Finally, Louise decided that she just couldn’t keep rolling around in her own misery, took a deep breath and said, “There was… we dealt with an attack last night. Well, everyone else did. I stayed in back and watched.”
Penelope nodded, releasing Louise’s hand and returning to her cheese-and-crackers. “What did it look like?”
“A giant tortoise,” Louise said. “Like the mutant Godzilla version of a Galapagos…” She paused to stare at an image Penelope was showing her on her tablet. “Yes, like that. Only made of water or something.”
“That was me,” Penelope said. She added, “I wish I’d known about Mick, I’d’ve saved it for a different night.”
Louise shook her head. “It gave Sheila an opportunity to threaten me.” She related her conversation with Sheila as a pleasant alternative to thinking about Mick.
“Well, if they weren’t sure you were nosing around before,” Penelope said, “they sure as hell know now. That’s all right. Best to keep them distracted while I poke around some.”
“What were you doing?” Louise said, finally bringing herself to eat a carrot. “The payload was pretty obvious, this big ruby carbuncle in its head.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Penelope said, biting down on her little sandwich. The crackers fell apart and she was left eating cheese over a pile of cracker crumbs. “My self-identification just suggested a highly-armored tortoise, though I made my fake payload really obvious. It’s fascinating that your brain interpreted it that way.”
That tweaked at something else Louise wanted to ask Penelope about, but she couldn’t quite recall it. “Fake payload?” she said instead.
“Oh, yes,” Penelope said, eating a cherry tomato. “The water was a good representation of what I actually wanted to get in there. So they blew apart my containment code, and what was inside soaked into the surroundings.”
“You dropped a virus in there?” Louise said, sipping her lemonade.
“Not exactly,” Penelope said, wheeling over to her media center. “I dropped some drones in there that would report back to me.” She brought some panes up on her screen. One of them was full of numbers that made no sense to Louise, but others contained names and addresses. Louise saw Mick’s name in that list.
“You managed to track some of the other women?” Louise said, getting up to move to a chair closer to the screen.
“Yep,” Penelope said. “It was a bitch, too, trying to figure out which pieces of information were which. But I was able to identify different objects in the space after a while, and those turned out to be women.”
“That’s amazing,” Louise said. “Anything interesting about them?”
Penelope shrugged. “Nearly all of ’em have distant relations as power of attorney, all of ’em are in homes—none of which are nearly as luxe as this one, I might add—and most of ’em are broke and on government-mandated insurance.”
Like Mick, Louise thought, trying vaguely to remember who held Mick’s power of attorney. Probably that cousin of hers.
“I also got a look at the code for the VR,” Penelope said, “and that’s even more interesting.”
Louise saw that she’d brought up lines and lines of programming code, and she turned toward Penelope to keep from invoking her weird programming skill.
“Unlike most of the VRs that people are trying to create these days,” Penelope said, skimming through the lines of gibberish, “this is a relatively small piece of work. There’s no massive rendering of anything for presentation to your visual centers. It suggests the basic framework of the place and the interaction parameters, and your cybernetic brain does the rest. What you’re seeing when you’re in there is a mosaic built from your own experiences. Something in the code suggests ‘castle’, and your processing centers generate a castle. I bet if you tried to pin other people down on details, you’d get different answers.”
The thing nagging at Louise clicked. “Yes, you’re right! I asked Mick if it was always spring there—the orchard is full of cherry blossoms all the time—and she thought I was crazy, because she was seeing it as autumn.”
Penelope nodded. “The objects you’re directly interacting with are ‘rendered’ by the processing farm of your collective brains, so those experiences are likely to be more similar across the board, with a few little variations here and there.”
Louise shook her head. “That’s… pretty much beyond me, I think.”
“That’s all right. The important part is this,” Penelope said, turning to her and staring at her. “I was thinking of this as a virtual space you were all being pulled into. But I was wrong. This is a program you’re all running independently, and the code draws you together into this space that you build for yourselves. It’s been coded up, literal bit by bit, by the women who move in and out of that space.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Louise said, waving her hands. “Where did we get that program?”
“It was installed onto your processor that first time you went to sleep on Cognizoid,” Penelope said. “At least, I think so. I’m not sure how it happens. I can’t observe that yet.”
“Fuckers,” Louise said, pounding her fist on the arm of her chair.
“Yep,” Penelope said. “Why don’t you have some more to eat, and I’ll take some more time to look at this?”