Dana Riggs fiddled with her short blond hair and watched the second hand of the old-fashioned clock sweep around. Twenty-nine students and one empty desk faced her. Thomas was the last to arrive again, and Dana wondered what he would show up as this time.
Thirty seconds until her literature class officially started when her pad whispered that Thomas had appeared in the antechamber. Dana caught herself reaching for her VR control pad and stylus, resting near her right hand. 'Do not presume guilt' she recalled the teacher's guidelines. The student's voices died down, waiting to see what stunt Thomas pulled this time.
Dana did not blink when a 6-foot tall rooster strutted into the room. She ignored the titter of laughter and watched Thomas swagger through the class while taking his seat. For a moment, Dana and the rooster's beady, flat eyes locked. Dana thought she could see Thomas' amused look behind the disguise.
Robert, who sat behind Thomas, raised his hand and spoke without being called on. "I can't see over Thomas' feathers."
The laughter died as she picked up her pad, and walked over to Thomas' desk.
"Now, you know the rules here. I don't know or care what other VR worlds you play in, but here we have rules: Nothing but your Face, no costumes, and no disguises.
"Our school is privileged space, you're here by invitation and I control this little corner of it." Top students from all over the country came to Saint Andrew's Virtual Academy for their last two years of study before being swept up by top universities. "I don't know what you are here for, but I'm here to teach you English literature," Dana said. She scribbled a command across the pad.
She tapped the execute key and the rooster's image wavered, flickering like heat shimmering off the streets, then solidified. Dana repeated the command and Thomas' costume danced with static before vanishing to reveal a large, smooth white egg. Thomas' bright, excited eyes stared up at her from the otherwise featureless white surface.
The class exploded with laughter. A few students hammed it up; they fell from their chairs and rolled around on the ground.
Dana almost smiled as she reset and wrote another command on her pad. This time there was no hesitation; the egg vanished. Dana sighed, satisfied. Thomas would not be rising from yolk that might have spilled across the floor.
Thomas, dressed in the black-and-white template used to design VR appearances, smirked up at her. He appeared almost identical to his day-to-day costume. A little thinner and shorter perhaps but had altered his looks far less than the average sixteen year old.
"That's enough," Dana said, her voice creeping up an octave. "You're supposed to follow the school's dress code." She tapped out a staccato command and the pad beeped and vibrated.
'Unable to affect appearance. No costume to alter.' The message pad read succinctly, and the laugher started in again at Thomas' apparent victory.
A few scratches across the pad and Thomas vanished, suspended. Another scratch sent her simulacrum speeding off to inform Thomas's parents.
"Now that the fun is over..." she said to the now silent room.
Thomas sat motionless on his bed; his head wrapped in VR goggles, hands poised over invisible controls. Black cables snaked across the bed and over the floor to the net port. A sheet of paper hung from one wall with the words 'Your enemy is not an electronic Face, but a person' and 'Find the Flesh' printed across it. The author's name was written across the bottom: Ichiro Takemoto.
Inside the VR gear, Thomas plotted his information dig carefully.
A dozen trips into the net led to a dozen dead ends. The net listed several hundred Dana Riggs, and a dozen were teachers, but Thomas could not connect any of them to his Dana Riggs. Reducing the list to zero was a simple exercise of categorization and comparison. No matter what criteria he applied, he got the same results: nothing.
In frustration, he dropped out of VR, removed the goggles, and unhooked himself from the tangled cables. Wearing only gray, ragged sweat pants - in case his parents checked on him, something they now did with annoying regularity after his suspension - he padded out of his darkened bedroom, blinking at the bright light.
His stomach growled and he realized it was almost one o'clock. Enough time before his parents returned home for another foray into VR. Dana had been kind enough to send next week's assignments home. Thomas had shipped the work to an offshore AI, but he still needed to run doctoring programs that introduced errors and insured he had not solved any problems beyond his skill. Quite often it was as much work avoiding homework as doing it - but a lot more educational.
Staring at the endless news vid running across the wall, he shoveled down a tasteless carton of tofu lasagna while wondering how Dana Riggs had vanished from the net. He paused halfway through the meal with the dawning realization that Dana had to be using a privacy service. She used a top-notch firm as well; most commercial privacy companies just warned you off. Finding someone you knew to be hiding was much easier than finding someone who might not even exist.
He scrambled into the VR gear while his remaining lunch cooled on the kitchen table. Minutes later, the VR interface's smooth feel flowed over him.
"Quick lunch," Tutor greeted him as the interface resolved into his antechamber. Thriving in VR depended on information. Serious people subscribed to one or more AI's. Each one a voice in your ear, advising, researching and acting as a second set of eyes. Tutor stood in the corner, waiting as always, wearing his nondescript, dark gray suit. His black hair was combed straight back. Pre-programmed bland features attempted to blend into the background. If Thomas' complained about Tutor's appearance, Thomas received a wane smile and a reminder that he was not allowed to alter Tutor's appearance.
"Yeah," Thomas agreed and explained the theory why they could not find any reference to his teacher.
"Of course, I assumed that you understood a privacy service company was involved."
"You assumed?" Thomas stopped in surprise. "We just blew the morning trying to beat a top-notch privacy company and you knew."
"Certainly, we both know she is concrete, not a VR construct. If she is concrete then she is locatable, unless someone or something is protecting her. I assumed you felt you could beat the service. You have shown that stubborn side before."
Thomas sighed. AI's were tools and only as useful as their master. "Okay, but next time I start an impossible project, warn me. Then I'll tell you to shut up."
Tutor changed the subject. "I believe you have a new research path to locate the quarry."
A cat-like grin spread across Thomas's face. "I sure do. Privacy services are only good after you hire them. We might not find anything current, but if we go back far enough we sure will."
"Old information is as bad as wrong information," Tutor quoted an Ichiro Takemoto truism.
"And no information is worse. I'll take what I can get. We don't need much, just something so I can beat her school security. Something so I can clean up my record and have a little fun."
"Privacy companies offer new names, net ids, jobs. They hide people. Dana Riggs is not her name. And then they actively protect their clients information from whomever they're hiding from."
Thomas frowned as the full impact of the project hit him. He mentally traced through Tutor's logic. "It's not going to be easy." Thomas rushed on, before Tutor scoffed. "But it has to be easier to go backwards, doesn't it? We know her new name; it's just a matter of finding the old one. We know when and where she appeared, her age. Her accent and vocabulary. The privacy companies hide you from your past finding you. Not from someone finding your past."
"It is estimated that over a million people vanished last year alone," Tutor said, his voice flat and he stared at Thomas, watching for a response.
Thomas was suddenly reminded of another Ichiro Takemoto quote. 'Motive is everything. Every human action is based on a motive.'
"But why? Why do people disappear? Specifically why do women vanish?"
Tutor looked up sharply. "Statistically, divorce and stalkers are the primary reason for women to vanish. Other reasons include avoiding business partners from failed business, affairs -"
"Great. We'll start with the most common reasons and work our way down."
Where the trail of Dana Rigg's life ended, they found thousands of divorces and restraining orders in the United States alone. Tutor built a database will components from a dozen sources. Once he was satisfied with his construct, he pulled all the details they had on their lives.
Tutor turned to Thomas. "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
"What are you talking about?" Thomas asked, puzzled.
Tutor sighed. "It's time to get to work. How do you want to reduce our list?" Tutor waved at the database that he had built to resemble a large filing cabinet.
"How many are teachers?" Thomas asked. "No privacy company would hide a teacher as a teacher. And now many do not have enough education to qualify as a teacher?"
Tutor answered almost immediately. "One hundred twelve and fifty-five, respectfully."
"Great. Delete them. How only keep those who are within ten years of Ms. Riggs age."
An hour later their list was under one thousand.
"Well, that's pretty good. Let's go through the set one by one tomorrow. I just hope she's in this set; if we need to get access to divorce records in other countries that's going to cost more money than I have."
Tutor coughed once, softly.
Thomas turned back; AI's had quirks. Tutor never presented incomplete information but would give subtle hints that something remained.
"Did I miss something?"
"The school meets daily at regular hours. A brief check of her voice indicates a similar regional accent to your own. Check your time zone first, then the closest time zone. She keeps the same hours you do; she's close by."
Thomas stopped just short of hitting himself in the forehead. "Of course, filter the results on that. Who does that leave?"
"And how many have no activity on the net after their divorce?" With the target list reduced to ninety-one, it was a simple task for Tutor to check the activity on their net id.
Several minutes went by as Tutor traced activity for each id. "Twenty."
Thomas' whoop cut off Tutor. "Let's see the list."
Tutor continued. "Seven where murdered. Are you certain that you wish to continue? She is hiding for a reason."
"Of course. We're not going to hurt her. Now bring up the list.
The third name on the list gathered Tutor's attention. "Danielle Takemoto. Dana is a form of Danielle. And she was married to Ichiro Takemoto. The Ichiro Takemoto."
Thomas gave a low whistle. "Hiding from the best man in VR security, that has to be tough. Let's run some background checks and she if Danielle is really our Dana."
The whirl of virtual documents started moments after entering Danielle Takemoto's name.
"Here we go," Thomas said.
Tutor crowded in close. "The information seems to fit. Divorce and restraining orders were issued. She took several extra courses in English literature while in school, long before she was married."
Thomas’ personal alarms began to flash and wail.
"Something is scanning your Face," Tutor said.
"Yeah, I can see that, but what? It just sliced through my defenses. Besides I paid for access --"
"There." Tutor pointed.
Thomas spotted a small, information ferret. Sleek and elegant, its fur glowed with life. Small, beady inquisitive eyes stared at them. In the moments they watched the weasel swell as it absorbed their information.
"Damn, that's a custom job. Nothing commercial that size could slice my defense. Let's get it."
The ferret became a hyper, brown streak. Seconds later, they bounded from the archives and into the main thoroughfares. The ferret dodged through a dozen public antechambers, bouncing from node to node. It took Tutor's perfect vision to keep the ferret in sight.
Desperate, the weasel barged into a private commerce room, setting off a dozen alarms. Thomas didn't hesitate as he followed, just seconds later.
"I know," Thomas shouted, cutting Tutor's warnings off.
Transaction booths and AI advisors shut down; hounds and security constructs oozed from the walls and floor. The dozen or so patrons scrambled for the antechambers so they could exit the VR environment.
"There, there, there," Tutor shouted, pointing as the weasel slipped out an exit.
Thomas sprinted to the exits, just keeping out of the security construct's grasp. Dodging through the doors, he leaped into the crowds of people. Thomas let his disguise fall away and a new one rose in it place. Through the crowd he could see the weasel bounding away.
"Come on, Tutor. Let's go."
Tutor did not reply, and Thomas looked back at the doors he just escaped from. Tutor was nowhere in sight. Thomas realized that Tutor had thrown himself into the security constructs, allowing Thomas to escape. AI's could not really sacrifice themselves, only have information cut away or personalities erased. Tutor was just a finger of a large and powerful AI, but someone had the pay the penalty for dodging into a secure place of business.
Thomas sighed as the weasel vanished from sight. Seconds passed and so did all hope for recovering its trail. Thomas turned and pushed his way back through the doors he had just fought free of. As a minor he would pay a much lower fine for barging into a private business than an AI running amok. Abandoning a friend with a problem he had caused never entered his mind.
Officially, Dana was supposed enter the virtual classroom forty-five minutes before class started, but she typically arrived far earlier.
When her desk announced Thomas (status: suspended) was asking for admittance to the classroom, she immediately granted permission.
Wearing street clothes, Thomas strolled across the room. "Ms. Riggs?"
"Yes, Thomas? Do you have a question with the assignments?"
"You never mentioned that you were married to Ichiro Takemoto," he blurted out.
Dana's face froze. "We're divorced," she interrupted him, her voice flat. "And if you have been researching me, you know by now that I value my privacy. My ex is not a nice man; he stalked me for months until I managed to hide."
"That’s what I need to tell you," Thomas said. "I think he found me."
While students began to trickle in, Thomas explained his research, the weasel and the resulting chase. Thomas pulled up a chair near Dana, and they bent their heads together. When Robert sauntered in, he shouted a greeting at Thomas and hurried over.
"Hey, you're back early..."
Thomas shot Robert a look that stopped him in his tracks. Robert's half-spoken sentence died, and he turned to take his seat.
"Ichiro will show up in the middle of the class, I just know it."
Puzzled, Thomas asked, "Why?"
Dana shook her head. "I left him for a number of very good reasons. He got mad and started to stalk me, showing up in VR, messing with my personal accounts and even reset my preferences for my AI. My clocks would reset in the middle of the night, and the refrigerator would call for emergency service. That kind of stuff. You name it, he did it."
"He messed with your AI?" Thomas whistled to himself. He had invested over a year teaching Tutor how to understand his needs and figuring out Tutor's quirks. "I didn't think that could be done."
"We're talking about Ichiro Takemoto. Anyway, he kept at it, and I filed privacy orders extending into VR, changed jobs and disappeared. If he shows up the privacy orders are violated, and he could go to jail. Or lose access to VR."
"So he won't dare show up, will he?" asked Thomas.
"He's too good. He could show up and the authorities wouldn't know. My only defense was anonymity."
"Look, I'm sorry about this. I didn't mean anything to happen. I just wanted to have some fun with you."
Dana looked away and took a few deep breaths. "Thomas, all I've ever wanted to do was teach. You haven't made it very easy. Go home, I'll take care of this. I can't believe he watched my real name to see who accessed it. I may never be really free from him."
Seeing Thomas downcast face, she lied, "Don't worry, it will work out."
Thomas pushed himself to his feet, started to speak then walked away, slipping through the rows of desks. He ignored the other students questioning looks and Robert's waves for attention.
The door to the antechamber did not budge as Thomas pulled at it. Alarmed, he spun around and stared at Dana.
Dana silently mouthed, "He's here."
Thomas hurried back to her desk.
"Someone is in the antechamber. I've blocked the door, but it won't hold him very long," Dana whispered.
"Give me privileged space access."
Dana stared at him, her mouth open. "Are you kidding? That gives you control over our VR environment."
"Just do it," he said, and walked back to his seat. Moments later, a complex key appeared on his desk. Thomas wiped the lesson away, and summoned Tutor and his personal tools.
Dana did not acknowledge the raised hands and called out questions. While trying to summon the school security constructs and the police, Dana kept repeatedly glancing at the door. Soon the class craned their heads around at whatever interested her. Thomas worked feverishly in the few seconds he had left.
Moments before the door wards failed, Thomas said, "Ms. Riggs, come over here." He then activated the program and shouted in his loudest, most commanding voice, "Everyone stand up."
Ichiro burst through the door wearing the stylized black lacquered leather and iron armor of a 15th century Samurai. A helmet and scowling demon mask hid his face. Ichiro stopped just inside the door and stared.
Thirty-one identical Dana Riggs stared back at him.
Students shirkedand laughed at Ichiro's sudden arrival and their change in appearance.
"Enough," Ichiro thundered. "Silence."
Thomas opened a private channel between Tutor, Ms. Riggs and himself.
Tutor whispered, "Nothings working. The only thing I'm certain of is that he is in the room, that's it."
"Danielle," Ichiro spoke. "Make this easy on your students." He took two steps forward and tapped one Dana Rigg figure.
When nothing happened, he said, "Whoever is helping you is very good. He or she should be congratulated." Ichiro drew the katana from its scabbard. "We can still do this the easy way." He swung the sword at the closest student, who screamed and leaped away.
The sword passed through him and the costume vanished, revealing one of the terrified students.
"Oh, man," Robert said, sitting at his desk. "We can't leave, the exit routines are blocked." The VR immersion was so deep that it was difficult and dangerous to tear free of the equipment.
Ichiro posed with his sword in a double-handed grip pointed at the student and ordered him to sit down. "So we must do this the hard way? Very well." Ichiro mowed down the next dozen students.
"What are you doing?" Ms. Riggs whispered across their private channel.
Thomas responded as his fingers flew across the desk. "I'll show you, almost done."
"Better hurry, he's spotted us."
Thomas spared a glance over his shoulder. Ichiro, holding the sword ready, strode toward them.
"Well, here is my puppet master. Now which is the real Danielle Takemoto." He pointed the sword back and forth from Thomas to Dana. "You were never very good with computers, so..." He raised the sword high, ready to strike at Thomas' hunched back.
"Let's see about that," Thomas stopped work and faced Ichiro. "You're not so tough. Tutor, NOW!"
Surprised at Thomas' outburst, Ichiro froze, his sword dangling in mid-air.
"Nothing happened," Dana whispered in Thomas's ear.
Ichiro gave a deep booming laugh, his entire body shaking. "Now I know you're not Danielle. I'd like to say that you've been a worthy adversary...but I'd be lying."
As he spoke, the samurai disguise rippled once, resembling interference rolling across a vid screen. Ichiro hesitated and then brought the sword down violently. The sword vanished before touching Thomas. The samurai outfit's bright colors and patterns lost their vibrancy, fading into washed-out imitations before the entire disguise vanished.
In place of the Samurai armor stood a Japanese man. He had short black hair gathered into a ponytail and a thin, trim beard. A neat business suit hung limp and wrinkled from chasing students. He grasped involuntarily for the missing sword.
"What, how?" he stammered. Dana grinned at Ichiro's expression of surprise and disbelief.
"Ichiro Takemoto." A strange voice filled the room. "You are in violation of a court-mandated order. You must actively avoid all contact with your former wife."
Ichiro swore and vanished from the middle of the room.
"Ms. Riggs," the voice asked. "Will you be pressing charges against Ichiro Takemoto? Answer: Yes or No."
Dana did not hesitate, "Yes, thank god."
Class did not meet for several days while the excitement died down. VR protocol enforcers and real-time police insisted Dana and Thomas keep apart while they pieced together their story.
Thomas showed up early to the next class, arriving moments after Dana appeared in the antechamber.
Dana turned from the old fashioned blackboard. "Thomas, thanks. Thanks a lot. I mean it," she stammered awkwardly for a moment.
"You're welcome," Thomas said. He waved his hands as if to dismiss her praise. "It was my fault that it happened, right?" Shrugging his shoulders, he looked up at her shyly. "You want to know how I beat him? Don't you? The cops said they didn't tell you."
"Well, I didn't. I mean I couldn't beat him in a fair fight -- in any fight. I tried, but my best tricks seemed didn't phase him." Seeing Dana's puzzled expression, Thomas smiled. "I disguised him, I knew who it was and you knew who it was. The only people who didn't know who he was, was the authorities. Simple, huh? With the access to your key, I fooled the monitor program to think he was there. The school AI did the rest. He turned himself in to avoid becoming a fugitive.
"I'm going to get some work done." Thomas dropped into his chair and pulled out a stylus.
"Thomas," Dana said softly. "I changed the access key. Don't bother."
"Aw, well, I guess I'll come back before the start of class." He stepped out into the antechamber, and Dana's desk whispered she was alone.
"During all this, you had almost one minute unsupervised in my space," she said to the empty room. "What presents did you leave?" Dana began working in earnest.