daddysmutantkid (daddysmutantkid) wrote in vdo_fanfiction,

13th Floor: "Aftershock" by Daddysmutantkid

Copied from my journal ...

Author: daddysmutantkid
Title: Aftershock
Fandom: The Thirteenth Floor
Pairing: Douglas / Whitney
Rating: NC-17
Summary: The night after the first download, Douglas loses it. (coming-out story, Asperger's Syndrome?) Disclaimers: A fan fiction story based upon The Thirteenth Floor and What's Opera, Doc
Notes: Thanks to lonelywalker. Very special thanks to lonelywalker.


It is said that the worst thing about a drug intoxication is not the experience itself but coming back and finding everything exactly as you left it. Given the fact that he's returned from a world painted in sepia, completely equipped with subliminal angel choruses and all-too-friendly people, Douglas Hall considers admitting that he had possibly gone through what could be referred to as a "bad fucking trip" by an indisputably higher source of authority in drug matters.

Only a few hours after the painful near-death experience of his "return", the slightly tranquilizing effect of being thrown back into his body has deserted him. So has his best friend Jason Whitney, after Douglas had bawled at him, trying to get rid of Whitney's annoyingly over-protective nursing attitude. Gone is the shared, exhilarating joy over a common achievement. He remains in the dark of yet another thunderstorm-stricken night, all thrown back on himself, with the lingering mental echo of an ingenuous doppelganger so unlike his mentor programmed into the system, an excruciating reminder that Hannon Fuller is really dead.

It would have helped if his trip had brought him any further to discovering the mysterious message which could unravel the mystery of Fuller's death and possibly prove Douglas' innocence. But instead it had brought up confusion, and anger, revealing yet another unpleasant side of Hannon Fuller that Douglas hadn’t even guessed existed. Granted, Hannon had committed abuse in a slightly unsafe system, having sex with girls down there who were hardly 18, but Doug is more upset that Fuller tolerated having an apparently gay unit programmed into the system without even bothering to send him a memo. It's Doug, and not Whitney, as the company's public face, who'll have to defend the program in front of the public, fighting against fanaticized consumer backlashes from the ever-more-influential Christian Right. Whitney couldn't even fight for tying his shoelaces. There's way too much at stake to foster this kind of controversy in the phase of market introduction. Douglas wishes he could jack back into the system at any moment, reproaching Fuller’s link unit for it all, even though the cyber-unit didn’t know a thing about computer software. Grierson, stuck some 60 years before the natural world, like all the other cyber-units in the system, would only look at him with uncomprehending innocence.

What was the ominous message that Fuller had found so crucial to try to call Douglas up in the middle of the night? Fuller hadn’t even chosen to tell him about altering his testament and disinheriting his own daughter! What the hell had been going on? Could it have been that Fuller had discovered unit SJT6548555, Jerry Ashton, bartender, 83 % homosexual in the face of the latest media backlash, viewing it as a threat to the marketing concept for the entire system? Fuller had been jacking in for at least four weeks, and had not found Ashton objectionable. He had ordered drinks from him regularly, a fact proven by the bartender's crystal clear memory. Deleting the cyber-unit would not have been a big deal. Fuller could have done it himself, or could have ordered Whitney to do it. But Doug cannot help noticing how Whitney seemed overly attached to that unit. Doug is surprised that Fuller would have allowed Whitney to create an ostensibly gay unit, or even stand knowing about it. But maybe, given the fact that lately Douglas and Hannon had had diverging opinions about the marketing strategies for the system, Hannon and Whitney had become best buddies in the month Douglas had been away.

But wouldn’t this be falsely accusing Whitney, who had seemed genuinely shocked at the idea of Fuller fucking girls down there? After all, Doug had always tried to be a understanding and non-judgemental employer, showing compassion for Whitney's appearance and behaviour for a reason he could never quite figure out himself. On the other hand, Whitney had seemed horrified about the possibility of sharing the rest of his days with Ferguson, implying a fairly good knowledge of Johnnie Ferguson's character, suggesting he might have met him in person before.

Maybe Hannon and Whitney had got along with each other too well, and would share joined connection sessions, with Whitney at the bar and Hannon on the bar stool, ridiculing Douglas' moral integrity behind his back.

Whitney wouldn’t lie to you. The system is a prototype. It only has one connection bed. Douglas stares out at the rain. As far as you know.

A blindingly-bright bolt strikes down outside the rain-covered thick glass front. In the apartment room still overheated from the merciless Los Angeles midday sun, static electricity suddenly rises and lies heavily on Douglas' already over-loaded nervous system. He picks up the phone and punches Whitney's number, nearly breaking the dial buttons.

'Man, you're really getting paranoid'.

Douglas fights against trembling and nearly falls against the small phone board. Migraine eats its way into his brain like lightning, while he listens to the dull calling signal, waiting for Whitney to respond.

'If Whitney never downloaded, how would he have known about Johnnie Ferguson?'

"Doug …?"

Finally. Douglas exhales. It's Whitney, enthusiastic to hear Doug's voice. "I just got home, you know," Whitney says with the tunes of a cartoon movie blaring in the background. "Anything wrong with the system? I'm coming."

Doug fidgets for an answer. He considers lying but Whitney might have a fit burning his entire night off scanning the system for a bug that doesn’t exist.

"No, it's me. I feel … I just feel a bit sick, fainting,” Doug finally says.

"How long is it now that you’ve been disconnected?" Whitney asks routinely, only to change his mind with a brusque realization. "Douglas, wouldn't it be safer to call a doctor? I don't think I can help you. You know, I live at the other end of the city.”

Right. Although Whitney spends so much time at the 13th Floor that he practically lives there, it had been Doug's policy not to give employees any room to live in the company building, to stress the difference between management and hired workers. Now he’s been tripped up by that decision.

"I'll call the ambulance for you. It's safer."

"No, Whitney! No ambulance! Do you think the doctors there know anything about neuro-engineering? Can you imagine what would happen if it slips into the public that the system doesn't work properly?" Douglas pauses dramatically. "It means I'd have to shut down the entire system including the link units; I'd have to start over again."

"Doug, all I do is programming", Whitney whines. "Man, I really can't replace a doctor. I did a little first aid at the boy scouts, but …. I’ll be there as fast as I can. I’ll contact someone I went to school with. Someone who can help. Getting to you will take me at least an hour, and you’ll just have to bear it.”

And then, the connection is broken. Douglas puts the phone back and hauls himself back to bed, wearing a self-satisfied sneer although his muscles are sore and refusing to cooperate. Once more for today, he's won over someone, and even convinced his conversation partner into getting out there alone to struggle with the dire weather. Anyway, Doug finds it funny that Whitney would run if it was the system, but dawdle if it was about him.


"Mr. Hall?"

Douglas opens his eyes, dimly seeing a black man in uniform standing in the middle of his apartment. A curse escapes his lips, condemning the programmer for his goddamn compliance. For one second, his blurry vision tricks him, suggesting that it could be McBain in official dress uniform having come to take him to detention. Is the man never off duty? Probably "investigating" him for no other reason than his envy of Doug’s expensive inner city apartment because he has nowhere to go but his cheap, distant home?

A closer look reassures him that it's just George, the security guard from the lobby, but on second thought he finds this even more alarming. Those guys are supposed to guard his sleep and park his Porsche, but not to break into his apartment in the middle of the night.

"Sir, you didn't answer the phone, so I thought it was better to use the security override. Mr. Whitney is here, and a lady. They said it was urgent, and confidential."

A lady? The phrase catches Douglas' attention. For a split second he hopes it could be Jane visiting him, infusing a tinge of normality into his all-too-crazy last days, starting with his argument with his mentor, Fuller being murdered, the dazzling experience of discovering a Fuller "back-up" who didn’t remember him, and, more, a self-confident, smug, seemingly male-oriented simulacrum of his best friend who does unspeakable things and even tried to offer itself to him; an alter ego of his best friend who he believed he had known for six years.

Shut up, he tells himself in the very same moment. After all, the units you found down there are just computer bits. And pieces. The man George has led in is good old Whitney, in his usual wear, but with a stunningly elegant red-haired woman accompanying him.

"It's alright George. Thank you", Doug says, nodding towards the servant.

But the guard won't leave that easily. "Mr Hall, I am aware of this unusual situation, in case there's anything …"

"George, I'm fine. If there's anything, I'll call you…"

"I am sorry, Sir ", the guard answers with visible unease, " but I’m not sure you are fine, sir…You didn't reply on the phone, and there's no-one else who has an access card to your apartment, except for my general key, and the late Mr. Fuller's, of course."

"I see. Remove the access limitations on Mr. Whitney's card, George. I'll give him Mr. Fuller's in the meantime."

Doug is puzzled by the guard's statement, but then he realizes that the guard is as uneasy about breaking into his apartment as he is. He was just doing his job, after Whitney had likely raised hell in the lobby. Whitney loves to make a medical emergency out of everything, and so, while Doug had just dazed off out of exhaustion, the guard probably had expected to find Doug lying dead on the floor.

With an acknowledging nod, George leaves, giving room to Whitney who stares down at Douglas with a smug expression. Or maybe it's just because Whitney is standing while Doug is lying flat as a flounder. Doug covers his unclothed chest, suddenly becoming acutely aware of his defencelessness. The security guard who is on his way out has a key card. But he also has a gun and could have invaded Doug’s apartment to shoot him while he was innocently sleeping.

The lady steps out of Whitney's shadow, offering Douglas a firm handshake, as if this were a business meeting. Where did Whitney get her from? When she bows down in front of him, Doug catches a whiff of some classy perfume, as she nearly breaks his hand.

"I'm Claudette Taylor, doctor of neurology at UCLA. Whitney told me something was wrong, so how can I help you?"

Douglas glances at Whitney, who gazes at him with a pleading expression, and tries to figure out an answer that might come closest to what he had gone through.

"I'm feeling very dizzy. Had a drink, something highly unusual." Something fancy, a voice in his head adds silently. "Something I didn't handle well. Something I never tried before."

"Do you have trouble with alcohol?" he hears the doctor ask.

"No, never."

"Do you drink a lot?"

"My job requires social drinking, sometimes, but, no, I drink moderately."

"The drink you had, was it distinctly bitter?"

Douglas tries to recall the unthinkable taste of whatever Ashton had served him. Calling it bitter is difficult given the cacophony of sharp tastes it involved.

"It was from a very old bottle, an antiquity. Something from 1937, or even older."

"Don't you check what you drink?"

The question is challenging, posed in such a sharp manner. Douglas winces, feeling she's going to make him look like an idiot in his best friend's presence.

"I was served it. Something I couldn't refuse. An offer from an old friend." He frowns. "From a very old friend I met in my lunch break."

- "Mr Hall, I can't tell any more than you can what you had. But it could have been absinthe, given the age of the bottle, the bitter taste, and your feeling of being poisoned. Absinthe was once was very common but was banned after the First World War, because it contains a particular neurotoxin. Maybe it affected you because you weren't used to it, and that's why you're feeling particularly dizzy. Anything else?"

"Douglas, please,” he hears Whitney imploring, but he shakes his head firmly. How could anyone manage to save a bottle of the ultimate 19th century drink of disaster and get it through the Prohibition? He lets Claudette check his blood pressure and heart rate, something he could have left to Whitney as well. Then he constrains himself to sitting up, forcing himself to give Claudette another sovereign handshake, this time of good-bye.

"You can be glad to have a friend as good as Whitney", she remarks with a sidelong glance at the programmer. "I hope you'll get better soon, Mr. Hall."

"Thank you, Doctor Taylor", Douglas replies.

She turns around and Douglas can't help noticing an uncommon trait of courteousness in his clumsy programmer, who chivalrously escorts Claudette to the door. It's so contradictory to anything he's ever seen, anything he ever believed to know about Whitney. Douglas had tried unsuccessfully to teach Whitney to conform, but Whitney's spontaneously-risen interest in etiquette hints of his utmost respect for the doctor, or rather, of something that might be wrong, wrong beyond measure.

Whitney's alarmingly good manners are no longer needed as Claudette blocks him at the glass door.

"Whitney, your friend is perfectly all right,” she murmurs. "As healthy as a young horse."

"Claudette, you know I wouldn't have called you up in the middle of the night if it hadn't been urgent."

"I know. Whitney," she says with a tilt of the head towards the bed. "Does this happen often?"

Whitney shakes his head. "Our boss was murdered. Two nights ago. We're all suffering. Doug had to identify him in the morgue."

"I understand." Claudette opens her medical kit, squeezing a tablet into Whitney's palm. "You see, Whitney, I'll issue you a sleeping pill. They're pretty strong, so one is sufficient. In a few minutes, he should be sound asleep, and there's no need for you to stay if you don't want to. Personally, I’d recommend that you stay here. I know you're a reliable person."

"Thank you, Claudette."

"Well, rather thank the good old MIT times. I’ll never forget the young man who got me out of that party, and brought me to my bed not letting anyone touch me. Oh, those glorious days of campus madness. – Better watch your friend before he gets himself into some serious trouble. "

She steps out, released into the care of George who had waited to lead her out of the building. Through the glass door, Douglas hears George ask Claudette whether he can call her a cab, and now he is alone with Whitney once more, not that it is something unusual given the events of the last two days.

"Go after her,” he orders half-mockingly, recalling how mindlessly he had pursued Jane to the Omni Hotel only this morning, before McBain had hinted that he was the sole heir, and thus, the primary suspect in Hannon's murder.

"No, man. Got somebody to care for, man." Whitney responds with his usual easy speech, but with a strange sub-tone in his voice, reminding Douglas of the desolation that had driven him to Jane, before knowing that … well, that Hannon had not judged her the same way Douglas would have. When Doug had met her, Jane Fuller had seemed such a gracious lady, unadulterated, well-mannered and so out-of-this-world respectable that Douglas might have been really proud of her, had he been in Hannon's position as a father.

But she really must have done some bad things to disappoint the old man to the point that he would disinherit and expel her, giving her heritage to Douglas while not even losing a word on her to his successor, although Hannon usually would have told him anything.

Douglas has trouble believing that Hannon would actually have been capable of expelling anyone, let alone his own daughter, but he stays with what the facts imply. The testament says – or rather tellingly omits - that Hannon had disinherited Jane Fuller, leaving his all of his assets to Doug entirely. Shortly after his "return" from the virtual world, the first thing to demand his attention was an emergency phone call from his assistant Hillary Swanson, informing him they had just got in the copy of a challenge to Hannon Fuller's last will, filed by Jane Fuller's lawyer. Doug had known this was nothing to respond to personally, it was rather to be left to the hyenas down in the legal department. But as the designated company owner, he was compelled to take notice, and there were better things to take in than twenty printed pages of legal objection on an empty stomach nauseated by a two-hour neuro-engineering trip.

Starting a liaison with Jane Fuller now would be self-destructive in both private and business matters. Doug had not found one single photo or letter from her when he had been challenged with the demoralizing task of arranging the belongings in Hannon Fuller's apartment – not even a Christmas card. Her dazzling beauty and her picture perfect behaviour didn't speak against her, but she would not have been the first unscrupulous woman to make a life by fucking wealthy managers.

Eating himself through the toughly unemotional legal text, Douglas had felt acutely reminded of Hannon's death by every line of the objection. Once more he had realized that in the future he could survive his tough schedule only with a guardian, someone to prevent him from further breakdowns. Considering Jane Fuller as a supporter was beyond question, but he had become angry at the fact that the helper might be Jason Whitney, who had fussed over him half of the afternoon until Doug had finally lost it and thrown him out of his office. The programmer had brought him Pepsi although Doug doesn’t like it, gently mocking how one could burn his time with reading all that legal stuff.

- "Whitney, I told you: No doctors. Where did you get her from anyway?"

"Claudette? Oh, we were friends during our university years back at MIT,” Jason Whitney answers light-heartedly. "One night, she drank too much, and I got her back to her dorm unscathed."

"This was … noble of you." Douglas says, feeling it could bring him closer to what he wants to ask.

"You moved into Fuller's apartment?" Whitney says, pulling a chair near Doug's sickbed. "Claudette and I wasted 10 minutes. I thought you were living at the other end of the floor."

"Fuller's dead, and I am the designated company owner, so I thought I’d draw the obvious conclusions and claim this place for myself." In the same minute, he regrets having told Whitney anything about the money. – "And I still haven't got one step further to learning whether I actually killed Hannon. Your bartender wasn't much of a help,” he says, glad to drag Whitney's interest to presumably safer grounds.

Whitney's all fire. "Ashton? What did he tell you?"

"Says he didn’t receive anything from Fuller. But I don't know whether to believe him. If you leave a message, you either leave it with the receptionist, or at the bar if you have to, at a general meeting point where anybody will have to go to inevitably, sooner or later. Ashton says he doesn't have anything, and if he's right, I'll probably have to investigate a dozen dancers, one by one, meaning hundreds of hours of download for me."

Whitney starts. "Doug, you can't do that! You’ve already done too much. After all, you don't know whether there is an error in the system, or whether it's the connection bed."

"Is there a replacement?"

"Why, want me to download as well?"

Now it's Douglas' heart that skips a beat. "Whitney, I can't risk losing you after what happened down there. But if I don't find Fuller's message - "

"There are a few beds in stock, in case this one is broken. Installing a second one would be no problem, After all, Fuller conceived the simulation as multi-player online role-play gaming, with thousands and probably millions of users."

"Whitney, I need you here,” Doug insists, pulling himself up by tugging on Whitney's shirt. It's all highly embarrassing to him, but after Ashton's disturbing pretension this afternoon he's glad that his caretaker for the moment would protect a defenceless person instead of delivering them to their enemies. After all, Douglas had been thrown out of the system with an acid after-taste, feeling that Ashton was likely smarter than him. "Ashton says he doesn't have a message,” Doug observes, "and I believe him because I believe in you, that you can't lie, and Ashton was modelled after you."

Douglas notices the programmer smiling enthusiastically at the flattery. To his great surprise, Whitney suddenly puts his arms around him, taking his sick colleague in a loose embrace. Doug can't help being taken for the naughty kid.

"You see,” Whitney says, cradling him slightly, "maybe you've been searching at the wrong spot all the time. Maybe it's not the characters, but the locations. Did you try in the toilet?"

"What?" Douglas disgustedly asks.

Whitney smirks. "You know, if I had a message I wanted to transmit while hiding it from my superiors, I'd scribble it on a toilet wall."

Douglas frowns. "Whitney, the first place where I went after waking up was a bathroom, and I also disconnected in one."


"No scribbling. You know, these cyber-units are all extremely well-mannered. There doesn’t seem to be any graffiti in the entire system. "

"Yes. They are. Well-mannered," Whitney says thoughtfully.

"So, do you really think Fuller would succumb to scribbling on a bathroom wall as a style of transmitting messages?” Douglas counters.

"I don't know, man. The old man was more than a bit outdated when it came to programming. He was absolutely allergic to anachronisms and any kind of programmers' jokes. If he had placed an Easter egg down there I ought to find it sweeping through the program, but one thing I can tell you: He was totally against putting hidden messages into the system. He even threatened to fire me."

"Looks like you had loads of fun together,” Douglas mumbles, visualizing Hannon wasting his charm on the headstrong programmer. The image of Whitney working under Hannon's meticulous direction suddenly isn't so invidious any more.

"So, did you explore the virtual world together with Fuller?" Doug enquires.

"No, I supervised Fuller's downloads. The first download was me, but only for a few minutes, into an empty system. As a kind of a guinea pig, to see whether it actually worked. The rest was all Fuller, with me checking the machines."

"So, how do you know what Ashton is like?"

"It's easy. Ashton was meant as a key unit, meant to connect many others, and Fuller allowed me to model him as I liked."

Certainly. Douglas can't find it within himself to push any further. He can't close his eyes without seeing a myriad of little sparks flashing behind his eyelids. And he enjoys benefiting from the programmer's attention. The further he goes down the drain, the more he seems to gain sympathy points with Whitney, regardless of previous assaults on Whitney's dignity.

"But don't you think there's anything that’s … not right with him?" The words are past his lips before he really considers them, and he notices that he just stopped being Whitney's little idiot, lacking the programmer's much-needed solace to his sorely aching soul.

"Whitney, I think Ashton is offering companionship services."

No more half-hearted hugs, you idiot. That's what you've been going for?

Whitney has let go of him, dumbfounded, having retreated to a safe distance, probably afraid that Doug might hit him with a fist in the face. Whit brushes a streak of blond hair behind his ear, fidgeting for words, but catches himself amazingly quickly. And then they're back to management-speak.

"Doug!" Whitney answers, "Doug, you know we got to sell a simulation", with a tone as if they were running an ice-cream van. "Many of the units have a programmed inclination to prostitute themselves. That's the way we designed them."

"And Fuller never objected to that aspect of the program?" Douglas asks, suddenly shaken by the absurdity in his question. Of course, Fuller never would have objected to that feature of the system! For about a month, he had been abusing it almost every evening, with Whitney his crony. As long as it was about the girls …

"You know, Doug,” Whitney contends, "The simulation in its present situation, allowing observers to jack in, has three possible applications: First, the military. With every new invention, the first potential customer is the fucking military..."

Douglas is stunned. To his shock, the quixotic programmer starts laying down a sound and steady line of argumentation. But maybe this is nothing but parroting, a faint after-death echo of promo talk from Fuller, chewing marketing policy down on Whitney in those endless programming sessions during the last month, when Douglas had not been there to intervene.

"- … but Fuller resented the idea of constructing the souls of self-aware, sentient units only to have them murdered. Fuller and I, we both resented the idea. I hate guns, and I hate violence, man."

Another statement of Whitney’s that could be washed away by a haughty smirk, but Douglas recalls the creep of a blackmailer named Tom Jones who he had smashed through a car window this morning, leaving him with a bleeding face. It had been in 'defence', but it had horrified him to the bone. He had been shocked by his own brutality, and the implications … especially with regard to Whitney, gentle Whitney, who adores him so much for being a nice guy, and gives a damn about his electrocuted brain cells for the very same reason.

" … the second is about curing certain issues. Fuller once dropped a hint that there was an emotionally-blind employee with the staff, whom he wanted to cure by using the system. The problem is that connections would have to be paid by health insurance companies, which will do anything they can not to be charged."

"So, for the sick it's not available."

Whitney shrugs. "No idea, man. You know the market logic far better than I do – Potential customer group number three - ."

"Who is it?" Douglas asks breathlessly.

"Oh, it's average people. Normal people. People who want to have fun."

"No, I mean the guy who needs fixing. The guy Hannon built the simulator for."

"The mind-blind employee?" Whitney shakes his head in disbelief. "Well, it looks like he isn't an employee any more."

Despite his own aches, Douglas curses. Could he have been so wrong in anything he had believed he knew about Hannon Fuller? Despite more than six years of receiving friendship and professional guidance, would the old man really have taken the opportunity of his absence to fire a mind-blind employee?

"Is there anything Hannon told you about the worker?" Hannon had always instructed him to be a concerning employer. Showing empathy is part of the job, and sometimes spares some millions in anti-discrimination damages. "A name? An address? A social security number?" Maybe Hannon had done something hasty and un-reflected after Douglas and Hannon had parted in quarrel the last time they had seen each other; maybe there's a rat's chance for Doug to revise Hannon's faulty decision. "Come on, Whitney, you've been together for ten hours a day."

"Fuck, why are you asking me, man? Do I look like I sniff into other people's troubles? I just stay by my machines."

"But Hannon must have told you anything about him."

Whitney gets up from his chair. "Doug, if you want to know who the mind-blind is, why don't you look in the company phone book? “

Douglas rubs his temples with headache in answer. "Whitney, I think Ashton tried to flirt with me. Whit, I can't risk my neck for a program like that."

Whitney wants to object: "Doug, it's in the eye of the beholder." But Douglas implores him. –

"Ashton seems to offer himself to guys, Whit. If this gets public, the right-wing media will shred me. Do something about it. Recalibrate it. Change it. Whitney, you're the lead programmer; please, work over Ashton, it's really no big deal."

Recalibrating Ashton? This is as if Doug had told him to put his little dog into a debris-maker, except that Whitney never had a little dog or a debris-maker. In the six years of their joint work, Whitney has never ever heard the manager plead with him. Whitney is used to harsh orders. But this isn't ordinary. This is his friend and boss, his best friend, sitting in Hannon Fuller's bed having a conversation with him about cyber-units at 0:30 a.m. At a stretch, one could label this a business meeting. "Hey, Doug, I'm afraid it's not that easy,” Whitney finally admits.

"What do you mean, it’s not that easy?" Fretfully, Douglas recalls the quaint feeling of Ashton playing games with him at the bar of the Wilshire Grand this afternoon when he had asked for the virtual message. He hopes Whitney isn’t trying to do the same thing to him up here in the real world, or he might lose it, regardless of whether Whitney would then consider him Mr. Nice Guy any more.

He wants the truth. Even if it costs him his only friend.

- "Well, on the first download, the program analyzes silent hopes and fears, the subconscious , and then it selects the link unit and the contact units that you would potentially like to meet,” the programmer answers. "The units, they have a free will, but they're sentenced to be damn nice to strangers, or else the whole jack-in, jack-out thing, it just wouldn't work."

"Whitney," Douglas groans. "When I downloaded, and it was my first time, I did encounter something horrible."

Whitney listens up. Douglas had seemed dead beat but happy when pulled out of the simulator this morning. He had been smiling and smirking and even poking fun at Whitney. Whitney had never noticed after-effects of downloads in Fuller, only an increasing grumpiness last month after some odd quarrel with Douglas, and an almost anxious yearning for Douglas to return. What in there could have been so hideous that it would darken Doug's mood so deeply, and, most oddly, with a 12 hour delay?

"What happened, man?" Whitney says. He can only presume Douglas ingenuously stumbled across some hidden trait of Ashton’s and now, that the information overkill has gone, has had plenty of spare time to rack himself with guilt.

Whitney strokes Douglas' back in compassion.

"I woke up in the body of a bank teller."

"What?" Whitney is astonished. He'd thought that horrifying would have meant something else to a man whose seemingly only form of contact was playing basketball with him on the company parking lot. But in comparison to the struggles, the bugs, the fucking shit FullerCorp demands of him, in terms of zeal, will and dedication, he could think of worse than sitting in a bank, not having much to care about, and going home at 5.

"So, what's so bad about being a bank teller?" he gently says.

He tries to look Doug in the eyes, but Doug evades his gaze and then looks at him with an oddly dead expression. Whitney becomes nervous. "So, there's really something wrong, man." he says.

Douglas looks up into Whitney's eyes, makes sure that he reads them for what they say – affection - and makes out what he could possibly tell him without appalling his best friend. Whitney had always been instantly recognizable and steadily kind-hearted. How much could he tell Whitney about his inbred urge to defy orders, or his thorough dislike of handshakes, about his need to clash with superiors and to start solving things from the opposite position; about his seemingly unquenchable urge to go up against authority, about the trait his business partners find so unnerving about him: Douglas' inability to stand their eye contact while being stared down when he is talking to them.

He wonders how much Whitney already knows, coming up to his office and finding Douglas playing with his beloved antique baseball arcade game, with only the expectation of shooting some hoops outside as a incitement strong enough to tease him away. Then, he decides to change it all to Whitney's range of understanding, putting it all in the dimension of electromagnetic codes and orders, situated in a gloomy world between two others, situated down on a lonely 13th Floor.

"Whitney, how would you like sitting in a box, with a pedantic boss in your back and a dozen other workers so close that you're nearly squeezed against them, smiling at people for money, all day long producing recurring loops of meaningless chit-chat, when all you would need to solve a problem is but one clear sequence, or one single word?

For one moment, Douglas imagines Whitney trade his computer for an information table or cash desk, for any boss who was not Fuller …

"You're right, Douglas. Man, it would be hell."

Douglas exhales, but is still shaken by unadmitted horror. Pendergrass, the nit-picking, cigarette-smoking bank manager that Whitney wrote in had been easy to cope with. What could Pendergrass chastising Douglas in the bathroom have been in comparison to the other hell of meeting Ashton at the Wilshire Grand? After seeing a benign Fuller-backup, Douglas had been prepared to meet with "Whitney", but another kind of "Whitney" – as a hospital orderly or a janitor or something - not that spiteful, manipulating, emotionally-intelligent monstrosity behind the bar that yet shared some traits with Whitney, being easy-going and servile. He had fallen for that charisma in clumsy buds with Whitney, which had blossomed with pride and self-worth in Ashton, forming a new and highly seductive plant. He had hated the bartender always seeming three steps ahead of him, as he would feel hopelessly stuck in situations for which he had had no rehearsal. Meeting Ashton at the bar was not at all like a Power-Point presentation. Douglas had always been battling for excellence because he despised strangers taking him for a thick-head. But most of all it frustrated him that Ashton's facial expressions were so unlike those of Whitney and Fuller. In Douglas' world of compellingly definite either/or-answers, Douglas had been confused whether or not to put Ashton with the "good guys". That ambiguous smile which had warmed him so thoroughly was impossible to decipher as either mocking or sincere. Taking two hours off in the company of such a richly emotional aide might have been a genuine solace, but as Douglas cannot tell whether or not to trust the simulacrum, he can only imagine that, in his absence, Whitney and Fuller could have made up this golem in order to pull his leg.

After Ashton's exquisite, troubling self-assurance and knowledge of human nature, Douglas is desperate of having come back to find his buddy Whitney behaving in the same old clumsy obliging manner. For a tip, Ashton might agree to carry a Pepsi after him and might even agree to have his mockingly sharp mouth shut for the payment – but for Ashton, Douglas would be just another customer – someone conformist, conventional, forgettable. Ashton wouldn't even think about turning to Doug for advocacy in problems with personnel executives. Ashton would be the problem. Ashton wouldn't admire Doug for wearing two-bit suit. And Ashton would always teeth him a dentist-like smile of welcome regardless at whatever impossible night time he'd show up to meet him, but would he be happy about Douglas sharing some crumbs of his sparse free-time during his 10 hour working day? Maybe the bartender had been solely Whitney's way to play havoc with him after years of ongoing jibing. The tit-for-tat response playing on his weakness was, no doubt, incisive. Fuller, knowing how damageable Doug could be, might have tried to give Douglas a fatherly warning, having discovered the truth only the night before his death. It wouldn't explain why Fuller had been murdered, though, but …

"What about you?" Doug jumps at Whitney in painful, frustrated fury.

Whitney had been sitting next to him, running his fingers through Douglas' thick hair repeatedly in order to make him feel better. And it looked like it had worked. Douglas had told him he didn't want to be a bank teller. Just fine. He wouldn't like to be one either. And now he looks up, seeing those beautiful blue eyes shine with barely controlled grief, targeting him with belligerence. Fuck, he's Whitney, and not one of those damn business partners to wage war with. And never in his life would he think about bawling at Douglas, no matter how awkward things might be.

"How much of you is in your unit, Whitney? Did you and Fuller make fun of me in programming that bartender? Do you think having me meet such a unit was a practical joke?"

Whitney tries to stay calm, forcing himself to remember that Douglas is a loyal defender by nature, losing his temper only out of an overly-developed sense of equity. Whitney had benefited from that "righteous rage" a few times as Douglas had shielded him from personnel executives; and a couple of times Douglas had made use of his fits in defence of the company. Curiously, in a rage, Douglas is able to throw in a razor-sharp, hard-to-contradict, sound line of argumentation. But sometimes he's bullshitting, too.

- "And how is it that you know about what Johnnie Ferguson, my link unit's character, is like, if you really never met him? You probably met him standing behind the bar of the Wilshire Grand?"

Well, now he is bullshitting. Doug can be soothed by a simple embrace, or by getting him down to the basketball court. Maybe Douglas would feel better if they just played a round outside in a thunderstorm. Maybe he'd end up with pneumonia. What the hell, this is an IT company near Silicon Valley. Whitney would dare a kiss, but he is deeply terrified of Doug's "righteous rage" against Ashton. Whitney had put everything in Ashton to suggest to Douglas an upmarket equal. He had given Ashton nothing that had prevented Doug from looking into his – Whitney's – direction. Containment and attractiveness; polite and friendly behaviour; good judgment. Attentive to others, Ashton was to able to talk about anything from the stock exchange to horse races. Granted, it was not possible to transgress the frontier between this world and the simulation, but if Douglas had taken Ashton to a business meeting, the bartender might have delivered a decent showing, at least to the extent of knowing what he was talking about. In all this, Whitney had flavoured Ashton with a good tinge of deference so that he might enjoy Douglas' adamant attitude. But Whitney is not Ashton. He hates Doug's cruelty, and he remembers how this afternoon Doug had defended himself when Whitney, out of necessity, had to pull the dizzy manager out of the simulator to get him back to his staggering feet.

"Know something Doug?" Whitney is flipping a streak out of his face with anger. "You're talking crazy. I had to drag my former university friend out her bed, at an un-Christian late time, I crossed the entire city for you. I seriously tried to help you, but all you want to do is make up your presumptions. You're delirious, man, on some kind of after-effect of the download. I’m mourning for Fuller as much as you are, but this would never make me hurt you, or disregard … " Whitney furiously grasps his backpack. "I don't care how late it is. I'm leaving. Whether you're poisoned, or saddened by Fuller's death, or just can't handle the system. I'd never hurt you. I'm your friend."

Turning away, Whitney fidgets for his key card, trying to focus on the chirp of the door lock system. Damn. He's used to Douglas' abrupt mood swings, his momentum and his ability to connect seemingly incoherent essentials. He's seen all of this. The latter had proved itself helpful when giving Douglas program codes to proof-read. Nevertheless, he'd never get it in his heart to bawl back at Douglas, even if this means leaving. If he broke into tears then Douglas wouldn't see them, which is as predictable as a Jefferson Airplane LP.

"Damn. Fucking door lock." Whitney repeatedly passes his key card in front of the reader, which sends the same stubborn message of code not matching. He cannot believe that he – as a programmer – would have made such a stupid mistake. For some quaint reason of his, Fuller had given his apartment the same security restrictions as the 13th Floor system. You required a valid access card to get in and also to make your way out. He finds it bizarre to muse on the question what kind of people would have wanted to find themselves trapped in Fuller's bedroom, and why of all Hannon would have needed to block the way out.


Whitney turns around, brushing fuzzy blond streaks from his face.

"You forgot your key card." Doug is not making eye contact, but reluctantly holding out the key card with Hannon Fuller's picture. "To get out you'll need this one. You know, access is restricted on the one you have."

Disbelievingly, Whitney steps closer. Douglas still doesn't look at him but keeps holding out the key card. "I wanted to offer you my old apartment, plus the Looney Tunes and a pizza. I'd wanted you to stay."

Whitney is up to believe that Doug has just lost his mind or something. "What?"

"Hannon named no-one to be informed in case of emergency but me. Now he's dead, and my closest friend around is you, Whitney. I don't want to end up a similar way."

"But … but what about Jane Fuller?"

"Talked to her this morning. She claims Fuller had wanted her to shut down the company, but the facts are Hannon has made me the sole heir of his property. She sent me a twenty-page objection through her lawyer. Would you want the system to be shut down? If Hannon Fuller didn't trust his own daughter, then why should I?"

"Doug. but …"

"What else?"

"Do you have Kill the Wabbit?"

"A copy of the 1957 Bugs Bunny cartoon movie directed by Chuck Jones and originally released to theatres by Warner Bros. on July 6, 1957?"

Whitney's face brightens. "Yes, man. Exactly."

"Sure. I do have. Must by over there, somewhere under the pile of Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities journals. Didn't have the time to arrange much, I just brought everything over here in a haste and dumped it; I wanted the other apartment to be unoccupied."

Douglas turns on the TV set, deciding that this is the best deal he's negotiated during the last 16 months, as he switches between strip shows and the weather channel. Whitney jumps on the other side of the bed to have a better look at the TV set, still fully dressed, his sneakers dangling over the edge of the mattress. Douglas discerningly scrutinizes his friend - with his dyed hair and his crudely made black wool pullover – who only this afternoon seemed like he would have moved heaven and hell to be allowed to mess about with him once.

"Whit...? When I turn the light off, are you going to try to touch me? I mean... even just take me in your arms? Just... a little?"

"Hey, Douglas, what are you thinking? At the end of an opera, are you really expecting a happy ending?"

Ouch. The dreamer has definitely had his fill of Bugs Bunny movies. After discovering that much about Whitney while using the 13th Floor system, Douglas still wouldn't have expected Whitney to respond in such a sharp manner. But then, he muses on why Whitney, of all people, would have picked a Wagnerian piece full of sound and fury – Whitney doesn't listen to classical music; he likes West coast rock. Or why Whitney would want him to watch the story of man who had sought his true love, and killed her, finding out that in fact, his true love was a faggot with long fake blond hair. (Reference). But maybe, again, it might be nothing. Nothing but Whitney having got a basketball cracked against his head.

"Whitney, are you trying to hint at something?"

Outside, the raging thunderstorm seems to have cooled off; now, incredibly thick raindrops are splashing against the glass front, sounding disgustingly like critters being crushed. Whitney would never fatigue during a nightly programming session, but the exhausting face-off with Douglas has taken it out of him. He's stunned by a forceful, too-tight and too-sudden love hug, as the last years of rigidly imposed boundaries are trashed straight away. There's no kiss yet but Doug holds him so tight that he can feel the warmth of Doug’s clench even through his shirts and pullover, feeling glad that his clothes are just loose enough. He wouldn’t know what to do if in "comforting" him, Doug accidentally scuffed his hard-on. Or claimed it. "Tomorrow, when you’re sober, you might want to kill me, man," he finally murmurs, while trying to clear his nervous dry throat.

"Killing you, Whitney?”

In the distance, the weather responds with a faded dull grumble.

“How could you think I’d ever harm you, after having been your steady protector, after defending you against Fuller, for more than half a dozen years?”

Damn. He's trapped. Following the tentative confession of his own Achilles' heel, Doug has knocked him over; and Whitney feels his wrist ache with something other than computing tendonitis. Doug stares him down with an almost angry expression, pinning him fiercely to the bed. After all those years, after having seen managers give up on Douglas one after another, Whitney should have finally got it to his head that a clumsy admission of weakness makes Douglas livid, that for Doug, "no" is not "no" but a mere enticement to surmount others, an inexorable incentive to impose his own will.

At least the thunderstorm voices disapproval. Whitney tries to open his mouth in objection, but the tempest has been using itself up on the issue and is slowly withdrawing into the dark.

Anywhere but Doug’s clutches is an unpleasant place to be.

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