By the Light of a CyberWorld Moon
By David M. Castlewitz
Copyright 1996 by David M. Castlewitz
The Boulevard appeared as a wide, tree-lined street with busy pedestrians, rumbling shuttle buses, and sidewalk vendors hawking exotic wares from around the world. At intersections, where portals led to other V-City domains, entertainers sang songs, recited poetry, mimed and danced and juggled. Kathy had never been financially able to indulge herself along the Boulevard, but as a V-City employee she had both a right and a duty to taste any morsel she desired. For as many hours a day she wanted. It was in her contract. The only stipulation: take the Edith program along and teach her about life.
Kathy turned her body. Its suddenness, combined with a stuttering graphics refresh, made her dizzy. Ahead, in a blur, floated a man in a white suit.
"Are you okay?" the man asked. A chair of braided rope and thick straw materialized, as did a round table. Above them a sign flashed: Boulevard Cafe.
"Where'd you come from?" Kathy asked.
"You just walked in. You probably didn't realize it. That happens." White Suit gestured at a chair. "Sit. Join me. My name is Sitar. Jonathan Sitar."
Kathy moved her mouse cursor to the chair and clicked into the seat across from Sitar. "What did you mean by 'you're carrying'?"
"There's a glow at the edges." Sitar gestured with a bony finger. "You're carrying another program around, so you have this glow."
"And you can see that?"
"Of course. It's very distinct. Nothing to be ashamed of."
"I'm not," Kathy offered in defense.
"It is amazing," Sitar began, stretching his long legs under the table, "but people seem to register expressions even when they don't use the emoticons."
Kathy reflected before replying. "I don't think that's true." With her periphery vision she saw an e-mail icon flash. It damaged the illusion of sitting at a sidewalk cafe.
"Somebody at the door?" Sitar asked. "Telephone? Lover calling you?"
"Mail," she replied.
"Do you have a lover?"
"What?" Kathy threw her arms across her chest. Her online graphic reacted, too. It stood up.
"You sound angry. I didn't mean to make you angry. You are a newbie, aren't you? Maybe I can help. Show you around. Be your guide. General escort. Take you to all the sites. Introduce you to the regulars."
"I don't know." Kathy squirmed in her chair. "I'd have to think about it."
Sitar’s toothy smile stretched from one dimpled cheek to the other. "Do that. I'll be here tomorrow. Around the same time." He stood and receded into the background. Alone now, Kathy checked her mail. Casting calls, news, ads. No one ever sent her a personal message.
The day's scene -- Edith and Helmut in New York meeting the German consulate and planning to sabotage the Tom's River Armory in New Jersey -- went well. Kathy felt in-touch with her character. As she strolled the Boulevard, the urge to reward herself with a cybersight tickled her mind. Something bordering on the forbidden, spine-tingling, like a murder or a love tryst.
As she walked, she inspected the arcade entrances and shadowy stairways down to the subway system. Buses and cars, speedsters on bicycles and mopeds, and rushing pedestrians thronged the street at every intersection, and Kathy almost felt the physical push when she wove her way through the crowd.
At the cafe where she'd met Sitar, she easily picked his white suited character out of the huddling graphics at the tables. Bemused, she watched him stand and melt into the backdrop, as though being swallowed by the crowd. Near where he disappeared a tall graphic – obviously male in dress and carriage -- registered chagrin.
Kathy approached. A carrier, she thought, noticing the golden glow about the character's head. "Hello," she said. "I see you met Sitar."
"Was that his name?" The voice was airy and lyrical.
Kathy smiled. She’d toned down her on-line persona, discarding the body curves and tight fitting dress, but retaining the bright, blue eyes and long, golden hair, which she felt were most like her own features. "Can I sit?" she asked. "We have something in common. We're carrying."
The male nodded. "That's what the guy in the white suit said."
"What did you say to get rid of him? He latched onto me yesterday and I didn't know what to say." Kathy swallowed. The character across from her was handsome and sincere; she wondered what he was like in real life. The same, she hoped, and instantly chided herself for feeling attracted to a cartoon.
"I told him to beat it before I blew his brains out." He laughed. "Actually, that's something my character might say. Thought it was good practice."
Kathy introduced herself. Her graphic offered a slender hand.
"Jack Falconi," the other said. "If I really wanted to teach my character how to behave, I'd probably say -- and do! -- something outrageous." He chuckled. It was a real chuckle and it came through the line and into the earplugs and up against Kathy's eardrum as something tinny and warm and appealing. She enjoyed how his voice penetrated her. She shivered inside and her arched fingers tingled.
Kathy waited, but Falconi did nothing. His artificial face was blank, the eyes empty and unmoving. "How long have you been working on your character?" she asked.
"Four weeks. Contract's nearly up. Good thing, too." Falconi sighed. Something grated metal on metal. It hurt Kathy's ears. "I'm appearing in a new play next month."
"Congrats! On stage or delivered?"
She felt jealous.
"So, the sooner I finish up with Helmut and the gang, the better. Actually, Helmut's not a bad guy. That's my character."
"German spy. Espionage. Some sabotage thrown in. An adventure story."
Kathy swallowed. Her head began to hurt. "What's Edith look like?" she asked in a shallow voice.
Falconi leaned forward. "Like you. Blonde. Beautiful. I only met the actress at our conferences and rehearsals, but I've heard her name before. Patrice Young. Know her?"
Kathy shook her head, both RL and online. "Who's directing?"
"Some creep who hides in the ceiling. Doesn't really talk or interact."
Kathy gulped. "I'm in the same production. I'm Edith."
Falconi laughed. "Doesn't surprise me. I've heard they get three or four of these going at once."
"You aren't surprised?"
Kathy didn't want to admit it.
Falconi continued. "Not every character program turns out right, you know. My Helmut has about a twenty percent chance of success. For all I know, the Helmut in your group could wind up working with the Edith in mine."
"That doesn't make sense," Kathy murmured, mostly to herself. "What happens to the programs?"
"What? The programs?"
"My Edith! What happens to her if they don't use her for the 'net?"
"Nothing, I guess. If they're not used, nothing happens."
Kathy sat back in her chair. She tapped the edge of her desk with her fingertips. A vision of Edith, blonde and frail, a waif, vulnerable, came to mind. "I never thought my character wouldn't be used," she mumbled.
"Don't take it personally. Some programs just don't evolve very well. They have to be destroyed."
Kathy didn't like that last word.
"The play I'm in," Falconi continued. "It's called 'Tomorrow is Toby's Birthday.' Come see it."
Kathy nodded. She didn't bother to exhibit an emotion with her character and Falconi's online graphic registered disappointment.
"Maybe we can get together," Falconi offered, and drifted up into the air.
So they kill the losers, Kathy thought. No reflection on me. I'm still a good actress!
"Edith?" Kathy spun around in alarm. Her interface glasses flew off her head and the image of the boulevard and the cafe, the icon-decorated entrances to the various arcades: everything vanished.
Kathy stood up. Too quickly. Her eyes suddenly hurt. She reeled sideways. Doubled over, she raced down the hall to the bathroom and managed to hold everything in until the moment she knelt by the toilet. Behind her, tinny and urgent in the earplugs lying on the floor, a small voice screamed, "Don't leave me. I need you."