August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
Smacking Back - Laura Bradley Rede
Smacking is a crime like meatspace rape, but people don't see it that way. It's been a crime since back in 2031, Jackson versus Holver. (It looked me up). Even the name comes from that court case -- "Scanning the Mind in the Absence of Consent." A person can do meatspace time for that -- not just denial of access codes or execution of avatar, real physical confinement. So you can guess that upping or downing on someone without their consent would be at least that bad. Wait. It's looking me up right now. Yep, like five years in prison.
I look across the cafeteria to where York and Brian and Zan and are sitting at their usual table and I try to think of them as criminals. It's hard to do -- hard even for me, and I know what they are capable of. They are just too beautiful to be criminals, and I don't just mean their avatars, because I can see them in meatspace, too. My access rig is really olden, totally external. It's built into a pair of glasses like they used to wear in the time before gen-mod fixed people's vision problems. The brain interface is set in the part that curves behind my ear. The screens are in the lenses. It's a lot more cumbersome than the contacts people have now with their optic nerve access, but my parents are teachers, yep? We haven't got the credit for that. And my olden rig has one big advantage: I can look at the screens and see someone's avatar, or look over the lenses and see her as she really physically looks.
In the case of someone like York, the two things are different, but they're both beautiful. Personally I think it's silly for genetically modified kids to have avatars -- it's a redundancy of beauty, layering the neuronet generated image over their genetically modified bodies. But a lot of the gen-mods do it. I guess for someone like York, too much is never enough. This week, York's avatar is an angel: big white wings, wide blue eyes, rosebud lips, standard avatar "ten" rating body with its big breasts and nipped-in waist. Her long blond hair is in constant motion, like she's standing in a breeze.
The meatspace York is shorter and more athletic looking, the kind of girl who belongs on the top of a cheerleader pyramid. Her hair is a spiky pixie cut but it's just as blond as her avatar's and her eyes are just as blue.
Brian looks a lot like his avatar, too. (Frankly, I don't think that he is bright enough to come up with anything too different.) In meatspace, Brian is a football-player. He's gen mod like York, but his genes have been modified for strength, not beauty. On the neuronet his avatar is a hulking, muscle bound guy with flaming hair in our school's colors, silver and blue (which, if you ask me, is taking school spirit way too far.)
Zan is a special case. A few years back he used to be into the whole Imp thing -- you know, gen mod kids who decide to reject perfection and embrace Imperfection by mucking up the designer bodies Mommy and Daddy chose for them. They pierce and tattoo and scar like olden "punks." (Let it look you up. It's pretty mint.) Imps don't do avatars. They're totally meatspace, very analog, but I guess Zan gave up the Imp thing. His piercings are all healed over and most of the scar patterns on his cheeks have been removed. His hair is back to its natural black and his tattoos must all have been two-year-fades because they're almost completely gone, dulled to gray ghosts under his skin, so you can barely make out the names of the Imp bands he doesn't listen to any more. These days he's into Ray-beat and Crystalline music, so of course his avatar is black with a smooth-shaved head. Nothing like the real Zan of course, but equally brooding, equally intense.
Zan is extremely handsome.
But he is still a criminal.
And of course I will be one, too, if everything goes according to plan.
I try to block it out. I don't look like a criminal either. My avatar is just a one-off. We couldn't afford anything too different from the "real me," so my avatar is just a slightly airbrushed version of myself: no zits, hair not so stringy, no space between my front teeth, but otherwise the same pale, skinny little me. I could have squirreled my credit and paid for a more "deluxe" model, one with a bra size in the positive numbers, but what good would it do me? Everyone I know has seen what I really look like and I'm not going to be one of those girls who scrape the Net for virtual affection. I know that beggars can't be choosers but the thought of sex in virtual has always freaked me out. Last year, Krystal Karr and her boyfriend D'Shall were called out for having net sex during class and D'Shall was my lab partner. Pretty frail, yep?
Soon of course all this won't matter because I'm sure I will be caught for what I'm about to do and I'm sure that part of the punishment will be texile: technical exile, kicked off the neuronet, denial of access codes and -- yes -- execution of my sorrific little avatar. All that is for certain, although I'm not sure how long the texile will last. That info is trying to look me up right now. I can feel the net sending it at me again and again, trying to respond to the question in my mind. But I'm blocking like mad so the info just bounces off my defenses like a flock of sparrows off a picture window. Finally I get fed up and let one in.
Fifteen years. The texile is fifteen years.
The thought makes me gasp, which is a big mistake because it gets York's attention. She looks up at me and smiles. I'm looking over the top of my glasses so I get her smile in stereo, both she and her avatar hitting me with a double dose of pretty. She turns to Brian and the two of them get up in unison and start walking towards me, Zan shuffling behind them. Ordinarily, I might try to run, but today I fight the urge and stay planted on the bench of my cafeteria table -- my usual spot, where I sit alone.
"Cassie!" York smiles warmly at me. "What's down?"
"Nothing," I say, "what's down with you?"
"Oh, you know." She fiddles with her necklace. It's one of the new kinds, with the tiny colored chaser lights tapped into the net. Hers are pulsing in time to a song I can't hear, but I'm pretty sure Zan can because his head bobs in perfect time to the flashes. "Life's pretty mint," says York. "Except I was busy at cheer practice last night, and I never got a chance to crack that file--what was it called? You know, with the bugs?"
"Lord of the Flies," I say.
Her face brightens. "Oh!" She says, "so you read it? Then you don't mind if we down it, yep? I mean, I'd gladly just get it off the net, but since Mrs. Hollis is so frail about that sort of shit, since she walled us out of any net sites about the book . . . You don't mind to you?"
I can never get over how York can be so polite about raping my brain. She is looking at me expectantly, her blue eyes wide. I want to yell read it yourself! But after the first few times, I learned to not say anything. It doesn't do any good. Better to save my energy for recovering when they're done.
But this time is different.
"No." I say it so quietly that even I can barely hear it, but I know York has heard me because her blue eyes narrow and the blond hair of her avatar begins to blow faster, like a storm is coming in.
"What did you say?"
"No." I say it a little louder this time. The boys exchange a look. Brian looks excited, like a dog that smells a steak. Zan just looks nervous.
"No?" York's voice is quiet and fierce. She leans so close to me that I can smell her cherry lip gloss. "Maybe you didn't hear me, Cassie, but I didn't have time to crack the file and the test is today so you are going to let my friends and I down that scam book or you will get Smacked again, you understand? These boys and I are going to hack your head."
I could give it to them, but it wouldn't help. There's always something more, some last answer they think they need, something they think I'm withholding. They will Smack me no matter what. And today? Today it's part of the plan.
I don't say anything.
"Fine," says York. "Let's go."
Zan and Brian are on either side of me in an instant, half lifting me off the cafeteria bench, propelling me through the bustling lunch room. York walks a little ahead of them chatting about nothing in a loud, happy voice, waving casually at friends as we pass. Everyone is her friend. Everyone waves back, even Mrs. Morales, the teacher on cafeteria duty, who is standing by the door. Not one of them looks at me. Not one of them notices. Brian's thumb is digging into the back of my arm.
We are out of the cafeteria doors and into the hall in moments. There is almost no one around, just a few stragglers headed for the lunch room, a kid rummaging through his locker. He looks up as we pass, but his eyes are on York, not me. We pass a bulletin screen on the wall. Its pixels swirl into an image of York's avatar with the words "York Westaford for Prom Queen." The image winks at me as Zan and Brian push me past it, into the side hall. There are no lockers here. The hallway just dead ends into a janitor's closet. York opens the door and the boys shove me in.
The closet is dark and crammed with cleaning supplies. We are pressed so close that I can smell Brian's sweat mixed with the stinging scent of bleach. The broom beside me rains down dust but I'm too tense to even sneeze. I push my back against the wall, bracing myself.
"You do it," York says to Brian. He doesn't need any more prompting than that. He grasps the thick silver ring on his right hand and slides it down his beefy ring finger. It telescopes as it goes until it fits snugly on his fingertip. He takes my face in his hands to hold me still. His breath in my face is hot and panting. He slides his finger up behind my ear, pushing my glasses away from my netport, and my eye screens disconnect. His fiery hair winks out as his avatar disappears, and I'm left staring at Brian's real face. His finger probes behind my ear, finding the net port and pushing the cold metal of the ring inside.
I gasp. The pressure in my head is building like a balloon about to pop. I can feel his net probe pushing deeper, deeper, and my defenses stretching like saran wrap pulled to the breaking point, until something snaps and the connection is made, and I feel my mind pouring out into his, gushing like water through a hole in a dam, my thoughts and memories spilling out of me. I'm hemorrhaging information, but it's not what they want. Brian is rummaging through my mind, searching for the brain file. It's like he's going through a file cabinet with a fire hose. I can hear my own breathing, ragged and choked. Brian's hand on my jaw is the only thing holding me up now. If he let go of me I would collapse.
Brian keeps his right hand connected to my net port, but he lowers his left. The part of me that is still aware of what's going on in the broom closet sees York take his hand, her ring probe connecting to his. Zan takes her other hand, linking up, ready to receive the goods.
And I'm ready to deliver them.
Brian finds the brain file marked "Lord of the Flies". I feel him slide inside it and rip it open.
But of course the book is not there. My research spills out first, history accounts from olden paper news clips about nerdy kids who snapped and went on shooting sprees at school. Stories about the first pandemic and the spread of viruses, and even more olden stories: Typhoid Mary, patient X, blankets laced with smallpox, the story of the Trojan horse -- every metaphor I could think of. Fair warning.
York's blue eyes are filled with annoyance, then confusion. The chaser lights on her necklace start spinning faster and faster until her necklace is almost a continuous stream of light. I can feel her backpedal, trying to disconnect, but the information is coming too fast and furious now--not news clips and bits of history any more, but memories, my personal memories of every other time they have Smacked me. I am leaking images, emptying brain file after brain file: Zan snatching my glasses and tossing them off the fire escape, York and her friends spraying perfume in my eyes as the laugh about how much I stink, Brian bragging to his friends about how he brain-scanned the little technic and scored an A on a project he never did. I let them feel it all and then some. I'm overwhelming them. Brian is trying desperately to disconnect his ring from my net port, but he can't get it out. York is swooning with info overload, and I'm still spewing data. It feels good in an awful way, like throwing up when you're really sick, the kind of horrible that you hope will make everything better. I'm almost empty.
Then suddenly something's coming back at me. There's a data loop. Someone else's brain files are streaming into my mind.
It's Zan. I can see him clearly -- not the way he looks now, but the Zan of two years ago, back when he was Imp. He is shorter and skinnier than I remember him being. He looks exposed without his avatar armor, hidden only by the green hair that flops in his face and the scrawl of tattoos on his arms. He is slumped against his locker, cradling his right hand. His thumb is bleeding and I know without being told exactly what happened: He's been glued. Someone put adhesive in the thumb pad of his lock, so that when he went to give his thumb print to open his locker, he got stuck. I can tell from the look on his face that this isn't the first time. He looks like he might cry. Instead, he bangs his bleeding hand over and over again on the locked door, leaving bloody thumb prints all over the whitewashed metal.
I can hear the late-bell ringing. Beside him the last few stragglers are slipping into class. Some of them make fun of him as they pass. I can clearly hear York's laugh.
Back in the dark closet, I reach out my hand and grab Zan's wrist, pulling his hand away from York's, severing their connection. He stumbles back a step into the brooms and mops and his thoughts evaporate from my brain just as the virus I designed surfs out on the last of my memories, into York and Brian. I reach out and wrench Brian's fingers away from my netport and Brian and York fall onto the floor, still grasping each other's hands. There is no light in York's necklace now. I've shorted it out completely.
For a minute, everything is quiet.
"Oh God," says Zan "are they dead?"
I shake my head. "Virus," I say. "They'll be back online in a few weeks." I can see York's chest rise and fall so I know she's breathing. I adjust my glasses to reconnect to the net and the three of them are instantly shielded by their avatars. York's angel wings are crumpled. Her halo is askew. Brian's hair fire is out. Both their avatars have been damaged, so they keep flickering in out of existence. One minute York looks like a fallen angel and the next like an ordinary teenage girl.
Except of course York isn't ordinary. She's the head cheerleader, the future prom queen, the most popular girl in school.
And I crashed her brain.
The thought should make me happy. After all, there is no question in my mind that York deserved it. And doesn't this make me a sort of folk hero? A geeky technic vigilante, out to avenge the wrongs done to frail-faced losers everywhere. I wait for the elation, but all I feel is dizzy. The closet spins a half step to the left, and I stumble. Zan reaches out to catch hold of my arm. I look at him and notice that he's disabled his avatar. It's probably just because it was damaged, but still, it's nice. I can see every one of his scars.
"Why did you disconnect me?" He asks.
I shrug. "I saw the way you were before," I say.
He ducks his head, embarrassed. "You think I'm frail."
I shake my head. "But I do want to know why you're their friend."
He thinks about it for a long moment. "I guess I couldn't beat them," he says.
I nod. That's honest. Neither of us finishes the thought: If you can't beat them, join them. I want to hate Zan for giving in like that, but I can't hate him completely. Would I have done the same thing if I had the choice, the option of being perfect, enough money to buy the illusion? I can't say for sure I wouldn't join them. Looking at York and Brian slumped on the floor, I can't say for sure that I haven't joined them already.
"So," I say, "I guess you're going to turn me in."
Zan shakes his head. "We deserved it. An eye for an eye and all that."
An eye for an eye. A mind for a mind. My head feels hollow, scraped out from the inside. The neuronet is pelting me with information, desperately trying to fill the void. It's news clips mostly, stories about kids like me who got too fed up to take it anymore. The data's still glitchie so the dates are missing, but it doesn't even matter. It could be 2035 or 1989 or 1972. It's all the same. I step over York's unconscious body and for a second the net is confused and switches our avatars and it looks like I'm York. Like I'm the fallen angel. Like it's me lying on the floor.
"I beat you," I whisper, but it looks like I'm talking to myself.
- END -