‘Shadows in the Mirror’, Todd Thorne

Illustrations © 2009 Christina Cartwright



 [ On screen, © 2009 Christina Cartwright ] "When are you coming home, Rache?"

"Don't start with—"

"You promised your father and me."

"Bye, Mom."

"Two years are up. Come home. Get your life together."

"Love you."

The cell phone beep severed Mom's reply.

Her derisive words still whispered in Rachel's skull though, words like: irresponsible, reckless, lazy, stupid, shit. Always the same lecture, ever since Rachel's self-proscribed probation had lapsed two months ago. With each passing week Mom injected a bit more venom.

The cell phone warbled an irritating ditty: inbound text message from an unknown sender.

Got to get those ring tones reassigned.

Rachel snapped the phone up. Her thumbs twitched, ready to tap out an emphatic 'bzz off mom.'

U CMITD: TIL DEATH DO WE PART

In the corner of the cell's display, a tiny filmstrip icon winked. One new snapvid waited. Same as before with two similar text messages on two prior phones.

"You're a real sick bastard, Edward," she said as she previewed the vid.

It was Daysee this time. He'd found her—somehow—though Rachel had kept her secret. She hadn't even logged into PlaySpace for seven months prior to the breakup.

She paused the vid's opening and squeezed her eyes shut.


"Hiiiiee, Dayseeee!" Momoko said in her Asian trill of practiced English. "Welcome to Toykyo. Here, fun is always." Excitement, so tempting and infectious, gushed from the youngest daughter of her exchange host family.

On the occasion of Daysee's first visit, Momoko sported a new manga-inspired ava incongruent with her bubbly demeanor: a drab, westernized, antiquated schoolgirl, like a Quaker but with big, dewy eyes. Momoko loved standing out in a crowd, anything to be wildly different. Given where she lived, Daysee could understand why.

Their first train tour together awe-struck the imagination. Anime puppets and figurines ruled the city, a playground of impossible structures that fused modern Japanese tomoe swirls into symmetric stacks of more traditional up-swooped layers.

Mount Fuji was a massive Jenga heap; anyone could topple and rebuild it at will.

Godzilla forded Toykyo Bay. Daysee took two breathtaking rides atop his bumpy Lego-block head.

In a Shinjuku Gyoen make-stand beneath a never-ending cascade of cherry blossoms, she built robot avas; ten copies of herself, to roam across her new island home and stream back the rich experiences.

Daysee laughed and laughed. She was an innocent child exploring a limitless toy store no dream could ever rival.

"Take me everywhere, Momoko. I want to see all of it."


But she never did.

Back in meatspace indifference seized Rachel, the dizzy PlaySpace allure dulled by mundane reality, constant demands and endless distractions. The robot avas expired, their stream captures ignored. Momoko moved on, her owner intolerant of a no-show house guest. Daysee languished in neglect.

Until now.

The vid played.

A neon-saturated Toykyo manga bar, stuffed with aficionados, greeted her. The view panned to the main door just as Daysee shoved through. Her Daysee, an innocent young cherry blossom, toted two garish semi-automatics bearing grossly exaggerated clips. Daysee smirked, leveled the guns, and raked the bar with lead. Avas disintegrated in the fullisade, their ava body particles mingling in PlaySpace's perfectly modeled physics. Headshots, heart shots, exploding entrails, shredded limbs—her Daysee spared no one.

Rachel deleted the vid after thirty elapsed seconds of the four-minute runtime. She bolted, got two steps from the toilet, and emptied her stomach in a single, protracted heave.

An hour later she left the cellular store with her fourth new phone and number in the last two weeks. The sales nerd and his manager weenie offered considerable sympathy, more than the previous times. Each had urged her to call the cops, also more vehemently than they had before.

The message and snapvid proved untraceable. Naturally. Edward was anything but brainless. Only the User ID associated this occurrence to the prior ones.

Trykstr

Between the two of them, she still hadn't figured out who Edward intended for the connotation of that.

Back at Rachel's apartment, Mom didn't answer the call at first. In Rachel's mind, she pictured her frowning at the 'UNKNOWN CALLER' display, muttering, "Who the hell is this?" Then, the earful over the latest new phone number segued into a particularly fervent lecture about her cyber stalker and the urgent, obvious, don't-be-stupid-Rachel need for police intervention.

Absolutely. Very dangerous. Must be more careful.

She almost felt twelve again, busted for freewheeling through chat rooms just to torment the pervs.

She withheld, again, two important facts from Mom. One, she actually knew the stalker. And two, they were married.


The ecru Romona Keveza, all folds and filigree lace swirls, fit Tarabeth fabulously. It had been a neat trick to secure the dress and the 787 Chapel-in-the-Clouds aircraft. No feat of magic appeared beyond Midknight's powers, at least, not in DreamSpace, the world they shared.

The Jesuit priest's ava looked like Charlton Heston fresh off the set of The Ten Commandments, long, scraggly beard included. He was eloquent and inspired declaring the eternal union of Tarabeth and Midknight as they soared above the clouds in the world's highest sanctuary with 200 of their virtual friends bearing witness.

The 787 dropped them, sans guests, in Tibet for a two-week long Honeymoon-atop-Everest. Like a true jet-setter, Midknight had prearranged everything. Tarabeth found her every want, fancy and desire waiting.

Fantastic as it was before the wedding, married sex was storybook, even at 10,000 feet at the first base camp wrapped snug in an Armani sleeping bag intended for one. Midknight was a masterful, caring lover, first seeing to her burning needs before peaking his own pleasure, time and again.

At over 40,000 feet, they summitted toward the end of week one and, in the rarified air, celebratory Irish coffees never tasted better. Tarabeth reflected upon how everything in DreamSpace was enlarged and enhanced well beyond the norm. Anticlimactic as the subsequent descent was, she sought and found pure bliss in simply being the wife, confidant and lover of a devoted, powerful, affluent provider.

DreamSpace became heaven.


That had been four months ago, at the conclusion of a year-long virtual courtship during which Rachel had simply enjoyed her escape into the globe-trotting socialite she knew she'd never, ever be. Two years earlier as a confused, deluded seventeen-year-old, that kind of life had tempted her to quit home, family and school; though never in her imagination had she expected to find and actually live the dream. Not in any world, virtual or otherwise.

Three months ago, against her better judgment, she'd caved: she met Edward for the first time in meatspace. The encounter, including sex that same night, was so far removed from what Tarabeth and Midknight shared, it rattled her. The brutal, ugly reality bitch-slapped her face.

Edward was a freelance game designer, a ten-year veteran since dropping out of Stanford. He was the epitome of geekdom, right down to the loaf of bread and pop-top cans of ravioli in his pantry, the three T-shirts and two pairs of jeans that comprised his wardrobe, and the tiny apartment furnished with numerous computers and peripherals, one scuffed card table, three mismatched folding chairs, and ancient mattress and pillow tossed on the living room floor.

Edward rated as a true wizard of his craft. He excelled within his work's ecosystem like no one else could; he just wasn't worth a rat's ass otherwise.

Rachel had her first taste of revulsion that initial night, but only fleeting jolts. Her denial suppressed, without mercy, every classic warning sign. Even lying in the gloom naked and cold atop the ratty mattress soaked by their sweat and other mingled fluids, her mind refused to accept any possibility of a relationship less ideal than the one shared by Tarabeth and Midknight.

Over the weeks following their first flesh-meet, she knew the revulsion would peak and inevitably triumph. It did two weeks ago, when she broke it off. Everything. All worlds included.

Edward just wasn't prepared to accept her final decision.

Rachel logged into Yahoo and found one e-mail of consequence waiting. It had arrived, no surprise to see, just before she'd left the cellular store, coming from Trykstr.

THAT WAS RUDE. AGAIN. WHILE I MIGHT BE INCLINED TO FORGIVE YOU MAKING THIS ESPECIALLY DIFFICULT, JESSE CANT. SHES VERY UPSET WITH YOU. AND YOU KNOW HOW SHE GETS.

Rachel knew.

She clicked Delete, emptied the trash folder.

Then, for good measure, she emptied it again.


From her laptop, Jesse monitored progress of the hack. So far besides her, three different slugs, each demonstrating various levels of clearly inferior talent, pursued the grand prize, likely for the same Sino-Viet masters. They enjoyed doing that, those Sinos, spreading the one contract job across multiple parties to lock out competing interests, inspire creative efficiency, and ensure success. Others called it 'saturation bombing.'

The abandoned warehouse played perfect host for this caper. The building was the last, dilapidated structure scheduled for renovation at the heart of New Atlanta's fastest-growing district. Peaceful. Totally undisturbed. No less than twelve wireless signals, surreptitiously donated by the surrounding hotels, afforded her near unconstrained net access along with the added protection of rapid access point hopping to avoid any tracebacks.

Her lip curled at the thought. Not in their wildest, wettest dreams could any slug successfully trace her.

This hack appeared simple enough. Global Biogenomics had grown lax within their corporate armor. The most auspicious penetration seemed to be by the slug attempting a break-in via trojan antivirus update, an oldie but goodie Jesse had long since bored of.

Whenever Jesse hacked, pleasure abounded from deliberately triggering some security interlocks just to kick up the difficulty level and learn a new trick or two. Now she lurked, consigning the dirty grunt work to the slugs while she relaxed to the muted throb of electronica opera that emanated from one of the swank hotel clubs.

The trojan slug succeeded. He actually burned a precious moment to trip lock-outs against the two other thieving parties.

Which nagged her.

Trojan slug must have known about the other slugs all along. So what else did he know?

While trojan slug extracted the strategic roadmap and intellectual property portfolio from DarkSpace's leading biogenetics R&D company, she intercepted the content using a preset phish tactic. Trojan slug never knew the repository into which he was copying the prized data was not his own.

Or did he?

That slight screech just now... a bad mezzo-soprano sample or tires on asphalt?

Trojan slug's copy into the repository proceeded; time-to-completion reflected tens of minutes. She didn't have that luxury.

Jesse launched a parallel background task to duplicate the repository to its ultimate Sino-owned destination, which would wipe the original upon successful completion. She killed the laptop's wireless transmitter and ran a script that defeated all laptop safety circuits and stalled its fans.

Scraping noises came from the front of the warehouse: unexpected guests, seeking amusement. And here she was without any party favors. A shame.

Have to create some then.

Jesse slid the laptop over to the half-rotted wall and ran one last script to trigger an overcurrent feedback loop. She piled yellowed newspapers on top of the case and ducked into the back shadows.

Modern laptops, when properly inspired, were power-hungry beasts. Hers proved no exception. It sizzled nicely, popped, and ignited the added tinder, which didn't take long to spread. Black smoke billowed and displaced the warehouse's dust and gloom.

Hope the party guests didn't mind the stench; noxious enough to suffocate a grizzly.

Jesse slipped out a grimy window, brushed herself off, and headed for a packed club across the street. Soon some buff firemen would come perform their jobs—a devilishly pleasant thought. What girl could resist beefcake at its prime?


EDWARD: U LIKE HER?

Rache: Dunno yet. She's different.

EDWARD: ??

Rache: She's... cocky.

EDWARD: HAS 2 B 4 DARKSPACE. W/O CONFIDENCE YOURE DEAD.

Rache: Dunno.

EDWARD: MADE HER JUST 4 U. SO PLAY HER. AS U DO, SHELL LEARN. WILL BECOME U. MAYBE U LEARN FROM HER.

Rache: But she's dark. Evil.

EDWARD: SO NOTHING 2 LEARN FROM EVIL, IS THAT IT?? PLAY HER. PROMIS U WILL?

Rache: ...

EDWARD: PROMIS????

Rache: k


Rachel tried.

She played Jesse from the week after the wedding to the week before the breakup, with mind wide open and spirit suitably darkened, the latter becoming easier as her distaste for Edward grew. Interestingly, Jesse not only adopted Rachel's personal idiosyncrasies, she also became frustrated with Rachel's inability to fully immerse into character. In turn, Rachel's initial shock at DarkSpace's survival-necessitating violence, depravity, and antisocial behavior soon abated to grudging resignation.

Try as she might, though, she couldn't put her heart into it.

When Jesse's not-so-subtle disdain segued into blatant criticisms spewing from the ava, Rachel stopped logging in. By then, Jesse's frequent scowl looked too much like Mom's.

Now Daysee had joined Jesse and Tarabeth in Edward's clutches. She'd lost them all. She felt like he'd ripped out three chunks of her flesh and left behind festering wounds. Including, Rachel had to admit, Jesse, the one character she thought she'd never bond with; not unlike some foster child, unwanted initially but quickly come to fondness.

The corner Starbucks opened at 6:30. Rachel got in at 6:15 because the kid working the drive-through had a crush on her. He waited on her personally. She rewarded him with some protracted flirting before she placed her usual order.

"How's your husband?" love-struck kid asked over the roar of milk frothing.

"Fine," Rachel said. Weeks ago she'd claimed being married just to stop the kid pestering her for an IM address. It wasn't a total lie, technically.

"Why doesn't he come in with you? Some kinda coffee allergy or something?"

"He... travels. A lot. He doesn't like going anywhere when he's actually here in town."

"Oh. Guess not. Well, if you're ever bored... want someone to do lunch with—"

"I know where you work." She winked at him, keeping his hopes alive.

In return, he granted her his customary, generous discount. It always paid dividends to be the object of someone's affection.

Still, Rachel held her breath until her debit card transaction cleared. Her meager balance was due to the fact she hadn't picked up and deposited her recent paycheck—one of several items she'd neglected over the last two weeks of being out 'sick' due to the breakup.

Behind her, the front door popped as the lock engaged.

Rachel took her latte over and pushed on the handle. The door banged but did not open.

"Lemme get that," love-struck kid said.

He bounded over and slid in a key from the jingling mass on his belt. The mechanism wouldn't budge.

"Weird. Like it's stuck or something."

Lights winked out across the shop. They plunged into the predawn gloom.

The kid glanced up. "What the—"

Rachel shrieked as several alarms split the air with deafening horn blasts and howling wails. Her cup thudded off her foot.

"Back door," the kid said, screaming over the din. But it, too, stubbornly resisted the key. "What's going on? Stupid security system's gone nuts."

Rachel pressed her hands hard against her ears. In the back of her mind, Edward's voice droned his warning.

SHES VERY UPSET WITH YOU. AND YOU KNOW HOW SHE GETS.

"This is crazy." In the kid's squeaky voice, panic overrode the alarm racket. "Let's break glass and get the hell outta here. Come on!"

"Do you have a server?" Rachel bellowed at his retreating back.

"Am I a what?" He paused, shook his head.

"Have a server? A store computer."

"Yeah. What about it?"

"With a broadband connection for wireless and security monitoring?"

"Right. In the storage closet. What—"

"Go shut it down." When his expression reflected a preference for doing anything but, she yelled, "All of it. Hurry!" He fumbled for another key.

Rachel went and stood by the front door with the other morning shift employee, a lanky girl so terrified she looked about to piss herself. Off in the distance, red-blue strobes danced across building facades, marking the rapid approach of the police response. Just about the time Rachel decided she should raise her hands to avoid getting shot by some trigger-happy cop, the alarms silenced and the overhead lights blinked on.

Half an hour later, fresh latte in hand, she trudged back to her apartment. The store manager had been so grateful, she bestowed free drinks for the next three months, whatever Rachel craved. The kid had been absolutely starry-eyed; his puppy-love crush super-sizing to full idolization. Rachel felt like an arsonist, rewarded for helping extinguish her own blaze.

As she feared, another new message lurked in her Yahoo account. She choked on seeing the sender name.

jesse@everywhere.net

Even worse, a snapvid accompanied the e-mail. With a hesitant finger, she clicked on the message first.

Rough morning? Too much excitement for you? So sorry. Thought you'd gotten used to such things. Oh, I forgot. You quit. Turned your back. Tucked your tail and retreated to your little fantasy world where none of this shit ever happens.

Surprise!

Take a long snort of that coffee, girl, and open those eyes wide. It's all real and you have to face it. You have to face ME! Like you promised. Like you really should do.

You can't run. Can't hide. I can go anywhere, do anything to make you keep that promise.

Don't believe me yet? Watch the vid.

Though dragging the mouse pointer over the snapvid felt like striking a match into an open gas can, Rachel had to know. She had to see the damage she'd caused.

She sucked a deep breath and clicked.

Toykyo nightlife jostled across every inch of street space, all bathed in rainbow hues of neon accented by the occasional silvery strobe. The quest for revelry was on, with a dizzying array of temptations and no time to waste.

None of the avas looked familiar until the view slowly panned around. When it halted, Jesse's face glared back from the immaculate expanse of an FAO Schwarz display window.

Rachel chewed her lip. How the hell did Jesse leap from DarkSpace into PlaySpace?

None of the worlds intersected, and avas were supposed to be encoded to prevent crossovers. Yet there she stood, fronting the world's largest display of Hello Kitty merchandise like some malevolent circus barker.

Jesse's reflection raised two fingers in a reverse peace sign. She jabbed them back at her ava eyes. Watch me!

The view shifted again to the street. Avas parted before her as Jesse forded her way along the packed sidewalk. Though her pace was deliberate, she seemed in no particular hurry—a mixture of window browsing and casual sight-seeing masked the foulest of intent. Rachel slid to the edge of her chair and strained to look ahead through the crowd, fearful of whom she might spot.

At a busy intersection, triple-decker buses swooshed by; their exteriors gleamed with non-stop anime and side-scrolling movie scenes. Throngs waited on both sides of the street for the safe-crossing indicator to illuminate. Jesse perched on the curb and stared ahead, unmoving. Waiting. Playing her twisted game.

Deliberately, so Rachel could watch, Jesse brought up her cell phone and tapped in digits. City noises shushed to the background. The call dialed.

The view leapt over the darting buses, crossed the packed boulevard and focused on smoked-glass double doors of a nondescript nightclub squatting at street-level of some soaring Toykyo hotel.

Daysee backed through the club doors, laughing, gyrating, apparently for the benefit of five leather-clad hoods trailing her. She wore stiletto boots and fishnet that slid underneath her doubly-split microskirt. Obscene tattoos adorned every inch of her arms and torso not covered by her chainmail halter top. The number of piercings Daysee now sported, Rachel couldn't count.

Apparently, a stiff breeze had whisked the delicate cherry blossom quite far from the mother tree.

The call completed. A cell phone trilled.

Daysee whirled, dug her phone out of her waistband, snapped it up, and spoke. All sound in the vid muted except for a slow, soft beep that repeated.

The view zoomed downward to glance over Daysee's shoulder. Her cherry-red Motorola VYPR slid into perspective. Its display bore only a cartoonish timer; the second hand lurched backward on each progressively-louder beep.

Three seconds... two... one....

When the countdown reached zero, Rachel shut her eyes at the lightning flash that saturated her computer's flat panel.

She opened them again on a scene of utter chaos as wounded avas darted in every direction, dodging chunks of metal, burning wrecks, and shattered ava bodies—total panic in the heart of a senseless disaster. Except for one ava, who strolled away from the carnage as if headed to a picnic. Jesse paused long enough to glance back. She pointed one finger at her nose followed by two unwaveringly at Rachel before she set off again.

The vid finished.

Rachel got the message: now, I'm watching you.

She couldn't help but glance over to the end table where, resting beside her mom's 5x7 Glamour Shots portrait, sat car keys and a cell phone, her latest, a black Motorola VYPR.

Coincidence?

Hardly. Nothing escaped Jesse.

DarkSpace yielded no new clues. Upon logging in, all Rachel could do was create a new character since her account currently controlled none. PlaySpace she avoided entirely. DreamSpace was no different than DarkSpace: no available characters.

Somehow, she had to find and yank her characters back from Edward, return them to her control. Put a stop to this.

But how?

The helpwiki produced reams of entries in response to a search for 'lost characters.' Useless crap. Page after page of results failed to address her particular situation. On the eighth page she breezed past, caught herself, and then scrolled back to a short entry.

Stolen character or lost control of one? Want it back? Leave word and contact info at The Maltese Falcon. Be serious and no bullshitting.

She reread the entry. Was it was some kind of perverse joke or a tenuous hope? She voted for the latter.

An hour later, she sat back and rubbed her eyes. DreamSpace had nearly 450 establishments or locales somehow related to or called The Maltese Falcon. How the hell was she supposed to figure out which was the correct one? Google and IMDB regurgitated plenty of information about a movie she'd never seen—never once was even tempted to watch—but nothing resolved the mystery.

The afternoon waned. Rachel's throbbing skull neared surrender. It had to be one of them. But which?

What about something related, like other places or other films? Wasn't Humphrey Bogart, star of The Maltese Falcon, more famous for a different movie?

She remembered, searched and, yes, there was a bar named The Maltese Falcon in Casablanca, DreamSpace. Score one for the classic-challenged.

Ten minutes later, as a newly-created character sporting a fresh ava, she delivered her message to Sam, the bartender and resident crooner at The Maltese Falcon.

The follow-up e-mail came at 9:30 PM from RickB@DreamSpace.com.

Ilsa? Nice. You've got some savvy. Anyway, lost 2 huh? Just so you know, it's called 'simnapping' in the virtual worlds. Nasty business, too, since your case doesn't sound like a dumb prank. Happy to do an initial search and report back. If located, I assume you want them returned? Let me know. And send their setup profiles.

Rachel attached both character initialization profiles to her reply. Then, after pondering for a while, she mentioned that she just wanted Jesse and Tarabeth whacked—a clean, tidy break—if it could be arranged. She sent the message, tried unsuccessfully to sleep and spent several hours using Video-On-Demand catching up on two Bogart movies. At "start of a beautiful friendship" she scolded herself for being remiss for far too long.

In the morning, as her mind tormented her with visions of free caramel-mocha lattes, another RickB message greeted her grainy eyes.

Jesse's quite an enigma. She's a true rogue with absolutely nobody in control. Hopping across the virtual worlds, too. Damndest thing I've seen in a long time. Which is my roundabout way of saying it's going to take a while on her. I've located Tarabeth though and can do the job immediately. Saw your reply. My fee is 10 USD for a single elimination, 100 USD for elimination without respawn, a permanent kill nobody can undo. There's a link below where you can pay via the web. Decide and let me know.

Crap.

Rachel chose the higher fee, confessed her meager bank account situation, and requested advice. RickB countered with an offer to wait five days before hitting her debit card, if she was willing to provide the card information upfront. She did so, which earned a gentle reproach from him about her gullibility along with a promise of results within the hour. Seventeen minutes later, his next e-mail arrived bearing an embedded snapvid and a brief commentary.

It appears you've done Tarabeth a favor. She was being controlled, subjugated actually, by another character. Someone called Midknight. Looks like he pimped her out. See for yourself. Pretty over-the-top behavior for DreamSpace, more suitable in DarkSpace IMHO. Anyway, still working on Jesse and will get back to you. Same fees apply.

Anticipating what she was about to view, Rachel couldn't launch the vid. Several times she reached for the mouse only to jerk up out of the chair and walk away. Each time she busied herself with various chores around the apartment, drifting through rooms, cleansers, and inconsequential thoughts. Finally, she forced herself to sit, steadied her breathing and used two fingers to click.

Gentle swells, topped on occasion by crowns of sea foam, rocked the 100-foot yacht in the furnace of the noonday sun. Behind the yacht, magnificent structures, their foundations anchored at the edge of the high tide's lick, erupted off immaculate beach sands and swept boldly heavenward. Aboard the Desert Caress, a knot of bearded, dark men, fully shrouded in thobs and ghoutras of the Sunni tradition, clustered on the fantail around another figure whose bare, white skin reflected the sun's glare.

Though viewed from a distance, Rachel knew the bare skin was Tarabeth's. She understood now that the corruption and defilement her avas suffered was a poisoned dagger aimed at her heart. Edward the wizard played hard to win.

Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Tarabeth stood and faced the man she'd been kneeling before. Her flesh glistened with sweat and was totally bare except for a hint of her orange thong. The Arab's hand snapped up and clutched Tarabeth's throat. He bellowed dissatisfaction to her face before tossing her back to the deck like a rag where, coughing and spluttering, she rose again to her knees and faced him.

The view collapsed into a sniper scope perspective, complete with notched crosshairs. The angry Arab zoomed forward, crosshairs centered on his glaring left eye. For an instant, the crosshairs tracked the bobbing iris, gauging and compensating for the pitching motion of the Desert Caress. Silently, Rachel implored the assassin's action—right now!—though she knew the contracted target remained out of sight.

The scope's focus blurred as it slid downward, crosshairs coming to rest above Tarabeth's right ear. Momentarily, the crosshairs tracked the kill spot as her ear both bobbed and slid rapidly forward and back, matching the motions of her overeager labors.

The scope jerked. The vid finished.

Rachel prayed Tarabeth's bite reflex had triggered upon impact.

Ten minutes later, she eased her key lime Honda Element into light traffic on the interstate. Her bank was two exits up, and though the usual end-of-month expenses threatened, she'd made up her mind to blow $300 on permanent character kills: two—with just one now remaining—of her own, plus Midknight. Thanks to her coffee windfall, he was now quite affordable. Even if he wasn't, at this point, she'd swear off Starbucks to see it done.

For a small bonus, maybe RickB could deliver a special kill, something fitting for a pimp bastard. Yeah. She'd have to ask.

Her VYPR bleated an annoying techno-jingle: inbound text message from unknown sender.

Stupid Motorola ringtones.

She fumbled the cell out of her back pocket, snapped it open, and scanned—

Jesse: Bravo. But it's not that easy. FINISH IT OR I WILL!!!

The cell bounced off the passenger seat and tumbled onto the carpet, Jesse's threat still glaring at her as it lay on its side. It peeped as the bluetooth LED illuminated.

Rachel glanced around. What the hell was it linking to?

She slammed back into the seat as the Element surged ahead. Rachel screamed, stomped the brake, and served to avoid an ExxonMobil tanker truck exiting in front of her. Her exit. The semi pealed off as she zoomed by, accelerating.

Accelerating? Her foot still mashed the brake pedal.

She swung to the far left lane, momentarily free of traffic, let off the brake and fished for the gas pedal. Her sneaker stubbed the side and then lodged underneath it. Pressure mounted on her toes as the pedal depressed further.

70... 75... 80....

Agony sizzled in her foot, with her toes caught in a compressing nutcracker. Her sneaker wouldn't budge. She fumbled for the laces while trying to steady the Element. Cars honked their displeasure as they whizzed back on the right.

90... 95... 100....

Laces yanked loose and burned her fingers. She jerked upward on the sneaker's tongue and then heaved her leg back. Her hand tugged on her calf—anything—to extricate her smashed toes.

Up ahead, a picket line of cars stretched across all lanes.

105... 110....

Her heel slammed back into the seat rail as her foot wrenched from the shoe. Howling its protest, the Element's engine erased the gap between her and a Chrysler minivan dead ahead. She stomped the brake with her socked foot and felt the Element fishtail, floundering in the conflicted physical forces.

100... 85... 70....

The Chrysler loomed. She braced for impact and fixated on the driver's upraised middle finger salute for her approach. Brakes gone thermonuclear, the Element shuddered to a pacing speed one foot off of the minivan's bumper. The irate driver swerved right.

The Element bounded back to 90 as Rachel let off the brake. Eyes burning, she sneezed and gagged on the stench of an Iraqi warzone, laced with charred metal, burning rubber and toxic fumes. She punched the AC button, caught herself and glanced again at the dash.

The Element's bluetooth was engaged.

And Jesse's threat still glared at her from the bluetooth-active VYPR.

An F250 dualie with Yosemite Sam mud flaps cut her off. She swerved right and felt the Element's left tires briefly rise off the pavement. Then Rachel held her breath as she tried her best Cops pursuit impression darting and weaving through a protracted clot of vehicles. Left shoulder. Right shoulder. Bumper-skirting swerves. Knuckle-biting tailgates. Nothing was out of bounds as she juked at 120 MPH to freedom through a maze of pokey obstructions, any of which could send her and a crowd of people to the ER or worse.

With a few seconds of clear roadway, she scrabbled for the VYPR. It lay out of reach, just off her fingertips. Rachel punched the seatbelt release, jammed her left knee against the steering wheel, and stretched for the cell. Scooping it up, she just had time to mash the brake at the rear of another knot of traffic. One-handed, she fumbled the cell's back cover off and flicked the battery over her shoulder.

Bluetooth disengaged, the Element coasted.

She spent the next two hours at a Chevron station until the shakes finally subsided. Upon hearing the chalkboard squeal erupt from the Element's wheel wells, the concerned attendant speculated she needed a brake job, real soon. After thanking him for the gift of his mechanical genius, she crawled back to her apartment via low speed, stop-sign-infested side roads. She savored every minute of the vapid drive.

One e-mail awaited her, not from Trykstr or Jesse, though she'd anticipated another jeer from both. It was from RickB, and his words smacked her harder than any taunt from the other two could.

Here's the scoop on Jesse. She's in DreamSpace and I can get to her. The catch is... I can't take her out, not permanently at least. The other catch is she knows about me. Disses me. Threatens me. It sounds nuts but I don't think she's lying about what she's capable of. I don't know, Ilsa. Maybe you should cut loose and forget all this. Turn it over to the authorities for them to clean up. Doesn't seem like a game anymore.

She left the message on the screen, went to the bath and stood under a blast of shower spray until the hot water tank emptied. Funny how, at first, the water felt like heaven, so intensely addictive. Then, just when she wanted it to last forever, it failed, leaving her miserably cold and soggy, until she slammed home the faucet knob and snatched a towel.

You got in. You indulged... to ridiculous excess. You forced yourself out.

Her reply to RickB flowed from her fingers the instant she sat behind the keyboard. 'It never was just a game. I didn't understand, didn't realize that it's all real, in its own way. No. I have to take care of this myself. Finish what I started. Can you help?' Shivering, she clicked Send and went to dry her hair. His answer was there when she returned.

Seems either very astute or totally deranged. Maybe both. You've got more spunk than I imagined. With Jesse, what I can do is return control to you, which is, interestingly, exactly what she wants. After that, you take it from there. No charge for this one either. Instead, I'd be happy knowing you can get all this resolved to your own satisfaction. Consider it my parting gift. I'm going to take a break now, a nice long vacation, and figure out how to play my own 'game' better. Hope you're really certain about this. Good luck. Log in when you're ready.

Rachel had never felt surer about anything in her life.

She had one playable character waiting in her DreamSpace account upon logging in. As she selected Jesse and the landscape unfolded, the ava acted as if they were merely resuming play from a previous day's session.

"He's in the tower," Jesse said, her flat, emotionless words sliding from Rachel's speakers.

The ava stood on marble steps, black and polished to a sheen that perfectly reflected the desert sun's intensity. She wore a sharply cut navy suit, practical pumps, and no jewelry. Her hand clutched a slender attaché.

"It's damn hot," Jesse said. "Can we go inside?"

The marble stairs swept up to a five-story lobby forming the eye-space of a tapered needle that stabbed a hole in the wispy clouds drifting far overhead. Burj Dubai zealously defended its DreamSpace height record, piling on new floors as necessary when any competition even remotely threatened. Jesse went through mirrored-glass doors into air-conditioned opulence.

Avas dotted the lobby, dressed in garbs spanning the breadth of DreamSpace and beyond. Nobody glanced even once at Jesse, having no business with the somber business she appeared to be about. An even greater variety of worldly artifacts and unique treasures populated an endless array of display cases scattered around. Jesse strode past them into a mirrored hallway leading to the main elevator bank.

Halfway through the hallway, she paused and turned to face the wall. The mirror displayed a murky image, shadowy and incomplete, like a portrait sketched in a hurry and then suddenly abandoned by its artist.

"I need to know. Can you do this... do what you must?"

"Yes," Rachel whispered into the mic.

Jesse didn't budge. "I'm talking for real now. Understand?"

Rachel swallowed hard. "For real."

Like a camera focused, the image in the mirror sharpened into Jesse's form and grim expression.

"Then, prove it."

Five different elevators, each adorned more decadently than the one before, lifted her upward in stages. The sixth seemed cast from solid gold, and after Jesse palmed a security glass, it ushered her to the penthouse.

Midknight waited in the executive retreat, arms clasped behind him as he gazed out floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking an ocean of white cotton. Jesse paused in the doorway and unzipped the attaché.

"Nice to see you honoring your commitments," Midknight said without turning.

"It's over," Jesse said.

"Seems like such a little thing, really, but you'd be amazed how critical it is in life: commitments, responsibility, all that."

"Don't bother begging." Jesse extracted a jet black Beretta Cheetah and tossed the attaché aside.

"Shut up, Jesse." Midknight spun. He looked decades older than the last time she'd seen the ava. "Let Rachel talk."

"Tell her," Jesse said.

"Tell me what?" Rachel's gaze flicked from the speaker to the screen.

Midknight ducked his head into shadow, backlit as he was by the day's glow. "You've come a long way since we met. I have too. It's not good enough, though, is it?"

"What do you mean?"

"You yearn for something, Rachel," he said with a sigh. "Something you aren't ready to have. And I want something I guess I don't deserve. At least, not yet. Not for real." Another sigh. "You showed that to me."

"Tell her, you shit," Jesse said.

"Yeah, I'm shit. Have been for quite a while. Maybe one day, if I get lucky and I care enough, I can change that." Midknight raised his head and cocked it at her, his face a mask of pity. "But what about you... what are you, Rache?"

"Me?"

"I don't think you know. I don't think you want to know. Why else would you hook up with a shit bag like me... depend on me... need me? Can you answer that?"

"I'm... I...." Her mouth found no words to speak. In her mind, many distant worlds swirled without aligning. In each, a piece of her drifted, isolated from the others. With yet more worlds to uncover. Perhaps countless ones, all spiraling apart.

"Thought so," he said.

Jesse cocked the Beretta's slide with a jerk. "So help me, I'll put every round where it hurts you most. Tell her!"

He smiled like a man suddenly freed of his foulest, chronic ache. "Finish it, Rache. Finish your commitment between us."

Piano strains blanketed the room with a tune now familiar to her.

"That game you abandoned two years ago, it's time to go back and complete it," he went on. "Your mother's right. You need a real life before you're ready for any virtual ones. Before they define you, trap you, warp and ruin you, like they did me. So death do we now part, my dear. And Don't. Play. It. Again."

You must remember this...

Jesse spread her feet apart. The Beretta clicked.

"No. Not like that," he said.

Jesse squeezed the trigger repeatedly, with the same unsatisfactory result.

"I'm very impressed, Jesse." He smirked like an embarrassed parent, proud of a daughter's particularly inspired delinquency. "You've grown in ways I couldn't imagine. Exceeded my expectations and wishes. And all for Rachel. You're a really good bad girl.

"Unfortunately, you crossed the line, which I can never allow. So I hacked that gun. When you pull the trigger, it'll fire on only one target: yourself."

He reached under his left arm and slid out a chrome pistol.

"You're it, Jesse; Rachel's last significant ava. To finish this cleanly... properly... you need to be unmade. Where she can watch. That means: your gun, one headshot, no respawn, it's all over. And this," he waved his own pistol, "is just in case you disappoint me for your very last act."

His smirk vanished. "So what'll it be?"

Jesse glanced back at Rachel. "It's up to you. Prove it."

The view shifted to first person.

Rachel raised the Beretta and pointed it at Midknight's heart. As Edward realized who faced him, Midknight's eyes widened. He leveled the chrome pistol.

Rachel squeezed the trigger. Two 9mm slugs ripped through Midknight and shattered the glass behind him, sucking him through the gaping maw. She slammed into a mahogany desk and held on in the roar of a hurricane as loose trinkets pelted her in their hasty exit. Quickly, the gale abated to an arctic calm. Breaths misting in the subfreezing air, she staggered over and considered the impossible drop.

"Almost there," Jesse said, somewhere from behind.

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

Rachel stepped out.

"Bravo. Couldn't have done better myself." Jesse's teeth chattered as terminal velocity neared. "There may be hope for you yet. Don't think I won't be watching either... willing to help, like it or not, whenever you need me to. You know exactly where I'll be."

She said nothing else the long way down to the burning sands.


 [ Mirror, © 2009 Christina Cartwright ] After two days of hard driving and a warm, finally-came-to-your-senses greeting from Mom, Rachel gazed into the mirror mounted above the stained Formica vanity that she'd grown up with. Though tired and disheveled, the reflection staring back stood crisp and sharply defined—a seasoned ava, ready to learn and experience. Eager to grow.

She grinned at her image.

"Hi, Daysee. Tarabeth. Hello to you too, Jesse. Welcome to meatspace. Welcome home."

They all smiled back.


© 2009, Todd Thorne

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