by Rudy Rucker
Images supplied by Rudy Rucker
I’m Zak, and I hang with this highly charismatic woman, Zik. We have a streamer show out of San Francisco. It’s called ZikZak. I’m the eye, and Zik is the star. She’s a natural, people can’t stop looking at her. Gestures, voice, expressions, phrasing—she reels them in.
Me being the eye means I wear a helmet with eight outward-pointing cameras, also a pinhead selfie cam aimed at my face. Our stream’s users are interactively immersed, that is, we’re sending them so much data that they’re in a reality bubble containing Zik and me. They can move around in our virtual space, and they can look any direction they please. Ambient eyeball kicks. They imagine they’re with us, a member of our posse.
Since I’m the eye of our reality bubble, the patched-together image of my body is fubar. Our streamware filters out this degraded geometry and replaces it with a textured wire-frame model of me. We use my live selfie stream for the model’s face. Not that I’m anything special to look at. A skinny single guy in his thirties. Sadly yearning for love. Never the right woman, never the right time.
Zik is the one the users watch. My hi-def cameras lock onto her. She wears a couple of pinhead selfie cams as well, filling in any bits that my cams don’t cover. Most of the users hang close to Zik—some of them watch her from an inch away. Not that she sees them.
We’ve got two others in our crew: Gustav, and Clabber Girl. Skewed hipsters, like Zik and me. Gustav is six foot four, and big around the waist, with a reasonable amount of muscle. He has the largest 45 record collection in town. Clabber Girl is hard-bitten and tattooed, with dishwater hair and an unpredictable laugh. They keep the stream live, and do their best to block malware feedback.
My voice is a big part of the show. I go for manic, weird, and insinuating—punctuated with bursts of gibberish and flashes of heartfelt corn. I’ll pretty much say anything. Whatever keeps the stream bouncing, even if it’s rude. We have fans, we have haters.
Our show six runs nights a week, with Mondays off. Often we end our streamcasts at Seedies, an all-night dive in the Tenderloin. We get lit with other streamers, both local and remote. Eyes and stars blending their bubbles, mixing sly strange image flashes, zapping each other with hideous strobe, running sockadelic feedback, letting the ambient chaos take us where it may. Sometimes our jams are the best part of the show.
This one particular Sunday night, a week before Christmas, we’re at Seedies, jamming with couple of solo streamers: a kazoo raver from Oaktown, and a surfer from Santa Cruz. Plus there’s a remote eye-and-star pair. They’re not talking, just gesturing. According to their stream tags, they’re Jumpy and Szex from… Witchita, Kansas.
Jumpy is the eye. His body image shows a guy in tight jeans and a striped sweatshirt. I like his looks. Szex the star is a woman wearing yellow construction boots and a sequined haute couture gown with only one sleeve. Like a model in Vogue.
It’s three am, and Zik is vamping a torch song, winding things down. The kazoo raver morphs his razz into big-band swing. The surfer is sculpting cold-light waves. Szex in the boots and gown is doing tai-chi moves. Fine, phine, phyne, vyne. But then Jumpy points his finger at me and — oopsy daisy — I’m screaming. I’m not in control. I’ve been pwned. My voice has rhythms like sentences — but none of the words sounds familiar. My visual field is sweeping in a circle. I see an old-world city. I’m hearing bells.
Gustav wrestles me to the ground and kills my feed. Clabber Girl takes me home. I conk out. Monday morning I call Gustav. He tells me he’s traced through our log, and that Jumpy used a back-channel exploit to pwn me, a reverse immersion from their spoofed IP. And of course they’re not from Witchita. Clabber Girl’s done a terabyte Bayesian analysis that traces their stream to a server in Budapest.
Monday afternoon I check out some public streams of Budapest. I see footage of a river, a skating rink, and a hipster bar called Szimpla. I’m exhausted like you wouldn’t believe. I go back to bed and sleep clear through Monday night and well into the next day. And then it’s back to our warehouse for the Tuesday night ZikZak show.
Zik, Clabber Girl, and Gustav are already there. They have a new piece of electrical machinery that resembles a Tesla coil. It has a short, stout column with wire wound all around it. There’s an insulated hand grip at one end of the column, and a metal torus on the other end. Like a doughnut. I ask them what the thing’s for, but they feed me a line of jive.
“Good for meatspace zaps,” goes Gustav.
“Chip-frying signal overloads,” adds Clabber Girl.
“It makes purple sparks,” says Zik. “Nice eyeball kicks.”
“Where’d you get it?” I ask.
“Found it at Seedies,” says Gustav. “After you and Clabber left. It was lying on the floor.”
“Whatever.” I don’t have the energy to grill my so-called friends, now turned so sly. I need to brace myself for tonight’s run.
We’ll be heading to Union Square to stream the happy throngs around the big Christmas tree. Lamestream mainstream. Zik wants to buy shoes and a schoolgirl frock at Macy’s — she’s hoping they’ll comp her the goods because we’re semi-famous. After Macy’s we’ll go out into the intersection where Powell hits Market and screw up the traffic. Shoppers scolding us. Might be funny. And then, if we don’t get busted, we’ll trundle back to Seedies.
“You ready?” goes Zik. “You look scared.” She’s all business. Saving her enchantress routine for the cameras.
“Wondering how late we’ll run,” I mutter. “Don’t like what happened Sunday night.”
“Your voice sounds rusty,” says Zik, “You damaged it, yelling that hard. Like a raving maniac. Keep it up and you’ll scare our users away.”
“Szex and Jumpy are the ones I’d like to scare away.”
“They just wanted to play,” says Zik, tossing her hair.
“I’ve got the Danube River in my head,” I tell her. “Muddy, frigid, dank. Jumpy dragged me into it. That’s why I screamed. Why are you such a bitch?”
“We need focus from you,” says Zik, her voice hard. “And empathy. Tonight is important. Those two Hungarians—I saw them today. We talked. And I didn’t scream like a crazy person.”
“How did they reach you?”
“They came in through—I don’t know—it was my doorbell or my toaster or some skungy hacker crap like that. We discussed a deal. They’ll be at Union Square tonight. They want to partner up with us. Gustav and Clabber Girl and down with it too. Good for everyone.”
“As if,” I tell Zik. I turn to Gustav and Clabber Girl. “Can you block them? Our Tesla-coil thing—it’ll help?”
“Maybe not,” says Gustav, his voice deep and slow. “Szex and Jumpy have a fat stream. Very subtle. Quantum coherent.”
“They come on like a wisp of hiss,” says Clabber Girl. “A transient buzz. And then — foomp.” She unleashes her graveyard laugh.
“The Witchita linemen are on the line,” adds Gustav, crooning the words. Heavily significant and mysterioso. I feel incredibly paranoid. My posse is setting me up for a blown-mind burn.
Zik smiles at me, as if she knows exactly where my head is at. She hands me my camera helmet. “Solidarity, brah.”
“Ve space out, yes,” adds Clabber Girl, faking a Hungarian accent. “And then ve make happy ending!” She lights a cigarette and jams it into the corner of her mouth. The smoke drifts across her weathered face. Her eyes are bright and amused.
Screw them all. I put on my helmet. Sometimes when I’m streaming, I use my regular vision. But not tonight, not with my three buds coming on so weird. I pull down my display goggles to cover my eyes.
Clabber Girl sparks our transmission and we’re live, the four of us bopping out of our warehouse, our feet clomping the cold pavement. We catch an electric robocar. Gently humming, it tools down back streets to the pulsing center of town.
Good visuals tonight. San Francisco hues. Lavender neon martini glasses, orange flickercladding jumpsuits, glowing magenta-blue graffiti, jugglers with red-and-green flares. I shade our stream towards the warm end of the spectrum. I feel high, even though I’m deeply afraid. Like a soldier going into combat.
Zik’s in the seat next to me, doing a routine—preening, posing, jabbering about shoes. She sounds brittle. We’re all thinking about the elephants in our bubble. Jumpy and Szex. Elephants in Hungarian is elefántok. How do I even know that?
I voice-activate my video brush and begin collaging in images from my hoard, filling the dank empty spaces of my stream, gesturing with my hands to position the visuals just so. Clabber Girl likes this part. I open a channel so she can tweak too.
“Let there be gnarl,” I intone, and I go into a rap inspired by Zik’s mention of shoes. “Shoe goo glue, shoo fly pie, cobbler’s last, the last supper club, custard’s last stand, stand by me at the fornication nation united station. The ZikZak stream! Everyone’s a star.”
When the jive gets good to me and the visuals flow—well, at first the users feel like they’re seeing our thoughts—but then it gets gooder and they start to think they’re seeing their own thoughts. Synchronicity, baby. Dancing with the Muse.
We’re in Union Square. The big tree. The lights of Macy’s. People in Santa hats. And—how could I have forgotten—ye olde Union Square ice rink. Zik heads straight for it and, oh god, Clabber Girl rents skates for the four of us, and now Gustav is doing a shoe-clerk thing, lacing up my pair.
“If I fall, I’ll break a camera,” I protest.
“We’re with you,” says Gustav. “All the way.”
We’re on the ice. People wave to us and skate circles around us, wanting to be in our stream. Gustav and the sharp-elbowed Clabber Girl are next to Zik and me. Our guards, I hope. Gustav is holding that Tesla-coil thing by its grip, and Clabber sculpts the air around it with her hands. The metal doughnut sprouts a decorative halo of pale purple sparks.
I’m still watching the scene through my goggles, immersed in my processed version of reality. The images are compelling — the frosty ice, the twinkling tree lights, the revelers’ happy mugs. We’re sweeping in a circle, just like in the scene I saw on Sunday night, after Jumpy pwned me.
And now comes the glitch. Doesn’t even surprise me. A pop, a jolt of static, and our streamcast shows Szex and Jumpy with us on the Union Square rink. An overlay, right? A video-brush fake, for sure.
I flip up my goggles to confirm this, and — um — the two Hungarians are here in the flesh. Materialized out of nowhere. Teleported in from Budapest, you might say. Except that, up until ten seconds ago, teleportation didn’t exist.
The physical Hungarians don’t look like their stream images. Szex is an overweight hacker guy with a sparse beard, and by no means a fashion-model-type woman. As for Jumpy, well, turns out she’s the one who’s female. A lithe Euro hipster woman wearing a camera helmet like mine. She carries a tool like Gustav has, a thing that vaguely resembles a Tesla coil, with a handle and a column wound with wire and a sparking torus at one end. I’m guessing that it’s, uh… let’s call it a teleportation wand.
Zik, Gustav and Clabber Girl already understand all this. They’re cheering, and Gustav’s holding his own teleportation wand over his head, showering festive sparks. The Hungarians skate over to me.
“Partners now, yes?” says Jumpy the Hungarian woman. She’s very cute. Slim, smart, ironic. “Your friends, they have agreed.”
“Solidarity,” puts in Szex the hacker guy. It’s the same word that Zik used a half hour ago. I glance over at her. She nods.
“Why not,” I say. Not that I really understand. Mainly I’m curious. “Can we test if our teleportation wand works too?”
“Wand is what you want to call it?” says Jumpy, and laughs. “Go. Hop to Budapest. Your wand knows its way home.”
Gustave beckons to me, his gestures grand and expansive. Like a kid on Christmas morning. Zix, Clabber Girl, and I squeeze up against him. He holds our teleportation wand above our heads like a surreal umbrella. The lavishly cascading sparks enclose us.
A pop, a jolt of static and we’re on an ice rink in — yep, it’s Budapest. The Hero’s Square, with statues of the nation’s seven bad-ass founders. Huge ice rink, with everyone staring at us. A minute later Szex and Jumpy join us. Jumpy wants to talk to me some more, and for sure I want to talk to her, but I’m still a little disgruntled about what she did to me at Seedies on Sunday night.
“Why did you pwn me and make me scream?” I ask.
“Sorry,” says Jumpy, ducking her head so cute. “That’s when I was calibrating the route. Seemed like a fun easy way, feedbacking your stream. I’m a fan of your show. I meant to explain this, but my words came through your mouth and—not good result. Sorry, sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” I say. This woman is the one. At last. Her cheerful, lively face. Her dancing eyes. Meeting her is as amazing as the fact of teleportation.
“But I’m confused,” I continue. “Seems like you’d need a receiver as well as a transmitter. Like with a broadcast stream. A device at each end? Just now we hopped from San Francisco to Budapest, and you were still in Union Square. There wasn’t a receiver here to, like, unpack our signal.”
“It’s not like a phone call,” puts in Szek the hacker guy. “It’s like knowing a route on a map. Any path that’s been calibrated, you can teleport it from either end. This is the—beauty part, yes?”
“The light dawns,” says Jumpy, closely watching me. “And now we make partnership?”
“Yes!” I cry. “Thank you!” I give her a hug. Figuring I can get away with it.
“I don’t get why she wants us,” says Zik. She’s used to being the star. She’s a little put out by my instant crush.
“We need the ZikZak group because of your user base,” says Jumpy. “And your US status. And your knowing of the ropes.”
“To be sure,” goes Clabber Girl. “Our knowing of the ropes.”
“ZikZak Fat Stream,” intones Gustav. “I registered it as a trademark and a corporation name this afternoon.”
“We’re here for you,” says Zik beaming her best smile into my cameras. “Stay tuned!”
I check my controls, and yes, despite our jump, the ZikZak show is still live. We’ve got, like, a billion real-time users just now. ZikZak Fat Stream is in business for true.
The six of us skate a slow victory lap around the Hero’s Square rink. And I’m holding Jumpy’s hand.
The church bells ring.
Rudy Rucker is a mathematician, a beatnik, a computer scientist, and the author of twenty-three novels and sixteen other books. He received Philip K. Dick awards for his cyberpunk novels Software and Wetware, included in the Ware Tetralogy. Other standouts are his novel Postsingular, his nonfiction book Infinity and the Mind, and his work as co-editor with R. U. Sirius and Queen Mu on the epic anthology Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge. All of Rudy’s short stories and a number of his books are available free online. Seek and ye shall find. For starters, try Rudy’s Blog at www.rudyrucker.com/blog
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