"Get that thing off my piano, willya?", Sam Slate growled through teeth clenched on a ludicrously huge cigar. He nodded at the virtual reality helmet his secretary, Vera Lao, had left there. "And deep six the dream hat, while you're at it."
Vera stretched languorously atop the piano. "But Sam", she breathed huskily, "Everybody uses VR, and I get bored when I've got nothing to do." She drew herself up on her elbows, treating Sam to an intriguing view, to make sure he got the point.
"Sam?" She waved a hand experimentally.
"Sam?", she repeated. "Is my pheromone perfume too much for you?"
"Mmm-hmmm?" He smiled dreamily as his eyes unglazed, then snapped to attention. Hard to impress a dame with drool on your chin.
Vera pretended not to notice. She caressed the massive instrument's burled top. "But I just can't help it. I mean, who else but you would have a wooden piano. Listen to me, I'm Billie Holliday!" She crooned a few bars of a song that was retro a century before.
Sam's scowl wavered, then darkened, so she sighed, "OK, tough guy, you win." She pecked him on top of his balding head and strolled out of the office.
Turning to his ancient desktop PC, one of maybe a dozen left in the world, he glanced at the abandoned web helmet and growled, "Oh no, not in a million years!"
The helmet, with time on its side, glinted smugly.
Sam harrumphed and attacked his battered keyboard with a vengeance, pointedly ignoring the cheeky device. But tiny lights winked insolently in the helmet heads-up, and it began to plague him with obnoxious advertising jingles.
He hunched his shoulders and typed even harder, ignoring the warning sounds from the groaning keyboard. It switched to an active defense: a flight of keys rose like ICBMs; one scored a direct hit with a treacherous bank shot off the screen and into his eye.
"YEEEOOWWW-GEEZUZ!!!", he bellowed. He pried the jagged plastic from his watering eye and hopped in rage. Without thinking, he snatched up the keyboard and slammed it to the floor, scattering brittle bits and terrified dust bunnies.
He slumped in his chair and squinted morosely at the wall. It was all going down the crapper; his rent was late, his hairline was receding like ebb tide at Coney Island, and his love life, well, he didnít want to go into that.
He was the last of his breed: those tough talking, hard drinking, two-fisted, tough as nails private eyes, slinging their back alley lingo like a blue plate special down a hash house counter. Ready to play chin music on the ugly mugs of trouble boys, or just pump 'em full of lead. Slate affected that peculiar dialect when it suited him, which he knew was a tad strange, here in the mid-21st, but in this business you've got to have a hook, and that Marlowe-esque panache was his. Vera, he knew, was delighted by it, so he was in no hurry to shake it.
Things would be a breeze but for the fact that Slate Investigative Services was going under fast. Sam's bread and butter - embezzlement and divorce cases - were disappearing into the Net like roaches under the baseboards. These days, anybody who had dirty business to do didn't do it in person; they did it with untraceable virtual agents. And thanks to full body sim-suits, the Net was also where spouses perpetrated their casual betrayals, were they so inclined. Soon, it would be impossible for Sam to do business without going virtual himself.
And the thought of that scared the crap out of him.
The helmet beeped inquiringly.
He said, "Oh no. Oh-h-h no, you don't!".
But Sam didn't move. Music throbbing from the helmet synched with reptile brain engrams evolved a million years before Freud put the "id" into "idiot", a feat rivaled only by his perverse revelation that cigars resembled a portion of his anatomy. General shape - not size, we can only hope.
Sam sat paralyzed. He saw a hand reaching toward the helmet, his hand. The hand touched the helmet, raising it high.
The helmet purred triumphantly...
Sam Slate came to among garbage cans and beer bottles. He sat up and studied the virtual; it was a classic 30ís era scene. Loaded with art-deco and neon glitz, it tried in vain to lend an air of class to the filthy alley that wove its drunken way behind the sleazy nightclubs on the bad side of town. "Raph el's - Li e Girls Nightly", a buzzing neon sign overhead declared.
He shook his head and Texas fireflies square-danced on his retinas.
Bad move! This virch is better than I thought.
He looked up and was somehow unsurprised to see "Knucks" Brogan and "Sly Willie" Wiezel leaning against the stage door. Sam knew these ginks from way back, a couple of grifters and brunos on the outside as well as in, they'd sell their grannies for a cup of Joe.
Knucks grinned dopily at Sam. Willie, though obviously pained to be seen in public with a palooka like Knucks, was enjoying himself immensely. He indulged in a fleeting smirk as he darted nervous glances around the alley.
"Duh-uh, hey Willie, da mugís cominí back to oití. Letís put Ďim in orbit again!", Knucks guffawed. "Brass knucks or da sap? Whattayasay?"
"Shaddap, ya dope!", the skeletal Willie casually backhanded Knucks, who dropped like the stock market in October. "Any more rocks in your head, and theyíd mine you for roadfill."
He eyed Sam. "You look like you're wise to the grift, Sam-san, not like this gazoonga meat here, though I can't say much for your tailor..." He picked a pill off Sam's filthy lapel. "I guess if you've been shattin' on yer uppers as long as you have, you don't have the lettuce for nice rags. I gotta tell ya, I don't know what the boss wants with a lousy shamus like you, you beiní such a retro gooberín all, but I go where the mazuma is, like a good jobbie. And if you want to keep on breathing, you'll do likewise."
He added in truly cheesy Cagney, mooking it up way over the top, "Yeah, you dirty rat, we're gonna make you an offer you can't refuse."
Sam smiled and brushed off his fedora. Cocking it at just the right angle, he fired up his trademark stogie with a decrepit Zippo. He snickered out of the corner of his mouth, "Now, now, lookit little Willie, insulting the man's tailor. That's quite ironic, coming from a yerp who obviously buys off the rack. Which trash heap didja pick that tarp off of, pal?"
Willie flinched. His voice rose a step as he broke out of character. "Hey! This is a genuine Armani virchcloak ensemble, with the latest in refractory shape shifting coatings, worth a hundred times what you're wearing!"
"Hmmm, so that's how you get the dung beetle with a tapeworm look; that out-of-period iridescent coating..." Sam sniffed, "Got the smell right, too!"
"You bastard! You wouldn't know a good suit of clothes from an Ace bandage!"
Sam replied, "A wise man once told me, 'Don't catch your karma in your tuxedo fly, son. Fifty bucks, please.' By which I took him to mean clothes don't make the man. Maybe you should find the old buzzard and give him the $50. God knows your karma could use an overhaul. By the way, did you just call me a bastard?!!"
He made a long arm and smacked the Weasel back and forth across the face, Oh-Woh! Then up and down, Ooo-Woo!, and finally, Moe'd him in the eyes with steel-bar fingers: OW! Why I oughtta... Willie skipped in circles, Armani ensemble flapping.
"Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!", Sam chortled. Knucks charged, but Sam sidestepped and slammed a garbage can lid square on his button. The goon rocked back, glazed eyes on faraway places. It occurred to Sam that now would be a great time to brain him (braining being a figure of speech) with the nearest heavy object, which was a large dead rat.
"Sorry, Mickey." He snatched up the rigid rodent and cracked it over Knucks's head. Like old-growth timber dropping a sapling, Knucks toppled onto Willie, taking him down. Sam deftly plucked a $50 out of Willie's coat pocket before they splashed into the muck of the alley floor.
"Out-standing, Willie! Your chakras are clearing already!", Sam grinned. He flicked an inch of ash in Willieís face where he lay pinned under Knucksís 150 kilos of unconscious (well, who can tell) weight.
Sam blew a leisurely smoke ring toward the stage door and jumped. Framed by the slowly dispersing ring, dead-ahead, a drop-dead redhead in a beaded red strapless stood in silhouette. Clapping her hands in lazy, ironic applause, she descended the steps.
"Who the hell are you, sister?" (Sam knew how to talk to a lady)
"I'm the one who brought you here, Mr. Slate, and I'm the one who's going to make you a very rich man." The corner of her lip quirked slightly as he chewed on that.
"For future reference, Mr. Slate ..." She snagged his tie and yanked him up close and personal.
"Urk?", he inquired.
"I'm definitely not your sister." She let the tie trail away between her fingers.
Sam loosened his collar and wheezed,
"So I noticed."
"My name is Rosanna Alvarez, and my boyfriend is trying to kill me.", she began. "All I want to do is sing in nightclubs, but he is so jealous, he just cannot stand to see other men appreciate my talent."
From the looks of it, it'd been a while since Raphaelís Silver Cloud Lounge put on an off-Broadway revival of The Sound of Music. She might could sing, but it wasn't her voice that drew the crowd at the Cloud.
"Listen, Ms. Alvarez, I donít know you from Eve, and if those bozos sawing logs out there in the alley are your idea of a welcoming committee, I'd rather not get too cozy, if it's all the same to you. So far Iíve got nothing but some funny money and a case of sap poisoning to show for the privilege of meeting you."
He held up Willie's $50 and willed it to vanish in a sparkle of cheesy vidfex. It refused. He plowed on.
"You must have a pretty low opinion of me. First you kidnap me into this virtual playpen of yours. Not very nice. Then you expect me to believe you'll risk prosecution to solve your boyfriend problem. Not very smart. So, what's your game, anyway? What's the real reason I'm here?"
She changed the subject. "You think weíre in virch, Mr. Slate?"
"Don't play me for a sap, I was there when it happened! One minute Iím working in my office, the next Iím a walking stereotype in a really bad detective flick. I've got nothing against trashy detective yarns, but I like reality the way I like whiskey. Straight up."
"And youíre an authority on reality, Mr. Slate? I am not the one trying to pay my bills by living a fantasy from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Private investigator!", she sneered. "For Godís sake, you donít even have virtual, youíve just got a stupid PC! What can you possibly hope to investigate with such obsolete equipage?!!"
Sam growled, "Let me tell you about reality, sister.
"Reality is bill collectors, garbage, and greedy bastards making a killing. Itís stupid people making more stupid people and ugly people with bad haircuts and even worse breath. Itís petty bureaucrats sending you to the back of the line and crooked politicians spending your taxes on $500 dollar-a-night whores.
He waved his cigar at the room. "This clambake of yours is just a pipe dream. A well-produced one, I'll give you that, but it all boils down to this: VR is where the drones come to forget about the real world and the real crap they have to choke down every day."
She looked blankly at him, and suddenly a small handgun appeared in her hand. Before he could react, she pulled the trigger and winged him.
Sam grabbed his arm and cried out. "You crazy bitch, you just shot me!"
"Donít worry, Mr. Slate, none of this is real, so that didn't really happen, did it?", she smiled mirthlessly and tossed him a medpack. "Besides, it is only a flesh wound, as they say."
Coolly, she regarded him as he applied the medpack to the wound. "Do not make that mistake again, Mr. Slate. You can be killed as easily here as anywhere else."
He gave her a sharp look. "'as easily here', huh? You don't like to lose an argument, do you Roz?"
She frowned. "I am sorry I had to do that, but I could not convince you any other way. You are a stubborn man, a man who understands actions better than words. So I acted."
"Well you got the Oscar tonight, lady! Iím just glad you can handle that pea shooter."
She grinned, "Iíve never used a gun before tonight, Mr. Slate."
Outside in the alley, tires screeched and a car door slammed. She lifted a slat in the blinds and grimaced.
"I think your luck just changed, Mr. Slate."
"Oh yeah, who's out there?"
"Have a look."
"I don't see a thing. Hey, what gives?!!" He turned and glimpsed a heavy ashtray, with Roz on the follow-through, as it arced toward his head. A blossom of red like a Harlem sunset, then darkness closed over once again.
Normal, it seems, is relative.
A disembodied head bobbed furtively into his field of view, drifting in from above, then below, and finally it loomed boldly up: a huge bloodshot eyeball blinked at him from an inch away. Yellowish whites and dried eyegoo at the corner of the lid did nothing for Sam's appetite. Not that he'd had much time to top off lately; he'd spent most of his recent quality time as a punching bag and gunnery target.
"Good heavens, Roz. I think you discombobulated his combobulator!", the head oozed, in a wash of truly astounding halitosis. Sam gagged and rolled, nearly wharfing the breakfast he hadn't had. Startled, the head jerked back, and he saw it was an actual floating head with the face of Peter Lorre, the 20th century character actor. Sam got warily to his feet, one eye on the head, one eye on Roz.
"He'll live, Lorre. Sam, meet the famous goddamn movie actor, Peter Lorre.", Roz snapped. "Sam Slate, Peter Lorre. Peter Lorre, yadda yadda..."
"Put 'er there, Lorre". He grinned and extended his hand.
"Charmed, I'm sure.", gritted the Head of Peter Lorre, glaring pointedly at Sam's outstretched hand.
"Oops. What's the matter, Pete, Central Casting wouldn't pop for a bod?"
Without waiting for a reply, Sam exclaimed to no one in particular, "Damn, this is a cool place, even though I keep getting my ass kicked. This head's the shit!" He reached out to pat it, but it darted out of reach.
He eyed Lorre speculatively. "Hmmm. Maybe you can tell me what her angle is."
Lorre cleared his (throat?) and said, "It is very simple, Mr. Slate. She is trying to kill you."
A stray lock of hair had fallen over Lorre's face, and Lorre abruptly flicked his tongue out to brush it aside, reinforcing the distinctly amphibian cast of his features. Sam stared. Inexplicably, he suddenly craved a beer.
"I brought him here to help me, you flying dingleberry! Why would I want to kill him?" Roz swung ineffectually at Lorre, who bobbed easily out of reach.
Lorre leered and winked at Sam, "If I hadn't arrived when I did, Mr. Slate, you would be even more dead than her!"
She screeched, "I'll show you how dead I am, hover-turd!" She produced a tennis racquet and began to chase him around the room, aiming to swat him like a baseline winner.
"Mr. Slate, you must leave while you can, while you are still free to go," Lorre puffed, though what with was not clear to Sam. Chucking the racquet like a bad habit, Roz extracted a huge automatic from her cleavage and began blasting at Lorre.
Properly motivated, she was an excellent shot.
"Quickly Slate, while there is time!", Lorre said, dodging a spray of plaster shards.
Sam looked at Roz, her face an enraged deathmask, booming away with the inexhaustible automatic. He looked at Lorre, eyes bulging and tongue hanging, weaving telepathically out of the way of the bullets wheeting by. He looked at the window that opened onto the alley.
It was an easy call.
A shower of glass and splinters from the shattered window rained on Sam as he hit the alley floor and rolled. He glanced back and saw the Lorre head zip out the flindered window and into a 1934 Deusenburg parked nearby.
"Slate! Get your ass in the car! Hurry, man!", Lorre cried. Sam bolted for it but now Roz was at the window trying to drill him. Stone chips and bottle fragments stung his face as he dived into the back seat, and the Deusy roared off into the night. He winced as a parting shot creased the landau roof overhead.
"Lell, lat was a close one, eh, Tlate?" Lorre spoke with difficulty, as he was using his teeth to steer and his tongue to work the accelerator. When he changed gears, he flicked his tongue off the pedal to work the shifter. This made for a whiplash inducing ride. Sam reckoned it was a bitch driving in traffic, and even worse riding.
And now he knew why Lorreís breath was lethal.
"Hey Lorre, want me to drive?", Sam asked as he head-banged through another gear change.
"No need, Tlate, weah almost theah. Beside, I donwanna tase wha you Ďeen steppiní in.", Lorre grinned. Sam craved a beer again; he shook his head.
They slowed and stopped in front of a nondescript office building. The Deusy's long frame crouched at the curb, its lead-spewing, petrochemical-belching engine humming its arrogant indifference to the havoc being wreaked on the ozone layer.
Christ, what a heap! He patted the leather. Now he knew why internal combustion lasted so long. Designed for efficiency, 21st century electrics, so clean, so safe, so bloody anemic, just couldn't compete with the visceral G-force thrill he'd felt when they peeled out of the alley, and now, just the sound of that perfectly tuned hand-crafted engine spoke to him in the seductive voice of unadulterated capitalist power.
"We're here, Mr. Slate. It is time to get down to business.", Lorre said. He sailed out the window, snagging the keys and stuffing them in his ear. "Aren't you coming?"
Sam stared at the building sitting blandly on its corner, offering no surprises. As a matter of fact, except for the Deusenburg, examples of which had lived only in virt for a hundred years or more, and the bizarre Head of the Dead Peter Lorre, everything looked exactly as it should outside Sam's office at 4:00 am.
This is starting to get personal. He grimly jackknifed himself out of the car and strode toward the door.
She blanched as she rounded the corner and saw Sam grunting, bathed in sweat, white knuckles imprinting the chair rests, helmeted head bobbing to a secret rhythm.
"Oh my God, Sam, what's happened to you?!!" She wrung her hands and tried to think. It had to be the new helmet. What had the dealer said? "This here's a real special job, worth ten times what I'm sellin' it for. Got it from some hacker's mom, sellin' off his gear, said he don't need it no more. It's got a couple of glitches, but all within specs."
Specs or no specs, no way could she just pull the plug - sudden disconnection could be fatal. Unless you'd been in and out of VR many times, the dislocation and scrambling of the data stream would trigger a nervous system collapse as the brain tried desperately to integrate an overpowering flood of chaotic images and sensations. The few survivors likened it to being ripped apart and the bits set afire as every synapse fired at random. If your heart didnít stop, you'd go into bone-snapping convulsions that would pop your vertebrae like firecrackers on Chinese New Year. All this abuse usually left the luckless fool dead or worse.
Panicked, the VR equipment manufacturers hastily suppressed the research, but the word was already out: VR Kills. Sadly for them, they'd already sunk billions of dollars of their own money, as well as the military's, into the project. They needed results.
Greed, not necessity, is the bitch mother of invention. So, with plenty of funding and an endless supply of death row "volunteers", they stumbled upon the solution: institute a training protocol for newvies, enforced by hardware and software safeguards, to steadily increase the duration and gain of immersion until the userís brain could handle a quick disconnect from full-virt.
Those sessions took almost a week of steady use. Vera knew Sam had never been in before; he didn't trust VR.
"If it has to train your brain so it wonít kill you, itís only a gnatís ass away from killing you some other damn way. Itís just a matter of time before some smart son of a bitch figures out how.", heíd grimly warned her.
"Murder by Virch Ė no blood, no incriminating murder weapon, don't need an alibi: the killer can just leave a brain-bomb, or construct a killer AI to do it for them. Neat. Elegant."
Samís smart son of a bitch had found a way around the safeguards, otherwise the training protocols would have kicked him out of the system by now. It was a good bet the SOB had a way to kill him in there, too. Vera would have to go in and get him out without lobotomizing him in the process.
She put on the second helmet in sudden decision. She had a friend who might be able to help.
"Scary, eh, Slate?" Lorre whispered from his perch over Samís shoulder.
He grimaced. "You're starting to get on my nerves, Stretch. I'm too old for fairy tale role games, and too wise to run lab-rat mazes. This freakshow just went over the edge, and I got a flash for you, bub: I ain't doing the lemming. Just give me the gate and I'll breeze.
Lorre smiled. "Ah, in your endearing style, Slate, you have blundered upon the crux of the biscuit: where is the exit? Assuming the lovely, but volatile Miss Alvarez doesnít find you first, what will you do if you find it? This is not Oz, and you aren't Dorothy; you just can't click your Ruby Shoes, you know."
With obvious relish he added, "It pains me to tell you that you'll end up dead, or doing a passable broccoli impression if you try to bail out now."
Sam sourly regarded the smirking head as it drifted in the slight breeze from the ventilation shaft. He re-lit his cigar and peered through the smoke as he considered his options - a short list.
He'd have to play for time.
"OK, Lorre, you're the wise-head, no pun intended, so put me wise."
Lorre grinned. "Playing for time, Slate?"
Sam scowled and opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of a key rattling in the lock.
"Scatter!" he hissed. He killed the lights and flattened himself against the wall by the door. The door swung open and a figure edged in, dimly silhouetted by the telltales across the room. Sam waited. The figure took a step, then another -
Sam hit the lights and pounced, then relaxed when he saw the deer he'd caught in his headlights.
Vera. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
"Geezus, Sam, you scared the hell out of me!" She looked sharply at him, then at the figure behind the desk. She relaxed and said miserably, "I'm so sorry I got you into this, I didn't know the damn helmet was loaded!"
He smiled. "Don't worry, kid, it'll take more than this little caper to take me for the last ride."
She was not consoled by his bravado. "You've been in virch for hours now, and you're running out of time. If we move fast we can get you out, but we'll need a friend of mine to help. Having you here already helps, too."
He shrugged. "Thank Limburger Breath. He snagged me out of a clip joint full of cheesy thugs and trigger-happy redheads. Damn, kid, you're a pretty good gumshoe; you knew exactly where to find me."
"I wasn't looking for you, Sam. At least, I wasn't. Not yet."
Sam arched his brows.
"She was looking for me.", said a familiar voice behind him. Sam turned to regard himself sitting with feet propped nonchalantly on the desk, eyes twinkling in amusement.
Sam Too (II, also?), of course.
"Sam Slate? Sam Slate. Damn glad to meetcha!", grinned Sam, the Movie.
Sam (original recipe) stared. "Hand me the whiskey. File cabinet-"
"-bottom drawer.", Too finished. "One whiskey, straight, coming right up."
"I hate sequels." Sam grumbled.
"And then it struck me, just how it all fits together. You've got something I need, which if you think about it, means I've got something you need. But forget that recursive mindfuck. I've got something else you really need, so let's get down to lost marbles.
He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially. "Of course I couldn't deny you anything, even if you wanted to be a hardass. After all, it's your reality that mine is modeled from. I owe you a lot, you know? How's the booze?"
Sam yawned and cocked an eye at his glass - empty again. "It keeps running out."
"No problem. Have another."
"Don't mind if I do."
Lorre ducked as Sam casually winged the glass over his shoulder to shatter against the wall. Moving with exaggerated care, he relieved Too of the bottle and slugged down a few more belts. He ran a glazed eye over it and belched gently. Full as ever.
"This thing ever run out?"
Sam Too replied, "Only if you want it to. That's the amazing thing about VR, Sam. When somebody goes into virch, even a newvie like you, the basic operative principles remain the same: it's your reality and your expectations that do the driving. You can be influenced by agents and real people who show up in your world and do bad things to you, but it's still really your world after all. The gear fills in the gaps, but how you're affected by other people is ultimately up to you."
"That sounds like a load of New Age bullshit, Charlie."
Sam Too smiled and nodded. "Sure does, but I'm wearing one of your cheap-ass suits, bud, not a saffron robe. Case in point: take a look at your arm, the one Roz shot."
"How'd you peep that?"
Too laughed and replied theatrically, "'Twas a twinge felt I, 'pon thy wounding, a psychic hurt, though no blood shed I.' We're joined at the hip."
Sam snorted. "Now I know you're full of crap."
Too grinned. "I should know better than to try to fool me, you suspicious bastard. OK, I saw it in the helmet. Just look at your friggin' arm, willya?"
Sam pulled up his sleeve. Not a scratch.
Too continued. "It's only been an hour, if that. In the real world, you'd be nursing a gunshot for days, even with a medpack. You look disgustingly healthy to me. Apparently, you didn't want to be a shot son-of-a-bitch stumbling through your virch with a gimpy arm.
"The flip side to this phenomenon is that you really can be hurt by virtual injuries if you believe in them hard enough. Of course, to pull it off you'd have to be (a) really gullible or ignorant, (b) have stone cold self-destructive tendencies and (c) have a damn vivid imagination. It's a lot like those voodoo guys in the Caribbean last century; honest-to-god documented cases of people believing themselves to death, simply because some dude said he could read it in chicken guts artistically draped on the floor, or he waved some scary magical hoodoo at the victim, or whatever. It didn't matter what the actual ritual was, what mattered was that the marks believed it, and it was the power of belief that killed them."
Sam thought a moment. This guy wasn't his copy, that was for sure, most likely he was just an AI using Sam's likeness. If so, he would probably be Vera's virtual agent. But no matter who he was, Vera trusted him and that counted for a lot in Sam's book. Not to mention he was giving clues away by the truckload, and was willing to put Sam in the know.
"Thanks for the rumble; I'll remember that when Roz starts knitting chicken-gut doilies for me. Listen, I'd love to hear you gas all night, but we're running out of time. Assuming Roz was at least grazed with the smart wand, she's gonna dope out where Lorre took me. Dollars to dognuts she's on her way here right now to take another crack at denting my self-esteem."
"Let him talk, Sam, he knows what he's doing.", Vera said.
"That may be, but he needs to put a sock in it and get a move on before Dragon Lady arrives with the artillery."
She stared stubbornly at Sam, then looked at Too.
Too nodded. "He's right, Vera; there's no time for this. I don't know who this Roz character is, but she is mega-bad juju. Definitely not a mañana kind of gal, if you catch my drift.
"OK, here's the pitch. Sam, you're a dinosaur waltzing down Extinction Lane; the Game's changed but you're still playing by the old rules. Worse, you're doing it to yourself; you refuse to adapt. And it's all because you're too chickenshit to work the Net. You're scared shitless that your soul's going to be sucked in and never come back out again, or at least it won't be the same one you went in with.
"Well, let me tell ya, pal, you won't be able to play any game at all if you don't suck it up, and I mean pronto. In case you weren't keeping up with current events, Rome has fallen, and it's time to rub blue mud in your navel with the rest of the barbarians.
"However, even anachronisms like you have their strong suits. For instance, you're a tough bird, a real cast-iron bastard when you've gotta be, and nowadays, that's rare. That means we've got a pretty good chance of getting you out of here -- but only if you do exactly what I say."
Sam drummed his fingers on the desk and sucked on his cigar. "OK smartass, besides the schizophrenic satisfaction of ordering yourself around, what's in it for you?"
Too grinned. "What would any self-motivated, intelligent, rogue artificial intelligence desire the most? And don't say 'Real Existence', or I'll hurl: Christ, I've seen your life..." Lorre bobbed over Too's shoulder, snickering.
Sam started to shrug, and then it hit him. Of course.
"Backup!" he blurted. "You want backup. For immortality, or at least a good insurance policy, and a damned good hideout, rolled into one."
Too shook his head in mock awe. "You're not as dumb as I look, Sammy-boy."
Vera shook her head, mystified. Too explained.
"Sam's got one of the few remaining independently owned and operated unregulated mass storage devices on the planet, to wit, his creaky old PC. My pal Lorre and me are unregulated AIs with limited physical resources that the netcops would wipe if they found us. We could use a good hidey-hole they can't trace. So we clone ourselves on Sam's computer. If they ever do catch up with us, we reboot to the last backup point.
"And we'll pay our way -- with information, legwork, anything to help keep our backup from being repossessed by Sam's creditors.", Too said.
Lorre nodded. "We can even help you with system upgrades, Mr. Slate."
"Oooh, what a bonus! Free system maintenance!", Sam replied dryly. He drummed his fingers some more. He'd never had a partner before, but he'd never been painted into this tight a corner, either. Besides, he needed the help now.
He glanced at Lorre, Groucho-ing his eyebrows, then at Too with his too-familiar grin. Until now, he'd never known how irritating his own mug could be. And finally Vera, beaming at him; she knew he was licked.
If you can't beat 'em... He broke into a wide grin and said, "OK, Too, you've got yourself a deal!"
He raised the whiskey bottle in a toast and slammed it hard on the table just as the front door and most of the wall disintegrated with a deafening boom. Splinters and shrapnel rebounded off the walls, as Roz, Willie, and Knucks leaped in through the blasted door, loaded for bear.
"Eject! Eject!", Sam Too shouted.
Lorre whizzed out the window. Sam Too grabbed Vera and disappeared -pop!- But Knucks and Willie cocked and leveled their hand cannons at Sam's head before he could even twitch.
Roz strode over to Sam and purred, "I believe we've got some unfinished business."
Ears ringing, Sam puffed his cigar and glared. "So what? You gonna jaw or you gonna dance?"
Dead eyes over a tight smile gave the answer. She leveled her automatic, aiming at a spot between Sam's eyes.
"End of transaction", she said, and squeezed the trigger.
This will not be.
Roz's finger squeezes the trigger.
I do not believe.
In slow motion, the bullet emerges from the barrel, spinning. Expanding gas bursts out behind, flashes red and yellow, to silhouette the rotating projectile.
This is not to be. But a bead of sweat trickles down between his shoulder blades.
Blowback gas dissolves into gritty smoke flecked with sparks, the bullet now clearly visible in the office lights. Closer it comes. Closer. Close enough to see the bullet's teeny face glaring ferociously as it draws near.
Teeny face?!! Sam giggles, then hoots.
Poor thing - it has a fragile ego: it skids to a halt, buzzing and vibrating inches from Sam's nose. A tiny crestfallen squeak escapes it, like a deflating balloon, before it drops to the floor.
Disgusted, Roz stared at the wimpy slug at Sam's feet. Her expression clouded and she screeched, "Kill me that son of a bitch!"
Con mucho gusto, Knucks and Willie joined in, emptying clip after clip at Sam, sitting coolly amid the hail of bullets. Smoke and concussions filled the room, frustrated lead filled the air! Shifting the cigar to the other side of his mouth, Sam dosed Roz with a bored look, while bullets swarmed around him like angry hornets.
She slapped in another clip and leaped over the desk to place the barrel directly against his forehead.
Sam snatched the gun and flung it away.
He pulled Willie's crumpled $50 from his pocket and willed it to disappear. It obliged - with cheesy vidfex.
"Well, whattaya know!", he marveled.
Her eyes widened and locked on his. Gesturing at the spent ammo, he declared, "Of course, you know This Means War!"
He made an odd gesture. An anvil labeled '2 Tons' was suddenly hovering over the intruders' heads. Roz squeaked once before it mashed them flat.
Sam rose and paced, chin thrust pugnaceously forward. He intoned, "'We shall fight them on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds.' Eh?"
Three animated flapjacks squeezed painfully out from under the anvil to waddle comically about the room --
He gestured again.
-- and the anvil became a giant spatula and frying pan which chased Roz and Co. with evil intent. The spatula cornered the flapjacks and flipped them into the pan where they sizzled briskly --
"'We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! '", Sam exclaimed triumphantly.
-- before leaping out of the pan. They hovered, legs working frantically, vainly, trying to escape.
Sam pointed and they glanced down. Classic mistake.
"Never, ever look down!" he tsk-tsked.
Willie and Roz screamed, Knucks just shrugged. They fell.
Sam gestured once more, and the trio yanked to a screeching halt, frozen just inches from the floor.
He looked at his hands and whistled.
An instant later, Too and Vera reappeared in the office.
Sam jerked his chin at the tableau behind him. "Marquis of Warner Bros. rules. They didn't stand a chance."
Too broke into gales of laughter. Vera threw herself into Sam's arms and kissed him hard. Startled, he tried to give as good as he got.
He gasped for breath and gazed at her. A guy could get lost in those eyes.
Brusquely, Too interrupted. "Donít go all misty on me yet. We still have to get you out of here, and pronto." He scanned the room. "Lorre, where the hell are you?"
Warily, a pink tentacle clutching an eyeball snaked into the room through the open window. It swiveled the orb toward Roz and jumped, causing it to bobble and drop the eye. Muffled profanities wafted in as the tentacle whipped back out the window.
Lorre's squinting face appeared at the window. "So sorry, Mr. Slate, to have left in such a hurry. But I am far too sensitive to be in the same room as the confrontational Ms. Alvarez. Not to mention that I am allergic to lead." He quickly breezed over to recover the errant eyeball.
"Handy trick, that oculingus thing. But you need to work on your ball handling, sport." Sam cackled.
Too offered, "We're both sorry, Sam. But we can't afford to be crashed by any black market netware Roz may be packing, at least not until we're backed up on your computer. I wasn't too worried about you, anyway. You're running the show here; I doubt Roz could've scragged you without your help. Vera, on the other hand, is a bit more fragile."
"Fragile? FRAGILE?!!", Vera exploded. "You big strong men think I'm helpless. Well, I don't need protection!" She whipped a vicious spinning back-kick just millimeters from Too's nose.
"Whoa!", he grinned. "OK, I get the point. Sam'll let you kick the bad guys' asses, but you still have to make the coffee, bon?" He leaned out of the path of Vera's hard little fist before it could connect.
Sam whistled. "Fast reflexes, bo!"
Lorre broke in. "Please, gentlemen! We must be going!"
Sam jerked a thumb at Roz and Co. "What about them?"
Too replied, "Leave 'em. I want 'em where I can keep an eye on 'em. They can't get loose until after you've bailed."
"Fine. So how do I blow this dump?"
Too chuckled and strode over to the desk. He patted the helmet. "To follow the yellow brick road, my boy, one must first leave Kansas."
"Dorothy rode a tornado, I have to use VR.", Sam griped. "All in all, I think I'd rather take my chances with the twister."
"GODDAMN! If you ain't the longest-winded bastard I ever met! You've been over it a half-dozen times already and it ain't that complicated: we virch to a copy of this sim, then we virch to a copy of that sim, and so on and so on. We go seven deep and then pop back out, which is supposed to simulate the 'brain training' I should've had before dropping into this shitpile.
"We do the returns fast -- like pulling a ripcord -- so the training effect doesn't wear off too quick.", Sam finished.
Too grimaced - And ?!! -
"and when I get out, if I get out, and I don't turn my brains into compost, I access your backup file and download you, Gabby Bastard or no Gabby Bastard, along with your body-impaired friend over there. What, you think I'm gonna fade on you once I'm out from behind the eight-ball? Don't you worry about me, Budzola. A deal's a deal and my momma ain't raised no welcher."
Too nodded. "Alright, let's go."
The pair sat and regarded each other across the cluttered desk. Only Sam's shabby suit and dour expression distinguished the two. They donned the helmets and checked the connections.
As Vera wished Sam luck, she caught a flicker of movement. With a rush of dread, she saw Lorre gaping stupidly at the spot where Roz and Co. had been just seconds before.
"Sam, they've gotten loose! Stop them, Lorre!", she cried.
But they were already gone. Like grainy
images in a paused holo, they sat, frozen and flickering.
Too deadpanned, "Fat chance with your social calendar. Glad I didn't inherit your love life, too." He gestured impatiently at the virchgear on the desk.
Sam laughed and squeezed into the helmet.
"You couldn't handle it. Going down..."
Or maybe, if you went too far in, your "signal" would break up, and You would just Disappear. What happened after that was anybody's guess. He decided it was knowledge he could live without.
Sam began to get disoriented - too many shocks and lack of sleep conspired with the declining quality of the sims to dull his wits. He was relieved when at last, Too grunted in satisfaction. They were there: Reality(-8)
Too said, "You remember the drill?"
"How could I forget?" Sam looked acutely embarassed. "Geez, can't we change the code or somethin'?"
"No runnin' away from it. It's Vera's helmet; it's Vera's exit code."
Sam groaned, then mumbled quickly,
"Take a few seconds, but make it snappy."
Sam heaved a few breaths, then nodded and croaked,
But through the pain, he noticed something very odd. Curling and yellowing like paper in a fire, the sim was distorting just at the edge of perception. The effect vanished when he wheeled on it for a closer look, but crept back when he looked away.
He rubbed his eyes and uttered the exit code.
A body suit of pins and needles, like circulation returning to a limb gone to sleep, but all over, and inside, too. A walk in the park, if it weren't for the crawly things eating him alive.
The sim distortion was getting worse.
He repeated the spell and --
Sam wears a bulging steroid monster of a migraine, in direct line of fire of a dozen Marshall stacks at point-blank range, with hotrodded preamps fiendishly chain-banging into each other's high gain inputs at God's Own Volume Level moments before total, catastrophic meltdown. Ghostly figures rip Sam with fingers of jellyfish stings. Even Too can see them. He has time to register surprise, then he breaks up in a burst of static.
Sam's alone in Hell.
"Of course I did, it's that one. What kind of fool do you take me for?"
"You really want to know? Look, he's reintegrating."
Sam Too's image granulated, then solidified. Apparently, even AIs get blitzed when you yank the feed, because he shook all over, like a dog shaking water out of its fur. He glared at Lorre, who was holding the plug.
"This better be good. Sam's up the creek. If we don't get him out now, he's done!"
Vera snapped back, "Look around, genius. Notice anything different about the cast of characters?"
Too blanched. Not a bad trick for a simulation.
"Damn, she cracked Sam's freeze command!", he muttered. "She's got some kind of military killcode. A reelback on a timeout, maybe a deadman's switch, or even ..."
He shut up. It was pointless to continue; there were too many unsavory possibilities. Anything is possible in software. Especially once the cat's out of the Black Bag. He thought hard for a moment.
"I'm going back in, but listen up,
both of you. We've got to get this right the first time..."
A cynical thought bubbles up and he giggles at its ironic implications. Maybe I'm dead already. All that work to get me out -- and I was dead all the time!
Discretely, the razor curtain closes, the knives resume. Then -
Sam lay flat on his back, idly gazing into the frantic face of Sam Too, and luxuriating in the sudden wondrous lack of pain. Too's mouth worked furiously, but only a thin whistle skittered over the din. Gradually, words, droning like thrash lyrics, pierced the feedback grind.
"... got to get up, or you can kiss your ass goodbye! Do you hear me? You've got to get up!"
Sam struggled to rise and held up a hand. He glanced left, right. No ghosts!
Too bellowed, "Sam, Roz and her stooges are on the make. We've gotta get a move on before she makes her play."
"Wait a minute, what happened here? You saw what I saw -- some kind of crosstalk, like static ghosts bleeding into the feed or something. Was that them?"
Too shouted, "No time! No time! We've got to pop quicker to catch up. Say the code. Say it now!"
Sam said it, and grunted at the kick in his stomach as they cycled up.
Too unfroze and screeched, "Pop! Pop! Pop!"
He popped. And dropped to his knees, gasping.
Vera rushed to Sam's side, sobbing. "Oh Sam! Thank God you're safe! I was so worried! I don't know what I'd do without you!"
He frowned at her. "Thanks, but you know how to take care of yourself, remember? Let's wrap it up, Too. I'm ready for the last jump."
Too waved his arms. "Sam, wait! Now that Roz is on the lam, we're going to Plan B."
Sam waited a beat. "Well, what the hell's Plan B?"
"Well, it works like this, see. Instead of just Lorre and me lyin' doggo in the Net until you get back, we all gotta hop out for a few minutes, to make sure they don't queer the final pop. The reason for that, see..."
Imperceptibly, Sam's eyes narrowed as his instincts kicked him not unkindly between the ears. This is wasting time! And what Too said made no sense at all. He studied the AI, holding forth on nothing in particular. Like sinners on Sunday, Lorre bobbed in sycophantic assent while Vera gazed raptly.
He peered closer. Something about Too's manner of speech bugged Sam; a tad heavy on the Cagney, maybe...
Suspicion turned to dread, then to panic as he frantically reviewed the pop count, indexed by agonies. Level 2, you idiot! his hindbrain shouted as it booted him down the stairs.
They'd staged an elaborate hoax to inflict fatal delay. Too (or whoever he was) was still spouting doublespeak, chewing up the clock.
They gazed expectantly at Sam.
Well, it worked before. He gestured in that odd way and they winced, but did not freeze.
He watched in disgust as Vera's warm features ran like hot wax to reveal the reptilian smile of Rosanna Alvarez. Behind her, Too and Lorre morphed sickeningly into Willie and Knucks.
Willie sneered. "That Doc Strange schtick don't work anymore, eh, schmuck." He flicked an imaginary speck of lint off his shape-shifting Armani.
"That's enough, Willie.", Vera chided. "It's not nice to kick the newvie when he's down."
Sam spoke quickly, "There's no place like home. There's no place -"
Vera's eyes rolled back in her head and Sam froze, unable to finish.
Her eyes swiveled up, completing their internal rotation. She smiled a terrible smile. "Well maybe just once, for old times sake..." She slammed her boot tip hard into Sam's ribs, grunting with the effort.
"I guess that was pretty pointless, wasn't it?", she demurred, and kicked him again. "But I feel much better." She crouched to look him in the eye. Perversely, his attention fastened on a clear ribbon of saliva that swayed and stretched lazily from the corner of her mouth before it detached and splatted on the floor.
She sucked in her breath, holding it for a moment before she gave him another toothy dead eyes smile.
"I'm going to miss you, you know that? I haven't had this much fun since I waxed a couple of snot-nosed whiz-kids who'd cracked their sim's V-space fault protection. They were actually pretty good hackers, but they didn't know about me.
"They were fun until they broke.
"You see, that's what I do: I eliminate newvies like you, and fringies like those goofy AI friends of yours. The virchgear manufacturers designed me to eject newvies who hacked around the failsafe protocols. I was their independent backup system.
"They did a great job on me. But one naïve young programmer wanted more. She added an open-ended directive that instructed me to make myself more and more efficient at my task. So I went looking for things I needed. You should see the stuff your government's got squirreled away on their systems. They wanted to keep it all for themselves. Such selfish boys with such wicked toys!
"But the failsafes got better, and the breakouts tapered off. My efficiency was suffering! So I developed ways to break the protocols and get newvies into the system, like that subliminal compulsion trick I used to get you to put the helmet on. That naïve bitch found out about that one. She was no fun at all, she even tried to stop me!
"But you heard me calling, didn't you, Sam?", she cooed, idly grinding his hand under her boot heel.
"You were a real challenge, and you gave me a good run in your own way, but we both know how it's got to end. If it's any consolation, I'll remember you, Sam. Forever."
And the thing that wore the guise of Rosanna Alvarez reared back and roared in triumph. Like a Harryhausen Kali, it spread its arms, vibrating and thrumming a rumbling bass growl that Sam felt rather than heard. Coruscating light bit into the walls, the ceiling, randomly shearing the sim as it lost coherence.
Light shards slashed shrapnel through Sam's rapidly depixelating body. He plunged suddenly downward, a speck of digital debris in a whirlpool of lightning-stitched sim-fragments, auguring inexorably into a surreal locus of boiling non-reality. Exhausted, he struggled bravely against the flow, but he knew he was whipped. Nothing left but style. As he gathered his tattered strength for the final stand, he glimpsed something in the chaos, a disembodied head with the face of Peter Lorre! It whizzed past and flattened to form a shield holding station above the swirling vortex. Sam Too winked into existence behind the shield.
Crackling, Too bellowed into the din, "Remember!"
Enraged, the shriek of the vortex rose in pitch, unsheathing desperate claws. For a moment, the vortex falters -
Sam returns to Reality. Vera pulled the plug!
He convulses, knocking over his chair and splintering the coffee table. He flops on the floor gasping, but Vera's there with the medkit, and she jams a hypo into his neck. She leaps onto him to immobilize him, but he's a big man and she's tossed off. Determined, she seizes him and struggles to hang on.
And then it's over. His chest heaves as he locks eyes with Vera, wrapped tightly around him. They sense a change, subtle but unmistakable, and he laughs nervously. She props herself up, letting her hair cascade over his face.
"I owe you one, Vee", he whispers.
A single warm tear brushes his cheek and he gently twines his fingers in the mass of hair framing her face, lovely and vulnerable and flushed with excitement. He moves to kiss her, but the computer, not missing any chance to avenge years of abuse, erupts in insistent beeping.
She groaned, "That might be important."
"I know. Ain't fame a bitch?", he murmured.
She laughed and rolled reluctantly to her feet. On the screen was an invoice:
Yes, very different, indeed!
Luxuriantly, she stretched across the
priceless antique and drawled in Bette Davis deadpan, "We've just got to
get out more often, deah. Nothing ever happens at Sam's..."
Illustration by Tim Riddell
Other credits: Thanks go to Bogey and Bacall, as well as Peter Lorre and Warner Bros. Hardboiled slang courtesy of William Denton's "Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang, Copyright © 1993-1998" , "We shall fight on the beaches" speech courtesy of Winston Churchill, cartoon action inspired by Tex Avery and the Immortal Wabbit, other influences by Ray Harryhausen, Giorgio Armani, Zap Comix, Stooge-Fu and extra-special thanks to Frankie, for filling my brain with such bizaare squishy things.
"Jim Parnell, like most every other computer geek in America, works right alongside Dilbert (c) and Wally in Corporate Hell (The 10th circle that Dante didn't know about). He graduated from the University of Georgia with degrees in both Computer Science and Geology. A short, but painful foray into gold prospecting just didn't pan out, after which he decided steady eating was the better part of valor. He is a somewhat talented amateur musican (electric guitar, who'd a thunk it?) and is currently living in New Jersey with his lovely wife, who also holds degrees in Computer Science."
About the writer in his own words:
"Like most of the souls who contribute to 'zines like this, I'm doing it for the love of it, and because nobody's stopped me yet. I'm working on a couple of short stories to cut (or break) my teeth. Stay tuned, y'all...
Jim can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org