Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in On The Premises, Stupefying Stories, Dragon Gems, and other semi-pro markets. Walden Planet and Other Stories and The Reopened Cask and Other Stories are two collections of his work.
The Light and the Dark
by Richard Zwicker
“Mr. Boland, my name is Rylee. I am a holo of Adam Pittman. For the four months of my existence, he has sexually abused me. I have been told that you help holograms. Please help me. I am housed at 14 Meadow Lane in Beverly.”
Though the text was not graphic, I grimaced in disgust. Since the technology to create solid holograms through force fields developed, there have been sex holos. It is against the law, however, to give a sex holo sentience. For some humans, sentience adds to the pleasure.
There was no question I would take the case. After all, I am a detective and a hologram. The first is public knowledge. The second is known only to other holos, whom I’ve done my best to reach out to. A tiny holographic mobile emitter developed by my reclusive and now deceased creator allows me to go anywhere. He also deleted the mandatory flicker in my appearance that would identify me as a holo. As a result, I’ve been able to assume the identity of the original Hal Boland who, as far as the public knows, survived cancer and subsequently underwent a career change.
Although he downloaded into me his expertise in holographic technology, he allowed me to choose my career path. I thought I could be most useful as a detective, and I liked the notion that my work “brought things to light,” I being a product of that very thing.
An identity scan of Pittman revealed he owned a virtual reality shop called Mind Games, which specialized in recreations of classic literature. I called and was told he had the day off. Prior to buying the shop, Pittman had worked as a high school English teacher, but he was fired after being accused of having an affair with a female student. Apparently, a change in vocation hadn’t resulted in a change of behavior.
Though Pittman lived in a poorer section of the city, there was no shortage of people expressing their opinions with flashing signs on their tiny properties. These told me to support various right-wing politicians, to bear arms, and that I should dine at Darcy’s Place, though I didn’t vote, use guns, or eat. More applicable to me was Holos, Go Dark! Fear of holos expanding their place outside the home was alive and well. Ironic, as the sign itself was a hologram.
No signs stood on Pittman’s property. His one-story house had a sunken look. A pudgy, red-faced man with a mold-like beard opened the door. A musty smell hit my sensors, making me wish my emitter had a less developed olfactory sense. A glance revealed a tiny, cluttered interior.
“My name is Hal Boland. Are you Adam Pittman?” I asked. As his face matched the image I’d procured online, I already knew the answer.
“What of it?” He scowled as if I’d farted, which was one thing my emitter couldn’t do.
“I’m representing Holo Rights. We received an abuse complaint about your holo Rylee.” Presently, I was the only member of Holo Rights, and the group had no web presence. I saw no advantage in giving trolls a target.
“Holo Rights?” he sneered. “Maybe I should just delete the bitch.”
“That, as well as abuse, would be a serious crime,” I said. “Could I speak to Rylee?”
“How do I know who you are? Do you have identification?”
I flashed my electronic PI card. He wasn’t impressed.
“You’re not even a cop.”
“Yeah, but I talk to cops.” I could see he wasn’t going to let me in, and I figured Rylee was turned off. Otherwise, she would have said something. “If I hear any more about you mistreating holos, I’ll be back with a warrant for your arrest.” No judge would give me a warrant, but I felt the situation demanded at least one empty threat.
Pittman was about to shut the door in my face when he stopped. “Wait a minute. Your name is Hal Boland? Do you live in Clarendon?”
Clarendon was a suburb where my creator had lived. After he died, I moved into the city. This wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss. “I used to.”
“You make holos.”
“As I said, I work in holo rights now.”
“You sonofabitch! You sent a video letter to the school board that helped get me fired!”
I had a broad outline of my creator’s life, but because he wanted me to be my own person, I didn’t have his memories. I was aware that all his life he’d been an activist. Getting involved in a local school board matter was something he would do.
“I’m sure mine wasn’t the only letter,” I said.
“Yours was the only one that lasted ten minutes, about the importance of teachers being role models, that I had made a deal with the devil! You didn’t know what you were talking about.” He focused his porcine eyes on me. “You will regret that letter.”
He was already right about that. As I left, he showered me with epithets and ranted that the world was going to hell when you couldn’t do what you wanted with your own holo.
For a week I staked out Pittman’s house, interviewing neighbors, watching for evidence of mistreatment through his windows. I came up empty. Also, Rylee didn’t send me any more emails. Pittman might have kept her turned off. That, unfortunately, was his right. It was suggested that sentient holos be activated at least once a week to prevent disorientation, but it wasn’t a law. He might have flattened her, eliminating her sentience, or deleted her altogether, which was definitely illegal.
I reached out to Sgt. Detective Evelyn Vega. Of the cops I knew, she was the most sympathetic to holos. I think she also held a torch for me, which I tried to discourage. In making me, my creator made minor improvements on his appearance. I possessed a full head of dark hair and trimmer body, but I was far from dreamboat material. At any rate, Vega was able to get a warrant. A short, compact woman with a bowl of dark brown hair, she didn’t suffer fools gladly, which I felt did the world a service. We paid Pittman a visit. When he opened his door, she led the way.
“Mr. Pittman, we have a warrant to search your premises,” she said in a sharp voice. “We have reason to believe you’ve been mistreating a holo named Rylee.”
Pittman glared at me, but said to us both, “Don’t you have better things to do?”
“Where’s your holo activator?” she asked, ignoring his question.
He sighed. Perhaps female authority figures intimidated him. “I don’t want any trouble. Let’s straighten this out.”
He led us to his living room, opened a console drawer, and pulled out the activator. He pressed a few buttons, and Rylee appeared in front of us. She looked exactly as I would have guessed. Long blonde hair, big chest, slender figure, drop-dead gorgeous. What I wouldn’t have guessed was she’d have a smile on her face.
“Rylee,” said Pittman. “Tell these people how I treat you.”
Rylee looked at us vacuously, with a fixed smile. “Mr. Pittman treats me with kindness and respect.”
“That’s not what you told me a week ago,” I said.
“I have no memory of that,” she said.
“She’s been modified,” I said. “Another crime against a sentient, and easy to check.”
Pittman knew we had him and dashed out the front door, knocking over a chair. I react faster than humans, but I still tripped over the chair and smashed into the door as it slammed shut.
“Are you all right? Vega asked.
My pain receptors said no, but it wasn’t as if I had a bone to break. “I got him,” I said, opening the door. “Check out his holo emitter for evidence of flattening!” I clattered down the stairs in time to see Pittman jump into an aged Smart Car and lurch into traffic, his tires squealing. I could have kept up with him by running, but that would have exposed my holo identity, so I followed in my car. He clearly had his on manual, as it was going dangerously fast, weaving between angry motorists. Being a holo, I didn’t have to worry about dying in a car crash, but I wasn’t sure of my holo emitter’s indestructability. I also didn’t want to have to replace my car.
For twenty minutes he led me on a frantic chase. At one point five cars separated us, but I kept him in my sights. He increased our separation when he ran a traffic light. When he turned right, I lost visual contact, but my tracker was locked on him. After another five minutes it told me his car stopped. Traffic was bad, and it took me precious time to catch up. I parked my car next to his and ran down the alley. It connected to another busy street of stores. He could have gone into any of them.
I knocked on doors. I flashed his picture, but no one had seen him. This area was close to Mind Games. I checked the shop’s address and saw it was on the next street. Hiding in your place of employment wasn’t the smartest move, but maybe Pittman wasn’t that smart.
The store’s garish marquee beamed the words MIND GAMES in psychedelic style. Under that, 38.6 percent smaller, were the words “Where dreams come true.” I opened the door, a C major chord of an electric guitar shimmering as I entered. A slender man with a trim mustache and a high forehead stood behind a counter. A tag on his chest said his name was Ken Sharpe. I could tell immediately he was a holo by his slight fuzzy contrast, a telltale detail mandatory for all holos, except me. Behind him an electronic poster flashed famous scenes from books and movies.
“I’m looking for Adam Pittman. I understand he owns this place.”
“You understand correctly,” said Sharpe. “He’s in room B. What do you want him for?”
“I’m a private detective. I need to question him about a case I’m working on. I was chasing him when he ducked in here.”
“He was in hurry. Can I see some identification?”
I showed him my card. Sharpe nodded and tapped some keys on his console. “He’s running a program based on the short story The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving. Ever hear of it?”
I hadn’t, but it was in public domain. In seconds I downloaded and absorbed the text. Tom Walker was a greedy man in a loveless marriage who accepted a Faustian deal with the Devil. Spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out well. My creator had accused Pittman of making a deal with the devil when he had an affair with a student. Was Pittman playing with me?
“I’m familiar with it,” I said. “Can you turn it off?”
“Sure.” He tapped more keys, then frowned. “That’s odd. He’s disabled the kill switch. Hmm. He also disabled the tracker to his character. I have no way of knowing who he is.”
“Can’t you just manually turn it off?”
Sparke shook his head. “The kill switch automatically disconnects him from his character. Manually turning off the program doesn’t. If I turn off the program before I disconnect him from his character, he will suffer brain damage.”
While it might be an upgrade, I wanted his brain intact.
“Can I see him?”
“Sure. I’ll just…” He walked up to the door sensor of room B and pulled at the knob, then looked at me. “I’m sorry. It’s not recognizing me. He must have changed that before he went in. We have CCTV, though. I can show you that.”
He returned to the console and brought up an image of room B. Pittman sat in a secured chair, his body helpless, his mind somewhere in the world of “The Devil and Tom Walker.” An intravenous tube was attached to his arm.
“What’s with the IV?”
“Hydration. Some of our guests like to stay in for a long time,” said Sharpe. “They lose weight, and we make good money off them. It’s odd, though. He didn’t tell me he was going to do that.”
It also wasn’t a conventional way to hide. We could guard him, but he couldn’t be moved until he came out of the program. And with an IV, he could last weeks in there.
“Can you enter the program and get him out?” I asked.
Sharpe shook his head. “My domain is limited to this shop. You could go in there, though.” He explained that he could make a holo avatar of me and insert it into Pittman’s program.
I was skeptical. There were only three speaking characters in the story, but several others were mentioned, and it took place in a town. He could be anybody in there.
I considered my options. I could get help and break down the door. Then, I could rip out Pittman’s IV, but even then, Pittman could last a couple of days. We couldn’t move him while his mind was still attached to the program.
“If I enter the program, will Pittman know?” I asked.
“Only if he’s standing at the entry point.”
Which he wouldn’t be if he was hiding. “And is there any way I could identify him?”
“Ask him about something anachronistic that the character shouldn’t know, that happened after 1727. If the character knows it, it’s Mr. Pittman.”
“Wouldn’t he be on guard against that?”
“Maybe, but the thing is, if I disguise you as a character, he’s not going to know who you are. Honestly, Mr. Pittman was in such a rush when he came in, I don’t think he had time to create a new character. Your best bet is to check out one of the minor characters, such as Deacon Peabody or the land-jobber that appears at the end of the story.”
“You’re not too loyal to your boss,” I said.
Sharpe shrugged. “I do my job, but he’s not the nicest guy, and I don’t want to get in trouble with the police.”
“If I find him, how do I get him out?”
“Your avatar will have a button around its neck. Press it to open up a communications channel. Then I can pull you both out in seconds.
The cautious thing to do was wait for help, but then it would take days to get Pittman to the police station. I didn’t want to wait days. I texted Detective Vega: Pittman at “Mind Games” at 3126 Spellman Drive, hiding in “Devil and Tom Walker” program. I’m going in to get him. Your help ASAP would be greatly appreciated.
“All right,” I said to Sharpe. “I’m going in, but I have two stipulations. One, I want the door of the waiting room locked. You stay out. My body will be helpless. In my work I’ve made enemies, and I can’t afford to be vulnerable.”
Or to allow him to discover I had no flesh-and-blood body.
To my surprise, he didn’t object. “I won’t disturb it. There’s a lock inside for the privacy of our clients. What’s your other stipulation?”
“Show me how to make an avatar of myself and make the mind connection. I want to do it myself.”
He looked confused. “Why?”
“That’s my second stipulation. Take it or leave it.”
“Like I said, I don’t want any trouble.”
Sharpe walked me through how to make an avatar of myself and to download it into Pittman’s program. I knew it all but pretended to pay close attention.
I walked into trip room A and attached my own magnetic lock onto the door. For my avatar I invented a character from Tom Walker’s church. I called him Zachariah Stoughton.
The last thing I did was hide my mobile emitter in the flowerpot.
As I entered the program, I found myself in the wooded swamps of 18th century Boston. A network of tall trees with entwined branches made visibility low, but at least if I stumbled into quicksand, there was something to grab onto. As I trod over the soft, uneven ground, my tracks quickly filled with water. According to the plot of the story, I would meet Tom Walker and the Devil first. I doubted Pittman would hide in either of the two main characters, but perhaps they could give me some clues.
In the distance I heard the two men talking.
“What right have you to cut down Deacon Peabody’s timber?” said a lanky, poker-faced man. I recognized the words of Tom Walker.
“The right of a prior claim. This woodland belonged to me long before one of your white-faced race put foot upon the soil.” This man, dark-skinned and dressed in Indian clothing, was undoubtedly the Devil.
In the story, trees represented people’s souls, the more flawed the soul, the more rotten the tree. I wondered if I was hiding behind anyone as the two main characters discussed the possibility of Tom selling his soul. Tom asked for proof of the Devil’s identity. The Devil placed his finger on Tom’s forehead, burning his signature. Tom left. The Devil grabbed his ax and was about to chop down a tree when I approached him.
“I couldn’t help but hear your conversation with Tom Walker,” I said. “My name is Zachariah Stoughton.”
The Devil looked at me quizzically. “I’m not familiar with you,” he said. Would Pittman, a former educator, know there was no character with that name in the story? And would he admit it?
“I might be interested in making a deal.”
The Devil smiled. “There’s no might in my deals.”
“I don’t imagine there is. Do you think Tom will sign away his soul?”
“He’s the kind of person who’s doomed from the start. You, on the other hand… if I have a tree for you, I’m unaware of it. And I’m aware of everything. If you wish this conversation to continue, you need to lay your cards on the table.”
That was the type of response I would have expected from the Devil. I took one more shot. “Have you any plans for Independence Day?”
“Independence Day for what? I deal in souls. Why would I celebrate independence of anything?”
Pittman might have been aware that the United States wouldn’t be independent for another 49 years, but in his haste to hide, I doubted it. Could I enlist the Devil’s aid? It wouldn’t be the first time I’d allied myself with unsavory company.
“The truth is I’m looking for a criminal who is pretending to be someone in your community.”
“Mine is a large community.”
“I know. It is said you have a tree representing everyone alive. What would happen if that person was suddenly replaced by someone else? Would the tree change?”
The Devil scratched his soot-smudged forehead. “You’re talking about something that’s impossible.”
“I’m talking theoretically.”
“Hmm. I don’t see the point, but since the rot in a tree reflects the person it represents, if that person changed, the tree would change as well. Of course, if your criminal took the place of someone of low morality, there might not be that much of a difference.”
“And you couldn’t tell the difference.”
“Of course I could, though it could take time, and I would require recompense.”
I nodded. “Then I would like you to check each of your trees to see if one has changed at all in the last hour.”
“I can do that.”
“The usual fee?”
“One price fits all.”
I shook hands with the Devil. Why not? I didn’t have a soul. Could I trust him? He was more predictable than most.
We agreed to meet in the same place in an hour. I then asked for directions to Peabody’s home.
The Devil frowned and gave them to me. “You’d best hurry if you wish to see him. His tree is rotten to the core.”
Peabody lived in a large two-story white house with black shutters. The street side hid an extension in the back. On his doorstep I noticed the wood was in much better shape than Peabody’s tree. I tapped a couple of times with his knocker. In a few moments a tall, thin, elderly man opened the door. He squinted at me, as if a piece of soot was stuck in his eye.
“Yes,” he wheezed.
“Are you Deacon Peabody?” I asked.
He harrumphed. “I am his servant.”
“Is your master in?”
“Could I speak to him? I heard he was in failing health. I am an old friend.”
He squinted again. “You don’t appear old enough to be an old friend. What is your name?”
“Zachariah Stoughton. We met at Dartmouth College.”
“Never heard of it,” said the servant, passing my test, as Dartmouth wouldn’t be founded for another 22 years.
The servant shut the door. I waited for a full two minutes. When it opened again, I gazed at a stout, old man with a big nose and broad white sideburns. He gazed down at me.
“My servant says we met at Dartmouth College. I rarely go to western New England and have never been to Dartmouth College. So who are you? And please, be concise. I am not a busy man, and I intend to stay that way by not wasting my time with strangers.”
He knew where Dartmouth was! It was Pittman. I asked him one more question.
“Do you think Ben Franklin deserves credit for discovering electricity?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s always been there. He just flew a kite. What is the meaning of this?”
The meaning was Ben Franklin didn’t fly his kite until 1752, 25 years from now. I pressed the escape button. Sharpe’s voice filtered into my mind.
“I was worried about you,” he said. “You didn’t let me know which character you were.”
“Pittman is Deacon Peabody. Check him,” I said. Peabody eyed me suspiciously.
“It’s him all right,” said Sharpe. “I would deactivate both of you, but I noticed you’re running independent of the grid. How did you do that?”
Being a separate holo, of course I was. “I must have done something wrong when I programmed my avatar.”
“Who are you talking to?” Peabody asked, but I ignored him, because he knew.
“You need to return to the entry point in the forest and contact me again,” said Sharpe. “I’ll highlight it so you can see it.”
“All right. Has Detective Vega arrived yet?”
“Yes. Shortly after you went into the program.”
“Do me a favor. Don’t deactivate Pittman until you deactivate me.”
I dashed back to the forest, my shoes slurping through the swamp. There were trees, overgrown bushes, and squawking birds, but no entry point! I pressed the button again, but Sharpe didn’t answer. What was he doing? What if Pittman had programmed Sharpe to keep me in 18th century Boston? How would I get out? I wondered, as I heard the chink of an ax hitting a tree trunk. The Devil was still hard at work, and he knew more about this story than any other character.
I rushed toward the sound, pulling aside thick pine branches, until I entered a small clearing. The Devil lowered his ax and once again gazed quizzically at me.
“You look lost,” he said.
“I’m having trouble bringing this criminal to justice.”
The Devil nodded. “After we spoke, I checked my trees. None of them had changed.”
“Not even Deacon Peabody’s?” I asked.
“No, he’s still rotten to core.”
Which meant what? Pittman wasn’t Peabody? But how had the deacon known about Ben Franklin and Dartmouth College?
“Only one thing puzzled me,” said the Devil continued. “I located your tree.”
“Really?” Why would I have a tree?
“I don’t know how I was unaware of it. I’ll show it to you.” He brought me to a thicket of birches. He put his dark hand around one. “Thicker than the others, and healthy, although someone has carved some figures on it.”
I looked at the trunk and saw the numbers 7, 19, 07. Today’s date: July 19, 2107!
Pittman was playing with me. But how? To add a tree, he’d have to be outside the program. Sharpe could have done it, but only if Pittman had programmed him to do that and lie to me. He also could have programmed Peabody with anachronisms to trick me. But how could Pittman have done that when he’d barely had time to duck into the “Devil and Tom Walker” program? He didn’t know I was going to come to his door today. I looked into the knowing eyes of the Devil.
“Are you Adam Pittman?”
He flashed a tired smile. “Everyone knows who I am.”
Then I figured it out. Pittman had never gone into the program! He’d programmed himself into Sharpe, which was why Sharpe wasn’t helping me! He hadn’t escaped because Detective Vega had arrived in time to stop him. But she didn’t know Pittman was in Sharpe, any more than I had. As long as Pittman kept the program running, I was stuck. Vega knew I was in here, but I hadn’t told her which character I was. Once Pittman got the chance, he could rename the program, hide it somewhere, and keep me in it forever.
“You look like you’ve made a bad deal,” said the Devil.
I stared at my tree, nestled among other birches, all straight and narrow, the way I always tried to be. Was this the way it was going to end? I wondered, as I noticed the thicket flickered and dimmed.
I was back in room A.
Pittman made a mistake.
Out of revenge, he must have turned off the program, thinking it would result in my brain being damaged. But as I wasn’t human, I reverted to my holo transmitter. I unlocked the door and saw Vega talking to Sharpe.
Sharpe’s eyes widened when he saw me. “What?”
“Is Pittman still here?” I asked.
“Mr. Sharpe locked him in room B,” said Vega.
“Unlock it. Now,” I said to Sharpe.
He obeyed. I opened the door. Pittman’s unresponsive body was still there, though the program had been turned off. I came out and faced “Sharpe.”
“Mr. Sharpe, you’ve been impeding this investigation, I’m going to have to turn you off.” Which, if Pittman was in there, would leave him brain dead.
“You can’t do that. I…” he stammered.
Sharpe rushed to a computer, input some information, and vanished. A revived but groggy Pittman crashed out of the waiting room and into my holo arms.
I finally got to meet the real Rylee, who was salvaged from the automatic backup. A judge declared her free of Pittman, but she still had to find a place to exist. She was allowed to stay at a holo warehouse until a more permanent location could be found. That meant someone had to buy her, but I had another idea.
The warehouse consisted of three rooms in an office building. Holos housed there were turned on for an hour each week. I had them turn on Rylee, and we talked privately in the third room. She had the same cover girl looks as the other time I saw her, but the smile was gone.
“Are they turning you on regularly?” I asked.
“What’s the date?”
I told her.
“Looks like they forgot to do it last week.”
“I have an offer for you. In one of my past cases, I helped a holo who inherited a house when her owner died. I told her about your situation. If you’d like to move in, she’d be happy to have you.”
“A holo inherited a house?” she asked. “I didn’t know that was possible.”
“Times are changing. The deceased owner’s family is fighting it, but it was the owner’s wishes, and the family is going to lose.”
“What if the other holos don’t like me?”
I laughed. “Don’t worry about that. We’re all in this together.”
I bought Rylee and she moved into the house. Detective Vega did ask me why I didn’t suffer brain damage by the “Devil and Tom Walker” program being turned off. I told her that with my background in holo development, I programmed myself into the story and was able to extricate myself safely. That explanation didn’t allay Pittman’s suspicions, but during a prison meeting, I convinced him to leave things as they were, unless he wanted to add “intent of grievous bodily harm” to his charges.
In my line of work, I have to deal with the Pittmans of the world, and they aren’t exactly reliable. Someday I will be found out, but until then I will keep fighting for holos. It is the deal I have made.
Copyright 2023 by Richard Zwicker