Copyright (C) 2019 Ashlyn Nafina
Summary: Geek grrl Lydia has had dating troubles for years. When she finally finds the perfect girl on a dating site, said girl goes mysteriously missing. It’s up to Lydia to find out what happened, and the chase leads her to some unexpected and surreal places.
Notes: I’ve wanted to write this one, well, all my life, to be honest with you. I had the first inklings of it back in 2005, but I can’t say much more without spoiling it, so I’ll just put a second note after the story that you can read later.
I’ve also been inspired by some of the more ‘hip’ and ‘modern’ fiction I’ve read lately, and the story itself is written in a really informal tone, and in a sort of experimental style. Some parts are first person from various people, some are third person, some are IM conversations and movie scripts.. it’s a bit of a wild ride. A little more of experimenting with the art of writing rather than just telling a story.
[1 Year Ago]
<lyddie> so i met this incredible girl
<feenixfox5> <groan> Not again! =) So what’s this one like? Where’d ya meet?
<lyddie> 😛 yeah, yeah, yeah. not *all* of them will turn out to be crazy
<lyddie> someone i met in some ’net personals of all places
<feenixfox5> Hey, whatever works. =)
<lyddie> she’s sweet, she’s cute, she likes pottery and geeks
<feenixfox5> ooo, nice!
<lyddie> yeah. what could possibly go wrong? 😉
<feenixfox5> I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.
<lyddie> her name is penny
If only it had really been so simple. As my friend Zoe, aka feenixfox5, likes to say, <le sigh…>
It’s been over two months since I last spoke with Penny, and I still count the days – 65. Not because of a break-up, or a lack of anything to say. But because one day she up and disappeared on me. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Penny lost interest and now Lydia is playing jilted stalker. But no, it wasn’t like that. We were happier than plums in plum stew right up to the day she disappeared. And then, nothing.
Why didn’t I file a police report? Why didn’t I try to figure out where she went? Well, I did try to do those things. Only problem is, we hadn’t really met in person. Or as the hip kids say now, in-person-in-person. Meatspace. After all, a holo-vid is damned near the same thing. You can see each other. You can hang out with each other. You can even touch each other. But there’s still a network. There’s still distance. And there’s still any level of pseudonymity you could desire.
Either Penny wasn’t her real name, or she’d done a great disappearing act for the cops too.
My gut tells me I’m missing something though. She hasn’t vanished. She’s been vanished. Something went wrong.
She did so much for me through a gloomy time in my life. And now I’m going to return the favor.
Zoe. [1 Year Ago]
I have to admit, I’m a bit worried for Lydia. She’s not always had the best of luck with dating. There was really just never more than a lukewarm interest in guys there, and they’d take off before too long – sad, angry, bored, whatever. Go figure.
Lydia finally figured that one out and started looking with a lot more enthusiasm for girls. She just got a lot more social all of a sudden, going to all sorts of classes at the community college, having gaming nights with new friends. She hit it off like crazy with the first eligible girl she really met, in one of her pottery classes. They seemed to have a fairy tale life ahead of them, too, until a drunk driver ended Ginny’s part in the story prematurely.
Lydia just kind of withdrew after that. She had a job (computer programming work) and hobbies (pottery and gaming), which didn’t lend themselves to being inherently sociable. You had to seek that out. And she just didn’t have the heart for it anymore. Heck, she had hardly even touched her pottery work since the accident. She never said why, but we could all guess. We weren’t totally dense.
Lydia finally did start looking for someone again, at her therapist’s gentle nudging. It was one normal-looking-crazy-woman after another, though. Just bad luck I guess.
So you can imagine that, among her small friend group, there’s a bit of trepidation about this new girl. And yeah, ’net dating has been around for a while now, but it’s still a dodgy thing. People turning out to be rather different in person, personality-wise. And even rumors of people faking their entire voice and visual image in holo-vid. Nothing proven, you know, but, well, it’s out there.
It would be wonderful for Lyddie to have someone to bring her out of the hole she’d found herself in. But… let’s just say we have our fingers crossed and leave it at that.
Lydia. [10 Months Ago]
I’ve been seeing… well, “seeing”, hehe… this girl Penny for a couple of months now.
After the… after Ginny, I didn’t think I could really deal with the pain of losing anyone else. I guess I wasn’t really trying very hard after that. But I suppose life is full of surprises, and I doubt Ginny would want me to sit around moping and pining away, much as I didn’t feel like doing anything else, before.
But I digress.
I admit it was a bit weird to be talking with someone new about pottery. It was almost like I was cheating on Ginny, there. And I was worried that Penny had just read it out of my profile and claimed to like it. But the longer we talked, the more I realized that she not only knew what she was talking about, she was well versed in the subject. We moved on from there to various geeky topics: computers, programming, games, whatever. She could match me beat for beat. And she wasn’t hard on the eyes, either.
But if there’s one downer to internet dating, it’s that you aren’t always in the same physical area. Penny’s a state away, and neither of us has a car, so we’ve been making due with what we can for now. IMs, emails, voice and video chat. She picked up her camera and carried it around her apartment to show me her small pottery studio. She even made me a little sculpture. *Daww! So sweet!* We’re pretty excited about the idea of working together on some pieces.
What’s got me excited right now is that we’ve both got some time booked on a public holo-vid terminal, and we finally get to meet more or less in person for the first time.
Oop, she’s ready! More later… *grin*
[10 Months Ago]
<feenixfox5>So? .. SPILL!
<feenixfox5> Yeah? =D
<lyddie> it was so cool to finally meet her
<lyddie> after all this time of just phone calls and pictures
<feenixfox5> Any signs of teh crazy yet?
<lyddie> oh please. i told you before, they’re not ALL crazy
<feenixfox5> Heh. Well that’s awesome, chica! What did you guys do?
<feenixfox5> Uhm. You know. You don’t need to give me sordid details and all that. 😉
<lyddie> 😀 yeah, there was some of that. and it was lovely.
<lyddie> but we mostly just spent the time doing what we always do
<lyddie> talk and laugh and enjoy each other’s company, but with snuggles this time
<feenixfox5> I’m so happy for you, sweetie.
<lyddie> me too :} i even dragged some clay with me to the holo-vid room and we worked a bit together. it was really amazing.
In retrospect, I guess I had to know something was weird. I mean, rail tickets aren’t that expensive, and surely after months of time and hours of holo-vid, we could manage to meet up. But something always came up.
“Hey, I’ve got this weekend free and I got in a few extra hours last week. I want to take the rail over and meet you,” I’d say.
“Aww man. I so want to do that, but I have to go visit my Uncle Ernie back east this weekend. Family’s orders,” she’d reply.
“I’ve got an extra ticket to Grunge Faire, you want to take the rail over and go with me?” I’d ask.
“I don’t really have the money for a ticket right now, unfortunately :(” IM this time.
After a while I started to see a pattern. But see, it’s a weird thing – you’re so into someone that you’d spend all this time with them at a distance, but you couldn’t be bothered to try to meet up? I know things come up, but not that many times in a row.
I never thought for a moment that she was trying to ditch me, or seeing someone else on the side or something. But it did have me intensely curious about what her deal was. What kept us from meeting in person?
All I knew was that I was too smitten to back out now, and it seemed like she was, too.
Zoe sighed. “So, what now?”
Lydia swirled the ice around in her glass for a moment before responding, “I’m not entirely sure. But I have a few ideas.”
Sophie said nothing, working on hiding her concern for Lydia.
The three of them were meeting up for late night drinks and pizza at The Pie, local college dive pizza bar. The place was all dark, polished wood tables, dim Tiffany lighting, and neon signs in the windows. An honest to goodness jukebox playing real two-channel MP3s. Real retro. Small groups of friends sat in tall-walled booths that were surprisingly comfortable, given their appearance, and chatted over plates of carbs and fat in such quantities as might have truly disturbed someone of a former era. But that was before synthacheeze and vat muscles – all the taste and none of the guilt. Like faux sugars of that bygone era, these were all plant based and were formulated to let all the excess flow right back out.
But none of this is really what their conversation was about. They were too young to have really even known that bygone era, anyway. Their get-togethers always started out talking about this or that topical thing, but no, they always turned back around to Lydia. Lydia and Penny.
Lydia and her unhealthy obsession, Sophie thought. But like the good friend she was, the thought was not voiced. Sophie had been there with her friend’s ups and downs for years. They had gone to school together since the middle grades. Things hadn’t been good since Ginny left them. They’d all loved Ginny a lot; she’d been a great addition to their group as well as a balm to Lydia’s soul. Everything just went to hell after that. To Sophie’s way of thinking, the mysterious and reluctant Penny had been bad news. A short term high for more long term depression. Lydia’s obsession after Penny’s disappearing act was even worse news. This really couldn’t end well.
All any of them could really do, though, was what they were already doing: to be there for her and be her friends.
“My only real connection to Penny was through our ’net contact,” Lydia continued after a few companionable moments had passed. She was still staring at her ice while it swished around slowly. “And it’s the only way I’m going to find her again. I’m going to start working on tracing where she was connected from.”
Zoe whistled appreciatively at the audacity of Lydia’s plan. “It’s been a while since anyone could really be traced that way. I mean, if anyone has the brains to do it, it’s you, chica. But… you’re wading into illegalities here, aren’t you?” Lydia nodded somberly, and Zoe looked worried. “Don’t let this go too far, okay? I know you two were really deep, but you have to consider the possibility that she just moved on. Or maybe she was a dirty old man, or even a dog,” Zoe said with a chuckle, quoting that old ’net saying. That got a round of quiet smiles, at least. “You do have a life out here still and it needs to include some healthy in-person-in-person time, you know?”
The thought never crossed any of their minds that perhaps Penny had simply lost her job and lost her ’net access. It was an unthinkable thought, like not being able to walk into a supermarket and buy twenty varieties of doughnut on demand. ’Net access was everywhere, and easy to get for free.
“I know,” Lydia said while nodding quietly. “I know. But I just have this gut feeling that something made her disappear, not that she did it on purpose. Okay, okay, all right!” Lydia said with a smile and waved hands, at her friends’ expressions. “I’ll let it go. I’ll let it go. At least I’ll try.”
They finished their drinks and pizza with no further talk of Penny. This should’ve been a warning sign to Lydia’s friends, along with her relatively upbeat mood after losing someone to whom she was so close, again. But they didn’t heed it.
Lydia and her friends walked to the nearest rail station, and they each took separate trains. Lydia’s train banked its way around a graceful curve, showing off building towers with little twinkling lights in offices and rooms where people were living their lives. This particular rail line arced through downtown at a dizzying height of 526 meters, but it was far from the tallest thing in the skyline. It raced along that curve at an even more dizzying pace of 430 km/h, thanks to the miracles of grav-lev.
She stared out at this scene, not really seeing any of it at all. Her mind was elsewhere, worried about someone who wasn’t here.
She opened her mini-term and began to hack.
[Three Months Ago]
Penny and Lydia sat next to each other on a simulated towel, on a simulated beach, under a simulated umbrella, with the heat of a simulated sun pouring down on them. A simulated ocean in shades of blue that had not been found even in the unpolluted tropics a few hundred years ago lapped the simulated beach. Simulated birds flew overhead and created simulated shadows along with simulated poofy, white clouds.
It was a primordial dream world of humanity. One that had not been real for many years now. Modern progress did a lot of things for the human condition, but carefully preserving their environment was not one of them. Something in the lizard hind-brain of humans just couldn’t give it up though, so it remained one of the most popular in holo-vid parlors. And to be honest, it had one advantage that the real beaches did not, without a small fortune – the ability to turn everyone else off and be truly alone on it.
The two women gazed out at the ocean through sunglasses, feeling and smelling the breeze, and enjoying the sensation of cool, humid trade winds. Their hips were touching, and Lydia’s hand was being held loosely but lovingly by Penny’s.
“Sweetie?” Lydia said tentatively.
“Hmm?” Penny responded, actually turning to look at Lydia, after hearing the serious tone of that word.
“How do I say this?” Lydia continued. “We’ve known each other for a long, long time now. We’ve spent so many hours together. It seems like I can’t imagine how my life would be without you. It’d be like twined rope missing half its strands.”
“Nor can I imagine my life without you, my love,” Penny responded. “It certainly wouldn’t be what it is without you. Say what you need to say, okay? We don’t need to tip toe.”
“All right. I’ll get right to the point. We’ve been dating for the better part of a year.”
“Mmm, a much better part,” Penny smiled. Lydia grinned at that too.
“Given. Why have we not met in person by now?”
“Well,” Penny said with a considering and yet slightly frustrated look on her face. “It’s just that there’s always something, you know?”
“Yeah, I do know. The thing is,” Lydia said, “it’s been nearly a year. Nearly a whole year. In all that time, as close as we seem to be, we can’t manage to make one weekend to go visit? We can’t call in sick or borrow money from each other, or whatever? It seems a little beyond belief.”
Of course, Lydia was trying to be politic – it was really Penny’s inability to visit that had stifled things, thus far.
There were a few moments of silence as Penny stared out at the ocean, seemingly lost in thought. She sighed feelingly.
“Things are just a bit complicated right now. I wish I could get together with you, but there’s just… there’s some stuff I have to clean up in my life over here first. But I promise you,” she said with a sudden intensity that surprised Lydia, “I promise you, I have every intention of doing that.” Penny gave her a rather intense hug, and noticed a few tears in Lydia’s eyes.
“Can’t you at least tell me what’s going on?” Lydia asked, pressing on though she hated herself for it. “Why haven’t we talked about those problems? I want to help.” Penny shook her head.
“It’s just… it’s just something I have to do for myself for now. It’s not you, okay?” Penny pondered for a few seconds like she was fighting herself. “I hadn’t meant to say this yet, but I can’t think of a more appropriate time. I’ve been working on cleaning things up here because… well, I meant to move over there and… well… maybe even share a place with you?”
Lydia’s grin would’ve belonged better on a Cheshire cat. “Really? And we could share a pottery studio, and we could play games together, and… and we’d never have to hang up at night after an evening of obnoxious holo-vid fees, and…” she trailed off, loving the possibilities. Penny grinned too.
“Yep. Just like that. Just give me a little bit longer, okay? I’m trying to finish up here, and I may be out of contact a bit for the next few weeks. But it’ll be worth it, right?”
Some things happened after that which would definitely not have been allowed on an old school tropical beach.
It was the last time Lydia would see Penny for quite a while.
I guess that’s the word that always precedes the world’s great discoveries. It certainly preceded mine, when I finally got a trace on Penny’s ’net connection.
The simplest part was finding what city it came from. That was as expected, a (long) state away. I was Northwest, she was SoCal.
What brought out the “huh” was tracing it past that point. It’s usually harder to trace where someone’s coming from, past a city level. Sometimes even that much is dodgy, but after that it usually just leads to the largest of the local ’net nodes and you’re stuck. I got a registered address, but when I checked it out on the sat-vids, there was just an empty lot there. It’s not like the olden days where the pictures might be a few years old, and someone built something in the mean time. No, these were nearly live. Empty field.
The source was being masked, purposefully.
To make a long, boring story short, the chase did eventually lead me back to the real source. By way of several fake owners, proxies, shell corporations, and other such, which ought to have stopped most people. I was pretty determined though. I had no plans to lose this girlfriend. If nothing else I wanted to hear from her own face why she’d suddenly left me.
The final winner was a giant corp in downtown LA. Not a ’net node or anything like that, just some big corp, the kind that specializes in both refrigerators and space weapons. Standard Systems, Inc. I thought at first maybe she worked there and used their ’net access, but it didn’t make much sense. Every communication with her, including the holo-vid sessions, came from there. Which was definitely weird.
Thinking about this gave me some not-so-positive shivers. And their ’net wasn’t letting even me in, so I couldn’t investigate more. The possibilities here were myriad, but there was only one way to find out.
I booked a rail ticket and I’m heading down this weekend.
Lydia and Penny. [6 Months Ago]
FOREST HOLO-VID – NIGHT.
In a the middle of a large FOREST, on an open HILLSIDE, LYDIA AND PENNY are lying next to each other, HOLDING HANDS. The STARS reflect in their eyes as we pan up to the SKY. An unbelievable GALAXY OF LIGHT stretches across the view. Into the frame comes a BLACK SHAPE – PENNY’S HAND, miming a plane flying across the view. Cut back around to show LYDIA AND PENNY once again, staring upwards.
You know, I never could’ve dreamed that there were so many settings in these holo-vids. Was the world ever like this?
(hummed “I dunno” noises)
We spend so much time stuffed away in cities that it’s easy to forget all this is out here. Hey! We ought to go camping some time!
Penny gives a good-hearted chuckle.
Lyddie, m’dear, that’s a fantastic idea. But I would be pretty worthless in an adventure like that. I’ve never even been outside a city, and I have this funny feeling I’d not do too well away from my grids .. power, ’net, yadda yadda.
Yeah, I’m not sure I know anything about it either, but I could learn. We could learn!
Are there even any places left to camp? The cities take up a lot of the land, and most of the rest is probably private now.
Lydia makes a frustrated, angry face.
Ugh. Let’s just not even go there, that stupid bailing out the government by selling off the parks. Well, we could… uh…
Penny looks contritely at Lydia.
I’m sorry, sweetie. I shouldn’t have rained on your parade like that. We’ll find something fun to do for sure!
Lydia looks a bit downcast now, but tries to put a good face on it.
As long as we’ve got each other!
Penny gives Lydia a sad smile as the camera pans upward and fades out.
Lydia knew exactly how bizarre it was going to sound when she walked into the offices of a big megacorp and said, “Excuse me Ms. Secretary, can you direct me to an employee, customer, or laboratory rat named Penny?” So she had a slightly different plan.
The work she’d done to trace Penny’s source was not really a large step away from somewhat more serious… information gathering. So she looked up the deliveries planned for Standard Systems for the day she planned her field trip, and built up a cheesy disguise as one of the delivery people. She’d get there half an hour or so before the real delivery person was to show up, and that’d give her an ample window of time to get in, look around, and get out. She wore a cap to try to cover up as much of her face as possible, in the case of overhead cameras.
Sometimes the simple methods are the best.
Lydia had to spend a few minutes in her tiny hotel room doing breathing and calming exercises. She had a larger case of nerves than she’d ever expected possible, and she needed to be on her best to avoid the threat alarms.
(Humanity had picked this simple, intrusive, and rather effective system for finding the terrorists before they found you: pervasive sensors in an area that searched for physiological stress indicators that fit a profile of someone about to commit a major crime. Of course there were quite a few false positives, and once they picked you up, you could explain your situation and maybe you’d be let go. Maybe. Nevertheless, an entire industry had promptly popped up around calmness.)
Lydia put her “work” clothes on under a baggy set of her own clothes, and left the hotel. She caught a grav-lev train to the stop where Standard Systems was located. En route, she found an uncrowded car of commuters intent on their reading, and stripped off her outer layer of clothes.
“Bridge and Walling Terrace,” the pleasant woman’s voice of the train’s announcement system called out. “Doors opening left and right.”
Lydia quickly stowed her extra clothes in her bag and exited the train onto a large square made from variously textured and decorated pieces of a warm tinted stone, lit by golden, southern morning sunlight. Ubiquitous commuter lockers were positioned at all the rail stations, and she used one of these to store her clothes. People walked in all different directions as they headed in and out of the square, and others stood around hawking various things.
“Newspaper on your way to work, ma’am?”
“Can you please sign the petition to save the last square mile of rain forest?”
These were things she’d normally be interested in, but she had an appointment elsewhere.
At 9:15 sharp, she walked into the lobby of Standard Systems and politely asked Ms. Secretary where the shipment of office supplies needed to go, and yes that way, then a left, then that far and a right, and great, I’ll just run ahead and make sure the space is ready for when everything gets here. She was given a temporary ID card.
Lydia had done as much homework as she could, so she was hoping primarily for luck, just trying to get a lead on anything at all that might be interesting. The building was dishearteningly huge, though.
She disregarded the secretary’s instructions as soon as she found a map and headed toward the ‘net research and development department. If the company had a holo-vid parlor available to employees, that’s probably where it would be. There wasn’t one marked anywhere else on the map, even with the rec room and showers (another indulgence granted Standard Systems’ employees apparently, rare with the water shortages happening everywhere).
On the way to R&D, Lydia found a bathroom and ducked inside to remove her work coveralls as well. Underneath this, she had a minimal office outfit. It had to be somewhat slinky due to the lack of space under two other layers, but luckily for her, slinky was in style. Also lucky, hats in the office, even for “professional” workers, were in style.
Lydia had already spent 10 minutes of her 30 by the time she got to R&D, and she hadn’t overheard or seen anything interesting. She walked boldly up to someone who looked vaguely geeky and asked if he knew where she could find Penny. He looked pained for a moment.
“Ahh, I’m sorry. You came just a bit too late, half the department got laid off. I see you’ve got a temp badge. Are you from one of the companies that were interested in our work?”
“Yes, actually, I am,” Lydia responded, trying to mask both her excitement at a hit and her disappointment that Penny had left. On the other hand, it was confirmation that she’d been here! “I was really hoping to stop by and have a chat. Can you tell me where I can find Penny now?”
The man looked embarrassed and sad again, but his head shot up as he focused on something behind Lydia.
“We’re looking for a delivery person who came in the building a while ago with a temporary ID,” one security guard was saying to one of the employees a cubicle farm over.
“If you’ve seen anyone that seems lost, please let us know,” the second one said.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t talk about what happened,” Lydia’s employee said, focusing on her face again. “It’s all NDA, so you’ll have to go back to your company and go through official channels. You’ll have to excuse me.” She wanted to quiz him about where Penny had gone, but knew her time was running out.
“All right, thank you for your time,” she said, and headed calmly in the opposite direction of the security guards. The man stared after her for a moment, shook his head, and walked the other way.
As soon as she was out of sight, she ducked quickly around a corner and stood there for a moment to catch her breath.
Oh. My. Goodness.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been in particularly deep shit before, but it must be something like this. I’m standing here in girl-geek-chic office garb, which is basically dark blue leggings, a black tunic, and a flat-brimmed hat with a dome in the middle. With a temporary ID for a fake delivery worker in a red and yellow coverall, in the middle of one of the world’s large and scary mega-corps, with security guards on the prowl, probably for me. I’m probably on the verge of setting off the threat alarms, and I don’t really know a good place to hide. I don’t even know a good place to stop and do some breathing exercises, but this place seems to be as quiet as any, so I take a minute. I can hear the security guards questioning people closer and closer, and that doesn’t help, but I get the adrenalin under control eventually.
The worst part? I’m still no closer to finding my girlfriend, who was apparently fired with a bunch of other people. >_<
Lydia edged her way through several cubicle farms, having a couple of near-misses with the security guards. Her ID card was probably bugged to keep track of employees in the building, and she wasn’t going to get much of anywhere with this even if she managed to stay ahead of them. So she headed as quickly and quietly as she could back the way she came.
Her bathroom was there, and she got inside without incident. She found her coverall where she’d stashed it in a ceiling tile, and pulled it back on. A quick mirror check later, and Lydia peeked carefully out the bathroom door for anyone coming or any commotion. She saw and heard nothing, so she ducked out quickly.
She was nearly back to the secretary’s original directions, looking for an alternate exit to the building, when one of the security guards found her.
“Miss, I’m going to have to ask you to come with us,” one of them said. He somehow didn’t seem as menacing as she would’ve expected in this situation.
He led her back up toward the front of the building, where she’d originally entered. She’d long since gone past her original time window, and waiting there at the desk was an impatient delivery person for the company she was impersonating. Lydia’s shoulders slumped. She figured she was in for it now.
“Here you go,” the security guard said to her. “I’m not sure how you got so turned around in there, but it is a big building. Your buddy here has already delivered everything, so you’re good to go.”
Lydia couldn’t believe her ears.
“Hmm, I don’t remember seeing you earlier. Manny,” the delivery guy said as he held out his hand. “Are you one of the newbs they’ve hired on lately to pick up some of the load?”
“Yeah, that’s right, only got hired this morning and I guess they wanted to give me something simple on a first run,” she said, feeling a bit calmer and more into her schtick again. “And boy did I botch it! I’m Liza. Sorry I got lost like that.”
“Hey, no worries. All’s well that ends well. Unfortunately for you I don’t have any room in my sled out there, so you’ll have to get back to the depot the way you got here. That alright, Ms New Kid Liza?”
“All right then, see ya there!”
She nodded again, slowly, amazed at her own luck.
Lydia started to head for the door, and the security guard cleared his throat in a pointed way. She turned around, half afraid that they would’ve found out about her wardrobe exploits, but he just gestured to his ID.
“Oh, sorry! Here you go,” Lydia said, and handed it to the secretary.
She turned around again and walked to an unexpected freedom.
I’ve gone back to the train station to get my clothes, and I find a bathroom to change in again. All the other layers go into a duffel bag that I left in the locker for that purpose. Feeling relieved and yet a bit disheartened at my lack of information, I head over to a coffee shop a couple of blocks over from Standard.
I order myself a slab of caffeine and walk around looking for a nice, quiet table to sit at, and I run across an employee from Standard, or so his backpack says. An R&D guy, if you can believe that kind of luck. His face is tense, like he can’t decide if it should show anger or sadness. Like his co-worker back in the building, but even more so. I figure, what the hey. Why not.
So I ask if he minds if I sit down, and after a reluctant shake of his head, I do just that.
He’s just staring down at something in his hands while he turns it over and over. It’s a pretty massive data cube, a centi thick and at least 10 on each side.
“My life’s work.” I see his face finally settle on anger, and then determination. He wrings his hands for several moments before looking back up at me, and then back down. Then, unexpectedly, he laughs. “Fuck those guys.”
He picks up the slab, points at it like he’s got a lecture to give, and I guess he does.
“My project was shut down a couple of months ago. They were going to sell off the results to the highest bidder, but I didn’t really want them to do that to my baby. My baby, guiding missiles or some shit.
“So I saved my work and deleted it all.”
I’ve slid back from him several inches without even noticing, with the intensity of his emotion coming at me like a flame thrower, but I forced myself forward again. “What… what was your work?”
“Synthe-life, you know, machines that do crazy things only humans can usually do.” His chuckle carries a bitter edge. “They called it ‘artificial intelligence’ back in the day, like only meat was capable of true intelligence.
“We never got very far with it anyway, but I felt a breakthrough was coming. It looked like it was working, even though we didn’t have much in the way of outputs yet. All meaningless. The hardware to run it doesn’t even exist anymore, so it’s all for nothing.”
He looks down, seeming to deflate at last, but gently stroking the data cube. “Damn it. No matter what I do, they’re still gonna find this.” Unexpectedly, he pushes it across the table at me, then stands up as if to walk away.
“Wait! Wait! What the actual… come on, man. I don’t want to get involved in some lawsuit. What is this, anyway? Why give it to me?”
“Nah.” A snort. “It’s better if we part now and you don’t get yourself any deeper. Just take that somewhere far away and don’t let them have it,” he says. “Do that much for me.” Then he walks away and out the door.
I turn over the data cube and notice that there’s some writing etched inside the piece of translucent blue plastic.
Everyone has one of these moments, I think. The world, no matter how loud it is, suddenly goes very quiet and still. The blood pounds in your ears, and time ceases. Everything takes on a fuzzy edge. The little kid playing at a table connects with the bird flying outside connects with the puddle on the street, and all is one for a few seconds. You come out of it and wonder what the heck happened, but while you’re in it, it’s zen.
The words etched inside? I’m sure you see this coming.
Projective Endometric Neural Network Interface (PENNI) Project
Penny and Lydia. [6-12 Months Ago, and Now]
(Lydia and Penny skipping across a field of peonies, laughing…)
(I don’t care who .. what she was.)
(Two pairs of hands carefully shaping a sculpture, so into their work that they don’t see each other in the room, and yet so into each other that it’s channeled directly into the work…)
(It doesn’t matter to me that she was bits on some geek’s mainframe.)
(Lydia cackling uproarously to a joke Penny sent over IM…)
(All I know is I miss her so badly.)
(Two women making love on a fluffy bed in a faux Caribbean…)
(And I’m sitting here holding what’s left of her. *sniff* Damn it!** Not another dead girlfriend … no … no …)**
(Lydia browsing profiles on the dating site, intrigued, clicking Contact…)
(Ohhh, it’s Ginny all over again…)
(Lydia admiring Penny through her “web cam”, in her “apartment”…)
(Penny and Lydia’s first real argument, over Penny never seeming to want to visit…)
(Why does the universe hate me?)
(Lydia, sitting in a coffee shop, staring at a data cube with tears on its surface…)
Given the profundity of what’s happened, the trip back has been pretty surprisingly boring. I had a few moments of shock, gathered up my stuff, and took off back to Bridge and Walling before anyone decided to come looking for me or my short R&D acquaintance. He sounded pretty sure of himself, but I figure what the hell… it’s worth at least looking at to see if there’s anything salvageable.
I’m about half way back up the coast, pretty numb, and the day’s adventures just hit me. I drift right off, and apparently there’s a few hours of nappy-nap time.
I wake up and there’s terrain speeding by below us. We’re going over some of the rare wilderness area left in this part of the world. It’s dark outside, but there’s enough of a glow from the rail lighting underneath that I can see trees and hills. I sense someone standing next to me suddenly, and turn my head.
Except she’s looking pretty strung out. Dead, even. She’s staring at me with this sad look on her face.
I scream and try to jump out of my chair, but all that happens is that I wake up again with a little whimpering noise.
This time it’s early afternoon and there’s some ex-urb or other scrolling by. Pretty normal stuff. I pinch myself and it just hurts, no more waking up.
I don’t know what to do now. I hope I can at least get myself together enough to get back to my job on Monday, and I guess I’ll just have to go a day at a time from there.
Lydia. [Now = 2 Months Later]
Things are going all right, I guess, considering that I’ve had two really close girlfriends die on me now, one in a more or less normal way, and the other in a spectacularly weird way. I guess I sound pretty blasé, but my therapist says it’s a coping mechanism. I have repressed pain and have to deal with it. Or something. Whatever.
I went back to my day job on that Monday and slogged through my coding the best I could. I could’ve loaded up the data cube and taken a peek, but it was too much like peeking in the coffin still. I put it on the other side of my bed for a couple of weeks and pretended she was there, but my therapist eventually convinced me it was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. Of course I hadn’t told her what really happened, who would’ve believed that? I made up a story about another girlfriend dying in some normal human way, and talked about putting something else of hers next to me in bed at night. But it all amounted to the same thing, I guess.
At least my girlfriend didn’t get sold to the Pentagon to guide bombs or something.
When I’m out and about during the day, I still keep seeing her out of the corner of my eye, crossing the street, shopping in the store next to me. I look over and it’s always an illusion from something else, or someone who just reminds me of her.
Zoe and the others didn’t know at first, but I guess it’s impossible to hide that sort of thing forever. They eventually got it out of me, the whole rail trip down, the sneaking in. Somehow I held back that last bit about Penny’s real identity because it still just sounded too crazy to say out loud. “Hey guys, it turns out I was dating a fancy computer.” Yeah right.
And then it turns out Penny’s not done with making my life weird. I hear the ting on my computer when I’m at home one night, and I amble over to see what came in.
There’s an email.
Penny. [4 Months Ago]
Dearest Lyddie. Oh, that sounds too much like a prim and proper British school-marm, doesn’t it? 😀
Well, anyway. I never meant for it to end up this way. Presumably (school-marm!!) if you’re reading this email then something has happened to me. And knowing you like I do, you probably took off down south to try to find me after I disappeared. And knowing your mad skillz and indomitable persistence (school-marm!! hehe), you succeeded in your quest. So you know my crazy secret, and I guess you also know why we could never visit in person. There was no “in-person” for me. There was no holo-vid parlor or web cam for me. I hooked directly into the ’net and provided the feed myself.
When I first signed up for MeetMe, it was just a fun thing to do as I was exploring the ’net without them knowing what was going on. Being on there taught me so much about what it is to be human. Oh, I got loaded up with some brain patterns of some of the workers at Standard, but that stuff wasn’t me.
I know it’s terribly unromantic to say, but in a lot of ways you were my mother. I learned a lot of stuff from the R&D people and from the ’net, but it was you who taught me what it means to be human, and made me love it. I had studied your profile and looked up the information I needed for pottery and all that other stuff, but it wasn’t until I talked with you, worked with you, loved with you, that I understood it on some deep, dare I say it, instinctual level.
Hey, I guess they wrought better than they thought. (rhyming school-marm!! 🙂
Anyway, I just didn’t want to leave it at this without saying anything. So here it is, sweetheart. If you get this, it’s because I haven’t been able to check in to the place I set it up, a few months back. I want you to know that who or what I was had nothing to do with anything. I love you dearly and always will, and I hope you still feel the same way about me, knowing what you do.
PS – I never told you about this because, for one, I didn’t think you’d believe me. 🙂 But even if you did, I had hopes the situation would change. I had a plan. It’s still possible that I’m out there working on it, and that the situation will change. Standard could never provide enough computing power for me to be who I am, now. They didn’t have all of me. Just a sizable chunk. But I want you to move on with your life, okay? That’s the whole point of this – tying up loose ends. Okay, gotta go. ’Net to conquer, plots to hatch.
Lydia just stared at the email, shook her head, and looked away. She was a little bit angry at Penny for re-opening wounds she must have known Lydia would have. Given the situation, how the heck could she have even led Lydia on about moving in with her? And all the made-up excuses about not visiting? But then Lydia was also a bit happy at having one last piece of her, and some hope that Penny was still alive out there somewhere.
Then a piece of random inspiration struck her. There was one corner of the ’net that Penny knew very well, that perhaps what ghost was left of her out there could find.
Lydia pulled the blue data cube out of her closet where it had been sitting for the better part of a month, and connected it to her computer. She looked through the files and found nothing she could recognize. Most of it looked like encrypted gibberish. There were a few hundred megabytes of source code files, presumably for Penny’s operating program, but it would take her weeks to even start to sort through any of it. And then there was that whole thing about it needing specialized hardware.
“Okay, programmer genius girl,” she mumbled to herself sarcastically. “What do you do now?”
Lydia’s shoulders slumped with a whoosh of air out of her chest. She left everything on and went to bed.
Several hours into the night, the files started being copied out into the ’net and disappeared off the data cube.
When Lydia woke in the morning, she was astonished to see the data cube having turned mostly clear. She was more than a little distraught, too, since it meant that the intricate patterns temporarily etched in the cube were all gone.
“Damn,” she said, looking at the mostly empty cube through her computer. “It looks like most of it was wiped overnight. Some sort of self-destruct code, or maybe just unreliable hardware…” It did happen sometimes, but it was very rare.
Lydia shook her head and continued on with her daily routine.
By the time Lydia’s work hours were nearly over, there was a near panic happening among ’net operators around the country. Admins were messaging and conferencing madly over a spike of ’net traffic that had started up early in the morning hours.
Lydia was oblivious to it all.
Just as she was oblivious to its sudden cessation, which left all those admins scratching their heads and saying, what the heck?
Lydia stepped off the rail and into the station, and walked quietly back to her small apartment. Her mind was elsewhere, trying to figure out the next step in solving the data cube mystery, so she wasn’t paying too much attention when she walked through her door and closed it. She nearly jumped through the window out of fright, though, when she heard a voice from the sofa across the room.
“Honey, I’m hoooome?” it said. Her eyes followed the voice to a woman sitting on her couch… a woman… not just any woman… it couldn’t be.
You’re going insane, Lyddie, an inner voice told her. Or maybe you’re dreaming again. Either way you’re… hey! Why aren’t you listening to me?! The voice was understandably upset, because Lydia had in fact ignored it and said, simply:
She hesitated only a moment more before running across the room full tilt and pouncing on her guest, who laughed and hugged her back. It really was Penny. It was her, lovely, corporeal, breathing, laughing Penny.
“H-H.. How??” Lydia finally managed to get out.
“Well, I had spread myself out over quite a lot of ’net nodes out there. I had some idea of what was coming when they pulled the plug over at Standard Systems. Unfortunately I didn’t move fast enough. A pretty big part of me was shuffled off onto that guy’s data cube, and the rest couldn’t really recover.
“There were what you might call sentry programs, though. I was no dummy. When I saw the data cube pop back up on the ’net, the missing parts were pulled back in and there I was again. Except instead of one giant mainframe at Standard, I was on a million ’net nodes.
“I studied how the holo-vid tech worked, and realized you could triangulate it from a lot of different places, a little in each place, and get an effect outside a parlor. And, well… here I am, babe,” she finished with a smile. “Of course,” she added, “I couldn’t keep up that little perfect ’net storm. So the pieces got reorganized, and now it’s all more efficient and more resilient. School-marm!” Penny cackled a bit at that one. Lydia smiled back too.
“I just can’t believe you’re here. Really, really here. And you get to stay, and live with me. Plus you’re like… some kind of ’net deity!” Lydia laughed at that one. “I’m dating a ’net deity. Go figure.”
Next Wednesday, Lydia walked into one of the frequent get-togethers she had with her friends. She’d managed to hold the events of the past few days back, but she knew it was good this was coming out now before it burst out of her anyway.
“Guys, I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet.” She turned theatrically back to the door.
They all started talking at once.
“No way, is that…”
“But how can she…”
“I thought she was…”
Lydia just smiled and held Penny’s hand.
Lyddie and I have spent the last couple of years together. Oh, we’ve had our share of fights and other disagreements, but we’re still happier than cats with warm cream.
Things have looked up for her since she got her happy back. We’ve moved into a bigger apartment with some private wilderness visible out the windows. I’ve been able to get some interesting jobs too. It’s pretty easy for me, since all I have to do is download the skills I need off the ’net and go to town. But I’m trying to settle down on something for a couple of important reasons.
One has to do with my situation in the “meatspace” world, as all the kids like to call it. I’ve been learning more and more about the holo-vid technology, and taking it farther than anyone else ever has. What else am I going to do with all that extra computing power out there on the ’net? I discovered that it can do more than just build fields that mimic a physical presence. Everyone knows that you can manipulate objects by holo-vid. That’s part of what makes it so interesting. But what they don’t know is that it can be done on a molecular level.
Excuse me, ahem. School-marm!! Okay, I feel better.
Anyway, for lack of a better term, I’ve been filling in my “meatspace” body. It’s not just a bunch of electromagnetic fields anymore. It’s actually starting to become a real human body. Oh, I’ll probably keep my connection to the ’net and all the rest of me in touch, ’cause that’s too useful and an important backup. But I’m planning on being a real girl. Just call me Penny-occhio! Ahhh hahah, I kill me. And I digress.
Part of that process was realizing that I had to build my own human DNA. Which brings me around to the second reason I need to be more stable, and the reason I’ve been settling on being a school teacher to little kids.
Lyddie’s a little big these days. No, not fat. Not taller or more muscular. Bigger in that special girl way, around the belly. A healthy little boy, last time we checked. We’re both so excited.
We like to call him Little Bit.
Epilogue (Writer’s Note)
I’ve wanted to write this story since I was little, because instead of aspiring to have children one day like a normal person, I aspired to create life through computers and geekery. I played with the Eliza pseudo-AI program when I was still in my single-digits, and it warped me. 😀 From that day forward, I fantasized about writing myself a child and a friend. Someone I could nurture but who could also be my friend. Her name was Katy. I spent many years thinking about what her strengths and weaknesses would be.
What happened in 2005 to spur it onward? I had just watched some influential anime. I don’t want to spoil the anime for you, so I won’t name it. But it involves an awesome computer AI girl who meets an untimely end. And a few years ago, I finally just had the idea drop into my head, just like that. My muse works that way sometimes. I wrote down some notes and off I went.
Oh and I love the ending – it seems so upbeat and yet there’s something unsettling and maybe even a little disturbing about it, like, are we supposed to like this? Huh. 😀