Big Pulp - the magazine of fantasy | mystery | adventure | horror | science fiction | romance


Science, Speculation, Space Opera

James R. Stratton is a chameleon: by day, a mild-mannered government lawyer specializing in child abuse prosecutions, living with his wife and children in Delaware. But in recent years he’s been forging a dark alter ego of genre fiction author through publication in venues like Dragons, Knights & Angels Magazine, Ennea and Nth Degree Magazine. The appearance of his first foray into poetry in The Broadkill Review is but another step in his master plan. Soon he will step into the light as his stories appear in 2010 & 2011 in Tower of Light Online Magazine, Big Pulp, and Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel, an upcoming anthology of Oriental fantasy. His final reveal, the novel Loki’s Gambit, is under review for possible publication in 2011, when he will finally step into the brilliant light of day, triumphant.


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Virtual Deceit

Joan and Sammy marched along the rolling surface of a glowing path floating on the crystal blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. She was cloaked in the avatar of the Brynhildr the Valkyrie for today’s contest. The path led into lush jungle on the distant shore. She tapped the head of her mighty war hammer, Mjolnir the Crusher, hanging from her belt as she gazed across the glistening waters. The original software package for Brynhildr included the bright spear of the Valkyrie, but Joan paid extra to upgrade to Thor’s magical warhammer.

Joan grinned. Their opponents certainly had created an exotic locale for the contest.

Sammy, cloak in his avatar of Loki, took her hand. “Is Odin’s handmaiden ready for battle?” He kissed her on that special spot on her palm. For an instant she felt it, the perfect interface, simultaneous contact between Loki’s lips and Brynhildr’s palm, Sammy’ lips and her palm. For a moment it was all one, real and virtual, a bright flash that rolled through her. Joan shivered and smiled.

“Of course, love. Odin’s handmaiden is always ready for battle.” When he kissed her again, she laughed and pulled away. “We need to focus on the contest now, dear. Playtime is later.” Joan stroked his cheek and turned back to the glistening sea.

Static hissed from the sky, washing away the crystal sea and lush jungle, leaving Joan standing at the west entrance of the George Washington Carver Memorial Park near her home. Plastic beer sacks and McDonald’s wrappers littered the ground as the mag-lev autos on West 19th street whooshed by. A gaggle of daycare kids, giggling as they stared, trooped by behind their frowning daycare lady.

“What the heck!” Joan stared at Sammy, standing flat-footed with his mouth hanging open. Static showered down again and the virtual world reappeared so Joan stumbled as the glowing path surged under her feet.

“Hey,” Sammy shouted as he fell. “Joan sweetie, what are you doing?”

“I wasn’t doing anything!” She scanned the shifting sea for changes. “We’re probably picking up interference from some idiot with a hopped up wireless card on his laptop.” When Loki just stared, Joan continued. “Some people like to hack into the corporate networks in city center. It’s free Internet. A hacker figured out how to boost the wifi card’s range with a signal amplifier. It gets them too far away from the office buildings for corporate security to spot, but plays havoc with every other wireless system nearby.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Sammy said. “Can we get on with it?”

Joan blinked down her heads-up display and keyed the glowing links for their opponents. Freakin’ newbies! The stats showed the leader had five tournaments to his credit, but the other one was a new player. Joan flashed a hello to the other team and two beings appeared down the glowing path in a jungle clearing as Joan and Sammy swept forward. The soft evening light left the clearing in shadows as birds and insects filled the air with their calls. Joan began to sweat in the moist heat while she surveyed their opponents.

Not bad. They faced the Hindu gods Shiva and Kali across the clearing. Shiva was a fairly typical avatar, blue skinned with eyelids darkened with kohl, naked except for a skirt of bright cloth around his loins. But Kali was a masterpiece, blue-skinned like Shiva, but with six arms. Each hand held a blade, and the arms were in continual motion, shifting from fighting stance to fighting stance.

Joan grinned. Cool! She must have an AI subroutine just for the arms, cross-linked to the programming for the rest of the avatar. Of course, all but two of the arms are virtual, but which are real? If I were writing the programming, I’d have real and virtual shift randomly.

But then Joan noticed discrepancies. Kali was prominently female, broad hipped and heavy breasted, but she was wearing a bikini top. Jesus! Somebody’s feeling shy. And the swords! Kali’s six blades were from different eras and cultures. There was a Turkish scimitar, a crusader’s long sword, a Japanese katana and a sailor’s cutlass. The last two hands, on opposite sides, held American Bowie knives.

“Freakin’ newbies!” she muttered. The blades were something she bought right off the shelf, without bothering to research the character. Sure, they’re edged weapons the software permitted. But they got nothing to do with her avatar. I bet she’d be have plasma lasers if the game rules allowed it. Why bother competing if you’re not going to pay attention to your avatar?

“Yo, varlets!” Shiva shouted. “How dare you challenge the gods themselves to battle. We will eat your livers, raw and smoking, cut from your still-living guts.”

Joan shook her head. “Hey, Skippy, varlets? This is the Far East, not King Arthur’s Britain.”

When Shiva shuffled and looked over to Kali, Joan charged swinging Mjolnir the Crusher from overhead. The blue-skinned god jerked his shield up so the hammer clanged against it, but the red flare of damage imparted by the strike shot through the shield and into Shiva’s arm. Joan laughed as the shield disappeared, destroyed by the hammer blow, and the arm turned black and swung limp, paralyzed by the point damage Mjolnir delivered. She swung again, cracking the top of Shiva’s helm. Red damage flared through the helm and into Shiva’s head, so that his eyes and ears turned black. The Hindu god shouted and swiped blindly with his sword. Joan circled around behind him and tapped him on the back of the head. Red damage flared and Shiva dropped, fading into a black man-shaped smudge on the ground.

Sammy was scored with glowing flares of damage from Kali’s multiple blades when Joan glanced over, but Kali had twice as many. Chanting his battle cry, Sammy grasped the bottom of his spear with his left hand and held the shaft loosely with his right. Pumping with his left hand, he jabbed the spearhead forward and back like a snake’s tongue. In quick succession, he stabbed Kali in the breast, the stomach and the shoulder. Joan knew from long practice at their martial arts classes, Sammy’s technique with the spear was impossible to beat without a shield, not if you wanted to get close enough to fight back.

And then Kali cheated. Sammy stood with his spear jabbing away when Kali threw down her blades and darted in. Running along the shaft, the Hindu goddess grabbed Sammy in a bear hug. Joan chuckled and shook her head. Freakin’ newbie! What does she think she’s doing? Now she’s unarmed and Sammy has a knife on his belt. But then she swept one hand up Sammy’s neck and across his head.

Red flashes appeared overhead as a voice announced, “An inappropriate disconnection has been detected. Emergency shut down has been instituted.”

Sammy jerked and dropped, disappearing before he hit the ground. Static rained down and they were standing near the ball field in the park. Joan ran to where Sammy sprawled twitching on the ground. A skinny redheaded girl stood to one side, eyes wide and mouth open. She held Sammy’s electrode cap in one hand with the fiberoptic ribbon cable still attached to Sammy’s VR unit.

“Hey, it was an accident.” The red head dropped the electrode cap. “I must have snagged it when I grabbed him.”

“Bull! I saw you snatch his electrodes off on purpose. Do you have any idea how much it hurts to get cut out of the game? A lot!”

Joan bit her lip. Most gamers experienced an accidental cut off before they learned to be careful. Joan had lost her electrode cap during her third tournament to a low branch. She winced at the memory. Her head rang like she’d been smacked with a bat as her senses cycled between virtual reality and the real world. Give it a few minutes, he’ll be fine. She patted Sammy on the chest as he jerked and spasmed.

“I’m here, Sammy. It should stop in a minute.”

“J-J-J-Joanie, help m-m-me,” Sammy stuttered. Then his eyes rolled up and a dark stain spread across his jeans as the stinging smell of urine filled her nose.

“Jeez!” Joan began to pant. “He’s having seizures!” Joan cushioned his head on her lap as he thrashed.

“Help me! I need get him to the shop.” The redhead had her mouth covered with her hands, but nodded.

Virtual Deceit was a gaming shop run by Lucian Von Heller five blocks west of the park. Joan first met Sammy at an open tournament there a year ago. She’d walked into old warehouse behind the shop and saw a shaggy haired guy enter opposite her. As soon as she activated her VR unit, she was Brynhildr the Valkyrie, handmaiden to the gods, standing in a forest clearing studded with a few trees where the steel pillars of the warehouse stood a moment before. Across the glade, a Roman legionnaire in gleaming armor saluted with her with his short sword and charged. He came on without hesitation, stabbing and slashing, and she gave as good as she got until he pressed in close where his short blade gave him the advantage. He defeated her, but only just. They became a couple soon after that.

By the time Joan and the redhead reached Virtual Deceit, Sammy hung twitching between them with only the whites of his eyes showing. Joan kicked open the front door.

“Lucian! We need help.”

A short, thin man with a long gray ponytail and goatee popped out of the back.

“This one yanked off Sammy’s electrodes,” Joan said. “It’s like he’s having seizures.”

“Right.” Lucien disappeared into the back and reappeared with a hypodermic. “I need to give him a sedative.” He injected Sammy through his jeans. Sammy went limp. “OK, what happened?”

“Hey, it was an accident,” the redhead said. “I didn’t know this would happen if I knocked off his electrodes. It just cut him off from the gaming machine.”

Lucian puffed up as his face flushed red. “Hey stupid, I explained all of this to you this morning. Did you bother to listen to anything?”

He pointed to the gaming unit belted to her waist. “The unit plays the gaming software directly into your brain, turning it into an organic CPU. Why you think you can walk around in the virtual world without walking into a telephone pole or falling into a ditch?”

The redhead just stared and shook her head.

“Jesus! Look, I want you to remember this if you remember nothing at all. You don’t take off the electrodes during the game. There’s programming running through the neurological net of your brain. The gaming unit has to shut it down. When you yanked off Sammy’s electrodes, that left the programming running in his head. That’s a really bad thing, understand?” The redhead nodded as tears glistened in her eyes.

“Good! Now get out!”

Lucian dragged Sammy into the storeroom and lay him on a cot. “This happened 10 minutes ago, right?”

“Yeah. How did you know?” Lucian just grunted and turned away.

“He’ll be out for a couple of hours. I’ll have him call you when he wakes up.”

Her mother’s voice whispering from the living room pulled Joan from sleep. Her mom called Joan’s room painfully sparse, but Joan found the decor a comfort. Fascinated with Japan during her research for tournaments, she tried to copy the spare aesthetic decor. The tatami mat and futon were easy, and a coffee table served as a computer desk to kneel at. But the centerpiece of the room hung on a rack on the wall, a 19th century silk kimono. Multicolored chrysanthemums on a blue background. Joan saved for a year to buy it on eBay.

As Joan snuggled deeper into the warm futon, bright flowers filing her mind.

Her eyes popped opened again. Mom’s voice was shrill with emotion, and growing louder.

“Joan! Get up! Sammy’s in the hospital!”

Joan threw aside the quilt. Hospital! What’s going on?

“Thank you for coming down so quickly, Ms. Borland,” the ER doctor said. “Your friend was brought in last night with seizures. The person who dropped Sam off left without giving a name. A gray-haired man with a goatee?” Joan just shrugged. “Your friend’s wallet had your name and number as an emergency contact. Can you help us get in touch with his next of kin?”

Next of kin? Joan clutched the arms of her chair until her arms trembled. She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax.

“His folks live in Cleveland. I’ve never met them, but I can get their number from his roommate. But I don’t understand, this sounds serious. What’s wrong?”

The doctor stared at his clipboard and shrugged.

“I can’t tell you much. I know he’s your boyfriend but you’re not family. I can say he’s suffering atypical seizures. And they’re getting worse. Does he have a history of epilepsy?”

“Sammy’s never had any health problems. Is he going to be okay?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t say more. It’s important we have his family here.” The doctor stood, patted her on the shoulder and walked away.

By dint of shouting and cussing, she got the hospital staff to let her see Sammy. He was shaking so hard they had him in restraints.

“Why isn’t that stopping?” Joan asked the nurse who led her in.

“We don’t know. We’ve given him injections of phenobarbital and Dilantin. Enough to wipe out five men. He’s not responding.” The nurse shrugged and walked out.

Sammy’s eyes popped open and he grimaced, showing all his teeth. “Okay, Kali, you want a fight? Loki the undying will give you more than you can handle!” Sammy spasmed and shook against the restraints.

What’s going on? He’s still fighting our last contest. She grasped Sammy’s hand and pressed it against her cheek. “Please get better.”

Just after 4:00 A.M., a monitor above the bed wailed and staff came crashing in. A tall man in medical scrubs hauled her out.

“Dear, your friend is in crisis. It’s best you go to the waiting area, you’ll get in the way. Someone will be out to talk to you.”

And someone did, after the longest half-hour Joan ever lived through. He was an older doctor, gray-haired and stooped, with sad eyes. He sat next to her and held her hand.

“Hello Miss Borland, I’m Dr. Bartholomew. I have bad news. Your friend didn’t make it. His seizures were too much and sent him into heart failure. We did everything we could, but he’s gone. Is there someone I can call for you?”

Joan was shaking as she stared at the floor. She shook her head, and dislodging tears. The doctor squeezed her hand and smiled a sad smile.

Joan had to borrow her mom’s black polyester dress for Sammy’s funeral. She’d never needed anything that formal before. At the funeral home, Lucian stood at the entrance wearing an impeccable gray suit. Joan felt her heart thump as she glared.

“You!” She hissed and shoved her face up to his. “Why did you dump Sammy at the hospital?”

Lucian stepped back. “Joan, sweetheart, you think I want the police on me? Your boyfriend must have taken something really bad. I don’t need cops thinking I’m dealing drugs or something.”

“That’s bull, Lucian. Sammy wasn’t doing drugs and you know it.” Joan almost said something about Sammy’s hallucinations about the last competition, but stopped. Something’s wrong. Why would Lucian make up a lie about Sammy and drugs? Especially to me, I was with Sammy. Instead she asked about Sammy’s VR unit. Sammy didn’t have it at the hospital.
“Why would you want that?” Lucian shoved his hands in his pockets. “You don’t need it.”

“You’ll give it to me because I want it,” Joan hissed between clenched teeth. She shoved Lucian so he stumbled back a step. “Have it ready when I come by, or I’ll kick your butt and take it.”

She went inside and knelt at the coffin. Joan had to grip the side to keep from falling. Sammy looked like an oversized doll, pink cheeked and hair plastered with goop. Somehow they had forced his lips into goofy smile. His spear was nestled in his arms. Jesus, this is it?

The next evening she sat at her desk staring at Sammy’s VR unit. What happened to Sammy must be inside. Nothing else makes sense.

After a moment’s thought, she knew there was only one place to look. Each VR unit contained a five tetrabyte RISC memory chip that held the VR software. Everything else, the wireless transmission hardware, the input-output circuits for direct feed into the human brain, all were run by the software on the chip. More important, anything that had been running on Sammy’s unit when he got cut out should still be in the chip’s memory register.

She opened the VR unit with a screwdriver on its hinge so the three circuit boards inside fanned out like the pages of the book. The middle board held a computer chip as long as her finger. Joan popped it out and slotted it into the chip socket she’d plugged into her laptop. In a moment she was scrolling through the coding from the chip. Joan sighed and rubbed her eyes. There were over three million of lines of Turbo C coding on the chip, and she didn’t know what she was looking for. What choice do I have? Sammy’s dead.

She stretched and got down to the task.

Her search turned out to be easy once she thought about it. She read any recent changes to the coding, and a section popped up immediately. A subroutine had been added a month ago that left her bewildered.

Why would Lucian add a communication program to the VR unit? She could see the subroutine was a packet transfer program normally found in digital communication software, but also had lines like you found in a computer virus. Besides, the unit already had a communications program, part of the original game software. Why another?

She ran the program on her computer. “Lucian,” she whispered. “Do you have any idea what you did to us?”

(continued on page 2)



Virtual Deceit by James R. Statton 1 2
originally published August 27, 2009

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