Shards of Vice
This is an original piece of fiction. Would love to hear any of your feedback in the comments. Thanks for reading!
He stared at the small crumbs bouncing down the front of his F link. They moved without purpose or reason, without maximizing motion. They succumbed to gravity’s pull with a carelessness he envied as they bumped and tumbled their way over the pegboard of jacks and feeds only to have their freedom taken away by the vacs in his PAD.
He took another bite from the slice of apple pie savoring the sensation as he chewed. He relished the subtle hints of cinnamon as it mixed with the warm, soft, almost slimy gentleness of apple tickling his tongue. The moist but firm crust provided an essential backdrop to the portrait of taste. It did not draw attention to itself—as molars weak from lack of use broke it down to be processed by the tongue before allowing passage to the stomach—but it was crucial to the overall product. It was the crust that countered the potential of over-sweetening and kept the whole thing together. Kind of like me. I hope to be remembered as Grant047, crust of the geode. He chuckled at the thought.
This was his favorite time of day. He still had several minutes of blessed silence before the frenzy of the day came crashing down on him like the great tsunamis of ’82. He could see the blinking lights already surrounding his PAD signifying urgent messages. He ignored them and took another bite of pie. He looked at the emptying plate wistfully; only a couple of bites left. The lights on the PAD grew more insistent and he had to shift his head as he chewed in an attempt to ignore them.
He looked upon his four hundred square foot palace with fondness. He knew the extra space was a luxury only afforded to the ultra rich, but he earned it. Most had no extra space outside of their PADs, renting plug-ins attached to one of the millions of com-trees that surrounded the globe. For those that couldn’t afford their own PAD to jack into the community trees there was always the option of low-income coffin jacks. The coffins didn’t have the comfort level of the PAD—instead of the dynamic air flow environment they used an oxygenized gel favored by the military in the early stages of neural jacking. It was a hellish environment when the user was offline but most stayed jacked in every waking moment these days anyway.
Grant047 owned furniture, one of the many peculiarities that placed him in the ‘eccentric’ class of trillionaire. He looked at the small divan facing an ancient wall screen that took up a large part of the south wall of his gargantuan apartment. He had also purchased an original, not synthesized, 20th century canopied bed that rested against the opposite wall from his PAD. When he first bought the bed he tried sleeping in it several times but could never get comfortable. It was hard to sleep on a mattress after years of sleeping on the perfect ergonomic jets of a PAD. The mattress just didn’t have the intelligence to determine every subtle shift of the muscles nor did it compensate to keep perfect comfort while in stasis. He gave it up after a week but he loved the historic look of the piece so he kept it.
Grant047 had a fondness for history. He took his name after the great American general of the civil war, the 047 commemorating the date of his bloodiest victory over the southern rebels at Shiloh. Some called it no victory at all. But Grant, the general, did what he had to do to hold his small piece of land on the banks of the Tennessee. He had already scored the first victories of the war several months earlier by laying siege to Forts Henry and Donelson. After those victories he could have easily led the retreat from the Tennessee saving many of his men’s lives. He still would have returned to Washington a hero. But no. Grant was a warrior with a cause he knew was just; they had to hold those banks no matter the cost. Victory was the only option.
Grant047 felt a kinship with the general’s determination but also shared Grant’s affections for vice. The general was a notorious drunkard before, during, and after the war and could often be seen smoking a cigar in the midst of battle. Some saw this as a weakness of the general’s but Grant047 saw it as the general’s greatest strength. General Grant could see every side of a conflict between opposing armies because the battles between men on the field were miniscule in complexity when compared to the battles that raged inside of him. Determination overrode inner conflict but it was the inner conflict that gave the general his edge.
He reflected on his own inner conflict. In a world that had run out of space, love for the physical had become a vice. His slice of fresh apple pie every morning cost him nearly 100,000 creds a week, what most folks would be happy to earn in a year, he spent on pie weekly. The apple pie was synthesized of course, but it was done right. He had the synthesizers only create the base ingredients. They would synthesize the apples, the cinnamon, the sugar, and the grains that would make the bread of the crust. He had special machines built whose only purpose was to turn these synthesized ingredients into his morning pie.
He took another bite. The result? Delicious.
His PAD was equipped with the latest feeding technologies but the pasty white fluid—a mix of sorghum, soy, and nutritional additives—had none of the beauty of the confection rapidly diminishing before him. When he was jacked in, he could program the mix to be whatever dish he pleased: dry-aged steak, Cornish hen if the mood took him, or even apple pie. But he couldn’t get over the knowledge that the enjoyment of the foods while jacked in was simulated and therefore lost some of its allure. There was something special about chewing with real teeth and tasting with a real tongue that the most sophisticated neural programs missed. Or perhaps it was the introduction of contaminates that made it into the pie to lend a hint of imperfection to his food that made it so good. Whatever the reason, he mused as he took his last bite, he was sorry it was gone.
He sighed and looked at the hemorrhaging red lights on the sides of his PAD flashing out a pattern of silent rebuke. It was time to get on with his day. He reached for a switch and jacked in.
He sat within his general’s tent. The folding chair behind his command desk was slightly uncomfortable but Grant047 programmed it that way. The burden of command was supposed to be uncomfortable. His dispatches lay on the desk before him. He flipped lazily through the papers as early morning sun shone through the opening of a rolled-up flap. The cry of a goldfinch soared over the dull murmur of the men rousing to start the cook fires for their early morning breakfast.
His first meeting of the day was with T&A69, Mod of the porn crystal. The man was disgusting, but the porn crystal was home to more shards than any other crystal but defense. The subscribers T&A pulled in gave him the power to demand an audience with Grant047 any time he pleased. He knew he would have the same requests as last time: more power, more space. The same thing all his crystal Mods demanded. He just hoped to avoid a meeting like the last with the disgusting creature. The over-exaggerated subservience laced with thinly veiled threats was enough to turn his stomach. When you threw in T&A69’s constant interruptions for his many orgasms throughout the meeting, Grant047 wanted to bang his head against his desk. He hoped it would be quick.
Next, he had his status reports. His techies would brief him on power and space readouts across the geode as his stat-men broke down the subscriber numbers and talked about the trends pulled in from the insta-polls. Insta-polling was Grant047’s ace in the hole; it was the technology that gave him and his geode a decisive edge over the other geodes. An insta-poll would shoot a question down the pipe and would obtain answers from his subscribers by tapping into their subconscious. It was a controversial technology to be sure, but you couldn’t argue with the results. Grant047’s scribers were the happiest of any geode and all they had to sacrifice was a tiny bit of privacy. The other geodes could not pass the technology through their scriber base so the Trans-Terra geode, Grant047’s geode, looked to keep its dominance for quite some time.
He looked through the rest of his packed meeting schedule and cringed. How the hell was he going to get any work done? He had lunch with 1Swazi, head of the Sub-Terra geode and an afternoon Mod meeting which could easily run into the night.
He shuffled through the papers when his eye caught the edge of a personalized envelope hidden by the voluminous dispatches. He picked it up and smiled. She had perfumed the envelope with an intoxicating scent that sent shudders through his body; she must have included some arousal code because sniffing the letter had the intended effect.
(:Smiles:) was an intriguing woman. She was well educated, held fiery political views, and made love like a cat in heat. He had been dating her under the pseudonym Red#Beard and was pretty sure she did not know who he really was. He had long tired of the gold miners that invariably went after a man of his position. Conversation with these types was as dry as the sex. He began to associate their vacuous stares with their perfect tits. In a world where anyone could look like they wanted, perfection was boring.
(:Smiles:) was anything but. She used the same avatar every time they met, a distinguished handsome woman affecting the look of a business professional common to the late 20th century. She had cherry wood hair commonly pulled back in a bun; she favored skirts to the knee and a utilitarian white blouse translucent enough to hint at a lace bra underneath but not enough to draw the eye from her face. Piercing green eyes were set in a pale face dominated by freckles. When she smiled her teeth pulled inward as if luring you to explore what lay beneath. The only thing out of place from the business persona was the stiletto heels she never went without, the point of each heel as sharp as her wit.
He found her fascinating. They often talked late into the night, each conversation a duel over a broad set of topics that pushed both to their intellectual limits. The sex was as spectacular as the conversation, a dance of respect rather than domination. He remembered the first time she loosed those Madeira locks from their restraining bun to flow over her shoulders and down over her voluptuous body. She was an uncensored Botticelli. That was the first time he wished to touch her for real, not jacked in, but her real body. He was terrified to tell her that of course, but in their conversations they often touched on the vices of the physical. She was the first person he ever told of his apple pie fetish and she only seemed to find it—what were her words? Ah yes: ‘as salubrious as masturbation as long as there’s no guilt associated with it’. GOD, he loved it when she talked that way. He was falling for her. He hoped she checked out.
As if the thought summoned the man, the sniffer appeared in his tent wearing that ridiculous costume again. The trench coat, the clove cigarette stuck to his lower lip, the slicked back hair; the man was a walking stereotype of a B-detective sim. But he knew his work. P0ir0t had been doing odd jobs for him for years and he never failed to deliver.
“What do you have for me?” asked Grant047
“She checks out so far boss,” P0ir0t pulled a match from a pocket in his trench coat and with a flick against the top of his hand the match blazed to life. He lit the cigarette, took a long drag, and rested intense eyes on his employer. “The dame has more aliases than you. She used (:Smiles:) when she was dating and now uses it exclusively with you. I have connected her to at least three other aliases: BourgeoisGloria—uses this to interact with a close circle of well-to-do friends, Slummin3Mary—only experiments with this alias, uses it when traveling through the risqué sims, and LawyerGirl—this is her professional alias.”
“A lawyer eh? It could have been worse.”
“Not much,” mumbled P0ir0t. When he saw Grant had heard him, he tried to hide a smile with a fit of coughing. He took another drag on his cigarette before facing Grant again. “There was another thing. There seemed to be one other alias associated with this dame of yours. This one was hidden deeper than modesty in a hooker and it’s crypted something fierce.” He ran a hand over his greased back hair. “I’m not even sure that it is attached to her or if it’s an alias at all. I never would have found it if I didn’t trip against it.”
“Trip against what?”
“Well boss, I was poking through her account files and I kept running into gaps. It could just be an anomaly in the system…”
“I don’t think so. Something weird is going on. She has time unaccounted for in her accounts. The time is transferred to other aliases but when I check them during these times they lie idle. When I try to probe deeper I run against security that I have never encountered before. So your dame is either narcoleptic, takes a ton of naps or something else is going on.”
“Could she be working for another geode?”
“That’s my guess.”
“Damn it!” The political manipulations between geodes were legendary. It was a constant battle to expose each other’s secrets, each other’s technologies, all in the name of more subscribers. Rules were put in place after the last Shard Wars, too many had died during those eighteen bitter years of power and land grabs, but the rules were loosely enforced—hell, Grant047 had twenty five agents minimum per rival geode. All the geodes used agents. The geode Mods agreed that rules were necessary, killing subscribers helped no one, but they also agreed to overlook minor infractions.
Grant047 was a boy during the Shard Wars but even then he knew his history. He remembered reading about the fossil fuels drying up and the world adopting renewable energy. Then the first neural jacks appeared and within ten years people had stopped traveling unless faced with extreme emergencies. Everything was provided through the jack by the conglomerates. Since people no longer left the comfort of their homes, the benefits of central government became obsolete. Who needed roads, police, health care, and politicians, when all of these things were provided by the jack? The central governments were too slow to adapt and the W-2 incident became inevitable. With the urging of the conglomerates, people burned income tax forms and disavowed world governments. The responses of the governments were predictable: they declared military rule and rallied conventional forces against the conglomerates. By then, it was too late. The conglomerates built the government’s technology and had plenty of defenses in place. Thus started, and ended, the Bandwidth War. The conglomerates sent surges down the pipe to immobilize the armies of the world governments and the war was over in months.
The conglomerates took over in a period of corporate anarchy. Each corporation had niche shards that provided simulations for their subscribers. The term shard was coined by an old video game that designated each instance of its fantasy world a shard. The definition grew to include all instanced simulations. There were healthcare shards, sports shards, fantasy shards, debate shards, porn shards, drug shards, dining shards, any simulation imaginable and a corporation would fill the niche. The conglomerates tried to regulate themselves but it was hopeless. Corruption ran rampant and the subscribers paid the price. The sims rarely delivered what they promised and price gouging became common practice. Class warfare raged as the poor got poorer and the robber barons sat and laughed like fat spiders.
Until the Shard Wars. Anton#54TheGreat wrote the worm that infected every shard while shutting down the billing servers of the conglomerates. Destruction was only half of the worm’s purpose; it also carried a message of a new form of self government. It showed the people how they could run the shards without the conglomerates, how they could install a new form of near democracy in their jacked-in lifestyle. The Geode Manifesto showed a world where shards set their own guidelines for leadership: sports shards putting their greatest athletes as leaders or moderators, healthcare shards placing the most effective doctors as their moderators. When similar shards shared the same values they could form a crystal, a community with more power than a single shard. When enough crystals saw eye to eye, they could form a geode. It was Xanadu.
The conglomerates resisted with everything they had. Anton#54TheGreat responded by opening the source behind the shards. With the source in the public domain the conglomerates grew desperate and took the only recourse they saw available to them, they executed the subscribers that joined the revolution. To any that followed history, this was an obvious mistake. The dead became martyrs and the revolution grew. Once Anton#54TheGreat had his net defenses in place the conglomerates quickly went the way of the dodo.
The only strife today, excluding the shards that promoted strife, was between geodes. Number of subscribers in a geode was directly proportional to the power of that geode. Grant047’s life was consumed with gaining subscribers from his rival geodes just as the crystal Mods beneath him strove to gain subscribers from their rival crystals and so on down the hierarchy. That’s why the thought of (:Smiles:) being an agent tore at him. He thought he loved the woman but she could destroy everything.
“Boss?” ventured P0ir0t. “Boss! You still with me?”
Grant scowled at him. “You know damn well I’m with you.”
“This dame really has her hooks in you, doesn’t she?”
Grant047 took a deep breath to still his mind. “I suppose she does,” he said quietly. “Are you a hundred percent sure?”
“Of course not four-seven, it’s only a hunch.” He didn’t break eye contact. “But, as you know, I’ve learned to trust these hunches.” He cocked his head. “We could insta-probe her,” the greasy man coughed again , “excuse me, insta-poll her to find out.”
“No!” Grant047 slapped a hand on his desk. “We don’t do that anymore! As a matter of fact, we never did!”
“Whatever you say boss, whatever you say. What do you propose then?”
“I could ask her.”
“Oh-ho, that’s certain to work.” P0ir0t squirmed at the fire in Grant047’s eyes but he continued anyway. “I can just imagine the conversation: ‘Smiles, are you an agent? No? Are you sure you’re not an agent for another geode? Yes. Oh ok, let’s screw.’”
“Watch yourself sniffer,” said Grant047 in a voice dripping with menace.
“Then let me do my job four-seven!”
“I won’t violate her like that, can’t you understand?”
“Then you gotta drop her boss.” P0ir0t shook his head sadly. “You know you don’t have any other choice. We will find ourselves in a world of shit if word gets out.”
Grant047 sat still for a long moment. “Fine. Run the insta-poll, but make sure it is not connected to me. Make it appear like it is coming from T&A69.”
“You got it boss, anything else?”
“Not for now.”
One of his lieutenants walked in through the tent flap and gave him a stiff salute. “Sir, you have visitors.”
Speak of the devil, must be T&A now. “Invite them in lieutenant.”
“Right away sir.” The lieutenant walked out the tent and walked back in a moment later trailed by two people. One, a gorilla of a man that seemed to squeeze himself into the dark blue jumpsuit he was wearing, glanced around the tent with a critical eye. The hair on his chest and arms was pressed flat by the jumpsuit giving the man’s body a swirling effect that made Grant047 slightly nauseous. The other was a severe woman with hair pulled back in a bun wearing an identical jumpsuit that fit her curvaceous body like a second skin. They wore a symbol that Grant did not recognize on the chest of their jumpsuits: an ancient scale of balance with the two plates each holding what appeared to be half a geode, the real geological kind.
“Grant047?” asked the woman.
Grant noticed her stiletto heels. “Smiles, is that you?”
The woman did not acknowledge his question. “Grant047 you are placed under arrest on the charges of willful violation of the Ocea-Terra convention. You are charged with abuse of power; you have violated the trust of your subscribers by invading the privacy of people’s minds without their consent.”
He gave her an iron stare. “Under whose authority?” he asked sweetly.
“Under the authority of the Intra-Geode Justice Department.”
“Intra-Geode Justice Department? That initiative got shot down years ago.”
“Only by your geode, Grant. The other eleven supported it.”
“So what? As you know, my geode has more subscribers than the next six combined!” Spittle flecked the corners of his mouth. “I refuse to recognize the pitiful authority you work under. Even if I did recognize it, my subscribers sign consent forms that allow insta-polling. It is all legal.”
She put her fists on her hips, standing like a hero right out of the old superman vids. “I don’t remember signing a consent form and, strangely enough, I was violated by one of your insta-probes no more than two minutes ago.”
Grant047 laughed. “Let me get this straight, you did not sign one of my consent forms and yet you were traveling the pipes of my geode? Do you realize how illegal that is BourgeoisGloria? Or should I call you SlumminMary?”
(:Smiles:) looked uncertain for the first time. “I am well within my rights under the IGJD codes of justice.”
“Which I do not recognize!” Grant047 snapped his fingers and the tent filled with civil war soldiers. “Place these two spies under arrest,” he said quietly. “If they struggle, execute them.”
“Wait!” shouted Smiles. “I knew you were hard but I didn’t know how hard.” Her eyes pierced his as the soldiers roughly bound her hands behind her back. “The other geodes know all about your illicit use of the insta-polling technology, it is only a matter of time before the whole rotten story oozes out. I offer you another alternative.”
“You offer me another alternative? You don’t have a leg to stand on princess. But go ahead anyway, I find your gall intriguing.”
“Exile. The IGJD will finance your trip to the moon as long as you release all the files of the Trans-Terra geode of the last thirty years.”
Grant047 laughed again. “And why would I do that?”
(:Smiles:) face hardened, if rock can harden further. “If you don’t, I will unleash your dirty little secret to the world.”
Grant047 stopped laughing. “And if I had you killed?”
“It would get released anyway. I have all of our conversations on tape and I have had your apartment under vid-scan for the last three years. It shows your disgusting habit with the apple pie, your physical masturbation, your sleeping outside of a PAD. It shows everything Grant.”
The blood drained from his face. “It will be easy to call the allegations fabricated.”
“It will still ruin you; people will sense that you are lying. You know it, I know it.” (:Smiles:) smiled. “Just think, on the small base on the moon you will have everything you ever wanted. There are no jacks up there and I hear that the women prefer physical intercourse.”
She shrugged free of the men holding her. Most of the men look sickened by her words and were doing their best not to stare at him, a problem she did not share. “Now what do you say, you sick bastard?”