For the second meeting of the Avatar Dining Club, our host Edward set up a laptop at the far end of the table. For some reason, perhaps because we were all still relative strangers and perhaps because we were using the same restaurant in Basingstoke (and, at that, the same table), the other six of us had taken the positions we'd more or less randomly chosen at the first meal. Mary-Anne Middlemarch, a fashion blogger, was to my right, Raw Concrete, a builder, was to my left, the man who called himself Jennifer Bit in the metaverse sat opposite me and to his/her respective left and right were Rainy September, a clubber and explorer, and Indigo Williams, a club owner and skin designer.
That meant Edward sat at the head, as before, and the laptop was positioned opposite him. On its screen was a plump man in his early thirties with a week’s growth of beard and neatly parted hair. As Edward took his seat, the man tucked a napkin into his collar. "Everybody, this is Takin," Edward announced. "He is to be our guest for the evening." We all said slightly uncomfortable hellos and Takin returned the gesture in a strong Welsh accent, adding "Well, Takin's not my real name, of course. I feel a little uncomfortable introducing myself with that name in the flesh."
"Not exactly the flesh," Raw commented, as he eyed up the menu.
"Now now, Takin," Edward said. "Remember the rules: here we all assume the character we adopt in the virtual world. There's to be no real life information shared at this table."
"I'm Jennifer, by the way," said Jennifer, somewhat underlining that point. We took that as our prompt to introduce ourselves in turn. And then the starters came.
It was a little odd, to say the least, to be tucking into food prepared for us by a chef whilst Takin went to get his supper from the microwave. Edward enquired politely about the distant meal and our distant diner guest obliged us all by holding up the box in front of his webcam. Beef lasagne for one, with slices of white bread on the side. I tried not to make too much noise when I cracked open my crusty roll and took my first sip of a delicious chicken and asparagus soup. An uncomfortable silence settled and, after a minute or so, even Edward started to look distinctly restless, perhaps worried that he'd tampered with the format to our meeting too quickly.
"Anyway," said Raw, though a mouthful of garlic bread, "you were right about the whole spelling thing, Edward. I asked her. She thought it was hilarious it took seven people to work it out."
"Work what out?" asked Takin, his personal volume not quite right.
"Raw got spotted as an alt by his girl," Indigo said to the screen. "He couldn't work how she knew, and it turned out it was his diabolical spelling."
Raw growled. "She's not my 'girl'."
"So you say," said Rainy.
"And,” he added, “I'm dyslexic."
"Which means nothing more complicated than 'problems with words'," Indigo stated. She had smoked salmon for her starter. I detest smoked salmon and the smell was turning my stomach a little.
Raw growled, "Why don't you try, 'problems with words despite years and years of trying to read and spell better.'?"
"Do you get that thing where the letters jump about?" Mary-Anne asked, leaning forward so she could see around me.
"No," he replied.
"So what is it like?" asked Rainy.
"Remember when you were learning to drive and it was really hard because you had to keep everything in your head?" We all nodded. "Like that," he said, "only for reading instead of driving."
“In any case,” I commented, “it didn’t take seven people to work it out: six people failed and Edward succeeded.”
“Oh my dear fellow,” said Edward, brushing my compliment away like it was a crumb fallen from the broken breadstick he held in his hand, “don’t be so dismissive of the initial questioning: I couldn’t have seen the answer without all of your very helpful enquiries.”
"So you say," said Rainy.
“Tell everyone here about your online identity, Takin,” said Edward, directing our attention back towards the computer. Takin paused to wipe tomato sauce from the corner of his mouth (I was desperately relieved that he had noticed it) then said with a shrug, “I make cars in the metaverse.”
“What sort of cars?” Raw asked, with interest.
“The cars I grew up with, mostly. I just finished a beige Austin Maestro today - the first car I ever went in.”
“Keeping up with the orders must be a challenge for you,” said Indigo, dryly.
Takin chuckled. “Well, I don’t only build piles of British junk. I have a whole range of 70s and 80s cars: Citroen, Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Volvo, Peugeot 205 - my 205 is quite a seller, actually.”
Jennifer sighed suddenly, happily. “I had a lot of fun in my old 205,” s/he said.
“There you go, see?” said Takin with satisfaction. “People like the memories they get from messing about in old cars they used to own. It’s not just the exteriors I do either: I spend a lot of time in research to make sure I get the fittings and fabrics right too.”
“A new metaversian application,” said Indigo. “Re-own all the stuff you once had to get rid of.”
“I have memories of the back seat of a Ford Orion I’d prefer stayed firmly in my forgotten past,” commented Rainy. Which led to a few moments of a slightly awkward silence.
“Why the Maestro, then?” asked Mary-Anne. “Have you done all the good cars?”
“Oh, that was just for me, see?” Takin replied. “I needed a bit of cheering up.”
“Really?” said Edward. “What’s wrong, old friend?”
Takin reddened slightly. “Well, me and Sophie split up, Edward.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. You two were the perfect couple.”
“I take it this is an online relationship we’re talking about?” queried Indigo.
Takin nodded. “Don’t be sorry for me, Edward,” he said quietly. “Actually, I’m surprised you hadn’t already heard.”
“My connections to the community gossip - nor, indeed, my energy for it - aren’t quite what they used to be, I’m afraid.” Edward rubbed his chin for a moment, massaging the short growth of white beard there, then wagged his finger at the laptop. “Have you been a bad boy?”
Now Takin reddened much more fiercely. He started to speak, but Edward cut him off abruptly. “Don’t answer that; I shouldn’t have asked. This is a conversation you and I need to have privately, not out in public.”
Takin sat up straight. “It’s not exactly public here though is it, Edward? In any case, the pictures are all over her facebook for everyone to see. And they do say confession is good for the soul.”
“Though not necessarily good for my appetite,” said Indigo.
“There’s pictures?” said Jennifer.
“Lots of pictures,” said Takin miserably. “Though how they got taken I’ll never know"
“Generally speaking,” said Raw, as he accepted his pizza from the waiter, “it involves a camera of some sort.”
“Well I know that, of course,” Takin snapped. “But they got taken at my skyhouse, see? The only person who could have taken them was the lady I was with at the time - and she swears blind it wasn’t her.”
“She’s lying,” said Indigo straight away, waving a forked carrot dismissively. “She set you up. She’s a detective. She’s probably not even a she. No offense,” she added, looking at Jennifer.
Jennifer sat up straight. “Why would I take offence?”
“But I’ve known her for years,” argued Takin. “Mellia and I have always been mates, but when she was unattached I wasn’t and vice versa. Why would she set me up?”
“Well then it’s obvious what happened,” said Raw. “Whoever it was that took the pictures zoomed in on you from far away. That’s hardly difficult in the metaverse.”
“But I told you I was at my skyhouse,” said Takin firmly. “I own the land down below it and I’ve set my parcel’s settings to private so no one looking in from the outside can see avatars on the inside. Anyone who zoomed in on the place would have seen it empty. Only I can change the settings.”
“You might have changed them once and forgot about it,” Raw suggested.
“Well of course it was the first thing I checked once the photos got sent to me the next day,” said Takin. “But they were still set to private.”
"These photos," I said, "I take it they're-"
"Of my indiscretion, yes," Takin finished, bristling slightly. "Well, one of them."
"Oh, Takin!" Edward said, despairingly.
"Serves you right," said Rainy, firmly. "Serves you right. No sympathy here."
"If I wanted sympathy, I'd tell you about the endless arguments Sophie and I had gotten into," Takin said. "Or I'd tell you some of the names she called me."
"Then you should have ended it with her," Rainy replied. "Simple."
"I know that, and I'm absolutely not trying to defend myself. All I really want to know is how she did it."
"Just out of interest," said Raw, as he sprinkled yet more parmesan over his four cheese supreme, "what names did she call you."
Takin reddened again. "I'd rather not say."
"Are you certain there wasn't anyone else hidden away in your house when you were... indiscretioning?" Jennifer asked.
"Not only would my security system have ejected them, but I'd have seen them on my personal radar," Takin replied.
"So what about Mellia?" I asked. "Did you have to add her to the system?"
"Every time," Takin said. "And afterwards, I'd take her off the list so Sophie didn't see her name there."
"Men are such deceitful pigs," muttered Rainy, glaring into her wine glass.
Takin frowned. "Though now that you come to mention it, I didn't have to add her that night."
"The first clue!" Declared Mary-Anne.
"Can't you tell us at least one of the names she called you?" Raw pleaded.
Takin hesitated for a brief moment, then leaned in towards his camera. "She called me a pervert!" he whispered. "She told me one of her fantasies and asked me about mine, and when I told her, she called me a pervert!"
Edward coughed and studied his broccoli intently. Indigo giggled into her napkin..
Raw said, "What was the fan-"
"Perhaps you should tell us," said Edward, loudly, "what happened that evening. I don't mean the details of the indiscretion," he added. "Think 'storyboard'."
"Well I knew Sophie was early to bed that night, see?" Takin paused to open a new can of lager. "Just before she logged out, she messaged me to say she wanted a goodnight hug. I was getting the knobs right on the air vents for a Vauxhall Cavalier at the time, but also messaging Mellia, because we'd agreed to meet up that evening once Sophie was off. So I took the teleport Sophie sent me back to our skyhouse, gave her the hug and wished her sweet dreams."
"How many seconds elapsed between her logging off and you teleporting over your mistress?" Rainy asked, acidly.
"Actually, it was at least ten minutes, but that was because I was waiting for everything to rezz."
"It was laggy?" Raw asked.
"That's what I thought at first. In the end, I realised it had to be one of those glitchy evenings where only half your stuff appears and I so gave up waiting."
"So long as the bed was there, right?" Rainy commented.
"And the settee," Takin replied, levelly. "And the hat stand. And the, um, fridge." He cleared his throat. "Sophie has an eye for... functionality. So I teleported Mellia over and, well, I suppose there's not much else to tell, really. The next evening I logged on and there were all these impossible snapshots sent to me plus a very long and very vitriolic letter."
"What if," said Mary-Anne, "they dressed two other avatars up like you and Mellia and staged the whole thing?"
"Who's 'they'?" Raw asked.
"Even if they'd gone to all the trouble of finding out our body shapes and our skins and our hairstyles, not to mention makeups and tattoos and Lord knows what else," said Takin, "How could they possibly know what we were wearing that evening?"
"Isn't it part of the deal that you weren't wearing anything at all?" asked Indigo.
"Oh, we were wearing stuff," Takin assured us. "And using stuff."
"Storyboard, Takin," Edward repeated.
"Well I'm stumped," I said. "Unless Sophie had somehow managed to disable your security and someone was hiding in there."
"She might have disabled my system," Takin said, "though I've no idea how; but there's no way she could have disabled my radar. I'm telling you, there was no-one within at least 200 metres of us. And even if the security system was turned off, my land settings were still set to private, so no-one could have seen what we were doing."
"Do you have any ideas, Edward?" Indigo asked. "After all, you solved the puzzle last time."
"Possibly, my dear," Edward said, thoughtfully. "Nothing really definite, but maybe..."
"I'm all ears," said Takin.
"Perhaps if I could ask a couple of questions," our host said. "Would I be correct in assuming that the house itself belonged to Sophie?"
"You would indeed," Takin replied. "I pay the rent on the land and Sophie picked out the house."
"And the furnishings?"
"Not all of them," he said. "She does have a better eye than me, though. Well, did."
"She's not dead just because she stopped going out with you," Rainy pointed out. “You are allowed to use the present tense.”
Edward continued. "Would I also be correct then in assuming that the items you couldn't see when you teleported there were all your items?"
Takin frowned. "Now that you mention it, I think you might be right."
"Well then," Edward said, "it seems fairly clear to me."
"It seems fairly unclear to me!" Raw declared.
"It's a simple matter of logic, my boy: if was impossible for someone to take pictures of Takin at his home, then he could not have been at his home."
"I don't understand," said Takin.
"I imagine it happened something like this: Sophie linked up her house and all the furnishings she bought for it, and took the whole lot into her inventory, leaving all your bits and pieces floating in mid-air. Then she teleported to a different location where there were no security or privacy restrictions and re-rezzed it all at the same altitude as you were used to. Then she messaged you for that goodnight hug: I take it she did send you a teleport to her location rather than just asking you to come home?"
"Yeah," Takin said. "She did."
"So in the end, all the photographer had to do - whoever he or she was - was keep a respectable distance away and zoom in to get the pictures. By the time you logged in to your home spot the following evening, Sophie had moved everything back to its original location."
"I'll be damned," said Indigo. "Edward, you did it again."
“Just a theory, my dear. Though if you log your system messages, Takin, then it should be recorded the name of the region you actually teleported to that night: if it’s not your home location then that’s the proof.”
Takin’s gaze changed as he did some typing and some mouse-pointer moving, bringing up the log to check there and then. Finally, he sighed and nodded.
"So she suspected me all along," he said. “Bloody hell.”
"Cheats are never as good at lying as they think they are," Rainy said, not without a touch of satisfaction.
“And there is nothing quite so ingenious as a suspicious partner,” Edward added. “Inside the metaverse or out of it.”