READ THE FIRST CHAPTER: MEATSPACE by Asa Tait
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When I look up, I want to think the system works. That everything makes sense. I watch the heavens sweep yellow behind a spiral of luminous white clouds. Three different suns burn through long streaks of shredded ivory to caress the ground with a soft glow. And yet, just below the second sun, the slow curl of a cloud repeats. It doubles on itself, snaps back. Whoever pushed this one left a glitch. The sky is broken.
I only noticed the glitch because it doesn’t take my full attention to run down the suspect. The perp’s strap-laden suit and short cape is an obvious nod to classic adventure mods, the kind of skin a Tourist lives for. His sloppy navigation through the Districts is what really gives him away. No Resident moves like that. He was spray painting a wall behind one of the brothels when we crossed paths. That’s a 703, desecration or altering of private code. It’s a silly thing to do. The walls aren’t real. Neither is the paint, for that matter. Anyone that knows how to write can just recode the damned things, but it happens anyway. Tourists are used to the Outside, where actions have consequences.
He books down an alley of tall grey slate and chain-link fences that rise improbably high up the buildings. The low-slung structures of the Crimson District hardly deserve the lovingly crafted light of triple suns. After all, the Crim was designed for the immediate impression of improper business, the thrill of transgression. But even the seedy underbelly of the Inside is gorgeously rendered, no pennies spared.
I know these streets better than he does. I’ve played these levels before, so I can afford to split my gaze. My attention drifts back to the fine detail in the sky. The cloud drifts forward, curls around itself like breaking surf, then glitches, resets. The wave builds, crests, but never breaks. My tall black boots shine with oil-slick rainbows as they splash through artfully placed puddles. I slapped the boots on with a thick belted charcoal suit the moment I saw the Tourist’s 703. It’s the most authoritative outfit I have, purchased before I was forced to take the voc as Sheriff. The pay is decent, better than most vocations, and days like today it can almost feel like a game.
The suspect leaps toward the wall of a squat brick building, grips an immaculately rendered and brightly lit granite windowsill, and pulls himself up. This might get fun if it turns out he knows a few tricks. He executes a backflip and vaults to the building across the alley. I’m already halfway up the far side, scaling the cornices, and as I jump across to the far set of windows, I click out to third person and slow the world.
My body is tall, sporty. This skin is my favorite, and it’s the one I used to always wear for the games. The soft light of the suns shines down the alley at harsh angles to wash across my dark matte suit and glint off each stud on the belt at the peak of my jump. I capture the whole beautiful leap, but even now I know I’ll never post it. Someone will ding my outdated streetwear and the form of the jump. I already regret recording the activity, knowing I’ll only re-watch it to dissect what I’ve done wrong. I save it anyway.
The guy is quick, I’ll give him that. By the time I swing onto a balcony he’s at the next building. He slips through an open window into peals of laughter and song. He’s a Tourist, username: Exe2Brite, so it wouldn’t be hard to just tag and track him. Doesn’t seem sporting of me, though.
My backflip through the window is less than stellar. I twist wrong, careen into a column, and bust my shoulder. Nobody cares. The band plays on, the dancers kick a little higher, and the owner at the lone table never even glances away from the stage. His eyes narrow with concentration, annoyance, and lust. The dancers writhe, half-naked and gorgeous, under the hot lights. Mostly Sims I’d guess, unless this guy is richer than he looks. I rush the table, shrouded in dark, and sweep my mid-length blue-black hair out of my long features set into what I hope is an authoritative glare.
Over the laughter of the burlesque girls, I call out, “Sheriff here! Did you see which way he went?”
The man in shadow stands to deliver his reply: a knife in my side.
Fair enough. I’m intruding on his game after all, though he did leave his window open. Technically the stabbing is an 0-14, but I won’t bother harassing a Resident. Anyway, it was a stupid question—there’s only one door out of here.
I bust back into a sprint and let the Resident return to his shadows and Sim girls. The hallway is red velvet and sconce lighting, architecture reminiscent of some particular era before the Dyad, before this world was created. The information—American Prohibition Era, 1919-1933. Modernist, ref. Deco—springs into my head, convenient to the point of bothersome. Tall vases overfull with sweet-scented bouquets line the walls. I kick them apart until the floor is littered with petals and cheap ceramic shards, and the wreckage has given up enough health to patch the bump on my shoulder and the hole in my gut. The bloody patch on my shirt remains, but I can fix that when I get home.
My Tourist is gone. The doors are packed as tight as those dancers, just enough space between for the vases I’ve smashed, and each leading to a room that could be any size. Could be any number of rooms, actually. It depends on what the architect decided to code. Very few builders are literalists anymore. They rarely go in for anything like the material world Outside.
I stalk up the hall and back down, refusing defeat.
This is dragging on. I’ll just tag the idiot. He pings one floor up and around the far side of the building, easy to follow now. The baby blue hallway on the next floor tapers off to a single door. I don’t think twice about it until I step through. A maze of glass, high above the city, yawns into that gorgeous sky. The glass is seamless, perfect, visible mainly in the reflections and soft shading that defines the edges and planes twisting over the rambling architecture of the Crim. The glitch is gone. Someone must have registered a bug report.
I step onto the transparent walkway, certain it’s a trap. It could crack and I’d fall through. Even so, I’d just hunt him down again. Now that I have him on lock, it’s only a matter of time. Exe2Brite is in the overhang with me, pinged, yet I can’t see him. As a Tourist, he can’t hide himself. I’m right on top of him.
Check twice. He’d have to break the glass to escape, so he must be here somewhere. I catch my reflection, and there’s something in my eyes. Another glitch? That isn’t it. I’m certain it’s just the glare of the suns. Except all three suns are behind me. Of course. Tourists fancy themselves able to write code, but they always forget the details.
I snap my head around to glimpse every surface, every facet of the jewel. There he is, invisible, yet betrayed by his reflection. My hands shoot forward to snatch his collar. He kicks against me, a nothingness with mass.
I slam my Tourist against the wall, try to knock the fight out of him. “Bad writing there, son. You do it yourself?” I watch in the glass as he shakes his head. “You paid too much.”
I’m so damn proud of myself that I miss the hand he slipped into his jacket. He slams the can of spray paint back, cracks the glass. It strikes me as silly that we make glass to break. I guess they just reuse code from the action games, same as the vases stocked with health. Thin fractures spider out, and the pressure I exert on his body does the rest. We tumble into open air.
We fall in Slow. All three suns shift subtly, just for us, to perfectly light the scene. My hair flies back, and I wish I had gone bald or close-cropped. Would’ve looked more intimidating. Visible now, Exe2Brite’s short white cape whips up around my head. He moves incrementally through time along with me, twists out of my grip and hits the wall running. Stupid. He runs off at an angle, hoping for another open window, I’d bet. I try this running trick but just crack my leg. In Slow, I can see him coil his body for launch, so I do the only sensible thing and leap off the wall. I aim just above him, where I expect our paths to meet. He’s faster than I thought, and I barely hook his calves. My weight sends him into a spin. We fly out into space and crash through a massive neon sign that says, GIRLS BOYS GIRLS, in a shower of sparks and exaggerated electricity.
When I replay this later, that’s going to be the keeper.
The Tourist and I land on gravel rooftop in a hail of pink and green. I once lost most of a month watching a throuple’s adventure vacation streams themed around this color set. I could barely afford the streams, let alone the vacation itself. My leg is still busted, but I’m on top of his squirming body. The Tourist digs himself into skittering rocks. There’s no escape underneath. I let him shake the neon out of his eyes before I grab his hair and slam his head back. I saw it in a movie once.
“I know this is fun,” I put on my best growl for him, “but if you’re going to visit, you have to play by our rules.”
“You don’t have any rules!” he spits back, which is true enough.
Residents can do as they please because everything is code, infinitely replicable. Even our lives. For the Tourists, though, we have laws upon laws. They come in here and tear the place up, so of course we have to keep a tight leash. It’s wild we even let them in.
I’m halfway to thinking of something witty to snarl back, when his eyes shoot open. Neon curves reflect along the orbs like comets streaking planet-side. It looks like pain or fear—two things that only a Tourist ever knows here on the Inside. Convulsions wrack his body. He thrashes, throwing gravel to bounce under broad showers of sparks. It’s all I can do to keep him pinned down. His pupils dilate and burn out, turn to dead grey pixels beneath the brilliant light of the world he invaded. A bloody geyser erupts from his gaping mouth, staining his game hero’s costume. Where the slop lands, it runs like tar, thick and black.
One second my weight is on something solid. The next, only pixels and empty space. A harder pull than most, but he’s back Outside now. I fall into the gravel and remember my busted leg. There are some crates by the rooftop door. No problem. Easy to patch everything right up.
I’m halfway down a wall back to the streets when I get the call. What could one of the richest women on Earth possibly want with me?