I first saw the strangers behind reinforced glass and from a safe distance, but even then I felt the danger of them, the awful, hazy heat of them. Our Chicago tour guide pointed them out with a bored flick of her wrist and mentioned them as an afterthought: degenerate executables, rogue infectious software, nothing to see here. We walked past and politely averted our gazes from their exposed genitals, ignored the way they watched us pass out of the corners of their eyes.
So much of the cities are full of broken down code. It’s exciting to be a tourist there, where at any moment you can see some new wonder or horror invented by the endless permutations of the new digital disorder. My partner thinks I’m insane for going on these tours, insisting that I fill out elaborate property-sharing agreements just in case something happens “down there”. He stays at our sub-orbital villa, slowly revolving at a safe distance above the Guttenburg Trench, the impregnable firewall that keeps the ravages of Earthware from infecting the enlightened upper realms.
I don’t tell my partner that I’m not taking the tours anymore. Instead I kiss him goodbye and get in my dropsuit. It takes me, at breakneck speed, into the heart of St. Louis. No one knows why the spread of viral code isn’t worse in the midwest, but that fact is useful for my purposes. I want to explore on my own. I want to see the world, instead of examining it passively through the viewspheres.
I check all of my gear before I set off from the landing site and I make sure to set a location marker for my dropsuit before camouflaging it. The suit crackles in front of me and then disappears from view, however I can still see its shimmering outline once I switch on my HUD. I start making my way around the city.
I’m not looking for anything in particular, just enjoying the sights. Architecture is something you miss when your home and surrounding environs are made to simulate brushed chrome. I try to make it to the famous arch, but my HUD starts getting interference and my navigational-systems phase in and out. I figure it’s better to stay close to my dropsuit.
I wander around awhile before stopping in front of a hotel. Clearly at one point it was a beautiful place, a place where people paid good money to stay, now it’s empty and for some reason that hits me harder than anything else so far: the empty streets, the gloomy silence, the occasional flicker of the ubiquitous gray of the Trench overheard. I duck into the hotel and use my intention to wake up the lights in my exploration gear. Bright gold fireflies stream out of my pack and explode into tiny suns. Soon the lobby of the hotel is entirely illuminated with soft, natural-looking light. I look around at the broken down furniture and the peeling paint and shake my head.
I start moving to the stairwell in order to explore the rest of the hotel and a few of the fireflies follow behind me while others zip ahead to light the path forward. I’m about to open the door to the stairs when a warning flashes across my HUD. I can barely read it through the flickering.
foreign executables requesting access…
I deny access immediately and step away from the door. The warning pops up again and again. They can’t breach my defenses—I’m running the latest security protocols—but that doesn’t keep my stomach from dropping. I turn and make my way to the entrance of the lobby but I stop after a few steps. There’s someone standing in the doorway.
My hopes that it’s another tourist are quashed once he moves. He has the swaying, dreamy shuffle of infected hardware. The warnings on my HUD are tripling.
I raise my flare gun.
“Stay back,” I warn.
He keeps coming. More and more warnings filter into my HUD no matter how quickly I dismiss them. My visual feed is starting to slow, bogged down under the multiplicity of requests. I feel sluggish and inert. My head aches. I take a step back.
“I’ll fire,” I say.
“You won’t,” he replies.
My HUD shuts down. I’m screwed. The HUD is my only connection to my life-sustaining systems—navigational gear, dropsuit, even my flare gun won’t fire without instruction from my HUD—so I’m defenseless. Worse still, I can’t get home.
“Are you afraid of me?” he asks.
I look at him. He seems clean for one of them. Slightly long hair full of various shades of brown. Only a little stubble on his young-looking face. Naked though, and stiffening. I look away.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I just want you to—”
My HUD comes back up, just for a second, and I feel a thrill of relief. And then I see the message flashing across my feed in neon-orange letters: executable access granted.
“You hacked me,” I say aloud, incredulous, just before the program starts to run.
“I set you free,” he says.
The program is uploading content into my HUD and bio-feedback systems so quickly that I can’t even fathom what its aim is. But I do notice that the program is altering my hormonal locks and reconfiguring the emotional virtualization component of my HUD that regulates my mood in realtime. Everyone in the villas runs EV software. Otherwise it would be war and chaos. Famine and destruction. All the things that broke Earth in the first place.
And now they’ve just been switched off in my head.
The stranger—the fucking host of the malware that’s hacking into my most private emotional settings—touches my shoulder and I slap his hand away. He seems surprised. His brows knit together and I take a few steps back. I’m still trying to get my flare gun working, but the rogue program is moving too fast through my systems to get access back to my weapon.
Weapon? I think. Why would I think that word? The flare gun isn’t a weapon. There are no weapons in the villa. Why would anyone need them?
“I’m devolving,” I whisper to myself. I think of my partner, probably checking the chrono-setting on the viewsphere and scanning for my bio-signature. I should be on my way home.
The realization strikes me with something close to physical weight: I can’t go home.
The drop suit won’t let me in if my software’s been compromised. Even if I could get in, I wouldn’t be able to get up through the Trench. If it detects malware, it will vaporize me. I’m stuck on Earth’s surface. I feel sick.
The stranger touches me again and this time I don’t slap his hand away.
“It’s ok. I’m sorry that I startled you.”
“Startled? Startled? You just ruined my life. I can’t go home,” I shout. I hit him with the butt of my flare gun. Right in the chest. He staggers backward.
I hit him again with the gun in the face this time. He stumbles to the ground.
“You ruined my life.”
I’m wheezing now, my chest is tight and my ears are beating. I climb on top of him and put my hands around his neck. I squeeze until I can feel the blood rushing through my head, making me feel dizzy and half-sick, but in another way, so powerful. I squeeze harder and suddenly there’s a searing pain in my head. I tilt sideways, screaming and holding my head with both hands, and the stranger, the malware-host, easily pushes me off. I curl up into a ball, expecting quick retaliation, but instead he stands and the pain recedes. I look up at him and he stares down at me.
“Your EV is switched off, but you still can’t kill. That’s the last part to go before you’re truly free.” He rubs the blood from his nose and it leaves a trail up his forearm. “It takes time for your emotions to even out. You have to relearn how to conduct yourself.”
“I—” I start saying something, but a feeling in my gut overrides it. It’s like hunger, but different. The anger from before hasn’t gone away, but it feels like it’s feeding this other feeling. This other hunger. I notice the stranger’s slate-gray eyes in the false-light of the burning fireflies. I notice his lips and even the smeared blood under his nose and on his cheek. And I can smell him, too.
“What is this?” I ask.
He smiles, sympathetic. “Freedom.”
He squats down and brings his face dangerously close to mine while I untangle myself from the protective ball I’ve curled into. He says, “lust.”
The word is like a key. It opens up a part of my thinking that wasn’t there before. I think of my partner for a moment: clean white pants, pressed shirt, and a big smile. I can’t recall how he smells or how his touch feels. I can’t even think of how his skin feels under his shirt or how his arms feel around me. But there’s no uncertainty when the stranger touches my face. I marvel at how warm his fingers are. I have a feeling that I will remember this moment clearly. He leans down. I close my eyes. His mouth tastes a little like metal and I think that must be the blood.
My heart is racing again.
The stranger knows how to get under my clothes. He finds the latches that strap me so carefully and securely into my exploration gear and my environmental bodywear. He bends forward to kiss my clavicle and a surge of the hunger-not-hunger rushes up through me. I’m dizzy again. It’s strange how easy the transition is from rage to pleasure. It makes me wonder if this is a manipulation of my EV, but the stranger’s mouth kissing and sinking lower turns that concern into a watery, distant thing.
Sex isn’t talked about in the villas. There’s hardly time between work, social obligations, and philanthropic duties. And if we could do it, would we even know how?
The stranger gets my dick hard easily and puts his mouth on it. I shiver. I wasn’t aware it would feel this way. I’m unsure I’ve ever wanted anything as badly as I want him to continue sucking me. I tell him so—more or less—in grunts and whimpers. He takes one of my hands and puts it on my nipple and he has me tweak it. It’s a quick electric burst. My breathing suffers, but my cock hardens. I can’t figure out how to cope with this. How to—
He pulls away from my dick and slides it between the fingers and palm of his closed fist. His saliva makes it slide nicely and the friction is delicious. My jaw is slack and I know I must look like a fool, but I can’t work myself up enough to care. The stranger grins at me, his own cock is very hard and he’s doing the same thing with it as he’s doing with mine. My gaze flits between both of our organs until I feel the rumble that announces what’s next.
It’s a kind of breathless alarm. Building. Building. I want him to stop, but I can’t make the words come out. A few strokes and it’s too late. I erupt in long, hard shots some of which arc over his shoulder while others splash onto his face. The process wrings me out and leaves me panting and sweating. The stranger squats over me when it’s his turn and lets his own juices splatter all over my chest, throat, and face.
Afterward we wait until our respective breathing has leveled off. I don’t know what to say. The feeling of pleasure is receding slowly and I feel alone though he’s still there.
“I can’t go home,” I say dumbly.
“No.” He lowers his head and his long hair falls, obscuring his face a little. The fireflies are starting to die out. As each one flickers out, they throw shadows across the hotel lobby. “You are home.”
The stranger puts his hand on my knee and holds it there through my quiet sobbing. The last firefly goes out. I’m grateful for the dark.