Connection: Keep Alive - Part 1
Time had lost any sort of meaning in this place. Albert’s only method for determining how long he had been in this sandy shithole was counting the number of fights he’d been forced into since his virtual self “woke” up here. Sixteen fights since then, sixteen opponents he had somehow bested by improvisation, tenacity and dumb luck. Between the fights, Albert could only remember pain followed by drinking binge style blackouts full of merciful darkness. The pain, as intense as any he’d ever experienced, wasn’t exactly physical pain. His GlobalNet avatar could transmit pain to his brain, of course – that ‘feature’ was part and parcel of the full-sensory experience of the crèche connection. His brain knew somewhere deep, in some primal animal place that this avatar’s body was not his own, which muted the pain but providing no opportunity to soothe it with normal physical reactions, such as rubbing a bruise, or scratching at an itch.
His avatar had lost arms twice, and his left leg below the knee once, and the mental pain had been indescribable. The soothing darkness had swallowed him and upon waking the limb had been regrown. His screaming mind had told him the limb did not, could not, exist, and it had taken what felt like hours to calm his thoughts enough to use the new virtual limb. No sooner had he regained his mental balance than he’d been thrust into battle once again by his captors.
No stranger to GlobalNet arena battles, Albert had enjoyed the adulation of the crowds, the rush of virtual danger made more real by the pseudo-pain, and most importantly, he’d enjoyed the winnings from side bets he’d place on himself. Though his freelance hacking paid the rent and kept him in a crèche, the cut from his arena battles covered the luxuries on and offline. The underground GlobalNet arena scene thrived despite violating the GlobalNet terms of service in every net-connected country. Albert knew enough to avoid the scummiest arenas, the places where real-life physical damage and even death were not only possible, they were frequent. He flitted through various standalone arenas and the gladiator scene of many of the multiplayer virtual worlds run by commercial enterprises and private enthusiasts. From Ars-Perthnia to RealerLife, from Carnivore to the Mountains of Mars, Albert’s gladiatorial pseudonym Mu had become known as a fierce competitor. Like a long-lost memory of someone else’s life, he recalled his last victory in the Silverine Caverns of Demonia. He had stood swaying unsteadily as the crowds cheered his triumph over the Bastard Twins, a pair of chimerical conjoined monster twins with two heads on one mythical body. His foot pressed against the stilled lion-like chest of the beast, the crowd wild with bloodlust. His virtual vision had derezzed to blackness.
Dusty light had filtered down through the bars of the arena entrance as he woke, causing him to blink and cough even though his virtual body drew no real breath. Every sensation he might have normally felt on the GlobalNet was amplified, as if the input feed on his connection had been boosted exponentially. Virtual life had never felt so real. The heavy chains on his arms caused his back to bend, and it ached with the weight. His hands were mangled nightmares, bloody stumps with blades sewn into the wrists. His normal avatar, a wiry muscular humanoid body with the dexterity of a dancer and the power of a martial artist, had been replaced with the bulk of a giant, a beast of barely human strength. When his mind had finally become adjusted to the enhanced sensory overload, he had noticed her standing behind him, clad in all six foot two inches of leather. Her mysterious, vaguely Asian good looks were completely destroyed by the detached cruelty in her eyes. She had prodded him in the back with something that felt like electric fire, forcing him out the door and into the bloodiest arena battle he had ever seen. The victory had taken forever, and it had hurt more than any battle he’d ever faced. After every victory, every defeat, no matter the location, no matter the arena, she had been there, prodding him forward into battle.
Today, she woke him with the prod, searing him to life with angry fire. “Wake up, Albert,” she said with a hint of a Cantonese accent, a singsong nature to her words that would have been endearing were it not on the end of a cattle prod. “You have fighting to do.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m awake, Angela,” Albert had been trying name after name on her, to see if any seemed to fit, but none had. “And don’t call me Albert. You’re gonna treat me like a fucking slave, at least call me by my gladiator name.”
“Moo?” she said, stretching it out to sound like a cow.
“Mu,” he corrected, struggling to his feet.
“Cute. That hacker speak?”
“Chinese actually. Figured the Chinese word for ‘nothing’ described me better than Albert.”
“How’s a pretty China boy like you get a name like Albert in the first place?”
“White American daddy gets yellow fever, refuses to name his only heir some chink character he can’t even say.”
“Sounds like a douchebag.”
Albert shrugged. His father wasn’t really that bad a guy. Cold and distant, probably a father much too young and unprepared for all the baggage of his very traditional Chinese wife. Albert had been almost happy when the old man had split, at the very least relieved.
"So what am I fighting today? Giant centipede with scorpion claws? Giant rape robot?”
“I think it’s a gorilla with robotic arms. About twenty feet tall.”
“Do I at least get a size increase for this one?”
“I think we’re giving you a rocket launcher or something,” she said with an evil smirk.
He knelt in the dust, still amazed at how real the ground felt. He put his head to the ground in a prayer pose, kneeling his head five times to the ground. Albert didn’t believe in any religion, but it made for a good show for his captor while he concentrated on his attempts at escape.
Escape had been on his mind from the minute that she jammed that prod into his back. He had attempted to access his root menu, to bring up the logout screen, severing his access to the GlobalNet and causing him to wake up in the saline-covered interior of his crèche. Every option on the root menu had been grayed out, inaccessible. Somehow, he had no control whatsoever over the state of his avatar, no ability to jack out, no ability to alter his location, no ability to run, not even the option to change his appearance. Whoever she was, she had trapped him on the GlobalNet, forcing him to stay connected, to go where she wished against his will.
“You think Allah is going to get you out of this? We’ve got you cold.”
“There’s all sorts of gods in the machines. Maybe one will come along and wake my body up.”
She sneered, her attention diverted to the dusky arena outside. The bars of the gate cast ominous shadows on her shiny, plastic skin. “Yeah, that won’t happen. You still think your body is sitting in your apartment, stewing in the soup?”
“Hell, no. We moved your ass first night we captured you. Your nutrient tube is cut with enough SomniTrip to keep your body immobile for the next century. It’s one nasty drug that shit. Like a liquid coma, only instead of dreaming, your mind is totally 100% clear, sharp enough to work the GlobalNet like you were tweaking on Trip.”
He paused from his mock prayer, staring up at her with horror. “How long can my brain sustain that much activity before it burns itself out?” She shrugged. “Seriously, how long do I have?”
“Don’t ask me. I ain’t no doc, I just handle procurements. I don’t think they know. None have burned out yet.”
“How long have I been under?”
She seemed to weigh her options, perhaps checking a clock on the HUD only she could see. She might actually have felt some bit of sympathy for him, but remained wary that any nicety might form an exploitable bond with his captor. Finally, she made up her mind with a sigh. “Three weeks, I think, maybe four. You all kind of run together.”
He stood, his lanky avatar a foot taller than her lithe frame. “Who did I piss off to deserve this?”
“Oh come on, Albert,” she said, emphasizing his Anglo name evilly, “we both know what you do to make your paper. You hack. Hackers make all sorts of enemies, corporate and criminal. Pick one.”
He had her there. Mu crossed his arms across his waist, stretching his virtual muscles in preparation for the coming carnage. “Ready, Mr. Nothing?”
Mu nodded. A rocket launcher twice as large as she should have been able to bear appeared in her hands. She tossed it casually. As his hands closed on the weapon, he felt the interface connect his avatar program with the launcher’s software. That little glimmer of connection, that little nanosecond flash of code across his vision became the sliver of light in the pitch black box they had trapped him in. The gates rattled upwards. Every step he took into the arena, his mind processed that scrap of code, probing it for weaknesses.
His opponent entered the fray with a thundering stride, the ground shuddering underneath Mu’s feet with each step. Mu used that intense level of concentration the drug had given him to write new code in his head, code that allowed him to store his writing in a separate cache from his normal avatar’s storage space, bypassing the need for his internal HUD. “Kanpai!” he screamed in rapture as he fired off the first shot from the rocket, smiling for the first time since he’d been captured as the smoke trailed off towards the giant gorilla with robot arms.