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by Mari Ness

3375 words

I would be fat for three more hours.

Not a look I normally used. But this was a special case, and I needed every advantage I could get.

Especially given the timeline. I’d been warned this room would lock down in two hours Three, at most. Still, I took a moment to scan the room, gathering and noting identities, on and offgrid. I wasn’t interested in most of them — yet.

I did know that I was definitely interested in the shining food on the table.

No one blinked an eye as I headed there and carefully loaded up my plate. After all, that’s the known advantage to being fat — you could indulge, even if you’d be paying for it later when your autosynthetic bill arrived. I went with the indulgence. I wasn’t fat very often, and this spread had some delightful stuff I didn’t usually see. I even nibbled a little as I scanned the room, seeking out my target. She wasn’t hard to find.

The hard part was suppressing my smile. I had to stuff my mouth for a moment to hide it.

My research, and the rumors I’d spread, had paid off. She’d surrounded herself with the grotesques, those who designed and flaunted hideous looks, solely to discomfort others. (It was working, too; no computer or coding could hide the sick look on one grotesque’s face.) I began to wonder if the heavy guise would be enough.

I wobbled my plate. Tricky, but it can be done, if you’re careful.

That wobble was enough. She gave me a slow nod. I could approach. She was expecting someone ordinary looking — spectacularly beautiful and rail thin with either perfectly clipped pecs or size F boobs wobbling over a thin waist. But a fat person —

A fat person wasn’t a threat.

I pulled out the dagger from under the food plate and threw it at the direct center of her chest.

A flash. A zip sound.

And her avatar was gone, as if it had never existed.

• • •

About four hours later, back to my more usual twelve-inch waist topped by double EE breasts, I faced my next two clients.

Something about them unsettled me. For once thing, they had programmed themselves to look like … well, the pre-grid sort of ordinary, except that ongrid, that sort of look was extraordinary. Oh, I’d seen people try very hard to look as “real” as possible, based on old pictures and videos lodged in various servers. But it wasn’t normal. Certainly not for my clients, whose attempt at old normal seemed an overt attempt to fit in.

Anything abnormal makes me nervous. I added a few more warning systems to my senses and set a code to investigate the full addresses of my clients. Normally, I don’t care about off grid identities as long as I’m paid. But something felt wrong about these two.

And not just because they’d asked me to call them Number One and Number Two.

“Can you codelock this room and check for worms?” Number Two asked.

Ok. Something definitely felt wrong. The request wasn’t unheard of, given my line of work. But then again, most of my clients weren’t worried about getting caught. Most expected retaliation, although the secondary point of hiring me was to avoid that sort of thing — it wasn’t easy to track them down, nor impossible. I pressed a set of buttons and ran a worm sweep.

“We’re sealed,” I said. “But bear in mind, if we’re in a sealed room for too long someone’s bound to start getting curious. So.”

Their avatars never blinked, never looked at each other, but I guessed that they were PMing each other like mad. You do this long enough and you get a sense of that.

“We’ll be quick,” said Number One, in a voice that she must have spent a million credits on: it throbbed in multiple frequencies and rang like chorded bells. If I’d actually been there, I would have shivered. It was difficult to keep my own avatar still.

Number Two leaned forward. His voice had an electronic twang; I couldn’t place the developer. “We want you to kill someone. Offgrid.”

I knew something was wrong about these two.

• • •

I still went offgrid on a regular basis. Not many other people did — except for the ones who refused to live ongrid at all, the fanatics that insisted the grid was killing us all. I wouldn’t go that far, but I found going off once a week helped my focus. Made me a better assassin.

Even if eating synthetics without the overlay of the grid was godawful.

Going offgrid was one thing. So was killing someone’s avatar, for that matter. But killing someone offgrid?

That was murder, plain and simple. Thinking about it, even my avatar had trouble breathing.

• • •

Our avatars blinked at one another.

“Quite a request,” I managed, after a moment. “Leading to the first question of why?”

Number One nodded. “Here’s part one of the file on your target.” A yellow circle flashed just in front of my avatar; I moved a hand out to touch it. “To summarize, she’s been taking orders for avatar designs. All perfectly legal, except that she’s figured out a way to tweak the code, so that her clients see one image and everyone else sees something completely different. Something hideous.”

“Sometimes it’s just a bad costume,” said Number Two. “But other times … well, she’s given avatars everything from blotched faces and weight gains to missing arms and legs to … well, monsters.”

I let my avatar hand touch the glowing file. A rapid succession of pictures flew at me. Images too strong for most people, and a few worse than I’d ever seen.

“And that’s not the real problem,” said Number One. “The real problem, as I said, her victims can’t see what they look like to other people. They assume the reactions — and some of the reactions have been, well…” The avatar blinked at me. I was already looking at the digitized pictures of the reactions, the way some people had started pummeling and throwing things at some of the worst looking of the bunch. I felt ill again. You didn’t physically feel damage when your avatar was injured. Physically.

“The psychological reactions have been devastating,” said Number Two. “We can credit her with at least twenty-four associated deaths. At least five of those deaths involved children under twelve.”

I winced. I’m not the most moral person in the world, but —

“Ok. So. Target, deserving. Still. Why me?”

“Because you have killed off grid before,” said Number Two coldly. “If only incidentally.”

I hated when people brought that up.

When I started this business, grid assassination was no big deal. I’d bump people off, and anywhere from two minutes to two weeks later they were back on, cheerful as always, no harm done. The only reason I still had a job was that I could guarantee accuracy and speed.

Now the grid charged for replacement avatars. Charged a lot. If you didn’t have much money offgrid — and, let’s face it, most people didn’t; ongrid time rarely translated into offgrid money.

Some people could handle that. Some people couldn’t.

So. Some of my targets had suicided. At least three that I knew of; maybe more that I didn’t know of. Not entirely my fault, but … Come to think of it, that was an effective method of offgrid assassination. Why not use that?

I asked.

“Because she has enough money to return ongrid in minutes, a nearly infinite number of times. She’s not only making money off her clients, but also off people who pay her to create these distorted avatars. As a sort of revenge. And that business pays very well.”

I could imagine. Some people took ongrid life very seriously.

“That leaves one major problem,” I noted. “I’m a cyber assassin. How do you plan on getting me weapons outside?”

What did offgrid people do for weapons? I’d seen them shoot around grid corners and light up a thousand thousand sparks. But if my dim memory was correct, guns in real life were different. And I didn’t know how to use them.

“You can try strangulation, suffocation, poison,” Number One said, ticking the options off her fingers, as if this added to the temptation. “Be creative.”

“It might actually be easier,” Number Two said. “Offgrid, you don’t have to stab people directly in the heart to kill them.”

That was true. That ongrid protocol had been set up specifically to slow assassins like me; not everyone had the skills needed to stab anyone in the precise digitally-measured center of the heart. Most people missed by a little, and those few millimeters were enough to give the victim a chance.

A chance that an offgrid person wouldn’t have.

Outside I really was flabby and fat. I didn’t spend my off grid moments working out, and god knows my ongrid activities never created much of an adrenaline rush, or reason to move my real life muscles either. The same might be true of my target. I’d heard that some people made a point of staying in shape off grid. How pointless.

“And if I’m caught?”

No blinks from the avatars. “Offgridders won’t notice another decaying corpse outside. There are so many they’re used to the smell .”

A pleasant thought.

“Your fee will be substantial,” said Number Two.

That was true. I would make sure of it.

“It’s your chance to be a hero,” said Number One.

“I’m not a hero. I’m an assassin.”

Number One’s avatar stretched into the imitation of a smile. “Isn’t that the point of this world? To let you be both?”

• • •

As I’ve mentioned, offgrid I’m flabby and out of shape. Which made the map they showed me all the more discouraging. Transportation options were few with so many staying plugged in at home. Some offgridders still had cars and bicycles, I’d heard, but I had no idea how to find or use them. And teleportation, for whatever reason, never worked offgrid. (Something about physics, I’ve never understood. I’m a coder and an assassin, not a scientist.) I had to walk, and from the map I’d memorized, it was a long one.

I looked out at the hard rain.

People used to have things called umbrellas, and I’d never owned one. Some ongridders carried parasols as fashion statements. My choices were a torn plastic bag or a pillow.

I sighed.

I put on the one pair of shoes I owned (offgrid, those things were expensive) and gathered clothing and a few unappetizing tubes of synthetic food together, along with the pillow. How exactly I was would carry all these was another question. I frowned. People must have faced these problems pre-grid. They had …

They had suitcases.

I sighed again. I had to use the torn plastic bag.

I found an old roll of tape, made quick repairs, and headed out. Rain or no rain, I wanted this over with quickly. I always wanted to be back on grid the instant I was off, but this time I was really itching for it.

• • •

Four or five hours later my plastic bag had split, and my feet were in agony. The sun hadn’t shown itself, and I’d passed a few people who only looked away. I thought to ask someone for assistance, but then rethought. They spent their lives out here and would start asking tricky questions. I didn’t share Numbers One and Two’s confidence about the offgrid authorities.

Finally, I arrived at the address.

It was a grid home, a building designed for pure gridders, with its complex system of tubes for delivering water, synthetics, energy and, of course, the grid. Everything near it seemed lifeless in comparison. I eyed it closely. Ongrid, a building like this could only be entered with a key code, or solving a puzzle, or allowing yourself to be seduced by one of the residents.

Offgrid —

Well, it would probably be a lot less complicated. After all, pure gridders usually had nothing to steal, except virtual credits. These buildings had to be emergency services accessible; eventually something went wrong with a power supply, or a synthetic feeding tube.

Sure enough, some exploration brought me to an unlocked maintenance door. Part one accomplished.

Part two: finding her specific room.

If necessary, I could glimpse ongrid to check her address. I didn’t want to risk that; coming on-grid only part way could attract trouble. I shut my eyes and tried to picture the grid, and the addresses, and…

No good. I would have to check each room.

God, my feet.

On the bright side, no one locked their doors. Room after room, I checked face after face. None of them matched the clients’ photo. Another room, then another. My feet would never be the same. Another room, another, more doors, and oh, my feet ached.

A locked door.

Who had a reason to lock doors, here?

I didn’t think I’d need the image.

• • •

It’s much harder than games make it sound to break into an offgrid room. I had to result to battering the door with my body, and by the time it broke, I could add aching arm muscles to my painful feet. I definitely should have charged more.

Inside, the room was … honestly, I’d never seen anything like it. Ongrid things simply can’t accumulate like that — the grid sets up autostorage — and offgrid I didn’t know anyone who bothered to accumulate, well, anything other than the necessities. My target had. Things were piled up everywhere, making it difficult to move. A grim layer covered everything and it was hard to remember the word. When had cleaning bots last been there?

Had they ever been there?

Since she was accumulating stuff, and given her supposed wealth, what was she doing in a place like this? Instead of a decent apartment with full grid access?

Because she expects her avatar to be assassinated, I thought. She knew people were after her; had to have known the threat since the beginning. And although she had plenty of money, if she kept losing avatars every few hours…

Not even the largest fortune in the world could keep that up, whatever my clients thought.

I stepped through the clutter maze as carefully as possible, searching for my target. Finally, among the boxes, furniture and wires, there was a buried bed, covered in wires and tubes and a grey blanket. I moved closer. Yes, the face matched the one on the file. I wondered how Numbers One and Two had secured that image, but I was better off not knowing.

Her eyes were shut, her breathing even. She hadn’t heard me batter down the door. I raised the pillow, the images of her victims flooded my mind. All I had to do was hold the pillow against her face, as her mind continued to explore the grid. She might not even notice. No one would notice until her avatar flashed out.

I wanted to.

But I couldn’t.

I sighed, and started the emergency protocols for taking her offgrid.

• • •

It took her a long time to come off — too long. By the time she did, I’d managed to tie her up . I realized how psychologically bound she was to the grid. I could use that, if I needed to.

She emerged quickly and clear. She looked at me steadily.

She knows, I thought. She knows.

Her face betrayed her. She’d spent too much time ongrid to know how to hide her emotions.

It wasn’t a verbal admission of guilt, but it was enough.

“Why take me off?” she asked. “It would have been simpler.” Her unused voice was rough, ragged and dry.

“Because I couldn’t kill you while you…” I couldn’t think of the word. Asleep? Helpless? My voice wasn’t in much better shape than hers. I made a note to practice talking offgrid.

She nodded, smiling a little, as if her mouth had forgotten how to.

Somehow, that wasn’t enough either. “Why?” I managed. I knew why I did what I did: it was the only skill I had ongrid, the only way I could earn the credits I needed to survive. But, double-coding avatars —

“In Sanctuary, I was beautiful.”


Sanctuary was a problem. A way to perpetuate the species, but a problem. Originally an ongridders idea, for those who spent so much time ongrid that it affected the reproductive process. Ongrid sex was richer, deeper, and more satisfying than what had been the real thing. They gathered money to grow children in test tubes and incubators, from donor eggs and sperm of dazed gridders. The Sanctuary raised the kids. For the propagation of the species. At a given age — an official secret — they could chose: ongrid or off.

Most everyone ongrid had come from the Sanctuary. They tended to be… problematic.

“And I was the only one. The only beautiful one,” she said. “Until I got ongrid.”

And found herself just one of a million million spectacular beauties, limited only by their imaginations — or what they could pay for the imaginations of others. For the second time today, I winced.

“I tried about a hundred avatars, if you can believe it, before I started this.”

I could believe it. I’ve known Sanctuary people to shed avatars every two hours, regardless of the expense. Not for the first time, I found myself thankful for my parents. They hadn’t left me much money, but they at least hadn’t left me in Sanctuary.

I looked at her, trying to figure out why my stomach was roiling. I was going to kill her in a few moments, but besides that. And then it occurred to me. It was all so damn, well, clichéd. As if she was playing out a storyline. Which she was, except that she was playing it out with the real emotions of unreal avatars. Another cliché right there.

The grid was for imagination. Fantasy. Spectacle. But clichés?

“You could have joined the offgridders,” I suggested.

“Them?” She couldn’t have coded such scorn ongrid. “A dying group. They only survive because we’re still paying them to feed us.”

“They’ve got enclaves, outside the cities — “ I didn’t know. It was a myth. But I guess I wanted to believe it.

“Don’t kid yourself.”

She hadn’t taken her eyes off me, but she kept blinking, irregularly. It was disconcerting, after watching the time-measured blinks of ongrid avatars. I hadn’t taken my eyes off her, either. My usual method wouldn’t work. Not only had I not brought a dagger, but she’d protected the direct center of her chest with some sort of metal mesh — I couldn’t guess what that was, offgrid.

That’s where we were, offgrid. But she hadn’t protected her legs. Or her face.

I moved as quickly as my aching, tired, flabby body would allow, grabbing her legs and slamming them with a piece of the broken door. She wasn’t prepared for that, or the pain. I wondered when in her life she’d hopped ongrid, if she’d ever known real pain. I hit her legs a few more times. She tried to strike out, but her atrophied muscles were useless even against my amateur knots.

Then I grabbed my pillow and pushed it into her face.

It takes a long, long time, for someone to die offgrid. I wasn’t expecting that, or the sudden gagging smell as other parts of her body reacted.

• • •

My client list grew extensively after that. I could select my assignments now, choose the most entertaining targets. I found myself particularly enthralled by those in offworld districts. Seriously, if you have a chance, travel there; the colors and sights are fantastic. Like nothing you’ve ever seen ongrid.

But even there, in all its wild beauty, I felt my fingers twitch, felt the dead body beneath my hands. Even out there the grid is only the grid. But I still need money, and every time I aim a cyberdagger or gun at a target, I smell that awful scent again, and quiver, even as my avatar remains perfectly still. And deadly.

Mari Ness has published fiction and poetry in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction and Apex Magazine. For a list of her works, check out her official blog, or to see what she's up to now, follow her on Twitter. She lives in central Florida.

Issue 26

December 2014

3LBE 26

Front & Back cover art by Rew X