WHITEOUT

by R.S. Mason

I knew a guy who froze to death once. It had been a hard winter and there was a cold snap and he didn’t have the cash to pay for his heat rations, so the poor fucker just plugged into a mutual friend’s VR server where it was nice and virtually toasty. That night it was me, the future stiff, and a couple of hacker friends. We were playing cards, and I’d just made a joke, and suddenly he looked me right in the eyes and said, “Fuck. Cora, I think I just died.” Then his avatar stopped moving, his face forever frozen in a look of shock and horror, limbs occasionally twitching as the link tried to interpret whatever random electrical impulses were left in his brain. It took the server a minute or two to figure out there was a dead link, so he just sat there, fear and desperation in his eyes, until the network figured out he’d disconnected and he just blinked out of existence.

We thought it was some bad joke until someone found his body a few days later. I found out when my roommate told the story back to me. “No shit,” he concluded. “My buddy swears it’s true. Five people in the server and not one of them thinks maybe they should call an ambulance or something. People make me fucking sick.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s fucked up.” I actually had called an ambulance, but the dispatcher refused. I wasn’t sure if it was my friend or the neighborhood they didn’t want to deal with, or if they just couldn’t make it out in the snow, but either way, they demanded up-front payment and I didn’t have that kind of cash.

Of course, once the story started going around, I made sure the real story got out there. You could always tell a real hacker by the version of the story they told. When a hacker tells it, it’s never “I was there” or “my buddy was there.” They say who it was and when. And sometimes, people are brave enough or stupid enough to ask one of us if it’s true.

“I wish it wasn’t,” I say. “I’ll never forget that goddamn winter.” Sometimes I put the emphasis on “goddamn,” because if there is a God out there, he sure as hell wasn’t watching over us then.

That winter, it turns out, wasn’t even as bad as this one.

By day, I’m a bike courier, so I was out there every day. For the most part the winters go like this: a blizzard hits, everyone stays home for a day or two, working remotely if they can, then the streets get cleared up and people start working again. A momentary disruption at best. This winter, the snow just kept falling, breaking all the old records, then breaking all the new ones on a rolling basis. You can do a lot of things remotely, but not all of them. After a week of constant storms, any city would start falling apart.

By then I wasn’t just helping businesses keep running—some of the suits hadn’t stockpiled enough food to last. Winter is very nearly the great equalizer, except only the wealthy could afford to have food delivered with the city buried in six feet of snow—that’s what kept me busy now. This was probably the first taste of starvation these rich fuckers ever had. By now they all had a month of survival rations, and it was, for most of them, the first time in their lives they’d had to subsist on the same crap the rest of us lived on.

You’re probably wondering how a girl on a bike managed to traverse a city where all the autocars and transit lines had failed. Most years, it was just a matter of the right bike, the right gear, and a bit of patience. This year, the answer was a set of snowshoes and some trekking poles. The bike worked all right on the roads they’d cleared, but those were few and far between.

The point is, my job kept me out, wrapped in all the latest winter gear, and everyone knew it.

I got a message from my friend Victoria—we . . . grew up together, I guess, in Montreal. She was a genius computer programmer and a bit of a recluse. Damn fool could have made a fortune at any of the major corporations if she wanted to. Instead she waited tables at a greasy 24-hour joint called the Wedge, and worked on weird projects in her free time.

“Coraline. Meet me for dinner tonight? I’m bored and lonely and have to be here until midnight, and ToriBot isn’t working yet.”

That was the other thing: the suits didn’t have to go into work, but the wage slaves still had a clock to punch, and not everyone had a boss who accepted “it’s literally impossible for me to get to work” as an excuse. More’s the pity. And of course, despite the fact that trekking up to the Wedge would take me several hours, I missed her, even if I had no idea what she was talking about most of the time.

“You’ll have to hire me,” I replied. “Can’t get out of work otherwise.”

“Already done. I need you to deliver one Coraline Delacroix by six o’clock.”

Sure enough, a job popped up: “Delivery to the Wedge. Accept?”

Of course I accepted. It had been ages since I’d seen Tori, and I worried about her at the best of times. It was about three o’clock, and I figured if I started walking now I could probably get there before six. Turns out I was there by five thirty, encrusted in snow, cold to my very bones despite the top-of-the-line winter gear the company wouldn’t buy for us no matter how often we asked (so don’t even think about asking, okay?).

So I staggered into the Wedge. Inside there was a guy I didn’t recognize behind the bar—which meant he was new—and a girl I knew as Amanda in the kitchen. He was building a house of cards on the counter, and she was wearing headphones and singing along, loudly and out of key. No sign of Tori, which didn’t necessarily mean much.

I spent some time brushing off piles of snow while the kid waiting tables eyeballed me. Poor guy had no idea who I was, which meant that he got the singularly unique experience of watching some rando show up in the middle of a historic snowstorm and ask for food. He smiled the smile of servers everywhere concealing some dread that they have to deal with another crazy.

Once I’d dealt with the snow I peeled off several layers of outerwear, and he relaxed a bit. At least I looked vaguely human. “Will anyone be joining you, Miss Del—”

“Just Cora.” I could see him reading my name from his augmented reality glasses, and I hated the American pronunciation I knew he was going to use, so I cut him off. Delacroix should never rhyme with “toy.” “Tell Tori her salvation has arrived, won’t you?”

“Uh, Tori isn’t—”

A message flashed across my vision, and by the way he cut himself off and focused on something in the middle distance, I guessed he was receiving one simultaneously. Mine read: “Sorry, Cora, but your princess is in another castle. Further instructions forthcoming. For now, have dinner on me.”

He gave me a worried smile. “She’s buying, apparently.”

“Turns out! I guess I’ll just sit at the bar, if that’s cool.”

“Lady, you can sit wherever you want.” The kid—Lawrence, according to my AR—smiled. “You eating?”

“Just a cheeseburger and a coffee, thanks.”

“Fries okay?”

“Sure.”

Amanda was in the middle of a particularly loud song, so he shouted her name until she removed one ear from her headphones. “What?” She blinked at me. “Oh, Cora’s here. Why didn’t you say something?”

I liked Amanda.

Lawrence put my order in and the three of us chatted. Apparently it was Tori’s weekend, so she wasn’t scheduled to show up for two days. They both seemed a little worried when I said she’d agreed to meet me. Wherever she was, Tori was always the reliable one.

“Maybe you read it wrong?”

“No.”

I was the only customer they’d had in days, they said. Amanda, who lived a block away, had been covering shifts under the table for those who couldn’t come in. (Right now she was officially Isaac, who lived six miles away and was currently stranded at a transit station halfway between here and there.) She estimated she’d been working about sixty of the past seventy-two hours, but it was okay because she mostly just slept in the back room, it wasn’t like there was any actual work to be done, and she was making a killing.

In any case, my food arrived quickly. One of the other reasons I liked Amanda is she knew exactly how I liked my food, so it was actually better than your typical greasy spoon fare (which is, let’s be fair, pretty terrible). There was no saving the coffee, of course, but it did help burn away some of the chill.

As I was eating, Tori was sending me a series of messages: “Did I ever tell you about the guy I knew who froze to death? We were playing chess on a private VR server I was hosting. I guess he figured it was cheaper to just plug in than turn the heat on. Anyway, he’s about to make his move, and suddenly he looks up at me, his eyes wide with terror. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘Tori, I think I just died.’ I thought he was joking at first, but he kept staring at me, with those weird, dead eyes, twitching occasionally, until the server figured out he’d disconnected and he just blinked out of existence.”

I didn’t respond. Tori was the first person I’d told about that whole ordeal. I’d seen her tell the real story to other people—she wasn’t there and she’d never pretend to be there. So why was she telling it back to me now?

Eventually I responded: “Is this a joke?”

“I wish it was. I can’t look at a snowstorm without thinking of him, twitching away. It makes me feel trapped.”

“Hell of a time to bring that up.”

“No better time than the present. Anyway, sorry I lied, but I had to make sure you were geared up and off the clock, so there’s no excuse to say no. I’m in a house on the Mystic River. I sent you coordinates.”

The house in question was about seven miles of hiking through roads that had probably never seen a plow, and my weather app reported that a massive blizzard was incoming. She had to have known that. And it was not her apartment, either, which probably meant something shady was going on.

“You know I hate to be a pessimist, but I consider catastrophic winter storms a pretty good excuse most of the time.”

“Most of the time. But not tonight. I’ve got a real job for you, and it has to happen tonight or it won’t happen at all.”

“If I didn’t know better I’d say you’re trying to kill me.”

“Good thing you know better. Please come.”

During my off-hours I was . . . well, it’s complicated. Back in Montreal I’d been recruited by a corporation to serve as a spy: augmented reality and recording devices installed directly in my eyeballs. Couriers had all sorts of security clearance, and all they wanted was recordings from my work hours. I was even free to edit out anything I didn’t want them to see, so it wasn’t the surveillance nightmare you’d have expected. Except that corporation went under and got bought out by some other corporate megalith, and the division responsible for collecting my data until the only employee left didn’t have the security clearance necessary to know that I existed.

Tori helped me game the system for a while, giving me all sorts of security clearance. Only imaginary people could even know that I existed, so there was no way to audit all of the money the corporation spent on augmentations, until I was faster and stronger than pretty much anyone. It was all biotic, too, so it didn’t show up on your typical scans. The corporation didn’t seem to mind any of the gadgets we acquired, either, which were ostensibly for security, but mostly we saw them as tools for enabling crime.

Then she deleted the records and we skipped town and booked it down to Boston, where we made nice with the hacker community and caused trouble for the corporations. It was easy enough to make some mischief, and pulling off a heist with her plugged directly into my eyeballs made us both enough money to live comfortably. We were smart about it: once we had enough stashed away, Tori took up waiting tables and I kept riding bikes, and we pretended we hadn’t robbed our way into fortune.

It had been a few years, but clearly she—or someone—was hoping to get back on that particular horse. I would have normally said no, because I liked to imagine that I was no longer young and stupid, but the weird thing with her telling my story back to me was bothering me. So I typed the word that I knew I would regret: “Okay. On my way.”

To their credit, both Amanda and Lawrence told me that I was a fucking imbecile for going anywhere in this weather. “Temperature’s dropping, snow’s picking up,” Amanda told me as I applied my endless layers of winter gear. “We’re talking whiteout conditions, Cora.”

“They don’t call me Bad Decisions Delacroix for nothing.”

“Nobody calls you that.”

“Do you deny that they should?”

She gave me a hug, though I could barely feel it through my jacket. “Stay warm and don’t die.”

“I promise I’ll haunt this place in a cool way if I do.”

If I’d been walking home, I would have been fine. The blizzard didn’t hit until about an hour after I’d left. Tori was feeding me data, just like old times: where to turn, what the outside air temperature was like, how far I’d gone, how far I had to go. For all I knew she was inside my head right now, seeing the world through my eyes, though obviously not feeling the bitter cold like I was. “Just keep walking and you’ll be fine. Aren’t you glad I got you that cheeseburger?”

For reasons I wasn’t entirely clear on, she was only communicating via text, though she seemed to respond to my spoken comments easily enough. I was beginning to suspect she was in some sort of trouble, so I tried not to say anything incriminating, which mostly meant the only thing I felt safe talking about was the weather. Fortunately, the weather was fucking awful, so I had some opinions about it.

At least at first. One of the gadgets I’d acquired over the years was a biomonitor, and one of my winter items was a heated bodysuit, which was supposed to keep you warm even in freezing temperatures. It’s not nearly as pleasant as it sounds, but I’ll say this much for it: it kept me from dying of hypothermia. It did not keep me from feeling like every ounce of heat had been sucked from my body.

Two hours after I’d left—about nine o’clock—the storm got worse. A gust of wind knocked me off my feet, and I stared up at the sky—or at least, I tried to. We’d hit whiteout conditions, just like Amanda predicted. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me for all the snow. All I could hear was the howling of the wind and the occasional crash of thunder. It was so bad I couldn’t even see the lightning.

Did Tori know I’d fallen? Did she care? I had no idea. It was almost nice just lying there, though. The world at storm always felt peaceful. It’s like Mother Nature’s way of reminding you that you exist on her sufferance, that no amount of technology can ever make you safe.

The snow began to drift over me and I closed my eyes, because there was nothing else to see. I could feel my heated bodysuit kicking in, trying to save me from freezing, and the soothing warmth very nearly lulled me to sleep.

Perhaps it did. I awoke to the feeling of someone shifting the snow above me, and a huge figure all wrapped in fur shouting over the wind, “You alive?”

Whatever I said in response, the figure grabbed me by the arms and flung me over their shoulder, hauled me inside, and dropped me less than gently on the sofa by the fire. “You some sort of idiot, girl?”

My rescuer, I could now see, was a woman, with short, greying hair, easily two meters tall, and she was . . . I believe the expression is “built like a truck.” Despite the fact that she was scowling at me and had just called me an idiot, I decided at that very instant that she was my new hero.

“She’s right, you know,” chastised Tori’s message across my vision. “You are definitely some sort of idiot.”

“Oh, no,” I said, ignoring my childhood best friend’s hurtful comment. “When I take naps in the snow I usually try to sleep in the lee of some shelter.” I checked my biomonitor’s data briefly: apparently hypothermia hadn’t set in.

“I’m surprised you ain’t dead.”

“The joys of technology?”

“What were you planning to do when the snow covered your face?”

“Suffocate?”

She grunted. “Name’s Mirabelle. Cup of tea?”

“I wouldn’t say no.”

“Cream and sugar?”

“Yes, please.”

“Well, I’m out of both, so I hope you brought your own.”

I grinned, and took a moment to look around. The fire, I noticed, was not a real fireplace, but a cleverly made simulation that radiated heat. Either way, it was melting the thick crust of snow I’d developed, so I wasn’t going to complain. There wasn’t much in the way of technology, though: a couple of analog paintings on the walls, a real fireplace against the far wall, with a pile of firewood and a nice set of axes and hatchets neatly set up next to it. At least I assumed they were nice. If nothing else they were shiny.

“Why don’t you have a real fire going?”

“Flue’s clogged. Didn’t fancy asphyxiating.” She returned with two mugs of tea. It was, surprisingly, actually good. “So, what’s so important out there it’s worth dying for?”

“I’d argue that very little is worth dying for,” I said. “But a friend asked for my help. Bit of a social butterfly, goes crazy when she doesn’t have social interaction.”

“Don’t you kids just plug into your virtual reality servers for that these days?”

“I don’t like them so much anymore,” I said. “Funny story, actually.”

“I doubt it. Still, it’s noble you’re willing to die pointlessly so your friend isn’t lonely. Idiotic, but noble.”

“Oh, I’m good at idiotic nobility. It’s my only marketable skill.”

“I doubt that, too. You got some high-tech gizmos that a lot of folk would kill for.” She gave me a look which can only be described as knowing. “I’m not the killing type, mind you. But there’s scavengers out there that don’t wait until you’re dead.”

“I’m hard to kill.” Here I’d assumed she had used some sort of shrewd folksy wisdom to detect me, but here it turns out she just had some sort of surveillance device. “You could probably manage, though. What kind of scanner do you have?”

“I bet you’d like to know that, wouldn’t you?”

“It’s not really my thing, honestly.”

She shrugged. “At least finish your tea.”

I did, and promptly made my way back out into the storm, which had only gotten worse in the meanwhile. Mirabelle’s warning that I would never live to be old and stupid fell on deaf ears. Tori was . . . very possibly in trouble, and apparently we’d never bothered to come up with a reliable code for such situations.

Then my temporary host did something that surprised me. “I’ve got an old snowmobile. You know how to ride one of those?”

“Not a clue.”

“You’ll learn. Your type always done.” She handed me a set of old mechanical keys. “Runs on gas. Noisy motherfucker but I can’t stand the electric types.”

“Okay, not that I’m ungrateful, but why?”

“You come back, maybe we can trade. Some of your gizmos for some of mine.”

I shrugged. “If I don’t die, I’ll see if I can find my way back.”

She showed me how to start up her snowmobile, and I set off into the night. I was still, of course, completely blinded by the storm, but I went slow, and after Tori made fun of me for not knowing how to drive, she sent me an AR overlay which told me where the buildings and streets should be. At least it was better than walking.

Well, marginally. Despite going as slow as I possibly could, I managed to wipe out several times, the seat was uncomfortable, and the smell of the exhaust was starting to make me nauseous. But I had a vehicle that worked on the snow, and by God, I was going to keep it.

Tori chatted away at me idly. Her conversation was becoming so trivial it was distracting: was there some hidden code I hadn’t noticed? Did she realize I was traversing seven miles of snow in whiteout conditions just to see this job she had for me? Back in our misspent youth, Tori was always the brains. When I didn’t have a plan I mostly just charged in and made things up as I went, which worked often enough that I never thought of it as a bad thing to fall back on.

At this point I was convinced she’d been captured and was sending me these messages under duress. It’s never a good thing when the smart one gets captured, because that generally means they managed to out-think them. But trying to formulate a plan based on nothing more than instinct is harder than it sounds, so I gave up on planning and instead focused on worrying.

Worrying got boring after an hour or two, so I used one of the fancy gizmos Mirabelle was kind enough not to murder me for, connected it to my AR network, and scanned for tracking devices on the snowmobile. There were three. One was not hidden at all, one was poorly hidden, and one was hidden very cleverly. Using some of Tori’s old code I was able to feed them all coordinates that put me square in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I said, “Hope you can swim, Mirabelle,” hoping for some satisfaction from the action hero one-liner, but it didn’t drive away the cold and the worry.

Finally I was in sight of the house—or at least, I would have been if the snow wasn’t so bad. I turned off the snowmobile, kicked it for good measure, and started towards the house.

Red text flashed across my vision: “Please stand by. Software upgrade in progress.”

I stopped. “Tori?”

“You’re almost there,” her message informed me. “Is something wrong?”

The red text was quickly replaced by another message. “Thank you for installing ToriBot v 0.8.1, Cora. I’ve disabled external communication temporarily and scrambled your signal.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely honest with you this evening. You understand, of course. There’s an ambush waiting for you inside. I’ve updated your augmented reality with the locations of all four individuals waiting for you.”

“Tori, this is not a good time for jokes.”

“We have limited time. You are armed, I hope?”

“Are you joking? I can’t even feel my fingers.”

“Warm them up. You need to avenge me.” A moment’s pause. “No EM pulse, please. I’m reenabling external communications now. My own messages will remain in red text. Everything else is green.”

The storm was finally beginning to let up, and the shape of a house materialized in my vision. I decided not to ask what Tori—or ToriBot, or whatever I was talking to—meant by “avenge me.” The thought had already left a bad taste in my mouth.

There were four men inside. One of them waited in ambush by the door; the rest were positioned such that, no matter where I went, if I managed to avoid the first attacker, I would be dodging directly into their line of fire.

Red text: “I’ve rigged up a false signal. They’ll definitely think you’re heading for that door. Anyway—”

A green message appeared. “The front door’s unlocked. Just come on in.”

“You’d better have some hot chocolate or something ready. Preferably made entirely of whiskey.”

“That wouldn’t be hot chocolate then, would it?”

“Don’t argue.”

I intensified the heat in my hands and tried flexing them. They would still be numb for a while, but I could probably move quickly enough if I needed to. I crept towards the side window. A man stood there with his back turned, facing the entrance, gun drawn. As I approached I shrugged out of a few outer layers and produced a sonic charge and a knife. With electromagnetics off the table it was the only technical weaponry I generally carried.

“Did I mention,” I said out loud, “it’s fucking cold?”

I placed the charge against the window, applied some ear protection, and waited. The window shattered, and the man standing inside covered his ears and bent over in pain.

I ran forward, less gracefully than I’d have liked, leapt inside, and cut his throat. Somewhere some red text was telling me I didn’t have much time, but I ignored it. The red figures indicating the locations of my foes were beginning to react already. I took the dead man’s rifle, knelt, and aimed it at the door. When one of the figures stood at the other side of the door, I fired off a round and dove to the side.

A fraction of a second later, three shots carved up the floor where I’d just been, but the red outline of my target disappeared. Two down, two to go.

“I’ve given them a false lead. They think their buddy hit you, but they aren’t sure if you’re dead. You want to wait for them? They’ll come in here eventually.”

“Not particularly.”

“All right. One optimal route, coming up.”

A series of friendly red arrows hovered in my vision, guiding me through the house. It was actually a charming little place, sort of like a log cabin. The perfect place for a wintry getaway, complete with murder.

They were both in the same room now. I kicked the door down and fired at the closest one, who dropped instantly. His companion turned, faster than I’d expected, raised his rifle, and began firing.

Faster than I’d expected, but not fast enough. I ran with artificially enhanced muscles, faster than any human could, and leapt on him. The gun fell from his hands and we fell to the ground, grappling, but he was too slow. Soon he had a knife at his throat. “Who and why?”

He laughed, an odd, strangled sound. His eyes rolled back in his head and he stopped resisting. I cut his throat, too, just to be sure.

Tori’s green text appeared again. “They’re all out. I’m just outside the back door.”

I kept one of the strange men’s pistols, just to be sure, and walked through the house. A great deal of medical equipment, along with a few expensive computers, had been set up in the living room. Had Tori taken up an interest in medicine since I’d seen her last? Some of the wires led towards the back door, so I followed them there.

I opened the back door and stepped outside. Tori, in jeans and a t-shirt, was slumped against the back of the house, half buried in a snow drift. Several wires were plugged into her head, but her eyes were vacant, her flesh was far too pale, she wasn’t breathing, and—I checked—she had no pulse.

“I’ve been dead since a little after I first contacted you,” said the green text. “Ever since you told me about your friend dying, I’d been researching it. I wondered if we really could communicate after death. I found a way. The cold, it turns out, is important.”

“Who were they?”

“They demanded that I join them. I was researching the immortality they’d craved, or something. Sounded pretty culty to me. I said no. They decided to hook me up to my own equipment and test the theory. Turns out it only works with text. So they monitored all of my communications and told me to bring you here.”

“Am I important?”

“They have some very interesting misconceptions about the nature of your augmentations. When they saw your name connected with the research they assumed that you had something wired directly to your brain. Since I wanted you to murder the lot of them, I did nothing to dissuade them.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“Not a very funny one, if it is. I’ve given you ToriBot to keep you company. She’s almost as good as the real thing. She’s learned a lot from my experiments. Passes the Turing Test with some regularity. Not really self-aware, of course, but then again, who is?”

I knelt in front of her and closed her eyes for her. She didn’t respond, which somehow made it worse. “You can’t be dead. The Cora and Tori tag-team is too cool to break up.”

“You’ll have to make do. Can you do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

“Go ahead and fire that EM pulse in the living room. Being dead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Hell of a time to make jokes.”

“I learn from the best, Coraline Delacroix. It’s been a pleasure knowing you.”

All the lights in the house flickered off when I set off the electromagnetic charge. As I flopped down on the couch to stare out at the storm and reminisce, a red message flashed across my vision: “Incidentally, there is both hot chocolate and whiskey. If you start a fire, I can show you where they are.”

“Oh, shut up, ToriBot,” I said. “I’m trying to grieve.”

“Affirmative. Would you like me to shut up before or after I show you where they are?”

“After, obviously,” I said, and smiled, despite everything.