Excerpt from Virtual Murder (buy from Amazon.com 2.99$)
Monkey had spent a most fascinating night. First the helicopter ride, then the taxi, and then there was the Net headquarters. He had been so happy to meet Mitch, with whom he felt an instant and deep affinity. His hand had been comfortably warm, not cool and damp, or quivery, like the Net Rep called Frank Dinde. Furthermore, Mitch had truly spoken to him, not treating him like a mutant. He had looked at him straight and even joked around and helped him choose what to eat from the buffet table at the cafeteria.
Mitch was his friend, he felt sure of that. He hadn’t wanted to go to his room by himself so Mitch had suggested they share a double room.
Monkey was grateful. He had been terribly apprehensive about sleeping alone in a strange room in a bed. Beds were something he’d never had to get used to; his body had always floated in a buoyant cloud. After only one day out of his case, his muscles were sore and he ached all over from the stress and strain of remaining upright. He had good muscle tone and wasn’t exhausted, but he felt worn out, fragile, and he was thankful Mitch volunteered to room with him. No one else had wanted to.
Now he opened his eyes and sat up. There was no light, so he got out of bed and raised the window shades. The pale light of dawn flooded the room. It cast a faint pink glow on Mitch’s face, and he moaned in his sleep and put his arm over his eyes.
Monkey perched on the end of Mitch’s bed and waited patiently for him to awake. After a few minutes, he felt the urge to go to the facilities and he did so. Then he put his wet boxer shorts into the sink. He looked at his face in the mirror for a while. He brushed his teeth, which he liked doing very much. He brushed his hair as well and then took a bath, filling it first with cold water, then adding hot.
The bath overflowed onto the floor, but that was all right. There were plenty of towels to soak up the water. When he finished, he discovered that all the towels were wet, so he padded around the room naked, waiting to dry off. He started to shiver. He woke Mitch by shaking him none too gently.
“What? What is it?” Mitch asked groggily.
“I have bumpy skin and my teeth chatter.”
Mitch groaned, turned on the light and peered at Monkey. “You’re naked. Put some clothes on. You’re just cold, that’s all,” he added, reaching out and touching his arm.
“I’m cold,” Monkey agreed. “You’re warm. Move over.” He crawled into the bed with Mitch and huddled next to him, trembling. Mitch uttered a loud sigh, and then he moved over. Monkey’s body relaxed. He snuggled into the warmth of the bed and sighed happily. “Thank you, Mitch. You saved my life.”
Mitch uttered a surprised laugh. “Don’t be silly. Next time you take a bath, dry off and get dressed quickly. That way you won’t get chilled. Are you feeling better now?”
“So much better.” Monkey sighed deeply, then he paused. “You know, it’s funny, but my little pal, as you call him, isn’t so little anymore.”
Mitch rolled over and raised his eyebrows at Monkey. “What do you mean?”
“He’s quite stiff and pointing. I feel, I don’t know, strange somehow.” His voice rose and quavered in fear. “Am I dying again? Am I sick?”
Mitch’s mouth twitched, but his expression remained serious. “It’s normal. Your body is telling you that it’s feeling horny. In your virtual worlds, didn’t you ever…” He sat up and frowned. “Get up, Monkey, I’m going to take you to breakfast. We’ll talk about this in more detail.”
“I’m not sick?” Monkey asked. His fright was ebbing. He wondered why Mitch looked so solemn all of a sudden, though.
“No, not at all.”
“I can’t get dressed. My shorts are all wet and the zipper is broken on my pants.”
Mitch dug through his suitcase and found some extra clothes. “Here are some clean shorts and pants. Didn’t Professor Toutbon give you anything to wear?”
“Only one outfit.” Monkey put on Mitch’s clothes and admired himself in the mirror. “I look very nice in blue. We have the same color eyes. Except mine are darker blue and yours are very, very pale. I like your eyes better. I wish mine would look like yours.”
Mitch smiled and patted his shoulder. “Yours are great, don’t worry. Come on; let’s go out to eat. I saw a diner from the window that should be open.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s nearly six a.m., the best time of day for hash browns.”
“You’re going to love them.”
“What about my mask?”
Mitch shook his head. “I don’t think they’ll let us out if you wear it. Look, I imagine you’ve had your vaccinations and all your shots, or you wouldn’t be here. A few germs won’t hurt you. Just don’t touch any doorknobs, all right? Hey, that’s a joke. Lighten up. Smile!”
Monkey felt shaky and unsure of himself. But going out to eat something sounded good, so he pasted a stiff smile on his face and followed Mitch, being careful not to touch the doorknob. Joke or no joke; he wasn’t taking any chances. Professor Toutbon had managed to frighten him with his stories about germs.
They walked down the stairs to the lobby. Mitch nodded politely to the guard and gave him false names. Monkey wondered about that, but the guard opened the door and Mitch dragged him outside before he could ask. They went across the street to the diner and sat on shiny red seats. Monkey loved the napkin holder and would have pulled all the napkins out if Mitch hadn’t stopped him.
Mitch ordered for both of them while Monkey amused himself with the saltshaker. The hash browns arrived and Monkey loved them. They were so crunchy and tender, so salty and sweet. He put a bit of egg on them and tried that, then ate some toast. He adored the tartness of orange juice, thought coffee was bitter, and bacon made him sneeze for some reason. The waitress, a pretty girl with a red dress and a little pin that said ‘I’m Sarah,’ poured coffee into their cups whenever the level dropped the slightest bit.
Mitch took his time explaining the facts of life to Monkey, who gave him all his attention.
“You’re saying that sex is something men and women do together for recreation?” Monkey asked.
“Men and women, yes, but also men and men, and women and women. The important thing is not the act but the emotion that accompanies it. It’s called love. When you fall in love with someone, you want to spend the rest of your life with him or her. You want to have children and grow old with that person at your side. Sex is just a tiny part of the whole picture. Unfortunately, it’s a very strong impulse.”
“You’re saying I should learn how to control this impulse?” Monkey asked, his face serious.
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“You also said that if I do something called masturbation, it would be easier to control?” “Right again.” Mitch grinned. “You learn very quickly.”
“If I understand correctly, I should use my hand to satisfy the strange urgency in my pal, wait until I fall in love with someone, and then have sex.”
“It sounds rather cold-blooded if you put it like that, but yes, I think that’s what I would tell my own son.”
“What exactly do I do with my hand?” Monkey’s face was perfectly candid as he asked this question.
Mitch choked on his hash browns. “Haven’t you ever gone to a chat room on sex?” he asked.
“No.” Monkey raised his eyebrows. “Will I learn all there is to know about sex on the Net?”
“You might learn the mechanics, but sexual feelings in virtual worlds have been repressed by the Net Government. Still, I suppose you could go to a sex education site and read about it.”
Sarah poured some more coffee. “You know, I’ll be glad to help you, if you need a hand.” She blushed as she said this, but her eyes didn’t leave Monkey’s face.
He stared, fascinated. “Are you a real woman?”
“I’m about to go on break. Why don’t you follow me and find out?” She put the coffeepot down on the table and walked to a door in the back of the room.
“I can’t go in there,” Monkey said, agitatedly. “It has the wrong icon!”
“If you’re invited, you can go wherever you want,” Mitch said. “It’s up to you now.” “What would you do in my place?” he asked.
Mitch tilted his head. “In your place? I don’t know.” He drew a little circle in the spilled salt on the table. “When this is over, you’ll be taken back to the Center, won’t you?”
Monkey nodded. “Why do you look sad, Mitch?”
Mitch shrugged. “After all my talk about true love and how to handle sexual frustration, I just realized you’re going back to your case, and it won’t ever apply to you, that’s all.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” Monkey asked. “Are you saying I should follow I’m Sarah?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Mitch brushed the salt off the table with the flat of his hand. “Go on. This might be your one chance to find out what the fuss is all about.”
Monkey wasn’t sure what Mitch meant, but the door with the woman’s icon still beckoned. He rose, his heart starting to thump in his chest. Whatever was behind that door was more frightening than all the monsters of Zorg and more exciting than any game he’d ever played. Carefully, without touching the doorknob, he entered the room.
Mitch sipped his coffee slowly. Monkey had been gone for twenty minutes by his watch. Then the waitress came out, her face flushed, patting her hair down and straightening her skirt. Monkey followed a few moments later. He drifted across the room and sat down, a huge smile on his face.
“Well?” asked Mitch. Monkey’s dazed expression reminded him of the first time he made love to Sally. He couldn’t suppress a grin.
“I’m never going back to my glass case.” Monkey’s face was very pale and his navy blue eyes glittered. “That is the most amazing feeling, as if my insides were turning upside-down. I don’t know if it’s love, but it must be close. I feel as if I could jump to the top of the building and float down.”
“You can’t. It’s the real world here. But it sounds like Sarah knew what she was doing.” “She did.” Monkey took a sip of his orange juice and sighed deeply. “Wow.”
All day long, Carlos thought about what Mahler had said. He couldn’t concentrate on his job; his mind was on the alien floating dreamlike in his cloudy world.
“Cage, cage,” he muttered. “Why did he let that slip? Was it intentional? Why did he warn us about Dr. Djusky?” The questions went unanswered, just as his work went unfinished while he stared pensively at the poster in his cubbyhole of an office.
Finally he went into the system and called up the conversation they’d had that morning on his monitor. He studied it carefully, tapping a pencil against his teeth as he tried to recall the mutant’s expressions. Not that he’d had very many. His face had been like marble, with the same chilly perfection as stone.
Several phrases caught his attention, though.
He put his face in his hands and thought. What he wanted to do was to speak to the tribal elders about all this, but he didn’t have the time.
When the five o’clock buzzer sounded in the complex, Carlos donned a white lab coat, put a call through to Laurel, and took the elevator back down to the mutants’ level. In his hand was a small paper. Upon the paper were several questions he needed Mahler to answer. Then he would talk to his elders and they would tell him what to do.
Laurel accompanied him. One of her particular talents, directly linked to her deafness, was her ability to read facial and body expressions.
Mahler was waiting for them. His face, pressed close to the glass, was unearthly in its beauty. Mist obscured most of his naked body, but his smooth, powerful shoulders were visible. Laurel had never used sign language with the mutants. There were not many times when she’d had the opportunity to communicate with them, even though she was Toutbon’s assistant. In fact, she avoided them whenever possible. The beautiful, otherworldly faces in their foggy cases disturbed her.
Now, as she drew near, she tried to concentrate on each of Mahler’s movements, to perceive a hidden meaning behind his words. She stood at Carlos’s shoulder, able to see the screen and the case at the same time. The first questions were easy, and Mahler answered them readily.
“Will you please explain what you meant when you said that M-9, M-10 and M-11 could change time?”
“Sometimes they can stretch out spaces of time so that they are doubled or tripled. The scientists have been trying to understand the mechanics of their talent, but they have yet to comprehend. We use them with the virtual tours to make the three days seem like a week. Hadn’t you wondered about that?”
“I didn’t realize that,” Carlos murmured. He typed, “The scientists haven’t made any of their studies about that particular aspect of the mutants known yet.”
Laurel caught the barest flicker in Mahler’s eyes. She was troubled by the way the interview was going. There was too much revealed on Carlos’s side, and Mahler was doing his best to withhold important information, she was sure.
Carlos moved on to the next two questions. “You told us that you considered the last group of mutants the youngsters. Mentally, you said, they were more advanced than you were, but emotionally you placed them on a fifteen-year-old level. Can you be more explicit? How do mutants mature? Do they experience an adolescence as we know it and what role do hormones play in your body’s development?”
Mahler’s mouth quirked. “Ah, Carlos. I can see what you’re leading up to, but I will answer you anyway. We have the same emotions that you have. Fear, hate, love, joy, even lust are born in our minds, but our bodies are not like yours. They are half machine, half alive, and do not respond to your stimuli. Our hormones are the same as yours, but we discipline them. We live in worlds of our own making, and any emotions we need to exorcise or want to empower are ours to control. From what I gather of the real world, most of the time you cannot control your emotions or your reactions. We not only control them, we create them or destroy them. We live in our own worlds, so you can imagine that we form them to suit our various needs.”
Carlos looked thoughtful. “Another question, please. Have you read the transcripts from the police?”
“Yes.” Mahler shifted ever so slightly in his cloud.
“Print them out for me, please,” Carlos wrote. The console hummed and a sheaf of paper slid out of a bottom drawer. Carlos perused them, hesitating at one or two places. “What do you think of their idea of using M-18 as a detective?” Carlos asked.
“I didn’t think much of the idea.” The mutant shook his head slowly. In his glass case, his hair floated around his head, weightlessly, as if he was underwater. It was almost like watching a marine creature.
“You must have some idea of what happened,” Carlos said. “Don’t you?”
“Why should I? Actually, I don’t. It’s very curious, and I will have to meditate upon it. The thing I don’t comprehend is the sexual part of the murders.”
“Do you know what the police will do with Mitch Palo?”
“I have no idea.” Mahler’s grave expression never changed.
“In the report, it says that Mr. Palo is a witness for the defense. He was a tour guide with Virtual Tours. Why do you suppose the police want him as well as M-18 in Dallas?”
Mahler turned his face, so that all they saw was his clear-cut profile. “Is that a rhetorical question, or do I have to answer?”
“I’d like you to answer,” Carlos said.
“He’s the bait,” Mahler replied, and for the first time, he smiled.