i guess i should explain who the null is. it’s a hacker group, to put it in the simplest way. no one really knows what they’re about, but they’re users who never attach a name to their net IDs, so that anytime any one of them shows up anywhere, their name field just says [null!], as if there were a system error.
it’s impossible to tell how many of them there are, because anyone who knows how to run one little script can log in as [null!], and lots of punk kids do, just so other gamers will be afraid of them on a forum or something dumb like that. usually you can’t tell one from another, either. they have behavior codes or something.
i mean, theoretically, it could only be one guy, logging in as [null!] all the time, if not for the raids they launch on things that “offend” them. usually it’s just stupid pranks, like once they crashed the website of some awful boy-pop singer and made it so no one could buy tickets to his big dreamboat tour.
they also supposedly brought down this game called greenlife a few years ago, just by unbalancing its economy with all these [null!] entries.
i mean everyone knew greenlife was basically a ploy to advertise overworld prescriptions and medical paranoia to underworld kids. no one likes overexposed memes either. so the null were like counterculture heroes, the kind of faceless operatives people brag about being connected to, that all these dumb overworld magazines try to figure out.
about eight years ago city services actually got worried about it, and started working on how to block people from nullifying their online identification in that way. there was a huge community fuss about privacy and freedom of speech. that’s why we came down here in the first place, to avoid that stuff.
that’s when the null got serious and proved they weren’t just pop culture fuckheads. they brought down city central completely for an entire 24 hours. no power, no station exchange, nothing. all the kids got sent home from school. city central was riding through the streets in motorcarts, talking through a megaphone about how they surrendered the war for anonymity.
they didn’t know who they were talking to, or who heard them. but after 24 hours city central was back to rights, and the null never surfaced so overtly again. it was amazing.
it was fucking awesome. i remember sitting in the dark feeling like i belonged to something, rooting quietly for justice.
now i feel betrayed. completely. i always thought the null and i were part of the same culture. the ones who are right. they’re supposed to be my people. having them attack me feels like an ostracism, an amputation. A dismemberment.
sitting in rez’s living room staring at my coffee, my cheeks feel hot and i’m sick to my gut and i’m a little bit angry and mostly ashamed.
rez once told me that people who lose a limb, for years they still feel like that arm or whatever is still there, and they want with all of their might to move something that doesn’t exist anymore.
Sitting on rez’s couch, staring blankly into the faceless black pool of a mug of coffee, i know exactly how that feels. we called emergency services, and they said they’d look into things, but everyone knows there’s nothing they can do about the null. probably they wouldn’t try.
at least they got me a temporary ID number and a state services net plan and in set up a new email box, but it’s all empty.
normally when I have nothing else to do, i play ultima reverie, but if I were to log in now, I’d be right at the character creation screen, eye-to-eye with the faceless default man. it’s always the same — a mud-colored, nearly naked man, that you edit and adjust and you sculpt yourself out of him. a prawn, a vestigial person, nothing much to wear.
once i broke down and figured anything would be better than nothing, and i made a new character. but i couldn’t even go to any of the places i like. everything is locked in the beginning, except the most primeval of early game areas, my inventory completely decimated.
it made it worse. it reminded me of the identity i lost, my green-haired songstress and everything i achieved together with her. it almost doesn’t compute that i can’t save her.
even in this world that used to be all mine, i don’t have anything left.
because of the null.
you know what’s weird about living online? the volume of content multiplies at an incalculable exponential rate every day and there’s no history chart.
it unsettles me to know that almost no one could chart my entire narrative. doesn’t that bother you? you post or type or interact with something, words or games or social media or whatever, every day, but who can tell the story of what you’ve done and who you’ve been all this time?
let me think.
okay. here is what’s been happening.
my name is juneau natchez and i live in the underworld, an urbanized subterranean cavity devoted to unlimited online bandwidth and the values associated with the degregulation of information exchange.
i operate a meme engine, a data service that charts the interaction around images, events and ideas. i measure the rise and fall of the relevance of things.
ive been playing an online RPG called ultima reverie for as long as i can remember. that’s how i met my best friend rez, a pet taxidermist that girls think is cool because he’s good at rhythm-action games.
the architect of ultima reverie, astor, has been missing for maybe three years and no one knows what happens to him. everyone used to say the ultima reverie games were the pinnacle of game design. they have fallen out of relevance, but i still play. it’s the best.
there’s this horrible trendy ‘virtual world’ called mirrorverse world where wackadoos want to live ‘virtual lives’ free from the ‘tyranny’ of game design. i love to make fun of them.
i went to the overworld, where people limit internet use and are obsessed with organic food and synthetic pharmaceuticals, for an arena fighters 6 tournament. i was there to film a protest of the mirrorverse worlders so that everyone who uses my meme engine could laugh at them. rez hit on a waitress at the stadium. ugh.
one of the protesters implied that astor, the lost designer of ultima reverie, might be involved with the mirrorverse world. it seems like bullshit to me, but i’ve decided to figure it out. i taped everything, and i uploaded the video remotely.
on the way home rez and i visited a pharmaceutical company called vitaltech so he could get preservatives for his work. we saw genetically-engineered baby chickens used for testing.
when i got home, a group calling itself the null had erased my entire server and someone had trashed my apartment and ruined all my stuff. they said it was something to do with looking for astor. forget him, they said.
i’ve been at rez’s ever since. thank fuck for rez.
thanks for staying with me. i heard that the internet was invented almost a century ago. do you think people did it so they wouldn’t be alone? so that whenever they shouted into the universe, made a map of their lives, someone would hear?
hello, can you still hear me? if someone isn’t online for a while it’s like they died. remember? people in chat rooms with melodramatic declarations before they stopped showing up, and you wonder if they died. killed themselves.
usually they just changed screen names. remember that? ha.
i’ve said a lot that i don’t remember when i first moved to the underworld. i know i wasn’t born here, and i don’t really remember before that, my head hurts.
sometimes i feel that way. when you come up for air it’s like you have to tell everyone where you’ve been or do all of this apologizing.
i’m at rez’s. everything i’ve been working for is gone.
i can still hear my console breathing, which makes my fingers tremble with relief. when I touch it, it wakes up. nothing’s wrong with it. the hot ebb of adrenaline liquifies my shoulders, arms.
but then instead of my server greeting message, i see something else:
[Citizen 0220799, Proprietor Of memep00l:
You have been disciplined for uploading content that offends the principles of The Null. Propagating such content is counteractive to Our current objectives. The content in violation has been Nullified, and you are advised to remove any data reproduction or similar content from any storage device under your domain. Failure to comply will result in further and more severe disciplinary action on the part of The Null. ]
oh fuck. no. no no no no no no no no no. my meme engine. my server. my data. it’s blank. it’s all totally fucking nullified, empty, gone. my life. my life. i can barely feel rez grab hold of my shoulders to hold me up as i’m frantically searching every avenue, every wrinkle, every secret tunnel of my console for any response, anything, anything left.
nothing. my life. my stats, my infrastructure. five years of my meme engine, my cultural museum, my profiles. my goddamn fucking ultima reverie game, my character and all of my files and all the identity data i have in this world.
there are file ghosts left on the server, empty shells. like the light from stars that you can still see long after the body’s burnt out and gone. in desperation i’m launching every emergency recovery program i’ve got, every utility.
every action i take produces the same result: emptiness.
and a warning dialog: forget about astor.
rez plants his fingers on my chest and stops me from running for my busted front door. “lemme look first, alright?” he says in a way that tells me not to argue.
he cracks the knuckles of his really long fingers and nudges the unhinged door with his boot. it swings inward with a drawn-out, piteous groan, and i can see my console light spilling hesitantly into the street as rez sidles inside.
oh my god, my console.
“juneau, you’d better come in here,” rez calls from inside my home.
no no no no no.
standing in the dark underneath a busted light, my console sits radiant like some evolutionary monolith on top of a broken desk, the only intact thing among knocked-over shelves, smashed dishes, ripped books, everything piled around it like a pyre.
my stuff is completely trashed. crunched up noodles are torn out of their packages all the hell over my floor, my collector’s edition ghost miku doll lies face-down with her arms missing, a few of my portable storage cards are smashed underfoot. i glimpse a page from the manga set rez got me for my birthday last year. my slashed couch cushion is drenched in omelet sauce. the fridge itself is tipped over in the kitchen, and at least two cats have found their way into my place and are sitting on it.
rez stands among the wreckage and says, “holy shit.”
something sticks to my sneaker as i walk through the living room to my bedroom. my coolant tank has a hole punched in it, and the coolant has spilled all over my bed. in my bathroom, the mirror is smashed, my shower nozzle is pulled out of the wall, my drainage unit torn up, and my toilet has a big chunk taken out of it.
“fucking hell,” rez says, hands at his side.
maybe, just maybe i might cry in a minute. i feel sorry for my ghost miku doll, my game data cards. all the plastic capsule anime figurines rez and i collected from the laundromat.
right now, though, i’m too scared to see what they might have done to my data. all these things on the floor and stuff, i don’t really care. my life is in that machine.
my screen is a peaceable, idle white for the moment, the white of death, but all the indicators on the console are normal. i just have to wake it up to see what the damage is. rez and i stand in front of it like a hospital bedside.
“who… would do this, natch?” rez breathes carefully.
i have no idea. nobody hates me. nobody even knows me.
i rouse the machine.
we buy peanut cakes and eat them on the way back to my place. at this time of night sound factory brings its rhythm game setups out into the street, and crowds always come take turns competing against each other. a fat monitor rigged up to the wall spills hypnotic visuals and saturated color onto the participants as scoreboards duel, numbers melting and upticking in constant war.
one console’s music clashes with the one next to it, with the one across from it, but nobody turns it down; the mashed-up conflagration of sound heightens the feeling of combat between the teams, and everyone knows you’re no kind of rhythm gamer if you can’t hear your own song above the others.
the rhythm machines run on popular songs, or maybe the songs that run on rhythm machines are the ones that become popular. it’s impossible to tell, just like it’s impossible to look at all the dancers and their complicated steps and tell who’s winning. sigils, symbols, arrows flicker across their faces as they play.
the crowd parts to let through this local guy and his great big push-cart full of used up electronics and parts. his name is nemo and everyone knows him, because he makes his living entirely off salvage and sale. usually he gathers up the junk no one else wants and tries to sell it to the exchange station. he wears one of those old-fashioned bamboo shade hats, and he always wears a paper mask even when the air filters are fine.
some of the party kids call out hello to nemo, but most of us just get out of his way. he’s like the ambulance service — nah, the undertaker — for everything we love down here that’s never been alive.
he’s going the same way we are. i can already hear the sound of dark empires coming from the window of that guy who lives across the street from me and plays it all the time.
then i hear rez say, “what the fuck?”
my front door is puckered deep around the lock, crumpled on itself and hanging on one hinge.
what the fuck.
on the monorail rez falls asleep, and i play vampire killer on my portable most of the way. we don’t get home until well after dark: in the underworld at night, they turn off the high flood lights and turn on the smaller lamps. in the dark i can’t see the infrastructure of the ceiling at all, so it’s a lot like the real night we just visited a few hours ago.
our air is ionized. it smells better to me, cleaner.
i’m still thinking about the space bird babies, and i feel a sort of parasthetic itch in my palm. i wonder if they got some kind of chicken illness into my skin.
“can’t happen,” says rez. “they’re overworld birds.”
exactly. “what if they have some kind of super bird flu?”
“they already gassed the ones that were sick,” rez says grimly, looking sidelong at me with a twist of his mouth. “your hand probably itches because you’re still thinking about ‘em.”
i don’t know what to say, and rez is still looking at me. he says, “you don’t want me to do one for you, do you?” he means taxidermy.
“fuck no,” i say.
“i didn’t think so,” he says, and nods. it’s not like i especially like animals or something. i don’t really care about it. stupid overworld.
the pensa district where we live has all these little colored lamplights strung over the big scaffold that forms the entry arch. at night the whole street gets flooded with color, and a lot of shops and carts open that aren’t there during the day. the cake cart smells as sweet as it always does, and the crowd is dense, mostly people our age hanging out now that the day’s work is over.
rez has to raise his voice to be heard above the din. “my grandmother always said that if your palm itches, it means you’re going to have something good happen,” he says. so many colors tint the light that diffuses over us that we look strange to one another for a moment.
“if you don’t scratch,” he adds.
rez’s eyes are drifting over the nighttime crowd. he mouths a greeting to someone i’m too short to see, and someone else i don’t recognize gives rez a two-finger salute as he sidles past us.
after a few seconds, i decide i don’t care enough about my karmic bounty and i scratch my palm.
“shame,” says rez distractedly. and then i feel really weird for a second. it’s probably nothing.
on the monorail back home, rez tells me that all of those space bird babies were born from experimental fertility drugs. now they’re going to be used to test growth hormones.
this is the second or third batch of chicks rez has seen vitaltech produce, he says. the other ones didn’t survive. these ones probably won’t either .
before rez and i got on the monorail we had a little fight about whether to stay over in the overworld. it was late when we got out of vitaltech and we had to wait two hours for the train back to the exchange station. rez hates waiting and doing nothing, but i just want to go home.
rez telling me about what stupid vitaltech does to the space bird babies is his way of apologizing to me, i guess. telling me he understands why i can’t stand the overworld.
i used almost all my overworld minutes allotment already to upload everything i recorded on my portable today to my cloud. i’m dying to get back and look at my metaverse world protest, and their ‘in-world’ simulcast recordings that should be saved on my server. i need to present it on the meme engine.
i need to check my boards and stats and trends and there’s really so much online you can miss in just one day. it’s like your brain is suddenly starving and it wants to eat by refreshing the internet.
i can’t wait to start looking for astor, either. this could be big.
i use the last minute of my overworld time to check my ultima reverie auction. the be-berry is right where i left it on the trading floor, so at least i can stop wondering about that.