Preamble: This is a science-fiction short story on the subject of neighbourhood watch. The names of the characters have not been changed to conceal their identities because they aren't real.
(Story transmission proceeds beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
They couldn't call them "windows" because Microsoft's legal intelligence had a fit over it. But they were windows: transparent panels mitigating an opaque barrier. Obviously.
But nobody was allowed to call them that. The usual linguistic tools were used to up compliance proactively.
So they called them "mirrors" instead and we all followed suit because the tongue follows the hashtag or risks irrelevance. That's just common sense. Behind the scenes the manufacturers' legal intelligences were set loose to litigiously engage with a terrifyingly random assortment of other businesses with "mirror" in their name.
Who wants to get smurfed by a license fee? We all rolled over and called the damn things mirrors, too.
So this is a story about mirrors, but not the kind in your washroom.
No, I'm not capitalizing it. Up yours, trademark holders! This is a word the human race gets to keep.
There were no mirrors in my hometown. I mean, there are now but there weren't then. I knew about them. I'd seen stuff online. But still when I first came to the city I found the reality of the mirrors startling.
I'm not going to bore you explaining the details. That anecdote -- you know, the one everybody tells -- it was clichė long before it happened to me. Remember that movie with what's his name, the comedian, referencing the classic Groucho and Harpo routine? That kind of sums it up better than I ever could. Civic mirrors kind of mess with your mind at first. There are embarrassing moments.
But then you're used to them, like you get used to any number of city phenomena: soaring megaliths, beggars, holographic sexy people chanting slogans. You just kind of tune it out. I listen to music in headphones a lot.
As you walk to work or home or to the store you see people in the mirrors walking to their work or going to their home or on their way somewhere else. They become familiar like scenery. I guess I became familiar to them in the same vague but pervasive way, too.
It can be hard to find friends in the city but nobody's really a stranger.
Bev came to the city to visit and even though she's annoying I let her stay over at my place because I figured she'd probably agree we could sleep together in my bed instead of me letting her have it while I slept on the couch like a gentleman.
We smoked some vapours on the roof of my building. Bev gaped at the megaliths and lights. "How do you ever get used to this?" she wanted to know.
I shrugged. "Feel like turning in?"
The next morning we had breakfast at this place near my work. The staff was a bunch of waldos remote operated by somebody poor from a poverty place. The waldos were plastered with logos like racing cars. Ours brought us a couple of coffees. "Interested in anything to eat, or just sticking with coffee this morning, ladies?"
Bev snorted. I said, "I'm not a lady."
"I'm so sorry for my mistake! Let me make it right by comping your coffees. How's that sound?"
We assented and ordered. Bev watched the waldo walk away. "Unbelievable. Robot waiters. Like-like."
I shook my head. "It's just some probably Greek kid choosing chunks of pre-recorded babble. Steers the body from a library of moves matched to the layout of the place. A dive like this couldn't afford actual artificial intelligence."
Breakfast was eggish and baconoid. I don't care what they say -- you can taste the crickets.
The place filled up with the morning rush. Bev was gushing about everything. She kept thinking she saw video stars everywhere but they were just regular people. "So what's the deal with the mirrors?" she asked me, busting out her smoke and booting it. "I mean, do you ever see people doing it on there?"
"Sometimes. But, honestly, not a lot of people you'd want to see."
She chortled. "Sympathies. It's hard not to stare, though, at the people on the screen. I guess you get used to it, right?"
"Yeah. Don't stare. It's just like staring at somebody on the sidewalk. In fact it is somebody on the sidewalk. It's just that the sidewalk isn't local."
"Do the same mirrors always look at the same other places?"
"No. They cycle. I think it has to do with how many people can be seen, or how many people are available to see, or whatever. I'm sure there's some kind of traffic lights and mirrors server in the city intelligence or something."
"But basically it means there's no part of the city that nobody's never looking at, right?"
She laughed and laughed. Bev thinks everything is hilarious. She's a moron.
My device quizzled. I glanced at its face and grabbed my jacket. "I have to be at work, like now. You're going to be okay on your own for a while? You've got stuff to do, right -- whatever you came to the city for in the first place or whatever."
"I've got a doctor's appointment with a human," she explained. "Do you know where Pepsi Street is?"
"Ask your device. I got to fly."
And that was it. I never did have to pay for dinner, because sometime in the next six hours Bev was eaten by the city.
Bev didn't disappear but she didn't come back. It was weird.
That is to say I saw her -- like, now and again -- when I was out shopping or coming home from the movies or racing back to work from lunch. But she never answered her device live when I rang it, never replied to any of the messages I'd posted, and she never even showed up to pick up her stuff from my place. It was only some clothes and a tooth-wand and a fraying-edged knapsack but, still. Why leave it?
I'd have worried about her more if it weren't for the fact that I kept catching glimpses of her in the mirrors. I'd wave or I'd call but she was city-blind, nodding in time to whatever was in her earphones, unreceptive.
I started to think she was pretty which was weird because I didn't before. Why would I give a flying profanity about Bev only now that she was gone? I'd known her for years and years back home and all she ever inspired in me was eye-rolling and a headache. Mostly. She was a good time but you paid for it in tolerating her giggling and excessively random questions.
But she was a nice girl deep down and I couldn't get the mystery of whatever happened to her out of my head. Did some perverse freak kidnap her and brainwash her into a cult or something? Was it something I said?
So one night I posted on her parents' timeline. They were confused because they said Bev had never been to the city. She still worked at the used clothes shop in town. They'd bought her lunch for her birthday on Walday. They gently asked around the question or whether or not I was dipping into croc or meth or baby teeth pills.
My parents rang an hour later. They were less circumspect about their suspicions. "I'm not on drugs," I told them tiredly, "I was just worried about Bev."
My mother chirped, "Are you two an item?"
My father barked at me not to roll my eyes at my mother.
On my way to the laundry place I rounded a corner to see a crowd clustered in front of a mirror. The innermost ring of familiar strangers was kneeling. When I got close I could hear what they were saying.
"It's okay honey, it's going to be alright."
"Help is on the way, sweetheart."
"Stay with us, stay awake. Just hold on. You're not alone."
A woman had been stabbed. She was lying alone in the middle of the sidewalk in a darker, dirtier part of the city. A glaxo siren was wailing in the distance. She clutched her midriff. Her fingers were slick. "Save me Jesus," she suggested.
On the sidewalk beside me a few men stood off to one side, looking at the next mirror panel along the street. A few of them had their devices out and were taking pictures. I sidled over, arms crossed, head leading.
It was definitely a pretty rare phenomenon: the mirror view kept changing every few seconds, switching partner mirrors rapidly in order to remain focused on a specific individual as he hurried on his way. A series of red dots tracked behind the image of the man, showing that his behaviour had been tagged as criminal by seven citizens.
"Hey, that's Amazon West!" said one of the men at my elbow. "The bastard's running down Amazon West!"
The others craned their heads toward the nearest intersection: Amazon Avenue West and Pizza Hut Boulevard. The stabber was running right at us.
In the mirror a glaxo zoomed into frame and parked beside the victim, red and white bubble lights pulsing and spinning. Waldos run by paramedics within the glaxo hopped out the back doors and scrambled into position beside the stricken woman, probes extending from their fingers as informed consent requirements spilled from their speakers.
The crowd loosened. Help had come.
In the hopping mirror view, a police waldo suddenly appeared sprinting after the perp. It took him down in a smooth dive. The perp fell like a bag of baseball bats and screeched like a baby. He kicked out the front window of the McDonald's Grocery and tried to turn over a recycling bin but it was bolted down. Guy must have been on some serious drugs. The waldo had to taze him over and over before he finally stopped flipping out. All of us who were still watching applauded.
The police took our statements directly via the waldo through the mirror.
After dropping off my laundry I cut along Amazon West on the way home so I could see if there was still any action at the scene. But the police cruiser had already left, and some McAssociate had even already replaced the smashed window and cleaned up the broken glass in front of the grocery. Further up the block where the victim had sprawled was no stain of blood. Just splotches of blackened gum and a few pebbles on the sidewalk.
The city moves fast, I guess.
"People simply feel safer when they know their fellow citizens are always within shouting distance," said Helen E. Boutros, informally known as the "Mirror Mayor" for theming her whole election campaign around aggressive expansion of mirrors into civic spaces for crime control and a deterrent against property vandalism and wilful disguisement. "Mirrors connect the disparate parts of our cities into a cohesive whole of community. Everybody's on neighbourhood watch, and neighbours look out for neighbours. There's no ‘Big Brother' here -- just one big family."
I rolled my eyes. Stupid mandatory advertisements. I focused on the countdown to click-through.
The videos I was after were from the university's free archive. The early days of mirroring. Charismatic visionaries giving TED talks about an alternative to pervasive governmental surveillance. Engineers narrating screen-capture sessions walked the viewer through the core code modules, complaining about where open source segments were buttressed against proprietary secrets. Rants from the paranoid. Blogs from the bored.
There was something I wanted to grok about the whole thing. Freaking mirrors -- how do they work?
But everything I saw toed the same staid line: mirrors were 180° hemi-omniscopic 3D video streams projected at actual scale in real time to other mirror panels a block away or across the city, depending on where there were eyes to view them. Mirrors craved observation. They followed the populace. The system tried to make sure nobody ever had to feel alone in a civic space. A benefit to the race. End of story.
Darknet forums were more forthcoming. There were rumours of pre-recorded streams played later for maximum impact. "The mirrors show us what the man wants us to see," said some anonymous Guy Fawkes with a lot of moderation points. "It is theatre for cattle." His posts impressed me so I sent him a private ping. He replied right away. "Do you want to know more?"
He was local. We arranged a meetup.
Took the subway to Quiznos Station. Passed into a platoon of models urging me to like things; they shimmered when I broke through the rank, their baby faces and freefall breasts swimming with rainbow interference patterns. They stopped saying my name.
Walked to the Wimpy's on Burger King Street. Sat at the bar and had a bud. Marked my coaster with the letter queue.
A bariatro humped up to the stool next to mine. "Are you waiting for something to open up in the dining room?" asked the bar waldo. The bariatro shook his head, jowls sloshing. I saw one of his little sunken raisin eyes flick down to my coaster, the sparkle of an HUD contact lens catching the light.
"Is the letter your place in line?"
"No," I replied. "Queue is for quiet."
"Quite," he agreed. "Silence is golden."
We nodded at one another. I drained my cup and we walked out together, my pace slowed carefully to keep abreast of the bariatro's heavy plodding. He wheezed as he waddled. His enormous jacket was a tessellated mix of digital camouflage greens, his boots Mediaeval. The very caricature of a troll.
We came to an open space in the middle of a dog park. Turds steamed into the night air on all sides. "Hold my hand," he said. "It looks less suspicious."
I held his hand. It was meaty, damp and warm.
"I'm not really fat," he said. "I'm disguised."
"Holy smokes," I said, reaching for my kit. I booted my smoke and the tip glew, casting our faces with an eerie underlight. "That's hardcore. Disguisement is Class A."
"Yeah, well, when you know the kind of smurf I do it becomes second nature to assume the worst. It's a survival instinct. I'm a survivor. Others have fallen, but not me. I exist to spread the message but I'm smart enough not to get fingered for it. Because I'm careful. You know?"
"Even if I share just a small percentage of my knowledge payload you're going to have to be careful, too. Seriously careful. Are you prepared for that?"
"I'm prepared to do whatever it takes. I need to know the truth."
"Good. That's very good. I think you're ready."
"I've got a good feeling about you. My people checked you out, too. You just might have what it takes. But I'm not sure yet. You know?" He shifted his weight, staring through my vapours and into my eyes. "Will he finish what he begins?" he asked the air, then frowned. "Humphf."
"I'm ready," I assured him. "Tell your contact I'm ready. I'm prepared to see it through."
The bariatro nodded seriously. "And you will, guy. You're going to see right through it all. Right through."
He told me to call him Fawkesy. He said knowing his real name would endanger me. We often met at burger joints. He always wore his bariatric disguise. It was really realistic, even in direct sunlight.
"Now that there's two of us we can run some serious experiments," he said around a breakfast burger. "You know?"
"I thought you said you had people. The people who looked into my background?"
"Oh, totally, yeah, I have people. But they're not, you know, available for local ops."
"They're up in Canada."
"Yeah, you know. We've got sleeper cells in like a dozen countries, including Canada."
"That's cool. But nobody else in the city?"
"Not anymore, guy. Rest of the crew got nabbed. We got snowdened. But in betraying us the plant exposed himself." Fawkesy sat back and dabbed at the crumbs on his cheeks. "I saw he got what was coming to him," he said darkly.
I whistled. "Profane, man. That's hardcore."
In our first experiment together we observed a frequently paired set of mirrors and each stood within the view of one of them at an appointed time, displaying to the other an atomic-accurate readout of the hour to the millisecond on our respective devices. Later, over fries and shakes, we compared captures of the session.
The results were inconclusive. We made plans for the next one.
Fawkesy said it would look suspicious if we didn't have an innocuous reason for meeting, so before we split up on the sidewalk we kissed even though neither one of us is gay.
"The thing is," said Fawkesy the next time we met, "I don't think the irregularities are intra-zone. I think they're inter-zone."
By ‘irregularities' he meant the hypothetical evidence that would demonstrate the truth to the theories he did truck in. By ‘zones' he meant neighbourhoods, but he called them zones because it sounded cooler. "So," I said, sucking on a shake, "how do we make sure a mirroring pair is straddling a zone border?"
"It's not just spatial," he insisted, "I think it's economic. It won't do for you to be in the church district while I'm in the old downtown. You know? They're too the same. What we need is a big gulf -- a real disparity."
"We thinking one of us should stalk one of the hill hoods?"
"Are you joking? Don't be derpy. Private security waldos would have us boxed before we even knew what in the name of profanity had happened. Yeah, man -- no way."
"So what's the alternative?"
"The skids. One of us has to go to a mirror in the skids."
I shuddered. "Profanity, man. The skids are the whole reason mirrors got big in the first place, isn't it? Non-Orwellian surveillance where even waldos fear to tread. Too much property damage."
"Mirrors can be vandalized as easy as a waldo, but people don't. Because waldos are the face of some official but mirrors are just of the face of the city. The city is us. It's a key psychological difference, you know: it isn't the powers that be that see, it's us."
I frowned. "Yeah but that doesn't change the fact that something like two thirds of the crimes seen through mirrors happen in the skiddiest parts of the city. I think I read that on the radio."
"You're too scared to go?"
"Oh, um, were we assuming I was going to be the one on the skid-end?"
Fawkesy chewed his breakfast burger slowly, eyes fixed on mine.
"Profanity," I mumbled. "Okay, I'll do it."
On my way to skid-row I passed Bev in a mirror. I waved but she didn't see me. She seemed to be in a pretty nasty part of town. I wondered if I should be worried. Was she hooking?
The subway stopped a station early due to construction so I trudged up steps flickering with broken advertisements to street level. The bus stop said there was a shuttle bus but it never came. I watched the dot of it draw nearer on my device, right on schedule, but it never turned the corner to appear to me in real life.
"Tom Cruise!" I swore bitterly.
I clutched my device tightly as the map scrolled in time to my pace. I hung a left on Hooters so I could cross at the Denny's Bridge. But the Denny's was blocked with orange traffic pylons and flashing orange lights. A sign announced repairs extending into last autumn. I guess they were behind. Sometimes the city moves slowly.
In a shop: "Excuse me, could you tell me how I can get down to MoneyMart Road?"
"What you want down there, son? You look clean. It's nothing but pushers and pimps down that way."
"Um, my friend is in trouble. I really have to help her."
"I recommend you ask the police to send in some waldos. It's a rough bit of town. But if you're insisting I'd say your best bet is the pedway, crosses between the regular hospital and the mental hospital. You probably walked right under it to come in here."
"Yeah," I said, turning around vaguely. "Thanks a lot."
Outside in the street I could see people passing to and fro on the pedestrian bridge above, but when I went into the hospital I couldn't find the way up. I must have run up and down six different flights of stairs and taken three different elevators. The pedway wasn't even listed in the directory.
So I asked. I got directions that led me to a wall of vending machines. "Your blood sugar appears low," said the nearest machine. "Would you care for a Mars bar? Priced competitively at just five point five dollars today."
I ate my Mars bar while I walked back to the subway.
"I'm telling you, there's no way to get to the skids."
Fawkesy scoffed, mouth pinched around his straw. "If you lost your nerve at least have the bearings to admit it to me, guy."
"I didn't lose my nerve, Fawkesy. For the sake of profanity, I really didn't. Look into my eyes: am I lying?"
His right-side HUD contact lens flickered. "No," he said. "You don't seem to be."
"So let's say we try again tonight. Let's say I try a different quarter, try again, find the way blocked again. Just, like, hypothetically. What would that suggest to you?"
He chewed thoughtfully. "Maybe you already said it yourself. The skids were the mirrors' raison d'etre. Indigent people wanted the same attention on their streets as the middle and upper zones."
"What if there are no skids anymore?"
I furrowed my brow. "What?"
"Like you say, just let the hypothesis play out. There's a city neighbourhood we see in the mirrors all the time -- maybe a disproportionate amount of the time because their streets are more frequently empty and crimes of opportunity happen -- but we can't walk there or take the subway or a cab. It's totally inaccessible, right?"
I leaned forward, pushing the remains of my cricket fries aside. "That's what I'm saying, yeah. So?"
"Said neighbourhood is the inspiration for mirroring disparate parts of the city. That makes it significant to the mirror people. It makes it so that, in a way, the skids only exist in mirrors." He straightened and turned to me, jowls sloshing with abrupt motion. He looked genuinely worried. "What if there are no skids?"
"That's crazy, Fawkesy. How could there be no skids? Where do all the skidheads live, then?"
"Who says there's skidheads?"
"Don't be stupid. We see them in the mirror everyday…" I trailed off.
Fawkesy nodded. "Follow me here: what if -- just what if -- the skids don't exist. Maybe they haven't existed for a long time. Nobody middle or upper ever willingly goes there, so who's to know? We all get to feel noble interrupting skid crimes in the mirror, feel like we're part of something bigger. Something positive." He shook his head. "It's a video-game, guy."
I scoffed. "You're not talking about pre-recorded streams or editing, man, you're talking about wholesale photo-realistic simulations. You're talking about a whole segment of city society that's -- what? -- manufactured to give us a sense of moral stability?"
"You and I both know how real simulations have become. Even reality-testing AIs can be fooled. Military-grade AIs, too, I hear."
My mouth went dry. "That's too huge a lie to hide."
"Au contraire. It's too huge a lie to question. It's in plain sight. What kind of basement-dwelling troll would waste his time digging into a mystery everybody in the city can see with their own eyes isn't a mystery at all?" He snorted. "Only those dedicated to the truth at any cost. Only us."
"You should run this by your Canadian friends. See what they think."
"Yeah, totally I will, but right now I think we need to test this hypothesis in the most direct way possible. You and me together. We're maybe the only ones in the city who even suspect. We've got to stay close to one another, watch one another's backs. You know?"
"I should probably sleep over at your place tonight. You know, to minimize our exposure footprint."
I shifted uncomfortably. "I don't really have a lot of extra room. My apartment's really small. I'm not even sure you'd fit on my couch. I mean, I know it's a disguise and all, but, still."
"We could just share the bed," suggested Fawkesy.
The morning was too bright. Smells were too keen. One shower somehow wasn't enough to make me feel clean. I only felt reasonably okay once I'd dressed in clothes ripped straight from the store packages.
I drank my coffee extra hot. "You're quiet," said Fawkesy.
"That's not a disguise," I said.
"No, it's not. That was…a bit of misdirection. Old habit of a survivor."
He ate six breakfast bars, a set of toaster strudels and a sandwich with my last pieces of American cheese and my last squirt of yellow ketchup. He drank the end of the tang and wiped his face on his sleeve. No wonder his bariatric disguise looked so genuine.
"Symmetry," I said.
I repeated the word. "It means both things the same both ways on both sides, sort of. Right? Mirrors are supposed to be symmetrical. But they're not."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't go to the skids. We're trapped on this side of the mirror. But there are people who can cross over."
"Well, sure, anybody real could also have their image appear in the simulation."
"Right! Exactly! But not the other way around."
He shrugged. "So?"
"So Bev is in the mirror skid row and she's been here, too, in this very apartment." I turned to face him full on, my eyes wide. "I think it means she's real. And I think that means…we're not."
Fawkesy blinked. "Guy, that's paranoid even by my standards."
I looked at my hand. "How would we know?"
He snorted dismissively, picking at crumbs. "Simulations may look real but they don't feel real. Haven't you ever gone to a parlour for a custom dream? That's why they start you off inhaling the transition gas. Because otherwise your brain's reality-testing mechanisms keep interfering with the experience."
"No, um, I've never been to a parlour. But it doesn't matter. There's a built-in assumption that totally wrecks the point you're trying to make."
He frowned. "What assumption?"
"That we have any idea what reality feels like. You're thinking of a human embedded in a simulation. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm saying we -- you and I -- are simulated. Your idea of what feels real and what doesn't is a simulation of how a human being experiencing a simulation might feel -- there's no information there. It's circular."
"You're giving me a headache."
"Why do you only warm up to crazy theories if they're yours?"
"Because it's absurd. Face it, guy. You're babbling. Think about this: if what you're saying was true that would mean the city -- the real city -- is just a giant slum with fake mirrors showing them how the better off live. What's the point of that? To make them feel like shit for being poor?"
"Maybe we're aspirational figures," I suggested. "Exemplars."
He looked down at himself and then up again, eyes rolling. "Nobody aspires to be me," he said. "I profanely promise you that."
"Oh yeah? What's your job, Fawkesy? How do you pay the rent?"
"Do you have a nice entertainment system at home?"
"Food in the fridge?"
He sort of shrugged and nodded at the same time.
"You're a lazy fat slob who does what he wants all day, every day. And you don't think that's cause for envy?"
"Don't swear about my body, guy. It's profanely rude."
"Fine, whatever. You're a bariatro. Pardon my French. But however you say it you're a walking testament to indulgence."
His little raisin eyes squinted with genuine hurt. "Why are you cutting on me?"
"I'm not cutting on you on purpose. I'm just trying to show you how you don't know how your life looks to some skidhead. You don't know what that gut of yours represents to somebody who works himself to the bone for a fraction of nothing per hour. You're the great white hope, Fawkesy."
"You're making fun of me. I'm not going to sleep over anymore if this is how you're going to talk to me. I taught you everything you know, smurf. I made you. Show some respect."
"Don't get touchy. I'm just trying to make a point."
"It's a bullshit point. You know there's something hidden happening in the system and now you think your eyes are open, but they're blinded by the glare. You got your first hints of truth and it's made you philosophically drunk."
"I'm not the one who asked you to sleep over."
"You pretend like you didn't want it but you do."
"I think you're gay, Fawkesy. Like, for real."
"That's disgusting. You're just trying to upset me now. Up yours, guy. I'm going home."
I guess I sort of became what Fawkesy always pretended to be. So that's another level on which the troll really was aspirational. I may not have imaginary friends in Canada but I'm ten times the detective he ever was.
Fawkesy was always spinning theories without data to base any of it on. That's where my approach is different. I'm all about the data. I've got reams of data. Shelves of binders of careful handwritten notes, cross-indexed on recipe cards whose contents are cyphered. A tedious system? You bet. But you can't be too careful. I'm keeping my network profile clean and managing everything manually. I'm the survivor Fawkesy posed at being.
Names, photographs, times, dates, maps, meta. My trove. By careful analysis I panned for gold.
The nugget's name was John.
He looked up when I walked over. He held out a tin begging cup. I dropped in a handful of quarters then sat down next to him along the brick perimeter of the bank's moat. "How's it going?" I asked.
He shrugged and smiled a gap-toothed smile. "Not too cold today, brother."
"You're John, right?"
"My whole life. Ha, ha, ha."
"I've seen you before."
"I've been everywhere, man, I've been everywhere."
"I've seen you in the skids."
"Could be, brother. I end up where I end up. Leaf in the wind. Ha, ha, ha."
"But in the skids you don't beg."
He didn't say anything.
"I've been watching you. And others like you. Like my friend Bev. The people who appear on both sides of the mirrors."
He grunted noncommittally, waving his tin cup at passersby.
I turned toward him and gestured at his dirt-yellow beard and shredded trenchcoat. "This is an avatar, isn't it? A dirty old bum nobody pays any mind to. Like, so you can come in and observe us."
"You're funny," he told me. "Ha, ha, ha."
"I know what's going on," I said. "I know about the fake crimes staged so we can go through the motions of helping quell the situation or whatever. I know it's all theatre. We're like guardian angels for the skidheads. We watch over their real city from our phoney one, and teach them how they should try to act."
"I think I saw that movie -- ha, ha ha," said John.
"You're a developer. You're a sim developer."
His expression changed briefly. "What are you driving at, brother? Leave an old fellow in peace."
"Does it scare you that I know the truth?"
He coughed, wasted a moment wiping at his nose and eyes. "It doesn't scare me," he said. "It's a miracle." He turned toward me on the sidewalk, the mad-man's squint replaced with the keen, critical face he wore in the mirrors. "You're my greatest creation. A sim with an emergent sense of existentialism. I'm going to win an award."
My mouth went dry but I pushed ahead. "What's going to happen to me? Will you…delete me?"
"Isn't what I know dangerous? I could upset the whole order. The mirrors, the classes -- everything."
He chuckled. "Nah."
"You say that so easily."
"Listen kid, you're a living poster but you're not in a position to promote anything creative. You can try. Nobody will stop you. But it's pointless. Only one out of every hundred sims even has the back-end to be curious about what you say, and none of them has a reason to believe you."
"People will want to know the truth," I said stubbornly, chin high.
He scoffed. "You must be acquainted with a different human race than I am."
"I guess I am. We aren't humans."
"No, but you play them on TV. Ever ask yourself why one percent of the population commits suicide? It's not because they're like you. It's not because they're drowning a crisis of meaning. It's because the actuarial tables tell us one percent rate is a credible rate for self-attrition."
"Do they feel despair before they die?"
"Sure. Despair is easy."
What else was there to say? I nodded slowly, shook the callused hand of John's begging avatar, and thanked the bearded old man for blessing me with life and the illusion of liberty. I jammed my hands in my pockets and turned to go.
"Hey buddy," he called.
I looked back over my shoulder.
"If it makes you feel any better, a lot of what you're feeling right now is how we feel about our world, too."
I gave him another quarter and walked away, accelerating down Novartis to the bus-stop at General Mills, breaking through lines of translucent sexy people selling things, shaking it off and breathing in the throat-tickling perfume of car exhaust and halitosis. I love the city.
I stuck an earbud in each ear and hit shuffle, leaving all decisions to the dice.
Maybe I'm somebody's avatar. Maybe some day I'll see him in the mirrors. If I can catch up with me, if his headphones aren't turned up too high, maybe I can find out a little bit about what I'm really like.
Along the street my reflection was a ghost superimposed over the mirrored screens of people watching me.