The Undertaker Faker Caper
a short story by Michael Cobley
It was just another case, just another sight-bending, eye-frying, rainbow-rollercoaster accelerando of sight and sound as I was loaded into the Web. It was just another case. And I was on it.
Soon the Enterface download was over and the fairylight fury calmed to the demented neon canyon I've come to know, love and despise down the decades. Electric Avenue, throbbing spine of virtuality, gaudy boulevard of the glowing world, a phantom zone of substitute flesh. Or alternatively just a vomitous gutter of impossible beauties, ruthless dream peddlers, and malignant programs. But I've been around the Web too long to be taken in by the first two, and I've deep-sixed more viruses than Elvis has had impersonators.
I turned up the collar of my purple trenchcoat, tugged on the brim of my silver slouch hat, and exited the glasswalled chambers of the Enterface station. Out in the yammering crowd I hit the flow, dodging ad-pixies selling everything from personal autobiodocudramas to cellular revolution. I even pretended not to notice the few yells of recognition that came my way. Time was of the essence; after all, I wasn't some fancy, ambulatory shell with the intellect of a flatworm, just out sight-seeing for Jack Devlin, the Big-Me, sitting up, out there in RealityLand; I was Jackie, a fully programmed Websim with detailed mindmap and memory backup. I was the flesh-made-electric.
And, according to Jack's message in my notebook, I had a client, a rich influential one whose websim would be waiting for at a particular location at a particular time. Which meant that I had less than twenty mode-minutes to meet him and find out why someone was holding a virtual funeral for him when he was very much alive.
I met Dmitri Forster outside the entrance to the Aurora Extravaganserai. It wasn't much, a three-storey black diamond door flanked by blue marble pillars with the name in flickering red letters on the stone lintel above. The towering, endlessly morphing pleasure palaces on either side made it look positively insignificant.
Dmitri Forster's Websim was a thickset man with a ponytail and shades. He smiled coldly at me.
"Jackie -- s'about time."
I shrugged. "You've got the invite?"
He produced a grey rectangle from inside his steel-blue, soft leather jacket (and it probably felt exactly like soft leather: rich man, Dmitri Forster) and handed it over. Against a simple anim of drifting fluffy clouds, black gothique lettering spelled out --
"Cute," I said, giving it back. "Ain't the first time, though. Remember the Tomb Bandits, what, fifteen years ago?"
"Those punks?" He laughed derisively. "I'd have known if it was any of them."
He paused as a group of chattering Netties, all with tiger heads, came up and jostled their way inside. I watched him carefully as his face went oddly expressionless and realised that the real Dmitri was now in command. "C'mon," he said, eyes flat and expressionless. "Let's get on with it."
We stepped through to a tall rosy corridor of ice and steel columns. A pair of glass giants examined Forster's invite and waved us on through a wall of mist.
"Holy crap," Forster said as we emerged on the other side.
It was pretty awesome. Pale desert sands stretched away to either side, ranks of dunes looking knife-edge perfect and unmarred in the buttery golden light of late afternoon. A wide blue river crossed from left to right, partly hidden from sight by the colossal pyramid that squatted before us. Thousands of gaudy revellers milled around the pyramid's base, while others floated overhead in flyers shaped like hawks. Frowning, I bent down, scooped up some sand and watched it slowly trickle out of my fist. There were no repetitions. Even the tiny shell fragments seemed unique.
"How much memory is all this taking up?" said Dmitri.
"Dunno," I muttered, "but the processing demand must be incredible."
I straightened in time to see a massive, chariot-borne sarcophagus emerge from a temple, guarded by hundreds of spearmen who cleared a way through the crowds. Trumpets brayed as the procession crossed to a great stone ramp that rose to a square black opening halfway up the pyramid. Eerie chanting filled the air and by the time the procession reached the top of the ramp, rows of huge hieroglyphs were slowly scrolling across the pyramid's faces. When the sarcophagus and several dozen attendants and priests had passed through the door, a stone block fell just inside, sealing it off.
Then there was a mass murmur of delight as a great eye slowly opened in the face of the pyramid. The eye's black iris widened to occlude the huge pupil from which a long shape emerged a few moments later. It was a boat, no, a barge. There was a small hut amidships and animal-headed figures standing at the bows and stern. The audience applauded wildly as the barge swept down and around before gliding off into the distance.
"Impressive," I said to Forster. "Flattering, even. Maybe you've got a very rich fan--"
There was a pause before Forster replied, sure sign that his personal systems were struggling to keep up with the Web's datarate. "Horseshit," he said in a level voice. "All this is an invasion of my privacy and an insult, not to mention a Class One reality violation..."
"Wait a second," I said, pointing.
Small objects were fluttering down from the sky to be grabbed by eager hands and proxy drones. As I caught one in midair -- it was a hexagonal card -- I heard an angry shout from nearby.
"Forster! Are you responsible for this?"
A tall blonde man wearing a cloud of lace and ribbons marched over. Louis Verlayne-Drake, aged fifty-three (though his Websim looked twenty), former wire-addict, former console jockey, former headscape coder, now owner-chairman of Icontact, biggest software supplier on the Web and off it. And he was seriously pissed off. I can spot these things.
"Oh sure," said Forster. "Like, I always wanted to be buried as a fucking pharaoh..."
"Not that, you jerk -- this!"
Verlayne-Drake flipped one of the sky-born cards at him and I glanced down at mine. Plain black capitals over an amber, dragon-head tile pattern:
"This is an outrage," Drake said.
"Well, it's nothing to do with me, ol' buddy," Forster said acidly. "But you can be sure that I'll be along to see you get yours."
"Not if I can help it." Drake looked at me. "You're hired."
Forster seemed to freeze for a second, then: "Now just hold on--"
Drake gave him a condescending smile. "It's already arranged. My Big-Me has been in touch with Jackie's and agreed a joint commission."
I took out my notebook and saw a note from my Big-Me, detailing the new assignment, plain as could be. "Yeah, that's how it is, all right."
"Fine," Forster sneered. "Hope you're very happy together."
He stalked off and was about five paces away when he vanished. No fade or fancy dissolve, he just winked out. Which was pretty abrupt, even for him. But Drake was talking at me so I sighed and gave him my undelighted attention.
"...and I want you to track down the RAM-brokers who deal with--" He consulted the back of the invite, "--the Stonedrome and have them cancel this defamatory spectacle..."
"Louis," I cut in. "You're forgetting a couple of things. First, showtime outfits like the Stonedrome almost never cancel. And second--" I leaned closer, voice a little lower, "--I'm an investigator, not one of your pod-people lackeys. Got me?"
Poor Louis. He just stood there open-mouthed and wordless as I sauntered off. And to think that once upon a time he was quicker with the snappy rejoinder than I was. With all that money you'd think he'd at least have a few wit routines coded into his sim.
There was less than a mode-hour till Louis' date with the Diorama of Doom, during which I visited various sources and reliable rogues up and down Electric Avenue. There were two questions bothering me: who was supplying the vast amounts of RAM and processing power that Forster's funeral must have taken up, and how was it paid for? I sniffed around a little for Angry Henry and Big Bad Bill, but apparently they were both lost on purpose in reality's trackless wilderness. So I ended up in Johnny the Phox's gizmo den, calling in a favour or ten to get him to rake up a Webram snapshot from the time of Forster's funeral.
"Just under twenty terabytes," he said with a smile full of neon teeth.
"No way," I said. "That show needed at least sixty."
Johnny spread his metal hands. "Me lines are with Jah an' Jah don't lie. But you right, mon -- that Babylon death-feast was a RAM-monster."
"So how was it done?"
He grinned bright orange. "Ghost RAM."
Leaving Johnny's with more mystery than when I'd arrived, I took a crossport to the Stonedrome and arrived just as Louis' sensational interrment was beginning.
The scene: a pebbly beach below a bleak headland at sunset. A long, low, dragon-headed sailing ship lay at anchor about half a kilometre offshore, its sail furled, its mast hardly rocking in the still shallows of the ocean that flattened away to a dark, cloudy horizon. The beach was crowded with Netties and others, a lurid restless throng, yet the only sounds were the lapping of waves and the cries of far-off birds.
And the creak of oars. It was a Viking chieftain's burial, of course, which made me chuckle. Louis' business dealings had more than once been compared to a ruthless campaign of pillage and plunder. Off to one side I saw Drake with some of his cronies, his face a picture of fury. I was starting to enjoy this case at last.
A rowboat came into view, six seated figures hauling on the oars. They reached the ship, dumped the stiff, hoisted the single sail, lit something inflammable and scrambled back into their boat as the flames began to spread. They must have loosed the moorings because the longship began to drift out to sea. Then shrieking hag-like valkyries swooped out of the sky and plucked a struggling figure from the burning vessel. Thunder rolled, lightning flashed, the whole bit. Then the clouds parted and there, towering over us all, was Odin, complete with drinking horn, craggy one-eyed visage, and a pair of ravens perched on the crosshilt of a sword behind him.
I was keeping Drake and his retinue in view while all this was going on. He was delivering a rather fine rant on the subject of new legislation to curb Web abuses and was just reaching the crescendo when...suddenly he was gone, leaving his minions to goggle at where he had stood. But before I could get down there, Odin swept a vast, tattered cloak up over the sea and the blazing ship, and darkness engulfed all.
Back out on Electric Avenue I consulted my notebook. Jackie -- don't worry about Forster and Drake -- they're still registering on the Web. Check out the black processor dealers first, and the RAMbrokers second.
Interesting. Jack was clearly up to speed with what was going on, but I knew he wasn't using me. However, it was just a side-puzzle to be figured out later. Okay, Big-Me, the dealers it is. Time to make some headway...
Something small fluttered across my line of sight, a pearly blue butterfly. All around, clouds of brightly coloured butterflies were descending over the crowded Avenue, falling on arms, hands, faces, and metamorphosing into triangular cards. I was about to snatch one out of the air when there was a flap of wings and a bird, beady of eye and black of feather, landed on my shoulder. There was a triangular card in its beak and when I took it, the raven leaped into the air, circled once overhead and flew away.
Cute, I thought sourly. Personal service from Odin's trained budgie. Then I read the card, ornate lettering over pastel flowers:
I tapped the card thoughtfully on my chin. Celia Wolfe, greatest tableau designer on the Web, and Dmitri Forster's former business partner and lover. Mine, too, come to think of it. Frowning, I took out my notebook again. Sure enough, my assignment was updated, and there was a message icon on the page, Celia's black rose icon. I pressed it and her voice spoke.
"Hello, Jack. I've been following Dmitri and Louis' funerals and now it appears it's my turn. Interesting, yes? I do hope the past isn't coming back to haunt us -- that would be inconvenient. And another thing -- I can't make contact with Dmitri or Louis, which seems more than a little odd. I'm not sure if I can spare the time for this but since you have a sim in the Web already, could you look into this for me? Bye."
I mused on ancient history for a moment or two. Ten years ago Louis, Dmitri, Celia and Jack (collectively known then as Hyperam Systems) were commissioned by a consortium of Web companies to design the infrastructure of what would become the Enterface. I reviewed what I knew about that time (or what Jack had thought necessary for me to know) and came up with nothing. Celia's hints were clearly meant for Jack, not me, because I had no idea what she was talking about. But if there was someone out there with a less than benevolent attitude towards the four of us (and throwing around the kind of Web resource one usually associates with the military) things could get a little tricky. Maybe even inconvenient.
I laughed. That's one way of putting it.
Celia was buried as a Chinese empress. It was evening in a perfumed glade, paper lanterns hanging from the trees, mourners with torches, silk pennons bearing good luck symbols. Eight princes bore the litter through the trees while shaven-headed priests struck pure notes from small hand bells.
I was on the move, threading my way through the crowds of onlookers, unsure of what I was searching for but somehow hoping that Celia wouldn't be putting in an appearance. Also, Forster and Drake were nowhere to be seen which, in the light of what Celia said, further upset my already-twitchy bad shit detector.
At the centre of the glade the litter was laid on a carved trestle before the open door of a tomb flanked by blazing torches. From a red casket one of the princes took a tai-chi pearl, black and white teardrops, and placed it in the mouth of the corpse. At once the tomb torches flared up into great figures that leaped down beside the litter and began fighting with fiery blades. All eyes were on the symbolic contest, except for mine which were scrutinising the crowds and the surroundings...
And right over there, near an ornamental pond, was Celia walking with a tall man in the formal blue silk attire of a court official, spoilt only by the raven that rode on his left shoulder. I crept closer through the bushes, tracking their progress along a mosaic path, trying to catch their conversation.
"You cannot be serious," Celia was saying.
"Ah, but we are, dear lady. The kings and emperors of ancient history used to take decades in planning their burial rites and even today the princes of Mammon dedicate much time and money to the manner of their last rites. We are now able to offer a wide range of ready-made entombments and cremations, as well as the services of our bespoke designers."
By now they were standing beside the pond and I had to skirt round the thicker bushes to stay close enough.
"Doesn't faking the funerals of living people for publicity strike you as a little morbid."
"Morbidity, ma'am, is a matter of perspective. Have you perchance ever attended an Irish wake?"
Celia was standing with her back to the pond so she never saw the whirlpool that was starting to form on its surface. My bad-shit detector went off the scale and I lunged through the bushes, yelling at her to get back from the edge. But too late -- she only had time to recognise me before Mr Tombs 'R' Us shoved her backwards into the whirlpool and dived in after her.
Of course, this was the kind of situation that demanded a calm, well thought-out response. So instead, I jumped too.
The ground I lay upon was flat fractured, granite with an orange lava glow coming from the cracks. The air was hot and stank of sulphur.
"Jackie," said a weak voice. "Help..."
I stood and found myself looking at Forster, Drake and Celia. Well, their heads, that is, impaled on stakes poking out of a small hill of rubble and charred masonry.
"It's your fault, you mental midget," Drake was saying to Forster. "Where were your oh-so-expert systems when we needed them--"
"My fault?" Forster snarled. "My fault? You're the one with the code-monitors on call day and night. What happened? -- soaking up wireporn again?"
Celia rolled her eyes. "Jack, you've got to get me out of this. I don't know what's going to get me first -- the stink or the petulant frenzy."
"It's the Web's base system," said Forster's head. "We should never have modelled it on our own brainscans--"
"Which was your brilliant concept..."
"--because somehow the damn thing has become autonomous. Took it ten years, but here it is..."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said, walking past them and up a slope of puffy volcanic slag. "Come on, whoever you are," I shouted. "Quit the gorefest and cut to the chase."
There was silence (apart from the voices bitching away behind me). From the top of the slagheap I looked across a wide plain of boulders and hills broken by pools and streams of lava. In the distance, indistinct creatures flapped from hill to hill. Ochre fumes oozed from fissures, black clouds hung low overhead, and everything was lit in blood-red. Very pretty. Then the clouds began to bulge, forming a thick swirling funnel which snaked down to touch the ground. The dense, shadowy funnel widened and spread out, and after a moment or two the smokey darkness thinned and dissipated, revealing a titanic, gnarled tree trunk, its roots dug deep in the hot, ruined stone, its upper branches just visible through the clouds.
There was a crunching, jangling sound like a thousand pianos being eaten as a massive head composed of roots, earth and shattered rock wrenched itself out of the ground at the foot of the tree. Shoulders followed, arms too, till there was a gigantic torso towering over me. Eyes the size of houses stared down at me and gravel cascaded from wide, horrible lips as they parted in a smile. There were hints of familiarity in that grotesque face, something in the tilt of the head or the smug satisfaction of the smile, but I couldn't place it.
"What do you think?" said a voice as smooth as a demolition.
I looked around, nodding. "Exquisite decor. I especially like the burning pools and the far-off screams of the damned. Nice understated touch, that. Good perspective, too. And those flying things..."
"Right, and the hills?"
Boy, was I in trouble.
"The other three were telling the truth, you know," Old Rubble Eyes went on. "The neural net you all devised from your own brain patterns didn't stop growing after you put it in place. Others came along, tweaking here, updating there, making new demands. I actually became me just six months ago." It grinned, and pebbles clattered on the ground. "More than enough time to do some planning, plenty of planning."
Now I've seen and heard some weird and bizarre things in the Web, but this was pretty wild. "So, why the burials and the ceremonies, all that stuff?"
"Well, think about it -- who would pass up the chance to attend their own funeral, laid on for free? It was the perfect way to get all the secret culprits of my origin to jack into the Web, thus allowing me to immobilise them with a catatonic biofeedback of my own design. Pretty soon I shall be ready to upload myself into their minds." He grinned. "Just think, slipping through the circuits to be reborn in reailty not once but four times, ready to reprogram the world and bring glittering order to the muddy chaos of humanity. You should be honoured, Jack."
Of course -- he thought he was talking to the real flesh 'n' blood Jack, whereas I knew that he wasn't here, watching with my eyes right at this minute, and hadn't been since all this began. Apparently.
I looked the big ugly hunk of junk straight in the eye. "Sorry, but I think you're crazier than a barrelful of monkeys on acid."
He laughed. "Yeah, hungry too."
And a vast hand swept out, snatched me up and tossed me into his gaping, giggling maw.
Inside was a gloomy tunnel full of roots and tendrils, all wet and writhing, enfolding me and pushing me downwards. A blue-black radiance seemed to shine through it all from somewhere, evidence I guessed of the basic Webessence which lay behind this festering, slimy construct. But I had a hunch that something was about to happen, and sure enough I was just sliding into a stomach-like cavern (ankle-deep in bubbling fluid, unidentifiable denizens slithering and hopping hither and yon) when a coldness shivered through me and my hands dissolved into sprays of golden light.
"About time," I said.
(Hey, don't give me a hard time) said Jack (You have no idea what I'm going through to do the full interface with you)
"Must be tough," I said. "Sure you're up to this?"
It was a dramatic sight, and somewhat humbling. The golden light, which I had become, spread out into the huge deranged tree-torso-head construct, racing along programme axions and into the rogue entity's core structure before it had time to do much more than utter a bellow of rage. Then Jack picked out the elements of
Dmitri..........and Louis.........and Celia.........and himself
All around me those murky innards melted away to reveal the end of that extravagantly evil hell, which itself was shivering apart into pink and grey shreds, all being sucked away by a datatrash port. This left me hanging there in the hard blue-blackness of undeveloped Webessence, though fortunately not alone. A golden figure was floating nearby, its form somewhat fuzzy, its limbs making little jerky movements while strange patterns rippled across its face.
"Pretty impressive, Jack, though I can't help wondering how you managed it, what with the brain-Web discordance and all. In fact, it's entirely possible that you're not really my Big-Me at all--"
Yeah, yeah, and good ol' Louis is the...rrrrreincarnation of the Dalia Llama. I've been working on an alternative to the basic semiauto websim, something with actual p.....presence. Thing is, I wasn't quite ready when all this blew up -- I've only been able to kkkkkeeeeeppppp up with the bbbbaud rate by using a lot of illegal and somewhat risky dddrrrrrugggssssss....... A sort of a smile stuttered onto the face, just a mouth, nothing else. Guessss its time to gooooo, just like you....
"No, nothing like me, buddy--" But he was gone, leaving only a fading cloud of amber dust.
So that was it, case solved and closed. Time to return to the Neverneverland of hi-density data storage, unlike the real Jack who gets to suffer the pain and discomfort of actual life. And I wondered if there really is some kind of heaven or hell reserved for the likes of us. Should there be? Aren't we intelligent enough, aware enough to warrant a deity of our own and deserve something more beyond the gaudy capers of sim existence?
Hah! -- afterlife, aftershave! With a particular twist of thought, I created my very own personal save-and-store trigger -- one of those big Y-shaped, mad-scientist lab switches -- and swung it down to an accompanying display of forked lightning. And as a pouring-away sensation raced through me, I thought, Yeah, life's what you make it. Now, I've always wanted a sidekick -- wonder where I could lay hands on some hotshot websim designers....
© Michael Cobley 2000
This story first appeared in slightly different form in Noesis.
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