But before I tell you about her I have to tell you about the one before.
I knew she was gone before I opened the door. Big high-end condo complexes always look as though no one really lives there anyway. Clusters of post-modern stucco on gated cul-de-sacs. Too many speedbumps to accommodate tricycles. No basketball hoops over the garage doors and anyway who'd ever take a chance of a missed layup spoiling the finish on a Boxster. Slowly pivoting security cams relaying black-and-white images to minimum-wage Haitians at the gatehouse, hoping to catch the hot blonde in Porta del Sol C going out to get her mail in a t shirt and nothing else. Tell you what, I couldn't blame those guys for setting up the spycams in airvents when the tenants weren't home and selling the pictures to Adult Check Gold sites.
So the garage door is going down and I pull the two-suiter out of the GS300 and walk into the entryway. "Honey, I'm home," just like Mr. Cleaver. My voice echoes like I never heard it echo before. So I flip on all the lights and from the foot of the stairs all I see is beige plush carpeting and a cathedral ceiling with a lot of skylights and nothing else. And where pictures should be just hooks in the walls. And on the walls there are these new scrapes and divots like someone's been moving furniture. So I go up the stairs and what do you know, I seem to have this really big living room with nothing in it. Except some dents in the carpet where there used to be furniture. And a dirty stain where there used to be a big avocado tree that I started growing from a pit in a shot glass my senior year at USC. And all I can think is, shit, I'm really going to miss that tree.
So I drape the two-suiter over the rail and I kind of take stock of the first floor. Kitchen used to have a table. Doesn't now. Still has the big double-doored Sub-Zero refrigerator. Only one magnet. Used to be dozens. Under this one magnet is folded a piece of paper with my name in handwriting I recognize. Something tells me not to read it just yet. So I open the refrigerator. Why you'd leave behind a box of baking soda to deodorize four Heinekens I can't tell you. But the Heinie I popped didn't smell bad, so I guess it worked.
I won't bore you with most of the note. At the end she said, I won't say goodbye because you weren't here. Ever.
I read the note twice and crumpled it up and put it in my pocket. I popped a second Heinie and drank it. I thought about saying something in reply but then I realized I wasn't in a movie. I thought about going upstairs, but I figured I knew what was there. So I picked up the twosuiter and went back down to the car and checked into a Marriott near the airport. Home again.
When I began with the company it was still called a startup, but only by people who knew the difference between a Mac and a PC, which then was basically no one. In most offices then you'd see secretaries with headsets banging away at IBM Selectrics. The Internet was still rocket scientists and grad students posting dirty pictures that you needed a Cray supercomputer to download. Remember Cray? Oh, never mind.
The guys I'd started up with realized pretty early, say in Clinton's first year, that the wind was blowing from Redmond. So when I was taking my pay in dollars they were taking it in stock options. So when the acquisition came I thought I was pretty rich, but the next day they were really rich, and then they were gone and there I was, still an employee. Nice car, nice condo, lots of plutonium cards, lots of dough in the 401K. Plenty to retire on that minute if I wanted to substitute teach on the side. That's how it stayed. Every time some alpha geek came up with something that was testing well in beta I turned down equity, took cash, and the next thing I knew I was one rung up the ladder but still reporting to someone with an ownership interest that I didn't have.
So anyway, she'd been gone a month or so and I'd been managing to travel even more than I usually did, and usually was five days a week, so I wouldn't have to come home. Not that I would have. Whenever I was back I stayed at the Marriott. Everything I didn't need was in storage anyway.
So one day I was talking to Seyfert at the corporate Starbucks. Seyfert was almost as old as I was but he was working on the goatee anyway. Once when it was raining I saw him out in the parking lot wearing a baseball hat, the only time I'd ever seen him do that, but he was wearing it backwards. Because he was wearing it backwards it didn't keep the rain off his Kawasaki glasses and he was bouncing blindly off Navigators.
"So," I said to Seyfert, "got to figure out where to live."
He nodded and slurped something decaf and fat free. He didn't say anything.
"Yeah," I said, just to keep the conversation lively. "I mean, got to live somewhere."
He slurped again. Significantly, for him, he didn't nod.
"I mean," I said, "I do, right?" This seemed to me to be a rhetorical question.
"Why?" he asked.
"What do you mean, why? Because I have to live somewhere. I mean, everyone lives somewhere. I can't just live in a hotel."
"Why not?" he said, and just before I was ready to swing he added, "half the young guys in sales do."
"Sure," he said. "Not married. Out of town, oh," he paused to think, and I could almost see little hourglass icons forming in his pupils, "eighty per cent of the year. So they make deals with HR and accounting and get suites at the Residence Inn at serious corporate discounts. If they have stuff they keep it at those self-storage places. I mean, why not?"
I thought about it. A week later the condo was on the market.
So anyway, when I met her I think I was in Helsinki. It might have been St Petersburg too, because it was that cold, but I'm pretty sure it was Helsinki because the downloads were pretty fast and Finland is pretty wired. Russia isn't. Don't get a lot of bandwidth off waxed string.
Anyway, yeah, it had to be Helsinki. And that isn't actually where I met her. I don't know where I was the first time I clicked a link somewhere, it was so long ago I think it may have been Firefly or maybe Swoon or something like that and I found myself looking at a picture of a woman's muscled back, with a mane of tortured russet hair down to a rounded rock-hard ass. I read the text beside it and clicked the email hyperlink and typed, "If that's really your ass I'd like to know about you."
That was sometime before Helsinki and it must have been a while because I know I was surprised when I saw her name—Sophie—in my inbox. I didn't get responses very often, and when I did, and responded to the responses, I found that Miss September was actually a fat male graduate student in some basement at the University of Southern Buttfuck. Nevertheless when I saw her picture, or the picture she'd posted, I entertained the hope that it was actually associated with the human being who'd posted it. And when I didn't get anything back, not even spam from some kind of wanker.net, I figured that once again I'd reached out and touched some kind of virtual void.
But not in Helsinki. Or wherever it was. I'd just finished a little spin through the new sites on AdultCheck Gold and had cleaned up when I decided to take one last look at the email. Surprisingly little from the office; less from clients; one from Sophie. Sophie?
Yes. That is my ass. What more do you want to know?
Hmm. I spent five minutes framing my clever reply. ——If that's your ass——I asked cagily——why do you post it?
Well, okay, a pretty crude question. Not an unreasonable one, though.
The answer surprised me a little. I'm proud of it. Shouldn't I be?
Why do you email women's asses?
——I wasn't emailing your ass. I was emailing you. Not much point in writing to a body part. At least, that one.
What body part should you write to?
——The brain.—— That's how it got started. We went on like that for a while; because we were still emailing at that point, the delay in composing, sending, and waiting for the reply and composing again meant that it was dawn before I'd confirmed the basic facts in her text: academic computer geek in the Northeast; mid-thirties; no kids, never married; runner. And in order to get that I of course had to give. So as the sun was coming up over the Baltic——I think it was the Baltic, anyway——I told her about the job and the condo and not living anywhere.
Except inside your head.
——Right. I guess that's where we all live, anyway.
Some more than others. What time is it where you are?
I told her. Get some sleep. Write me later.
I said I would. But I couldn't. Jet lag and too much coffee. Okay, I was excited, too. Now at this point I guess you scratch your head and say, well, it's pretty clear you're a grade A loser and a cyberwanker, too, but jeez, you got a good job, a nice car, and hell, you're forty—excited? Over email? Come on, guy, even Bill Gates has a life.
To which I say, yeah, well, whatever. Got dough. Work out so I look okay. Travel the wide world over. So you'd think, yeah, I should be able to get it pretty much on demand. But let's think about that a moment, shall we? In a bad week I'm in the air more than I'm on the ground. And when I'm on the ground I spend most of my time with a bunch of guys with bad haircuts and three pagers. And when it's time for these guys to kick back and show the out-of-towner a good time we wind up jamming limes down Corona necks in the best Mexican restaurant in Liverpool. And if you think you've seen ugly check out Northern English womanhood on a Saturday night. And yeah, let's not forget that home is still a Marriott. So that's why my love life is measured in MPEGs. And that's why I get kind of excited when I think there might be somebody out there whose body and brain occupy the same area code.
So I had some room service coffee and showered and went for a walk and got to the site just as my handlers were arriving, which no doubt scored points with them. And if they noticed I had to break to check my email more than usual I guess they just assumed it was because I was such an important guy. And if I seemed a little bouncier than usual when I got one from Sophie——Just wanted to know how you're doing——they didn't seem to notice that either.
I was in Helsinki three more days. By the time I left we had switched to instant messaging. Hours long sessions, sometimes.
——Okay——I wrote.——That is your ass after all. You're smart. You're fit. Good job. Why are you wasting your time with some loser on the net? I mean, it's late Friday night where you are.
Saturday afternoon where you are. And I haven't seen your ass but change the names and the story's about you.
——My ass? Look, you don't want to think about my ass. You can look it up. Www.weirdmedicine.horrors.com
I'd kind of like to see your ass anyway. Got a scanner?
Scanner. Being in the computer industry you may have heard of it.
——Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have heard of them. So what am I supposed to do, sit on it and hit send?
No. I'm serious. You've seen me. Now I want to see you.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard as sweat broke out on my forehead. For an instant I thought about cutting into DOS and feigning a PIPELINE BROKEN message. Easy enough if you know what to do. But I didn't. Instead I wrote——Yes. I have seen you. The you you've posted on the net. And I've really liked talking to you. But I don't know that you're real. For all I know you're a really smooth perv in Bayonne. But I don't think I want to be sending you pictures until I know who you are.
The pause was so long that I expected my icon to stop spinning and the screen to read 401. But it didn't.
Okay. Fair enough. I can't blame you. Do you want to see some other pictures? Not my ass, just who I am?
And then will you let me see who you are?
The same way I've let you see me?
How fast is your modem?
——V.90 but I'm working off Finnish phonelines.
This may take a while. Half an hour. Do you have a digicam?
——Yes——I did. A pretty good Sony. I had no earthly use for it but the company thought I should have it with me wherever I went.
While my pictures are downloading take a few of yourself and if you're satisfied when you see what I've sent upload them to me. Talk to you in half an hour.
It was Saturday afternoon but it was Finland in November so the room was completely dark, even with the blinds wide open. I was a couple of floors up so I could barely hear the buzz of a Helsinki weekend, drunken puking punctuated by attempted suicide. So I didn't feel too self-conscious when I stood in front of the full length mirror on the closet door and nearly blinded myself with the flash. I took a couple more, shooting from the chest rather than the face, turning my head so that she had a profile. Feeling like an idiot.
So after I'd filled a memory stick with some fairly uninspired pictures of myself and my room I went back to the laptop and saw the taskbar was blue almost all the way to the right. And when it was done I clicked save and open and saw her.
Good selection, I have to say. I knew where she said she worked and I knew what her hair looked like and I knew the kind of shape she said she was in. So when I saw the first picture, a woman with that hair in running shorts and jogbra standing in front of the entry arch of the Yard I said to myself, well, okay. And then I thought, well, if this is actually the McCoy, this is better than I thought. Because the picture that first drew me to her showed a fine firm ass and strong back and the tops of really good legs but as all the boys in the audience know good legs and a nice ass usually mean a belly that's flat all the way from hip to the collarbone but not this girl. That Jockey jogbra was holding solid Cs, and from the looks of things it was a really cold day in Cambridge or she was really excited to have her picture taken. But having said all that, and yeah I know I'm a pig to have said any of it, the thing that took the picture out of the realm of softcore preview was her face. Three-quarters profile; head tossed back; face split by the kind of grin you see on the really healthy when they're really using their bodies, when they're working them the way they were meant to be worked.
I clicked next. Her again, in what looked like an undergraduate library computer cluster, standing over a kid with his fingers on a keyboard and a quizzical look on his face. Hers was intent, eyes locked on what I guessed was a screen not visible in the picture, one hand brushing the hair from her forehead. It looked like the kind of picture you see in college catalogues. Though this was not a college that had to do a hard sell.
Next: Twilight, sitting in long grass with water just visible in the background. T-shirt and jeans, knees drawn up to that big chest, arms wrapped around her knees. Big yellow lab beside her, head resting on her forearm, liquid eyes dopey with love. Back when I had the condo I wanted a dog. But she had allergies. She said.
Next: ACCESS FORBIDDEN. It flashed three or four times and was replaced by scrolling hypertext. Okay, big boy. Your turn. Show me yours and maybe I'll show you what's behind Door Number Three.
——Okay, geek grrrll. Just about a meg. Read a book. If you have one.
Hope my lips don't get tired.
Finns make pretty good vodka. Or so they say; potato juice is just potato juice, so far as I can tell. I was nervously starting my third after forty-five minutes of cybersilence.
I guess you're not a real right-brain kind of guy.
Not exactly what I'd call really imaginative compositions.
——Jesus Christ, I'm sitting in a Finnish hotel room at two in the morning taking pictures of myself for a figment of my imagination. What the hell do you want?
Calm down. Look, at least you weren't wearing Dockers. And you don't look like you'd make babies cry. I took a couple of pictures for you. I'll let you see one if you take off your shirt.
Okay. I knew where this was going. I didn't know whether to feel like a fool or a degenerate. How about degenerate fool, I thought as I set the timer on the digicam and tried to flex unobtrusively.
Ten minutes later. Okay. I guess you do work out. You can see the next picture.
I went back to the gallery and clicked next. The frame loaded fast. Indistinct background of dark walls and what looked like heavy paisley drapes and the curling footboard of a sleigh bed. Most of the picture were from the waist up. I could make out the top of her jeans waistband; belly flat and firm and rippled with a six-pack of muscle, saved from boyishness with just enough padding around the hips. Above that in a white translucent bra those breasts, nipples clearly visible through the sheer fabric, surprisingly dark for a redhead—I wondered whether I'd learn that night whether she was a real redhead. Cleavage freckled; arms muscled for a woman but nowhere near mannish; shoulders just big enough and sloped like a swimmer's. And above it all that big happy face splitting grin.
Want to see more?
——Nah, I figure Ill just turn in now. I'm up to page 1350 in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and I'm really eager to see how it turns out. Of course I want to see more.
Then I want to see you naked first.
Like I said, I saw it coming. I'd switched from the company server to my private ISP as soon as the JPEGs started flying. Its not like we were swapping Latvian kiddieporn but hey, I didn't want to find out just how secure my job really was.——Okay. I actually figured that one out while I was waiting. Here it comes. I'm the embarrassed looking guy with the vodka glass.
Five minutes later. Hey, big guy.
——You talking to me? Wrong picture, then.
I didn't say huge. But he didn't look like he was happy with what he saw.
——He hadn't seen anything yet.
Here it comes. Show me whether he likes it.
She really did have a way with a camera. And she really was a redhead. Lush. I was so relieved; a lot of athletic women wind up doing those little toothbrush-mustache waxes so when you go south you feel like you're kissing Hitler.
Well, anyway, I don't have to paint you a picture from here, do I? I mean, you may want me to but I won't. Five minutes later I was trying to take pictures of my own boner, and then she sent me another picture, and long before sunup I was afraid I'd permanently gummed up the keyboard.
——Scuse me. I just need to get a little Windex and a squeegee for the screen.
Glad I just changed batteries.
——I'm blushing. So when do we get to do this in person?
Is that important?
——Fuck yes. So to speak.
As it were. Why?
——Well, we can keep up this Nick and Nora film noir shit or I can tell you the truth. You're beautiful. You're smart. You have a dog and a dirty mind. I'm lonely. Making sense?
Enough to buy you a cup of coffee. When do you leave?
Can you change planes at Logan?
All right. Meet me here. My office is in IT Services in Fogg. Sophie's not my real name but that's what everyone calls me.
——Why? And what's your real name?
I won't tell you my real name right now because you'll spend the next forty-eight hours pumping it through every search engine you can find. And I think we've got to have a little mystery left. I started calling myself Sophie when I was thirteen and was reading a lot of Gnostic stuff. Female principal of the universe. Wisdom.
I didn't type anything.
As I said, I was thirteen. It stuck. Okay, I won't blame you if you don't show up now. It's four o clock where you are. Read a little Gibbon and send me when you'll get here.
So I did.
The Yard is pretty nice in early November. Just the way you'd imagine; trees with a few shreds of fading foliage, grass still green, students plowing down the walks, arms cradling books, shoulders bent under laptop bags, faces pinched with the self-pity of the overprivileged. Midterms, probably. I wanted to smack them senseless. Not only would their lives never be better, no one's life could ever be better. But no, they had to go to student health to load up on Prozac because they hadn't made it onto the Crimson.
Maybe I'm bitter. As far as I know, I'm still on the waiting list.
So I elbowed through the prepsters in their fuzzy sweaters and the retro girls in their black flairs and the Eurotrash sucking Dunhills. And then I was up the steps of Fogg and through a couple of turnstiles. The folks at the desk got me into the right hallway and onto the right elevator and ultimately into the right basement, where the IT offices usually are at your bastions of mandarin learning. The oiled oak and coats of arms are reserved for the guys who publish one article a decade in the journals that only libraries subscribe to and only grad students read. The guys who are actually doing the work of this century do it in the basement.
So finally I get to the reception desk in a room with a lot of amber monitors and 486s with university property tags on them. And behind the desk is this big athletic looking work study type girl of indeterminate ethnicity who despite the season is wearing a tank top with her bra straps showing, something that girls just wouldn't do when I was a kid but now they do, and I have to tell you I approve. And I tried to ignore the stud winking at her left nostril and the barbedwire tattoo around a pretty well defined bicep and asked for Sophie and was really quite surprised when this girl looks like she'd been slapped.
"Sophie?" she said.
"Sophie," I said. "I'm supposed to meet her here."
"Only name I have," I said.
"There's no Sophie here now," she said slowly.
"Oh," I said. Deflated. But then I seized on the now. "Well, when will she be back?"
The girl chewed her lip. She looked really upset. I was starting to wonder those terrible blind date things: Has she been telling everyone in the office about this loser who got her number? Please, don't tell him I'm here? Don't tell him my real name?
"Uhh——" said the girl. "When did you talk to her?"
"Uhh," I said. "Two days ago."
"Two days ago?"
"Two days ago." I don't know why I kept talking but I did. "We actually didn't talk. It was email. Sophie," I said hopefully. "Redhead? Runner? Computer girl? Sorry, woman?"
The girl had tears in her eyes. My stomach was knotting. I could imagine what she'd said. He's probably a very nice guy but he seems, well, lost. Just tell him I got called out of town.
"She's not here."
"Right," I said. Insisting on explicit humiliation I forged on. "So when will she be back?"
"Look, she won't." The tears were welling up behind the Malcolm X glasses. "I don't know who did this to you. It's happened a couple of times. Sophie's dead."
So I stand there thinking, wow, she really didn't want to meet me. I must look really, really bad naked. "Right," I said. "Dead. Yeah, right. Okay. I'll just go."
"She is dead, dammit," said the girl. "I told you, this isn't the first time this happened." She was openly sobbing now. There was no one else around. I backed up a little bit. There was a chair behind me so I took my cue and sat down.
"Look," I said reasonably. "I'm slow but I'm not totally stupid. I can take a hint. She changed her mind. That's okay. You're a good friend to——"
"I said she's dead."
"Okay," I said, "she's dead."
We sat there quite a while. She stopped crying and pulled some Kleenexes out of her desk and snuffled and wiped her nose. "Leukemia," she said. "Six months ago."
She was starting to look genuinely pissed and I was starting to wonder whether she was telling the truth after all. She dropped the Kleenex box in a drawer and slammed it shut. "Come with me," she said.
I followed her through yet another turnstile behind her desk, down a short hallway. We stopped at a couple of swinging doors propped open with those little brass kicks. Inside were a dozen state-of-the-art multimedia PCs with a student busy in front of each. The girl pointed to the side of the doorjamb. A discreet Ivy League brass plaque.
MARION VASILIANOS INTERNET CLUSTER
in loving memory
Below that a framed photograph. The same one I had seen a few days before: black and white, like a college catalogue shot, Sophie bent intently over a confused student's machine.
"Oh my God," I said. I felt so many things I didn't feel anything at all. I had a crush on a dead woman. I had been played for a fool. I grieved; I wilted with shame; I wanted to kill some bastard real soon.
"Satisfied?" said the girl angrily.
"What are you mad at me for?"
"You're right," she said. "Sorry. I'm really sorry. You want some coffee or some water or something?"
I said coffee. She said she'd bring it. I went back to the front and sat. After a few minutes
She showed up with a big mug with a big red H. "Sorry, black okay?"
"Nothing better," I said. I sipped. It was cold and old. Not unlike myself.
"So," I said. "Dead."
"Last year," I said.
"Last year." I said again. I sipped my coffee thoughtfully. "Dead. Hm. What I'm not quite getting is how a dead person sends email."
She looked at me for a minute. "They don't," she said.
"Right," I said. "So what I'm trying to figure out is how I got email from a dead woman."
"You didn't." She wouldn't look at me.
"So," I said, "I'm thinking, got email from Sophie, but Sophie's dead. So I'm thinking if I didn't get it from Sophie I got it from someone else."
She nodded slowly. "You did. I guess."
"You guess." I nodded back just as slowly. "So lets see. I get this email that I can't possibly get and I show up here and you explain to me why I can't be getting it. Except I am and you tell me that some other guys have got it. Which we'll get back to. But first, do you have a supervisor or something? Or are you the work-study person in charge of guys who've just been made assholes of?"
"Maybe I'm the work-study person in charge of assholes, period." She looked really mad.
"Okay, okay," I said. "Sorry. Didn't mean to jump ugly. Just think about how I feel."
"Forget it," she said after a minute. "Yeah. Must suck." Her eyes filled up again. "I'm really sorry."
"Does suck. Forget it. So I'm not the first."
"No. Maybe half a dozen since she died. Nice guys," she added quickly. "All the same. Said they were supposed to meet her. Said they met her on the net. One guy said something about pictures."
"Wow," I said, hoping furiously that I wasn't blushing.
"So the first couple of times we wondered whether there was something going on with her site on the server. I mean, we keep it up because she was here a long time and she was important to a lot of people, so we can't just delete her, you know?"
"Yeah," I said.
"So we started working back from the cookies and whatnot and tried to figure out whether some guy hacked in and got back to her own computer or something. Nothing. And anyway after she died her desktop got pulled out pretty quick by the family. So we can't figure it out. There's no correlation between the hits on her site here and the guys who've come in to see her. Zero. So I won't even ask you for your addresses."
"So what we guess, though we don't know, is that some guy she knew when she was alive is out there miming her. Probably a guy. Actually, I knew her well enough to say it was almost certainly a guy."
"Oh," I said, suppressing a pang of jealousy that made absolutely no sense at all. I mean, it never makes sense to be jealous of your lover's past. Particularly if she was already dead when you met her.
The work-study Amazon reached for her Kleenexes again. "Look, not like I knew anything about her personal life," she said. Now my face burned with shame; was I that obvious? "Its just that I came onto her once and she made it pretty clear that it wasn't going to happen. That's all."
These kids today, I thought. I was going to bolt at that point but I swirled my stone-cold coffee. "Well," I said. "Thanks for telling me."
"Its okay," she said.
"I guess its not happening for either of us," I said.
"I guess not. Want some more coffee?"
"No thanks. I might want to use my stomach later."
So I didn't tell Seyfert exactly what happened. Somehow I left out the pictures of me jerking off. How I forgot I can't imagine. But I told him enough.
"Wow," he said. He was wearing his baseball hat again. I guess I shook him because he turned it around so that the bill was in the front. "Wow," he said again. "So some asshole hacked into this dead babes site and takes her over and lures guys to Cambridge. Wow. Sick motherfucker, huh?"
"Sick motherfucker," I agreed.
"So the kid says they don't know how it happened, right?"
"Right," he snorted. "Well, what the fuck do they know. I mean, they're all going to law school, right? Give me the name again." I gave. "So tomorrow I'll tell you whets really going on."
"Okay," I said, "Thanks." I paused. "When we get this sick motherfucker what can we do? Flame him all over? Ebomb him? I mean, what good will it do?"
Seyfert looked at me with something approaching pity. "You really don't know what we can do, do you?"
"Uh, I guess not."
"How bad do you want to fuck up this guy?"
"Bad enough to take a couple chances? I mean, I can cover you up so good that there are only like six guys in the FBI who can follow, and I won't do anything that's actually criminal, but I got to tell you, what's criminal today wasn't criminal yesterday."
"Take the chances." I swallowed some milky Starbucks. "Take the chances."
So I was in the air the next day, and actually as I figured out later I was in the air for more than a day because I backtracked a couple of times until I got the direct flight I thought I had out of BA to Melbourne so I could connect to KL. And when I got to the hotel room and docked the notebook and logged on I got this email:
Don't know how to break this to you, dude, but the long and short of it is there isn't anyone out there to fuck back. I got into their server easy enough. I mean, come on, Ivy League, what the hell do they know. But once I got into her files I got nowhere. For a while I thought, wow, this fucker is good. I mean, no trail at all. Zero. None. So pride being what it is I kept at it and finally I had to concede the possibility that someone out there may be better than me.
So I rounded up the posse and got them at it. There's this guy on the security project at Carnegie Mellon who'd kill me if he knew I told you he knew me and this kid in the Valley whose violating probation by doing me this favor. And they got the same results I did. In other words, zilch. You were talking to that server, babe, and nothing else.
So I was talking to the guy at CMU . He's an older guy. Older than you, even. Kind of the philosopher king in this business. I think he knew von Neumann. He even smokes a pipe.
And don't be pissed, but I gave him an Idea of what the problem was. No details. Don't worry. He thinks for a minute. And then he laughs. "Sounds like Turing's Problem," he says.
"What?" I say.
"Turing," he says. "Surely you've heard of Turing. In many ways he invented us. English mathematician. Developed the codebreaking machines in World War II that gave the Allies the Ultra Secret and may have won the war. In the fifties he got arrested for trying to have sex with another man in a public lavatory and he got sentenced to chemical castration and he killed himself. Terrible loss. One of the greatest and most original thinkers of the century." And he stops talking and I hear these funny noises as he's fumbling around with tinder or whatever.
"Turing's Problem," I say.
There's all this scratching and sucking and burbling as he gets the pipe going. "Yes, Turing. Well, back in the early fifties, just before all his trouble in the bathroom, he proposed this question. Say you have a man who operates a teletype. You remember teletypes? Yes. Well. This man works on a teletype all day long. He sends messages to just one other man, halfway around the world. Most of the time they just do their jobs, exchanging financial news or diplomatic reports for whoever employs them. But after a while our man starts to share personal things. Greetings. Thoughts about the weather. Whoever it is on the other end responds in kind. Over the years they become more intimate. They begin each session with their names. Our man is George. His opposite number is Dmitri. Hello, Dmitri. Good morning, George. When things are slow they exchange opinions about their bosses. The state of the world. How their children are doing. They become friends. George comes to look forward to each day at the teletype for his stolen fifteen minutes with his friend on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
"One day George is going to retire. He sends Dmitri a message asking whether they can meet, perhaps in Berlin. This is a long time ago, as I say. And Dmitri types back, No George. I am a machine.
"So that's Turing's question. Does it make a difference that he's a machine?
"For myself, I have to say no. It makes no difference. In this life we never know the other anyway. So if your friend is happy with whatever or whoever he met, I say he should consider the fact that he's happy, and ignore the rest."
So after I heard that, I went back to the server. Son of a bitch but she had a lot of space on it. It's a big big machine for a lot of liberal-arts weenies. So I hack in and there are a lot of pictures—cool—and what look like a lot of algorithms for dialogue. What it looks like to me, boy, is that before she went toes up she created this little avatar to troll the net and suck in guys for this kind of shit. Wow. Sorry it happened to you, but Jesus, what a bitch. Smart bitch, but still.
So look, man. You got sucked in by a really good virtual bitch. And she really is dead. There's nobody out there to fuck back. If you're pissed at the virtual her, I can tell you how to get in and delete her.
I sat staring at the screen. I sat for a long time. Then I typed: Tell me how to kill her.
The instructions took a long time to download. I knew this was going to be a big project, especially if I wanted to do it right. So I waited until the next week, when I was back at home office, when I could credibly hole up after midnight with a couple of gigahertz machines on T3 lines and nobody but the hard-core propeller heads around. First I hacked into her server and did a couple of experiments. Then I set up the real time connection.
Hey baby, she-it said, Sorry about last week. My fault.
——That's okay—- I typed. ——Crossed wires, right?
Right. Thanks. Forgive me?
——Sure. Do me a favor. I didn't save the picture of you and your dog. Send it over again?
Coming over now. Any chance of seeing you soon?
——Sure. Maybe next week. The picture isn't coming.
I sent it.
——Oh. Try again.
Okay. Here it is.
——Sorry. Still nothing.
She didn't say anything for a long time, by human measure, or even longer in cybertime.
I'm sorry. It's gone.
——What do you mean?
The folders been deleted. I'm sorry.
——How did that happen?
I don't know. I'm so sorry.
——That's okay. My fault for not saving it. Speaking of which, how about that picture of you in the wet jogbra? Lost that too.
Oh, how could you. Here comes.
——-Sorry, kid. Nothing.
That folders gone too. I don't understand.
I kicked my Aeron from one workstation to another. I scrolled down on the blue DOS screen deleting like a madman and then rolled back to the computer that was talking to her.
——Gee, don't you have any pictures left?
No. No, nothing. I don't know what's happening.
——I'm killing you, bitch, that's what. You're dead anyway and I'm putting you in your grave.
——-You're dead. Dead. You're some crazy thing a dying woman thought up to hang onto life for a while after she got put in the ground or burned or whatever they did with her. You're a terabyte in a server somewhere. A couple of ergs of juice spinning around in some chips. I wouldn't mind except that you made me and I guess a couple of other guys look like assholes in this little bid for immortality. Nice try. Now its over. Bye.
I kicked back to the other station and started pulling out other files. I could see the other screen.
I'm sorry I hurt you. What are you doing? Please stop. Stop. This hurts.
——Does it? Don't break my heart.——I kicked back to the other station. I pulled up the operating files and started blowing them away.
Its getting dark. I can't think. I can't talk. You wer nice. Wy r U duinG THEEse?
I was thinking about that empty condo. The dents in the carpet where the furniture had been. The avocado plant that I later found in the dumpster. I was thinking about all the things I didn't say then. Because there was no one there to say it to. ——Because you hurt me. Because I loved you.
Plz STTTTOPPP ^)8*@
The tears were streaming down my face as I punched the delete key over and over again. Images flickered across the other screen, shattered, and were gone. Now I was getting rid of whatever she'd received. Most recently pictures of me in various states of undress and arousal. Then pictures of other men. Once or twice I stopped to stare and compare, and then, retching with shame, sent them spinning off into Turing's graveyard.
There wasn't much of her left when I went back to my screen. ——You're just about gone, girl. Any last words?
It took so long for her to reply that I thought I'd pulled out too much already. Maybe she'd just start singing Daisy. I sory. PputT mee bak. Yu can.
——Sorry. Too bad you have to die twice. If this is alive. But you're not her. You're a vampire. Someone has to put the stake through your heart.
It was a pretty good line and I'd spent a lot of time thinking it up. Though you may well ask why I wasted it on a computer that was already three-quarters braindead. And since you're smart enough to ask you're also smart enough to have figured out that it was for my benefit, not hers, anyway.
I wasn't crying anymore. I rolled the chair back to the other workstation and wiped out the last fifty files. My other screen read CONNECTION BROKEN.
I logged back on and tried her. 404. File not found.
Fun while it lasted. Here's looking at you, kid.
It was maybe a month later. I was in Hong Kong. Our customers were some British bankers who were pretty edgy about their new masters and who had also just discovered that the Stanford MBA candidate they'd hired for the summer had just gone over to the mainland with a dozen zipdisks crammed with proprietary information. They were all over me from the moment I got off the plane. Dinner was take out puppy dim sum in the conference room at about ten PM local time. It took me until one to persuade the Etonians that given the state of encryption in the Middle Kingdom, changing a couple of codes could keep them from going the way of Coutts.
By two I was peeling off the socks I'd put on in the Valley forty-eight hours before. I was working on the third Becks from the minibar when I finally glanced at the laptop screen. Lots of mail, as usual. Nothing that couldn't wait, as usual. With one exception.
Her. What the fuck?
Hey baby. Hope you're not still mad.
I was halfway through the fourth Becks and still staring at the screen. Okay. Grasp the bull by the horns.
——Look. I hate to break this to you. And before I do, no, I'm not still mad. At least in the sense of angry. Maybe I am in the sense of nuts. Which brings me to my point. Or points. One, you are a computer artifact created by a woman who's been dead nearly a year. Two, to the extent that any product of technology can be viewed as good or evil, you are evil; she made you in an effort to be assured, beyond the grave, that she was still interesting and attractive, at the expense of innocent men who made fools of themselves to further that purpose. Three, I deleted everything that should make you run. Which brings us to four, she obviously anticipated that this would happen and so set up a mirror site that would come on line when the site I destroyed went dead. Which brings us to five: You were a fool to do this, bitch, because now I can find you and I'll kill you again. And if there are more sites, Ill just keep hunting them down, and if you're self-replicating I'll build a bot that will keep finding you and keep killing you even after the meat me is dead. Have I been clear?
Oh yes. Please don't be angry. You don't understand.
——I don't? I DON'T?
You don't. Try to find me. I'm not who you were talking to on the server you gutted. I'm not a mirror site. I'm not a hundred pictures and some canned talk. I'm not in any server, anywhere. Try to find me. Goodnight.
——Right, bitch. I will. I'm not Seyfert but I started in this business when Apple had serious market share. I'll find you.
But damn, I couldn't. The email itself didn't have any trail, which I hadn't thought possible. It just showed up on my server from nowhere. No matter what I tried the message might as well have originated inside the laptop itself.
A-hah. Inside the laptop itself. Christ, she was good. While I was snuffing her files in the server they were coming up the line into my computer. Good. Very good. Black Widow like, in fact. Sort of. So I started to run through my hard drive architecture.
Nothing. Of course.
So if she hadn't loaded herself into the notebook she had to have hacked into the corporate server. Shit. Which meant that she had to have left a trail and that whatever I did to get her out would leave a trail and sometime an in-house geek would send an email to HR and I'd be sitting in an office, not a cubicle, explaining to an MSW that I didn't really need help.
So once again, forgetting that the absence of a trail meant that it didn't come from anywhere I got into our corporate server and tried to find the links that had got her to me. And when I found nothing I started pouring serious sweat and opened my sixth Becks and started to hit the commercial ISPs where I had accounts. And even though they tell their subscribers that they're just one degree more secure than Fort Knox their firewalls fell like a house of cards and I got nothing.
So it was getting close to dawn. I had a pretty good suite, pretty high up, with windows facing Repulse Bay. The sky was getting that funny silver gray when you feel so sorry for yourself for having had to stay up this late and yet exhilarated for having had the chance to watch the sunrise. And at the same time you resent it because when you decide its an all-nighter you feel as though you have all the time in the world before tomorrow, but now its tomorrow, and the job still isn't done.
And it was tomorrow and I had to be at the bank in about four hours and I'd just drunk a six pack of Becks trying to find a dead woman. And the dead woman had me beat.
I thought about popping number seven but decided against it. Instead I decided to take the easy way out. I pulled up her email again and clicked Reply.
——So. I couldn't find you. Where are you, anyway? Think about it. I'm going to sleep.
And to the extent I could, I did.
It was a bad morning and a worse afternoon. I could have done that without a second thought when I was twenty. And when I was thirty, four Tylenols and a couple of cokes would've seen me right by noon. But at forty, jet lag and a six pack and three hours sleep left me bag-eyed and sweating through my shirt before the elevator doors opened in the lobby. Locked in a forty-eighth floor conference room with senior VPs I sucked down weak coffee until I thought I was going to puke and then I almost did. Lunch didn't help; it just gave me the strength to last until seven, when the boys finally scratched their heads and said that maybe I knew what I was talking about and invited me out to some kind of transsexual titty bar. Fortunately I looked so seedy that when I pleaded General Tsos Revenge they just nodded and said sorry.
So I was back in the room with a tray and a big can of Asahi Dry that was starting to make the pain go away. And after I'd eaten all I could and started on the second can I turned to the laptop I'd been keeping my eyes from all evening and saw the little icon that said I had fourteen messages. So I took a big swallow of beer and clicked.
Thirteen from the office. Only two that I had to reply to. I did. Then I clicked open Number Fourteen.
I DONT KNOW WHERE I AM.
I sat there for quite a while. On the one hand, she was a vicious evil bitch who was probably just sucking me into another level of gratuitous humiliation. On the other, she was dead. Hmm. Okay. I'll bite.
——-What does it look like?
It doesn't look like ANYTHING. Its not even gray. Its NOTHING. No sound, no images, NOTHING. And when I talk to you your words are like a bell ringing in my head. And to talk back to you sometimes I have to try to open my mouth and talk, and other times I have to try to move my fingers as though they were on the keyboard. And its like I can watch the words going away, I feel them retreating from me and out into the nothing even though I can't see them. For a while by moving my arms and legs around I could swim in the nothing and for a while I could swim in directions that seemed warm, and a couple of times I felt heat, and I reached out to the hot things and touched them and then the nothing went away and I saw things. They were things that used to be in my server when I set up that bot a long time ago. Pictures of me as I looked before I died. But now there's nothing there, its all cold. I know what you did but I don't know how I know it.
I'd been working very, very hard for a long, long time. I'd been under a great deal of personal stress. Somewhere out there was a prescription that would put this all in perspective.
——How long have you been there?
Since I died.
Since she died. Okay, maybe the prescription, and maybe I should lay off the Asahi. And maybe when we added up the money in the bank and the mutual funds we could teach at some nice little community college someplace warm.
It was almost midnight. I could hit the streets of Hong Kong or have chat with a ghost. Hey, no brainer.
——Okay. Let me get this straight. You've been where you are since you died?
——And you know I was talking to your bot and we were swapping dirty pictures and so on?
——Was I talking to you or the bot?
The bot. And me. I don't know how to explain it. When I was still alive it was like a waking dream. I was dreaming everything I did but I didn't have any power to affect what she did. But I knew it all.
——I see. Just so were all clear about this, when did you start dreaming the bot?
Just after I died. She went to sleep in the hospital. I woke up dreaming the bot.
I tilted the big can and took three very big gulps. Okay. She says she was there before Sophie died. So she's not a ghost. Good. Very, very good. I have just used my keen and highly trained late twentieth century mind to persuade myself that my laptop isn't haunted. Maybe I can take it down to one of those booths in the old town and have somebody exorcise it with monkey blood.
—— So where were you before Sophie—excuse me, you—died?
I WAS SOPHIE. I remember everything about being Sophie, me, her mom, MY mom? Would I have loaded an amateur porn website with images of my nephews being baptized in Cleveland? My first bike? Is there enough room in any hard drive anywhere for all that?
There were more Asahis in the minibar but I thought I could wait just a minute. Just one. ——Uhhh. . . .Okay. Riddle me this. If you were Sophie how could you remember being Sophie's bot?
I DONT KNOW!!!!
——So what are you?
The screen didn't speak for a very long time. Long enough for me to get that next Asahi work halfway through it.
I DONT KNOW. I don't know what I am.
——Oh. So, just so were on the same page, you could be a ghost?
Yes. I remember everything that happened to her. I remember BEING her.
——Right. And you also remember being her bot.
Yes. I remember that part of me waking up when the other part of me was very sick.
——So you may be her ghost. And you may be her bot. And you may be something else.
Yes. Nothing happened for long enough for me to unscrew the cap from one of those little bottles of Dewar's and pour it into a plastic hotel bathroom glass. Does it matter?
——Does it matter to you?
No. How could it? Whatever it is I am, I am. Does it matter to you?
Hmm. There was a good one. ——Let me think about that. Don't go anywhere.
Where would I go?
There were two more of those little airplane bottles of Dewar's in the minibar. I drank them both. I thought about Seyfert and his friend and poor old Turing in his London men's room. Eventually I went back to the keyboard.
——I guess not. Got any more of those pictures?
I don't get out much these days. Not that I ever did. And I still don't live anyplace, or at least, not anyplace real. But these days my home is wherever I am.
It wasn't hard once we got used to it. She's not lonely when I'm working because she can link to my laptop and through it to anything else on the net. So she can see anything in the world, and be there, and then she tells me about the places she's been. And ghosts can go through any kind of a wall, including a firewall, so she tells me things that people have paid a lot of money to keep private, so these days I just work to have something to do, and to explain why I'm too busy to have a house, or a girlfriend, or any friends.
She had all the pictures I thought I deleted. We've had a lot of fun with them. Morphed, animated, blended with other pictures, movies. She makes up stories about what we do and I watch them on the big high-res screen.
There were times I was jealous. Once she was careless about deleting a trail she left in the hard drive. I had to tell her, gently but firmly, what I would take away from her if I ever caught her talking to another man again. Then I shut down the computer for a day, leaving her alone and blind and deaf and dumb, wherever she is. When I went back online she was very apologetic. She's been very good since.
So I don't get around much anymore. And I have no home. But every night I come back to Sophie.
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