Gwyneth llewelyn gave me permission to reprint her terrific science-fiction tale, which was her entry to Lalo Tellings’ “Avatarian” anthology of avatar-related stories.
Part I — No more Meatspace
It dawned one of those days when the transition between night and day is so subtle that most of us will miss it; a subtropical storm hit the coast at full blast, and suddenly the windows resonated with the fusillade of white noise thrown at them from the skies — water, furious water from above, rivalling with the roaring noise of the piled-up waves crashing into the golden sands below. Oblivious to the violence of Nature outside my window, I woke up to the annoying beep from the UPS. The power was out; I got on the phone to complain to the company, my throat still raw and tender from a week-old cold refusing to take its leave like an annoying familiar overstaying their visit, and barely able to speak perceptibly words. Fumbling sleepily with the mobile phone, the operator finally persuaded me that the power failure was just a blown fuse at my home. She was right. The day was not lost — I had electricity after all, I could go back to my computer, log in to the Metaverse, get in touch with everybody, while a solid wall of white water hit the windows with the force of an exploding volcano. It was not going to be a nice day.
But the sun always shines in the Metaverse.
Waving the lights to turn on and gesturing the computer to wake up, I joined the Metaverse, not before checking the old-style console for any suspicious messages. Old habits die hard, and graphics and 3D and haptic interfaces are all cool and nice for the current generation of kids, but give me a 2D 80×25 console to peek into the insides of my computer, and I’m a happy person. It’s ironic that the old science-fiction books from the past century portrayed computer geeks as being in love with their text consoles; even back then, almost all real programmers would use already use visually-compelling tools. But, as said, old habits die hard. For instance, my sore throat and constant sneezing altercated with a nasty cough prevented the silly computer to make sense of my vocal commands. Not to mention that voice communication would be tough; I barely could make myself understood over the phone! It was the perfect occasion to test out those silly voice morphers, and use a robot avatar for a change — I’d get some eyebrow raising on the Boulevard, but nobody would care about a metallic-sounding robot with a sore throat and a nasty cough.
In fact, I was pretty much feeling like Marvin the Paranoid Android at the moment… walking through the Boulevard at an early hour. Well, early for my physical location anyway; there is no real difference in the Metaverse, it’s always busy around the clock. And it was time for me to get busy, too.
Robots thrive on oil and batteries… but my physical self was in dire need of coffee and a nicotine shot from an e-ciggie on top of what passed these days for “breakfast”. It was time to at least go through the motions of dealing with the incoming messages. Most were junk and spam; technology evolves, but we still cannot get rid of those. Here and there, a client in need of some petty service — a building that was deleted overnight by mistake, some clever programming that broke when the client tried to “fix” it to their tastes. I sighed, and my robot avatar even became slouchier than usual. I gestured for the backups and jumped to those locations… patiently fixing what needed to be fixed and leaving little notes attached to the buildings for their owners to read later. Most would probably still be asleep.
Routine, routine. It was time to catch up on the news; back to the crowded spaces of the Boulevard, then walking through the side alleys. I was sure to find Tateru Nino somewhere, and she was always up to date with the latest gossip, backed up with strong solid factoids. Funny that I didn’t remember if she was physically alive or not; in order to keep up to date with the vast amount of information around the clock, she had long ago populated the Metaverse with some proxies: artificial personas of herself — that would have started decades ago, if I remember correctly. It’s a scary thought, though — I would still say “Hi Tats” to her beautiful Victorian avatar every day or so, and have no clue to whom I was talking to. But… we all get used to that in the Metaverse. Extropia DaSilva, for instance, used to be the last transhumanist that I knew that still had a physical body, because a friend had traced her landline to a physical home. But that was over a decade ago… nobody knows if her physical self is still alive these days.
Tats was chatting with Hiro Pendragon over a cup of virtual coffee, reminding me to suddenly walk back to the kitchen and see if I hadn’t burned my real coffee. The robot avatar slumped to the ground, the gesture capture interface misunderstanding the sudden movement. Tats and Hiro laughed. Well, not the original Hiro, of course; this was just a construct left on the old side of the Metaverse after the Riots. Hiro had vowed never to return to this side ever again, but he still did his business here through a proxy. I wondered how many did the same; the oldbies for sure, even the most stubborn ones. Paisley Beebe (or her proxy) still hosted the Angry Hour, a show featuring weekly discussions — well, insult exchanges — between Prokofy Neva and Morgaine Dinova. Nevaville still prospered, even in spite of all the bit rot going on all the time on the Old Grid; Morgaine’s avatar was just a proxy, of course, and some even claim that it was illegally cloned from personality bits that Morgaine dropped by mistake on an open source repository somewhere. Prok didn’t care; the show was good promotion for Nevaville.
“So what’s new?” I asked my old friends, or rather, to whatever animated their avatars these days. The feeling that there were less and less flesh-and-blood humans around on the Metaverse sometimes still bothered me. Which was actually silly for me to worry about — after so many years defending moderate immersionism, I should have predicted that one day there would really be no difference between humans and non-humans on the Metaverse. There was simply no way to know; AIs were simply too clever, and the photo-realism was too faithful for us poor humans to spot the differences. Young hackers prided themselves that they had portable Turing devices to tell them apart, but I didn’t trust their claims. I had simply seen too many examples where these tests utterly failed.
“Oh, guess what — Pathfinder moved over to EduCloud,” commented Tateru with a smile. “And what’s up with your avatar?”
I shrugged, which was so appropriate for Marvin the Paranoid Android — and Tats and Hiro, at least their original identities, wouldn’t miss the reference. “I got a cold, a really nasty one, and I can’t speak out loud.”
“Gwyn, Gwyn,” said Hiro condescendingly, shaking his head. He still had his hip look from the early days, although it looked rather strange — I got used to his low-def avatar from back then, and these ultra-realistic avatars bothered me. Did people really dress like that in this decade? I sighed and looked out of the window; the rain wouldn’t stop today, the storm was still in full force. How many years was it since I left the comfort of my tiny flat? After a few decades, it makes little difference anyway; there is not much to see out there. Maintenance robots, mostly, and automated supply vehicles. People simply wouldn’t bother much to go out. Except for tourism; tourism was somehow still popular, even though you would meet few people, and the only place where you could get a decent meal was in-world and it simply didn’t taste the same. But I understood the reasoning behind tourism: out in the physical world, nobody knew who you were. You would be completely anonymous. No one would have a clue about your digital identity if you were not online. For some, this was tremendously appealing. It scared me; where would my reputation go if I disconnected from the Metaverse?
“When do you give up your silly meatsack and enjoy yourself fully?” continued Hiro. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. Tell me, do you still sleep or something?”
I smiled. “I always slept far too less for my taste anyway…”
He cackled with laughter. “Yes, that’s true! I never understood how you managed back then! And it’s true that we see you in-world as often as anybody else!”
“So Path is in EduCloud?” I asked, bringing the conversation back to topic. “I’m not surprised, he was always the one running after where the educators went… ReactionGrid first, do you remember that?”
“Now that’s a name I hadn’t heard in decades,” noted Tateru, raising her eyebrow. “One wonders where those guys ended up…”
“I thought they had been all bought by Microsoft and absorbed in their corporate structure?” My memory was not great, but with GooglePlex online, who needed a memory? A quick search confirmed what I remembered. “Aye — when they started Microsoft Academia. They were all gone by then.”
“Except for Path,” reminded Tateru.
“Right,” confirmed Hiro. “He just went back home, like most of the old Lindens.”
“I wonder where they all are these days,” mused I. Hiro grinned. “Most are long dead, Gwyn, you know that!”
“Well, or their personas, anyway…”
“Babbage still works for Desmond,” said Tateru. “They have recently revamped the whole infrastructure on Barsoom; I understand that all glitches were fixed, and Desmond is back in business as always.”
“He never gives up, does he? Still, Barsoom is one of the most polite places around the Metaverse. I always enjoyed that, even in the old times!” I popped a lozenge for the sore throat and started feeling the effects. It was time to switch back to my usual avatar.
Hiro smiled. “You know, we never knew if you really looked like that in real life.”
I smiled back. “Who cares anyway? That was over half a century ago, and I most definitely don’t look like this today. Nobody does. Not even you, Hiro; augmentationist or not, I’m sure that your real self grew old as the rest of us, nobody cares about rejuvenation when it’s so much cheaper to log in.”
“Philosophical again — and avoiding my questions. Heh.” Hiro was pleased with himself.
“What makes you visit the Old Grid, Hiro? Do you sync the memories with your primary?” I changed the subject again. Digital persona, proxy, or whatever he was running, he was still pretty much the Hiro I knew.
“Naaaahh. You know me better than that, Gwyn. No no. I stuck up with the Lindens for over a decade, but after the Riots, I stuck to my decision. I’m not coming back, and I’m not ‘syncing memories’ as you say. I just like to chat with the oldbies here and then I send myself messages about anything interesting around here. Which is becoming rare.”
“There is still some innovation in the Old Grid,” said Tateru thoughtfully. “Not much, but some.”
“What, you mean those new sex toys from Stroker? Please! I have no patience for that! I’m glad that they are confined here to the Old Grid; we do serious business outside this place, you know?” Hiro smiled sarcastically.
I raised an eyebrow. “Stroker has new sex toys?”
“You really are out of touch, Gwyn,” grinned Hiro, and patted me on the back. The haptic interface was a bit rough on my frail old body; I coughed. “See, I’m not here, and I know; one wonders what you have been doing all this time to miss all the fun!”
“Oh, I’ve been kept busy,” I mumbled apogetically. In the physical world I was rubbing my shoulder, and had to override the gesture interface so that it wouldn’t show up in-world.
“So you say. So you say. So you have said in the past five decades!”
“It’s still true.” A message was popping on my viewer. I could almost guess it was from SignpostMarv Martin; and, yes, after checking it, I knew I got it right. “Sorry, I need to go now. Mmh. Path on EduCloud. That should make some of the Lindens think twice.”
“They always were against the academic world,” reminded Tateru. “It was just good PR for a while”.
“That didn’t last long in any case,” agreed Hiro. “Such stupidity! Look at what they are doing now, all over the Metaverse! Did you know that the last class done physically was twenty years ago? The Lindens should have seen that coming!”
“It’s always easy to say so after the fact… and I’m sorry. I need to go now.” I waved them good-bye, and jumped over to SignpostMarv’s place.
Like most of the oldbies, he still had a place in the Old Grid, while keeping plenty of personas busy on all other parts of the Metaverse. I walked up to his shack, full of unfinished gadgets and devices — most of them were proofs-of-concept, most actually worked, but they always had an unfinished touch to them. “You didn’t have to come, Gwyn. A message would have been fine,” he said placidly.
“Oh, I wasn’t busy.” I walked across his place, eagerly watching all his experiments, and refraining from asking what they were for. They always amazed me when I visited his place, but one stood out from the rest. “Are these… prims?” I asked, baffled.
He slowly turned to face me. These days, he went back to his dark techno-angel look from the very early days of the Old Grid — just updated for modern CGI standards, of course. “No, Gwyn.” He looked at me with infinite patience. “They just look like prims. Have you never talked to the Primitar Group?”
I shook my head. Marv always assumed I knew everything; I always wondered how he never figured out that in most cases I absolutely had no clue about what he was saying. Or perhaps he was too polite to mention it. So he droned on, “The Primitar Group is doing some realistic replicas of the Old Grid, trying to recapture the experience from the first days… from old movies on OurTube, they even managed, after a few years, to get alpha textures to flicker properly — but that’s not important now. I didn’t call you to see these. Take a look at that.” He was pointing to what seemed to all purposes to be an old TV set from the 1980s or 1990s, like you saw at museums. It was showing a flat, 2D image of a strange plaza.
“What’s that?” I asked, almost regretting the answer.
“Something from the AstroGeeks.” He noticed my blank look. “Did I never tell you about the AstroGeeks before?”
“I have no clue who they are”, I admitted with a small smile. All our conversations went that way, and have been like that since the early days of the Metaverse.
“Remind me to give you a tour of their place sometime,” he said, matter-of-factly. Then he picked up a strange-looking device, a mixture of a remote control and a 1950s zap gun, and pointed it to the old TV screen. “Notice the pattern?”
“Well yes… what does it represent?”
“Phaylen told my wife that… well, nevermind what she told her. It’s supposed to be a representation of the confluence of all independent grids in the Metaverse.”
“A map.” This was familiar territory; SignpostMarv was always tinkering with maps.
“You could call it that, yes. But it’s a dynamic representation. It shows how people move around, how they interact, what the current trends are, and so forth. See that bright star? Probably a club or something; it will go nova in a while, and disappear, and be replaced by a million others.”
“Nice,” I said, not understanding what he was aiming at. “Just another geekish thing then, make the whole of the Metaverse look like a star map or something?”
“You don’t understand.” He was right — I didn’t. “By mapping dynamic social interactions from the Metaverse into what looks like a sky map, the AstroGeeks can apply astronomical pattern-matching algorithms — the same ones used for detecting civilisations on other planets, for example — and get a lot of interesting statistics that way from the Metaverse.”
“Like what?” I asked.
He didn’t reply. He tweaked with the remote control, or whatever it was, and just said: “Observe.” The image changed; I assumed he was zooming in to a specific area, but the way stars faded out into the background, just to be replaced by more stars, wasn’t making much sense to me.
“Star size and magnitude gives a rough approximation of the number of people and amount of interaction they have with each other; galaxies are people with repeated social interaction. Groups. They form and disband, thus you see stars swirling around and galaxies clashing and things like that. Very cool.” He was now turned back to me again, and manipulating the control so that the images were running faster and faster on the screen; I was getting dizzy. “But this is cooler.”
For me, it just looked like a field of stars like the others. I told Marv as much.
“Notice how the stars are sparser?”
“Well… a bit perhaps.”
“Watch this.” More twiddling with the controls. Now the screen showed clearly a hole in the sky — a dark area where few stars shone. “See?”
“Ok, I’m assuming it’s just a place on the Metaverse with few people around…”
“Ah.” He picked up another device. Like most of his things, it had a crude look, with lots of shiny buttons, and glowing bits which had no purpose except to look cool. “I’m now running a sequence of the past few months, in fast-forward; one frame is about a day or so. Pay attention.”
The image flickered and jumped suddenly; the hole disappeared. But the sequence was very strange. All of a sudden, stars collapsed, crushed into each other, went nova for a few frames, and a hole was growing. And growing and growing. Until the sequence stopped and there was nothing left.
“Ok, I got it, I think”, I said, rubbing my chin. “So an area of the Metaverse suddenly became empty. So what? I guess it happens all the time. Vast areas of the Old Grid have been empty for decades, and the other grids are not much different.”
“Well, sort of. The difference is that this happened in months, and it affected twenty million people. Or rather, their avatars”.
I still missed the point. Twenty million was not much; people logged in and off the Metaverse all the time.
“They are missing, Gwyn. They’re simply not there any more,” said SignpostMarv ominously.
“What do you mean — ‘not there any more’? They come and go, I suppose that they went someplace else?”
He shook his head sadly. “Not in this case. The AstroGeeks are sure about the numbers. In a few months, this area of the Metaverse simply emptied all of a sudden. The avatars are missing. They did not go anywhere else on the Metaverse. They’re simply not there. Gone.”
I frowned in concentration. These days, everybody was on the Metaverse. “Maybe they just died or something?” I tried to calculate how many people died every day. Twenty million didn’t seem much for a few months.
He looked at me with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Doesn’t this remind you of anything?”
I shrugged. “Refresh my poor memory, or what’s left of it…”
“Think back. Twenty million people leaving an area in a few months.”
“I give up, Marv, you tell me…” But as soon as the words left my mouth I remembered. “Before the Riots.”
“Right. When everybody left the Old Grid and the Lindens were forced to connect it to the rest of the other grids. It was pretty much the same thing back then: over a few months, avatars simply failed to appear on the statistics. Well, we didn’t have such nice tools to show statistics, of course. We just had graphs and charts…”
“Tateru’s population charts,” I remembered.
“Before they stopped giving access to their data, yes.”
I nodded. I also remembered that. “So… where are all these people going to? There is just… the Metaverse. There is nothing else beyond the Metaverse. I mean… everything is interconnected… every computer online is on the Metaverse, you cannot just be ‘outside’ it, it makes no sense, if you’re online, you’re on the Metaverse. It’s not like in the old days at all. Things are different.”
“Nevertheless, that’s what’s happening. People are leaving. Somehow, they’re not being tracked any longer.”
“But that’s… not possible!” I cried.
It was his time to shrug; he was not a natural shrugger. His oversized raven wings did a complex motion, one that threatened to topple my avatar. “I just show you what I found out. But there is something else. There is a… uh, let’s call it an event horizon, although it’s not really a ‘horizon’. More like a group of places that are always threatening to disappear but never really disappear.” He turned his attention back to the TV. “I’m running a filter, tagging those stars, see which ones actually move and which are replaced by others. See the red markers? These are loci which constantly remain away from the black spot. But they act as attractors. Somehow.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled.
“I don’t know what I mean. I think these places attract visitors, avatars who go there, interact briefly, then disappear — sucked into the void, if you wish. We don’t see them again. But those places on the ‘horizon’ remain. They keep attracting people.”
“But that makes no sense! Why would they attract people for? To ‘suck them into the void’? That sounds like a conspiracy theory to me! I think it’s more reasonable to admit that this is just a wild interpretation of some data, or a side-effect of some of the algorithms used by your friends.”
“Phaylen’s friends, not mine.”
“Right, whatever… Look, this is all fascinating, but… what’s your point? A lot of strange things happen all the time. This is the Metaverse, after all.”
He stopped for a moment, looking at the horizon. I waited patiently; the storm outside my window was finally abating. It still rained, but not as strongly as before. I realised that I had always loved the sound of the rain, but only when I was at home, and usually in bed reading a good book. In a sense, the force of the rain told me how cool we are with our technology, but Nature still beats us in special effects using simple things like H2O.
“Aren’t you curious?” Marv suddenly asked, looking over his shoulder.
“Not particularly curious, no,” I admitted.
His voice lowered. “I would like to see what is happening out there, but…”
“Well, this dynamic representation is not about places. It’s about people. Yes, the place is important, but what the stars show are people disappearing. And to find out why, you need to talk to people.”
I was slowly starting to understand what he had in mind. “And you think I should talk to them and ask around.”
“You’re good at that,” he said simply. I protested, but he ignored me. “Have you seen Torley lately?”
“Torley? No…” I tried to remember when had been the last time I had talked to Torley. The Soul of SL, I used to call him. Gosh, but that was ages ago!
“Nobody has. I’ve been asking. He doesn’t reply to messages, and hasn’t done so for a while.”
I was a bit confused about the turn in the conversation. “So? I sometimes don’t reply immediately either.”
He smiled briefly. “For the past four months.”
“Oh…” I started to make a mental list of people that hadn’t replied to me in the past months. There weren’t many, and I told Marv: “Well, for your ‘conspiracy’, you’d need a lot of missing people that don’t reply to any messages. Most of everybody I know have been in touch!”
“How many of those are digital personas, proxies, multiple-entities, and so forth?”
“Oh… most of them I guess. These days, everybody has them. It’s impossible to track down everything without them!”
“Nevertheless, you seem to be able to manage.”
It was a plain statement. I blushed — and this was picked up by the haptic devices too, so my avatar blushed as well. “Well… I was never very eager to try those things, you know. It sort of feels weird, having computer software interacting with others on your behalf, pretending to be you.”
“But you just said…”
I cut him short. “Never mind what I said; just because everybody uses them, and I’m fine with the concept, that doesn’t mean I like the whole idea!”
“Right. My point was, it makes it harder to find people who are ‘missing’. Because most people will be in touch, all the time, even if they are just in touch through their digital personas, their digital proxies, their AIs. Correct?”
“Well, aye…” I was still confused. “Marv, I don’t get it. What do you mean? It’s true that these days I have no clue if I’m talking to a human or just an AI; I talk to people who are supposed to be dead every day, and I’m used to that; and I’m assuming that one day people will continue to talk to me long after I’m gone. It’s just… the way things are…”
“I wasn’t discussing that,” he said, facing me again. “I’m just saying that it’s hard to miss people these days because everybody is talking to everybody else’s proxy or digital persona. So there is way more communication going on. The communication flow is seldom interrupted. Even, as you say, when people die.”
“So how do we account for twenty million people — or at least their avatars — that stopped interacting on the Metaverse in just 3 or 4 months?”
All right, that made me think. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I. But it is an interesting problem. I thought about doing a chart about the amount of agents that a physical human being has on average, but it’s hard to calculate. There is no method to differentiate agents from physical beings; the Turing tests all fail. So we can only rely on statistical methods based on what people say.” He frowned. “I just have your word on it that you don’t use any proxies; you could just pretend to do so and I would never find out.”
“Well yes… but I’m not… and I’m sure there’s a point somewhere in your argument?”
“I’m not good at coming to the point,” he said in a sad tone. “To make an avatar disappear completely from the Metaverse takes a lot of effort. You’d have to hunt down all its agents, proxies, personas, and so forth. And the semi-conscious or not-conscious systems that track messages down: the auto-responders, the in-world presence trackers, and so forth.” He pointed to the black hole at the screen again. “That’s a lot to be wiped out to show up like that. Remember, Gwyn, none of those people are interacting on the Metaverse at all. They’re simply not there.”
And I understood now.
Marv dropped me a location for one of those “attractor” points and let me muse about it for a while.
Part II – Investigation
I wondered if Marv was the only one noticing the disappearance of avatars from the Metaverse, so it was time for me to chat a bit with the people who are always informed about everything, and collect some data. Hamlet was eager to hear more, but it was a piece of news for him, too; he was just excited about the whole idea. “Perhaps you can write about your findings!” he suggested. I mumbled something in agreement and went to look for Dusan Writer.
I found him at his office on the top floor of the giant skyscraper for Remedy Corp. Dominating a vast landscape of media corporations, shiny building after shiny building brandishing their logos and spitting out holovideo on the immense façades, this was the hub of information about the Metaverse, and Dusan was at the very centre of it. I didn’t like the too-crowded space; always bumping into eager journalists and opinion-makers, this looked like Fleet Street during the rush hour — a strange concept, when most media production didn’t happen in the streets, but via computer-mediated communication. Nevertheless, some of us are old-fashioned and prefer some sort of presence, even if it’s just a digital model of a person on a holoscreen. Reflecting about how we humans are always so prone to recreate reality even in virtual environments, I asked the receptionist if Dusan was available.
A little known secret was that Dusan actually had way more free time than most people realise. He’s excellent delegating work, and most of his major media productions were run by Beyers Sellers anyway; the rest gets handled by his digital proxies. So he definitely had time to chat a bit with an old friend.
His warm smile and confident handshake greeted me in his wall-less office. One would imagine a vast space with a mile-long fluffy carpet, stretching to the horizon, as would be appropriate for a big shot like Dusan; but in fact, his office was rather cozy and smallish. The walls were turned transparent on demand, showing the skyline surrounding Remedy’s building; with a flick of his fingers, however, Dusan turned the transparency off, and we could be sitting inside an old office in a British or New England University, with wood panels and comfy sofas. “What brings you around, Gwyn?” he asked with a bright smile.
I briefly told him about SignpostMarv’s findings. He frowned a bit and thought about it. “Mmh, if it weren’t for SignpostMarv’s usual reliability, I would shrug it off… it’s hard to track people down in the Metaverse. Proxies abound, so how do you know when someone has really left?” Dusan shrugged. “You were never very keen on proxies, were you?”
I fumbled with one of my bangles, turning it around and around. “Uh… no, not really. I’m not against them, of course, it’s just something that I’m not really very comfortable with.”
Dusan merely smiled. “You know, oldtimers tend to always say that. Do you remember when we just had ‘alts’? Nevertheless, proxies can be very useful; I wouldn’t be able to manage all my business, take care of the kids at home, and remain here chatting with you if it weren’t for my proxies. And I use very few, compared to some…”
“Why would anyone make avatars disappear from the Metaverse?” I asked him, changing the subject and bringing the conversation back on track. “I mean, everybody can register a new avatar in seconds, or even get proxies to create their own proxies, and so forth. It seems rather pointless to terminate avatars, people will just get new ones…”
“Hmm,” mused Dusan. “And, granted, these days you don’t need to stick to a single avatar to let other keep track of your reputation… the incentive for just having a single presence in the Metaverse is simply not there. So I don’t understand the purpose behind that. Maybe it’s just a statistical anomaly?”
“Well, there is only one way to figure it out…” I projected an image of the location that SignpostMarv had given me. “Have you any idea where this is, Dusan? I’m unfamiliar with this area of the Metaverse…”
He just shook his head. “It’s not known to me. It looks like an abandoned hospital or such… probably part of a role-playing area, but not one I’ve seen before.”
“Oh well. The Metaverse is just too big,” I grumbled, standing up. “Thanks for your time, Dusan — I’ll keep you posted, I promise!”
“Take care, Gwyn! It’s probably nothing but a false alarm…” We shook hands and departed.