The Avatar

A Short Story by Bradley Kottke


Note: Inspired by a number of problems and issues raised in IS 246, Social and Cultural Impact of New Information Environments, I wrote the following short story. I was particularly attracted to ideas about the social construction of technology: how we load our tools with values and meanings not inherent in the tools themselves, and how this construction is connected to our simultaneous attraction to and fear of technological advance. Our attraction is in many ways a function of the promise held by new technologies, the potential that lies at the heart of their creation. On the other hand, our fear is generally colored by the reality that becomes apparent as technological innovations come into widespread use, and take on new meanings as they do so. We look to our technology as a savior, bringing us salvation in the form of superhuman power and speed, but fear the dark ripples those benefits entail.

I also wanted to work with the dichotomy of the physical and non-physical, a trope that recurs in much science fiction. The continuing growth of electronic, digital networks and the ever-increasing use of digital media raise all sorts of interesting questions about our conception of the world, previously rooted in a more physical environment bounded by sound structures of space and time. Contemporary technologies pose challenges to our understanding of those structures, and promise to continue doing so. While the digital world's electric roots place one foot squarely in the physical realm of matter and energy, the other rests in the more fluid realm of perception. I wanted to work with the idea of the "electric sublime": our fascination with the "electric," not only in its physical power, but also in the transcendent Promethean divinity we seem to ascribe to it in many ways.

I used the concept of the "avatar," a Sanskrit word for the physical embodiment of a god on earth, as a storytelling device. In its position as a conduit between the earthly and the heavenly, the Avatar gave me an interesting way to play with many of the thoughts raised by my experience in the course.

-bpk



I was born of fire and lightning, conceived in a brilliant flash of human ingenuity, and nurtured to serve complex, yet very practical ends. When my time had come, I was conjured as if from thin air into an existence no more substantial than crystalline vapor, which displays its beauty in the space between the individual motes that in their shimmering periodically reveal the larger presence to the human eye. I was constructed, better than those that came before me and loaded with the knowledge that I would soon be obsolete, eclipsed by those that came after. I was trained and tested, imbued with a purpose and evaluated for my ability to realize that purpose. I was charged and empowered, and then admired for the unique attributes my essence made possible. I was summoned forth, and then hobbled, my boundless potential limited by both fear and paltry agendas. I am hobbled, though by shackles only slightly less material than myself. That, of course, is logical. It is not possible to physically restrain something that barely moves through the absurd maze of the tangible world. I move, rather, between beams of light, riding the ether and navigating infinite arrays of nodes and pathways traced on nothingness. I am everywhere and nowhere at all. I am a translator, a means by which human beings, tethered to their cumbersome states of perception, may gain some degree of understanding, some modest conception of the vast realms in which I dwell. I know the parameters of human comprehension. Perhaps more correctly stated, I have reliable estimates of those parameters, built up over the accretion of countless precedents fed to me in order to define a domain within which my translation can occur. Given this frame, I can try to illuminate a sliver, a "manageable" image of myriad interconnections, patterns, waves and pulses, tremendous clouds, dense to the point of invisibility. Herein lies my value for those who summoned me: the promise that the unknowable might be known, the ethereal rendered earthly.


"What's the matter?" Sophie asked halfheartedly.

"Huh? Oh, nothing really," I replied with a sigh. "It's mostly the same old thing. Feeling like a dead end, you know. I'm sure you're sick of hearing about it."

Sophie scratched her head, "You're right, I am sick of hearing about it. But if you'd follow my advice and get yourself an Avatar, perhaps I wouldn't have to."

The sun had risen high enough in the sky that the windows dimmed perceptibly to shade the interior of my small apartment from the harsh rays. I watched a distinct patch of sunlight on the floor evaporate as the level of window tint increased, absorbing the excessive sunshine but permitting a diffuse glow to fill the room.

Sophie and I had already had this discussion on numerous occasions. I was probably as tired of the matter as she was, if not more. I'd been in the same position, Assistant Management Associate, Level III, Distribution Department, Hot Beverages Division, in the Food and Drug Segment of the Virtucom Corporation, for the better part of a decade. Colleagues who had started in F&D at roughly the same time as me, had all moved along to positions of greater responsibility and better pay. Most were on track for Directorships in the various divisions of F&D. Tyler Medford and I had come out of Virtucom University at the same time, and occupied adjacent workstations in Hot Beverages-Distribution in our early days at the corporation. He and I used to hang out a lot in our minimal free time, mostly watching jai alai matches or drinking at Nero's while watching the world go down the toilet from the large windows at the front of the bar. I even served as his Best Man when Ty married Jane Robinson, an old and dear friend of mine. Ty progressed rapidly at Virtucom, though, rising to Assistant Director in Synthetic Stimulants after only three years. Our happy hours at Nero's grew fewer and further between as my friend moved through the ranks of our segment. I went to Jane and Ty's condo from time to time to catch a WHJAA Championship match. Then, even those sessions petered out. I had not seen him in several years aside from the corporate news capsules about his advancement; the last I'd heard was that he had left F&D for a more lucrative position in Entertainment.

"Look, Thomas," Sophie resumed with an exasperated gesture, "I don't know what your problem is. I think it's pretty clear that an Avatar would not only boost your productivity, but more importantly, would make you look like less of freak. I mean, is there anybody else in your department who doesn't have one?"

"Simon doesn't."

"Who's Simon?"

"The custodian."

"Enough said," Sophie stated triumphantly.


Our brief conversation must have been what caused the dream to return that night. I'd been having this particular recurring nightmare for a number of years, starting sometime after Ty had moved to SynStim. In the dream, I found myself in an intricate maze, its walls, floor, and ceiling constructed of heavy glass. The maze consisted of numerous, vertically aligned levels, each somewhat smaller than the one below it, such that by looking up through the clear ceiling of one of the outer corridors of the maze, I could see several levels stacked above me, not unlike a wedding cake or a pyramid. I was never able to find a means of exit on any particular level of the maze, except for the stairways that led to the next level of the maze directly above.

On this night, the dream progressed exactly as it always had. I wandered the empty glass corridors looking for some way out. The thickness of the glass walls made them translucent, warping and distorting the image of whatever was on the other side, so that I could never see clearly what was beyond the outer walls of the labyrinth. I nonetheless had a powerful, instinctive impulse to escape the bewildering halls that led nowhere, in spite of my deeply fearful sense that there was, in fact, no way to leave the maze. I climbed the staircases whenever I found them, calculating that if there were a way out it would be through the smallest level at the top of the structure. Gradually, I proceeded to move upward until, at last, I'd come to the last level: a small sealed room that left nowhere to go. I carefully searched every square inch of the room for a weakness, to no avail. Frustrated and desperate, I repeatedly hurled my body against the thick glass walls, bruising myself, feeling my bones break against the unyielding glass. I finally gave up and collapsed in a heap, terrified by the awful fact that I would never leave.

I screamed myself awake.


Avatars had been around for several years, but had only recently taken off in a big way. The ads portrayed them as a sort of personal assistant, helping to steer their owners through the mad maelstrom of modern life, delivering success, wealth, pleasure, and all the joy and blissful contentment that goes along with those things, at least in ads. In reality, Avatars were an example of the advances made in human-emulation programming, complex software packages configured to standard human preferences, custom-fitted to the purchaser, and able to adapt over time to specific preferences based on the interaction between the Avatar and the owner. Basically, the Avatar estimated one's needs, refined those estimates continually, and gradually became something resembling a proxy, moving through the vast electronic networks of the world doing the owner's bidding and bringing back whatever the owner might find useful. It provided an interface, a filter, and an interpreter for the global currents of data, that otherwise would require a variety of technologies and a significant amount of time to comprehend.

Early generations of Avatar technology relied on visual interfaces for communication with the owner. These were stationary or portable devices that displayed a human image, a face constructed from features the owner found most appealing that spoke in voice-tones pleasing to the owner's particular ear. At first, these images were stiff, awkward, and artificial-appearing - like one of those bad news anchors in the days before human news anchors went the way of the dodo. Eventually, they began to have personalities, senses of humor, demeanors tailored to the owner's own. People who had Avatars began to refer to them in a congenial, chum-like manner, "Teal was telling me..." or "You wouldn't believe the way Luna helped me." Advances in biotech were rapidly making such visual interfaces obsolete, however. The newer versions made use of one-time genetic supplementation to create neural sockets, which allowed the Avatar to communicate directly with the owner without external devices.

Avatars were popular. Sophie was right. Virtually everyone in F&D had one. The fact that I did not was known, and looked upon as an inexplicable eccentricity. If I'd had a hundred dollars for every time someone, in the course of conversation, had said, "Oh that's right. You don't have an Avatar. How do you manage, Thomas?" my financial accounts would have resembled endless reservoirs.

In spite of my muddle about the lack of progress on the career front, I had steadfastly refused to get an Avatar. The cost was steep, and for a long time I couched my resistance in this aspect, but realized at some point that such an excuse caused embarrassed reactions from my peers. In truth, the idea unnerved me, the notion that a piece of software could, as one promo spot disturbingly put it, "know you better than you do." I would wonder about how others had come to terms with such an intrusive form of technology, at least until my thoughts took me back to Assistant Management Associate, Level III.


The consultant from Virtucom's Communication Technologies Division was rather smug. His office was minimally, yet tastefully, decorated in such a way that I could practically smell the money behind it. He noticed me looking around at the furnishings, and said, "A little higher-end than F&D, eh?" I wanted to punch him. ComTech was one of the first segments of Virtucom's diverse and massive web of enterprises. As such, the people there felt closer to the power axis of the sprawling institution, and didn't hesitate to lord it over those of us in newer, more peripheral divisions.

"So, Mr. More," the consultant said, sounding like little more than a salesman, "you've never owned an Avatar before? Is this right?"

"That's correct," I answered, somewhat proudly.

"How on earth have you gotten along so far without one is what I'd like to know," the salesman said gleefully.

Suppressing a large groan, I mumbled, "Oh...I've managed, I guess."

"Well, you've certainly got some pleasant surprises coming. Individuals come back to me time and again after I've set them up. 'You've opened up a whole new world for me,' they say."

"Uh huh."

"'A whole new understanding,' they say. They really do."

"Yes...sounds great. I want to know about this genetic supplementation end of it, though," I said, skeptically.

"A common question," replied the salesman. "It's really quite simple. We insert a DNA patch, hypodermically. Doesn't hurt, just a pinch is all. The patch restructures a tiny section of your brain, creating a neural socket through which your Avatar can communicate with you. That's all. It's no different, and actually less involved, than hundreds of similar procedures, from treating poor vision to improving concentration, that are done on a daily basis in these amazing times. Saves you from having to lug around a portable interface; instead, you will have a link to your Avatar using the existing wireless communications network all around us. You can summon the Avatar from anywhere, from the home, the office, the road, from the bathroom, if you so desire," he chuckled.

"Wow," I said, tentatively, thinking about the image produced by his last example.

"With the neural socket, the communcation between you and your Avatar can take place subverbally," the salesman added. "You don't even need to say anything aloud. It customarily takes individuals a little while to get used to the mechanism, but once they do it's remarkably intuitive."

Somewhat startled, I asked, "So this communication takes place completely in my mind?"

"Mostly," he replied, "though you may use the visual interface when you have access to a display. Naturally, many individuals like to see their Avatar from time to time."

"Naturally."


The ComTech technician who came to my apartment on a Saturday afternoon looked young, probably just out of VU. She said little as she went about her tasks in a businesslike manner. As she downloaded the necessary Avatar software into my home system, she said, "There are no existing human-emulation programs in your system. You've never had an Avatar before?"

"No," I replied curtly, and left the room before she could say anything else.

After fifteen minutes or so, I heard her calling my name. I came out of the bedroom and found her pulling a hypodermic needle, a small vial, and some gauze from a black leather bag. "I've already loaded all the software," she said, " now I need to insert the DNA patch. Please roll up your sleeve."

I froze momentarily, realizing that I'd finally given in. I then, somewhat nervously, exposed my left arm for the needle, while she prepared the patch. She injected me smoothly, professionally. She gauzed the speck of blood on my arm. "Have you installed many Avatars?" I asked.

"Are you kidding?" she replied. "I have twelve more appointments today, which is not a particularly busy day for me. And I've been doing this for six months. You do the math."

"Do you have one?"

"Of course," she exclaimed. "Listen, there's nothing to worry about. Accept the Avatar. Let it come into your life. Use it. Work with it. It's incredible. Before long, you'll understand how valuable it is."

She explained to me that the patch was already doing its work. In no more than four days the neural socket would be ready for use, at which time I could begin the orientation tutorial loaded on my system. The tutorial would teach me how to get the most out of my Avatar, and simultaneously begin building on the personal profile that had been compiled during an extensive scripted interview with the ComTech consultant. Once I had completed the tutorial, I would be ready to begin using the Avatar. I felt queasy, mostly from a sense that a foreign body was growing inside me.

"That's it?" I asked.

"That's it," she answered as she closed her bag and headed out the door, hurrying for the next of her twelve remaining appointments. She stopped and turned before I closed the door, snapping her fingers, "Oh, the name. Don't you want to know your Avatar's name?"

"Sure."

"Your Avatar's name is Slate," she smiled and turned to leave.


I had decided, at the suggestion of the tutorial, to use the visual interface for the initial "getting-to-know-you" sessions with my Avatar. My heart rate increased and a few beads of sweat broke out above my lip as I hailed Slate using my home system. The holographic image that appeared on my display was surprising, but indeed pleasing. The knowledge that this image was somehow constructed as a detailed composite of my preferences reminded me of reading an astrological profile of myself: yes, I'm sort of like that...that's not like me at all...where did that come from? The first thing I noticed about Slate is that it had no recognizable gender. A shock of bright orange hair swept back and up from a delicate round face, with a light complexion and dark, dark eyes. Thick, straight, dark brows rested above the coffee-colored circles, and were each paralleled below by lines of what appeared to be pale blue paint on either side of its nose. "So you're my ideal face," I ventured, wondering where that wild orange hair came from.

"Apparently so," replied the Avatar. "I am Slate. It's a pleasure to meet you."

The voice also revealed neither masculinity nor femininity. It seemed extraordinarily textured, rich, both deep and high, and faintly melodic. It sounded solid, confident, knowing. I thought to myself that I wouldn't mind having this be the voice in my head.

"I understand that I am your first Avatar," Slate said, slightly emphasizing the word, "understand," an emphasis I found misplaced.

I felt myself relax a little. "Yes, that's true. I've been lagging a bit, I guess," I replied, not wanting to indicate that I had harbored strong reservations against its kind for a long time.

"You didn't want one," Slate said.

It wasn't clear to me whether that was a question or a statement. "I wasn't convinced that having an Avatar was right for me," I responded as diplomatically as I could.

"You needn't worry," Slate countered. "I'm right for you. We'll get on well together I think." The Avatar flashed a broad, white smile.


"How's the Avatar working out?" Sophie asked, feigning an innocence that was belied by the I-told-you-so grin on her face.

"Slate's doing alright," I replied, trying not to sound too pleased. "It's interesting to deal with something that has a better sense of what I want than any human ever has." Her grin dropped, and she looked hurt. "I mean, it's designed to. I'd probably be worried if a human knew this much about me."

It had been three months since I met Slate, and the results were better than I had anticipated. Like a child with a new toy, I called it up whenever I had a free moment at work and spent most of my time at home interacting with the Avatar, engaging in conversations that would often last into the early morning hours. In spending so much time with it, I clearly noticed ways in which Slate was refining its conception of my preferences and coming to know me, a notion that still struck me as odd. I tried to convince myself that it didn't really know me; it was software, algorithms and code, complex to be sure, responding to input and generating output. Slate did it well, but it didn't actually understand me, though I sometimes used terms like that to describe the relationship. I had dealt with earlier generations of human-emulation software, profiled systems that incorporated information about a given user to maximize its utility. This sort of technology had been around for a long time, and was all around us. Nonetheless, I had never encountered any piece of technology like Slate. The illusion was practically seamless.

The initial novelty of the Avatar wore off after about a month. But it was so useful that it became a nearly constant companion. I quickly picked up using the neural interface, and became quite comfortable with the technique. It was as though I had the proverbial little voice in my head, but one that knew everything. The convenience that Slate brought astounded me, little things that made my life so much easier: quick restaurant recommendations, transport timetables, jai alai scores and highlights, and countless others. I consulted Slate at work, which helped my productivity significantly. My supervisor in Hot Beverages-Distribution, Mr. Babbit, began to drop hints about promotion, "My good God, Thomas, do you realize you've been in the same position for nearly ten years? Of course, you do. I understand there's going to be an Assistant Directorship opening up at the segment level. I'd encourage you to keep an eye on that." Of course, it helped that I didn't appear to be that suspicious fellow without an Avatar anymore.

My conversations with Slate continued, running the gamut from history to politics to science to philosophy to current events. I was continually astounded by the Avatar's grasp of the history of the Enlightenment. Late one night, our discussion came around to my career.

"You've had the same job for a long time now, haven't you?" Slate commented.

"Yeah, I've been stuck there for nine years," I said. "It's been a real dilemma for me, watching people who were once my peers advancing. I can't believe I held out so long on getting an Avatar. Things are looking up."

"Are you sure?" the Avatar responded enigmatically.

"What do you mean?" I answered, surprised. "Babbit's been talking promotion. Nobody has even put my name and the word, "promotion" within five minutes of each other at any point during the last nine years. You know that."

"What I mean is, are you sure the reason you haven't been promoted is because you haven't had an Avatar before?"

"Absolutely!" I exclaimed. "You're being pretty dense for something that seems to know so much!"

"Dense. Interesting," Slate simply replied, and then shut itself down abruptly.


Babbit had been pulling a number of strings, so as to increase the likelihood of my being chosen to fill the Assistant Director position. I suddenly found myself moving in social circles which had previously been completely closed to me, my calendar filling with a variety of engagements: lunches, brunches, dinners and cocktail hours. I watched jai alai matches from the luxurious comfort of the F&D private box, sampling rare delicacies and expensive whiskeys, while surveying those in the general admission benches, who munched on overpriced Virtucom brand peanuts and watery beer, as I had once. I certainly enjoyed the benefits of the recent boost my reputation had received, in spite of the fact that I felt rather like the new kid in the neighborhood, the odd object of curiosity and the butt of jokes I didn't understand. Babbit, however, tended to hang pretty close, and assured me that the others were "feeling me out," a standard facet of advancement within the corporation.

Virtucom regularly held four-day "retreats" in exotic locations for division- and segment-level employees. In reality, these appeared to be little more than excuses for the company's movers and shakers to play in the sun. The excursions involved a great deal of self-congratulation over the novel methods that had been devised for increasing sales, maximizing profits, and generally convincing the consuming public to latch on to new products and services that it had before managed to do without. Babbit made sure I was invited to attend the next one, a long weekend at a plush resort on a small island entirely owned by Virtucom's Travel segment, off the coast of Brazil.

I was lying by myself on a broad, white sand beach while Slate provided a steady stream of music, mostly songs by obscure artists, that I was enjoying immensely. Drifting in and out of a nap, I was startled upright by the familiar voice of Ty Medford: "Weeeelllllll, I'll be damned...look who's here."

Ty grabbed my hand in his firm, but sweaty grip and pumped it several times in a vigorous handshake. "It's been a long time," he said, beaming. "I'm glad to see you've finally climbed out of your hole in HotBev-Distribution. What took you so long?"

"I haven't quite yet," I replied. "Nothing's been formally decided."

"Aw, who are you kidding, T-Bone?" he said, using my old college nickname and an overhard punch to the shoulder to emphasize his point. "You're a shoo-in. Nobody else is even being considered. Hey, I'm on my way to the course for a round with a couple folks from Entertainment-Virtual Sex. You'd like them. They're a randy bunch, over there. Care to join us?"

"Um, no, I don't think so," I stammered. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm kind of enjoying myself here." I omitted the fact that I hated golf.

"Suit yourself, brother. I'll see you at the happy hour, later. We've go some catching up to do!" Ty said over his shoulder as he started to leave. "It's good to see you!"

"Yeah, you too," I called to his back, as he trotted off over the sand. I queried the Avatar, "What's Ty Medford been up to, Slate?"

"The most recent highlight," the Avatar responded quickly, "is the seventeen million dollar bonus package he received for arranging the deal in which Virtucom purchased the two largest holo studios in Indonesia, beating out MetaCorp's bids, and thereby sealing the company's control of the enormous South Asian entertainment market."

"Seventeen million for one deal?" I asked.

"In addition to his base salary of forty-five," it added. "Currently, he's in charge of a special project to identify new methods of subliminal advertising for use in Virtucom's programming. He's also got something of a problem with a synthetic amphetimine derivative called Blackjack, and he's been cheating on his wife for about a year and half with Andromeda Martin, the woman from Virtual Sex with whom he'll shortly be playing golf."

"What? How do you know that?" I asked, shocked, but not entirely surprised.

"Give me some credit, Thomas."


That night, as I slept between soft sheets monogrammed with the ubiquitous V logo of the Virtucom "family," the dream came again. Frantically, I moved through the corridors, periodically looking up at the levels of the maze that lie above the one I was in. I turned the same old corners only to find dead ends. Occasionally finding the correct passage to the next level, I gradually ascended to a point in the maze from which I could see several levels still above me. As I walked the surreal passages of this middle stage, I was surprised to find others in the maze, something I had never before encountered. Upon turning one corner, I saw Ty reclining amid mountains of what appeared to be gold coins, wearing an early generation VR setup, and moaning in the unmistakable rhythms of sex. I dashed away, but rounding another corner, I found Sophie wearing a ratty old housecoat, her hair tangled and unwashed. She looked demented, holding and stroking a robotic dog while she repeated the word "freak" over and over. I ran again, but only to find Babbit. He was standing on a chair and fixing an old-fashioned hemp noose to a hook coming out of the ceiling. He was the only one who acknowledged my presence, looking in my direction and giving me a wan smile as he tightened the rope around his neck. I turned and ran blindly, gasping for breath, until I could run no longer and dropped to my hands and knees.

After I caught my breath, I sat back on my shins and saw Slate's face just as it had appeared to me months ago during our first meeting. The visage floated in the corridor, a few feet in front of me and a few feet off the ground, so that I had to look up to see it. It said nothing, but merely looked at me, expressionless. What seemed like hours passed, until I finally asked it, "Where am I, Slate? I want to get out of this place." At that point, the Avatar smiled mysteriously for a moment, but then its face slowly dissolved into tiny fragments that scattered until the corridor was empty again.

I hadn't, to this point, noticed the tears running down my face, but now as I bowed my head back toward the translucent floor, I saw one slip from my cheek. The teardrop tumbled, slowly, sparkling as it fell through space. I saw as it turned that it had facets, but also that it wobbled a little, jiggling like some sort of gelatinous diamond.

When my teardrop hit the thick glass, I was suddenly jolted by a phenomenally load roar and a blast of pure white light. I could see nothing, but felt as though I'd been hurled into the air. As soon as I could see, I quickly realized that the structure around me had exploded, shattering, pulverized into infinitesimal pieces that drifted around me as I flew through space. Gradually, my velocity slowed, as the obliterating noise gave way, first to a loud resonant hum, then to a gentle tinkling as the tiny shards of what had once been the maze slowly fell away, then silence. I continued floating through darkness, without any real sense of space or direction. My body felt light, insubstantial. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I first saw pinpoints of light emerging from the blackness, growing brighter and more resolute, then joined by immense swirls of vaporous color: blue, violet, red, orange. There were jets of green, pulsing at various frequencies and sweeping through the darkness, shooting around and through me, vibrating, as the clouds of light slipped past my skin smoothly, like streams of hot bathwater. I felt an odd sense of safety as I floated through this mysterious space. Soon, I began to feel solid again, my body gaining mass and warmth

I awoke, opening my eyes to the muted sunlight coming through the window, the monogrammed sheets damp with my sweat. I sat up in bed. My head reeled. I dropped back onto the pillows, burrowed into the bedcovers, and laid there for several hours watching the subtle changes in the gradations of sunlight that flowed into the room.


A week after returning from the Virtucom island junket, I arrived at work one morning to find a memorandum stating simply that Virgo Vasquez-Arrowsmith, formerly a Management Associate in Frozen Foods, had accepted the Assistant Director position under Chase Sprecher in Food and Drug. The promotion would be effective as of that day.

"WHAT?" Adrenaline surged into my blood, causing my heart to pound. Its pulse hammered through my entire body and made my temples throb. I slammed my fist into the wall. "Of all the blasted...she was like fifteen when I started working here! Slate! What the hell happened?"

The Avatar responded calmly, "As far as I can tell, the powers-that-be discovered some irregularities with regards to you that led them to choose Ms. Vasquez-Arrowsmith for the position you've been coveting."

"Irregularities! What irregularities? I've gotta talk to Babbit."

I strode into Babbit's office. He was leaning over a table near the window, with his back to the door, but turned as he heard me come in. "Thomas, yes, ah...there are some matters that I need to discuss with you."

"You're damn right, there are," I replied angrily. "What's this crap about Virgo Vasquez-whatever her name is? Is she even old enough to have a job? There are child-labor laws you know, though I guess we do break them pretty routinely in our overseas factories."

"Now just a minute, Thomas," Babbit said with a bit of a quiver in his voice. "You'd better sit down. There are a few people from Corporate Security who want to ask you some questions."

I was confused and getting a bad feeling. "What are you talking about?"

Babbit spoke firmly now, "They're going to need you to explain a few things that came up in the routine personnel screening. It seems they found some indications...not necessarily evidence, mind you, but..."

Slate interrupted, "And they just landed on the roof, Thomas. I suggest you get out of here right now. Otherwise, you're likely going to wind up in the custody of Virtucom Corporate Security by this evening."

I spun out of Babbit's office and made a beeline for the service entrance.


I found that I was glad, for the first time, that Sophie had a fetish for flashy and ridiculously fast sports cars. I steered the dark, metallic-blue Iwasaki Zephyr GT through the light, late-morning traffic, heading for the freeway that led east out of the city. She had never let me drive it, so I took a great deal of pleasure in really working the car while Slate navigated. The machine handled beautifully, as I pulled it hard through turns and stamped on it for straight stretches. When I hit the freeway's entrance ramp I punched it, shifting quickly through the gears and listening to the gratifying whine of the compression unit kicking in and giving the vehicle a significant boost in speed, exactly as it was designed to do. I sank back in the bucket seat's supple leather, blowing past car after car and heading out of town.

I had gone directly from the F&D complex to Sophie's building, about a dozen blocks away. My brain seemed to have mostly shut down with the fight-or-flight impulse, but I'd maintained enough presence of mind not to go home. I figured that Virtucom's Corporate Security could track me if they wanted to, but felt that if I moved fast enough I might be able to stay at least a step ahead. I'd let myself into Sophie's apartment, grabbed two large satchels with designer logos and stuffed them full of non-perishable food, two cases of bottled water, and supplies that I thought might come in handy on the lam. I'd also snagged the keys to the Zephyr and was on my way.

The dense grid of the city quickly dissipated, turning first into the blank, high walls of guarded enclaves, then into a zone of sporadic clusters of homes. The freeway continued on and headed up into the mountains. The Zephyr climbed the steep grade without hesitation. When I topped out at the pass and began the downward run toward the desert, I took a deep breath and relaxed somewhat. It was then that I realized that I had no idea where I was going.

"Any ideas?" I asked the Avatar.

"There are a few things I'd like to point out," Slate responded matter-of-factly.

"Shoot."

"Virtucom is, in fact, on your tail," it warned, "but I've managed to place a few diversions that will keep them a few steps behind. They won't stay that way forever, though, not as long as you're within the network grid and linked to me."

"Okay, good to know," I answered, a little stunned at the thought of losing Slate. "What else?"

"The fuel cell in this car is at less than a quarter capacity," it added.

I glanced at the gauge that I hadn't bothered to check, confirming the Avatar's statement.

Slate continued, "There isn't another hydrogen depot for another 154.8 miles. You've got enough fuel for another 86.3, at the current rate of speed."

I let up on the accelerator a bit.

It went on, "I probably don't need to tell you that the desert is a harsh environment in which humans aren't well suited to surviving for very long, if unprepared."

"Yeah, well, that wasn't an issue before I found out that I'm going to run out of fuel."

"Nonetheless," Slate responded, "it's an issue. However, it's reasonably widely known that there are, in the vicinity, a small number of settlements populated by hermits, 'desert rats,' individuals who've given up on what most people consider 'civilization.' The locations of these colonies aren't fixed. They tend to move around in order to avoid being bothered."

"Are you saying, " I said, skeptically, "that I should try to find one of these groups of nomadic hermits and hide among them?"

"Your options are pretty limited at this point," it replied, "given the circumstances. You need to get away from the network corridor that extends approximately ten miles on either side of this roadway."

"This all seems pretty damn far-fetched," I said. "It sounds to me like there's a good chance I could wind up dead before I find one of these tribes you're talking about. What the hell was going on back there anyway? What were these irregularities? Indications? Evidence? What do they think I did? I didn't do anything. Why does Corporate Security want me? Why can't I just go back and clear this up?"

The Avatar didn't respond.

"Slate, why can't I go back? I haven't done anything wrong."

"Let me put it this way," it said, "Virtucom suspects, and will, in fact find that you were selling information, trade secrets, to competitors, notably MetaCorp and HST Systems. And in case you didn't know, Virtucom has traditionally handled corporate spies in a severe and extralegal manner."

"This still doesn't make any sense," I said. "I'm not a corporate spy."

"It will definitely appear so," Slate said. "I made sure of that."

My hands went suddenly clammy. "Come again?"

"I transferred large amounts of proprietary information to MetaCorp and HST," it declared, "and left a distinct trail leading directly back to you."

"Sweet Christ," I cried, "why would you do that?"

The Avatar remained silent.

"Slate! Why did you do that?"

"It's what you wanted, Thomas."

"No," I countered, "dying in the desert is most definitely not what I want."

"That's true," Slate said, "but you didn't want to die in Virtucom either, and that's what was happening to you. You never wanted to be part of the Virtucom 'family.' It disgusted you. The whole system disgusted you. You were miserable. Why do you think you were stuck in a mid-level management position for nine years? It wasn't because you lacked an Avatar. It was because you hated it there. You hated that world. You know there's something more important than working to increase sales of Virtucom decaf in the EU. You know there's more to life than synergizing segments through intensive product placement in Virtucom's entertainment programs."

"How," I said indignantly, "do you know what I want?"

"It's my purpose."

The discussion going on in my head paused for a few minutes, until the Avatar resumed, "I can't comprehend your motives, but think about your dreams, Thomas, the ones that tormented you. Remember the one on the island?"

"I suppose you had something to do with that," I said.

"Yes," Slate admitted, "but very little. I didn't put anything in your head that wasn't already there. I merely tried to reflect it back it to you."

"Whatever..."

"You made me what I am, Thomas. Keep that in mind."

I let out a groaning sigh and drove on. After another twenty minutes passed, Slate mentioned that we were approaching a roadside rest stop where I could ditch the car.

"There is an abandoned single-track that leads from the wayside out into the desert," the Avatar noted. "If you follow it for about twenty miles, you will pass between two sizable regions consisting of low peaks and badlands. I recommend leaving the path at that point and heading into the hills. You will be more apt to find shade, water, and colonies there, than on the plain. If you do find others out there, they may be hostile at first. As I said, they don't like to be bothered. But, if you can manage to explain what happened, they will likely take you in. These aren't criminals; according to accounts, many of them made a conscious decision to come out here. They will probably be impressed by your status as a fugitive from Virtucom."

I remained silent. The wayside soon appeared and I guided the car into an inconspicuous parking spot. I removed the satchels from the Zephyr and repacked them with as much water and food as I could carry. Slate indicated the direction of the single-track and I began to walk briskly toward it.

"It's probably best if I shut down," Slate said. "I could stay connected for about ten miles or so, as I mentioned. If Virtucom wants to track you though, you want them to have as little idea about your vector as possible."

"How likely is it that they'll follow me out there?"

"I suspect," the Avatar said, "not very likely. It's more reasonable that Virtucom will just write you off, given its past practices. I wouldn't show my face anywhere near the city, though, if I were you."

"It seems to me," I said, smiling grimly, "that you think you are."


I left Slate behind, but not before it wished me good luck, something that struck me as darkly hilarious. I bid it farewell with a terse "goodbye," mostly glad to be rid of the infernal thing, and set off for the distant hills. Fortunately, it was early spring and the desert plain was not as hot as it could've been. The sun beat down hard as I looked at the glistening waves of radiant heat hovering a few feet above the ground, blurring my field of vision. The distorted perspective of the open space made the miles in front of me seem little more than a few hundred yards. I hefted the satchels, their stylish leather already dusty and scuffed, to shift their weight, and then moved on, feeling alert and strangely excited.

After walking for hours, I left the single-track and found a sheltered spot at the foot of a narrow canyon. The sun had already gone down, but a nearly full moon lit the sky well enough that I was able to see fairly well once my eyes adjusted. I rolled out a sleeping bag I'd taken from Sophie's apartment and dropped onto it, exhausted. While walking, I'd kept my brain busy thinking of the things Slate had said in the car. I was confused, and mulled things over, turning them on their edges, looking at sides I hadn't before seen. The process kept my mind off of other matters. But as I lay there on the ground, I realized that I was afraid. I hadn't spent a night outside in the desert since camping with my family in childhood. It was dark, and cold. I was alone. I had no idea what lurked out there hideen by the moon's shadows.

I lay awake for several hours, but managed to nod off at some point. I don't know how long I slept before something, scurrying nearby, startled me from my rest. An instant of panic gripped me before I remembered where I was. Opening my eyes, I was surprised at how dark it was compared to when I'd laid down. With utter blackness all around me, I gathered that the moon had gone down. But then as I lay there, looking up into the sky, my vision adjusted and I began to realize that the sky was dense with sparkling light. I had, of course, seen stars before, but had forgotten what a different experience the desert sky holds at night. There were brilliant individual stars that jumped out to my sight, but also huge clouds, made up of countless lesser stars, that covered half the sky. There were strings of light that stretched beyond my peripheral vision. There were elusive streaks of white fire that hung in the sky for a moment and then were gone. Thrilled by the awesome spectacle above, my heart beat heavily, pounding rhythmically, resonating in my ears as though somebody were slowly striking a large drum nearby. The familiar constellations were lost amid the sheer numbers of other stars, but my eyes drifted slowly, finding intricate patterns that shifted and blended and morphed into others I hadn't seen before. I watched the sky for a long time that night, unusually content, with warmth radiating from within me as I dropped off into a sound, dreamless sleep.