By the Light of a CyberWorld Moon
By David M. Castlewitz
Copyright 1996 by David M. Castlewitz
"Disappointed?" Kathy said, looking sideways to gauge Sam Gleason's facial expression. He shrugged his shoulders. Continued walking. They skipped down the marble stairs together, to the narrow sidewalk and the bus stop. Under their feet, the subway roared and the ground shook.
"I hate the subs," Kathy said. "How about you?"
Gleason glared down at her. "I have a car."
"Give me a lift?" She tried to look pert and interesting, provocative and enticing.
"You screwed up my book!" Gleason’s thick lips trembled. Tears welled in his eyes, which suddenly swelled. "Dawson won’t come right out and accuse you. But I will."
"Accuse me? Of what?"
"Dealing with industrial agents. People from JS Industries. Or Porn Queen Drama Network. Or any of a hundred other competitors to whom I would not sell my work. When Dawson gets the proof, you'll never work in this industry again."
"Maybe I don't want to. Good pay and easy hours aren't everything." She snorted and put her hands on her hips. "Dawson can think whatever he wants. So can you."
"She was so alive," Gleason said, squeezing his into a fist. Tears dribbled down his cheeks. "Truly one of the best I've seen. The royalties would've been magnificent. She was nearly perfect. You don't know what you've done."
Kathy wanted to say that she did. She wanted to admit what she knew. Partly to show him up, to shut him up. "Fuck you," she murmurred, and hurried away.
The late-night supper crowd emptied onto the street leaving the restaurant near-empty, its horseshoe-shaped balcony sparsely occupied. The busboys swept and collected the night’s debris. Kathy wandered past them, past the virtual reality caves and the wild laughter that made the thin walls vibrate. She walked upstairs, where a "Closed-Go Away" sign greeted her.
"You look lost."
Kathy ignored the voice and headed to the bar. Her stomach rumbled. She had no idea where her date had gone. She'd spent the last few hours dancing and running on a treadmill and vomiting in a toilet.
"You look awful, not just lost," came that voice again, faintly familiar, somewhat threatening. Eyes narrowed, Kathy glared back over her shoulder at an obscured form in a dark hallway.
"Buy me a drink?" Kathy asked. The form emerged from the dark and Kathy gasped. She felt the color drain from her face.
"Don't look so disappointed. I'm glad to see you again."
She turned away. Footsteps assailed her and she covered her ears with her fists.
"Is anything wrong?"
Kathy shivered. A hand took hers. She straightened and raised her head and looked at Henry Fishman. His thin face showed little of the acne of last year. In fact, he looked more mature than a year's aging should provide. Or was that the alcohol?
"Haven't seen you on the boulevard," Fishman said.
"V-City won't let me have an account."
"Won't let you? Isn't that... well, illegal or something."
She shrugged again. Dawson's message, all in caps and posted 925 times to her building e-mail account, had been clear, threatening, and annoying: NO ACCESS. DON'T APPLY AGAIN. SUE ME AND I'LL PROVE YOU DID IT.
Whatever that meant.
"I saw you dancing earlier," Fishman said. "I'm glad you stayed so we can talk."
"Your friend went home. You pissed him off."
"Did I?" Kathy slid along the wall and walked into the bar. A few booths were occupied; whispers floated like clouds near where customers sat hunched over terminals to play games or visit NetSites.
"Haven't seen you in any plays lately."
Kathy sat in an empty booth. "Doing trade shows, some CDs." She scooted away when Fishman sat next to her. The hurt in his somber brown eyes annoyed her.
The waitress appeared; dressed in black and with piled-on red hair.
"Some waitressing, too," Kathy mumbled, remembering the really bad times. Dawson had not only banned her from V-City as an actress, but had used his contacts with game producers to make her life difficult.
Fishman ordered them each a drink, one of the sweet, jellied concoctions with high alcohol content.
"Is that why you're so depressed?" he asked
Kathy forced a laugh. "What makes you think so?"
"I saw your friend. He looked disgusted. And you look wasted."
"Not much of a friend if he just leaves me here," she said. A sigh of sadness escaped from her. His name was Brian and this had been date number four. Lucky four. They usually didn't go to four. And, he had V-City access. "Can I use your account?"
Fishman looked at her quizzically.
Kathy explained. "I've been trying to get somewhere in V-City, but I have to use other people's accounts and it's really hard getting there. I keep losing it."
Kathy took Fishman by the hand. Edith was out there in the netherworld and Kathy was determined to find her. "I keep getting attacked by some kind of guard dog. Then my character dies."
Fishman grinned. "Where're you going? The Death Maze? Or what?"
"Just some site off the main boulevard." Not a standard V-City game, but she didn't want to explain that right now.
"You probably need a lot of combat points. Weak characters don't have what it takes to get through a Death Maze perimeter. "What are you trying to do?"
"It's complicated. Has to do with something a friend left me. A message. It's buried somewhere and I'm trying to get it."
Fishman shrugged. "You can use my character. I've got the points. But if it dies, I'll be really pissed off."
"I'll be careful. Really." She grabbed his hand, her fingers slipping on his sweaty palm.
"What do I get in return?" he asked.
She stared at him and saw the laughter in his eyes. Whatever he wanted, it would be too much. But if his character was strong enough, maybe she'd find Sitar.
"Time in a cave?" he asked.
He nodded. "A cave. Okay. A Hell-Bent caves."
"No sex," she countered.
"I've got a test kit with me. I’m safe. You’ll see."
"You carry it around all the time, don't you."
"Ever use it?" Kathy asked.
"An hour in a Hell-Bent cave," he reiterated. "Agreed?"
He pulled the terminal close and signed onto V-City. Once he established his character, he handed the glasses to Kathy. She quickly donned them and dove into Dawson's virtual world. The Boulevard stretched before her, wide and inviting, full of floating avatars bouncing about. Merchants assaulted her with trinkets to sell, rugs draped over their arms. She ignored them. Her body armor clinked and her light sword swished against her leg. Her Star Knight was a frequent attraction in the Death Maze, an oddity on the Boulevard. It garnered curious stares and entreaties from both male and female avatars sitting in the cafes. Kathy admired the avatar’s skill point-to-combat ratio. It might get her past the guard dogs.
She walked behind the cafe. The alley smelled and looked as decrepit as last time, with garbage strewn about and rats sitting on a ledge enjoying a meal of moldy vegetables and rotten meat.
The hole was there, as always. She stepped into it. Climbed down. The dark of the void soon came and she moved by feel, using her icons to change grips, to tread carefully, to move her graphic within the rules and keep it from slipping off the ladder.
Alighting on the uneven ground at the bottom, she stepped lightly through the cavern, towards the light just beyond a nearby ledge. The first few times she'd come, she’d wandered aimlessly. When she'd been here with Sitar, there had been his torch to show the way. Alone, she had nothing but her wits.
She scrambled atop the ledge and crawled through an opening she’d investigated before. Yellow flowers lay across an open field illuminated by an orb dangling from the ceiling. It was here that the guard dogs generally attacked. Kathy unsheathed her sword. Across the bottom of her screen her energy level and combat points flickered green on a light blue background.
Slowly, she crept towards the field of yellow flowers. After each step she stopped and raised her sword in readiness, prepared for the attack. Once there’d been a single dog that ripped into her. Other times, they came in packs.
Like this time.
Huge, with long snouts and blood in their eyes, the hounds fell on her. She stood her ground. Against two to the left, one straight ahead, and one more to the right. Turning right, she swung the sword, made contact; and the attacker disintegrated. Dancing away, she swung twice, then three times, and one of the other dogs died yelping and whining. The survivors fled.
A few seconds ticked by. They didn't return. Smiling, Kathy continued across the field, watchful of new threats, flush with her small victory, making more headway this time than ever before. Ahead hovered a shimmering white cloud that touched the ground.
What would she tell Edith when she found her? Dressed as a Star Knight, it might be hard to convince her of her true identity. That didn't matter. All that mattered was that she find Edith and make certain she was safe. She’d prove to herself that what Dawson and Gleason had said about industrial espionage wasn't true.
The end of the field was flush against a white wall. Not a cloud, as it had looked from a distance, but a wall. She walked into it and was enveloped in fog. If only she'd been able to find Sitar, she thought as she tread through the enveloping mist. But, he’d completely disappeared. She’d checked out JS Industries, one of the companies Dawson claimed might be responsible for "snatching" Edith. JS stood for Jarway and Stein, the two founders. Not Jonathan Sitar.
There was no Jonathan Sitar, she surmised after a while. He didn't exist.
Kathy held her breath. A bell sounded from somewhere beyond the thick mist. A form appeared in the whiteness. It approached. A colorful scarf obscured its face. Furry leggings encased its legs; its feet covered with thick boots. Kathy stepped back. She started to lift her sword, but the stranger's eyes gave her pause and she watched those eyes until, too late, she realized he held a weapon.
The world went red. The sky crashed into her eyes. There were floor boards and pictures on a wall, then complete blackness.
Kathy removed the glasses.
"Well?" Fishman asked.
"Sorry." She shivered and put the glasses on the table. "I got past the dogs, but got surprised in the fog."
"Your character's dead," she whispered.
"You know how long it took me to get to that level? Over a year."
"Sorry," Kathy mumbled. "I better go home. I'm exhausted."
"Hey." Fishman grabbed her by the wrist. "We've got a date in the cave. Remember?"
"Does it have to be tonight?" She looked at the watch on the silver chain around her waist. "It's nearly two in the morning."
"Tonight," Fishman said. "I don't trust you otherwise."
Kathy gave in. Why argue? Besides, Fishman might build a new character, a new Star Knight to loan her. She’d know what to expect next time. A nomad in a white desert! Protect against that and it would be easy to cross the wilderness.
Fishman nudged Kathy into the cave when the door slid open. He tapped out a sequence of codes on the keyboard illuminated on the wall. Mirrors descended from the ceiling. Smoky and dark, with bright pin points of red light behind them, they arranged themselves in various angles.
"Strip," Fishman said.
"Do we have to?" Kathy whined.
"This is a Hell-Bent cave. You want to enjoy it or what? Or should I say, you want to use my account again?"
Kathy removed her shirt and pulled off her pants. She removed her underwear and shoes and put everything into a pile on one of the cushioned benches. Fishman stood naked beside her. His hands touched her shoulders as the program began to play.
Fireballs erupted on the walls. A night sky with a full moon appeared overhead. The stars shimmered. Airships floated in front of dark, puffy clouds. Volcanoes rumbled in the background.
The scene shifted to one of men and women in a circle gyrating naked to the music, whips and chains lashing the air, screams erupting every few seconds.
It was hot in the cave. The music hurt her ears. Men and women cried out while the devil scourged their bodies and fire lapped at their feet. Standing on a rock, chained, long yellow hair flying in the wind, a stoic looking Edith opened her mouth and wailed.
Kathy jumped at her and bounced off the glass wall. Edith screamed into her face, tearless cries, mouth and eyes wide, flames engulfing her.
"Edith?" Kathy yelled. She turned to Fishman. "It's her. It's..." She caught herself. She calmed down as Fishman started to kiss her. She looked back at the wall, at Edith screaming. She tried to push Fishman away, but only succeeded in losing her balance and falling to the cold floor. Fishman fell on her and pressed down hard, unrelenting.
Edith, she thought. How did you wind up in Hell?
Of course! Hell-Bent Adventures. A V-City competitor.
She laughed and shuddered, face white with shock, eyes wide and mouth agape.
Sitar, she screamed to herself. You devil!
She swirled about, sprang free of Fishman. "Listen!" she gasped at Fishman. "Here’s the deal." This will work, she told herself. Fishman would help. His account! His money! She’d get to Hell-Bent Adventures, find Edith, and....
Fishman’s hands were on her breasts, but she ignored them, ignored his stiff kisses and harsh scent. She formulated her plan, tried to explain it between gulps of air. She attempted to seal the pact with him. She’d free Edith with his help. Somehow.
Lying on the hard floor, Fishman atop her, Kathy peered sideways at Edith and cursed Sitar.
"Do we have a deal?" she screeched at Fishman and smiled when she heard his hard raspy whisper Yes against her ear. Only a matter of time, she told herself, and silently conveyed her vow in Edith’s direction: I'll set you free.