2550 words, short story
It will be a particularly brutal kill, even by her standards.
She sat in warm shade at an outdoor café along the Calle de las Huertes, not far from the Prado Museum. Sonia needed to work in public spaces, needed to witness the human cost. Tourists, students, illegals, and the unemployed crowded the surrounding tables—all strangers. But that was nothing new. She could touch them only by wounding them, as she had been wounded. What would millions of Experiencers think if they knew a coward lurked behind Simone The Slayer?
Black-shirted waiters circulated between the tables. A few feet away a woman in a white sundress laughed. About thirty years old, she wore Experiencer glasses, the lenses polarized for the sun, and a headscarf. The bearded young man sharing her table kissed her neck playfully, and she laughed again. Of the hundred or so people visible to Sonia, maybe two-thirds of them wore Experiencer glasses, and many of them were fully immersed, the lenses gone a dully-reflective silver, like drawing a screen between the outer world and Labyrinthiad. Holding hands, an older couple in matching tropical shirts strolled out of the umbrella shade of the cafe and crossed the sun-struck plaza. Pigeons swooped and plunged, their black shadows gliding over the bricks. Motorbikes threaded through the moving crowds, their two-stroke engines making a lawn-mower racket.
“Hasta luego.” It was the bearded man. He stood up and blew a kiss at the woman in the white sundress. She laughed and waved at him, like she was brushing off a fly. Walking backwards from their table, he bumped into Sonia. She jerked away. “Perdón,” he said, turning and bowing. She scowled at him; Sonia didn’t like to be touched. He shrugged and left her alone. His girlfriend touched the right temple of her Experiencer glasses. The lenses turned silver. Sonia looked away.
It was time.
Sonia placed her Cube next to her napkin, leaned forward, and whispered the unlocking code. Glowing symbols floated above the table. Her long fingers made slight, almost imperceptible motions as she manipulated content, combining and recombining intricate patterns. The military-grade throat mic picked up her sub-vocal directions and voiceovers. Sonia’s custom software reshaped her tonal qualities to create her character’s signature voice—a voice that had insinuated itself into a million nightmares. Simone.
It was ready.
Sonia reached for her neglected macchiato. She sipped, absently licked bitter foam from her lips, set the cup down. Taking a pause. Virtual murder was still murder—the murder of emotional attachments. She ought to know. Sonia had cherished the character Emi Nakano, until the Editors discontinued Emi’s existence on the grounds of inadequate popularity scores. When Emi suffered death by Editor, something died in Sonia, too. Now she felt connected only to the pain she caused. Maybe she had replaced her Emi Nakano obsession with her own meta assassin—but so what? Call it the failed transfiguration of revenge.
She uploaded her data to a rendering engine that converted her C-sym programming into a finished scene. A final hesitant pause . . . and she slipped the module undetected into the vast meta story that was Labyrinthiad. Like slipping a dagger between ribs to pierce the heart of a created world. In a moment, Ellis Ng would “die.” Was Sonia the only one who recognized Ellis as nothing more than an emotional trap for the self-deluded?
Sonia’s hands shook as she reached for her coffee. She emptied the cup and set it down. A cigarette would have helped her nerves, but they were banned now even in Europe.
Mileva Kosich, sitting on a bench across from the Office of Public Affairs, eye-flicked behind her Experiencer glasses. It was her lunch-break and she just had time to meet her virtual friend, Ellis Ng. Belgrade disappeared, and Mileva was gliding in a sunboat over a crystal blue pond. Ellis approached in his own sunboat, its solar net billowing like a gossamer shell. Of course, Ellis was legion, and millions of Experiencers considered him a friend, but that didn’t undercut Mileva’s joy at the sight of his approach. Everyone enjoyed their own personal Ellis. He stood up and waved with two fingers extended (his customary greeting), making the boat rock. A black-winged personal flying suit swept down out of the empty sky. Mileva caught her breath. Simone! The assassin fired a projectile and Ellis Ng’s sunboat exploded in a plume of flesh and fiberglass. Shocked, Mileva fumbled her glasses off. She sat on the bench, too upset to move.
Sonia killed only the popular characters. Five so far. And once slain, they resisted the Editor’s attempts to resurrect them. Sonia’s killing routines remained with a character and haunted them even in virtual death. The resurrected were lifeless zombies compared to their former selves. Their popularity, as defined continuously by the Experiencers, plummeted and they were quickly edited out. Of course, “life” in Labyrinthiad was an oxymoron, perpetuated by the mock-divine spark of rudimentary AI. Characters like Ng became the perfect companions because they analyzed your personality and speech and fed you tailor-made conversation. Nevertheless, waves of real despair followed the death of young eCelebs. Taking down beloved characters and the income streams they represented to the Publishers was dangerous. Real world dangerous.
Hachiro Jin, closed inside an egg-shaped Sleep Pod in the Helsinki Airport, touched the temple of his glasses and went full-immersion. It would be pleasant to pass a few minutes with Ellis Ng. The virtue of a virtual friend was availability without complications. Hachiro’s layover was four hours, more than enough time to catch up on sleep and conversation with a friend who seemed perfectly to understand the worries of a forty-three-year-old businessman. Ellis, waiting for Hachiro on a red footbridge in the Sankeien Gardens, smiled and raised his hand—and then collapsed, a shaft protruding from the back of his head. Simone The Slayer stood a moment in his place. “Gomen-nasai, Hachiro-kun,”she said, flashing a lifeless smile before flickering out of existence. In the Sleep Pod, Hachiro ripped off his glasses, swearing.
Sonia waited for the reaction. Any moment now. Then a waiter stepped in front of her, blocking her view. He bent forward, reaching for her empty cup, his eyes a turquoise gleam. Just like the eyes of Sonia’s character-killer, Simone. So many people affected body modifications that emulated favorite Labyrinthiad personalities. This waiter had even added Simone’s signature scar, like a back-slash setting off the corner of his mouth.
“Would you like something else?” he asked.
Annoyingly, he lingered, staring into her with his faux-Simone eyes. Sonia squirmed in her seat. Hadn’t she seen this man before, on the sidewalk near her apartment? Was he even a waiter? His shirt didn’t exactly match the other waiters’ shirts.
She forced herself to return his stare. “What do you want?”
The waiter grinned, said, “Stay as long as you like,” and walked away, leaving her empty cup on another table.
Juanita Torres’ physical body reclined in the passenger seat of her self-driving Elon IV. The car negotiated Chicago traffic on its way to the law offices of Ferguson & Torres. Behind her Experiencer glasses Juanita had eye-flicked herself to a virtual tent pitched in the high desert of New Mexico, where she lay quietly with Ellis. Sometimes Juanita simply needed to be alone with her friend, without words. It was a meditation, a stress-reliever. A timer would call her back to the car when they approached the office. Beyond the open tent flap pink and yellow layers of sunrise set off the jagged line of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Then a figure appeared, blocking the view. Simone The Slayer in a panther-black body suit ducked into the tent, expertly wound a shiny garroting wire around Ellis Ng’s neck and snapped it taut. Blood sheeted over Juanita, splattered the tent fabric, making a sound like rain. Juanita slapped her Experiencer glasses off and sat up in the car, screaming. Simone’s muffled laughter drifted up from the floorboards near her feet.
A collective shudder swept through the café and across the open plaza. Random people stumbled to a stop. Sonia winced, feeling their pain—her connection to other people. What would she be without this shared suffering? She wasn’t brave enough to find out. She had never been brave enough. The pain she caused was her only tie to others.
The woman in the white sundress and headscarf a few tables away began weeping, her shoulders visibly shaking, and then slammed her glasses hard on the tabletop, even as others hastily donned theirs. Sonia’s segment was loose in Labyrinthiad. You could feel it. Like a sudden pressure drop before a coming storm.
Only one man failed to react.
At a table across the open café space, his Experiencer glasses parked on top of his bald head, he never took his eyes off Sonia. A broad, stocky man in a dark blue collarless over-shirt. Two University girls, awkwardly holding each other in grief, crossed in front of him. When Sonia could see again, the table was empty.
Quickly, Sonia pocketed her Cube and dropped five Euros on the table. She stood, rattling her chair back, and walked quickly away from the café.
She cut through a narrow cobblestone alley, intending to double back and make her way to the Arguelles neighborhood. There she kept a safe room unconnected to her Sonia Andrijeski identity—a name with shallow roots. In Arguelles she would hide in the camouflage of rowdy students and jangling nightlife.
The yellow walls of the alley loomed over her. Dead vines trailed from boxes under shuttered windows. Sonia quickened her pace, and then stopped, gasping, when the bald man stepped around the corner and stood in her way. She scuffed back, glanced over her shoulder. She could run but he would easily catch her. They both knew it. He grinned.
“For an assassin,” he said, “you’re a mousy thing.”
She retreated another step, and he moved toward her. A little dance.
“I’ll scream,” she said.
A pink cloud boiled out of a device in his hand. Sonia heard herself cough, as if the cough were un-synced with her collapse. The cobblestones came up and slammed her shoulder. The bald man stood over her. He tucked his device away, started to bend down. The sound of a motor ripped into the alley. She seemed to hear it after the bald man had already turned in reaction—Sonia’s pink cloud reality.
The bald man fell, his body landing next to Sonia with a sickening and off-timed thud. She blinked heavy lids. A red puddle oozed away from the fallen man and began investigating the channels between cobblestones. Sonia managed to push herself back before it touched her. She looked up. A man holding a gun dismounted a blue Vespa and approached her. The waiter from the café, the one with Simone The Slayer’s eyes and scar. He tucked his gun into his waistband, pulled his shirt over it, and hunkered next to her.
“He would have taken you back to the States,” the waiter said, his words almost-but-not-quite in sync with his lips. “But I don’t take people back.” He shrugged. “Private contractors, right? Some are more full service than others.”
Sonia squinted, trying to interpret what he’d said as anything other than an obvious threat. She struggled to get up. The waiter watched her, like he was watching a representative of an unrelated species. A true killer’s coldness reflected in a virtual killer’s eyes. God, he was a fan. Sonia grasped at self-control. Her voice barely broke when she said, “Don’t hurt me, please.”
He pressed his hand to his chest, as if he couldn’t believe what she was suggesting. “I would never. I admire you too much. At least, I admire Simone. Professional respect crosses worlds.” He reached out quickly and picked something up. Her Cube. Sonia’s hand twitched involuntarily. And the gun was back in the waiter’s hand and leveled at her.
“I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “Give me your key, promise to never upload to Labyrinthiad again, and you can go.”
“I’ve been watching you for days. I could have taken you out any time. Giving you a chance to walk away, that’s me showing respect for what you created.” He held the Cube up. It contained Simone’s unique code, all her untraceable killing routines. “Decide now.”
Sonia tried to rub the fogginess out of her eyes. “You want to be her. Simone.”
“The key. Deal or not?”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Then I hurt you.”
Numbly, she recited the code.
The waiter held the Cube in the palm of his hand. He voice-entered the code. The Cube glowed blue, ghostware deploying raw content for manipulation. He stared avidly at the display—Simone The Slayer in utero—then turned the Cube off, pocketed it, and, without another word, walked away.
Never upload to Labyrinthiad again? Impossible. But without Simone to connect to the common suffering, who was she? What was her purpose?
The killer mounted his Vespa and zipped out of the alley, leaving Sonia standing next to the dead man. A trace of motor exhaust lingered. She cringed, alone and exposed, and stumbled back the way she’d come, her head throbbing. Soon she found herself in the anonymous safety of the crowded plaza, surrounded by people she could no longer hurt. Woozy, she stopped and covered her eyes. A wave of pink-cloud dizziness swept through her and she started to fall, barely catching herself. Someone took her arm, steadied her. Sonia stiffened.
“Are you all right?” It was the woman from the café, the one so upset by Simone’s kill that she had slammed down her Experiencer glasses. Others stopped, concerned. Is she sick? Give her some room. A young man produced his phone. Should I call for medical?
Sonia shook her head. “No, don’t.”
The woman, still holding Sonia’s arm, searched her face. “You’re sure you’re all right? You looked like you were going to faint.”
“Just a little dizzy. I’ll be okay.”
“At least you ought to sit down. There’s a table. I’ll get you a glass of water. My name’s Mia, by the way.”
Why was she so kind? Why was anyone? After a too-long pause, Sonia said, “Thank you,” and they sat at a table near the one from which Sonia had exploded an emotional bomb. A bomb that had wounded many people, including Mia and perhaps others who later paused out of concern, not knowing they were solicitous of Simone’s creator.
Sonia attempted a smile, “I’m not usually like this.”
Mia stared back uncertainly, “Don’t worry about it. I’m a bit of a mess myself. The Slayer struck again. Simone. That bitch.”
Sonia picked up her lemon water, sipped, then held the cold, sweating glass in her hands. “Someone should take her down.” Her words sounded odd to her, yet familiar. In a moment she realized: Simone.
Mia’s eyes widened as she leaned back in her chair. “They . . . they’ve tried.”
“Maybe it will be someone who knows her.”
Sonia noted absently the sound of scrabbling chair legs on cobblestones. Standing now, backing away from the table, Mia said, “Nobody knows her.”
Sonia nodded. Her head cleared. “Yes, of course. Nobody does.”
In 2001 Jack Skillingstead submitted a story to Stephen King's "On Writing" contest. He won and not long afterward began selling regularly to major science fiction and fantasy markets. To date he has sold more than forty stories to various magazines, Year's Best volumes and original anthologies. In 2003 his story "Dead Worlds" was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award and in 2009 his novel Life on The Preservation was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. Jack lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress.
Burt Courtier has worked as a documentation manager, business editor, and freelance writer in Japan and the U.S. His non-fiction work appeared in Japan Quarterly. Burt lives in Southern California with his wife and daughter.