A Night on the Net

by Jeff Okamoto

Thank God it's Wednesday, Johnny thought to himself as he walked home. It was the only thing that let him let off steam from work. Ever since taking that promotion to first-level manager, things had only gotten worse. When he was just a programmer, all he had to do was get the job done. As a manager, he had to meet unreasonable deadlines, deal with the financial analysts, make sure the legal department had okay'ed everything, listen to his employee's complaints, excuses, and demands and still meet his personal goals. No wonder some of them took the Concrete Swan Dive.

He checked his posture. Gotta be careful, he thought. If you looked nervous, you were a prime target and the gangs would rip you. If you looked tough, the gangs would still rip you, to see if you really were tough. Unless you could fight them off or run faster than they could, you'd end up the same way. Red Stain Street.

The streets hadn't been cleaned in years. They held the stench of millions of bodily excretions, intentional and otherwise. The concrete absorbed it all, mixed them into an exquisite odor, and infused the air with it. Johnny didn't know how the beggars could take it. Every so often, some new wretches would try to make it on the streets. Many of them ended up dead, or worse. Food was sometimes hard to find.

He punched his codeword into the door lock and slid it open. Home, sweet home, Johnny snorted. The apartment, more like a rabbit hutch he thought, was just large enough for a person to stay sane. It consisted of a small main room, a tiny bathroom and small kitchenette. A thin mattress occupied one corner, nearly buried beneath a pile of dirty clothes. A plastic desk, almost too large to fit separated the bed from the rest of the room. With it went a stained and old chair. The only item of obvious value sat upon the desk -- his deck.

Stepping over piles of dishes, making sure not to spill their contents onto the floor, Johnny threw his backpack on the bed. Last time, the spoiled food damned near burned through the plastic. Fortunately, it had only left a dark brown spot on the floor. Selecting a not too dirty shirt and shorts, he put them on and sat in the chair.

He ran his hands along the deck's smooth worn sides. It wasn't a top of the line model, but it was good enough, he thought. Ripping out a new set of diamond fiber patchcords, he plugged one end into the deck, the other into the sockets on the backs of his hands. The sockets were unnecessary and were expensive as hell, but Johnny had had them since his college days. It was a mark of pride to him.

He felt them seat firmly. He powered on the deck and adjusted himself in his chair, making sure that his head wouldn't fall and his neck get stiff.

The Blind Spot slowly grew and surrounded him. After a few more seconds, he was in.

Information technology had come a long way since Gutenburg first perfected the printing press. Information, originally kept in the minds of people, could now be stored on paper. As science and technology improved, information was stored magnetically, then optically, finally holographically, although biologically stored information was "coming soon." In this day and age, print truly was dead.

So too had the way people accessed information. With bio-technology, direct links to the brain were possible. Electrical stimulus to the optic nerve made words and pictures appear before one's eyes. Similar stimuli to the other major nerves created illusions of sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.

What shall I be tonight, he asked himself. While out in the Net, he could, through the correct programming, make himself look to others like anyone he could imagine. He settled on his usual persona, himself with some cosmetic defects erased. He was comfortable in it, like a favorite pair of pants. It also meant he didn't have to role-play or over-play any specific caricature.

He'd been out countless numbers of times, yet it was always a thrill. Leaving his home node, he entered the Net.

A comfortable darkness surrounded him; then suddenly a thousand and more brightly lit points, other data on the Net, appeared before him; like fireflies, they were constantly in motion. There were so many of them, you couldn't discern a pattern. It looked like chaos itself.

Though potentially as infinite as space itself, the Net reflected the thoughts of those who'd given birth to it. He was almost completely surrounded by the many structures that seemed to form a tunnel surrounding the main routes, partially protecting newcomers from acrophobia, though it was not the sky that caused the fear, but rather the Net itself.

Pundits called the Net an electronic counterpart to the human circulatory system. Data packets were the red blood cells, holding the vital information, transferring it from one "cell" to another, in much the same way as the real one transferred oxygen. The analogy broke down in two places. The Net's pathways were bi-directional, and users were considerable more than mere red-blood cells.

As Johnny traversed the Net's routes, he could see the myriad institutions that lined this portion of the Net. The highly symmetrical and sterile multinational subnetworks, the more loosely arranged but just as large universities and research centers, and the small fry, the haphazard public networks.

He went at his usual pace, checking if anything new had been added, something worth checking out. There was nothing new this time, which surprised him. Normally the turnover rate was pretty high.

He stayed on the normal routes. Stray too far and you might get lost permanently, as though the red blood cell decided to take a tour of the rest of the human body. A very few had gotten lost and made their way back, telling stories of demons, which were definitely not believed.

He was also very careful not to approach certain nodes too closely. Though quiescent enough now, if approached the wrong way, especially the multinationals, their defensive sub-systems would activate. Johnny had heard that some of the ultra-secure networks used defense systems that erased yet another line between biology and technology. Their security resembled the immune system. Special drones would check how you were organized. If you didn't have the right antigens, then antibodies would be produced to neutralize you. Flatline EKG.

Johnny arrived in what was the electronic equivalent of Downtown. Huge glowing signs beckoned to the Net travelers. Their barker programs endlessly repeated the same spiel: "You won't find a better sensory stimulus simulation anywhere else! Anything you want to do, anyone you want to be! For only a minor charge, you too...."

He passed them by, like he always did. They were traps, he'd decided long ago. They'd suck you in and fleece you for all your credit before you could blink. He switched at the next nexus and arrived at his destination: Chuqui's.

Nobody seemed to know if Chuqui was real or an AI. He was always there, 24 hours a day, but no AI had yet passed the Petersen test.

The decor was different every night. Chuqui's looked like what Chuqui wanted it to look like. Tonight it looked like Chuqui was in a nostalgic mood. It was a combination bar and restaurant, the kind that you found in the late Eighties or early Nineties. Period music filled the air. The smell of fine wood grain and sizzling meat filled the air.

"Hey Johnny, how are you?" asked Chuqui. He always recognized everyone.

Johnny wasn't quite sure how he did it. After hearing about Chuqui's unusual talent, Johnny had tried using different personas to fool Chuqi: he'd even come in as a woman once. Chuqui always saw through it. So he just gave up trying.

"Fine, Chuqui, just fine," he replied. "Any action going on here?"

"No, not really. The usual?" Johnny nodded in reply.

He walked past the bar that lined one side of the room, mementoes of past dreams hanging on the wall above it, into a section of restaurant stools lining two walls. You could watch the people across the aisle watching you in the mirrors. Beyond that, a multi-layered area with both booths and tables.

Johnny found himself a table and drank in the atmosphere. Chuqui brought him his dinner. He smelled real steak, not the yeast he usually ate. And his drink was a golden-colored beer in a frosted mug.

He looked up from his plate and discovered that someone was watching him from a booth near one corner. Johnny was sure that the booth had been empty when he'd come in. And he hadn't seen anyone sit down there. No matter, he thought, there were plenty of back doors into Chuqui's and some people preferred not to walk in.

She was beautiful. Her brown eyes had small epicanthic folds, with long lashes. Her hair was long and raven, bangs spilling forward over her face. Her skin was perfectly smooth and tanned and her teeth were a sparkling white, set in a smile between scarlet lips. She was dressed in a shiny velvet-black dress, which was cut low enough to reveal the swell of perfectly formed breasts. She smiled and winked at him.

Johnny walked over to the booth and sat down across from her. He caught a whiff of something indescribable which jolted his pleasure center like an electric current. He had never smelled anything like it before. But it was recognizable all the same. It was the indescribable scent of woman.

"Hello", he said. He'd learned long ago that snappy pick-up lines often didn't.

"Hello yourself", she replied. Her voice was low and husky. A corner of her lips twisted upwards in a small smile.

"What do you think of Chuqui's tonight?" It never hurt to talk about the place they were at.

"This is the first time I've seen it like this. Do you come here often?"

"Yes, it's one of my favorite places. He always seems to come up with the most interesting decors."

"You call Chuqui a 'he'. Rumor has it that Chuqui is an AI. Do you know what I think?" The last was in a playful voice.

"No, what do you think", in the same playful tone.

"I think it's a computer with a human brain connected to it. An experiment in permanent man-machine symbiosis. A rather powerful tool, the computer's speed with a human's intuition. What do you think?"

"That's an interesting theory. But what about sleep? A man can't stay awake forever, and some people I know have stayed with Chuqui for ten days straight. If he was human, he'd have gone crazy."

"Well, I'd be willing to bet that they didn't keep him constantly occupied. That'd be how he could get sleep. A "Russian Sleep" inducer implanted in the brain. Instant deep sleep for seconds or minutes at a time. Granted, Russian Sleep isn't REM sleep, but the computer could take over for an hour or two to cover for him."

It wasn't until some time later that Johnny noticed that he wasn't intimidated by her intelligence. Her theory was interesting, and she seemed to have thought it out completely. He was totally at ease with her. And those beautiful eyes continued to look at him, and that mouth still framed that smile.

Chuqui brought a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket that Johnny didn't remember ordering. He expertly cracked it open and together they shared the bubbly sweetness.

After finishing the bottle, he asked the inevitable question, knowing she'd say yes.

They left Chuqui's and went over to a nearby love hotel. For a fee, two or more people could rent a room by the hour or for the night. The room was tastefully done, and looked much like an expensive hotel suite.

They kissed, his tongue and hers nuzzling, his pleasure center being jolted repeatedly. Then she stepped back and shrugged out of her dress. Johnny was not surprised to find that besides the dress and her shoes, she wore nothing else. He caressed her silky skin while she undressed him. Then she gently pushed him onto the bed and she straddled on top of him.

They moved together as men and women had done for thousands of years. As they got closer and closer to the explosion, she seemed to blaze like an aurora borealis.

He fell asleep with her head on his chest, his arm laid across her smooth back.

Johnny woke up back in his seat, his chin on his chest, his neck painfully stretched. He jacked out and switched off the deck.

After stretching the kinks out of his neck, he took a shower, two one-minute blasts of tepid water. It felt oily and only slightly brown. Putting on the same shirt and tie as yesterday, he hop-scotched his way back to the door and left. Time for another lousy day at work. After another night on the Net.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License and is Copyright © 1989 by Jeff Okamoto.