Penelope squinted at the screen. “Well, that’s a nice bit of work for someone who’s never coded in her life. Simple, elegant, straightforward.”
“I don’t know where it came from,” Louise said, rubbing her face with both hands. “I was just… stalled and frustrated and then I suddenly had an idea. I opened a window I hadn’t even known existed on my computer and started writing the script to sort and convert and format and… then I realized what I was doing and sort of freaked out.”
“Well, if I found myself competently playing a Bach concerto,” Penelope said reasonably, “I’d feel the same way. One way of asking the question is: where did you get the knowhow to do this? But I think, given what we’ve been talking about, the better question may be who did you get the knowhow from?”
“Oh, my god, you think we’re sharing some sort of… of… virtual telepathic pool of knowledge?” Louise said, staring at her friend in horror.
“Isn’t that what you’re thinking?” Penelope glanced over the code again. “If it makes you feel better, I can almost guarantee it wasn’t from Wachelski. That man wouldn’t have used a scripting language; he would’ve put together some hot mess in the most esoteric language he knew.”
“I don’t know what the hell to think,” Louise said. “I can tell you, though, that now I’m not ‘in the zone’ or whatever, I couldn’t tell you what that stuff means.” She waved a hand at the screen, and winced as it jarred the muscle spasm. “But it does make me feel better that I’m not being turned into a part of some sick Wachelski hivemind.”
“I wonder which of the women there is the programmer?” Penelope said, still staring at the script. She shook her head after a moment, then said, “All right, tell me about the attack.”
“It was another snake,” Louise said, straightening up in her seat and shifting to relieve her sore hip. “It was made of blue pansies, in different shades of blue, and the snake was almost definitely a boa constrictor.”
“Snake expert and doctor now?” Penelope asked as she worked her keyboard and shifted panes on her screen. “Did it look like that?”
What looked like a painting of a snake expanded on the screen: narrow-eyed, forked tongue out, and strangely detailed. Louise was impressed by the details of the scales, and then looked closer: each scale was a tiny blue flower. “Not exactly,” she said, “but the concept is close enough for government work.”
“Strange you should say that,” Penelope said. “This image was left on all the individual computer desktops in the Defense Department about a year ago after a virtual break-in by the hacker collective called Ophidiadis.”
“What the hell do they want?” Louise said.
“To disrupt shit, as far as I can tell,” Penelope said, throwing up a hand. “They’ve been a thorn in the side of the government security people for years now. It’s pretty certain they’re from outside the country, and are probably cracking weapon secrets and selling them, but no one’s been able to figure out where they’re from. Standard anarchist fare.”
“Well, they certainly changed tactics from last time,” Louise said. “The first time, it was just the snake, carrying the ‘payload’, whatever it was, in its mouth. This time, the snake spewed out this mass of smaller snakes and then, when it was killed, turned into a blinding storm of flower petals.”
Penelope looked thoughtful. “That’s interesting. Effective. Did you all find the payload this time?”
“I don’t know,” Louise said dourly. “Some demented crone hacked me in the back with a sword.”
“Are you all right?” Penelope said, raising her eyebrows.
“I think it was definitely sending me into shock,” Louise said. “The VR feedback is too good. Luckily, Concepción realized something was up and managed to get me to wake up out of it. I feel like an achy dishrag, despite the painkillers, but I’m alive at least.”
“Huh,” Penelope said, pursing her lips.
Louise thought about that for a moment, then said, “I wonder if it really was an accident.”
Penelope’s eyebrows went up further. “You think someone’s into player versus player?”
“I suppose I won’t know till this evening,” Louise said, guessing Penelope’s meaning from the context. “But think about this: if they can put knowledge into my head, what keeps them from pulling information out of it? What if they know I’m investigating?”
“They wouldn’t even need to do that, though,” Penelope pointed out. “You’ve been talking about it inside, haven’t you?”
“True,” Louise said, and one little knot of panic untied itself, then retied itself as she wondered if she was really relieved. How much of her thinking was hers now? How much of this supposedly reclaimed “her” was really her?
“So if they—whoever they are—are listening,” Penelope said, reasonably, “they could certainly figure out that you might be a problem.”
“I wonder if Deniece’s theory is right,” Louise said, trying to distract herself from her identity crisis. “If when a woman dies in there, she stays in there.”
“Oh, holy crap,” Penelope said, eyes wide. “Why would she think that?”
“There are ghosts in the machine,” Louise said, with a wry smile. “People think they’re either living women on Cog who don’t have as good a connection as we do, or they’re women who died in the VR.”
“The data storage that would take…” Penelope sketched something on her tablet. “Well, if they’re just images…”
“They’re transparent and don’t interact with the rest of the VR,” Louise said. “One of them walked right through me, then through a wall.”
“Okay, that wouldn’t be too much,” Penelope said, punctuating her statement with a poke of her stylus at the tablet.
“Though some people think the ‘council’ is made up of dead women,” Louise said. “I’m starting to think that maybe they’re ghosts of our six suicides, though.”
“Or… not-ghosts, self-uploaded to manage the system,” Penelope said, still writing things on her tablet.
“That’s science fiction stuff right there,” Louise said.
“So is an incredibly detailed shared VR that people can live in,” Penelope pointed out. “We’ve got no idea about the dimensions on this thing in virtual space. They could have distributed the VR—and themselves—all across the net, I suppose.”
“What the hell is this whole setup for, though?” Louise said, clutching her forehead. “Why make a playground for a bunch of old women anyway? And make them young? It can’t be for… for… girl-on-girl porn in the afterlife. That’s just stupid.”
“Probably a nice little side benefit,” Penelope said with a brief curl of her lip. “Look, I’m going to do some deep digging, and I can’t do it with you here distracting me. I may not have lost my marbles like you, but I’m old and slow and I need to be deliberate to avoid getting caught.” She tapped her mouth with her stylus and looked at the ceiling.
Louise got up. “Okay, I’ll take myself off. Maybe I can dig up something else about the drug or the trial or something.”
“Don’t dig too much,” Penelope warned. “If your thought is right and they suspect anything, you could be compromising your ability to go into the VR.”
Louise’s stomach lurched at that. To lose Mick at this point… “Yeah, maybe I’ll just go do something else.” She let herself out, leaving Penelope making notes on her tablet.