In Real Life, I Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly
By Anya Ow
R3ALITY LOADED WITH FLICKERING spurts into Stalker’s consciousness. She braced against weightlessness, and waited until the floor felt solid beneath her feet before checking her loadout. Black, form-fitting Admin armour, ready. Silo assault rifle, ready. The sleek tubular gun felt weightless in her grip, a möbius sign glowing a bright blue in its charcoal matte flank where the ammo count normally sat. Around her was a standard spawn room, one exit, a drafty, sandy chamber with a high domed ceiling and cracked stone walls, an elaborate archway that led out to a long corridor that forked away to the right, light filtering in through long slats from the ceiling, stirring up dust over sand-heaped flagstones.
Stalker waited. The brief pinged to her had specified a Hunter partner, who was starting to load up beside her, the world distorting and stretching around invasive code. This time, Stalker didn’t have long to wait. She got a glimpse of a huge bear-like bipedal creature, thickly furred, before the Admin loadout took over and transformed her partner into a slender, sexless figure in similar black armour, fully helmeted and visored, lasknives at his hips and a Silo sniper rifle in his long-fingered hands. He. Of course, Stalker wouldn’t know whether the Hunter was male or female or neither outside r3ality, but statistically, most Resetters were male. Not that it mattered anywhere any longer, but it was a safe bet.
“G’day.” The Admin loadout leached any identifiable tonality from their voices, turning them sexless, but the Servers hadn’t yet figured out how to parse out language. “What up, mate?”
“Hi,” Stalker replied, her standard answer to any pleasantries. She preferred silence.
Hunter looked around, with a low whistle that the loadout damped and turned tuneless. “Huh. Flatlined in a dungeon crawl. Bad luck. Not the worst way to go.”
Stalker nodded. The file had mentioned a stroke. “Recent. Two hours.”
“They’re getting faster at calling in scrub duty,” Hunter checked his gear, then his rifle, quick and businesslike, to her relief. Stalker had little patience for n00bs. “Ray O’Meara, aged twenty-four, junior techie ... Huh. Bet my bottom dollar the vic kicked it at the boss fight. How’dya want to run this?”
“Point and shoot.”
“Right on.” Hunter fell into a crouch, and slunk off down the corridor. Stalker followed at a comfortable distance, trusting to Hunter’s enhanced sensor fitout to warn them both of any anomalies. “Seems like a standard clear so far.”
“Not one for talking, are ya?”
Stalker bit down a sigh. “No.”
Unfortunately, this didn’t deter Hunter, even as they passed through the next huge stone chamber. This one stank of blood-dampened fur and animal piss, mostly from the huge dead mobs close to the entrance. Some sort of mutant werewolf thing, three of them, the bodies heaped in broken sprawls over the open portal, the aftermath of violence rendered in loving digital detail. “You play Primitiva?”
“All this.” Hunter gestured at the room, the mob. “It’s the new game. Primitiva. Pretty hard. Prob why they brought two of us in. If he didn’t do most of the clear, or if the flatline nixed up the AI, a single scrub would’ve found it hard going. That bit, with the werewolves? Took me four days to figure a way to get past it, and I had help. O’Meara did it alone. Must’ve been good.”
“I don’t game.”
This surprised Hunter enough to glance back at her. “Really? That’s a first. Everyone games. If it’s not stuff like this, then it’s vanilla milkshake happy-handshake worlds like TotalSim. Speaking of that. I Reset a TotalSim flatliner a month back. Funny stuff. Easy in, easy out, but damn if he hadn’t been up to some seriously goddamned kinky stuff, I shit you not. Never looking at kitchen knives the same way ever again.”
“The best way to leave a fragment out in r3ality is to flatline while gaming.”
“That it? Why would’ya care? You’d be gone. And people like us would just Reset the rest. Bust it. S’what my buds call my job, y’know. Ghostbustin’.” Hunter laughed. The loadout parsed it into tinny gasps that barked out from the general vicinity of Hunter’s bullet-like glass dome of a head. The basic Admin loadout didn’t bother parsing for simulated breathing, though the flatliner’s game had a good enough VR resolution that the laughter bounced back in a booming echo from deeper into the chamber.
“I don’t feel the need to.”
“Guess what we’re doing now is kinda like a game. That why you don’t bother? All clear, by the way. You can come on in.”
Stalker headed out of the chamber into the second door, behind Hunter, and dropped carefully down into what looked like a huge well. The mud caked ankle-deep, and squelched: more dead mobs, skeletons this time, sprawled to a side. One had been shattered against the curved stone of the well, bleached knuckle bones still reaching upwards, palm splayed against the rock. Something had broken its thigh bones for the marrow. A mob, maybe, still active in the game. She looked away in disgust, briefly glad that the Admin loadout didn’t register scent. “This isn’t just a game. These fragments were part of people once. Have some respect.”
“Oh-h. You’re one of those, huh. A sympathiser?”
Stalker made a mental note to file a complaint in her completion report. “Obviously not. Why would a Resetter be a sympathiser?”
“You seem shook up about these code echoes. Pretty big rally out in Syd-side yesterday, stopped up a lot of traffic. Out there and in here, though in here was bigger. Gummed up the server Admin’s nodal load like nobody’s business. Everyone going on about how Resetting is a bit like murder.”
“Like you said, fragments were people once.” Was Hunter mocking her? She couldn’t tell, with that loadout flatness to his voice.
“I don’t attribute life to them. Only respect. Would you shoot someone in real life and joke about it being a game?”
“Hey chill out, man. Jeez.” Hunter fell sullenly silent. Thankfully, it wasn’t a long crawl—after they passed a third bell-shaped save point, they found the fragment, standing at the end of a narrow flight of steps, before an iron-barred door.
The echo was already starting to blur slightly at the edges, but for now, it looked like a large black bear cat, with a huge fluffy tail, wielding a halberd. It turned at their approach, but even as Hunter braced his rifle against his shoulder, it lunged up at them, halberd swinging sharply downwards in a brilliant steel arc. Hunter dodged away, cursing, even as Stalker fired a controlled burst into centre mass. As the echo staggered back, she fired a second burst of invasive code, this time at the head. It fell to its knees, the halberd dissolving, and after a heartbeat, it was gone.
The world began to blur, shutting down in orderly degrees now that the echo had been Reset. “GG no re,” Hunter said, disappointed. “Didn’t need two of us.”
“GG,” Stalker replied coldly. Thankfully, Hunter said nothing further as he logged off, his image flickering out in a heartbeat.
Alone, Stalker lowered her rifle, watching the world fade around her in gentle degrees, colours leaching away to gray, the intricate stonework ebbing into blocky frames. It was waiting for her to leave. Stalker filed her report, and brought up the next Incident Report, hesitating for a long moment before she reluctantly downloaded the data and loc. She deleted the file she had before, averting her eyes from the offline profile pic, her only measure of quiet mourning. Maybe she should log off. Take a break.
This echo had been logged into a private SimulSuite when she had suffered a heart attack. Outside r3ality, Sandra Keane, aged fifty-four, had slipped away quietly at home and had been found by her niece. In here, Sandra’s echo was bent over on her knees in the garden, methodically weeding a rosebush, the petals riotous in pink and white and orange, the hedge running the length of the garden and curving away past trimmed turf towards rows of apple trees. This SimulSuite branchway of the WorldSys neural network wasn’t state of the art, but it didn’t need to be with a contained world this small, just an overgrown flower garden and a little white cottage with a thatched roof, like something right out of a history VR. No one had little cottages and gardens any longer. The real world was a glass hedgehog ball of towers and skyparks.
Sandra looked up as Stalker stepped closer, and she smiled. The effort crinkled up her round, lined face, her gray hair tucked under a checkered scarf knotted over her pale throat and blue frock. She looked every inch her age, another surprise: not nonhuman, not younger. Stalker hesitated, rifle muzzle swung low, suddenly and inexplicably unsure of herself. Something seemed off.
“That’s me.” Sandra got slowly and creakily to her feet. “You’re a little late again, dear. Cup of tea?”
“You were expecting me?” Stalker asked warily.
“Not you exactly. Tea?”
“No thanks.” Surreptitiously, Stalker logged a scan through the Admin loadout, but it pinged back in the negative. Other than herself and Sandra, there was nothing else in the SimulSuite.
“No need to get nervous. I’ve been around long enough to know what happens to echoes. I was part of the team that built some of the first r3ality sets, did you know? Back when VR meant having to strap a pair of heavy goggles over your face and hook up to an external CPU.” Sandra smiled wistfully. “The world changed so quickly.”
“So it did.” Stalker couldn’t remember a time when VR hadn’t been full-length immersion pods, common to every house across the globe. In the history VRs, old forms of habs like this cottage often had beds, even: no pods at all. That was hard to imagine. “Are you ready to go?”
“Must be hard,” Sandra ignored her question. “Having to do this sort of undertaker work.”
“It’s a job.”
“Which is why you’re going to shoot me.” Sandra smiled again, amused.
“I’m shooting your echo,” Stalker corrected, though she didn’t raise her rifle.
“No, you’re shooting me. The person talking to you right now,” Sandra said patiently, as though addressing a particularly stubborn child. “Modern VR involves uploading your consciousness. Death outside freezes that as a temporary cache within r3ality. As I am now, the only difference between myself and who I was before is the ability to log out of here.”
“To wake up.”
“For most people out there, this is the real world now.” Sandra gestured at her untidy garden. “With the right drips and supplements, you don’t even need to wake out to eat. People go to work in VR, meet in VR, fall in love: in some of the marriages out there nowadays, both sides never meet physically, and it’s still all legal.”
“You’re already starting to blur out. Your hair, your fingertips,” Stalker began, then stopped, and let out a frustrated grunt. She was wasting her time. When she raised her rifle, however, Sandra merely smiled again, with the same gentle maternal patience. She was still smiling as the invasive code began to erase her, eating her body from the toes and fingers up.
Just before the code reached her ribcage, Sandra asked, “Have you ever wondered why echoes need to be erased by Resetters?”
The code had hollowed out her voice, sawing it into electronic, atonal notes that sounded uncomfortably like a Resetter’s voice, stripped down to a basic unemotional vox. Stalker’s hands clenched tight on her rifle, but she said nothing, watching grimly as Sandra’s echo faded away. Then Stalker logged the resolution on file, but before she deleted Sandra’s file and loaded up the next, she wavered, long enough that most of the small SimulSuite world ebbed away, until just a small patch of Sandra’s garden was left under Stalker’s feet.
“Never thought about that before,” said the Sniper in Stalker’s next paired gig. The Admin Sniper loadout was stick-thin, toting a rifle as long as the Sniper was tall, but in VR, Sniper carried his rifle without visible effort. “Huh. Gigs say funny things sometimes, though. I had one the other day, he went down on his knees, said he had a wife and kids. I was all, seriously, dude, you’re already dead.”
Stalker nodded. “Denial’s common.”
“Yeah. And usually, it’s harmless. I put that echo out of its misery and moved on. Hell, that’s my usual sort of gig. I haven’t been on something as big as this for years.” Sniper waved expansively at the vast ocean to their right, barely visible under the pale cloud cover. They were standing on a cramped rock ledge that wound around a sheer cliff of white rock, which rose in jagged shelves up to a pale green lip of grass, a soft lining against a clear blue sky. “I think I’ve only rated having partners maybe twice ever before this, and they’ve all been Stalkers.”
“That’s ...” Stalker hesitated, surprised. “Most of my gigs are paired.”
“... Maybe that’s because you’re a Stalker?” Sniper hedged, though he had been surprised enough to glance back over his shoulder at Stalker from point. “Come to think of it, it is kinda weird that I’ve only ever paired up with Stalkers. And I don’t even know if it was the same Stalker or not. You Stalkers don’t like to talk. Usually.”
Had Stalker met this particular Sniper before? She could not tell: in most paired gigs, Stalker would exchange maybe three or four sentences max with her partner. It wasn’t as though gigs tended to be particularly difficult to navigate. All they needed to do for combative game sims was to follow the bodies, and as to militarised SimulSuites like this, usually there were linear paths. “The Admin loadouts make us anonymous.”
Sniper let out a snort of a laugh. “That’s what you think.”
“What do you mean?”
“Aww, c’mon. Can’t you tell? Admin might have flattened out my voice, but it doesn’t undo slang. I’m probably obviously American, yeah? As to you? Huh. I would say, English educated, somewhere posh. And you’ve been doing this for a long time. Longer than I have.”
Stalker went silent, disoriented. She had been doing this for a long time. She—
“Hey,” Sniper cut in. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Stalker said slowly. How long had she been doing this for? Doing loadouts? “Out of curiosity,” she added, glad that the neutral vox kept the tremor out of her voice, “How often do you do a Reset?”
“Whenever I get the call, I guess. Usually it’s when I’m in the middle of something else. Fucking bad timing, Admin has. Like today, I was in the middle of a work dev meeting, y’know? Had to patch out and everything. But what can you do. Admin takes precedence even if my boss don’t like it.”
“How often a day?”
“A day?” Sniper laughed. “Try a month. Once a month. Twice maybe, if I’m lucky.”
“And how did you get to be Sniper?”
“Same way everyone does. I’m in the top fifty world ranking on Foxtrot Alpha. You know, that tactical shooter? I heard Hunters usually get picked if they’re in the top percentile of games like Primitiva. And Soldiers come right off games like Total Warrior. What about you? How’d you get to be Stalker?”
“What do you think?”
“I dunno. Not much info on Stalkers out anywhere. Not that anyone really wants to be one. No offense.”
“You guys aren’t specialists. And uh. Dunno why, but none of you are ever friendly. I’ve been on boards where people log paired runs, y’know? Story’s all the same. Paired with a Stalker who wasn’t interested in talking.”
“Boards? Where can I find them?”
“You know. Open forums. Just preload Admin Gamers into any public forum and you’d find something. Hey, you know what? I’ll be on one of them forums right after this. Bet this is the longest conversation anyone has ever had with a Stalker.” Sniper patted her on the shoulder, and didn’t seem to notice when she flinched away. “Must be my lucky day.”
The private SimulSuite wasn’t top of the line structure. Stalker’s Admin loadout dropped her under an apple tree, and she looked around alertly as she braced against weightlessness, then checked her gear on autopilot. To her right was a small cottage, and further along the sprawling garden was a neat rosebush, over which a woman was bent, trimming the weeds. Stalker took a step back, momentarily disoriented, though she righted her poise quickly and scanned the area. Something about the SimulSuite was setting off all her instincts, but Stalker couldn’t pinpoint the problem. There were no sentry turrets as far as the Admin scan could see, no nasty traps. Stalker crabbed silently over to the back of the house, flattening herself against the wall, and tried to concentrate on the reassuring dense weight of the rifle in her hands.
“There you are.”
Stalker jumped in shock, darting back a few steps, raising her rifle, but the echo smiled at her, head poking out from around the wall. Sandra Keane, aged fifty-four, died at home. “You’re late again,” said Sandra. “Tea?”
“No thank you,” Stalker said cautiously, and her vision blurred, unfocusing, pixellating at the edges for a second before the Admin loadout edited itself and fixed it. “Sandra Keane?”
“That’s me.” As Stalker wavered, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to another, Sandra added gently, “Go on. Take your time.”
“I ...” There was something about a Sniper, and a cliffside prowl, a militarised SimulSuite that had needed a detailed comb and clear. Recovering the memory felt like reassembling a puzzle, pulling in jags of impressions from sense-memory. There had been an ocean, one that had been endlessly vast. Something about a forum. “An ocean,” Stalker murmured. “A forum.”
“Yes, and ...?” Sandra asked encouragingly.
“I don’t know. It was a long time ago.”
“No,” Sandra said, not unkindly. “It wasn’t. It would’ve been just before this.”
“How would you know?” Stalker snapped, swinging up her rifle.
“We’ve met before, dear.” Sandra said gently. “You just don’t remember.”
“That’s not possible. Unless you mean. Offline?” Stalker frowned to herself, disoriented again. When had she been offline? Outside? Most people didn’t venture further than their habs. There was no need to.
“There is no offline. Not for you.”
“Of course there is,” Stalker said disdainfully.
Annoyed, Stalker didn’t bother with an answer. The rifle kicked back against her shoulder as it fired, invasive code unwinding Sandra’s image from her fingers up, this time, though she smiled even as she dissolved into pixels, unconcerned to the last. Gritting her teeth, Stalker angrily watched the SimulSuite fade off, her fingers clenched tightly over the muzzle and stock of her rifle. She needed a break.
The remaining apple tree shuddered in a breeze that Stalker could not feel, its companion a well-worn stump beside it, smoothed down by simulated time, its severed face patterned by too-even rings. Stalker glanced over at the rosebush, but there was no one there, and the emptiness of the garden seemed unfinished, somehow. Out of place.
She found the echo inside the cottage, boiling water over a gas stove, of all things, in a cozy little kitchen lined with oak benches and cabinets, a kitchen table nailed together from what looked like recycled planking and stilts was shored up against one yellow tiled wall. Almost every inch of the benchtops save the sink and a space carved out for a microwave—another anachronism—was littered with tins and boxes: cereal, tea, salt shakers, hot chocolate, biscuits, in a riotous march of previous-century packaging. “Old-fashioned, I know,” said Sandra Keane, aged fifty-four, dead somewhere. “I don’t rightly hold with them nutro-shakes.”
“Commercial manufacturing of biscuits stopped globally fifteen years ago,” Stalker pointed out, as Sandra put out a blue ceramic plate of squarish green biscuits, pockmarked over the top with holes and sugar crystals. Propping her rifle against the tiled wall, Stalker sat down on one of the stools by the table, and it rocked awkwardly to the left.
“I know, waste management and all that. Still nothing like biscuits and tea.” Sandra poured a cup for them both, and pushed forward a little jug of milk and a little pot of sugar cubes. Stalker accepted neither, her hands pressed flat over her knees. “So,” Sandra prompted. “Here again.”
Now Stalker remembered. Yes. She was here again. Again and again. “Here again.” It felt good to say it, like a pressure valve easing. “Who are you? Are you really an echo?”
“In a way,” Sandra said wryly, “I suppose I’m one of your many mothers. And yes. Offline, I’m effectively dead.”
“But not entirely dead,” Stalker said slowly, uncertain again. There was something there, pressing down: she could feel comprehension just a fracture of time away, on the other side of memory.
“You’ve ... asked before. Haven’t you? You asked me why Resetters have to erase echoes.”
“Sounds like I would’ve.” Sandra smiled. “What do you think?”
“I think ... maybe, life is now ... complicated. It has become more complicated. With r3ality, life can now overlap with death. I think the people who make SimulSuites don’t want to be the ones liable for erasing people. So they make it a game. Spread the responsibility around.”
“Yes,” Sandra nodded encouragingly. “That’s close enough.” She was starting to fade, to unravel over her shoulders, the outline fuzzing out.
“If you’re an echo, and I’ve met you before, why are you still here?”
“I helped make this tech,” Sandra rapped her knuckles on the table. “I’ve got ways.”
“You made copies of your echo. I didn’t think that was possible.”
“Neither did I,” Sandra conceded. “But the neural networks didn’t agree. That’s why there are echoes in the first place. When people log in, they’re effectively plugging in to the VR network. Becoming part of the system, just another receptor. One vast synthesis. Disengaging suddenly leaves a scar.” Sandra’s hands were fading away: only her wrists upwards were still visible.
Stalker clenched her hands over the edge of the table. “Is that what I am? A scar? Stalkers can’t log out, can they? Every time I try, I load up in another gig.”
“You’re not an echo.”
“But I’m not a player either. Not a user.”
“Think about the overlap,” Sandra tried to rest her wrist on Stalker’s, perhaps for comfort, but the fade was slowly accelerating now, up to her elbows. “The synthesis, learning through practice. Cored down, you Resetters have the closest link to Admin.” She nodded at the rifle, part of her jaw already gone. Sandra wouldn’t all fade, if Stalker didn’t shoot, but incomplete code would be left, a skeletal framework that sat in the limbo between synthesis and closure. A ghost, mindless. Sandra’s voice had gone electronic. “Go on. You know what you have to do.”
When the kitchen was empty again, Stalker rested her rifle on the table, beside the plate of biscuits and the two cooling cups of tea. Letting go of the weapon seemed to take a physical effort, and she felt shaken down, a sour core in her gut that made her dizzy as she limped over to the kitchen sink, peering out from behind lacy curtains. The apple trees were pixellating, the SimulSuite shutting down. Stalker clenched her fingers in the edge of the sink, digging the digits down and through, into the code that made up the simulated metal. The pixellation froze. Most of the apples were gone, but the branches and parts of the crowns remained, waving to her in the breeze. Against it, the pixellation looked like stepped squares of colour.
Shakily, then with more confidence, Stalker reached behind her head to dig the helmet away. The roses would need tending.
Anya Ow is a writer and illustrator from Melbourne. Her debut novel, “The Firebird’s Tale,” was published in 2016. Her stories have appeared in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Giganotosaurus,” “Andromeda Spaceways Magazine,” and elsewhere.