When a user stonewalls me mid-question, Maggie—my avatar—stops and turns away to the flawlessly rendered wall. Crumpled in a frown, her youthful face almost resembles mine. I’ve been told it’s quite in-character for my position as exit interviewer between the mirage of Lion City and Suspension Mode in Avici. Mostly though, it buys me time to think. Because despite my advanced degrees in Philosophy, the event of my deletion—and the fact that I’m still here—shows as far as Administration agents go, I’m the dead pixel on prime screen space in Dai Loong Square, right on Downtown SE3.
If I close my eyes, I might forget what I’ll open them to. Maybe it’s the heat of Avici. Maybe I’m grasping past decades until I’m at Yong Stationery near our secondary school, reading comics on the spongy green carpet while Wei plays arcade games in the back, long before the code for Lion City was written.
Wei is part of why I’m here. I’d lost everything, and I couldn’t lose her too. That was how I came to accept the Administration’s reassignment, burrowed into the warrens of Downtown as their mole, with the merry bands of off-gridders led by the elusive Sailor.
Blink again, and I’m at the bookshop on Victoria Street, with Mum. But that is a stab too deep.
Clicking through archived sites for forgotten books was how I wandered into the phishing snare. At first, the hackers bled my accounts and used me as a fence for unverified trades. The literal kill shot was when they registered me as deceased, transmuted my Administration employee accumulation tokens, and then wiped every trace of me to leave no trail back to themselves.
What this means is, I’m not just a dead woman on the ledger. According to official records, I never existed at all.
I’m standing at the jaw of the tunnel, inches from where it ends in a sheer drop over the pit of fire, when the urgent override ping from Wei comes through, shaking me from a daydream I’ve already forgotten. In Avici, the air is so hot it scalds your lungs. Blink, and your eyes feel raw. Wei and her team put more effort into refining the haptic feedback on this module than anywhere else in the City. Make what you will of that, but right now, I don’t appreciate her nudging me through the suit while I’m working…on a cliff.
Wei’s message reads, I’m going to need you on the Sailor.
The Sailor is how I’d imagine Robin Hood meets Ching Shih in the twenty-first century, or the twenty-second, which is right around the corner. They lead the largest community of off-gridders in the territory who believe mass Administration-sponsored existence in Lion City is not only an invasive illusion, but a threat to the regeneration of our city and planet. The Administration, on the other hand, would rather not have links broken in their metadata. It could also do without the merry fleet’s black market manufacture and trade of contraband firmware, untagged devices, and hacking services. The Sailor knows me as a former senior officer of the Administration. To them, I peddle expired intel that’s been re-dressed, and I hold the loopholes wide open just like the old government relations consultants used to do. I thought I was done shadowing the Sailor.
Correction. I had to get out, because it was getting too hot for me.
I ignore the flashing video request and dictate a text response to Wei instead. A wave of heat nearly pushes me off the cliff and into the blazing crevasse. Beside me, a daemon with long black hair, shirtless in blue skin and loin cloth, waits slack-faced with folded arms. You have to admire Wei’s commitment to accuracy.
“I closed that job two years ago. I can’t tap back in without raising suspicion.”
Her response: Someone’s sniffing around the Administrator’s loyalist roll and running random verification checks on user profiles. It has to be the Sailor. Tell them you have a key update on the last information packet you sent. That should let you back in.
“What use is the loyalist count to them?” I dictate, and blink to send. I know how to fake my own covers, thank you.
Wei’s status bar shows ‘typing’ for a considerable time. A pause, and ‘typing’ again. She’s deleted whatever she wrote earlier.
I groan behind my teeth. Updating the bullshit info pack, revisiting the job, and then prying open a door I was happy to shut sounds like a lot of effort for a job that’s just a cover. But more than that, I’m in no hurry to expose myself to the glare of the Sailor again. The last time they looked into me, I had to look away. From myself.
Wei’s message comes through. Check in at the Core this afternoon.
I blink the message away and return my attention to the subject beside me, head down and lips shut, in Sisyphean acceptance. This time, I’ll break him.
“You call it loyalty, but you’re the one who’s locked out while your boss is in Lion City, pushing a dangerous amount of brainpower on the streets.”
The subject groans in the heat. “On the street? What do you think we are?”
Perhaps that sounded as practiced as it was.
“What’s at Cheung Wan?” I hold the chip to his face. Wei’s Security muscle found it on him when he was picked up at a drop in the quaint estate. “Look, I’m going to find out who’s behind you, minting the firmware. I can do it with your help and reinstate your access for cooperation, or I can leave you down here for so long, the world forgets your name.”
The renewed gush of hot air bakes the eyebrows off my face. I could drop the sensitivity on my suit and feel a warm breeze, or nothing at all, but a while ago I decided I wanted skin in the game. I don’t want to lose the parts of myself that can still feel.
“Choke on your joystick, Maggie.” He gives me the finger.
I grip my knees and sigh behind clenched teeth. Truth is, I ran out things to say ten cycles ago. And I regret telling this runner my name, even if it’s only what they call me in the City. I’m trying to cook up something new to say, something more intense, when he spits.
“You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”
Was I really so bored the last time I was here? I started talking old films to this goon?
In spite of myself, I smile. “At least I know where I belong.”
Nodding to the daemon at my shoulder, I walk away without looking behind me. After the daemon throws him into the infernal pit, he’ll land on a round platform a few feet above the fire. The platform is small and crowded, so some will fall into the inferno. Those that land on the platform will feel the water in their body vaporize. The pain will be so great, they’ll do whatever you want to stop it. If they fall into the flames, or try to escape by suicide and jump, they’ll just be fished out, reset, and tortured again.
Nobody wants to die, to feel pain, even if it isn’t real.
I tap my optical and log out of the module.
the image on my optical fades, and the eye-shield transitions from opaque to transparent. I am standing in my bathroom in my haptic suit, with nothing beneath but my underwear. I peel off the suit, toss it on the floor, and slip on a bathrobe. I pull up Sociable on the projection on my bathroom wall and navigate to my Occupancy Zone Administrator’s landing page. Since I’m deleted and can’t log in as a verified user, I have to use a shell account. It isn’t the same as existing and functioning on the network as a resident-user—I can’t participate in referenda and renewal exercises, for example (my vote would have been cast to renew)—but it gives me enough access for what my job requires.
I stare at the projection, cringing at the sight of my sallow skin, spidery blue veins, and pinched upper lip. I do my best to avoid looking at my image, but it’s impossible to ignore the missed nudges from Wei—or the cockroach feeling its way out of a crack in the tiled wall. I focused my attention on the number of loyalists under the Administrator’s name: five million. That’s how many users support her every decision and utterance.
When I was born, Territory-SE3 was still known by its former name, and all of 2.5 million people lived on the island. I’m now a woman on the wrong side of fifty, and that’s being delicate. Average population age continues to rise across all the territories of the Regional Mutual Association, but especially in SE3. People have gotten used to seeing older folk in real life—on the Outside—not because we’re any less invisible than we were before, but because the imbalance has pushed us, with reluctance, into view.
Lion City takes age invisibility to another level. When we can choose what things about ourselves to keep and what to discard, any signs of aging are usually the first to go. Few users present avatars over the age of thirty, except in settings where they must.
Save for Wei, all my peers have tapped out. They’ve either retired while they still could or were pushed out for things they said or did. Wei is still here because she was on the pioneer team that coded Lion City, and Avici was her special project. Being my handler is her last remaining connection to her life’s work, and fetching for Wei is my last remaining connection to what her and I once were. And to who I really am.
The cockroach, now fully out in the open, taps a defiant dance on my suit. I’d killed the damned thing yesterday—I saw it flip over and kick its spindly legs in the air until it ceased to move—but life always asserts itself, limps along in continuation, and accepts all conditions. Just like how this territory of teeming human sprawl holds its rotten breath in rusting iron lungs to keep every patched and jerry-rigged part of itself held together via negligent hopefulness and knowing exhaustion. How it kicks away certain doom in hopes of seeing another thirty-eight-degree Celsius sunrise, eager to do battle with the smog and scum once more, because ‘alive’ is better than dead.
I sit on the lid of the toilet and expand the list on the throw projection. It isn’t long before I see a name I recognize: Axl Zhuang. By the looks of it, Zhuang is an active loyalist. In the last month alone, he’s up-voted three of his Zone Administrator’s new rules, joined a neighborhood interest group, and posted positive comments on the cleanliness of his estate.
Problem is, Zhuang is dead. He died in the outbreak ten years ago. I know this because I was low in the Administration hierarchy at the time and worked Processing at the triage center where he passed away.
The cockroach reappears on the floor. I stomp on it as hard as I can, and this time, I don’t lift my foot until I hear its shell pop and see yellow guts squish out between my toes.
A single Admin out of the 120 who govern thirteen million resident-users can’t possibly have five million loyalists. For one, the dead can’t vote, not even in Lion City.
The projection is disrupted by a time-lapse reminder, triggered by Wei’s message to check in at the Core. Normally, it’s something I put off as late in the day as I can, but this morning, I’m glad to escape my own company. As a deleted user myself, something about this case feels personal, like the feeling you get when you drive past a car crash on the highway and experience a deep sense of dread—a deep sense that burning somewhere inside that twisted wreckage is something very precious to you.
Copyright © 2023 Eliane Boey