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AFK, AGAIN


Also by Huckleberry Hax: AFK (2007) Be right back (2008) My Avatars and I (2009) Your clothing is still downloading (2012)

by Huckleberry H. Hax: The Day is Full of Birds (2008) The Introspection of Imogen Card (2011) Old friend, learn to look behind you in the coffee queue - poetry compilation (2010)

www.huckleberryhax.blogspot.com


AFK, AGAIN

HUCKLEBERRY HAX


Copyright © 2013 by Huckleberry Hax All rights reserved This paperback edition published in 2013 Huckleberry Hax is hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Published by www.lulu.com Cover design by Huckleberry Hax The terms 'Second Life,' and 'Linden' are copyright © Linden Research Inc.


For Zoe.


MURDER


1 Provided you can manage the whole guilt element – and I’m not at all saying that this is easy – killing a man can be quite a liberating experience. One minute, they’re there and they’re all they ever were to you; the next they’re winked out, switched off, gone. You find it hard to believe just how easy it was to delete them.

You

picture all of their thoughts and words and actions crammed into a pencil that you held in your hands and snapped. I remember very clearly the way Step Stransky’s hands clutched at my forearms whilst I pushed the pillow into his face. wonderful.

His nails dug furrows in my skin, it was I watched his body tense and jerk, as

confusion transitioned to fear and fear transitioned to panic. The bedsprings squeaked urgently as they had a few seconds earlier, but for completely different reasons. You forget that emotion can be displayed across all parts of a person’s body when you’re so used to looking for it in faces; it’s a shocking, intensely beautiful thing to witness the physical bleed of it in this way. I watched his conscious, purposeful mind drain out of his movement, never to return. And with amusement – and no small degree of exhilaration – I watched his erection, still wet 11


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and shiny from my own insides, droop and fade and whither. Sometimes, you know, I find myself wishing I’d let him cum after all. I could have picked up and pushed that pillow into him whilst I was still on top and fucking him; it would have been the most incredible, the most intimate climax of his life and I would have received it gratefully and cradled the warmth from within my belly as his flesh grew cold to the touch. But I hated John-Paul Barnaby – aka Step Stransky of the Step Stransky Second Life Detective Agency – aka the guy who stole from me the love of my life. I hated that man more than I’d ever hated anyone before and I wasn’t about to build any favours into his punishment, no matter how much of a turn-on they might have been for me. So I took that old bastard to the very edge of his orgasm and then I climbed off and started dressing. The bed sheet was gathered in his hands as though he was clinging to it for his life.

“Wha?” was all he

managed to say at first, he was so out of breath. “What are you doing, my gorgeous?” I picked up the pillow next to him and tossed it up and down a couple of times in a playful way. “I wanted to tell you something, Pops,” I said.

“Thursday is

Definitely a Sideways Step.” It was the passphrase we’d agreed on in SL, months before. Me and him and Inch. Step Stransky: We should have a code. Inch Sideways: A code? 12


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Step Stransky: A code. Definitely Thursday: What sort of a code? Step Stransky: An identifier code. Something we can use to identify ourselves by. Inch Sideways: To each other? Step Stransky: Exactly. Definitely Thursday: Are we talking SL or RL here? Step Stransky: Both. Inch Sideways: Both? Step Stransky: Why not? Inch Sideways: Are there plans to meet up in real life that I don't know about here? Definitely Thursday was about to ask the same thing. Step Stransky: Why, you want to? Inch Sideways: Do you? Step Stransky: I asked first. Definitely Thursday: Haven't we had this conversation before? Definitely Thursday: Several times? Step Stransky glares at Thursday and puts his finger across his lips. Inch Sideways: Funny like being smashed in the face. Step Stransky: What I was thinking is... Step Stransky: We all use alts, right? Definitely Thursday: No. Inch Sideways: No. Step Stransky: Exactly. Wouldn't it be cool if we had a code phrase we could use to each other when we thought we'd 'spotted' one. 13


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Inch Sideways: Eh? Definitely Thursday: Oh I see what you're on about. Inch Sideways: You do? Step Stransky: Well it works like this: say I'm out and about and I see this fabulous young blonde admonishing someone for the use of the acronym 'lol'... Inch Sideways: Oh for crying out loud... Inch Sideways: I can't believe I'm the only one with this issue Definitely Thursday: It is so wrong... Definitely Thursday: ...people laughing out loud like that. Inch Sideways: That's just it, though – are they? Are they actually laughing out loud in front of their monitor? Are they actually filling their rooms with laughter? Inch Sideways thinks not. Step Stransky: May I continue? Inch Sideways: Is this actually going to be interesting? Step Stransky: Think of it as a game, if you will. Step Stransky: You walk past the avatar you think is an alt... Step Stransky: ...and as you pass you utter the code phrase in chat. Step Stransky: If you're right you get a point! Inch Sideways: That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. Inch Sideways: For the principle reason... 14


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Inch Sideways: ...that if I didn't want you know that such-and-such an avatar was me in the first place... Inch Sideways: ...then code phrase or no code phrase I would still ignore you. Definitely Thursday nods. Step Stransky hadn't thought of that. Inch Sideways: Wow. The great detective. Step Stransky: Still think it would be good though... Step Stransky: Then we could... use it to identify ourselves! Definitely Thursday: Isn't that what you said in the first place? Inch Sideways: So I'm in an alt – unrecognisable to you – and you, for some reason, come up to me and identify yourself using the code phrase? Step Stransky: Exactly! Inch Sideways: And I haven't recognised you already because...? Step Stransky: Right, right. Yes, there is that too. Step Stransky: Aha! But what if *I* was in alt form *too*?! Step Stransky: Eh? Step Stransky: Eh? Inch Sideways: Do you think we should have a secret code, Thursday? Definitely Thursday: Yes. Yes I do. Inch Sideways: For what purpose? Definitely Thursday: Because it would be well cool. Inch Sideways laughs. 15


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Inch Sideways: Best argument I heard so far. Step Stransky sniffs. Definitely Thursday: Where you would *actually* use it… Definitely Thursday: …would be if you wanted to identify yourself as an alt… Definitely Thursday: …and prove it. Inch Sideways: Right. I think I see. Inch Sideways: I meet this guy and he says to me in IM that he’s actually an alt for Thursday… Inch Sideways: …and I say to him, “How do I know you’re not Stransky or some other stalker?”… Inch Sideways: …and he uses the code phrase to identify himself. Is that it? Definitely Thursday: Exactly. Step Stransky: Well of course, that’s what I meant. Step Stransky: Obviously. Inch Sideways: Obviously, darling. Inch Sideways pats Stransky’s hand. Definitely Thursday: We should make a phrase out of our names. Step Stransky: How about this: ‘Thursday is a sideways step’. Inch Sideways: Oh I like it. Definitely Thursday: Not bad. Definitely Thursday: But. Definitely Thursday: We also need an ‘under duress’ variant. Definitely Thursday: A code we give to villains who 16


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torture us for the code… Definitely Thursday: …so that they can pass themselves off as one of us… Definitely Thursday: …only when they use it we know they’re really an imposter. Definitely Thursday: Naturally, we play along in order to skilfully entrap them. Step Stransky nods in agreement. Step Stransky: Good thinking. Inch Sideways: Oh, it’s so thrilling to see professional minds at work. Definitely Thursday: I propose ‘Thursday is *Definitely* a Sideways Step’ as the authentic code. Definitely Thursday: And ‘Thursday is a Sideways Step’ as the under duress code. Inch Sideways: That’s not fair! Inch Sideways: Why should your name feature twice?! Step Stransky: Because, my dearest, that very indignation of yours… Step Stransky: …will ensure you remember which is which. In fairness to Stransky, he did have a fast mind. When I stood looking down at him with the pillow in my hands, wearing nothing but my black lace bra and panties; when I repeated back for him those six words, his speed was exactly what I was counting on.

He

looked at me, suddenly thinking, his face registering incomprehension, then recognition, then confusion, then 17


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hope. And then he made the mistake I was counting on him making. “Inch?” he asked, unable to stop the grin from spreading across his face. “Wrong guess,” I told him. And I pushed that pillow down so hard on his face it was like I was pushing it all the way though his soul. He’d imagined it was Inch because he thought there was only one woman in the Step-Def-Inch trio. I wanted him to know that he was wrong.

So much for Step

Stransky, the great detective, who never even thought to consider his business partner’s RL gender.

I picked him up in a bar I’d made a habit of letting him see me in over the couple of weeks I’d been staying there. Or rather, I let him believe he’d picked me up. John-Paul Barnaby visited Charlie’s every Friday night at eight, a habit ingrained from a thirty-nine year career in social work that wouldn’t die despite four years of retirement. The previous week, I’d left with a guy in his thirties following a very non-discreet make-out at the bar. The week before that I’d sat in one of the corner booths and given one of the regulars a hand job beneath the table, and the barely suppressed giggles I got when I walked in two nights later told me I’d won in a single evening the reputation I’d been aiming for. So when I took a seat at the bar next to Barnaby that evening, I wasn’t exactly counting on this being the night 18


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that he fell into what on so many occasions he’d described to me himself in Second Life as ‘the honey pot’, but I did think there was a chance I might get lucky. I ordered my drink and opened my purse for money, and he reached out and pushed my rising hand back down.

“That one’s on me,” he said. Looking at the

barman he added, “Make it a double.” “Thanks,” I said, suggesting in my tone that his generosity was hardly an unusual experience for me and that I knew full well what motivated it. “I’ve seen you here before.” Barnaby laughed and grinned at the barman, who smiled at the private joke. “I suppose you could call me a regular.” I pulled a pack of cigarettes out of my bag and placed one between my lips, opened my zippo and flicked up a flame. The barman coughed. Barnaby’s hands closed around mine and flipped the lid shut. “My dear,” he said, pointing with his eyes at the new no smoking sign behind the bar, “you’re six days too late, I’m afraid.” “Fuck,” I said. I put the cigarette back in the pack. “That fucking law.” “Well, at least it won’t be the death of you,” he commented. “We have a sheltered area out the back,” the barman said, trying to be helpful whilst he placed my drink in front of me. I asked, “I can still smoke there?” “Sure. We have ashtrays.” 19


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“You have economy flower pots filled with sand,” Barnaby corrected. “One step up from something made from concrete, or perhaps a dustbin liner. The least you could console us with is something of some sort of quality.” “Sorry JP,” the barman said. “Smoking’s not a quality thing any more.” “Honestly,” I said, removing again the cigarette and standing up from the stool, “I really don’t give a shit what sort of ashtrays there are.” I picked up my drink and looked at Barnaby. “Are you coming?”

Outside, I lit my cigarette and leaned against the doorframe, feigning drunken clumsiness with my positioning and nearly missing my footing. I’d gargled neat Bells before leaving my bedsit that evening and reeked of the stuff. Barnaby steadied me with a hand on my arm, then lit up himself and sat down on one of the nearby picnic benches with a long, wheezing sigh. “You should probably give up,” I told him, slurring slightly the first two words into one. “I fear,” he said, “that I passed that particular point of no return quite some time ago.” As if to emphasise this point, he coughed. I shrugged, pulled on my cigarette, inhaled, held it there for a moment, then blew the smoke back out at him. “So,” I said. “You come here often.” “Every Friday evening,” he replied. “And believe me, 20


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I’ve seen a few refurbishments.” “I only moved in a few weeks back.” I noticed he was trying to conceal his hunger, and a part of me was suddenly hungry for him in return. Sometimes, it’s hard not to reciprocate feelings like that. “Like the area?” he asked. “Not really.” He took another drag. Cigarettes are so useful for slowing conversation down.

“So then, why did you

move?” “To get away.” He inserted another pause by taking a long swig of his beer. “From?” “Stuff.” He nodded. “Here is as good as any a place to get away from stuff, I suppose. I must confess,” he added, doing that politician thing of flowing right into a change of topic, “I’ve seen you here before too.” “No doubt,” I replied. He wrestled for a moment with the delicacy of further detail. I let him squirm a little longer by draining my glass and closing my eyes momentarily whilst the fire descended. “It numbs,” I said finally. “The whiskey?” he asked. “The fucking,” I replied. “Oh. Right. Yes.” “Well,” I told him, “you wanted to know.” He smiled at me. “Yes, it’s true; I did.” 21


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I dropped my cigarette to the ground and crushed it out with my toes. “I’m Emma, by the way.” “John-Paul,” he said, unable to stop himself from looking at the nearby sand-filled flowerpot. “Are you going to buy me another drink, John-Paul?” He stood up, won his internal debate and pushed his own butt into the sand. “Yes,” he announced. “I believe I am.”

Old men just love to tell you their stories. By the time we left Charlie’s, I knew John-Paul had been a social worker in Children’s Services pretty much all his working life, that he’d been married for twenty-two years before his wife died in a car accident and that he had a grown-up daughter who worked as a hygienist for her Spanish dentist boyfriend in some village outside of Madrid. He even told me he was a detective in Second Life, although he neglected to mention Inch. Or me. “Second Life?” I’d asked.

“Isn’t that some sort of

computer game?” “Not really a game,” he answered. “But you pretend to be a detective in it?” “I am a detective in it,” he said, a little stiffly – or as stiffly as the four pints of Boddingtons and the double whiskey he had consumed by then would permit. “What sort of crimes do you detect, then?” He scowled.

“Detectives don’t just investigate

crimes.” 22


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“What do you investigate, then?” “It varies,” he told me. “But most of the time, it’s good old infidelity.” “Infidelity,” I repeated. “In Second Life.” “That’s right,” he said. We were sitting at a table for two within easy reach of the back door and the smoking yard outside it. I leaned toward him on my elbows, my chin resting upon linked fingers.

“And how,” I asked, “does one achieve

infidelity in a computer game?” “It’s not a game,” he said. “And one achieves it in the same way one achieves it anywhere else: by seeing people you shouldn’t be seeing.” “You and I, Pops,” I told him, “clearly have a different understanding of the word, ‘seeing’.” “Romantic involvement,” he said, “is about far more than just what you see with your eyes.” “Or touch with your hands or taste with your tongue,” I agreed. “But those things are still the gateway to the deeper levels.” “On that, then,” he said, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” “Don’t be so quick to give up on me,” I said. “Obviously, I’m wrong.” “Why do you conclude that?” “The existence of your business is proof alone. Unless of course,” I added, “you’re an out of work detective.” “Believe me,” he said, “business is booming.” “So there you are.” 23


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“You could still argue my clients are unhinged,” he pointed out. “And I probably will at some point.” He wagged his finger at me, smiling.

“You know

what I think?” he said. “I think you’re playing with me. I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.” I raised my latest glass to my lips. Over its rim, I told him, “Try not to lose yourself too much in the makebelieve detective role.”

Oh, I knew what he was talking about, alright. The day Step Stransky tore my heart out was the day after I’d found Inch Sideways again, the woman I’d met just once a year before and with whom I’d fallen instantly, completely in love. I’d more or less decided I would probably never see her again, but there she was, standing right behind me in the club I was at with Stransky. And she had asked me to dance. Everything was suddenly wonderful. I’d had to go to work, so I left her in the hands of Stransky and asked her to save that dance for me. What could possibly go wrong? The next morning, it was all I could do to stop myself from singing whilst I went through my morning routines, counting off the seconds until I logged on. Step Stransky: Guess what? Definitely Thursday: I don't know. 24


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Definitely Thursday: You're really a woman? Step Stransky: lol Step Stransky: Nope. Definitely Thursday: Well that's me fresh out of ideas! Step Stransky: You know that girl last night – Inch? Definitely Thursday: Yes? Definitely Thursday: After you left, I proposed to her! Definitely Thursday: You did what? Step Stransky: I proposed to Inch last night! Isn't that crazy??!! Definitely Thursday: And? Step Stransky: And she agreed! At first, I didn’t believe him.

An initial feeling of

complete horror – a physiological horror consisting of no thought at all, where my heart, completely of its own accord, felt like it had just vanished and the resulting vacuum where it had sat was pulling everything inside me into it – gave way to incredulity.

My hands

nonetheless were shaking, I pulled up Stransky’s profile to check. And there it was. Partner: Inch Sideways I kicked back my chair and ran. I only just made it to the sink, where I threw up the breakfast I had so happily consumed just a few minutes earlier. Step Stransky: Def? 25


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Step Stransky: You still there? Step Stransky: Did you crash? Definitely Thursday: Back. Definitely Thursday: Someone at the door. Step Stransky: Is everything ok? Definitely Thursday: Let me get this straight... Definitely Thursday: You asked Inch Sideways to become your SL partner... Definitely Thursday: ...and she accepted? Step Stransky: Yes! Am I crazy or what??!! Definitely Thursday: You're lying. Step Stransky: lol Step Stransky: Stupendous, isn't it?! Definitely Thursday: But you don't agree with partnership. Definitely Thursday: An unessential RL system imposed on SL, remember? Step Stransky: Well... Step Stransky: Strictly speaking... Step Stransky: That was your theory, not mine :)) I grabbed the mug next to the monitor and threw it against the opposite wall.

Hot coffee splattered

everywhere. I thrust my hands into my hair and stared at the monitor in shock. Definitely Thursday: You *said* you didn't understand why people partner. Step Stransky: Come on Def... 26


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Step Stransky: You saw what she was like... Step Stransky: She's *amazing*! Step Stransky: People like that in SL are never! Step Stransky: You don't let someone like her slip through your fingers. Definitely Thursday: You fucking shit. You fucking fucking ignorant insensitive treacherous piece of bastard shit. Just when I find her again you take her from me? The woman I fucking love? The woman I'm *in* love with? Do you have *any* idea what this is doing to me? You fucking typical fucking Except I never finished that last IM.

The final word

would have been ‘man’; perhaps the prospect of genderouting myself accidentally was sufficient to pull me back from the brink of complete abandon. I picked up the keyboard, yanked the cable out of its socket, opened the nearest window and threw the fucking thing out of it. I paced up and down a few times, my hands in my hair, then I ripped the system unit from its cables and sent that through the window too. Outside, it smashed to pieces on the frozen concrete.

It was a week before

Christmas. They held their SL ‘marriage’ on Christmas day. I attended (on my laptop). In fact, I was Best Man. I delivered a speech and everything. About an hour or so into the subsequent party, I noticed I couldn't see Inch anywhere, but my radar told me she was still in the sim. I followed her trail and eventually found her on a terrace 27


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on the far side of the region that overlooked the sea. Definitely Thursday: Inch... can I ask you a question? Inch Sideways: Of course you can Def. Definitely Thursday: What did you get up to? Definitely Thursday: During 'that year'? Definitely Thursday: I'm being nosey, right? Inch Sideways: It's ok. Inch Sideways: Listen, Def, it's fine now; it really is. Definitely Thursday: What's fine? Inch Sideways: Me. Inch Sideways: I'm back in SL, aren't I? Inch Sideways: I thought about this place a lot. Definitely Thursday: During 'that year'? Inch Sideways: Yes. During 'that year'? Definitely Thursday: Something bad happened, right? Inch Sideways: Yeah. Definitely Thursday: Oh honey, what happened? Inch Sideways: Def... you don't need to know the gory details... Inch Sideways: And Lord knows I don't want to speak of them any more. Inch Sideways: Let's just say that the night I met you... Inch Sideways: I was in a warm and wonderful place in RL. Inch Sideways: I was loved. I was understood. I was needed. Inch Sideways: I was free to play, and it was glorious. Inch Sideways: And then men and metal took all those 28


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things away from me. Inch Sideways: Christmas Day last year. Inch Sideways: One year ago exactly. Definitely Thursday: Inch... I don't know what to say. Definitely Thursday: I'm so sorry. Inch Sideways: Well it's like I said... I'm fine. I'm healing. Inch Sideways: I'm healing well, in fact. Inch Sideways: Today is all about that healing. Inch Sideways: Moving on. Inch Sideways: Taking the next step. Quite literally lol. Inch Sideways: Thursday... you'd better not tell anyone I let that lol slip in there. Definitely Thursday smiles at his friend. Definitely Thursday: Earlier you said you were wondering how things might have been had things been different. Inch Sideways: Yes. Definitely Thursday: How *could* they have been different? Inch Sideways: When you left that evening to go to work, Step and I got talking. Inch Sideways: Eventually I told him stuff. Inch Sideways: He's an amazing guy, Def. Inch Sideways: He knew just exactly what to say. Inch Sideways: He understands exactly what I've been through. Inch Sideways: It causes me to wonder what loss he's 29


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been through in his own life. Inch Sideways: He hasn't told me yet. But I think it's substantial. Inch Sideways: And I intend to be there for him, as he has been there for me. Inch Sideways: Because I love him. Inch Sideways: In a way that I had thought I could never love anyone ever again. Inch Sideways: You know what? It might just be that the only way I dare offer my love to somebody again is for it to be to someone I can't see or hear or touch, who is Christ knows how many hundreds of miles away on the other end of a computer connection. Inch Sideways: Perhaps that's the only way that love can feel safe again. Inch Sideways: I recognise that that's possible. And I've told him that as well. He says he doesn't care. Inch Sideways: He says he doesn't mind if he's just the bridge to my next RL relationship. Inch Sideways: But I've told him that, even if I do find love again in RL, I never want to be parted from him. I adore that man. Inch Sideways: So those are some of the thoughts I've been grappling with out here. Inch Sideways: The ironies of life... its cruelty... its compassion. Some days I think I'll never work out even a tiny piece of it. Inch Sideways: And Def... I want to thank you... from 30


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the bottom of my heart. Inch Sideways: If you hadn't taken off when you did that evening I would never have got to know Step in the way that I did. Inch Sideways: If you hadn't taken off when you did we would never have found each another.

I made certain Barnaby didn’t lose interest by undoing my top button and by brushing my leg against his repeatedly under the table. I saw him redden at the first touch, but after a fashion his knee started to find mine all by itself by accident. “And do you have a girl in Second Life, John-Paul?” I asked him when he sat down with the last orders in. “I do,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “Are you in… virtual love?” His face grew momentarily hard and his knee broke contact with mine. He sat back a little. “Actually,” he said, “I am.” I decided to be unperturbed. “I have no idea why,” I told him, tilting my head to one side thoughtfully, “but for some reason that makes a little part of me happy.” He softened instantly. A smile spread across his face. “There’s only one question in my mind,” I continued, “that is a priority to ask.” He leaned forward again. “And that is?” I spread my fingers across his knee. “Does she let you play?” Slowly, he inhaled and exhaled. I knew he was relishing the moment of possibility transforming into likelihood. “Actually,” he replied, “we both let each other play. It’s part of our agreement.” Fearing a lengthy narrative on the agreement, I moved 31


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my fingers up his leg. “I’m not interested in your contractual arrangements,” I told him. “I’m interested in your cock.” I found it, hard, and he flinched slightly at the touch. It must have been clear to anyone looking what I was doing and the look of conflict on his face – self-consciousness and lust, fighting it out for dominance – just made it all the more obvious. I pulled at his zipper and slipped my fingers into the opening, cradled him through his underpants. He moaned a little, then hurriedly raised his glass to his lips to conceal his face behind several gulps of beer. I prised down his briefs with my thumb far enough that I could rub it against his wet head, then withdrew completely and sucked in front of him from my thumb tip the precum I had stolen.

At Barnaby’s place, I knew I had to use up some time so that I’d later be able to say I’d left before anything had happened to the old man. I planned on opening and closing the front door to his flat loudly at least a half hour before I killed him, then sneaking out barefoot when it was actually time to go. And there was reconnaissance to do. I needed to locate his bookshelf. Some weeks previously, we’d been waiting on a target to wear a watch containing a listening device when Stransky had told us his system for rotating his Second Life password. Inch Sideways: You should try to get his password out of him, Thursday. Inch Sideways: I understand virtual world identity theft is all the rage these days. Step Stransky: Who is going to give out their password to *anyone* in SL? Step Stransky: Who is effectively going to hand over 32


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control of their avatar in that way? Step Stransky: Surely people aren't *that* stupid?! Inch Sideways: You're kidding, right? Step Stransky: Really? Step Stransky: Seriously? Inch Sideways: Honey, you're so na誰ve. Step Stransky shakes his head in disbelief. Definitely Thursday: I have a feeling this target might not be so obliging. Inch Sideways: Get to know him. Inch Sideways: Find out what he likes. Inch Sideways: See if he has any kids. Inch Sideways: Or a wife. Inch Sideways: Or a mistress. Inch Sideways: In RL, that is. Step Stransky: We don't do RL investigations, Inch. Inch Sideways: Oh spare me the pep talk please. Step Stransky: Anyway... Step Stransky: People are more careful these days with their passwords. Step Stransky: Did I tell you my system? Definitely Thursday and Inch Sideways both nod. Definitely Thursday recites, 'Third book from the right on your fourth shelf down, first word of the chapter corresponding to the number of the month.' Inch Sideways laughs at what Thursday just did there. Inch Sideways: But let me do my own nodding in future. Inch Sideways: We are so sick of hearing about your system, Stransky. Inch Sideways: You only go on about it to try to impress us with your four shelves of books. Definitely Thursday has to admit he never realised 'The Further Adventures of Noddy' had that many chapters. 33


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Step Stransky: ha Step Stransky: ha Step Stransky: ha Inch Sideways laughs at Thursday's accurate portrayal of Stransky's overall level of intelligence. Step Stransky 's side splits. Inch Sideways: Don't look at me. Inch Sideways: I'm not sewing you back up together.

The bookcase was in his lounge, a medium sized room at the end of his hallway with sloped roof skylights. There was a large computer desk in the corner and printouts stuck to the wall behind it that I recognised in my brief – and obligatory – exploration as case details. “Sorry the place is in a bit of a mess,” Barnaby said from the doorway, looking like he wasn’t quite sure what to do next. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting company.” I ran my fingers along the edges of a large collection of vinyl LPs on a larger shelving unit that stood next to the desk. “I want a drink,” I told him. “Do you have anything?” “Of course,” he said and disappeared into the kitchen Third book from the right on the fourth shelf down was a slightly battered copy of Neuromancer. I picked it out – careful to avoid touching any of the other books – then hurriedly replaced it as Barnaby came back into the room. He held a dusty half bottle of gin in one hand and a corked bottle of red wine in the other. He looked apologetic. “I have some tins of beer as well, if you’d prefer,” he told me. “Beer would be good,” I said, a little breathlessly. “Ok.” He went back into the kitchen. I heard a tin being opened. Barnaby swore. I supposed it was 34


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frothing over the top. I went out to him and picked up the bubbling can whilst he wiped the surface underneath with kitchen paper. “Tell me about your most memorable case,” I said, curious to know which one he would choose. “My most memorable case,” he repeated and paused, looking at a distant point beyond the hanging bananas in front of him. “Quite some time ago,” he began, “when I was still quite new to investigation, a guy came to me wanting to know if his boyfriend was seeing someone else. We managed to get a listening device onto the target, but those things only record things said in public chat – private, one-to-one conversations, can’t be eavesdropped.” “What’s public chat?” I asked, innocently. “Conversation out in the open. Anyone can hear it, or rather read it.” He searched in a cupboard and retrieved a dusty glass for my beer, rinsed it out under a cold tap that shuddered and moaned for the first few seconds of its activation. “Our listening device copies to us everything said within a twenty metre radius of the target. When you’re in public with other people around and you want to talk to someone privately, you tend to use instant messaging, which sometimes gets referred to as ‘private’. But when you’re with someone privately and there’s no-one else around, many people don’t bother with private because it’s just another window on the screen to fiddle with. So we can listen in on what they’re up to.” He handed me my glass of beer and I took a sip. “But not this guy,” I said. “Right. He was only using private. Well, either that or he was just standing around for long periods of time and not doing anything. We couldn’t tell. But-” He hesitated. I could see that he was worried he was boring 35


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me. I put my hand between his legs and pressed against his cock with the base of my palm. “Don’t stop,” I told him, looking down at the place of my contact. “I like the sound of your voice.” He cleared his throat and I felt him push back hard against my touch. “But the, uh, listening device also reported back its location,” he continued, “and so we knew that he was visiting a particular location whenever we got these long silences. So we had to figure out a way of getting a look in there.” “Is that hard?” “It is when the location’s on and surrounded by buildrestricted, list-only land and two thousand metres up in the air.” He held up a hand. “In Second Life, buildings can float,” he explained. I suppressed a frown, realising I actually didn’t know about this case and couldn’t think off the top of my head how one might go about looking into a location like that. “How did you do it?” I asked, really wanting to know. “Oh well,” he said, “way too complicated and boring. And not really the headline for me about this case.” I pressed harder. “Try me.” He reached out, tentatively; an old man long out of practice with a physical woman; he stroked my jaw with a trembling finger. “I really, really don’t want to go into all that detail right now. I’m sixty-three and I’ve consumed as much alcohol in a single night as I would normally drink in a week; by the time I’ve covered even half of what I’d need to explain you would find me, my dear, talked into a coma. I had a friend. A lovely guy called Cenprot. He solved the problem. Let’s leave it at that.” Reluctantly, I gave up on the tangential interest and massaged him a little. I stood a step closer. “So what,” I asked, “was the headline?” 36


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“When I looked inside the building,” Barnaby said, “the target was naked in the arms of another man.” “So your client was right.” “Yes.” “And then what happened?” Barnaby looked down, then forced himself back up. “Then what happened was I found myself wanting a man.” “Oh,” I said. “That kind of memorable.” “That kind of memorable,” he repeated.

I feigned the loss of an earring as my excuse to leave the flat for a few moments. To prevent him from offering to help me look for it, I got him naked first. In the middle of a conversation about how he liked to fuck Inch in SL (I needed information about his technique), I started to unbutton his large shirt. I told him to carry on talking whilst I unbelted and unzipped him. I tugged his jeans and briefs to the ground, took his wet cock in my mouth and cleaned it of his precum. He moaned, struggled to speak. He wrapped his hands around my head and pushed himself past my gag point. I jerked back, pushed him away. “Sorry. Sorry,” he said. “It’s not a problem,” I told him. I pushed back my hair from my face and that’s when I feigned discovery of my missing earring. I called out, “See you, baby!” at the door and slammed it. I hit the switch for the hall lights. I went as noisily as I could down the three flights of concrete stairs, laughing out loud at one point and choreographing a trip at another followed by a string of curse words about a broken nail. I opened the downstairs door and went out of the building far enough for the automatic light to 37


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come on, then slipped back inside before the door slammed shut. I took off my heels. I crept back upstairs once the lights were out. I slipped back inside the flat using the key Barnaby had given me. “Found it,” I told him, holding out the earring in my hand. “For a moment there,” he said, “I thought maybe you weren’t coming back.” I put my finger to his lips. I put the earring back on. I pushed my shoulder straps each to one side and wriggled my evening dress to the floor. “Oh my,” Barnaby said. “You have an amazing body.” “Thanks, Pops,” I said and glanced at the clock. I needed to keep him talking for at least another half hour.

The last few movements Barnaby made were to swing and flail at my face and head. I dodged them as best I could, but my priority was to keep that pillow down. He caught the top of my cheek at one point and my chin at another, but I managed to avoid being scratched by him there. I was leaning with one knee on his chest to prevent him from twisting too much, and he tried desperately to push me from him. He scratched my thigh hard and drew blood. As soon as he’d stopped his twitching and I was sure he was dead, I cleaned up my blood, making sure none had dripped anywhere, and stuck plasters where there was a risk I’d bleed more. I got my clippers from my bag and cut short all his fingernails, then cleaned his fingertips with antisceptic wipes, then filed his nails smooth. I put the clippings in my purse. His pyjamas were draped over the back of the chair opposite his bed. I put them on him and pulled his duvet up to his chest. 38


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I put his ashtray at the far edge of the bedside table. I lit a cigarette and rested it in the ashtray half-in, half-out at about a 25 degree angle. I rotated the ashtray so the butt was pointing towards him. I dressed whilst I waited for the cigarette to burn. I went into the lounge and took his copy of Neuromancer, put it into my bag. I paused a moment to look at his computer. Oh, how I would have loved a copy of his IM logs with Inch. But I had no way of knowing how much damage would be done this far from the bedroom and who knew what software he had installed that might later show the PC had been turned on after the time of death. It was just too risky. I found his smoke alarm, removed the battery then wiped the case clean. I had to leave some prints – none at all would in itself be suspicious – but none in places I’d have had no reason to have touched. I was hoping there wouldn’t be anything left to dust, but assuming just the same that there would be. I went to the kitchen and found the glass he’d put my beer in, filled it a quarter full of gin and returned to the bedroom. The cylinder of ash crept slowly towards the edge of the ashtray. Finally, the cigarette broke in two and the butt end dropped onto the wood of the table. I put the glass on the edge closest to Barnaby and tipped it over. Instantly, the spilled liquor lit. I took Barnaby’s arm, already stiffening, and moved his forearm, rested it in the flaming puddle of gin. I held my breath, praying for the table and his pyjamas to catch light. The latter happened first, a large flame leaping suddenly into existence that crept along his arm towards him like a slow-burning fuse. Then the lampshade of his bedside light caught, little flames licking its edge, but 39


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growing rapidly. Finally the table provided the fuel needed now that the gin was almost spent. I allowed myself to exhale. I stood back and put on the thick gardening gloves I’d brought with me in my bag. I watched the bed catch fire. When that happened, the speed of the spread accelerated more rapidly than I’d anticipated. His body became engulfed in flame. I swore. I nearly scratched the final step and left him there like that, but I wanted to give the fire as much chance as possible to spread and I needed him on the ground below the first layers of smoke. An explanation for the absence of smoke particles in his lungs. I hoped. Without giving myself any further time to think about it, I stepped forwards, grabbed him under his armpits and pulled him forwards, dragged his fucking heavy corpse out of bed and dropped him on the ground – face down – just below the window. It took no more than five seconds. Miraculously, the gloves didn’t catch light. A thick layer of smoke was beginning to collect across the ceiling above me. The curtains caught from the flames coming off Barnaby and the thin smell of barbecued meat started to seep into me. Time to leave. In the hallway, I shut the bedroom door. A normal hallway again. I took a few breaths to compose myself. I peered through the peephole to make sure no-one was on the landing outside. I let myself out quietly. I slipped downstairs in the dark in my bare feet, walked home as quickly and quietly as I could, zigzagging the road to avoid streetlamps.

40


2 It’s cold in RL as I remember this. My arms are aching and my wrists are sore. I’m naked, just as I was that night when I got back from Barnaby’s flat and turned on my laptop. I logged in at Bear infohub. I could still smell him on me. He was dead and I could still smell him on me. I could smell his sweat and his aftershave and his sex. Inch had IMed me. Inch Sideways: Have you heard anything from Stransky this evening, Thursday? Definitely Thursday: Nope. Sorry. Inch Sideways: Odd. Inch Sideways: He’s usually on by now. Definitely Thursday: Did you have something planned? Inch Sideways: Kind of. Inch Sideways: Nothing special. Inch Sideways: Just a Friday night thing. Inch Sideways: Well… Inch Sideways: he said last night, Inch Sideways: ‘See you tomorrow kiddo, I want to take you dancing at a new club I discovered.’ Definitely Thursday: You know how RL is. Definitely Thursday: He’s probably just been called AFK for a bit. Inch Sideways: I’m sure you’re right, yes. Inch Sideways: Wish he’d sent me an email though. 41


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My lights were off and my curtains opened. An orange glow was leaking into the sky, silhouetting the houses opposite. I could hear approaching sirens. I hoped the other residents of his building were safe. I’d considered making an anonymous call, but that would just have looked suspicious. I wondered if taking the battery out of his smoke alarm had been the right thing to do. I wanted the fire to get a good enough chance to spread and hadn’t realised how quickly it would manage this. The first word of chapter seven of Neuromancer was ‘It’. I could now log in to Second Life as Step Stransky. But not yet. Not for some time, in fact. I didn’t know what information had been shared between Step and Inch outside of SL. It was just possible Step had an RL death buddy, someone who he’d given an SL contact’s email address to and told to message in the event of his death. If Inch ended up knowing Barnaby was dead, his login would be useless to me. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world. After all, Step would still be gone. There were plenty of other reasons why logging on as him was not an ideal strategy. I didn’t know what secrets they’d shared. I didn’t know if they voiced. They might even have done video chat, for all I knew. I didn’t know how they made love or, for that matter, if they made love. I pretty much assumed that they did. But you never knew. But I did now know some of Stransky’s RL biography, that at least was something. The more and more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that impersonating the old man for any length of time was something I wanted to do. If I had to use his account – if Inch held out for him months after he was gone – then it would be to tell her as him that he’d 42


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moved on. I’d invent some sort of RL love story: a chance encounter with a schoolboy crush, a whirlwind romance, an impromptu wedding. Step would tell her he’d been just too caught up in its suddenness to email her and then, after a week had passed he couldn’t think what to say. With each passing day it had become harder and harder to come back into SL and speak to her. And so on. Inch Sideways: Still nothing. Inch Sideways: Do you think he’s ok? Definitely Thursday: Inch, relax. Definitely Thursday: Maybe his internet’s down. Definitely Thursday: Maybe SL isn’t letting him on. Definitely Thursday: You know how these things are. Definitely Thursday: Maybe he has a family issue. Definitely Thursday: Maybe he’s on an urgent case using one of those alts he swears he doesn’t have. Inch Sideways laughs. Inch Sideways: Thank you, Thursday. Inch Sideways: I know I’m being silly. Inch Sideways: Keep telling me that stuff. Inch Sideways: It helps. I loved Inch. I loved her like I’d never loved anyone before and I had no idea why. Thinking about her had become an addiction. We had fucked in text just the once – on Christmas Eve – and then she’d disappeared from my life for nearly a year. The very instant she’d come back, she’d been snatched from my grasp by Stransky. It made no sense that the only thing I wanted in life was for her to belong to me. Yet there it was. She was the most magnificent human being I had ever known and every tiny thing she did or said just made me desire her more. 43


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I didn’t care that I’d become the murderer of her lover in pursuit of her. I didn’t care that she was heterosexual and didn’t know I was female. The obviously low likelihood of these obstacles being overcome in any RL sense was of no consequence or interest to me. I pursued her in the same way that I pursued breathing and drinking and eating: because I had to. I didn’t know what she looked or sounded like, and I didn’t care about those things either.

But I was rational enough to know that going to prison was decidedly not a step in her direction. There were things left to do. The next day, I noted news of the fire and death in the local paper at the newsagent in Town (“Police have so far not commented on whether or not the death was suspicious”), but I avoided buying a copy and I didn’t look it up on the internet. After all, why would I? I went again to Charlie’s in the evening and this time I selected a middle aged target with a goatee sitting in the corner by himself. To this day I only know him as ‘Steve’. Halfway through the evening I was standing outside with him and a cigarette when the barman who’d spoken to me the previous evening came out to clear glasses. “Shit!” he exclaimed, on seeing me. “You heard about JP, right?” “JP?” I asked him. “The guy you were with last night.” “Oh, right. John-Paul.” I did a slightly embarrassed glance at my current companion. “What about him?” “What about him?! He’s dead!” the guy exclaimed. “His place burnt down last night!” “What?” I said. I stared at him. “His place burned down,” he said again. “It’s been all 44


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over the news.” “Jesus Christ,” I said. “How?” “They haven’t said yet. I can’t believe you didn’t know. I thought maybe you’d gone home with him.” He looked suddenly ashamed at the public articulation of this assumption. I covered my mouth with my hand for a few moments, then raised a shaking cigarette to my lips for a drag. “I did,” I said. Another drag. “I did. He’s dead?” The barman had clearly reached the limits to his capacity to deal with such subjects in an empathic manner. My emotion was shocking him. He resorted to the tried and tested male strategy of faltering practical investigation. Solve the mystery: that would make everyone feel better. “Did you, um… What time did you… Well I guess he must have been ok when you left… Did you, I don’t know, light any, um, candles?” “We didn’t light any fucking candles,” I told him, my hands now shaking almost uncontrollably. “Sorry sorry. Just a… thought. Sorry. I’d better, um… get back.” “Are you ok?” Steve said, his hand on my shoulder. I wept into my hand for a moment and ignored him. Then I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand, smearing my mascara across my cheeks as much as I was able to. “I’m fine,” I told him. “Take me somewhere and fuck me.”

But, halfway through the blowjob I was giving at his little terraced house in the suburbs, I started to sob on Steve’s cock. The poor guy didn’t know what to do. He withdrew hurriedly, sat down beside me, tried his best to offer comfort. “What am I thinking?” I told him, once I’d calmed down a little. “The police are going to want to 45


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speak to me, right? Isn’t that what happens? I have to go to the station. Can you come with me?” “Now?” he asked. I could almost hear the internal groans: one for the death of the prospect of getting laid, one for the very notion of a night in the station with this nutcase of a woman, the loss of a good night’s sleep competing with the looming embarrassment of having to explain to police officers just how he knew me and why we were there together. And who knew what the longterm consequences of such a selfless deed could be? Might I end up thinking of him as my Good Samaritan, my Guardian Angel or – worst of all – Boyfriend Material? “Don’t you think it might be better to wait until tomorrow?” he asked. “Jesus Christ, he fucking died, Steve. He fucking died! This time last night it was him I was fucking and now he’s fucking dead!” Steve came to terms with his fate and accepted it with stoic resignation. “Of course, if it’s what you want then absolutely I’ll come with you.” I do like guys capable of adapting quickly to changes in circumstance. I smiled at him and put my hand on his knee, and I glanced at his shrivelled up cock. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Don’t be silly,” he replied, pulling hastily back on his boxer shorts and jeans. He had Homer Simpson socks. “I always wanted to know what the inside of a police station looks like.” Right. It was nothing special. I got shown into a tiny meeting room that had a table and two chairs and nothing else in it other than the smell of BO, and one of the duty officers brought me black coffee and took a statement whilst Steve waited outside. I got told to come back to the station at ten the next morning and that was that. I went back to Steve’s and, as a reward for staying with me, I didn’t get up and leave when he was done. I slept beside 46


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him in his bed – the first time I’d actually slept with a man overnight for many years – and let his semen dry across my belly.

I avoided checking my email before going to the station, just as I had avoided doing so the previous day. Inch didn’t have my address, but any IMs she sent whilst I was offline would get sent automatically to my email account. I knew she would be panicking by now. I didn’t need that interfering with my ability to think. I would tell her I’d been ill. Food poisoning. I got food poisoning once from a crab, avocado and rocket sandwich, so I knew exactly how to tell it. My belly had felt like it was going to explode. Literally explode. I’d stood bent at 90 degrees for half an hour sobbing from the pain and convinced I was going to die, then I’d dry retched for an hour over the toilet. People told me at the time I couldn’t have had food poisoning if I didn’t actually vomit. I wanted to punch them. The shop I’d bought the sandwich from told me I’d have to take the matter up with the company that made the sandwiches. When I told them I could go to the local council, they asked if I had any of the sandwich left to be analysed. Idiots. At the station – alone this time – I had to sit for forty minutes in the waiting room before an officer came to meet me. I sat next to a guy in a jogging suit with rings on all his fingers and a pierced lower lip. At Steve’s in the morning, I’d put back on the black, armless dress I’d worn to Charlie’s the previous night, its hem a good six inches above my knee. Whilst we sat there, I could feel his eyes on my legs. At one point, he got up and took a leaflet from the rack opposite – something giving information about setting up a neighbourhood watch 47


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scheme – and sat down to read it in the orange plastic chair below the rack. I knew he was trying to see up my skirt. I crossed my legs and closed my eyes. Some days, I hate RL. I hate its dirt and its disorder; I hate its mess and its pretence at being organised. I hate the way that RL stinks, by which I mean quite literally I hate the smells of RL. I hate the ingrained, all-pervading, saturating smells: greasy food, body odour, cigarettes and body odour, urine, vomit, shit. I hate people who don’t wash and I hate places that aren’t kept clean. No, I’m not OCD or anally retentive or any other category of abnormal you’d like to box me up in to relieve the guilt of your own personal variety of squalor. I don’t mind a little clutter. I don’t expect things to be sterile. The reason I hate all these things is because they are present in people who have given up on belonging to the world. They’ve broken away and formed their own little bubbles where it’s ok to reek of your own piss and sweat, and because they feel judged by you – and, by Christ, they should do – they pour scorn upon neatness and order and hygiene as though they’ve worked all these things out as the evils at the root of society’s ills. The dirt isn’t just on their skin and in their hair and soaked into their clothes and stuck in the gaps between their teeth, it’s settled in their thoughts and caked across the surface of their souls. Contrary to what you might believe, I had chosen my targets at Charlie’s selectively. Steve had smelled good and his cock was clean, but most important of all he had cum with his mind as well as his body. His ejaculation had been as much a surrender to me as it had been his own release. The line between shared intimacy and degradation can be found in the look on a man’s face as he climaxes in or over you. I’m not talking about love, you understand; I’m talking about the fleeting moment of utter vulnerability and the 48


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loss of conscious thought. I pity the man who sneers at his girlfriend whilst he unleashes his load across her: he has no idea that what he feels is less than even ten per cent of what a real man goes through when he cums, and cums well. In the waiting room, I closed my eyes and sealed out the guy on the orange chair opposite, though I could still hear the sound of the fabric of his jogging suit, shiny surfaces sliding over shiny surfaces. I focused on the sounds coming out of the office behind the reception desk. I heard typing on a keyboard. I heard a guy talking to someone on a phone, though I couldn’t make out the actual words. I heard a door somewhere being constantly opened and shut. I heard the hum of something electrical. I thought about Inch. I thought about that night. Definitely Thursday: That was... amazing. Definitely Thursday: I never realised... Definitely Thursday: I never knew it could be like that. Inch Sideways: Did you cum in RL? Tell me that you did. Definitely Thursday: Yes. I did. Inch Sideways: Good. I'm glad it was the best that it could be. Definitely Thursday: Because it's for one night only? Inch Sideways: Because it's for one night only. Definitely Thursday: Such a shame. Inch Sideways: Think of it this way: such a *memory*. Inch Sideways: Merry Christmas, Thursday. Definitely Thursday: Oh yes, so it is. Look what happens when your mind's on other stuff. Definitely Thursday: Merry Christmas Inch. Inch Sideways: Forget me and you go straight to hell, 49


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ok? I felt a shadow fall across me and heard a woman clear her throat. Then the use of my name. I opened my eyes and looked up. “Yes?” I said. “I’m DC Carling,” the woman informed me. She gestured towards the door. “Can you come this way?” I followed her into the same interview room that had been used the night before. She waved me into one of the two seats. “I don’t imagine this will take very long,” she said and sat down in the seat opposite. She had long, neatly tied back hair and a sprinkling of freckles across the tops of her cheeks that I imagined myself momentarily licking. Sometimes, I enjoy looking at a face professionally composed and wondering what it would look like disintegrating during orgasm. She seemed to be awaiting a response, so I said, “Ok.” “So,” she said, “I understand you were the last person to see Mr Barnaby alive?” “I was?” I asked. DC Carling looked at her notes. “Isn’t that what you said last night?” “I know he died after I left,” I said. “No-one told me no-one else saw him.” “No-one that we know of, at least,” she said. “What do you mean?” I asked. Of course, I knew exactly what she meant. “I mean,” she said, “someone could have seen him alive, but not come forward.” “You think someone went there after I left?” I asked, deliberately pulling her thread in the wrong direction. “That’s not what I think at all,” she replied. I looked at her, confused. “No matter,” said DC Carling. “Now. We just need to 50


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confirm some of these times. You said last night you left Mr. Barnaby’s flat at about a half past midnight.” I nodded. “And where was Mr Barnaby when you left?” I looked at her. “In his flat,” I said, deadpan. She looked at me right back. Her brown eyes were unnervingly steady and I caught a glimpse of someone not to be toyed with; someone, I quietly told myself, not to be underestimated. “Whereabouts,” she asked, “in his flat?” I was about to tell her he’d come to the door with me – because this seemed like the most likely thing a guy (well, a living guy) would do – when I remembered that I’d called out to him from the door – “See you, baby” – in the hope that I’d be heard by a neighbour. A neighbour, ideally, with a watch they might consult so as to check they were justified in their feeling of being inconvenienced. So if I had been heard, if the neighbour had reported this to the police, if DC Carling had my three departing words written down somewhere on the papers in front of her, she might have been curious to know why I had shouted my goodbye to a man that was standing right next to me. “In his bed,” I said. I felt my heart beat raw with the realisation that I’d just come close to a major mistake. I swallowed, trying not to make it look like anxiety. I felt my mouth go dry and looked for the coffee or water that suddenly wasn’t being offered now that I was being questioned. “You let yourself out?” she asked. I nodded. “He didn’t come to the door with you?” “Nope,” I told her. “He was, um… tired.” “And I just need to confirm this: you had had sex with Mr Barnaby?” DC Carling spoke looking at a particular section of her notes, asking as though she was checking 51


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what colour I’d painted my fingernails. I’d already decided to play this one defiant. “I had,” I replied. “For money?” she asked, still not looking up. “No.” “But you had only met him earlier that evening?” “Yes,” I said. “What attracted you to him?” I reached out, suddenly. I put my hands over hers and she looked up, shocked by the touch. “Please,” I said, “was he… did he… um…” “Was he what?” I looked at her and thought about smelling the burning flesh of the man Inch Sideways loved. It was easy for me to hate Step Stransky, but it’s not like I didn’t appreciate that I’d torn something out of her. It’s not like I couldn’t understand the unthinkableness of a person loved being turned into roasting meat. My eyes welled up and a tear broke free. “He died… horribly… didn’t he?” Minutely, her face seemed to soften. Or was that my imagination? Or was it a ploy to obscure what she knew from me. It seemed like the corner of her eye glistened. “We don’t yet have the coroner’s report,” she told me. I felt suddenly, inexplicably anxious again. “He was gentle and kind,” I said, my voice catching. “He was intelligent. That’s what attracted me to him.” And, out of nowhere, a new thought came rushing towards me: the key; the fucking key to Barnaby’s apartment. I hadn’t wiped it after I’d let myself back in. If they were able to dust it, they’d find my fingerprints on it. They’d know I’d picked it up, and why in Christ’s name would I have picked up his key? I wondered if they’d already found and dusted it. Perhaps the prints were on the page in front of her. My 52


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mouth went dry and sticky again, my whole body went cold and my heart felt as though it was digging its way out of my chest. That was that, then. I had forgotten something. I had fucked it up. I had failed. But DC Carling said, “That’s probably all we need for now. If we do need to ask you any more questions, we’ll be in touch.” And I walked out of the police station and back to my bedsit once more.

Two days later, at the bottom of page nine, the local paper ran a follow-up to Saturday’s story. A verdict of accidental death had been recorded. I had done it. I had killed a man. I had murdered Step Stranksy. And I had gotten away with it.

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3 Hewson Resident: Excuse me. Hewson Resident: Sorry to bother you. Hewson Resident: Can you tell me where I can find Step Stransky? I was dozing at my desk in RL. The chime activated by someone walking into my office had roused me, but it still took a couple of moments for the words on the screen to make some sort of sense. Definitely Thursday: I’m afraid not. Definitely Thursday: Step hasn’t been in SL for several years now. Definitely Thursday: I am, however, his partner. Definitely Thursday: So perhaps I can help? He was an eighteen month old resident, impeccably dressed in what I could only assume was a mesh suit. The jacket was single breasted and the bottom button undone: in RL, you can mentally nod approval at such attention to detail, in SL you can only assume they were in the right shop at the right time. Or the right page on the marketplace. Hewson Resident: You are a detective too? Definitely Thursday: An investigator, yes. Hewson Resident: What happened to Mr Stransky? I heard he was the best. 57


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Definitely Thursday: What you heard, Mr Hewson, is that this agency is the best. Definitely Thursday: An agency which I have now run for significantly longer than Step did. Definitely Thursday: You may rest easy. Definitely Thursday: I can assure you you’re in good hands. It irked me no end that Stransky’s reputation had outlived him in this way. Hewson Resident: Sorry. Hewson Resident: Naturally, I meant no disrespect. Hewson Resident: And please, just call me Hewson. Definitely Thursday: Well then, Hewson... Definitely Thursday: Why don’t you take a seat… Definitely Thursday: …and tell me what I can do for you? Orange particles streamed instantly from his hand to the leather chair on the other side of the desk from me, as though he had been waiting for the invitation. Hewson flicked in a millisecond from a foot inside my door to a cross-legged sit, which he then adjusted to something a little less anxious looking. I prefer it when people at least make an attempt to walk towards a chair more than three feet away from them. Call me old fashioned, but I like my illusions of reality to remain as intact as possible. Hewson Resident: I imagine much of your work is taken up in investigating infidelity and its various virtual incarnations.

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Definitely Thursday: You imagine correctly. Hewson Resident: I also imagine that you long for something different; a true crime; a masterpiece to add to your portfolio of casework; something above the dull humdrum of just who is seeing who behind the back of somebody else. Definitely Thursday: I try not to think badly of that which pays the bills. Definitely Thursday: But variation is always a pleasant fantasy. Definitely Thursday: Are you about to deliver it, Hewson? Hewson Resident: Unfortunately, I am not. Hewson Resident: But it’s good to know I’ve gauged correctly the desires of SL’s finest in the field of private investigation. Hewson Resident: Had you attempted to extoll to me the virtues of spying on the girlfriend of a resident whose connection with you is just a number that increases by the hour then, respectfully, I would have returned to one of the cheaper agencies I visited before you. Hewson Resident: I don’t mind paying top fee, but only when I know it’s actually buying me something of quality. I sat up in my chair. An articulate client, uninhibited by multiple-line compositions that took more than ten seconds to create. I was impressed. He was probably a role-player. That made me wonder if he thought me an RP investigator.

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Definitely Thursday: You honour me with your conclusions, sir. Definitely Thursday: Although I haven’t yet told you my fees. Definitely Thursday: I might yet pleasantly surprise your pocket. Hewson Resident: The point is, you don’t advertise your fees. That, in and of itself, informs me they are likely to be high. Definitely Thursday nods. It’s true I don’t come cheap. Definitely Thursday: That said, you shouldn’t infer from my hourly rate being high that my bill will be equally expensive. Definitely Thursday: I pride myself on significantly faster results than my lower-priced competitors. Hewson Resident: Good. As it happens, I’m after a speedy answer. Hewson Resident: If you provide it within two days, I will double whatever fee you charge me. Hewson Resident: Triple, if you provide it in less than twenty-four hours. He even typed numbers out in full, including the hyphen. I found myself thinking that a failure to meet his deadlines might not be such a bad thing if the consequences were more conversations like this. I quite liked the idea of him slightly irate at my failure. I fantasised momentarily over the quality of his vitriol. Definitely Thursday: I’m afraid I can make no promises. 60


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Definitely Thursday: And it’s not in my nature to rush things. Definitely Thursday: But it is in my nature to work quickly and efficiently. Definitely Thursday: So I will do my best. Hewson Resident: Excellent. So then, you may start your clock running and I’ll try to give you an overview of my difficulties in a manner which meets our joint need for efficiency. Hewson Resident: It’s really not very complicated, mind. Hewson Resident: I have a partner. You’ll see her on my profile. I’ll assume you’ll look at her now whilst I sketch out the details of my suspicions. Definitely Thursday: You don’t want to know my rates? Hewson Resident: I really don’t care what you charge, Mr Thursday. Without a doubt, this was my kind of client. Oh, the hours I’d wasted over the years in fee negotiation. I pulled up his profile whilst he typed out his next comment. Hewson, it turned out, was a furniture maker, a seller of tables and chairs and cupboards and beds and wardrobes and hat stands and record players and fruit bowls and just about anything else you could imagine having some sort of place in a house. I followed the link in his picks to his marketplace store. It was enormous; over four hundred products in every size, texture and tint. A meshie, I guessed. The nouveau riche of SL, 3D artists who’d become interested in the metaverse only 61


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after mesh activation and the sudden transformation of their years’ of hobbyist creations into saleable content. And a user base hungry for every last piece of it. Instant Second Life wealth. His partner was a girl called Assumption Asymptomatic, but there was nothing in his picks about her. I followed the link to her profile and looked over a portrait of six year old with a stunning black bob and indigo lipstick. She had that quote in her SL tab about not making a priority anyone who considered you just an option, and in her picks that deluded paragraph declaring herself able to use others’ IMs to her as she saw fit, merely by the act of stating this in her pick text. I always chuckle when I see that. It’s like turning up at someone’s house and thinking yourself permitted to take their stuff so long as you tell them in advance you’re going to do it. Copying over IMs is a ToS rule I regularly break, but at least I know I’m breaking it. It’s one of the ways in which things often work in SL: people see something written in someone’s profile and they somehow believe that this is fact. But don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that the blind belief in things read somewhere is an issue that extends well beyond the metaverse’s boundaries. There are different categories of Second Life profile. The Empty Profile (EP) is, as its name suggests, a largely unpopulated document, sometimes a single avatar snapshot in the main tab and a single group in the group list – but often not even that. It’s completely understandable for a newbie – who perhaps doesn’t even realise that such a thing as a profile exists – but, after a month or so, starts to look suspicious. An Empty Profile 62


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is often thought to be that of an alt that hasn’t been invested in. Empty Profiles complaints are often one of a number of rants to be found on the Aggressive Profile (AP): a collection of gripes and assertions usually also including the aforementioned ‘By saying so here I have a right to copy and paste your IMs wherever I fucking chose to’ declaration. Usually it gets worded along the lines of, ‘Don’t bother IMing me if there’s nothing in your profile; if you can’t be bothered to complete this then I can’t be bothered to find you interesting’ (but, in most cases, without the semi-colon and correct apostrophe usage). Other issues often raised in the Aggressive Profile include a refusal to interact with anyone who looks like a newb, the promise of unimaginable consequences if you – the reader – should dare to think of ‘messing’ with a particular friend (usually someone given the honorary title of ‘sister’ – or, more commonly, ‘sis’) – it’s comforting to know that, in the twenty-first century, the way people feel most secure about expressing platonic love for someone is to threaten violence against anyone who might upset them – and a dramatic statement of disinterest in ‘drama’. In direct response to this is the Anti-Aggressive Profile Profile (or the AAPP), a profile category which takes issue with the statements to be found in most APs. AAPP picks can include, for example, a defence of newblooking avatars (‘Are you a person who believes that beauty is only skin deep? Then stop fucking hitting on noob avies and start looking below the surface’), a strongly worded retort to the ‘By saying so here I have a right to copy and paste your IMs wherever I fucking 63


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chose to’ declaration, and a challenge to the dislike of EPs which asserts that (a) belief in the possibility of reducing the complexity of a human being to a few lines in a profile tab only demonstrates the utter superficiality of the person complaining (sometimes, a cross-reference is made to the noob avatar defence here), and (b) at least empty profiles spare you from having to read through endless collections of inane quotations. Which brings me to the Somebody else’s Quotations Profile (SEQP), a profile type bookended with quotes read someplace (or copied from someone else’s profile), from which one is supposed to infer something meaningful about the avatar driver. A variant on this is the Ironic Quotations Profile (IQP), a profile which contains either a quote about the meaninglessness of quotes or a fictional quote which cannot possibly be true to demonstrate comically the unreliability of quotations (my personal favourite being the Abraham Lincoln quote: “The thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity”). Then there’s the Promotional Profile (PP), the content of which is dedicated to the promotion of the resident’s interests: their shops, products, clubs, venues, events and any online fiction they’ve written. The Shopper Profile (SP) is essentially a collection of favourite shops – or, at least, those which offer some sort of incentive for listing them in your profile. The Poetry Profile (PoP) attempts to map out the personality of the resident in picks via a selection of poems; subsets of this category are the Rhyming Poetry Profile (RPoP) and the Own Poetry Profile (OPoP). The In love Profile (ILP) also consists of a number of 64


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subsets, each representing a different way of declaring love for one’s partner. These include ILMP, profiles saturated with virtual wedding stuff (wedding pictures, key dates, transcripts of proposals and marriage vows, copious use of the word ‘hubby’) and ILSP, where the partner is described in length as the ultimate soulmate (usually involving poetry or song lyrics; there’s significant overlap between ILSP and PoP). Over time, ILPs are often transformed into either DPPs (Damaged Person Profiles) or NMoRPs (No Mention of Romance Profiles). How profiles change over time is an important factor. Static profiles hardly ever change, month to month, year to year. Dynamic profiles change according to virtual life changes – new friends, partners, things to be angry about, etc. Feed profiles are changed constantly, as though the very thought of entries remaining the same from one week to the next is appalling. They are like twitter feeds, constantly being updated with new content like a Twitter feed or a Facebook page. So an EP-s is a static Empty Profile – one that never changes, a PP-d is a Promotional Profile that gets updated when there are new things to promote and a ILP-f is an In Love Profile that gets changed the very instant a partner says something new and adorable. And so on. I employ most profile types across my portfolio of alts. The Second Life tab text for my primary avatar reads, “Private Investigator, Manager of the Step Stransky Second Life Detective Agency. Discrete enquiries undertaken. See picks for office address.” Which means that one thing I had learned about Hewson so far was that he didn’t read profiles. Or that 65


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he wanted me to believe that. Just as there was no mention of Assumption in Hewson’s profile other than the partnership link, so too was her profile devoid of any words about him. Two NMoRPs, then, one otherwise a PP and the other mostly an AP. Interesting; not at all unprecedented, but interesting. Sometimes, people kept declarations of love out of their profiles purely because they found such stuff embarrassing - an absence of gushing statements should never be taken to mean an actual absence of love. Even so, it wasn’t as though no happy medium existed. A straightforward single pick with the partner’s name, a couple snapshot and a line or two about what thoroughly nice people they were avoided the extreme nature of most ILPs and also relegation into NMoRP. Hewson Resident: So you see, AssAs – that’s my cute name for her, we find it amusing to substitute a double reference to her perfectly rounded rear for her rather cognitive avatar name; or, at the very least, I do – has been my partner for nearly four months now. Hewson Resident: We met for the first time about three weeks before that. Hewson Resident: A whirlwind in RL terms, I suppose; a far more pedestrian romantic progression in SL, I’m sure you’ll agree. Definitely Thursday: Indeed. Hewson Resident: We didn’t do the whole SL marriage thing – as I’m sure you’ve already surmised for yourself. Hewson Resident: It’s not that we’re unromantic, but 66


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we both find that sort of thing rather embarrassing. Hewson Resident: Plus trying to find at short notice a marriage venue in SL with a decent quality pergola is absurdly difficult. Hewson Resident: Anyway. Over the last two weeks, I’ve started to wonder if my AssAs is seeing somebody else. Definitely Thursday: Tell me why. Hewson Resident: Long pauses between IMs, being told she’s in a ‘difficult conversation’ she needs to talk through, finding that she’s disabled me being able to view her on the map – naturally, she claims this in fact to be SL ‘acting up’… Definitely Thursday: That does sometimes happen, you know. Hewson Resident: Once, yes; twice, perhaps; three times, as we both know, Mr Thursday, is very, very unlikely. Definitely Thursday: Have you talked to her about your suspicions? Hewson Resident: Not directly, no. Hewson Resident: A few days ago, I plucked up the courage to broach the subject of the ten days that had passed since our last moment of intimacy. Hewson Resident: She told me she was tired and not up to a hard conversation. Hewson Resident: So I – of course; I am a gentleman, Mr Thursday – told her it would be fine for us to talk about it when she was feeling more energetic, and waited for her to raise the subject herself. Definitely Thursday: And she hasn’t. Hewson Resident: And, as you say, she hasn’t. 67


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Yep. All the boxes appeared ticked. A romance faded and replaced by something new and exciting; the most likely, although not by any means the only explanation. Except I couldn’t quite work out why she hadn’t just ended things. Perhaps she wanted a period of time to elapse which, retrospectively, she would later refer to as her justification for wanting to part: “Lately, I’ve been feeling that the spark between us has disappeared”; that sort of thing. Then again, perhaps she wasn’t actually seeing anyone at all and it simply was just that things were no longer somehow right. Love, after all, does fade. It leaves us, sometimes, just as suddenly and inexplicably as it first hit. Definitely Thursday: Please don’t take this the wrong way, Hewson… Definitely Thursday: …but supposing she has found a new relationship… why not just end it with you? Definitely Thursday: Not to put too fine a point on it… but why is she staying with you? It’s usually best to just ask stuff like that straight out. Saves a whole load of dancing about. Hewson Resident: I do appreciate your directness, Mr Thursday, although I won’t deny its sting. Hewson Resident: I assume, of course, that you’re perfectly well aware there could be any number of reasons – some compatible with my hypothesis that she is seeing someone else and some not – and are asking because you want to know straight out if 68


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there is any big reason. Hewson Resident: I’m a 3D designer/artist – again, I’m sure you’ve worked this out for yourself and have already browsed some of my content on the Marketplace. Hewson Resident: I do very well. The mesh revolution has been kind to me. Hewson Resident: Perhaps you’re wondering if my virtual wealth is what keeps her around. Hewson Resident: If this is the case, then it would be completely out of the character she has thus far presented to me. Hewson Resident: She has asked for nothing more than my company. Nothing. Hewson Resident: I understand and accept the possibility that I might not have read correctly her intentions. Hewson Resident: I’ll not attempt to persuade you of my ability to judge character; you must, of course, gauge that for yourself. He knew exactly what I wanted to ask and why I wanted to ask it. I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t just create an alt and do his own detective work. He was obviously capable. Unless I was missing something. Definitely Thursday: I appreciate your direct answer to my direct question. So let me ask another. Definitely Thursday: The metaverse is hardly ever about money. Definitely Thursday: We both know that someone like you who actually makes a decent living from their 69


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SL work is the exception to the rule. Definitely Thursday: There are a few people like you, and then there are the land owners… Definitely Thursday: …many of whom are now departing SL, because the numbers just aren’t big enough anymore. Definitely Thursday: The real currency of the metaverse is prestige. Definitely Thursday: Knowing significant others. Definitely Thursday: Small pond, and so on. Definitely Thursday: Assumption might not be attracted to your money. Definitely Thursday: Might she instead be attracted to your name? Hewson Resident: A wholly correct question, yes. Hewson Resident: However, my guess, once again, would be no. Hewson Resident: She has virtually no SL ambition. Hewson Resident: When she’s not with me, her main activity is to spend time with her various friends and go shopping – on her own money, I hasten to add. Hewson Resident: Her avatar is her only real obsession. Hewson Resident: It’s like a doll to her; she’s endlessly trying to perfect it. Hewson Resident: I do think she likes to be seen at my side during events. Hewson Resident: But I don’t think I am any sort of rung on any sort of ladder. I wondered, for a moment, what it was exactly that he 70


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saw in her. Definitely Thursday: Very well, Hewson. Definitely Thursday: I’ll take the case. Definitely Thursday: Now the first thing I’m going to need to be able to do is to track Assumption’s movements. Definitely Thursday: Let me rez a few items on the desk in front of you. Definitely Thursday: These are accessories and items of jewellery which we ask clients to give to targets as gifts. Definitely Thursday: We have a ladies’ watch Definitely Thursday: a pendant Definitely Thursday: a wrist chain Definitely Thursday: a hairband Definitely Thursday: a bow Definitely Thursday: a collar – fully OpenCollar compatible, I hasten to add Definitely Thursday: an ankle bracelet Definitely Thursday: a ring Definitely Thursday: a set of earrings Definitely Thursday: and a hairpin. Definitely Thursday: All have a script inside them which will listen in on local conversations and – most crucially of all – report back the wearer’s location. Hewson Resident: You want me to persuade AssAs to wear one of these? Definitely Thursday: Yes. Then I’ll know where she is at any given time. Hewson Resident: Oh dear. I’m afraid that’s quite impossible. 71


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Definitely Thursday: Why? Hewson Resident: Just look at this stuff. It’s all of it prim-based. Hewson Resident: Much of it appears pre-sculpty, even. Hewson Resident: AssAs wouldn’t want anything to do with any of it. Hewson Resident: In all honesty, I couldn’t really blame her. Hewson Resident: Don’t you have anything a bit more, well… Hewson Resident: Current? A part of me wanted to laugh. A part of me wanted to dig a hole of shame and bury myself in it in front of this articulate, up-to-date man. And a part of me felt suddenly old. How many years had I been in SL now? I had actually lost count. Six. No – seven. Nearly seven. Once upon a time, there had been almost nothing that was happening in the metaverse that I didn’t know about. Then sculpted prims had come along; I’d fiddled with some of the sculpty applications described as ‘easy’ and decided ‘easy’ was a subjective word in a virtual world where the Aspergers population was distinctly over-represented. My objects looked like they had once been the thing that I’d been trying to create, but that they’d then got mangled and mutated in some sort of horrific road traffic accident. I gave up. I gave up too easy, because anyway my heart wasn’t really in it. And sculpties weren’t the game changer that mesh would later be. They provided you with stuff that required rounded corners, like 72


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mattresses and pillows and shoes. Prims still served a purpose and tortured prims still looked good packed together in a diamond ring or as the tiny hands of a wrist watch. So I had given up on keeping up, and now technology had overtaken me. Definitely Thursday: Well. Definitely Thursday: That certainly puts me in my place! Hewson Resident: My apologies, Mr Thursday. Hewson Resident: I’m sure these were works of art, once upon a time. Hewson Resident: But you are not an artist and we are not engaged in the business of art right now. Hewson Resident: And even if we were, AssAs still wouldn’t touch these! Hewson Resident: In any case, it matters not. Hewson Resident: I have a jewellery range I’m working on myself right now. Hewson Resident: I haven’t yet released anything because I want to launch it all at the same time. Hewson Resident: I will slip your listening script into one of the completed items and ask AssAs to wear it for me as part of my pre-launch promotion. Definitely Thursday: You can do that with mesh? Drop scripts into them? As soon as I’d asked the question, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t like the extent of my ignorance being quite so visible. Hewson Resident: Yes, Mr Thursday. 73


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Hewson Resident: You can. Definitely Thursday: Why don’t you call me Def? Definitely Thursday: Seeing as how you’re not only my client but my teacher now lol. Hewson Resident smiles. Definitely Thursday: And tell me something, Hewson. Definitely Thursday: You don’t need me to supply you with a listening script, right? Definitely Thursday: Even if you don’t have one already in your inventory, I bet you could write one in a couple of minutes. Hewson Resident smiles again. Hewson Resident: If memory serves, it’s just a few lines of code. Definitely Thursday: It is. Definitely Thursday: So what I don’t understand is this: Definitely Thursday: Given that you appear to understand the exact line of enquiry I’m likely to take… Definitely Thursday: …given that – as you say – this does not appear to be a complicated case… Definitely Thursday: …and given that the tools I use are basically toys to you that you’re personally able to improve on… Definitely Thursday: why are you hiring me instead of throwing on an alt and investigating all this yourself? Hewson Resident laughs. Hewson Resident: Oh dear oh dear oh dear, Mr Thursday. Hewson Resident: Def. 74


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Hewson Resident: Are you sitting there thinking to yourself that “there’s something not quite right about this case”? Hewson Resident: Do you think yourself playing a ‘hunch’? Hewson Resident: Let me tell you why I’m hiring you. Hewson Resident: You’re quite right that I could do all this myself. Hewson Resident: But, quite frankly, I have better things to do. Hewson Resident: Products don’t make themselves, you know. Hewson Resident: But yes – I could carry out the investigation. Hewson Resident: But then, I could also do my own cleaning in RL. Hewson Resident: I don’t hire a cleaner because I’m incapable of cleaning my flat. Hewson Resident: I hire a cleaner because I can’t be bothered to clean. He stood. The meeting, I gathered, was over. Hewson Resident: Send me your script. She should be on in forty-five minutes or so, so you’ll probably start receiving information from it within a couple of hours. Hewson Resident: Good day, Mr Thursday. Hewson Resident: Def. Hewson Resident: Thank you for taking on my case. Hewson Resident: I’ll hope to hear from you soon.

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76


4 When the script started talking, I was halfway through a set of forty press-ups on the floor, my laptop in front of me so I could still keep an eye on the screen. It wasn’t a scheduled exercise session, I just felt the sudden urge to do a little bit of spur-of-the-moment ageing-process combat. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: What do you think? Gold Chain: Assumption Asymptomatic: Very nice. Gold Chain: Assumption Asymptomatic: So this is what you’ve been working on all these weeks? Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: Now now, my pet. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: No slipping in grievances in between the sentences. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: If you’d had an issue with my work and availability then you would have raised it at the time, yes? Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: Those are, are they not, our rules? Gold Chain: Assumption Asymptomatic: Sure. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: Will you wear it for me and let me know if anyone asks about it? Gold Chain: Assumption Asymptomatic: You want me to wear it tonight? Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: I do. 77


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Gold Chain: Assumption Asymptomatic: Ok fine. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: You did say you were going to a party. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: Just think of all those people there to admire it on you… and the power of their word of mouth. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: I think I have a couple of outfits that’ll go well with it. Gold Chain: Hewson Resident: I’ll take a look. I went through my Pilates routine whilst ‘AssAs’ went about getting herself ready and ignoring the various sarcastic comments and insinuation coming from Hewson whenever he was in range. The gaps between her responses, which became increasingly long, she implied were a result of inventory searching, but I wondered if there was a preliminary IM going on with a distant person. It’s always easier to juggle IMs at the start of a conversation, when fluently learned pleasantries can be exchanged; once people start making more meaningful comments a modicum of concentration and composition is required. Eventually, Hewson gave up – gracefully, politely – and excused himself to go and see ‘Grayson’ about “a new store he wants my office lines in”. Once he’d left, I worked through fifteen minutes of silence – enough time to complete the Corkscrew, the Saw, the Seal and the Hundred – before the listening script sent me details of a co-ordinate change. Nadisad, 23, 145, 12. I recognised that sim name. I sat for a moment and searched my memory. Of course. 78


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She’d gone to Angelina’s. She had gone to the club where I first met Inch Sideways. I sat for a moment more and recalled the first few lines of our first ever exchange. I knew these off by heart, pretty much as I knew off by heart the entire conversation which had then followed. If ‘conversation’ was quite the right word for it. It wasn’t, not really. Inch Sideways has been watching Definitely Thursday from across the dance floor for several minutes now. She's wondering if he's always so still and so silent. She's wondering if he's here to watch or to wish. She's wondering what it is that happens on a Thursday, and what it is that makes it so... definite. Definitely Thursday: lol Inch Sideways: lol is not allowed. Wait. Wait. Assumption had gone to the sim where Angelina’s had been. That didn’t mean she’d actually gone to Angelina’s. That didn’t mean Angelina’s still existed, even. I hadn’t stepped foot in that place since just before the night I’d met Inch for the second time, an evening in December over five years previously and the day before Step Stransky broke my heart. The chances of it still existing were surely next to nothing. There would be another place there now. Another club. Another crowd. I logged out, came straight back on as one of my male alts, Mark Mywords, threw on his best tuxedo – all of a sudden conscious of the fact that it wasn’t mesh – and teleported over to Nadisad. And Angelina’s was still there. 79


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Angelina’s was still there, and it looked just the way I remembered it. Oh, they’d invested here and there in some mesh furnishings, but the basic layout, the basic decoration, the basic colours were the same. Angelina’s was still there, still there after all these years and in a time when more and more places were disappearing from the grid. I felt suddenly thrilled and suddenly alone, an old-aged resident in an old but familiar room that was filled with new people. I thought some more about Inch and that first evening. Definitely Thursday thinks Inch looks fabulous in her sequinned dress. Inch Sideways: Boring. Try harder. Definitely Thursday peers through the mass of pixelflesh throwing itself around the floor in loose connection to the music... Inch Sideways: Now you're trying too hard. Inch Sideways: 'pixel-flesh' Inch Sideways: akk Inch sideways looks right through the dancers at the man on the far side called Definitely Thursday... Their eyes meet... Their eyes lock... It's as though it's just the two of them in the room. Alone. Together. As she examines his strong face she feels that he is trying to tell her something with his eyes... something important... something powerful... Definitely Thursday sees her at the bar, a woman of fine form and fiery eyes. A woman with a gaze that cannot be broken once met. A woman called Inch Sideways. Inch Sideways: Better. 80


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Definitely Thursday starts to walk towards her, his strides slow and uncertain at first, but becoming more confident with each step. The dancers part around him as he moves, unconscious of his passage. They are of no consequence to him. They might as well not exist. His eyes look only at the face which he approaches and the desire its stillness tries to hide. Inch Sideways: Much, much better. Try doing it in less than half an hour next. I met Inch Sideways on Christmas Eve. As the one year anniversary of that evening had approached, I’d fantasised about encountering her again at Angelina’s on the same date. I’d had lines rehearsed and an outfit prepared. Dragging myself back to the present, I took my first proper look at Assumption. The black bob and indigo lipstick had been replaced by blonde hair pinned into a tight updo and a more conventional red. I had no knowledge of how frequently she changed her look – although Hewson had commented that she treated her avatar like a doll. Perhaps she’d changed her look in order to reduce the likelihood of recognition should anyone who knew her be at Angelina’s (unlikely, really, since the floating name tag was what most people used to identify familiar people); perhaps she was just in the habit of changing her look. It didn’t really matter either way. She was, it should be added, quite stunning. Each time I decide SL has reached its limit for avatar realism, there’s always another avie that comes along to push that 81


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boundary a little further; seeing Assumption was another such moment. Her skin was exquisite, with a sprinkling of freckles across the top of her cheeks and nose that reminded me of DC Carling five years earlier. She was shaped curvaceously rather than stick thin, avoiding the wide-hipped, teenage look I’d seen had become popular lately. She wore a long grey dress with a left-side slit that travelled boldly most of the way up her thigh and well beyond the thick black top of her stockings. And she wore a thin gold chain around her neck. She was standing at the bar next to a man in a black turtleneck. I sent a signal to the listening script to stop broadcasting chat because my screen was filling up with the mess of the surrounding banter and its gold chain echo. I could hear any public chat they cared to make from where I was standing. I zoomed in on the two of them. There was nothing that could be said about their interaction other than that they were standing very close to each other. But that was enough. In Second Life, we map onto our avatars our real life expectations and understandings. From the point of view of physics, there’s no reason why avatar proximity, state of dress or animation should have any effect on us. It is, as many declare it to be – as I myself declared it to be in those opening lines of my first IM with Inch – just pixel flesh. Just Pixels. Tiny little dots of light. In RL, a piece of skin is a piece of skin, not a piece of plastic or a piece of wood. And a piece of skin touching you is a piece of another person – another human being – touching you, not the touch of a seat on your ass or the touch of a steering wheel in your fingers. But no-one touches anything in SL, other than their keyboard and 82


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their mouse, and a pixel that is one moment the colour of a piece of skin can the next moment be the colour of a piece of rock or fabric or glass. There is no sense to the connections we feel, yet somehow they are total. Therefore, when we are naked by accident in SL, we become embarrassed – even though no-one can actually see us in RL, and if they did they would still see us clothed (well, most of the time). When we teleport to a location and land on top of someone, we apologise. And when someone stands close to us – within that bubble of personal space defined by the radius that our arm can reach – we feel either a sense of invasion or a sense of intimacy, depending on who that person is and our relationship to them. Assumption was within the arm’s length reach of this guy – his name was Focus Guttering and he was a few weeks over two years old – and neither were making any moves to increase that distance. If they hadn’t been involved with each other, they would have increased it. In and of itself, however, a photograph of two people standing next to each other was hardly any sort of indisputable proof that they were in a relationship. Absently, I moved to the spot I’d stood in when Inch had sent me her opening IM. I looked across the dance floor to the place at the bar where she had stood, leaning against her elbows. She hadn’t actually been leaning against her elbows – that was something we’d established in IM – but that, to this day, is how I remember seeing her. I wondered how she was. I brought up her profile – still there, after all this time. Such was the deal with absent avatars unless their 83


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owners actually deleted their accounts. Which meant, then, that Inch hadn’t deleted her account. Sometimes I wondered why: she had seemed, after all, so definite. But then, why bother? Why go to all the trouble of deleting an account you were no longer using if it cost you nothing to maintain it? So long as it was a possibility you might change your mind one day, what point was there in restricting your future choices unnecessarily? Some people deleted nonetheless, claiming that they couldn’t trust themselves and wanted to be absolutely certain there was no way back for them, at least to that account. In a way, then, it was a comfort to know Inch hadn’t severed the final link: the account was still there for her to come back to if ever she changed her mind. On the other hand, if she had gone the extra yard and deleted it, then at least that would have suggested an acknowledgement of sorts that SL was a place in which she knew deep down she wanted to be. Perhaps, even, with me. Which was the better fantasy: seeing the profile kept alive and always hoping it would be reactivated one day or seeing no profile at all – knowing that avatar would never return – and holding dear the possibility that this decision had been one made through tears? Of course, it was all symbolic. A deleted account didn’t mean a person couldn’t return to Second Life; it just meant they couldn’t return as that avatar. Just as an abandoned profile didn’t necessarily mean there was a still person capable of returning to it. Because I suddenly wanted to see it again, I pulled up alongside Inch’s window the profile for Annis. Poor Annis. I had befriended her not long after Inch’s 84


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departure. A highly articulate, yet introverted dancer at a now long-departed sex club (one of those wonderful clubs where the regulars sat around chatting in the corner each evening whilst the newbs had sex with each other on the various apparatus spread out around the lounge; a completely unsustainable business model that placed its core activity in the hands of those with absolutely no money to pay for it), Annis and I had enjoyed a couple of nights of spontaneous textual intimacy, each of us in a state of emotional exhaustion and seeking the oblivion of fucking and being fucked thoroughly by someone. Had my heart not been permanently imprinted upon by Inch, had I met Annis a couple of years earlier – or even a year or so later, perhaps – I am certain I would have fallen in love with her. Instead, we became friends – not best friends (she was not my ‘bff’ or my ‘sis’), but the kind of friends who checked in on each other at least every couple of weeks and usually via a joint shopping excursion. On a visit to Bare Rose one evening, stuck in a bubble of lag together and unable to do anything other than IM, she told me about her breast cancer, that it had returned, that she was due more treatment starting the next day. We went back to my place and made love, and because I was in female form with her, I broke my no voice rule for the first time ever and we opened mics as our arousal grew so we could hear each other cum. Then she gave me the web address of her RL blog and promised me she’d be back in SL again soon. Annis Bluestone: The next time we have sex, it will be celebratory, ok? 85


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Lyra Lyric: Damn straight. Lyra Lyric: I’m already counting the days. It wasn’t a promise she was able to keep, and those are still the greyed out last words between us that display whenever I open our IM window. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to write something there, to talk to her again; but I don’t want those words that are there now to be replaced. I want them to stay there forever. When a person dies in RL, they just disappear. Perhaps there is a gravestone that you can visit, but other than that there is no marker, no thing in the space that they should be occupying that says “there used to be a person here and their name was Annis”. Though it makes me sad whenever I see it, I like that Annis’ profile is still there intact and will remain so until the day that Second Life ends. If RL were like that, we’d see little markers above everyone’s heads and lots more floating above nothing at head height, showing where the dead once walked. Eventually, the air would become thick with them and we would never be able to forget the lives of those before us. Somewhere, the name John-Paul Barnaby would be floating, perhaps above a bar stool in Charlie’s on a Friday evening It was just before Christmas that Annis died. I remember reading the blog entry from her brother on my mobile phone in one of those temporary Christmas pound stores that spring into existence in December. I can’t remember why I thought to check it just then, but I can remember quite clearly the outrage I felt. Two days earlier, Annis had been let home to be with her family for Christmas, having made a sudden improvement, but 86


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according to this entry she’d become confused and disoriented on the night before and had had to be been readmitted. And then she’d gone and died a few hours later. The cancer had spread to her brain; her thoughtful, sensual, beautiful brain. I couldn’t understand how a patient under such scrutiny could not be known so completely that that could have been missed, not that I suppose it would have made a great deal of difference if they had spotted it. Perhaps they did. Perhaps they reckoned there was at least time for one last Christmas. Perhaps that’s why they let her go home. Fucking cancer. She was 41, single, in love with travel, waiting for the right one. In the shop, I kicked at the fold-out legs of a table holding a crate full of one pound Christmas stockings and the whole lot collapsed. I ran out into the dark street, the festive lights blurring through my tears. Over the next day, I watched the tributes pile up in the comments section to that final blog entry. These were all people who had known her in RL, many of them in her home state of Ohio. They didn’t know Annis had lived a Second Life online. They didn’t know she’d danced and laughed and loved there. They didn’t know she’d experimented with her sexuality in the safe embrace of me and others. They didn’t know that their announcement had been read thousands of miles away by a girl who’d heard her cum and who had cum with equal need for her. She was flesh and blood to them. She was pure, beautiful thought to me.

In Inch’s profile, there was a photograph in her Second 87


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Life tab that I had once taken and a single word in the description below: ‘Gone’. Dragging my thoughts away from it and all the threads it pulled on, I noticed that Assumption and Focus had disappeared. I was left by myself in Angelina’s, standing in the spot where I had first looked across the dance floor and spotted her. Inch Sideways: Forget me and you go straight to hell, ok? If only that were possible. I would never forget Inch Sideways. Never.

88


5 The listening script sent out its new location and I reactivated its chat echo so I could hear any local conversations. If Assumption and Focus were still together and talking to each other, however, they were doing it in IM: I heard nothing. I instructed the script to do a radar report and it sent me back the names of three avatars. One was Focus at a distance of one metre; the other two were 198 and 199 metres away. At one metre apart, I reckoned they were having sex. Or would be soon. The sim was a private island called ‘Padure’. I logged Mark off and activated Lyra Lyric, my spiritual successor to Susan Sonnet, a favourite alt of mine laid to rest in 2007. I found a neutral spot on the island and teleported Lyra there. In theory, a few photographs were all I needed to finish the job. I still couldn’t understand why Hewson hadn’t done this himself. His explanation had sounded convincing at the time, yet I couldn’t quite escape the feeling it was bollocks. At ground level, where I rezzed, the sim was a wooded area. My TP had been diverted to a landing point at the centre of the region, a wooden platform with notices in each of the four corners about the rules, the group, the shop and the skybox rentals. The platform was in the middle of a small clearing surrounded by 89


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trees; four paths led from each of the sets of steps down. I cammed out, taking myself as the focal point and pulling out until the whole sim was in view. The island had been rounded nicely at the corners, with two off-sim islets breaking up the square constraints in a pleasantly organic manner. One of them had one of those waterfalls that would have you believe such phenomena just spring from the ground with no requirement for a source. They irritate me. I know it’s stupid for them to irritate me in a world where buildings can float and people can fly, but they do. Assumption and her companion were at six hundred metres, just beyond my maxed out draw distance. Flying was disabled. Re-enabling it would be a straightforward matter, but I didn’t want to stand out as a rule breaker; not just yet, at least. I took one of the paths, walked through the woods and enjoyed the tiny sound files embedded in the objects I passed. The sound of a cricket. The buzzing of a fly that really did seem to move around me (I stopped and found that it was coming from a tiny, transparent prim set to phantom that was following a circular path; Ctrl-Alt-T revealed it in red, along with the phantom disk rotating it). The tapping of a distant woodpecker. And, of course, as I got closer to the shore, the sound of waves breaking over sand. It was a well-constructed soundscape – not too complicated and with the volume levels of individual objects perfectly balanced. I felt myself begin to disappear into it. In a clearing before I got to the beach, I found the small cabin for rentals. Inside, a wall displayed eight pictures of skyboxes of varying log cabin design. Prices 90


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started at L$200 per week for the most modest, with the deluxe, four bedroom cabin asking L$1,200. A note at the bottom of the wall warned to expect seasonal fluctuation in the prices, which I took to mean fluctuation in the upward direction. Four of the skyboxes were rented. I picked one of the vacant boxes at random, stepped onto the teleport pad whilst it fetched the co-ordinates, and beamed up as a prospective renter. The cabin was empty. I materialised just inside the front door on a rigged mesh item that resolved from its twisted paper triangles into a welcome mat. Jesus Christ, even the welcome mats were mesh now. There was no furniture, but a fire burned in the hearth. I was at a thousand metres. I cammed out of the skybox, looking down, and could spot the next cabin below me, looking like it was about two hundred metres down. I Alt-clicked and zoomed in on it. Inside, the two avatars reported to me earlier by the gold chain’s radar sweep were engaged in fellatio in front of the fireplace at a distance that would have burned naked skin. I wondered if that was intentional. Probably not. I cammed back out, Alt-click edged my way along the roof until I could spot the next one down: Assumption’s cabin. I zoomed in on it. It was furnished, but empty. A table by the window with two half-full coffee mugs, a bed against the far wall with its covers thrown back, a sofa in front of the fire at a non-burn distance. But no avatars. I double checked my draw distance and confirmed I should be able to see them, then I queried the gold chain script again and got a full report verifying it was still in the sim at 600 metres. 91


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Only this time the radar reported back just the names of the two avatars in the cabin between myself and Assumption. Focus was no longer present. I cammed around, checking first I’d turned off the broadcast of my crosshairs in case she had LookAt turned on. She had to be there somewhere. I cammed outside the cabin and examined above and below it in case she’d been thrown out after getting up off a pose ball. I looked in the roof. I looked under the bed. No sign of her anywhere. More than likely, I thought, this was an SL glitch. She was there but I just couldn’t see her. I’d probably looked straight through her on several occasions, in fact. Perhaps a fault had somehow caused her to be derendered by my viewer: I checked my asset blacklist, but it was empty. I debated flying down to check. The problem was, I’d be visible and visible as a snoop. And if Focus was gone then he’d taken with him any photographic opportunities, so what was the point? Then again, if SL was playing up he might just have crashed and be back any minute. Or maybe his RL wife had just walked into the room. Who knew? And, in any case, how could I be sure it was Focus – or only Focus – that Assumption was having her affair with? Perhaps he’d left because she was expecting someone else. I teleported back down to the beach, deciding it would look less suspicious to fly up from below than down from above. I disabled the flight restriction and took off, resolved to fly up to the first skybox initially and examine from there. 92


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I encountered the first cabin at 400 metres, making my position just 200 metres below Assumption. I looked up. The cabin was still empty. There was no sign of her there. Was there a second set of skyboxes somewhere? I wondered. Was I at the right Z but the wrong X and Y? I did what I should have done right at the start and brought up the minimap. It showed two – not three – little upward pointing chevrons next to my yellow circle: the two fellating avatars above. So she had to be elsewhere on the sim. I flew up to the next cabin anyway. I cammed in and sat on the sofa in front of the fireplace. Rustic Sofa: Use Pgup/Pgdn to adjust pose. Gold Chain: Rustic Sofa: Use Pgup/Pgdn to adjust pose. The listening script was echoing to me my own local chat. My own local chat. That wasn’t right. Lyra Lyric: Hello? Gold Chain: Lyra Lyric: Hello? I cammed around the interior of the cabin, knowing now what I was looking for. I found it at the foot of the bed. Assumption’s gold chain was hanging there, carefully arranged around one of the bedposts.

93


6 A strange sense of cold seeped into me. Had she known? Had she worked out somehow there was a listening script inside the necklace? Had she been told? Or had she merely suspected? If she’d checked the object’s contents she would have seen there was a script inside. But I’d made it no modify and I’d called it, ‘Bling flasher’. There was nothing else that she could have found out about it. Her shoes, I noticed now, were also here, the points neatly pushed under the bed. Something else caught my eye. I zoomed in on the duvet and found two gold earrings nestled together in a fold of the fabric. It was as though she had taken off all her attachments before leaving. Evidence in favour of suspicion rather than certainty, perhaps: she might have suspected a script, but not known where it was hidden. Of course, it might also have been that all these things had been taken off for another reason entirely. I did another cam check above and below, more for want of something to do than as any sort of meaningful strategy. How was I to track Assumption if she took off all her objects before proceeding to her destination? I cammed up to the skybox above again and spied on the woman and man in front of the fire. She was still fellating him. They’d have been burned to a crisp in RL 94


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by now. That made me think for a moment about Barnaby’s flesh on fire, a human being smelling like barbecuing meat. I wondered, absently, why they hadn’t changed position by now. People have sex in SL in so many different ways. Perhaps these two were emoting in IM and the animation had just been the catalyst to prime their appetites. Their avatars now forgotten about – doomed to suck and burn – perhaps they’d finished fellatio in the text between them ages ago. Cunnilingus, too, might have been undertaken and completed by now. Maybe they’d switched to private voice or were camming on Skype. Maybe they lived together in RL and had used SL as the touch paper to their lust, sharing in IM thoughts and desires few people have the courage to actually give physical voice to, then coming together physically to do what they had enabled themselves to plan. The best of both worlds. People shake their heads at the notion of cybersex. They say it isn’t real. You don’t get to see and feel your partner’s RL body in cybersex, but for sure you get to see and feel their mind. I left Assumption’s skybox and flew back up to the box I’d viewed previously, then continued up, checking out in turn each of the cabins. The sign had said four of them were rented and I’d seen two of those four so far, and four of the skyboxes in total. Five was empty. Six was furnished. Seven was furnished. Eight – the deluxe model – was empty. Hardly surprising, at that price. Something nagged at me about the occupied boxes, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I flew back down 95


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to seven and let myself in by sitting on the bed. I noticed it was the same make as the bed in Assumption’s flat and wondered how much of a coincidence that was. The boxes weren’t supplied furnished; tenants had to bring their own bed and Lord knows there were enough brands to choose from. Then again, it was a very good make. I had one myself. Even if it wasn’t coincidence, perhaps tenant seven had just seen Assumption’s bed and got themselves one like it… or vice versa. Set against the wall opposite the fireplace was a small table with facing chairs. On it, were two half-full coffee mugs. Just like the table by the window in Assumption’s box. That was what was wrong with the occupied boxes: they weren’t exactly copies of each other, but neither were they distinct. They’d each been furnished as though from a single idea and nothing – absolutely nothing – personalised them. The only exception to this was Assumption’s abandoned shoes and jewellery. Playing a hunch, I flew back down to box three and landed on the roof. Beneath me, the couple continued in their never-ending foreplay. I attached my bot-detector HUD, a customised version of an off-the-shelf product that was still pretty hit and miss, but better than nothing. It gave me a positive on both of them. To increase my certainty, however, I sat down on their nearby bed – same make again – and started talking to them. Lyra Lyric: Hello. Lyra Lyric: Don’t you think you’ve had enough now? Lyra Lyric: There’ll be nothing left of it soon.

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I IMed them both. I stood on top of them. I found I could operate the sex rug’s menu and switched them to a new position where finally the woman got a little action. Yeah, they were bots. Conceivably, they could have just been AFK, but I knew that they weren’t. They and the rest of this skybox set-up was fake, something with a purpose made to look like something plain and ordinary. For final proof, I flew back down to the ground level office and tried to rent one of the vacant boxes. My repeated left clicks on the vendor achieved nothing. The average renter-to-be would just assume a broken vendor – or SL problems – and sigh and move on. I even tried IMing the vendor owner. Lyra Lyric: Hey there. I’m interested in renting one of your skyboxes, but can’t seem to get the vendor working. Can you help? Second Life: User not online - message will be stored and delivered later. Not online and probably never would be. I flew back up to Assumption’s skybox and let myself in via the couch again. What, then, was this place? I started examining everything, hovering my mouse over every object and surface, and clicking on anything that turned the pointer into a hand. Doors opened and shut. Window blinds ascended and descended. Pose menus dropped from the top-right corner. Nothing else happened. But there was something odd about the fireplace. Hunches are difficult things to describe, ideas that come from nowhere, cobbled together from tiny little bits 97


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and pieces long forgotten – things seen, things said, things done, things read; things thought about and considered on walks and in the shower: slithers of unconnected life joining up unexpectedly and presenting a thought, a feeling, an answer where none should exist on the basis of information you actually have in front of you. I realised that the fireplace here was higher than in any of the other cabins. When I walked up close to it, in fact, I saw that the mantelpiece was above the level of my head. It’s a portal, I thought suddenly. It has to be. A controlled access point to another sim. If it was, then it was the first such example I’d seen on the main grid outside of my brief exploration of ‘Linden Realms’. I walked into the fireplace and an invisible force pushed me gently away, backwards into the room. Fireplace: Lyra Lyric, please remove all scripted items. In RL, I barked, “Ha!” at the screen. I took off everything scripted, even my AO. Only my hair and shoes remained with their resize scripts. No way was I walking into an unknown situation without either of those. I called up their respective menus and hit the option to delete scripts. I had copies of both, of course. In for a penny. My heart was beating more quickly than normal. It was a pleasant, long-forgotten feeling. I faced the fireplace again, took a deep breath and walked into the flames. The cabin disappeared with an electronic hiss.

98


7 Lyra was one of my honeypots, a handful of avatars designed to be lusted after from the moment they were first seen, ideally by whichever target I was trying to entrap in those cases where general infidelity was suspected rather than a specific love affair. She was approaching five years old now and I’d lost count of the number of times I’d used her. In each case, broadly the same sort of thing would happen. I’d take her to whatever location I’d established the target to be hanging out in and stand her some place close – but not too close – to him or her. It was usually a him. I’d wait ten minutes or so and if by then his crosshairs hadn’t settled on me then I would settle mine on him. In most cases that was enough to get an IM. When all else failed, I’d just message him myself and try to make it sound like I found interesting one of the picks or Somebody Else’s Quotes in his profile. “Hi there,” he’d say or, “Hi” or, “Hey” or, “Hey baby,” or, “Hi gorgeous” or, “Hello beautiful” or whatever. We’d engage, in most cases, in level zero flirting, an interactional discourse style marginally above the level of grunting. Any utterance which involves the use of the letter U in place of the word ‘you’ I regard as the functional equivalent to a grunt. “How R U baby?” or, “U R sexy” or, “U looking for a 99


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fun time?” or, “U here for fun?” or, “What brings U here 2nite?” or, “U here 2 fuck?” or whatever. Sometimes, they didn’t even bother capitalising. Occasionally, we achieve level 1 – respectful flirting. Respectful flirts are generally a bore because they don’t know how to get from being polite to being erotic. They engage in polite, charming conversation (“What a beautiful dress you’re wearing” or, “I love your hair” or, “This song is really beautiful, it reminds me of a past love,” or, “What a picturesque couple we make” or whatever) up to the point where you start getting suggestive to them, and then they devolve into level zero groping and offering to send you pictures of their RL cock. Very occasionally, I get someone who knows how to emote a little. Years back, that’s where I thought the action was. A guy could do a lot to my heartbeat with a line like, “Bob traces his index finger along the line of your jaw” or, “Frank lets his hands wander tentatively towards your ass” or, “Dave brushes his knee against yours as we dance” or, “Mike grows slowly against your abdomen” or whatever. The problem is, once you’ve killed a man with your bare hands, the heart finds it difficult to continue to be moved much by such trifles. The really rare find is the guy who mixes it all up, who offers compliments, who emotes about his fingers, who self depreciates just enough to take the edge off of his arrogance and not so much that his insecurities become annoying, who does so humourously and injects just the right amount of ironic contextual commentary (I particularly like it when he manages to create comedic 100


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cross references between our surroundings and any headline current affairs), who gets the pace of transition from politeness to uninhibited lust just right – dissolving the bubble of the distance between us at precisely the right speed – and who knows when the time has come to dispense with all social niceties completely and to fuck me and fuck me hard. Those guys I try to give the best time that I can to in return for their investment of effort. In a couple of cases, I’ve even seen them after the evidence has been sent, the partnership severed and my deception revealed. That’s how good I can be. But even those guys I started to get bored by after a while. As time passed, everything eventually became repeated. I wanted something that continued, something that was novel in different ways as only a successful, enduring relationship could be. But I never really came close to any sort of relationship. That night with Annis was perhaps the most vivid example of sex that transcended pure lust and became something qualitatively different. If ever a cynic wanted to see the distinction between having sex and making love, they could have done so that occasion. Making love is sex with emotion, and Annis and I made love that night. But I didn’t form or even seek any relationships. It seemed pointless to do so, for I was still in love with Inch Sideways. Much as it felt like a state of continual pain, I didn’t want not to be. She’d found out about Stransky/Barnaby’s death just four days after the night that I killed him. It turned out, he did have a death buddy. His daughter had sent Inch an email. She’d written, “I don’t know who you are, but my father gave me your address a couple of months ago 101


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and asked me to email you in the event of his death. He said you would be able to tell all the people that he speaks to online. Well, I’m sorry to have to let you know that he died on Friday night in a fire that broke out in his flat. I know that his online friends were very important to him, so if you could pass this information on I know he would appreciate it very much, as would I.” She’d also given her address and the date of the funeral, which had been delayed by the wait for the coroner’s report and a busy schedule at the crematorium. Inch had been beside herself. At one point, she’d begged me to voice with her because she couldn’t type; I had to fabricate a prolonged and unsuccessful attempt to get my headphones and mic working, when in reality my headset lay disconnected from my PC beside me. I listened to her sobbing through my speakers – it was the first time I’d ever heard her beautiful voice – for over an hour, helpless to alleviate her pain and furious at Stransky for screwing things up for me yet again. So much for the third book from the right on the fourth shelf down.

Of course, the target would rarely have a place to take Lyra to, seeing as how his place was usually the place he shared with his partner. I kept a small 512 skybox in an adult mainland sim far, far away from my office. Inside, the brick walls were whitewashed and skylights let in as much light as possible. I had a bed with a pink bedspread and pine cupboards and a wicker reading chair by the wall to ceiling window on the southern side. We would fuck on the bed or in the chair and, in the vast 102


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majority of cases, I would fake my orgasm once I had enough pictures. Which really wasn’t a particularly large amount of time at all. I became bored with SL, continuing to do it for no other reason than SL was what I did, seeking sexual stimulation in ever more extreme set-ups that I’m too embarrassed to recount even here. I kept going with SL for nearly eighteen months after Inch left. It was a case involving a female target that proved to be the final straw. Once the information was exchanged and the fees paid, the target started IMing me, calling me a misogynistic bastard. She was devastated, told me she’d never been unfaithful to her guy, had only gone with me because I’d spoken to her so nicely. She told me she’d practically fallen in love with me that night, that I’d proven to her every last word ever spoken about the pathetic nature of men. Of course, I’d heard it all before. I was well used to muting such people. But I was tired that night and feeling directionless. And it was also my thirtieth birthday. The realisation that I was RL friendless with no career prospects, no relationship prospects – RL or SL – and with an increasingly long list of people who hated me was that much easier to come to on the first night of my fourth decade, when any normal person would have been out celebrating. To add to it all, I was a murderer, something I could never now not be. And to add to that, the person I had murdered was the lover of the love of my life. I hadn’t just killed someone I hated, I’d killed someone the person I loved loved. And thereby driven her out of SL. Fuck this, I told myself. I muted the complaining 103


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woman. And, an hour later, I left Second Life, resolved that I would never return.

104


8 I materialised in a wide, empty chamber of marble. The room was divided into three sections by two rows of pillars stretching away from me. It was dark. At the far end, I could see light diffusing across the distant wall and floor, spilled across them from a doorway obscured from my view by the right-side row of pillars. I pulled up my mini-map. There were twenty other people on the sim (which had been given the nondescript name of ‘4YB’) and appeared on the main map as nothing more than a square of blue sea. Map images are generated from overhead views at something like five hundred metres (I’ve never bothered to work out exactly what the height is), so I didn’t have to look at the coordinates to know we were relatively high up. We were, it turned out, at exactly a thousand metres. High enough to be out of sight; not so high that the lag became unbearable. A shadow moved across the diffusion of light at the far end of the hall and an avatar walked into view, then turned to face and walk up to me along the midline of the room. It stopped about four feet away, a naked man wearing a black cloak; his head was hooded and he wore a smooth, featureless black mask that completely covered his face. His name, floating above his head in red, was just ‘Seven’. 105


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Seven: Who are you? He had a completely blank profile, an EP that somehow didn’t quite fit that category. I Alt-clicked the far wall to start my way towards the hidden doorway and an attempt to see what lay beyond it. Seven: You will cease your camming immediately or I will eject you from this sim. Seven: Focus on my face and nothing else. Seven: If you turn off the broadcast of your crosshairs so I cannot see where you are looking, I will eject you. I returned my crosshairs quickly to his mask. Lyra Lyric: I came via the portal. I hoped this was vague enough to be within the general ballpark of an appropriate response. Seven: Which portal? Luckily, I could remember the name of the sim. Lyra Lyric: Padure. The avatar stood silently before me for a full minute, perhaps consulting another in IM. Finally, he spoke again. Seven: And how did you come to be in Padure? 106


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Did I want to look like an innocent who’d stumbled across this place by accident or would that just cause me to be ejected before I had a chance to see its secrets? But if I tried to bluff prior knowledge, was there any possibility I could do so in a convincing manner? If they suspected me to be concealing something, however, might they play along with my obvious lie in order to find out more about me? Lyra Lyric: I heard a rumour. Seven: What rumour did you hear and from whom did you hear it? It’s always helpful when a person interrogating you asks two things at once: you answer the question that’s more easy to lie to. Lyra Lyric: A guy I met at a club yesterday. Lyra Lyric: His name was… let me see… I knew they’d be thorough and check whatever name I gave. If I made one up, they would see almost immediately that no such person existed. But if I chose a name at random from a search then there was the risk they might IM him and that he’d be online to give a confused response. I decided to use the name of one of my alts. Lyra Lyric: Oh yes, Mark Mywords. A pause.

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Seven: This person is not known to us. Lyra Lyric: Well I guess he could be anybody. Lyra Lyric: Alts and everything. Another pause. Then: Seven: What do you seek here? I decided this required something profound. Lyra Lyric: I seek transcendence. It was as though I could feel his crosshairs crawling all over my body, examining me, searching me, looking my name up on Google and Facebook and Flickr, hunting for a trail of breadcrumbs that could be followed. That they could find nothing they would conclude meant either I was a nobody or that I was a very cautious person. Seven: You will follow me. Seven: At all times, your focus will remain on my hood or face mask. Do you understand? Lyra Lyric: Yes. Seven: Be sure that you do, Lyra Lyric. Seven: You will be watched by several. Should your cross hairs disappear from my head for an instant, you will be ejected and banned. Lyra Lyric: I understand. Seven: Before you leave this spot, you must take off all your clothes. Do so now. He stood in silence in front of me whilst I stripped. I did 108


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so speedily, clicking and dragging onto me my ‘Naked’ folder from my outfits. It was a well-practised manoeuvre. Seven: Stop. Seven: Put your clothes back on. Lyra Lyric: Did I do something wrong? Seven: Put your clothes back on. I did so. Seven: Now take them off again. Seven: Do it properly, this time. Lyra Lyric: I don’t understand. Seven: Are you a fucking idiot, Lyra Lyric? Remove your clothes one at a time, and in the order which you would ordinarily do so. I took off my shoes, then my jeans, then my top, then my bra, then my panties. Seven: Good. Seven: Now you will follow me. Seven: Keep your focus on my hood or mask. Seven: Do not speak unless you are spoken to. He turned. As he started to walk, I scrolled quickly back on my mouse wheel, widening the field of view as much as possible. Then I followed him to the end of the chamber, where we turned right. We walked through the doorway and entered an enormous circular hall of marble that was brightly lit by burning torches all 109


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around the circumference. In fact, I could only infer this from the amount I could see. Even with the wide viewing angle, it was hard to get a feeling for the overall layout; it made me realise just how much I cam to get the spatial feel for a place. I reminded myself I was there to take pictures of Assumption. It would be hard to do so if I couldn’t move my focus onto her. In the middle of the hall, I counted twelve male avatars in two groups of six and arranged in a wide semi-circle. They were all naked, and all wearing the same cloak, hood and mask. They were numbered One to Thirteen with the gap between them at the position for seven. In front of them, arranged in a smaller circle, were six naked women, of which one was Assumption. The women were each on their hands and knees, the forehead of each resting against the ass of the woman in front. Behind the gap between the two groups of six men there was a slightly raised platform. On it, in front of a large media screen, a man stood wearing a black suit as well as the cloak, hood and mask. His designation was Zero. Seven stopped in front of the circle. Seven: Open The Circle. The women stood. Silently, they reformed themselves into a larger circle with an entrance. Seven turned to look at me. Seven: You will stand in the middle of The Circle and 110


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you will face me where I stand. Without waiting for a reply from me, he walked around the back of the semi-circle of men until he reached the gap, then took this spot, completing the crescent. I walked into the centre of the circle and faced him. Seven: Close The Circle. The women returned to their kneeled position. Zero: Intruder, you see here The Arch and The Circle. Zero: This place we are in is The Disc. Zero: All in The Disc enter it by choice. Zero: All in The Disc remain through obedience. Zero: Is that clear? Lyra Lyric: It is. Zero: The Arch is fixed, but the circle rotates. Zero: There are more members of the circle than you see here. Zero: The Arch serves only to surround and to penetrate. Zero: The Circle serves only to be surrounded and to be penetrated. Zero: Do you need to be surrounded, Intruder? Lyra Lyric: I think so. Seven: Uncertainty does not belong in The Disc, Lyra Lyric. Seven: The Disc is only for those who know. Zero: I will ask one more time. Zero: Do you need to be surrounded, Intruder? Lyra Lyric: Yes. 111


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Zero: Do you need to be penetrated, Intruder? Lyra Lyric: I do. Zero: The Arch stands, but The Circle is called. Zero: Today, you will observe and be observed. Zero: If you are called, you will firstly be prepared. Zero: Do you understand? Lyra Lyric: Yes. Zero: Circle; Arch: for the remainder of this meeting, the Intruder will be referred to as the Observer. Zero: Observer, your focus will remain on Seven at all times. Zero: Should you attempt to record in any manner the proceedings of this meeting, you will never again be permitted to enter The Disc. Zero: Do you understand this? Lyra Lyric: I do. Zero: The meeting may proceed. Seven took a step forward. Seven: To surround is to protect. Seven: To be surrounded is to trust. Seven: To penetrate is to conquer. Seven: To be penetrated is to surrender. Seven: Prepare the circle. The women stood and turned to face me. Seven: Reduce The Arch. The three men on each end of the arch stepped out of their positions; each took a place behind one of the 112


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woman. Their movement was smooth, flawless, synchronised. It seemed likely to me that they were all part of a twenty ball animation, the sequences controlled by a single person. I had not seen Seven select a ball when he took his place in the arch, however, although my view at the time had been obscured by the circle. Now, the men knelt and the women bent forward. I so badly wished I could cam. At one point I had to sit on my hands in RL to prevent myself from doing so automatically. My speakers crackled. I heard someone moan. I heard the low hum of a vibrator. All around the circle, the white voice spots above avatars’ heads sprang into green life. Then the men lowered themselves to the ground and lay between their partners’ legs on their backs; the women lowered themselves onto them, rode them slowly and rhythmically. Male voices joined the low chorus of moaning. My mouth started to feel dry. I slipped my hand quietly inside the gym shorts I was wearing. Pictures! I reminded myself I was there to take pictures for Hewson. The problem was that Assumption was behind me. Keeping my crosshairs on Seven's face, I zoomed out a little so I could see her. She was riding Twelve and – since my voice settings were set to receive audio from camera position rather than avatar position – her moans and gasps filled me. I moaned a little myself and pressed my fingers into the cotton, felt it turning slightly damp. Seven: Reduce The Arch.

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The remaining six men now came to the circle, each standing behind one of the fucking couples. They knelt, gripped the woman in front of them by her hips and entered her anally, pushing very slowly to begin with, as though forcing the careful first entrance through the sphincter. Pictures. But now that Nine had entered Assumption from behind, I could no longer see her. But I could have got my pictures easily if I’d wanted to. I could have cammed around. I only needed one or two, after all; I doubted that Seven could have ejected me so quickly I didn’t have time at least for that. I could be a pretty fast draw on the snapshot button when I needed to be. Except I didn’t want to get ejected. Like a choir building to a crescendo, the union of gasping, moaning, urgent exhales and grunted expletives rose. The sounds of each amplified the sounds of each other; urgency fed on urgency. I felt sweat break across me, found myself wondering if they could possibly all cum together. I felt for my clit, started to circle it through my panties. Zero: Observer, do you seek permission to masturbate? I pulled my hand out of my shorts as though I’d been electrocuted. My fingers shook as I typed. Lyra Lyric: yyes Seven: You will answer with correct spelling and grammar, Observer. 114


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Lyra Lyric: Yes. I seek permission. Zero: It is granted on the condition that you remove your clothes in First Life and that you open your microphone so that your climax becomes one with ours. I stood, pushed down my shorts and panties as quickly as I could, kicked them aside, tore off my tank, unclasped my bra. I was out of breath. I plugged in the headphones and mic, and the retreating voice of logic asked me over and over what the hell I thought I was doing. I let it fade. I didn’t care. This was all that was left for me now. It was moments like this that I existed for. To hell with the job. I had no idea why I was still doing investigation anyway. I had no idea even why I was still in Second Life after all this time. This. This was the reason. I sat down. I opened my mic. I let my middle finger into my wet slit and moaned loudly at the sensation. My whole body trembled. There wasn’t much time left. The crescendo, now filling my head through the headphones, had grown so loud and fast and thick it felt like there wasn’t any place left for it to go. It held at this peak for a few more seconds and I pushed my two fingers inside of me and pressed my Venus Mount against my clit. Assumption broke first; crying out, “Oh fuck oh fuck I’m cumming,” she was the catalyst, the trigger to a mass, cascaded orgasm. My whole body shook as I came and my gasps at climax turned into sobs. I lost control of myself. The noise died. Breathing slowed. My thinking mind began its post-climax reboot. 115


9 When I left SL, I contemplated deleting my account. That is to say, I contemplated deleting my accounts. Of course, this entailed going through with myself the whole ‘where’s the point in deleting when it costs me nothing to maintain them?’ argument, knowing as I did so – but not admitting it, naturally – that I really didn’t want to lose the way back into these shoes. It wasn’t like Def had a thriving SL social life to protect – he didn’t at all; not lately, at least; nor did any of my other accounts. That wasn’t the tie I was ultimately protecting. I doubted, in fact, that anyone would actually notice that I had gone. The occupants of my mute list might rejoice, perhaps, but that was hardly something to cherish. That said, the notion that even one of them might conclude my departure to be some sort of moral victory for them did form for a while the basis of at least one rationalisation to keep my profile looking as though I were still inworld. No, the key reason for wanting to protect Def was that he had an identity. He was something in that world, an almost medium sized fish in a – let’s face it – not especially big pond. But it was big enough that it spanned the whole planet, just the same. In RL, I was a friendless, single woman who worked on the checkouts at the local supermarket in order to 116


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make enough money to keep me in coffee and a thousand calories a day, and in order to fund an expenditure of between ten and twenty thousand Lindens a week, depending on how badly I felt I needed new shoes. And who was facing, incidentally, possible upcoming redundancy due to the rise in popularity of the new self-service tills. I say it would have cost me no money to maintain my accounts as inactive, but that’s not exactly true. I had two premium accounts that I paid over £60 a year for in a single yearly payment, plus each of those had monthly tier to pay for the land I kept – over 5000 square metres in total. I contemplated spending a night taking down my builds and abandoning my land so that I could eventually convert back to a free account once renewal came up. But, first of all, that required me to go back inworld for a while in order to sort it all out and the thought of that felt like my resolve to leave was cheapened. Second, I just didn’t want my builds to be gone. In fact, there was plenty of stuff that I didn’t really care all that much about: I could easily have dropped myself down to a single parcel per account so I didn’t have to pay tier at least. But that too meant going back in. So I told myself another month’s payments wouldn’t hurt me, and once I’d put four weeks between myself and time in the metaverse I’d look at the situation again. In any case, the vastly better job I planned on having by then would pay for all of these things easily if I ended up deciding I still wanted keep everything the way it was. That didn’t mean I was contemplating going back, I assured myself; it was more like just paying to keep a few treasured items in storage. 117


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On the first night, I left the bedsit and walked. I walked down to the waterfront and looked at the lights reflected in the Sound. I watched people. I tried to see into their lives from the way they stood and moved, and from the intonation and volume of their voices. I grew cold very quickly and wanted to leave, but the only place there seemed to me to go to was back to the bedsit, where I would either sit and do nothing or sit and do Second Life. So I went to a gym and joined up there and then, and decided to train for a ten kilometre race I saw advertised on an A4 flyer on display in the foyer. I hadn’t fallen out of the habit of running in all my time in SL, but those had been occasional two or three kilometre runs and I’d run them thinking about what I’d do in SL when I got back home. Psychologically, it’s easier to run if you’re looking forward to the finish. I did five Ks that evening, notching up my speed by 0.2 kph per kilometre so that I was running at eleven kph by the final kilometre. It nearly killed me. My best speed, five years earlier – at which point I’d been in the habit of entering at least five or six races per year – had been fourteen kph; a personal best time of 42 minutes and 51 seconds. I was out of shape. I asked for my hours at work to be increased – they’d been nagging me for ages and I’d always previously resisted: I really couldn’t have given two round shits about the job and had only ever cared to do as little as I could get away with and still be able to pay my bills. It wasn’t really the best time of year for increased hours – with Christmas just gone – but my line manager managed to find me some extra work at the weekend in 118


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the evenings. Nobody wanted to work those hours. Each morning, I ran down to the Hoe and back. I got up as early as I could so that everything down there would feel like it belonged only to me, including the view of the sea and the Cornish coastline, curling away out of sight. The first time I did that, I thought about how it looked and wondered if it could be re-created in Second Life. It pissed me off that I did that and I punished the thoughts by running down the steps of the Victorian waterfront and forcing myself to wade into the freezing cold sea, right up to my shoulders. This is not fucking Second Life, I told myself. This is real. Real, just like the smell of Barnaby’s flesh on fire. My run took me daily past his flat. It had been repaired and refurbished. Someone was living in the spot where I had murdered a man. I saw new net curtains behind new windows. It also took me past Charlie’s. I’d never set foot in there since that night with Steve. It seemed like the sort of thing someone traumatised by the event would do. Or rather not do. I realised that I hated living in proximity to these places and started looking for a new flat. It might seem strange that it took this long, but it was only really now that I was paying attention to the real world again that I was properly starting to think about being a murderer. A part of me wondered if that was one reason I’d stayed in SL for so long after Inch left, using it as a strategy for delaying facing up to what I had become. I was a murderer. I was a murderer. Some days, whilst I ran, I’d just roll that word over and over in my mind. Sometimes, I’d actually speak it. Murderer. 119


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Murderer. I am a murderer. Murderer. I would be a murderer forever, now. I would be a murderer until the day I died. Whatever good I did from this point on, nothing would ever change that. I was a murderer, and for what? Inch had found out Stransky was dead and had left SL. The whole thing had been a complete waste of time. Some days, I’d run alternate histories in my head whilst I ran, think about what I should have done instead of killing that old bastard. My favourite fantasy was the one where I entered into a relationship with Barnaby. The one night stand turned into a regular Friday evening thing, and then I started seeing him on other nights. I imagined myself driving him nightly to orgasm, his PC unattended in the corner of his lounge, Inch left waiting whilst he slowly fell in love with me. I imagined myself being there for her as his interest in her faded. But I always ended up hating myself for thinking thoughts like that, first of all because they changed nothing and took my attention away from sorting out my life, and secondly because I knew such thinking massively underestimated the nature of their relationship and their feelings for each other, and it made me feel unworthy of her. I wished with all my heart that I wasn’t a murderer. But the thing is, I still hated Step Stransky. And on some days, I’d just remember killing him, and I’d relish the sights and sounds and sensations of it. I’d rub my forearms and thigh where he’d scratched me, remembering how his fingernails had dug into my skin and how he’d made me bleed. Some days, I would dig my own nails into my skin there and let the pain revive 120


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the memory all the more vividly. After about six weeks, I got promoted at work to the position of supervisor. The trainee manager at the store who hadn’t been with us for long enough to be fully acquainted with my reputation as an anti-social bitch started to take an interest in me. We started to date. We had sex a couple of times. He was nearly ten years younger than me and I think at some stage his parents must have given him a lecture or something because he went rather abruptly from messaging me several times an hour to a state of total text silence and avoiding me at work. In the end, he gave me a dry-mouthed speech in the staff room about not wanting to commit to any sort of relationship “at this stage,” and I kind of liked that he’d plucked up the courage to do it face-to-face. I kissed him on the lips and rubbed his cock one last time and thanked him for a nice couple of weeks. I didn’t have any feelings for him at all, really, but I had enjoyed the sex. There hadn’t been anything all that spectacular about, it was just its normality I’d found pleasant. I liked the way he came and how he lay on me panting for several minutes afterwards, not saying anything at all. I got promoted again. I think he had a hand in it; I think he was essentially just glad I hadn’t created a scene. I started seeing a guy from the gym whilst secretly coveting the girl, Saskia, he arrived with each session. I asked him one night why the two of them weren’t a couple and he told me she was gay; I had to pinch my thigh hard to stop myself from letting out a little squeal of delight. The next time I saw her at the gym, I followed her out to the locker room when her workout was over, my heart pounding at the audacity of 121


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what I wanted to do. The showers were only curtained for privacy; I gave her a couple of minutes in there before walking in on her and then did this huge display of embarrassment at not having checked the cubicle wasn’t occupied first. She laughed and put her hand on my shoulder to reassure me she wasn’t mad, and then noticed that my nipples were hard. I put my hand over hers and looked at her, breathlessly. That turned into the best shower I ever had in my life. Murderer. Murderer. I am a murderer. Murderer. Saskia and I lasted for about a month and a half, and we only really ended because she had to take a job up in Nottingham. We talked about making the relationship a long distance once, but I don’t think either of us could be bothered with the stress of it, and the moment she started talking about the possibility of spending time online together I backed well away from the subject, although I knew she wasn’t talking about SL. So we parted and it was ok. It was fine. I had got to know her body well, but I had never really penetrated her mind. Just like the trainee manager, it was the sheer normality I enjoyed. She liked to have sex in the mornings and afterwards, she’d drink literally a whole pint of orange juice and encourage me to do the same. I liked sleeping with her, pushing my knee between her legs. I ran the race in 45 minutes and 32 seconds – not a personal best, but a vast improvement on where I’d been a couple of months earlier; in any case I reckoned the route was more hilly. On race day, I walked up to the sports centre where the start and finish was. Over a thousand people took part, plus their supporters lined the start line and cheered us on as we finished. Normal 122


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people, who liked to get out on a spring day and be encouraging and supportive to other normal people. Normal people who were not murderers. I felt like an intruder as I ran the final hundred metres and listened to them all shouting me on that last little bit. They wouldn’t be so enthusiastic, I reflected, if they knew what I had done. Murderer. Murderer. I am a murderer. Murderer. About a hundred metres back from the finish line, volunteers collected from us the chips we wore round our ankles to record our times. A guy touched my shoulder whilst I removed mine. I was out of breath and feeling a little sick, and his pleasant face immediately angered me. I felt judged by his stupid naivety that I was ‘one of them’. I was not. When his fingers made contact with my skin, I shook him off and muttered, “Fuck off” under my breath. That was before Saskia moved away, by about two weeks. She was waiting for me at the end, a case of shin splints having obstructed her own entry into the race. She got upset by my silence on the walk back to my new flat and asked if she’d said or done something to make me mad. In that moment, I burned with the desire to tell her everything and to be judged by her according to who I really was rather than who she thought me to be. Ironically, it was a conversation with Stransky I’d once had which caused me to hesitate just long enough for the burning moment to pass. I can’t now even remember when we’d it, except I know we’d been in the office, discussing the departure of a client a few minutes earlier (clutching in her virtual shaking fingers the pictures I’d taken for her) and I’d had one of my rare crises of 123


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confidence. Definitely Thursday: It’s not right what we do, is it? Step Stransky: Try not to forget that if we didn’t do this then someone else would. Step Stransky: With catchier phrases and more vitriolic slogans. Step Stransky: ‘Cheaters Exposed’ Step Stransky: That was the name of the first agency I looked at when I was thinking about starting up. Step Stransky: What we don’t do here is take sides and serve judgement. Step Stransky: We simply deliver information. Step Stransky: For those who can’t live with The Big Illusion any more. Definitely Thursday: The Big Illusion? Step Stransky: The lies we allow ourselves to believe. Step Stransky: And, in particular, our belief that things are ultimately ordered and make some sort of sense. Step Stransky: That good is good and bad is bad. Step Stransky: That Policemen never break the law and criminals have nothing but contempt for it. Step Stransky: That evil nations should be crushed. Step Stransky: And that declarations of love are only meaningful if they last forever. Step Stransky: That the world isn’t the messy place it ultimately is. Step Stransky: But we have to respect it, Def. Step Stransky: The Big Illusion greases the wheels. Step Stransky: Without it, there would be anarchy. Definitely Thursday: I don’t understand. Definitely Thursday: How does what we do respect 124


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The Big Illusion? Definitely Thursday: Are we not undermining it by exposing truth? Definitely Thursday: Would we not be more faithful to it if we used words like ‘cheating bastards’ and let people slot their unfaithful partners into their categories of convenience? Step Stransky: I didn’t mean that we *never* take a peek. Step Stransky: Nor that the nature of The Big Illusion can’t be changed or shrunk. Step Stransky: Nor even that life would be better without it. Step Stransky: The Big Illusion has to be in balance with just the right amount of reality that people can take. Step Stransky: Better still, we whittle it down; very, very slowly. Step Stransky: Tiny piece by tiny piece, we dispense with it safely, rather than reinforcing it and colluding with it. Step Stransky: At worst, you and I contribute to the balance, revealing little slithers of truth and nothing more. Step Stransky: At best, we’re doing our bit to shrink The Big Illusion, a little bit at a time. Who knew what other secrets and lies had accumulated at the sports centre that day for the race, all under the shroud of niceness and normality? A thousand runners; a thousand sets of secrets: possibly all of them were little bits of nothing compared to what I had locked up inside 125


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my head. Then again, darker and more terrible truths than mine could have been rubbing shoulders with me as we all queued cheerfully after the finishing line for our complimentary slice of calorie-replacing fruit cake. By his own later admission, ‘The Big Illusion’ was just another of Stransky’s bullshit oversimplifications that broke down the moment you started looking at it at any level of critical detail, but it was helpful sometimes as a lens through which to view the larger picture. I didn’t not tell Saskia what I was that day because I thought in that moment that The Big Illusion needed protecting; I didn’t tell her because a whole bunch of truths about me and her might have been torn apart by that one truth about me and someone else. It wasn’t her responsibility to judge me and it was my responsibility to be true to what we were, since what we were was true. Well anyway, that’s how I justified it to myself not telling her at the time. Later, I decided that if the potential emotional consequences for a partner of mine finding out they were seeing a murderer were such a big issue for me, then morally my only course of action was to not see anyone ever. I didn’t exactly commit to this course of action when I thought that, but when Saskia announced her departure a few days later it felt like at least this was one moral issue I wouldn’t have to contemplate for a while. Murderer. Murderer. I was a murderer. Murderer. I would never not be a murderer. You could take the girl out of SL, but you couldn’t take the murder out of a murderer. I wondered if I would have a long term relationship ever again if I couldn’t manage the stress of not telling my partner what I had done. This made me 126


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realise that the notion of having a total truth relationship – that complete and utter nakedness in front of another that I’d always secretly dreamed of – was now no longer a possibility for me. Unless, of course, I managed to find another murderer to fall in love with. I started to wonder how I’d ever thought I could have maintained a relationship with Inch after murdering Stransky; not just the concealment of a murder to consider, but the murder of her own lover. What had I been thinking in taking his life? What had I been thinking? But a truth such as this one never changes and, in the end, it exhausts you trying to think a way out of it. The only way you can deal with it is to change the way you think about yourself and the future and try to be okay with it. The only thing you can do is to accept and adapt to the world as it is for you now. It’s either that or the choice between a descent into madness or escape through suicide. Seven months after I left SL, I returned. Nothing called me back; nothing pulled me in. I returned because I’d worked out that the metaverse was the right place for me to be and the things I’d wanted for myself from RL were no longer things that were compatible with who I was. I was a murderer in RL and I couldn’t cope with the thought nagging at me like a drip that never stopped. In SL, somehow, things were different. After all, I had status. After all, I helped people out. I went inworld quietly one weekday evening, thinking at first I’d hang around just for a half hour or so to see how I liked it. By the weekend, I was already halfway through my first new case.

127


10 Hewson came to visit me the next morning for an update report. When he entered my office, I was hanging out three blocks away in the latest lap dance bar to open in my sim, enjoying the atmosphere of business optimism not yet expired: personal greetings, nightly DJs, hourly ‘Cum party with us’ notices and excitement at the upcoming date auction. The Hippo sensor sent me an IM and I stood to TP back. Hewson Resident: No need to get up on my account, Mr Thursday. I looked for his crosshairs on me or anywhere else nearby, and found nothing. I wasn’t really surprised. Definitely Thursday: Why don’t you come join me, Hewson? Hewson Resident: Why not indeed? It’s been a while since I visited a lap dance bar, in either universe. Hewson Resident: I’ll try not to become too distracted by Tamizon or Antiono. Tamizon was a female dancer, currently topless, currently involved in – frankly – gravity defying acrobatics on the nearest pole to my seat. Her hair in 128


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particular seemed completely unmoved by the happenstance of the body it was growing from being upside down. Just like the sourceless waterfalls, that’s another thing I get irrationally annoyed by in SL. Antiono was a male bouncer, also currently topless. Interesting. Hewson made the trip over by foot, refusing my TP on the grounds that he enjoyed a morning walk. A couple of minutes later, he entered the bar to a chorus of obligatory greetings from the various dancers and the duty manageress. He sat down next to me. Hewson Resident: The enthusiasm of new venture. I confess, I find it still endearing. Definitely Thursday: Indeed. Hewson Resident: I remember when the so called ‘sploders were the must-have attraction of any new venue; these days it’s DJs and date auctions. Definitely Thursday: Aren’t ‘sploders a little before your time? Hewson Resident: Oh come now, Mr Thursday; you didn’t surely believe this was my only account? Definitely Thursday: That’s not an assumption I would ever ordinarily make. Definitely Thursday: But with you I figured you were new money from the mesh industry. Hewson Resident: In fact, it was SL that first got me interested in 3D design. Hewson Resident: I built all manner of things from prims, then sculpties came along and my search for an external application to create them in led me into 129


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the world of 3D design software. Hewson Resident: If you like, it was a branching of interests: SL in one direction; 3D modelling in another. Hewson Resident: And then, a few years later, they merged together once more. Hewson Resident: Suddenly all these items I’d been building had a marketable value, with a minimum of work to ensure they’d work properly on the grid. Hewson Resident: What I’d previously regarded as art, was suddenly product. Hewson Resident: It’s a fascinating concept, virtual products. Hewson Resident: People will go out of their way to avoid paying for tanglible things like music. Hewson Resident: But a pair of pixel jeans they’ll happily cough up for. Hewson Resident: We have no concept of the value of things in terms of the work and creativity that’s gone into them. Definitely Thursday: What kind of stuff did you used to make from prims? Hewson Resident laughs. Hewson Resident: My proudest ever creation was a scale replica of Tracy Island. Definitely Thursday: Tracy Island? The Tracy Island? You’re shitting me. Hewson Resident: I shit you not, Mr Thursday. Definitely Thursday: Please – call me Def. Hewson Resident: I shit you not, Def. Hewson Resident: The thing had so many prims in it, it pretty much closed down for anyone else the 130


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sandbox I used to build it in. The thing was immense. Definitely Thursday: Full size? You could walk around in it? Hewson Resident: Of course. Definitely Thursday: Damn. That is one prim build I’d like to see. Hewson Resident: Then I shall take you one day to see it. Definitely Thursday: You did the vehicles too? Hewson Resident: Naturally. Definitely Thursday: Including pods for Thunderbird 2? Hewson Resident: Including. Definitely Thursday: I could never get what was so special about the submarine that it got designated a Thunderbird. Hewson Resident laughs and nods. Definitely Thursday: Shitty little yellow thing that looked like a Reliant Robin with a light stuck on the front. That’s it. That’s all that it was. Hewson Resident: They should have carried over Stingray. Definitely Thursday: Now you’re talking. Definitely Thursday: Stingray was a kickass submarine. Definitely Thursday: How the hell did they go from that to the yellow bath toy? Definitely Thursday: Seriously? You built a fully functioning Tracey Island? Definitely Thursday: That’s freaking awesome! Hewson Resident laughs. 131


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Hewson Resident: It was a six month labour of love. Hewson Resident: Originally I planned on selling it, but eventually the prim count got so high I realised no-one but whole sim owners could ever buy it. Hewson Resident: Therein lies one of the faults in the design of SL. Hewson Resident: The truly immersive builds which might attract new people to the platform aren’t viable because of the cost of the land to display them. Definitely Thursday: Someone has to pay for it all. Hewson Resident: Indeed. But if the economy of SL were based on many small purchases – clothing, furniture, accessories – rather than fewer large ones – land – then the attractions drawing people to SL would grow exponentially. All those newcomers would bring money with them for the small things. Definitely Thursday: But the newcomers would all need land to stand on, and sims can only support so many people. Definitely Thursday: Would the money spent by them even equal – let alone exceed – the money lost on providing the land to put under their feet? Hewson Resident: But you see, Mr Thursday, land is just a question of four things: storage space, memory and processing power for the servers at the Linden end, and bandwidth to get all that information to the user. Hewson Resident: All four of those things are elements which we know will improve and keep on improving. Hewson Resident: Today the limit on a normal sim is 132


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40 people, but as technology improves why should that not grow with it? Hewson Resident: So just because today a sim that costs you X amount of dollars only supports a maximum of 40 customers at any given time – and bear in mind, of course, that no-one stays in SL 24 hours a day – why shouldn’t a sim of the future support 100 or 200 or 1000? Definitely Thursday: We’re a long way away from that. Hewson Resident: Perhaps. Hewson Resident: But it’s ok for a long term business plan to identify a strategy which will work well in the future provided the foundations are laid today. Hewson Resident: Look at how many years Facebook was run making no money. Hewson Resident: If it’s ok for them to provide space on their servers for free for – what? – a fifth of the world’s population with no immediate return – just the promise of a potentially massive user base to sell to – then why is it not ok for SL? Hewson Resident: Land is, ultimately, only server space. Hewson Resident: During those years when SL was talked about, imagine how sign-ups would have accelerated if land had been free. Hewson Resident: Imagine how popular homebuilding would have become. Hewson Resident: Instead, Linden went for the shortterm option: money now rather than no money now but the possibility of incredible money later. Hewson Resident: Online, it’s important to have a 133


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‘place’. Hewson Resident: Your wall, your blog, your photo stream. Hewson Resident: These things are free to us, but they all cost the service provider money. Hewson Resident: Which they pay because an eventual giant user base makes the initial outlay worth it. Hewson Resident: Why should SL be different? Definitely Thursday: The problem is, yours is the argument of the dotcom boom. Definitely Thursday: When SL was created, the world was still reeling from the bursting of that bubble. Hewson Resident: But most of those companies had no long-term plan. Hewson Resident: They assumed money would just appear from nowhere. Hewson Resident: Advertising would pay for everything. Hewson Resident: SL has – has always had – a viable economy in the sale of user-generated content. Hewson Resident: From which, Linden takes its cut. Hewson Resident: Consider the hardware manufacturers who sell their games consoles at a loss in order to make their machines affordable… and then take a cut of the sale of every game sold for it. Hewson Resident: The business model exists; it’s already out there. Hewson Resident: Second Life would be a very different concept from that which it is today had that direction been taken when the opportunity was 134


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there. Strangely, the pose he was in had him leaning forward towards me, as though attempting to sell me his idea. I didn’t doubt that he was right in some respects, but then every avatar and their prim dog had their theory as to why SL had failed to capture the interest of the mainstream. My own thoughts were that it was simply too laggy. Newbies expecting something that looked like a computer game entered a world full of grey shapes that sometimes took as much as a few minutes to resolve into identifiable objects. And then they found that in those busy areas they could hardly move. One day, just like Hewson had said, those technical difficulties would be things we’d look back on and laugh like we do now 56k modem speeds and the idea that, once, people loaded things into computers from cassette tape. Until then – until the day that it worked perfectly from the very first moment – SL was an idea ahead of its time, unrealised by the failures of technology. Until then, it was a curiosity, a tiny little corner of the planet. Hewson Resident: Forgive me for soiling a most pleasant conversation with the issue of business, Mr Thursday, but I was wondering if you’d made any progress yet in your investigation into AssAs. Of course, I’d been waiting for this. I hadn’t quite decided yet what I was going to say. At the end of the orgy, The Circle had been dismissed by Zero. Seven had instructed me to go back to the chamber I’d landed in and put back on my clothes before 135


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leaving Lyra Lyric: I wish to return. Seven: The Arch will discuss that, Observer. Seven: It is possible you will be contacted. Seven: It is possible you will not be contacted. Seven: If you are contacted, it will be at a time of our choosing. Seven: Let me be clear on one thing. Seven: If you tell anyone any detail about The Disc and our practice, you will never again see this place. Seven: Is that understood? Lyra Lyric: Yes. What to do? I wanted to please Hewson, but I wanted badly to return to The Disc. I’d felt alive there. I wanted more. Definitely Thursday: I’m afraid not. Definitely Thursday: I followed her to a bar last night. Definitely Thursday: A place called Angelina’s. Hewson Resident: I don’t think I’ve ever been there. Definitely Thursday: Which, presumably, is why she chose it. Hewson Resident: Did she meet anybody there? Definitely Thursday: Yes. Definitely Thursday: A man called Focus Guttering. Hewson Resident: Did you get a picture of him with her? Definitely Thursday: No. Definitely Thursday: I didn’t get the chance. Definitely Thursday: I was only there a minute or so 136


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and then they both teleported out. Definitely Thursday: In any case, they were just standing there. Definitely Thursday: There was nothing to capture. Definitely Thursday: Nothing incriminating. Definitely Thursday: And if they were chatting, they were doing so in private. Hewson Resident: Where did they go to? Definitely Thursday: A skybox in a forest sim. Definitely Thursday: But I couldn’t follow them directly. Hewson Resident: Of course. Hewson Resident: You had to log another alt on. Hewson Resident: If they’d seen you and recognised you from Nadisad, they’d have been suspicious. Definitely Thursday: Exactly. Hewson Resident: And when you got there? Definitely Thursday: I went in at a point on the ground. Definitely Thursday: They were there – both of them – when I arrived. Definitely Thursday: Then – suddenly – they were gone again? Hewson Resident: Where to this time? Definitely Thursday: I have no idea. Definitely Thursday: She took off the necklace. Hewson Resident: She took it off? Definitely Thursday: She took it off. Hewson Resident: My sweet little AssAs. Hewson Resident: More cunning than I give her credit for. Definitely Thursday: You think she suspected 137


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something? Hewson Resident: I suppose it’s possible. Hewson Resident: She knows I am very resourceful. Hewson Resident: And – as I relayed to you yesterday – she knows I know the dynamic between us has changed. Definitely Thursday: I’m really sorry I don’t have anything more for you. Hewson Resident: Such is life, Mr Thursday. Hewson Resident: There is yet time. Hewson Resident: Did you see anything from the necklace since? Definitely Thursday: Not so far today. Hewson Resident: Well, she isn’t on yet. Hewson Resident: We shall see when she comes on if she wears it again. Hewson Resident: If not, we shall have to come up with a new plan. Hewson Resident: You said she went to a skybox – maybe she will go there again. Hewson Resident: Perhaps you could rent one yourself? Hewson Resident: Naturally, I will cover such expenses. Definitely Thursday: Sure. Definitely Thursday: We can look into that. I didn’t see much point in telling him the skyboxes were unrentable. If I had to, I’d just lie and tell him they were all occupied. Hewson Resident: Now. 138


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Hewson Resident: Because I am curious about people and SL and their interrelationship, perhaps you can tolerate my company a little longer and indulge me by telling me the story. Definitely Thursday: Story? Definitely Thursday: What story is that? Hewson Resident: The story about what happened to Step Stransky! Definitely Thursday: Oh lol. Definitely Thursday: There’s no real story. Definitely Thursday: He disappeared. Definitely Thursday: Just stopped doing SL. Definitely Thursday: No-one knows why. Definitely Thursday: Haven’t seen sight nor sound of him in about five years now. Definitely Thursday: You’re the first person to have asked in quite a while! Hewson Resident: Five years, you say? Definitely Thursday: Five years. Hewson Resident: But come – that’s impossible. Surely you must know. Hewson Resident: You only have to look at his group memberships to see that. Hewson Resident: According to what I can make out, Step Stransky last logged into SL almost exactly a year ago.

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11 He wasn’t wrong. In my flat, I swore at the screen. I knew exactly what he was referring to. I knew exactly how he’d worked out Step had been inworld. I’d known ever since that night a year earlier of the inevitable breadcrumb my actions would create. If you belonged to the same group as someone else, you could see on the membership list for that group exactly when they’d last logged in. The only thing I could have done to get rid of that footprint would have been whilst I was logged on as Stransky to quit all of his groups, thereby deleting his name from these lists. The problem was, that included the group Step had set up himself with Inch, for which Inch was listed as co-owner. If he were to leave that group, membership for it would fall below the minimum of two and Linden would shut the thing down. I was pretty certain they sent out IMs about that sort of thing. Depending on Inch’s settings, therefore, that IM could have been turned into an email and sent to an address which, for all I knew, she still accessed. Inch might no longer have any interest in SL, but she’d likely change her mind if she got an email indicating her dead Second Life husband had somehow managed to log in posthumously. But it had been nearly four years since Inch had been in SL and I had long ago given up all hope of her ever 142


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returning. And I needed to log in to Step Stransky’s account. And it was his fault that I needed to log in as him. Two days before I did so, an avatar had appeared at my door in full 2006 newbie attire. It had been like stepping back in time to my first days in the metaverse: crayondrawn skin with rouge cheeks, plasticine hair and a flat, grey cap on top of it; I’d recognise that gifted outfit from ‘Governor Linden’ on Orientation Island anywhere. Central Protagonist: I need to speak to Stransky. Definitely Thursday: I’m sorry, but Step isn’t part of this agency any more. Central Protagonist: Then where is he? Central Protagonist: I’ve been messaging him for days. He’s not replying to me. Definitely Thursday: Step stopped doing SL. Definitely Thursday: I haven’t seen him myself for four years. Central Protagonist: Are you kidding me? Central Protagonist: Fuck. Central Protagonist: Surely you have an email or something? Central Protagonist: I need to get hold of him. This is urgent. Definitely Thursday: No email address; no nothing. Definitely Thursday: Perhaps I can help you? Central Protagonist: Jesus H Christ. Central Protagonist: That bastard told me I could count on him. Definitely Thursday: Count on him to do what, exactly? 143


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Central Protagonist: To keep something safe for me. Definitely Thursday: Wait a second. Definitely Thursday: Did Step used to call you Cenprot? Central Protagonist: He mentioned me? Definitely Thursday: He once told me you helped him out with a case. Central Protagonist: I helped him out with several. Central Protagonist: Which one, just out of interest? Definitely Thursday: Something to do with a skybox he couldn’t get to. Central Protagonist: lol Central Protagonist: With Stransky, it was almost always a skybox he couldn’t get to. I thought back to the conversation with Barnaby in his kitchen. Definitely Thursday: He said the box had been a couple of thousand metres up and surrounded by ban-lines. Definitely Thursday: Something like that. Central Protagonist: Ah yes. Yes, I remember that one. The gay guy. Definitely Thursday: The reason I remember is he never told me how he did it. Definitely Thursday: I would really like to know. Central Protagonist: And I would really like to have my folder of photographs back. Central Protagonist: Sort that out for me and perhaps I’ll tell you the secret. Definitely Thursday: Photos, you say? 144


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Central Protagonist: Very important photos. Central Protagonist: To me. Definitely Thursday: Why did you need Step to look after photos? Central Protagonist sighs. Central Protagonist: Can you not just get in touch with him and tell him I want them back? Definitely Thursday: It’s like I said, Cenprot. Definitely Thursday: I haven’t spoken to Step in four years. Definitely Thursday: Even if I did somehow manage to reach him, what am I going to say if he asks me, “What photos?” Central Protagonist: He’s not going to say “What photos?” because he’ll remember. Central Protagonist: But fine. I had an affair. Central Protagonist: That is to say, I had an SL affair. Central Protagonist: I told my RL wife I was only in SL to build stuff. Central Protagonist: And, God knows, that was the only reason to begin with. In RL I sighed, figuring the next half hour at least of my day was now effectively written off. They go from telling you absolutely nothing to telling you their whole god-dammed life story. They make out they desperately don’t want to tell you a thing in the hope that you’ll insist and that will provide them then with a mandate to pour out every last detail. I only wanted the name of the folder of photographs. And to know how Stransky had gotten his camera into that skybox.

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Central Protagonist: For the first few months of my SL, that’s exactly what I did. Central Protagonist: I just built stuff. Central Protagonist: Plus I learned how to script. Central Protagonist: And then I met this woman. Central Protagonist: And everything got turned upside down. Central Protagonist: She was funny, sexy, incredibly intelligent. Central Protagonist: Everything I’d always dreamt of in a woman but had come to conclude was just a fantasy. Central Protagonist: She was a builder too. Central Protagonist: I met her at a sandbox. Central Protagonist: Where I was a functional builder, she was an aesthetic. Central Protagonist: She was one of the early pioneers in the use of tortured prims. Central Protagonist: Everything she made was tiny. Central Protagonist: And exquisite. Central Protagonist: When I first saw her, in fact, I thought she was just standing there doing nothing. Central Protagonist: But I could see her selection beam doing something, so I zoomed in on her feet Central Protagonist: and spotted an incredibly small diamond ring she was making. Central Protagonist: For our one moth anniversary, she made me this miniature typewriter the size of my thumb Central Protagonist: complete with a tiny piece of paper in it that had, “I love you” typed on it. Definitely Thursday: You got partnered? 146


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Central Protagonist: Within a week of meeting her. Central Protagonist: It was a whirlwind. Central Protagonist: She was my first cybersex encounter. Central Protagonist: Before I met her, I reckoned that was all a croc. Central Protagonist: Do you remember the first time you had cyber? Central Protagonist: Or, at least, the first time you had it and it made you go, “Wow! So *that’s* what all the fuss is about!”? Definitely Thursday: Yes. Definitely Thursday: I remember. Central Protagonist: Of course you do. Central Protagonist: We all do. Central Protagonist: So anyway, she was my wow. Central Protagonist: And then she became so much more. Central Protagonist: I would think about her every day. Central Protagonist: I’d log on whenever I got the chance and send her IMs. Central Protagonist: She was married too in RL. Central Protagonist: With children. Central Protagonist: Dedicated to both her husband and her kids. Central Protagonist: Which she described as “a different sort of love”. I love the way a choice of quote marks communicates degree of credulity. Single quotes so often denotes a sneer. ‘A different sort of love’ might just as well come 147


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with a footnote – Yeah, right. Double quotes just says, “this is what she said.” No judgement. Central Protagonist: So this was an SL only relationship, you understand? Definitely Thursday: Yes. Central Protagonist: No emails. No MSN. Certainly nothing like Skype. Central Protagonist: Not that Skype was as big back then in any case. Definitely Thursday: And this, I’m guessing, was prevoice. Central Protagonist: I’ve never used voice in SL. Central Protagonist: Certainly, it never even occurred to us back then. Central Protagonist: Everything was words. Central Protagonist: And, of course, there was the visual. Central Protagonist: I took pictures of us making love. Central Protagonist: I logged our sex IMs. Central Protagonist: There’s something so very ephemeral about SL love. Central Protagonist: And yet, it has the unique quality of being recordable. Central Protagonist: You can capture it Central Protagonist: in ways you can’t capture RL. Central Protagonist: Sure, you could video yourselves. Central Protagonist: But it would miss something. Central Protagonist: Something that’s not just visible in SL in a way that it’s not in RL, but so massively visible; it towers over everything. Definitely Thursday: The sharing of thoughts. 148


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Central Protagonist: Yes. Central Protagonist: The open link. Central Protagonist: The flow of fantasy. Central Protagonist: The dissolve of selfconsciousness. Central Protagonist: Raw lust without inhibition. Central Protagonist: So limited, and yet so utterly limitless. Right; sure; I got it. I tapped my fingers and looked at my watch. Definitely Thursday: And the photos? Central Protagonist: More than mere photos. Central Protagonist: I created notecards with embedded snapshots, one for each of our intimate encounters. Central Protagonist: Each picture placed at the precise point in the conversation at which I took it. Central Protagonist: They were – are – my love journals. Central Protagonist: They became the most precious thing I possessed in my inventory. I made the leap. It wasn’t hard. Definitely Thursday: And you gave them to Stransky? Central Protagonist: My wife found out about the relationship. Central Protagonist: I got clumsy. I didn’t wait for her to go to bed one evening and climbed onto a set of oral sex poseballs. 149


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Central Protagonist: I got totally engrossed. The next thing I knew, she was clearing her throat behind me. Definitely Thursday: Ouch. Central Protagonist: Quite. Central Protagonist: It turned out, she’d had her suspicions for some time. Central Protagonist: She’d been reading up on SL privately. Central Protagonist: Created her own account. Central Protagonist: She’d purposefully crept up on me that evening. Central Protagonist: She demanded there and then control of my avatar. Central Protagonist: Well, what was I to do? Central Protagonist: At no point had any of this been about ending my RL marriage. Central Protagonist: Of course, as soon as Atlas cottoned on to what was happening, she got the hell out of there. Definitely Thursday: Atlas? Central Protagonist: My SL love. Central Protagonist sighs. Central Protagonist: Just like that, the greatest love affair of my life over. Central Protagonist: So my wife found the love journals and deleted them – along with all my other pictures and notecards. Central Protagonist: She demanded my password and told me she’d be logging in on at least a weekly basis to check my inventory. Central Protagonist: If she found any new ‘love mementos’ as she called them, or if I changed my 150


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password Central Protagonist: then she’d divorce me. Definitely Thursday: Wait. Definitely Thursday: You were allowed back onto SL? Central Protagonist: Oh yes. Central Protagonist: She saw no point in banning me. Central Protagonist: She was even ok with me having cybersex. Central Protagonist: So long as it was casual. Central Protagonist: No love. No relationships. Central Protagonist: So far as she was concerned, onenight-stand cybersex was just some sort of perverted pixel pornography. Central Protagonist: A fetish. Irritating; disappointing; but tolerable. Central Protagonist: Any sort of relationship, however, was out of the question. Central Protagonist: Her weekly inventory checks would check for evidence of that. Everyone seems to draw their lines at different spots in the sand. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of an RL couple for whom virtual sex with others was okay so long as nothing happened in meat space, but this relationship distinction was a new one on me (I supposed because it seemed so ridiculously hard to enforce). At the other end of the continuum, some believed that even an emoted kiss was infidelity, plain and simple. Is complete and utter monogamy actually possible, I sometimes wonder, or is it a hypothetical ideal at which dedicated monogamous couples aim? Is momentarily 151


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thinking about another person an act of infidelity in that world? Is enjoying a picture of a beautiful face that isn’t your partner a betrayal? Are there couples for whom pornography is taboo but reading erotic fiction is not? There must be. If reading erotic fiction isn’t allowed, what does one do if one comes across an erotic scene in an otherwise non-erotic-fiction book? Is one expected to skip to the next chapter? Is it okay to read such sections just so long as one isn’t aroused? In which case, is it okay to look at pornography just so long as one doesn’t get turned on by it? But who would believe that? Where would be the point? If someone writes an erotic passage, is it their desire to arouse the reader who encounters it? Is it okay to get turned on by more literary fiction? Is arousal okay so long as it comes about as a result of skilful metaphor and no words like ‘cock’ and ‘pussy’ and ‘juices’? Is that it? Is sexual arousal okay so long as it’s accompanied by a sprinkling of intellectual stimulation? If it’s okay for a guy to say in highbrow company that he appreciates the depiction of intercourse in D H Lawrence novels, does that mean he liked it? Does it mean he got turned on by it? Does it mean he got a hard-on from reading it? If it’s okay to read erotic fiction and get turned on by it, is it equally okay to write it? Is it equally okay to write it and get turned on by it? If one stopped for a moment to consider the matter, would one suppose that a writer who did not get turned on by their own text was not as emotionally connected to their work as one who was? Would not such a connection be considered a characteristic of quality? If a married novelist writes a passage where his main 152


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character fucks his neighbour, is it an act of betrayal if he thinks about fucking his actual neighbour whilst he writes it rather than just an abstract literary character – even if he’s never so much as exchanged two words with his neighbour and has no intention of so doing? Is it better if the author thinks of someone geographically or temporally more distant, like a work colleague or a friend from his days at university? What if it’s someone made up – a fantasy creation out of dreams and secret desire? Is that better? What if two people write a novel together, like a celebrity and their ghost writer? Would the sharing of written ideas in a sex scene constitute unfaithfulness or would it be okay because it’s just a novel, even though the process might create arousal? What if the two writers openly share with each other what turns them on, because that way the writing’s more raw and alive? I did kind of understand Cenprot’s wife’s conditions. Two people turning each other on with their ideas effectively what cybersex boils down to, ultimately – was okay, so long as they didn’t start turning it into a secret relationship. To others, it might have seemed a bizarrely arbitrary arrangement, but I got that it was a line that separated two conceptually distinct states. And yet, at the broader level, what astonished me – what continues to astonish me – was the prevalence of the ultra-monogamist myth in the face of such increasingly visible evidence to the contrary. It struck me that if you were religious then you could perhaps write off moments of mental distraction with the notion that temptation is sent to test you. Beyond this viewpoint, however, I couldn’t understand how it was 153


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that people so universally experienced in some level of mental infidelity so consistently maintained the façade that it didn’t exist. It was as though there was some sort of universal consensus that no-one would ever mention that everyone had to breathe. I got that this was all just a part of Stransky’s Big Illusion; what I didn’t understand was quite how it managed to sustain itself. Wouldn’t everything just be so much easier if we all acknowledged that we got turned on all the time by things people said and did? Wouldn’t relationships be that much better if we could be that sort of open with our partners? Wouldn’t we be all the more naked in front of them if they saw how other people aroused us, and wouldn’t that ultimately make things all the more incredible? Well, wouldn’t it? Those were my views. I believed in them. I believed they were good, virtuous beliefs. The problem was, I was – am – a murderer. The problem was, whilst I believed they were good and virtuous opinions, I couldn’t believe in myself as a good and virtuous person with the right to hold them. My actions undermined me. Definitely Thursday: So your wife deleted the love journals. I just about managed to stop myself from using single quotes around that phrase. Central Protagonist: Yes. Central Protagonist: Fortunately for me, she hadn’t at that stage worked out that SL has a recycle bin, just like Windows. 154


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Definitely Thursday: Aha. Definitely Thursday: So you restored them and sent them to Stransky? Central Protagonist: Yes. Central Protagonist: Until I could work out another way of storing them securely. Definitely Thursday: Why not just send them to an alt? Central Protagonist: I didn’t have an alt. Central Protagonist: And I feared my wife would discover it if I did. Central Protagonist: She was checking all the Windows folders, emails; everything. Central Protagonist: It was just too risky. Central Protagonist: Stransky told me I could trust him with them. My time was running out. Central Protagonist: I knew it was only a matter of time before my wife discovered the deleted items folder and that items within it could be restored. Central Protagonist: So I agreed. Central Protagonist: I made them no copy no mod and sent them to him. Central Protagonist: You have to understand, having access to them myself was of secondary importance to safeguarding their existence. Central Protagonist: Knowing that they were still intact was enough for me. I knew what he meant. The notecard of my encounter that night with Inch was one of my most important possessions – digital or otherwise. I hardly ever looked at it – what was the point? – but deleting it was never something I contemplated. Deleting it was out of the 155


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question. I wonder if keeping hold of such things is our clumsy attempt at immortality, the creation of artefacts which will somehow live on beyond us; things for people one day to stumble across and look at, fragments of insight into our lives that proved that we existed and were complex and meaningfully connected to others. Definitely Thursday: What happened to Atlas? Central Protagonist: Oh, the whole thing freaked her out. Central Protagonist: We maintained contact for a while, but only at the level of a slightly awkward friendship. Central Protagonist: Plus she was mad at me at first for having given my wife control of my avatar. Central Protagonist: At having given my wife direct access to her. Central Protagonist: She did get over that, in time. Central Protagonist: She told me she understood how my wife must have felt. Central Protagonist: But I think she felt from that point on that she could never trust me with intimacy. Central Protagonist: That she was number two in a hierarchy she’d never wanted. Central Protagonist: Of course, I told her about my wife having on-going access to my avatar. Central Protagonist: I tried to convince her that we could still see each other, that I’d use a special code to make it clear it was me and not my wife who’d come online. Central Protagonist: I could almost hear her groan at 156


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the suggestion of subterfuge. Central Protagonist: Then she asked me how she would know if my wife took over mid-session. Central Protagonist: The thing is, that was something my wife had said she wouldn’t do and I believed her. Central Protagonist: And she never did. Central Protagonist: She – my wife – would have hated the overt tension that would have created. Central Protagonist: She knew something like that would have made our own relationship unsustainable. Central Protagonist: I tried to explain that to Atlas, but she didn’t accept it for one moment. Central Protagonist: My marriage – in her eyes – had become some sort of stereotype, a caricature of suspicion and subterfuge. Central Protagonist: She wanted no part of it. Text is the medium in which we find our connections in SL, and in which we communicate our core desires. It works because what we want is ultimately very basic; the descent to rawness in our words is like the shedding of our clothes. But when things become complicated, words trip and stumble and fail. They’re not enough. The very things through which we found each other turn against us and rip us apart. Definitely Thursday: So. Definitely Thursday: I understand why you asked Step to look after your notecards.

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I couldn’t quite bring myself to use the phrase ‘love journals’ a second time. Definitely Thursday: But that was – what? – five years ago? Six? Central Protagonist: Nearly six. Definitely Thursday: Right. Definitely Thursday: So what’s changed now? Definitely Thursday: Why is it urgent that you have them returned? Central Protagonist: Look at me. Central Protagonist: Do I look like an avatar who’s been around in SL for six years? Definitely Thursday: You left. Central Protagonist: I stuck it out for a few months, but in the end my heart just wasn’t in it. Definitely Thursday: And now? Central Protagonist: And now, as you can see, I’m back. Definitely Thursday: But what’s changed? Definitely Thursday: Your wife’s stopped checking up on you? Central Protagonist: My wife, Definitely, died just over a week ago. Central Protagonist: From breast cancer. Central Protagonist: I want those photographs Central Protagonist: so I can destroy them.

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12 So I thought about it for two days, knowing all the while I was going to give in and enter Step’s account to find Cenprot his notecards. I hoped something might come along to change my mind and make me see reason, but nothing did. I didn’t agree with what he wanted to do, but I understood his reasons for it. I didn’t believe that the act of deleting permanently the pictures would bring him any sort of actual long-term closure, but his desire for it in the first place I felt powerfully. His pain resonated with me. I felt like I’d found some sort of secret kindred spirit. And, of course, I wanted to know how he and Stransky had made it across that banned land. That’s the reason I gave myself ultimately for going in. That’s how I rationalised it, knowing full well really that I was bullshitting myself. I sat down and loaded up the viewer, checking first that Inch wasn’t on. Of course she wouldn’t be on, but I checked just the same and – as I did so – my hands shook. I entered ‘Step Stransky’ into the name box. Then his password. I ran through my mental checklist one last time: check his friends list to see if there was anyone online who might spot him; open his inventory; don’t fuck about looking through it, just search on the folder 159


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name (Cenprot had told me what it was called: ‘Atlas’); transfer it to me; check I’d received it (I had Def logged in in another window that was now minimised); get the hell out of there. I ran my fingers through my hair. Fuck. This was insane. I’d be creating a tiny seed, an un-erasable footprint. No amount of telling myself there was no-one left to spot it could shake my attention away from the one per cent chance that someone, one day, would notice. Supposing Inch did come back, I’d told myself; supposing she did check her group profile and see Step had been logged on; supposing she IMed me and asked what I knew about it: I would just tell her that I had no clue, that it must be some sort of SL glitch. Perhaps someone had hacked into his account. It happened. But what if she didn’t believe me? My resolve started to slip. I clicked on the Log In button before it had a chance to dissolve completely.

To my astonishment, I rezzed into Step Stransky’s house. It was still there, exactly the way I remembered it. Absolutely nothing had changed. The green carpet. The yellow wallpaper. The white and brown furniture. The blue couch with the repeated gold motif. Everything exactly the way it had always been. I remembered Inch’s first tour of the place: Inch Sideways: I don’t know what to say. Inch Sideways: I’m stunned. Inch Sideways: You have the worst taste in a man I 160


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ever encountered. Inch Sideways: Literally nothing here goes with anything else. Step Stransky: An eclectic fusion of ideas, would you say? Inch Sideways: No. Inch Sideways: I would not. I didn’t know how this was possible. Who had paid his subscription to SL? Who had paid his tier? I checked the land tab and the answer was revealed. The land was abandoned… and nobody had bought it. I – or, rather, Stransky – was the last thing to rez. Finally, the orange cloud resolved into a grey humanoid, resized itself and started to colour in. There he was. Step Stransky. Also exactly as I remembered him. Well, of course he was; that much, at least, I’d been expecting. Check his friends list. I was already behind on the schedule I’d hoped to keep, distracted by the appearance of this house. It unnerved me. Check his friends list. I pulled it up and it listed three friends online. I recognised none of the names. I prayed none of them were close friends and none were paying attention to their own friends lists at that moment. Open his inventory. Search on the folder name. I’d been worried that Stransky might have done something typically obtuse, like rename the thing in case anyone ever managed to hack his account, but I found it straight away. I opened it and double-clicked a notecard at random just to check I had what Cenprot was after. Central Protagonist licks ever decreasing circles 161


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around your belly button. No need to read any further. I had what I was after. I found my own name on Stransky’s friends list and double-clicked it to bring up my profile, then dragged the folder across and dropped it onto my box. Done. The tab for Def’s viewer window flashed orange at the bottom of the screen and I flicked across quickly to check safe arrival of the package. Of course, it wasn’t just Stransky’s place. Inch had moved in with him, right after they were married. For some bizarre reason, she’d made no attempt whatsoever to change a single part of it, although she had added a few pictures here and there. Snapshots, mostly. I wondered through the house quickly, knowing it was time for me to leave but not quite wanting this moment of immersion in a personal time capsule to end; wanting also to see something of her from that period. Welcome mat: Hello, Step Stransky, welcome to Step and Inch’s place. I froze. The auto-greeting had been coded into the doormat that I’d just walked across. I remembered it now from the visits I’d made in the past. Those things could be programmed to send a record of visitors to building owners’ email addresses, but that wasn’t the default setting. I contemplated whether they’d have bothered. The system would have sent them endless annoying emails announcing only their own arrival. Even if it had been set up to do that, the messages would have gone to Stransky’s email – not to Inch’s. 162


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Just the same, it was something I hadn’t thought about and planned for. I didn’t want to encounter any more such surprises. It was time to go. I cammed, just for a moment, into their bedroom. Square corned, pre-sculpty, pre-mesh mattress. Wooden floorboards in a badly sized texture that made each plank a foot and a half wide. A Bare Rose box on the rug. A picture in a frame on the bedside table: Step and Inch on their wedding day. I had killed this house. I had frozen it in time. Were it not for me, it would look completely different than it did. Not wanting to think any more about it, I logged off.

I declined to answer Cenprot’s questions as to how I’d retrieved his notecards. Instead, I pressed him for the answer to the skybox problem. Central Protagonist laughs. Central Protagonist: How Step and I scratched our heads over that one. Central Protagonist: We mapped out all the ban lines of the various surrounding parcels to see if there was a way through we could wind with a bridge from a parcel two sims away that was build enabled. Central Protagonist: It couldn’t be done. Central Protagonist: Ironically, the skybox itself was on non-ban land, but everything around it was listonly access. Central Protagonist: There *were* little pockets here and there of non-banned land, but all of them were 163


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build disabled. Central Protagonist: If we could have got to even one of them and been able to build on it, we could have rezzed a sim teleporter and put in the co-ordinates we wanted. Central Protagonist: In the end, I was looking at the profile of the target’s companion when I saw the answer. Central Protagonist: He’d entered a pick for a best friend, but the parcel the pick was linked to was the exact same piece of land that the skybox we were trying to get to was over. Central Protagonist: Only the pick was at ground level. Central Protagonist: So Step clicked it, flew up to a height where the skybox was at the edge of his draw distance and the pictures were in the bag. Central Protagonist: So no clever solution, I’m afraid, Definitely. Central Protagonist: Just luck. All that hassle, then, for nothing more than a cheat. I felt short-changed. And I listened to Cenprot permanently delete the stories of his love and his subsequent expressions of relief that I knew wouldn’t last. And that was the end of that.

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13 Seven: Lyra Lyric, I will meet with you. I was still sitting with Hewson in the new lapdance bar and he was still waiting for an answer about Step’s appearance a year ago. Lyra was logged in on a different window, precisely because I wanted to catch any Discrelated messages. I flipped over the instant I saw the button flash orange. Lyra Lyric: Where? Seven: I will send you a teleport. Seven: It will come from one of my alternative accounts. Seven: He will speak to you in a less formal manner; you may adopt a similar style. Seven: It is our way to preserve the integrity of The Disc. Lyra Lyric: I need to finish a conversation. Seven: How long do you require? Lyra Lyric: About ten minutes. Seven: Ten minutes, then. I switched back to Def. Definitely Thursday: Sorry – I had another IM. 165


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Definitely Thursday: I’m going to have to go in a minute, in fact. Hewson Resident: Perfectly understandable, Mr Thursday. Definitely Thursday: But, to respond to your point, I actually had no idea Step came back inworld a year ago. Definitely Thursday: I’m slightly stunned. Definitely Thursday: But – checking his groups – I see that you’re absolutely right. Definitely Thursday: I can’t account for why he’d come in and not leave me a message. Definitely Thursday: It’s not like we were on bad terms when he left. Hewson Resident: Did he give a reason for leaving when he did? Definitely Thursday: None at all. Definitely Thursday: One day he was here, the next he was gone. Definitely Thursday: To be honest, I had wondered if something had happened to him. After Inch had left, people had started asking about Stransky’s whereabouts. I could have just told them he’d died, but instead I shrugged my virtual shoulders and told them I had no idea where he was. It was a lie I grew to hate, as I hated reciting it now to Hewson. What annoyed me most about it was that there was no reason for it whatsoever: Inch had found out about his death and had told me about it inworld – I could simply have told people that. But I hadn’t at the time wanted to get into any sort of conversation about Stransky dying. I 166


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was fearful that I would somehow let something slip if I did, so it was easier just to deny all knowledge. The more people I told it to, however, the bigger the web I was weaving: just suppose, I would tell myself, that Inch does one day return and hears from people that I’ve been telling everyone Stransky just mysteriously left. My prepared response to her questioning was that I hated an SL presence being let down by RL flesh – which, when I think about Annis, isn’t actually untrue of my beliefs – and that I liked the idea that Stransky’s legend lived on in this new way – and thought that Sransky would like it too. Tenuous. I hoped that if ever I got put on the spot like this I’d remember all these lies I’d concocted to cover up my other lies. And just suppose, I thought now, that Hewson knows full well what happened to Stransky and is curious to know what I’ll say about his departure. And just suppose, I thought, he knows full well also that I know what happened to him too. I don’t know what it was about his very natural enquiry which suggested this to me, but the moment I thought it, I shivered involuntarily. It was as though the idea resonated somehow with something that was going on and completely invisible to me; it was as though I’d hit the right frequency of something completely by accident. But it was an impossible thing to consider. No sudden shiver down my spine could in any way help me to logically fit that sudden intuition to the rest of the information I had about Hewson, Assumption and any other part of this business. Yet in that moment, I went from a state of excitement about Seven’s IM to one of feeling under threat. The appeal of the Disc suddenly 167


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dimmed and I found myself wishing I’d just taken those pictures of his AssAs being fucked – what did it ultimately matter if The Arch and The Circle rejected me – and given them to Hewson so that he no longer had any reason to be in my life. But I hadn’t. What’s more, I could see I had ample reason to feel under threat solely from the fact that he’d spotted a footprint I had known might one day be noticed. There was probably nothing more to my discomfort than that and any hunch I had about hidden knowledge or agendas was just a nervous overreaction. Still, there was a niggle in the back of my mind. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something he’d said wasn’t quite right.

I logged Def off completely so I wouldn’t be distracted by IMs whilst I was with Seven. After ten minutes had passed – on the dot, in fact – Lyra received her TP from someone called Robin Hardcastle. I accepted it without delay and found myself touching down in front of the outside tables of a French café. Robin was wearing jeans, a purple T-shirt and trainers. He wore black glasses and a ring on the fourth finger of his left hand. He was sitting at the nearest table to me with a full espresso cup and saucer in front of him. Robin Hardcastle: Take a seat, Lyra. I sat down opposite him, not really certain how to deal with this sudden absence of formality. Could I be certain that this was actually the same person as Seven? For a 168


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moment, I was struck by the irony that one of my most difficult tasks as an SL detective – that of proving that two separate avatars are the same person – had been hypothetically thrown on its head here: how was it possible to prove that two avatars claiming to be one person in real life were actually two? Lyra Lyric: Thank you. Robin Hardcastle: Busy day? Lyra Lyric: Moderately. Robin Hardcastle: I often use this place for interviewing applicants. Robin Hardcastle: A truly remarkable build. Lyra Lyric: Yes, it’s very nice. Robin Hardcastle: Relax, Lyra. Robin Hardcastle: We’re not in The Disc now. Lyra Lyric: But I’m being interviewed. Robin Hardcastle: Well, sort of. Robin Hardcastle: Let’s call it an informal interview. Robin Hardcastle: It’s important that our conduct in The Disc conforms to policy. Robin Hardcastle: But here we can chat. Lyra Lyric: I’m not sure I understand. Lyra Lyric: Everything there was so serious. Lyra Lyric: Is it just role play? Robin Hardcastle: Not role play, no. Robin Hardcastle: Not role play at all. Robin Hardcastle: Role play is pretend. Robin Hardcastle: The Disc is real. Robin Hardcastle: How we behave there is how we behave there. Robin Hardcastle: Because it’s important to us. 169


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Robin Hardcastle: How we behave outside of there is up to us. Robin Hardcastle: We’re all ordinary people. Robin Hardcastle: No-one in The Disc denies the importance of the ordinary. Robin Hardcastle: Quite the opposite, in fact. Lyra Lyric: So that place – that ceremony – is just a thing that you do? Lyra Lyric: Alongside watching movies and drinking espresso and washing the car? Robin Hardcastle: Well yes and no. Robin Hardcastle: In that sex is something people do alongside watching movies and drinking espresso and washing the car then yes. Robin Hardcastle: In that sex is something completely different from watching movies and drinking espresso and washing the car then no. Lyra Lyric scratches her head. Robin Hardcastle: Consider this: Robin Hardcastle: You see a guy drinking an espresso, you exchange a few pleasantries. Robin Hardcastle: Which is now easier: imagining him washing his car or imagining him having sex? Lyra Lyric: The first, I guess. Robin Hardcastle: Right. Robin Hardcastle: Exactly as it should be. Robin Hardcastle: Now imagine two guys you meet drinking espresso. Let’s say they look alike in every way. Robin Hardcastle: But one is a guy you actually can imagine having sex, because of the way he is and the way he talks. 170


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Robin Hardcastle: Whereas the other is completely opaque to you; you have no idea how he would be. Robin Hardcastle: Putting aside such issues as attractiveness and personal safety for the moment, which one would you rather have sex with? Lyra Lyric: Ah. Lyra Lyric: I think I see what you mean. Lyra Lyric: What treasures lie below the cool exterior. Robin Hardcastle: Precisely. Robin Hardcastle: When we are a person washing our car, we are more or less the same as the person who drinks espresso and watches a movie. Robin Hardcastle: But when we have sex, we are someone completely different. Robin Hardcastle: But both personas are equally important to our existence as sexual beings. Lyra Lyric: Right. Sure. Lyra Lyric: So we’re in car washing mode right now? Robin Hardcastle: Speak for yourself. Robin Hardcastle: I’m drinking espresso. Lyra Lyric laughs. Robin Hardcastle smiles. Robin Hardcastle: There you go. That’s better. Lyra Lyric: So you guys aren’t into the whole takeyour-woman-out-on-a-leash thing? Robin Hardcastle: Our way is the way of The Disc. Robin Hardcastle: If you wish to find yourself a master who will parade you on all fours in public, please feel free to do so. Robin Hardcastle: But The Disc is not about humiliation and it values dignity above all other things. 171


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Robin Hardcastle: What happens in The Disc happens only in The Disc. Robin Hardcastle: What you chose to do with others outside it is, of course, up to you. Robin Hardcastle: However, Lyra Robin Hardcastle: You might find, should you be given a place within The Circle, that your surrender there will be more meaningful if it is only there. Robin Hardcastle: And a more meaningful surrender there – where you are surrounded and protected – could help you achieve and sustain your dignity outside of it. Lyra Lyric: What you describe – how is it different from a Dom/sub relationship? Lyra Lyric: Or even, for that matter, from any close and intimate relationship? Robin Hardcastle: We have no wish to be compared and contrasted to other models or forms of intimacy. Robin Hardcastle: If these work for you then use them. Robin Hardcastle: We seek only to experience that which we have defined as meaningful to us. Lyra Lyric: You keep using the word ‘surrender’. Robin Hardcastle: The surrender is everything. Robin Hardcastle: It is total nakedness, physical and mental. Robin Hardcastle: It empties you before us. Robin Hardcastle: It is the most that you can give, and the most that we can take. Lyra Lyric: And what I saw last night is surrender? Robin Hardcastle: Lyra, what you saw last night was recreation. Robin Hardcastle: If you truly wish to enter The Circle, 172


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you must make your own personal surrender to us. Lyra Lyric: How do I do that? Robin Hardcastle: The Personal Surrender has two parts: The Truth and The Body. Robin Hardcastle: The Truth is decided by you. Robin Hardcastle: You will release before us – in voice – a truth that you carry and from which you long to be freed. Robin Hardcastle: The Body is a streamed real life encounter. Lyra Lyric: Streamed? Robin Hardcastle: Yes. Lyra Lyric: That sounds unsafe. Robin Hardcastle: It is a leap of faith. Robin Hardcastle: And only you can choose to do it. Lyra Lyric: Who would I meet? Robin Hardcastle: That would depend on where you are in the world. Robin Hardcastle: You would be given full details of the location in advance, including the hotel name. Robin Hardcastle: And you may choose to bring with you a companion to sit outside the room or in the hotel foyer. Robin Hardcastle: Your encounter would be with one member of The Arch and one member of The Circle. Lyra Lyric: And everyone else watches? Robin Hardcastle: Everyone else listens. Lyra Lyric: So no video? Robin Hardcastle: No. Robin Hardcastle: Removing the visual focuses the mind. Lyra Lyric: And everyone in The Circle has done this? 173


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Robin Hardcastle: Everyone in The Circle has surrendered The Truth. Robin Hardcastle: About a half have surrendered The Body. Lyra Lyric: So I don’t have to do the RL meet thing? Robin Hardcastle: Surrendering The Truth gains you a place in The Circle. Robin Hardcastle: Surrendering The Body makes it permanent. Robin Hardcastle: We ask that you surrender The Body within a year of surrendering The Truth. Lyra Lyric: And if I don’t? Robin Hardcastle: Then no hard feelings, Lyra. Robin Hardcastle: But your time at the Disc would be over. Lyra Lyric: This is all so weird. Lyra Lyric: People actually do the RL thing? Robin Hardcastle: Of course. Robin Hardcastle: You yourself know it. Robin Hardcastle: Even whilst you tell yourself how crazy it sounds, you are exhilarated by the very idea. I admit it: he was right about that. Robin Hardcastle: Sex with someone you have never met in an unfamiliar place. Robin Hardcastle: And before an audience. Robin Hardcastle: A momentary step outside the bubble of normality. Robin Hardcastle: Does not everyone secretly fantasise about that? 174


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Lyra Lyric: Honestly? I have no idea. Lyra Lyric: Isn’t that what most people get from watching TV? Lyra Lyric: Isn’t it best if fantasy remains fantasy? Robin Hardcastle: Remember, it is just the one night. Robin Hardcastle: The surrender of The Body cannot be repeated. Lyra Lyric: Says who? Lyra Lyric: Who creates all these arbitrary rules and ritual? Robin Hardcastle: The Disc is the creation of Zero. Lyra Lyric: Then why? What’s the purpose of it all? Robin Hardcastle: Purpose? Robin Hardcastle: The purpose is surrender. Robin Hardcastle: The purpose is experience. Robin Hardcastle: Don’t look for logical explanation or function, Lyra. Robin Hardcastle: There is none. Robin Hardcastle: There is no strategy beyond what exists right now. Robin Hardcastle: The Disc exists only because it has been imagined and because it can be realised. Robin Hardcastle: It is an idea made possible by technology and imagination, and by the desire of its membership to experience exposure in this manner. Robin Hardcastle: Did you not yourself say you sought transcendence? Robin Hardcastle: To move beyond that which you are? Lyra Lyric: What I seek Lyra Lyric: is to escape from what I am. Lyra Lyric: I do not like who I have become. 175


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Lyra Lyric: How does what you describe constitute transcendence and not just a one night fuck? Robin Hardcastle: If you regard it as a one night fuck, then that’s exactly what it shall be. Robin Hardcastle: The Personal Surrender will not enable you to escape from what you are. Robin Hardcastle: Transcendence isn’t the dropping of one thing and the taking up of another. Robin Hardcastle: It is the creation of something new from that which already is. Robin Hardcastle: It is about accepting what you are through sharing it; through exposing your raw, inner self. Robin Hardcastle: For this reason, it’s important that you don’t rush into the surrender of The Body. Robin Hardcastle: You must prepare. Robin Hardcastle: It is a one-time only experience. Robin Hardcastle: Zero is very clear about that. Lyra Lyric: And what then? What happens after my surrender is complete? Lyra Lyric: What do I do after that? Robin Hardcastle: You remain with The Disc for as long as you want. Robin Hardcastle: You bear witness to The Surrender of others. Robin Hardcastle: You repay that which has been paid to you. I sat back from the monitor for a moment, still unable to accept all of this. Wasn’t this all too easy? Based upon the ending of the previous night’s meeting, I hadn’t at all felt confident I would hear anything from The Disc at all, 176


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let alone within twenty-four hours. Lyra Lyric: What I don’t understand is why you’re being so open about this, given your strong secrecy. Robin Hardcastle: Our secrecy is important because it means people can’t easily stumble across us. Robin Hardcastle: They have to seek us out, as you did. Robin Hardcastle: We ban anyone who does not follow our rules of conduct. Robin Hardcastle: And, on two occasions so far, The Disc and its portals have been moved to prevent those who have been repeatedly excluded from locating us. Robin Hardcastle: Our secrecy is to protect the integrity of our rules and culture, nothing more. Robin Hardcastle: We are no underground organisation with aspirations of infiltration and power. Robin Hardcastle: We insist on consent. Robin Hardcastle: We break no laws. Robin Hardcastle: Your disbelief and scepticism are just the limits of your imagination being expressed. Robin Hardcastle: Because you have never encountered such an organisation before, you imagine it cannot exist. Robin Hardcastle: But, Lyra, the world has conjured up more complex, more convoluted and infinitely more sinister creations in its history. Robin Hardcastle: Organisations obsessed with their own truths and blind to universal morality. Robin Hardcastle: The Disc is at peace with the world 177


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and its dependence on its illusions. Robin Hardcastle: Other than our insistence on our rules and protocol, we preach no doctrine. Robin Hardcastle: We do not care who you are, what you do or where you are from. Robin Hardcastle: Beyond your Truth, we do not seek, in fact, any information about you at all. Robin Hardcastle: Like the circle it represents, The Disc is both never-ending and it is complete. Robin Hardcastle: It is a small corner of the world with no aspiration except to enable those who enter it. Lyra Lyric: Politically neutral, huh? Robin Hardcastle: No, Lyra. Robin Hardcastle: To be politically neutral is to attend to politics but without bias. Robin Hardcastle: Let me be really clear on this: issues of politics have no place in The Disc at all. Robin Hardcastle: None. Robin Hardcastle: To allow them in would constitute infection. The Disc would not survive it. Politics. I had a feeling that politics might be the least of Seven’s worries once I’d surrendered my own particular truth. As a law-abiding cult/sect/whatever category it was this group fell into, I wondered how they’d react when I told them I was a murderer. Because that was what I wanted to tell them. I wanted to tell them mostly because I just needed to tell someone, and the thought that I might finally get to say the words aloud and have another human being hear them had my goose bumps raised all along my arms. But I won’t deny that a smaller part of me couldn’t 178


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help but relish the prospect that these confident people might be thrown into uncertainty by my confession. That’s what you get for relying too much on rules and scripts. I was about to puncture their tidy little circle.

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14 But what was I to do about Hewson? What was I to do about Assumption? For the rest of the day, I turned this problem over in my mind. Seven appeared to be claiming that The Disc stood outside of all other affairs completely. I reckoned this implied that if I obtained pictures of Assumption with another man then that would be of no concern to them so long as they weren’t taken within The Disc. But was The Disc really what it claimed to be or was it just another organisation with high ideals and no self-awareness with which to actually implement them? Was there an unspoken understanding amongst members that you each looked out for the others? Was there a secret handshake or code that passed between them in places where they needed a favour? Even if such an idea was abhorrent to Zero, that didn’t mean that an unofficial system hadn’t informally been agreed upon amongst the lower ranks. I did my laundry whilst I thought it over, leaving Def logged in in case the gold chain started talking again. I thought about The Arch a little. Seven had explained about membership of The Circle, but nothing about membership of The Arch and it annoyed me that I hadn’t asked about that. After his comment about there being no place for politics inside The Disc, I hadn’t really known what else to say to him right then and he’d taken 180


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this as his sign that the meeting was over. He’d risen, told me to expect an IM within the next two weeks and left. Why was it only men in the Arch and only women in The Circle, or was it presumption on my part in assuming that the male avatars of The Arch were all in actual fact men? Except, I’d heard them all on voice. It would have been impossible to tell just from listening to the sound of eighteen avatars having sex together that definitely twelve of them were male, but if I’d wanted to I could have muted out the six females and listened to what remained. It wouldn’t have been hard. Was there, somewhere, a female dominant/male submissive version of The Disc? But what about males wanting to dominate males? What about females wanting to dominate females? Now that over half a day had passed since my encounter with The Disc and now that I’d spoken with Seven in his entirely down-to-earth form, the organisation had acquired in my thoughts a faintly ridiculous feel to it. It hadn’t felt ridiculous the night before. The complete commitment to process and detail had utterly captured me. Suspension of disbelief was no small way of putting it, but disbelief was now resuming its normal operation and I felt more than a little foolish for having opened my mic and climaxed so noisily amidst this group of odd people and their artificial, arbitrary culture. But it wasn’t, ‘in the cold light of day’, that I was no longer interested in what The Disc offered me; rather I found myself looking at some of the things society considered normal – some of the items on the list that might be held up to contrast with a list containing such phenomena as The Disc – and seeing their own 181


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absurdities. How was the ritual associated with going to a football match – or the rules of the game itself – any less arbitrary? In fact, I’ve always hated anything to do with football and loved watching tennis. Wimbledon fortnight is one of my favourite comfort zone times of the year for all its aesthetic tradition, but – when you get down to it – all of its detail is just plain daft. There is no logical reason as to why a state-of-the-art digital scoreboard should be made to look a bit like a manual scoreboard of the 1970s other than that people want it that way because they like it that way. And the utterly insane scoring system to the game itself – which not only jumps in bizarre increments but allows a person to win a match even though they could have scored less points overall than their opponent – we just accept because that’s the way it is. In many aspects of aesthetic life, the circular argument – it is the way it is because it is the way it is – is beyond examination. The ridiculousness of popular ritual is never commented on simply because it’s popular or, to put it another way, ridiculous + popular = culture. Sex itself is hardly an exception to this rule, with all the conditions and procedures and expectations and vocabulary and metaphor; a minefield of protocol and decorum, much of which we have the fucking Victorians to thank for. The rules surrounding relationships are even more bizarre. If we hear of a guy who has acted out of love for someone, we ooh and aah over how adorable he is, but if he happens to be married our reactions are completely different: what was previously a supportive act is now regarded as one of betrayal. To love a person 182


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is regarded as one of the best things a human being can do in their life; to love two is regarded as one of the worst. Shopping for gifts for people at Christmas – not because you particularly want to give them something, but because it’s the done thing to do on a particular day of the year: bizarre. Moving to an area you don’t like so that you can afford to buy a house, rather than renting in a place you enjoy living. Seriously. Why would a sane person use up years of their finite life living somewhere they don’t like, just so they can own something? And, when you get down to it, isn’t the notion of mortal beings wanting to own things in and of itself completely absurd? Isn’t the whole process of collecting stuff a denial of the end awaiting us all? Looked at from this angle, The Disc was no more ridiculous than anything else that happened in life. Its ridiculousness, in fact, came only from it being unusual. In life, pretty much all of the things we do are ridiculous; the things we actually call ridiculous are just those things which happen to be unusually ridiculous. And I, in killing a man, had committed the most ridiculous act there was. I had imagined that the taking of a person’s life could enable me to win the love of another: an utterly ridiculous belief and one which – if it had actually proven to be true – could only have resulted in a tragically ridiculous love. Or was death – in its universal absoluteness – the only thing that made any kind of sense, however it happened? No. Dying was far from ridiculous, but murdering someone was. Ultimately, we could go around killing 183


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people every day if we wanted to, but then order would break down. So those of us who murder as I murdered try and manipulate all the little variables – like a game of chess – until we reckon we’re in a position to do so without getting found out. We believe so completely in our own little agendas that we make it all okay. We even congratulate ourselves on our ingenuity when we think we’ve got away with it. Ridiculous. And chess, by the way, is ridiculous. Investigating virtual infidelity was also, of course, ridiculous, but it was what I did; which brought me back to the issue of Hewson and his wandering partner. In fact, there was very little I could do about that until the gold chain started talking or until I got called to The Disc – always assuming, of course, that Assumption was called to The Circle herself on that occasion. I decided that if the chain gave me a lead that had nothing to do with The Disc then I would follow it. So I waited to hear something from it, thinking that maybe Hewson might slip my listening script into another item of virtual bling for Assumption if she didn’t put it back on again. But I heard nothing from either Assumption or Hewson for the rest of that day or the rest of the next day. The day after that I started messaging him and got the User Not Online response. When I pulled up his profile, I found that it was now completely blank. Hewson had gone EP. A week passed and then another week. He was gone, and he hadn’t even bothered to pay me for my work thus far undertaken. I heard nothing from Seven in all this time either. He’d told me to expect a message within two weeks; in 184


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fact, it was nearly three before, finally, I heard from him. By that time, I’d almost stopped thinking altogether about The Disc. In fact, I was working on a new case when his little icon appeared in the top right corner of my viewer and started flashing orange. Seven: Lyra Lyric: your wait is over. Seven: You are called to The Disc. Seven: Be ready to surrender your Truth, if you come.

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15 Provided you can manage the whole guilt element, killing a man can be quite the liberating experience. One minute, they’re there and they’re all they ever were to you; the next they’re winked out, switched off, gone. You find it hard to believe just how easy it was to delete them. But then, as time passes, you start to realise that they can’t truly be deleted at all. It is impossible. Like a persistent smell, they hang around until you feel saturated by the constant, unending stink of their presence. They pervade everything: every thought, every feeling, every memory. You know that feeling of relief you get when you first open your eyes and realise you didn’t do the terrible thing you just dreamt about? I get the opposite of that. And nobody knows. The whole enormous thing is locked up inside your head. I guess some people are better at dealing with that than others. I won’t say it was eating me up; I was functioning just fine, but I was functioning without pleasure. Pleasure is the wrong word. I could live a life without pleasure if I could just feel connected to living in some sort of meaningful way. I felt like one of those race horses that’s thrown its rider and carries on running towards the finish line, its point for so doing now 186


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completely vanished. I admit, a part of me just wanted to hand myself in, confess, get it out in the open and do my time. I would never be a non-murderer, but at least I’d be a murderer who’d paid her debt as society saw fit. But the body just wouldn’t let me do it, any more than I could have killed myself through holding my breath. I didn’t much care about the police or prison or even the press grabbing hold of my case and making headlines from it; what I cared about was Inch knowing I had killed her lover. In part, I just didn’t want her to know that. But another small piece of me – yes, incredibly – still held out hope that one day she’d return and we could be together. I hoped this, even though I knew at the same time that I hoped it that if ever such an unlikely thing happened, I’d be even less able to live with myself than I was managing now. In the days following my conversation with Seven at the café, I’d pulled up that final conversation with Inch from my log. The last few lines of it were burned in grey into my IM window with her, just like Annis’ final farewell, but I delved into my logs, wanting to read it through from the start one more time. Inch Sideways: Hey. Definitely Thursday: Hey beautiful. Definitely Thursday: How are you holding up? Inch Sideways: Not well, Def. Inch Sideways: Not well at all. Definitely Thursday hugs you. Inch Sideways: Thank you, honey. Inch Sideways: I want to tell you something. 187


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Inch Sideways: I want to tell you about why I left SL before. Inch Sideways: I told Step that night when you and I met up again, but I haven’t given you the full story. Definitely Thursday: You told me on your wedding day that something terrible had happened. Inch Sideways: Yes. Inch Sideways: The night I met you for the very first time, I was married in RL. Inch Sideways: To a wonderful guy called Stuart. Inch Sideways: We had a little boy, he was three years old. Inch Sideways: Our marriage was perfect. Inch Sideways: Stuart understood me completely. Inch Sideways: And I him. Definitely Thursday: He was ok with you getting up to stuff in SL? Inch Sideways: In a way, it was his idea. Inch Sideways: We’d met a few years previously in a role play internet chat room. Inch Sideways: So you see, he understood perfectly how words affect me. Inch Sideways: It was something we incorporated into our relationship. Inch Sideways: Usually via texts during the day to each other. Inch Sideways: But sometimes Inch Sideways: we’d just sit opposite each other in the lounge and carry out a text conversation. Inch Sideways: He’d officially ‘ban’ verbal and vocal communication when we did that. Inch Sideways smiles at the memory. 188


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Inch Sideways: He said that voices and speech drown out the thoughts we want to have. Inch Sideways: So we’d sit there, facing each other Inch Sideways: and text each other our thoughts Inch Sideways: and watch the nonverbal reactions they provoked. Inch Sideways: I have a relationship with words, Def. Inch Sideways: They move me more than I can begin to describe. Inch Sideways: He understood that. Inch Sideways: He felt it too. Inch Sideways: Do you? Definitely Thursday: I think so. Inch Sideways: When you experience intimacy with a person in written words, it’s a whole different thing from when you speak to them or touch them. Inch Sideways: Not that either of those things are in any way bad or lacking. Inch Sideways: You see their thoughts more clearly. Inch Sideways: Not just from *what* they write but the way in which they write it. Inch Sideways: Sometimes, good emoting is akin to story writing. Inch Sideways: But sometimes, it’s akin to poetry. Inch Sideways: What Stuart got completely… Inch Sideways: …is that we don’t go through life thrilled only in our reading by one writer. Inch Sideways: What true book lovers enjoy most is discovering how different writers express things. Inch Sideways: The words they use Inch Sideways: The metaphors they conjure Inch Sideways: Sometimes, just the placing of the 189


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words beside each other. Inch Sideways: Def, he wasn’t in any way jealous of my text sex with other people in SL. Quite the opposite. Inch Sideways: It was something which he loved about me. Inch Sideways: He was my lover. Inch Sideways: he relished my enjoyment of this and that I actively explored my sexuality and selfexpression in this way. Inch Sideways: It turned him on. Definitely Thursday: Did he also do SL? Inch Sideways: No. It wasn’t for him. Inch Sideways: He found the whole dressing up your avatar thing too distracting. Inch Sideways: It irritated him that he was pre-judged by others according to how he looked. Inch Sideways: Actually, he did try it for about a week or so. Inch Sideways: He refused to change his avatar from the default, even to buy genetalia. Inch Sideways: Of course, no-one took him seriously. Inch Sideways: I tried to take him shopping. Inch Sideways: It was even more of a frustrating experience for me in SL than it was in RL. Inch Sideways laughs. Inch Sideways: In RL, he had about three outfits: three shirts, three pairs of trousers, three sweaters. Inch Sideways: He was a lecturer. Inch Sideways: He just couldn’t be bothered with his appearance. Inch Sideways: Got his hair cut four times a year. 190


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Inch Sideways: Wore one pair of shoes. Inch Sideways: I still have them. Inch Sideways: In my cupboard. Inch Sideways: Where I keep things to remind me of my perfect little boy. Inch Sideways: Only I can’t ever look at them. Inch Sideways: Not ever. Not ever. Definitely Thursday: What happened? Inch Sideways: It was Christmas Day. Inch Sideways: The day after I met you. Inch Sideways: They’d gone for a walk around the estate, that’s all. Inch Sideways: They were literally just a few hundred metres away from me. Inch Sideways: Patrick wanted to see the lights in people’s windows. Inch Sideways: They were hit by a drunk driver. Inch Sideways: Some guy in his forties on his way back from Christmas lunch at his mother’s. Inch Sideways: What I will never forget is just how far away their bodies were from where the car hit them. Inch Sideways: Patrick further away from Stuart. Inch Sideways: Broken. Lying in contorted angles. Inch Sideways: Patrick’s glove was in Stuart’s hand. Inch Sideways: Like he’d been holding onto him so tightly, but Patrick slipped right out of his glove. Inch Sideways: The guy behind the wheel got whiplash. That’s all. Inch Sideways: Not that it would have made things any different if he’d been more injured or killed. Inch Sideways: And my entire life was ripped away from me. 191


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Inch Sideways: Just like that. Inch Sideways: You see, Def, Step understood. Inch Sideways: He lost his wife in a car crash. Inch Sideways: You have no idea what a difference it makes to talk to someone who knows what it’s like. Inch Sideways: Sure, people try to empathise, and they do lovely things for you. Inch Sideways: But their lives continue. Inch Sideways: They return to them. Inch Sideways: For sure, they can imagine what it’s like… but they don’t *feel* it. Inch Sideways: They wait for you to ‘recover’ or to ‘heal’ Inch Sideways: Except you never really do. Inch Sideways: You can’t possibly go back to the way you were before. Inch Sideways: Step understood that. Inch Sideways: I felt close to him in a way I can’t describe. Definitely Thursday: I’m so sorry, Inch. Definitely Thursday: I don’t know what to say Inch Sideways: Def; I’m sorry too. Definitely Thursday: You have nothing to be sorry for! Inch Sideways: Sweetie, I couldn’t turn my back on RL when Stuart and Patrick were taken from me, although Lord knows I wanted to. Inch Sideways: But SL is simple – I can just stop turning it on. Inch Sideways: I don’t want to be here any more. Inch Sideways: I know you’ll probably take that as a personal rejection. I wish there was a way in which I could do this without hurting you. 192


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Definitely Thursday: No, Inch. Definitely Thursday: No no no. Definitely Thursday: You can’t go. Definitely Thursday: You mustn’t. Inch Sideways: I’m sorry, Def. Definitely Thursday: Please don’t, Inch Definitely Thursday: Please just think about it for a bit. Definitely Thursday: Or don’t. Definitely Thursday: Maybe take a month or two off. Definitely Thursday: Do something completely different. Inch Sideways: I can’t be here any more, Def. It’s as simple as that. Inch Sideways: I don’t want to be. Inch Sideways: I woke up this morning and I realised my SL is over. Definitely Thursday: I’m begging you. Definitely Thursday: Please don’t go. Definitely Thursday: Please don’t go. Definitely Thursday: I’ll do everything I can to make things better. Definitely Thursday: I promise. Definitely Thursday: I swear. Inch Sideways: Please don’t make this harder than it has to be. Definitely Thursday: Please, baby. Inch Sideways: Goodbye, Def xxx Definitely Thursday: Wait. Definitely Thursday: Just listen for a moment. Definitely Thursday: You don’t know what you mean to me. Inch Sideways is offline. 193


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Definitely Thursday: I’m in love with you. Second Life: User not online - message will be stored and delivered later. Definitely Thursday: I’m in love with you. Second Life: User not online - message will be stored and delivered later. Definitely Thursday: I’m in love with you. Second Life: User not online - message will be stored and delivered later. I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in the Devil, but I do believe that life is an on-going battle between good and evil. Good is optimism and compassion and gentleness and empathy and joy. Evil is hatred and anger and bitterness and jealousy and apathy. And the only thing which can be found in both good and evil… … is love.

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16 Zero: Observer, do you come to surrender your Truth? Lyra Lyric: I do. I stood once again in the centre of The Circle. Once again, I had been instructed to remove my clothes in the outer chamber. This time, however, The Circle wore the same black hoods and cloaks as The Arch. Zero: The Personal Surrender can only be undertaken once. Zero: Some require time to consider their willingness to Surrender. Zero: Some require time to consider that which they most need to give up. Zero: And some require time to discover it. Zero: Observer, are you prepared to Surrender? Lyra Lyric: I am. I had once again been instructed to keep my camera on the mask of Seven. The Circle appeared as best as I could make out to be composed of the same six women as my previous visit to The Disc. Including Assumption. Zero: The Surrender of The Truth is not to be taken lightly. 195


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Zero: We shall not judge the worthiness of your Truth to be spoken here; that is not our purpose. Zero: But be certain that the Truth you select is one which pervades your soul. Zero: Do not choose that which only in moments impacts upon your thoughts. Zero: Observer, do you understand this? Lyra Lyric: I understand. Zero: The Observer is henceforth referred to as The Witnessed. Seven took a step forward, breaking the perfect curve of The Arch. Seven: Lyra Lyric, The Arch remains masked for all except events of the Personal Surrender. Seven: The Mask is our symbol of anonymity and trust. Seven: The Mask is our connection to the paradox and irony of normality, its ruin and its strength. Seven: It is important that The Witnessed feels fully penetrated by the eyes of The Arch. Seven: Reveal The Arch. The hoods, cloaks and face coverings remained, but every other detail of each member of The Arch changed. It was not the actual face coverings of these people that was The Mask, I realised, but their entire bodies. Several of the males became females. A number of white bodies became black bodies; in all other cases skin hues paled or darkened a little. Hair appeared: blonde, brown, black, red, grey, white. Heights altered. Some Bellies grew, 196


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one into the perfect roundness of pregnancy. A wheelchair appeared next to one Arch member and he sat in it. Seven: Lyra Lyric, you see now the true diversity of The Arch, as it exists in real life. Seven: Each brick is different, but the structure is strong. Seven: The Reveal shows you that it is The Circle which is more truly masked than The Arch. All except Seven, that is. Seven remained exactly the way he had been. I had met him as a different avatar. Somehow that made him even more anonymous. Seven: Lyra Lyric, The Surrender of The Truth must be made in voice. Seven: It must also be made naked, in real life as in Second Life. Seven: You must feel completely exposed before us. Lyra Lyric: I’ll need a couple of moments. Seven: Proceed. As I stood, I felt faintly dizzy. My fingers trembled on the buttons of my blouse. I felt out of breath. I felt cold and clammy. I slipped out of my top and tossed it onto the sofa, then unclasped my bra. My stomach churned as I unzipped my jeans and pushed them to the floor. Was I really going to do this? What if someone reported me to Linden? I’d created Lyra’s account based on false information – back in the days when the number of avatars you could create was restricted – and there was 197


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no payment information on file for her (I sent Lyra money if she needed it from Def), but the IP address of my connections was no doubt logged somewhere and matching it to Def’s would hardly be high level police work. Def was a subscribed member, with monthly payments going out of my account to pay for his land. They knew who I was. I’m a murderer. I’m a murderer. Murderer. Murderer. I whispered the word over and over as I pushed down my panties and stepped out of them. I put on my headset and sat back down in my chair. Lyra Lyric: I am ready. Seven: If you are not already doing so – and if you are able to – please stand in real life. I stood, my legs shaking, my heart pounding. Lyra Lyric: I am standing. Seven: Focus The Circle. The women of The Circle had been standing facing The Arch and Zero. Now, they turned to face me. Seven: Lyra Lyric, open your mic. I leaned forward, clicked on the mic button and locked it open. A little burst of green above my head announced my connection to voice. As I stood back up straight, the green settled down to a lower, steady burst in time with my heavy breathing. I tried to slow it down. “Witnessed.” The word from Zero sounded in the 198


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centre of my head. A mature, male voice. A slow voice. He articulated each syllable clearly and carefully. “Are you naked before us, in thought and body?” he asked. He had a European accent. “Yes,” I whispered. “Will you surrender your truth to us?” “I will.” “Then your Personal Surrender begins. The Disc awaits your words.” And now, there was silence within The Disc. This was it. “Um. I’m not sure how to say this.” My voice shook. “I, um, I don’t know how to, um… phrase it.” I pressed my palms against my stomach, which was churning so heavily I could have run for the toilet there and then. I wrapped my arms around myself and tried to breathe. Nobody spoke in The Disc, in voice or in text. “I want to just say it,” I said. “I want to just get it out.” My whole body started to shake. I looked at the screen again, wanting some sort of encouragement, but Zero, The Arch and The Circle continued to face me in silence. To be honest, I don’t think I could have read anything they said anyway. “I’ve kept this… inside me for… so long.” I found I couldn’t get through a whole sentence without taking a pause to breathe. “I want to… tell you all… so badly, but…” As I stood there, naked, sweating, freezing cold, I thought about Barnaby’s legs twitching and his hands flailing at my arms and face. In those last few moments of panic, his body had fought as it had been designed to. His heart had raced as mine was racing now. He had failed. I had 199


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killed him. I had ended his life. I had stolen from him everything he had. I remember when I was at university coming out of my house one morning and finding that someone had smashed the road side wing mirrors of all the cars in my street, including my rather weary looking Ford Fiesta. It was the first time in my life, somehow, that I’d been the victim of a crime. Whilst the logical part of my brain refused to let me join in with the disproportionate anger of the neighbours (it was, I wanted to tell them, just a fucking wing mirror; but I knew they’d take one look at my car and dismiss the applicability of my value statement), there was an emotional part also that was simply stunned – shocked – that someone had done this to me. Someone had intentionally harmed me by deliberately destroying something of mine and the impact this would have on me was of no importance to them. It was a stupid and yet profound moment of revelation on the essential cruelty of the world. I really didn’t give a shit about my car or my wing mirror, it was the ability of people to intentionally hurt people that stung. I sat with a mug of tea in my kitchen for the next hour, whilst the police went from door to door collecting the details of who owned what car and had suffered what damage, and I thought about people who had been executed. Did they feel the same incredulousness in their final moments before death? Did they feel the same sense of personal outrage? I wondered what final thoughts had passed through Step Stransky’s mind as he’d realised I was there to kill him. If he could have seen my face, he might possibly have seen my pleasure at his wriggling. Maybe – just 200


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maybe – that might have pissed him off enough to overpower me. I was leaning on the table, sobbing like a child, but I wouldn’t tell them like this. I was a murderer. I was a murderer. If that was who I was then that was who I was. I stood back up straight. I took deep breaths. I said, my voice still shaking a little, but stronger, clearer, definite, “I am a murderer. I am a murderer. On a night five years ago, I killed a man. I planned it and I carried it out. I am a murderer. That is my truth.” There. The words were out of my head. I had spoken them. It was done.

There were no shocked whispers. There were no disconcerted mutterings. I stood in silence. “Witnessed, do you wish to add anything to your Truth?” Zero spoke as though I’d just announced a plan to go shopping. “No,” I whispered. “Witnessed, you have surrendered before us your Truth. The Disc has heard you and now awaits the completion of your Personal Surrender. Do you undertake now to consider the surrender of The Body?” “Yes.” “This will take place within one year of today’s date and no later.” And, with that, his mic clicked off and the voice event was over. Seven: Align The Circle. The women turned once more to face him. 201


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Seven: Conceal The Arch. The Arch members replaced their masks of naked male homogeneity. Seven: Lyra Lyric, you may close your mic. Seven: You may dress and sit in real life.

Fifteen minutes of dull formality later, I returned to the skybox through its fireplace portal, my mood sunk totally by anti-climax. What, now, was different than before? Like the ascent to orgasm, saying my truth had felt like everything at the time. Now, I was back to the confines of my own head, the complete absence of any sort of reaction to my statement leaving me wondering if anyone had actually listened to me at all. An unfamiliar icon appeared in the top right corner of my viewer and started flashing orange. I clicked on it. It was an IM from Assumption. Assumption Asymptomatic: I shouldn’t really be contacting you. Assumption Asymptomatic: Well, that’s not to say it’s a rule. Assumption Asymptomatic: It’s just frowned upon. Assumption Asymptomatic: You have no idea what it meant to me to hear your Surrender tonight. Assumption Asymptomatic: I thought I was completely alone. Assumption Asymptomatic: You see, Assumption Asymptomatic: I am a murderer too. 202


17 We met at the café where I’d sat with Seven in his guise of Robin Hardcastle. Assumption knew the place and confirmed she’d had a similar interview with him there herself a couple of months earlier. Piecing together the approximate timings she gave me, it appeared to be the case that she’d made her own surrender of the truth about a week before Hewson had come to speak to me. I now had the complete answer to his enquiry, then, but no way of actually giving it to him – if he ever decided to show up, that is. For a while, though, we didn’t talk about any of that. We talked about how long we’d been in SL and old places we’d enjoyed but were no longer around. Assumption Asymptomatic: Did you ever go to Greenies? Lyra Lyric: omg, I adored Greenies. Lyra Lyric: I can’t believe that place is gone now. Lyra Lyric: Think what those guys could have done with mesh. In fact, Lyra had never stepped foot inside that sim, although Def had on many occasions. One of them had been with Inch on an evening when Def had been on a case and my own work load was unusually light. We’d 203


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rezzed at the welcome point beneath the floorboards and worked our way slowly across the gigantic sitting room, Inch in an increasing state of delight. Assumption Asymptomatic: I suppose maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s no longer about. Assumption Asymptomatic: Old tech, now. Assumption Asymptomatic: Obsolete. Assumption Asymptomatic: I think that was even presculpty. Lyra Lyric: I think you’re right, yes. Lyra Lyric: Everything was basic prims. Lyra Lyric: I remember being astonished that it was even possible to achieve that sort of detail with just prims. Assumption Asymptomatic: It was at that scale. Assumption Asymptomatic: And with those textures. Lyra Lyric: I mean, do you remember the Coca Cola bottle with the Coke spilling out of it? Assumption Asymptomatic smiles. Assumption Asymptomatic: Of course. Lyra Lyric: Just incredible. It felt wonderful to be talking about normal, lighthearted stuff and not feel like it was part of a deception. She knew. She knew, and she was still talking to me. I felt a sudden strong desire for her – a desire I hadn’t felt for years. I pushed it right back down, not wanting to spoil a moment of the pure freedom I felt. Assumption Asymptomatic: So many places gone, now. 204


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Assumption Asymptomatic: And so many people. Lyra Lyric: Do you think it’s true what they’re saying? Lyra Lyric: That Second Life is dying? Assumption Asymptomatic: My partner – Hewson – is convinced of it. Assumption Asymptomatic: He hasn’t been around in SL for as long as I have. Assumption Asymptomatic: He arrived with mesh, more or less. Assumption Asymptomatic: Although sometimes from the things he says I wonder if he’s been playing for a lot longer than he lets on. Assumption Asymptomatic: He talks about ‘the heyday’ of SL, when businesses and universities were all falling over each other to get a place in the metaverse. Assumption Asymptomatic: And that was before his time. Assumption Asymptomatic: Except, of course, he could just be repeating stuff he read on blogs and suchlike. Assumption Asymptomatic: Well, we know that places are disappearing. Assumption Asymptomatic: There are still loads of great sims left. Assumption Asymptomatic: But so many of them are new enterprises by people who weren’t around during the busier times. Assumption Asymptomatic: Essentially new folk giving the same old business plans another go. Assumption Asymptomatic: Not realising they’ve been tried and abandoned many times over. 205


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Assumption Asymptomatic: Well anyway, how could SL have lasted forever? Assumption Asymptomatic: The basic infrastructure is nearly ten years old. Assumption Asymptomatic: Ten years ago, Windows XP was still new and the mobile phone industry was all about buying ringtones. Assumption Asymptomatic: And Facebook didn’t even exist. Assumption Asymptomatic: It had to end sooner or later. Assumption Asymptomatic: I guess I always assumed, though, that it would end because something better had come along. Assumption Asymptomatic: Maybe a new product from one of the biggies. Assumption Asymptomatic: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo. Assumption Asymptomatic: Maybe even Apple. Assumption Asymptomatic: I never thought for a moment it would just fizzle out, all by itself. Assumption Asymptomatic: No real competition, just a slow loss of direction and a steadily disillusioned user base. Lyra Lyric: I used to think Linden would sell SL to one of those big companies. Assumption Asymptomatic: Right. I wondered about that. Assumption Asymptomatic: ‘GWorld’, or something like that. Assumption Asymptomatic laughs. Lyra Lyric: ‘iWorld’. Assumption Asymptomatic: Right! 206


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Assumption Asymptomatic: Apple would be more oblique, though. Assumption Asymptomatic: It would have to be something like iSoil. Assumption Asymptomatic: Or iBuild. Lyra Lyric: iPrim. Assumption Asymptomatic: Yes! Lyra Lyric: I still can’t quite fathom why no-one big is interested in the metaverse. Lyra Lyric: SL was essentially an idea that came along too soon. Lyra Lyric: For people expecting something like a computer game, it was too much of a disappointment. Lyra Lyric: The graphics were too basic and loaded too slowly, lag crippled busy places, etc. Lyra Lyric: Now, we have faster computers, faster internet connections and more internet-savvy, connected people. Lyra Lyric: It should be that much easier now to create a more accessible virtual world. Lyra Lyric: But no-one has. Lyra Lyric: Instead of creating new online experiences, the big companies are just slogging it out with each other, trying to be the best at the same things. Lyra Lyric: What big new ideas have come along and stuck within the last three years? Lyra Lyric: A period of time which ordinarily would see everything overturned at least once. Assumption Asymptomatic: Well, tablets. Assumption Asymptomatic: That’s where everything is right now. 207


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Assumption Asymptomatic: Tablets and apps. Lyra Lyric: Yeah, you’re right. Assumption Asymptomatic: But all that that’s about is giving people access to the stuff they already had access to on their computers. Assumption Asymptomatic: Just more portable. Assumption Asymptomatic: Something new will come along sooner or later. Assumption Asymptomatic: It probably won’t be a virtual world thing though. Assumption Asymptomatic: I guess I’ve pretty much come to terms with that now. Assumption Asymptomatic: As for SL, I’ll enjoy it whilst it lasts. We talked like this for maybe an hour; as time passed, the issue of our murders started to become the elephant at the table beside us. I didn’t want the carefree chat to end. But I didn’t want either to come across as avoiding the subject; I didn’t want to come across as not the sort of person that Assumption perhaps secretly hoped I would be. But the intentional killing of a person isn’t exactly an easy topic to introduce into light conversation. There are no, “Oh, that reminds me” or “On a related subject” connections that can be easily employed. Manipulating a weighty change of topic is a strange thing in text, essentially no different from the way you’d do it in faceto-face conversation, but odd because it’s more of a conscious thing. You start to give shorter responses. You wait a little longer before typing them (note that this is not the same as taking longer to type them, since when 208


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you’re typing the other person gets the message that you’re typing; it’s important that there is actually a pause). Your responses become less enthusiastic. You use shut-down phrases like “I guess so” and “You’re probably right” or just “Yeah.” Finally, the other person gives up and hands you full control of the conch, and you just sit there a while and say nothing with it. Assumption Asymptomatic: Do you mind talking about it? Assumption Asymptomatic: Murder, I mean? Lyra Lyric: I want to talk about it. Lyra Lyric: Very much. Lyra Lyric: I’m just not really sure what to say. Assumption Asymptomatic: Me neither. Lyra Lyric: There are no words, not really. Lyra Lyric: That’s why I want to talk to someone who knows. Lyra Lyric: It means I don’t have to attempt the impossible. Lyra Lyric: To try to put into words something that doesn’t belong there. Lyra Lyric: I can talk about it and I can do it badly, and you’ll still understand. Lyra Lyric: Maybe. Assumption Asymptomatic: Tel me about it? Lyra Lyric: You first :p Assumption Asymptomatic: Oh. Assumption Asymptomatic: Well. There was a very long pause.

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Assumption Asymptomatic: Oh dear. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’d thought it would all come tumbling out. Assumption Asymptomatic: I have no idea what to say. Assumption Asymptomatic: That is to say, there’s no way I can tell this and come out looking good about it. Assumption Asymptomatic: Not really. Assumption Asymptomatic: Shit. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m suddenly overwhelmed by guilt all over again. Lyra Lyric: Have you ever talked to anyone else about it? Assumption Asymptomatic: Other than The Disc? No. Lyra Lyric: That’s not exactly talking about it though, is it? Lyra Lyric: Until you IMed me, I couldn’t be sure if anyone had actually been listening to me or not. Lyra Lyric: For a while there, I was wondering if they were all been watching TV in RL whilst I was standing there starkers and stumbling through the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say. Assumption Asymptomatic laughs. Assumption Asymptomatic: You made me cry. Assumption Asymptomatic: The way you sobbed and made yourself say it. Assumption Asymptomatic: But The Disc won’t ask you anything. Assumption Asymptomatic: It isn’t meant to be therapy. Assumption Asymptomatic: It’s meant to be a catalyst, 210


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a first step. The Surrender, that is. Assumption Asymptomatic: What we’re doing right now – you and I – is, I suppose the next step. Assumption Asymptomatic: I murdered a colleague of my ex. Assumption Asymptomatic: I really don’t want to tell you right now the how or why. Assumption Asymptomatic: For no other reason than I’m ashamed of both. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’d love it if there was some sort of moral justification somewhere in the story that I could big up. Assumption Asymptomatic: But there isn’t. Not really. Assumption Asymptomatic: I managed to convince myself of all kinds of stuff at the time. Assumption Asymptomatic: But it was all delusion. Lyra Lyric: Right. Lyra Lyric: Me to. Lyra Lyric: I murdered a guy who I thought had stolen someone from me. Lyra Lyric: Someone who was never in any sense of the word ‘mine’ in the first place. Lyra Lyric: The whole thing now seems so fucking pointless. Lyra Lyric: Such a waste of life. Lyra Lyric: Mine. His. The woman I thought he’d taken from me. Lyra Lyric: At the time, it felt like I was on a mission. Assumption Asymptomatic: Right. Assumption Asymptomatic: Yes. Assumption Asymptomatic: A woman? 211


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Assumption Asymptomatic: You’re lesbian? Lyra Lyric: Bisexual. Assumption Asymptomatic: Oh. Another pause. Assumption Asymptomatic: I never really know what to say when someone tells me something like that. Assumption Asymptomatic: I feel like if I don’t say anything it’ll come across as though I’m morally shocked. Assumption Asymptomatic: So I have to fight back this urge to make some sort of patronising affirmative statement like “Good for you!” Lyra Lyric laughs. Lyra Lyric: ‘Congratulations’ will do just fine. :p Assumption Asymptomatic laughs. Lyra Lyric: And you? Assumption Asymptomatic: Me? Oh, I’m straight. Assumption Asymptomatic: Well. Assumption Asymptomatic: In SL, I will admit to a little ‘bi-curiosity’. Assumption Asymptomatic: But I’ve never been with or desired a woman in RL. Lyra Lyric: Maybe you should try it some time :) Assumption Asymptomatic: Oh gosh. Assumption Asymptomatic: I just couldn’t imagine it. Lyra Lyric: Just suppose you had to choose between a fat, ugly, sweaty, bitter, miserable guy… Lyra Lyric: …and a gorgeous, sexy, positive woman. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’d choose neither. Assumption Asymptomatic: Why should I choose one 212


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anyway? Lyra Lyric: But supposing you *had* to. Assumption Asymptomatic: Why? What’s going to happen if I don’t? Lyra Lyric smiles. Lyra Lyric: Okay, nevermind. Assumption Asymptomatic: It’s not like I’m going to enjoy it either way. Lyra Lyric: It’s about the choice. It’s not about pleasure. Lyra Lyric: It’s just a thought experiment to get you thinking about how certain you are about your sexual identity. Lyra Lyric: I’m not trying to ‘convert’ you, I promise! Assumption Asymptomatic laughs. Assumption Asymptomatic: Sorry. Assumption Asymptomatic: Just don’t really see the point in such hypotheticals. Assumption Asymptomatic: What does it matter what sort of choice I’d make under abnormal conditions? Lyra Lyric: Only that it tells us a little bit more about who we are. Assumption Asymptomatic: Well then, if you must know, I’d choose the guy. Assumption Asymptomatic: If I’m going to have to undergo an unpleasant experience, then it might as well be one where I know what to do. Lyra Lyric laughs. Lyra Lyric: You know Lyra Lyric: That’s actually a pretty good answer. I liked her. I wished she wasn’t straight, but I liked her. 213


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I wished she wasn’t a murderer too; I wished it didn’t have to be someone else who’d taken a life selfishly who was the one person who could accept and listen to me. I supposed she probably felt the same way about me. I realised I didn’t really want to know what it was that she’d done. There was enough of the ‘citizen’ left in me that, no matter how much her actions resembled mine, it would be hard not to judge her. I realised I didn’t want to tell her my own details either. I told her this. Assumption Asymptomatic: Yes, I understand. Assumption Asymptomatic: For now, it is simply enough to know that it happened. Lyra Lyric: For now? Assumption Asymptomatic: Where do you think this journey will take you? Lyra Lyric: What journey? Assumption Asymptomatic: The journey of your Personal Surrender. Lyra Lyric: I don’t know. Lyra Lyric: To a hotel room, I guess. Assumption Asymptomatic: I don’t mean that. Assumption Asymptomatic: I mean, now that you have spoken out loud words which only previously existed in your head… Assumption Asymptomatic: …what consequence lies ahead of you? Lyra Lyric: I don’t quite follow you. Assumption Asymptomatic: Lyra, we can agree now to not speak of our crimes to each other, and that will be ok. Assumption Asymptomatic: But will we not wonder, 214


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just the same? Assumption Asymptomatic: And will not the ache grow within us to speak more, to reveal more? Assumption Asymptomatic: Will not this taste of openness that you have experienced tonight and I experienced several weeks ago leave us wanting to push further? Lyra Lyric: You think we should tell each other the details? Assumption Asymptomatic: This is all still new and fresh for you. I’ve had a little more time to think it over. Assumption Asymptomatic: My Surrender left me breathless with emotion. I nearly collapsed. Assumption Asymptomatic: But the next day, the world was back to normal. Assumption Asymptomatic: I had spoken the words and felt released by speaking them. Assumption Asymptomatic: But all that was different was a bunch of disconnected people now knew. Assumption Asymptomatic: People who felt suddenly like figments of my imagination, for all their actual connectedness to me. Assumption Asymptomatic: I started to want more, but I was scared. Assumption Asymptomatic: I tried to focus on thinking about the Surrender of my Body, hoping that ‘completion’ would – in some way I couldn’t quite work out – be exactly that. Assumption Asymptomatic: I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I have a theory that the Surrender of The Body is a myth. 215


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Lyra Lyric: What? Assumption Asymptomatic: I think it’s not true. Assumption Asymptomatic: I think they tell you that in order to make the Surrender of The Truth feel like an incomplete first step. Assumption Asymptomatic: Something that leaves you wanting more. Assumption Asymptomatic: And, at first, you think the thing you want is to complete your surrender. Assumption Asymptomatic: Only then you discover what it actually is. Assumption Asymptomatic: I think what you and I are doing right now is actually the next little bit. Lyra Lyric: What is it that we’re doing? Assumption Asymptomatic: Connecting? Valuing? Desensitising? Preparing ourselves? Lyra Lyric: But preparing ourselves for what? Assumption Asymptomatic: I can’t speak for you. Assumption Asymptomatic: That’s up to you to decide. Assumption Asymptomatic: But I know what I want to do ultimately. Lyra Lyric: What? Assumption Asymptomatic: I want to confess. Assumption Asymptomatic: I want to turn myself in. Assumption Asymptomatic: Tell them how I did it and why. Assumption Asymptomatic: Be judged. Assumption Asymptomatic: Be punished as society sees fit. Assumption Asymptomatic: I want to have my life back, waiting for me at the end of my sentence. 216


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Assumption Asymptomatic: Instead of this endless feeling like nothing that’s going on around me is relevant or meaningful to me. Assumption Asymptomatic: Even if it’s just a few years of life that remains. Assumption Asymptomatic: If I knew I could spend only one year as a real person again before I die, thirty years in prison would be worth it. Lyra Lyric: You’re scaring me. Assumption Asymptomatic: Don’t be scared, Lyra. Assumption Asymptomatic: Talking to you tonight has made things clear for me. Assumption Asymptomatic: You must find your own path. Assumption Asymptomatic: But here’s the thing. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m not ready yet either. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m scared too. Assumption Asymptomatic: I don’t want to say aloud the details of the dreadful thing I did, but if I don’t say it to you who empathises… Assumption Asymptomatic: …then how will I ever summon up the courage to say it to the police? Lyra Lyric: Right. Lyra Lyric: Yes, I understand. Lyra Lyric: Then we’ll talk it through. Lyra Lyric: Each of us. Lyra Lyric: All of the details. Lyra Lyric: Just not tonight, ok? Assumption Asymptomatic: Not tonight, no. Assumption Asymptomatic: You know what I’d like most of all, though? Lyra Lyric: What? 217


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Assumption Asymptomatic: I don’t want to write it. I want to speak it. Assumption Asymptomatic: I want to be able to see the face of the person I’m speaking it too. Assumption Asymptomatic: I know this is impulsive, but… Assumption Asymptomatic: Do you think there’s any way we could meet up? Assumption Asymptomatic: In RL, I mean? Assumption Asymptomatic: Go for a coffee somewhere? Assumption Asymptomatic: Tell our stories to each other in person? Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m in the UK. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m guessing from your accent that you are too. Lyra Lyric: I am. Assumption Asymptomatic: I don’t expect you to give me an answer now. Assumption Asymptomatic: But would you think about it? The idea was both terrifying and exhilarating. I knew at once that I wanted to do it. Lyra Lyric: Yes. Lyra Lyric: I will think about it. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m sorry. Assumption Asymptomatic: It’s too full on, right? Assumption Asymptomatic: I mean, we’ve only just met. Assumption Asymptomatic: You must think me some 218


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kind of nut. Lyra Lyric: No no, not at all. Lyra Lyric: It’s a little scary, yes. Lyra Lyric: But I admit the idea appeals to me. Lyra Lyric: I don’t know that I could do what you want to do, though. Lyra Lyric: Turn myself in. Lyra Lyric: I mean, I do get where you’re coming from. I do. Lyra Lyric: Maybe if I had some time with the idea. Assumption Asymptomatic: Lyra, you must do whatever you think is best. Assumption Asymptomatic: I’m not trying to influence you. Assumption Asymptomatic: This is what *I* need to do. Assumption Asymptomatic: I think. Assumption Asymptomatic: I just need to find the courage. Assumption Asymptomatic: I just need someone to help me take that next step. Lyra Lyric: And the Surrender of The Body? You really think it’s not real? Assumption Asymptomatic: I don’t know. Assumption Asymptomatic: In a way, handing myself in would be my own form of surrendering my body. Assumption Asymptomatic: Don’t you think? Lyra Lyric: I guess. Assumption Asymptomatic: Oh dear. That sounds rather uncertain. Lyra Lyric: You’ve given me a lot to think about. Assumption Asymptomatic: I know. 219


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Assumption Asymptomatic: It’s a lot to process. Assumption Asymptomatic: Sorry if I’ve overwhelmed you. Lyra Lyric: It’s ok :) Lyra Lyric: Give me a day, ok? Lyra Lyric: Just to turn it over. Assumption Asymptomatic: Of course. Assumption Asymptomatic shivers involuntarily a little. Assumption Asymptomatic: I have goosebumps. Lyra Lyric takes your hand in hers and kisses the backs of your fingers. Assumption Asymptomatic: Oh. Lyra Lyric: Is that ok? Assumption Asymptomatic: Yes, it is. Assumption Asymptomatic: Just don’t stop with my fingers.

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18 Three days later I caught the train to Portsmouth Harbour, changing at Westbury. I got in at five to one and made straight for the Spinnaker tower, our rendezvous point. We’d fixed the details on the day following our meeting and two hours of subsequent touching and kissing in IM, right there at the café. For someone who’d not long previously told me that having sex with a woman in RL was beyond contemplation, Assumption had certainly shown no reticence in typing in what she wanted in SL. Then again, it was more than possible she’d been fucked by a female member of The Arch. And she had said that she was ‘bi-curious’ in SL. This is a phrase I’ve read over and over on people’s profiles in the metaverse. It’s a hard thing for me to get my head around, sometimes. I like both men and women, so it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would be like to be unattracted to someone only because of their gender. There are plenty of people who I wouldn’t fuck if they were the last other person left on Earth, it’s just that whether they were male or female wouldn’t be a factor in that. Obesity, bad personal hygiene, negativity and bitterness are no different in the degree to which they turn me off as they would be for anyone else. Obviously, I don’t disrespect straight people; it’s just an odd curiosity for me that they like one thing that I like 221


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but the other thing I like they don’t. What, then, is ‘bicurious’ when it’s restricted only to the metaverse? Is it simply an attitude of, ‘If I do such-and-such will it turn out that I like it?’ I have no issue with that. But if the answer is yes then why stop there? I don’t mean that bicurious people who discover they are able to orgasm in same-sex cyber should drop everything to go out and experiment in RL, just that it’s odd to me that such a person would then so definitively maintain a position of distaste in their thoughts about RL same-sex encounters. Wouldn’t they at least entertain the slight possibility that they might like it? She’d told me that she’d wait for me on the first deck of the tower, and would hold a rolled-up newspaper. As soon as I entered the deck, I spotted her leaning against the outer handrail, her back to the view of Gosport. She looked to be in her mid-thirties and wore a knee length pea green skirt and a white blouse. She had bark brown, straightened, shoulder-length hair. She was stunning. She was watching casually the new batch of people entering the deck from the lift and I let my gaze float past as soon as I’d located her. She didn’t know what I would look like and seeing her there made everything suddenly real in a way that felt like my stomach had somehow been punctured. I went cold all over. It suddenly occurred to me that the last time I’d felt this feeling was when John-Paul Barnaby had shown me across the threshold of his flat and I had realised this was the last place I would be in before I killed him. I kept Assumption in the corner of my eye as I went over to the glass floor section of the platform and got my breathing under control. 222


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Some children were playing in their socks on the glass, their parents watching them with a mixture of pride that their offspring were so trusting of the engineering and utter terror that, well, their offspring were so trusting of the engineering. Beneath them was a one hundred metre drop. I walked to the edge and looked down at the tiny dots moving around underneath us. It made me feel sick. She was looking at her watch. Another couple of loads of people from the elevator and she would probably start wondering if she’d been stood up. I’d come this far; it was inconceivable to me that I would now back out. But I could still back out. I could still walk away from the whole thing and, for a moment, I was sorely tempted. I had a strong feeling from somewhere that if I made contact with this woman then I would pass some sort of point of no return. When I’d left my flat in the morning, I’d actually wondered if I would ever see it again. Something in the back of my mind was repeating ‘Hewson’ over and over. Why had Hewson disappeared? What was it he’d said to me at the club that had unnerved me? Assumption was stunning, yes, and she looked perfectly ordinary. And yet she was a murderer, just like me. Two murders within a single room. I wondered if there were any more in the vicinity. Well, who knew? My heart thudding, I walked up to her. Our eyes met. She smiled. “Lyra,” she said. “Hello Assumption,” I replied, my mouth so sticky that it struggled to form the syllables.

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We stood there for several minutes, our backs to the room of tourists, leaning with our forearms on the rail and looking across the harbour. I spotted HMS Alliance, the museum submarine, and for a moment indulged in the memory of my father following eagerly behind as I entered reluctantly what looked to me like a big black bottle lying on its side. We talked politely like two business associates meeting for the first time. The punctuality and comfort of our trains got discussed. Notable other people observed during the journey were audited. The books we were reading got compared. No mention was made of SL, let alone that we’d had sex three nights before, let alone what we were actually here to talk about. “I don’t feel like I know you at all,” she said finally, at last acknowledging the growing tension between us. “You don’t,” I replied, moving slightly closer to her so that our arms touched very lightly. “We only met three days ago. “Do you suppose this is what it’s also like for lovers who’ve known each other for ages in SL?” she asked. “If anything, I imagine it must be harder,” I said. “Think what it would be like if expectation and hope were added to this. At least we don’t have anything to break.” “Right,” she said. “Except, I do have expectation and hope.” “Shall we go and have that coffee?” I asked her. “The more we talk about normal things, the harder it’s going to become,” she said. “Yes. Let’s go do this.”

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“My ex was an introvert,” she said, half an hour later. We were sitting at an outdoors table at a café in Gunwharf Quays. We both had black Americano. She had lit a cigarette. “In his own way,” she continued, “he was brilliant. He was a gifted musician. He played piano, guitar and the saxophone. He was also into computer music. He’d spend hours on his PC recording and sequencing tracks. He didn’t play in any bands because he found it too hard to get on with other people. I won’t say he was mute around others, but to many that’s how he must have appeared. It would have been ok if the only thing he had to do as part of a band was perform – when he was playing, he could have been in front of an audience of two or two thousand for all he cared. Although he did used to complain about how difficult it was to hear properly the other musicians when he was on stage. When I say he used to complain about it, I mean that it was one of the excuses he’d give whenever I tried to push him. It wasn’t like he actually had a great deal of recent experience of that. I think he performed with others about once or twice when he was at university. He studied astronomy. He was always watching science fiction stuff on the telly. He seemed to know an awful lot about it – difficult for me to judge, of course – but I think he only actually scraped a pass in his degree. When I asked him about it, he’d mutter about the other people on his course being wankers. I never really pushed on that. “So we’d spend every evening with him on his computer and me reading, and it was okay because every now and then he’d take off his headphones and let 225


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me listen to this amazing new track he was working on. I used to sing for him. He’d set up his microphone and sing me the lyrics and insist on me singing them from memory – he said they wouldn’t sound right if I was reading them. “I was working as a PA at the time. He was working for a bank, but not in a branch. He worked in some regional office. Neither of our salaries were great, but put together they were a good enough living. I quite enjoyed my job, but he detested and loathed his with every particle of his being. At first, he hardly talked about it; he hated it so much he considered any conversation about it out of work hours to be a waste of his time. He had an amazing ability – back then – to just switch off from his job completely the moment he walked out of the office and not then think about it until the point at which he walked in the next morning. “Then he got a new line manager and, almost instantly, there was a problem. The one thing Adam would occasionally talk about with respect to his job was to brag about his methods for doing as little as possible there – extended toilet breaks, lengthy trips to the kitchen to make coffee; he’d managed to get a corner desk by the window so that no-one could see he was looking into space, thinking up new tunes when he should have been working. It used to annoy me a little. I could see how the bank’s business practices hardly fit with his politics, but his inactivity only meant that other colleagues ended up with larger workloads. He’d justify that by calling them ‘lemmings’ or ‘sheep’, but the reality was that what he portrayed as some sort of private activist stance against the capitalist machine – something 226


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that made it acceptable to him to take their money at the end of every month and not feel like he was part of the problem – was in fact an insecurity that working hard would get him pushed into more exposed roles where people expected things of him socially that he wasn’t able to deliver. I saw this only partially at the time; I bought into the whole seeing him as an undiscovered genius thing. Well, I was in love with him. “But the new guy – Keith – saw through Adam pretty much in an instant. I remember the first day that he came home and actually talked about work to me. He was absolutely furious. Livid. Keith had only been in the position for a few days and he’d stopped by his desk that morning to ask Adam what he did. I gather Adam had pointed at his screen and probably grunted in his low, monosyllabic manner, and Keith had asked him to identify specifically what piece of work he was looking at. I think he must have dragged the words out of Adam one-by-one. If that wasn’t bad enough, he then asked for an estimate on its completion so that he could allocate other work. When Adam had told him when he was expecting to finish by, Keith had asked him if he was joking. Jesus Christ, I remember the look on Adam’s face as he told me that line. Keith had come back an hour later to see how much Adam had done, and when he saw how little it was, he pulled him off the task and gave it to someone else, and gave Adam a different job to do. Humiliated is not the word, Lyra. I was half feeling sorry for him and half feeling he should maybe have viewed it as a fair cop. The most straightforward thing at that point would have been to accept that the easy ride was over and knuckle down to it, but to have done so 227


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would have been for Adam like acknowledging Keith was right in some manner. And, I knew deep down that Adam was terrified by work and only went in because he had to – the number of sick days he took each year was astronomical. His work avoidance was just about keeping himself well within his comfort zone. “So he didn’t knuckle down. I guess he must have speeded up a little bit, because he no longer bragged to me about getting away with doing nothing and, after that first day of venom, things went temporarily quiet about work again. At the time, I thought maybe this had just been a blip – a new guy creating his don’t-shit-withme first impression. But then – I guess it was about two months later – it was Adam’s first bi-annual appraisal with him. He got graded as ‘Must improve’, which meant that he would face dismissal if he got the same grade again six months later. From that moment on, my evenings became hell. “Every day he’d come home in a foul mood. Every day he’d moan about Keith: what he’d done; what he hadn’t done; what he’d said; what he hadn’t said. You have to understand, Lyra, that on most days Keith would actually say absolutely nothing to Adam and everything he reported to me was just stuff he’d overheard or other people had told him Keith had said. Adam started going out with work colleagues for a drink after work, which at the time I’d really hoped was a sign of improving social competence. Of course, it was only his absolute hatred of Keith that made him find suddenly social unity with his workmates. It turned out that many of them weren’t exactly impressed with Keith’s results-oriented approach either. The grouping together and sharing of moans over 228


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a pint was a genuine pleasure for Adam, except he had a belief that Keith genuinely had it in for him. On the days when Keith actually did say something to him, he’d run it over and over in conversation with me, finding as many negative interpretations of it as he could and winding himself up more and more with each successive theory. And those were the days when you had to dig to make Keith’s comments look vitriolic. On the days when they actually were negative comments, Adam would come home appearing to me at the brink of both tears of desperation and sheer, blind, spittle-flecked fury. One day, Keith suggested Adam present his current project to his team in their weekly briefing and Adam – who would probably have preferred to have been shot by a firing squad than have to talk formally in front of other people – tried to find as many ways as he could to get out of it until the point when Keith looked at him and said, “Adam: JFDI.” Jesus, how he screamed at me about that. “And then one evening he came home and the tears were running down his face within five minutes of his walking through the door. It was about three months since that appraisal and Keith had made some sort of comment during team brief about people needing to pull their weight or expect a P45. Adam hated that job, but the prospect of getting fired was something he had no idea how to deal with. He knew he needed the money – we needed the money. He knew it would be hard to get any sort of job if the reference from his previous employer was negative. Honestly, Lyra, I’ve never seen a man reduced to such misery before or since. He sat in the corner and wept. It was a full-on nervous 229


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breakdown. I didn’t know what to do to help him.” Assumption said, “So I went out and found Keith. And I killed him.” She took a long gulp of coffee and lifted her cigarette to her lips. But it was long ago a white cylinder of ash and the movement only caused it to break apart and disintegrate. She shrugged and lit another. “I knew where he lived,” she said. “Adam had looked him up once. He’d been talking about going round there and sticking fireworks through his letterbox, and had his house up on Google Streetview. I have a photographic memory for names, numbers and addresses. It was about a twenty minute drive from our flat. You see, it felt like this was the only possible outcome that didn’t involve Adam taking his life or mine or both. Keith wasn’t married. He had no kids. It was his life verses mine, effectively; it was simple. No-one had asked him to come along and ruin our stability, however right he might have happened to be about Adam and his work ethic.” “How did you do it?” I asked whilst she paused to take another drag of the new cigarette. “I parked on the road about ten cars away from his house, then I walked straight up to the door and asked if I could use his phone, making out I’d broken down and my mobile was out of charge. My mobile was actually out of charge on account of me taking the battery out so there were no mobile phone records of me being in his vicinity.” “He didn’t offer to help you fix the car?” I asked. “Of course he did. He was a man. I said he could fiddle with it all he wanted so long as he let me ring the 230


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AA first and then use his bathroom. He got me his landline and I phoned the number to vote for the current favourite in X-Factor. I asked him what road this was and repeated it back to the imaginary operator after I’d given them my fictional details. ‘How long?’ I asked. ‘Can’t you get here a bit sooner than that? I’m meant to be in town for 8:00pm?’ I looked theatrically at my watch.” Assumption looked vaguely past me, seeing him in front of her, standing in his lounge or hallway or kitchen or wherever it was that she’d made that phone call from. I thought about Barnaby showing me into his flat, seeing for the first time a place I had no association with, knowing it would be where I would kill him. “Then I ask where his bathroom is and he points me up the stairs. It’s a small house – one of those tiny modern terraced boxes, so I’d reckoned on it being upstairs. I spend a couple of minutes in there with the door locked and then I call down to him that I can’t flush the toilet. I hear him coming up. When his voice is just outside, I flush the loo and open the door. ‘It’s ok – I got it’. “’I guess there’s only so many ways you can push a button,’” he says and grins at me. My heart is suddenly racing. This is it. He turns to go back down the stairs and I pretend to stumble. ‘Oh!’ I cry. And I hit him hard with the base of my palms about a half foot above the exact centre of his back. Why do I pretend to stumble? Well I don’t know for sure this is even going to hurt him. He might get up at the bottom of the stairs without a scratch on him. I have to have my excuse. “And it’s like he’s sailing gently through the air, 231


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spinning slowly from where I hit him above his centre line. His arms seem to take a split second to register what’s going on, and then they kind of lunge for something. But before his hands have found something to hold on to, his face hits the bottom step and his body twists up and over his head, and there’s this noise… like a walnut being opened by a nutcracker… And just like that his body slumps around him like a severed marionette.” She lifted her cigarette but, once again, it had burned itself out. Another flutter of unsmoked ash fell to the table. She swore and lit a third “And I let myself out and went back to my car. Oh, I did a stupid thing. When I was outside his front door, I realised my heels would make a sound on the path. I wanted to take them off, but not as much as I wanted to get away from that house. So I walked across his lawn. Halfway across I realised I’d be leaving heel marks and I nearly panicked and ran. It was all I could do to make myself continue at the same pace, the last scraps of my thinking brain knowing that a route suddenly altered would draw more attention to it than a steady trail that could just have been someone taking a shortcut. But those fucking heels were all I could think about for the next week. I think I must have slept about three or four hours put together over the next seven days. My one mistake. I’d worn gloves the whole way through – even when I went to the bathroom – so there was no possibility of fingerprints. I’d have lain awake probably anyway – I mean, I’d just fucking killed a man – but thinking about that trail of heel marks nearly drove me insane. I was absolutely convinced that they’d deduce 232


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someone had been there from it and start up a murder enquiry. I had visions of some raincoated detective spotting it just when the forensics people were clearing out, calling over some newbie constable and asking him what he thought about it. ‘Which direction are these marks headed in?’ ‘Looks to me like they’re headed for the road, Lieutenant’. ‘That’s what it looks like to me too. So why isn’t there a set of marks coming back?’ ‘Maybe she wasn’t coming back, Lieutenant; maybe she was just someone delivering something.’ ‘She still had to get here in the first place, though.’ ‘Maybe she took the path on her way to the door. Maybe she was in a rush to get away.’ ‘And why do you suppose that she was in a rush to get away?’ Oh Lyra, I invented a thousand stories that led from that lawn to my own front door. And none of them came true. Not one. Instead, they recorded a verdict of accidental death eight days later. I couldn’t believe it. I sobbed for hours with the relief.” “I made one mistake too,” I said. “I left my fingerprints on a key in the flat of the guy I killed. Looks like that raincoated detective was taking a day off in both of our cases.” “You want to tell me about it?” she asked me. I looked around and felt exposed. “Not here,” I said. “Maybe somewhere more private. What happened with your ex?” “Oh, he was ecstatic. He reckoned it was the universe dealing out karma. Or something. He barely noticed the hell I was going through. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep; I practically chainsmoked through the whole week. And then, about a month later, he left me for another woman, one of the ‘Anti-Keith’ colleagues he’d started going for a 233


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drink with after work, someone who apparently ‘got him’ better than I did.” “Bastard,” I said. “I think a part of me wants to confess so that he gets to know what I did for him,” she said. “Oh, I’m not in love with him anymore. That bubble popped the very instant he walked out of my life. Stupid, self-centred prick. But it’s only a small part. The larger part just wants the lying to be over. I’m a murderer, Lyra. I should have called someone for help or – fuck it – walked out on him. He never asked me to kill that guy.” “You were painted into a corner,” I said. She looked at me. “Lyra, we’re not here for you to try to excuse what I did. I don’t want it excusing. We’re here to say aloud stuff that’s never been said before.” I put my hand over hers. “And you did it. How did it feel?” “It felt good,” she said. “It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Thank you, Lyra.” She crushed out what remained of her cigarette and covered my own hand with hers. “And look what amazing time we’ve made. We’ve not yet been in Portsmouth for an hour and a half!” “Please don’t suggest that we spend the remaining time shopping,” I said with a smile. “That would be just too bizarre.” She laughed. “Do you want to give it a try, Lyra?” she asked me. “I know it’s not what we agreed, but I’m thinking maybe now you’d like to and need a friendly push. I can’t tell you how much lighter I feel right now. We can go to my hotel room if you want.” “I don’t know,” I said. “Despite what you might think 234


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about your actions, you still acted more honourably than I did.” “Did you do what you thought was the only thing you could do?” “In a way.” I thought about Barnaby’s skin burning. “But I wasn’t backed into a corner like you were. I could easily have chosen differently.” “We can always choose differently,” she said. “Even when there’s a gun pointed at our head we can chose not to do what we’re told to.” “Look,” I said, “here’s what’s different between you and me. You knew from the start that what you did was wrong. You didn’t actually want to kill the guy in the first place. Why would you? He was nothing to you. In your mind, you were doing a bad thing to prevent an even more bad thing from happening. It wasn’t like that with me. It wasn’t like that at all.” “You wanted to kill him,” she stated, an edge of coldness to her voice. “With every fibre of my being, Assumption. And when I did, the larger part of me loved doing it. I fucked him first, you know. And after, I sat naked in my bedroom and luxuriated in the smell of his sweaty sex on my skin, knowing it was the last little bit of him and his doing in existence. Even when I realised, weeks later, that the whole thing had been a complete waste of time; even when I broke the heart of the girl I was in love with who had been with him, I still relished the memory. For sure, I regret doing it now. For sure I’ve been wishing for years I wasn’t a murderer: something I can never now not be – but even that for a long time I blamed on him. I would lie awake some nights and actually fume over 235


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how that old bastard had turned me into a murderer. I made it all his fault, somehow. The truth is, he was one of the best men I ever knew. But even though I can say that out loud and know that it’s true, I still can’t forget how he looked straight through me and took the love of my life.” “Did he know she was the love of your life? Did she know?” “Nope. But how could they? She’d been gone a year and then suddenly she was back – out of nowhere – tapping me on the shoulder in a nightclub and asking me for a dance. And I had to go to work, so I left the two of them together. Next day, they were partnered – just like that. A week later, they were married. I could have phoned work to say I was ill that night, but who imagines the chance they’ve been waiting for for months will be a window of opportunity lasting just a few minutes when it finally comes along? That single decision turned him into her hero and me into his murderer.” Yes. Yes. Just making these few oblique comments had brought sudden clarity to clouded thoughts. If I had stayed that night, things would have been different. I would have accepted that dance. We would have IMed. Maybe I didn’t have Step Stransky’s personal experience of pain to draw upon, but where was the law written down that someone with enough love and determination couldn’t empathise sufficiently to be supportive to someone who had experienced a tragedy which they hadn’t? If I’d remained in SL that night, I would have become her hero and he would have remained just an appendix to me, someone who she occasionally chatted with. Somewhere, in a number of 236


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alternate universes, Inch and I were together right now and I was neither murderer nor potential murderer. “I’m a little confused,” Assumption said. “Don’t you think it would be better to start from the beginning?” It all hinged on a moment’s thought; go – stay; lover – murderer; everything subsequent decided on the flip of a virtual coin. And here we were at another toss point. “Sure,” I said. “Did you mean it when you said we could go to your hotel?” There was an ever-so-slight hesitation. Then she said, “Absolutely I did.” I stood up. “Then let’s go.”

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19 Her room was on the fifth floor of a large budget chain. Crème walls. Green carpet. A duvet that looked like a three foot snowfall. When we entered, she kicked off her shoes with a sigh and took her phone out of her bag. There were two easy chairs by the window and I sat in the one by the long multi-purpose desk that ran the entire width of the room opposite the bed; it had a TV on it, a kettle and two cups and saucers, some information leaflets and a mirror. Instead of taking the other chair, Assumption sat on the bed. Then she lay back and stretched out. “I feel so drained, now,” she said to the ceiling. “All my energy has left me.” “You must have been pumped full of adrenalin,” I said, from my chair. “And now it’s all gone.” She rolled over, checked her phone wearily and put it on the bedside shelf. She propped herself up on one elbow and looked at me. “There’s something about hotel rooms, don’t you think? So anonymous. Just like you and I are to each other, still using each other’s SL names.” She held up her other hand, palm facing me. Reassurance. “That’s not a request for RL details,” she said sleepily. “I’m just saying. It feels like we’ve stepped outside of everything.” 238


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“It’s good to step outside of our realities from time to time,” I said. “Respite.” “If you say so,” she replied, her eyes wandering to the window behind me. “Maybe it just serves to make our realities appear less real.” “Perhaps because our choices are more visible from the outside looking in.” “On the one hand,” she said, “seeing that your life is the way it is because of the choices you made is a good thing if it leaves you with a greater sense of control. On the other, does the machinery of big society continue to work if all the individuals gain a sense of awareness of its illusionary nature?” “We can choose to accept the illusion and still know that it’s an illusion.” “Can we?” she asked. “If you run a red light at a crossroads in the dead of night, when you can see that there are no cars for miles in any direction, are you actually doing anything wrong?” “You’re breaking the law,” she stated. “The law is an illusion,” I replied. “One which we choose to accept.” She rolled back onto her back. “You enjoy abstract discussion,” she said. “I suppose you think sexuality is an illusion too.” “Not completely.” “It’s not that I think you’re necessarily wrong,” she told me, “it’s more that I question the applicability of metaphors and carefully exaggerated scenarios. It’s not that I don’t get their function, it’s more that become suspicious over the agenda which requires their 239


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employment.” “What do you mean?” I asked her. “A metaphor, a quote, a hypothetical scenario doesn’t exist in isolation of the person who cites it. He who quotes asks only that you consider their quotation, not that you consider why he is quoting it. “And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son,” she said. “Genesis 22:10. My father taught me that story.” “A religious man?” I asked. “An atheist. He taught it to me as an example of a story that could be used to support all kinds of arguments. Depending on the position you take, it’s an illustration of devout faith or an example of religious insanity. It can also be used to show that God wants something different from that which man thinks he wants.” “I suppose I should consider alongside this remark the importance of why you’ve just selected and made it.” “Yup,” she said, “You should.” She stretched. “We create whole worlds out of words, Lyra, and we forget that their purpose was to describe our existence, not to define it. Have you ever started out trying to explain something abstract – like something you believe – and come to realise by the time you get to the end that you’ve somehow totally lost the point you were making and ended up with a whole bunch of words that don’t really come close to what you originally felt? Only now you’re committed to them because you’ve said them out loud, so you change your internal beliefs to match the stuff that you just said. The attempt to put something into words can change what you think 240


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about stuff. Sometimes, words do more harm than good.” “A million psychotherapists would disagree with you.” “I said sometimes. Not all the time. Context, my dear Lyra, is everything. “I feel light,” she said. “I feel like I’m looking down on all the world. Kiss my neck, Lyra.” “I thought-“ I began. “I wasn’t going to be painted into your hypothetical corner,” she said. “And anyway, that was then. This, as it always is, is now.” I stood and crossed the four or five feet to the bed. I knelt on the edge, leaned over her and pressed my lips lightly to her neck just below the rise of her jaw. “Again,” she said. She reached up whilst I kissed her and found my breasts with her fingers. I was wearing a one piece dress that buttoned down the front. I stood back and unfastened them all, let it drop to the ground. “You are quite magnificent,” she said, her eyes moving up and down me. “I feel naked already before you.” I knelt at her feet and reached underneath her, found the zip and opened it. I tugged at her pea green skirt from the hem, pulled it over her knees. She curled her legs up to her body so I could remove it completely from her. I pulled away her panties and went down on her freshly shaven pussy. She gasped. She pushed her hands against the wooden headboard. I found her clit with my tongue and started flicking a Z shape up and down it. “It feels both the same and different,” she said. She pulled herself up the bed slightly, encouraging my 241


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tongue to enter her. “Wait,” she said. She sat up and took my head in her hands. “I want you to surrender to me, Lyra. Right now. Your truth. Your body. I want everything. Take off your bra and panties and lie on the bed.” As I did so, she got up and went to her bag. She took out of it a two metre length of chord and returned to the bed. “Do you give me permission?” she asked. “I do,” replied. “Safe word?” I thought about it. “Sideways,” I said. “Very well. Lie on your side and put your hands behind your back.” As she tied my hands together at the wrist and then pulled my ankles together to fasten them also, she told me, “I’m going to make you cum like you never came before.” “You surprise me,” I replied. She pulled the rope tight and I gasped in pain as my hands and feet were brought together behind me. “Perhaps I’m not who you think I am,” she said. She lay on her side facing me, still wearing nothing below her blouse. With her middle finger she traced around the dry edges of my labia for a minute or so, watching my eyes intently. “Don’t look away,” she told me. “If you want me to continue, you will look directly at my eyes and face. I want to see everything.” I shivered and felt goosebumps rise all over me. My nipples were as hard as bullets. She moved her finger, brushed it so lightly along my wet slit I could barely feel it there. It tickled. I squirmed. 242


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“What was the name of the man you killed?” she asked me. I swallowed and glanced to my right. “Look at me,” she demanded. I looked back. Her finger pressed gently against my opening. “Do you want me to enter you?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, my voice a croaked whisper. “I can’t hear you.” “Yes,” I repeated, more loudly. “What was the name of the man you killed?” “Step,” I answered. “Step?” she questioned. “What sort of a name is that?” “It was his SL name,” I replied. “Then Step what?” “Step Stransky.” For a moment, her eyes looked like they were made from glass, then metal, then ice. She looked straight through me for a second, and then into me, and then directly at my eyes. She pushed the tip of her finger and it slid into me. My whole body shook and I moaned. “Look at me,” she ordered. I had shut my eyes. I opened them. I opened my mouth. I looked at her. “Did you know his RL name?” she asked. “Yes.” “Well what was it?” “Barnaby,” I breathed. “I can’t hear you.” “Barnaby,” I said again. “Barnaby what?” “John-Paul Barnaby.” She pushed herself further in, my soaking wet pussy swallowing half of her finger. All my attention drained 243


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to that spot, my muscles began to tighten and I started to pant. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “Not until I tell you to. Breathe properly.” I looked at her longingly, my mouth still open. “Breathe,” she said. Reluctantly, I took slow, long breaths. I tried to relax. “How did you kill him? Don’t look away from me.” I forced my eyes back to hers. I licked my lips. “I smothered him,” I said. “I fucked him… and then I pushed… a pillow… on his faceoooooooo….” “Look at me!” she demanded. “Please,” I begged. “Now listen to me,” she told me. “You don’t cum until I can see nothing between me and your soul. Understood?” I nodded. She pushed hard, entered me as far as she could in a single, brutal movement. I gasped and tried to curl my legs up in front of me, felt a jolt of pain in my wrists and shoulders. “Look. At. Me.” I tore my gaze from oblivion to the contours of her face once more. “Tell me,” she said, “how he died.” “He tried to break free,” I said. “His body… twitched.” “And when he was dead, how did you leave him?” “I set fire… to his flat… to his body… please please please.” She sat up slightly so she could take my hair in her left hand. She pulled my head back. She started to finger fuck me with her index and middle finger. 244


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“And why,” she asked, “did you want to kill him in the first place?” “Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” I gasped, the world melting from the outside in. “Answer me!” she shouted. “He took… her from me,” I gasped. “He took her… He took her...” “He took who?” “He took Inch… Inch… Oh please… Inch…” “Who the fuck is Inch?” “I loved her,” I sobbed. “I love her… I love her… Ohpleaseletmefuckingcum!” She let go of my hair and let my head drop to the duvet. She pulled out of my pussy. She pivoted round to the edge of the bed and stood up. She knelt, picked up her panties and skirt from where they’d fallen and put them back on. “Wha?” was all I could say. She walked around the bed and out of sight, so I rolled onto my stomach and my left side so I could see her. She was looking through my purse at the cards. Then she picked up her phone from the bedside ledge. She pressed once, twice, three times with her thumb. Then she held it up to me so I could see. “I set fire… to his flat… to his body… please please please.” A waveform danced across the screen as the words were gasped from the speaker. She halted the recording, pressed twice more with her thumb on the screen and returned the phone to her bag. “What?” I asked. “Why?” “Never mind the key,” she told me. “You shouldn’t have logged in as Step. That was your big mistake… 245


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Emma.” Hewson Hewson Hewson. Why had he disappeared? Suddenly, the pieces threw themselves together in front of me and I knew. I remembered what it was he’d said that just hadn’t fit. Hewson Resident: If they’d seen you and recognised you from Nadisad, they’d have been suspicious. Hewson had said he’d never been to Angelina’s and I’d never told him it was in Nadisad. “And, by the way, I’m Hewson,” Assumption said to me. “And not only Hewson. Just so you know, Thursday is Definitely a Sideways Step. “Got you,” said Inch Sideways, as she left.

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