About a week before the third meeting of the Avatar Dining Club, its founder – Edward – sent us all an email inviting us to nominate a member who would – as he had done previously – bring with them to our next meeting a ‘virtual guest’. To be honest, I hadn’t left the second meeting feeling in any way persuaded that this idea was one worth repeating – it had all felt, frankly, uncomfortable – and I’d rather hoped we’d go back to just the seven of us eating together, as we had managed quite happily for the first meal. Edward, however, appeared convinced that the inclusion of a distant guest via laptop video chat (in metaverse character, as we all were required to remain by the rules of the club) was the “extra special ingredient” demanded by our gathering, the “catalyst to our fusion”. It was one of those group emails that you look at on your phone and frown at whilst you read it, and then hope that someone else will reply before you. I needn’t have worried: Raw Concrete, the virtual builder, had nominated himself within about five minutes and we all quickly (and gratefully) fell in behind him.
“You’re going to love this girl, Edward,” he said, as he set up the laptop at the end of the table six days later. Once again, we had come to L’Albero Verde, an Italian restaurant in Basingstoke on Winchester Street. “She has a mystery I don’t think even you’ll be able to solve.”
“Let me remind you, my boy,” said Edward, his lined, sixtyish face both stern and kind at the same time, “that I wouldn’t have solved anything without the very helpful questions you all of you asked – and the answers they prompted.”
“Is that our thing now, then?” asked Indigo Williams, pushing a few strands of her purple hair from her face as she took her seat at Edward’s left. “Are we virtual world detectives?”
“I can live with that!” Raw declared.
“We most certainly are not,” Edward stated, firmly. “We’re a group of friends who enjoy stimulating, metaverse-themed conversation. If the conversation should take the direction of a little mystery every now and again, well so be it.”
Mary-Anne Middlemarch, sitting on my right, turned to me and said, “Don’t you write stories about metaverse detectives, Douglas?”
“Oh I meant to say!” Jennifer Bit said, taking his/her place opposite me, “I started one of your novels last week!”
“Started?” I enquired.
“I’m about three chapters in. It’s very… hmmm…” S/he circled her hands in the air. “What’s the word?”
“Ridiculous?” ventured Rainy September, the explorer/clubber to Jennifer’s left.
“Bit harsh,” I commented.
“Do you really think someone would murder a person in real life just because he used a copybot to steal her latest virtual world hair style?” Jennifer asked.
“It’s the job of a fiction author to exaggerate a little every now and again,” I said, defensively.
“Exaggeration is a blood relation to falsehood and nearly as blamable,” declared Edward, grandly.
“Is that a Facebook meme?” asked Rainy.
“Hosea Ballou, my dear,” he replied.
“I’m not trying to write works of literary genius,” I said. “Just stories a few people might enjoy.”
“Well I like your stories,” Raw said whilst he loaded up Skype on the laptop. “I read them on the bus to work.” It was a moment of pure pleasure to imagine my book being devoured in a public place, its cover proudly open and on display, but its contents firmly concealed; in my opinion, the absolute best form of advertising. But then he went and ruined it all by adding, “On my Kindle.” Ebooks are both a blessing and a curse.
He found the contact he was looking for and initiated the connection. A few seconds went by and then the call was answered by a round-faced woman in her thirties with red, curly hair and a sprinkling of freckles which the low resolution of her webcam had turned into a ginger smudge across the tops of her cheeks. “Heya Peacemaker,” he said to her loudly, leaning across Rainy to do so.
“Raw, is that you?” she asked in a New York accent. “My God, you’re so young!”
“Young in years; old in tears,” Raw replied.
“Suuuuure,” Rainy commented.
“Hey,” the young man said to her, “just because I’m a builder that doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep and frequently painful emotional life.”
“You’re assuming a prejudicial judgement on my part,” she replied, “I assure you, I wasn’t thinking of all builders.”
“And these are all your friends?” Peacemaker asked, peering at her screen.
“This is the club I was telling you about,” Raw said to her, as he walked back round the table to his spot on my left. “We’re all about to order food – I hope you have something prepared!”
“To be honest, it’s a little early for me to eat,” she said, “but I picked up some sushi on my way back here.” She held up the little plastic tray for us to see. The look on Raw’s face suggested that in his opinion this didn’t even constitute a starter.
“Peacemaker, my dear,” said Edward, grandly, “you are most welcome amongst us. I trust that Raw told you the rules of our meetings?”
“No real life stuff,” she said. “That works for me. To tell you the truth, I’m nervous enough as it is about you guys seeing me in the flesh. I never ordinarily cam with virtual world buddies. It’s a good thing I’m not famous.”
“Think of it, if you like, as a metaverse experience that ventures just far enough into the real world to facilitate a more natural conversational style. Engaging though I find online conversation to be, it still requires a great deal of effort for those of us old enough to still value what the eyes and ears tell us about what a person is saying.”
We ordered. The starters came and we all got to work on the edge of our hunger, and Peacemaker nibbled slowly on her sushi through this momentary lull in conversation. Presently, Raw wiped garlic bread crumbs from his mouth and said, “So why don’t you tell us about your mystery, Peacemaker?”
Edward interjected. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, my boy. We haven’t introduced ourselves properly yet.” So we went around the table in turn, each of us giving our metaverse name and habits, and then Peacemaker introduced herself as a builder of plants and outdoor accessories. “I loved gardening when I was growing up,” she told us, “but here in the city I don’t have so much as a window box. So instead I garden and landscape in the virtual world.”
“Now can we do the mystery?” Raw asked. Edward nodded his consent.
“It’s not really a mystery, like a crime’s been committed or anything,” Peacemaker began. “There’s this guy I know. Sort of know. Here’s the thing: he can be in two places at the same time.”
“What do you mean? In the metaverse?” I asked.
“Of course she means in the metaverse!” Raw shot back at me. “Did you imagine she was talking about real life?”
“You mean like two avatars in two different places?” Indigo questioned.
“Two avatars in two different places,” Peacemaker confirmed.
“At the same moment?”
“At the same moment,” she said.
Mary-Anne said, “And this is something you saw yourself or something someone told you about?”
“I saw it with my own eyes,” Pacemaker replied. “This is how it happened. I was at a poetry event – an open mic thing where people take it in turns to read out their poems. There are loads of these events around the virtual world, but it’s more or less the same bunch of people who attend and organise them – so, as a general rule, they tend not to clash. The exception to that rule, however, is Wednesday night, when you have both the Book Bar event and the Letterlovers event at the same time. Rumor has it that the two hostesses are arch rivals. As a result, people tend to go to one or the other, depending on where their allegiances lie. So anyway, I was at the Book Bar and I noticed that one of my best friends, Stardom was online but not attending. Well see, she always does Book Bar on a Wednesday night if she’s online, so I messaged her to ask what she was up to. I thought maybe she was with a guy! But she answered that she just fancied doing Letterlovers that week for a change.”
Pacemaker paused to take a sip of water, then continued. “So I asked her who was there – you know, for the gossip value – and she told me a whole bunch of names. And one of them was Bill Reckinsaw. Except that Bill was standing right in front of me at the Book Bar.”
“How do you know she was telling you the truth?” asked Rainy.
“Well I told Stardom it couldn’t possibly be Bill she was seeing, but when she insisted, I teleported right over to take a look. And there he was. Same avatar, same clothes, same name, same everything.”
“It was an alt,” said Indigo, unimpressed. “He created a new account, made up his avatar to look the same and then changed his display name so it was the same as his primary. Easy. Just check both their user IDs – those will be different.”
“What’s a ‘display name’?” Mary-Anne whispered to me.
“When you create a new account,” I explained, “you first of all have to choose a user ID that’s unique to you. But later on you can choose a separate name to be known by – a display name – and it doesn’t matter if other people are also using that.”
“I did check their user IDs,” Peacemaker said, a little sourly. “Same ID – Billreck23 Resident – in both cases. Same birth date. Same profile info. I’m telling you: they were identical.”
But Indigo was nonplussed. “Then it was the same avatar that you saw in the first place,” she stated. “He must have teleported over at the same time as you.”
“Seriously?” Raw scoffed. “You don’t think that’s just a little too coincidental?”
“Not if you assume intent,” Indigo said. “Suppose you were being set up,” she proposed, her finger wagging at the laptop screen and her gaze above it as she visualised pieces coming together. “A practical joke,” she continued. “Your friend Stardom was in on it, of course. The clue is in the context: she knew exactly where you were going to be at that time, and her not being there herself got her your attention. She knew you were going to message her. See, you had to be in private message for it to work so that she knew the exact moment you teleported over. I bet she even sent you the teleport. Am I right?”
“Well yes, as it happens-” Peacemaker began.
“Well there you are. Plus having the message box up on the screen would have reduced your view of him so that if he teleported a moment before you, it wouldn’t be so obvious.”
She sat back, satisfied. “Mystery solved,” she said. “Sorry, Edward,” she added. “Didn’t mean to steal your thunder.” Edward waved the matter aside, a twinkle in his eye.
“That’s ridiculous!” Raw cried. “It relies on far too much that could go wrong. Even Douglas’s contrived plots are more realistic.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Not that I want to steal your thunder,” Peacemaker cut in, “but you didn’t let me finish. You see, it didn’t end there.” She ate some more rice. “The very next thing I did, of course, was to teleport back to Book Bar. And there he still was!”
Indigo munched on the salad that had been put in front of her a moment earlier. “Then they just repeated the teleport as soon as you vanished,” she proposed.
“Ok,” said Peacemaker. “So the next thing I did after that was to log on simultaneously as an alt and be at both locations myself. Guess what?”
“He was still at both venues?” Mary-Anne said, incredulously.
“He was still at both venues.”
“Really?” asked Indigo. She looked crestfallen.
“I’m telling you, he was the exact same avatar in two places at once. Now you tell me: how is that possible?”
The table went silent for a moment, but not for long. “My theory is he’s some sort of hacker,” said Raw. “He’s found a loophole in the system and exploited it.”
“A hacker who loves poetry?” Rainy said, sarcastically.
“Why not?! All things can happen in virtual worlds!”
“And this has only now been discovered?” I said. “Seems like it’s the sort of thing we’d have heard about a long time before now, if it were possible.”
“Not if it’s a new bug introduced in a recent update,” said Raw. “Maybe he exploited some code to make it only look like the same avatar, where it was in fact just a different account that visually looked the same but had a different name – the exploit tricked the viewer into changing the name from one to the other and voilà! – an alt no longer appeared to be an alt.”
No-one other than Raw appeared convinced by that and we sat and ate for a moment, trying to find a better idea. Finally, Indigo said, “Ok, I give up. What do you make of it, Edward?”
“I think you were quite right when you said that the clue was in the context, my dear,” Edward replied, “only in this case, the relevant context was that of a man who didn’t want to offend his two friends by being at one of their events but not at the other.”
“All very well,” said Peacemaker, “but how?”
“Oh, the how is very simple, though you’ll need to message both avatars to see if I’m right. My guess is, though, that this wasn’t the first time he attended both events this way and it won’t be the last. All you’ll need to do is copy his name – once from each avatar’s message box – into Microsoft Word and change the font to Times New Roman.”
“Aha!” said Jennifer. “I see where this is going!”
“I don’t!” said Raw. “What will that do?”
“My boy,” said Edward, Times New Roman is a serifed font, whereas the metaverse uses a non-serifed font for all its text. One of the letters that changes the most when changed from a non-serifed to a serifed font is upper case I. In Times New Roman, it would be quite unmistakable as an I, whereas in non-serifed metaverse text, it could pass almost perfectly for a lower case L.”
“And ‘Bill’ has two lower case Ls in it,” Peacemaker said, grinning broadly.
“And ‘Bill’ has two lower case Ls in it,” Edward agreed.
About the Author
Huckleberry Hax writes regularly about Second Life and has written several novels set in the metaverse. Huck’s blog can be found at www.huckleberryhax.blogspot.com.