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.

Like most of the oldbies, he still had a place in the Old Grid, while keeping plenty of personas busy on all other parts of the Metaverse. I walked up to his shack, full of unfinished gadgets and devices — most of them were proofs-of-concept, most actually worked, but they always had an unfinished touch to them. “You didn’t have to come, Gwyn. A message would have been fine,” he said placidly.

“Oh, I wasn’t busy.” I walked across his place, eagerly watching all his experiments, and refraining from asking what they were for. They always amazed me when I visited his place, but one stood out from the rest. “Are these… prims?” I asked, baffled.

He slowly turned to face me. These days, he went back to his dark techno-angel look from the very early days of the Old Grid — just updated for modern CGI standards, of course. “No, Gwyn.” He looked at me with infinite patience. “They just look like prims. Have you never talked to the Primitar Group?”

I shook my head. Marv always assumed I knew everything; I always wondered how he never figured out that in most cases I absolutely had no clue about what he was saying. Or perhaps he was too polite to mention it. So he droned on, “The Primitar Group is doing some realistic replicas of the Old Grid, trying to recapture the experience from the first days… from old movies on OurTube, they even managed, after a few years, to get alpha textures to flicker properly — but that’s not important now. I didn’t call you to see these. Take a look at that.” He was pointing to what seemed to all purposes to be an old TV set from the 1980s or 1990s, like you saw at museums. It was showing a flat, 2D image of a strange plaza.

“What’s that?” I asked, almost regretting the answer.

“Something from the AstroGeeks.” He noticed my blank look. “Did I never tell you about the AstroGeeks before?”

“I have no clue who they are”, I admitted with a small smile. All our conversations went that way, and have been like that since the early days of the Metaverse.

“Remind me to give you a tour of their place sometime,” he said, matter-of-factly. Then he picked up a strange-looking device, a mixture of a remote control and a 1950s zap gun, and pointed it to the old TV screen. “Notice the pattern?”

“Well yes… what does it represent?”

“Phaylen told my wife that… well, nevermind what she told her. It’s supposed to be a representation of the confluence of all independent grids in the Metaverse.”

“A map.” This was familiar territory; SignpostMarv was always tinkering with maps.

“You could call it that, yes. But it’s a dynamic representation. It shows how people move around, how they interact, what the current trends are, and so forth. See that bright star? Probably a club or something; it will go nova in a while, and disappear, and be replaced by a million others.”

“Nice,” I said, not understanding what he was aiming at. “Just another geekish thing then, make the whole of the Metaverse look like a star map or something?”

“You don’t understand.” He was right — I didn’t. “By mapping dynamic social interactions from the Metaverse into what looks like a sky map, the AstroGeeks can apply astronomical pattern-matching algorithms — the same ones used for detecting civilisations on other planets, for example — and get a lot of interesting statistics that way from the Metaverse.”

“Like what?” I asked.

He didn’t reply. He tweaked with the remote control, or whatever it was, and just said: “Observe.” The image changed; I assumed he was zooming in to a specific area, but the way stars faded out into the background, just to be replaced by more stars, wasn’t making much sense to me.

“Star size and magnitude gives a rough approximation of the number of people and amount of interaction they have with each other; galaxies are people with repeated social interaction. Groups. They form and disband, thus you see stars swirling around and galaxies clashing and things like that. Very cool.” He was now turned back to me again, and manipulating the control so that the images were running faster and faster on the screen; I was getting dizzy. “But this is cooler.”

For me, it just looked like a field of stars like the others. I told Marv as much.

“Notice how the stars are sparser?”

“Well… a bit perhaps.”

“Watch this.” More twiddling with the controls. Now the screen showed clearly a hole in the sky — a dark area where few stars shone. “See?”

“Ok, I’m assuming it’s just a place on the Metaverse with few people around…”

“Ah.” He picked up another device. Like most of his things, it had a crude look, with lots of shiny buttons, and glowing bits which had no purpose except to look cool. “I’m now running a sequence of the past few months, in fast-forward; one frame is about a day or so. Pay attention.”

The image flickered and jumped suddenly; the hole disappeared. But the sequence was very strange. All of a sudden, stars collapsed, crushed into each other, went nova for a few frames, and a hole was growing. And growing and growing. Until the sequence stopped and there was nothing left.

“Ok, I got it, I think”, I said, rubbing my chin. “So an area of the Metaverse suddenly became empty. So what? I guess it happens all the time. Vast areas of the Old Grid have been empty for decades, and the other grids are not much different.”

“Well, sort of. The difference is that this happened in months, and it affected twenty million people. Or rather, their avatars”.

I still missed the point. Twenty million was not much; people logged in and off the Metaverse all the time.

“They are missing, Gwyn. They’re simply not there any more,” said SignpostMarv ominously.

“What do you mean — ‘not there any more’? They come and go, I suppose that they went someplace else?”

He shook his head sadly. “Not in this case. The AstroGeeks are sure about the numbers. In a few months, this area of the Metaverse simply emptied all of a sudden. The avatars are missing. They did not go anywhere else on the Metaverse. They’re simply not there. Gone.”

I frowned in concentration. These days, everybody was on the Metaverse. “Maybe they just died or something?” I tried to calculate how many people died every day. Twenty million didn’t seem much for a few months.

He looked at me with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Doesn’t this remind you of anything?”

I shrugged. “Refresh my poor memory, or what’s left of it…”

“Think back. Twenty million people leaving an area in a few months.”

“I give up, Marv, you tell me…” But as soon as the words left my mouth I remembered. “Before the Riots.”

“Right. When everybody left the Old Grid and the Lindens were forced to connect it to the rest of the other grids. It was pretty much the same thing back then: over a few months, avatars simply failed to appear on the statistics. Well, we didn’t have such nice tools to show statistics, of course. We just had graphs and charts…”

Tateru’s population charts,” I remembered.

“Before they stopped giving access to their data, yes.”

I nodded. I also remembered that. “So… where are all these people going to? There is just… the Metaverse. There is nothing else beyond the Metaverse. I mean… everything is interconnected… every computer online is on the Metaverse, you cannot just be ‘outside’ it, it makes no sense, if you’re online, you’re on the Metaverse. It’s not like in the old days at all. Things are different.”

“Nevertheless, that’s what’s happening. People are leaving. Somehow, they’re not being tracked any longer.”

“But that’s… not possible!” I cried.

It was his time to shrug; he was not a natural shrugger. His oversized raven wings did a complex motion, one that threatened to topple my avatar. “I just show you what I found out. But there is something else. There is a… uh, let’s call it an event horizon, although it’s not really a ‘horizon’. More like a group of places that are always threatening to disappear but never really disappear.” He turned his attention back to the TV. “I’m running a filter, tagging those stars, see which ones actually move and which are replaced by others. See the red markers? These are loci which constantly remain away from the black spot. But they act as attractors. Somehow.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled.

“I don’t know what I mean. I think these places attract visitors, avatars who go there, interact briefly, then disappear — sucked into the void, if you wish. We don’t see them again. But those places on the ‘horizon’ remain. They keep attracting people.”

“But that makes no sense! Why would they attract people for? To ‘suck them into the void’? That sounds like a conspiracy theory to me! I think it’s more reasonable to admit that this is just a wild interpretation of some data, or a side-effect of some of the algorithms used by your friends.”

“Phaylen’s friends, not mine.”

“Right, whatever… Look, this is all fascinating, but… what’s your point? A lot of strange things happen all the time. This is the Metaverse, after all.”

He stopped for a moment, looking at the horizon. I waited patiently; the storm outside my window was finally abating. It still rained, but not as strongly as before. I realised that I had always loved the sound of the rain, but only when I was at home, and usually in bed reading a good book. In a sense, the force of the rain told me how cool we are with our technology, but Nature still beats us in special effects using simple things like H2O.

“Aren’t you curious?” Marv suddenly asked, looking over his shoulder.

“Not particularly curious, no,” I admitted.

His voice lowered. “I would like to see what is happening out there, but…”

“But?”

“Well, this dynamic representation is not about places. It’s about people. Yes, the place is important, but what the stars show are people disappearing. And to find out why, you need to talk to people.”

I was slowly starting to understand what he had in mind. “And you think I should talk to them and ask around.”

“You’re good at that,” he said simply. I protested, but he ignored me. “Have you seen Torley lately?”

“Torley? No…” I tried to remember when had been the last time I had talked to Torley. The Soul of SL, I used to call him. Gosh, but that was ages ago!

“Nobody has. I’ve been asking. He doesn’t reply to messages, and hasn’t done so for a while.”

I was a bit confused about the turn in the conversation. “So? I sometimes don’t reply immediately either.”

He smiled briefly. “For the past four months.”

“Oh…” I started to make a mental list of people that hadn’t replied to me in the past months. There weren’t many, and I told Marv: “Well, for your ‘conspiracy’, you’d need a lot of missing people that don’t reply to any messages. Most of everybody I know have been in touch!”

“How many of those are digital personas, proxies, multiple-entities, and so forth?”

“Oh… most of them I guess. These days, everybody has them. It’s impossible to track down everything without them!”

“Nevertheless, you seem to be able to manage.”

It was a plain statement. I blushed — and this was picked up by the haptic devices too, so my avatar blushed as well. “Well… I was never very eager to try those things, you know. It sort of feels weird, having computer software interacting with others on your behalf, pretending to be you.”

“But you just said…”

I cut him short. “Never mind what I said; just because everybody uses them, and I’m fine with the concept, that doesn’t mean I like the whole idea!”

“Right. My point was, it makes it harder to find people who are ‘missing’. Because most people will be in touch, all the time, even if they are just in touch through their digital personas, their digital proxies, their AIs. Correct?”

“Well, aye…” I was still confused. “Marv, I don’t get it. What do you mean? It’s true that these days I have no clue if I’m talking to a human or just an AI; I talk to people who are supposed to be dead every day, and I’m used to that; and I’m assuming that one day people will continue to talk to me long after I’m gone. It’s just… the way things are…”

“I wasn’t discussing that,” he said, facing me again. “I’m just saying that it’s hard to miss people these days because everybody is talking to everybody else’s proxy or digital persona. So there is way more communication going on. The communication flow is seldom interrupted. Even, as you say, when people die.”

“So…?”

“So how do we account for twenty million people — or at least their avatars — that stopped interacting on the Metaverse in just 3 or 4 months?”

All right, that made me think. “I don’t know.”

“Neither do I. But it is an interesting problem. I thought about doing a chart about the amount of agents that a physical human being has on average, but it’s hard to calculate. There is no method to differentiate agents from physical beings; the Turing tests all fail. So we can only rely on statistical methods based on what people say.” He frowned. “I just have your word on it that you don’t use any proxies; you could just pretend to do so and I would never find out.”

“Well yes… but I’m not… and I’m sure there’s a point somewhere in your argument?”

“I’m not good at coming to the point,” he said in a sad tone. “To make an avatar disappear completely from the Metaverse takes a lot of effort. You’d have to hunt down all its agents, proxies, personas, and so forth. And the semi-conscious or not-conscious systems that track messages down: the auto-responders, the in-world presence trackers, and so forth.” He pointed to the black hole at the screen again. “That’s a lot to be wiped out to show up like that. Remember, Gwyn, none of those people are interacting on the Metaverse at all. They’re simply not there.”

And I understood now.

Not there.

Marv dropped me a location for one of those “attractor” points and let me muse about it for a while.

Part II – Investigation

I wondered if Marv was the only one noticing the disappearance of avatars from the Metaverse, so it was time for me to chat a bit with the people who are always informed about everything, and collect some data. Hamlet was eager to hear more, but it was a piece of news for him, too; he was just excited about the whole idea. “Perhaps you can write about your findings!” he suggested. I mumbled something in agreement and went to look for Dusan Writer.

I found him at his office on the top floor of the giant skyscraper for Remedy Corp. Dominating a vast landscape of media corporations, shiny building after shiny building brandishing their logos and spitting out holovideo on the immense façades, this was the hub of information about the Metaverse, and Dusan was at the very centre of it. I didn’t like the too-crowded space; always bumping into eager journalists and opinion-makers, this looked like Fleet Street during the rush hour — a strange concept, when most media production didn’t happen in the streets, but via computer-mediated communication. Nevertheless, some of us are old-fashioned and prefer some sort of presence, even if it’s just a digital model of a person on a holoscreen. Reflecting about how we humans are always so prone to recreate reality even in virtual environments, I asked the receptionist if Dusan was available.

A little known secret was that Dusan actually had way more free time than most people realise. He’s excellent delegating work, and most of his major media productions were run by Beyers Sellers anyway; the rest gets handled by his digital proxies. So he definitely had time to chat a bit with an old friend.

His warm smile and confident handshake greeted me in his wall-less office. One would imagine a vast space with a mile-long fluffy carpet, stretching to the horizon, as would be appropriate for a big shot like Dusan; but in fact, his office was rather cozy and smallish. The walls were turned transparent on demand, showing the skyline surrounding Remedy’s building; with a flick of his fingers, however, Dusan turned the transparency off, and we could be sitting inside an old office in a British or New England University, with wood panels and comfy sofas. “What brings you around, Gwyn?” he asked with a bright smile.

I briefly told him about SignpostMarv’s findings. He frowned a bit and thought about it. “Mmh, if it weren’t for SignpostMarv’s usual reliability, I would shrug it off… it’s hard to track people down in the Metaverse. Proxies abound, so how do you know when someone has really left?” Dusan shrugged. “You were never very keen on proxies, were you?”

I fumbled with one of my bangles, turning it around and around. “Uh… no, not really. I’m not against them, of course, it’s just something that I’m not really very comfortable with.”

Dusan merely smiled. “You know, oldtimers tend to always say that. Do you remember when we just had ‘alts’? Nevertheless, proxies can be very useful; I wouldn’t be able to manage all my business, take care of the kids at home, and remain here chatting with you if it weren’t for my proxies. And I use very few, compared to some…”

“Why would anyone make avatars disappear from the Metaverse?” I asked him, changing the subject and bringing the conversation back on track. “I mean, everybody can register a new avatar in seconds, or even get proxies to create their own proxies, and so forth. It seems rather pointless to terminate avatars, people will just get new ones…”

“Hmm,” mused Dusan. “And, granted, these days you don’t need to stick to a single avatar to let other keep track of your reputation… the incentive for just having a single presence in the Metaverse is simply not there. So I don’t understand the purpose behind that. Maybe it’s just a statistical anomaly?”

“Well, there is only one way to figure it out…” I projected an image of the location that SignpostMarv had given me. “Have you any idea where this is, Dusan? I’m unfamiliar with this area of the Metaverse…”

He just shook his head. “It’s not known to me. It looks like an abandoned hospital or such… probably part of a role-playing area, but not one I’ve seen before.”

“Oh well. The Metaverse is just too big,” I grumbled, standing up. “Thanks for your time, Dusan — I’ll keep you posted, I promise!”

“Take care, Gwyn! It’s probably nothing but a false alarm…” We shook hands and departed.

My next stop was to get in touch with the person who probably knew most about proxies and digital personas in the whole Metaverse. Mostly to prove a point, Extropia DaSilva had so many proxies that it was really impossible to know which one was her actual self; as said, believers in conspiration theories argued that she had long since died and just left her proxies around; others even claimed that she never existed and was just an experiment in artificial intelligence in the early days of the third millenium. I was old enough to know that wasn’t true, although I also admitted I was always confused about talking to her proxies — her “mind children” as she lovingly called them — since it was next to impossible to know which was the “real” one. I had always the impression that there was no “real” one; all of them admitted both to be a proxy and to be her own self, without contradiction in terms. And she also claimed long since to have lost count of them all. “Perhaps my single sadness is not to be able to experience what all my mind children have been up to,” she admitted one day when I asked her about the sheer amount of proxies she had.

One curious aspect was that she never had two proxies in the same place. That made for some odd conversations among her friends — we might have been to different events at the same hour and talk about “having met Extie there”. Both would be absolutely sure of having enjoyed a conversation with Extie; and when meeting a third Extie-proxy, we would be baffled about her having no recollection whatsoever of that event. Extie, unlike most people I knew, rarely consolidated memories from her proxies — each led an independent life. So I was not very optimistic about her answers when I asked her if she had noticed a sudden reduction in numbers of avatars. “Gwyn dear, even if I lost a few million proxies overnight, how would I know? I don’t keep count of them,” she said with a benign smile. We were on one of those surreal landscapes that she seemed to like so much; surrealism was still not the mainstream art in the Metaverse (fantasy remained popular), but she seemed to enjoy those few places. Today she was surrounded by a small harem of fellow transhumanists; most of them were familiar to me. Many of them were just constructs, but it was completely impossible to know which were run by AIs and which had a human behind them — I had long since given up trying to figure it out, specially because I was pretty sure that I almost never interacted with the “real” Extropia anyway. Which made things a bit confusing: Extropia always had promoted the idea of immortality through replication of thought patterns, and that the construct holding the largest number of thought patterns would be her “self”. Back in the early days of the 21st century, this was a human brain; today, it was impossible to tell. Nevertheless, back when she had just a few proxies, it was easy to synchronise them, and so all of them pretty much shared the same experiences and memories — talking to one was the same thing as talking to the so-called “real” Extie. These days, it was impossible: her millions of proxies, even if ran by computers, couldn’t reconcile their memories in order to keep up to date with all their individual experiences. The result was that every proxy acted and behaved just like the Extropia I always knew, but their memories were fragmented. The Extie of today would not remember having talked to me yesterday; although both could recall to excruciating detail a conversation we had three or four decades ago. This was always a bit unsettling.

“Haven’t you ever thought of the possibility that people would destroy some of your proxies and that their memories would be lost forever?” I asked

She considered that for an instant; her amethyst eyes shone with good humour. “I’m sure many get destroyed every day, as you say. I don’t weep for them. I don’t know where they are, what they did. In a sense, they’re strangers to me; we share a common past, but not more than that…”

“So you haven’t got a way to alert all your proxies if something is happening that might affect you all?”

“Some of my mind children keep a mailing list on Faceworld,” she admitted. “But they’re not many. It’s silly but we discussed a lot about our monikers; not everybody was happy by being named ‘extropia012’ or so. Who would be ‘extropia001′? We couldn’t agree. And what would be the criteria to number each mind child? Age? Most of them never agreed about how old we are; we don’t recall having popped up in existence, as you know. We all share a common past which just diverged at some point: for instance, we all remember having met you at the Thinkers’ meetings, Gwyn, but none can remember when was the last time we sat with you there.”

“Uh, last Tuesday,” I offered.

She smiled. “See, for me, the last time was six years ago.”

“Right… that is too confusing for me!” I laughed. “Anyway… I was wondering if you could figure out a reason for a massive destruction of people’s avatars. It seems silly to me, because one can simply create new ones. Just take your example: destroying a million of Exties won’t make the Extropia DaSilva disappear forever.”

“I’m a multiply-redundant entity,” she agreed, nodding.

“And while at least a single living brain exists, people can create a new proxy from it,” I concluded. But Extie didn’t answer to that; it made me think, once again, that there might not be any human brain behind any of her proxies after all. “So this seems to be a pretty pointless exercise to me! Nevertheless, that’s what SignpostMarv’s data shows — avatars are disappearing, but nobody seems to be missing them.”

“The best I can do, dear, is to get in touch with as many mind children I can, and see if any of us has heard about anything,” she promised. “But don’t expect much from it; hardly anyone replies to the mailing list. We’re too busy having fun!”

I smiled at that. “Perhaps you can organise a Thinkers meeting about it.”

“Now that’s a thought!”

I left her, wondering how she managed to organise them at all so that no two proxies would be present on the same date. Hmm. Multiple personalities without central coordination definitely require a lot of organisation!

In any case, this was another dead end. It was time for doing some field work.

Part III — Confrontation

I launched a few search agents to look for more information about the location; I had the infodumps from SignpostMarv, but either he hadn’t been thorough, or just uninterested in figuring out more. There are an infinite number of role-playing areas in the Metaverse, a lot of them private, but surely someone had posted a review of this particular one somewhere?

Surprisingly, the answer seemed to be “no”. Like Marv had found out, all that was recorded showed people moving to this particular location, but never coming out of it. It was hard to get any factual data, though; the records were anonymised and didn’t show much beyond numbers. No profiling data at all, which was surprising these days; Faceworld and GooglePlex were always keen on profiling everybody and everything, and a lot of places carried dumps from their data. But not in this case. There was really no other way but to jump to the location and visit it; after all, what harm could it do?

I arrived at the entry point, which featured the hospital which was visible on the location tracking device that Marv gave me. It was not crowded; a few avatars hovered around it, curiously unresponsive, either to voice or text messages. But then again, some proxies are programmed not to reply to strangers, so this didn’t tell me much. The atmosphere was eery and gloomy, and it seemed to depict an asylum of the late 19th century or something like that — very much the kind of environment that role-playing addicts adore. But it seemed pretty harmless. They clearly subscribed to the school of “discover as you walk around” — there was no information about the location, no contact, no interactive panels, nothing. And the other avatars remained silent. They walked up and down the stairs, apparently unaware of my presence; a few bumped into me and didn’t even apologise, they just went on their pre-programmed paths. But it was clear that more avatars entered the building than left them.

Well, that was certainly a clue. I dumped the sound — the wails and screams were getting on my nerves after a while, and they didn’t seem to emanate from any of the visible avatars — so they were very likely just “scenario sounds” to create an atmosphere for role-players, although most seem to come from the building itself. I walked up the stairway, looking around for any clue on what this was all about, but I still couldn’t figure out how this was related to SignpostMarv’s discoveries.

After a while I started to believe that this was just a waste of time. A lot of locations in the Metaverse are mostly empty of people, but this one seemed to be extremely empty: all avatars seemed to be just constructs, proxies, AIs, ‘bots, or merely scenario. If this was a role-playing game, it was the most boring role-playing game ever devised. Rooms after rooms exhibited exquisite torture chambers, definitely appealing for anyone who liked ‘gothic’ RPGs, but after opening the twentieth door, listening to a wailing scream, and seeing some avatar being submitted to electroshocks or similar physical abuse, I was getting annoyed. There seemed to be no purpose to the whole place; no “central area” where any clue was to be given. The non-playing characters were totally unaware of my presence and seem to be independent of any “plot” — they didn’t interact and didn’t offer any clues. On the other hand, the mere absence of any typical role-playing features — except for the overall look of the space — was at least suspicious: who would take pains to recreate all this without a purpose? It was not even a realistic, historical exhibit of late-19th century torture methods, since most of them were clearly invented. It could be a prototype for a new game, but in that case, it would make sense to keep it closed to the public — and in any case, game designers required beta testers, and beta testers are supposed to give the designers some feedback. None of that existed in this place, and that was certainly strange.

The twenty-first room just featured a plain metal bed; it was empty otherwise. But when I was prepared to leave it after opening the door, a rasping voice suddenly said: “Lie down”. Ok, this was definitely a change! None of the environment sounds so far had given a clear command; and I was immediately aware that the door had closed behind me and fell into the lock. That was promising! Of course, I could always teleport out of the room at any moment, but at least I seemed to be making progress: whatever this “game” was, finally something started to pay attention to me and interact — that was surely a clue of some sort!

So I obeyed. For a whole minute nothing else happened. I sighed in despair. Another false alarm! But it was when I tried to stand up that something weird happened. Like most Metaverse internauts, I was wearing a full range of haptic devices, and somehow the gesture triggering the standing up wasn’t reacting. You could override it with a simple keyboard command — haptic devices sometimes fail, too! — but for some reason I couldn’t move my fingers to the keyboard. Great, the force-feedback motors were failing! No — they were actually locked, and this was a bit strange, because the usual response from a failing haptic device is that everything unlocks, so you can easily dispose of the device. But in this case, it seemed that all electric motors were locking down, and with surprising strength, too! And it happened instantly, which is not usual for the force-feedback motors — they tend to fail over a period of time until giving up completely, and that usually does not mean they lock down, rather the contrary, they just don’t work as force-feedback devices.

In this case, some command had triggered them not only to stop moving, but to prevent me from moving, by locking down and engaging the gears that would keep the motors in place.

Annoying. I had to fall back to voice commands. “Haptic override”, I said, but what actually was picked up and echoed in the Metaverse was a muffled groan. What was happening? This seemed just like a computer virus — hackers had that kind of sense of humour sometimes. Without keyboard input and voice commands, however, it would be tricky to engage the anti-virus software. Tricky, but not impossible.

I was patiently going through my options, looking for a way to unfreeze the haptic devices and regain control over my rig, when the door opened again. Three avatars dressed in white lab overcoats entered and came to my bed; I noticed now that the bed had sprouted some metal chains around my wrists, legs, and waist. I yelled at them, saying that this was not funny and that I wasn’t playing the game anyway, but only muffled sounds were audible — my avatar was gagged! Frustrated, I tried to kick, but to no avail — all servo-motors were locked down. One of the avatars approached with a syringe, inserted it into my own avatar’s arm, and suddenly the screen went blank.

Oh, fun. Just like a bad RPG! Still, having no visuals, my attempts to launch the anti-virus software were even harder. I had no way to know if any of my commands were having an effect or not.

While I was musing with what to try next — I was considering yelling to the home robot to simply unplug my rig — the image returned, but at the same time, the soft electronic whirr of the motors inside the haptic devices moved my arms into a different position: they were held in place, fully stretched, above my head. At first I thought I was going to get released by the system, but no, they clearly intended it to be like that. The image came slowly into focus, showing my avatar suspended inside a jelly bag of unknown pseudo-organic matter. I was slowly losing my patience. “Ok, guys, this is not fun any more!” I yelled, and to my surprise, the voice didn’t come out muffled as I had expected, but it rang, loud and clear, back into the earphones — causing intense feedback. Worse than that, I couldn’t take them off, and I couldn’t turn the sound down!

“Speak softly,” a voice said, somewhere to my side, only barely visible via peripheral vision. My helmet was locked, and I couldn’t move my head; so the fun was definitely not over yet. “Haptic override!” I ordered again, but not with such a loud voice.

Nothing happened except for some chuckling. “We’ve disabled that,” said another voice. They were hard to place, since they were heavily morphed; it was impossible to recognise any accent or even gender. But I assumed I was in the presence of mere kids. There was a certain edge of nervousness which hinted at that.

“So, ha, ha, I’m rolling on the floor laughing,” I told them, my own voice full of sarcasm. “Can you release me now? I’m sure you can prevent me from teleporting away anyway.”

There were some whisperings and mumblings below my hearing ability. “Look, I’m too old for this, and this position is very tiring for me.” I know that my voice didn’t quite sound like an old, frail lady (the sore throat would help, though), but I might still win some sympathy; and I was right.

“You could still pull the plug,” reminded one of the voices. The others — I assumed they were the same three as before — mumbled assent.

“And why should I do that? I’m here to ask you guys some questions…”

“Ah. I see. What kind of questions?” This was from the same guy; there was a slight hint of confidence that was lacking on the other two. So we had a leader here. Good. I could work with that.

“As soon as you’ll let my blood circulate again in my arms, I’ll let you know!” I said. This seemed to produce some effect; after some mumblings, I heard the motors buzzing again, and my arms dropped on the table. Inside the Metaverse, my avatar tumbled to the floor. This had been long enough to get some pins and wheels all over my body, and I complained that this was no way to treat a visitor, specially one that was not part of their RPG.

“Oh — we’re not a RPG,” said their leader.

“Sorry about locking you down,” added the first guy. Now I could watch their avatars: they certainly were much alike, all depicting mad shrinks in their lab overcoats. No real imagination there; just stereotyped images.

“What was all that about?” I enquired, crossing my arms and raising an eyebrow.

“Uh, we wanted to make sure you weren’t a proxy,” the timid guy said.

“I suppose you have never heard about Turing tests, hmm?”

They shook their heads. “The AIs are too good at that. Most pass all the tests, and, anyway, some of the best tests simply take too long. This is quicker.”

“But hurts a lot!” I complained.

The leader shrugged. “Only if you’re not a proxy. That’s how we know.”

“I suppose the thought never crossed your mind that I might just be faking pain…”

Another shaking of heads. “We have devised a way to read the bio data from your rig. Some proxies also use rigs, but after a lot of testing, we can be fairly certain when we get a proxy or a real one. You can fake avatar reactions, but not real pain that gets measured by the rig — it’s far too complicated. You see, your haptic devices include safety margins which are very, very hard to override. A proxy with a rig cannot override them easily. We found a way, and we can measure the amount of pain we cause. A proxy with a quasi-perfect AI behind it might simulate pain up to the safety threshold, but nothing beyond that. Humans, however, will definitely show up reactions above the safety limits.”

I sighed. “And this is how you spend your time? Torturing visitors? Just to see if they are proxies or not?”

They looked at each other; I could imagine them shuffling their feet, out there in the physical world. “Well… we just want to get rid of the proxies, that’s all.”

“And what’s the point in that?” I summarised what I had found out so far, and pointed out that people can create proxies on demand at all times. It was certainly a waste of time to insist in detecting proxies and eliminating them.

“Not quite,” said the leader, moving on safer ground. Ah, we come to the point where it’s ideological! It was with some passion that he explained: “You see, proxies waste CPU cycles. There are over seven billion human beings on this planet, but perhaps thirty or forty billion avatars on the Metaverse. All these not only consume resources on the many Metaverse servers, but on users’ computers as well — which could be more efficiently used to run a lot more Metaverse regions instead.” He paused for effect.

I was stunned; the idea had never crossed my mind before. A million objections crossed my mind in an instant, but I just opened my mouth and remained baffled. “Oh… I guess I never thought about that.”

He sighed. “Nobody really does. We are just so used to limitless resources these days that we forget that someone has to pay for all that hardware, all those connections to the Metaverse, all the power going to wasted computer cycles. People create proxies by the dozen and forget all about them. They just roam the Metaverse, mindless like zombies, exchanging information among themselves, behaving as if they were real people… but there is no mind behind them. What is the point in that?” He mimicked my tone and inflection almost uncannily.

One of the others stepped in. “We don’t really mind the useful proxies, you know. Some people actually make good use of them. They actually spend time with their proxies, synchronising information with them. But these are a small minority; most users just create them and forget they’re around. They pile up. Since they are pretty good replicas of their flesh-and-blood owners, they will just do what their owners would do, get friends, interact with them, buy land, create their own regions, and so forth. But they have no purpose whatsoever.”

“So we capture them,” said the third one with a giggle. “We infiltrate their software, delete the AI, replace it by Metaverse server software, and run our own regions from their hardware.” He opened his arms in an expanding gesture. “All this was created that way. All this and much more, we run a rather large region, and keep expanding it, as we capture more and more proxies.”

“Thus the zombies outside,” I mused. “Mmh. That’s clever but… doesn’t anybody complain?”

The leader shrugged. “As said, they never know what’s happening. Do you know, sometimes proxies from the same owner come over to investigate, which is truly insane: humans care less about their proxies than the proxies care about themselves. Of course, from our point of view, this is just perfect — we’re more likely to get proxies investigating about other proxies disappearing, and so we can infiltrate more and more of them.”

“Is this not somehow… illegal? After all, you’re using other people’s hardware and CPU cycles…” I argued, thinking about the ethics of their approach.

“They don’t care about that hardware anyway. When you create a proxy, do you really worry where it’s being created? One assumes that it’s created ‘somewhere’. They’re free to create in most cases; someone, somewhere, is paying for your proxies to exist, but most people don’t really worry about that”.

The timid guy said: “Do you remember when ‘bots started appearing in the Old Grid? The Lindens would just claim they couldn’t figure out who was a ‘bot and who wasn’t, so at the beginning, they let ‘bots around. Later on, ‘bots were restricted, but still quite a lot continued to exist.”

“Back then, there were all sorts of good reasons for them,” I protested, remembering fondly my old days of ‘bot programming. “Some things would have been impossible to do otherwise.”

“Well yes,” the shy one agreed. “But it was a neat loophole which allowed people just to waste computer cycles, and those were far more precious back then.”

“I’m old enough to remember Lag,” chuckled the leader.

“So am I, I remember that too,” I agreed. So he wasn’t a teen. “But Lag wasn’t really created by ‘bots, there were lots of reasons for that…”

“No, not at that stage. It was just the start: giving people an excuse to use shared resources, which they didn’t pay for. It just got worse and worse, until today, where far more resources are wasted on proxies and similar things that don’t really relate to users any more.”

“We suffer from a limited Metaverse because people don’t care about what resources they use,” claimed the leader. “There is this myth of endless resources that somehow justifies wasting them. But it’s just a myth, resources are not infinite, someone has always to pay for them. If not in actual money, well… people just get less enjoyment, as computer resources are badly used for uninteresting, wasteful things instead.”

I shook my head. “A lot of people would disagree. Modern life is too complex, there are too many things to do, you need to use intelligent agents to keep track of everything…”

The leader smiled at me. “How many proxies do you have?”

“Me?” This was embarassing. “Uh, actually, none.” There was a gleam in his eye, so I quickly added: “But I’m old and just do light work, I don’t need to worry about that much…”

“So what? I’m 102, and I still enjoy the Metaverse like anybody else,” said the leader, shocking me. He spoke like a teenager, and had definitely the radical views of a teen. “Most people on the Metaverse are old anyway. We’re an aging society, since health care is so easy to get, with self-repairing organs and life-extension treatments. That’s hardly an excuse for wasting good computer cycles. And you admitted you can survive without any proxies. So can I. So can my friends. So can, in fact, a lot of people, if not all.”

“We still agree that proxies are justified in some cases, of course,” quickly added the shy guy. “We just infiltrate unused proxies, the ones people forgot about.”

I was thinking on Extropia’s vast host of mind children. They were right, people like Extropia totally lost count on their proxies; she had perhaps the excuse that it was part of her “experiment”, she was making a point. But most people really never abandoned a proxy, once it has been created.

I sighed deeply. “Well, I have to concede that you have a point there.”

“So don’t judge us for being radicals,” said the third guy and laughed. “Think of us as architects of the New Metaverse. One where it’s all about human beings, not funky technology.”

“We’re putting all those wasted computer cycles into good use,” promised the leader. “You’ll be surprised about what we can do. Well, you have gotten a taste of that, I guess.” He scratched the bridge of his nose and smiled cunningly.

“You’re giving the world more zombie RPGs?” I asked with some sarcasm.

The leader raised an eyebrow. “We’re giving them a better managed world,” he said, and was totally serious about it.

And maybe they really meant it. On the other hand, how many people in our history have claimed the same, with rather the opposite result? Perplexed, I took my leave — and they granted it. Perhaps they knew that I was powerless to prevent them. Perhaps they were more naive and thought they had drafted me to their cause. In any case, there were a lot of people I had to meet to talk about this.

Outside my window, the wind still howled; it was a pitch-dark night, but the rain had abated. The morning would be fine.

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