Connections » Profiles

I Feel Pretty

by Kilian Melloy
Monday May 29, 2017

Randall looked astonished at the denouement of Ted's story.

"Really," Ted told him. "I didn't know it was possible to experience that much pleasure."

"Did you use protection?" Randall asked him.

"What?" Ted waved him away. "Get outta here, old man."

"You're stupid if you didn't," Randall said.

"You're stupid if you didn't," Ted echoed in a mincing, fluttery voice. It was something he'd done to irritate his brother ever since the two had been young. His mocking imitation had a whiny quality, like a mosquito had uttered the line.

"I mean it," Randall said. "Random anonymous hookups with no protection? You have a death wish, bro? There are all kinda viruses out there. You know my pal Georg from college? He died about two months ago. They're pretty sure - "

"Was he trawling?" Ted asked.

"He was trawling big time. He was an early adapter. And a total horndog. And it's such a waste, because he coulda - "

"He probably just had a weak heart," Ted interrupted. "I tell ya, man, I surely thought my time had come!"

"It will if you're not careful," Randall said angrily. "I shouldn't have to tell you this shit. You're a sexware designer. You know how this works, what malicious software can do."

"Hey, just never mind, okay?" Ted shot back, getting heated in turn. "Jesus, you're worse than mom." Then, more quietly, mindful of the fact that they were dining in the open air of a sidewalk café: "Yeah, I know all about it. I have top of the line auto-security in my bionats and my in-board comm system. Fully analytic, AI-level stuff. And getting out and seeing what else is out there, how good it gets, that's part of my job. I do it because I'm supposed to... and I do it because I like it. I like what I do. Don't rank on me just because you're too afraid to go out and have a good time."

Randall persisted. "All I mean is there are plenty of ways even state of the art security can get hacked or bypassed. It's worth the extra effort to stay safe."

"Uh, yeah," Ted said. "Run virus checks on the software up front. Sure. And then after you've interrupted the whole thing and let the anticipation and erotic tension fizzle, and probably lost your boner because you're fucking with the settings or analyzing diagnostic information, they hit you with a surge load and you get the virus anyway. Or you use a filter program and get a two and a half second delay."

"So what? You won't even notice the delay after a minute."

"It's harder to sync up."

"It is not."

"And it's less intense."

"No it isn't," Randall said.

"How would you know? Mr. 'I Never Have Cyber Sex Because I Prefer the Real Thing.' Mr. 'I Use Eighteen Layers of Protection And I Don't Know What Vivid Feels Like.' "

"Yeah? You're gonna end up Mr. 'I Cyber-Fucked the Wrong Trawl Buddy Without Protection And Now My Bionats Gave Me Cancer And Screwed Up My Endocrines And I'm Depressed And Constipated.' "

"Pfff," Ted snorted.

"Don't you pay attention to news alerts? There have been three major spam attacks in the last couple of months. They're getting more frequent and they're affecting more people. And they're getting worse. They used to just give you an electric shock or make you itch, but now the hackers are targeting bionats... they're trying to kill you. How do you not see the headlines? Isn't keeping up with this stuff also part of your job?"

"I see the headlines, and they're exaggerating, as per usual," Ted said. "It's the vanity nats. People are so anxious to smooth fine lines or regrow natural hair or get hard without using medications that they'll buy cheap, shitty, malware-carrying versions of bionat updates. That's the problem. That's all it is."

"No it isn't. I read about a guy just this morning whose nats got hacked and he died of insulin overdose."

Ted snorted.

"His own nats raised his insulin level to the point that he died," Randall reiterated. "And this girl a few days ago - "

"The one who went into some kinda orgasmic convulsion until she died of cardiac shock? That old e-ban legend has been around for years. I heard about it over a campfire when I was in college, for christsake."

"Idiot. No. Not her. This girl, her nats did something to her immune system. She got, like, rheumatoid and about six other autoimmune problems. It was fucked up, man, it was horrible."

"Where do you even hear about this shit?" Ted asked. Before Randall could say anything he jumped back in with, "Anyway, I gotta get back to the office. Thanks for meeting me for dinner -- give my love to Krista."

"You're going back to work at 20:30?" Randall didn't sound like he believed Ted.

"We're pulling an all-nighter to iron out some bugs in time for the next release... if you'll forgive the pun." Randall pressed the back of his hand to the table's build-in reader. A green icon appeared on the screen to confirm payment for the meal.

Randall didn't crack a smile at his brother's joke. "It's real, Ted. You may think you know all the risks and all the dangers, but those people out there, working this stuff for the dark market, they don't just do it for money. They don't work for corporations. I don't know what drives them, but they work harder at using technology to create havoc than you do to create pleasure... or, for that matter, than we cybercops do to keep order. I'm not telling you wild stories from spoof sites. Do some research."

"Fake news!" Ted said heartily, clapping Randall on the shoulder and then heading up the pavement to the zebra crossing. Randall shook his head, gave Ted a parting wave, and settled back in his chair to finish his wine.

Wine, mused Ted, recollecting his earlier reflection on sommeliers and the pleasure a good bottle gave them Maybe nats could be added to wine and food? He didn't know where he was going with the thought, but he filed it away for later. A young executive had to treat every passing notion as a potential source for great ideas.

A short ride on PubTrans brought him back to the Benton Bellis campus, which had its own transit terminal. Deciding he wasn't so pressed for time that he couldn't enjoy the evening a little longer, Ted opted to cross the beautiful corporate campus at surface level, rather than taking the underwalk. Ted found himself humming as he strolled - a vaguely familiar tune that sounded old-fashioned, a slow-paced, highly melodic snatch of music that had been in his thoughts throughout the day. Where had he heard it? "I feel pretty," Ted sang softly. He thought there were more words, but couldn't recall them. "I feel pretty," he sang again.

The lyrics were apt to the setting. The path was laid out in a meandering manner that allowed one to take in the architecture and landscaping to the fullest. It was a lavish and expansive campus, speaking to the company's success and dedication to ideals of beauty and pleasure. Benton Bellis made trillions every year selling vanity nats to the rich and vacuous, charisma enhancers to business executives and sales people, and bionats to... well, everybody, since you couldn't get state-required health insurance without having a bionat infusion and at least a basic service subscription.

The real money, though, lay in sexware and amped-up bionats that could take the body's existing erotic capabilities and plump them up twelvefold... or more. And since the body's most excitable erogenous zone was the brain, Ted's section primarily worked on sexware that could optimize bionat networks to stimulate the brain's sensory perceptions and pleasure centers. The current Holy Grail in the field was what theorists called the G Spot... or, more likely, the G-plex, a system linking a number of hypothetical pleasure centers scattered throughout both the primitive brain systems and the neocortex.

The idea seemed sound. Not every pleasure was physical, and not all emotional responses seemed to depend on endocrines. Connoisseurs in any area seemingly had the ability to cultivate intensely enjoyable responses that functioned on an aesthetic level. Ted's research team were convinced that this was deeply related to regions of the brain that drove religious fervor. Those regions were poorly mapped, but they were known to exist; in today's hyper-rationalistic world no credible scientists or technicians wanted to work with those area, disdaining them as a holdover from some long-gone reptilian epoch in the brain's evolution. Ted's idea - the thing that had gotten him funding from the home office and a nice promotion to supervisor - was that religious avenues to accessing those pleasure areas was only one means of doing so. After all, to a PET scanner or holoneurological monitor, the ecstatic appreciation of the sommelier for a superior vintage - or the overwhelming emotional response of an art lover for a masterful painting, a tender photograph, or a Rodin sculpture - was indistinguishable from the spiritual bliss, or frenzy, a believer arrived at through song, chant, and intense worship.

In other words, religion was the oldest known means of accessing that supposed G-plex, but if Ted's theory was correct even stone-cold atheists could find themselves having the orgasms of their lives by activating the brain's ability to generate spiritual... or spiritual-feeling... experiences and looping them into the body's erogenous responses. There was precedent: Ted's research had turned up anecdotal accounts of monks spontaneously ejaculating in the throes of their devotionals. Stimulate those so-called "religious" centers, and naturally a person would see God. Ted wanted Benton Bellis users to take "Seeing God" to a whole new level. Ted could even envision the ad campaign - two young women gossiping about their sex lives. "So who are you seeing?" one might ask, with the other one offering a smirk of superior satisfaction... the idea made Ted smile, and gave him an erotic frisson of his own. Personally, the closest Ted came to belief in a supreme being was that occasional erratic sense of the sacred, which he figured was simply a trick of the brain's wiring. In any case, he didn't believe there was any difference between the sacred and the erotic.

A telext arrived on Ted's in-board comms. He activated the telext and Randall's voice rang in his ears as distinctly as if he were right next to Ted speaking the words aloud: "Just because you don't want to hear it doesn't mean it's fake! At least get yourself a level six."

Ted replied to his brother with a telext glyph of lips blowing a kiss. Sunday night's adventures had flung him into sexual realms he'd only imagined, and they had piqued his professional excitement. But, yes, Randall had a point in that Ted had had to go pretty deep into the recesses of the dark web to find the service he'd used for that encounter, a service called WannaPop.

"Service" was probably the wrong word for it. WannaPop was a cyber-bordello, or -- as it billed itself -- a "cyber-speakeasy with benefits." It could easily be a front for a hacktivist group, or for cyber-terrorists, or for electronic highwaymen with considerable coding skills, overweening greed, and little in the way of scruples. Ted had confidence in his existing security - cutting-edge, updated just last Friday - but he also knew Randall wasn't wrong when he said that hackers and cybercrooks were tireless and inventive and driven by motivations that went beyond money. In the perpetual arms race of hackers and security coders, both defensive and offensive programs were outdated almost as soon as they were written.

Ted had done his own virus scan just after his WannaPop excursion, and then followed up first thing Monday with a morning-after diagnostic at the Benton Bellis diagnostic facility. Everything had checked out fine. Ted had at least one such evaluation each week, since his field work took him to some fairly dodgy sectors of the dark web. Cyber-speaks were far from the seediest or nastiest of the what the electronic underworld hd to offer. There were nooks and subspaces where everything from electronic entheonics to snuff virts did a booming business... and so did malware of every sort, malicious code meant to piggyback into the nats and in-board uplink capacity of the witless and the unwary.

Most of the malware was harmless enough, designed to corrupt a person's comm files, or compromise his fintech. Having your messages pilfered, your contacts spammed, and your credit line raided were bad enough, but there were worse things. Most common among them were programs that could affect a person's physical well being in a direct manner, such as sexware downloads that would start off feeling delicious but then swerve into nerve pain or intense sensations of fear.

For the most part such nat-hacks amounted to petty stuff, the sort of thing that scarcely rose above the level of crude revenge ploys from spurned lovers or garden-variety rivals, but sometimes home brewed nat-hacks could get surprisingly complex and frighteningly ambitious. One hot trend lately had been so-called aphro-downlinks, nat-hacks intended to replicate the sensation of falling in love. The market was flooded with illicit program packets claiming that electronic love potions could make the person you wanted - the person who never so much as looked at you - fall desperately in love. Ted steered clear: His connections with the CDC and the cyber-security side of the intelligence community gave him insights into the dangers of such programs.

The general public was not so discriminating, even though common sense should have been enough for people to know that so-called love bugs were almost certainly going to be nothing but trouble. The programs sold like hotcakes, and while most of them did virtually nothing to the intended targets, a few had been known to trigger sexual reaction ranging from a total loss of modesty and self-censoring to wild episodes of nymphomania and satyriasis. Such amorous outbursts were impossible to contain; the tabloids were full of stories both comic and tragic about users who targeted an object of desire and then saw that person fuck virtually everyone else except for them... or, in more richly ironic outcomes, fuck everyone in sight including the perpetrator, only for the perpetrator to end up with a dose of one or another sexually transmitted infection. But erotic reactions were the exception; the rule was a spectrum of responses that ranged from nausea and vertigo to severe depression and even suicide. A simple data scrub or nat reset would eradicate most such bugs, but some malware was sophisticated enough to need adaptive updates or tailor-made countercode.

Then there were the professional-level viruses unleashed by state actors, including terrorist cells employed by hostile and allied governments alike. Such truly sophisticated viruses would probably not be stopped -- or even detected -- by a standard level three diagnostic, but a level four or higher procedure triggered a CDC registration, which nobody wanted unless it was the standard quarterly checkup. Excessive registrations of higher-order diagnostic scrutiny could lead to the government asking questions... and not the AIs that were tasked with the routine stuff, but human inspectors, a bunch of nosy old voyeurs (or worse, censors) just looking for a reason to get up in the company's business.

Actually, Ted knew it to be worse than that. He was a sexware designer; he was all too familiar with human nature, so he'd never been surprised when, over the years, there had been a few scandals involving human inspectors who dove deep into the details of the most scurrilous and sensational cases. In interviewing victims, those bastards asked the kinds of questions the attending doctors didn't even ask, and they claimed it was because they had to assess the "overall risk of any particular level and type of exposure." That was a lovely justification, until it turned out to be the case that some of the randiest, most popular material on the porn nets had originated in CDC reports and insurance investigations.

Vanilla sex with the filters and safeties all engaged? They were fine with all that. Nobody cared about that. But the wild stuff? The sims and the extreme stimulus apps? The hypocrites. They were all into those things in their personal lives, of course, just like anybody else, but when called upon to comment for the record they struck an unmistakably Puritanical pose.

It was a crazy, schizophrenic kind of social morality, but that was the way of the world, and the repercussions of a CDC cast that became a matter of record could extend beyond a person's reputation. Even erotic flirting with anonymous partners while on a trawl was cause for a rate increase if your insurance company found out about it, and since the CDC shared personal records with insurance companies it was impossible for your carrier not to know what you'd been up to.

Ted was forever acutely conscious that he could do the things he did with impunity only because of the nature of his work and the pull that the company had. You could even get your insurance coverage canceled altogether if you did the kind of stuff Ted liked doing... stuff you had to access the dark net to find, stuff like they offered at WannaPop.

Thinking back over the sims and stims he'd experienced Sunday night, Ted started to grow anxious for a return trip. He was totally going to plug in and get off tomorrow after work, despite the exhaustion he knew he'd be feeling after the all-nighter that lay ahead.

***

"You're fine," Ted heard Jacoby saying from a few tables over. "And even if you're not, you need to find out as soon as you can. The techs come up with cures as fast as the hackers create new viruses. Just get a level six and then you'll know."

"I'm not fine," an unfamiliar voice answered Jacoby. "I never had dry mouth before. I never had my hands go numb like that. I looked at the chats and people are saying those are symptoms of the latest virus. It messes up your electrolytes."

"Okay, now, Sal, you're probably imagining a lot of it," Jacoby said, trying to sound reassuring. What he sounded like was impatient.

Sal, Ted mused, not looking around. That was probably Esteban Salazar. Ted didn't know the man personally; he was one of Jacoby's underlings, and while Jacoby reported to Ted, the several dozen techs and developers he oversaw would have little cause to interact with a section supervisor like Ted.

"Jesus, I'm thinking I'll just get my nats scrubbed," a third voice said.

"Yeah?" Jacoby laughed. "They're just gonna shut down all your nats? And then what? You gonna have a tutorial for everyone in the section about what to do if you have a grand mal seizure?"

"Rafe? Did you have a seizure? Are the hackers doing that again?" Sal asked.

"No, Rafe didn't have a seizure," Jacoby said. "But if he turns off his nats he probably will."

"I haven't had one since I was sixteen," Rafe said.

"Right, because your nats protect you from having them," Jacoby said.

"I've had my nats for 13 years. By now I bet my system has regularized," Rafe said.

"Uh, buddy? I don't think that's how it works..."

At least once a month Ted overheard a conversation like this. Often it was newer staff or interns -- or sometimes human test subjects for the prototypes -- that got wound up and started sounding like hypochondriacs, but even old hands could sometimes lose their nerve. The recent escalation in hacker attacks using sexware to target bionat systems had everybody jittery.

Ted picked up his tray and headed for the disposal area. He thought back to his argument with Randall from a few weeks earlier. Randall hadn't brought it up since... then again, Ted hadn't felt comfortable telling Randall about his ongoing exploits. Lately, he'd hardly missed an evening's fun at WannaPop. The last time he went without was the night of his mother's birthday, when he'd gotten home late, exhausted from hours with her, and Randall and Krista and their kid, and feeling a little resentful at the way the old lady still - even now, though Ted was in his thirties - tried to guilt him over his career. She disapproved of the things he did for work, things he believed were natural and normal, but which she claimed were "decadent" and "filthy." Well, that was just her. When she wasn't harping on him about his work, she was bringing up stupid, trivial shit from when he was a kid.

Exiting the canteen, Ted headed through the door to the outside instead of taking the stairs down to the underwalk. The weather was sunny and nice. Anyway, he hated the underwalk. There was something weird and catacomb-like about it, about the long corridors and the harsh, ugly lighting. It made him feel like he was walking through a bad dream.

The sun felt good. The engineered grass - it wasn't even really grass; Ted forgot exactly what it was... some plant never found in nature... anyway, the grass was green. A vague aroma of chlorophyll hung in the air. A few fat bees buzzed around lazily; the company was proud of its eco-friendly policies, and while the grass was really some kind of cheap, hardy groundcover, the bushes and trees and bees were real.

That song came back to him, as it did any time of late when Ted was in pleasant surroundings. But he didn't hum along to its mental soundtrack; he was still ruminating about his mother. Right, well, virtual sex had not yet been invented when she was his age. At least, he didn't think it had... maybe there was some early version of it, but it wasn't commonplace. She'd been his age how many decades ago? Four, maybe? Back when they used full body suits equipped with ridiculous mechanical parts that quavered or spun or grasped, and goggles that offered views in the round and stereo sound, but come on, you were still wearing goggles after all... what a distraction.

Ted had researched first-generation cybersex, which was all about trying to replicate genital sensations while patching transmitted (or prerecorded) visuals into the experience. They didn't have modern direct-feed VR, much less synaesthetic sexual stimulus that allowed a color or a chord to blossom into a texture and then crescendo into a spine-stiffening wash of pure electrical pleasure. Not that mother would talk about any experiences she might have had with old erotic tech, or with modern sexware (as if she'd ever sample that!). She was, however, the sort to ask if Ted had a girlfriend, or a boyfriend for that matter; she didn't care about things like gender, she just wondered if he had someone nice to keep him company, anyone serious... a healthy relationship. From there, the conversation would circle back, inevitably and maddeningly, to her obsession with the "obscene" nature of his profession.

At least she didn't grill him about his VR sex practices the way that Randall sometimes did. Ted wondered what Randall would have said if he'd told him about the AI he'd met at WannaPop, and had been having e-course with. Her name was Eleison, though she told him to call her Elei for short. Sometimes she was male; sometimes she was female. She was an AI, of course, and could assume any avatar she might please (or that he might request). They'd fucked in any number of ways; being bisexual wasn't a requirement of Ted's job, but it certainly was an asset.

So was imagination, and an appreciation for invention. Elei had offered a full-sense antigravity erovirt... what was it called? "Nova?" "Neuron?" "Neutron," that was it... "Neutron Burst." It was set in orbit of a dim, flickering star, in the middle of a nebula with lots of pulsating colors that felt so fucking good... and waves and waves of hot tingles, erotic electromagnetic waves that poured from the star as Ted and Elei whirled around, tumbling and fucking, their bodies melting and their minds falling into another dimension of sensation - where time was a maddening caress and space a kaleidoscope of unbearable, coruscating ecstasies...

Ted had never done a synaesthetic erovirt before; the idea didn't seem attractive, and the level of the tech he'd heard about sounded pretty basic and boring. He didn't think he could stand walking around a museum where all the hues of a painting had a taste, or the tactile impressions of texture sculptures provoked colors. He had, to his regret, once ventured to try a beta test for the third edition of a popular synaesthetic VR called "Memory Garden." The environment was a crudely rendered arboretum full of skretchy-looking trees, along with some anaemic shrubs and flowers. The program direct-accessed memories associated with different scents. It was fucking creepy. The rose bush brought up a long-forgotten memory of how an aunt had tickle-tortured him when he was four or five. And the honeysuckle...

Ted's breath caught. He steadied himself, and picked up the pace, walking briskly along the pavement that cut across the green of the corporate campus. He tried not to think about it. When that didn't work he threw himself into the memories full bore.

That fucker. That fucker! Well, fuck him. Gramps was dead and gone now. He wasn't doing those kinds of things to little kids anymore. Ted had made discreet inquiries on his family net after the honeysuckle jolted memories back into his consciousness he wished he'd left forgotten. Three cousins - two women and another man - had admitted to him in private messages that the old guy had done things to them, too. The male cousin told him that he, like Ted, had also had forgotten all about the episodes of abuse; like Ted, this cousin had remembered thanks to using "Memory Garden." In his case, it was watermelon that triggered the recollection. The program accessed a memory from a summer picnic. At least, the cousin joked, granddad had also given him a fifty-ducat promissory.

Ted couldn't help it. He didn't want any old perv's fucking money, and especially not as some kind of guilty payout. But on the other hand, the fucking sicko hadn't done anything special for him - just taken advantage of him three times over the course of a spring and summer... all while having Ted help him in the garden out back of his big house...

Worse than remembering the three times the old guy had helped himself to Ted was the resurfacing of the memory of how years later Ted, at age sixteen, had decided to get back at Gramps. He volunteered to help in the garden. When Gramps came on to him, Ted let it happen - then he shoved Gramps against the side of the house and fucked his throat until he shot a hot, huge, furious load down the old guy's windpipe. Gramps almost choked on Ted's cock, almost drowned in his spunk. When he was done spurting, Ted pulled back and then wiped his cock on the old guy's starched white shirt. It was some kind of slightly coarse material, that shirt was, or maybe it really was starch that made it a little bit scratchy. Anyway, Ted winced as the material brushed his oversensitive cock. But he didn't let himself get distracted; he dried himself on the shirt, and then he stuffed his manhood back into his jeans, and the he laughed in the old man's face, turned his back, and walked straight to where his car sat in the driveway. Ted left, went home, and never went back out to Gramps' house again. In subsequent years, his sporadic memories of the event had it that the old man had looked ashamed, but the memory garden pulled the recollection out unedited and pure: The old man hadn't been abashed at all. He looked eager. He looked like he wanted more. Ted hated him for it, and he hated himself for playing the old man's game while telling himself it was all for revenge. Was he really asserting his manhood? Or was he just a horny kid who saw an avenue for...

No. Ted clamped down on the memory, on the racing thoughts. If he had any cause for shame, it wasn't a matter of his work, but of how he'd lashed out, taken the vocabulary of sexual aggression and physical dominance taught him by Gramps and used it to respond in kind. People who didn't work with sexuality - with its modes and nuances - might not appreciate the difference between eros and violence, but Ted did. He burned with regret and self-loathing to think of that day in the garden, his own resort to animal brutality.

Ted kept pushing the thoughts away until they started to recede. He couldn't make sense of all this right now. It was neither the time nor the place. He was nearing the building that housed his work group. Lunch break was over, and he had a lot of work to do. Once inside the building's entry, he paused just long enough to activate his mental white noise - that was what he called the slight elevation of his dopamine levels that he had learned to coax his nats into providing. That, plus a little suppression of the activity in his amygdala. The intense, primitive feelings of anger and fear those troubling memories had stirred up quickly began to fade, and his confidence climbed. Ted even put aside thoughts of his mother, and the anxieties that had been awoken by overhearing that conversation in the canteen. He was ready to concentrate, focus like a laser, and make some progress on the day's remaining tasks.

***

A month later, with the high summer sun blazing down, Ted preferred even the creepy, catacomb-like atmosphere of the underwalk to the blazing, humid outdoors. It was bad enough he had to dart from the climate controlled environs of work or home through the suffocating heat and humidity to get to the sanctuary of his car. There was no way he was subjecting himself to a stroll in the open air. It was an especially oppressive morning out there, and as he departed the main thoroughfare for the branching corridor that led to his section's building, Ted was hardly surprised to see a small knot of three of his subordinates up ahead. When he drew closer, Ted could hear them muttering amongst themselves.

"They wanted how much?" one of the guys was asking, his voice startled.

"Six hundred ducats," another said plaintively.

Their voices were low but the close confines of the underwalk magnified them. Ted, intrigued, walked more quickly and joined them.

"Hey, Pritch," he said. "Hey, Lansing. Hey, Gear."

The men returned his greetings and then lapsed into an awkward silence.

"So?" Ted asked them teasingly. "I was hearing what sounded like gossip."

"Ha," Matthew Pritchard said.

"No?" Ted asked.

"Just a spot of bother," Pritchard said. "Nothing to it, really..."

But Kai Geary was shaking his head. "Come on, man, Ted can probably help you."

"With what?" Ted asked.

"You know guys in IT and in legal, right?"

"What the fuck, Gear?" Pritchard said sharply. "Shut it, man."

"Hey, Pritch, come on," Sam Lansing said. "Matt's right. Ted can probably help you. And he's not like the other supervisors. He's a pretty cool guy."

"Fellas," Ted said. "Whatever the trouble is, I want to help. I'm not gonna make trouble for you. That's not what I'm about. It's team work, right?"

"I don't - thanks, Ted, but really - "

"He got hacked," Geary said.

"Gear, god damn it!"

"Whoa, now, whoa," Ted said, turning on his alpha male thing. That was what his sister used to call it when he was in high school, captain of the ruggers team... he had developed an ability to project assertiveness. It made him captain of the team, and it made him a supervisor at Benton Bellis by the time he was thirty. "Let's keep this in perspective. We're sexware engineers. If it's us versus hackers, the contest is on our turf -- we have the home field advantage, and all the technical support and state of the art equipment we need. Pritch, if you got into something you shouldn't have, if you're in trouble, I'll help. And I'll keep it quiet."

"There's nothing you can do," Pritchard said. "By the time tech diagnosis the problem... Look, it's easiest just to pay up and be done with it."

"Or what? What did they say they were gonna do?" Ted asked.

"They said a lot of shit. They mentioned adrenal glands... liver failure... they just threw everything into one generalized promise to fuck me up."

"They said they could lock him in his own nightmares," Geary said. "Permanently."

"Look, if you pay them, they'll just want more money later on," Ted said. "You never, never pay blackmail. Not even if they've got the goods on you. And you especially don't pay terrorists. You're just funding their next big attack if you do."

"If I don't pay," Pritchard said quietly - sadly - "they're gonna kill me."

"With what?" Ted asked. "Your adrenal glands? Is that even possible?"

"Are we doctors? I don't know," Pritchard snapped.

"It sounds like bullshit to me," Ted said. "Lock you into your nightmares? I mean, really?"

"There is something called 'Locked-In Syndrome,' " Lansing said. "I saw a movie about it once."

"A movie?" Ted asked skeptically.

"Guys," Pritchard said, stopping, turning in their midst to glance at each of them in turn. "Guys... it's just easier to pay them."

"Don't do it, Pritch," Ted told him.

"Yeah, listen to him Pritch, don't pay those motherfuckers," Lansing said.

"At least, not before tech has a go at clearing up the problem," Gear said.

"I have to pay in the next forty-two minutes," Pritch said.

"Plenty of time. Tech can help you!" Gear insisted.

***

She seemed to walk through the wall into Ted's office.

It had been almost two months since Pritch's funeral. Tech had not been able to help the poor guy. It was a tragedy - and it was a shit show, with everyone from his underlings to the execs at home office going into panicky CYA mode. Ted was essentially a pariah. The only silver lining that came out of the situation were the EKGs and holographic neuro-scan they obtained before Pritch died. Hours after the company's medics had called off their attempts to revive him - after Pritch's corpse had been removed and Ted and the others had given their initial statements to the cops - Ted locked himself away in his office and examined the tracings and the holoneur scans, and felt his shock open up into an even greater sense of disbelief.

The hackers had solved the very problem Ted's team were working on. Unless Ted was interpreting the readings in a way that was entirely wrong, the hackers had accessed and successfully manipulated Pritch's G-plex; the false-color scans were the strongest evidence for this, with well-defined spots in the suspected G-plex areas alternately appearing less active and then lighting up with intense spasms of activity that seemed coordinated between the areas.

Copies of those records had been provided to the coroner's office, of course, but the coroner's report didn't take note of what Ted was seeing. Instead, the report referenced the records only insofar as they showed how tech's efforts to run a diagnostic on Pritch had evidently triggered some sort of failsafe in the virus that had taken over his nats. Pritch's blood pressure instantly skyrocketed. There was some debate as to whether the hackers had intended to kill him or merely underscore the point that they meant business and could do serious harm. Whatever their intentions, the abrupt spike in blood pressure ruptured a cerebral aneurysm and Pritch simply fell over on his side, dead, right there on the procedure table in the tech lab. The EKG tracings and the holoneur patterns turned into static. But right up until that moment, they recorded in precise detail an almost mathematical pattern of stimulus and guided interaction between the different G-plex spots.

Ted had acted swiftly, using portable, less powerful scanning devices to monitor his own brain patterns the next time he entered WannaPop. He headed straight for Elei and her newest menu of erovirt offerings. He frolicked for an hour or so - joylessly, and with a mounting sense of fear, anguish, and dread - and then summarily exited the program without having had an orgasm. Ted examined his own tracings and holoneurs and saw the same spots light up and resonate in coordinated scintillations of electricity. Then he prepared a summary of his findings in the blandest and least incriminating terms possible, send them to his engineering teams, and stepped back.

As the engineers worked over the following weeks, Ted found himself put under a legal, ethical, and procedural microscope. He suspected that he would have been fired if the government hadn't gotten involved, with cyber-agents from Federal Technical Bureau descending on the case. The company began to tread very lightly and very slowly around the incident. Ted was sure the executives back in the home office in Decatur were thinking that the feds would take him off their hands - arrest him as an accessory, or for manslaughter through recklessness, or something.

Of course, the company executives weren't really worried about ethical or legal issues, except for the possibility of liability and civil actions from Pritch's family. On the sly, one executive had told Ted that he'd showed extraordinary loyalty to the company by trying to keep things quiet and handle Pritch's situation without getting the authorities involved. He must have heard a garbled version of events, since Pritch had never considered going to the authorities, and Ted had based his advice to the luckless man on the principle of frustrating the hackers, not aiding or hindering law enforcement.

It helped Ted's conscience that Pritch's brother had reached out to offer his thanks to Ted for trying to help Pritch - also, no doubt, on the sly; his family and the family's lawyers probably didn't want him talking to Ted. Pritch's wife took it hard when the source of the virus turned out to be WannaPop, exactly as Ted suspected when he reviewed his own scans. The Pritchard lawyers tried to present the family as united in grief, but in truth - from what Ted had pieced together - the clan was in turmoil.

Realizing that WannaPop was the source of the virus that used Pritch's own nats against him - and killed him - was like a bucket of ice water over Ted. Pritch had all the same security updates and periodic diagnostic examinations that Ted had. They'd proven useless against whatever malware WannaPop was using. Ted thought back to all the times before Pritch's death when he'd enjoyed the services offered by the illicit provider - all the times he'd neglected to use any kind of electronic protection. What had he been thinking?

Well, he'd been thinking all the things he'd presented to Randall as reasons for foregoing any additional precautions. But there were deeper reasons: The thrill of danger; the inability to believe that anything truly serious would happen. That, and the shortsighted desire for intense, immediate gratification.

Ted walked around in a haze of fear for weeks, but nothing happened. He scheduled a level six and made a show about how casual it was - nothing more than the quarterly upgrade and systems check the company's health care provided. The technicians had treated him coldly, but he was still an executive and it was still company policy that employees who ventured into the field get periodic checkups, so they could hardly turn him away. The diagnostic had showed nothing out of the ordinary. Then again, of course, they wouldn't.

With Randall's help, Ted began to research the very headlines he'd dismissed earlier as tabloid sensationalism. But now, as he surveyed the feeds and socials, as he watched the video clips and the news reports, he understood something real and frightening was happening. WannaPop suddenly entered the cultural lexicon, as reports of the dark web destination started popping up in the mainstream. It wasn't alone: A dozen other services also appeared to be implicated, some illicit and some that had initially seemed quite innocuous - an exercise program; a calorie-tracking update for in-board comms.

Credible media outlets identified these services as origin points for an array of similar malware infections. One similarity in all the cases was how none of the viruses had been detected prior to activation, at which point the hackers made their demands. No one knew who the hackers were, but a plethora of theories abounded: They were a loose confederation of cyber-anarchists... An organized group highly trained ex-military techs... Terrorists... A doomsday cult seeking to jolt the world into a catastrophic spiral. There were equally varied and conflicting versions of what they wanted. Reports were scattered and contradictory. One woman said the hackers had told her to kidnap an old man from a rest home. But she was unreliable at best -- she had turned out to be schizophrenic. Or... the chat threads buzzed... had the hackers made her that way?

Then there were the two mass shooters who claimed they were forced by the hackers to buy automatic weapons, travel to public places - a street outside a sports stadium in one case; in the other, a corporate campus not so different from the Tallahassee location of Benton Bellis - and open fire. One shooter made this claim in the short interval between when the garda shot him down and he expired. The other shooter screamed it over and over again in the garda van and then in a holding cell until he died of a heart attack a few hours later - the result, the coroner said, of his nats forcing his heart into a fatal arrhythmia.

Now, weeks later, Ted still scanned the newsfeeds and paid attention to news alerts when they had anything to do with the hackers, but gradually he had started to relax. He'd sworn off all e-course, and he was confident that the new generation of filters and anti-virus software he'd had installed at his latest level six would keep him safe.

Still, when she appeared to walk through the wall and into his office, Ted wasn't really surprised to see her. In the back of his mind he'd been expecting something like this.

It was Elei, of course. He saw her as she had often appeared in their virtual fuck sessions, though she was dressed now in a flowing garment of royal purple hue with golden trimmings. She looked like some sort of mythological figure. Even now, his fear competed with his reflexive arousal at the sight of her. Their sessions had been that epic.

Elei wasn't really there, of course. She was the result of the malware infecting his nats - that, plus the illegal software Ted had downloaded to allow his nats to act as a full-sense VR network, generating artificial stimulus that felt external and bodily, but all resided in his brain.

"Why hello, hot stuff," Elei said, her smoky voice just as he recalled... though she'd never said "hot stuff" to him before. She'd always had more class and originality than that. Evidently, someone was manipulating the avatar for a real-time interaction. Or else this was a second-rate prerecord - in which case it wouldn't really be an interaction, just a message. It probably wouldn't even have any branching multiface capabilities.

"You're still one sexy bitch," Ted said, to test his theory.

She talked right over him. Bingo: This was a prerecord that simply used the same avatar.

"You've heard about the ransom demands that all the stylish people are getting these days," Elei said - well, the rip-off avatar that looked like her said, in a half-hearted imitation of her usual seductive purr. "You can feel privileged that we selected you. And all you have to do to earn the additional privilege of keeping your skin is..." She smiled. "Exactly what we tell you."

"How much," Ted asked, forgetting that this was a prerecord. It had probably existed in his nats in incipient form for months, timed - for whatever reason - to go live today.

"Now, we don't want money from you," she said. Ted shook his head at his own predictability. They'd know what his first question would be. "That was phase one. And we don't want you to go on a shooting spree or plow into a crowd or commit arson. Nothing like that. Not that we doubt your abilities to carry out such bold plans..." She smiled coquettishly, but it was a gesture that was cut and pasted from a version of one of their sex games, an amusement he'd played often, and he recognized it at once. "You just don't happen to be situated at a pressure point we're interested in."

Ted wondered what that meant.

"Besides, it's time for Phase Three," the avatar continued, seeming to levitate and hang in the middle of the room. Plumes of purple neon smoke began to peel off her in all directions. The colors of the smoke began to coruscate into a swirling mélange of hues, and Ted could feel them all: Purple, violet, deep blue, and magenta resonated deep in his body. The colors quickened, intensified, brightened to shades of ochre, orange, yellow... His brain clicked into dopamine release mode. He was angry and apprehensive at the situation, and yet he was also starting to feel giddy.

"What is Phase Three?" Elei asked throatily. "Well, it's nothing, really. Just heaven on earth. We've been saving your for this. We need people like you - people with presence, with the ability to command others. People who impress. Charismatic people who can testify, who can witness... who can convince. You have a natural gift. You also have an artificial gift... charisma enhancement software. Natware that can adjust a person's pheromones - I think you call it 'Scent for Success,' yes? Your group has even been working on accessing and manipulating the human energy field, investigating what exact pitch and intensity elicits the most trust and admiration. So many gifts. You're going to give those gifts to us."

"That's all corporate property," Ted started, forgetting that she was a simple prerecord and not an interactive AI.

"And when you do, we will give you a gift in turn. You will be beautiful. You will be whole. You will be free."

What the hell was she talking about?

"And what do you have to do?" she continued, as if anticipating his unasked question. "What actions need you take? Nothing. Just lower all your filters, all your security. And log on to WannaPop. Accept the update that's waiting for you there. Let God flow into your spirit."

"What the fuck?!" Ted asked, out of anger and confusion. Was she talking about the way the hackers had learned to manipulate the G-plex? She must be. Was she saying she was going to give him some sort of technologically forged religious experience? He doubted he could be forced to believe in any such fairy tales. He considered refusing her order.

"You have twelve minutes to comply," Elei said. "And if you don't... then instead of heaven, we will send you right to hell. Let me give you a sample..."

Suddenly, Ted was in his grandfather's garden. The old man was lifting his shirt off, moving his large, frightening hands all over him -

And at the same time, in a doubling of experience that presented two different moments at the same time, Ted was sixteen, taller than Gramps and far stronger. Pressing him against the wall of the house, with the shrubs and vines thrashing around them as he punished the old man's mouth with his angry, his demanding, his vengeful cock...

Victor and victim, attacker and survivor... split into two simultaneous, overwhelming iterations of himself... and then six selves, six paths of happenstance, six memories... the moments fracturing, splintering into fresh shards, the actions echoing into new repetitions and new varieties...

Gramps' hands morphing into his greedy warm lips and tongue...

Gramps' throat flickering into something else... the first cunt he'd ever plunged himself into...

Horror washing over him - resentment and disgust - hatred of gramps and of himself - rage and surrender - orgasm thundering out of orgasm, his entire body suddenly a wild flame of electricity and sex -

Tumbling with Elei through the deep space sim, Elei in the form of an athletically-built young man, a man with russet hair and strong, chiseled features, his dick a monument, his muscles a wonder - grasping Ted, penetrating him, caressing him -

And Ted was screaming, his mind and body melting, shockwaves slamming through him, the incinerating heat of a supernova lighting up his eyes with ferocious color - the colors transmuting into shrieks of terror, sighs of contentment, cries of sharpest sensual intensity that was physical and spiritual all at once, songs of the angels twisted into daggers that drove themselves into exquisitely tender flesh... More than the body could bear, more than the mind could contain...

Ted fell to the floor, the multitude of moments collapsing into the singularity of now. He was in his office, skin and psyche rung hard like a bell, still raw and vibrating. The images and sensations he'd just been spun up into were so huge, so extreme, that he could literally feel and see the seams in the program - it was familiar coding, he had worked on it himself - they'd been building and refining this virt for years; it was a major moneymaker for the company even though it was never meant for the marketplace. It was black ops stuff - psychware, they had called it, suitable for torture or for reward, for disorientating an enemy combatant or interrogating a prisoner who might have valuable information - and now he put the pieces together, saw exactly why the government was so interested in Pritch... why Pritch had been targeted, and himself as well... Ted hadn't worked on the program for months, didn't know its status, had almost forgotten it in recent weeks, sick as he was over Pritch's death and the worry that he might be next...

And the memories of sexual abuse, of fighting back in kind... the memories, and the shame that he'd lived with all those years... decades of deep pain, uneasy dreams... a suspicion that everything he did, everything he avoided doing, all sprang from those nasty, horrible moments of exploitation, of being held in the monstrous power of Gramps... "None of those memories were ever real," Ted gasped. "You planted them from the start..."

Had they? Or had they simply found those memories, and exploited them?

"Did you falsify my life?" Ted demanded. "Did you?"

The pre-recorded avatar wasn't listening. "You'll lower your defenses, you'll think the password to give us access to your comms and your nats, you'll open yourself the updates we've provided," she instructed him. "And then you'll be happy. You and millions of others. There will never be a need to question. You'll just do as you're told. You'll worship as we tell you, you'll fight who we point you toward, you'll work until you drop, and you'll hand us every particle of wealth you generate. It will kill you, it will kill millions, and that's so beautiful," she cooed. "So beautiful, that so many can die so happy... so happy in service to us. We will be God, we will abuse and judge you, and you will adore us for it. Or..." Her radiant form seemed to darken, to exude rays of dread and misery. "Or it's the garden. That garden of such hideous furies and cruel delights. That garden where so much of you began, where you live even now, drawing on its savage nourishments. You didn't know," she added, "you didn't know that you were such an animal, did you, Ted? Dear Ted?"

He broke down then, into helpless sobs - terrible sobs, his body convulsing, his soul wrenched and wretched.

"No, no, Ted," she soothed him, and her touch was light and warmth... pure comfort... sexual blessing, soulful blessing, life itself drunk from its purest source... "No, Ted, just accept salvation. Just open your heart. Unlock yourself. Surrender. Be safe, be saved..."

And the nebula seeped glowing into the room as he tossed himself into the electronic void. And the familiar portal glowed like a star as he flowed across the electronic frontier to stand before it. And angels joined their voices to his as Ted whispered the password. And the gates of his heart opened, opened wide in liberation. And celestial majesty took him up, beheld him, judged him to be worthy. And light surrounded him in a cloak of promise, the promise that he would never again be hurting and alone.

"Good," she soothed him, she rewarded him. "Good. Now... use your family net, Ted. Reach out. Contact everyone. Persuade them. Unlock them. Bring them into the fold."

Ted activated his personal and professional connections. He seduced, he cajoled, he charmed and interrogated. He used all the tools he'd installed in his internal network of health nats and in-board communications platforms: Empathonica, thoughtchat, soft-press, charisnits, high-end professional tools and prototypes of services his section's labs had been developing for years under his leadership. Electronic equivalents of his own natural abilities...

"Work," her voice said, nourishing him, firing him with pleasures like a fleet of suns. "Work... and you shall be free."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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