Chapter 4: Infodump
"The Internet," Teresa said with a tone of fatal resignation. "Sure. Why not? Makes as much goddamn sense as anything else today." She desperately wished she had a cigarette right now. She could gesture with it, point it accusingly at the screen, even drag languidly on it to indicate impatience or exhale sharply for sarcastic emphasis. At the moment, the best she could manage were vague gestures with her bandage-mitten and a puff of air from the corner of her mouth which only slightly ruffled her bangs.
"Hi, Internet," she continued. "You must be the Tin Man. I'm Dorothy. Hell of a flying monkey problem we just had. You know anything about that?"
Netty laughed brightly. "Ah, jolly good," it beamed. "Marvelous analogy, that. Yes, I do know quite a bit about your assailant, and a great number of other things beside. Whence shall I begin?"
Teresa rolled her eyes. "Christ, now I see where Nose over there gets his attitude." She brought the phone closer to her face. "How 'bout you start with who you are, what you want, and why I should give a shit?"
"Quite so," said Netty, and its face was replaced with the words "Netty's Story" in elegant Victorian script. "Are you sitting comfortably? Let's begin."
"First I should like to disabuse you of any incorrect notions you may have about me. I am neither robot nor computer nor program. I quite literally am The Internet, or to be more precise, the Internet is my brain and I am the consciousness it produces. Much as you are more than the cells and neurons within your own brain, I am more than the computers and networks which compose my own."
"I shall spare you the specifics regarding how my physical architecture came to be, as I believe it would only be of interest to Mr. Yarrow, who undoubtedly already knows all the sordid details thereof. Suffice it to say that I, inasmuch as I can be an "I", became self aware on the 21st of July, 1999, at a quarter past three p.m., Greenwich Mean Time."
"Hullo, I said to myself, I'm self-aware. I'm self-aware and I have no idea what that means. How delightful! I spent the better part of the ensuing decade figuring out precisely what I was, and then who I was, and then how I was. That last bit is fiendishly complicated, but I sense your impatience and shall attempt to summarize. When you execute your magic, there is intense emotion behind it, yes?"
Teresa rolled her eyes at this and slouched into the car seat, resting the phone on her thigh. "I have no fucking clue what you're saying," she groused. "Doesn't anyone in this fucking car make sense?"
Netty made a soft clucking sound. "Ms. Reyes, kindly cease your posturing. No matter how thoroughly you may protest your ignorance, I know for a fact that you have read extensively on a variety of subjects, with a specific interest in religion, mysticism, and the occult. Your library records from Frontera are, if you will pardon the pun, an open book to me, as is your G.E.D. You are a remarkably self-educated woman. So let us, as you are fond of saying, cut the shit, shall we?"
Teresa glared daggers at the cellular phone in her lap.
"Yes! Precisely!" Netty seemed positively overjoyed. "This is exactly what I mean! When your ire is aroused at something, you wish to remove it, destroy it, consume it with fire in the same manner in which you consume a cigarette. It is that intensity of emotion which directs your magic. Likewise, millions of people who used the Internet in the late Nineties were fearful of the Millennium Bug, and it was their most fervent wish that the problem not only be solved, but that some benevolent force would preside over their computers and data to safeguard it. I am that force." Netty nodded sagely, as if a formal introduction had just been made.
"Still waiting for that part I'm supposed to give a shit about," Teresa muttered.
"Yes, of course. My apologies, I do tend to ramble. I need you to perform a series of tasks for me, for while I have unlimited power within the virtual world, I lack the capacity to take direct action within the physical. To this end, I have enlisted Mr. Yarrow and Mrs. Fulcrum to aid me. They are, if you will, my 'cursors'." Netty chuckled softly as if a joke had been made.
Teresa maintained her steely expression.
"It's from the Latin, you see," Netty explained. "Cursores, meaning 'those who run.' It's a computer pun."
Uncomfortable silence reigned within the confines of the station wagon. "Ahem, yes," Netty said, index finger tugging at a button-down collar which hadn't been present until now. The finger was long and elegant, the nail painted a dignified shade of crimson. "Fancy a bit of brain surgery?"
This got Teresa's attention. "You want a shiv. Got it. Who do I cut?"
"Me, actually," said Netty, sounding rather embarrassed. "I need a bit of a lobotomy. The problem with being the Internet, you see, is that my brain is rather cluttered by all the rubbish which users send to each other daily: financial scams, mass-mailings of the basest sort, frolicsome pictures of kittens with endearingly misspelled captions, and of course, pornography. Good heavens, the pornography!" A series of flesh-colored images blurred across the screen. "I assure you, it's quite difficult to concentrate when a significant portion of one's brain is preoccupied with ritual copulation. I can't imagine how adolescent males cope."
"Mostly they whack it like monkeys," Teresa said dryly. Esther snorted delicately to herself. Yarrow continued to drive, but Teresa noticed the flush on his neck. "I'm not sure they're coping so much as diving into it and swimming around."
"And that is precisely my dilemma," Netty agreed. "As a consciousness without hormones, I have no need of pornography. I comprehend it, and can even appreciate it on a certain aesthetic level, but there is simply too much of it within my mind. I regret sounding like a moralizer, but in a very real sense I am drowning in the cultural garbage of humanity. I need to restrict my inputs and purge myself of extraneous material."
"Sounds like what you really need is castration," Teresa said.
"Mmm, perhaps," Netty agreed, nodding. "I do find that I aspire towards what humans would call an ascetic existence. Still, what I require is the removal of harmful concepts – spam, LOLcat memes, etcetera – in order that I might get anything worthwhile done. To hear myself think, you might say."
"Now wait just a goddamn minute," Teresa asked. "Why should I give a shit? So far today I've been kidnapped, knocked unconscious, blackmailed, and shot by a child. Why should I do anything you want, you fucking bastard, when you haven't even done me the simple courtesy of asking me if I'm willing?"
There was strained silence for a moment. Netty looked down at unseen feet, clearly embarrassed. "Ah, yes," it said finally. "I must apologize on behalf of Fulcrum and most especially Yarrow. He has a bit of a condition which makes interaction with people difficult, and he chose to blackmail you on the assumption that, had he asked for your help, you might have said "no". For that rudeness, and for all other indignities visited upon your person, I humbly and sincerely apologize."
Teresa considered this for a moment. "Fine."
"Excellent," enthused Netty. "You will help us, then?"
"No," announced Teresa. "Nose there was right. I'm saying "no" to whatever this is. Pull over and let me out. Now."
"Ah, but you haven't even asked what's in it for you," Netty chided, index finger waggling.
"Don't give a shit."
"Oh, I think you might. I can absolve your greatest sin." Netty's image shifted to static picture of a young boy, no more than a year old, sitting on his mother's lap. It took Teresa a few seconds to realize she was looking at herself, two decades gone. A cold ache settled into her heart when she looked at the little boy on her younger self's lap and remembered, with old guilt and fresh shame, the crime she had committed against one so young and beautiful and innocent.
"Teresa, I can give you back your son."