Part one can be found in the previous episode or available on my website. And now, part two…
The transport was skimming over the ocean now. When @Carlo5* glanced behind him, he frowned at the placid water. Watching the ever-expanding wedge of foam in the transport’s wake was one of the few things he looked forward to on his rare commutes into the Core. Now it was missing.
‘Flop limit, exceeded’, the pleasant voice confirmed. @Carlo5* closed his eyes. But before long, another voice was calling to him. @Carlo5* kept his eyes shut at the sound of the familiar, nasal tone. His friend. Only friend, really, @Jack0licious.
“Nothing,” replied @Carlo5*. “Coming back from Hub.”
“Yeah? What gives?”
“Oh man, bad news. Find a meta dead zone? Told you I’ve got a map for those. Strictly confidential, if you know what I mean.”
“What do you want?”
“I got a new Prog that needs a few shared flops.”
@Carlo5* opened his eyes. On all sides, his jewel surfaced ocean was hemmed in by a dark cloud. Ahead, his villa floated no more than ten feet off the glittering surface, resting awkwardly between a sandy bar and the open sea. Behind, the water remained a flat pane of glass. He groaned, “Not in the mood.”
“C’mon! Cannibal Alien Wars, man! Just got it today!”
“How does that even make sense?”
“Who cares? It’s bad ass!”
“Like the prog you tortured me with last month?”
“What? Cubical? Thought you of all people would appreciate that one.”
“I wasted flops on that. Flops that could be keeping my house from sinking into the ocean.”
“Can’t have been that many. You were in and out too fast. You’ve got to give it a chance.” Something in @Jack0licious’ voice was close to sounding serious and the oddness of it drew @Carlo5* out of his self pity.
“Yeah, cheap, but still an utter waste,” baited @Carlo5*, interested in @Jack0licious’ response.
‘Your firewall protecting you. 100 flop violation accessed against visitor for unapproved personal space link.’
In the seat next to @Carlo5* a smile appeared, so broad and bright it was normally easy to ignore the face attached to it. @Jack0licious changed his personal appearance more than most people changed their food tasting routines, but the smile was so far immutable. This time, however, it was even wider due to the missing flesh in his cheeks. Dead eyes floated above rotted teeth and the vigor with which he shook his head threatened to separate it from it’s last good vertebrae.
“Really?” @Carlo5* rolled his eyes as he spoke. He’d grown so accustomed to his friends constant meta changes, the shock value had worn off long ago. “Why don’t you stick with at least a couple avatars like everyone else?”
“I’m not on a flop ration like some people. And not everyone wants to be a pudgy bald guy in a tweed coat and v-neck. You should live a little. Anyway, the girl likes it.”
The way @Jack0licious said ‘like’ left no room for interpretation. How or why is that even possible, wondered @Carlo5*?
‘Tolerance education – Necrophilia, also called thanatophilia or necrolagnia, is the sexual attraction to corpses’ interjected the HAN directly into @Carlo5*’s thoughts.
“Maybe you should find a new girlfriend?” @Carlo5* spoke slowly as the HAN’s reproach trickled into his mind and he did his best to avoid forming an opinion that would be swept up and sent for normative compliance processing.
“Dude, you’re so old-fashioned,” scoffed @Jack0licious and a fetid odor of rotted flesh wafted into the transport. “Anachronistic, man.”
“Maybe,” coughed @Jack0licious. “Vanilla,” he then demanded, using his share of @Jack0licious’ violation to add the scent.
“The Meta is…” @Jack0licious intoned in an official baritone.
“Your reality, mutable by you, for your own experience,” said @Carlo5* tiredly. “I know.”
“So, if you got a problem, change me.” @Jackolicious’s smug grin manage to manifest without the assistance of a pair of lips.
The listing Villa was getting closer and the ring of clouds remained frozen like the eye of a massive storm. @Carlo5* sighed, “It’s fine.”
‘Your firewall protecting you. 100 flop violation accessed against visitor for unapproved personal space link.’
“These violations are going to keep adding up until you forward me.”
Without taking an eye off the villa, @Carlo5* responded, “Yep.”
“Awwww, not cool,” said @Jack0licious with a laugh. “Fine, if you scrounge up the flops, ping me!” With a subtle blink, the rotting corpse that was @Jack0licious began to fade, his smile hanging briefly in the air.
“Show off,” muttered @Carlo5*.
With a harsh jerking motion, the transport began it’s ascent to the villa, rising against the flow of the waterfall which was now about as impressive as a glass of water spilling from a table. Even the normal droplets of fine mist refused to form on the bubbled transport canopy.
As it reached the top, @Carlo5* could feel the pull of a continued climb while the sound of rushing water was replaced with a mechanical grind.
He’d lost even more flops than expected with the trip to the cyberneticist. Pushing things to their former render distance, getting rid of the ring of dark clouds, wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
When the transport rattled to a halt, @Carlo5* opened the hatch and watched the flowing water of his pool with disdain. Closing the hatch, he strode across the pool and into the Villa. Tall glass doors opened onto travertine floors and a living room awash in rich earthy colors. He walked to the kitchen and removed a bottle from the wine rack.
“Vanilla,” he said as the scent filled the room and his flop counter dropped. Beyond the patio door, the trickle of the waterfall stopped. Disgusted, he waved a hand at the wall-length picture window and it went dark. He grabbed the wine bottle and fell onto the leather couch, sloshing wine on the floor.
He’d have to sort and rate requests for hours now to return things to normal. Sorting data calls for the Hub Area Network was always easier with a bit of wine. Not too much wine or he’d end up piling up more violations than credits. Anywhere past a buzz and he became increasingly judgmental of the requests from users.
After the last drop of wine, he crossed the room to an elaborate cypress secretary. Removing a pen and pad of paper he sat and tapped impatiently. A trick of his, for concentrating. ‘Anachronisitc’, @Jack0licious would say. But he needed something in his hand. It felt somehow, productive. With a sigh, he gripped the pen, closed his eyes and opened a full connection.
For hours, data shot through @Carlo5*’s mind like a wayward missile. For each request he would process and submit his rating to the repository. Everything from changes to personal metas, to usernames, to the even more mundane calls for biological delivery and disposal. In the rushing feed, a familiar request called for review – that low resource recreation prog, Cubicle.
One star. He moved on. Violations. A wedding day guest access list. Port forward on a husband followed by a salacious request to his wife. A Crowd member scanning for the right pet to add to their meta. The never ending parade continued.
And there, again, Cubicle. One star. Moving on.
Another hour and the request repeated; four times. Rankings rose, requests came in, despite @Carlo5*’s attempts to dissuade them.
@Carlo5* rarely let a request distract him. Usually reviewers would get the urge to manifest a request they processed and drop off the HAN for hours. For the past month, @Carlo5* had been strangely happy with his meta. He needed no changes.
Happy, until lately, he thought. When the render shrank. The Villa sank. The waterfall trickled. So what if the doctor was right? He’d just need to devote more time to the HAN and increase his share of flops. He’d make sure he had enough to keep the render open full, the waterfall running, the height dizzying.
‘Parsing error. Violation 20 flops.’
@Carlo5* struggled to focus. Requests were backing up and scattered throughout, more calls for Cubicle. Desperately, @Carlo5* tried to get back on track.
‘Heart rate threshold exceeded. Rest initiated. Thank you for your contribution.’
The detailed grooves of his cypress secretary came into focus. @Carlo5* flicked his meter into his field of view. Over twenty five hours of flop credit. It had put a substantial dent in his current deficit. Not his most impressive binge, but definitely out of the ordinary. He’d have his meta sorted out sooner than he hoped. Squashing the persistent Cubicle request had been frustrating, but at least it gave him a measure of enjoyment. No one in their right mind needed to waste their time with that prog.
@Carlo5* yawned. He climbed the staircase and ran his hand along the banister that overlooked the living room. Next, a long shower encased in the massaging spray from the three high-pressure shower heads, a wet, bare trip to his airy mattress and he was soon fast asleep.
‘Sleep at approved levels.’
Light flooded the room and @Carlo5* groaned. His HAN session had taxed him more than usual, probably due to the G.C. visit. The quack, @Carlo5* ruminated, had taken too damn long to finish the job. He crawled out of bed and padded down to the kitchen for a glass of orange juice.
He waved an arm at the window. Through painfully squinted eyes, @Carlo5* could see that the storm clouds had receded substantially. From the scattered islands below, he could tell that the villa had risen higher as well, maybe a good twenty feet. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Carrying his glass of juice to the cypress secretary, he rolled back the cover and sat down. With one hand, he picked up the pen, feeling it’s weight on his fingertips and considered connecting to the HAN.
‘Post healthcare visit protocols activated.’
@Carlo5* drummed his fingers on the desktop. He checked his flops on the meter. If he was going to set his meta right, he’d need to log another solid day on the HAN. Yesterday his output had been phenomenal, parsing at a much faster rate than usual. Faster than apparently his current ‘health’ could allow.
‘Recommend recreation mode.’
@Carlo5* pinged @Jack0licious. The response came amid a groan of pleasure. Or groans. It was hard to say.
“Hey, uh, what’s up?” @Carlo5* regretted the choice of words as soon as they left this mouth. One of the groans was followed by an earthy, mindless moan.
“Hang on,” said Jack0licious, breathless. “You wanna forward?”
@Carlo5* shuddered, but thrust the thought from his mind. He’d seen worse, much worse on the HAN. “Naw. Ping me later.”
“Wait. What gives?”
“I’m locked out of the HAN until I process some downtime.”
“Run Cubicle. Low foot print, counts as rec time. It’s your kind of thing, man. Trust me.” Another mindless moan erupted in the background.
‘Anachronistic: One that is out of its proper or chronological order, especially a person or practice that belongs to an earlier time’
“Ping me later, if you can.” The connection terminated.
In a rare moment of clarity, @Jack0licious had made perfect sense. Using the low footprint prog to satisfy the system demands for recreation would get @Carlo5* back to earning flops for his meta with little expense. Tapping the notepad, he made the request.
Veined cypress blurred into fuzzy gray partitions supporting a blank desktop. The hand carved chair lost it’s rigidity and leaned awkwardly until @Carlo5* rolled forward to rest his arms on the desk. This placed his face inches from the glass monitor that bubbled out to face him; a blank field the color of wet smoke. It stared, dormant, except for the reflection of fluorescent lights above. That, and a face. His face. It was unfamiliar.
His foot bumped a hollow metal case and he looked to see the computer beneath the desk. He’d needed the qLink to identify the ancient box last time. Carefully, he leaned back, staring up at a ceiling covered in dingy white tiles.
Seated in this gray world, it was a wonder the human race ever survived. Featureless, except a scattering of flat images pinned with shiny tacks to the partition walls. @Carlo5* sighed and carefully removed one.
A Tuscan villa nestled on a hillside, its back porch overlooking a pool that ran straight to the edge of the sky. Cobblestone walls of intricate design. Tiled roof.
He looked at the next picture. A waterfall cascading from great heights into a beach-side grotto.
The next, a string of sandy islands floating in a crystal sea.
He hadn’t paid attention to these last time. At least, he thought he hadn’t.
He pulled the remaining pictures down and felt the slick surfaces in his hand. A movement in the monitor caught his eye. Checking behind him, he saw only darkness.
‘Your firewall reports no un-forwarded personal space links,’ replied the HAN.
@Carlo5* rose, peering across the top of the cubical, but the simulated lighting extended only in a tight circle around him, as if the dark clouds surrounding his Villa had swallowed him and the tiny desk. He waited to let his eyes adjust. He could alter his meta anytime and override the prog, but was the darkness part of the recreation mode? If so, he wouldn’t want to interrupt it.
Maybe it was part of a horror scenario or maybe some sort of zen, nothingness meditation. He’d seen plenty of progs similar but this, this was different. Something felt, out of place. The odd feeling he’d had lying on the operating table, staring at a pitted concrete floor. With careful steps, he stepped into nothing.
‘Meta containment error. Violation: 500 flops. Return to Meta prog.’
Shapes began to emerge, at once familiar and alien. A dispenser rested at hand level, precisely where he’d snatched the bottle of wine last night. But in place of his well-stocked refrigerator stood solitary cabinet with a spigot. Beneath the spout caked layers of a whitish film. He wandered aimlessly toward the stairs, which were no longer there, passing a rotted mattress on the way. He went through the motions of his daily shower ritual and found a recessed metal box lined with pressured sprayers.
A small form skittered down a slime covered floor drain.
‘Meta containment error. Violation: 1000 flops.’
@Carlo5* swallowed a burning lump in his throat and retraced steps he’d made a hundred times to dive into the the pool or hop into the transport and glide across the sea.
‘Meta containment error. Violation: 2000 flops.’
A door slid noiselessly open at his approach. He stood high above a metal and concrete world, sticking out from the landscape like buried daggers. A long rail ran down the side of this building and each building he could see, out to the horizon. On these, metal pods ground into an empty world the color of the ancient computer screen, interrupted only by concrete spires charging into the sky; an endless sky painted by a burning sun and radiant with the palette of dawn which no prog could ever render. That blazing sun now hovered over a clear space where metal and stone died a sapphire death, pulled in and drowned mercilessly by a single glowing shard of ocean.
‘Meta containment error. Violation: 4000 flops.’
As he strained to see the patch of crystal blue, @Carlo5* wondered how long the gLink would remind him to return. Would it stop when his account zeroed out? Would it put him into a deficit? How would that work with the HAN trying to recall the growing numbers of the Crowd around him, now standing, staring out from openings in the stone towers. He sat to watch the sun burn it’s way through the sky, contemplating exactly how he could reach the azure spot in the distance.
Somewhere between the increasingly distant violation reminders, @Jack0licious cheerfully interrupted, “Hey, so you made it.”
“I guess so.” @Carlo5* whispered, his thoughts still swimming. “What is it?”
“It’s what’s behind the curtain. What creates the shadows.”
“How? Where?” @Carlo5* knew he should be turning back before his account depleted. He should be scared, frightened even, but that damn sparkling gem of ocean in the distance. It was so far but so impossibly clear and clean. Every reflected wave, every ray of the sinking sun sent skipping across it’s surface called to him.
“I’m sending a pod for you.” @Carlo5* mutely nodded at the sound of his friend’s voice. “Welcome to the devolution.”