Chapter Three

Chapter 3

The day a friend dies should be grey—pregnant clouds hovering low, waiting for their water to break. But Mr. Blue Sky was mocking Bobby that morning, shining with apathy on the Seventh Street sidewalk.

A man and his child exited a grocery a block ahead, then lagged. Bobby caught up with the two in a minute, then went no further. The father and daughter held hands with an egregious gap between them, blocking the other pedestrians. The traffic in the street was too consistent to cross, leaving Bobby no option but to cut through the duo. It might be rude, but it would serve them right. Then Bobby noticed the little girl’s broad gait . . . and the twin aluminum columns where her legs should have been, stretching from her dress into her sneakers.

The modified legs were plastered with cartoon characters of too recent a vintage for Bobby to recognize. Some were faded, some scratched and torn, others curling off to be forgotten and replaced. No way those legs were biomatic hypermods. They must have offered zilch in the way of feedback. They were passive poles, as much a part of her body as the sticks of a stiltwalker. From the look of her gait, the leg mods socketed somewhere above the knee, no articulation but a ball joint at each ankle. The girl wasn’t much older than Vera, either.

Just today, just for now, maybe this kid did own the sidewalk. Besides, J’s was just a few blocks away, and Bobby was in no rush to break the news.

 

The bubblegum pop of Yukihiro Takahashi hurt as Bobby entered the arcade. “Murdered by the Music” was an infectious tune, but now mortality seemed less entertaining. Death wasn’t something Bobby gave much thought to—high school, college, and a career were enough.

But now death was on his campus. In his network.

For a boy raised in the etherlib, wherein all media was immortal, true loss was too nebulous a concept to grip. Even if some digital reflection of you wound up removed from its page, the data itself was still alive in a different form: binary code, categorized and commodified for advertising agencies and government intelligence. Bobby’s whole life sat secure on LONE WOLF, on CUB, on etherlib spines around the world.

And in the arcade, as in the lib, he would never die. How often had he seen his face rendered a pixel skull, game over, then he was back with a swipe of the gamecred card? He had died and been reborn countless times in this place. If all things survive deletion, then where was the rack that still held Jamal? How much would it cost to recover him?

Half the school district was on spring break that week, and half of those kids were at the arcade now. On the sunken main floor, the networked cabinets were arranged in two concentric rings. Sheltered interfaces flashed and buzzed and begged for game credits. Waste heat and body odor interlocked between the rings; players climbing in and out of the cabinets, the hot breath of expletives, the sweat of the swelter. The reek seemed to materialize and congeal in the thumping bass, sticking to Bobby’s body.

He found Graeme in a stream of people between marquee ropes, waiting again for the new stand-alone. Bobby approached his friend and tugged on his headfones. Graeme lifted his bandaged face from the Game-N-Go.

“What happened to you?” asked Bobby.

“Some sucker tried to pickpocket me. Me, of all people. He actually nabbed my wallet and got about as far as the chain allowed. Guess he wasn’t paying attention. So we went at it while my wallet was just dangling from my belt loop, y’know, my stuff spilling out all over the place. Anyway . . .”

“Still on Pleiads?” Bobby asked. How was he going to say this?

“Nah, just lifted Castle Wolfenstein this morning. Pretty tough. Hey, can you believe this stupid rope setup? As if we can’t find our own way to the stupid game ourselves?”

“Yeah, well, J probably did it because there was this huge glob of people trying to play. I’m sure it caused a few arguments.”

“Actually, Nix set it up last night. Any time somebody tried to complain, she just stared at them with those big, black lenses and they saw themselves jabbering away in the reflection. It was totally demoralizing.” He shook his head. “Spontaneous order, man. Like starlings, y’know? Just let it happen. Hey, what time is it? Shouldn’t you be at school, young man?”

Maybe a segue would soften the blow. “Hey,” said Bobby, “did you hear about Mister Privs?”

“Yeah, dude. That’s like the fifth breaker in the past year. Crazy.”

“Yeah, but why him, y’know? Never even heard of him until he made NDA’s most-wanted list. Was he really that good, or—”

“Tell you what he was really good at: defacing pages. That guy . . . when that guy defaced your page, it would take you hours, if not days, to sweep his tweaks from your code. By then, half the hemisphere had seen it, which is, y’know, embarrassing. And he was so frakkin’ funny with it, too. People didn’t want the pages to be cleaned. I guarantee you, that’s the reason he got terrorist priority. If it’s one thing the State’s good at, it’s protecting the image of its corporate masters.

“I mean, look at who else is on the list. Mechanical Turk? Biggest thing he ever did was trash Ted Turner’s page. Now he’s a public enemy. They’re probably gonna point an RIP turret straight at him, rip his whole town. It’s not about quote unquote American Interests, man, it’s about moneyed interests. Just one more reason to burn it all to the friggin’ ground.”

Bobby nodded. “Well, the way you’re going, you might wanna hire some security or something, then.”

“Pssh. Speaking of, you see Jamal today? I finally found that kit he was asking for on my last dumpster dive, and he disappears off the face of the earth. Need to see if he has any good icebreakers to trade.”

Bobby raised his gaze to a corner of the room, breathed like a Koga ninja, gave the music time to embolden him. It didn’t.

“Jamal is dead.”

“What’d he do to you?”

“Graeme, I need you to look at me. Jamal died last night.”

A few kids on either side of the boys started rubbernecking. Graeme’s expression oscillated, his eyes scanning Bobby’s face for a hint of humor. He asked Bobby to repeat himself, told him he was wrong, then requested he repeat himself again. Then Bobby told him that Jamal had committed suicide. “Says who?” Graeme asked. “Was there a body? You didn’t even think to see a body, did you? What’re you even talking about, man?”

“Graeme, man, they announced it at school. They have counselors set up for it and everything. I talked to another girl who knows him. Knew him. Damn it, but . . . I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.”

Graeme’s face went limp as he tried for more questions, but managed nothing but a few of the Five Ws. As Bobby conjectured on ways to get answers, Graeme tossed the velvet rope over his head and dashed to the men’s room. Bobby took his time following after.

Graeme had vomited, mostly into the john, then spit and wiped his mouth with toilet paper. He splashed faucet water on his face, ran gloved fingers through his coif of tawny tangles. The kid gave Bobby’s understanding of the situation a more thorough working over. Yes, he was sure it was Jamal. No, he wasn’t sure it was suicide, but everyone else was content with that explanation. Graeme tried to create a timeline that could dismiss these possibilities, but failed.

“I really wanted to tell you in person,” Bobby said. “But now that I think about it, while I’m here I think I’ll pump some money into Titan in his honor. I know that was his favorite.”

“Actually, no, since Rēgulus came in last week, Jamal was playing that like a bastard. Friggin’ loved that thing.”

“Which one?”

“The new one.”

Bobby had missed a lot last week. Too much. “Well then, I’d better go get in line,” he said. “I mean, I’m sorry, unless you wanna talk or . . .” Graeme shook his head, and was left to his curses.

 

Bobby brushed the rope that corralled them, pinching at the gamecred card with his other hand. Both his limited budget and his tight schedule agreed: he could have just one go inside the cabinet. He let his senses wander, let his ears eavesdrop on the kids around him.

“. . . didn’t see that giant black guy outside . . .”

“. . . like I’m permafried, man . . .”

“. . . Norris versus Charles Bronson . . .”

“. . . in Rendlesham Forest, dude . . .”

“. . . things I would do with Gia . . .”

“. . . just wish it was networked . . .”

Why wasn’t this new game networked? What kind of game developer would build a cabinet that didn’t exploit the main appeal of cred-op arcades? Stepping into the networked ring was like going to Narnia with a few dozen friends and stomping the piss out of them. If Bobby wanted to race against nothing but high scores, he’d choose the cheaper route: handhelds or box versions of the same games.

These stand-alones were a throwback to an earlier time, but they filled out the space, and that was good for business. And the kids at the tail of the line now had been the same ones at the head of it when Bobby had arrived, so perhaps the appeal hadn’t died out altogether.

Moving down the length of Nix’s velvet bumpers, Bobby got his first good look at the new cabinet. This was no open fiberboard box, but a perfect chrome sphere, cupped in the smallest transparent stand. Rather than garish characters, lights, or colors, the cabinet was covered in nothing but thin almond shapes. Connected at their bases, the almonds formed six-petalled flowers. But then, each of those petals belonged at once to two different flowers, linking each in an unbroken network. And in the end, there were no flowers at all. Those almond shapes were in fact the product of dozens of overlapping circles, a Venn diagram mitosis.

Bobby’s eyes strained in searching for the origin of the pattern, some seam or inconsistency. He gave up and checked the sun’s position through the windows. It was still early. Plenty of time to finish his history project.

The vaguely familiar-looking blonde ahead of Bobby slid into the cabinet and swiped her card, then the doors closed around her with a hiss and a thump. The player must have been vacuum-packed inside that thing. Such hermetic encapsulation would also account for the cabinet’s general noiselessness: not a single note of gameplay escaped to the outside. All the same, you could tell that the girl who just went in—Stacey or something—was thrashing about. Must be a wild ride. Most game cabinets were fun to watch even if you weren’t the one playing, so Rēgulus failed as a spectator distraction (and if he were being honest, Bobby would admit that distraction was the real goal now).

Electric Light Orchestra played above his head, assuring him that once he was through with one world, there would be another waiting for him. If there really was an afterlife, a Heaven or whatever, Jamal now knew it. If there wasn’t, Jamal would never know anything ever again. Either way, the kid had nothing to fear now. Only the living fear death, and whatever’s waiting for them. Bobby was busy just dreading the sphere of adulthood, and he worked nonstop to direct his momentum down the better of the two paths that would fork out after graduation. Much like the entire planet, trapped for decades in an international argument as it decided which way it preferred: peace or annihilation.

But neither West, with its democracy and capitalism and NATO, nor East, with its dictators and communism and Warsaw Pact, were willing to compromise. It looked like the last option was for this Cold War to go thermal—SNTNL orbital turrets ripping the planet. The survivors, if there were any, would live as gamma-irradiated cave men. The only way toward peace was for one side to enroll into the system of the other, and after thirty-plus years that still hadn’t happened. Everyone was soiling their undies over the imminent change. No one knew how to win this war.

The cabinet ceased its quaking, and the girl who was maybe Stacey staggered out, a smile broadening under eyes that blinked too much. When the girl had opened the door on the other side of the cabinet, the door near Bobby had popped open also, but just a little—a stygian seam into a new world.