Hackergirl (from I is for Internet)
Doris V. Sutherland
“A virtual world is calling you, come and give it a whirl, take a trip through cyberspace with the Hackergirls…”
Olive stared at me as she sat down with her second pint of cider. I saw her expression of sheer bewilderment and realised that I’d been mumbling out loud. I felt myself blushing.
“What was that, Pam?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I replied. “Just a song that was in my head. From a cartoon I watched when I was little. Hackergirls.” I fiddled with my pink woolly hat.
Olive smiled. “Can’t say I remember that one. I was a SpongeBob kid. That starfish guy was my favourite.” She began filing her nails as a cheesy 90s music video came on the pub television.
Kids’ cartoons. Our conversation had started with the fact that I’d just lost my job, but I didn’t feel like dwelling on that subject. We’d been veering from topic to topic and drink to drink, lapsing into the occasional awkward silence. Now, we were reminiscing about cartoons. Olive wouldn’t give up without doing her best to get me cheerful again, and that’s why she was the first person I called after I got fired. But so far, not even she had managed to lift my spirits.
I sipped my blue VK, the cheapest alcoholic drink in the pub refrigerator. Images and sensations started to drift back into my head. The expression on my boss’s face. The lurching in my stomach when I realised I would be losing my job. How stupid and childish I felt, standing there in the Hello Kitty t-shirt I sometimes wore to work. Trying to eat lunch afterwards but losing my appetite, the half-eaten bread roll sitting in the polystyrene cup with the remnants of the mushy peas.
“How much rent money do you have left?” asked Olive.
“Oh, enough for a few more months.”
Olive stopped filing her nails. She had a severe expression.
“So, a few months down the line you’ll be in the hole. Pam, I can get you out of this. I make a bit of extra money writing catalogue stuff for software sites, easy when you get the hang of it. If I speak to the right people I can get you a job doing the same thing.”
I tipped forwards until I was face-down on the table. I felt my pink hat slipping off.
“But I can’t write for crap and I don’t know anything about software!”
“Pam, you’re just a bit drunk right now, that’s all. Let’s see how you feel when you’re sober.”
I lifted myself up and took another gulp. Olive returned to her fingernails, and I noticed that her nailfile was part of a shiny penknife.
“Looks like a handy thing to have around,” I said, pointing to the knife.
“This? Oh, got it in a Christmas cracker. Penknife that’s also a keyring.” She jiggled the metal hoop that dangled from the end and then began slipping out the various blades one by one. A small pair of scissors, a corkscrew, a surprisingly long knife, and a bottle-opener.
“I could do with one of those,” I said. “Bottle-opener at home’s broken.” I sighed. Another creature comfort I’d taken for granted until my money got tight. Olive smiled and pushed the keyring in front of me.
“It’s yours.” I laughed and thanked her as I played with the keyring. She cocked her head at me.
“You’re like a kitten with a bit of string, you are,” she said. I giggled in response, but her face was straight. “I know what you’re like, Pam. When you start getting excited about trivial stuff like that, it means you need something to give you direction. Keep you focused.”
“Learn a language. Start a workout routine. Anything so long as you’re doing something.”
“Keep my mind off the bad stuff, eh? I have the perfect solution.” I raised my bottle and took a swig. Blondie came on the television and I stood up to dance along with Heart of Glass. Olive must have realised that I wouldn’t be stopping any time soon, and she got up to join in.
It wasn’t long before we left the bar, still doing high-pitched Debbie Harry impersonations. The nearest streetlight was faulty, making it too dark to see anything once we got away from the building. I was still tipsy and had to walk slowly to avoid tripping. Olive fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her phone. She pushed a few buttons and the screen let out a shaft of light, illuminating the path in front of us.
“Torch app,” she said, her toothy grin reflecting the glow.
We arrived at the bus stop and I gave Olive a hug as her bus approached.
“I’m only away for a few weeks, Pam. We’ll be hanging out together again in no time at all, and I’ll help you get a new job.”
She hopped onto the bus and I waved as it started to drive off. She waved back, illuminated through the window. When the bus was out of view, I let out a sigh. I fumbled with my phone and eventually managed to download a torch app. The light shone in front of me as I began making my way home.
Pam booted up the computer that she got for her fourteenth birthday a few months beforehand. Opening her browser window and heading to her bookmarks list, she clicked on the name at the very top: Unofficial World of Hackergirls.
She visited this forum every day. It was her afternoon ritual to get home from school and catch up on the latest talk about the hit new cartoon series from Japan–although Pam had got into trouble with the other members when she called it a “cartoon”. They preferred the term “anime”. Pam wasn’t sure how to pronounce that, but she started using it so as not to upset her new friends.
She skimmed over the forum’s new posts. As usual, the members were discussing their favourite episodes, posting their drawings of the characters, and arguing over which girl would hook up with which boy when the next season started.
The series was on hiatus while new episodes were being translated. The last time that happened, the forum’s members had taken to telling their own stories about the characters. They ended up working together on one big Hackergirls adventure as a community project. Realising that they didn’t know enough about Japan to recapture the cartoon’s Tokyo setting, they decided that each member should set their chapter in their hometown. Pam had great fun writing about the adventures of a Hackergirl living in Basingstoke, entering cyberspace through a public PC at the very library that Pam herself visited. Her friend Mary, meanwhile, created a character living in Edinburgh.
Mary was one of the lights of the proverbial party. She would write spoof interviews with the fictional characters of Hackergirls, filled with in-jokes about the sillier aspects of the cartoon. Whenever she posted them, the whole forum gathered together for a laugh.
Like a number of the more enterprising members, Mary had even tailored her own Hackergirl costumes and posted photographs online. It was not too hard to make halfway-convincing recreations of the Hackergirls’ day-to-day outfits, which were simply Japanese school uniforms. But in each episode the heroines jumped into cyberspace and began sporting costumes that glowed like neon lights, and those were harder to make at home.
Pam had tried to make her very own Hackergirl costume once, daubing glow-in-the-dark paint over some old pyjamas. She posted a few photos and got a lot of comments from the other posters. Few mentioned her outfit; the majority talked about her physical appearance. They told her that she looked like Mizoki, the bookish Hackergirl who always sported square-rimmed glasses like hers.
Mizoki had been a favourite character at the forum ever since a member posted screenshots from a certain Hackergirls episode, an episode that had never been cleared for broadcast in the English-speaking world. The episode involved Mizoki bathing in a hot-spring, naked.
I pulled a Bacardi out of the fridge and opened it with Olive’s penknife. I drank it while I checked my emails, hoping to find a response to one of my job applications. There was a single new message, from an address I didn’t recognise. The title was simply “Hello Pam”. I opened it, and could feel myself sinking into the chair as I read on:
Are you still single? Hard to believe, a pretty little thing like you. What’s say we hang out? Just looking at your face makes me hard as a rock. I think you look good in a tight top, it really shows off your curves. And lose the ponytail. You’d look more womanly with your hair loose and long.
I ran my fingers over my scalp and they came out covered in perspiration. Who was this person? Perhaps there wasn’t a person, perhaps it was just a spam message put out by some sort of bot. But how could a bot know I had a ponytail? How could anyone know I had a ponytail, unless they knew me?
I felt a compulsion to get up and check that the door was locked, and then I went from window to window and tugged the curtains closed. When I got back to the computer, I deleted the email, emptied the trash, and after a few minutes’ fumbling I was able to block the address that sent it. I tried to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and go about the rest of the day.
I remembered Olive’s suggestion and decided to do some exercise. I found a workout video online and played it. A cheerful-looking fitness instructor appeared in the middle of the screen, flanked by two pretty young women in sports bras and jog bottoms. The routine started with the typical stretches and shoulder taps.
“Good work,” said the man on the screen. “You’re looking good, real good. Let’s get some sweat going. Let’s get hot. Are you hot? ‘Cause you’re making me hot.”
I stopped my workout there and then, closing the video and falling on my chair. I knew fitness instructors were supposed to encourage their audiences with pre-recorded enthusiasm, but whoever they’d hired for this video needed to work on his manner. Olive would have laughed out loud: a fitness instructor making pervy comments to the camera. Exactly her sense of humour. I tried to chuckle as I imagined her reaction, but nothing came out.
Pam never again wore her glowing pyjamas, but she continued to post photographs of herself to the forum. The images chronicled the changes that her body undertook across 2002. She began showing more skin and noticed the increased attention from the boys of the forum. One time she took a series of photos of herself in a black blouse that was buttoned only at waist level, exposing a large portion of her newly formed bust. Her square-rimmed glasses added a mature touch to her youthful face, but the legs displayed beneath her short, tight black skirt still had a layer of puppy fat.
After she posted those photos, her private message folder was filled up with requests. The boys wanted to see more. She sent them flirtatious messages, telling them that if they were lucky, then they may get their wish someday.
On the 13th of August 2002, Pam removed her clothes, stood in front of her webcam and took a series of photographs. She did not share them with every male member of the forum, however. She intended them for the eyes of one person, and one person alone.
He called himself Aclos. He had taken the name from the evil computer system that threatened the world each week, necessitating Mizoki and the other Hackergirls to thwart its plans. Pam had noticed how the boys at the forum often named themselves after the villains of the show. That was boys for you. She knew Aclos was a sweet person deep down, attracted to girls in the way that most boys are.
My morning routine came to include checking my inbox and half-expecting another message from the pervert. The days passed with nothing suspicious turning up in my emails, and I was almost ready to forget the whole incident. But then, exactly a week after the first email arrived, I got another one:
Still got no boyfriend? Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time. Especially with me around!
I deleted it and blocked the sender. By the time I’d done that, another had arrived:
I like your tits, Pam.
Deleted email, blocked sender, then got this:
When do we get to fuck?
Each time a different address. At first I assumed it was just one guy who’d made a load of accounts. One really desperate, obsessed guy. As more and more emails arrived, I began to wonder if my Facebook profile had been posted to some forum for perverts, all looking at my photos, talking about my body…
I stayed away from the computer for a few hours. I watched a sitcom repeat with a mug of hot chocolate. I tried to laugh at the American flatmates on TV and mustered a few shaky giggles. After episode upon episode of mindless telly I realised that it must be getting dark outside. I peeked out through the curtains, and sure enough, there was my own face reflected back at me against the night sky.
But before I got ready for bed, I had to make sure that nothing else had been sent to me. It turned out that my inbox had one new message. The title was a web address ending with HaGi.JPG. An image file. No mention of my name, nothing pervy. I wondered if it might be someone different this time. I was curious.
I clicked the email. No text inside, just the image address. Now, I’d heard all the horror stories about what’s on the shadier corners of the web: child porn, terrorist executions. These things passed through my mind as I wondered what HaGi.JPG might possibly be. The name certainly didn’t give much away, although “HaGi” did ring a bell somehow.
I had a feeling that it might be something from a friend, perhaps something important. I copied the address into my browser and hit “enter”.
I was taken to a colourful and very detailed drawing. The image was immediately familiar, but it took me a second or two to fully process what I was looking at.
It was a drawing of myself.
A drawing of myself as a Hackergirl.
I stared at it. The character in the image was wearing a glowing Hackergirl costume, I remembered that much from my youthful obsession with the cartoon. It was skimpier than the ones on TV, but I recognised it. And despite the cartoon stylisation, I could tell that it had my face.
Whoever was sending these emails knew more about me than could be found with a quick look at my Facebook page. He even knew what cartoons I liked as a kid.
Aclos told jokes that made Pam laugh. The two friends talked about music that they both liked, things they both found annoying, things they hoped to do in the future. They began sharing private messages. Aclos sent her a photograph showing an attractive sixteen-year-old boy with a halfway-there Kurt Cobain haircut. He said that it was a photo of himself.
He told her that he liked her photos. He asked if he could see more of her.
Pam had thought about it for a while beforehand. She knew that it would be illegal. But Aclos was just two years older than her, a fellow teenager.
When Aclos saw Pam’s private photographs, he told her that she was beautiful, that she was the sexiest girl he had ever seen. He then sent back one of the pictures, now with modifications. He had used art software to paint a glowing Hackergirl outfit onto her body.
After that, Aclos began drawing pictures of Pam as a Hackergirl. His early attempts were crude, obviously traced in large part from one of the Hackergirls comic books. But over time, she noticed how his art improved, how he became more skilled in capturing her likeness. The outfit that he gave her was different to the ones in the cartoon: the skirt was shorter, the neckline much lower, the futuristic fabric seemingly bonded to her skin. But she did not object to this.
Aclos was not like the boys at school, who walked past her in the corridors and were too busy talking amongst themselves to ever speak to her. Aclos listened to her, and he even drew pictures for her, pictures that showed her as the person she wanted to be. She printed the drawings and hid them in her diary.
Pam had images of Aclos in her head. She imagined the face in his photograph on different bodies. Sometimes he was a strong lad, head of his PE class. Other times he was a frail boy, the shy type who needed an outgoing girl to help build his confidence.
She sometimes heard things on the news about child predators on the Internet. Her favourite radio station often played an advert where the voice of a teenage girl blurred into that of a sinister-sounding grown man: “paedophiles use the Internet,” warned an announcer at the end. But how could Aclos be anything other than the creative, loving, slightly cheeky boy that he claimed to be?
While Pam still visited the Hackergirls forum, there was less conversation to be had. The latest season of the cartoon had ended a month ago, after all. But Pam found herself surprised by one thing: Mary no longer posted there. Mary, the member everyone else liked.
Where had she got to?
After my shower the next morning, I sat down and pointed my browser to my emails. I felt about ready to vomit, but I had to get it over and done with. I opened my inbox. There was a new email, but it wasn’t anonymous. It came from a Gmail address with the name Richard.
Hey Pam, you look really hot in the Hackergirl painting 🙂
I hit the back button. Another new email had appeared in my inbox, the sender’s name this time given as George.
Hey there sexy Hackergirl, wanna suck my cock?
I hit back. Reload. Another email had arrived. Reload. Two more. Reload. Another. Reload. Two more. I waited a few seconds. Reload. Five more in my inbox. I clicked the most recent. It was from someone calling himself Steve.
Slugs and snails and slimy little tails, that’s what little boys are made of… little boys like me.
Below this was an image. Another drawing of myself as a Hackergirl. This time, I was bound to a table while a silhouetted man prepared to rape me. The artist had gone through the trouble of adding little teardrops to my eyes.
As I lay in bed that night, I trembled. My eyes were open. I couldn‘t bring myself to close them until I became tired enough for them to close by themselves.
One day, Pam noticed that Mary was online on ICQ. She sent a message over, asking why Mary had vanished from the forum.
Mary responded. She said that things turned bad after she started posting photographs of herself. She got messages from one of the boys at the forum. At first, he complimented her. Then he began to lust after her. She became uncomfortable. Worse than uncomfortable: she felt as though something had been taken from her.
Then she heard news reports about girls meeting predators online pretending to be kids their own age. After that, Mary began to suspect that the young boy who had been messaging her was not a young boy at all.
Pam asked Mary which member she was talking about. But somehow, even before Mary replied, Pam knew what the answer would be. It would be Aclos. And it was.
They had an argument in the message window. Pam told Mary what a sweet boy she thought Aclos was. Mary replied that, once, she had felt the same way about him.
Pam left the discussion, breathing heavily. She jumped onto her bed and clutched her rolled-up duvet, burying her face into it.
An hour later she went back to her PC and opened her messenger.
Aclos was online.
She started a conversation with him. They said their hellos before she moved on.
Mizoki88: put ur webcam on
Aclos: I don’t have one.
Mizoki88: it says on ur profile that you do
Aclos: Then it’s wrong.
Mizoki88: why wud it be wrong?
Pam looked through the menu that came up when she right-clicked Aclos’s name. There it was: “Invite to webcam chat.” She clicked it.
An hourglass icon appeared. “Awaiting reply.”
She waited. Her eyes were wide and sweat was on her forehead.
Mizoki88: ive invited u to a cam chat
Aclos: Sorry, but I really don’t have a webcam.
She took in a deep breath before typing the next line.
Mizoki88: too bad, I have a lot to show u 😉
She scrunched her eyes shut and hit enter. Then she heard a ding-dong sound from the computer. A new screen had opened up. A webcam screen. It showed a drab-looking room, shelves cluttered with electronic equipment. Somebody was there, but he was avoiding the lens of the camera. Pam saw only two parts of the person.
One was the fabric of a black t-shirt.
The other was a brief glimpse of a hand, a hand captured by the camera a split-second before darting away from the mouse and out of view. A hand with thick veins and black hairs. The hand of a grown man, middle-aged or older.
Pam slammed the laptop shut.
She opened up her diary and pulled out each of Aclos’s drawings. The pictures of her in a skimpy Hackergirl costume made a loose pile on her desk. She picked one up and crumpled it into a ball. When she dropped it, it began unfolding and the picture stared back at her. Hackergirl Pam, now distorted by creases and folds, still had a cheery grin on her face as she winked her eye and made a peace sign with her fingers. Pam picked it up and tore it to scraps. She did the same to the rest of the pile.
All that was left was a small heap of torn paper. But that was not enough.
Her parents kept a spare cigarette lighter in the living room. She borrowed it long enough to reduce Aclos’s drawings to ash.
I woke up, feeling sweat on my pillow. It was dark in my bedroom. Someone was there.
I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. I had to get out. I jumped out of bed, but the bedclothes were tangled around my foot. I tripped. As I fell, I caught a glimpse of a face, of an arm, of the man standing in the dark room, almost blurring in with the surroundings. I landed on the carpet and I felt vines reaching down, stroking my skin. They were the man’s vines, cold and moist. I clambered upwards and stumbled against my dresser. I heard a jar of nail polish fall to the floor, but that wasn’t important. I scrambled to the door, not daring to look behind me, and ran into the bathroom. I flicked on the light.
I stood there, bathed in yellow electric glow, and came to my senses. There wasn’t a man in the bedroom, there couldn’t have been. Even in the dark, I would have been able to make him out. And men don’t have vines, either. It was just my mind playing tricks. Night terrors. I’d heard from friends whose kids had night terrors, jumping out of bed convinced that something was in the bedroom with them. You were supposed to grow out of them after adolescence, but apparently they can still happen now and again when you’re an adult. Indigestion or something.
I went back to my bedroom. Nobody there. I tucked myself in and went to sleep.
In the morning I saw that my inbox had a new message. The sender’s name was a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers. “No subject,” ran the header.
We hope you like this new video about you, we spent a lot of time on it 🙂
I looked at the blue linked text that ran underneath. I wasn’t sure if the movement in my stomach was swelling or contraction. I didn’t want to click. I could simply close the window, turn off the computer, and step outside. I could go shopping or visit the cinema.
But something tugged me towards the link. Perhaps morbid curiosity. Perhaps the knowledge that no matter how long I stayed away from my PC, these messages would keep on coming anyway.
I played the video.
It was another drawing of me as a Hackergirl. The on-screen face–like mine but with eyes so much larger, nose more petite, skin PVC-smooth–started back at me. It was animated. It gave me a knowing smirk.
“Hi there, Pam,” it said.
“Oh, fuck,” I murmured under my breath.
The animated character let out a high-pitched laugh. “You never used that kind of language when you were fourteen,” said the face in the video. “You only heard words like that around the house when your parents were arguing, remember? Swearing made you uncomfortable. You ran to your bedroom and cried when you first heard your mother say ‘fuck’.”
I sat bolt upright. Against all logic, I asked the digital image a question: “How did you know that?”
The two-dimensional face looked upwards with a wistful expression. “You were so innocent back then,” said the Hackergirl, and I noticed a slight metallic twang to the voice. It reminded me of the tinned announcements in the London Underground. “You still liked kitties and ponies and clothes with pink frills. You’d only just realised that you liked different things too, things your parents would’ve never approved of.”
“Shut up,” I said. “You have no right to know that.”
The Hackergirl fluttered the lashes of her sparkling eyes and wagged a finger. “I have every right, Pam,” she said, as well-spoken as a teacher’s pet. “I’m part of you, after all. That’s how I remember so much. I remember how Aclos made you feel.”
“Don’t mention him,” I growled. “Don’t talk about Aclos.”
“Don’t you remember how good he made you feel? You’d never thought of yourself as pretty, but here was a boy who liked you so much that he wanted to see you naked.”
“You were so embarrassed getting your first bra, but meeting a boy who wanted to get you out of your bra made it all worthwhile…”
The animated girl laughed.
“Shouting won’t change things, Pam. You remember what happened last night, in your bedroom? Well, it’s coming again tonight. But this time it’ll be closer, closer, just waiting for you to close your pretty little eyes…”
I jumped away from the computer, grabbed my bag, and ran out the door.
I stumbled down the path. When I glanced back at the flats I felt as though the windows were watching me. I ran around the corner until the building was out of view. I sat on the pavement. Tears had started to come from my eyes and I could feel my whole body shaking. I took out my phone and dialled Olive.
“Pam? That you?”
It took me a while to answer.
“Olive, I need to talk.”
I paused and thought. There was no way she could solve my problems. She wouldn’t know what was going on any more than I did. I had to be less direct. I swallowed and tried to keep emotion from my voice as I lied to my friend.
“Oh, it’s nothing serious. I just got an email from an ex-boyfriend. You know the sort who just won’t accept it’s over?”
I was hoping for a laugh from Olive at that point, something to lighten the mood. When she replied, her tone had no humour.
“Oh, God, yeah, I’ve had my share of blokes like that.”
“Pammy, that kind of thing depends on the person. I mean, what’s he been up to?”
I bit my lip as I decided on the best answer.
“It’s long story,” I said. “And I think it might just be beginning. I want to know what I can do if it gets out of hand.”
“One time I had to take out a restraining order.”
Despite myself, I let out a low laugh. Somehow, I didn’t think the guy after me would let an order restrain him. Olive didn’t seem to notice my reaction and carried on.
“That took a while, though. I needed actual evidence of his behaviour before I could convince anyone. I copied some posts he’d made on his Facebook, really abusive stuff, and I gathered it all together.”
I perked up. This was getting a little closer to home. “And that worked?”
“Oh, yeah. I had my doubts for a while, though. I mean, for one thing, by the time I started arranging to take out the order, he’d stopped posting about me on Facebook. He’d moved on to telephone calls and the like. So, I had to dig through his old posts to find the worst stuff. It was just as well that those posts were burned onto my memory. I knew exactly where each one was, even though they were all pretty old by then.”
I didn’t reply. At that point I had too much running through my head.
“But Pam, you really need to tell me more if you want me to help…”
“Oh, no,” I replied. “No, you’ve helped already, Olive.”
“Trust me, Olive. I think you’ve saved me. I’ll speak to you later.”
I ended the call. I didn’t know what would be waiting for me back home, so I thought of a place that had always been safe.
The local library was fairly busy when I arrived. I logged onto the one available computer and opened a browser. It was time to start some searching of my own.
I typed in “Unofficial World of Hackergirls,” even though I expected the forum to have been taken offline by now. There was a jump in my heart when the familiar old site came up. Someone had archived it. As I started flicking through the discussions, memories trickled back: old names, old conversations, old in-jokes we all shared. Then I saw it.
A post by Aclos.
A chill run through every blood vessel in my body.
I read through the post. It was nothing remarkable, just a discussion about which Hackergirl was the coolest. Typical kids’ forum stuff. But it reminded me of something. I could feel a nagging thought at the back of my mind.
I closed my eyes and rubbed my hands over my face. Images of fifteen-year-old posts, memories of long-gone forum discussions flashed and flickered through my head. I had a memory that I knew I had to pull out, and when it came to me, I felt my eyes bulge open.
The group story that we took part in, including Aclos. We invented Hackergirls who lived in our own towns. My Hackergirl lived in Basingstoke. And Aclos wrote a Hackergirl from Croydon.
Aclos lived in Croydon.
I carried on hunting through the forum, trying to find any other personal details he’d let slip. My eyes were inches from the monitor and I could feel sweat trickling down my forehead, into my eyes. I was clicking away on the mouse, page after page after page after page. Clickclickclickclickclick. People on the nearby computers were shooting bewildered glances my way, but I didn’t care. I don’t think I blinked once as I skimmed through Aclos’s posts. Aclos talking about sexy ladies in a cartoon. Aclos flirting with girls at the forum. Aclos asking a girl for her photograph. Aclos being asked by that girl for his email address. Aclos posting his email address.
It was there, right in front of me. BEastmead@xenomale.com
B. Eastmead. Was that his name?
I opened up a new search window and entered in all the information I had about Aclos so far: the name B. Eastmead, the town Croydon. A few pages came up, stuff from the electoral register. I flicked through. One of the names there was a Croydon resident named Barry Eastmead.
My heart was thumping. Was this him? Had I found him? I searched “Barry Eastmead” and turned up a site called Eastmead Electronics. I clicked.
The site was plain, with a white background and a few lines of text. It had a copyright notice with the year 2008, and obviously hadn’t been updated since then. To most people it would have been unremarkable: just a website promoting a small computer repairs workshop, probably operated by one guy out of his garage. But my eyes were focused on the middle of the page. There was a photograph of a man’s face, with the name Barry Eastmead written underneath. He was middle-aged, his thinning hair starting to go grey. His eyes looked empty, blank. He wore a black shirt. The photograph had been taken with a camera flash, making his skin look pale against the dimly lit room behind him.
I recognised that room, with the dark walls and shelves filled with electronics. I sat and stared, but what was in front of me had faded from my view. All I could see were memories, memories of that day when I was fourteen and I caught a glimpse of his hand on the webcam…
“Is everything alright?”
I spun around at the woman standing over me. I could see from the card around her neck that she was a staff member. My face twitched into a forced smile.
“Yeah, sure, just didn’t get much sleep last night,” I said. She gave me one last glance before departing.
I looked at some of the other pages that came up on the search. I saw some posts from around 2004 at forums about UFOs and paranormal stuff. Barry Eastmead had been quite active in those communities, it seems. Most of his posts linked to long articles about cybernetics and artificial intelligence and mind-machine interfaces and other stuff I couldn’t make head nor tail of. Web-surfing had taken me as far as it could; now I had to take physical steps.
Ten minutes later I left the library and took a bus down to the train station. While I was onboard, I happened to slip my hand into my pocket and feel Olive’s keyring inside. The reminder of my friend calmed me a little, and then I cleared my thoughts. I didn’t want Aclos getting inside them. The bus arrived just as the next train to Croydon was pulling in, so I bought my ticket and boarded. I sat and watched as the city faded away to be replaced with fields of sheep and cows. I realised just how exhausted I was, how my sleep patterns had been disrupted over the past few nights. I couldn’t help sitting back and letting my eyes close…
Pam dreams. She dreams of being in her bedroom, with fragmented figures watching from every corner. She exercises in pastel pink underwear, doing squats and sprints. Faces leer at her. They are hidden in the darkness, yet she can make out every strand of facial hair. She carries on, sweating as she is watched.
As I watch.
Someone shook my shoulder. It was a middle-aged woman in a purple jacket.
“This your station, love?”
I looked out the train window and saw a sign reading “CROYDON”. I gave the woman a smile of appreciation as I thanked her before stepping off the train. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a map I’d printed out down the library. A ballpoint dot marked the address given on the Eastmead Electronics website, and it wasn’t too far from the station.
I carried along the scrawled-in route until I came to a nondescript little house tucked away in a cul-de-sac. There was a small garden, but it was overgrown as though nobody had tended it for years.
I approached the door and, making as little noise as I could, I turned the handle. The door was unlocked and I pushed it open, inch by inch. The hallway I stepped into was pure, spilled-ink black. It didn’t usually take long for my eyes to get used to the dark, but here, the blackness showed no signs of fading. I had to walk with care, and it felt like a full minute between each step as I made my way onwards.
Just as I started getting confident enough to pick up my pace. I stepped face-first into a wall and smothered the yelp that came up my throat. The hallway was so dark that I hadn’t noticed its ending. I felt my way around, trying to keep my breaths quiet, until I realised that the corridor had an opening to the right. I turned the corner.
Something appeared a few feet ahead of me. It was a Hackergirl: the Hackergirl-me that Aclos had sent to my inbox. I saw my body squeezed into the futuristic costume, and my facial features squeezed into a two-dimensional mask with a pen-dot nose and big, sparkling eyes. The figure stood dancing in the centre of the room, a two-dimensional character glowing against the darkness in bright cartoon colours, the movements jerky like a neon sign outside a Las Vegas bar. Then another image appeared in the corner of the room, another cartoon caricature of myself, slinking and swaying like a pole-dancer.
Light poured from the moving figures and gave an idea of the room’s shape. I could make out the peeling wallpaper, the dust-coated carpet. I saw a movement out the corner of my eye and spun around. A third animated image had appeared; this time, it showed a cartoon version of myself performing a striptease, her body–my body–spilling from the cast-off costume, skin catching the light like a rubber toy. I swallowed and reached out. I felt a hard, smooth surface. The images were being screened onto sheets of glass. I glanced around for the white light of a projector but saw nothing.
At the end of the room was the oblong shape of a door. As I made my way towards it a fourth image faded into view: this one showed me completely naked, fingers reaching down towards my crotch and… I turned my head away. Then the fifth appeared. I stopped. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself.
This screen showed a naked cartoon of me looking distressed, a furrowed brow above weepy eyes. A sudden gash appeared along my chest as though carved by an invisible knife and blood sprayed out, then another gash came from the opposite direction to leave a bleeding “X”. I saw myself wailing in agony as the skin of my cartoon face began to peel back, exposing a grinning red muscle-face beneath. Then I saw my body gyrating again, like something was pushing into the red-X chest wound, thrusting, thrusting…
I looked away and started running towards the door. More images were appearing around the room. I glimpsed the bloody, skinless face of the cartoon-me. A snapped bone sliding from my flesh like a cock from a foreskin. A sparkling anime eye slipping from a socket and something entering the hole. When I reached the door, it was ajar, and I pushed it open. I stopped just in time to realise that there was a flight of stairs in front of me, heading down. I had no choice but to grip the handrails and descend.
The stairway seemed even darker than the entrance hallway. I could hear a sound that I took to be the wind blowing through some unseen shaft. But after a while I began to make out a voice in the low murmur.
After all those years, you still have me in your head, Pamela.
I breathed in and swallowed. “You won’t be there much longer.”
I noticed slight movements along the pitch-black walls. Here, something that looked like the gleam of two eyes. There, something almost like two lips mouthing along to the words. But whenever my eyes focused on a movement it faded into the blackness.
Aren’t you the least bit curious how I entered your mind?
“I’m more interested in how I’ll get you out.”
You would never have understood, anyway. I spent twenty years studying the esoteric aspects of communication technology. The mind, the spirit, the mechanical — the boundaries are more porous than many think. Few could have accomplished all that I did.
“If you’re the smart one, how come you need me?”
I still have flesh, blood, urges. And I could never allow my prize morsel to escape.
The prickling at my back could have been a breeze, could have been a fly, could have been a finger tickling across my goose-bumped skin. I kept my face forward and carried on down the stairs. But I could not see the end: I could see only the dark.
Then I remembered something. The torch app. I yanked my phone out of my pocket and activated it, the shaft of light penetrating the shadows to illuminate the flaking white paint and crumbling steps of the stairwell as I descended. A thick coating of dust indicated that nobody had walked this way for some time, perhaps years.
The floorboards at the bottom of the stairs were warped and twisted, and I walked carefully over the curved mounds. Large flakes of plaster from the ceiling were scattered over the floor. Halfway along was a doorway on the right-hand wall. I peered in, flashing the torch inside, and looked away with revulsion when I saw that the room contained a toilet encrusted with black slime. I continued towards a door at the far end of the corridor, and I noticed a small flash from the crack below the door. Something on the other side was flickering with blue light, and the closer I got, the more frequent the flashes became.
I reached the door, turned the handle, and opened it a crack. Then, as though someone had grasped it from the other side, it swung open, dragging me into the room.
Pam enters the room. She is picked up by every camera lens on my body, but at the same time, I cannot help but open my eyes. The encrusted mucus crumbles from my eyelids and my vision focuses.
I see her before me. My heart beats faster, each pulsation sending a charge through my body. I feel my cables rising, stiffening, as they point towards her. An intense fear distorts her face. Her body contorts as though she is about to vomit. Her emotions reach me, coursing through the wires and running into my brain.
In my mind I picture the drawing of Pam that I made so long ago. The image appears on the screens around the room. She does not look at them, her eyes remain locked onto my body. She does not even notice when a coiled cable rises from the floor and twirls around her leg, pulling her down. Other cables wrap around her body and bind her. I make no conscious effort to cause this: it occurs according to instinct. The cables drag her towards me.
She struggles, she gasps. She cannot escape. The cables are too tight. She has one arm free, holding her mobile phone. She flails but can do nothing. I feel my flesh palpitating as it begins to part, a long coalescence of plastic, metal and wires emerging from inside me. Her eyes are wide as she sees it. The cables lift her, raise her into the air. Her face is towards mine, her pelvis is towards…
But she moves her arm, she is still holding the telephone, a shaft of light is… oh dear God I cannot see, the light is in my eyes, I cannot hold her, my cables are loosening…
My mind switches to the camera lenses. I see again. She is picking herself up from the floor. She has something in her other hand. A bunch of keys, with a large silver keyring. She fiddles with it. A long penknife blade slides out and she lifts it. I send the cables to stop her, to bind her arm, her arm which is coming down… no, it is too late… the knife is…
I pulled the knife out of his flesh, and then I rammed it back in. I repeated this action three more times, perhaps four, perhaps five, I can hardly be expected to remember the exact number. Then I pulled out the knife. I stood, I breathed, and I looked down at what was in front of me.
Slumped backwards against a heap of electronics was a corpse. It must have been dead even before I stabbed it. The limbs were rotting, with no more than leads and wires holding them together. My stomach lurched when I saw how the cables reached inside the body, like artificial sinews. Then I noticed the body’s groin, with the leads and the pubic hairs and the wires and the bloated grey-green testicles and…
I bent double and retched. I tried to keep my gaze away from the body, but I couldn’t help looking back at it. My eyes fell on the red wounds that I had left across the face–the face, with metal clamps binding its skin to one of the electronic devices, half-rotted flesh melting over the circuit boards like slime mould in a dead hoarder’s cupboard, its pale green contrasting with the red blood, something white beginning to trickle out…
I retched again, but even after a few heaves, nothing came out. I twitched, wanting to flee. I twitched again, looking around for something I could use as a club to smash the thing that was Aclos to oblivion.
I reached into the heap of mechanics under the body and tugged out what seemed to be a pair of computers soldered together, the plastic half-melted. The heap collapsed and the corpse fell with it, the back of its head and shoulders against the floor, its necrotic legs propped over a stack of electronics, loose and ungainly like a Guy on a bonfire. I held the fused machine high above and brought it down on the corpse’s head. The squelching sound, and the smell that came out, and the splatter of cream-coloured liquid, all made me turn around and throw up over the floor.
Finding my way back out of the house was easier than getting in. The screens that once showed obscene caricatures of me were now just clear panels of glass, and when I reached the front door I finally escaped into the fresh air. I ran away from the building, through the lanes between houses, past people–people, not corpses. Then I sat down on the pavement.
I pulled out my phone and called Olive.
“Pam? How’s it going?”
I wiped my eyes and could feel my mouth forcing itself into a smile.
“Pretty damn good, thanks. Just dealt with my ex.”
I is for Internet is available for Kindle and in paperback here.
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