An evil conspiracy…

Apologies to all my friends who were depicted on this story without permission. It makes things more fun that way; don’t get offended if I didn’t capture your personality correctly! Just remember that a) this is fiction; b) this is the impression I get from talking to you, but it might not be an accurate description of yourselves 🙂

Many thanks to the fantastic creators who developed the amazing buildings in SL used as backdrops for the pictures. I wish you knew all your names to properly credit you!

And this is just my entry to Lalo Tellings’ “Avatarian” anthology of avatar-related stories; so, yes, it’s just avatar fiction!

Part I — No more Meatspace

It dawned one of those days when the transition between night and day is so subtle that most of us will miss it; a subtropical storm hit the coast at full blast, and suddenly the windows resonated with the fusillade of white noise thrown at them from the skies — water, furious water from above, rivalling with the roaring noise of the piled-up waves crashing into the golden sands below. Oblivious to the violence of Nature outside my window, I woke up to the annoying beep from the UPS. The power was out; I got on the phone to complain to the company, my throat still raw and tender from a week-old cold refusing to take its leave like an annoying familiar overstaying their visit, and barely able to speak perceptibly words. Fumbling sleepily with the mobile phone, the operator finally persuaded me that the power failure was just a blown fuse at my home. She was right. The day was not lost — I had electricity after all, I could go back to my computer, log in to the Metaverse, get in touch with everybody, while a solid wall of white water hit the windows with the force of an exploding volcano. It was not going to be a nice day.

But the sun always shines in the Metaverse.

Waving the lights to turn on and gesturing the computer to wake up, I joined the Metaverse, not before checking the old-style console for any suspicious messages. Old habits die hard, and graphics and 3D and haptic interfaces are all cool and nice for the current generation of kids, but give me a 2D 80×25 console to peek into the insides of my computer, and I’m a happy person. It’s ironic that the old science-fiction books from the past century portrayed computer geeks as being in love with their text consoles; even back then, almost all real programmers would use already use visually-compelling tools. But, as said, old habits die hard. For instance, my sore throat and constant sneezing altercated with a nasty cough prevented the silly computer to make sense of my vocal commands. Not to mention that voice communication would be tough; I barely could make myself understood over the phone! It was the perfect occasion to test out those silly voice morphers, and use a robot avatar for a change — I’d get some eyebrow raising on the Boulevard, but nobody would care about a metallic-sounding robot with a sore throat and a nasty cough.

In fact, I was pretty much feeling like Marvin the Paranoid Android at the moment… walking through the Boulevard at an early hour. Well, early for my physical location anyway; there is no real difference in the Metaverse, it’s always busy around the clock. And it was time for me to get busy, too.

Robots thrive on oil and batteries… but my physical self was in dire need of coffee and a nicotine shot from an e-ciggie on top of what passed these days for “breakfast”. It was time to at least go through the motions of dealing with the incoming messages. Most were junk and spam; technology evolves, but we still cannot get rid of those. Here and there, a client in need of some petty service — a building that was deleted overnight by mistake, some clever programming that broke when the client tried to “fix” it to their tastes. I sighed, and my robot avatar even became slouchier than usual. I gestured for the backups and jumped to those locations… patiently fixing what needed to be fixed and leaving little notes attached to the buildings for their owners to read later. Most would probably still be asleep.

Routine, routine. It was time to catch up on the news; back to the crowded spaces of the Boulevard, then walking through the side alleys. I was sure to find Tateru Nino somewhere, and she was always up to date with the latest gossip, backed up with strong solid factoids. Funny that I didn’t remember if she was physically alive or not; in order to keep up to date with the vast amount of information around the clock, she had long ago populated the Metaverse with some proxies: artificial personas of herself — that would have started decades ago, if I remember correctly. It’s a scary thought, though — I would still say “Hi Tats” to her beautiful Victorian avatar every day or so, and have no clue to whom I was talking to. But… we all get used to that in the Metaverse. Extropia DaSilva, for instance, used to be the last transhumanist that I knew that still had a physical body, because a friend had traced her landline to a physical home. But that was over a decade ago… nobody knows if her physical self is still alive these days.

Tats was chatting with Hiro Pendragon over a cup of virtual coffee, reminding me to suddenly walk back to the kitchen and see if I hadn’t burned my real coffee. The robot avatar slumped to the ground, the gesture capture interface misunderstanding the sudden movement. Tats and Hiro laughed. Well, not the original Hiro, of course; this was just a construct left on the old side of the Metaverse after the Riots. Hiro had vowed never to return to this side ever again, but he still did his business here through a proxy. I wondered how many did the same; the oldbies for sure, even the most stubborn ones. Paisley Beebe (or her proxy) still hosted the Angry Hour, a show featuring weekly discussions — well, insult exchanges — between Prokofy Neva and Morgaine Dinova. Nevaville still prospered, even in spite of all the bit rot going on all the time on the Old Grid; Morgaine’s avatar was just a proxy, of course, and some even claim that it was illegally cloned from personality bits that Morgaine dropped by mistake on an open source repository somewhere. Prok didn’t care; the show was good promotion for Nevaville.

“So what’s new?” I asked my old friends, or rather, to whatever animated their avatars these days. The feeling that there were less and less flesh-and-blood humans around on the Metaverse sometimes still bothered me. Which was actually silly for me to worry about — after so many years defending moderate immersionism, I should have predicted that one day there would really be no difference between humans and non-humans on the Metaverse. There was simply no way to know; AIs were simply too clever, and the photo-realism was too faithful for us poor humans to spot the differences. Young hackers prided themselves that they had portable Turing devices to tell them apart, but I didn’t trust their claims. I had simply seen too many examples where these tests utterly failed.

“Oh, guess what — Pathfinder moved over to EduCloud,” commented Tateru with a smile. “And what’s up with your avatar?”

I shrugged, which was so appropriate for Marvin the Paranoid Android — and Tats and Hiro, at least their original identities, wouldn’t miss the reference. “I got a cold, a really nasty one, and I can’t speak out loud.”

“Gwyn, Gwyn,” said Hiro condescendingly, shaking his head. He still had his hip look from the early days, although it looked rather strange — I got used to his low-def avatar from back then, and these ultra-realistic avatars bothered me. Did people really dress like that in this decade? I sighed and looked out of the window; the rain wouldn’t stop today, the storm was still in full force. How many years was it since I left the comfort of my tiny flat? After a few decades, it makes little difference anyway; there is not much to see out there. Maintenance robots, mostly, and automated supply vehicles. People simply wouldn’t bother much to go out. Except for tourism; tourism was somehow still popular, even though you would meet few people, and the only place where you could get a decent meal was in-world and it simply didn’t taste the same. But I understood the reasoning behind tourism: out in the physical world, nobody knew who you were. You would be completely anonymous. No one would have a clue about your digital identity if you were not online. For some, this was tremendously appealing. It scared me; where would my reputation go if I disconnected from the Metaverse?

“When do you give up your silly meatsack and enjoy yourself fully?” continued Hiro. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. Tell me, do you still sleep or something?”

I smiled. “I always slept far too less for my taste anyway…”

He cackled with laughter. “Yes, that’s true! I never understood how you managed back then! And it’s true that we see you in-world as often as anybody else!”

“So Path is in EduCloud?” I asked, bringing the conversation back to topic. “I’m not surprised, he was always the one running after where the educators went… ReactionGrid first, do you remember that?”

“Now that’s a name I hadn’t heard in decades,” noted Tateru, raising her eyebrow. “One wonders where those guys ended up…”

“I thought they had been all bought by Microsoft and absorbed in their corporate structure?” My memory was not great, but with GooglePlex online, who needed a memory? A quick search confirmed what I remembered. “Aye — when they started Microsoft Academia. They were all gone by then.”

“Except for Path,” reminded Tateru.

“Right,” confirmed Hiro. “He just went back home, like most of the old Lindens.”

“I wonder where they all are these days,” mused I. Hiro grinned. “Most are long dead, Gwyn, you know that!”

“Well, or their personas, anyway…”

“Babbage still works for Desmond,” said Tateru. “They have recently revamped the whole infrastructure on Barsoom; I understand that all glitches were fixed, and Desmond is back in business as always.”

“He never gives up, does he? Still, Barsoom is one of the most polite places around the Metaverse. I always enjoyed that, even in the old times!” I popped a lozenge for the sore throat and started feeling the effects. It was time to switch back to my usual avatar.

Hiro smiled. “You know, we never knew if you really looked like that in real life.”

I smiled back. “Who cares anyway? That was over half a century ago, and I most definitely don’t look like this today. Nobody does. Not even you, Hiro; augmentationist or not, I’m sure that your real self grew old as the rest of us, nobody cares about rejuvenation when it’s so much cheaper to log in.”

“Philosophical again — and avoiding my questions. Heh.” Hiro was pleased with himself.

“What makes you visit the Old Grid, Hiro? Do you sync the memories with your primary?” I changed the subject again. Digital persona, proxy, or whatever he was running, he was still pretty much the Hiro I knew.

“Naaaahh. You know me better than that, Gwyn. No no. I stuck up with the Lindens for over a decade, but after the Riots, I stuck to my decision. I’m not coming back, and I’m not ‘syncing memories’ as you say. I just like to chat with the oldbies here and then I send myself messages about anything interesting around here. Which is becoming rare.”

“There is still some innovation in the Old Grid,” said Tateru thoughtfully. “Not much, but some.”

“What, you mean those new sex toys from Stroker? Please! I have no patience for that! I’m glad that they are confined here to the Old Grid; we do serious business outside this place, you know?” Hiro smiled sarcastically.

I raised an eyebrow. “Stroker has new sex toys?”

“You really are out of touch, Gwyn,” grinned Hiro, and patted me on the back. The haptic interface was a bit rough on my frail old body; I coughed. “See, I’m not here, and I know; one wonders what you have been doing all this time to miss all the fun!”

“Oh, I’ve been kept busy,” I mumbled apogetically. In the physical world I was rubbing my shoulder, and had to override the gesture interface so that it wouldn’t show up in-world.

“So you say. So you say. So you have said in the past five decades!”

“It’s still true.” A message was popping on my viewer. I could almost guess it was from SignpostMarv Martin; and, yes, after checking it, I knew I got it right. “Sorry, I need to go now. Mmh. Path on EduCloud. That should make some of the Lindens think twice.”

“They always were against the academic world,” reminded Tateru. “It was just good PR for a while”.

“That didn’t last long in any case,” agreed Hiro. “Such stupidity! Look at what they are doing now, all over the Metaverse! Did you know that the last class done physically was twenty years ago? The Lindens should have seen that coming!”

“It’s always easy to say so after the fact… and I’m sorry. I need to go now.” I waved them good-bye, and jumped over to SignpostMarv’s place.

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