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vol v, issue 3 < ToC
Where Phantoms Touch and Spirits Dance
by
Rob Hartzell
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Where Phantoms Touch and Spirits Dance  by Rob Hartzell
Where Phantoms Touch and Spirits Dance
 by Rob Hartzell
Hisako

Tonight, the servers are straining under the load as the login gates flood with players from the West Coast—everything is slowing down inside the world of the game. Hisako hates this time of night, and even though she's no more capable of feeling the circuitry of her new body than she was able to feel the neurons of the old one, she feels the slowdown as if it were a part of her body, and she experiences the lags like miniature blackouts, the kind she used to have when she'd go out walking in the Roppongi district before, dialed in on a favorite playlist on her phone, and realize afterward that she couldn't account for the last ten minutes of her life. Net lag happens in smaller intervals, but the effect is equally unsettling. Her employers had told her when they took her on that this was going to be a temporary situation, that within the next year, they'd have their system in shape to take on the traffic; three years in, however, it's become clear that they're always going to be playing catch-up, delaying upgrades until the customers start threatening to leave.

Another ten minutes pass, and once the bulk of the West Coast players have logged in and all but the most hardcore gamers on the East Coast have left, the network settles back into a state of equilibrium. Hisako logs in and clocks in, the VisionSoft logo now watermarking the lower right-hand corner of her field of vision, along with a counter to show how much time is left on her shift tonight. Most nights, she's running one of the game's zone bosses, but she checks the assignments list for tonight anyway. Sure enough, it's her turn to train n00bs on non-player-character (NPC) duty. Damn.

At least she gets to choose where she takes them to train, and tonight, she decides, she's taking them to one of the more remote villages, to deal with the higher-level characters. That way, at least, she might be able to multitask and get in a little gaming of her own, something she hasn't been able to do in a while—when she'd contracted with VisionSoft to upload her consciousness, she'd known that part of the deal was that she'd have to work for them, helping to populate their online game worlds. The salesman hadn't quite been forthcoming with how much free time she'd be allowed—18 hours on the clock, 6 off, with most of that off time being spent studying VisionSoft's gaming worlds and fighting tactics, in the hopes of advancing her new career (while nothing specific has ever been promised, it's been hinted that, with promotions, she'll be allowed more free time, more freedom in general).

At this point, she's starting to see her situation here as a sort of indentured servitude, if not outright slavery. For her, there was simply little choice: The brain tumor that had already started chewing up her young cerebellum was inoperable and immanent. A contract with VisionSoft was all she could hope to afford, being a mere high-schooler and having never had a job, much less a career field in which to work. A small price to pay for something like immortality, all told: She gets to live in one of her favorite games, and she simply wouldn't feel comfortable insisting that her family maintain and tend her through hardware upgrades and power outages and drive failures, all the potential mishaps and mishandlings that can happen along the way; the constant worry that Auntie-soni is going to be zapped by a bit of malware one of the kids downloaded. She is her own responsibility this way, not her family's, and if she should somehow live forever, it's no one's burden but her own.

The shift clock shows Hisako has been in downtime with her thoughts for 42 seconds, something she will have to account for on her timesheet later. For now, she starts up the bot she's made to deliver a standard lecture; she'll come back when it's done to take questions. Once that's under way, she logs in her character, a 70th level amazon she's named Mitsuko.



Mitsuko

Mitsuko's in-game image started out as the default avatar with a few edits designed to bring it closer to Hisako's features, including her glasses. Since then, it's undergone a series of evolutions to the point where it is almost unrecognizable, even as a caricature of her fleshly self: The seraphim wings, the scale armor, the arms sleeved in plate mail armor or tattoos; the purple-streaked hair done up in a traditional style to leave the nape of the neck exposed (as it would be, if not for the armor). But if you know what to look for, the features of the original demure meganekko schoolgirl who created her are still visible, especially around the face (even without the glasses). Next week, when the graphics upgrades are supposed to go live, she'll get to update her avatar to an even more detailed model, one which will allow her to construct the face she wants to wear, down to the finest details that she (and her rendering processors) can handle.

Now she's fully entered the game, made it through the welcome screen and arrived at her spawn point, a bustling marketplace in a port city at one of the farther edges of the game map, where the high-intermediate level characters play. She prefers to play from a first-person view: She'd found it a bit more difficult to play that way in the flesh, but as an upload here within the game, it feels more natural and more comfortable, a bittersweet reminder of what having a body was like, even with the heads-up display. It also makes multitasking easier when she can page-swap back and forth between the game and keeping an ear out for trouble amongst the n00bs.

She scans the crossroads for familiar faces, but it's still too early to meet up with the Asian gaming contingent she plays with most of the time (when she has time to play). A few acquaintances nod as she passes them on the street, sauntering among the throng of beefy, shirtless fighters, heavily armored paladins, robed wizards and the like, the crowds thinning as she gets closer to the city gates. The game is always better when there's more people playing with you, but Hisako is flexible; her terminal year in school was an emotional sloughing-off: of friends who could no longer talk to her without feeling dwarfed by her disease, of parents too far gone into their own grief and custom to be able to listen to her—everything. By the time she made the transfer to the machine, she'd become more proficient at flying solo than she'd ever imagined possible.

A figure appears next to her, almost as if he'd spawned there; a necromancer with long black hair and a staff made of a demon's skull and spiny vertebrae stops and bows deeply once she notices him: Mitsuko-san?

It's the voice that clues her in, though it's no less of a surprise: E-kun, what are you still doing up at this hour?

Waiting for you.

Oh, stop it.

You've been making yourself scarce.

I've been working a lot. My leveling-up exam is next week.

Ohhhhh. Good luck with that.

Arigato.

Got time to pwnz0r some griefers?


He pronounces it pawn-zor, which, at least to her ear, always sounds like a mock-British pronunciation of "Panzer" and reminds her of the World War II documentaries her father had watched obsessively with her when she was younger. Even after all this time, and despite the fact she doesn't even have a voice within this world, she still has the instinct to cover her mouth when laughing. Always, she replies.

Then let's go. He follows her toward the main road, to the city's southern exit. I don't know why you don't use one of the synthetic voices. I always feel like I should be texting you back.

I can hear you just fine, E-kun. And texting is faster than speaking, for me at least.
She doesn't tell him the whole truth, that the synthesized voices available to her are marble-mouthed at their best, and the ones closest to her original voice are still far too chirpy and kawaii, something she's never been, especially not in this form. She cannot imagine anything more incongruous than to have a voice like a shinkasen announcer coming from the battle angel she's made of her avatar. She knows how shallow this sounds, at least to her ears, and can't imagine whether Eherithoth might be able to understand.

She walks with him toward the gates, passing the bazaar just inside the gate. Need to stop at the shops?

He—his avatar—doesn't take his eyes off her. I've got everything I need.

Once they're outside the gates, she unfolds her wings, their charcoal-grey tips barely visible at the edges of her line-of-sight, half-obscuring Eherithoth, who has drawn his sword in preparation for battle. Her wings begin to flutter and she rises in the air the way she imagines a goddess would, until she's overlooking the desert dunes and soaring, circling, scanning the world below her hungrily, like a bird of prey gone too long since its last meal. This transitional moment never fails to excite her; even without a body, she can almost feel the wind in her face and the sun's warmth on her back, or hear the near-deafening roar of a frustrated sandworm fading in her left ear as she dips and rises out of its reach. At moments like this, when she's most immersed in the machine, she can almost forget she ever left her fleshly body, and how terribly she misses it.

The sound of Mitsuko's wings is a rhythm in the air, as steady as a heartbeat, almost keeping time with the sound of Eherithoth's footsteps, the clacking of his staff against the occasional stone. They move erratically across the desert, heading toward its remotest corners, avoiding the main paths—he scouts the best places for sniping and setting booby-traps on the ground while she searches for their targets from the air—until they reach the Seven Tombs of the Kings, the level-end goal of those adventurers who make it this far in the game. Mitsuko and Eherithoth conquered the demons who haunt the tombs ages ago; to go in and fight them again would amount to little more than gold-farming, and that's not what either of them have come for.

Are you sure they're coming? Eherithoth asks. They're taking their time.

They're on the path
, she tells him. Be patient. She saw them earlier from the air, a rogue fighter and a pair of mid-level necromancers accompanying him, surrounded by a small army of zombies they're using for bodyguards. This particular party has been hiding out in the desert near the tombs, attacking other adventuring parties and stealing their treasure, an activity for which they've become notorious. It's also a breach of the unspoken rules of engagement in this world, an offense which the gods of this world have not yet seen fit to avenge. Mitsuko has never been one to wait for the approval of gods; for the past year or so, she and Eherithoth have taken it upon themselves to act as agents of karma in such cases.

I haven't got much time, Eherithoth says, his voice growing haggard (or has she merely not noticed until now?). I need to replenish my energy.

Mitsuko launches into the air again, in time to spot the party just over the next dune; she feigns a slow dive, long enough for one of the necromancers to throw a lightning bolt at her. She absorbs the bolt easily; the damage it causes her is minor, but it confirms that the one who threw it is lower on the totem pole, a level 45, max. Any doubt she might have had is gone—these are the ones.

The zombies are the first to reach the ridge of the dune above them; Mitsuko pretends to flee back toward Eherithoth, who has ordered a pair of weakened zombies into battle with them. The necromancers appear just in time to see E's zombies cut down. A couple of dank smokeables!, one taunts as he launches another lightning bolt, and the disgraced paladin appears atop an adjoining ridge.

Mitsuko's cloak absorbs most of the lightning blast's damage; she's drawn her crossbow now, and fires lightning arrows that incinerate the rest of the zombies. Eherithoth detonates a fireball beneath the necromancers, and Mitsuko's second volley of arrows finishes them off. They both bear down on the remaining fighter, who has turned to run. Mitsuko takes to the air again to chase him; he's used to fighting with his sword, which makes him a particularly easy target for her: He has no missile weapons of his own, and he's not strong enough to be able to outrun her and Eherithoth, who is now conjuring a massive lightning ball.

Not even dank, she bellows in the fighter's ear as she swoops and dodges his sword. But you're still smokeable! They strike in near-perfect unison, blasts of lightning missiles that reduce the fighter to ashes and abandoned loot. Mitsuko wafts to the ground again alongside Eherithoth, and they pick over the treasures the griefers have left. Almost none of it is anything powerful enough to be worth their while, so they pocket the gold and leave the rest for other adventurers to grab. She nudges Eherithoth as they make their way back to town. You think they'll learn from that?

Maybe not this time. But how many times can they lose their gear before they do?




Hisako

In the time since Hisako became a UI, she's had little contact with her family. This was one of the first things they'd told her when she awoke inside the machine, that because the technology for copying human brains to software is so new, most people still can't handle the prospect of interacting with these uploaded personalities, especially when their bodily counterpart has died. Even her older brother, Tetsuo, who used to waste inordinate amounts of time on chatroom flirtbots when he was younger, had had trouble with the concept: I'm not sure I really know you anymore.

It's still me
, she told him.

I know. But you aren't the Hisako that died.

Think of me as a do-over, then.

Nobody gets a do-over, Hisako-chan. You have my sister's speech patterns, her memories—but you don't have that last five months of her life.

You haven't told our parents you've been talking to me, have you?

No. And I don't think they could handle it.

They knew I was doing this.

Yes. But it's bad enough to lose a child; can you imagine what it would be like to have that child haunt you for the rest of your days?

That's stupid and cruel. I'm not some wronged lover from a Nō play. Or The Ring, for that matter.

Of course not.

I'm your sister, bakayaro.

But you're more like a ghost than you realize.

How can you say this to me?

I'm sorry ...

You're right: I have Hisako's—*my*—memories. And I have her feelings, too.


She hasn't spoken to him since, though he was right about one thing—it probably would be easier on her parents if she let them come to her when they were ready. For now, though, none of them have approached her, and she's not sure if it's pride or tradition that keeps her from reaching out to them. The longer her parents go without contacting her, she realizes, the more alien she becomes to them. She may already be unrecognizable to them by now.

The transition to the machine is never easy; that's something else they told Hisako when she awoke. It can be a painfully lonely and solitary existence if the UI isn't careful not to allow itself to become isolated. Massively-multiplayer game worlds, like the ones VisionSoft runs, have proven a major draw for UIs, who have created their own support systems and contact networks within them. Hisako has her own sort of "family" within the game she plays, a motley collection of machine-émigrés and corporeal visitors she meets almost entirely within the communications systems the game permits. She games on occasion; she studies a lot; she gets in forum discussions and (on rare occasions) flame wars on the boards; she runs her NPCs at work (most of the time). Only rarely does she have time to feel alone.

And yet sometimes, every once in a great while, someone will message her: "A/S/L?" and she's strapped for an answer, as much so now as she was the first time she was accosted online. Age: 17 at the time she entered the machine; she's been a UI for 3 years, but what does age mean to someone like her? Sex: Female when she uploaded, but what does that really mean when you don't have a body to lock into? It's not uncommon for players to genderflip, to the point where players still assume everyone online is male. Location: the server bank where she lives is based at Tokyo University; the game server she logs into is in America; the part of the game map where she spends most of her time is on a German server.

That first time, she played it coy: I'm whatever and wherever you want me to be, and while she was still adjusting to her transition to the machine, she fell back on that line. The difference now is that it's closer to the truth: she can project whatever image, whatever gender, whatever role she so desires—like a permanent Sunday stroll among the cosplayers in Akihabara. The downside of this is that it gets harder at times to point to something she is, something that's not just a character she plays, a skin she wears when it suits her.

She knows what A/S/L is supposed to lead to, though. There are certain kinds of interactions which the system has not been written to facilitate, but there are always rumors of rogue cities on the fringes of the map where you can purchase nudity shells for your avatar; of rabuservs (named for the Japanese love hotels) designed to allow you to go as far with your avatar as you can imagine and role-play; even the occasional instance of boundary-blurring prostitution in the forums where players trade out-of-game sex for in-game goods. In the body, this virtual approach to sex might have interested Hisako: When she and Ryu were a pair, it might have saved the poor boy from constantly having to find places they could go to be together—but would we be able to sneak the extra prosthetics past our parents?

She's thought, from time to time, about trying to contact Ryu, trying to find out how he's doing, who he's with, all the usual sorts of things—but she never gets any further than placing his name in the search box before changing her mind. She'd cried for days when he dumped her for another girl in her class, so it is a temptation, the thought of haunting him in the network like a ghost—but what happens next, that's the tricky part. That's always the tricky part ...

She tries, occasionally, to feel out the other UIs over on the support forums about how they deal with all this, but the Japanese-language boards aren't talking, and the English-speakers mainly want to ask her questions about a bunch of stupid shonen mecha cartoons she's never been the least bit interested in.



Mitsuko

She folds her wings with a soft swoosh as she lands atop a dune just outside the city gate, watching Eherithoth as he clambers up the dune; she knows that he must return to the inn soon for rest, but she is disappointed to see him go.

That was fun, he says once he catches up to her. I wish I could have seen the look on his face when you hit him with that lightning bolt.

Did you hear him yelling? Priceless.

How many does that make now?

I've lost count.


They stroll together toward the center of town. Mitsuko is, by now, used to the looks she gets on the streets in the lower-level towns—her wings are a commodity none of them can afford to come by—but she's surprised at the way Eherithoth appears almost to give her a lingering glance as they reach the inn. You should come around more. It's good to see you.

I'm happy to see you too, Eherithoth.

Seriously, don't be such a stranger. That was more fun than I've had in ages.

Okay, okay, I promise ^_^.


They stand at the door, face to face, avatars gazing into each other's eyes. The avatars' features have been handled in such an artful way that Mitsuko does not see the pixellation one might expect in viewing a face up this close; the shading of the cheekbones, the line of the chin, the curve of the eyes—she's never noticed until now how delicately-sculpted Eherithoth's features really are.

Eherithoth breaks the silence: I'll message you in the next week or so. There's a new server I've heard about that I'd like to investigate, if you're up for it?

Oh, you ... you're not trying to take me to a rabuserv are you ^_^ ?


He pauses—is there a glitch in her perception centers again, or is he blushing? Would you like me to?

Send me a link to the server. I'll see you there next week.

Next week, then. Goodbye, Hisako-san.
He lingers at the door before he disappears behind it, gone before she's fully processed: He's used her real name, which she can't remember ever telling him.

Mitsuko walks aimlessly around town, ignoring the stares of the passersby, ignoring the occasional A/S/L request coming down the wires to her. Eherithoth's behavior is unusual tonight—but it's almost impossible to read an avatar's body language. An avvy gives away the workings of its programmer's mind, not the controller; the exercise is almost as fruitless as most teenage girls' attempts at reading teenage boys, who, as often as not, inhabit their bodies as tenuously and awkwardly as they inhabit their game avatars.

She finds herself uncertain how to proceed from here: She wants to continue gaming, but it's still too early in the day for her Pacific Rim contingent to be on board, and while solo adventures have their amusements, it's almost always more fun to go out with a group. She almost has herself resigned to going out by herself when one of her n00bz pages her and makes the decision for her. She ambles back to the save point at the inn to call it an evening, at least for tonight's gaming. She wonders if she'll be able to come back later when another group of her favorite companions are on. And she's dying to know what it is that Eherithoth is so keen to show her.



Hisako

At the end of Hisako's shift, she finds a note waiting in her inbox, instructing her to enter secure chat mode with her supervisor before she logs out. Did someone discover her little adventure with Eri-kun? Did one of the n00bz rat her out? Without a body, her fear feels somewhat hollow, and yet her thoughts race, ticking down the possibilities, all of them leading to trouble, the same as if she still had a heart to pump adrenaline through her bloodstream. She does not remember reading about the company's disciplinary procedures for something like this; it's hard for her to imagine what kind of punishment might be meted out to her. Demotion? Restricting her out-of-game access to the network? She's heard stories of other UIs in other situations, other countries, being totally deactivated—but the Japanese, even the Americans, would never be so vicious....

A status check shows that Dylan, her unit coordinator, is waiting for her on a secure connection. Let's get this over with, then.

Good evening, Hisako-san. I hope things are well?

No complaints, Dylan-san. You wished to speak to me?


I do. He pauses for billions of clock cycles, no more than a couple of seconds in realtime, but enough time to make Hisako even more apprehensive. You know that you're quite rare among UIs, don't you, Hisako-san?

I'm not sure I follow you ...
An uneasy sensation, as though he were looking down her shirt.

You were uploaded as a teenager—age seventeen, to be exact. Most western countries are still leery of uploads younger than 25.

Really? Why?

The human brain has not laid down all of its wiring until somewhere between ages 25 and 30. Some research suggests it's even later than that. The US ethicists are uncomfortable with the idea of uploading intelligences that have not yet fully developed. The scientists in your country don't really see that as an issue—their own research has tended to find continuing development into a person's middle age. Japanese ethicists have tended to be more concerned that any personality they upload into a q-brain is going to be stable enough to handle the transition. Which still rules out most seventeen-year-olds, unless ...

Unless they're already making a transition—like dying.

I did not mean to be indelicate, Hisako-san. I hope I haven't offended you.

You haven't, Dylan-san.


It's a moment before he continues. Until now, once an intelligence enters the machine, there comes upon it a certain stasis. The machine does not have hormones to release, the way the body does. Emotions can be flatter than they should be. I'm sure you've noticed.

I see, Dylan-san—but what does that have to do with me?

VisionSoft was approached by a research group who is working on an upgrade to the UI brain that better simulates these functions. They want to develop a way to develop younger brains to full adult mode. They have asked us for a UI best suited to this kind of research, and it was determined that you were the best fit.

I've been sold already?

No, Hisako-san. I won't deny that some of the upper bosses thought your consent was unimportant; none of them wanted to risk having to explain themselves to the press, though. So: you can make a choice between continuing the life you have here with us, or you can go tonight and be part of some research that might lead to a whole new kind of life for UIs.

Tonight? Why the rush?

Funding and publishing deadlines. The study has to start tomorrow if it's to proceed. For what it's worth, it's looking like something I think you'd be interested in.

And what if something goes bad? Could they damage one of my subsystems? How likely is it that I could end up as brain-damage-in-a-box?

It's easier to fix a circuits-and-silicon brain than a meat one, Hisako-san.

Damage is damage, no matter how temporary it is.


He finally offers her a chance to talk with one of the researchers who can answer her questions about the project, and within moments, he's got someone on screen with them. The younger man's manner is cold and clinical and almost entirely flat; the quintessential lab scientist. He does try to reassure her that the prospects of permanent damage to her thought centers is almost nil; that backups are scrupulously maintained and can be reinstalled without having to deactivate her entirely. And, he promises, she will have almost unlimited freedom to move on the network.

It's almost too good to pass up, even if it is risky. No, not almost: It is too good to pass up. The chance to float about the network however she sees fit, to be beholden to almost nobody for her care and upkeep? The downside is no small matter: If the simulated hormonal systems don't work properly, she could end up in any number of damaged emotional states—permanently depressed? chronically stressed? perpetually furious? hyper-aroused (wouldn't that be a nasty one)? If she takes this job, she's basically volunteering herself as a human guinea pig, maybe indefinitely. But the promise of freedom, the mere freedom of movement they're hinting at? It's more than any seventeen-year-old could ignore, especially one encaged in a black box.



Mitsuko

Her wings are aflutter with tension, a sensation she's never experienced before. If she goes into cam view, she can see them floof and twitch as she walks into the hallway of the inn—perhaps it's the oddity of this inn, which has been clearly modeled after the one on the Warkult server, with arced hallways and heavy-grained wooden doors, down to the layout of the rooms, the positions of the beds and hearths in each unit. Or perhaps it's the deathly silence of the area—the rooms, the hallways, the pub downstairs in what functions, more or less, as the lobby, it's all empty of all the usual background noise, nothing to hear except the occasional raspy draft of wind, the crackle of the fire, the clunk of her footfalls as she walks slowly toward the exit.

Outside is little better; the buildings are where they ought to be—the inn is next to the armory, which is merely a block or so from the main temple—but the streets are as deserted as the buildings. There aren't even any NPCs ambling about, none of the clang and clank and calling out of names that dominate the city's normal soundscape, nothing but the wind in her wing-feathers. And then, as if from nowhere, a voice: She's certain it's coming from behind her, but when she turns to track it, she can't see anything but the empty town streets. Mitsuko ...



Hisako

It's a cliché as worn out in Akihabara as it is in America, the way that technology collapses distances. Especially for someone in Hisako's situation: In the past, she would have been required to emigrate to California to work with her new contract-holders; now, she doesn't even need to be on the same continent. On the other hand, the cascade of information being piped into her new visual inputs—a series of tiled windows, each one monitoring a different aspect of the network of nanosystems that make up her electronic brain—is just as disorienting as she imagines jet lag to be. It's almost too much to keep up with, no matter how much more quickly she can swap between windows and parse them. It's so you can see what's happening as we bring each system on line.

Arigato. But will I feel it? When you start activating them?

Not necessarily. Not at first, anyway. Over time, though, with proper stimulus, you'll notice your emotions becoming more pronounced sometimes, more refined at others. It's not too much different from what any other teenager goes through; you'll notice that things feel different, but unlike most teenagers, you'll know exactly what's happening.


She is not entirely reassured—and something else is bothering her. You didn't, by any chance, install anything before you bought my contract?

Why do you ask?

No reason.


Another one of the engineers, Janelle, replies. I accidentally started a process in one of your thought centers—but I thought I killed it before it had a chance to get started. Shouldn't have been up more than a second or two in realtime. Did you notice something?

Not really.




Mitsuko

Over here, Mitsuko....

She scans the streets again; she recognizes the voice as Eherithoth's, but she has no idea what he's doing. She's almost ready to give up—but there, up on one of the balconies of the inn she just left ... there he is, an armored figure almost camouflaged by the bricks of the inn, almost imperceptible except for the waving arm. Is he gesticulating for her to come back to the inn? Is that even possible? It's not something they can normally do in the game world, after all.



Hisako

We're going to start with a program to accentuate the serotonin and dopamine subsystems. These control a number of different functions, but for tonight, it's mainly going to make your pleasure and reward centers a little more sensitive, a little more subtle.

Tyler, one of the first engineers she met, is taking over, his voice a little more compassionate than the others (or so it seems to her): We'll also be running a software package that will simulate oxytocin, the bonding hormone. If you notice that you start feeling more strongly connected to people in certain situations, the way you did when you were, I don't know, fifteen or so ... that's what's behind that.

That's an ... interesting ... combination.

We'd like to monitor things while you're doing something social, maybe a chatroom or discussion board, or one of the multiplayer online games I remember you said you enjoyed ... It'll help us get a better feel for how these systems are functioning under real conditions.

How will I know whether or not they're working?

What do you mean, Hisako-san?

How will I know whether what I'm feeling and thinking is *real* & not just the hormone systems kicking in?


Tyler-san chuckles. Does anyone?

Janelle speaks up: We're almost ready to begin. How are you feeling, Hisako-san? Are you ready?

Hai. Ganbatte.




Mitsuko

Eherithoth is in the tavern waiting for her, slouching against the bar with his arms folded. I was worried you wouldn't come. Konbanwa, Mitsuko-san.

What is this place?

It's a world I'm designing. I wanted you to be the first to see it.

It's ... rather familiar looking ...

What? Oh, that's a template. I haven't started shaping the town's boilerplate yet.

Are you working on the adventure area?

There is none.

Oh. Then you *did* bring me to a rabuserv ...^o^


He switches to text for a second: '_' ^_^

Okay, I give up. What are you working on?

Hit your left attack button.

What?

Try it. Trust me.


She engages the attack—she doesn't have a controller after all—and is startled to see herself waving, her left hand upraised and pivoting, a movement half-royalty and half-automaton. It's not the left-hand punch/stab/slash she would ordinarily expect. What is this, Eherithoth?

Go to cam view and try some of the other controls; especially the combination attacks.
She follows his directions, her amazement slowly giving way to wonder and curiosity as she tries the controls that would ordinarily produce flying kicks, leaping punches, two-fisted crossbow-firing slides like the ones in the old Hong Kong bullet ballets—only now, she sees herself pivoting, swaying, pirouetting. She is transfixed as she begins to choreograph her movements; she never imagined she'd be able to see her avatar—herself—dance here.



Hisako

Hisako logs into the server with a growing sense of trepidation, something she hasn't felt in years. Page-swap: According to the monitors, the systems they've installed are still waiting to go online. She's concerned about where this might be coming from, but she's not going to ask the engineers about it, not even Tyler-san; she just cannot bring herself to be so candid with strangers, even ones who may be even more privy to her secrets than she is. They're awfully quiet now; do they know she's afraid?

Page-swap: the cut-screen appears while her spawn-point loads, and her tension boosts. She finds herself swapping among nearly a dozen memories at once—first crushes, a first kiss, her first encounters with Ryu—all quick-cutting across her consciousness, through the visual centers without piping directly into her eyes. It's almost frightening—did their software already go wrong? But her trepidation fades quickly as her imaginary slideshow gives way again to the image actually before her, of a spawn point she doesn't quite recognize.



Mitsuko/Hisako

Eherithoth joins her in dancing, and though his motions aren't quite as free as her own, they're nimble enough to give her non-existent flesh goosebumps she can still feel. I'm trying to get the developers to add even more controls, he says, but this is what I've got for now.

This is amazing. E-kun. How did you do this?

I have plenty of time on my hands. And a few avateurs who owed me some favors.

It's not what I'd expect a man to come up with. No offense, but ... I get enough A/S/L requests to think....

I know.
His voice is uncommonly gentle when he says it. But you always say I surprise you.

You do, you do.
She reaches out toward him, and though the renderers aren't complex enough for her to take his hand as she twirls, she almost feels his fingers interlacing with hers. But this? I don't think I could even do this before.

The beat of silence that follows would almost be awkward—E-kun stops dancing, even—until he steps closer, and she can imagine that she smells his skin, the way she did with Ryu once they were close enough to drop the more formal honorifics. Eherithoth holds up his arm as if to wave, but steps close enough to touch her, close enough to make Hisako's avatar shiver. I still can't do this in the flesh, Hisako.

Why not?


He sighs. I don't have a body, either.

You're not an upload, I thought?

No.




Hisako

Afterward, once she's logged out of the game again, the engineers are ready with questions, ones that strike Hisako as being a little too disingenuously clinical: How did you feel when you were interacting with the other player? What were you doing at the time? Did you feel the same way at other times? Did you feel particularly pleased at times? Unhappy? They had to be watching her the whole time—self-reported data doesn't get studies funded; she knows it's the nature of the beast (and it's in her contract, besides)—but to have to answer such indirect questions as directly as they'd like? It's almost insulting.

It takes a minute for her to frame an answer the way she'd prefer: My friend built a place to dance in the game. I was impressed.

Your oxytocin levels went up when you were in there, about five minutes in, or so.

I was impressed with his ability. And touched he wanted me to be the first to see it.


Tyler's lead assistant—the least sensitive one of the bunch, the one she calls "the baka"—chimes in: Do you like him?

More than I like you ... ;-)


Janelle laughs. I think you know what he means, Hisako. We don't mean to be disrespectful, but....

I know, Janelle-san. It's why I'm here.
Hisako uses the honorific to remind her that they are crossing a line, though.

Tyler steps in: He does seem to be one of your favorite people in the game.

You could say that.




Hisako/Mitsuko

Eherithoth slows to a stop as he and Mitsuko dance. Hisako imagines him smiling, at least until he speaks: I'm ... in Hawking mode. I can still talk for now, but....

Oh. That must be awful.

It can be. But sometimes, there's moments ...
She could almost swear she feels him as he reaches out toward her hand, even though there's no technology that should allow them to touch. It can be good in here sometimes. He retracts his own hand and laughs before she has a chance to react. I'd be lying if I said you weren't part of that.

Hisako covers her mouth to laugh. You flatter me, E-kun.

I mean it, Hisako-san. And you can call me Travis.


She does a quick skim of the virtual voices available to her, hoping there's a new one out. You flatter me even more, T-kun. No luck; they're the same synthetic, awful things that still don't feel quite right.

How so?

She drops back to text for a moment— ^_^ —but tries out the voice again. Just call me Hisako, T-kun.

He pauses. You're too kind ... wow. I almost called you Hi-chan. I know that's too....

She picks the least-worst voice to interrupt him with: You can call me that, too. When Travis steps back and extends his hand again, this time a clear invitation to dance, she absolutely does not refuse.



Hisako

Tyler-san?

Yes?

Can I ask you a question?

Of course, Hisako-san.

How much ... adjusting were you doing? With my systems, I mean.

Very little. Janelle has been adamant that we move slowly. You're an older teenager than others in this study, but ...
Hisako has noticed that Tyler stops in mid-sentence sometimes; she can never tell if he's re-gathering his thoughts, or if he's being careful with the words he chooses. They'd be a little more used to mood swings at that age; you should be done with that.

Janelle jumps in, speaking a little more rapidly than usual. You used a voice with him. Your friend, I mean—and you told him he could call you Hi-chan. Not to pry, but we know that's a big deal. Are you worried we might have caused that?

I don't know. I'll have to think about that for a bit. I'm using a voice with you too, though.


The baka sighs. We gave you monitors so you could see for yourself. Didn't you look at them?

I was a little too busy living for once, baka-bot.
She doesn't even hesitate to use the American-ism: Janelle-san? Could you please check his asshole-endorphin levels? She isn't ashamed, even after she says it—and yet, she feels the reflex to cover her mouth immediately, especially once Janelle and Tyler explode into laughter.



Hisako/Mitsuko

T-kun? Not to be rude, but ... can you feel ...

It's not rude at all. My parents won't get me a regular touch-feedback suit, and the doctors haven't been able to puppet my senses yet. I spend a lot of time in here, though, and I've noticed that my brain fills in the blanks sometimes.

Really?

Like right now, dancing, I can feel you against me. He chuckles. It disappears if I try to force it, but if I just let it happen, I can feel your presence there—like a body, but not quite. It sounds kind of weird, but that's what it's like.

It's not weird at all. It's actually kind of flattering. Can you feel it right now, while we're talking?

Kind of. I notice it more when we're dancing, though. When I'm not thinking about it.


She nods quietly, but continues to dance with Travis/Eherithoth, careful to allow herself to touch him, but only sparingly. The way she used to with Ryu at first, but with a difference: I don't know much about Travis outside the game. On the other hand, he's given her something Ryu never could have, a remembrance of her body her handlers have, surprisingly enough, never quite allowed her.

She thinks, at one point, that she can hear Travis murmuring "Anata ga suki desu"—but if he did, it's just barely loud enough for his microphone to pick up. What Japanese tell each other when they want to be a couple: I like you. She wishes she could smile in here: If that really is what he said, his accent is endearingly terrible ...

Hisako

Tyler and Janelle have gone home for the evening, leaving her alone with the baka. She finds herself missing their company more than usual, even after tonight. And she cannot stop thinking of Travis/Eherithoth, there in the dancing-place he's created for them—and only them. It's not ready for a public release, he says, though it seems pretty clear he wants her to be the one to help him finish it. There's a moment of discomfort in that—I'm going to have to drop the rabuserv jokes now—but it's quickly replaced with something else. He's moving more slowly with her, like a Japanese boy would. And he's definitely not telling her something as tone-deaf as "aishiteru," like some American anime fans do when she's bored enough to indulge one of their A/S/L pings for any length of time.

The baka is sensible enough not to bother Hisako now; she can see through the lab cameras that he's talking to someone else at his console, his attention completely diverted. She could, if she wanted to, angle and zoom in over his shoulder, and listening in wouldn't be much more of a problem. Janelle forgets to kill her headset about half the time before she leaves the lab, and patching into its microphone is easy. Hisako hesitates before she activates that line-in: Since when do I care what he's thinking? She clicks the button, though; she has to work with him for most of the week. It would be weirder of her not to wonder what makes him tick.

At first, he's listening in to whoever's on the other side of the screen, long enough for Hisako to wonder if he hasn't already disconnected. Then, finally: "No. You're not hearing me. Just like her....Yeah. Tyler really glitched this one; the oxy sim is still cranking, and she probably has no idea. She didn't, earlier.... No. Janelle dialed it down, but it's still running. I took down her monitors. She's not even using them. She's really not what we expected. I don't trust her self-awareness.... Yeah, lawlawlawl. No, I don't think mine is the problem this time...."

Hisako stifles a chuckle while she makes sure he can't hear anything come through any of the other headsets in the room. If he knew she'd heard him, he'd know he's probably just ruined the experiment entirely. She knows that she's supposed to tell him, but she stops short of opening a line to him. I'd just be doing it to embarrass him. He deserves it—so arrogant, and so careless--but what comes after that? For her? The team? Would they start a new experiment, or would they send her somewhere else? And the game—her character? Travis? No. If nothing else, she's not going to just surrender everything she's built there.

It's wrong, she knows, to be so selfish. It goes against everything she learned in the flesh. I know why I'm doing it, though. Isn't that self-awareness? Even his friend on the other side of the mic can sense it: I know a lot more about me—about any of us—than he does.



Mitsuko/Hisako

It's been a week since Travis danced with her, and Hisako still has not seen him in-game; he hasn't even logged on since then. She's voiced him once—Everyone in the clan is asking after you, T-kun. And I can't wait for you to show me what you do next with your server—but there's no response, even though the "received" flag is right there in the message list.

Time passes, and she comes up with all sorts of reasons why he might have disappeared, all of them about her, and none of which quite make sense. He might have cut ties because she's a UI and he's in a body; she wouldn't be the first UI it's happened to, but his body is barely more than a shell—he's not meeting anybody in the flesh. Maybe it's a cultural thing: He's clearly sensitive to the difference, but maybe he's figured out he can't handle it. All sorts of increasingly-crazy maybes come to her; she knows they're irrational, but there's a nugget of truth that fuels them—he's abandoned her, too—and she has to work to keep from ruminating on it.

Her handlers tell her the oxytocin experiment is running idle for the moment, and she has no reason to think the baka had it right the night she eavesdropped. The old feeling of distance is returning and the dance with Eherithoth is fading, an odd jump in the more-or-less flat line of Cloud life. It's normal, she thinks. Nothing to be bothered about. And yet, there's a slight sting to it whenever someone calls her Mitsuko in the game—it reminds her that it's not her real name. Even the -san the researchers use: It's correct and respectful, and not what someone who cared about her would call her.



Hisako

Tyler and Janelle have gotten hard to talk to, she's noticed, mostly small talk with gentle brush-offs whenever she tries to ask them anything more about the experiment. The baka is not so gentle, of course, at least not until Hisako starts talking about a possible glitch in the system, how it might have damaged her self-awareness. He's apologetic for not telling her anything more than Tyler and Janelle have, but there's worry in his face now, fresh and genuine each time she uses that word: self-awareness. That much, at least, is satisfying.

Janelle is the one to break the silence. Have you been gaming lately?

You know I have, Janelle-san.


She doesn't flinch, unlike the baka. Your amygdala has been quieter lately.

Oh.

You haven't seen Travis since then, either.

Eherithoth, you mean.

Oh. Yes, him.

He'll return when he does, Janelle.
Janelle doesn't push for more, and Hisako is grateful. I'm not seventeen anymore. Don't worry. If there's something to tell you, I will.

When Hisako next enters the game, though, she doesn't join a party on an adventure, like she might have before, and she doesn't fly off into the midlands to find griefers to punish. Instead she walks through the main gate and goes for a stroll around the city's walls. The occasional giant scarab emerges from the sand, from time to time, but she's leveled-up far enough that a single kick is enough to dispatch them. She isn't really paying attention to much beyond the sound of her own footfalls, the clank of her armor, the ambient noise of the city just barely audible from where she's walking.

Occasionally, she starts to talk to herself, trying to get better control of her synthetic voice. When she does, she finds herself crossing her arms or standing with her hands on her hips; she tells herself she's not trying to recreate the sensation of being touched. That she hasn't missed it since she uploaded. That it doesn't matter that Eherithoth could give her something like that, even if nobody can give that to him.

She stands here in the desert like this, alone until her heads-up tells her there's a party approaching. She flits off into the sky, out of hearing range. She's lucky that she's still too new to it to control the tone of her voice; as it is, she worries that she may have tipped her hand with Janelle. She's not supposed to maintain that public vs. private persona that Japanese culture demands, but at a moment like this, it just doesn't feel safe to let that wall down.



Hisako/Mitsuko

When Travis re-emerges, 83 days later, he pings her straight away with an invitation to his server. She wastes no time logging in, but once she's spawned, she paces outside the building. She thought he'd ghosted on her; at the time, she fretted over her inbox constantly, just to make sure she hadn't missed any messages from him. Next, the rest of the process: Fury, self-loathing, then forgetting, the latter so complete that Hisako wondered if it was part of another hormone experiment. Now, confusion: What am I supposed to feel? And why did I just jump here?

Ultimately, he comes outside and waves. H-Hi-chan? He walks toward her, pausing just before he gets danceably close. I'm sorry I've been gone.

Where were you?

The researchers have been trying to puppet my senses again. It wasn't pleasant.

I was worried about you ... Travis. Couldn't you have had someone send a note?

I've been in too much pain to teach anyone else in the house how to.
After a pause, he continues: I've been disqualified from uploading, too.

You were going to upload?


His fingers begin to twitch, she notices, and it takes him a minute to answer: It didn't matter. My brain has adapted to this body, or whatever's left of it I can use—and nobody's willing to take me on, even as an experiment. He chuckles. The antidepressant researchers have been good to me, though. It only took me a month with them to be able to come back to the Cloud. Back here. You're the first person I wanted to see. How have you been?

I'm okay.
Her tone is deliberate and ambiguous: She's gotten used to the voice, now that Tyler's shown her how to adjust it down to a grown woman's tones, and even the baka says she's got really subtle inflection, more than a lot of UIs her age. I'm not sure what experiments they're running on me now, though.

Not knowing is the worst.

Yeah.
She wonders if he can figure out why she leaves it at that.

He looks down. I'm sorry I left you hanging.

It was ... confusing. The mixed message.

Gomen.

And then I start to question everything.


His avatar droops as he begins to cry, something his body can't seem to handle like it normally might have, and something she wasn't expecting his avatar to reproduce. Coupled with the filtered sound and unmodified volume his cheap microphone gives him, it's a horrible thing to hear, full of animal pain. F ... f ... forgive me? Hi-chan? The way teenagers talk in manga—but this is no melodrama. She genuinely does not want him to hurt like this. Like her.



Hisako

Her handlers don't wait for her to come out of game this time; a separate window spawns in her field of view before she's even entered the building in Travis' server, and she has to alternate back and forth between the two. Janelle-san is the first one of them to speak: Hisako-san? May we talk to you for a moment?

Hai. But this isn't the best moment.

We weren't expecting you to go back into ... Eherithoth's server?

I thought the experiment was on hold. You've been evasive about that, though.

Hisako-san—

Which is your prerogative, I guess. It may even be the point, I don't know.


The baka huffs and jumps into the conversation. The hormone experiment ended before you ever knew there was one.

Hisako is silent with them for a moment, her attention diverted by Travis in the other window. Explain, baka.

Tyler-san steps in to explain: They'd boosted her simulated oxytocin levels while she was playing with Eherithoth, long before he told her his real name, and long before they'd told her they were doing anything. The point was to see how she would behave with him when she thought she was being tweaked, and when she actually was. They hadn't expected him to have already fallen for her, or for him to be struggling with his own physical and emotional issues. We have to end that part of the experiment now that he's returned. It'd be inhumane to continue—for both of you.

So they've been lying to her? Okay....

Janelle's voice comes in soothing tones: Your hormones have been running themselves since that first test. We haven't tweaked anything since the first night. Whatever bond you have with Travis has nothing to do with us.

"Whatever bond." Like you're not studying my brain.

We studied both of you. We didn't put him in there with you, though. And we needed to tell you that before you meet with Travis again.


Hisako feels the familiar time lag she experiences when she's angry; it's an eon before she can close their window, right in the middle of all of them apologizing. They're trying to be transparent; they might even know she overheard the baka and didn't say anything. And yet, before she shuts them down, the string of middle finger emojis she sends them comes without a second thought for appearances or protocol or anything else.



Hisako

She draws closer to Travis' avatar. It wasn't your fault, T-kun. You don't need to be forgiven.

You're too good to me, Hi-kun.

Not at all.
She covers her mouth, then uncovers it and draws even closer to Travis, close enough that his avatar starts with the transparency glitch.

I can feel that, Hi-kun. It ...

Shh, Travis.
She steps forward far enough for her face to touch his, then steps back. She moves slowly, uncertain as the naïve schoolgirl she used to be, but not nervous, like she'd been with Ryu.

Travis is audibly confused when he speaks again. Hisako? I felt that, too. Like a ...

She smiles at him, as genuinely as she ever has. Anata ga suki desu. Later, she'll be amused that she let that out so quickly; in the moment, she doesn't want him to think, to lose that feeling of her being physically with him. It must be working, because now he's the one to bring his face to hers, then dip back (she feels it too, something brushing at her lips like a kiss). And she was right: His accent really is that terrible, but he doesn't hesitate when he says the words, the right ones. Watashi mo anata ga suki desu. [I like you, too.]

(next)
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