I’m floating. I take a deep breath to quiet the feeling of claustrophobia. It’s like a drug – paralytic – someone else controls my every move. My senses are sharp and alive, though, as I go with him, a silent partner in his world, unseen and unknown.
He walks down a long corridor. The walls are stark white, the wood floors stained black. I see through his eyes as his head turns, taking everything in, as if he wants to remember every detail, every image, every moment. He looks down and I can see his shoes – black cap-toed boots. The pants cover them to the ankle, and with every step they ride up ever so slightly, so that I can see the bottom edge of the patch of elastic on the side that allows the boots to be slipped on without laces and still fit well. He reaches out and drags his fingers lightly along the wall and I can feel the tingle on my fingertips. The shirt flows loosely over his shoulders.
He pauses as he looks up and sees the door at the end of hallway. It’s red, and it stands out against the sea of this otherwise colorless world. I hear his breathing grow heavy, and in my wrists I am aware that his heart-rate has increased. He starts walking again, hesitant at first, but each step like a gathering storm.
When he reaches the door, he waits there for a moment, listening. I hear faint moans – no words, only the guttural sounds of animal desire. He reaches up and runs his palm along the edge of the door, his head tilting. He’s panting now.
The door opens and he stands there, scanning the room. It, too, is white, with fifteen-foot ceilings and ten-foot windowed doors that lead out to a balcony. The doors are open, and a gentle breeze blows the gauzy window dressings in. They billow and fall and turn as if dancing on cue, giving only a glimpse of the world outside. The room is barren except for a large four-poster bed with a loose canopy that matches the curtains on the window. It rustles nervously against what remains of the breeze inside the room.
He wipes his forehead and turns to the bed. I feel his sweat on my hand. Through the canopy I can see the outline of a woman. Soft cries of desire waft across the room. They are so quiet they are difficult to hear, and yet they reach down with an ancient yearning to some core instinct in both of us; some primal drive that is base and male and irresistible.
He walks slowly over to the foot of the bed and pulls the thin curtain aside. She is there, lying on the bed. The first thing I notice is her face. It is so perfect it seems unlikely that it could ever exist in the real world. Her white skin is flawless, her features perfectly symmetrical, her lips red and wet and full, parting with every gasp. It is her eyes that hold me, though. They are a shade of blue I have never seen, with flecks of gold and crystal, and they are so penetrating it feels as though they are reaching out straight through his eyes into mine, begging me for . . . something I can’t quite make out. It’s like those eyes have captured the dialectic of every human emotion that ever mattered – love and hate; ecstasy and terror; comfort and jealousy – and rolled them into a single glance that could level entire cities. I am slaughtered.
His eyes travel the length of her body. Her hands are bound to the headboard with leather straps. She wears white lace and a matching bustier that ends just below her nipples, which are small and erect. Sheer white leggings cover sculpted, perfect calves and thighs, kept taut by a satin garter and stockings. Her dark hair is spilled out over the pillow.
He moves to her and as he approaches her breathing quickens, matching his. Her moaning gains volume as he reaches out to caress her legs. I can feel her skin on my hands, warm and smooth, like the finest velvet ever woven. He slides his hands up the insides of her thighs and I can feel the heat she gives off intensify. He slips her panties down, over the garter and leggings, over her feet. She gasps and writhes from side to side in anticipation, as though given over wholly to his spell.
He stands before her, slipping down his pants. Then his hands are on her again, and her skin is like fire. He crawls over her, so that we are both looking down at her now, her face so close I can feel her breath. She smells of jasmine and musk. Her eyes are so large, so mesmerizing, they are all I can focus on. I sense his rhythm, and the way she matches it, her gasps now synchronized to each thrust of their hips. And yet still all I can see are those eyes. Eyes so deep I fear that I may be lost here forever.
His hands slide up her body, over her breasts, under her arms. Her hands are still bound above her head, and he runs his fingers up over her elbows to her wrists, and then back again to her shoulders. My fingers go along for the ride.
Their rhythm is mounting now, and her gasps have become loud cries. His hands move from her shoulders to her neck, caressing the soft skin below her perfect jaw. He is holding her tight, and I feel his hands and mine close on her throat. She is still matching each thrust, but something is different. I can see it in her eyes. Those pools of wonder and trust darken with fear and doubt. I want to scream out. I want to stop it, but I am powerless. Our fingers grip her throat tighter. She writhes and I can no longer tell what she is feeling. I can sense what he is feeling, though. His heart is pounding in my wrists, and his rhythm is gathering speed and losing consistency, his control slipping as the end nears. Her face is flushed, her eyes bulging, and I know she cannot breathe.
The end comes with an explosion that shatters the world. They spasm and recoil. He screams. Her mouth is open, as though she is trying to call out, but no sound escapes. For both of them, every muscle contracts with such force it seems as though their bones will snap.
The room is quiet and I look down. She is still there, but no longer. She is limp and lifeless, and the fire that was in those eyes – those eyes I lost myself in – is gone.
The screen explodes in a flash of light that recedes into the center of the world until the monitor is black.
The slap on my shoulder shoots adrenaline through my overwrought body. I jerk forward in my chair, ripping the sensory unit off my face. Yvette looks down over her nose-ring at me with a conspiratorial smile. Everyone I know is captivated by her looks. She has none of the attributes of conventional beauty: her nose is slightly askew; her eyes a bit too large and spread; her ears stick out when her hair is pulled back; and the hair itself . . . well, it would take a page for every day of the year to describe the ever-evolving, multicolored, kaleidoscopic mess that is her hair. She has a way of holding others with her piercing hazel eyes, though, that makes them feel at once understood, evaluated and dismissed, all before she’s even blinked. In short, there is nothing soft about Yvette Jones. And yet her sharp edges are compelling. She is a challenge, and I can understand those who see the prickly exterior and yearn to unlock the vulnerable little girl trapped underneath. I have known her long enough to be sure that the little girl doesn’t exist. Yvette is exactly who she appears to be; that’s one of the reasons I trust her more than anyone else I’ve ever known.
‘Shit, ’Vette,’ I say, shaking off the remnants of the LifeScene I’ve just left. ‘You could give someone a heart attack pulling them out of a GhostWalk like that?’
‘Walk was over, Nick,’ she says. ‘I saw the feed go dead. You were just sitting there like you needed a cigarette.’ The smile is there again. ‘That good, was it?’
I roll my gloves down from the elbows and put them with the sensory unit carefully on the stand next to the computer. ‘Don’t you have any shame?’
She laughs. ‘What do you think?’ She leans in and whispers, ‘Who was it?’
She knows we’re not supposed to share information about our subjects’ identities. Keeping our research double-blind is the only way to prevent bias, but it’s a rule that’s never been strictly followed or enforced. I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway; the names are all fake, and it’s not like we’re curing cancer. Besides, I’m technically her boss – though it doesn’t always feel that way – and it’s not likely that she’s ever going to get me in trouble. ‘The Marquis,’ I reply.
She gives me a knowing nod. ‘De Sade. I walked one of his a few weeks ago. Very impressive graphics.’
‘The graphics were spectacular,’ I agree. ‘But the scene was a little too hardcore for my tastes.’
‘Sex too hardcore?’ She laughs again. ‘For you?’
I make an annoyed face. ‘It’s not the sex; it’s the killing I could do without.’
Yvette shrugs. ‘He did the same thing in the one I walked. He took it too far, but it doesn’t change the technical brilliance of what he’s doing.’
‘It’s pretty fucked-up. I wasn’t expecting it.’
‘She’s an avatar, Nick,’ Yvette points out. ‘She’s not real. She’s not even someone else’s avatar, she’s one of his.’
‘Still, he gets off killing her,’ I say. I understand Yvette’s nonchalance, and yet it bothers me for reasons I can’t explain. Fake or not, there was something about the girl in the scene that I can’t treat with my customary dispassion.
‘He does,’ she admits. ‘And millions of people get off killing other fake people in war games.’
‘How? Have you ever watched a twelve-year-old play Mortal Combat? It’s disturbing. What De Sade does in his LifeScenes is actually pretty tame compared to some of the other shit people use the platform for. You’ve been in management too long, and you’re not out there anymore doing the daily GhostWalks. It’s hard not to get jaded. There’s some seriously vile crap I’ve seen out there that’s real misogyny: uninspired assholes who are too dumb to do anything but create half- baked dungeons . . . tie girls up . . . beat them . . . humiliate them . . . crap like that. That’s not De Sade’s thing. He takes his time, and comes up with some really innovative concepts. I give him some credit for that, at least.’
‘Even if he kills them?’
‘Did I?’ I remember that, and it’s always been my view. Something is different in this case, though. I just can’t explain why. ‘This guy’s taking it to a new level.’
‘What do you expect from someone who chooses De Sade as his username? The Marquis de Sade was the king of sick pornography back in the nineteenth century.’
‘He was more than that,’ I say. ‘A lot of people credit him with being the father of the Nihilist movement. They say that Nietzsche and others who followed were just picking up on the amoralism that De Sade explored.’
‘Look at you with the big words.’
‘I took a philosophy class once,’ I shrug. ‘Anyway, the original De Sade would have loved the Internet – the ultimate amoral world. Maybe this guy’s our perfect user.’
‘Look, he’s clearly got some serious issues, but you’ve got to admit, until the end, his scenes are pretty erotic. In the LifeScene I was in a few weeks ago he had the girl tied to a chair, and he was switching off between whipping her lightly with a cat-o’-nine-tails and tickling her with feathers. Hundreds of thousands of them. He kept adding more and more, fluffing them over her skin while he touched her, and she was talking to him, telling him how much she loved it . . . how much she loved everything he was doing to her.’ Yvette flushes a little as she recalls the scene.
‘A fantasy of yours?’
‘Is now. I’d never imagined the kinds of things someone could do with a feather.’
‘It sounds very special.’ Sarcasm is my native tongue.
‘What happens in the end?’
She frowns. ‘He wraps cellophane over her face.’
I look hard at her, wondering exactly how jaded she has become. ‘Lovely.’
‘Better that he’s working out whatever issues he has on the NextLife platform, instead of doing something about it in the real world.’ She looks at me. ‘There weren’t feathers in the one you just walked, were there?’ She almost seems hopeful.
I shake my head. ‘It was simpler. White room, lace panties.’
‘Was there bondage? He’s really into bondage.’
‘Yeah, but not over-the-top. Just the wrists tied to the headboard. Not some of the really twisted shit he’s into.’
‘Simple, clean,’ she comments.
‘It’s not the scene, it’s the graphics. I’ve never seen anything like them. The girl in this one is just . . . ’ I’m seeing her. The vision of her on the bed is locked in my mind. ‘I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of good visuals before, but this girl is . . . ’ I lose my words again, and it takes me a moment to realize it. I glance up and Yvette is giving me a look. She raises an eyebrow, and I can feel myself squirm. Honesty is dangerous with her. She is like a dog with a fresh joint when she senses the core truth in any personal revelation. She will gnaw on it for hours, sucking the marrow out of every emotional implication until there is nothing left but inert bone, all of the meat chewed out of it. It’s an exhausting process that usually requires several shots of tequila, and I’m not up for that at the moment.
‘He’s just a very accomplished technologist is all,’ I say with a wave of my hand.
Her face pinches like a dart aimed right between my eyes.
‘He’s a very accomplished technologist,’ she repeats in her best nerd voice. ‘Nick, admit it: the man creates some of the most erotic LifeScenes you’ve ever seen, and you call him an “accomplished technologist”? That’s a little like calling Leonardo da Vinci a “proficient portraitist”. The man is a genius. A twisted genius, but – shit! – Van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear because he was stable.’
‘He’s an artist,’ I concede. I have no interest in dragging this conversation out. ‘You had dinner yet?’ It’s one o’clock in the morning, but the office is busy. We’re in the basement of an industrial building off Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. It’s an open 4,000-square-foot span with 200 computer stations, each outfitted with comfortable chairs and full sensory units. The people here monitor nextlife.com’s heaviest users – the most active 10,000 or so – to get a good sense of what people want out of the LifeScenes. That way, we can figure out what changes to make; figure out what people will pay for. They don’t know we’re there, in the LifeScenes with them, and we don’t know their real-life identities, but it still gives the company a good idea of what’s happening on the site, and lets us stay ahead of demand.
Most of the stations are manned around the clock. There is no set business schedule; employees are required to put in their research hours, but the company doesn’t particularly care at what time of day those hours are done. Our members are online 24/7, so we are too. For obvious reasons it’s a secure facility with no windows, which means it has the feel of a Vegas casino. Time has no meaning once you walk through the door. We get a steady stream of people working, and I oversee the operation. There are two small private offices at the far end of the space, and one of them is mine, though I spend little time there. I’m usually on the floor.
‘I haven’t even had breakfast yet,’ Yvette says. It’s not surprising. One of the things that she likes about the job is that it lets her conform to a vampire’s schedule. It’s the way she’s been since she was fourteen and dropped out of school. She didn’t need school anymore; she’d figured out how to hack the Charlestown municipal computer system and graduated with a B+ average without ever attending class. She could have made herself an A+ student, but she didn’t want to set off red flags, and she never had any inclination toward higher education anyway, so why bother?
‘Diner,’ she agrees.
‘I’ll get my coat.’
The Diner is our weigh-station; a stopover between work and the real world. When you spend your professional life hip-deep in the fantasies and fictions of other people’s minds, it’s helpful to have a buffer before jumping back into the physical realm. It gives you a chance to reframe things; pause and acknowledge the differences between what’s real and what’s not.
The place has a Sixties feel about it, but that’s mainly because it’s really old. They weren’t trying for a ‘feel’ when they originally decorated; the stuff was contemporary back then. The throwback decor reinforces the sense that the place straddles the line between reality and dream. If James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were sitting in the booth behind us, it would complete the scene.
Yvette is sitting across from me behind two huge plates. One has a stack of pancakes so tall it looks like a television commercial prop, with bacon, eggs and toast on the side. The other has a burger with onions, pickles and jalapeños and a bucketful of fries. It’s hard to believe that all that food could possibly fit into her thin frame. Then again, my guess is that this is the first time in a couple of days she’s bothered to eat anything of substance. That’s the way she operates. Binge and starve. Not just with food: work, men, booze, et cetera. I have to hand it to her, when she turns her attention to something, she gives it all she’s got.
She’s leaning over her food, attacking it. In defense against the late June heatwave, she’s wearing a pink tank-top with the words ‘Man’s Best Friends’ plastered across the front. It’s a loose top, and it hangs down as she leans over, exposing her cleavage and the black bra she’s wearing. My eyes are drawn with unintentional lechery. I don’t realize I’m staring, mainly because I’m not seeing Yvette at all; I’m back in the white room.
‘See anything you like?’ she asks without looking up. ‘What?’ My tone is defensive.
She looks at me. ‘What’s the big deal, Slick? You’ve seen ’em before.’
I laugh. ‘When we were fourteen.’
‘I was an early bloomer; they haven’t gotten any bigger.’
She leans and glances over at me. ‘I hope, for your sake, the same isn’t true on your side of the table.’
‘You get anything interesting tonight?’
She shakes her head. ‘It was God-awful. I spent about an hour with this middle-aged woman who’s managed to find an old high-school boyfriend. They meet in the same shared LifeScene over and over and over. They stand there in this Eighties disco – not a very nice one, either – and trade stories about their kids and tell each other how unhappy they are in their marriages. They won’t touch each other, though. Not even In-World. I’m like: Jesus Christ, get it over with!’
‘Maybe they don’t want to.’
‘Oh, they want to. Her heartrate peaks at around one-fifty, and I can see the look he’s got in his eyes. For whatever reason, though, they can’t seem to get past it all. Don’t they realize it’s not real? I mean, it’s not actually cheating.’
‘Don’t get all philosophical on me – it’s a fantasy.’ She pauses long enough to fit half her burger in her mouth. ‘It’s harmless,’ she muffles through the food.
I take a sip of my coffee. It’s all I’ve ordered; turns out I wasn’t hungry after all. ‘Maybe it’s not harmless to them. I mean, what made them look for each other after all this time? Both of them are married, right? They’re middle-aged, they’ve got kids, they’ve got lives that are flying around them faster than they can deal with, and yet they found the time to make this connection?’
‘That’s my point. Why not just dive into the full fantasy?
That’s what they’re there for.’
‘If they do that, it becomes real, doesn’t it? At that point, they have fully admitted – to themselves and to each other – how unhappy they really are. And if they can take that step in NextLife, what’s to stop them from taking that step outside in reality?’
‘Well, first of all, she lives in Atlanta and he lives in Spokane.’
‘Distance can be overcome.’
‘It’s totally different, though, Nick. Just because you do something online doesn’t mean you’re gonna do it in the real world.’
‘No, I suppose it doesn’t,’ I agree. I’m playing devil’s advocate, I realize, and I’m getting tired. If I keep it up, we’ll still be here two hours from now, and I’ve got an important day tomorrow, so I can’t let that happen. I have to cut things short. ‘You going back to the office?’ I ask.
She nods. ‘I’ve got to. I’ve got another twenty hours I’ve got to make up before Friday or I’m gonna be short on my time sheets. You’d know that, if you were even a half-assed boss.’
‘I’ve never worried about your ability to get the work done,’ I say. ‘You have better stamina than anyone I’ve ever met for crawling around in other people’s fucked-up fantasies.’
‘Hey, it beats working for a living. You going back?’
I shake my head. ‘I’ve got a management meeting at ten, and I’d like to get a little sleep before then.’
‘Management meeting, huh? We talkin’ IPO?’
I smile at her. Some secrets I can still keep to myself. ‘Come on,’ I say. ‘I’ll walk you back.’
‘Why? You think I can’t take care of myself?’
She is a rare specimen. ‘I’m not worried about you,’ I say. ‘I’m trying to protect the muggers.’
The drive home feels apocalyptic. It’s nearing two in the morning, and the streets are deserted. The traffic lights blink from green to yellow to red without purpose, like lonely reminders of a civilization long passed. The people are gone, but the machines we have created to manage our lives move sadly along. I cross the threshold from the liberal college enclave of Cambridge into the working-class neighborhood of Charlestown, where generations have lived in proximity to the wealth of Boston, feeding off it, making their living as hard-working painters and plumbers and handymen to the elite on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay. It’s a town that’s proud of its heritage and of its gruff, blue-collar ways; proud even of the strain of local criminal gangs that filters through the projects. It’s a place where the hard are revered and the soft are swallowed.
No one is prouder of Charlestown and all it stands for than my mother. She’s lived here her entire life, and has made it clear that she will never leave. Not while she’s breathing, and not thereafter. She purchased her cemetery plot down by the O’Brien Highway in cash to make sure there are no issues with her being planted here for good.
I love Ma. I know it seems unnecessary to verbalize that; I mean, every boy loves his mother, right? And yet for me, it’s not always as easy as that. Ma’s a hard woman. Hard and demanding. Always has been. Her father was in the rackets back in the days when the gangs had real muscle. She grew up in that world, and it’s where she’s always felt most comfortable. My father was part of that world, too, until he was killed in an accident when I was seven. I was told he fell off a ladder on a construction job. I stopped believing that when I was ten.
Funny thing is, I think Ma was always disappointed that I never went that way. I could have. I started hanging out with a pretty tough crowd when I was younger, and I was respected. I could have ended up being a leader in what’s left of that world, but discovered I was different. It wasn’t fear; I think I was bred to disregard fear. It’s just that I always liked school. I liked learning, and I loved computers. That’s how Yvette and I first became friends. I actually think Ma was ashamed when I got the scholarship to MIT.
Truth be told, I didn’t fit in much in college, either. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the most prestigious universities in America – a mecca for the offspring of the rich elite and wonder-geek geniuses alike. I fell into neither camp. I was a tough working-class kid dropping my ‘r’s and scratching my head at all the bullshit I’d never encountered before. I think my hard exterior made it a little difficult to make friends, and my hard interior made it tough for me to care. As a result, I dove into the work, and loved having the facilities to learn how computers really operate. In that sense, it was one of the best times of my life.
That’s where I was four years ago, doing a joint program with split concentrations in computer science and business when the recession hit. The market crashed, and the savings Ma had from the insurance settlement she got after my father’s ‘accident’ disappeared. Two months later she was diagnosed with cancer and, without any health insurance, it was clear that she wasn’t going to survive alone. I quit school and moved back in to help out. Some mothers would have told their only child to stay in school and would have suffered through, in the quiet hope of a better life for the next generation. I would have been the first in my family to graduate from college. My mother, though, is a realist, and a firm believer in the debt children owe their parents. Like I say, I love Ma, in part because she is as hard as the town I call home.
I don’t know what we would have done if it hadn’t been for NextLife. The company literally saved us. I was the fifteenth employee hired. When I joined, I never haggled over my salary. The only thing I cared about was making sure that Ma would be on my insurance. They threw in the stock because that’s what they assumed everyone wanted. And they were right for the most part; pretty much everyone else getting into the startup was looking for the big score. Not me. I was looking for enough work to feed me and Ma. I took the stock because it was given, but I never thought about it. Sometimes you get lucky.
Soon we’ll be able to move anywhere we want. If things work out the way everything is lining up, I’ll be able to buy Ma the biggest townhouse on the top of Beacon Hill. A place so high up, we can look down on everyone around us. I’d like to do that for her – show her what her boy has accomplished.
Ma, of course, won’t even talk about it. Like I said, she was born in Charlestown, and she’ll die here; that’s her view and she’s sticking to it. As for me . . . well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Sometimes I think it would be nice to go back and get my degree. It’s something that still nags at me. I hate leaving things unfinished.
I pull into the driveway of the house I grew up in. It’s a little clapboard two-bedroom set flush to the street about two blocks from the projects. The neighborhood is solid but gritty – a lower-middle-class Irish faux-ghetto wedged in between the projects and the posh townhouses up on Monument Square. When politicians talk about ‘The Real America’, this is the place they’re talking about, and Ma is the person they’re talking to. These days there seem to be fewer places like this, and fewer people like Ma.
I pull open the screen door and reach into my pocket for my keys, but I can see that the main wooden door is slightly ajar. I shake my head and push it in.
The television is on in the parlor. I can hear the chattering of some twenty-four-hour news channel, and around the corner I can see Ma’s feet sticking out from the couch, resting on the ancient fraying ottoman. I grab a beer from the refrigerator and walk to the parlor entryway.
‘They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about!’ Ma barks at me. She waves an angry hand at the screen. ‘These people just don’t fuckin’ know!’
‘Ma,’ I say. ‘It’s two-thirty in the morning.’
‘That makes it alright to talk shit on television?’
‘What are you doing up?’
‘I couldn’t sleep. It’s all the goddamned pills they’ve got me on. I swear, sometimes I think they don’t know what they’re talkin’ about either, these doctors. They’re children. They don’t understand what it is to be old.’
‘Fifty-four ain’t old, Ma.’ I slip into street dialect around my mother. It’s weird, but I think it makes her feel more comfortable.
‘It is if it’s the fifty-four years I’ve lived.’ She stirs in her chair, her hand going to her lips, forgetfully. Her fingers linger there for a moment, as though there’s something they are supposed to be doing. I wonder: if I wasn’t there, would she still be smoking? Even with the oxygen tank strapped to her face, the tubes running to her nose, the rumble in her chest like the approach of a loaded eighteen-wheeler, would she still be pouring the fire into her lungs? I think she probably would.
‘Help me carry this thing up,’ she says gesturing toward the oxygen tank. ‘I can’t watch this shit anymore.’ I give her my arm and pull her to her feet. ‘How’s work?’
‘Strange business.’ She shakes her head. ‘I’ll never understand it. How do you people make any money doing what you do?’ She gives me a sharp look. ‘You make sure they ain’t running a scam on you, you hear?’
‘They’re gonna make me rich, Ma. You’ll see.’ I smile at her. ‘I’ll be able to get you whatever you want.’
‘What would I want?’
‘I don’t know. A better house?’
‘You think there’s something wrong with this house?’ she demands. ‘I love this house.’
‘Then I’ll buy you another one, just for fun. Maybe I’ll buy you Mabel Mullarkey’s house? You never liked her, right? So, I’ll buy her house and we can tear it down, just for spite. That’d cheer you up, wouldn’t it, Ma?’
She laughs at that. ‘It just might. That bitch, always makin’ eyes at your father.’ I follow her up the narrow staircase and into her bedroom. ‘I’ll read,’ she says. It takes a moment for her to get situated, getting the oxygen tanks and tubes set just so.
‘You want anything else, Ma?’ I ask. ‘Something to drink?’ ‘I’m fine,’ she says. She looks up at me from her bed. ‘You’re a good boy, you know that, Nick? I had my doubts for a while, but you turned out okay.’
‘Thanks, Ma. I love you, too.’ I close the door to her room and pad down the hallway. I have an important meeting in just a few hours and I’d like to get a little sleep before then.
As I’m walking to my bedroom, my cellphone buzzes and I look at it. It’s an automatic notification from the NextLife system, letting me know that De Sade is online again. One of the things we’ve learned in our research is that our users often go back to their favorite fantasies again and again to relive the scene – to make modifications and elaborate on them. I’m hoping that De Sade likes the LifeScene I was in today enough to go back to it, so before I left work I adjusted my administrator’s settings to buzz me whenever he goes on the site. I’m desperate to see if he’s with my girl. That’s how I think of her now – my girl. It’s a bad sign, and I know it, but I can’t help myself; I have to see her again if I can. There’s a part of me, even now, when it’s nearly three in the morning and I’m fifteen minutes from the office, nagging me to go in; torturing me with the possibility that I might be missing a chance to see her.
I dismiss the thought and climb into bed. It’s too late, and he’d probably be offline before I could even get to the office. I need sleep, so I turn off the light. I know, though, that I will spend the hours lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about my girl from De Sade’s LifeScene, unable to get her out of my head.
I realize, to my chagrin, that I’ve become obsessed.
My meeting the next morning is at NextLife headquarters out in Brighton. It’s just across the Charles, a couple miles down the river, but a world away. Because of the sensitive nature of what my research division does, we’re kept separate, in the dark isolated basement of a nondescript building. By contrast, the company’s headquarters is in a gleaming new, twenty-story structure out by the New Balance building. It towers over the highway with spectacular views of downtown Boston to the east. A green neon sign on the top of the building screams the company’s logo. It’s not very subtle, but that’s the way it’s always been with overnight online successes. It’s all about branding. It’s all about getting your name out there and making it ‘top-of-mind’ for every single human being when they log onto the Internet. Building the brand is paramount. Revenue comes later . . . hopefully.
To be fair, NextLife wasn’t initially built solely on its brand. It actually has real technology behind it. It’s an online portal that allows people to interact in ways they never dreamed of before. It’s essentially Facebook, Second Life and Google all rolled into one. People can chat, talk, email and buzz each other. They can share interests and have video conferences at the touch of a button. But that’s not the real draw. The real draw is the ability to create LifeScenes. In LifeScenes, people can essentially do whatever they want – be whomever they want. They can go diving off the Great Barrier Reef, or attend a Rolling Stones concert from the 1970s, or take batting practice against Babe Ruth – either by themselves or with others online – all while sitting on their couch. They can create other people to interact with using our templates, and they can explore their deepest dreams and their darkest fantasies in safety.
It’s not like we invented the concepts – online communities using avatars that enable people to interact in real time with each other have been popular since the turn of the millennium. World of Warcraft had millions of users long before NextLife wrote its first line of code. NextLife, though, has come pretty close to perfecting the implementation. Our avatar technology and sensory units represent a quantum leap forward in development. They make the user-experience so realistic it can be difficult to tell the difference between a NextLife LifeScene and reality. Sometimes it’s disconcerting how lifelike it all seems. That is the key to the company’s success.
And the success has been astounding. The company was started five years ago; within two years the company’s estimated value rivaled Yahoo. When we added social networking as a component of the NextLife experience, the company grew even faster. We passed AOL in estimated stock value last year, and we’re expecting to rival companies like Google and Facebook within the next two years. It’s all been very exciting. On paper, even with my paltry holdings, I’m already worth somewhere between fifteen and twenty million dollars, depending on fluctuations in the daily market.
Of course, the phrase ‘on paper’ is the rub. I can’t convert that to real money until the people who run the company figure out the long-term capitalization strategy. At one point we were considering a private sale to a combination of private equity funds. We’ve grown too large for that now, though, and it’s likely that the only rational way out is an initial public offering. It makes sense, but it has everyone at the company anxious. It’s a complicated process that involves the corporate equivalent of a proctological exam. As with all overnight Internet successes, there’s a nagging question as to whether our valuation is rational. While we’re rapidly becoming one of the most visited websites in the world, we’re still figuring out how to translate that into actual revenue. The founders initially had the view that any revenue model – whether it was a pay-as-you-go subscription or the clutter of advertising – would kill the concept in its infancy. I’m not sure the word ‘profit’ was even uttered at the company for the first three years. Now that we are considering going public, it seems that it’s all anyone can focus on.
Eight months ago the founders created a new division – the Division of Revenue Generation – headed up by Tom Jackson and tasked with figuring out the most effective way of translating the company’s brand dominance into fiscal growth. Tom was the one who brought me into the company four years ago. He was an assistant professor at MIT, and one of my few friends when I was in college. He used to joke with me that he and I were the smartest two people at the university and yet we were two of the poorest. He seemed to find some righteous irony in this, but eventually watching others cash in on technological development became too much for him, and he jumped ship to the private sector to seek his fortune. When he heard about Ma’s diagnosis and the fact that I’d left school, he pulled me into the company and has been a mentor to me since I started at NextLife.
Tom and I have worked closely on one aspect of the revenue initiative, called Project Touchpoint. The goal is to figure out what new additional sensory equipment people will be willing to pay for. We’ve extended the gloves past the elbows and expanded the headgear to include olfactory capability and better audio. We’ve also started marketing more intimate accessories for those who are looking for a more complete sexual experience In-World.
Figuring out what people will pay for involves digging into their most private fantasies and watching them do things they would never give permission for if they knew people were watching. It’s a necessary evil, though. After all, you can’t figure out ways of generating revenue unless you understand how it is people use the site. Besides, no one will ever know that they are being watched, and we take great pains to make sure no one’s identity can ever be discovered.
Project Touchpoint is the only aspect of the company’s plans that has actually managed to generate significant revenue at this point. I’ve been amazed at the rate at which people have been willing to shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the most advanced sex toys for their online enjoyment. Today’s meeting is to present Tom’s results on other fronts. Even I don’t know what to expect.
I park my six-year-old Corolla in the lot at headquarters.
I’m really looking forward to a new car. Don’t get me wrong, the Corolla’s a good, dependable vehicle. It’s never let me down. But there are few people in the world with my technical net worth driving Corollas. I could easily get a loan for a nice car based on my holdings in the company, but that’s not my way. I associate loans with the loan-sharking my father did, and with the spiral of failure those who take the easy option find themselves in. As a result, I won’t buy what I can’t pay for in cash.
I take the express elevator to the twentieth floor and step out into a blinding display of corporate success. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the reception area face east, out toward Boston, giving a sweeping view of the city. It’s only eight-thirty, so the sun still hangs over the horizon behind the Prudential Center and streams aggressively through the glass, ricocheting off the gleaming white, frosted glass of the reception desk and the conference-room walls, attacking the eyeballs. The floors are hardwood, polished to a fine sheen. Everything is pristine. The reception area is filled with the twenty or so top executives.
You can tell what people do at the company just by their clothes. The head of the software-development team has on rumpled khakis, New Balance 574s and a flannel shirt buttoned to the top. It would be a quirky look even if temperatures weren’t going to reach the nineties by noon. He clearly doesn’t get out much.
The head of marketing is dressed in a lightweight suit with a cool-looking button-down shirt. His thick hair is slicked back, and he looks like someone you’d never trust, but would probably still buy something from, if he deigned to talk to you.
The finance guys are in pinstripes. They’re dealing with investment bankers just about every day now, and it’s like they’ve been infected with some weaponized germ developed in the back rooms at Goldman Sachs. They’re turning into the corporate Borg before our eyes.
I look down at my own clothes and wonder what people assume about me, from the outside. I’m wearing jeans pulled down over the old leather boots I’ve had since I was eighteen. I was self-conscious enough when I left the house to put on a button-down shirt, and my leather jacket is old and beaten enough to look intentionally stylish. Beyond that, I still have the hard-raised look of a street kid.
The door to the conference room is closed, and those of us in management’s second echelon mill about exchanging nods and smiles. The company has become so striated that I don’t know half of their names. They look at me warily; they know I run what is known affectionately here at corporate as the ‘black-ops’ end of the business. I stand against the wall, letting the low hum of polite conversation blend with the song from the car radio that is still caught in my ear.
Suddenly there is a shout from behind the conference room doors. It’s an angry bark, the tone clear even though the words get lost in the thick oak. The executives waiting for the meeting go silent and look nervously at each other. Faces flush and eyes turn toward the floor.
Another shout follows, and then a tirade with the rhythm and intensity of the ocean beating on the shore during a hurricane. Now the uncomfortable smiles on those around me have turned to anxious frowns. Everyone is staring at the door, but no one is moving. I step slowly forward and those around me move back, their cowardice outbattling their curiosity. For me, that’s a battle curiosity wins every time, sometimes to my detriment.
I am nearly to the door, and the shouting continues inside. As I draw close, I can make out a word here and there, but the nature of the conversation is still lost in the wood paneling. I reach out for the handle that runs the length of the door, and just as my hand touches the cold brass there is a crash from inside the room. It’s like an explosion and I pull my hand back involuntarily. Everyone behind me gasps. I hesitate for just a moment, looking at the door. The shouting has stopped. I reach out again, grab the handle and pull.
The door comes open easily, pushed from behind, and Josh Pinkerton, the CEO and one of the founders of NextLife, stands in the door smiling, his arms wide, the reflection of the sun off his teeth bright enough to blind.
‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ he calls to everyone in the reception area. ‘Thank you for coming! Please, come in.’ He looks over toward the receptionist. ‘Louise, we lost a vase. Can you have someone come in and clean?’
I am standing there, my hand still on the door handle, less than a foot from Pinkerton. No one in the reception area has moved. Pinkerton looks over at me, the smile still on his face, and I want to duck to avoid the reflection. I don’t, though. Instead I flash my merely mortal smile back at him. It seems a poor trade, and Pinkerton claps me on the shoulder. ‘Nick!’ he says with more enthusiasm than is necessary. ‘So good of you to crawl out of the basement for this! Please come in.’
‘Thanks, Josh,’ I say. ‘Glad to be here.’ I walk through the doors. Tom Jackson is in the room, as is Dr Santar Gunta, the mastermind behind NextLife’s technology, and Heinrich NetMaster, NextLife’s Dutch head of security. NetMaster is the name he chose when he came to this country, several years ago. He is an intimidating presence at six foot six inches tall and over 300 pounds. The rumor is that he got his start in security working with organized crime in Amsterdam.
I glance at Tom, and he flashes me a warning look that tells me I don’t want to ask any questions. I take a seat at the long conference table, and watch as the others stream in and take their own places. The receptionist hurries in with a broom and a dustpan and quickly sweeps up the vase that lies broken in the corner like a murder victim no one wants to acknowledge.
It should be an interesting meeting at least, I figure.
‘We’re close,’ Pinkerton says. He looks out at those around the table, smiling again, making eye contact with everyone. The sun has risen enough that as it streams through the window it no longer flashes from his teeth, but still casts a warm glow on his permatan. It makes him seem almost human. ‘We’re very, very close.’ He looks at Tom Jackson. ‘As you all know, eight months ago I appointed Tom Jackson to head up a new Revenue Generation Division. His first undertaking, Project Touchpoint, has been an enormous success, and the growth in our sensual hardware line has quadrupled the company’s overall revenue. Of course, hardware will only get us so far, right? We need to generate other forms of revenue as well. We all know what the ultimate goal is: to launch our IPO as the most highly valued company in history. We can meet that goal if – and only if – we can show Wall Street enough income to justify our current value estimations. Tom, do you want to tell them where we stand?’
Tom clears his throat. ‘Obviously revenue generation in an environment that is, by its design, as completely organic as NextLife, is a challenge. From the company’s founding we have recognized that traditional methods of revenue generation are incompatible with the entire notion of what it is that we offer. Advertising, in the traditional sense, is likely to clutter both the site and the experience for our users, and turn people off. Similarly, a pay-per-use or paid membership scenario would, by our estimates, cut our users by seventy percent. That would be devastating to our profile at this crucial high-growth point in the company’s history. We don’t even know if the company would survive long-term in such a scenario.’
‘We all understand the challenges,’ Josh says sharply. ‘What are the solutions?’
‘We have several that are in development,’ Tom says. ‘The first is a new spin on advertising. It would be an ad-insert tool that would allow us to actually place product endorsements within users’ LifeScenes – advertising which the user wouldn’t even know was placed there. They could be walking down the street in the LifeScene, and a sponsor’s car could drive by. It would blend into the scene, but give advertisers a way of reaching subliminally In-World. A sign on a wall in someone’s LifeScene would have one of our advertisers’ ads. It would also be targeted based on the information Nick Caldwell and his black-ops team could supply about particular users and groups of users, so that someone who is an outdoor adventurer in the LifeScenes would be matched with outdoor products, while someone who attends virtual concerts would get music-related advertisements.’
‘What have advertisers’ reactions been?’ Pinkerton asks. I can tell he already knows the answer.
Tom hesitates before answering, glancing at Josh with impotent frustration. ‘It’s been luke-warm. But I think it will grow. . . ’
‘Just give us the numbers.’ Josh’s words are like tacks from a pneumatic gun, pinning Tom to the wall by his clothes. Tom looks around the table. I can tell from the expressions that the primary sentiment of those seated is relief that they are not Tom at this moment. Tom takes a deep breath. ‘Six percent on the high side.’
‘Is that number for potential interest, or actual purchase?’
‘That’s interest,’ Tom says heavily.
‘And purchase? What’s that number?’
‘It’s not something we have pushed . . . ’
‘What’s the purchase number?’
Tom pauses for a long moment. ‘Zero.’
‘Zero,’ Pinkerton repeats. The word falls like a dead skunk on the table. Everyone just stares at it, their eyes glazed, their collective breath held.
Josh Pinkerton stands, walks over to the window and looks out at the Boston skyline. No one speaks. His hands are behind his back, and he is rocking back and forth on his heels. Finally he begins, his voice so quiet that I think at first he’s talking to himself, and those around the table have to lean in to hear.
‘I could blame Tom.’ I look over at Tom and watch his head fall. ‘That would be the easy thing to do. Blame Tom. Fire him. Tell the world that we are waiting another year to go public. I could do that, but it wouldn’t be fair.’ He takes a deep breath. ‘Do you know why that wouldn’t be fair?’
No one responds. After a moment he turns and looks at those gathered around the table. ‘Because incompetence at this level cannot be blamed on one person,’ he says with a quiet intensity. ‘Tom’s failure is your failure. Each and every one of you shares in this, and if I fire him, I will have to fire every single one of you, do you understand?’ He just stares at us, moving from person to person, meeting everyone directly in the eye. Then he walks slowly over to the table in the corner of the room and picks up a vase on the table next to the window – it looks like the twin of the one carried out in pieces a few moments before – and he hurls it across the room. It misses the head of one of the finance guys by a couple of inches and explodes against the far wall.
‘As of this moment, revenue generation is priority one for everyone around this table, do you understand?’ he asks in a voice so soft I can barely hear him. ‘We don’t need much; the Street has a hard-on so fucking big for this company, it’s ready to cum cash all over us. All we need to do is show them there is a chance – some possibility that we will eventually be able to generate revenue. We have more traffic than most sites in the world, and if you people can’t figure out how to translate that into revenue, you don’t deserve to be here.’
With that, Josh Pinkerton, the CEO and founder of NextLife, walks out of the conference room. NetMaster follows him. Slowly the people around the table start to get up to leave. ‘I need to see all department heads,’ Tom Jackson says. ‘Downstairs in ten minutes. We need to map out a strategy.’
No one responds. I walk over to Tom and pat his shoulder. ‘It’ll be alright.’
He nods. ‘It will be.’ He doesn’t sound convinced. ‘Ten minutes? Downstairs?’
‘I’ll be there.’
I walk out of the conference room and head toward the elevator. As I pass the receptionist’s desk I look at her. ‘Louise,’ I say, ‘We lost another vase in there.’
Excerpted from Game of Death by David Hosp. Copyright © 2014 by David Hosp.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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