By the Light of a CyberWorld Moon
By David M. Castlewitz
Copyright 1996 by David M. Castlewitz
"Looking for me?"
Kathy tensed at the sound of Sitar's voice.
"Or are you planning to waste hard earned dollars?" he asked, a grin and a sneer behind the words, though his graphic was grim and stiff. Kathy looked beyond Sitar at the gaming tables on the floating platforms above the seething cauldron. Dante's Furnace, the room was called.
"I think the games are fixed," Kathy said, and glided up a moving walkway to one of the spinning discs. Below her, liquids bubbled and ribbons of flame undulated behind a dragon head sculpture riveted to the floor.
"But were you looking for me?" Sitar insisted.
Kathy grunted RL. When a change girl -- with scanty attire and a makeup-pasty face -- approached, Kathy flashed her account card. Instantly, she moved to a table, with chips and dice in front of her and a howling mob all around. She pushed some chips onto a green and white number, clicked the dice and watched as five dollars evaporated from her account, the chips collected by a croup-wielding character with a drooping moustache.
"Spending money just to avoid me?" Sitar asked.
"What do you want?"
"To talk. Like I said, I've been looking for you." He gestured and back-stepped away from the crowd. Kathy followed him down a spiral stairway to a cafe at the edge of the inferno. "You look annoyed. Odd how a graphic can take on emotional attributes."
Kathy didn't respond.
"Actually, it's your voice," Sitar corrected himself. "Your graphic looks too stupid to have any emotions."
"What do you want?"
Sitar grinned. "I'm drinking coffee in real life," he said. "How ‘bout you?"
Kathy was silent.
"Okay," he ventured. "Let's talk. About us. I want to meet you."
"We are. Right now."
"I mean, face-to-face. Not on the 'net. For real. RL."
Kathy stared at the white suit graphic. What would Sitar look like RL? Dangerous? Foolish? Interesting?
"We don't have a lot of time," he warned. "You're near the end of the program, the training for Edith. A few more sessions and they'll be making up their mind."
"What's Edith have to do with you?"
"That's what we can talk about," Sitar replied in a calm voice.
"Tell me now."
"Not here," he urged. "Everything we say is recorded. They could pick up the conversation at any time." He put a finger to his lips. "I'll send you e-mail. We'll meet."
"I'd have to know a lot more before I agree to something so foolish," Kathy said.
"Edith's in danger. Isn't that enough?"
Kathy grunted. "She's just a character, a program from a book."
"Is she?" Sitar stood and walked away. His voice traveled back across the empty room. "Check your mail."
"Talk to him. Please?"
"Edith?" Kathy asked, frightened by the soft, petulant voice in her ears. She waited a few seconds more, a minute more, expecting to hear the childlike voice again, fearing she'd hear it, wanting to hear it. She listened, but Edith said nothing.
As a fish with translucent bluish fins sparkling in the simulated sunshine, Kathy swam beside Sam Gleason. The writer had been hard to catch up to; when he wasn't at rehearsals, he was everywhere in V-City, and he hardly ever checked his mail.
"They don't talk," Gleason told her. He was a Stingray: body blue, a violet strip running from the hump behind the head to the pointy end of the tail.
"Can we stop?" Kathy asked. "Can we go somewhere else?"
Gleason swam away and Kathy followed him into a cave. Glowing yellow orbs in the ceiling cast a pale light. Mermaids lounged on a shelf above a bed of oysters and multi-colored eels wiggled in a shallow pool.
"This is disconcerting," Kathy complained.
"The water? Sorry. It's my favorite habitat." Gleason dropped to the cave floor. "We'll stop swimming. That should help. Now, tell me what you think you heard."
Kathy relaxed in RL and sat back in her chair. "She says things like, 'I'm afraid. Don't go there.' That sort of stuff." Kathy didn't want to tell him about Sitar. She wanted help. She didn't want to be interrogated.
"How close were you to other people?" Gleason asked. "Sometimes other netters see the glow -- you know about the glow?"
Kathy nodded. "I've heard."
"Wish we could correct that," Gleason murmured. "Anyway, they see the glow and they make remarks." The stingray rose. "I have a meeting." He left the cave, his tail twitching and giving off sparks of blue electricity.
"That's it?" Kathy asked, swimming after him. "You don't believe me?"
"What do you expect?" Gleason asked, laughing. "These character programs just act out their parts. They learn from you, but until they're put into a play they don't know they can speak. They aren't programmed for that."
"I don't know. I'm a writer, not an engineer. Ask Dawson. He invented this stuff."
"This way. Follow me."
Kathy didn't move immediately. A stream of loud music and the droning buzz of conversation spilled from the next room. Shadows of dancers bathed the walls.
"I have a quiet booth for us."
"You're Jonathan Sitar?" Kathy asked the dark, small man. He glared with beady black eyes and smacked his thin lips. A distinct aroma emanated from him: not the smell of the unwashed, nor the scent of any perfume or cologne she recognized, but distinct nonetheless.
"I am," Sitar said. He extended his hand, but Kathy didn't take it. Instead, she rose to her feet, feeling awkward in the short leather skirt and spike-heeled black boots she'd worn, and gestured for him to lead the way.
Entering the bar was like splashing into a pool of ink. The dark engulfed her completely. The necklace Sitar wore began to glow and she followed the ring of light to a booth in the rear, behind a beaded curtain. It was a conversation-area, a section protected from the general din by white-noise buffers and sound absorbing screens.
"You're as attractive as your graphic," Sitar remarked.
Kathy swallowed her reply, You're not! "What's so important we couldn't talk online?" she asked.
Sitar sat. He ran his thick hands through his hair, sweeping the brown-black waves away from his eyes. "When you're online, it's all recorded. They can play it back if they want. They'd know what we say."
Leaning against the hardwood seat, Sitar studied her for a moment. A waitress in a leather apron and steel-toed boots brought them a pitcher of beer and scanned Sitar's debit card for payment.
"Where are you in the training schedule?" he asked.
"We finished the script last week. Now we're doing improvs." Kathy sighed heavily. Today's session had been rougher than most. The improvisations required precision and dexterity with the pointing device.
"Expect that to continue," Sitar said. He scrunched his lips together and worked the corners back and forth. "Edith should be coming out soon, when the improvs are finished. That's when she'll be given the test, to see how she reacts in a scene."
"Have you done a few of these yourself?"
He chuckled. "I'm a systems engineer. I helped Dawson invent the process."
"You must be rich, considering how popular this stuff is."
"Dawson's rich," Sitar said, spitting out his words. "I quit when I realized what's happening." He glowered across the table at her, eyes fiery and hands twitching. Kathy shuddered. To distract him, she poured herself a beer. He took the pitcher and did the same. "They kill off the characters that don't fit their preconceived notions," he finally said.
"They're killing the programs, right? Not the actors." Kathy laughed.
Sitar shook his head. "The programs aren't just dead graphics sitting inside a computer."
He shook his head again, slowly and deliberately. "No," he whispered. "Edith’s talked to you, hasn't she? The ones that talk, they're sentient."
Kathy wanted to laugh again. She sucked the saliva in her mouth, making her tongue and the insides of her cheeks dry. Sitar's unmoving stare burned her.
"I didn't believe it myself," he said. “Until I was convinced.”
"And you told Dawson?" Kathy asked. "He didn't believe you, so you left the company?"
Kathy sat back. Beyond the beaded curtain, beyond the quiet of their booth, within the drumming noise of the bar, people danced and cheered and a muscle band in a pit, the men stripped to jockstraps and the bare-breasted women in thong-suits, strummed and banged and bellowed, making music for the crowd.
"Dawson knows," Sitar said. "He just doesn't care. I do. I don't play god with my creations. I try to help them."
"This is certainly an elaborate ruse just to get a date." Kathy bolted to her feet. Sitar clamped a strong hand on her wrist. Tears sprang to her eyes. "You're hurting," she said.
"Sit," he mouthed, and she did. "I'm not looking for a date, a companion, a fuck or a dance. Right now, I care about Edith and Helmut and a few minor characters. Helmut isn't talking spontaneously. Edith is. So she has my attention."
"How do you know Edith's talked to me?"
Sitar grinned. The gesture made him uglier than before. "I can tell. I can tell things about people, by their eyes and by what they don't say. Edith has talked to you, hasn't she?"
Kathy didn't want to lie. She nodded.
"She's alive," Sitar said. "And she needs our help."
"Don't talk about this online. If they find out you know, your Edith will be destroyed."
"I've already asked Gleason. He says they can't talk until they're let loose."
Sitar winced. "Gleason's nothing but a writer. What's he know?" He paused. "Okay, here's what we have to do."
"You want me to prove this to you, right?"
Kathy nodded without thinking.
Sitar drained the beer from his glass with a long, steady gulp.
"I'll wait for you at the New-Connections Cafe. Where we met. From there I'll show you how to get to the netherworld."
"The what?" Kathy asked, leaning her small head forward.
"We call it the netherworld. Just a name. A name for a place."
"We?" Kathy asked, mouthing the word more than saying it.
"The programs and I, and those who've befriended them. This happens all the time, Kathy. That's why I'm on the lookout for people like you."