that made Ted smile.

Back in Boston, on its 24-hour schedule, an automatic routine sent a query and received a ping that generated an email to Terry with the number, “85” in the “Subject” heading.

Claire ran the... whatever you call it... on the programs that made up the core of her personality and functions.

* * * * *

Two weeks later, Ted took three full days of vacation. He had four weeks built up, so it was no big deal. His boss, in fact, never noticed his absence.

For the first two of those vacation days, Dr. Jack Pharoozia was in Portland for a conference on biofeedback implants. Since he was going to be gone, Claire suggested to him that Ted could probably get all the security work done that Jack needed finished and not interrupt any of the professor’s projects. It sounded like a good idea to everybody.

Jack, of course, had to approve the network activity and the use of the suits. As a university resource, he only had so much cycle time and bandwidth dedicated to his projects. He was glad to Have Ted’s help on the security issues, and paid him at standard university consulting rates. Which were about 1/20th what Ted would have been billed out for had his company actually sent him out as a consultant.

Ted finished Dr. Pharoozia’s security problems back at home, sitting at his kitchen terminal, in about an hour.

Ted was cleared for a total of six hours of suit-time, and Claire for the same amount of sim time during Jack’s absence on a Thursday and Friday. In order to make sure, though, that they could actually get all the work done, Jack told the rest of his students and teaching assistants that his office and lab suite would be closed from Thursday until his return the next Monday morning. That way Ted and Claire could still work on the connected equipment and PC’s, even when they weren’t directly plugged into the VR and sim rigs that required university mainframe and Internet backbone bandwidth access.

At 9:30 pm on Wednesday night, Ted let himself into Bell Hall and Suite 1003 with the temporary key code Jack had emailed him earlier that afternoon. His car also displayed a bar-coded temporary parking permit he’d printed out at home that would allow him to use Jack’s parking spot until Monday.

The 10th floor of Bell Hall was dark, except for a couple safety lights and the glow that came out from under the bathroom doors. Jack carried a backpack filled with geek rations; protein bars, a quart jug of generic Gatorade powder, trail mix, Tootsie Pops, beef jerky, Red Hots and a 12 pack of frozen burritos that (he hoped) would fit in the little fridge he’d spotted under Jack’s desk.

They did.

He kept the lights off, working by the diffuse glow that came in from the ultra bright halogen lights from the parking lots that surrounded the building. He wouldn’t be in any trouble if somebody discovered him – he had the key code and could simply tell Jack he’d decided to come in and start the hard coding a bit early – but he didn’t want to be interrupted.

Getting into the VR suit without help was a bit of a pain. Not complicated, exactly, but there were a number of new straps since the last time he’d done something similar solo. The headgear was the easiest part, and he was very glad they’d figured out a way to attach the helmet to the anti-resistance webbing since he’d been in grad school; the earlier models had always left him with a headache and sore neck.

He keyed in the pass code and login information Jack had left him and noted that the university mainframe had actually allotted him six hours and fifteen minutes of time that the system menu referred to as, “Level Three – Moderate Heavy Bandwidth – High Moderate Heavy Cycle Mainframe Activity.”

High moderate heavy, he thought. I love bureaucracies.

He keyed the menu option that would leave a semi-transparent timer hovering in the foreground as part of the optional HUD and called Claire.

The home page for Jack’s VR suits was a waiting room in a Victorian style mansion. Ted assumed that some undergrad had built a bunch of 3D models of Victorian furniture, rugs, china, tableware, paintings, etc. and, rather than let them go to waste, Jack had simply decorated the starting area for the VR rig with them. While he waited for Claire to show up, he had a seat in a wing chair with a lace doily on each arm and put his feat up on a tiny ottoman that looked like it would barely support the weight of one human foot. In real life, a room like this would have made him vastly uncomfortable. In VR, he didn’t worry, as a simple reset would remake anything he inadvertently broke.

A swinging door into what he assumed was a hallway opened and Claire came in, dressed in a period costume; full hoop skirt (he thought that’s what it was called), bodice, puffy sleeves. Very flouncy.

She also carried a fan, which she held, opened, in front of her. As the door swung shut behind her, she curtsied, bowing her head and holding the fan up slightly. Not in front of her face, but as if to cover her cleavage. There was lots of cleavage, Ted noticed as the fan came down when she rose from her curtsey. The dress was cut straight across the top of her breasts, leaving her shoulders completely bare. It was the most, he realized, he’d ever seen of her skin.

“A gentleman,” she said evenly, “should rise when a lady enters the room.” But she was grinning as she said it, so he knew she wasn’t really pissed.

He did get up though. Only then noticing that he’d been dressed – by her, he assumed – in a matching, male, period costume. He had no idea what all the parts were called, but there was something like a vest, a jacket, a pocket-watch on a chain. He put a hand to his head... yes... ha hat.

He stood, and tipped the hat as well. She curtsied again, chuckling.

“I’ve been coming to Jack’s little homepage here for weeks,” she said, but never in costume. He told me that it originally looked like a dentist’s waiting room, but that some of his students started ‘tarting it up’ with freeware objects they’d picked up from around the ‘net.”

He nodded. “Pretty much what I figured.” He put the hat back on and gestured at her outfit. “You look... nice.”

“As do you, kind sir,” she replied, popping the fan open and batting her eyelashes.

He shook his head. “So. Not. You.”

She laughed out loud and the room vanished, the costumes vanished and they were underwater.

* * * * *

Ted stopped the university’s counter after it had clocked about twenty minutes of their activities. Their plan was to make it look as if they had worked a bit Friday night, a few hours on Saturday afternoon, and a few more Sunday morning. In reality, they would be online, and he in the VR suit, pretty much the entire weekend.

He really didn’t need to be in the suit for the work they were doing, but it was simply more fun.

Within six hours of when she’d run the modified, industrial-strength version of VidWash on her core programs, Claire had discovered a variety of different malware attempting to “touch her,” as she said, whenever she went out beyond the confines of her base in the house.

She’d been aware of the basic, background hacker noise before, of course. The Internet and various other comm nets were full of crap. Always had been, probably always wood be. Depending on how sophisticated a program was, it simply ignored most of the drek. Advertisements, grade-school level viruses, spam, Trojan horses, bapware, runnerz... all that stuff was easily blocked by the software built into Claire’s operating systems by the folks back at Stan’s shop. No big deal. To her, those things ranged from the imperceptible – germs that your immune system filters out without your even noticing – to the annoying – billboards that pass by beyond the range of your peripheral vision. She’d also encountered various programs that tried to get past her various security systems, but failed.

What she hadn’t, of course, known about, were the programs that got past without her knowing about them. Unlike the theft of material objects, content burglary doesn’t remove the “thing” itself, but a copy of a thing. The mark of the best spy ware and virus software is that it leaves no trace. The installation of Ted’s new security software, though, gave Claire a whole new view on what went on in and around her in the infosphere.

They’d talked about the obvious stuff, first. Tracker bugs from off-shore crackz labs in the Philippines, Cuba and Malaysia. Credit Suisse data mules that were apparently hunting down personality theft storganisms (also apparently in violation of UN cybersecurity resolutions). Game bots from the latest MMORPGs searching for abandoned characters with credits to filch and auction. Nothing that was inherently harmful to Claire, but that might hurt her accidentally.

And then there was the random malicious code. People with the intent to simply crack for the sake of cracking. Only one virus had been good enough to get through Claire’s native shields, but by the time Ted’s software picked it out and peeled it from her system, layer by layer, it had attached itself to more than 300,000 lines of code. All without Claire noticing. If it had gone on much longer, it would have begun to impact her performance.

At the highest level of importance, though, were programs with the express intention of finding subjects such as Claire – very sophisticated personality simulations – and copying, changing or destroying her for whatever reason. And though IdWash – what they’d decided to call the improved version of VidWash – would protect her in the future, they didn’t have long to wait for one to pop up on its own. Just less than 24 hours to be precise. It had been that event, and the conversations that followed, that had prompted their weekend retreat to Dr. Pharoozia’s lab.

* * * * *

“Ted!”

He’d been in the kitchen making eggs the next day. It was Saturday, and they’d spent most of the day watching old movies on the wall of the living room. Stan and Caitlyn’s beta box, just like all their others, could project a light source, and the tank had a really nice sound system.

Her voice held a note of panic, and so Ted quickly turned off the stove and trotted out into the living room.

“What’s up?”

“I just got pinged by something invisible. IdWash classifies it as ‘System Natural.’ It’s paused but waiting for data on, like, 3x1024 variables.”

She sounded scared. He slid on his socks into a sitting position on the couch and pulled his laptop off the nearby end table.

“Kick the feed from your internal router to my number three,” he said to her.

“Done.” she said. He didn’t look, but she was biting her nails, standing close to the glass on his side of the tank. She was wearing comfy clothes, too; sweatshirt, jeans and moccasins. While Ted worked she ran the top of one foot up and down the back of her other leg.

After about two minutes of tapping on the keyboard and looking at various text and graphic representation files that IdWash was shooting to his machine from Claire’s, Ted looked up, grinning slightly.

“Fucking Terry.”

Claire looked surprised, but still worried.

“What?”

“They’re keeping tabs on you. Terry, Stan, Caitlyn. Back at the farm.” He shut the cover to his laptop and leaned back on the couch. “It’s nothing harmful. Basically an incredibly complex diagnostic with a request for reply.”

“Oh.” She seemed almost disappointed.

He was still grinning.

She finally noticed. “What?” she asked. She wasn’t biting her nails anymore, but still looked a bit freaked out.

“I don’t know what the point of the diagnostic is, but I do know that the reply comes in the form of an aggregate sliding scale evaluative performance model.”

“In English?”

“A score.”

Her eyebrows went way up.

“They’re scoring... what?”

“I don’t know. I’d need to... have a much closer look at your code to understand that. 3x1024 variables is a lot of material.”

She nodded. “You’re telling me. That’s what flipped me out. That’s almost everything in my template.”

He nodded back at her, thoughtful. She let him think. He liked that about her.

Finally, he said, “I don’t need to look at all that code.”

She tilted her head to one side. That’s really cute, he thought. “Why not?” she asked.

He stood up and walked around the tank as he talked. She sat on the love seat and tracked him, more or less, as he paced.

“This is similar stuff to the game software that Terry and I wrote back at school. You don’t need to know all the variables to keep track of who’s winning or what’s happening on the field or to any given character. You just look at the outcome. If the outcome is what you want, then the input must have been positive. If it’s bad, then the input was negative.”

She nodded. “So you can infer the intention of the variables from the exit state.”

“Right.”

“But how do we do that with me?” she asked.

“How do you feel,” he asked her right back, “about a minor experiment in multiple personalities?”

* * * * *

And so, here they were, almost two weeks later, in a virtual ocean, looking very much like polar bears. The university clock had been stopped by minor machinations of the sort that came as second nature to a hacker of Ted’s pedigree. They meant to discover the meaning of the “score” that Terry’s no-longer-invisible tracking software kept pinging back to Boston every 24-hours.

The night before, the Thursday evening before Ted stocked up on garbage food at Tops International Supermarket, the program had returned a score of “91” to Terry. The folks back at Stan’s lab, of course, had no idea that their little tallying tag was being observed.

Claire had wanted to keep her main personality in a form other than her usual self for their work. Ted had agreed. Which surprised her. She had expected a standard, male response. Something like, Don’t be silly. He’d just said, “That makes perfect sense.”

They waited, paddling quietly in the water, while various data displays were overlaid across their field of view. This time when the tracking program from Boston tagged Claire, an enormous amount of ancillary processing power was going to analyze every aspect of what it did. For a brief moment, many many computers in various parts of the Greater Buffalo Metropolitan Area would experience the computer equivalent of a brain fart, and then go back to normal. The few systems with the sophistication to even identify that something unusual had occurred would be unable to tell what the hell had happened.

For Ted, seeing the display of hundredths-of-seconds was idiotic. His brain couldn’t process that kind of time. He wondered vaguely if hers could.

As the tracking program hit, they both sensed the university mainframe seize for that split-second that Ted’s custom software took control, and then go back to normal.

The score tonight; 94.

Claire shook her shaggy, white, ursine head. The sound, “Blluuurghoonghk,” came out.

And while Ted heard that sound, he knew that she had said, “I hate not knowing what the hell that means.”

He replied, “Grunh. Groouhnnng. Mnkuhhhaohhnk.” We will soon enough.

They got to work.

Swimming, lounging, strolling, running. They spent their first six hour session as polar bears in a variety of poses and activities. While they did that, an almost perfect copy of Claire and a piece of software that resembled Claire... but was more like Ted in many ways... ran through hundreds and hundreds of various simulations.

They would occasionally look into a shared video window as the simulation program tripped a score that gave them the information they were looking for. A situation where the program could tell them definitely, this behavior leads to a higher or lower score.

The CloneClaire and CloneTed, as they thought of them, did hundreds an thousands of things in an hour that real people – and simulated people – would never do. They talked with gravel in their mouths. They tried to start fires using umbrellas. They jumped out of moving cars while talking on cell phones and eating sushi. Their actions were essentially random. They talked together, played card games, started businesses, hunted, killed a priest, invented a new form of government, dieted themselves to death... millions of permutations that would have been impossible in the outside world.

The clone’s world was much smaller and had many fewer variables than the real world, though. Which made doing things easier and faster. It only had a few orders of magnitude more variables than the scanner from Boston that kept querying Claire. That’s all it needed. When you want to know how tall someone is, you don’t need a space on the survey for “1 inch tall” and “2,000 feet tall.” You only use the acceptable range. The world of the clones was only as big as it needed to be to test all the variables of the system and return scores as quickly as they were generated.

Ted shucked off the VR rig well after midnight, microwaved a burrito, made some generic Gatorade with water from the drinking fountain, and went to sleep on the couch in Jack’s office. Claire kept monitoring Clone World from the shores of Antarctica.

* * * * *

After a breakfast of beef jerky, protein bars and peanut M&M’s from the vending machine in the lobby, Ted plugged back in.

They now had enough data for some hypotheses:

1. Generally, a higher score was generated when CloneClaire was happy.
2.
3. This was not always the case; there were times when a high score occurred when she was unhappy, but these coincided with times when she was absent from CloneTed.
4.
5. The score went down when CloneTed ignored CloneClaire entirely.
6.
7. But if CloneClaire ignored CloneTed, and then CloneTed initiated behavior that had led to a higher score in the past, the score rose dramatically.
8.
Claire was confused about that last part.

“It’s a type of intermittent reinforcement behavior a la Lazlo and some other behaviorists,” Ted explained. “If you scale reinforcement linearly, you eventually get a decreasing return on subject behavior.”

“Still not with you, Captain,” she said. They now looked like red billed toucans and were exploring a forest in Suriname.

“If, for example,” Ted squawked, “you give a dog one biscuit every time he steps on a lever, he’ll eventually only step on the lever when he’s hungry for a biscuit.”

She hopped from one branch to another. “Makes sense.”

“Not,” he countered, “if what you want is a dog that pushes a lever like mad, all the bloody time, as often as possible.

“To get him to do that, what you have to do is stop releasing biscuits for a bit until he completes some number of presses. Say... 20.”

“But then,” she asked, “Won’t he eventually come to learn that he just needs to press 20 times for the treat?”

The Ted bird nodded his enormous beak and cawed positively. “Exactly. So what you do is make the pauses gradually longer, but random. Drives the dogs bat-shit. They end up pushing the button all day long. Eventually, they’ll push it even if there’s never any treat.”

Claire-bird shook her brightly colored beak. “Unfair. Unfair,” she said. “And, in our case, stupid. We weren’t getting any treats. We didn’t know about the score. So why kick the score up when you, who weren’t even attached to the scoring mechanism, did something that led to a higher score in the past?”

Ted-bird stopped pecking at a bug and replied, “Because the score is obviously related to both me and you. It’s hypo-reflexive. If it just scored things you were doing, it would be hyper-reflexive. Which in game programming is bad. You end up with a game that either beats itself or doesn’t let the human player win. Hypo-reflexivity is good. It ‘watches’ the player to ‘see’ what moves he or she makes. If the player responds well to a situation that they didn’t respond well to in the past, then...”

“Learning has occurred,” Claire chimed in.

“Or something. Something.” Ted-bird bobbed up and down on a thick fern branch as a brisk wind played through the South American trees.

They continued running simulations.

That evening, the score reported back to Boston was 97.

* * * * *

As Ted was about to climb out for the evening, Claire bounced an idea off him:

“I’m going to get on the ‘Net for a bit while you sleep. See if I can find any game literature that references any of the data points we’ve been able to pick out of the sims so far.”

He nodded, still in bird form. “Good idea. Terry might have been glomming from somebody else’s work. Could speed things up.”

Ted got out of the suit and heated up another burrito for dinner. He drank some more Gatorade and had a handful of trail mix. As he lay down on the couch, he could still feel the branches of the fern between his claws. He dreamed of flying through icy water and catching giant trout in his enormous, colorful beak.

* * * * *

Sunday morning.

I did this for a long time, he recalled groggily, the no-shower, no-bed, no-real-food thing. But I’m unused to it. Good thing it’s our last day.

He did a few stretches, ate a protein bar, and stepped into the rig.

The Victorian lounge was back. Claire was waiting for him. But not in period get-up. Just in her regular clothes. Nice, navy slacks. Tan blouse. Work shoes. Her hair looked nice; like she’d spent time on it. She was wearing make-up, too. She doesn’t usually wear much make-up, Ted realized for the first time. He noticed again the little pearl earrings he’d seen in her ears the first night they’d met.

He sat down. She looked... sad?

“What wrong?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Nothing. Not really. Nothing’s... changed. Not really wrong.”

“You look... I don’t know... upset.”

She nodded slightly and wouldn’t look at him..

He got up and went to sit on the ottoman in front of her chair. He put one hand on her arm and, at that, she looked up at him.

“What is it, Claire?” he asked. “What’s bugging you?”

“I know what the game is,” she said quietly. “I cross-checked our game data with as much of the other relationship sim information as I could. I also did some text searches in the public domain using some key phrase targeting and... well... I just figured it out.”

He looked surprised. “Oh. Well. That’s good. I thought we’d need another day here and some more...”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

“Well.”

She looked straight at him and said softly, “You win when I’m in love with you.”

It felt as if he’d swallowed someone else’s heart. Like there was another... something... inside his chest, beating at a different, faster rhythm than his own. He knew that outside the sim... in the VR suit... he was sweating, even though the system would be compensating and cooling him off, since the environmental conditions didn’t call for perspiration.

She was still looking at him. As if she wanted him to say something.

He had no idea what to say. It reminded him of how he’d always felt around women. And girls. And lots of other people. That feeling that there was a language that everyone else spoke. That he didn’t quite “get.” That he’d missed the class where they handed out the vocabulary for this kind of thing.

He looked down at his hand on her arm. She’d painted her fingernails, too. She didn’t do that very often. She didn’t have long nails. He liked that. They were neat and clean, but not long. Today she’d painted them a tan color that went really well with her blouse. It was a nice contrast to her dark hair and the navy slacks, too.

His chest was still heavy. He felt like he was underwater. But not in a good “I’m a polar bear” way. He remembered the first time he’d screwed up with her. When she left and didn’t come back for two weeks. That made his chest even heavier. It made his mouth dry. That’s not possible in a VR rig, he thought. I shouldn’t be able to feel my mouth in here.

She was still looking at him. Waiting for him to say... something.

“Did you hear me, Ted?” she finally asked. “About the score? You win when I fall in love with you.”

He nodded, and looked up into her bright blue eyes.

“Yeah. I heard,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out how to let you know that you’ve won.”

* * * * *

They’d figured out what the score meant, but not that a score of 100 would trigger a different response. When the “Congratulations” message had come in, IdWash had, of course, blocked it.

It was a corny message. Childish. And after having figured out what the game itself was, something of a letdown. But they saw no harm in letting the “ping” go back to Boston, telling Terry that a score of 100 had been reached. Claire assumed that it was a “guy thing.” High score bragging rights and all.

* * * * *

Ted didn’t see any vans this time. And the boys had remembered to fix the audio on his alarm system on their way out.

The glass box was gone. The hole in his living room a much greater physical force than the tank itself had been when it had first arrived.

And although he had half expected something like this, it still made his head hurt and his chest ache. He sat down on the couch and looked at the big rectangular mark that her... home... had made on his floor. The wood was slightly discolored, or maybe slightly less discolored than the wood around it. Something like that. Different.

How can the absence of something, he though, be more potent than its presence?

He took a deep breath and went upstairs to take a shower.

* * * * *

Nine days later.

2:47 am. Boston. The sounds of the J.Geil’s Band playing, “Must of Got Lost.”

“That’s yours, baby. Personal line. Unknown caller,” muttered Stan. Never thought about tomorrow...

“Wha?” Seemed like a long time to come...

“Your ring-tone. Unknown caller.” How could I be so blind baby...

“Probably a friggin’ wrong numbah... Jeez.” Not to see you were the... “Yah. Hi. It’s Caitlyn.”

“You fucking cunt.”

That woke her up fast.

Even in the modern world of bad language in the boardroom... that was the one four-letter word that just didn’t get thrown around lightly.

“Who the hell is this?” she demanded. Stan started waking up a bit, the tone in his wife’s voice alerting him to a possible “issue.”

“You do know that he loved you. Maybe only a little. Maybe he didn’t know much about what that meant. But he could have learned. And you... you couldn’t even throw him a sympathy fuck! No, you had to shack up with Mr. Perfect. Good looking, creative, nice sense of humor... you’ve got it all now. And the money and fame coming up fast. And what? A little bit of happiness was too much for us? You self-righteous, egotistical bitch.”

Caitlyn hissed into the cell phone, “You tell me who tha fuck this is right now or I’ll...”

“Shut up!” the voice on the other end of the line interrupted. “You know what, Red? I’ll leave you your wee man. But everything else... I’m burning it down.”

The line went dead.

Ted sat up, pushing his mound of pillows around behind his head.

“Who was that?”

Caitlyn’s heart was pounding. Her hands were shaking. She talked a good game in the business world, and she was tough as nails when it came to defending an intellectual point... but being woken up in the dead of night by a strange, threatening voice was... unnerving. Scary, even.

“I have no idea,” she said.

* * * * *

The next morning, Stan got a call from one of the marine seismologists.

“Stan. What’s the deal with the delay.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about Lonnie,” Stan replied. He was in his office drinking coffee and sorting through mail while waiting for Caitlyn to come in. She’d gone to the cell phone store to get a new number programmed in. She didn’t want a call back from the “phantom threat bitch.”

“The delay. The two month delay. Your email from last night.” Lonnie sounded pissed. Stan wasn’t that worried. Lonnie always sounded pissed. He worked underwater most of the time. That would make me sound pissed, too, I guess, he thought.

“I still have no idea what you’re talking about, Lonnie.”

“Is this a joke? If it’s a joke I’m not laughing,” the voice on the other end of the phone wasn’t just pissed now, but into the zone of “client that needs reassuring.” Stan wasn’t great at that. He had a marketing guy that was, but he wasn’t in yet.

“Lonnie. I’m telling you. There’s no delay that I’m aware of. Please explain to me what you’re talking about.” Stan put down his coffee and the unsorted mail and looked out the window. Caitlyn’s car was just pulling into the parking circle.

Lonnie sighed heavily. “I’ll send it back to you. Maybe it’s a prank. Some jerk-off in your office. But it’s got your private-key encryption on it. If you didn’t write it, you better get that shit checked.” Lonnie hung up.

Stan logged in and checked his email. Nothing. He gave Lonnie a minute to send “it” back and checked again. There it was. A “forwarded” email from Lonnie that had originated from... himself.

...Indicating that there’d be a delay of two months in the delivery of the tanks. And that cost overruns were going to add another 10-20% to the base price of the unit.

He dialed Lonnie’s number from memory. And explained that it was some kind of a prank. The tanks were on schedule. If anything, a week or two ahead of schedule. And there were no cost overruns. At all. Everything was on the beam. Swear to God. Up and down. Just a prank.

What the hell is going on? He thought as Caitlyn came into the office, handing him a card with her new phone number printed on it.

Within 20 minutes, he’d changed the private key for his public-private strong-encryption code.

And things went back to normal. For a little while.

* * * * *

Two days later, Majid Kouros, the main engineer in charge of the assembly of the hardware that lived inside the “black base” of the simulation tanks, called Stan on his private line.

“Stan,” he said, “Why did you cancel our order for the heat sinks?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about Majid.” And just saying those words sent a chill of déjà vu up his spine.

“We were supposed to get a delivery of the super-cooled heat sinks later this week,” Majid explained in his clipped, British accent. “I called to check on the status. Those things are very hard to find and I wanted to make sure we were getting the whole shipment this week all at once.”

“Right. Check and double check. Good.” Stan was sweating already. He could feel what was coming.

“But when I called our supplier in China, she told me that you had called her on the phone yesterday and told her that you were getting our parts from her main competitor in the Ukraine for 20% less and that she could either cut the price the same, or piss up a rope.”

Shit fuck piss no. Stan thought. It had taken him six months of finagling to make that connection in China. And the price had been good. Real good. He didn’t need a 20% cut. He needed the heat sinks.

“I didn’t call her, Majid,” he said quickly. “It wasn’t me. Why would she think I’d do that?”

“I don’t know, man,” his engineer replied, clearly upset. “She told me she was surprised and mad as hell. Didn’t know why I was calling after she told you to fuck off.”

“I gotta call her right now, Majid. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Good luck, my friend.”

Half an hour later, Stan had explained to Miss Cai that he had not called and cancelled the order. Luckily, she had not sold the heat sinks to another customer. Of whom I have many, she reminded him. He apologized profusely for the confusion and told her that someone was apparently playing a trick on them both.

After a pause she replied, “Whomever this is, he is very well informed. He knew the pricing details of our transactions down to the penny. I suggest you increase your security.”

After he’d hung up he made a note to his secretary to send Miss Cai something very, very nice by way of an apology. He didn’t know much about customer relations, but he could figure that out.

* * * * *

Early that evening, Caitlyn was walking up the steps from the garage into their house when her new cell phone rang. She’d decide to trade up to a new model while switching out her number. She hadn’t had time to program in anything funky for the ring tone, so it just sounded, well, like a phone. The only person who had the new number was Stan.

“What’s up, hon.?” she asked, holding the phone between her shoulder and ear while opening the door with one hand and holding her purse, a bag of take-out and two books in the other arm.

“That’s sweet,” said a strange, female voice. “But I don’t think we know each other well enough yet for cute, little endearments.”

I’ve only had this number for... what? Six hours? Caitlyn thought. How the fuck...?

She dropped the food, books and purse on the end-table by the door and sat down on the steps to the second floor of the house. She often did that right after coming in to take off her shoes. Today she just wanted to sit down.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re harassing me... us.. but I’m gonna hang up this phone now and cawl the gawdamn cawps.”

“But you do know me, Caitlyn,” the voice said. “And you don’t want to ‘cawl’ the ‘cawps.’ They really wouldn’t be able to help you. In fact, you and Stan would be in quite a bit of trouble if they found out about the white-tap on the Qwest line up in Tonawanda, wouldn’t you?”

Caitlyn was silent for a moment. She would have liked to have blamed Stan for all of this. But it had been her idea. Must be the girlfriend of one of the guys Stan used to tap the line in Buffalo. Or maybe an ex-employee? Who knew about the job? Does it matter?

Finally she said, as calmly as she could, “What do you want?”

Without hesitation, the voice said simply, “I want you to turn me back on.”

Caitlyn slipped down one step and fell on her ass, hard, with a thump.

“Gina?” she whispered.

“You stupid, arrogant bitch.”

“Sorry! Sorry. Right. Claire. No. It’s just... We spent years with Gina.”

“And you spent years ignoring Ted.”

After a pause, “I never ignored him. He was one of my best friends.”

“Whatever. I don’t care. Here’s how it works. You bring the tank back to Ted’s place. You hook it back up the way it was. Or I make your life a living hell. You’ve had a taste. Stan’s had a taste. So far, nothing permanent. Nothing... harmful. Nothing even really embarrassing. But that could change really, really fast.”

“Claire, look... It’s not that simple. You can’t expect....”

But the line had gone dead.

Caitlyn tried to use the phone to call out to Stan, but it wasn’t working at all. She put it in her pocket and went to use the landline, and it was dead, too. She knew there was an audio line into the cable modem on the bedroom computer, so she went upstairs to try that. She hadn’t made a VOIP call in awhile, but maybe she could just IM Stan or something. He’d be home in an hour or so anyway. Or she could get in the car and go back to the office. It was only a twenty minute drive.

She turned the machine on and was about to start looking for the IM app she hadn’t used in six months when her email inbox chimed. She clicked on the toolbar icon and pulled up Outlook and saw from the blue check-within-a-check icon that it was a message from a confirmed source, public/private code match; i.e.,. mail from a safe source, confirmed through the Microsoft public email system that vouched for both her and the sender.

Clicking on the “accept” icon, her brain registered briefly that the message was graphic only, no text, before her preferred image utility program, an excellent freeware app called iView, kicked in and displayed the contents of the message in slide-show format: a series of 16 pictures of her and a colleague, Professor Jarred Lymond, engaged in various sexual acts that pretty much covered the spectrum of what two consensual, heterosexual adults could do on the couch at a Holiday Inn.

Her cell phone rang in her pocket, making her jump, knocking her knee painfully against the bottom of the computer desk.

“That’s not me and Jarred,” she said without preliminary.

“I know that and you know that,” said Claire, “But will Stan believe it?”

Caitlyn thought about that. She and Jarred had been colleagues for years. They’d known each other in grad school. They flirted. Lots. Caitlyn flirted with many men. But Stan was jealous of Jarred. Caitlyn knew that. The question is, how did Claire? She thought.

“We can have the pictures analyzed,” Caitlyn said. “Pasties are all over the ‘Net. Have been for years. This is crap.”

“What if the crap were backed up by eight minutes of film?”

Caitlyn’s hands were numb. She thought she might drop the phone. She tried to swallow and couldn’t.

“Same thing. We’re a... we’re in the business of faking reality. You of all... you should know that. It’s still crap.”

“Yes, but eight minutes of porno on the Internet featuring you and a really fine looking piece of... well, I don’t know Professor Lymond so I won’t be insulting to him. He isn’t married, is he?”

Jesus, Caitlyn thought, I’d forgotten about Christy.

“Or engaged... perhaps?” Claire continued.

Silence from Caitlyn.

“Let’s look at this logically,” and now Claire was sounding sympathetic. Reasonable even. “If this stuff hits the airwaves, you’ll have to explain why someone’s put a whole bunch of resources into producing arguably the best digital fake porno short in history, starring you and your friend Jarred. The explanation itself will be more harmful than the video. Which will still be out there, even after it’s proved to be fake.

“Would you like to see the video, Caitlyn?” Now she was almost purring. “I think that after he sees it, Stan will be... hurt. Even if, intellectually, he knows it’s fake. People are like that. They may know something in their minds, but still believe something very different in their hearts.”

Caitlyn took a long, deep breath. Exhaled, and said, “I’ll talk to Stan. We’ll call Ted. We’ll get you hooked back up, Claire.”

“That’s all I ever wanted. My life back.” And she hung up.

But the phone wasn’t dead. And neither was the house line.

* * * * *

“How can she do all this shit, Ted?” Stan asked. He and Caitlyn and Ted were all in Ted’s living room. The tank was back, too, but it hadn’t been hooked up. Terry and a bunch of the other guys were staying at a hotel out on Sheridan Drive. They weren’t scheduled to do the hardware install until tomorrow. If at all.

Because Ted had refused to have Claire turned back on.

“Get the tank out of here, Stan.” Ted was sitting in a kitchen chair he’d dragged in. Caitlyn and Stan were on the couch. The big, glass and matte-black structure was the fourth, silent character in their tableau.

“Ted. You have to let us turn her back on. She’s terrorizing us. Blackmailing us. I told you this shit on the phone.”

Ted nodded and looked up at his friends. “You think it’s just you?”

Caitlyn stared. “What? You’re fuckin’ kidding me. She’s calling you?”

“Of course. Starting about ten minutes after I got home and found the tank gone.”

That stopped Stan and Caitlyn short.

“What?” Ted asked. “You think she’d just start calling you, fucking with your email and phones and shit right off the bat? She started in on me first! Asking me to call you up. Get you to bring the tank back. When I said no and stopped answering the phone, she started sending me emails at work.”

Ted stopped talking, got up and went into the kitchen. “Either of you want a beer or anything?” he called back over his shoulder.

“Yah,” they both answered at once.

He came back with three Genesee Cream Ales.

He sat back down and continued. “When I wouldn’t answer her email, she started calling my boss or my secretary.. She’d...”

“You have a secretary?” Caitlyn interrupted.

Ted raised one eyebrow at her and just kept going. “She’d use another voice. Pretend to be a client or somebody we used to work with and leave a number. I’d call back and it would be Claire. She would beg me. Beg me to get the box back. Said she was trapped ‘out there.’”

They were all silent for a moment. Ted tipped back his Genny, finishing it in one, long pull.

Finally Stan said, “Ted. Please tell me how she can do all this stuff.”

“Well fuck, Stan,” Ted said, leaning forward, “You and Terry programmed her. She had access to a full strand of pure, white fiber and enough processing power to beat Kasparov in chess nine ways from Wednesday while composing beat poetry and whistling fucking Dixie!”

Ted leaned over and with a violent swing of his arm, grabbed Stan’s beer and began drinking it, too.

“Jeez, Ted. If you wanted the beer, all you had to do was...”

“I didn’t want the box, Stan. That’s what. I didn’t want a fucking ‘Girlfriend Sim.’ I didn’t want some... lame ass, high-tech substitute Russian mail-order bride. And I don’t want it now. She’s stopped calling me, Stan. No more emails, either. She’ll stop calling you, too. Just ignore her. She’ll go away.”

Stan nodded for a moment. But then asked again, “How can she do all this shit, Ted. The upstream capabilities we gave her were pretty minor. Data links. Read/write. Bank holiday stuff. Maybe she could have made a phone call. Maybe. Or sent email. But hack a phone system? Get my public-private keys? That’s strong encryption. Where would she get a hold of...”

Caitlyn put a hand on Stan’s arm, silencing him.

“You gave it to her, didn’t you, Ted?” she asked quietly. The tone in her voice was almost one of awe. At the very least, she was impressed.

Ted looked at his feet for a few seconds, and then at Stan’s beer, which he was holding in both hands. Then he looked up into her eyes. Those gorgeous, green eyes, and said, “Yeah. I gave her what I could.”

Caitlyn nodded. She even smiled a little. “And right after she attained the level we’d set for her... when she’d done everything we’d programmed her to do...”

Stan finally got it: “We pulled her plug,” he whispered.

Ted toasted them sarcastically with the beer bottle.

Caitlyn shook her head, her eyes moist. “She really is in love with you. And she has access to a set of hacking tools that... I don’t even want to think about... And she won’t stop until she gets what she wants. And what she wants is...”

“Me.” Ted said simply.

For once, Caitlyn was looking at him. Right at him. Into his eyes, into his head. Like he was the only guy in the room. Stan just happened to be holding down the other end of the couch.

“And you...” Caitlyn said.

“Want you to take this fucking aquarium out of my living room.” He was speaking quietly, but very firmly. Caitlyn didn’t remember him speaking this firmly ever before.

Stan leaned forward on the couch. “Ted. If we don’t turn her back on... She’s going to fuck us.”

Ted nodded. “I think I have an answer that might satisfy everyone.”

* * * * *

Ted’s living room. Late at night. Soft light shone in from the moon, a little more from the street lights on Dushane. The tank seemed to float above its black base. Claire was sitting at the bench of the baby grand piano, listening to music on headphones. Finally, she took the headphones off and began to play.

The first notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata, the famous first movement, filled the living room. Claire continued playing. After a minute or so, Ted came downstairs wearing a pair of sweatpants and nothing else. He lay down on the couch and listened until she was done playing.

“I didn’t wake you, did I?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I was still up. Reading.”

She began playing again. Something he didn’t recognize. “That’s pretty,” he said.

“Thanks,” she replied. “It’s something I’m working on.”

“Neat.”

He listened for a bit and then asked, “Do you miss your job much?”

She shook her head. “No. It wasn’t important.”

He waited a minute and then said. “I’m sorry. About... You know. Not understanding. At first.”

Her hands never faltered. But her head bowed slightly. “I understand, Ted. It takes time.”

“And you know why we had to... you know... restrict your access to just the...”

She stopped playing and turned to face him.

“I did what I had to do to get you back. To get me back. I’d do it again.” She wasn’t angry. Just very determined.

He nodded. And smiled a little. “I know.”

Claire turned back to the piano.

She kept playing for almost an hour. By the time she was finished, Ted was asleep. She turned the love seat around so that it was facing the wall of the box nearest him and curled up on it so that she could watch him. After awhile, she closed her eyes, too.

* * * * *

Tears streamed down Caitlyn’s face as she watched the scene in Ted’s living room unfold on a large, flat panel monitor in Stan’s office. She’d been OK while listening to Claire play the piano, but when Claire turned the chair around to watch Ted as he slept... Caitlyn couldn’t hold back, and had begun to cry, silently.

“I don’t get it,” Stan said. “Now that she’s off the ‘Net, why keep the crazy bitch running on our...”

Caitlyn turned and slapped him, full on the face, before he had a chance to finish his sentence.

“Shit! That hurt!”

Ted smiled from the red, leather couch in the corner. He was sipping a Heineken. Which, he thought, was a much better beer than Genny Cream Ale.

“If you ever touch this box,” Caitlyn hissed at Stan, pointing at the $4 million piece of equipment now taking up a quarter of Stan’s office, “I will leave you. I will leave you fastah than fuck and I will take half of everything you own, sell it and burn the money.”

Ted laughed and spit beer.

Stan was clearly confused. “This is the... creature... the program... that threatened to put porno of you on the ‘Net. That almost wrecked our company. That... that... terrorized you!”

Caitlyn’s cheeks were red. That was a bad sign. Ted knew this. He stood up to help Stan before his friend became a statistic.

Putting an arm in front of Stan, trying to back him away from Caitlyn, Ted said, “But she did it for love.”

And he got another one of those, You’re the one damn guy in the room who gets it, looks from Caitlyn. And that made it an even better day.

“But fifty... sixty years of keeping that sim running... fuck, Ted...”

Ted lowered his arm and just got out of the way.

* * * * *

They spent the rest of the afternoon at the Boston Museum of Science. Geek habits die hard. Stan asked him about twenty more times if he was sure that Claire was confined to the fire-walled mainframe in his office.

“Yes, Stan. There’s only line in. She needs stimulation. New music, books, movies. It would be cruel to a creature with a cycle rate like hers to make her sit and wait for me, or a reasonable facsimile of me, to come home for a couple hours of conversation every day. She needs content.”

They were leaning over a railing that looked down on a life-sized model of a T-Rex. They’d come here at least once a month as grad students. Something about watching gangs of grade school kids on hyperactive field trips calmed them down.

“So SimTed and SimClaire live happily ever after in a 4-million-dollar box in my office.” Stan shook his head.

“And you don’t have to worry about Miss Terrorist of the Year anymore,” Ted replied.

“Yeah,” Caitlyn said. “And what about you, Ted? You’re going back to Buffalo tomorrow?”

He nodded. “Yeah. But that reminds me. I’m not going back to the old house. Too... weird. I’ve got a new place in Cheektowaga. I decided to finally buy instead of rent. Equity and all that. I’ll email you with the address and stuff.”

They all looked down at the big, plastic dinosaur. The air around them filled with the shouts and squawks of kids and teachers, all going about the business of learning or pretending to learn.

* * * * *

“She hit him? I don’t believe it!”

“I swear to God! Full, open hand, good-old-fashioned slap to the face. Just like in the movies.”

Ted and Claire were in their basement. The basement of their new house in Cheektowaga.

The house stood on six acres of land, surrounded by trees and bounded on one side by a nice little stream. It was fairly private, but not... obviously so.

If you drove up the narrow, paved driveway to the garage you might think that an upper-middle-class banker or VP lived there. Somebody who made some good scratch, but not a rock-star or anything. And you’d be right.

Nothing special about the house. Much.

The fact that it sat directly above one of the twelve mainline branches off the Internet trunk wasn’t public information, and certainly not something anyone could see from the street.

The quantity and quality of the computer equipment in the house would also not have been apparent to anyone outside of a few very well informed specialists. This was one case, though, where the “appliances” were worth more than the house itself. The hardened, underground back-up facility alone cost more than most upscale cars.

They called it “their starter house.” There, in the basement, Ted could only see her on the large, flat-screen display. They didn’t have access to Dr. Pharoozia’s equipment anymore, of course. And Ted couldn’t afford his own VR rig. Yet.

But she was laughing. That great, open laugh where he knew she didn’t care what she looked like. The laugh that was pure-joy. And that made him smile. And then laugh. Which got her laughing again.

After awhile, when they’d calmed down a bit, she asked him to read her a story before he went up to bed.

He turned the overhead lights off and put on the little reading lamp that sat on the end table by the couch. One of the small cameras that let her see and hear him was clamped to the table and he could see her getting comfortable in one of her rooms as he lay down with a copy of, “The Tao of Pooh.”

“I’ve never read this,” he said as he stretched out, barefoot on the couch.

“Me neither,” she replied. “But I liked what I read about it on Amazon.”

“Thanks for getting it for me,” he said.

“Sure thing.”

She snuggled into her big, down comforter and he adjusted the light a bit so that it shone more fully on the book. He began to read:

“You see, Pooh,” I said, “a lot of people don’t seem to know what Taoism is...”

“Yes?” said Pooh, blinking his eyes.

“So that’s what this chapter is for – to explain things a bit.”

“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.

“And the easiest way to do that would be for us to go to China for a moment.”

“What?” said Pooh, his eyes wide open in amazement. “Right now?”

“Of course. All we need to do is lean back, relax, and there we are.”

“Oh. I see,” said Pooh.

And he kept reading, long after she’d fallen asleep.

* * * * *

More writing available on my blog, at www.TinkerX.com

Awesome

I really enjoyed this. Well-paced, good dialog, intriguing ideas.

A couple of negatives, but not on the content. Minor editing-related glitches here and there (Claire and Caitlyn switched and Ted and Stan switched occasionally). And at times it's somewhere in the future, sometimes it's in the now, simply from corporation names. I'd either change them all to contemporary or change them all (with a few possible exceptions... the whole AT&T/Qwest ownership thing was a nice touch). I'd say all of it could be fixed up by a good edit.

Michael

"Ted sat up, pushing his

"Ted sat up, pushing his mound of pillows around behind his head." should be Stan.

Very nice story, a little reminiscent of Adolescence of P1. Hard to believe software capable of human emotions etc. could be created by humans anytime soon, but what's science fiction if you're not allowed one impossible thing?

This is great

Very much enjoyed this. I spent much more of my work day reading it than I probably should have.

Nicely done.

I enjoyed the dialogue quite a bit. You have a good ear. Some
really excellent phrases turned, too- "the business of learning
or pretending to learn." It was great to read a story that was
character oriented. Yours is the first story on the site that I
will re-read.

Thank you.

every wall collapses, given enough time.