Dante and Byron are avatars. Driven by human beings, yet still only digital representations of their ideal selves. In reality, they live far apart, but share most of their waking and working hours together in a virtual world called Synth.
In Synth, like in most code, the laws are infinitely more simple and infinitely more complex. Navigating the system rules of virtual lovers is like steering through a minefield of deceit, suspicion, heartbreak, and half-truths.
Under pressure, Dante makes a friendship that trips Byron’s warning bells, disrupting their carefully-ordered lives and calling into question the wisdom of trusting your heart to a man you can never touch in the flesh.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Definition: Circuit theory is the theory of accomplishing work by means of routing matter through a loop.
Entered Togi Island at 2.718.101
24 avatars present
The grayness around me took shape. Colors faded in and suddenly a sun with slow, puffy clouds hung above Caribbean blue water. Six avatars in close proximity took form—one of them standing on my head. That was the pitfall of a busy world: everyone wanted to be there and all at once, but no matter how dear and realistic your fantasy was, it was still just a slave to bandwidth.
Stiletto heels didn’t actually hurt when they poked into your pixelated cranium, but it did look rather odd, like I was being weirdly topped by a woman with a shoe fetish. Whoops. Man. Skins could be very androgynous in Synth. Sometimes the only way you could tell was by the facial hair.
I let Mr. High Heels land on his feet and guided my avatar away from the teleport pad toward the shopping mall. Too many avatars in a central area caused massive lag anyway. The mall was a towering structure of pure, tinted glass, something that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world but made a lovely sight here. It would also make it easier for me to find new hair.
The male hairstyles were in the back, and I was in a mood to fill up my inventory with more useless yet stylish crap before the hour was up. I passed a blue woman with a head like a tiger, some kind of pistol-armed alien with a breather mask, and a man who looked like he’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine, all trying on boots.
A female shape rezzed beside me. “Hello cutie! Come here often?”
Her tag said her name was SexxyBabee. I rolled my eyes. Well, not really. If that was one thing Synth needed, it was an eyeroll/headsmack/OMGwhatnow? gesture.
Whotta woman. I had a fleeting thought about physics, wondering if those breasts she was wearing could be actually made physical in Synth so they would spring as she walked and knock planes out of the sky. She wore a mass of messy brunette hair down to her waist, a crimson singlet cut to the navel, and enough bling to blind me from 30 meters. Her shiny red stilettos clicked as she turned in a perfect circle so I could get the full view of her grossly extended and mostly exposed buttocks. I guess she needed them for balance.
Right then I was thinking, Please, God, get me out of this and I’ll never ask for another thing, but what did I do? Yeah.
My arm raised in a friendly wave animation. “Hello.”
“Shopping are you? What are you here for, sweetie?”
I considered teleporting out, but a message could follow you anywhere in-world, even if Miss Bosom & Butt couldn’t do so physically. Muting her was another option. After a moment, I decided I was too much of a gentleman to do that, not without giving her a chance, anyway.
“Hair,” I answered. “Hard to find good hair for guys, so a sale is always worth a look. What about you?”
The shop was full of bright crosshairs moving through space, each one representing an avatar’s camera or point of view. Her camera floated up, her view fixating on my face and the brand new skin I’d dropped a quarter of my Synth chip balance on two days ago. Her animator control shunted her into a new position: hands sliding into her hair, elbows akimbo, thrusting those impossible tits even further forward.
I contemplated rezzing a mattress for her to fall on.
“I like your name. Dante, is that from some book? Oh yeah. I’m a girl, so gotta shop! Hey, that’s a nice skin, honey. Really cute!”
I could see several targets trained on her chest and knew other avatars were having a look at her. I recognized a couple of the names on my radar from Gay Synth, Thor, and Aden, who would definitely not be checking her out for the thrills. More likely they were eviscerating her between themselves in private chat, a big gay “those ain’t real, honey” bitchfest in the depths of the male section of the store. It made me chuckle behind my screen, as if one kind of pixel tits could be more “real” than any other kind. Digital is digital, kiddos.
I smiled at her. “Thanks.”
I clicked her tag to open up her profile, and oh my God, what were those groups she was in? Scatafillya? What? I mean, I knew what scat play was and I avoided it like, well, shit, but I didn’t think anyone in a group like that was actually clever enough to think of misspelling it to hide the intent of the comm. My virtual testicles shriveled as I read more of the roleplay groups she belonged to: felching, capturehuntkilleat, dogknots, furrycocksforhire, humanmeat. That was no woman under there, or if it was, it wasn’t an Earth woman. Maybe some kind of morbidly curious omnisexual alien.
Please don’t say anything else please don’t say anything else please . . .
She turned slowly, hand sliding grotesquely inside the pixel flesh of her hip. Her avatar was cheap: the body mesh didn’t obey or work with the limits of her animations. I could have told her where to buy an animator for BBWs, but hey, I wanted out of there, and I wasn’t about to start dishing out tips.
“So you wanna see my house?”
Okay, the gloves were off. I got it now. She wasn’t the type to read profiles to see if her targets were involved in a relationship in Synth or not. Anyone was fair game to this lady. Residents of Synth could talk a good game about respect, but you’d be surprised to realize how many of them believed in respect only when it was directed toward them. They didn’t have any to spare for other people. Nothing was real for them besides the puppet show going on in their head. Although everyone was basically a marionette in Synth, I could never forget that a very real consciousness held those strings. Some could; not me.
I clicked my animator into a shrug and watched my shoulders rise in regret that I really didn’t feel. “Sorry, I’m partnered. No offense.”
A long silence passed where SexxyBabee’s head bobbed up and down like she was gobbling on a . . . Man, where was I getting these thoughts? Oh yeah, her profile. Anyway, she was quiet for a few and I turned to move on, hoping that was it.
When the words scrolled up above my chatbar, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before in a virtual world, but real or VR, they always stung.
“Fucking faggots r ruining Synth.”
I could have just left it there. I could have just ignored the insult and taken the hurt. It would have been far less hassle to just keep slogging through the lag in retreat and ignore her. The mute button is your friend, wasn’t that what Byron always said?
Yeah? Well, so was my trusty pink follow-penis, so I rezzed it and sent it squeaking after her while I jumped high into the air and flew to the male hair section in that stupid superhero animation I’d picked up in my early days. I really did need to get a new flight animator, but I was here for hair. I knew what I wanted, knew I could grab it quick, and then home again, jiggety-jig.
Vamepelicious91 Bing would like to animate your avatar. Click “yes” to accept, or cancel.
Oh yuck, not the Bloodleech gang again! I’d had twenty-seven demands for a bite in under an hour the other night at the club I’d gone to. I’d only stayed because the DJ was so hip he was actually streaming Dolly Parton records into the club’s audio feed, and I was curious to see if he could better that. But damn it, no bites while I was out shopping for hair!
So “decline” to the bite, move on, and thanktheMakeryes! blingtard had gone from the male hair section. She must have teleported out to lose Mister Squeaky Penis. That was probably the only penis she’d ever—okay. Too early for cattiness. I was there for a sale.
I found the hair I wanted, purchased, made sure I had it in inventory, and teleported home.
# # #
Entered Agathon at 3.14.101
2 avatars present
The glass-paned door to the beach house was closed, but I could see Byron inside. I knew he'd be there anyway, but it was always a nice surprise to see him actually there waiting, like I really had someone keeping the stove warm and a candle in the window for me.
There were only two kinds of lovers in Synth. You learned pretty fast here that when you got involved, you could get hurt. How much you hurt depended on you. After those first few months of bumbling and effort, everyone decided either to be a lover open to the possibility of hurt, or one who couldn’t be hurt at all and didn’t give a damn. Often, the ones who didn’t give a damn made a separate game of taunting, causing trouble, wrecking relationships, and hurting people just for fun. Byron and I had already run that gauntlet. With so many millions of avatars in-world, finding someone you were truly compatible with sometimes felt like a miracle.
The door sensed my avatar and whispered open, and I went inside. The beach house had been built for us by a designer famous for making use of light and shadow in Synth. The vaulted ceilings were deep polished wood, and a spacious expanse of glass faced west so we could watch the sunset every night over the calm sea. Light sparkled off the waves and soft bokeh patterns filtered in from the skylight.
Byron liked to be busy when he was logged on, so he was seated at a fine replica of a Davenport desk on a typing animation with “Working! Loop me!” written on an illuminated sign floating over his head. I began to do just that, because I knew he wouldn’t look up from his work unless something flashed at his task bar, but then the ding of an incoming message from SexxyBabee made me hesitate.
“I AR’d yo for that, yu bastrd.”
Typos were a sure sign of being rattled. The Synth interface was supposed to eradicate those, but if you rushed the machine, typos snuck in. Again, I should have let it go. I poked tongue firmly in cheek, composed a reply, and sent it back through the loop.
“You abuse-reported my penis?”
“Yes. You shouldn’t have done that. You raped me.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, the drama. Really? With all the ultraviolence and extreme sex groups active in her profile, she was going to claim that the sight of a comical pink flying peter caused her emotional damage? Really?
Then I had that little twinge of guilt, ingrained from childhood: you never show anyone your naughties unless they want it.
Another message from her: “I was raped once.”
I sighed, and my avatar’s chest moved in unison. Vibration from the real world to Synth, just another line of empathy from flesh to digital. The big cloud of guilt was trying to suck me in. I hesitated before I called up a mental image of the way she was dressed, her ass crack hanging out, all of her hanging out, and how it was her who had come onto me and then called me a fag for politely declining.
Letters flashed in bright green. “You scared me.”
Guilt - 1. Dante - 0.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “That’s awful.”
“I didn’t mean what I said. I just wanted someone to talk to. I’m really lonely IRL.”
I was lucky enough to be standing beside my loving boyfriend—whom I still hadn’t messaged—in my neat little house, on my own land, and happy as pie. I knew I was blessed to have someone who truly cared for me here, someone who wasn’t just in Synth for the cheap cybersex. I knew it every day.
The green text kept coming. “Most guys just say yes and go with me.”
“Well, I’m not most guys,” I responded. I waited, knowing there would be more.
“I don’t lie to them. I give them what they want and they pay attention to me. For a little while. Then I have no one again.”
I winced. What kind of woman thought she had to spread for a smile and decent human company? A fucked-up one, that’s what. Yeah, and you just contributed to future fucked-upness, you bastard. Or yu bastrd.
“I’m really sorry to hear that. Sorry if I contributed to it in any way.”
SexxyBabee has asked to friend you.
My profile stated that I don’t accept random friendship offers. For one thing, it’d mean they could see when I’m in-world and might even be able to track my avatar. She either missed the refusal or she thought it didn’t apply to her.
Lonely was the point of being in Synth. It surprised me that so many people never caught on to that bit. She would probably be just like all those other random friendship offers anyway: a few hello’s for the first couple of days, a few sexual innuendos and not-so-subtle come-ons, a few invites to teleport into some hot club while I was busy pixel-bumping with my man, and then dead silence. That would be when I quietly dropped her from my friends list and muted her, just in case she turned all histrionic on me.
Another message: “You seemed like such a nice guy at first.”
Guilt - 2. Dante - 0.
I clicked “accept.”
She rewarded me with a bright pink smiley face.
Well, at least someone was cheered up. I changed out the chat windows and started composing a message to Byron before he began wondering why I was standing there like a lemon and not saying hello.
I stepped over to nuzzle his neck. “Hi, lover. Working hard?”
Bryon was a technical writer employed inside Synth, which was the only office he ever reported to. I saw the gray crosshairs that denoted he was busy elsewhere suddenly glow and swing around toward me. He got up, off that typing pose that made him look so studious. He bumped into me and made my avatar back-step, a physics-engine joke we’ve always shared, and then he was towering over me.
He was so beautiful. I didn’t know where he found his avatar modifications. Some of them were pure collector’s items, one-of-a-kind material from his artist friends and famous designers testing out new product. Creators who couldn’t bear to see their work on any form less than perfect. Today he wore a white tailored shirt over plain black slacks, accented with a crimson tie. He’d chosen to be broad-shouldered, with tousled black hair and a trim goatee to match, giving the impression of a civilized gentleman pirate.
Byron pulled me into his arms. “Hey! Didn’t see you turn up. Been on for long?”
“Yeah, shopping. There was a sale on hair and skin. Want to see?”
I knew he would, so I rummaged in my inventory and put on the new hairstyle while I was still getting hugs. “You likee?”
“Sexy as ever.” He planted a kiss on my cheek and mouth. “I like it when you dress like this.”
“Cheap and available.”
I looked like a fucked-out roadie on a glam rock tour: high boots, pretty face, black eyeliner, lots of leather. All I needed was a flask of whiskey jammed in my back pocket.
“You still there?”
I was confused for a moment until I realized the message wasn’t from Byron. I wished she would shut up for a minute so Byron could keep telling me I was cheap. Then again, maybe that was what had attracted her. I wondered for a fleeting second if she thought my avatar was the male version of someone like her.
Nah. For one thing, I hadn’t inflated my attachable genitalia to the maximum possible size.
She wouldn’t shut up: “I just wondered if you wanted to go to a club with me tonight. There’s a really great DJ.”
Ten points for trying, dear.
“I’m a bit busy tonight. Sorry.” I already had plans to go with Byron to Zombie Pizza for the Halloween show. I tried to slam that window shut, but it popped back up immediately, green and insistent and whiny.
SexxyBabee is composing a reply . . . flashed repeatedly, but no message came through the loop.
She was trying for an awfully long time. I watched that little bit of text in the chat window come and go, come and go. She was composing, re-wording, changing her mind . . .
“I guess your boyfriend can come too. If he wants.”
Gee, thanks for inviting my own partner to go with me. What a novel idea.
Byron poked me in the ribs.
I yelped and laughed. “Sorry! I was busy for a sec.”
Byron released me from his arms and his avatar stroked his goatee thoughtfully, eyes perusing the ceiling like he was solving a crime. “Anyone I know?”
My man had a sixth sense for these things. He could tell when I was being pestered in chat and he could smell a rival from 50 meters or the first Hello! Whichever came first.
We had bad timing in the beginning, a few false starts, a few misunderstandings, and a couple of epic shouting matches. Synth was a game of trust when you played it as couples, with boundary and intimacy issues so complex they should have come with a manual. Like marriage, it was hit and miss, trial and error.
Lately I had begun to think we’d arrived at where we wanted to be. I’d started to believe we could get this right. We didn’t have to be what other people expected. We could do what we wanted, because the purpose of Synth was the ability to write your own rules.
Byron was trying to kiss me again, but my avatar was busy in chat and signals between me and it were getting confused. I closed SexxyBabee’s chat window out one final time and joined Byron in one of those long, passionate, sexy kisses where he took my face in his hands and pressed his lips to mine lovingly.
Back in the real world, my hand twitched and I touched my neck. My mouth curved into a smile, and for a second, I wasn’t sure at all what my reality was.
But only for a second. I wasn’t crazy. I had a job. I had an apartment. I paid my bills and my taxes and I didn’t have to be medicated to the gills to handle my work day. I knew it wasn’t real, and I knew we were an ocean apart and even if we weren’t it would never work, but oh God it still felt like something. Something so rare and very good. It kept me coming back again and again, to see those words on the screen: I missed you . . . you look so good . . . I love you . . .
The kiss ended with him still standing there so close to me, and I could almost feel the smile on his face from five thousand miles away.
“Hey . . . you still there? HELLO?”
SexxyBabee wasn’t a woman, she was a Jack Russell terrier, and she was obscuring Byron’s gorgeous face with her persistent green text.
“Yes, one moment,” I replied. “I’m saying hello to someone.”
Blessed silence ensued. I’d almost added someone important, but sensing what kind of esteem issues she had, I didn’t want to add to the misery.
Byron’s hand reached around for a playful grope of my butt. “Mmm, my baby,” he murmured, nosing at my ear. “So . . . anyone I know?”
And he was a bloodhound.
“Just someone who invited us to a dance while I was getting hair. Supposed to be a good DJ.”
Byron laughed. “Rut-roh!”
I chuckled with him, but I sensed something was off.
“Random friend offer?”
There was no reason not to tell the truth, but I could see he wasn’t all that pleased from the way his avatar moved back to his desk. He usually asked me to the brocade couch for a cuddle, but his avatar turned his back on me and sat stiffly at his desk, picking up a few papers to shuffle them before resuming a typing pose.
“Is he nice?” Byron asked.
“Oh. Well that’s okay then.”
In the gay worlds of Synth, women were usually not seen as a threat by gay men. Byron knew I didn’t do women, not ever, so he was a lot less threatened by them. Besides, he got just as many offers for random sex and vamp bites as I did, if not more.
“So it’s good? You want to go?” I asked, watching his shoulders as he typed and wondering anew how a digital body could make me feel so much longing.
Byron turned around to straddle the chair, arms crossed along its back.
“Sure, why not?” He smiled up at me. “We can tour Zombie Pizza tomorrow. It’ll be packed out with noobs and blingtards tonight anyway. Always is this time of year. Remember last Halloween? Could barely move!”
He was so handsome, so happy. He made me happy.
[T]he most original story I’ve read in a long, long time.
[Circuit Theory] is interesting and intelligent science fiction . . .
[S]ums up virtual life perfectly and left just the right amount of heartache.
[A] great setting. I could picture it all, the beauty and imperfections, and I could relate to it very well.
[I]nstantly likeable and hilarious . . . often funny, often emotional, completely unique.