By the Light of a CyberWorld Moon
By David M. Castlewitz
Copyright 1996 by David M. Castlewitz
"First," the director intoned, "I want to offer my thanks to all our participants, including those unseen hands taking care of backup, program patches, and the like."
There was a rumble of applause. It sounded hollow, as though delivered by a few people in a cavernous theatre. Kathy squirmed in her chair. Her apartment was cold; the old-fashioned heating ducts rattled and the Fall weather had turned mid-western brisk.
"Your characters will be released today. Fully released, including cutting the soft-cords that bind them to your online avatars." He chuckled. "That may sound complex and technical, so suffice it to say that, today, your children will be on their own."
Kathy watched the walls to see if they were shimmering. According to the message she'd received from Sitar, that was the signal.
"As each character emerges," the director continued, "I want you to engage it. Use the hug icon. Our software people will then release the bonds. It will take a few seconds for everything to have an effect. Be patient. Be calm. As it was explained earlier, they are like children and can be scared easily."
Kathy bit her lower lip. Blood speckled her tongue. She'd wrestled with her decision in her dreams, gnawed herself about it when she awoke at two in the morning, then again when she sat in her cramped kitchen nook to have breakfast, and even when she stood cold in the shower, the hot water dwindling rapidly, the spray like icy spear points pricking her knobby shoulders.
Several nebulous shapes floated from the ceiling and hovered just off the textured floor. While they were all similar in form and color, there were distinct differences that Kathy had learned to recognize over the past 12 weeks. Helmut was narrow and he trailed dark puffs of smoke. All the minor characters were cylindrical. Edith was short and thick, her tenuous form composed of lines and angles.
Kathy waited for Edith to emerge. The lines became less obvious and the angles became rounded; seconds passed while the Edith character took shape. When the girl's soft face appeared, Kathy approached and clicked the hug emoticon. In her interface glasses she saw shimmering golden hair, Edith's tiny ears, the soft texture of her bare shoulders, and the folds of her white gown.
"Is this the day they warned me about?" Edith asked.
"This is the day."
"No talking," the director growled.
"I feel it coming," Edith said. "A feeling of emptiness. Like-like I'm being pushed outside."
"Watch the far wall, the one with the artwork. Don't worry, this is a private channel. No one hears me but you."
Kathy jolted upright.
"When the wall dissolves, use the 'take' icon, click on Edith, then run to the wall. I'll be there to help you."
Edith stepped away. Her blue eyes wide. She extracted a lace handkerchief from inside her sleeve and dabbed at the tears on her cheeks. Behind her, where framed landscapes decorated a wall, the paneling stretched, leaving gaps of white space; the paintings melted; the ceiling caved in. Thunder accompanied its crash. One wall evaporated.
Kathy clicked on 'take'. An open hand appeared. She put it on Edith and clicked again. "This way," she shouted. She turned towards the disintegrated wall. Sitar floated on an oval disc. Fog enveloped his torso.
Kathy ran for him, Edith bouncing along beside her. Behind them, Helmut roared, "No!" The director cursed and called for help. Dawson's cloud appeared in the ceiling. Kathy heard people threatening her, entreating her to come back; she ignored them.
Sitar’s disc dipped downward and he stepped off it. Edith shrank from him. She was smaller now, half the size of her character in the rehearsal room.
"What do you want?" Edith asked Sitar in a squeaky voice that seemed more childish than before.
"To make sure you're free." Sitar embraced her. "They'll find this channel pretty soon. Come on." He pulled Edith to the disc. Kathy followed. "No." Sitar held up his hand. "We don't allow outsiders."
"I want to see where you're taking her," Kathy protested.
"You'll have to trust me. You have so far." Sitar smiled. "You always will. Always trust me."
"It's all right," Edith said, and bent down as though to kiss Kathy's avatar. "I can feel something about this man. The same... the same kind of closeness and trust I felt with you. It's all right. I'll be all right."
Kathy nodded. She scanned the borders for the proper icon. There were none. Beyond V-City, at the edge of the land Sitar called the netherworld, the rules were different. "I almost feel you," she said to Edith.
"Yes. I know."
The oval disc rose in the air. Sitar stood with his arms folded, his eyes cast down at Kathy. Beside him, kneeling, clutching the edge of the disc, Edith smiled and wept and, just before disappearing into the fog, she waved goodbye.
"Know nothing," Sitar warned. "Explain and say nothing. Be concerned, but offer nothing. No ideas, no suggestions."
Kathy was alone. The wall in the rehearsal room reconstructed itself.
"What happened?" someone asked.
"Another hack," came the answer.
Kathy didn't recognize the voices.
"I want a meeting!" That was Dawson. "I want to know what went wrong. If we don't have security here, we're not going to have a business."
Kathy jolted upright in her seat. She whipped off her interface glasses. Her system was dead. V-City had cut the connection. Even her building's e-mail service had been severed. They must really be mad, she thought, and smiled. Good! Good for Sitar! Good for Edith.
The telephone rang. She picked it up. Would it be Sitar?
Kathy sighed. It was Dawson. He sounded as irritated by telephone as he had in the virtual rehearsal room. His voice boomed across the line, ferocious and unnerving.
"Tomorrow morning. Ten A-M. Sharp! My office. Understand?"
"Can anyone tell me what happened?" Kathy asked. "I just had the weirdest experience. And now I've been cut off, including my private e-mail access."
"Tomorrow morning," Dawson snapped. "We'll debrief then."
Dawson's office was exactly like the rehearsal room: dark paneling, artwork depicting eerie landscapes and seascapes, and thickly upholstered furniture. A desk occupied the far end, where a dais sat in the virtual room. The chaos of a city neighborhood spilled through the bay window behind the desk: hollering mothers and wailing children, anxious taxicab drivers and yelping dogs. Dawson settled onto his desktop, his sandal-clad feet dangling inches above the floor. A gaunt stranger with a drooping yellow moustache leaned against the far wall. Xaviar Campbell, Sam Gleason, Jameson, and two other men sat on chairs and stools placed about the room. Kathy was the last to arrive.
"Do you have an explanation for what happened yesterday?" Dawson asked, and turned to a mild looking boy dressed in black.
"Break-ins happen," the boy said.
"Well..." Dawson drew out the sound of the word. "I-am-very-much-pissed about this whole thing."
"We're all disappointed," Yellow Moustache said. Kathy recognized the voice: the director. "McDaniel's Edith was one of the best."
"Best Ediths?" Kathy ventured.
"One of the best," the director said in an even tone of voice.
"Okay, okay," Dawson said, stomping across the room. He stood on the other side of the desk, his back to everyone, his chin in one hand. "She had to be good, else JS wouldn't have wanted him."
JS? Kathy thought. Did they know who had snatched the Edith character?
There was silence for a few seconds. The boyish looking stranger, probably an engineer in Dawson's employ, broke the spell. "We have the isolated network ready. We can bring in the back up."
Dawson spun around. "I have to know something, McDaniels! What happened when you winked out on us?"
The boy added a second question. "Did you visualize anything? Were there voices? I need to know. I have to guard against this in the future."
"How did the Edith character react?" the director asked.
"She was strong," Gleason said. "As a character."
Kathy saw them moving towards her. Their eyes chided her. They hovered like demons, Dawson most of all.
Be the actress that you are, she told herself, and then said, "Everything went blank."
"She'll probably pop up in a Porn City Festival.” She was really, really good," Gleason lamented.
Dawson frowned. "We'll go to the isolation rooms now. This will be a secure linkup, so we won't have to worry about intruders."
"Wait a sec," Kathy interjected. "What actually happened?"
Dawson and the young engineer traded questioning looks. The boy deferred to V-City's CEO.
"Now and then our character programs get snatched," Dawson explained. "We have no trace of the Edith character; even the online backup was destroyed. The best we can do is go back to last week's version."
"Snatched by whom?" Kathy asked.
Dawson shrugged. "JS Industries. Porn Film and Video, Inc. Who knows! When you're successful, like V-City is, you're everybody's prey."
"Can't we do a week of training on the backup?" Gleason asked, his voice rising with a nasal whine.
The director answered. "We've already got Edith and the others booked. They start work tonight."
"We're in this to make money, sad to say," Dawson mumbled in Gleason's direction. "Winning awards and the mindless pursuit of excellence aren't in the equation. A week more means lost face, not to mention possible lawsuits, and market share."
The writer shrank away. The young engineer signaled and Kathy left the office, walked down a brightly lit corridor and entered a small, windowless room with a white desk, a computer, and a stiff-backed leather and chrome chair. The other program mentors were shunted to similar rooms with similar furnishings. A few minutes later, Kathy was online, dressed in white, slightly more voluptuous than in real life, and in the rehearsal room which so much resembled Red Dawson's office.
Edith took shape: shimmering, golden hair, long sleeved, off-the-shoulder gown, tiny body and thin hands, wide eyes, and a curious expression on her face. She put her hands to her face, then looked through her parted fingers at Kathy. "Who are you?" she asked. "A friend? Tell me, you're my friend."
Kathy sucked in her breath. That voice! Too husky. Not a child's voice. This wasn't her Edith. This was a different Edith.
"A week ago," the director said, "she would have been disoriented. Talk to her, Kathy. Tell her who you are and why you're here."
Kathy played along. Why didn't they just use the other actress for this Edith? she wondered. To convince her that the raid by Sitar had nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with economics? JS Industries? Porn Film and Video? Other firms bent on stealing V-City's expensive technology?
This was a different Edith. Dawson and the others: they knew what had really happened. They had to. Why else this charade? Kathy went along with the routine, though. Whatever Dawson's reasons, she'd never uncover them if she didn't play their game.