Fiction Inferno: The literary magazine that burns you up

The Transcendent Function

LA Franks


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'm sitting in the studio minding my own business when I get this letter from some guy in Boulder, Colorado. Since my work appears online I expect my mail to arrive via the net, not by some dude in a steel blue outfit with a stripe down his leg. And what's more, it's from Boulder. I mean, that place is full of geri-hippie types. Really. I'm wondering what kind of person would kill a tree in order to send a message that takes days to reach its destination. With message sending instantaneous, why would any goober resort to expensive stationery and ink emitting devices to pen me a letter?

I read the letter. First he writes about the weather in Boulder like I care. Up here in Seattle it's raining. It's always raining in Seattle. That's why I live indoors, because it's always raining. Then he asks about my weather, like he can't access a weather site on his own to see for himself that it's raining in Seattle. This is followed by a bit where he gets to telling me that mom and dad and little sis are okey-dokey and A-OK, and inquires as to the relative health of my family, like he knows them from Jack Shit. After that he tells me how much he likes Rain City Underground, so much so that he just has to express his pleasure in writing. However, in the very next sentence he offers criticisms of the zine, and not very good ones at that. I'm wondering what's wrong with this dude, when he opens up to tell me he's feeling "out of sorts," as if that's a phrase commonly used this millennium. He then goes on to explain why. Of course his explanation is useless, but I read right down to the guy's big blue curvy signature on page two, and stare out at my hologram of Mt. Rainier. I'm totally bummed out.

* * * 

Days pass. Ron's letter bugs me. I deal with the problem by ignoring it. The letter still bugs me. Finally, with my practice of avoidance therapy getting me nowhere, I run a trace on the guy. I input the necessary information into my web gumshoe program, which in this case consists of his name and return address. I use the keyboard because my interactive speech program sucks. Whenever I give verbal commands I usually end up yelling at the computer for misinterpreting my instructions, which interactively tells me to piss off. Technology can be quite the asshole.

I access the results after lunch. Turns out Ron hasn't had an e-mail account or web address in five years. The return address on his epistle belongs to one of those companies that rents out mail slots to people. Ghost home. He's had a string of them in numerous cities for those same five years. About twenty in all, or a new address every three months if you care to do the math. Lives in a camper and works as a freelance interface technician. No sign of family or significant other. He uses check cashing services instead of banks, so the credit history is spotty. Probably stuffs the money into his mattress. Just another drifter; there are a lot of them around these days. I wrote a story on drifter lifestyle the summer between Freshman and Sophomore years.

Reading the file satisfies my curiosity. Being an interface technician he probably suffers from multiple personalities. He probably accessed Rain City Underground at work, which in this case would be Virtual World, Inc. of Boulder, CO. For all I know he's been a long time reader of the rag. I know for certain he's wacko.

* * * 

Weeks pass. I don't hear any more from Ron. For this I am thankful. I spend my time researching a group of cyberfreaks who involve themselves in role playing games. Normally this wouldn't interest our smut crazed normie readership, except these particular Game Lords go to extremes. In addition to living out their fantasies in cyberspace, long time players often alter their appearance and personality in real life, even to the point of approaching transspecies change.

Fortunately I don't need to go into character for this story; these goombahs crave publicity. Most don't have lives outside the game. In fact, they don't even have "real jobs." They are characters in a show. Their food and rent money comes by serving their domain lords, who collect fees from users and visitors, which is divvied up unequally between the subjects. From the safety of my own Virspace I scout the terrain and find characters to interview.

I finally reach one of the big boys, the Lord Protector of Darden, one of the highest of the Game Lords of Terra2. I visit his kingdom, where some cat dude leads me to some big ass stone hall where I'm made to wait for what seems like hours. It's cold and dusty and drafty in the place and I find I'm getting the urge to sneeze as I wait for him to see me. This I consider a little too realistic. I do not need to be sneezing and suffering from an allergy attack when I'm online.

When the cat dude finally leads me to the chamber, I have to crane my neck to look up to the crowned giant. I'm not thrilled. When the same Jack in the Beanstalk Giant says to me in a booming voice that hurts my eardrums, "What brings you to my domain, insignificant one?" I think I've had enough.

"I'm Shade. Don't pull this Big Boss shit on me, Bucko. If you don't want to talk to me, I can always find one of the other Lords. The Lord of Malta seems friendly enough." I've got my hand poised on the cutoff switch, ready to terminate the meeting in case he decides to step on me. Even cyberstompings can be painful, not to mention expensive. I've had more than my share of circuitry fried in various adventures. I sneeze. Damn the environment.

"Shade. My apologies." He laughs, with a voice that shakes the walls. "I was expecting one of my vassals who has recently grown much too arrogant. I was planning on crushing him" He smiles, revealing sharp teeth. He presses a button on the side of the chair and immediately starts shrinking to normal height. When he finishes he looks kind of like a normal guy, only with an elfin look. "Let's go into the library and talk. I am honored you're doing a story about our world."

I ask the usual questions and he gives me the usual answers until he starts explaining how Terra2 began. Turns out Virtual World of Boulder, CO. played a major role in creating the Terra2 universe. This is the same outfit that employs good ol' Ron. I get little shivers down my spine as I'm talking, and it's not just from the fell wind that wafts through the place. I wrap up the interview as soon as I can.

You can never escape from a story no matter how hard you try or how fast you run. When I return to my lair, which is much more cozy than the Lord Darden's, I pay a visit to Mr. Virtual Library in search of virtual information on Virtual World of Boulder, CO. I get the prospectus, brochures, reports loaded from various papers and newscasts, and download them to my reader.

It is not fascinating reading, let me tell you. Even the audio and video blips are downright dull, but the gist is that Virtual World specializes in creating fantasy worlds (duh). They are divided into three divisions: Cyberspace, RealPlace (that's with a (TM) following the word, by the way), and Personal Development. Cyberspace creates worlds for the likes of the Game Lords as well as virtual personal and business environments. If your company needs to hold a skills building meeting on a desert island or plan a team bonding getaway in old London, Cyberspace is the division for you. The RealPlace tee em Division constructs physical locales for fantasies. They have departments in Construction, Costuming, Verisimilitude (I kid you not), and Population Enhancement.

Personal Development is by far the scariest division in the place. This is where pop psychology, past life regression, role-playing, and other pseudo psychobabble crap gets mashed together into a disturbing casserole. Although PD tools can be used for positive psychological development (as many marketers claim), it is more often used to escape reality. Bits of memory can be removed, false memories implanted, transforming dupes into totally new creations. To avoid lawsuits, the company videos all PD interviews (with third party witnesses, no less). It seems to work. After seven years of being in business, not one family or friend has successfully sued the company for things done to a loved one.

I think, this is beginning to sound like the Return To Val --

I scoot over to the computer and begin typing. Images poke their ugly views on the screen and I scan text as quickly as I am able. I type faster. As I access more data my hands begin to shake. I can't type any more. Soon my whole body shakes. I can't read the screen. I don't want to read the screen. I will not read the screen. I close my eyes, my hands gripped tightly to the armrests. I stay like that for a very long time. When I open my eyes, the screen saver is showing lovely visions of Mount Ranier. I log off and go to bed.

* * * 

I've been to Colorado before. It wasn't Boulder, but one of those quasi religious communities near Colorado Springs. This one was filled to the brim by Retro-Traditionalists calling themselves Return To Values. They had this great idea filling their collective beans that the woman's place was in the home and the man's job was to make money. Of course, the community needed to turn a profit while developing their utopia, so they devoted part of their holdings into a sideshow entertainment called Fiftiesville. It agreed with their concept of gender roles as well as providing visitors with an inaccurate picture of the past. It also held the distinct advantage of gaining converts for the community.

Natch I did a story on them. My bag has always been to infiltrate the group I'm writing about, using disguises and fake ID, pretending to be men, women, even a drag queen once. Unfortunately, this gig was tougher than most. Although RTV didn't give complete physicals until the final stage, they did inspect applicants fairly thoroughly. I had no chance in hell faking it as a guy. For one thing, their requirements were stringent, to say the least. Dudes had to be at least six feet tall, preferably muscular -- but they could work the muscular part out in their labs. Chicks had to be under five feet nine to fit their criteria, and I clocked in at five eight. Since I couldn't pretend to be one of their guys, I had one choice if I wanted to do the story. But even so, I couldn't just whip out the fake ID, plop on a wig, slap on some prosthetic devices and padding, plaster on the cosmetics, and snag a new wardrobe. Okay, I did need the ID, cosmetics, and wardrobe, but I couldn't just schlamp some rubberized boobies into the maidenform and hope to get away with it.

I spent two incredibly horrid weeks on hormones, bulking up all the right places, so to speak, while the doc popped in the implants and I got permed. I wore girdles and high heels in order to get used to the torture devices. After the two weeks my partner -- a fellow reporter named John -- and I had pictures made retroactively. You know, courtship, wedding, growing up, the usual.

We booked a flight to Colorado Springs for the alleged purposes of emigrating to the Return To Values Compound and Subdivision. I remember that I never want to go back to Colorado.

* * * 

I hop a flight from Sea-Tac-Toe to DOA carrying nothing but an overnight bag and a palmtop. I have no idea what I'm doing. When the plane goes bumpity bump on the tarmac I snag a seat on the mag lev to take me to the Universe of Boulder. For once I'm not wearing any disguise; I look like any scraggly andie riding the train to alt dot land. Brown shoulder length hair, skinny, dark shades, no jewelry, white sneakers, black jeans, sloppy tee shirt and oversized army jacket. That nobody else on the train looks even remotely like me makes no difference. I sense that they understand, and I mean it in the most positive, spiritual, Boulderesque way. Nearly everyone in the car stares at me and pretends not to. Most are neo-hippies in three piece burlap looking suits, with pony tailed hair and requisite multiple piercings. They carry knapsacks or laptops or both as they take the early train from work. Some of the really dedicated ones wear computer screens on their shades, tick tick ticking away on palm keyboards. There's also a half dozen club types with oversized coats and big handbags carrying costumes or uniforms. Their makeup looks garish in the sunshine enhanced fluorescents of the car. I find that comforting.

We enter Boulder's gravitational field and I debark.

Vendors swarm the spaces outside the terminal, hawking their wares and wheels. I buy a used pair of inlines and helmet from a guy who looks about twelve, but balk at the gloves and pads. One of the wheels on the right skate falls off immediately so I buy a repair kit from his younger brother. When I finally fix the getup the next train has arrived carrying another load of biznoids. The more affluent (or lazy) have peddlers waiting for them. One really fat guy has two peddlers planted on twin seats in front of a covered lounger looking like some kind of Ben Hur Charlie Chan parody. The rest of the crowd sits on benches putting on skates or grabbing bikes from lockups. A few walk.

I skate in the slow lane trying to avoid altitude dizziness. Fortunately there are no walkers travelling faster than I am, but a few runners pass me by. I glide past trees and fields and the places where they started uprooting subdivisions. By the time I hit Pearl and 28th I'm sweating up a storm. I flip open the palmtop to access places of lodging. This was another thing I should have taken care of before I left, but being blown half way across the continent on a feeling kept my thinking to a minimum. I delete the hotels, the motels, the tourist cabins from the offerings, leaving me with a list of rooms in hostels, rooms to let in homes, shared rooms, dormitories. I try a different approach and locate a place that rents micro rooms downtown. I access the cellular.

"Davie's Rooms to Let. What do you want?"

The man's voice sounds bored and slightly snotty. I reply in kind. "You got any micros available?"


"I need a room. Tonight. For about a week."

He waits a few ticks before replying, like he's actually looking it up. I count to myself silently. When I reach ten he replies. "Yeah, we got one. Cash in advance."

"Suits me," I tell him.

"Name?" he inquires.


* * * 

The place is small, large enough only for a futon on the floor that can be rolled up when not in use. There are hammock hooks in the walls and a kind of desk/dresser/webbox against the wall next to the bathroom ha ha. Toilet, sink, collapsible medicine cabinet that reveals a shower head. Rubber daisies on the floor. TP holder protected from shower splash. Ug-lee.

I plug the palmtop into the webbox and fire it up. A message displays across the screen that the unit will not work unless I have a local provider and offers to sign me up. Hell, I got local providers all over this great country of ours so I try three or four before I find one that works.

I call the office. I get Shardonnay, who's in charge of just about everything at the Review I'm not in charge of. She stares at me. "Where you at?" she practically shouts at me.

"Boulder," I tell her.

"No, really."

It's true," I say. "I'm working on a story. I'll e-mail you the background."

"You sound funny," she says.

"How do you mean?" " Like . . . I don't know. Your voice sounds strained. Your words . . . they sound as though, like you've been working on a new dialect or something."

I pretend to laugh. "No, it's just the altitude. I'm not getting the O2 I need." I realize my voice sounds like the adult version of my kid voice. That high pitched, strident, kind of whiney Midwestern thing. It's not pretty. But I don't tell Shardonney this. She wouldn't understand. She's from So Cal. So I tell her I'll send a preliminary report tonight. "Besides, I've got to put the finishing touches on that Lords of Terra2 thing."

* * * 

We spent the week in the Fiftiesville Grand Hotel. I had to appear in public wearing tight fitting dresses, high heels, white gloves, and a hat. I carried a stupid handbag. I smiled way too much and deferred to my so-called husband on all matters of importance. In the evenings I took bubble baths in order to work out the kinks caused by girdles, eighteen hour bras, and heels. On the fourth day I actually cried and stamped my foot in frustration when I broke a nail. I did manage to get it fixed at the beauty parlor and felt much relief when it once again matched the rest of my nails.

I think the Elders had been spying on us, seeing if we were worthy. John put in our application, and we had lunches, dinners, took tea, and went to cocktail parties with people I knew must have been judging us on our suitability.

Even in the hotel I couldn't let my guard down. On the Tuesday, as we were getting ready for bed, I told John that I didn't think I could take the body armor much longer.

"What do you mean, darling?" he said. We had discovered a bug inside the picture above the bed. I hoped it was there for the collective and not to feed anyone's sick fantasies.

"My feet are killing me for one," I told him.

"I hear they have a device that can train your feet to fit into heels," he said.

"Yeah, and corsets to trim your waist. I did --" I was going to say I did a story on it once, so I coughed like I had something in my throat and hoped they wouldn't catch my near faux pas. "I did do some reading on the subject in some woman's magazine. I never thought I would need corset training before, but with some of those gowns they wear here, I may have to."

"We can go shopping for one tomorrow," he said.

I wondered how badly he wanted to see me in a corset.

* * * 

On the morrow -- I always liked that phrase -- I head out to the offices of Virtual World. I put on my black slick pants, black trenchcoat, black silk tee (a little touch of class, that), black shades, and those damn purple and lime green skates. I attach my micro computer to my hip, and click the monocle screen to my shades. I snap the palmboard to my belt. I use the superimposed map on the monocle to get me to Virtual World, which happens to be up the hill near the campus. I hate skating uphill.

Turns out Virtual World occupies numerous buildings near the university, most of them old houses and shops. Evidently the company had one of those vision things when they outgrew their original lodgings. Instead of slapping together one large building at the edge of town, they started buying up houses, apartments, stores, and offices. Programmers and engineers work together in teams in their very own building. Some team members actually live in the buildings where they work. Too weird. By comparison, the Game Lords of Terra2 look like normies.

Ronald Dolman is supposed to be in Building 7, but when I talk to the holographic receptionist, she informs me that he's been transferred to the Farm. I ask what the hell is the Farm and the receptionist looks blank and starts to flicker before she tells me.

"The Farm is a rural research facility north of the city where experiments in agricultural crop yields and alternative lifestyles are conducted."

"Oh great," I say, mostly to myself. "It's a commune."

"Commune is such an ugly word," comes a voice from behind me. "And so untrue." I turn to meet face to face a man wearing a dayglo green lab jacket with instruments in the breast pocket, black pants, black shoes, a computer monocle screen over his left eye. His hair matches his jacket, and he has a holographic nametag that read Dr. Justin Sonderman, Director of Eco Projects. "I understand you're looking for Ron Dolman."

"More or less."

"Are you a relative?" he asks.

"Nope. More like someone to whom he's been corresponding."

"We normally don't let non relatives visit our people there."

"Name's Shade," I say, hoping to get a reaction from him. The best one would be to have him call the guards to toss me out on my heinie. Then I'd have a story. However, all I get is his right eyebrow raising in surprise.

"The writer?"


"I've read some of your work. Interesting stuff." Although he looks calm and interested, I hear more than see his fingers click away on the palm keys and the eye behind the monocle scanning bits of data. If I hadn't known better, I would have said he had a nervous tick in his hand.

"I doubt you'll find anything of interest in your databases. I'm not in them." It's true. Under Shade you'll find a birthdate, but not a birthplace, a list of writing and editing credits, a mark for gender (with an asterisk), height, weight, hair and eye color (which can be altered), and current address (it's the office one). No parents' names, no school records, no criminal history, no job history. Shade was born a twenty year old.

"I hadn't even considered accessing those databases," he tells me, smiling. "But now that you mention it, I'll send out an agent. I am interested." He stops typing.

"What I was doing, in fact, is trying to contact someone. Do you want to visit the Farm?"

* * * 

"I don't know if I should take another mod," I said.

"You've only had one," said John. "Most people do five during their week's stay."

"Yes, but I already feel strange," I said. "I don't know what another will do."

"Oh, live a little. I'll protect you."

"That's easy for you to say, you big lug. You haven't had any."

"Somebody has to remain clear headed," he said. "And right now I feel really clear headed." He grabbed me and pulled me onto the bed, pretending to kiss my ear.

"Think of it as research," he whispered.

"Think of my sanity," I whispered back. I was beginning to feel hot. Usually I don't, but I felt a wave of dizziness -- something -- pass over me. I needed something to blame, so I blamed the hormones, the role playing, the mod. Normally I don't like personality modification - even temporary. I find that "I" lose control and do things I don't normally do. It's sort of like being drunk, which I gave up when I was about twenty.

The mods consisted of a series of five lessons, each one gender specific. The units were everywhere: the hotel room, office buildings, in the back of shops (in order to not be intrusive. They even utilized the bonnets at the beauty parlor to work as reinforcers. You just schlamp on the headgear, program the mod you want, and in about two hours, bingo. You're acclimating. You're still you, but in my case I kind of started to forget things that happened after say, 1955. I also got a large dose of how I was supposed to behave. The Persona encouraged me to act like a dutiful fifties wife, and I played the role to the hilt, and enjoying it. Well, except for the clothes. Okay, that wasn't true. It was the pain I didn't enjoy. The clothes were cool.

The second personality modification delved deeper into the mores and customs of fifties people, making me fit in more to a time prior to Rock and Roll. Mods three, four and five got into the real deep stuff, like pop culture, current events, and etiquette. This too, was gender specific. The men got Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and an inordinate interest in the internal combustion engine. Women got such weighty stuff as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Rock Hudson, and Cary Grant. Ooh la la.

I wasn't sure I wanted two, much less all five.

"I'll take the second mod before dinner," I said.

* * * 

Kiwi Boy has a car, one of those crappy electric jobs, and not a hybrid either. It's white, too. I'm surprised. "Company car?" I ask before I see the stickers on the dash: "No smoking in company vehicle" and "All occupants must wear seatbelts."

"Do you think I'd own a piece of crap like this?" he tells me.

"No, you look more the motor scooter type."

He glares at me. We drive in silence for a ways before he speaks. "What do you know about Ronald Dolman?" he asks.

"Just what can be found in any good web search. Plus the fact that he wrote me a hard copy letter. I suppose you're going to divulge something that until now has been kept secret." I sneer.

He glares at me again, but that doesn't stop him from talking. "Ron's been working freelance for us about six years now. His skills as an interface technician keep him on the road most the time. Because he's freelance, he designs behavioral mods in his spare time. We only learned recently he's been testing his mods personally."

* * * 

By Friday I had nearly enough information to assemble my half of the "Our Week in Retro Hell" article. It was also the last night of our stay. We went to a cocktail party after the dudes -- er, menfolk -- got off work or golf or meetings or whatever it was they did. Some Cardinal of the Inquisition locked me inside one of their corsets (to the great interest of John, I could tell) in order that I might wear a strapless peach colored cocktail dress. I also had a fur wrap to keep my shoulders warm on the way to the club. It felt disturbingly real, though I hoped it was one of those genetic engineered things and not the result of somebody going out of his way to kill a dozen minks.

I sipped cocktails with the other airbrains while John talked to the men and made occasional references to "the missus." What an asshole.

The bimbos kept talking about clothes, the beauty parlor, recipes, and popping out kids. "Dorothy is pregnant again, can you believe that?" said Marilyn. God, they even had fifties names.

"It's her third one."

"Well her other two are such darlings."

"Don't I know it. Beverly is just the cutest thing."

I excused myself and went to get another drink. I was getting a headache.

* * * 

A big fence surrounds the Farm, with big mean signs warning people not to trespass. There is a guard at the gate, who takes one look at Kiwi Boy, and waves us through with a "How's it going, Doc?" However, as we pass I see him shake his head in disbelief.

"The Farm is an experimental research facility that cares for people suffering from Persona addiction," says the Doc as he parks the car.

Persona addiction is epidemic among Interface Technicians because the brain/hardware interface makes it easy to download Personas. Socket heads access mods directly into their brain, unlike normal folk, who must use cumbersome headgear. Continued use of the product leads to a reduction of cognitive ability and degradation of the original personality. There are numerous IFtechs who are vegetables without mods attached to their beans. And yes, I did an expose on it once.

"Are you working on a story?" he asks. "Or are you actually interested in his welfare?"

"I don't know what I'm doing," I admit.

"That's refreshing," he tells me. "From what I've read of your work, you're very self assured."

"That's just great writing," I say.

* * * 

I had a ferocious splitting headache. How fifties, I thought. One of the girls gave me some painkillers and I sat down for a while, which didn't help. The pain kept going right at the temples just behind the eyes, pounding away like one of those goateed beatniks playing the bongos, even when I managed to find a quiet room far away from the dance band and chatter. Eventually I had one of the help go fetch John.

"What's the matter honey?" he asked when he saw me. He had a look of concern on his face. Usually I'm a stubborn ol' cuss.

"It's my head. It won't stop pounding." I had tears forming in my eyes from the pain.

"Have you taken anything for it?"

"Nothing works," I snapped at him. "Would you please take me back to the hotel?"

"Do you really want to leave?" he asked. I could tell he didn't.

"Yes I want to leave," I said through clenched teeth. "The pain is killing me. If you're too busy, I'm sure you can fetch one of the lackeys. If you don't care to even take that much trouble, you may just suffer from the business end of these freshly manicured nails. Won't that be authentic."

He drove back to the hotel, then left me with the room key in my white gloved hand in the lobby. I do not know how I managed to put the gloves on between recovering my wrap from the cloak room dude and having the door opened for me (what a gentleman) by John when he wheeled around with the car (it was a reconditioned Packard - hybrid gas electric, though).

The elevator boy greeted me and took me to the fifth floor. I walked briskly on the carpeted hallway to the room. I had to blink away tears as I fumbled with the key in the lock. I'd been injured before, but never had I been attacked by such an overwhelming headache. The bongo player had been joined by a guy with a jackhammer, two locomotives, and twenty screaming girls on a roller coaster. I wondered if I could call room service for some morphine.

It took forever, but I finally got the door opened. I was shaking at this point. The mink fell to the floor, as did the purse and room key. I stumbled toward the bed (losing one shoe in the process) and fell face first on the mattress. I began crying, gripping at the pillow with clenched hands, worried that I was getting lipstick on the pillowcase.

* * * 

I tour the place, where I meet Ronald in person in real life. He looks like hell. Sallow face, empty eyes, no weight. Which is more than a shame, as he isn't much more than thirty. He doesn't recognize me. In fact, he doesn't recognize much of anything. The deterioration of his personality is a marvel. It's depressing, but it does explain the letter. It was one of his Personas that sent it.

"We removed his mods. That's why he's unresponsive and listless. Evidently he's been getting all his personality from mods the past three years. He can't function without one."

Duh, I think. "How far has the deterioration of his synapses progressed? He looks like stage three, maybe stage four degradation."

He looks at me. "He's suffering from stage three deterioration. I'm surprised you could tell."

"I wrote a three part series on the disease." I should have won an award for it, too, those bastards.

"Then you know that it's not impossible to cure someone in stage three."

"Yeah." But it's damned difficult. A regular person can download personas 'til the cows come home with little long term effect except for a possible change of personality. But then, that's the point for those who augment their personalities with "Super Salesman or "Mr. Outgoing." However, for someone who has had the surgery done to allow them to access computer data directly, a Persona can be downloaded into Memory (and not human memory either), where it can take days before the Persona wears off. In time it takes more current to keep the Persona running, which can fry the synapses. With stage three there is possibility of recovery. With stage four there isn't. Stage five is vegetable.

"We're trying to download a permanent mod," he says. "And plug the socket. But we're having problems finding a working personality for him."

He pauses, as if unsure whether to tell me this part. Personally, I think it's an act, designed to try to woo me into his confidence. I wait him out. I win. "A few years ago we had a division head from Personal Development who hired out people like Ron with permanent mods to RealPlace, where I understand they made wonderful laborers and extras. It ended when those Gone With the Wind people wanted to use Black Persona addicts for household servants."

An image pops into my bean. I wonder about the bellhops, waiters, valets, cleaning women, and all the others doing menial jobs there at Fiftiesville. Were they paid by the hour or did they have specific personalities thrust upon them? Or both? Enquiring minds want to know.

I look around. More than a few things start to strike me as being odd. "For being on a farm, there's not a whole lot of agriculture going on," I tell the good doctor. He shrugs. "We wanted to use farming as a means of rehabilitation. Unfortunately that hasn't worked." As he moves, his nametag reflects the sunlight.

"And these eco projects of which you're the Director?" I point to his nametag.

He smiles. "It means I'm the Director of the Farm."

"So you run this junkyard of failed schemes and ruined people?"

He takes offense. I knew he would. "People are interested in Virtual World. Investors want us to succeed. We provide a service. While it's true a very small percentage of our clients want to escape reality, many more want to find direction in their life. They have a need to grow, to become better people."

"Oh, Please."

"It's true."

I think about Fiftiesville. Those asshole stupid jackass shitheads weren't becoming better people. It wasn't part of the grand scheme. They wanted converts. You start with a temporary personality modification in order to make the experience more lifelike. Then a few more to make it more satisfying. Then the final coup de grace, the Big Mod, the one that's not so temporary, and bingo, you get people eager to join Return To Values. Of course, RTV is aided by women and men who don't need modifications to believe that sexist crap.

"You're in the business of making people believe lies. False realities and beliefs that become real by the sheer numbers of people you make believe them. Real thought, real introspection doesn't exist because everyone is programmed to believe what you tell them to."

"Can you tell me what reality is," he says, then adds, "Amber?"

* * * 

Saturday morning. The mods were starting to wear off and I was beginning to feel like myself again. It would be good to get back to Seattle, I thought, and write up that article. It was going to be a doozy.

I was halfway through with packing when I looked up and saw the reflection of John staring at me. I turned around. "What's the matter?"

"I'm not leaving," he said

"What?" I dropped the cosmetic case on the bed.

"I'm not going," he said. "I like it here."

I was dumbfounded. The only thing I could think of to say was, "But we have an article to write."

"I know. And when I came here I wanted to write it. But now I don't. The thing is, I didn't know this before, but I like fitting into a well defined role. There's a sense of peace about it. A sense of belonging. You know what your role is and everybody around you knows what their roles are. You can't find that outside."

"You've been brainwashed," I said.

He shook his head. "I haven't had the mods, remember? This comes from observing and talking."

"Bullshit. They've gotten to you somehow. They've changed you. Was it last night after I was put conveniently out of the picture? What did they put into my drink? What was it?"

"Nobody put anything into your drink. According to Bill Parker it was your brain rejecting the mods. He says it happens to some people."

I wanted to believe that. Somewhere my brain was warning me that I didn't really like Fiftiesville and telling me to run away. But another part of me didn't want to be logical. I wanted to be an emotional Fifties wife having an entirely emotional (and consequently unfair) argument with my husband. "I suppose you want me to follow you like a good little stepford wifey."

He shook his head and said matter-of-factly, "You can't join. You're not fertile."

My jaw dropped. "You bastard."

He shrugged his shoulders and put his hands out, palms up. He wanted to say something, but didn't dare. I glared at him for what seemed like minutes, until he couldn't meet my gaze. He turned around and left the room.

It took two weeks before I started forgetting all the crap the mods dumped in my brain. It took me a month before I could write the article.

* * * 

"How the hell do you know I am, was Amber?" My jaw is hitting the ground. I don't bother to pick it up.

He smiles. "Probability. After you wrote 'My Life In Retro Hell' our lawyers decided they needed to know more about you. It was obvious you were dangerous. They wanted to prevent you from hurting the company again. We created a database using your birthdate, gender, race, and citizenship as parameters, weeding out those who obviously didn't match: the deaths, ones who showed no talents in writing, others who could be traced." He pauses.

"Then we narrowed down of the rest of the candidates. You'd be surprised how many women disappeared about the time Shade showed up. In the end we had four likely suspects. Amber was the likeliest. When it was discovered during puberty that Amber was male, the answer seemed obvious."

"You bastard," I say softly. Then louder. "You bastard." Then I start saying other things, other not nice things and my voice keeps getting louder and more strident. "I didn't ask them to do it. I didn't ask them to change me."

"But they wanted a boy," he says quietly. "They already had two girls."

"THEY WANTED TO CARRY ON THE FAMILY NAME." By now my voice is so ugly and piercing it can just about shatter glass. Kiwi Boy winces.

"It must have been terrible for you," he says, and I don't think it's out of sympathy, "To suddenly discover you aren't who you think you are."

"Shut up, " I tell him.

"First you're a girl, wearing frilly dresses, playing with Retro-Barbie, letting your mom braid your hair, playing with jacks or jump roping during recess, taking gymnastics or figure skating lessons -."

"Shut up, you bastard."

"Then suddenly you're a boy. Hey son, do you want to play some catch? I'll teach you how to throw a curve. Now you're expected to know how to fix cars. Instead of doing the dishes you're expected to take out the trash and shovel the drive. I'll bet it was especially bad in the Midwest."

"I'll kill you," I said.

"Now is that Amber talking, or is it Alan?"

My fists are clenched at my sides. I glare at him. He looks unfazed.

"What do you know about amnesia?" Kiwi Boy says out of nowhere.

That stops me cold. I like the idea of amnesia. There are times I really want to forget. Forget the teasing. Forget the beatings. Forget my stupid shit parents. Forget goddamn Ashley and Brittany with their secrets swapping, clothes sharing, and prom dress buying. My parents made me move into a room by myself and filled it with football and hockey posters. I even had goddamn NFL sheets on the bed.

"Amnesia is not like how it's portrayed in the movies. People don't get bonked on the head with a coconut and wake up with a new identity. Amnesia is a medical condition which creates an inferior person, not a different one."

I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My emotions, which had been sprinting to the point of overload, suddenly freeze up.

"One of our services is what we call memory replacement. Unpleasant or detrimental memories are replaced or made more satisfying. I'm sure you read about it during your research." I suddenly notice that it seems he's reading from a script. His right eye isn't watching me. It's moving involuntary with the other eye that's reading.

I regain some of my composure. "I must have fallen asleep before I got to that part of the brochure."

"It's quite simple, actually. You can believe you have been Amber your whole life. Or Alan, if you prefer. Though to be honest, I think Amber would suit you better. We can replace those years of puberty to allow you to believe you had a normal female adolescence. We can even attempt gene replacement therapy, though to be honest the success rate is still around sixty percent." He pauses, to access more data.

"You haven't seen your family since you left home at . . . seventeen. It must be terrible to hate them so much. You could have good feelings for them. Or forget them completely. Do whatever you want."

"What I want to do is leave this place. If you will kindly escort me to the gate, I can find my own transportation back."

"I'm trying to make a deal with you, Amber."

"Amber doesn't exist," I tell him.

"Do you like who you are?"

"What kind of new age sensitivity bullshit is this?"

"You can be someone you like better. We can help."

"Now you're an infomercial."

"I see that Shade the Cynical has returned. For a moment there you appeared human."

"Thank you ever so much for that compliment. Tell me, did you have a real teacher or did you take an online class?"

"What do you mean?" He seems genuinely puzzled. Here's where I go for the punch that knocks him off balance and sets up a flurry of killer blows designed to distance myself from him and sever whatever empathy we might have toward each other.

"To learn the gentle art of manipulating by use of buzzwords and pseudo empathic phrases. It's all nice and very glib, but there's a razor's edge between sounding sincere and acting like a used car salesman. And you suck."

He's scanning the data in his eyepiece and clicking at his keyboard trying to locate a comeback. I'm clicking on my keypad and looking into my eyepiece as I upload our conversation (with commentary) into a satellite connection that links to the server at Rain City Underground. We're watching and not watching each other, hands typing furiously at our sides as though we're in some Western Showdown. It's Gary Cooper in High Noon, Kevin Kline in Silverado, Clint Eastwood in every damn cowboy movie he made. No Shane, no. Don't go. Shut up kid. The thought of that makes me laugh.

He stops clicking starts asking inane questions. I can't respond I'm laughing so hard. "I aim to kill you Ned Pepper, or see you hang in Fort Smith at Judge what's his name's convenience." Every single cowboy movie starts rushing through my brain. I've got a mental picture of Kiwi Boy in lime green chaps with a lime green cowboy hat meeting me out in the dusty street. Naturally, I'm all in black, from my hat down to my boots. Even my duster is black. And my shades. What gunslinger can exist without cool shades?

Everything is so funny and stupid I'm about to pee my pants. I realize I've been a cyber gunslinger all my adult life, taking down the Kiwi Boys with my trusty six shooter and uplink. But hell, this time I want to walk. I want to start over, find out who Shade really is. Who this androgyny-who-doesn't-seem-to-like-much-of-anything is. Who I am. Me. I'm getting too old to stuff a bra or glue on a false goatee in order to get a story. I want to make friends as myself, not as characters named Cyndi or Derek or even that Fifties bubblehead. I want Shade to be a real person.

However, I can't think of any Westerns where the hero walks away from a gunfight at the end of the flick. It's always about having to fight one last time. "I'm leaving," I say, hoping to walk away from a fight.

"Are you now? I do believe the man at the gate will say otherwise."

Kiwi Boy just doesn't know when to quit. It's people like him who'd be better off getting on their horses and skedaddling out of town. They're usually the first to go down, tumbling from buildings or twisting in slow motion, dropping their guns as they sink to their knees. I have to shoot dozens of Kiwi Boys before I can get to the CEO and his henchmen. I don't have the patience for it. I've got a life to live.

"How to you plan to keep me? I'm online with full voice and video. Any attempt to detain me against my will can only add further embarrassment to your company."

"We know your secret," he tells me.

My secret. Oh golly gee gosh, they know who I am. I smile brightly at him. "Guess what? I don't care. Tell whoever you want. Tell the press. Tell the tabloids. It doesn't matter. I'm not Amber. I'm not Alan. Someone wearing this body used to have those names, but that's not who I am. And I didn't even need your personality realignment or whatever the hell it is. I figured it out all by myself. Do what you want, I don't care. I've got shit to do. So if you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way."

He glares at me. I step past him and walk toward the gate. The security guy lets me through without a word.




© 2002, LA Franks

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