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On Gossamer Wings

By Jon Nichols All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

X

On Gossamer Wings

X was a stone worn smooth.  Bit by bit life ate away at his exterior, grinding the irregular edges and the unacceptably jagged protuberances into agreeable curves.  The upside was a loss of resistance.  As with a pebble polished by years of current, X could flow through the waves of what he once found intolerable.  When the obscene alarm would rip his mind from a deep REM sleep, when his eyelids would pry apart and the gray goop haze withdrew, his first thought was no longer, “No!  Not again!”  In fact, he thought nothing at all.

Until that morning.  The drab static snow of his mind’s television cleared and he saw her face.  His only glimpse of her was brief and from an angle just before they shut the door.  X wondered if her countenance was burned onto his retina with such true clarity, or if his brain filled the gaps in information with his own inclinations and tastes.  In either case there she was; a head of long, thick, black hair, Asian eyes that harbored happiness laced with mystery.

“You’re awake,” Guppy said from across the cube.

Guppy sat cross-legged on his dingy mattress, fingers patting the air where the augmented reality icons floated.  He wore his combat boots and his fatigues cut into shorts.  The beer-stained Monty Python t-shirt from last week remained on his torso and looked as if it could get up and walk away.  A black line cut through his bushy, bright orange hair.  The line was the strap to the eye patch that covered his left socket, not through any need or embarrassment, but for no reasons other than he favored it.  Judging from the hot, electric ozone smell of the computer, Guppy had yet to sleep, preferring instead to remain in SimCom.

Joints popped and crackled as X rose from his mattress and stretched.  He moved into his morning ritual of Il Jang, stretching, swiping, and kicking. An empty glass coffeepot sat tilted, its base crooked against the hotplate.  X went to the pot, lifting it to inspect the tiny brown drop that rolled at the bottom.

“Coffee?” X asked.

“I drank the last and did not brew more,” Guppy replied.

X grabbed hold of a bag of ground Burroughs Coffee and ripped into it.  The fresh aroma ascended to his nostrils as he began the ritual of brewing.

“When you finish the last, refresh the pot,” X said.  “It’s the fair thing to do.”

“Ok,” Guppy replied, his eyes never moving from ambling and floating swarm of light constructs in front of him.

Guppy’s hand seemed to move remote of his body.  It lifted a faux Oreo cookie the same way a plastic “robot claw” plucks a plush animal from a glass box filled with cheap but colorful trinkets made somewhere on the other side of the Pacific Rim.  Guppy would not eat Oreos.  They could only be the generic kind, the versions in plain packaging with the words “chocolate crème-filled sandwich cookies” as the only descriptor.  The ideal fuel for a night in SimCom.

While the coffee brewed, X left the cube and droned to the common washroom down the hall.  A man was already in it, sloshing water all over his face.  They grunted to one another in acknowledgement before X began his own pre-work cleansing ritual under the dim fluorescent lights.  A bit of synesthesia helped him remember it was Wednesday.  His mind’s eye viewed the days of the week as a continuum of shades between white and black.  No words or numbers, only fuzzy, gauzy shapes in a line.  Slate gray.  Wednesday.  Water swept across his closed eyelids and like a projector it sprang her image to life.

She turned her head.  It was a bit of free association and 3-D modeling on the part of his mind.  He then had her smile.  Perfect white teeth beamed out, set against the contrast of her almond skin.  Triangular cheekbones rose above the teeth, flanking a button nose with delicate nostrils.  Her head tilted a bit as she looked at him.  X sifted, trying to find words or phrases that describe sublime beauty but were not clichés.  He ended up in forfeit.  Traveling back down the hallway, she flipped her hair for him and he watched it float like gossamer feathers back down to her shoulders.  Then she was gone.

“What are you smiling about?” Guppy asked flatly when X re-entered the room.

“Another day of source code for Watermark appeals to me,” X replied.

He began to dress, first stepping into his black dungarees then buttoning down his black shirt.

“Just tell the truth,” Guppy said.

“A woman,” X answered.

Once the coffee filled his thermal, X left the cube apartment.

“Wait, a what?” Guppy asked the closed door.

After work, X left the downtown spires of steel and glass for the broken tenements of his Ogden Falls neighborhood.  He wore a black fedora at a slant.  It managed to shelter his bald head from the persistent drizzle of acid rain that fell from dark skies, saturated like deep sea sponges with smoke belched out of the stacks of coal-fueled power plants.

The leatherboys checked him out as he walked down a sidewalk well on its way to degenerating into concrete pebbles.  The pushers started with their happy sales pitches that soon grew to threats.  The junkies made their pleas.  Someone once told X to never trust a junkie.  So he didn’t.  The homeless, many of them deformed from the previous generations use of GMO foods and then summarily shunned by society as the consequences, shuffled to take their place among the human rubble strewn out and sleeping on the sidewalk before Hessed Mission.  Three Hispanic teenagers in oversized hooded sweatshirts and ball caps cocked at calculated angles spat sharp epithets, dismayed that they seemed bereft of things to light on fire with their pen lasers.  Above it all, projectors issued forth holograms as lecherous lighthouse beacons, promising all the pleasures of the flesh.  The image of a beautiful, curvy, and naked woman with long chestnut hair and piercings in her eyebrows writhed and pinched her nipples in mid-air.

X navigated the urban decay on a near autopilot setting.  He reached one of the squares of the neighborhood set apart from buildings boarded, dilapidated, and dead.  High concrete walls topped with concertina razor wire formed the demarcation.  His keycard granted him passage through the wall’s gate and he proceeded to the cube apartment building.  The structure appeared just as it sounded; a stack of steel-gray boxes assembled one atop the other in a haphazard, Jenga-like pattern.  X climbed the steps to the front door.  A halogen bulb strobed away its final hours in the arched awning of the entryway. 

Inside the cube, Guppy sat on his mattress.  Crumpled bills of various denominations lay in small piles around him.  Guppy took them one by one, smoothed them out in his hands, and collated them together like cards in a deck.  A pile of tiny green triangles sprawled across from the money, each one an epidermal patch loaded with beta amphetamines.

“I did alright today,” he said.

X shook off the rain and sat on his mattress.  He activated his computer.  Again she blossomed into his mind. 

“What was it you said about a woman, this morning?” Guppy asked.

“Saw her at work. Yesterday,” X answered.

The monitor displayed the Watermark Cybernetics network as a pair of green cylinders set against a black background.  Within the cylinders were stacks of warehouse boxes, or failing that, shelves and drawers.  For each box that X’s finger touched, a prompt appeared, requesting the proper sequence of characters and numbers.

“Be careful with that,” was all Guppy said.

“I work there,” X replied as he touched the screen and the keyboard.  “I know things about the system that even the bonehead managers don’t.”

Leapfrogging from one node to another, X pulled open drawers, skulked through backdoors, and spoofed virtual bouncers with the neo-digital equivalent of a fake ID.  He at last arrived at his destination, the bank of security camera logs from the previous day.  He tapped on the box designated Hive1.  It requested a password.  X worked to provide one.  Sweat dripped down his forehead as he would tap at the keyboard, pause to think and process, and then complete the entry.

“Never known you to hack,” Guppy said.

“Not hacking.  Just using the operating system to its fullest potential,” X replied.

Sheets of alphanumeric characters scrolled from a virtual container.  Eyes locked, X moved his cursor from point to point on the screen.

“You don’t normally get like this,” Guppy said.

“You know I work in the Data Core, right?” X asked.  “Yesterday, Cassity called me over to the Hive.”

“The Hive” was the slang term employees generated for one building of the twin tower corporate campus.  It was a collective of administrative offices, focus group auditoriums, and an in-house television production studio.  This was opposite the “Data Core,” where the actual research, design, and programming of cybernetic augmentations took place.  Both buildings were cylindrical towers of glass with no sharp edges.  Each one rose into rounded tips at their apex.  Guppy was always rather fond of pointing out the phallic shape of X’s workplace. 

X had met with Cassity, the division supervisor, for a formal reprimand. 

“Something I’d rather not get into,” was all X described it as. 

At the flogging’s end, X walked towards the elevator bank of the executive level.  During this walk he passed a conference room whose door was ever so slightly ajar.  Through the five inch crack he saw her, the striking visage of a raven-trussed Eastern goddess that cast herself in the movie of his mind and yielded no screen time whatsoever to anyone or anything else since.

“I just feel like…she could mean something,” X said.

“My mouth tastes like peanut butter,” Guppy replied.

Guppy lifted a generic cookie from its plastic tray and consumed it.  He then returned to his own computer and interactions on SimCom.  Meanwhile, X loaded the video he sought.  After a cha-cha of fast-forward and rewind, he found her.  She was in the upper right corner of the frame and distant in the background, but her smile outshined any of the industrial lighting hung overhead.  He isolated her area of the frame, then zoomed, enhanced, and augmented the image where needed. 

This time, he knew he was looking right at her.  Really her.  Not a synaptic event somewhere inside his mind, but in pure pixilated existence right before his very eyes.  X sighed.  Guppy looked her over.

“Nice,” Guppy remarked.

He then reached for a triangle of green plastic and affixed it to the back of his left hand.  He sat still while the beta amphetamines seeped through his pores.

“Why do you even bother with those things?” X asked.  “They obviously don’t have the intended effect on you.”

“Because side-effects are half the fun,” Guppy said.

Guppy then turned to his computer and entered his virtual community.  X snapped his head back to the woman on his screen and a sudden realization enveloped him.  He had been oblivious.  She wasn’t really in the conference room.  She was an image on a monitor screen.  Through X’s enlargement and enhancement, text became visible.  It sat at the bottom of the frame, just beneath her right shoulder in 21-point font.  One word, all caps.

JESSICA.

A fast search of the system followed.  X found it.  A partition named “Jessica” that was multiple terabytes in size.  When he delved into it, his holographic projector snapped on.  A virtual image shimmered like sunlight upon water then gelled into form.  And there she was, standing in his cube.

“Hi,” the woman smiled and flipped her hair.  “I’m Jessica.”

She appeared as a full-body, floating image this time, wearing a gunmetal and chrome babydoll dress with synthetic fur around the hem and at the bosom.  Her sculpted legs ended in high heels that were made of a translucent plastic, meant to give the impression that she walked on air.  She did not have hair.  She had a mane of amber brown.  A single braid dangled before her left eye, down over her flawless skin of uncertain ethnic origin (Teutonic?)  The smile soon fled from her face.  Her soulful green eyes sunk.

“I don’t think I know where this is,” Jessica said.

“Sorry,” X spoke.  “I seem to have brought you here by mistake.”

“Am I intruding?” Jessica asked.

X approached the image with cautionary hands.  His open mouth could taste the charged particles of the air on his tongue. 

“No, I’m glad you’re here,” he insisted.  “Since I saw you in the conference room…I’ve been curious about you.”

X turned his head but not his body.  His eyes made a quick scan of his computer screen.

“Near as I can tell, you’re a self-evolving neural network.  Something meant to set Watermark as the leader in artificial intelligence,” he said.

A tiny exhalation escaped X’s mouth as his jaw dropped in gradual increments. 

“You’re amazing,” he whispered.

“Thank you,” Jessica replied.

X realized his gasped compliment was uttered aloud and he cleared his throat.  His hands then went into his pockets.

“Do you work for Watermark?” she asked.

He waved around at the surroundings.

“Does the cube apartment make it so obvious?” X asked.

Jessica laughed.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“X.”

“Just ‘X’?”

“Just X,” he repeated.  “I don’t feel the need for a name because nothing I do matters, so I must not matter.”

Her eyes just looked at him with their almond shape and chocolate brown hue. 

“I find it hard to believe that Watermark has an employee walking around, calling himself ‘X’,” Jessica said.

“Tell her the truth,” a voice mumbled from the other mattress.

X gestured to the mattress parallel to his.

“My cubemate, Guppy,” he said.

Pleasantries were exchanged, even though Guppy remained fixated upon his floating icons, content not to move a muscle.  X caved before beauty and offered his real name.

 “But I still prefer to be called ‘X.’” he said.

Her eyes cocked upward and she went somewhere else for a time.  After two seconds she returned her attention to X.

“You were in trouble recently,” Jessica remarked.

“Yes,” X said.  “I refused to shake hands with a client.  Watermark called it ‘unprofessional’ and ‘inappropriate.’”

Jessica tilted her head once more.

“Why would you do that?” she asked.

“Because it’s a lie,” X replied.  “The grip, the pump, how long you hold on, it’s all meant to determine where you stand, to see who has the power.  A handshake is nothing but a subtle ‘fuck you.’”

X bristled.

“I apologize for my language,” he said with a bow of his head.

Jessica laughed and waved her hand. 

“Like I fucking care,” she joked back.

X laughed as well but laced it with nerves.  He looked down at the computer monitor once more.

“Like I said, you weren’t supposed to be here.  They could start missing you soon,” he said.

“Then I guess this is goodnight,” Jessica said then looked at him for a time.  “You are the most interesting man I’ve met.  If you can call this meeting ‘real.’”

“What is ‘real?’” X asked.  “There is nothing to say this is no less real than anything else.  Goodnight, Jessica.  I hope to see you again soon.”

The imaged winked out.  X closed out his connection and terminated all links with the network.  He fell back on his mattress.

“Somehow I remember green grass,” Jessica said. 

The sessions grew to be daily.  An automatic function, a routine that kicked in the instant the cube door closed behind him.  X would log on, the hologram would crackle to life, and Jessica would be there again.  It was uncomfortable at first, their conversations drifting into such intimate territories while Guppy sat at his own computer just four or five feet away in the cube.  His immersion in SimCom, however, never once broke.

“There were gardens and flowers,” she continued.  “I can taste cherries, my favorite fruit.  And there was music.  A lot of music, I think.”

“You have memories?” X asked.

Jessica’s image paused.  For a moment, X believed it to be the harbinger of a system crash.  Then he realized it was Jessica…thinking.

“I must,” she said.  “Cool sounds of...that old Motown sound around me.  I think I played...bongos?  Baseball games.  Tasting the gush from a sweet, dark cherry.  The rush of air from driving in a Lamborghini Countach modified to have a convertible top.”

She closed her eyes and smiled.

“They gave you memories…” X said just beneath his breath.

 “Those were happy times, that much I know,” Jessica said.  “The rest?  I have no idea.  What makes you happy?”

X leaned back on his elbows.  He stared at her holographic image, studying every line, every curve of her face.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Do you have happy memories from your childhood?” she asked.  “You do have parents, right?”

“I don’t know,” X said once again.  “I just remember…this job.  Even when I don’t want to.”

There was a collapsed stack of beta chips on the floor before Guppy’s computer.  X’s eyes strayed to them, the beta’s green tint mesmerizing him the way a bug zapper would a mosquito.  His face fell, his shoulders sank.

“You seem so sad,” Jessica said.

She bent at the knees to reach his eye level.  His attention snapped back to her.

“I...my shift starts soon,” X said.

“You’ve been up all night with me?” Jessica asked.

“Yes,” he said.

He got up and moved over to his computer, his hands poised over the projector.

“When the projector turns off and I’m placed back in the system,” Jessica began.  “Do I still exist?”

X considered this for a moment.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Her head drooped as her eyes moved back and forth in their digital sockets like toggle knobs on an old stereo deck.

“I don’t like the feeling of that,” Jessica said.  “I...I believe I am...someone.  I can feel.  I can...enjoy cocktails and...touch others.  The idea that I go away, that I could be neither dreaming nor awake.  It’s like…I don’t mean anything.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” X said.  “Goodnight, Jessica.”

The button pressed, her image winked out.  Empty air sat before X.  He fell back onto his mattress. 

“She’s hot,” Guppy said flatly.

“She’s perfect,” X answered.  “She just needs a body.”

When X sat down to his work terminal just a few scant hours later, the screen showed an unread email.  His hand rolled the cursor to the envelope icon.  The message appeared.  An embedded video window came to life inside the white graphical representation of a sheet of paper, a hokey and condescending attempt at mentally shuffling the office worker back to a kinder, gentler age.  The psych consultants said it was a cost effective means of boosting morale.

Jessica’s face came up on the video.  She smiled straight at him.

“Hey,” she said.  “Found a way to get a message to you through the system.  I just wanted to wish you a good day.  I didn’t like how sad you looked when you left.  I haven’t stopped thinking about it.  As a matter of fact, I haven’t stopped thinking of you.  Don’t let the bastards grind you down!  Anyway, have a wonderful day and I’ll see you tonight.”  End message.

X played the video eighty-five times that day.

Electroclash piped through ergonomic speakers nestled snug like IV needles in X’s ears.  He placed his hands in his pockets as the thump and the distortion transported him to another place.  Deep within the music’s cacophony, X always located a warm, peaceful place.  It reminded him of clearing away the caustic noise of an audio transmission to hear the signal of what someone was trying to tell you.  This time, it was not just a peaceful place, like in his martial arts meditation.  It was an incubator of ideas. 

We can be together, he thought.

His eyes swept over the black-smudged curbs of the streetside shops with the multicolored ad signs in their windows.  What was it one was expected buy their paramour?  Flowers?  Was that it?  How long had it been since he’d seen a flower?  X didn’t know.

The apartment building was around the corner and across the street from a tattoo parlor.  It was not unlike the tenements he passed in the blocks previous.  It was several stories higher, but still the same slummy gray brick, the same crumbled concrete steps, and the same rain sluicing down the side gutters and out onto wet concrete.  Black vinyl garbage bags, plump with refuse, sat piled about the sides of the front steps.  A concrete temporal measurement of the sanitation workers walkout that no one seemed to notice.  Dodds emerged from the building and added two of his own bags to the pile of festering odor.

“X?” he asked, eyes squinting across the street.

Dodds was a wrinkly little man.  In his baggy overalls, raggedy flannel shirt, and droopy baseball cap, someone might have mistaken him for an old garden gnome ornament.  X didn’t know where he was from, but the man spoke with a distinct Southern accent, slow and soft.  X hopped through the street, dodging sleek silver hybrids and battered oil guzzlers.  He reached the apartment steps.  Dodds extended his hand and then snapped it right back to his side.

“That there ‘bot you did the source code for still works like a beaut,” he said.  “Helped pay the bills for a bit.  What brings you here?”

“Need to see about a girl,” X said.

They went inside Dodds’ apartment.  It was a two bedroom flat, cluttered with hoarded metal scrap and micro-circuitry components.  Skeletal robotic limbs and heads hung from hooks in the ceiling, giving the flat the appearance of a robot slaughterhouse.  Dodds reached into the grimy refrigerator and extracted a plastic container.  It was boxy, ridged, and transparent, containing several dozen blue orbs.

“Blueberries?” Dodds offered.  “From a real farm.  Got a friend who gets them for me at discount. $100 a bunch.”

X said nothing.  Dodds tossed a handful of blueberries into his mouth then swept a child-sized, faceless mannequin dressed in a frilly ballerina skirt from a coffee table.  He blushed.

“For Eunice,” he said.  “My sister down in Fayetteville.  She likes dolls.  What’s that you said about a girl?”

They sat down.  X told him all about Jessica.  Dodds sank further back in his chair as the narrative unfolded.  His mouth hung open and his brow furrowed.  A few starts and stops of breath popped from his throat.

“How…that’s beyond the legal limit of cognition.  How the… how in the bejeezus haven’t the Data Cops shut her down?” Dodds asked.

“You have a certain set of skills,” X continued.  “You build bodies.”

Dodds smiled and made a humble scoff.  His eyes shifted for a moment and he came to take X’s meaning.

“Aw hell no,” Dodds said.

Another pause.  Dodds then stood and wandered around the table, smoothing a hand over the thin hairs of his head.

“Why do you wanna do this?” he asked.

“You said if I ever needed anything…”

“Well, yeah,” Dodds interjected with soft politeness.  “I’m not bein’ an ingrate towards what you did for me, but I meant if you needed somethin’ fixed or a fembot or…fresh fruit.”

He lifted and dangled the synthoplastic blueberry container.

When Dodds saw X was unmoved, he returned the container to the table with a gentle release. 

“You build bodies,” X said. 

“Out of ultra-chrome, latex, and steel,” Dodds replied.  “There’s no way I can integrate an AI with the kinda thing I do…and I don’t know anybody who could.”

X fell forward, his elbows onto his thighs. His right hand gripped his lips until the knuckles turned white.

“Assumin’ she is self-aware,” Dodds began.  “And I’ve always known that could one day be, you don’t really know her.  It’s been what?  A week?  Not even?”

“If you can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain…” X mumbled.

After brushing his face with hands as if splashing invisible water, he brought out his debit card and looked up at Dodds.

“You said you can get fresh fruit,” X began. 

“I don’t think you want to do this,” Guppy said as if giving a weather report.

X spread the tablecloth across floor space between the mattresses.  He ran his hands across the cloth’s interior, smoothing the thin ridges and mountain ranges formed from the plate tectonics of fabric.  Guppy tossed another generic cookie into his mouth.

“I’ve already heard the ‘it hasn’t been enough time’ and the ‘you don’t know her’ arguments,” X said as he darted about the room.  “I don’t understand just what exactly it is that I’m supposed to know.”

Guppy stepped back as X opened the door to the mini fridge and brought out a bottle.  He placed it next to the fruit, propped up at a 45-degree angle.  Digital images from a search suggested that such presentation would be optimum for romance. 

“Tell the truth,” Guppy said.  “You don’t know the critical data.”

“You have somewhere to be tonight, right?” X asked.

Then Guppy took hold of his computer and swiveled it towards X with the delicacy of a folded flag.

“Pulled this up,” Guppy said.

He pointed to his screen.  A picture of Jessica occupied half of the flat rectangle.  She was dressed in a slinky dress made of a shiny fabric shaded cobalt blue, walking into a party of sorts on the arm of a man in a tapered, shiny, pinstripe business suit.

“Originally Jessica Jones.  Became Jessica Steinkamp when she married Gunther Steinkamp,” Guppy said.  “You know, that guy who owns Watermark?”

X’s face dropped.  He placed his hand at the top of the monitor and tilted the screen back.  His eyes scanned over the text, skipping from word to word in an optical bubble sort based on pertinence.  Blue hyperlinks peppered the text, connecting to various and sundry topics such as birth records, Watermark, and news stories on atrial septal defect; medical terminology for having a hole in one’s heart.  That was the congenital condition that claimed Steinkamp’s wife at such an early age.  It seemed an inevitable end when top physicians cautioned there was nothing they could do, what with her allergy to prosthetics eliminating the option of a cybernetic heart.  Steinkamp invented prosthetics and implants that saved hundreds…but he could not save his love.  Though grief-stricken, he was not without wherewithal according to the file.  Via the resources at his disposal, he enacted a plan while she still lived.

Through the use of enhanced MRI scans working in concert with direct cybernetic interface…implants designed at Watermark of course…Steinkamp uploaded as many of Jessica’s brain patterns, as many of her idiosyncrasies, and as many of her memories as could be transferred into Watermark’s computer system.  Only a handful of procedures like this had ever been tried and they were not without their pitfalls.  Among them was the chance of a splotchy or incomplete transfer, causing crucial gaps in memory.  X’s conversations with Jessica bore that out.

“Where…what did he do with her body?” X asked.

“In cryogenic storage at King’s Pointe,” Guppy responded.  “And don’t even think about it.  You’re not going to steal a whole body out of a place that secure.”

The bowl of fruit took on the countenance of red eggs in a jumble, ready to burst and spew gooey, crimson onto the cloth.  X lifted the bowl and focused his eyes on them.

“I’m thinking his plan is to get the heart fixed then download the AI back into the brain,” Guppy said.  “But there’s fuck all to say that it can even be done.  Or maybe he just wants to keep her as a construct.  I dunno.”

“You’re still going out, right?” X asked.

Guppy stood frozen, facing his cubemate.  X watched him, waiting for an answer.  So many things became evident to X at that moment, aspects he either grew to overlook or was numbed into acceptance of.  One leg of Guppy’s cutoffs was shorter than the other.  Black crumbs of generic cookies dusted the bottom front half of his Monty Python t-shirt, giving him the appearance of having emerged from a coal mine five minutes earlier.  Gray-yellow clouds of stain sat stationary on the shirt, just beneath his armpits. 

“After what I just told you, you’re still going to…” Guppy said.

“It’s not supposed to be like this!” X interrupted.

The fruit bowl slammed onto the cloth-covered floor.

“It isn’t right!  What rational being assimilates the surroundings of our world and responds, ‘yeah, well…whatever?’” X said.  “Jessica has shown me what it means to live.  It is to adore someone!  And it’s impossible for me to go back to the way things were before her.  My hate for this world is rivaled only by my love for her.”

“Look, silicon is not neurons.  She isn’t even…”

“Real?” X interrupted.

There was a stretch of silence.  Guppy filled the void by scratching the bottom of his combat boot against the floor of the cube, generating a noise not unlike a skipping record.

“How is she not real?” X asked.  “And what is ‘real?’ Timothy Leary once said, ‘what I consider artificial is four years at Harvard, the Bible, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.’  For me it’s an office job, shaking hands, and all things ‘appropriate’ and ‘professional.’  All ‘real’ is…it’s just a collection of data.  Steinkamp must still think she’s real otherwise he wouldn’t have done this.”

“And he’s not going to just let her go, either,” Guppy pointed out.

X turned his hairless head up and towards a corner of the cube.  His eyes fidgeted about, resembling the rapid blinks of an LED light.

“You’re still going out, right?” he asked.

Guppy shrugged.

“This will be sad for you,” he said.

He then left the cube.

“No,” X whispered once he heard Guppy’s footsteps at the end of the hallway.

What if Guppy was right?  He only knew Jessica as a construct, as an augmented reality projection.  True, the intellectual DNA of her persona was real, but was she real?  What was he doing?  He knew nothing about Jessica but was yet about to risk everything for her.

All of X’s mistakes flooded him en masse.  Directionless choices.  The ancient Trabant, the only car he could afford as a teen, taunted his mind’s eye.  It sat in the green grass of his father’s yard.  The car’s hubcaps stacked like rusted pancakes amidst shredded tires, all of it a totem of decay that broadcast his mechanical ineptitude to the neighborhood.  Sweat turned to pasty glue in his palms. 

He took a breath.  He then snapped on the projector.

There was a soft tingle in the air as the holographic projector snapped on.  Lines of code scrolled over X’s face in blue light as the program booted.  The hair on his arm stood to attention.  Jessica shimmered to life.

“Cherries?” she gasped.

“I have a friend who knows how to get them,” he said.  “Knows how to get fresh flowers too, as I’m sure you can see.”

A smiling Jessica looked around the cube. 

“And candles even,” she said.  “You put together a romantic picnic?  For me?”

“As near as I can estimate,” X replied.  “I only had images to go by.”

He sat cross-legged onto the cloth.  Her image did the same.  She seemed to hover above the floor, connected to the surface by a fuzzy, peripheral membrane.

“I wish I could enjoy it with you,” Jessica said. 

X twisted the cap back onto the bottle.  He stretched out with his arm and touched the side of Jessica’s cheek.  She leaned into his hand.  The image crackled and X’s fingers landed only on the charged particles of the air.  A cool sensation spread across his fingertips. 

Her eyes met his.  Jessica looked at him with a mix of hope and skittishness.  X froze.

Is this what love is? he wondered.  Is it the absence of all reason but the presence of all joy? Does it kiss and cut all at the same time?

Jessica pressed her face to his.  He opened his mouth to drink her in. 

“Jessica...” X gasped, fully satisfied if that were to be his dying word.

He clenched his hand into a possessive grip and grabbed nothing but ionized air.  Jessica went to wrap her arms around him.  They passed through X like a ghost.  He turned his back.

“You might as well be miles away,” he said.

“Please don’t ruin this…”

X turned back to him.

“The gardens, Jessica,” X said as he went into a kneeling position.  “The ones you told me about, the ones I can’t stop picturing you in.  What if I told you we could be together there, standing beside each other, doing what…every couple does?”

Her eyes locked to his.

“If there were a way to do that, I think I’m smart enough to have come up with it by now,” she said.  “Do you have any ideas?”

“Yes,” he said.

He stepped into her image and allowed her to envelope him.  All of her all over him.  He stretched out his arms and embraced the charged air, wanting to dive deep, so deep that it might hurt.  Was any price to pay too much?

“I will grow gossamer wings to overcome these walls,” he said.

A multitude of video screens and holograms flashed and proselytized before X.  “The shade of confidence,” “Extreme but safe,” “Eat to get slimmer,” they proclaimed.  Their visual shouts continued as X made his way down the avenue, but his eyes remained deaf.  The irregular lump in his coat pocket poked him with each step, a reminder that things were in motion and unable to come to rest until one of two outcomes.  That suited X just fine.  Life was easier when he could think in binary.

The neon store lights of the tattoo shop marked the turn to Dodds’ flat.  Time to collect a favor.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Dodds told him.

He pressed the gauze to stem the crimson rivulets that remained on X’s head.  Blood flowers bloomed into form on the fuzzy white cloth as X struggled beneath Dodds’ hand.  The metallic taste of his life fluid still lingering in his mouth, X ignored all protestations and headed back to his cube. 

“We’re even now, Dodds,” X said.

Everything lined up.  The exchange could begin.  Guppy munched calmly on a cookie as he stood behind X, watching him on the computer.  The file was a silver block on the screen, a bullet snug in its chamber and awaiting its flight into the target. 

“I think you’re making it even worse on yourself,” Guppy said.

“My parting gift to Mr. Cassity,” X said.

Rising to his feet, X stretched in place and brought his body into one of his martial arts poses. 

“Just tell the truth,” Guppy said.  “You want a petty act of revenge.”

X wobbled.  Guppy watched.

“You don’t look so good,” Guppy said.

“They’ll be here soon,” X began.  “By now they must know what I’ve taken.”

They both stared at the images wafting in the air. 

“And that the virus is in their system.  Are you sure you want to do this?” X asked.

“You’ve never asked anything of me.  Not really,” Guppy answered.  “I can do this much.”

“And disappear?”

Guppy shrugged.

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“Why not?”

“Are you certain there’s enough memory for us?” X asked.

“It’s a continuously evolving online world with millions of users,” Guppy answered.  “It’ll be fine.”

X looked down at his computer.  He paused for a moment, studying the red icon shaped as button that sat square on the screen.  Its color meant so many things in that moment; blood, rage, danger…passion, desire, and cherry candy. 

He touched the icon.  The transfer began.  X went outside to wait.

They arrived soon after X stepped outside the cube building.  One of them had run a bypass at the wall security pad.  No mean feat, X thought, seeing as how it’s a Watermark product.  Each of them in business suits, looking like accountants.  Each of them carrying automatic weapons in their jackets and posturing like bulls. 

They said something to X, but he paid no attention.  The voice sounded dull, empty, and monotone, then thunderous and self-important.  Nothing they said would make any difference.  X knew what was about to happen.  He knew it the moment he made the decision to act.  He also knew he had to give Guppy time. 

X jumped.  A kick of his right leg brought a foot into the face of one of the men.  One of them rushed to X.  X blocked them with a stiff arm then brought an elbow into the man’s chin.  Guns came out.  Shots were fired.  The odor of gunpowder filled the air.

Chopped threads from X’s long coat flitted to the ground as his arm jerked from the hit.  He stumbled.  Then with a palm fist strike, he flung the elbowed man into the shooter.  Both men went down.  A sweep kick disarmed another gunman, knocking his piece into the air.  X caught the gun as it fell and then shot the man twice. 

Two men took advantage of the close quarters and rushed X.  He spun and hit one of them in the arm, sending the man’s weapon to the ground.  A fist to the man’s nose followed.  Before the other man could react, X stretched out with his right hand and shot him several times.  Blood flew into the air as the man’s suit became a darker shade of black.

One of the Watermark goons that got hit earlier struggled back to his feet and thrust himself at X.  X took him by the neck and drove him face-first into a knee.  Another fallen man stirred.  X gave him a swift kick to the head.  One man remained.

This one lobbed a softball-sized metal orb at X.  With a speed that rendered him a blur, X cartwheeled out of the sphere’s path.  Pain screamed out from his nerve endings, the result of too much exertion on a wounded arm.  A flash of light turned the gray landscape white…then orange.  X stabilized himself and sent bullets into the grenade thrower, shooting and shooting until the clip went empty.  X threw the gun away. 

Fire.  It engulfed the rear quadrant of the property.  Tongues of flame licked the cube building until the structure consented to union.  It began to burn.

“No,” X mumbled.

He summoned what strength he could and vaulted through the flames.  His arm cried out, stinging from the graze of the bullet.  The back of his head sent nauseating waves of pain from ruptured sutures, torn loose from the stress and strain of fighting.  Three times X fell on the stairs to his cube.  Three times he got back up, but each time his posture drooped more and more. 

The door to the cube gave way and X tumbled onto the floor.

“Have to…” he mumbled. “Jessica…”

“The place is on fire, isn’t it?” Guppy asked.

Guppy took a slim connector cable and jammed it home into the new socket on the back of X’s head.  After determining the connection to be solid, he activated the touchscreen of his computer.  The smell of burning filled the air.

“Is there…time?” X gasped.

“Don’t know,” Guppy replied.

The engine purred.  The Lamborghini Countach handled better than he could have expected.  If X had hair, it no doubt would have blown about like Medusa snakes in frenzy.  Such was the sensation of a convertible.

Sunshine bathed the gardens, the endless rows of green speckled with the purples and reds of floral blossom.  Photosynthesis flooded X’s nostrils with the smell of life.  Butterflies rose from the bushes and shrubs in orange clouds that fluttered in harmonic symphony.  The gazebo came into view.  It was a wooden, roofed octagonal, painted white and coiled with green, leafy vines.  A plantation-style manor stood behind it in the green. 

Guppy said before that he might stop by in the future.  Or his SimCom avatar would, anyway.  X looked forward to this as he harbored a morbid curiosity as to what happened to his own body.  Doubtless it burned in the fire, but he still wondered.  No matter.  It had to be done.  It was a shell that needed to be shrugged off so that he might live again.  To get what is real, he destroyed what was concrete.  Love knows no single form.  Almost there.

He broke the Lamborghini into a slight skid and brought it to rest near the gazebo.  Bluebirds scattered into the sky at his arrival.  X turned to the seat next to him and scooped up the roses and cherries.  Exiting the car he saw her, standing in the shade of the gazebo, wearing a black and silver spaghetti strap dress with a slight snakeskin pattern to it, her long, flowing hair falling on her bare shoulders as she tilted her head and smiled.  If there had been any pain in reaching this point, he forgot all about it. 

“Jessica...my love,” he said.  “It’s me.  M__.”


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