I don’t know anything about brains. I mean, hey, I love my brain—it’s great—but I know shit about it.
So I studied the scans shimmering on the screenie, hemispheres pulsing blue and lightning-gold with thoughts and breath and biological tickings-over. Two different sparkly brains: one normal, one not.
One of them was Stan’s.
And yeah, even I could see which one was fucked.
The doctor droned about comparisons and sub-normal activity, waving a laser pointer as if it were an old school Nintendo Wii baton and he was in the final level of Zelda IV. He needed to shut up, ’cause if he didn’t, I was gonna have to punch him. Or tear my hair out. Or cry.
Stan sat on the hospital bed wearing a stupid paper gown that was too small and too thin. He stared at the blank walls like a kid watching a Disney flick.
Hell, I thought, why settle for one? Punch the doctor, cry, and tear your hair out.
“So, what’re the options?” I said.
The doctor shut up. Click-clickty-click, went the pointer. On-Off-On.
It settled on Off and stayed that way.
The doctor said, “There aren’t any.”
So the beginning.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was “lol”.
We laughed—the old, immature Crazy + People = Funny equation—and joked and didn’t give a damn. Hardcore MMTs were going cuckoo? Cool. Wear-your-pants-on-your-head and reverse-down-the-highway style cuckoo? Even better.
The stories were secondhand and far from home.
Then they got closer.
“You heard MonkeyTog’s gone off the deep end?” I said.
We stood on our apartment balcony, Stan and I, leaning on the rail and sipping sparkling lemonade from champagne flutes. Below, traffic scrambled and dodged through the junction, the drivers hooting and swearing.
Stan held his glass by the rim, tipping it back and forth so the afternoon light danced with the bubbles and reflected coruscant point of light onto my shirt. He smiled, teasing, flirty. “Poor guy,” he said. “Nice, but a lightweight.”
I agreed. Monkey struggled with a dozen live avatars… and that was playing bit-cameo roles in a small Russian channel I never bothered with. Not a lot of brain power required.
On a bad day, hungover and flu-y, me and Stan could spin up 20+, no sweat required.
“Poor guy,” I echoed. “Just wasn’t up for it, I guess.”
Stan’s eyes twinkled with a light that wasn’t merely mirth; behind those baby blues, his system sparkled and calculated, showing him a world I couldn’t see. He was ON, even at the end of the day, in us-time, as he flirted on the balcony with me.
But then again, so was I.
In an alien hive, I carted a gun, standing sentinel at midnight. I taught shamanistic magic on a volcanic peak, led adventurers through grue-dark dungeons, faced an oncoming raider charge, outnumbered and about to die….
On a virtual Rhine’s green and pleasant bank, Stan and I drank caffeine spritzers and watched the ships float by.
Why only live once?
“To MonkeyTog.” I raised my glasses.
“Hmm.” Balcony-Stan agreed.
“Oh, Jessie,” Rhine-Stan purred.
But he didn’t drink. Away his concentration slipped, into the electronic ether, and though I followed, it was like chasing leaves, falling. There. Then gone.
I denied it all. Wouldn’t see it. Wouldn’t say it.
So, the brain. Back to the brain; that’s what everything comes down to.
Stan and me used ours for all they were worth. Massive Multi-Tasking. Professionals. Employees of half the bastard grandkids of World of Warcraft, spinning lives, a hundred avatars on a dozen channels. We were the Demon Lord bosses that the cheater’s scripts couldn’t defeat, the game cameos pre-programming couldn’t handle, the enemy spaceship armadas, each ship controlled by a fragment of our soul.
Massive Multi-Tasking. Not everyone can do it. No screenies or plugins: just your brain and you and an adaptor. Sink or swim. What techies have dreamed of since forever….
We met at the first Battle of Jimmyfell. He was an Archangel with a fiery sword. I thought he was gorgeous; at the moderators’ meeting—before heaven and hell broke loose—he ignored me completely.
One week before our eight anniversary, Stan’s friend Borroway sent a message.
I swayed through a nightclub full of off-duty soldiers, all hips and bosom and coy, red smile. The Stabilo Coalition anticipated victory—the end of the war—and the soldiers caroused and cheered. Servers away, a bearded sharpshooter-Jessie lurked on a rain-drenched rooftop, eye to the gunsight. A technical consultant-Jessie drowsed in a company stockholder committee, wondering how non-techies could be so stupid: the company was going down, hard.
Fingers tugged on femme-fatale-me’s sleeve. “For you,” the courier-script said. It handed me a slip of paper and then, mission accomplished, spun out.
“Meet me in Purgatory,” the message whispered. “There are things that need saying. Yours, Borroway.”
“All right, doll?” A Stabilo General beamed at me, avarice in his gaze. In-the-flesh male or female, it didn’t matter: this one was a lover of women and a loser. An easy take down.
The Server Admin didn’t think Stablio-Payra war should end too soon. That would be bad for business. That’s why I was there.
“Oh, I’m swell, thanks, now that you’re here….”
I tugged him down for a kiss, and doing so, I split my conscious another way, spinning up another life into the grey emptiness of Purgatory.
There is nothing in Purgatory. So much nothing that the mind rebels, painting half-seen, half-heard somethings to fill the emptiness.
I see forests. Stan sees a billion rainbows in the air.
I dunno what Borroway sees; some things are too intimate to ask.
Borroway was waiting, an alien merchant from one of the newer space sagas. Think Regency lord, floating lace, stiff upper-lip, done in shades of green. Borroway was a champion of ON romances—beautiful company for a price—and business was good. Gems sparkled in its hair, each worth a half-k in OFF-dollars.
Prostitution: it pays well, but the hours are crap.
I said, “Borrow! Amigo! e-Buddy! How goes it?”
It waved the question away with thin, green fingers. “Make sacrifices if you would,” Borroway said.
Translation: “Pay attention.” MMT slows you down, makes you drunk on too much life. It’s easy to forget that.
Sharpshooter-Jessie died in a rain of bullets. Tech-consultant-me walked out of the board room.
“That’s an eleven-hour job down the crapper,” I said, mildly. “What the fuck is so important?”
Purgatory shadows flitted and flickered. Illusion-ghost trees sighed, just out of sight.
“Well?” I said, impatient. I had just died. It hurt.
“Wait,” Borroway said.
Purgatory hummed. Avatars spun up: monsters, angels, aliens and beasts. Unfamiliar faces controlled by old friends.
Pau!o has logged on. Samatha has logged on, my system announced. And Teacup, Ygi-Ygi, Waverunn and more. They murmured too-casual hellos as the channel struggled with the traffic.
Freaked? Me? Oh you better F-ing believe it. I said, “What is this? Some kind of intervention?” I searched Borroway’s face.
It gazed back, impassive way only someone hired for love can be. “Yes,” it said.
Samatha, spritely and naked in a pixie body said, “It’s about Standardyear, darling. Your Stan.”
They spoke. And most of me listened.
The other part, the real world, Jessie-in-the-apartment, stumbled to a sofa. The rough hide of a cushion scratched my face, wet, drowned, a life-raft in a bottomless sea.
“You’ve noticed it, darling.” Samatha touched my cheek and I almost felt his hand.
“Dude, it’s bad. Worser daily,” Pau!o said. “The lights are on, the party’s happening, but nobody ain’t home.”
“Stan?” The apartment hummed like an overloaded channel: fridge sounds and road traffic. Passing headlights peered in through the curtains, scanned the night-shadowed room, and vanished.
Stan washed dishes at the kitchen sink, elbow deep in soapy water. He scrubbed each plate three times, rinsed, and dumped it on the draining board. And he stood there, the firefly lights of his system twinkling, humming tunelessly as he washed… and he did not answer.
Hummed like the fridge, like the traffic. Like an overloaded channel.
“Face it,” Borroway said. “He is disjointed.”
Our doctor, an old bloke that the e-revolution had left behind, referred us to the hospital. The hospital referred us to a specialist.
The specialist was a fucktard with a laser pointer and a smarmy attitude. He interrogated us—me—in a white barn of an examining room. Stark fluorescent light blazed down, and I felt small; a speck in the eye of god. Stan just sat, a statue with blue-blue eyes.
The specialist said, “When was your last extended verbal exchange?”
I gave him my best wtf? expression.
He gave me a pretty good talking-to-an-idiot voice. “Conversations? Dialogue? Talking?”
An hour ago, I wanted to say. We met in Paris. Stan was a blond Amazon warrior and I was a 20th Century Spitfire pilot. She thought the weather was beautiful.
“It was… I dunno.” I shrugged. “It was about taxes.”
“More or less than a week ago?”
I shrugged. More. I didn’t say it.
The specialist left the room without bothering with “goodbye”.
“Jessie?” Stan said.
I held his hand, my mouth as dry as the Sahara. “I’m here. You okay?”
Wires and scans and hours happened.
“Estimated to the nearest hour-per-day, how long does your partner engage in MMT activities?” the specialist asked.
I shook my head. “I dunno.” Too many to count.
I found him deep in the Lowdown Cavern Puzzle where water dripped from the cathedral ceilings, each drop a thunderclap, a tumbling echo. Dead avatars husks sprawled among the rocks—Orcs and Elves lying together, intertwined—fading slowly to nothing.
You are approaching a Level Guardian, the Game-scrip said.
And there he was, coiled around stalagmites, giant and terrible and glorious, like that Archangel, eight years ago. He shone in the dark, catching the thin light and turning it gold with a Midas touch.
The Dragon arched a serpentine neck. “Rrriddle me, Morrtal. It iss lighterr than a featherr. Can not be held for long. You releasse it, you rrequire it, and without it you sssurely die!”
Smoke curled from his jaws.
I said, “Hello, lover. Will you sacrifice and talk to me?”
Cave water dripped on to the Dragon’s back, running across emerald scales in rivulets. I waited, silent and hopeful.
The dragon smiled like a chainsaw. “Jessie! Hey, wanna hear another riddle?” No lisping snarl now: he had turned off the synth-voice.
“The doctor says you’re disjointed.”
“What is all dreams and all days, sings sweet; survives, and kills with equal breath?”
I had worked as the Dragon, too. I knew the answers.
One of them was “love”.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“The human brain adapts,” the specialist said. “It can rewire itself even after grave injury.”
The inpatient hospital room—new and foreign and full of the stench of bleach—breathed with Stan. Jagged lines danced upon wall screenies, jumping in time to his heart-beat, breath and neurological function. The tests were over; the diagnosis confirmed.
The Specialist continued, “Unfortunately, extreme exploitation of its MMT capacity can trigger a change—a rewiring—too. To handle the increased information input—”
I crumpled a tissue into a tight, white wad. “There really aren’t any options?” I said. “What happens now?”
“Everything!” the Dragon said.
“No. I’m sorry. You can only disconnect him and hope for the best.“
I brushed Stan’s hair from his eyes. He smiled, a vague smile, no chainsaw fierceness.
“Stan?” I said. “Lover? Do you think you’re disjointed?”
The Dragon sighed. He rested his head at my feet. “Does it matter?” Stan said.
I took Stan home. It wasn’t what the specialist wanted. Home didn’t include more tests, more time, more-assessing-his-condition-
Fuck that, I told him. Here’s your money; get lost.
Actually, I just paid and left. God, I was burned out.
Stan wandered the apartment in his idle way. I wondered how many channels—how many lives—he was living in.
The bastard child of autism and multiple personality disorder, the specialist called it. Disjointment. “Disconnect him. Take him OFF as soon as you can. He might improve, given time.”
By which he meant, “in a few years, you might be able to hold a semi-decent, in-the-flesh conversation.”
He called that recovery.
In the apartment across from ours, three kids played ON games, dancing around a screenie and waving mice-batons above their heads. No adaptors for them—16+ with parental permission—but they hadn’t too many years to wait. I leaned on the balcony and watched the fevered way they played. Would they become Disjointed?
“We need new curtains,” Stan said. He looked at me, made eye-contact, and was gone.
That night, cuddled against him, I fell asleep, ON. My system tucked me in—put my lives on hold—but data seeped into my dreams, coloring them purple and binary-green.
“Jessie!” Stan called. The grey trees of Purgatory loomed at his back, their branches hung with airy rainbows. “Come on!” He ran into the forest, and though I followed, the trees swallowed him up, leaving me behind, alone in shadows. Nothing of him remained, just a path and the rainbows.
I rolled over in bed blearily awake; it wasn’t Stan calling, it was the system. Someone persistent was knocking on my virtual door.
I met her in an old hang out: a Triple Life bar, paying partons only, no sightseers or media allowed. She waited in a booth, a brash, older matron in 1950s get up, complete with primped grey curls. Red-rouge blushed her cheeks, and I wondered who she was. Really was, I mean, in-the-flesh. Old? Young? Male? Female? Did she wonder the same about me?
Did it matter?
“Darling, I heard about Standardyear,” she said. “It must be rough for you.”
“Rougher for him.”
A crew of dwarfs yabbered at the barman, ordering expensive virtual liquors (lifeforce + whatever) in thick Australian accents.
“I dunno, darling. Seems to me that you’re the one in the rough. Standard’s living! Jeeze, some of the work he’s doing. Classy stuff. Three companies’re offering tenure. I’m envious.”
I stopped, brain and body frozen for so long my system queried. “What,” I said. “The. Fuck. Do you mean by that? What the fuck is there to be envious about! Hey, guys, I’ve got a fucked-up mental disorder! I’m way more hardcore than you! Is that what this is? Huh?”
The dwarfs cheered; nothing they like better than a drama for some cheap entertainment.
The matron scowled. “Darling, you need to do three things. Deep breath. Calm down. And for [censored] sake, stop cussing; we’re on a moderated channel!”
A dwarf shouted, “You tell ’em mate!”
Samatha caught the barman’s eye. “Mary! Do us a favor, there’s a good chap.” Mary-the-barman nodded; Dwarfs vanished in a puff of smoke, booted OFF.
Mary swung a thick, hairy finger at me. “Keep your voice down or you’re next.” He used a voice like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.
I wrapped arms and sullen anger around myself.
“Disjointment is a state of being! A different one,” Samatha said. “I’m headed there myself.”
In the real world, I punched a pillow flat.
“I will. And, darling, before you pass judgement—before you turn Stan OFF and really break him—ask yourself—”
But I wasn’t listening. “Sure. Whatever.”
Samatha sighed. She looks like Stan did, I thought. Like the pied piper were playing her tune and all she wanted was to follow.
“See you around, darling,” Samatha said.
The avatar spun out.
On Monday, I took a day OFF. Nothing happened in my head except the dull thoughts of Jessie-in-the-flesh, who was bored and unhappy and had nothing to do.
It felt like I had cut off half my soul and wrapped the remnants in cotton wool.
The Natural State of Man, I thought. Suck it up.
Later, I watched the evening news on a screenie, missing the stadium where we ON-lookers could gather, heckling the day and the newsreaders like it was the Rocky Horror show.
Earthquakes had rattled San Francisco. A union wanted to strike. MMT debated: boon or curse.
Guess which headline I watched.
A Senator from some backassward state thought MMT-gaming was infantile, a health and safety issue, a “debilitating risk to mental health,” and a danger “to our children”. Senator Fuckwit pledged to regulate ON workers and ON working hours, set Massive Multi-Tasking limits, increase e-taxes….
Fucked up, right?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
In a black rage, I called up a sub screenie and an airboard, and beat out a letter to the good sir, informing him exactly what I thought of his scheme, where he could put said scheme, and the brand of surgical tongs he could later use to remove it. Black letters hammered themselves across the senator’s smirking face.
“Regulation, my ass!” I said. Let Senator Fuckwit read it and die choking, secure in the knowledge that the midterm elections were going to screw him sideways.
“Send?” the system asked.
Outside, on the apartment complex’s thin stretch of lawn, Stan sat under an oak tree. He leaned against the trunk, face turned up to the sky.
Through the distance and gathering dusk, I could see the twinkling of his system, bright behind his eyes.
A debilitating risk to mental health.
“Do the right thing,” the specialist had said. “Here’s my card.”
The system queried again. “Send? Delete?”
I went outside without answering.
The rain-damp grass held Stan’s footprints in beaten-down green. Grass-clippings stuck to my hands and clothes when I eased down beside him.
Stan smiled, his gaze fixed up,up,up somewhere in the sky. A fat, solitary raindrop splattered in my hair. I called up a weather report: rain, more rain, metric fuck-tons of rain.
“How’s it going?” I said.
And then he spoke.
“God!” he said. “Jessie, look at the sky!”
The sky: unrelenting, lightless grey.
“No, Jessie! Look at the sky!”
I ran a finder-locator scrip, logged ON to a hundred servers, spun a hundred avatars out of binary and nothing.
On the Atlantic channels, the sun was setting, tumbling out of make-believe heavens in make-believe worlds trailing storms of red and gold.
On the Pacific channels, it was rising.
I stood/sat/lay next to Stan as male female and alien-other, and watched the sky burning.
Stans turned to me and smiled. “Do you see it? Do you see the sky?”
“Yeah,” I said. Raindrops shone on his face; I brushed them away. “I see it.”
January was born on a Thursday some years ago. At present, she lives in London with her goldfish and a frightening number of house plants. Her work appears in various places, including Aoife’s Kiss and Fantasy Magazine.
“Disjointed” was inspired by the feeling one gets after too many hours online, the gang of gamers at the local café, and the flatmate who got lost on her way home from the Internet and didn’t make it back until morning.