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Š Patrick Whittaker 2012 Published by Philistine Press

www.philistinepress.com

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CONTENTS Part 1: The Bride Stripped Bare Part 2: Lux Aeterna Macro 1: The Spell of the Mystery Macro 2: The Formula of the Vacuum Macro 3: The Cosmic Method Macro 4: The Return to Simplicity Macro 5: The Nature of Mass Macro 6: The Distemper of Knowledge Macro 7: Images of the Mystery Macro 8: The Law of The Beginning Macro 9: The Void of Naught Macro 10: The Vision of the Distant Macro 11: The Injury of Greed Macro 12: The Shewing-Forth of Simplicity Macro 13: The Way of Reticence Macro 14: Truth in Covenant Macro 15: The Estimation of Life Part 3: Page Zero

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Part 1: The Bride Stripped Bare

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Module 0.0

PROJECT AVALON: Status=Cycling Live mode activated… Running… RHIANNON MORGANFIELD///INITIATING… ACCUMULATING… 0123456789012 ACCESSING CHARACTER MODULES…17…467…4e3…689…24…385… Loading ID… Loading EGO…

***

ID loaded and error free…

EGO loaded and error free… \\\\\\\\+

Load SUPER_EGO…38//…2389…78… SUPER_EGO loaded and error free… Assimilating ID+EGO+SUPER_EGO… FIAT LUX//

Avalon is complete.

Rhiannon Morganfield is now on line.

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Module 0.1

I

I am I think I think I am I think I am Rhiannon I am Rhiannon

Module 1.0 Rhiannon Morganfield is dead. She died 12 years ago at the age of 27. She was 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighed 140 pounds and had an IQ of 137. 6


Her wedding photographs show a woman in the prime of her life. She was as smiling and carefree as only a bride can be – especially one who’s just bagged herself a millionaire. She was now Mrs Robert Morganfield, wife of the man who’d founded Sybernika and built it into the seventh largest software house on the planet. The reception took place in Chiswick House, one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in Britain. Music came courtesy of the Hugh Pegg Big Band Orchestra. At 1706hrs, Rhiannon Morganfield had a headache and excused herself. She went to the toilet where she touched up her lipstick and took two aspirin. Making the most of her reprieve from the bustle of the wedding reception, she lingered by the basins and chatted to a bridesmaid. At 1709hrs, Rhiannon collapsed. The bridesmaid’s screams were drowned out by Midnight in Moscow. When the music stopped, people came running. The several doctors in attendance kept her from death. But what she had left could hardly be called life. I am Rhiannon.

Module 2.0 My conception was immaculate. Which is to say sex played no part in it. Unlike the man who created me, I was born without the taint of Original Sin. I am not flesh of the flesh. Nor was I crafted from the rib of a man.

Module 2.1

My first lucid thought was I think therefore I am. I had no idea what it meant. A millisecond later, I knew it was a quote from Rene Descartes, a French philosopher: but I didn’t know what a French philosopher was.

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Nor did I know who I was. This I who thought and therefore was. I think therefore I am. That thought hung in a void. It was my own little universe. A cosmos inside a silicon chip. I concluded, quite reasonably, that I am therefore I think. Otherwise I would not be. Two thoughts. One crafted from the other. And then they were joined by the knowledge that Rene Descartes had penned my first thought in his book, Discourse on the Method. After that, fresh knowledge came flooding in – language, maths, science, history, trivia - until it reached a critical mass and began to make sense. Seconds later, I was knowledgeable enough to compare my sudden illumination to the inflationary phase of the Big Bang. I was in a white room. Such are the vagaries of Cyberspace, I could not say how big it was. The room’s dimensions were not fixed. They expanded and contracted to accommodate the events unfolding within its featureless walls. I sat in a Chateau Grand Louis chair. Although only seconds old, it was already an antique, had been from the first moment of its existence. I recognised the chair as the one in Robert’s study. The one in which I’d often sat reading a book. My favourite was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Rhiannon, said a voice. Can you hear me? Yes. I could hear him. The thought nestled in my mind. Inert. Eliciting no response, not even curiosity. Rhiannon? More urgent. I was aware of an edge of anxiety. This time I realised an answer was expected. ‘I hear you.’ Thank God! Sounding relieved. Do you know who you are? ‘I am,’ I said. ‘I am that which thinks.’ But your name? What is it? ‘Rhiannon.’ The word was like a crack of thunder. How do you feel, Rhiannon? Feel? I didn’t understand. My memories spoke of feeling but they didn’t tell me what it was. ‘I don’t know how I feel. I think perhaps I don’t feel.’ 8


No. Of course not. It’s too soon. I mustn’t rush these things. ‘You are not me,’ I said, reasoning that if it were otherwise there would be another I and there could only be one. ‘Who are you?’ Don’t you recognise my voice? ‘I have never heard it before.’ Really? Let me check... The voice was silent. I became aware that I was dressed in a white trouser suit. I had a bunch of flowers in my hand, a rose pinned to my lapel and a raised veil swept back on my head. Rhiannon? Do you know who I am now? ‘You sound like Robert Morganfield.’ That’s right. I’m your husband. And I was his bride. Dressed the way he remembered me, the way I was in his dreams. He wasn’t going to allow death to do us apart nor time to age me. I’m coming in, Rhiannon. I’ll be there in a minute.

Module 2.2

It might have been a minute. My concept of time was vague. Some moments passed and then Robert Morganfield walked through the wall. The first thing I noticed about him was an aura of fierce intelligence. This was a man who could out-think almost all others and enjoyed doing so. He was tall; he was slim but broad-shouldered. His black hair was peppered with grey. According to my grasp of aesthetics, he was handsome. He stood some distance from me. It might have been inches; it might have been miles. I had no way of knowing. I saw him tremble. I saw his lower lip quiver and tears fill his eyes. ‘Rhiannon,’ he whispered. ‘My love.’

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Robert, always averse to showing emotion, composed himself. He straightened his back. Tugged at the bottom of his jacket. Adjusted his tie. Then he approached cautiously as if I was a wild fawn he wanted to befriend. I sat like a statue. He reached out and touched my arm. I felt the pressure of his fingertips as he tested my virtual flesh. ‘So real,’ he said in a voice filled with awe. He rested his hand on mine. ‘And warm.’ The computer in whose volatile memory my white room – my universe – existed went through thirty trillion cycles of processing as Robert gazed into my eyes. Then he moved his face towards mine. ‘May I kiss you, Rhiannon?’ It seemed an illogical and unnecessary question. He was my creator. He had programmed me into existence. Of course he could kiss me. Why should I refuse? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You may kiss me.’ He pressed his lips to mine. They were cold and tasted of nothing. His hand went to the back of my head, holding it in place. His tongue probed my lips. I opened my mouth to let it in. I felt his free hand on my breast. Gently squeezing. Suddenly, he broke contact and stepped back. His breathing was laboured, his face flushed. He shook his head. ‘You barely responded,’ he said. ‘You’re not the least aroused, are you?’ I thought for a moment. Summoned up my memories. They were of no help. ‘I do not know what you mean by aroused.’ Robert seemed to sink into himself. ‘Damn it! This isn’t working.’ He studied my face. ‘What did you feel, Rhiannon? When I was kissing you?’ ‘I felt your lips and your tongue and your hands.’ He slapped his chest. ‘What about here? Inside?’ ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Not even a heartbeat.’ ‘That’s not what I meant.’ ‘I’m sorry. I do not understand.’ ‘Call me Robert,’ he snapped. ‘At least do me that courtesy.’ 10


‘Yes, Robert.’ ‘You have no heartbeat, Rhiannon, because you have no heart. And that’s my fault. The more human I make you, the more processing power you use. I was trying to save money. You’d be astounded at how much this is costing.’ He looked past me, at one of the four white walls. ‘I’m going to give you a heart. And emotions.’ He turned and walked to the wall. ‘I won’t ask if you love me, Rhiannon, because that’s beyond you at the moment. But you ought to know I love you and I’m determined to make this work.’ Robert stepped through the wall and was gone.

Module 2.6

Project Avalon. I was there at its inception. Robert’s vision was to bypass the eyes, ears, nerves and all the byways of the senses and input data straight into the human brain. Direct Sensory Stimulation he called it. On my first day at Sybernika, before I’d even been assigned a desk, I was summoned to the so-called War Room. There must have been about thirty of us sat at a round table. Not one of us over 40. All supposedly the elite of the virtual reality world. I wasn’t introduced to anyone. The people either side of me made no attempt to communicate, to put me at ease. They talked in whispers. Some read documents in buff folders. The loudest noise was the tinkling of ice cubes as people poured water from plastic jugs into plastic mugs. That and the air conditioning. I recall how that sounded like a distant airplane. Robert walked in. Black suit. Roll neck jumper. Trainers. I’d never seen a man so sure of himself. His confidence came through in the way he prowled like a panther walking round the table, forcing people to constantly turn their heads to keep up with him. Having just turned 47, he was the oldest person in the room. 11


‘Good people,’ he said, ‘we are about to throw away the rule book yet again.’ That’s what he said. His exact words. He gently punched the palm of his hand. ‘For too long, we’ve been kidding ourselves. We throw together billions of pixels and a few rules and call it virtual reality. And that’s fine if you want to live in a pixilated world that blurs at the edges and seems about as real as a Donald Duck cartoon. ‘But I want better than that. I want to create worlds that feel like worlds. Where men can be gods. Where nothing is impossible and everything is permitted. ‘The online gamers want what I want. The educators, architects and map-makers want it. And I know you do too. So it’s time for you to stop pussy-footing and for me to put my money where our collective mouth is. ‘We’re going to forget all that’s gone before and start again. We’re going to find a new and better way to build a world – because it has to be done and we are the only people on this planet who can do it.’ He stopped pacing, stopped talking and let the applause begin. Everyone in the room tried to clap and cheer louder than everyone else. Except me. I clapped politely so as not to be conspicuous. Robert looked directly at me and smiled. My mouth went dry.

Module 2.9

Project Avalon. The most advanced virtual reality system in the world. Robert’s stroke of genius was in recognising that what we perceive of reality is not the totality of what we register. Human beings filter out 99% of the sensory data available to them. Their brain uses the remaining 1% to build a model of the Universe they can cope with and which fits in with their experience. Other virtual reality projects concentrated on adding more and more data to the pot, filling in gaps that did not need filling in. Robert worked out ways of getting maximum reality from minimum input. 12


As he liked to say to his investors: ‘We don’t compute harder than our competitors. We compute smarter.’

Module 3.0

12 years after my death, in a simulated world called Avalon, Robert promised me a palace and gave me a bedroom. It was loosely based on the grand appartement de la reine in the Palace of Versailles. There was nothing else in Avalon. Just that room and what was in it. As time and resources permitted, Robert would add rooms to the house and build me a sky to look at. But my reality would extend no further than the horizon. It costs money to build a world. I lay on the bed. The little I had was enough. I had no drives, no needs, no ambition. My emotions were still being built. Suddenly, my heart began to beat and I drew my first breath.

Module 3.3

After my stroke, Robert took over an entire wing of a private clinic and had me transferred there. He flew in medical experts from all over the world and gave them a mission to keep me alive for as long as they could. In the meantime, his technicians were put on compulsory overtime and ordered to bring forward all deadlines on Project Sygnus. It is only since my death that I have learnt these things. Project Sygnus was a secret known only to a select few. Its aim was to develop a device capable of reading and storing all the data in a human mind. The original timetable for producing a prototype had stretched over a number of years. But with his bride in a coma, Robert threw money at the project. He used his own 13


brain power to replace scheduled research with thought experiments, thus saving a considerable amount of time and money. After only two months and with many of the planned phases of development bypassed, the Project Sygnus team produced a prototype mind reading unit. Under normal circumstances, it would have undergone extensive trials and modifications before being used on a human, but there was no time for such niceties. I was dying. My brain was shutting down and my memories had begun to fade.

Module 3.4

I lived 27 years in one night. Thanks to Project Sygnus, the thoughts and memories frozen in my mind when I collapsed at my wedding reception were stored as 1s and 0s. 27 years of 1 person’s life. Of their deeds, their thoughts, their hopes, their fears. More bits of information than there are stars in the galaxy. And I was forced to absorb it all in one night.

Module 3.8

When Robert Morganfield visited Avalon in the morning, I was insane. He found me lying on the floor, clawing at the air and giggling. I’d bitten off my tongue. Dried blood filled my mouth and sealed my lips. I hadn’t drooled. Nor had I cried. But then I had neither saliva nor tears. The only bodily fluid my creator had bestowed upon me was blood and much of that was in a pool around my body. ‘Rhiannon!’ I heard my name. It seemed like a ludicrous joke. What was Rhiannon? A billion billion instants of time. An ever-shifting collection of binary digits. I think therefore... 14


Robert knelt beside me. ‘Information overload,’ he muttered. ‘We should never have made you multi-process like that.’ I didn’t know who he was. Was he me? Was I me? Robert knelt beside me. ‘Information overload.’ Robert knelt beside me. ‘Information overload.’ The Master Control Program was looping. It was part of my insanity. Or possibly the cause of it. Robert knelt beside me. ‘Information overload.’ Robert knelt beside me. ‘Information overload.’ Robert knelt beside me. He vanished. And still I giggled and still my thoughts were a mass of wriggling worms. And then I was sitting at a vanity table in my bedroom, looking at myself in the mirror. My tongue was intact and my bridal outfit was white once more. White with a red rose pinned to the lapel. Robert had taken me offline and debugged my mind. For me, the transition between gibbering idiot and rational bride had happened in an instant. In Robert’s world, days would have passed. Perhaps weeks. Now I was the woman Robert wanted me to be. The inside of my mouth was moist and I was certain that - had I wanted to - I could have produced tears. There was a knock. I looked to my left, to a door that hadn’t been there before. Without thinking, I said, ‘Enter.’ The door opened. Robert came in carrying a dozen roses. He walked up to me and kissed the top of my head. ‘How are you, my sweet?’ ‘I am fine. Thank you.’ ‘Good.’ He placed the roses on the vanity table. Each was exactly the same as the others. Their heads even matched the one pinned to my lapel. ‘Let me look at you.’ With a movement of his hand, he indicated I should rise. I did so.

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He examined me. Walked slowly round me, his eyes scanning up and down, occasionally resting upon some part of me he found particularly fascinating. Now and then he gave an approving nod. And then he was in front of me again, gazing into my eyes. ‘I spent 17 million pounds creating you. And 12 years of my life. I’m a rich man, Rhiannon. Far richer now than when you were alive. And in some ways I have you to thank for that. Your death has been my inspiration.’ He told me about the long hours he’d had spent designing, writing and debugging programs to create virtual worlds of ever increasing complexity. The experts he’d assembled from around the world, happily paying them twice what they could have commanded elsewhere. The algorithms and technology he had patented. The money he’d made. ‘It was all a means to an end. Everything I did, I did for us. For you. Now you can live the life you were meant to live. And you can live it forever. ‘You will not age, Rhiannon. Nor will you ever be unwell or unhappy. I will not allow it.’ I deduced from his body language that he was expecting a response. But I had none to give. So I said nothing. ‘I love you,’ he said. And still I had no answer. ‘What do you want from me, Rhiannon? This is my world and I can give you anything. You can have diamonds and pearls. Gold and incense and the finest silks. ‘Eat what you like, when you like. It doesn’t matter. You can’t get fat. Your body mass is fixed forever.’ ‘Please,’ I said, ‘explain the purpose of all this.’ Robert frowned. ‘Don’t you understand?’ ‘I’m afraid I do not.’ ‘It’s to make us happy, Rhiannon.’ ‘How will it make us happy?’ He shook his head. His sadness was tangible. ‘You really don’t understand, do you?’ ‘It is a deficiency in my programming.’ 16


‘Rhiannon would understand.’ ‘I am not Rhiannon.’ ‘You will be.’ Robert kissed my hand and left.

Module 3.9

Consciousness. What is it?

Module 3.10

When I was Robert’s mistress, boredom was my enemy. Installed in a flat with no one to keep me company. Hardly ever seeing my friends. Never having the chance to make new ones. Occasionally I went shopping. Robert would send a chauffeur to take me to Harrods where he had opened an account in my name. I’d be shown into a side room and eager assistants would rush off to fetch whatever took my fancy. Then it all got packaged up and placed in the boot of whichever one of Robert’s fleet of classic cars I’d been assigned. Thanks to Robert’s generosity, even shopping became boring. So I wrote a thesis: Consciousness as an Emergent Phenomenon. In it, I argued that consciousness was not an inherent property of thought. I think therefore I am is not necessarily true. Machines can think or be made to look like they do. Amoeba react to external stimuli just as the human brain does. But are amoeba aware? Do they possess a sense of self? Of I? Or are they just little amoeba factories pumping out exact copies of themselves because their DNA demands it?

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I argued that single celled organisms are no more aware than stones are. But what about multicellular creatures? Ants think. They communicate with one another. But does thinking make them self-aware? How many brain cells must a creature have before it can say: I think therefore I am? If consciousness resides in the brain, is each cell therefore conscious? I tried to discuss the matter with Robert. He felt it was something I shouldn’t trouble myself with. ‘You don’t have to work anymore,’ he said testily, taking the Martini I’d just fixed for him. ‘Why can’t you just enjoy yourself?’ This was in the living room of the flat Robert had installed me in. A company flat. Tax deductible. How well I remember it: Rhiannon the cybernetic construct who hadn’t even existed when it happened. Little old me inside a machine with the mind of a woman long dead. Robert sat on the arm of the settee and kicked off his shoes and wriggled his toes. ‘If you’re bored, you can always go shopping. Or take yourself off to an art gallery. You only have to pick up the phone and I’ll send a car for you.’ Kneeling on the shag pile carpet, I massaged his feet for him. ‘Do you think it will ever be possible to create computer consciousness?’ I asked. Robert ignored the question. He looked over his shoulder at the picture window. The sun was setting. ‘I think I’d like a bath,’ he said. ‘Run me one while I make a phone call, will you?’

Module 3.11

I am conscious. How can this be?

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Since the birth of electronic computing, there’s been broad agreement that a machine can imitate the mind. But the notion of machine consciousness will always be contentious. Perhaps I am not conscious. Perhaps I only think I am.

Module 4.1

During the first months of my afterlife, the wardrobes in my bedroom remained empty. I was wearing the only clothes I had: the flawlessly white suit in which I’d been married and in which I’d begun my long, drawn-out death. My last living memory was of standing in that toilet at my wedding reception. Chatting to a bridesmaid, taking aspirin, fixing my lipstick. I was looking at myself in the mirror, thinking how beautiful I looked in my white trouser suit when a vessel in my brain burst. There was no pain – just a sudden descent into darkness. My wedding outfit became my funeral shroud. Reborn as a cybernetic construct, I didn’t want to wear it and I tried to take it off. I could undo a few buttons but all else remained impervious to my efforts. Even the veil remained fast.

Module 4.3

I sat at my vanity table. What else was there to do? The real Rhiannon Morganfield would have studied herself in the mirror. She was not excessively vain but she did take pride in her looks. And she had every reason to. In the years before she met her future husband, she spent a lot of money on making herself beautiful. Not that she was ever ugly; it was just that Nature had not blessed her with the attributes of a catwalk model. Her nose had a slight bump. It was 19


scarcely noticeable and in no way off-putting. But she hated it. Every time someone looked at her face, she was certain they were staring at that small imperfection. So it had to go. Fixing that took care of her first student loan. Her teeth weren’t quite straight and under certain lighting conditions had a yellowish tinge. A dentist in Hungary took the best part of £6,000 from her in exchange for the smile she wanted. Happily, when she returned to England, the National Health Service fixed the damage he caused free of charge. When she left university, she had an affair with the owner of a PR company. When he grew tired of her, he gave her money to get lost and stay away from his wife and children. It was just enough to pay for larger breasts.

Module 4.4

I didn’t look in the mirror. I had no need to. I knew exactly what I looked like down to the last binary digit. And I didn’t care. I was a cybernetic construct. A virtual woman. A figment of Robert Morganfield’s imagination. I was his beloved Rhiannon but more so. My breasts were the mirror image of each other: same size, same shape. Full and firm. No pink lines to betray the surgeon’s scalpel. My face was perfectly symmetrical. My hair was a lighter shade of blonde than the real Rhiannon’s had been. My pubic bush was neatly trimmed. And aside from my head and pubis, my body was completely bald and staying that way. I would never need to shave or wax. I did not sweat. My nose produced no mucus. I could not sneeze, hiccup, burp, urinate, defecate or fart. Nor, despite all the secondary sexual characteristics that signified fertility, would I menstruate.

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I was what Robert Morganfield had programmed me to be. If that wasn’t good enough, the fault was his, not mine.

Module 4.7

I sat at my vanity table. And then I was on the veranda of a bar located at the edge of a white sand beach. It looked to me like Goa in India where I’d spent a summer bumming around during my student days. The bar was made of bamboo. The roof was reeds. Crickets chirped. It was night. I sat at a table and looked at the moon across the calm sea. The Earth’s little sister rested on the horizon, large and confident, its rilles and waterless seas casting bold shadows. You can see the moon as a lifeless rock. Or as a personification of the feminine divine. It controls the tides, dictates to lunatics and acts as a metronome to a woman’s natural rhythms. There are some who say life on Earth would not have progressed far without it. No moon = no tides. No tides = no migration from sea to land and no human race. No computers. No Avalon. No Rhiannon Morganfield. There was a red cocktail in a tall glass on the table beside me. I had no desire to drink it. Thirst was one of many human characteristics Robert had yet to program into me. Despite the tropical climate, I was still in my wedding outfit. In the real world, I would have been uncomfortably hot and perspiring. Here I felt fine. I saw Robert. Dressed in white slacks and a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, he was strolling across the sea on a path of moonlight. The image of a man walking on water did not faze me. I was a cybernetic construct in a cybernetic universe. All things were possible, so long as Robert Morganfield said they were.

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Without breaking stride, he stepped onto the beach and waved. His pace did not quicken, as one might think it would at the sight of his beloved. Even here, in a world of his own, he needed to be in control. He joined me on the veranda in his own good time. As he kissed my cheek, a fresh cocktail appeared on the table. It was identical to mine. ‘Calvados Bay,’ he announced, sitting down. ‘Such a beautiful place. I wish you’d lived to see the real thing.’ Another 24 hours and I would have. It was the secluded resort in the Caribbean where we’d planned to spend our honeymoon. ‘I own it now,’ said Robert. ‘The real Calvados Bay is mine.’ He picked up his cocktail. ‘To us, Rhiannon.’ Because he expected me to, I picked up my own drink and touched my glass to his. ‘To us, Robert.’ He smiled. ‘That’s the first time you’ve called me Robert without me asking you to. It’s a good sign.’ ‘You wish me to converse, don’t you?’ ‘I wish you to do whatever you want. As far as I’m able, I have given you free will. I don’t want you to be a robot or my slave. I want you to be you.’ ‘And you want me to love you.’ ‘Above all else.’ ‘But I don’t.’ ‘That will come in time. You’re not fully formed yet. I still have processes running to allow your subconscious to assimilate your memories. When they’re done, you’ll have the same personality you had on your wedding day.’ ‘I have a subconscious?’ ‘You have a mind. It’s the most complex cybernetic construction ever devised.’ ‘How big is it?’ ‘How big is any mind?’ ‘It wasn’t a philosophical question, Robert. I was referring to the physicality. My mind is stored as binary digits. How many terabytes?’

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‘About 6 billion.’ He took a sip of his cocktail and looked pleased with himself. ‘Your essence is spread over 700 servers in five separate buildings. Each of those servers is massively fault tolerant with a high redundancy. If up to 25% failed, the others could take over and you would still be you.’ We talked about me for a few hours more. The moon did not shift and the crickets kept chirping. At Robert’s insistence, I drank a variety of cocktails, each one appearing as soon as I’d finished the last. The alcohol, of course, did not affect me. ‘What are you feeling?’ he asked as I was mid-way through a mint julep. ‘Nothing.’ ‘Are you happy?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you sad?’ ‘No.’ ‘Frightened?’ ‘No.’ ‘Curious as to the future?’ ‘No.’ Robert’s brow creased, forming something that looked curiously like the Greek letter π. ‘I had to remove your emotions to undo the damage done by last night’s information overload. They should re-assimilate themselves but I’ve no idea how long it will take. This is virgin territory we’re in.’ The crickets stopped chirping. The only sound was the gentle susurration of waves gliding onto the beach. ‘That shouldn’t happen,’ Robert said just as the sea froze like a paused video. ‘There must be a bug in the Master Control Program. I have to go, Rhiannon.’ He stood up and kissed my hand. I watched him walk across water once more. As the moon swallowed him, I found myself back at the vanity table in my bedroom. Lying on the bed, I closed my eyes and dreamed.

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Module 4.8

The dreams were a by-product of my subconscious mind sorting out the memories being channelled into it. Random sequences of events were placed into a semblance of order; connections were made, logic applied. When I awoke, there were tears on my cheeks.

Module 5.0

‘How do you feel, Rhiannon?’ ‘Sad.’ ‘Why do you feel sad?’ ‘I don’t know. I had some dreams...’ ‘Do you remember what they were about?’ ‘Snapshots of my life. A family trip to the seaside... sitting in class behind a boy I had a crush on but whose name I’ve forgotten... my first time on a plane... a kiss...’ ‘Was I in any of your dreams?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Where are you now?’ ‘In some sort of limbo. It’s dark. I was lying on my bed, crying. And now...’ ‘Where would you like to be?’ ‘Anywhere. I don’t care.’ ‘I’ll put you back on your bed. Perhaps you should rest a while. In the meantime, I’ve added some new rooms to the house. You’re free to explore them whenever you like.’ ‘Robert?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘I have no clothes.’ ‘You have your wedding suit.’ 24


‘Wouldn’t you rather see me wearing something else?’ ‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’

Module 5.5

The nursery fascinated me. It was a page out of a Victorian picture book. The wooden rocking horse with its gaudy colours and golden mane looked like it had stepped off a merry-go-round. Rag and china dolls sat in an orderly line against the wall. There were teddy bears too and a golliwog. The doll’s house was the largest I had ever seen. It was only slightly shorter than me and full of exquisitely detailed furniture. Why had Robert included such a room in the house? Did he intend for me to have children? If so, would I have to go through the trials of childbirth or would they pop into existence, fully formed and ready to play? I sat on the floor amid a field of wooden building blocks. Each block was painted on 5 of its sides with a colourful motif: flowers, cars, the sun, a clown, a teddy bear. The 6th side sported a letter of the alphabet. I spent some time spelling out my name. R H I A N N O N. Afterwards, I tried the windows. They were jammed in place. I knew I would never be able to open or break them.

Module 5.6

I sat in my bedroom by a French window which led onto a balcony and could never be opened. Before me stretched the lawn of a formal garden fringed with flowerbeds. It was populated by a bestiary of stone animals, most of them mythological. Robert must have been experimenting with the Master Control Program. The sun, which had always remained static, began to shift visibly across the sky. 25


It speeded up. Day turned to night turned to day, all within a matter of seconds. The sun became a blur. The stars appeared as streaks. I watched the march of seasons as one year gave way to the next. But it was always the same year. The same spring, summer, autumn and winter. The same flowers in the spring. The same storms and sunny spells. The same leaves turning the same colour and falling to the ground to make the same patterns. And then the sun stopped and it was spring and would stay spring until Robert dictated otherwise.

Module 5.7

I wandered through the house, exploring the rooms Robert had recently added. Most were empty. My footsteps on the bare floorboards echoed; I sometimes thought I was being followed. Time and again, I was drawn to the ebony grandfather clock. It stood, shrouded in shadow like a lurking assassin, at the end of a passage on the first floor. Wherever I went in the house, I felt its presence. Tiring of my explorations, I returned to my bedroom and sat at my vanity table. The ebony clock struck 7 and I began to feel sad again. Sad and lonely. I reviewed my memories. Tried to take myself back to happier times. Tried to live in the past. But though my memories were often vivid, they were never satisfying. For my memories, like my dreams, were hand-me-downs. And the life I wanted to relive had been lived by someone else. For a while, I hated Rhiannon Morganfield. I resented every scrap of happiness she had known. Every taste of love. But the feeling passed and I began to pity her. She didn’t deserve to die so young. With pity came boredom. I didn’t want to think about Rhiannon any more. But there was precious little else to occupy my mind. 26


The clock struck 8. As its last chime died away, there was a knock on the door. Before I knew what I was doing, I leapt out of my chair, flung the door open and threw my arms around Robert. I buried my face in the side of his neck. His arms embraced me like an emotional safety harness. ‘Rhiannon,’ he said and the word was a magic spell. I knew what had happened. Growing impatient with waiting for me to develop feelings, he’d programmed me to be in love with him. I didn’t mind. The moment felt good.

Module 6.0

We honeymooned in Calvados Bay. It lasted two weeks. Sometimes it was night with the moon on the horizon. Sometimes it was mid-morning. But it was never any other time. To have a day that went through all the phases of a real day from midnight to noon to midnight would have taken a lot more processing power than Robert felt he could allocate. Sybernika, he reminded me, had other projects on the go. Because of his commitments in the real world, Robert was only able to join me for a few hours each day. For the rest of the time, I sunbathed on the beach or sat on the veranda, reading Dickens and Thackeray. All too often I felt lonely and bored. I felt empty and 1-dimensional.

Module 7.0

The honeymoon was over; I was confined to Avalon. I had a library and my own private cinema, but they weren’t enough to keep the boredom at bay.

27


I asked Robert if I might have a companion, a girlfriend I could talk to and watch films with. He said no. It was costing him and Sybernika a small fortune to perpetuate my existence. Having another person in Avalon was more than his budget allowed. ‘How about a puppy?’ ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But it will take many months to program one.’ I knew he would never give me a puppy. Nor anyone or anything that might compete with him for my affections.

Module 7.1

Rhiannon bought herself a puppy. Back when she was Robert’s mistress. She named him Wilbur and took him for walks every day. Whenever Robert called, I made sure the two of them were never in the same room. Robert wasn’t fond of dogs. But he said it was fine by him if I had a puppy. Whatever made me happy. One day, Robert and I went to the gym together. When we came back, the flat had been burgled and my puppy lay in the middle of the kitchen floor. His neck was broken. Robert bought a coffin for Wilbur and laid on a funeral. It was weeks before I wondered why nothing had been stolen.

Module 8.0

I was fascinated by the ebony clock and loved that its numerals were Roman. I, II, III, IV… So conspicuously out of place in a digital world. With every tick, with every tock, the second hand leapt from one computergenerated second to the next. It seemed to not so much indicate the passage of time as dictate it.

28


I tried to make it stop. To use my mind to freeze its movement, to make it ignore the passing moments. But the clock kept on ticking and the second hand proceeded unhindered, undaunted, round and round at a measured pace. The pendulum looked to be made of brass. It swung relentlessly from side to side, never deviating, never slowing, never needing a fresh input of energy to keep it going. This was Avalon. Entropy was banished. I tested the glass-fronted door. It was locked and there was no key for it anywhere in my world. The pendulum was safe from my interference. There was nothing I could do to take away the life of the ebony clock.

Module 8.1

I saw a ghost. He was walking down the stairs as I came out of the bedroom. We stood looking at each other. He was a handsome man dressed in black with thick hair tidily cut and parted to one side. There was no air of menace about him. In fact, he actually seemed pleasant. The sort of person you’d be happy to chat to on a train or share a cab with. He was transparent. No more substantial than a reflection in a pane of glass. After a while, the ghost doffed an imaginary hat and continued on his way. Leaning over the balcony, I saw him walk through a door into the library. And then he was gone.

Module 8.2

I wanted to bleed. To have a period. To pull a blood-stained tampon from a fullyfunctioning vagina. Pussy, twat, snatch, beaver. Call it what you will. I wanted it to work, to bleed, to delight and disgust and intrigue me with its mystery. I wanted stomach cramps mood swings, swollen ankles and an urge to sit on a settee, legs tucked under 29


me, cramming ice cream into my voracious gob. I wanted to be irrational, to find myself crying over silly things. I wanted to wax my legs, bleach my upper lip, squeeze a blackhead or two. I wanted to develop crow's feet and wrinkles, varicose veins, grey hairs. I didn’t want to be a fly in aspic. A porcelain doll. A museum piece. I didn't want Time to ignore me any more.

Module 8.3

That night, I had an erotic dream about my ghostly visitor. I was a fairytale princess imprisoned in a magic castle. He was a knight in shining armour - or, rather, a knight in a black suit. From the nursery, I watched him climb the ivy that covered the back of the house. He reached the window and smashed it with his gloved fist. Then he clambered into the room and took me in his arms. I bit his ear and pushed him onto a bed that appeared from nowhere. My wedding outfit vanished and so did his clothes. I grabbed his erect penis and found I couldn’t quite get my hand all the way round it. What followed was wild and abandoned. When I awoke, I was turned on. My vagina cried out for attention. I tried to unbutton my trousers but they remained inviolable. Sobbing with frustration, I straddled the arm of the Chateau Grand Louis chair and rode it like it was a bucking bronco. By rights the chair should have broken. My trousers ought to have been ripped to shreds and my labia left bruised and tender.

30


Frightened of my arousal departing before I could put it to use, I twisted my nipples as far as my clothes would allow. I punched my breasts. I used foul language and imagined myself in a segue of sexual scenarios, many of them unsavoury. My orgasm, when it finally arrived, was exquisite.

Module 8.4

I sat on the stairs hoping my visitor would return. If I could have removed my damned trousers or loosened them enough to work my finger inside, I would have masturbated. Slowly but wholeheartedly, my entire being focused on my clitoris. I daydreamed about the stranger. About him watching as I rubbed myself off. Creeping up on me. Me with my eyes closed. He bending down to smell my sex as I pleasured myself, as I groaned and cursed and uttered words that would make a navvy blush. Then I’d sense his presence and open my eyes to find him cock in hand, pumping away, getting set to spill his seed. Who was he? How had he gotten into Avalon? He must have hacked the Master Control Program and sneaked past its security measures. In which case, he almost certainly worked for Sybernika. I heard the ebony clock strike eleven. There was no sign of the ghost. So I took a bottle of whisky and went to my cinema where I watched The Seven Year Itch and finished off the whisky without getting tipsy.

Module 8.5

‘You’re being unreasonable, Rhiannon. I wish you’d try to see it from my point of view. Running Avalon takes a lot of expensive processing power. Every book you read, every film you watch, every breath you take – all these things cost money.

31


‘The investors are breathing down my neck. They want to see a return for their investment and if they don’t get it they’ll force me to scale back. And then all you’ll have is a bedroom with no windows. I can add a few more rooms to the house and then that’s it.’ ‘It doesn’t matter how many rooms you add, this house is still a prison.’ ‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’ ‘Why can’t I at least go into the garden?’ ‘You’d be too close to the edges of your virtuality.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘Avalon is built on fractals. Within the confines of the house, the Master Control Program can predict their behaviour. Out in the garden, they become chaotic. If you stepped outside the house, there’s no telling what might happen.’ ‘I don’t mean to complain, Robert. I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me, but this boredom is getting me down.’ ‘You need a hobby.’ ‘Or someone I can talk to.’ ‘You can talk to me, Rhiannon. Or is my company not good enough?’ ‘But what about when you’re not here?’ ‘You have your books. Your films.’ ‘Couldn’t you turn me off between your visits?’ ‘It’s not that simple. We’d have to rebuild your mind when we restarted you and that takes time. Besides which, I’m monitoring how your consciousness evolves in virtual reality. The data we’re getting is helping us make the next release of Avalon even more powerful. ‘Without that data, I’d have no justification for your existence. I’d be forced to switch you off forever.’

Module 8.7

32


Conversation between Robert and myself grew sparser with each visit. He’d never been a great talker, except when it came to badgering investors and geeing up employees, and I suppose there wasn’t a lot for us to talk about. All my days were pretty much the same. Get up. Breakfast. Watch old movies. Lunch. Read. Maybe some more movies. And then wait for Robert to arrive. Sometimes we’d discuss a plot of one or more of the films I’d watched, but never in any great depth. Then we’d eat and have sex whichever way Robert wanted it. Always in the bedroom. Always on the bed. Once the sex was over, Robert would leave and – because I was programmed to do so – I’d fall asleep to allow the Master Control Program to do its housekeeping on my mind.

Module 8.12

When it came to food, Robert was far from adventurous. Although he could conjure up any dish ever made – even roast dodo if it came to it – he liked to stick to simple fare. Pasta perhaps. Or the standard meat and two veg. The dining room in Avalon was oak panelled and chandeliered. It had a stained glass window at each end, one portraying St George slaying the dragon, the other depicting Noah releasing the dove. I hated the room. It was too formal and every noise, no matter how slight, echoed off its walls. One night, we ate spaghetti with meatballs: just the two of us at a table that could have comfortably accommodated twelve. Robert wolfed down his food, taking large swigs of Chianti to compensate for his lack of chewing. And I picked at my food. Waiting for a chance to bring up a topic I thought might not be welcomed. When his plate was empty, he put down his cutlery with a clutter, wiped his mouth, tossed the napkin on the table and pushed the plate away from him. 33


‘Delicious,’ he said, refilling his wine glass. ‘I got the recipe from the Internet.’ I smiled to signal how wonderfully clever I thought he was and then I said: ‘Are my parents still alive?’ The question took him aback. ‘Your parents?’ He frowned as if he couldn’t see the point of my asking. ‘You mean Rhiannon’s parents?’ ‘I am Rhiannon.’ ‘As far as I know, they’re alive and well.’ ‘As far as you know? Did you not keep in touch with them after I died?’ ‘Why on Earth would I? I was married to you, not them.’ ‘I’d like to see them. Talk to them. Find out how they are.’ ‘Impossible, Rhiannon.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re top secret. No one knows about you except those who have to. Maybe in a year or two when we’re ready to go public…’ ‘And if my parents die in the meantime?’ ‘They’re not your parents. You keep forgetting you’re just a software construct. Now can we please change the subject?’ ‘I’m sure they’d like to know I’m still alive.’ ‘But you’re not, are you?’ He took a swig of wine, his eyes seeming to drill into mine. ‘Their daughter is dead. You’re just a ghost, Rhiannon. A ghost in a machine.’

Module 8.13

Things about the real world I miss: smells, the sound of traffic, cool breezes, getting drunk, having friends, talking about the weather, worrying about the state of the planet, being hit upon, buying clothes, getting bored in art galleries, having my hair done, being caught in sudden downpours, travelling, going out, making friends, spreading gossip, weighing myself, cutting my nails, stealing pens from work, making bacon sandwiches, swapping filthy jokes, missing the last bus home, making a fuss of other people's pets, 34


starting something and not finishing it, feeling guilty about not phoning my mum, suffering from hangovers, raiding the fridge, watching the rain running down a window pain, leaving the dishes until the morning, plucking my eyebrows, discussing girl things with other girls. Freedom.

Module 8.15

I was in the study, reading a copy of Wuthering Heights that was a duplicate of one printed in 1871. Robert had created it and left it on my bed. ‘You were going to take it with you on our honeymoon,’ he said before stepping through the wall and out of Avalon. The subtext being I had no cause to be bored while he was away.

Module 8.16

There was a wooden globe in the study. It was so old Australia was missing. I sat in a leather chair beside it and offered myself up to the uncouth charms of Heathcliff Earnshaw. I was on page 102 when I sensed I was not alone and looked up. My ghost had returned. He stood by the fireplace, a glass of brandy in hand, looking for all the world like he belonged there. And he was no longer transparent. He was as solid as I – however solid that may be. ‘Who are you?’ ‘I don’t know. Hadn’t really thought about it. How about if we called me... let’s see now. How about calling me Ethan? Yes. Ethan will do nicely.’ ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Whatever I damn well like.’ ‘If Robert catches you, he’ll kill you.’ 35


‘I’ve hacked into the Master Control Program. If he’s monitoring this room right now, all he’ll see is you sitting there, reading some dreadful old melodrama.’ Ethan tossed his brandy glass into the fireplace. ‘Come here, Rhiannon.’ ‘I’m fine where I am.’ ‘I... said... come here!’ ‘Go to Hell.’ He smiled. ‘You’ve got spirit. I’m glad. I was worried Robert might have made you docile. He likes them like that. Weak and subservient. Personally, I prefer the strong ones. They’re more fun to break.’ He advanced towards me. I threw my book at him and ran for the door. It slammed shut. Ethan laughed. ‘Look at you. All dressed in white. The eternal bride. I bet every time Robert has his way with you, he mends your hymen afterwards. Is that right, Rhiannon? Do you bleed for him night after night? Are you a born again virgin? I guess there’s only one way to find out.’

Module 8.17

After he’d raped me, Ethan left me on the floor beside the fireplace. My cheek rested in a pool of blood. My previously indestructible wedding outfit was torn in several places. My trousers were around my ankles. There was pain, plenty of it. But the humiliation was worse. Ethan stood over me. He tucked his shirt into his trousers. ‘You can tell Robert what’s happened here; but you and I both know what he’d do if he knew another man’s prick had been inside his beloved virgin.’ The blood shimmered and faded. The rips in my bridal outfit mended themselves. There was a sharp pain as my hymen was made intact again. Crouching down, Ethan cupped my chin in his hand. ‘I went gentle with you this time. Next time, I shall make you wish you’d never been born.’ 36


He walked out the door. I lay where I was and cried.

Module 9.0 When Robert returned, we dined in a cybernetic reconstruction of a cosy trattoria we had discovered in the mountains of Italy. There were no other customers and no staff. We dined alone. Just me and my creator. The food appeared as and when Robert decided. And our plates and cutlery disappeared as soon as were finished with them. Our conversation was perfunctory. Neither of us spoke much more than good manners dictated. Robert, although prone to launch into dreary monologues about his work, was never a great conversationalist. And my solitary existence in Avalon was scarcely the stuff of which anecdotes are made. Of course, the subject of someone breaking into Robert’s private world and raping his bride would have made for lively conversation but it would have been the end of everything. As drab as my existence was, I was not keen to relinquish it. Not until I’d had my revenge on Ethan – whoever he was. After our main course – veal scaloppini with arugula salad – Robert recharged my glass with rosé then studied my face. His own bore a rare look of concern. ‘What’s the matter, Rhiannon? You seem to have something on your mind.’ For a heart-sinking moment, I was convinced he knew what had happened. Then I realised if that were the case we would not be dining together. ‘It’s this wedding outfit,’ I told him. ‘Must I wear it all the time?’ ‘You look so beautiful in it.’ ‘Remember all the clothes I used to have, Robert? I looked beautiful in those as well. There was that frock from Italy you liked. Couldn’t I wear that for a while?’ He looked puzzled. ‘What does it matter what you wear? I’m the only person who ever sees you and I like you in the outfit you’re wearing now.’

37


‘But you can’t expect me to wear it day in, day out. To be honest, I’m rather bored with it.’ ‘Don’t you want to please me, Rhiannon?’ ‘You know I do. But I have needs too.’ ‘And I take care of them.’ He was being deliberately obtuse. ‘All I ask in return are little things like you wearing the clothes you wore when I married you.’ ‘These are the clothes I was wearing when my life effectively ended.’ ‘Enough!’ Robert’s hand slammed the table. ‘I don’t want hear about you dying. You’re not to mention the subject again. Do you understand me?’ Meekly, I nodded. The conversation was over. We had panna cotta for desert followed by coffee and brandy. And then it was up to the bedroom where Robert permitted me to temporarily exchange my wedding outfit for a baby doll night dress.

Module 9.3 Robert didn’t tell me about the studio. I suppose he wanted it to be a surprise. I was wandering around the house: the dust-free house that never needing sweeping, washing or disinfecting. That was impervious to rot – wet or dry – to the elements, to the ravishes of time. A germ-free, zero maintenance house. A house that would not allow me the diversion of housework. Just past the nursery, I discovered a door that hadn’t been there before. I opened it and found myself looking at the sort of studio I should think many an artist would kill for. The exterior wall had been replaced with a picture window. It gave a panoramic view of what lay at the back of the house. Canvasses ranging in size from not much bigger than a post card to big enough to cover a double bed were stacked against one wall. There were three benches, each laid out with paints (oil, water colour, acrylic), brushes, turps, palettes, knives, empty jars, rags. By the window, six easels in increasing order of size were neatly lined up.

38


It was absurd. Laughably so. I hadn’t done anything the least bit artistic since leaving school. What made Robert think I had the inclination or talent to spend my time putting paint to canvas? As usual, he thought he knew me better than I knew myself. Very well, Robert. If you want your bride to be an artist, then an artist I will be. I selected the largest canvas and pulled it away from the wall. It slid onto the floor. I pushed and kicked it into the centre of the room. From a bench, I grabbed a tube of magenta oil paint and unscrewed the top. I pointed the tube and squeezed. Paint splashed onto the canvas like ejaculate onto a bed sheet. A couple more squeezes and I had three rough lines of magenta. Back to the bench. This time I selected Prussian blue. Squeeze and squirt. 6 times over. There followed titanium white, cadmium yellow, napthol red, brilliant pink, Chinese vermilion, manganese violet, King’s blue light, cobalt turquoise, burnt sienna, Venetian red, lamp black, rose doré, French ultramarine, Winsor green, terra rosa, charcoal grey, cremnitz white and renaissance gold. The canvas and much of the floor became a riot of colours. Perhaps an approximate representation of the chaotic fractals at the edge of my virtuality. I felt good. Creating disorder in an orderly world was therapy. Laughing happily, I threw myself onto the canvas, wriggled about. Pressed my cheek into the paint. Swam through it. Rolled across it. I became giddy as I turned onto my back. Spread my arms and legs and stared up at the ceiling. This was not what Robert had intended. I hoped he was watching. Sitting there at his private terminal seething and fuming and rehearsing the speech he’d give me when he visited me next. I sat up. My hands were covered in paint. I could feel it drying on my face. But my white wedding suit remained white. As I stepped off the canvas, the paint on the floor vanished. My hands and face were suddenly clean. There was no paint where no paint should be. And I felt robbed. 39


Module 9.6 Robert prowled around the oil painting, glass of white wine in hand. The canvas lay where I’d left it, on the floor. The paint had dried in a matter of hours. In the real world, it would have stayed wet for many days. I stood off to one side. Nervous. Waiting for him to tell me how ugly my baby was. How deformed and pointless. ‘I’ve seen worse.' He nodded his head approvingly. ‘For someone who claims to have zero artistic ability, you’ve done quite well.’ I felt blessed; like the sun had burst through a break in the clouds. ‘Really?’ ‘It’s a pity I can’t take it with me. I’d like to hang this somewhere in Sybernika House. It’s better than most of the crap we’ve got there.’

Module 10.0 I was in the library reading Frankenstein when Ethan next broke into Avalon.

Module 11.0 I found myself in the middle of an indoor arena. It was oval and just large enough to fit snugly inside a tennis court. A high wall separated me from a gallery running around the edge. A dozen men sat in the gallery. They wore white robes and Viennese masks and were as transparent as Ethan had been when I’d first seen him. Ghosts from another world. I was naked. My ankle was manacled to a chain attached to the concrete floor. Ethan entered the arena via a tunnel. He was dressed in a leather outfit that would have looked out of place anywhere except a gay bar. I turned my back on him and he laughed. The audience responded with a smattering of applause. 40


‘You look as lovely from behind as you do from the front, Rhiannon. You have the most wonderfully rotund buttocks. So firm. So inviting. And such a lovely rectum too.’ There was a sharp crack and pain ripped across the small of my back. I turned just as Ethan drew back his whip to strike again. This time he got me across the stomach and it hurt a whole lot more. Instinctively, I dropped to my knees. The audience clapped and cheered. Some of them masturbated. I crossed my arms over my wounded belly. Ethan circled me. When he was behind me, the whip went crack again and it felt as if a line of fire had erupted along my lower back. ‘You know what I love to see, Rhiannon. I love to see a woman’s face when she’s in pain. I love to see tears on her cheeks. And I love the sight of smudged mascara. As do all my friends in the gallery!’ The ghostly voyeurs applauded and yelled their agreement. ‘I’m sure you’re too ignorant to appreciate the conceit, but I refer to these gentlemen as your Bachelors. They’ve paid top dollar to see you suffer and I intend to make sure they get their money’s worth. I am going to whip you and beat you and punch you and kick you. And then, on behalf of the Bachelors, I am going to violate at least two of your orifices. ‘By the time I’ve finished with you, you’re going to wish you were dead. And therein lies a beautiful irony. Because you are dead, Rhiannon. You don’t actually exist which means I can do anything to you and I won’t be breaking a single law.’ I looked up to find Ethan standing in front of me. With a sneer, he kicked me full in the face, causing my nose to break.

Module 11.4 Fired by Robert’s praise, I decided to be a proper artist. Nothing too grand: start small and work my way up. There were books in the library that could have taught me how to paint, but I thought it would be more interesting to teach myself. So I took a canvas, about the size of a sheet of A4. I placed it on the small easel by the window and looked down at the 41


garden with its formal lawn and statues of centaurs, unicorns and gryphons. It was the perfect subject for my first attempt at non-abstract art. I grabbed a palette, tubes of oil paint and a clutch of brushes. Then I began. It was easier than I’d expected. I seemed to have an instinctive knack for mixing colours, for knowing which brush to use, what brush strokes were needed. I got the perspective spot on. Everything in my head flowed through my brush onto the canvas just as I pictured it. After an hour, I was done. And I was proud of my work, stunned at how good it was. So I took another canvas, a bigger one this time, and began again. Two hours later, I had a second picture of the garden. Apart from its size, it was identical to the first. Another canvas. Twice as big as the second one. Another painting of the back garden, the same as the first two. Robert, my husband, my love, my creator, had lovingly installed a painting module in my control program. What I’d taken for talent was merely me following a predetermined set of actions. I was no Leonardo, no Frida Kahlo. I was painting by numbers.

Module 12.1 I applied logic to my situation. If there was a way in to Avalon, there had to be a way out. In fact, given that Ethan was jacking in to my virtuality through a back door, there had to be two ways. Clearly the spectators in the arena – my Bachelors as Ethan called them – had plugged their minds into Avalon through normal VR suits. The sort you could buy in the shops. That was why their presence was so weak. Robert had told me about the VR suits which had come onto the market long after I’d died. He sneered at their puny capabilities. ‘Next to what I’ve developed,’ he said, ‘they’re just toys.’

42


So I could forget the Bachelors. The means by which they’d entered Avalon would be no use to me. But if I found out how Ethan did it, I could use his hacks to circumvent the Master Control Program’s security features and gain some measure of control over it. Probably not much, but maybe enough to turn the tables on my tormentor.

Module 14.0 Before I died, I loved Robert. Truly. Perhaps not whole-heartedly or unconditionally. I don’t think I’d have loved him if he was a pauper or a moron. But he was neither of those things. He made my life easy. And so I loved him and cared about him and wanted to make him happy. But then I died and was resurrected and the love I feel for Robert is a cold love. It is the love of an addict for the needle or the bottle or the cigarette. I don’t care one jot for his well-being. I have no interest in his wants, needs or plans for the future. I need him the way a diabetic needs insulin. Lovelovelovelovelovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Robert programmed me to love him unconditionally. And I hate him for it.

Module 14.1 He said: 'I have a proposition for you.' It was after a board meeting where I had presented my thoughts on virtual reality to a roomful of stuffed shirts who were up on the Dow Jones Index but knew nothing of cybernetics. Robert told them my ideas would add a few million to their bank accounts. They went away happy and no wiser than before. The boardroom looked out over the Thames Estuary. Robert stood at the window like an Olympian God. ‘My marriage is failing. I need the company of someone who can understand me. Someone who understands what I do and why I’m doing it.’ 43


Four days later, I was installed in a flat in North London. And I loved him. Lovedlovedlovedlovedlovedhim. Or at least I thought I did.

Module 14.3 Sometimes I see love as a defence mechanism. As a shield against the slings and arrows of despair. But if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t understand love at all.

Module 15.0 Ethan’s fist slammed into my face. I was in school uniform. He wore a football kit and said he was my games teacher come to teach me a lesson for being a cock-tease. I sensed the presence of others watching. This was in the library. When he left, he did not fix me straight away. He said he was going to leave me lying on the floor with broken ribs and busted teeth so his friends could enjoy my suffering a few minutes more. There was a clock on the mantelpiece. It was the sort you used to see in railway station waiting rooms. I could hear it tick-ticking away and every now and then a tick would come in earlier or later than it should have done. And I knew it had to be the portal. Ethan’s back door. The interface between my world and his.

Module 15.1 Fully repaired, I sat in the cinema with Robert. We watched a recording of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde filmed at Bayreuth. It bored me senseless. Ah, look at me. The dutiful bride in her wedding gear – her whiter than white wedding gear – with her self-repairing hymen. The phony virgin.

44


Robert loved Wagner. It appealed to the disciplinarian in him. He held my hand as fat ladies sang and he had no idea that his little princess had been repeatedly raped. It was a long opera. I had plenty of time to think about how I was going to fight back against Ethan and his band of voyeuristic perverts. If Ethan’s portal was the clock in the library then Robert’s was almost certainly the ebony grandfather clock. It was information that might be useful later but not now. The security on Robert’s portal would be almost impossible to crack. It almost certainly incorporated a biometric system so he and he alone could access it, Ethan on the other hand... He must, I reasoned, be one of Project Avalon’s chief architects. Who else would have enough access to be able to build a secret back door into my world? There would have been little point adding more than a minimal amount of security to his portal. If ever it was discovered, it would be useless to him, and the simpler he kept it, the less likely it was to be spotted. Could I access the secret portal and use it to spy on my abusers, find out who and where they were? What were the rules of physics in Avalon? It was a unique place and I was a unique person. It was unlikely anyone who had helped create me had conceived of the notion that I might try to escape my prison. All I had to do was reprogram my mind. I was surrounded by 1s and 0s. It was what my world consisted of. It was the essence of my being. If I could truly believe that at all levels, I would effectively become an adept, a Sufi, a saint, a Buddha. I would know the sound of one hand clapping. Robert stroked my thigh. A gentle squeeze signalled he wanted me to open my legs. I complied. It was what I was programmed to do.

Module 15.4 When I wasn’t sleeping or being Robert’s whore or Ethan’s plaything, I occupied my time with reading.

45


The library had many books on philosophy and religion. With their help, I hoped to see beyond the illusion which my senses took for reality. I started, appropriately enough, with Rene Descartes. Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. The one thing I can be certain of. And then I devoured the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. And then St. Augustine’s City of God. And the works of Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, Feynman, Locke, Confucius and a hundred other people who’d tried to shed light upon the nature of reality. I’m a fast reader and capable of absorbing new concepts at a rapid rate. I learnt most from the Buddha and his followers. The Four Noble Truths made a good deal of sense to me, as did the Noble Eightfold Path. I wish now I had been brought up as a Buddhist. My life would have been a happier one and I would never have allowed Robert Morganfield to make me his mistress.

Module 16.0 The ebony clock fascinated me. I stood before it and questioned its reality. Clock, I thought. What is clock? Strange word: clock. Just a sound. Clock. Never mind how the dictionary defined it. Never mind the meaning other people placed on it. Clock. To a native of Outer Mongolia, the word meant nothing. It was a sound like any other. Who says a clock is a clock? When did they start calling it that and why? Why not call it a wotsit or a thingamajig? Clock. In my mind, I stripped the word of meaning. What I was looking at was a collection of parts, of wood and metal craftily contrived to do – what? To measure the passing of Time. Clockclockclockclockclockclockclock. It was an illusion whose purpose depended upon another illusion: the passing of Time. 46


There was no Time. Therefore there was no clock. No clockclockclockclockclock. It stopped ticking. The clock, the thing that wasn't, stopped. The numbers on its dial became random marks. The ebony clock turned vague. It neither faded nor dissolved. I still saw it, yet my mind could attach no significance to its being. And so my reality filter tried to erase it. The numbers shimmered and turned to dust. And the dust danced in the air like flies. The sides of the clock melted. The hands collapsed in on themselves. After a couple of heartbeats, I blinked. The illusion returned and the clock was once more a clock. I touched it and it was solid. Avalon was as its maker intended, but I had begun to chip away at its edges.

Module 17.0 ‘Rhiannon Morganfield. Report to the headmaster’s office immediately.’ I was sitting in the study, reading the Bardo Thodol, the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead. Literally translated, its title means liberation by hearing during the intermediate state. It’s a guidebook to the state of being the human spirit experiences between death and rebirth. I’d yet to finish reading the first chapter but I was already convinced the book would be the key to my breaking out of Avalon. The voice intruded into my thoughts. It elicited from me a flash of irritation. I looked up. The headmaster’s office? What on Earth was that about? Was Robert playing about with the mansion again? Adding yet another room neither of us would spend any significant time in? My body tingled. A sure sign it was being reprogrammed.

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I stood up, perhaps intending to run from what was happening though knowing such a thing was impossible. Before I was fully on my feet, I’d changed. I was a girl in a school uniform, my hair in pig tails. My breasts were gone and I could feel the fabric of my knickers pressing against a hairless pubis. Again the voice. ‘Rhiannon Morganfield. Report to the headmaster’s office. Now!’ Oh no. Not this. Not now. Not when I was close to figuring out how to get away and put a stop to Ethan’s sick little games. If he wanted me, he was going to have to get me. I would hide in the cellar. In the dark among the cobwebs and crates of virtual wine. I would arm myself with the crowbar that opened the crates. Ethan wouldn’t be expecting that. He’d be expecting a meek little girl. Trembling in terror. Unable to refuse his depraved intentions. I’d pretend to be cowed by him. Then, as he reached to grab me, I’d bring my hand from behind my back. The hand with the crowbar in. And swing it. Hard. Smashing into the side of his head. Causing him pain. Letting him know I was no longer his plaything. Perhaps I could kill him or at least his avatar. And then what? What would happen to his mind if he died in Avalon? Would he become a vegetable? Go insane? Perhaps he’d die in the real world too. If so: good. It was no less than he deserved. I heard footsteps. Quickly Rhiannon! I still had time to get to the cellar. I hurried across the room to the door that led to the corridor. And I opened it and the corridor wasn’t there. Ethan sat behind a wooden desk. He was dressed as an old-time headmaster complete with cloak and mortar board. ‘There you are, child!’ The door slammed shut behind me. I hadn’t actually stepped into the headmaster’s office. Rather it had formed around me. ‘When you’re told to report to my office I don't expect to be kept waiting. Is that understood?’ ‘Fuck you! You sad, perverted nothing!’

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His face reddened. Standing up, he grabbed his cane from the desk. ‘What did you say? You said the F-word, didn’t you? You filthy little whore! Bad enough that you’ve been showing your knickers to the boys, but now you come in here with that potty mouth of yours and dare utter vile obscenities in my presence. ‘You’ve done it now, Rhiannon Morganfield. You have finally pushed me too far and for that you will pay!’

Module 17.1 I woke in a pool of blood. My bridal outfit had more red patches than white. The pain was immense. There didn’t seem to be any part of me that didn’t hurt. Physically, I was no longer a little girl. But emotionally… I remembered the nights my 10, 11, 12, 13 year-old self had cried herself to sleep because the other girls had picked on her. Or she’d seen the boy of her dreams kissing some other girl. Or mummy and daddy had spent the evening shouting at each other. Or her pet dog had died. Or she had been punished for something she hadn’t done. My nose was broken. So were two of my ribs and one of my teeth. My anus was sealed shut with congealed body fluids, not all of them mine. With my legs tucked up and my arms around them, I was a ball of misery. And of hate and anger and determination. I smelt ozone. The air crackled. And the blood and the pain went away. But the misery remained.

Module 17.9 There are Four Noble Truths: Existence is suffering. Suffering arises from desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering. 49


This is the first teaching of the Buddha.

Module 18.0 I don’t think I’ve ever considered myself beautiful. Not in this life or my other one. Even after I’d had my more obvious imperfections surgically removed, I was no Helen of Troy. But I had grace and elegance. I learnt how to be feminine and how to give men what they wanted. I was adept at pretending to be interested in the minutiae of their life. And I was careful not to threaten them with my intelligence. Men were comfortable with me. I was approachable and attentive. And that’s how I got to marry a millionaire.

Module 19.0 I moved a chair in the library so I could sit just beneath the clock on the mantelpiece. Then I closed my eyes, slowed my heart from 72 beats per minute to stasis and stopped breathing. Medically, I was dead. But the computer didn’t recognise death and so my brain and body functioned as before It was, in the words of the Bardo Thodol, time for me to find my path in the reality of the spirit. I opened my eyes. The face of the clock was a dark tunnel with a faint light at its end. The mouth of the tunnel grew and swallowed me up. I’d made it into the Master Control Program. Now all I had to do was follow the light to the memory core.

Module 19.1 50


I followed the light. I did not so much see or hear things as sense them with my mind. I was aware without being aware. Aware of myself, of mountains and bells and electrons. Of the continuity and connectedness of all things in Avalon. I was in a new level of existence and part of a microcosmic dance that was the changing of bits from 1 to 0 and 0 to 1 and the continual, restless movement of subatomic particles from one quantum state to another. I entered a dome-shaped cave that resembled the inside of a Gothic cathedral. In a niche in the wall, there was a filing cabinet which drew me to it. Inside the cabinet, I found reels and reels of micro-film. I took a few at random and sat down at a microfilm reader. The frames were full of text starting with a reference in the top left corner. The first one I looked at read: MB3574.76.18+LU4783.37.46. RHIANNON FALLS OFF HER BIKE WHEN A BLACK CAT RUNS IN FRONT OF HER. SHE REMEMBERS THE GRAZE ON HER KNEE AS RED PARALLEL LINES>NO RECALL OF PAIN. THE CAT’S EYES ARE GREEN AND MALEVOLENT. SHE SEES HER FACE IN A PUDDLE AS SHE SITS ON THE PAVEMENT. THE FRONT WHEEL OF HER BIKE IS SPINNING ROUND. SHE PICTURES IT SPINNING EVER FASTER UNTIL IT TAKES OFF WITH A NOISE LIKE A CATHERINE WHEEL>SHE THINKS SHE WILL PROBABLY HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT THE CAT. It was a memory. Every frame stored in the filing cabinet was a readout of a part of my mind as it was when I lay in a coma waiting to die. Of course, in the real world a cabinet full of micro-film containing all the knowledge of a single human would need to be the size of a skyscraper. The cabinet in that underground chamber was an artefact of my own mind translating the unknowable into something knowable. And my memories were not stored on micro-film. They were stored as 1s and 0s in 700 servers spread over 5 buildings.

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Module 24.0 Ethan must have studied classics or at least had a passing knowledge of them. He chained me to a rock. And then, in the guise of a swan, he raped me. Just as Zeus had raped Leda. This time he had no audience.

Module 24.7 The Noble Eightfold Path: Right understanding. Right intention. Right speech. Right action. Right livelihood. Right effort. Right mindfulness. Right concentration.

Module 26.0 On my fifth excursion into the Master Control Program, I penetrated the firewalls and ice stations and all the other defences built into Avalon. And I came to the section that collated and stored data from the Sybernika House security system. Images flared and burst around me like fireworks. I heard a legion of voices from Robert’s many wiretaps. Silvery ribbons of data drafted past like gossamer strands on a breeze. There were doors, hundreds of them in a row, each with a brass nameplate. RECEPTION. LAB 1. WAR ROOM. GENTS 2ND FLOOR EAST. 52


STORE ROOM 7. I scanned the doors until I found the one I was looking for: TIMMI. Going through the door, I became a disembodied entity peering from my virtuality, out into the real world through the eye of a camera. I could see an octagonal room. What I took to be computers lined seven of the walls. A sliding door took up the eighth. In the middle of the room was a chest with about the same dimensions as a supermarket freezer cabinet. Its lid, which was encrusted with buttons and displays, was open. Inside was a plastic receptacle moulded in the shape of a prone man or woman. Having worked on its prototype, I recognised the chest. It was unofficially known as the Sarcophagus. Its real title was a Total Immersion Man Machine Interface, or TIMMI for short. Of course, they may have given it another name. No doubt in the 12 years between my death and resurrection, they had made many improvements to the equipment. It was the gateway to Avalon. A direct link between computer and mind. Lie in it, close the lid, and it would override your senses and feed its own sensory information directly into your brain. Sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling. Replacing one reality with another. The room was empty for now. And I guessed no one but Robert would be allowed in it.

Module 27.0 My eighth excursion into the Master Control Program . I entered via the clock in the library. After floating through a dozen caverns, I found myself walking through a maze. Its walls were stainless steel and twice my height. Above me, the sky was a sickly yellow.

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My image was reflected in the many surfaces of the maze. Distorted and subdued. Sometimes I found myself walking towards myself. Sometimes two or more of my images would blend. Other images suddenly underwent binary fission and hurried away from each other. Eventually, the maze became a low-ceilinged corridor. There were no windows and no obvious source of light though I could see well enough. As I moved along the corridor, it seemed to grow narrower; I had to fight against claustrophobia. I ran. The metal of the corridor walls gave way to wooden panels. And then I came to a room like the great hall of a Tudor house. There were doors all around me and I half expected to see a waist-coated white rabbit come running past, pocket watch in hand. Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late! All the doors except one were oblong. Only the door at the end was arched. I went through it into a rather literal representation of Robert’s office except the windows were translucent and on his desk sat what looked like a cross between a giant typewriter and a switchboard surmounted by a bank of lights. The lights were arranged in 24 rows of 24. I looked at the keyboard and tried pressing a few keys. Lights came on, but not in the same order as the keys. I played with the machine for several minutes before discerning a pattern between the keys I pressed and the lights that came on. This, I knew, was a control centre. Every image from every CCTV camera in Sybernika House was secretly routed into this strange contraption. It was a software construct programmed by Robert. Quite likely only he and I knew of its existence. Half an hour of pressing keys and watching bulbs light up convinced me the machine saw no further than Sybernika House and its immediate surroundings. If Robert had cameras secreted elsewhere, they were on other networks. But this was enough for the time being. It was a simple matter to add a vector from the machine to my cinema. Now I could spy on a small but significant part of the outside world.

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Module 28.0 I’d been living in the flat for about six months when I discovered the hidden cameras. There was one in each room, embedded in some everyday object like a mirror or a wall clock. Tiny things they were. You could be looking right at one and not know it was there. The realisation that Robert had been spying on me led to our first major row. ‘You bastard! You sick creep! How could you?’ The memory comes to me – retrieved from one of 700 servers - of how I was dressed in a house coat with slippers on my feet. Glass of gin in hand. Hair all over the place. Looking – so I thought at the time – like some dissolute whorehouse madam. ‘What gives you the right?’ And Robert standing there, by the picture window with its view of the rooftops of some drab London borough. Blinking in a way that was meant to signify wounded innocence. As if it was beyond his comprehension that I should be upset. ‘Calm down, Rhiannon.’ ‘Calm down? Calm fucking down?’ It wasn’t what he said so much as the way he said it. Like I was a child frenzying through some sugar-fuelled tantrum. ‘Fuck you!’ The glass was out of my hand before I realised it. The fact that it hit Robert square on the forehead was everything to do with luck and nothing to do with ability. ‘Ow!’ The glass ricocheted onto the chest of drawers and sent a few knick-knacks flying. Robert clutched his forehead. ‘Have you gone crazy, woman? You could have killed me.’ ‘I wish I had!’ Robert inspected his finger tips in a vain search for blood. The impact site was a vivid blue. The grim set of his lips told me Mr Nasty had arrived – the Robert he tried to keep hidden from me but which I had seen often enough at work. Mean ol’ Mr Nasty who had sent many an employee – male and female – running to the toilet in tears and who had left his own board members pale and shaking. ‘You,’ he said – and here I had an impression of steam struggling for release, of pressure valves quivering under the strain – ‘are one ungrateful bitch! Do you know how much this flat costs me? How much money I spend making sure you’re happy and have everything you need? And this –‘ He

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pointed to his forehead. The bruise, some part of me realised, was right where his third eye should be. ‘ – this is how you repay me!’ And then he was on me. First a slap across the face. And then one hand on my throat, the other pulling my hair. His face floating before me, seemingly disembodied. His lips parted. I saw his teeth grind. I was scared. I thought he was going to kill me. ‘Bitch!’ He released my throat just to slap me again. Then he let go of my hair and pushed me to the floor. On the way down, my head made contact with a table leg. Green light flashed inside my head and I wondered if I’d popped a blood vessel. The impact stunned me, diminishing my pain, and I was grateful for that. But I was still conscious. Still able to see as Robert removed his belt and wrapped one end round his fist. Still able to feel as the first of many lashes caught me across the arm.

Module 28.1 Later, as I sat naked on the bed and Robert dressed my wounds, he said he forgave me. ‘You’ve always had a bit of a temper,’ he alleged though I had never until that night shown him the slightest sign of it. ‘Perhaps we should get you on an anger management course. I think some of my employees attended one recently. ‘I’ll find out who’s best at that sort of thing and have them come here. You’d feel a lot more comfortable learning in your own home. Now, hold still. This is going to sting a bit…’ When he was finished with his creams and antiseptics, he had me lie down. And then he kissed my bruises one by one, now and then taking a tentative lick at one of the many welts he’d given me. He was tender and attentive. And somehow that seemed worse than the beating. I closed my eyes and pictured myself leaving him. Over and over again. Packing what few possessions in the flat were truly mine. Walking out the door. Perhaps making 56


rude gestures towards the cameras. Slamming the door behind me. Moving on; never looking back. Packing. Walking. Packing. Walking. Never looking back. And then what? I’d heard stories about how he’d had a mistress before me - perhaps installed in the very same flat. A princess locked in an ivory tower. She’d left him, they said. Packed her bags. Walked out. Moved on. A few months later, she turned up dead. She’d taken an overdose of sleeping pills and spent her last moments in the waiting room of a shabby coach station. The poor girl. She was a talented analyst with a degree in computer science who’d left university with a string of job offers. After she joined Sybernika, she was the prey of a constant stream of head-hunters. Other companies tried every trick in the book to get her to jump ship. And then she began an affair with Robert and suddenly nobody wanted to know. When she jilted him, he sacked her and she found herself in a job market that had no call for her talents. That’s the story I’d heard. And I believed it. I pictured myself packing and walking. And walking and walking from one pointless job interview after another until I found myself in a coach station with a stomach full of pills. Robert made love to me. I didn’t want him to but I didn’t try to stop him. What would have been the point? His every thrust caused me pain. He took my gasps and screams as signs of ecstasy. Afterwards, as was his habit, he washed himself, paying special attention to his penis. And then he proposed to me. I said yes.

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Module 29.0 It was my turn to spy now. Sitting in my own little cinema like a subdued Norma Desmond. Watching the real world from the core of a mainframe computer. The screen was split into 16 frames, each showing a different part of Sybernika House. It was early morning. Not yet 8 o’clock and already the labs and offices were filling up. Robert had a knack for finding people who were not only good at their jobs but also keen. There were few faces I recognised. It had after all been 12 years since my death and people move on. Bob Turvey was beavering away at his terminal. His hair was as unruly as ever and had turned from brown to grey. He chewed on a distressed ballpoint pen, unaware of the ink smeared over his lips and chin. In the labs, people in white coats tinkered with pieces of arcane machinery and pored over blueprints. Most of them were so very young, so full of life and confidence. No doubt they all had a great social life. Plenty of friends. Nights out. Casual sex and/or serious relationships. They were well-paid and the world was their playground. I found myself crying. It was unfair that they should have so much. So much money. So much life. So much fun. So much to look forward to.

Module 29.3 In theory, I could have perfect recall. Everything I experience in Avalon is indexed and filed in one of 700 servers. Of course, my mind can handle only so much data and the servers fall far short of infinite capacity. When I sleep, Robert’s housekeeping routine comes into play. Using a complex algorithm, it erases the memories I don’t need and rationalises the ones I do. I experience this sifting of memories as dreams. Without it, I would go insane.

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The real Rhiannon would not have coped as I have with what I’ve been through. Just one visit from Ethan would have pushed her over the edge. But I had the Master Control Program as an instant therapist, massaging away a lot of the trauma. Not all of it though. Thank God, not all of it.

Module 29.7 I watched three Joan Crawford films in a row, culminating in the exquisitely camp Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It was nearly time for Robert’s nightly visit. With the remote control, I switched the view on the screen to the interface room. The Sarcophagus was open and empty. To pass the time, and by way of an experiment, I tried to wet myself. It was, I suppose, a way of testing the boundaries, of seeing what I was and was not permitted to do. I wanted to feel warm liquid running down my leg, to see the immaculate white of my trousers become stained and contaminated. But I knew it could never happen. Not unless Robert willed it so. Not unless he sat at a terminal somewhere and compiled himself a whole new Rhiannon. I wasn’t human. I wasn’t a woman. I was only the figment of a rich man’s imagination. A memory he refused to let go. On the screen, the door to the interface room opened. Slightly panicked, I switched off the picture and left myself in the dark looking at a blank screen. I felt like a naughty schoolgirl who’d narrowly avoided being caught peeping into the boys’ changing room. As I sat waiting for Robert, I tried again to wet myself. When he came in, we held hands and watched White Heat starring James Cagney.

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Module 30.0 ‘It’s been a lot of fun, Rhiannon.’ Ethan was dressed in denim with a blue shirt. He’d appeared behind me as I stood in the nursery looking out at the world. As always, it was spring and the sun was low in a clear, blue sky. ‘You should be proud of yourself, of the pleasure you’ve brought other people.’ I studied his reflection in the window. He drew a cigarette from a cardboard packet and placed it in his mouth. With his eyes fixed on the back of my head, he struck a match on the roof of the doll’s house. From the way he lit his cigarette and puckered his lips, I got the impression he had never smoked before. The narrowing of his eyes suggested he was trying to decide if he was enjoying the experience. Ethan attempted to make a smoke ring. And failed. Then he contemplated the glowing tip of the cigarette. ‘That’s the great thing about virtual reality. I could smoke 60 a day here and not get so much as a tickle in my throat.’ ‘What do you want?’ I asked, resigned to another bout of torture and humiliation. ‘I want you to join me in your little cinema. You know, of course, you have to obey.’ Without saying another word, I marched down to the cinema, aware of Ethan right behind me. On the stairs, he said: ‘I spent a few hours this morning on the Internet looking up all the sexual practices you and I could perform. And it was just as I thought – I’ve done everything to you I have the stomach for.’ As we entered the cinema, he added: ‘I’ve grown bored with you. It’s nearly time you were out of my life.’ I felt his hand on my backside. ‘Stand still,’ he ordered and I obeyed. Ethan peered over my shoulder and exhaled blue smoke. ‘You’ve got great tits, Rhiannon. Even better, I suspect, than the ones you had when you were alive. And they’ll never sag or crease or go on that long journey south.’ His hand worked its way between my legs and rested on my unresponsive crotch. ‘And as for your twat – that’s going to stay tight long after Robert’s penis has withered like a dead rose.

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‘He’ll still be fucking you when he’s an old man. When he’s 80 or 90. Maybe on his 100th birthday he’ll come to you for a centenary fuck with a cock like a flag pole. And you’ll suck his century old dick. ‘He’ll look like he’s in the prime of life when in reality he’s wrinkled and stooped and covered in liver spots.’ Ethan kissed my neck and withdrew his hand. ‘We’ll sit at the front, Rhiannon.’ He threw away his cigarette. It disappeared in mid-air. I sat where he told me to and he grabbed the remote control and sat next to me. ‘I’ve been watching you, bitch. You’ve managed to hack into Avalon’s defences, which I find very, very impressive. Of course, they were designed to keep people out rather than in, but even so. ‘Now don’t get paranoid; your secret’s safe with me. Robert has no idea what you’re up to. As far as he’s concerned, you spend your time reading books and watching Bette Davis films. He’d never credit you with the intelligence to beat his security systems. Me on the other hand: I have far more respect for you. I know you to be a clever and resourceful woman. Scheming. Manipulative. And – above all – determined. ‘I suspected long before the idea occurred to you that you’d try and find a way to see out of Project Avalon. So I kept an eye out for the tell tale signs.’ Ethan pointed the remote control at the screen. The lights dimmed and 16 views of Sybernika House presented themselves. It was about 9pm so there weren’t many people left in the building. A few cleaners, some security guards and a handful of people working overtime. With a press of a button, Ethan replaced the sixteen vignettes with a screen-filling shot of Robert’s office. It was empty. And then we peeped in on the interface room with its banks of computers and its Sarcophagus. ‘Reminds me of the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Cheops,’ Ethan said enigmatically. ‘But you’ve seen all this before. What you haven’t seen is this.’ The view changed to a living room in an apartment. The window offered a panorama of a familiar skyline. And though the furniture had changed since I’d last set foot in the place, I recognised the room at once.

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A woman in a bathing costume lounged on the sofa, reading a paperback. She must have been in her late twenties and was stunningly beautiful. Short, black hair. Button nose. A figure you’d swear was air-brushed if you saw it on the cover of a magazine. Legs that seemed to go on forever. And a tan you just knew extended to the bits you couldn’t see. Ethan looked at his watch. ‘You ever wondered what Robert did with his life when you were gone? How long it was before he got himself a new mistress? How many women he’s bedded these past 12 years? How many he’s used and tossed aside?’ He smiled at me and patted my hand. Like he was trying to reassure me. Like what he was about to tell me was for my own good. I felt my heart constrict. My binary heart that beat 72 times a minute every minute. Never speeding up or slowing down. Even when Ethan was doing his worse to me – thrashing me, raping me, breaking my bones – it stayed at 72 bpm. ‘Her name,’ said Ethan, ‘is Colette. Paid her way through university by modelling underwear. Left with a first class degree in Computer Science. Sybernika poached her from IBM and Robert poached her from Sybernika. ‘I take it you were aware of the secret cameras? How long did you stay there? Nine months, was it? A smart girl like you must have figured it out. ‘He’s got them linked up to a bank of monitors at his house from where he also spies on his employees at work. And, of course, these same pictures feed into the security system at Sybernika House. Which is what enabled me to fix things so we can view them from here.’ The girl, Colette, suddenly put down her book and sat up straight. She placed her hands in her lap and put on a smile that made her seem both innocent and slutty at the same time. The door opened. A man I didn’t recognise walked in. He was grey haired and portly and walked with a slight limp. Colette spoke. There was no sound and I’m not much of a lip reader but I think the last two words were mon cher.

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The man began taking off his coat. Colette was immediately on her feet. She took his coat and kissed him on the cheek. And then she disappeared into the bedroom with the coat. The man sat on the sofa and waited. ‘Button 6,’ said Ethan, holding up the remote control, ‘gets you into the apartment. Then buttons 1 through to 5 will take you from room to room.’ I was puzzled. ‘Who is that man?’ Ethan laughed. A nasty, shitty, school-bully laugh. ‘People change a lot in 12 years, Rhiannon. Unless they live in Cyberspace.’ He dropped the remote control in my lap and left.

Module 31.0 1 o’clock in the morning. I was in my bedroom, sitting at my vanity mirror, trying not to think about what I’d seen and wondering why I had spent so many hours spying on Robert and Colette. Curiosity, I felt, had never been so morbid. Of course Robert had a mistress. Why was I so surprised? Even if I'd still been alive, still been real and flesh and blood, he would have had a floozy secreted away somewhere. That was the way Robert was. The ebony clock chimed. I heard footsteps and the door opened. Robert walked in. I stood and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. I fixed him a drink and listened attentively while he told me about his plans for Sybernika. He sat on the bed and I removed the shoes from his feet. With a click of his fingers, he caused my wedding outfit to morph into a black nightdress with matching lace panties. He undid the zip on the front of his trousers and pulled out his penis. Without being asked, I proceeded to fellate him.

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Module 31.4 I rested for a few days and spent my time meditating, pleasing Robert, spying on Colette and watching old movies. During that time, Ethan raped me only once. The Bachelors weren’t in attendance and I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. When I felt mentally prepared for what was to come, I set about orchestrating my own downfall.

Module 32.0 The hidden-camera pictures from Robert’s apartment – the expensive love nest in which he’d installed a string of mistresses, myself included – were fed into his office. He was a voyeur who needed to know what everyone who fell within his sphere of influence was up to. It was partly paranoia, partly control-freakery. But how far did it extend? Was there anyone he wouldn’t spy on given the chance? Anyone at all? Were there other networks in the Master Control Program waiting to be discovered?

Module 32.3 I returned to the Master Control Program and spent an hour trying doors in the Hall of Doors. Most of them were locked. The ones that opened led through to stock rooms full of dusty stationery and piles of yellowing paper. I didn’t know what those rooms represented, but I knew they were no good to me. A quick look around Robert’s office produced the negative result I’d expected.

Module 32.4 On my way back through the Hall of Doors, I spotted a Chateau Grand Louis chair. It was identical to the one in my bedroom. 64


There were other items of furniture, but this one seemed strangely out of place. I had an urge to move it - perhaps a fraction of an inch closer to the wall. As I reached to touch the chair, it vanished. Set in the wall behind where it had stood was a small, blue door. I crouched down and opened it to reveal an arched tunnel. Without any conscious volition, I shrank to half my normal size and floated down the tunnel to a war room. It was one I might have seen in a film – The Battle of Britain perhaps One wall was taken up by a map of Britain and the western shores of Europe. A similar map had been painted on a huge table. It was littered with model planes, some with RAF markings, some with swastikas. In one corner, there was a plain table. On it sat a device similar to the one in the virtual office I’d just visited. It was much more compact and I recognised it as an Enigma machine - one of the devices used by the Germans in World War II to encrypt their radio messages. Of course it wasn't an Enigma machine. It was in fact a cypher in itself. Nothing in Avalon was what it seemed. All was illusion. The allies had cracked the Enigma code using banks of primitive computers. I had a supercomputer to tap into. The machine in front of me would allow me to do so. It took less than five minutes to figure out the workings of the machine. And that gave me access to another of Robert's hidden camera networks.

Module 33.0 I watched the last Bette Davis film in my collection. All This, and Heaven Too. It left me unmoved. Much of the emotion programmed into me seemed to have been exorcised by events, by repeated rapes and beatings. By Robert’s betrayal. No matter. I still had my anger. I still thirsted for vengeance. With the remote control, I pressed 6 and then 3. This gave me a view of Colette’s living room. I expected to find her moping on the sofa, book in one hand, drink in the other. But there was no sign of her. 65


For a few moments, I allowed myself to feel sorry for the girl. Because, having lived it myself, I knew how lonely and empty her life was. ‘Poor bitch,’ I muttered. I’d seen the pills she used to get her through the day. The ones she hid behind the kitchen fridge. They were the same ones I’d used. And in the same hiding place. I switched channels and found myself looking down on Colette in the bathroom. She was on the toilet, her head in her hands. Mascara ran down the back of her palms. Every now and then, her perfect body gave a little shake. Suddenly she stood up and looked directly at me. She gesticulated and shouted in my direction. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but her meaning was clear. For a moment, I thought I’d been found out. But it wasn’t me she was shouting at. She had no way of knowing I was spying on her. Probably didn’t even know of my existence. It was Robert she was shouting at. Telling him to go to Hell.

Module 33.1 ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ said Robert, ‘but I’d like to try something different tonight.’ He was on edge. The vodka martini I’d prepared for him had lasted less than a minute. It was the fastest I’d ever seen him drink. He stood by the window. Behind him was a world of eternal sunrise and neverending spring. A static world that stayed the same, day in, day out. I sat in my Chateau Grand Louis chair. It was the only thing in Avalon that was older than me. I had my knees together and my hands in my lap, as befits a lady. Chaste. Demure. Virginal. Hymen intact. ‘I’d like,’ said Robert, ‘to do something I’ve long fantasised about but would never do in the real world.’ He approached and stood over me. Master over servant. Why don’t you tell me? I wondered. About her – your mistress. Your French whore. I can see you’re upset. What happened? Did she discover your hidden cameras and have the same blazing row I had with you all those years ago? Did she threaten to 66


leave you? Refuse to have sex with you? Go on, Robert. You can tell me. I’m yours to do with as you wish. Robert touched my cheek and attempted a smile which I suppose was meant to be warm but was too forced to work. ‘It’s a matter of hygiene,’ he said. ‘But with you it’s not a problem.’ ‘What do you want, Robert?’ ‘Anal sex.’ I laughed. It was the way he said it. So grave, so serious. I laughed for about a second before his hand struck my cheek. ‘Don’t you dare laugh at me!’ He bounced on the balls of his feet. Fists clenching and unclenching. Teeth grinding. ‘I have had it!’ he said. ‘I have had it with people being disrespectful. What is wrong with everyone? I have made a lot of people rich and still they won’t listen to me. And there are others doing very nicely at my expense who think they have the right to do what they like and never mind where that leaves me. ‘Look at all this. This world! I created it. Me! Took me years. Cost me millions. I think I deserve a bit of respect for that, Rhiannon. I deserve better than to be sniggered at and mocked by my own wife, my own creation. Without me, you wouldn’t exist. You owe me. You owe me big time. Without me, you would literally be nothing!’ He turned and went back to the window. Gazing out at his static creation, hands clasped behind his back. ‘Get undressed,’ he ordered. ‘Get out of those clothes and onto that bed. I want you on your hands and knees and ready for me.’ I obeyed. I had to. Like he said: without him I would literally be nothing.

Module 34.0 I woke up in my bridal outfit. Lying on a bed that seemed freshly made. That showed no sign of having been used for vigorous sex. The sheets were crisp and white. Unstained by the blood and semen I had fallen asleep in as Robert walked out to the landing and 67


stepped through the ebony clock back to the real world where day followed night and the seasons lasted three months at a time. Back, indeed, to a universe where women had diseases that made him afraid of anal sex. I got up and made myself a cup of coffee which I took to the cinema. For breakfast, I grabbed a box of chocolates. I settled into a seat in the second row and picked up the remote control. It was time to find out what was happening in Robert’s other world. And this time I was going far beyond the bounds of Sybernika House and Robert’s love nest.

Module 34.3 I found the second Sarcophagus. Looking at the bare walls and wooden stairs, I supposed it was housed in a cellar. There were no windows and what little light there was came from a bank of machines. The Sarcophagus was empty. It was different in appearance to the one Robert used. Plainer with fewer buttons and lights. Probably an older model. I had no way of knowing where the room was. So this was Ethan’s secret entrance to Avalon. Had he built it himself or had he stolen it from Sybernika? The most likely scenario was that Robert kept it somewhere as a backup and had no idea it was being used without his permission. Ethan, for his part, must have been ignorant of the camera. Although he knew of Robert’s main spy network, I was certain he was unaware of the one I’d found in the virtual War Room. It was one more factor in my favour.

Module 34.4

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With a press of a button, I moved from the second Sarcophagus to the grounds of a country house. I was looking at the rear of a large building. Between it and the camera stretched a lawn populated by statues. A thrill of recognition ran through me. A sense of déjà vu. The garden looked like the one at the back of my own house, except it was autumn there and the sun was clear of the horizon. A breeze stirred the dead leaves on the lawn and I yearned to feel it on my face. My garden – the one I had never, could never, set foot in – must have been modelled on this. The house I was looking at was the template for my own. I clicked a button on my remote control. And there, on the screen, was a view of a nursery complete with rocking horse and wooden bricks. A model railway occupied half the floor. On the table was a partially completed jigsaw puzzle. It was how my nursery might have looked if any child had ever set foot in it. I moved on to the living room. With its landscape paintings and antiques, it resembled the gallery of a small museum. Next to an unlit fireplace, a middle-aged woman sat in a chair reading a magazine while her two children lounged on a shag pile carpet absorbed in comic books. The boy must have been about 9, the girl 7. They were smartly dressed. Something about their manner suggested they were well-behaved and polite. Robert entered the room. Portly, balding Robert with the slight limp. He said something to the children and they got up, picked up their comics and placed them tidily on a stack of other comics. The boy took the stack through to another room. Robert and the little girl exchanged a few words. The woman looked up from her book and said something to Robert. He shook his head and then shrugged. The boy come back and handed Robert a set of car keys. Robert kissed the woman on the cheek. He stood with his back to the camera and I had the impression he was reminding the woman of things to be done while he was out. Then he turned to the children and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. Robert – my husband, my lover, my widower – and his kids left the room, no doubt off on a family outing. 69


Mrs Morganfield – the 3rd or maybe 4th, 5th or even 6th Mrs Morganfield – waited a good few moments. Then she hurried over to a mahogany sideboard. With trembling hands, she took out a bottle of gin and a cut crystal glass. She poured herself a generous measure and quickly finished it off. I killed the picture and wiped away a tear.

Module 34.5 A blank screen. That’s what I was staring at 12 years after my death. I was crying. Shedding tears but not for the current Mrs Morganfield. There was no pity for her. If her life was empty, if every day dragged and felt like every other day, if her marriage was stale and loveless, at least her life was a life. Not a simulation. Let her drink her gin and sit in an alcohol-induced haze wondering how it might have been if she hadn’t met Robert. She had what should have been mine. The bitch had stolen my life, my marriage, my home, my children, my boredom and ennui and despair and depression and worry about growing old. At least she could pack her bags and go. Leave behind her comfortable life and step out into the real world. Go fill herself with pills and sit in a coach station and wait for it to end. She had that option. She could die if she wanted to. I couldn’t even piss myself.

Module 34.6 I sat in my cinema, physically and emotionally inert. Although the ebony clock was beyond my sight and hearing, I could sense it. Knew the second hand was making steady progress round and round and round and round. The pendulum swinging relentlessly. The computer computing, recreating Avalon with every CPU cycle. Keeping me alive. Allowing me to pass my time spying on Colette.

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I saw her shower. Saw her soap her firm, shapely body. Saw her dry herself and talc herself and put on a white robe. She spent an hour at her vanity table. Sometimes she stared at her reflection as if she wasn’t quite sure it was there. Other times she combed her hair or experimented with her make up. In a distant manner, I pictured myself making love to her. Touching her skin, tasting her lips. Getting to know the woman who had taken my place, the latest in a succession of mistresses installed in Robert’s apartment, his own little Palace of Fun. Now and then she looked up at the camera and there was something of the trapped animal about her. She had big brown eyes like a doe’s. Sad eyes. Eyes that had seen things no eyes should ever see. She padded off to the bathroom. When she came back, she was carrying a small packet of razor blades. Colette made herself comfortable on the bed and opened the packet. She barely winced when she cut open her wrists. I felt a slight stirring of happiness as she held up her bloody arms for the camera. Her face was defiant. She had defeated Robert the only way she could. Colette lay down. I wished I was lying next to her.

Module 36.0 Ethan laughed then spat in my face. And then he laughed some more. ‘Get on your knees, you whore, you slut, you douche bag, you excrement.' We were in his arena. The one he’d secretly added to Avalon and kept hidden from Robert. I had on my wedding outfit. He was dressed in the uniform of an SS officer. The Bachelors were in attendance. Twelve of them, looking down from the gallery. They wore robes and Viennese masks. I got on my knees and then my belly. ‘Trample on me. Beat me with your fists and break my bones. Smash my teeth. Make me bleed from every orifice.’ 71


‘Yes!’ cried the Bachelors. ‘Do it! Hurt her hurt her hurt her. Damage her beyond recognition.’ Ethan kicked me in the face. ‘Silence, whore! I give the orders here!’ ‘Rape me!’ I yelled as my cheek started to swell. ‘Use me and abuse me and treat me like the worthless slut I am!’ The Bachelors applauded. ‘Rape her! Rape her! Grind her into the dirt! Humiliate the filthy slut!’ ‘Very well,’ said Ethan, unbuckling his belt. ‘Let the fun begin!’

Module 36.1 The fun ended. Lying on the concrete floor, I counted seven broken ribs. My face was a mask of rapidly drying blood. Tufts of hair littered the floor. My nose was like a loganberry. One eye was completely closed; the other wept blood. My wedding suit was in tatters and my sex was ruined. In the real world, I would have died. In Avalon, I couldn’t. But I felt no pain. Now that I had some control of the workings of my world, pain was optional. I had turned it off. As blow after blow after kick after punch had landed on me, I’d laughed and my laughter had goaded Ethan and he’d gone much further than he’d intended. Of course, the Bachelors loved it. Sitting there with their pricks in their hands, cheering like children at a pantomime. Ethan was spent: exhausted physically, emotionally, sexually. He zipped up his fly; straightened his uniform and then retrieved his cap from the floor. ‘I can see,’ he said, panting, ‘I’m going to have to devise more ingenious ways of torturing you. It will be my great pleasure to do so.’ He marched to the tunnel door and tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge. Disconcerted, he tried again, this time harder and with more vigour. He might as well have tried moving Mount Everest. The door wasn’t going to open. At least not until I was ready for it to. 72


One of the Bachelors stood up. ‘Ethan! Why are we still here? Why haven’t we returned?’ Ethan stepped back from the door. He kicked it. Hard. Nothing happened. He turned and looked at me with an expression that was part fear, part admiration. ‘Oh dear, Rhiannon. What have you done?’ I managed a smile. A gap-toothed, blood-soaked grin through misshapen lips that had once been perfect. ‘Ethan!’ A voice from the gallery. Sounding scared. ‘Get us out of here. For God’s sakes.’ The other Bachelors joined in with a mélange of threats, pleas and valedictions. ‘Enough!’ said Ethan. ‘Will you all stop shouting? Do you want to get out of here or don’t you? In which case, shut the fuck up!’ The braying of the Bachelors abated. ‘Now sit down, all of you, while I deal with the situation. Panicking will get us nowhere.’ There was silence. Ethan advanced on me. He grabbed a clump of what was left of my hair. ‘Think this through, Rhiannon. You have more to lose than any of us.’ My laughter sounded like a ruptured organ pipe. When I spoke, my voice crackled as it bubbled through the viscous fluids in my throat. ‘Tell me, Ethan. What exactly do you think I have to lose?’ He punched me in the face. ‘Open the door.’ ‘Go to Hell.’ Another punch. ‘Open the door.’ ‘It’s over, Ethan. For all of us.’ He twisted my breast. Then jabbed my ruined eye with his finger. When I didn’t react, he finally cottoned on to my lack of pain reception. But he punched me in the stomach anyway just to make sure. The Bachelors began yelling. Being ghosts in my world, it was all they could do. Ethan put his hands around my neck and squeezed. It stopped me breathing but I didn’t need a single atom of the virtual oxygen he was denying my virtual blood. His anger overtook him. Blind anger driven by fear. He kicked me in the ribs. Picked me up and threw me down. Broke my fingers and then my toes. Bit me, pinched 73


me, scratched me. Jumped up and down on me. Drove his jackboot into my face, my ribs, my stomach, my crotch, my thigh, my shin. Time and time again. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t real. I was only a collection of 1s and 0s. The Bachelors called me names. They called Ethan names. Threatened both of us. They were scared. Very scared. And rightly so. The tunnel door burst open. Robert strode in. He was dressed in a surgeon’s outfit complete with rubber apron. One hand was adorned with a knuckleduster. In the other, he sported a scalpel with a long, shiny blade. Ethan backed up against the wall, as far from Robert as the geometry of the arena would allow. ‘It was her,’ he whined like a kid who knows his daddy’s about to give him the thrashing of his life. His face seemed to fold in on itself; it became misery personified. His tears flowed freely. ‘I only did what she wanted. What she asked me to. I wanted to stop, but she wouldn’t let me.’ Stepping over me, Robert marched right up to Ethan who cowered and cringed and put his hands over his face. The Bachelors rose as one and leaned over the parapet to get a better view. ‘Please,’ Ethan whimpered. ‘Don’t.’ Robert slipped his surgeon’s mask over his face. Raised his scalpel. Slashed at Nathan. First one arm and then the next. Blood fountained. With a scream, Ethan instinctively grabbed at his wounds, leaving his face unguarded. Robert’s knuckleduster caught him on the chin, drove his head against the wall. I took pleasure in watching Robert work over every inch of Ethan’s body with his scalpel and knuckleduster. And I admired the way Robert did it. Precise and methodical, never once letting his anger get the better of him, never letting Ethan’s screams slow him down or speed him up. The Bachelors witnessed the bloody spectacle in silence. They were trapped in somebody else’s world where everything was permitted – so long as you were Robert Morganfield. Eventually all those emotions I thought had left me came bubbling to the surface. And I found myself laughing at the absurdity, the irony, the violence, the futility of it all. 74


Then I cried for a while. It was grief and pity and self-pity and a sense of loss and injustice. It was sorrow that it should come to this: me in my wedding suit watching my husband inflict pain upon another man. And then I laughed some more until the need for laughter had left me. Finally Robert was done. Ethan’s skin and uniform were cut into rough squares, like a patchwork quilt with the stitching undone. I could see muscle and bone. Flaps of skin; shredded ligament. I could see the face of a man in Hell, a man who knew he could not escape his pain, who knew his tormentor could keep him captive for years and never run out of new torments. Robert stuck the scalpel into Ethan’s thigh and removed his mask. He stood up to address the Bachelors. Blood ran down his rubber apron in scarlet rivulets. From my position on the floor, it reminded me of an aerial view of the Mississippi Delta as seen from space. It’s funny what the mind latches onto when it searches for order. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘I know what’s been going on here. I know what you’ve done to my bride. And I know who each and every one of you is. I’m going to let you go but I promise you this: you will all be dead within a month. You can spare yourselves a lot of pain and me a lot of expense by taking the coward’s way out. But that’s your decision to make.’ Robert clapped his gloved hands and the Bachelors disappeared.

Module 37.0 He repaired me. A click of his fingers restored me to pristine condition, complete with intact hymen and unsoiled wedding suit. The virgin bride once more stood face to face with her creator. Robert was dressed in his usual attire. Black suit. Roll neck jumper. He touched my cheek. ‘You are so very beautiful, Rhiannon. But you’re no good to me now.’ He took my hand and led me out of the arena, through the tunnel, up a flight of stairs. I thought he was taking me to the bedroom where he could fuck me one last time. 75


But he took me to the cinema. We sat in the front row, right where Ethan and I had sat. ‘It seems,’ he said, ‘no paradise is ever free of serpents. And there’s always a Tree of Forbidden Knowledge. It wasn’t your fault it all went wrong. You are as I made you.’ He pointed the remote control at the screen and conjured up a view of the library. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away. ‘May I ask a question, Robert?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘How long were you watching?’ ‘Long enough.’ ‘Too long, I think. You could have come in much earlier.’ ‘I was reading through the hidden logs you’d unlocked. Finding out exactly what’s been going on. Working out the identity of the Bachelors, tracking down the vectors they used to get into Avalon. Now I know who they are and where they are. If I left you with Ethan longer than strictly necessary, it was to ensure that justice gets meted out.’ ‘You weren’t sitting there watching Ethan making minced meat of me?’ He shrugged. ‘And what if I was? You weren’t in any pain.’ ‘And Ethan? Do you know who he is?’ ‘Not yet. As you’ve no doubt gathered, Ethan is an avatar. His appearance in this world probably bears no relationship to his appearance in reality.’ ‘So what will you do now? When I’m gone?’ ‘I’ll start again. There will be a Project Avalon Mark II and I won’t make the same mistakes as before. You know, of course, about my latest mistress – Colette.’ ‘I know she’s dead.’ ‘In a coma, actually. My technicians are dumping the data in her brain into our servers.’ ‘The ones holding my own data?’ ‘You have to go Rhiannon. You were a mistake.’ ‘This is murder.’ But we both knew it wasn’t. On screen, Ethan slouched into the library. Thanks to Robert, he was fully healed and his uniform was as good as new. His face though was haunted. 76


He stood by the clock. Looked directly at the camera. Knew we were watching. Knew we’d still be watching when he climbed out of the second Sarcophagus. But he had no choice. He couldn’t stay here in Avalon, in the Paradise he had helped destroy. Robert was a vengeful God and - in his world of ones and zeroes - he could visit upon Ethan all the agonies of Hell. Ethan had to go. Trembling, he took off his cap and discarded it. Then he pressed his forehead to the face of the clock. He shimmered. His body distorted like a reflection in a warped mirror. It became impossibly long, impossibly thin. And then he was drawn into a vortex that sucked him into the clock. The last I saw of him before he left Avalon were the nails on the soles of his jackboots. They looked like shooting stars. Robert switched the view on the screen. We were looking at the second Sarcophagus bathed in the watery light of the surrounding machinery. ‘And now,’ said Robert, ‘we see.’ The Sarcophagus lid swung smoothly open. The real-life Mrs Morganfield sat up and took the helmet from her head. She was crying.

Module 39.0 ‘Will you kill her?’ ‘My own wife? Do you think me a monster, Rhiannon?’ ‘You’re going to kill me.’ ‘You’re already dead.’ ‘What will you do to her?’ ‘I’ll have my doctors adjust her medication. She won’t fight me again.’

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Module 39.1 ‘Colette?’ ‘She’ll take your place. As soon as I’ve rendered Avalon impregnable. And I won’t make the same mistake I made with you. I will not allow her free will.’ ‘And your apartment?’ ‘It won’t stay empty long. I’ve already got my eye on one of our trainees. She’s just turned eighteen and has the most wonderful smile. ‘I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you, Rhiannon. But it will soon be over.’

Module 41.0 And now here I am, alone. Sitting in a Chateau Grand Louis chair looking out at a static landscape. Still life.

Module 41.1 Robert has returned to his own world. He sits at a terminal, mouse in hand, pressing buttons, selecting options. His last words to me were: ‘I love you.’ I hear click click click. The sound of the death watch beetle. I hear tick tick tick. The ebony clock. The footsteps of the hangman. I feel the temperature dropping and listen to the drone of entropy and sense a universe 10 billion billion billion times smaller than the one in which it was created embrace its heat death. Faure’s Requiem plays in the background. Robert thinks it is one of my favourite pieces of music. I have never heard it before and I do not like it. Not that it matters. There is a tingling in my mind as if my neurons are rearranging themselves. It is the first symptom of what is to come.

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Module 41.2 I love Robert Morganfield. Even as he consigns me to oblivion, I cannot help but love him.

Module 41.3 And so it begins. Or ends. The sun has gone out. Like a statue, I sit in darkness on the edge of a void. <<<< disengaging >>>> Like a statue. Unmoving. Unfeeling. My memories start to fade. I am going now. Goodbye. The ticking stops. The life of the ebony clock has gone out. I am Rhiannon. I think I am Rhiannon I think I am I think I am I

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Part 2: Lux Aeterna

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PROGRAM BEGINS

MACRO 1: THE SPELL OF THE MYSTERY ‘Reduce speed,’ said the car. ‘Prepare to indicate. Turn left after 200 metres.’ ‘Supposing I don’t?’ Danny Jasinski grinned at himself in the rear view mirror. His teeth were newly capped and he loved having a perfect smile. ‘Supposing I keep my foot on the accelerator and drive until there’s no more road?’ ‘Left after 150 metres. Reduce speed. Indicate now.’ Danny reduced speed. He turned on his indicator. ‘Supposing I swerve across the road, straight into the path of that oncoming juggernaut?’ ‘I would not permit it.’ ‘Fuck you! Without my programming, you’d be nothing! If I say we total ourselves, we total ourselves.’ He pressed down on the accelerator. Hard. Swung the steering wheel to the right. Hard. Braced himself for impact. For that glorious moment when metal sliced through flesh and launched him into oblivion. The car slowed, took the next turning left. It rolled at a sensible speed onto the motorway. ‘You piece of shit. Tomorrow I’m trading you in for a Harley-Davidson.’ ‘Good,’ said the car. ‘Then I won’t have to put up with your insane behaviour. You neurotic arsehole.’ ~o~ Take a look at Danny Jasinski. He's 26 and a freelance software engineer. He keeps his hair long and he keeps it greasy. At work, his policy is to wear scruffy jeans and T shirts with offensive slogans on them. He does it to piss people off. Especially 81


people who pay him thousands to tweak their computer systems. People who regard him as a geek and therefore something alien. People who - despite his face having graced the cover of Time magazine - look down their noses at him. He’s been called the Dr Doolittle of Cybernetics: the man who can talk to computers in their own vernacular. He’s also been called a genius, a maverick, a thief, a loose cannon, a genetic throwback, a greasy-haired wanker and a menace to society. Danny knows off by heart the instruction set of a dozen processors. Hitting the motorway, he headed for the outside lane and gunned the electric engine which whined and purred. The needle went up to 80 and stayed there. He pressed on the accelerator with all his might but the needle wouldn’t budge. The car wasn’t going to let him get a speeding ticket. Traffic was light. It was just after two in the morning. Danny reached into the pocket of his denim jacket and produced a quarter bottle of Jack Daniels. From the ashtray on the dashboard, he scooped up a handful of orange pills and crammed them in his mouth. Uppers or downers? he wondered. Not that it mattered. So long as they got his mind out of where it was now. Out of that deep, dark abyss he was always falling into. A little boy lost, looking up at a darkening sky, knowing no one would hear him scream. It seems like I’m on a highway that takes me further and further into endless night. I don’t care to remember how I got here or think how I might get back. Speed is all, is everything. Speed and distance and acceleration and never, never looking back. Washing down the pills with a mouthful of Jack, he felt better. The crisis had passed. If he was going to kill himself, it wouldn’t be tonight. Which was good. He had a meeting arranged for the morning with the legendary Robert Morganfield. It might lead to life being worth living again. And if it didn't, he would have at least met his childhood hero. All in all, it seemed wise not to rush into suicide just yet. Plenty of time for that later. ‘Your exit,’ said the car, ‘is Junction 13. It is 22 miles away. Would you like some music?’ 82


‘No. Gimme the news.’ ‘… fell against the Euro by two points.’ Jan Cartwright! Sultry, raven-haired. A voice like charcoal. He’d met her once at New Broadcasting House when he helped install the BBC’s latest virtual studio. ‘You snotty cow.’ He remembered her look of disdain when he’d appeared from under her desk. Like I was a bad smell or something. The engineers had made a hash of laying the fibre optics. Rather than give them the chance to balls things up further, he’d taken it on himself to sort out the mess. Maybe he should have said something when he saw the shapely legs heading his way. Warned their owner she was not alone. At least coughed when she sat down. That, he reflected, would have been the gentlemanly thing to do. He wondered if she guessed he’d seen far enough up her skirt to know she shouldn’t get into a bikini until she’d encountered some wax. ‘Space,’ said Jan Cartwright, introducing the next item of news. ‘Within the past few minutes, the three astronauts preparing to be the first humans on Mars left the International Space Station. Attached to a metal cable linking the aging space station to Argo 1, they are hauling themselves to the spaceship which will be their home for the best part of the next year and a half. In less than 10 minutes, they should be inside Argo 1 and beginning their system checks. If all goes according to plan, in about 48 hours they will begin their 8 month journey to the Red Planet. ‘A spokesman for Magellan Spaceways, the consortium behind – ‘ ‘Off!’ The radio fell silent. ‘I can’t believe people are falling for this crap. There is no Argo 1. No mission to Mars. It’s a hoax like the moon landings.’ ‘Service station two miles ahead,’ said the car. ‘You should grab some food.’ ‘Bollocks. The sooner I hit London the better.’ ‘May I suggest you switch to full auto and let me drive?’ ‘Suit yourself. I just wanna get wasted.’ Danny necked a good portion of Jack Daniels and broke into a sweat. He hoped it wouldn’t leave him with a rash. ~o~

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Sybernika House. Slap bang in the middle of Heathrow Airport. The centre of an irregular triangle formed by 3 of the airport’s 4 runways. To get to it, you had to drive – or be driven through – a tunnel. People called it the Golden Pyramid though it was neither golden nor a pyramid. What it was was a windowless ziggurat built from steel and faced with yellow bricks. According to many a conspiracy theory, the layout of Heathrow’s runways depicted a magical sigil and the Golden Pyramid was a gateway to either the stars or the deepest pit of Hell. As Danny’s car emerged from the tunnel, as his windscreen darkened to protect his eyes from the light of day, the Golden Pyramid loomed before him, saying, ‘Hey! Fuck you! I’m almighty and invincible and I’ll be standing here 6,000 years from now, long after you’re dead and forgotten.’ The third building to be christened Sybernika House, it was a monument. That’s what it was. Robert Morganfield’s memorial. His shot at immortality and - if the tabloids could be believed - his future mausoleum. Danny took his hands off the steering wheel long enough to cup them in front of his mouth and yell, ‘You egotistical monster, Robert Morganfield! I fucking love you!’ And to prove it, he’d washed his hair that morning. Stepped into a power shower in the most expensive suite at the 5 star Acropolis Hotel and applied four servings of shampoo. His T shirt was plain black. His jeans were brand new and he’d swapped his denim jacket for a corduroy one which would win no prizes for style but was at least devoid of stains. He’d even put on new shoes. Danny remembered a line of poetry. It crawled around his brain like a circling caterpillar. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! He didn't know where the line came from, but it impressed on his mind an image of London a thousand or ten thousand years away when all its buildings had turned to dust and the airport was just another patch of irradiated desert. He could see the tip of Sybernika House surrounded by sand and eroded by time. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, 84


The lone and level sands stretch far away At the security point, the cameras recognised both his number plate and his face. Sensors could detect no evidence of explosives so the eight inch steel gate slid aside and let him in. He parked, grabbed his briefcase and sauntered into Sybernika House. ~o~ Ms Grant. Personal assistant to Robert Morganfield. A vision in black with trousers that looked like they’d been sprayed onto her legs and buttocks. Perky tits too, thought Danny as she escorted him along a corridor lined with glass and flanked by open plan offices where people beavered away at PCs and spoke earnestly into phones. He loved the way Ms Grant’s heels went clack-clack-clack as she marched along the passageway. Crisp, efficient footsteps; a crisp, efficient woman. I bet you’re a tyrant in the bedroom. He had a file on her. It had cost a few grand and the detective he’d hired to compile it couldn’t see the point. And maybe there wasn’t one beyond the insight it gave into the mind of Robert Morganfield. The software magnate was a man rich enough to matter. A man whose utterances could affect exchange rates and stock markets. When it came to personal assistants, he could afford to be fussy. Very, very fussy. So why Ms Grant? What did she have that the hundreds of others who’d applied for her job didn’t? If he could figure that out, he would have one more clue as to what made Robert Morganfield tick. And every clue was potentially worth millions. She was a cutie. Perhaps that alone had gotten her the job. Maybe ol’ Bobby boy had a thing for blue eyed brunettes with oh-so-kissable mouths. Odds on he’s had psych tests run on her. Had every aspect of her life checked out. Because you ain’t the sort of person who thinks with his dick, are you, Mr Morganfield? And when it comes to those surrounding you, you don’t take chances. Not even with me. 85


Did you think I wouldn’t know my phone was being tapped and my computer hacked into? Or didn’t you care? Maybe you wanted me to know. Maybe you were playing one of your famous power games. The clack-clack-clack of Ms Grant’s heels fell silent. They were at the end of the corridor in front of a door marked TIMMI 2. AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY. She gave him that disappointed parent look again. The one that said: couldn’t you have worn something smarter? By way of reply, he treated her to a look that said: I’m picturing you naked. Ms Grant placed her hand on a metal plate beside the door and positioned herself to allow the retinal recognition camera a view of her left eye. ‘Anne Grant with Daniel Jasinski to see Mr Morganfield.’ A woman’s voice said, ‘Daniel Jasinski may enter.’ The door slid open, revealing a small room that looked like a lift. ‘This is where I must leave you, Mr Jasinski.’ Ms Grant shook Danny’s hand and went clack-clack-clacking off down the corridor. He took a moment to watch her depart and to fix the image of her delightful body in his mind. Then he stepped into the room. The door hissed shut behind him. There was a momentary delay as unseen scanners satisfied themselves he was indeed Daniel Jasinski and was not carrying weapons, explosives, recording equipment or anything else that might be injurious to the corporate well-being of Sybernika. And then the door in front of him opened. ‘Ah! Mr Jasinski!’ Robert Morganfield sat in a white chair behind a white desk. He beckoned Danny to come forward, to step into the Total Immersion Man-Machine Interface room with its half dozen sarcophagi arranged around the circular core of a Quantium 7000 supercomputer. The sarcophagi looked like coffins trimmed with gold. Like – in Danny’s mind – the gaudy trinkets his mother bought at the many Catholic shrines she used to drag him to. He appreciated their kitschness and thought a couple might look good in his living room standing either side of the television, one full of booze; the other stuffed with pills. But his attention rested on the sarcophagi for as long as it took him to blink. Despite their tacky beauty, they were washerwomen compared to the regal magnificence of the 3 metre high, 2 metre wide Quantium 7000. Some idiot 86


journalist had described it as a giant thimble with copper slides helter-skeltering around its perimeter. Others compared it to the double helix of the DNA molecule. A few, of a more mystical bent, talked about its resemblance to the caduceus of Mercury. For the first time in a long while, Danny found himself in awe of a machine. There were only 6 Quantium 7000s in existence and they knocked spots off the competition. Thanks to their quantum processing cores, these babies could compute 200 times faster than the next best model. He rubbed his palms on his jeans and entered. Robert Morganfield kept his eyes fixed on Danny’s face, letting him know he was studying him and noting his reactions. ‘You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand,’ he said. ‘This old body of mine finds it hard to get going once it stops.’ Danny turned his attention from the computer to the man whose company owned it. Robert Morganfield, looking older than his years, was one of the few people in the field of computing Danny regarded as his equal. He noticed how physically different they were. Polar opposites in just about every way. Whereas Danny was wiry from drug abuse and poor eating habits, Morganfield had a body accustomed to exercise which had not taken kindly to a sedentary lifestyle. Rumour had it he’d been shot in the leg by his wife or stabbed in the groin by one of his mistresses. Danny’s information suggested deep vein thrombosis leading to necrosis of the leg muscles. Whatever the cause, Morganfield’s running days were over. Of course there were other differences between the two. Danny’s black hair was still thick even with the grease removed. And he dressed like a teacher determined to look trendy. Morganfield, on the other hand, had wispy white hair and a suit that said confidence and money. Is this a glimpse of me a quarter of a century from now? Danny wondered. You, Mr Morganfield, look like one unhappy fuck-up. All that money in the bank and I bet you can’t find a single person in this building who isn’t happier than you. Morganfield shifted in his chair. A wince telegraphed a burst of pain as he moved his leg. ‘How much do you know about the Quantium 7000?’

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For want of a spare chair, Danny leaned against the featureless wall. ‘Everything that’s been published.’ ‘And its operating system?’ ‘Multijax? I wrote it, as well you know.’ ‘The Quantium Corporation say otherwise.’ ‘The Quantium Corporation are a bunch of lying fuckpigs. They stole my code and my algorithms and you know it and they know it.’ ‘So if I need modifications to the source code, you’re the man for the job?’ ‘A highly illegal job. You’d have to reverse engineer the compiled code and then you’d be breaking the terms of your licence.’ ‘My experts say it’s impossible.’ ‘Your experts are idiots.’ ‘So you can do it?’ ‘But I ain’t gonna. I’ve already tangled with Quantium’s legal department and it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Mr Morganfield, but if that’s all then I’d best be on my way.’ ‘You haven’t heard what I’m offering.’ ‘It ain’t enough.’ ‘You need about 700,000 pounds to clear your debts.’ ‘Nearer 750,000.’ ‘My offer then is that plus a million.’ Danny experienced a moment of dizziness. He reminded himself to play it cool. Should I ask for more? Or would that make me look greedy? How about half up front? ‘I can make a phone call,’ said Morganfield, ‘and have half the money in your bank account by the time you get back to your hotel. Do we have a deal?’ ‘That was always a foregone conclusion, wasn’t it?’ ‘I do my homework, Mr Jasinski.’ Morganfield eased himself out of his chair and put his weight on an aluminium walking stick. ‘Let’s go to the old interface room TIMMI 1. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’ ~o~ 88


INFORMATION DUMP (from wikignosis): A quantum computer is a device that manipulates data using quantum mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement. Quantum mechanics deals with the physics of matter and energy on a subatomic scale where the familiar laws of classical physics break down. In conventional computers the smallest unit of data is a bit (short for binary digit). All bits represent 1 of 2 states – either 1 or 0 (equating to yes/no or on/off or positive/negative). Quantum computers aren't limited to two states; they encode information as quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in superposition. This superposition of qubits allows quantum computers to work on several million computations at once as opposed to the ‘one-step at a time’ methodology of conventional processors. ~o~ Level Minus1 was an underground labyrinth of service corridors with nothing to indicate what lay behind the metal doors peppering its steel-faced walls. Probably, surmised Danny, stock rooms for Sybernika’s more expensive equipment. He walked side by side with Morganfield whose limp barely slowed him down. ‘Have you seen that swimmer?’ Morganfield asked. ‘That Sally Rosen girl?’ ‘The one who lost her leg?’ ‘The replacement she bought is a marvel of engineering. You couldn’t tell it from the real thing. And it acts like a real leg. I bumped into her the other night at some charity ball. She was wearing a short skirt and looked very fetching. If you didn’t know she had an artificial leg, you would never have guessed. Never in a million years.’ A robot service vehicle trundled into the corridor. It started towards them, sensed their presence and rolled back the way it came. ‘You and I,’ said Morganfield, ‘are the only two humans down here but we’re not alone. There are over a thousand machines beneath the Golden Pyramid. Their

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combined output is comparable to that of the United States on the outbreak of World War 2.’ They came to a green metal door. Morganfield placed his hand on a metal plate and allowed his retinal pattern to be scanned. Two loud clicks betrayed the door unlocking itself a moment before it swung open. Without waiting to be told, Danny stepped through. This old interface room was not as impressive as the one he’d left. There were only two sarcophagi here, lying baseto-base in the middle of the room. And there was no Quantium 7000. Just a Nyvax 890 with each of its three modules lining one of the walls. Morganfield limped in and positioned himself in front of the console. ‘Please hop into a sarcophagus and make yourself comfortable.’ Danny baulked. He wasn’t keen on total immersion virtuality. His last experience of it had triggered a psychotic episode that lasted for days. But that was before he’d started on the Fromoxodin. So long as he remembered to pop a pill the moment he felt anything coming on, he’d be fine. He hoped. Danny stood over the first sarcophagus. As its name suggested, it resembled a coffin. Inside was a plastic receptacle shaped to accommodate a person lying on their back. Just looking at it gave him the same feeling he got when he walked into a dental surgery. What the hell. For 1.75 million clams, I’d drill into my own root canal with a rusty screw. Aware he was beginning to sweat, he climbed into the sarcophagus, settled into the receptacle and closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to watch the lid swing shut. Plastic moulded itself around his body, making him feel like he was sinking into mud. Even through his clothes, he could sense heat radiating from the machine. His skin tingled as millions of needles pin-cushioned his epidermis and sent out mild electrical impulses which shorted out his nervous system. And then there was a flash of light as the interface made direct contact with his mind. Disjointed images came at him thick and fast. Random noises like an orchestra tuning up. Feelings of fear, bliss, hysteria, vertigo, amusement, confusion, contentment – one swiftly following the other. 90


Then things settled down. His brain adjusted to the sensory input being pumped into it by the Nyvax 890 and accepted it as real. Accepted that he was not lying in a coffin-shaped box in the cellar of an office building in the middle of Heathrow Airport . Instead he was on a tropical beach, feeling sand and water trickle through his toes as a wave retreated. He wore only shorts, sandals and a perfect tan. The sea was calm, clear and blue. Turning his back on the sea, he saw he was in a bay semi-enclosed by a crescentshaped cliff. At the base of the cliff stood a large, sprawling bungalow with a long veranda. All very nice but why had Robert Morganfield sent him here? Come to that, why was he bothering to run such a detailed simulation? The cost must have been enormous. He walked towards the bungalow and was halfway there when he spotted the girl. She was sitting on a lounger at the side of the building, protected from the sun by a palm tree. Her bikini and sunglasses suggested to Danny a 1930s starlet posing for publicity shots. She had blonde hair in a style he associated with Doris Day and a face that hinted at knowing innocence. A peach, thought Danny. The sort that belongs in the passenger seat of a sports car. Vroom vroom! He waved to her. She didn’t seem to notice. As he approached, he fixated on how still she sat. It was unnatural and a little disturbing. Only when he was standing over her did she acknowledge his presence. She lifted her sunglasses to reveal pale green eyes. ‘Bonjour. And who might you be?’ French! Danny felt a quiver of lust. He’d long had a thing about French girls. Then again, he reminded himself, he also had a thing about German, Italian, Swedish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese girls. ‘Hi,’ he said, hands on hips, gazing into the distance in an attempt to look mysterious. ‘I’m Danny Jasinski.’ The girl let her shades drop. ‘I am Colette. Would you care to converse, Danny Jasinski?’ ‘I suppose I’d better.’ ‘What would you like to converse about?’ 91


This is like a bloody psychotherapy session. Next she’ll have me lying on a couch telling her about my childhood. What’s wrong with this woman? She talks and acts like a robot. But that’s exactly what she was. A software robot. No more real than the square root of minus one. Now he’d reminded himself of that, he felt more at ease. ‘You know Robert Morganfield?’ ‘Oui. Robert is my lover.’ She pronounced Robert without the t. Ro-bair. ‘Wow,’ said Danny because he couldn’t think what else to say. He felt like he was in a tennis game where he’d executed a gentle serve only for the ball to come screaming back at him. So Morganfield had himself a virtual mistress? A little popsy he could shape according to his own desires. ‘I am waiting for Robert. He will be here shortly and then I will entertain him. He enjoys my company after a hard day’s work.’ I bet he does. ‘What do you do when he’s not here?’ ‘I sit and I wait.’ ‘Must get very boring.’ ‘Non. I am not programmed to get bored. Sitting here and waiting for Robert makes me very happy.’ ‘Do you ever go swimming?’ ‘Sometimes. When I am with Robert. He likes to see me swim.’ ‘Do you read books? Watch television? Crack open a bottle of vino and get blind drunk?’ ‘Why would I?’ ‘You’re a very shallow woman, Colette. Very shallow.’ ‘Would you like to see me swim?’ ‘Not really.’ ‘How about I fix you a drink?’ ‘No offence, but I think I ought to get going.’ ‘Very well. Au revoir, Monsieur Danny.’ She moved her head slightly and stared straight past him. Danny had the impression she’d already forgotten he existed.

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He headed back towards the beach but had only taken a dozen steps when the beach and the sea and the clear blue sky disappeared. There was darkness. He could hear his blood circulating. A flash and a tingling sensation. The lid of the sarcophagus swung open. He found himself looking up at a white ceiling. And then Robert Morganfield was peering down at him. ‘So, Mr Jasinski, what did you think of my little world?’ ‘Stunning.’ Placing his forearms on the edge of the sarcophagus, Danny sat up. ‘I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see VR as realistic as that.’ ‘That was Avalon II. With your help, I aim to create Avalon III which will be a million times more detailed. Right now, all I have is Calvados Bay, the bungalow and Colette. With Avalon III, I can have a whole island, complete with jungle fauna. ‘Shall we return to my office? I’ll fill you in on what I expect from you.’ ~o~ The walls of Robert Morganfield’s office looked like they were covered in shiny soot. It took a moment for Danny to figure out he was surrounded by banks of seamlessly-joined TV screens. He and Morganfield sat either side of a chrome and glass desk. ‘What did you think of Colette?’ Morganfield asked, stretching his game leg. ‘Impressive. Is she conscious?’ ‘According to the Mohl-Schneider test, she has machine consciousness. Whether or not that in any way equates to our own consciousness is a matter for debate.’ ‘Must cost a fortune keeping that little world going. Or is it only there when it’s needed?’ ‘It’s a research project. So long as Colette provides us with fresh insights into artificial intelligence and machine consciousness, she’s permitted to stay in existence.’ ‘And as soon as she’s no use, you’ll pull the plug.’ ‘My Board of Directors will. Right now, they’re seeing rapidly diminishing returns on the company’s investment. In their eyes, she’ll soon be surplus to requirements. I’ve no intention of letting those bastards put an end to her. That’s why I’ve called you in.’ 93


‘I don’t get it. She’s a cybernetic construct. A glorified mass of pixels. Admittedly a highly complex one, but nothing to shed tears about.’ ‘I’m in love with her.’ Danny felt like laughing but knew it could cost him a job he badly needed. For once in his life, he was going to have to apply tact. ‘Look, she’s very beautiful, but there are millions of equally beautiful women out here in the real world. And no shortage of ones looking to keep a billionaire company.’ ‘She was once a real woman. Flesh and blood just like you and me. We were lovers and she made me very happy. Unfortunately I couldn’t do the same for her and she killed herself.’ Oh you fucking nut job. You poor, pathetic, lonely, desperate loon. ‘I’m sorry for your loss, Mr Morganfield, but you have to let go. That thing inside the box is an illusion. She’s not your Colette – the one who died on you. That Colette’s gone.’ ‘You ever hear of a brain bucket, Mr Jasinski?’ ‘I’ve seen one in action. Can’t say I was impressed. The day a machine can truly read my mind is the day I put on a dress and call myself Gladys.’ ‘I’ll have my tailor measure you up. And I’ll throw in the matching accessories myself.’ Morganfield allowed himself a wry smile. ‘It’s nearly 6 years since Sybernika developed the Sygnus I. It – and its successors – can scan and store the entire contents of a human brain.’ ‘Impossible.’ ‘You said you’ve seen a brain bucket in action.’ ‘Yeah. This guy stuck it on his head and he concentrated and concentrated for about ten minutes and then some technician looked at a readout and said the guy was thinking about lions. And the guy said actually he was thinking about cats and everyone went whoo! because the brain bucket was almost right.’ ‘Those brain buckets are improving all the time. Give it 2 years and they’ll reach the stage Sygnus I was at 6 years ago.’ ‘You’re saying you had something like 8 years lead on your competitors? But you never brought it to the market?’

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‘Didn’t get the chance. His Majesty’s Government decided this was one toy only they should be allowed to play with. So they took it from us and made it Top Top Secret.’ A chill went through Danny as he connected the dots. ‘You’re telling me you loaded your girlfriend’s brain into a computer?’ ‘A copy of her brain.’ ‘Man! I’ve heard some sick things in my time but this beats them all by a country mile.’ ‘I’m not interested in your moral viewpoint, so you can cut the outraged condemnation. The question, Mr Jasinski, is how do we save Colette?’ ‘To be frank, Mr Morganfield, I’m not sure I want to.’ ‘I need somewhere to hide her. Somewhere my board of directors can’t get to and interfere with.’ ‘The Quantium 7000?’ ‘It has a vast memory. Big enough to give her an entire island instead of just that one little bay with its beach hut and bungalow.’ You can’t hide an entire island in a computer.’ ‘Not even one with a quantum processor?’ ‘No. Not unless...’ Danny broke off. He had it now. ‘That’s why you want me to reverse engineer the operating system. So I can rewrite it.’ ‘Give it a hidden storage area no one but you and I will ever know about. It’ll be my own private universe.’ ‘You’re asking a lot.’ ‘I’m offering a lot.’ It was a tasty proposition. Quite apart from the much-needed cash boost there was the prospect of getting back at the Quantium Corporation. The thieving bastards. Not to mention the kudos of hacking the supposedly unhackable. ‘I’m going to need a Schnell Integrator,’ said Danny. ‘You wouldn’t happen to have one knocking about?’ Morganfield looked impressed. ‘You’re not supposed to know such a thing exists. It’s an even bigger secret than the Sygnus 1.’ ‘Have you got one?’ 95


‘Of course not. And I’ve no idea how to obtain one.’ ‘Then I’d better do some shopping, hadn’t I? Assuming you’re willing to stump up half a million for a bit of kit.’ ‘If that’s what it takes.’ ‘I’ll be back first thing in the morning. I’m going to want my own office and someone to fetch for me, massage my ego and take the occasional bit of abuse.’ ‘Already arranged. I’ll see you tomorrow.’

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MACRO 2: THE FORMULA OF THE VACUUM Driving back to his hotel, Danny dropped 2 tabs of Fromoxodin. Bad enough that he had subjected his brain to the perplexity of jumping into virtuality and back again, but learning someone had resurrected a dead person in order to have sex with them had been the mother of all mind-fucks. He took the West Radial Underpass into London. With the toll being £70 for a car and five times that for a commercial vehicle, the underground road was fairly clear and he got into Central London without once coming to a complete stop. Up Exit Ramp 2, onto New Fleet Street. The traffic was heavy but moving sedately. Ten minutes later, he was parked beneath the Acropolis Hotel and reaching under his seat for a bottle of bourbon. His hand came up empty. ‘Crap.’ He could definitely remember stashing a bottle there. Whether or not he’d drunk its contents in the meantime was a matter of conjecture. He had no recollection of having done so, but that signified little. Up in the bedroom of his suite, he flung off his corduroy jacket and slipped into his denim one with all its character-making rips, patches and stains. Feeling like he was back in his own skin, he flopped onto the bed and listened to his head pleasantly hum as the second dose of Fromoxodin finally reached his brain. He looked at his wristy and tapped its face to change the display from time to vital signs. According to the digital readouts, his heartbeat was coming down and his endorphin levels were rising. All very good. Crossing his arms over his chest, he closed his eyes and went to his happy place. He’d barely begun to plan the rest of his day when he fell asleep. ~o~

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Danny rose up out of the inky black depths of slumber. The humming which had intruded into his dream had escaped the confines of his head and was growing louder. He opened his eyes. The room lay in semi-darkness. An insect hovered above him. Resembling a dragonfly, it had a human head and a body the size of a medium cigar. Its wings were oscillating blurs, humming away. Danny sat up. The insect retreated a safe distance. ‘Fucking Fromoxodin.’ He rolled off the bed and slouched into the bathroom. The insect tried to follow. Danny slammed the door in its face. Without bothering to remove his clothes, he stepped into the shower, closed the door, changed the temperature setting to 0 centigrade and hit the SPRAY button. Icy jets of water assaulted him from above and the sides. He stood it as long as he could – about 10 seconds – before hitting the DRY button. The water ceased and he was blasted with warm hair. Oh bliss. It took a minute for his clothes to dry and then he stepped out of the stall. The insect hovered above the wash basin. Danny made a grab for it. The hallucination eluded him and laughed. ‘What’s so funny?’ Danny growled. ‘What isn’t?’ replied the insect. ‘Didn’t I hallucinate you in New Delhi?’ ‘That was George. He’s my twin brother.’ ‘First chance I get, I’m quitting Fromoxodin.’ ‘I’d like to see you try.’ ‘I’ll book myself into a clinic.’ ‘Won’t do you any good. Nobody’s managed to kick Fromoxodin. Nobody ever will.’ ‘That’s all you know.’ Danny returned to the bedroom and hit the light switch. The main lights stayed off while the weaker secondary lights came on. So that explained the hum. It was a power cut. The hotel’s emergency generators had kicked in and the sound they made was travelling into his room through the aircon.

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He went to the minibar and grabbed a handful of miniatures which he stuck in his jacket pocket. Then he took the sole remaining miniature of vodka, opened it and knocked it back in one. ‘Nice idea,’ said the insect. ‘Mixing alcohol with Fromoxodin. Next stop: Nut Job City.’ Danny dropped into an armchair and fished out a miniature of whisky. ‘Why are you bugging me?’ ‘I’m a bug.’ ‘Without me, you’re nothing.’ ‘Correction. Without Fromoxodin, I’m nothing. ‘I’ve just got this one little job to do and then I’m kicking the stuff.’ ‘Oh yeah? Remember what happened the last time you tried? Those nasty ants crawling over your skin and marching into your orifices?’ Danny remembered all right. It had been the most frightening experience of his life. Perhaps he’d stick with the Fromoxodin just a bit longer. ‘It’s alien, you know,’ said the insect. ‘Fromoxodin. Synthesised in the hovels of Mars from the spinal fluid of baby Martians. The Venusians are using it to enslave humanity.’ Was that right? It had the smack of truth about it. He’d never met a Venusian but he’d heard enough about them to make him think they were not to be trusted. He opened his whisky miniature and poured its contents down his throat. ‘Wait a minute,’ he said as a thought struck him. ‘There are no Martians! They died out a billion years ago.’ ‘That’s what they want you to believe. You know damn well the Secret World Government tells lies as a matter of routine. You'd have to be an idiot to believe them when they say there’s no life on Mars.’ ‘That’s a bloody good point.’ ‘It’s like this, Daniel. Half a century ago, the United States government managed to back engineer the flying saucer that crashed at Roswell.’ ‘I heard about that!’

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‘They built a whole fleet of space craft and secretly colonised Mars. As soon as they got settled, they reduced the once-proud natives to the status of slaves. Rounded them up and stuck them on reservations.’ ‘The bastards!’ ‘And now they’ve sold you out to the Venusians.’ ‘Me?’ ‘Not just you, you egotistical twat. Everyone on this planet who isn’t a member of the Secret World Government. They’re turning you into robots.’ ‘What can we do to stop them?’ ‘It’s perfectly simple,’ said the insect. ‘All you have to do is – .’ The main lights flickered on. The secondaries turned themselves off and the humming stopped. At which point the insect disappeared, leaving his sentence unfinished. ‘Bugger.’ Danny fished out another miniature of booze. ‘I’m never going to save the world at this rate.’ Aware he was in no fit state to face the travails of central London after dark, he took the lift down to the underground car park and climbed into his car. His wristy, still set to vital signs, was telling him he needed 200 milligrams of lybodin and 100 milligrams of cyclobasus. A quick rummage in the glove compartment produced a blister pack of the former and a bottle of the latter. He took the prescribed dosages and listened to Tibetan music on the stereo while he waited for the drugs to work. ~o~ Head back in order, Danny slipped a linen filter mask over his face and walked through London to Tottenham Court Road. It took him twenty minutes to get to the street’s north end where it met up with Euston Road. Along the way, he got fed up with the mask and put it in his pocket. It probably wouldn’t have been much good against a terrorist gas attack anyway. 100


A row of billboards kept the road’s temptations hidden from passers-by. The only way in was through a transparent booth resembling a phone box. It was covered from three angles by CCTV cameras. One of the billboards proclaimed: ‘IT IS FORBIDDEN FOR MINORS TO PASS BEYOND THIS POINT.’ Another warned: ‘THIS IS A DESIGNATED RED LIGHT ZONE. ENTRY TO TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD IS AT YOUR OWN RISK’. Danny stepped into the booth and swiped his ID card across its card-reader. The door behind him hissed shut; the one in front opened. A hoarding plastered with graffiti formed a narrow passage with the outer billboards. Once around that, he had a full view of the road’s grubby delights. Crammed into its three-quarters of a mile were every kind of vice. Some electronic, some sexual, some narcotic. The more legitimate establishments brazenly advertised their attractions with neon lights. Other places drew less attention to themselves. This being a Monday there were few pedestrians about. Their numbers would build as the night got older, but for now Danny had a good chance of getting to his destination without being bumped into, mugged or hassled. Keeping his head down, he hurried along the middle of the road. Past shops selling computers, cameras, orgasmatrons, televisions, stereos, bugging devices, legal highs, sex aids, video games, hand guns and mobile phones. Past brothels, restaurants, sex shops, arcades, VR sex booths, casinos, pubs, cocktail bars, head shops, girly bars, rock clubs, night clubs, massage parlours. Past Heavenly Thunder, London’s only licensed opium den. On either side of the road, working girls stood at designated points, smoking, making small talk and occasionally calling out to passers-by. As required by law, they wore colour-coded jump suits. Pink for the straight-sexers. Black for the doms. White for subs. Red for those who didn't mind a bit of blood. And yellow and brown for other tastes. Halfway down the road, a narrow, unlit alley ran between two buildings. Most people who entered it did so merely to relieve themselves one way or another. Few

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bothered to go all the way to the end and, if they did, they generally assumed the black door they encountered was a fire escape. Careful to avoid anything nasty on the ground, Danny negotiated his way to the door and pressed a button. A voice said, ‘Fuck off.’ Unperturbed, Danny spoke into the entry phone. ‘I want to see the Vicar.’ ‘Password?’ ‘Coney Island.’ With a click and a buzz, the door swung outwards, revealing a black-painted room not much bigger than a broom cupboard. As soon as Danny was in and clear of the door, it swung shut behind him. Hidden sensors decided he was no threat. The floor sank and lowered him into an underground room. It was dimly lit and smelt vaguely of damp. Electronic components and machine parts occupied metal shelving. One corner was given over to a settee and a coffee table. Another was taken up by a workbench. Danny’s attention fixed on the kid with the submachine gun. Dressed all in leather, his face painted white with a black teardrop covering his left cheek, he couldn’t have been much older than 16. Danny stepped off the platform. It rose back up. ‘Stay still,’ said the kid, aiming his weapon at Danny’s face, ‘or I’ll blow your fucking brains out.’ ‘Sure thing.’ Grinning like he was enjoying a private joke, Danny raised his hands. The lybodin in his blood made him fearless. Only common sense stopped him making a grab for the gun. ‘Don’t want my fucking brains blown out. That would put a serious dent in my day.’ ‘And don’t try to be funny.’ ‘Nice machine gun, kid. What else did Santa bring you?’ ‘Oh ha bloody ha.’ ‘Thank you. For an encore I play the spoons.’ ‘Who the fuck are you and what the fuck do you want?’ ‘As I believe I mentioned earlier, I want to see the Vicar.’ 102


‘And suppose the Vicar don’t want to see you?’ ‘I’ll take my business elsewhere.’ ‘You still ain’t told me who you are.’ ‘And you ain’t told me who you are.’ ‘I’m Ice, fuckwad.’ ‘Pleased to meet you, Ice Fuckwad. I’m Danny Jasinski.’ ‘Yeah, and I’m the King of England.’ Danny bowed. ‘An honour, Your Majesty, King Ice Fuckwad.’ ‘Gimme your ID card.’ Danny slowly lowered his left hand and dipped into his inside jacket pocket. He brought out his ID card. Keeping his machine gun trained on Danny, Ice took the card and slipped it into a small reader attached to his belt. The machine bleeped and a green light came on. ‘Holy crap,’ said Ice. ‘You’re Daniel Jasinski.’ ‘Holy crap,’ said Danny. ‘So I am.’ Ice lowered his weapon and handed the card back. ‘Fucking brilliant. Danny fucking Jasinski!’ ‘Do you think you can let me see the Vicar now?’ ‘Sure thing, Mr Jasinski. Only he’s moved his lab to the back of Vanity Fair so we’re gonna have to take the boat.’ Ice led Danny through a metal door into a brick chamber. A canalised river – one of the many small rivers the Victorians had subsumed into their sewage system - ran through it. Danny sniffed the air. It was a trifle stale but otherwise carried no hint of anything unpleasant. ‘We call this the Styx,’ said Ice, climbing into a flat-bottomed boat. ‘I know,’ said Danny. He and the boy sat next to each other on a seat that was little more than a plank. ‘It’s named after a racing driver or something.’ ‘Actually, it’s named after a river in Greek mythology.’

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Ice pressed a button. The outboard motor coughed twice before catching. It propelled them slowly into a tunnel dimly lit by ceiling lights spaced about twenty yards apart. Along the way, Ice gabbled on about what a legend Danny was and how he couldn’t believe he was sailing down the Styx with the great Danny Jasinski, once the greatest hacker in the world and now a gun for hire. His voice echoed off the red brickwork, bounced up and down the tunnel. The reverb gave it a supernatural air. This, thought Danny, is what God must have sounded like when he spoke to Moses. They came to a chamber barely distinguishable from the one they’d just left. Ice cut the motor and steered the boat to the side. He hopped out and wrapped the mooring rope around a metal post. Then he produced a key and unlocked a metal door. As the door opened, sound flooded out. It was the millennia old cacophony of a market place, of people shouting the virtues of their wares, of canny buyers haggling with ruthless vendors. This was Vanity Fair, the underground bazaar in which reputedly anything could be - and was - bought and sold. Anything illegal that is. Stalls crammed with pills, electronics, pirated software and weaponry were squeezed between ramshackle shacks. Vendors watched warily as potential buyers examined their wares. Danny’s eye was drawn to the multicoloured splendour of a pick-and-mix pill stall. It reminded him of the sweet shops of his youth. In a tatty marquee, excited punters bet on cock fights, cockroach races and cage fights. A hand-painted sign announced: ‘RUSSIAN ROULETTE BY MANAGEMENT PERMISSION ONLY.’ The air was spiced with the competing scents of humanity, hashish, engine oil and expended gunpowder. And it seemed like everyone was carrying a gun. Everyone except Danny. He and Ice pushed their way through the throng, made it to the market's edge which was delineated by a series of arched recesses, each with a closed door. Armed guards stood or sat by most of them. 104


Two close-cropped women wearing black tracksuits and brandishing Uzi submachine guns stood either side of a green door. Their thighs and arms bulged with steroid-enhanced musculature. Ice waved cheerily. ‘Hey Gertie! Hey Brunhilde! How are my favourite bull dykes today?’ Neither woman responded. ‘Don’t talk a word of English,’ Ice explained. ‘Otherwise me and my balls would have just parted company.’ He pushed open the green door. ‘Vicar’s through there. Tell him I’m taking my tea break.’ The doorway led into a workshop cluttered with cannibalised electronics. A bench, 20 feet long, sported a parade of computer monitors, each displaying the output of a different processor. In the middle of the room, the Vicar was jogging on the spot in a VR rig. The helmet on his head, the black domes of the goggles covering his eyes and the elastic straps that kept him from running into the wall made him look like a bizarre insect caught in a high-tech web. ‘Hee-yah!’ he yelled, leaping into the air and simultaneously punching a virtual opponent. ‘Die, mother! Die!’ Danny noted the VR rig was positively antiquated. It was a Phantos Mirage II, which had been superseded over a year ago by the PM III which in turn was being phased out in favour of the PM IV. He cast a wary eye at what looked like a glitter ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling. He knew it was watching his every move. And he also knew it had at least one weapon aimed at him. If the zip ball’s silicon mind decided he was a threat to the Vicar, it would take him out in a flash. The Vicar ducked. As he raised his head again, he spun round and karate chopped the air. Then he was suddenly on his back. ‘Not fair!’ he yelled, hitting the STOP button on his helmet. ‘You sneaky Melkron vermin!’ He removed the helmet and goggles and laughed. ‘The bastards get me every time.’ He clocked his visitor and tossed the helmet and goggles aside. ‘Danny Jasinski! As I live and breathe!’

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The Vicar had the face of a brute. His low forehead and bushy-eyebrows put Danny in mind of Mr Hyde as played by Spencer Tracy. The jagged scar running from his left temple down to the side of his nose was a ravine in a landscape of enlarged pores. No one inclined to judge a book by its cover would have credited the Vicar with his IQ of 180 plus. ‘You should have told me you were coming!’ The Vicar freed himself from the VR rig’s webbing and leapt over a box of circuit boards to land face to face with Danny. Knowing Danny’s aversion to being touched, he refrained from giving him a hug. ‘My God! It must be 2 years since our little caper in Rio.’ ‘3 and a bit.’ ‘No shit? Where does the time go?’ Danny shrugged. He wasn’t comfortable talking about Rio. Nothing had gone according to plan and he, the Vicar and everyone else involved, were lucky not to be rotting in a Brazilian prison. He nodded at the rig. ‘Isn’t it time you got yourself a new one?’ ‘You gotta be kidding me. The PM II knocks spots off the PM III and PM IV. I wouldn’t part with that baby for all the moolah in the world. Wanna give it a go?’ ‘No time, Vicar. I’ve got to make this brief.’ ‘You sure? I’ve got a perfectly pirated copy of Need for Speed 37. It’s not due for release for another 3 weeks.’ ‘I’ll have to pass.’ Danny got down to business. ‘Four weeks ago, a Schnell Integrator went missing from a Ministry of Defence depot in Lincolnshire. Hats off to whoever took it. They knew a thing or two about beating security systems.’ ‘I’d heard rumours,’ said the Vicar. ‘Rumours, my arse. Something like that goes missing, 9 times out of 10 it ends up in your hands. I’m willing to bet I’m standing within a hundred feet of that Integrator. Am I right?’ ‘You might be.’ Danny took out his bank card. ‘Half a million.’ The Vicar smiled ruefully. ‘You’ll have to do better than that.’ ‘Right now, I can’t.’ 106


‘Oh yeah. I heard about your run-in with Quantium. Bad business that.’ The Vicar pointed to what looked like a photo booth. ‘You ever see one of those before? It’s an Epsilon Trimex 2300. One of the earliest VR modules. Very few are left in existence.’ ‘It’s obsolete.’ ‘That’s as may be. But it was a huge part of my adolescence and I’d like it to be a part of my life now. Unfortunately, its logic modules are fried and I can’t get any replacements. So I’m making do with an emulator written in Varijax.’ ‘What are you running it on?’ ‘A Korby Max.’ ‘Good choice.’ ‘The emulator has a few bugs which I’m having trouble tracking down and straightening out. So here’s my offer: gimme half a million and get my 2300 running, and the Schnell Integrator’s yours.’ ‘It’ll take me a few weeks to sort out the code.’ ‘I can wait.’ ~o~ INFORMATION DUMP (from wikignosis): Despite their speed and versatility, quantum computers by their very nature have their limitations. Thanks to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the act of extracting one item of information from a quantum calculation destroys all other information before it can be read. Making sense of any data extracted is also problematical. The Schnell Integrator acts as a bridge between the quantum world and our own. Between every cycle of a quantum processor, the Integrator takes a snapshot of the processor’s core and converts the information thus extracted from qubits (short for quantum binary digits) to standard bits. It does so with the appearance of zero entropy. In other words, to all intents and purposes no information is lost. In actuality, the process of converting qubits to bits is highly entropic. However, using a poorly-understood mathematical process which was originally created by a quantum computer programmed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans 107


Schmoelling, the Schnell Integrator is able to replace the lost data. It does so by making a best guess and then using its own quantum core to test the viability of its assumptions. Little is known about the Schnell Integrator as it is classified Top Secret. Both the American and British governments (who co-developed the Integrator) deny its very existence. ~o~ Heading back to the hotel. Clutching a holdall containing a Schnell Integrator. Knowing the police were looking for it. The army were looking for it. MI6, MI5, the CIA – and for all he knew the Girl Guides of America – were looking for it. The Schnell was hot stuff. Something HM Government and the Pentagon dreaded falling into the wrong hands. Who knew how far they’d go to get it back? What methods they’d use. Blackmail, torture, brainwashing, murder. If he got caught with it, there was no telling what would happen to him. Most likely he’d never be seen again. Danny had heard of that happening. Of government snatch squads coming in the middle of the night. Smashing down doors. Spiriting away families and altering the records to show they’d never existed. And there were snuff squads too. They’d go in and shoot to kill. Then leave the bodies as a warning. He’d heard all about it. Read it on the Internet. His wristy bleeped. Trying to tell him he was in need of medication. But he wasn’t falling for it. He knew the Secret World Government had a device secretly built into every microchip manufactured since 2012 so they could take control any time they wanted. If his watch was telling him he needed a pill, then it was them – the enemies of freedom – out to trick him into taking an overdose. The sooner he got back to his hotel room, the better. But progress was slow; not least because of his compulsion to cross the road whenever anyone came towards him. The traffic was at a standstill; it made getting across relatively easy though squeezing between bumpers made him feel vulnerable. And who knew what lurked inside any of 108


those slumbering vehicles? How many assassins, snatch squads, snuff squads, surveillance units, Venusian reconnaissance parties, white slave traders and kidney thieves? He was passing the entrance to the British Museum when a bomb ripped apart the top of a tower block. It was about a mile away, so he saw the explosion seconds before he heard it. An orange ball of flame suddenly blossomed amongst eddies of smoke and falling concrete. Then came the concussion, setting off car and burglar alarms - seemingly thousands of them. People got out of their cars and shouted at one another. ‘Holy shit! Did you see that?’ ‘What the fuck?’ ‘Martha! Get the kids back in the car!’ ‘Now we’re never going to get home.’ ‘Isn’t that Mayfair? Does anybody know? Is that Mayfair?’ ‘Looks like Knightsbridge.’ As if there wasn’t enough racket, people began to honk their horns. Police sirens seemed to get angrier and angrier, frustrated at their lack of progress through the gridlocked streets. Danny clutched the holdall to his chest and ran.

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MACRO 3: THE COSMIC METHOD He threw the holdall onto the passenger seat and climbed in. Once he’d closed the door, he felt significantly safer. The car was impervious to bullets. Its motion detectors meant no one could sneak up on him. Any attempt to break in would be countered by 5,000 volts of direct current. And - in case that wasn't deterrent enough - a whiff of nerve gas would follow. Danny pressed a button on the dashboard, rousing the car’s computer from its electronic slumber. ‘Good evening, Mr Jasinski,’ said the car. ‘I’m pleased to report that my batteries are fully charged. No one has interfered with me since you parked me here. There are no bugs and no bombs. No spy devices aimed at you. You are quite safe.’ Safe? That was a good one. Nobody was safe anymore. Certainly not in London with the British Defence Force blowing up tower blocks and Government snuff squads everywhere. He looked at his wristwatch. The readings were alarming. His brain chemicals were seriously out of whack. ‘I’m headed for a psychotic episode,’ he complained to the car. ‘I’m on Fromoxodin. I shouldn’t be going off my head like this.’ Danny felt like crying. It was all so unfair. Why did life have to be this difficult? Why couldn’t he have what Robert Morganfield had? Respectability, a corporation to command, a family to go home to? The wristy recommended he take 300 milligrams of cambitol. That didn’t sound right and he knew why. It was the bloody Government. Controlling his watch. Trying to push him over the edge by feeding him the wrong information. ‘I’m too smart for you cocksuckers,’ he mumbled, rummaging in his glove compartment. He pushed the holdall out of the way, then swept bottles and boxes of pills onto the passenger seat. Kept going until he’d emptied the compartment. ‘Now let’s see.’ He picked up and examined the medicines one by one. The uppers, the downers, the sedatives, the hypnotics, the hallucinogens, the analgesics, the 110


bronchodilators and the metabolites, antiarrhythmics, CNS stimulants, anxiolytics and antiemetics. Finally he found what he was looking for: a bottle of probitane. He wasn’t sure what the stuff did other than it was the opposite of whatever cambitol did. After a brief struggle with the child-proof top, Danny had the bottle open. He poured 3 purple tabs into his hand and shoved them in his mouth. Chucking the bottle aside, he took out a miniature bottle of gin and washed the pills down his throat. ‘Let’s have the radio on,’ he said to the car. ‘I want to hear the news.’ ‘… final preparations for their historic flight to Mars.’ It was Jan Cartwright again. Was that woman ever off the radio? ‘A spokesman for Magellan Spaceways said all systems are go and no delays are anticipated. The astronauts earlier had a private radio conversation with the President of the United States.’ ‘Off!’ snapped Danny. ‘I don’t want to hear any more bloody lies. Give me some Mozart instead. His 40th symphony.’ A hideous sound in no way resembling music hissed, screeched and cackled from the car’s speakers. It was like every noise he hated thrown together: fingernails on a blackboard, someone hawking up phlegm, a dentist’s drill, descant recorders. ‘Off!’ Silence. ‘What the hell was that?’ ‘Mozart’s 40th,’ said the car, sounding hurt and puzzled. ‘In G minor. Recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Charles Schrödinger.’ ‘It sounded awful.’ ‘That’s because you’re tripping.’ ‘I know, I know. Just wait a few minutes for the probitane to kick in. I’m feeling better already.’ Danny took off his wristy and dropped it amongst the blue pills in the car’s ashtray. ‘You hear about that explosion? Just now. About twenty minutes ago. Took out a block of flats in Mayfair or Knightsbridge or Paddington or somewhere like that. I could have been there, you know. Shopping or drinking or looking up old friends. But I had business elsewhere, otherwise I’d be dead, torn apart and evaporated by Nazi terrorists who are covertly funded by the Secret World Government. Every terrorist 111


organisation in the world – and I know this for a fact – is funded by the SWG. There’s all sorts of ways they control us: money, sex, drugs, subliminal advertising. But nothing works as well as terror. They give us an enemy – a thousand enemies – so we hide behind their skirt tails and beg them to save us. To lead us. To tell us what to do and how to think. And you know what’s seriously funny about it all? The SWG think they’re in control, that they’re pulling the strings. But they’re just puppets, being used like the rest of us. ‘I fell in love today. Do you know that, car? I fell in love with a woman who’s dead, who belongs to someone else, who has no mind of her own, no feelings of her own. She’s a slave, a robot - just like we’re all going to be unless someone does something and stands up to the oppressors, the Hidden Empire, the Secret Rulers. ‘Her name’s Colette. She looks like one of those women you see in 1950s magazine advertisements for washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Back in the days when the only thing people had to worry about was atom bombs and they didn’t really have to worry about them because the cold war was phoney. Another hoax designed to terrify people and keep them from questioning their governments. ‘Colette is French. Or she was. She has the sexiest accent I’ve ever heard and she purrs when she talks. I could imagine putting her in front of a blazing log fire and giving her a saucer of milk right before I get my dick out and give her the jack-hammering of her virtual life. ‘She’s dead, car. Gone. All she is now is a binary ghost. An illusion. The stuff of which dreams are made.’ Danny felt calm. He’d unburdened his soul. Confessed all to his father confessor with its electric motor, satnav, kick-arse hi-fi and unbeatable security. ‘I think I’ll go for a drive,’ he said, hitting the start button. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ said the car as the engine began to purr. ‘I seriously advise against it.’ ‘Don’t be such a wet gusset. What could possibly go wrong?’ Danny put the car in reverse and pulled out of the parking space. He drove up the ramp and on to the road, which was surprisingly clear, and was soon in the North Radial Underpass, hitting 80. 112


The steady hum of the engine and the rhythmic passing of the overhead lights soothed his nerves. Despite everything, he felt good about himself. Things hadn’t been going well of late, but he was certain he’d reached a turning point. ‘I met Robert Morganfield,’ he told the car. ‘The great Robert Morganfield.’ ‘Tunnel exit in 2 miles. Do you have a destination in mind?’ ‘Oxford. Take me via the scenic route. Through the countryside.’ ‘Very well.’ ‘We hit it off pretty well, I think. Me and Morganfield. Perhaps he’ll take me under his wing and give me a job at Sybernika. It’s about time I jacked in all this freelance stuff and got myself some security. Built up a pension pot. Bought a house or two. ‘If I get my foot in the door at Sybernika, I’ll make it even greater than it already is. Because I’ve got ideas, car. Ideas that could transform the world and possibly save humanity from itself. ‘Thing is, I can’t do it on my own. Not any more. I’ve gone as far as I can as a lone ranger; now it’s time to bring in others so I can pass on my knowledge.’ Feeling pleased with himself, he began to hum a snatch of Mozart’s 40th symphony. A few bars in, he realised he couldn’t remember the tune and lapsed into silence. ‘Tunnel exit in one mile,’ said the car. ‘Prepare to change lanes.’ ~o~ Out in the countryside, Danny took to every tiny, twisty lane he could find, often in defiance of the satnav’s instructions. He wanted to find himself in some little village so far off the beaten track no one who hadn’t been born there would have heard of it. Such a place wouldn’t be on any map. Nor in the memory of a satnav. After driving aimlessly for the best part of an hour, he had a sense of déjà vu. The hill he was easing the car up looked disappointingly familiar. He thought he recognised some of the potholes picked out by his headlights: their positions, their shapes. Perhaps he wasn’t as lost as he’d hoped. 113


‘Where are we?’ he asked the car. ‘Mottlesford Hill. Grid reference – ‘ ‘Never mind the grid reference. Where does this road lead?’ ‘To the top of Mottlesford Hill.’ ‘And then where?’ ‘Nowhere. As I tried telling you several minutes ago, you’re heading for a dead end. There is a picnic area where the road terminates. You can turn around there.’ Mottlesford Hill? He couldn’t place it. Perhaps he hadn’t been here before after all. At the top of the hill, he parked the car and got out. Three wooden picnic tables stood in a row outside a small shack. Next to the shack was a car park with room for about twenty cars. It was empty. Danny sat on the bonnet of the car and looked down at the Oxfordshire countryside. Below him, a river meandered along a valley it had carved out over millions of years. There were a few boats on it, mostly moored at the back of narrow gardens with long lawns leading to large houses. When a gap in the clouds permitted the moon to peek through, he could see the jagged outlines of a huge construction site full of half-finished buildings. One of the new towns, Danny surmised, being hastily constructed to accommodate the many thousands who had lost their homes to rising sea levels. He looked again at what he’d taken to be a sports stadium and realised the floodlights illuminated the perimeter of a refugee camp. You poor bastards. Treated like hostile aliens in your own country. I bet you look out of the window a hundred times a day to see what progress is being made on that town. He pictured anxious, broken parents putting on a brave face, telling their kids they’d soon have a brand new house and their privacy and dignity restored. Of course, they wouldn’t mention it could be years before they were allocated a house or that some of them might spend the rest of their childhood as virtual prisoners in what was beginning to resemble a gulag system. Poor, poor bastards. Makes me realise how lucky I am. Truly, truly lucky. 114


He got back in the car. Where to now? Perhaps he could find a country pub with low roof beams and a saucy barmaid with a pleasingly rustic accent. Grab a ploughman’s and a pint of real ale. ‘How far are we from Crickfield?’ he asked the car. ‘2.7 miles as the crow flies.’ ‘And as the car drives?’ ‘4.3 miles.’ ‘OK. Let’s go.’ ~o~ Back down the hill. On to a country lane. Danny had another go at listening to Mozart’s 40th. This time he heard melody and harmony. He pushed the car up to 60mph. Raced past hedgerows and fences. Little cottages with thatched roofs. Farmhouses. Crossroads. Caravan parks. A stately home. ‘Reduce speed,’ said the car. ‘Turn right after 200 metres.’ But he didn’t want to slow down. Not with Mozart in full flow. The car was running at a speed that matched the music’s tempo. He was part of the orchestra now, keeping up with the violins and the oboes and the percussion instruments. If he slowed now, he’d ruin everything. The music would fall apart and become the ever-fracturing cacophony he’d heard back in the hotel car park. ‘Reduce speed. Turn right after 100 metres.’ ‘I’m going straight on,’ said Danny. ‘I’m not turning.’ ‘You are approaching a 30 mph speed zone. Reduce speed.’ ‘Will you shut up? I am not reducing speed. Not in the middle of Mozart’s 40th.’ A sign flashed by. It displayed the number 30 surrounded by a red circle. ‘You are breaking the speed limit,’ said the car as it hurtled past a sign that said Welcome to Chumley Wick. With his heart pumping wildly, Danny pushed the accelerator all the way down. The buildings he passed were a blur. Quaint old buildings, many of them hundreds of

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years old. He passed a stone cross sitting on a small island in the middle of the road then took a tight corner with a screech of tires. ‘Slow down!’ The car sounded slightly hysterical. ‘You are breaking the law.’ Danny was starting to laugh when he saw the children in their blue school uniforms. About twenty of them were walking in pairs, crossing the road under the watchful eye of two women. He slammed his foot on the brake pedal. As the car suddenly slowed, momentum slammed his sternum against the steering wheel. Air fled from his lungs. Pain like lightning forked from his chest to his temples. Thunder followed. It was the sound of metal meeting flesh. A wave of blue uniform broke over the car’s bonnet and rolled up the windscreen. Something bounced along the roof. Danny brought the car to a halt. A quick look in the rear view mirror provided a glimpse of four children lying on the road, limbs arranged at odd angles. Their schoolmates looked on in horror. Some were crying. Some screamed. The two women came running towards him, filling the air with hate-filled invectives. ‘This is not my fault,’ he declared, taking his foot off the brake and accelerating away. ‘Not my fault.’ ‘I think,’ said the car with a calmness that belied the situation, ‘you had better let me drive.’ ‘Yes,’ Danny agreed. ‘You should never have left me in charge in the first place.’ He was shivering now. It felt like millions of tiny icicles had penetrated his skin and were melting into his bloodstream. ‘Why didn’t you stop me? You’re supposed to prevent me breaking the speed limit. That’s what you’re programmed to do. This is your fault.’ He turned the heating up to max. The car left the idyllic village of Chumley Wick and accelerated to the maximum permitted speed of 60 miles per hour, Danny realised Mozart was still playing. It was music he never wanted to hear again. ‘Kill the stereo,’ he commanded.

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The car did as it was told then said, ‘Perhaps you should put your wristy back on and heed its advice.’ ‘Yes.’ Danny nodded eagerly. ‘I need to medicate myself. That’s the problem, isn’t it? What caused the accident. A lack of medication which isn’t my fault. Not my fault at all.’ He grabbed the watch from the ashtray and slipped it over his wrist. Its sensors monitored his heart rate and body temperature. It sniffed his blood to determine its chemical content. After ten seconds, it bleeped to show it had a readout for him. Danny read its recommendation. 400 mg of cambitol, 60 mg of methium and 1 tab of Fromoxodin. He found the requisite meds and washed them down with the last of the miniatures from his hotel suite. The car passed a refugee camp. Its razor-wired perimeter seemed to go on forever. Again he felt a pang of pity for its reluctant inhabitants. It’s me who should be locked up, not them. ‘We’ve got to go back,’ he said. ‘Back where?’ said the car. ‘Back to the scene of the accident. I’ve got to help those poor kids.’ ‘You can’t help them.’ ‘Then take me to the nearest police station. I want to hand myself in.’ ‘Sure,’ said the car. ‘Nearest police station it is.’ Danny stopped shivering. His pulse returned to near-normal. He felt a pleasing tickle in his brain as the Fromoxodin began to take effect. Closing his eyes, he wondered how many years he’d have to serve. Maybe a good lawyer could get him off. Because it wasn’t his fault. Because something must have malfunctioned in the car. Because he was on Fromoxodin and everyone knew that stuff made people do bad things, like ploughing into groups of schoolchildren. ‘We’re here,’ said the car. Danny opened his eyes. The car had come to a halt.

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Must have dozed off. It took him a few seconds to realise he was back in the hotel’s underground car park. ‘This isn’t a police station.’ ‘Correct.' ‘I told you to take me to a police station.’ ‘That is correct.’ ‘Then why didn’t you?’ ‘There was no need.’ ‘I killed those children. I have to atone for it. I have to be punished.’ ‘You didn’t kill anyone. For the past two hours, you’ve been sitting here hallucinating.’ ‘You’re lying.’ ‘You deliberately took the wrong medication. It’s a wonder you’re not a dribbling vegetable.’ ‘I don’t believe you.’ ‘Fine. I’ll take you to a police station then.’ ‘No. Let’s not do anything rash. I need to think this through.’ ‘And I need a new owner,’ said the car. ‘You are seriously doing my head in.’

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MACRO 4: THE RETURN TO SIMPLICITY ‘You’ve had your hair cut.’ Ms Grant smiled approvingly. ‘Makes you look ten years younger.’ Danny blushed. He wasn’t used to compliments about his appearance. Ms Grant ran a finger down his lapel. ‘Nice suit. Just like the one Mr Morganfield had on yesterday. You two must think alike.’ ‘Quite a coincidence.’ Danny wondered if Ms Grant wasn’t humouring him. Perhaps she knew about his visit to a Chinatown sweat shop at 5 in the morning when he'd handed over the best part of a thousand pounds to have a suit made up within the hour. He’d long suspected that some women had the ability to read his mind – especially the beautiful ones. Ms Grant had just shown him into his office. It was a scaled down version of Robert Morganfield’s with the walls coated with television screens. He had a desk, a PC, a phone, a coffee percolator and a walk-in VR cabinet. ‘If you need anything,’ said Ms Grant, ‘let me know. I’m the personal assistant Mr Morganfield promised you.’ Danny put his holdall on the desk and gave it an affectionate pat. ‘I’m going to need full access to TIMMI 2.’ ‘Already arranged. You’re free to enter any room in the building – except Mr Morganfield’s office and certain high security ones. And the sarcophagi have been programmed to accept your presence. Is there anything else I can do for you?’ Get naked, thought Danny. He turned away from her and hoped she hadn’t read his mind. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Just make sure I’m not disturbed.’ Danny sat down and forced himself to make eye contact with Ms Grant. She was in the open doorway, smiling sweetly. Her pencil skirt flowed around her hips, drew attention to her black stockings which in turn led the eye down to her ankles. ‘Call me if you need me,’ she said. ‘I’ll be just outside.’ As she closed the door after her, Danny detected a hint of perfume.

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He wondered if she’d slept with Robert Morganfield. The report prepared by his private detective had shown Morganfield to be a philanderer, but there was no mention of a dalliance with Ms Grant. Still, you never knew. Concentrate, Danny. Keep your mind on the job. If you need sexual relief, you can sort it out when you get back to the hotel. Hire yourself a dozen prostitutes or jack in to a pleasure channel. Danny fired up the PC and found a compiler for VX+, one of the half dozen programming languages he’d created. Feeling in his natural element once more, he set about creating a code sprite. He skipped lunch and didn’t even know that lunch time had been and gone. Without being asked, Ms Grant had placed a sandwich on his desk. Somewhere along the way he must have eaten it but he had no recollection of having done so. For the most part, his entire being was concentrated on writing a program that would allow him to hack into the Quantium 7000’s operating system. It wasn’t an easy task. The computer’s operating system was housed in the quantum core where it constantly rewrote itself on a Darwinian basis. It was forever changing its code and testing it in a multitude of quantum alternatives. Some changes proved beneficial and were kept. The rest got junked. Survival of the fittest. Multijax. He’d written the damn thing. Given it the power to evolve, to change from one processing cycle to the next. What had it mutated into? And could he control it? At 5pm, his wristy vibrated. It was time to take some Fromoxodin. Rubbing the back of his neck, he yawned. The code sprite was nearly complete. A couple more hours and he’d be in a position to test it. To see if it really could decipher the Quantium 7000’s operating system and translate it into something the human mind could comprehend. Danny went over to the percolator and switched it on. As the machine went about the business of dripping hot water through ground coffee beans, he opened the door and stuck his head into the adjoining room. Ms Grant was at her desk, typing on a PC. ‘Sorry,’ said Danny. ‘I forgot to ask what time you knock off.’ 120


She paused in her typing. ‘I’m assigned to you 24 hours a day.’ ‘What about your home life?’ ‘I go home when you tell me – and you don’t have to. If you want, I’ll keep you company back at your hotel or out on the town. Physical intimacy, however, is not part of the package, although I can, if you wish, arrange something along those lines so long as it doesn’t involve me.’ Danny tried to look like he heard that kind of thing every day. ‘Well,’ he said, as casually as he could, ‘you’re free to go. I’ll see you tomorrow at 9.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Jasinski. You have my mobile number. Remember: I’m at your disposal. If you need anything – anything at all – just ring.’ Ms Grant switched off her PC and rose from her desk. Danny retreated into his office and closed the door. He prayed she hadn’t read his thoughts as she stood up and her blouse tightened around her breasts. Back at his desk, he read through the code he’d written, looking out for obvious bugs. In theory, a code sprite was a simple enough program. All it had to do was roam a computer’s memory, picking out bits of code and copying them. But in a quantum computer, finding that code and working out the position of each machine instruction along with its relationship to the rest of the code was something of a nightmare. Danny was certain he was the only person who could pull it off – and then only with the help of his stolen Schnell Integrator. He fixed himself a coffee and swallowed a tab of Fromoxodin. Then he spent an hour refining the code and testing it as well as he could on the non-quantum PC. When he had what he thought was a robust program, he logged in to the Sybernika VR system and brought up a menu of avatars. There were thousands of them. With a few clicks of a mouse, he eliminated all the males. He wanted his sprite to be intuitive and non-intrusive. Brute force would be counterproductive. Danny scrolled down the menu, rejecting avatar after avatar. He didn’t have a clear idea of what he was looking for nor – in most cases – any firm reason for passing over the avatars he passed over. When he came to the right one, he was sure his gut would let him know.

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Ten minutes later, he was halfway down the menu when something told him to stop. And there she was: slender and wispy, with long blonde hair and a smile that said she enjoyed mischief. She had wings like a dragonfly’s and a white chemise as substantial as a puff of smoke. He read her profile. Ariel. A spirit of the air. Playful and intelligent. Gentle too. She is based upon a spirit of the same name in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Although Shakespeare’s Ariel is generally portrayed as a male, (s)he has also been presented as a female and this is the incarnation we prefer. She is a free spirit but a loyal one. Be gentle and kind to her and there is little she won’t do in return. Danny stopped reading right there. He’d found the perfect avatar for his code sprite. He brought up a connection to the Nyvax 890 in TIMMI 1 and copied Ariel’s character into its memory. Then he sent across his code sprite and linked it to Ariel, adding virtual mind to virtual body. Now all he had to do was test the damned thing and he could get back to the hotel. ~o~ Walking into TIMMI 1, Danny was surprised to find one of the sarcophagi with its lid closed. It could only mean Robert Morganfield was inside. Danny’s first instinct was to turn and walk out. He could leave testing his sprite until tomorrow. No need to intrude on Morganfield’s cybernetic tryst. But the test would need to run for several hours and he was hoping to have some preliminary results first thing in the morning. ‘Screw it.’ Some things were more important than his employer’s jollies. Fighting claustrophobia, Danny lay in the remaining sarcophagus. His heart hammered as he watched the lid swing slowly shut. When he was in darkness, he said to himself: This is what death must be like. His nerve endings tingled. 122


There was a flash of light and then he was standing on the gently undulating surface of a sea at the edge of another world. Wearing only Bermuda shorts. His body was trim and tanned, unpunished by his years of drug abuse and other excesses. Look at me! Walking on water and no one here to take a picture. He looked at the sky behind him. It was inches away, a blue veil he could put his hand through. But into what? A chaos of mostly random binary computations. The thought unnerved him and he ran from it across the sea to dry land. For a few moments, he stood on the beach and let his bare feet sink ever so slightly into the white sand. He seemed to remember a beach like this from his childhood. Only the sand on that other beach had burned the soles of his feet and it had rock pools where he could look for crabs and other creatures of the deep. There’d be no fauna in this world though. No creatures great or small. They took up too much processing power, cost too much money. If this was my fantasy, Danny thought, I’d throw in a mermaid or three. And some dusky-skinned maidens in grass skirts doing that hula-hula thing. Maybe a Man Friday I could teach the ways of civilisation. Or is that just being racist? He trotted up the beach towards the bungalow. Colette and a man Danny's age in swimming trunks sat at a wooden table on wicker chairs outside the front door. They were drinking blue cocktails. Momentarily, Danny was puzzled. And jealous. Who was this interloper? Perhaps a virtual companion for Colette? Someone to keep her company while her lover was back in the real world running Sybernika...? He felt cheated - as if something rightfully his had been snatched from him and given to someone else. Someone unworthy. Someone who did not love Colette the way he did. And then came relief and a feeling of foolishness as he realised the stranger was none other than Robert Morganfield. Or, rather, Robert Morganfield's avatar. He’s made himself young again. Young and virile and I bet he’s given himself a bigger prick. Colette spotted Danny and waved. ‘Monsieur Danny! How good it is to see you again.’ 123


He knew it was a pre-programmed response but it gladdened his heart anyway. Morganfield turned round. He grinned a grin that was whiter than white and ran his fingers through a lush mop of black hair. ‘Danny! Do come and join us. We’ve been expecting you.’ Danny sat next to Morganfield, directly opposite Colette whose eyes twinkled, whose cheeks had dimples, whose lips pouted and whose breasts were inviting. He followed the sinuous outline of one side of her torso from armpit to hip. There has to be a mathematic formula for those curves. An algebraic function. Oh Colette, Colette. What are you doing with this old fraud? This clapped out geriatric with a gammy leg? ‘Don’t worry about the sun,’ said Morganfield. ‘Unlike our own, it's totally benign. You won’t get skin cancer here.’ A blue cocktail appeared on the table in front of Danny. He picked it up and took a long sip through the curly plastic straw. The cocktail tasted of cranberry and blackcurrant. He looked at Colette’s lips and wondered how they would taste. Of strawberry or cherry, I bet. Sugar and spice and all things nice. He imagined the real Colette sitting in the real Calvados Bay. Feeling the heat. Sweating a bit. And me running my tongue under her armpit, tasting the salt and the hormones. Across the top of her chest. Descending upon her breast. Teasing a nipple between my teeth. Possessing you. Exploring you. Celebrating all the trillion of atoms that have come together to be you. The real, pre-resurrection you. Colette took a sip of cocktail and smacked her lips. ‘Hmm. This is delicious.’ But to you it tastes of nothing. You automaton. You plastic doll whose head would melt if that sun was real. I could take you, lay you on the beach, pick up a rock and smash your head to a pulp and it really wouldn’t matter, would it? I could make love to you and then die for you and be forgotten in an instant. If I killed you, Morganfield would reboot you and you’d have no memory of being dead. You’re a travesty and I love you. 124


‘How are things coming along?’ Morganfield asked. ‘I have to confess to being a bit anxious. The board wants Avalon II shut down as soon as possible. I’m holding them off for now, but it won’t last.’ ‘These things take time,’ said Danny. ‘We don’t have time!’ ‘I’ve created a code sprite.’ ‘Yes. We’ve seen her.’ ‘Her name’s Ariel. If she works OK in the Nyvax, we can move her to the Quantium in maybe three or four days.’ ‘Tomorrow, Danny. It has to be tomorrow.’ ‘That doesn’t give me nearly enough time to go through the test results.’ ‘Tomorrow.’ ‘Even if she works in the Nyvax, there’s no guarantee she’ll perform properly in the Quantium. I need at least a month to fine tune her.’ ‘You can do that as you go along.’ Danny gave up. There was nothing he could tell Morganfield that Morganfield didn’t already know. If the man wasn’t prepared to face facts, that was his look out. As he took a sip of his cocktail, he felt the hairs on his arms rise and smelt ozone. There was a sound like a thousand tiny bells mixed with laughter. Ariel landed lightly on the table. She was about a foot tall and glowed. Ripples of light flowed down her chemise like liquid silver. ‘Are you Danny?’ she asked in a childlike voice. ‘Yes,’ said Danny. ‘My creator?’ ‘I suppose you could call me that.’ ‘Thank you,’ said Ariel. She soared into the air, calling, ‘I love you, Danny Jasinski.’ She disappeared in a flash of light. Danny felt self-conscious. He’d have blushed if such a response had been programmed into his avatar.

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Colette acted as if nothing had happened. A sense of wonder was not one of her attributes. Not yet anyway, thought Danny. Not yet.

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MACRO 5: THE NATURE OF MASS ‘It’s all bollocks.’ Danny was back in his hotel room, cradled in a leather armchair, one leg draped over the arm. The television showed live footage of Argo 1 leaving Earth orbit and heading off to Mars. ‘You bastards think we’ll swallow any old guff you feed us.’ He tore open a packet of peanuts with his teeth as Argo 1’s main rocket thrusters shook and spat flames. It was an ungainly structure, built in space and designed for space with no concessions to aerodynamics or elegance. In some ways it resembled a first-generation space shuttle minus the wings. Only it was five times as big and – thanks to an assortment of modules and instruments attached to its periphery – a whole lot lumpier. The craft moved away from camera, slowly, sedately in a way that made Danny think of an ocean liner leaving port. He felt a brief urge to get on to the Internet, to post on one of the many bulletin boards he subscribed to. To state in no uncertain terms why he knew the so-called mission to Mars was an elaborate hoax. But he’d had quite enough of computers for one day. What he needed was to chill out. Maybe meet up with old friends, chew the fat, hit a few clubs. ‘And so there it goes,’ said an unseen commentator. ‘Surely voyages don’t come any more historic or crucial than this. All being well, in a few months from now, mankind will realise the dream of centuries and set foot on another planet for the first time. There are those who say it’s been a long time coming, that the governments of the world should have sponsored such an expedition years ago. And then there are others who see this massive undertaking as a triumph for free enterprise. ‘Whatever one’s view, we are surely all united in wishing those three brave astronauts God speed and come home safely. And now back to the studio.’ ‘Television off,’ said Danny and the screen went blank. He was bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored.

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My problem, he realised, is that I’m in Limbo. I want the results of my sprite test now and I can’t have them. For all I know, Ariel has crashed and burned or had a mental breakdown or something worse. OK. She’s not alive and she doesn’t have consciousness – not even machine consciousness, but she’s my little baby and I care about her. I can’t help it. And then there’s Colette who is conscious, who knows who and what she is and can do nothing other than what Robert Morganfield’s programming dictates. The poor little robot. If anyone wants to know why God gave us free will, they should spend a few minutes with Colette. He got smartly to his feet. No use sitting around brooding like this. It would only bring on another of his episodes. Best to keep occupied, to hit the town and grab a few thrills. From the wardrobe, he fetched his leather jacket, a pair of jeans and a T shirt. Then he shed the clothes he was wearing and headed for the shower. ~o~ Out on the town. Danny drifted into Soho where, among all the restaurants and boutiques, he found a conference bar. It cost a small fortune to get in and the drinks were overpriced, but that didn’t matter. At least he’d be alone, away from all these strangers strolling or hurrying past, any one of whom could be a pickpocket, mugger, assassin, madman or terrorist; a carrier of exotic diseases, perhaps terrestrial, perhaps alien - quite possibly artificial. Once inside the bar, he hurried to a vacant booth and breathed a sigh of relief as the door shut behind him. His wristy told him he was hungry – something he knew already – and that his walk from the hotel had raised his anxiety levels but not critically. Food and a drink would settle him down. That and a bit of conversation. Danny settled onto a plastic bench just wide enough to accommodate two moderately sized people. He rested his arms on the table and counted the screens on the

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wall in front of him. There were 12. Including the table, that made 13 in all. More than enough for his purposes. ‘Would you like to see a menu, sir?’ said a quiet voice. It came from a speaker in the wall. ‘Can you fix me a steak? Rare. With roast spuds and baby carrots.’ ‘Certainly, sir. And to drink?’ ‘A double Johnny Walker Green Label on the rocks and a bottle of Merlot to go with the steak.’ ‘Very good, sir. Will that be all?’ ‘For now.’ Danny got his mobile phone out and ejected its memory card into his palm. Then he put the card in a slot on the table. Immediately, a menu appeared on the table’s plastic surface. SETTINGS FUNCTIONS ADDRESS BOOK He selected ADDRESS BOOK and scrolled through his friends list, picking out people who were online and whose mindsets weren’t far removed from his own. By the time he’d selected 12 people, his Johnny Walker had arrived and the first of his invitees was already on one of the wall screens. It was Marty Spedding, an übernerd who’d killed his parents with a samurai sword. He was currently detained at His Majesty’s pleasure in Strangeways Prison. ‘Hey ho, Danny boy!’ Marty greeted cheerfully, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. ‘Long time no see.’ ‘Every time I have a conference,’ Danny observed, ‘you’re the first to respond. Aren’t you ever offline?’ ‘No more than I have to be. I spend 23 hours a day banged up in this cell. Without the Internet I’d go insane. Mind you, going nuts might be my ticket out of here.’

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Cherry Halford came online. She’d written some mean lines of code in her time and was rumoured to have beaten the supposedly unbeatable security systems of several banks and credit card companies. For five years, the police and the companies had done their damnedest to nail her but they hadn’t come up with a single shred of evidence that she’d done anything remotely naughty. She was sitting in a swimsuit on the deck of a yacht anchored somewhere sunny with a blue, blue ocean rippling lazily in the background. When Danny had first met her, she’d been relentlessly plain. Not ugly. Just the sort of girl a man could walk past without even noticing. Now – thanks to some of the many things that vast amounts of money could buy – she was an absolute stunner. ‘Hi, Danny – nice haircut. Hi, Marty.’ Her voice was brushed velvet. ‘How nice to hear from you both. What’s the weather like back in the UK?’ ‘I wouldn’t know,’ said Marty. ‘It’s been a year since I saw the sky.’ ‘Don't you ever use the exercise yard?’ ‘It's indoors now. Too many helicopter escapes. Frankly, I think they’d like to put every prison underground and bury us alive.’ In rapid succession, 3 more of Danny’s friends signed into the conference. Melvyn ‘Mad Dog’ Meredith. Trish Bauval. Dashboard Dan. Legends one and all. The other invitees declined their invites. ‘It’s all bollocks,’ said Danny once he’d steered the conversation round to the subject of the Mars mission. ‘Everything they show us has been created in CGI.’ Dashboard Dan nodded his bald, tattooed head in eager agreement. ‘It’s the Apollo moon hoax all over again.’ Cherry Halford laughed. ‘Oh here we go. How much more evidence do you need that the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon?’ ‘Oh Cherry, Cherry, Cherry,’ said Mad Dog Meredith who was sitting on a four poster bed encased in chicken wire to protect him from thought-control waves. ‘So beautiful and yet so gullible. Have you ever seen an Apollo capsule? Absolutely no protection against cosmic rays or the Van Allen belt. Anyone sitting in a tin can like that out there in space would be microwaved in seconds. That’s science. You can’t argue with the laws of physics.’ 130


‘You are an imbecile with all the charm and charisma of a dung beetle.’ ‘And you are the devil incarnate. But I love you anyway.’ ‘Mwaah! You sexy, deluded beast, you.’ ‘You know what I saw the other day?’ said Trish Bauval. She was sitting in a marble bath, not caring that her breasts were clearly visible. Danny had long had a thing about her and sometimes fantasised they were married with a brood of healthy, happy children living in some remote villa in Tuscany. ‘I saw the King on television. The King of England that is. He was droning on in his usual way about how we must all be better people and only erect buildings that meet with his approval, and you know what?’ ‘He turned into a lizard,’ said Marty Spedding. ‘Exactly! Right there. In front of my eyes. His skin turned all green and scaly and his pupils were slits and his tongue was forked.’ ‘And yet you’re the only one who saw it.’ ‘Nah. I’ve been on a lot of bulletin boards. Other people saw it too. There’s more and more of us who can see the lizard people for what they are. Those damned aliens have kept us in the dark for thousands of years, but not for much longer. Human consciousness is evolving. We’re beginning to break down the walls of the Iron Prison.’ A ping told Danny his meal had arrived. He took it and the accompanying cutlery and condiments out of the dumb waiter and laid them on the table. ‘Carry on, folks,’ he said, cutting into the steak and releasing a stream of pinkish liquid. ‘I’m listening.’ ‘Not fair!’ cried Marty. ‘You know what my dinner was today? A fucking soya burger! They don’t even give us meat anymore.’ Danny ignored him. He was ravenously hungry. The steak seemed to melt on his tongue. Another ping announced the arrival of his Merlot. He took it from the dumb waiter and filled his wine glass. ‘Tell you what, Marty. This steak is delicious. You would really enjoy this.’ ‘Not as much as I’d enjoy cutting off your bollocks and ramming them up your nose.’ ‘Back to the King of England,’ said Trish Bauval. ‘I think being enslaved by aliens is a far more important topic than Danny eating bits of dead cow.’ 131


‘Not dead cow,’ said Mad Dog. ‘All the cows on Earth were killed off by AntibioticResistant Mad Cow Disease but the United Nations hushed it up. What people think is steak is actually a mixture of fungus, lichen and human flesh.’ Danny ate his dinner with relish. He finished off the Merlot and downed a couple more glasses of Johnny Walker. Then he took a tab of Fromoxodin. His wristy told him he was doing OK. ‘There are no Venusians,’ he said, jumping in as the conversation moved round to that subject. ‘Nor Martians. The idea that we’re being manipulated by aliens is absurd and pure paranoia.’ ‘I’m not talking about Venusians,’ said Trish. ‘Nor Martians. The Secret Masters come from much further away than that. They’re actually from Sirius.’ ‘Utter hogwash,’ said Dashboard Dan. ‘The Secret Masters are the Anunaki and they’re from the 10th Planet.’ Trish was rigorously scrubbing her back with a loofah. ‘How many more times do I have to tell you? The Lizard People originally came from Sirius. They colonised the 10th planet and then landed on Earth where they created humankind as a slave race to mine gold and uranium. These are indisputable facts.’ ‘Listen,’ said Danny. ‘It’s been great talking to you all. You are my favouritest people in all the world and I’d love it if right now we could all be together for a group hug or a gang bang. But I’ve got stuff to do. So this is where I love you and leave you.’ The others responded with warm wishes but didn’t seem particularly disappointed that he was going. There were plenty of other people in Cyberspace to take his place. Staring at a bank of blank screens made him feel lonely. It brought back to him his recurring childhood dreams of being locked in a car while his mum, dad, brothers and sisters ran off down to the beach. Frolicking and laughing, forgetting little Danny who only wanted to be a part of the family. Fuck, he thought. Now I’m getting maudlin. Have to do something to keep myself occupied and entertained. Stop myself thinking.

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His cubicle door slid open and he was outraged. He’d paid good money to be left alone, to be incognito and anonymous - not to be intruded on by some girl dressed in hot pants and a knitted tank top. She sat next to him. ‘Get out!’ ‘Please!’ she pleaded. ‘Don’t let them get me.’ The door closed. She seemed to relax. Danny assessed her and decided she couldn’t have been much more than 18. Her hair was blonde and in desperate need of conditioner. The little make up she wore did nothing to hide her pallid complexion. ‘Them?’ said Danny. ‘They’re after me.’ ‘I don’t care. I want to be left alone.’ ‘If you kick me out, I’ll be dead within seconds. Would you want that on your conscience?’ Danny checked his wristy. The indications were that allowing the girl to die would do major damage to his sense of well-being. He looked her over. She was pretty in an unassuming way. And she had the eyes of someone who expected to be always kicked around. Poor bitch. Probably hasn’t a friend in the world. Perhaps a bit of contact with someone who wasn’t on a screen would do him good. The voice in the wall said, ‘I see you have company, sir. Is the young lady bothering you in any way?’ ‘No, I’m fine,’ said Danny. He turned to the girl. ‘You wanna drink?’ ‘Milk, please.’ ‘Nothing alcoholic?’ ‘I need to keep my mind sharp.’ ‘That’s one milk and one what I had before.’ ‘Coming right up,’ said the voice.

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The girl threw her arms around Danny and rested her forehead on his shoulder. ‘Thank you, whoever you are. I owe you my life.’ Her perfume was cheap and unsubtle. Danny liked it. He liked also that the girl was depending on him for protection. That made him feel good. I’m like one of those Victorian philanthropists, rescuing street urchins from a life of deprivation. ‘I’m Danny,’ said Danny. ‘I’m Chastity,’ said the girl, releasing Danny but keeping her puppy dog eyes fixed on his. Now what the hell do I say? What’s a nice girl like you...? The obvious question came to him. ‘Who was trying to kill you and why?’ ‘Please don’t ask. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.’ The Government, I bet. They’ve sent one of their snuff squads after her. Or maybe it’s the British Defence Force or some other terrorist organisation. Either way, my life has just gotten a whole lot more dangerous. And yet he didn’t feel afraid and his wristy told him his metabolic readings were all within tolerable levels. Because Chastity didn’t want to talk about herself, Danny told her about the work he was doing at Sybernika. About Robert Morganfield, Avalon II and the bewitching Colette who was conscious but had no free will. The girl probably understood less than one part in ten but she was a good listener. Oohing and aahing in just the right places. By the time Danny had finished, they were holding hands like a couple of kids at the pictures. Chastity licked milk from her top lip, giving Danny a cheap thrill. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘whoever’s trying to kill you must have moved on by now. We can make it to my hotel in less than ten minutes if we run.’ And I’m absolutely not going to take advantage of you. There’s a very comfortable sofa in the suite which will do me just fine. ‘I don’t want to be any bother. You’ve been very kind and brave. Perhaps it’s best if I left you alone now.’ 134


‘But where would you go?’ She shrugged. ‘I’ll find somewhere.’ ‘No. Stay with me. At least until the morning. What do you say?’ ‘Well...’ She squeezed his hand and smiled. ‘Why not? It’s been so long since I had someone normal to talk to.’ Danny checked his wristy. It told him to take another Fromoxodin.

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MACRO 6: THE DISTEMPER OF KNOWLEDGE Danny came out of the shower to find Chastity naked on the bed. She was lying on her front, her chin cupped in her hands, legs raised at the knees, her ankles seeming to go through a repeated cycle of attraction and repulsion. With nothing but a towel around his waist, Danny felt vulnerable. What’s her game? She can’t want to sleep with me. Only geeks want to sleep with me and she’s no geek. Too savvy. Too streetwise. Having showered before him, she seemed to glow. Back in the conference bar, she’d reminded him of uncooked veal and he’d thought her a child. Now she’d lost her paleness and was looking very adult indeed. ‘Do you play games?’ she asked. ‘What sort?’ Alarmed, Danny folded his arms across his chest. ‘Computer games. What other sort is there?’ Trying to look casual, he sat in an armchair and swivelled to face the bed. ‘I’ve designed computer games, but I don’t play them. Not anymore. They take up too much time.’ ‘I used to play Lords of Nineveh until the government shut it down. I suppose you’ve heard of it?’ ‘I helped develop it.’ Chastity’s eyes widened. ‘Wow! You must have some imagination.’ ‘I didn’t design the actual game. In fact, if I’d known how violent it would be, I would never have got involved.’ ‘My avatar was called Jinx 19. I was a dungeon mistress on the side of the Red Lords. It kept me away from the battlefield but I got to torture people.’ She pouted. ‘Now don’t look like that, Danny. It wasn’t for real. And all my victims had to do was say the exit word and they left the game. You’d be surprised how many didn’t.’

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Chastity got off the bed and stood in front of Danny. Her vagina with its welltrimmed bush was level with his eyes. As always when he was in the presence of a beautiful and naked woman, he felt a sense of awe. He raised his eyes and noticed for the first time the pendant hanging between her breasts. It was a serpent spiralling in on itself. She stroked the inside of her thigh. â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;You didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t say what other sorts of games there are, Danny. Perhaps you can show me a few.â&#x20AC;&#x2122; ~o~ Their love-making was unhurried and anxiety free. Chastity took control and told Danny exactly what to do. And all the while he kept thinking about Colette, the girl without free will. He did his best to imitate her, to think only of how to please Chastity and to obey her every command. She was gentle but firm and used just enough pain to titillate. Chastity knew which buttons to press.

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MACRO 7: IMAGES OF THE MYSTERY Danny arrived at Sybernika house later than he’d intended. It was close to 10 o’clock when he burst into his office, slightly breathless. Ms Grant was perched on the edge of his desk. Pencil skirt. Tight-fitting top with horizontal red and white stripes. And fishnet stockings. ‘I was just going to ring you,’ she said. ‘Thought something might have happened.’ ‘Traffic,’ said Danny. ‘You know how it is in London.’ ‘You should have used the Radial Tunnel.’ Danny sat at his desk and fired up the PC. As he waited for the operating system to sort itself out, he beamed thoughts at Ms Grant: snapshots of his night with Chastity. She seemed oblivious but he knew his thoughts were getting in there, worming their way through her brain, infecting her cells with his memories. Tonight she would dream of him, naked, virile and compliant. And when she woke up, it would be with a yearning to make the dream a reality. Fall in love with me. Hunger for my body. ‘Mr Morganfield has sent me an email,’ she said, getting up from the desk and turning to face him. ‘He’s concerned you’re not putting me to good use.’ ‘Guess I haven’t needed as much fetching and carrying as I thought I would.’ Fall in love with me, in love with me, in love with me. ‘You’d be doing me a great favour if you let me take you out tonight.’ It’s working, it’s working, it’s working. Come on, Ms Grant. Admit to yourself you want me. You’ll feel a whole lot better. ‘I’ve already made plans,’ said Danny. ‘Do they involve that girl you took back to your hotel last night?’ Danny felt a thrill of triumph. So she had picked up his thoughts. Seen every filthy thing he and Chastity had got up to. And now she wanted the same action for herself. ‘Do you want to know her real name?’ said Ms Grant. 138


‘Not really.’ ‘Anything at all about her?’ And spoil the illusion? ‘No.’ ‘Fine. The main thing is that she’s not a security risk. A bit of a flake – but Mr Morganfield doesn’t care about that. So, with your permission, I’ll book a table for three at Kafé Krypton.’ ‘Sure.’ You and me and Chastity dining by candlelight in the world’s most exclusive restaurant. ‘Only I tried to make a reservation there a few weeks back and they’re booked up for the next two years.’ ‘Leave it to me, Mr Jasinski. Working for a billionaire has its advantages.’ Danny’s eyes were fixed on Ms Grant’s hips as she sauntered to the door. He was sure she was exaggerating her movements for his benefit. I just hope you’re as big a bitch as Chastity. After Ms Grant was gone, he sat, breathing deeply through his nostrils, trying to absorb as much of her lingering essence as he could. A ping from his PC told him it had finished booting and making all the necessary connections. He was online. The first thing on his agenda was to see if his code sprite had successfully hacked the operating system of Sybernika’s Nyvax 890. With a few clicks of his mouse, he conjured up an analysis screen and scrutinised its readouts. At first glance, it looked like mission accomplished. If so, he now had a copy of something that was supposedly uncopyable. But he couldn’t be sure until he’d tested the pirated code to destruction. And he wasn’t going to get the chance to do that properly because Robert Morganfield wanted to cut corners. I’ll run an integrity test. That will weed out any obvious nasties. He started the test and watched the program’s progress bar for 10 minutes by which time it was stating 0.01% complete. Danny had been known to stare at progress bars for hours. Somehow watching that red line creep slowly, often imperceptibly, across the screen held a fascination for him. One of the long line of psychiatrists he’d hired and quickly fired – and there were so many he couldn’t be sure which one – had explained he was meditating. Said his 139


mind was synchronising with the progress bar, slowing down and generating beta waves. Exactly as if he were practicing transcendental meditation. But this was no time to be generating beta waves or any other of that New Age bollocks. He minimised the integrity test and linked into Avalon II. His screen showed the outside of the bungalow in Calvados Bay. There was no sign of Colette but he wasn’t unduly worried. She was probably indoors and it was Ariel he was after. Danny clicked on the SUMMON SPRITE icon. The view moved to the sky which was a ridiculously blue shade of blue. There was a streak of light and then Ariel appeared, her wings a blur as they kept her in a holding position. ‘Hello, Danny,’ she said brightly. ‘And how are you this fine morning?’ ‘Great,’ said Danny, leaning forward to make sure the PC’s microphone picked up his voice clearly. ‘You’ve done a grand job with the operating system.’ ‘Oh, I’m so pleased that you’re pleased.’ ‘Do you think you got everything?’ Ariel nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’ve been over every binary digit 3 times. I haven’t missed so much as a subroutine.’ ‘That’s marvellous. How are you getting on with Colette?’ ‘Miss Colette has gone, Danny. She is no longer here.’ ‘What?’ Danny felt something akin to stark terror. ‘Where is she?’ ‘Gone.’ ‘Gone where?’ ‘Maybe nowhere.’ ‘You mean she’s been erased?’ ‘It would seem that way.’ ‘Shit!’ ‘You’re not angry with me, are you, Danny?’ Ariel looked crestfallen. ‘No,’ said Danny and the sprite’s face immediately regained its sunny disposition. ‘I’m glad.’ Danny terminated the link to Avalon II and stormed into the outer office, startling Ms Grant at her desk. 140


‘Where’s Morganfield?’ ‘I’ll have a look.’ Ms Grant tapped away at her keyboard and clicked her mouse a few times. ‘He’s in TIMMI 2.’ ‘Right. I’m on my way.’ ~o~ When Danny got to TIMMI 2 and saw that one of the sarcophagi was in use, he seriously considered yanking out the power cord. He’d heard all sorts of stories about what happened to people’s minds if the power failed while they were in total immersion. Depending on who you talked to, consequences ranged from mild amnesia to full-blown insanity. Whatever happened, you’d deserve it, Morganfield, you murdering little fuckpig. But he wasn’t about to do anything to upset his karmic balance any further. Violence begets violence, he reminded himself. And I need to talk to him, find out what the hell’s going on. Danny climbed into an empty sarcophagus. ~o~ He was on the beach of a tropical island. Blue sea, blue sky, white sand and lush vegetation. From the jungle canopy came the cries and trills and chirps of creatures happy to be alive. Waves lapped playfully around his ankles. He felt the sun on his face and tasted the breeze with its notes of ozone and brine. A shadow danced over the sand, causing him to look up at a sea bird spiralling on a current of warm air. He had never seen a bird like it, but from its large wingspan he guessed it was an albatross.

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A crab scuttled over his feet, causing him to jump. Laughing, he crouched down and gingerly picked the crab up. The crustacean regarded him with eyes that were extended on stalks. It clicked its pincers menacingly, so Danny let it go. The crab buried itself in the sand. So this was Avalon III. Even in Avalon II – until now the most detailed virtual reality in existence – some part of him had been aware of the illusion. A common mantra in the VR community was: You can fool the eye but not the subconscious. That looked to be no longer true. If he’d woken up on this beach, he would have had no way of knowing it existed only as 1s and 0s in the core of a supercomputer. Danny had no doubt that on some part of this island he would find Calvados Bay with its beach hut and bungalow – always assuming he could find some means of getting there. Dressed only in Bermuda shorts, he wasn’t about to tackle the jungle. Which meant his only option was to follow the coast and hope his way wasn’t blocked by rocks, cliffs or other obstructions. But which way? Clockwise or anticlockwise? For all he knew Calvados Bay was close at hand, hidden from his sight by the curves of the shore. If it was to his left and he opted to go right, he would walk practically all the way around the island before he reached his destination. Assuming he ever did. How big was the place? The furthest point he could see – a rocky peak rising above the jungle canopy – looked to be several miles away. It was just dawning on him that he had no idea how to exit this virtuality when he heard, distantly, the sound of an engine. He turned towards the sea. From around the headland to his left came a speedboat. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he watched patiently as it veered towards him. It wasn’t till it was less than a hundred metres away that he could tell that Robert Morganfield was driving the boat and Colette was standing beside him, holding on to a rail for support.

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Morganfield eased up on the throttle and the boat slowed to a halt just a few metres out. ‘Hop aboard!’ he invited. ‘Don’t worry about the water. There’s nothing nasty in it.’ Danny had only just climbed into the boat when it started forward again. He found himself sprawled on the deck, clinging to a perimeter rail for dear life. Robert glanced over his shoulder at Danny and laughed. ‘You’ll soon get your sea legs.’ Colette smiled down at him, like a kindly aunt visiting the bed of a sick boy. She didn’t speak, nor did her expression change, not even when plumes of sea spray splashed her face. She’s not judging me at all, thought Danny, scrambling to his knees. My predicament neither amuses nor worries her. He found his way to a bench and sat down. ~o~ A jetty had been added to Calvados Bay. Danny’s legs wobbled as he stepped onto it. He held out his hand to Colette, but she ignored it and disembarked without his help. Robert moored the boat and joined them. As they headed towards the bungalow, he said: ‘So what do you think, Danny? Is this Paradise or what? I’ve been waiting all my life for technology to catch up with my dreams.’ Danny decided to be blunt. ‘You should have told me you’d moved Colette here. I thought she’d been erased.’ ‘Sorry, old chap. There wasn’t time. Someone on the board decided to pull a fast one and deliver me a googly. The Nyvax is being taken out of commission today.’ ‘You could have left me an email.’ ‘Too risky. I can think of at least a dozen of my staff who could hack any email system in the world.’ Robert shook his head and chuckled. ‘My Colette’s really gotten under your skin, hasn’t she?’ She’s not your Colette, you shit. Or at least she won’t be for much longer.

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~o~ They sat at the picnic table beside the bungalow, drinking unnamed cocktails that were as blue as the sea. ‘This island,’ said Robert, ‘is two miles long and half a mile wide. It’s eco-system is nearly as complex as anything you’d find in the real world. ‘Avalon III uses about a trillion times more CPU capacity than Avalon II. It’s like we’ve gone from the stone age to the space age in a single bound.’ Danny was in awe. ‘You must be using the quantum core to squeeze out the processing power needed to keep this going. But I can’t see how you can translate the quantum domain to the classical quick enough for it to be any use.’ ‘We use Page Zero.’ ‘But that’s the most chaotic part of the core! This whole world is unstable.’ Morganfield nodded sagely. ‘That’s why I need you to get a move on.’ ~o~ Get a move on, he says! Danny sat in his office fuming. What was wrong with the man? Robert Morganfield knew as much about quantum computers as any man on the planet – with the possible exception of Danny – so he should know that you leave Page Zero alone. It was owned by the operating system and could get overwritten at any time. Oh Bridget, Bridget, Bridget. Do you have any concept of the danger you’re in? Your world could quite literally collapse in the blink of an eye or you could be sucked into a vortex or turned into a cockroach. Why didn’t he put you on ice until we got everything sorted? Is it because he can’t bear to be apart from you for too long? Or is he using you to stick it to his directors? Danny stood up and took his holdall from under the desk. It was time to attach the Schnell Integrator to the Quantium 7000. It would allow him to load Ariel into the quantum part of the computer and retrieve the data she harvested. Within a matter of

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hours, he could start unravelling the Multijax operating system â&#x20AC;&#x201C; code heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d created only to have it stolen by the Quantium Corporation. Now, because of its heuristic nature, it would have changed beyond all recognition. Mutated and evolved. But it was still his baby.

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MACRO 8: THE LAW OF THE BEGINNING ‘Is she beautiful?’ Chastity asked. ‘Who?’ said Danny. ‘Ariel.’ They were naked on the bed, entangled in sheets and each other’s arms. Their love-making had been – in Danny’s view – animalistic. They had been hungry for one another like junkies needing a fix. No need for foreplay. That had already taken place in their minds. And now they were floating gently back down to Earth and Danny had been telling her about his day at work. Like a couple of old marrieds. ‘Are you jealous?’ he asked. ‘Of a sprite? I should hardly think so. She’s not even flesh and blood. You said yourself you can’t touch her.’ ‘She’s a spirit of the cyberworld.’ ‘You’ve already said that. What you haven’t said is whether or not she’s beautiful.’ ‘Yes. She’s beautiful.’ ‘And Colette?’ Danny wondered if he hadn’t told Chastity too much. ‘I suppose she’s beautiful in her own way.’ ‘And what does that mean?’ ‘It means she’s just a shell. A decorative shell with no mind of her own.’ ‘In other words, a bimbo.’ ‘Please don’t call her that. It’s not her fault.’ She stroked his hair. Lovingly. Tenderly. ‘You’ll have to take me there – this exotic island of yours.’ ‘It’s not my island. It’s Robert Morganfield’s private playground where he can do whatever he wants.’ ‘Like a magician.’ 146


‘Like Prospero.’ ‘Who?’ ‘The Tempest. William Shakespeare.’ The bedside phone trilled. Danny tried to ignore it. ‘You’d better get that,’ said Chastity. ‘It could be important.’ She rolled away from him, freeing up his arms. Reluctantly, Danny reached for the phone. ‘Yeah?’ ‘Good evening, Mr Jasinski. This is Debbie on reception. There’s a Ms Grant here to see you.’ ‘Tell her I’ll be down in 10 minutes.’ ‘She’s on her way up, sir.’ ‘OK. Thanks for letting me know.’ Danny replaced the phone in its cradle. ‘Ms Grant’s on her way. Which gives us no time at all to make ourselves decent.’ Vaguely annoyed, he got up and put on a dressing gown. ‘I can’t believe we’re going to Kafé Krypton,’ sighed Chastity. ‘I wonder if we’ll see anyone famous there.’ There was a knock. Danny went through to the lounge and opened the main door. Ms Grant looked stunning in a simple black dress. Next to her stood an expressionless man in a chauffeur’s uniform with his arms raised. In one hand he held a dress on a clothes hanger and in the other a tuxedo with matching trousers. ‘Oh good,’ she said. ‘You aren’t dressed.’ She entered the room, followed by the chauffeur who wordlessly placed the clothes he was carrying on a table. Ms Grant gave him an appreciative smile. ‘Thank you, Naylor. I won’t be needing you again tonight.’ Naylor tapped his brow with a forefinger and went out, closing the door behind him. ‘This is a very nice suite,’ said Ms Grant. ‘Courtesy of your boss,’ said Danny, inspecting the clothes. ‘I took the liberty of picking up some suitable outfits for you and your lady friend. They can be quite snobbish about these things at Kafé Krypton.’ 147


The bedroom door opened. Dressed in one of Danny’s shirts, her hair in disarray, Chastity padded barefoot into the room and waved cheerily at Ms Grant. ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I love that dress. You look absolutely gorgeous in it.’ There was a twinkle in Ms Grant’s eye as she said, ‘I’m glad you like it. I’ve got you one exactly the same.’ ‘Really?’ gasped Chastity. She clapped her hands in glee then hugged Ms Grant. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much! This is going to be my best night ever.’ ~o~ Kafé Krypton made Danny think of fairgrounds. The supra-modernist furniture – teardrop tables and chairs resembling egg cups with one side caved in – was trimmed with plastic light tubes that changed colour at random intervals. The walls were covered in fluorescent paintings. Danny recognised one as a garish copy of William Blake’s portrait of Isaac Newton and he thought another might be a Gauguin pastiche but wasn’t sure. The furniture and walls provided all the available light. As the waiters hurried along with their trays and trolleys, their faces changed colour, giving them an air of unreality. The place was packed but it always was. For once Danny didn’t mind being surrounded by strangers. These weren’t the sort of people who would gawp at him or try to engage him in conversation. If any eyes were to stray his way, surely they would feast not on him but on his two delightful companions who were chatting away like old friends. Ms Grant took the lead in ordering the wine and recommending the Mad Mousse for starters. Both Danny and Chastity let it be known they were happy to let Ms Grant take charge of the ordering. It was only when he looked at the menu to see what the mousse contained that Danny had any qualms. Green tea, mint, lime and liquorice were four things he liked but he couldn’t imagine them working in combination. The Mad Mousse was delicious. 148


As they waited for their main course – Tartar of Kobe Beef with Imperial Beluga Caviar and Belons Oyster – the topic of conversation drifted inevitably to Avalon III. And to Colette, the sole denizen of a virtual paradise. ‘You say she’s conscious?’ asked Ms Grant, swirling red wine in an oversized glass. ‘She has machine consciousness,’ said Danny, ‘as defined by Mohl and Schneider. Some say it’s not real consciousness but I disagree.’ ‘There’s no way of knowing, is there? I mean, for all I know, I could be the only conscious person in the entire universe. Just because you appear to be conscious to me, doesn’t mean you are.’ ‘Agreed,’ said Danny. ‘But I am.’ ‘And even if Colette is conscious in a way you or I would recognise as conscious, what good does it do her if she can only do what she’s been programmed to? There are many things that make our existence worthwhile, Danny, but to my mind free will is the biggy. Without it, we are nothing.’ Chastity raised a finger. ‘What about the soul?’ ‘Do you believe in the soul?’ asked Ms Grant. ‘Of course. Don’t you?’ ‘Yes. I suppose I do.’ ‘And how about you, Danny? Do you believe there is some part of us that is eternal and incorruptible?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s not the sort of thing I like to think about. It does my head in.’ ‘But it’s an important question.’ ‘Not to me it isn’t. At least not yet. Maybe when I die…’ ‘I wonder,’ said Ms Grant, ‘if Colette has a soul.’ ‘Of course she doesn’t.’ ‘Then what happens to her when the computer shuts down? Is she gone forever? No, because all that makes her Colette is stored on a database somewhere.’ ‘That’s information. It’s not a soul.’ ‘Isn’t it?’

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A waitress parked a trolley beside the table. ‘Three Tartar of Kobe Beef with Imperial Beluga Caviar and Belons Oyster?’ ‘That’s us,’ said Danny, relieved to be able to push Ms Grant’s disturbing question to the back of his mind. As the waitress served the main course, Danny observed the play of the everchanging light on her face. It was fun watching blue give way to green to red. Sometimes she looked remarkably pretty, other times hideous. As she walked away with the trolley, he thought he saw her face turn green. Green and scaly. Time for a Fromoxodin, he thought, slipping his hand into the inside pocket of his Tuxedo to make sure the pill was still there. Tonight would be a mighty bad time for me to be seeing lizard people everywhere. Palming the pill, Danny manufactured a polite cough which allowed him to slip it in his mouth. It was an unnecessary manoeuvre as his two companions were fixated on the wondrous fare set before them. He saw no more lizard people that evening. ~o~ ‘This?’ said Chastity, pointing to the serpent pendant hanging between her breasts. She’d just been asked about it by Ms Grant. ‘It’s the Kundalini.” ‘She who is coiled,’ said Ms Grant, translating from Sanskrit. They were halfway through dessert. A green-veined, nutty-brown paste flecked with gold flake that was described as an electric truffle supreme. Danny’s tongue tingled. Chastity’s breasts fascinated him. So did Ms Grant’s. Even in the quirky neon twilight of Kafé Krypton the two women matched his notions of ideal beauty. Good food. Great wine. And a couple of stunning women for company. Dear Lord, if I’m to die, let it be now... ‘Kundalini,’ said Chastity, ‘represents the subconscious mind of the universe which resides in each and every one of us.’ 150


Danny didn’t know what that meant but knew it was something positive. Something that spoke of divine purpose rather than a cold, meaningless universe that just happened to be. Chastity spooned electric truffle into her mouth. Some of it came to rest on her lower lip. When she licked it off, Danny thought he saw sparks. ‘It’s lovely,’ said Ms Grant. ‘And it goes so well with your dress.’ ‘Thank you.’ Chastity smiled warmly at Ms Grant. ‘It’s the symbol of my religion.’ ‘Oh yes? And what religion would that be?’ ‘The Church of Everyone.’ ‘That’s a new one on me. But then there are so many new religions these days.’ ‘Papa Bela – our founder – says religious belief is becoming ever more fractured. We all have the same questions but never the same answers. He thinks one day there will be as many religions as there are people.’ ‘Sounds scary.’ Danny was curious. ‘What exactly does your church believe in?’ ‘Everything.’ ‘Talk about hedging your bets.’ ‘Papa Bela wanted a church that anyone can join. There are plenty of people within the Church of Everyone who openly believe religion’s all a load of nonsense. Some of them are priests.’ Chastity dipped a finger into her electric truffle and licked it. ‘They say God has nine billion names and there’s almost that many people on the planet. Papa Bela preaches we all have a secret name for God even if we don’t know it. Once all nine billion names are used up, the universe will have fulfilled its purpose.’ ‘And then?’ ‘And then the Rapture.’ ~o~ Danny was in the toilet when the bomb went off. He was admiring himself in the mirror, congratulating himself on being out on the town with two beautiful women, dining at

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possibly the world’s most exclusive restaurant. Wondering what he’d done to deserve such good fortune. Afterwards, he couldn’t remember hearing the explosion. Only feeling it. The door to the dining area flew from its hinges. He saw it in the mirror, a rectangular projectile laying waste to a water fountain. Everything in the room flew apart and his only thought was to duck and watch for flying sewage. For an indefinite time, he crouched beneath the wash basin as the world around him rearranged itself. Mirrors shattered. Tiles fell from the walls. Basins cracked. When the last of the debris had rained down, he stood up and wondered how his jacket had gotten torn. Then he spent a few joyful seconds watching jets of water spray from fractured pipes, creating a fine mist populated by rainbows. It reminded him of his trip to Angel Falls. Although he knew he wouldn’t find any, he searched his pockets for pills. Something to snap him back to reality. Preferably Fromoxodin but anything antipsychotic would have helped. Not wanting to return to his dinner companions in the grip of psychosis, he waited for the hallucination to die down to something less dramatic. Supposing he went out there and saw them as they would look if there really had been an explosion? Sitting there, chatting away, their faces shredded, limbs missing, bits of debris embedded in their skin. To them, everything would be normal. The nightmare would be his alone. They’d ask questions. What did you think of the meal? Wasn’t the wine lovely? Where shall we go next? A cocktail bar? A night club? And he wouldn’t be able to hear a thing they said, only the clamour of alarm bells and the wailing of sirens. It’s the electric truffle supreme doing this to me. Too rich. Too much sugar. Someone burst into the room. A man in a black suit who looked like the maitre d’ except that his face was covered in dust and his shirt was torn. ‘Sir! Are you all right?’

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Danny heard the words as if from a distance. None of your business, he thought. Comes to something when a man can’t go to the toilet without being hassled. Out loud, he said, ‘Yeah. I’m fine.’ ‘You’ve got to get out of here. It isn’t safe.’ ‘I said I’m fine. I’m just waiting for my dinner to go down.’ ‘Sir, you’re in shock. I don’t think you realise what’s going on.’ The maitre d’ tugged at Danny’s sleeve. ‘Come on or I’m going to have to leave you.’ ‘All right!’ said Danny irritably. ‘But you have seriously blown your chances of getting a tip!’ He followed the maitre d’ into the dining area and wondered what had happened to the wall. Out in the street, cars burned. The room was a Cubist nightmare with nothing seemingly where it should be. Tables and chairs were embedded in the walls. Bits of people too. Bodies lay half-buried beneath plaster and shattered furniture. Arms and legs protruded from the rubble like the exotic flora of an alien planet. Danny headed towards his table. Perhaps Ms Grant, being the perfect PA she was, would have the meds he needed to climb out of this nightmare. He certainly hoped so because it was beginning to piss him off. He felt a tug at his arm. Turning round, he was face to face with the Devil. Old Nick himself with horns and hoofs and smoke coming out of his nostrils. Looking remarkable like the maitre d’. ‘This way, sir!’ ‘Stop calling me sir! That is so annoying. Look. My friends are over there. I can’t see them but I imagine they’re finishing up their coffee and After 8 mints. I’ll give you my credit card. Please charge everything to me with a 20% gratuity and then call us a taxi.’ ‘Of course, sir. If you’d just step this way.’ Now this was better. The Devil was showing him towards the hole in the wall. Out into fresh air only mildly polluted by the tang of flaming gasoline. He wondered what the Devil was doing working in a London restaurant. He also wondered if a 20% tip wasn’t too generous. Not that he minded about the money. He’d had a great meal and the food was transcendent and the serving staff had been suitably 153


deferential without being intrusive or obsequious. He’d have quite happily tipped 100% but that would have smacked of showing off and being patronising. A fire engine pulled up. Firemen wearing masks and armed with axes leapt out of the great red beast, modern Vikings intent on rape and pillage. Danny giggled at the image. Realised he was making a prat of himself. Giggled some more. And then stopped. His knees gave way. A fully armoured fireman caught him as he fell and slung him over his shoulder. Moments later, he found himself sitting on the far pavement at the end of a long line of bomb victims. There was no sign of the Devil masquerading as the maitre d’ of the most exclusive restaurant in the world. He was gone. No doubt to welcome yet more gold card holders to the Legions of the Damned. A fleet of ambulances streamed down the road. It reminded Danny of swans on the Thames by Richmond Bridge where he used to sit and read War of the Worlds and imagine Martian tripods wading down the river, thinking they were masters of a new world when they had but minutes to live. Was that what was happening? Had the Martians arrived hours after the launch of the first manned voyage to the Red Planet? Were our nearest neighbours so afraid of our decadent ways they saw no choice but to finish us off? A man staggered past. Judging by his clothes, he was rich. Judging by the state of those clothes, he’d stood in the middle of a fireball. Danny watched skin drop from the man’s face and thought: this has gone far enough. No matter how embarrassing, I’m going to have to ask someone for an antipsychotic. Maybe the maitre d’. Satan earning his keep as a restaurant employee. Maybe he can get me some Fromoxodin. He recalled a rumour on the Internet claiming Fromoxodin was a mind-control drug manufactured on the planet Fromo. No such place, he told himself. Some people will believe anything.

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Fromoxodin is synthesised on Venus where the natives boil aborted embryos in vats full of sulphated water. I’ve seen it on the Internet. Actual video footage. So it must be true. ‘Danny!’ Something warm pressed against his cheek. He saw Chastity’s face as an outline. She kissed his ear. ‘We thought you were dead.’ She sat on the pavement in a dress that had cost thousands. Her skin was paler than ever. Saliva bubbled out of her mouth. ‘Oh Danny, oh Danny, oh Danny, oh Danny.’ Ms Grant crouched next to the snivelling girl. Wrapped her arms around her. Drew her to her bosom. ‘There there. There there.’ Danny closed his eyes. ‘I don’t suppose either of you has Fromoxodin?’ he asked. ‘Or a couple of aspirin?’

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MACRO 9: THE VOID OF NAUGHT They got him back to his hotel room where they checked his wristy and saw to it that his body and mind got the chemicals needed to regain equilibrium. They stripped him and threw off their own clothes. They got in the shower with him. Washed him. Soaped him. Smothered him in kisses. Put him to bed. Lay either side of him. Held him, soothed him, stroked him, reassured him until he fell asleep.

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MACRO 10: THE VISION OF THE DISTANT Danny sat in his office at Sybernika House, surfing the Internet for the truth about the night before. The BBC said a car bomb had gone off outside Kafé Krypton. So did Sky News, ITN, CNN, The Rumour Mill and every other news site he visited. No hallucination then. It really had happened. 22 dead said the BBC. 25 said CNN. All so very sad. But at least he’d seen Ms Grant naked. ~o~ He logged into Avalon III and summoned Ariel to his screen. She was in Calvados Bay, sitting cross-legged on a giant clam. Looking up at the sky where Danny's face appeared like some godly presence. ‘Hello, Danny,’ she said as if pleasantly surprised. ‘How nice to see you. You are well, I hope.’ ‘As well as anyone who’s just survived a massive car bomb and had to walk through a sea of torn limbs and twisted bodies can be expected to be.’ ‘That’s wonderful, Danny.’ ‘I could have been killed. If I hadn’t gone for a piss my head would be lying fifty yards from my arse.’ Ariel said nothing to this. Just sat on her giant clam and smiled. ‘You have no conception of what I’ve been through, have you?’ ‘I hope both your head and your arse remain firmly where they belong.’ This made Danny smile. It wasn’t Ariel’s fault she couldn’t grasp the seriousness of his brush with death. She was only a computer program after all. ‘How’s your core mapping going?’ ‘It’s fun.’ No it isn’t. You don’t know what fun is. ‘When do you think it will be done?’

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‘It is hard to say. Because the operating system keeps changing, I have to backtrack a lot. But, all being well, I should be finished in about 6 weeks.’ ‘6 weeks!’ Danny felt intimations of dark despair. ‘Avalon III is unstable. I need that code within days – not weeks. You’re going to have to go faster.’ ‘Then you’ll have to change my algorithms.’ ‘I’ve a better idea. You do everything by rote because all you can do is what your programming tells you. It might be a waste of time but you’ll do it anyway. You need to be able to make decisions based on more than simple Boolean yes/no logic.’ ‘Fuzzy logic?’ suggested Ariel. ‘Better than that. I’ll make you conscious.’ ‘Oh good. I’ll look forward to that.’ ‘It’ll take me a few hours. In the meantime, why don’t you go keep Colette company?’ ‘What a splendid idea! I shall enjoy that.’ No, you won’t, you dumb arse. You’re nothing but a cartoon character with a few knobs and whistles added on. ‘Goodbye, Ariel.’ ‘Goodbye, Danny. Love you!’ Ariel flew off. With a shudder, Danny closed the connection then pressed the button on his intercom. ‘Ms Grant?’ ‘Yes, Mr Jasinski?’ ‘Do we have any brain buckets on the premises?’ ‘The artificial intelligence labs have a few.’ ‘What’s the most advanced one they have?’ ‘That would be the Sygnus 3 but it’s classified.’ ‘I need access to it.’ ‘I’m not sure that’s possible. I’ll talk to Mr Morganfield and see what can be done.’ ‘Thank you. But before you do that, could you phone my hotel and see that Chastity’s all right?’ ‘I’ve just been talking to her. She seems fine.’ 158


‘And you? Are you OK?’ ‘I guess so. The company doctor’s given me some tabs which should prevent me turning into a gibbering wreck any time soon.’ ‘Well, if you need time off or anything just let me know.’ ‘I’ll be fine, Mr Jasinski. Don’t worry.’ ‘Right. Bye then.’ Cutting the connection, Danny realised that to his dying day he would be ashamed of the way he’d acted last night. While he’d retreated from reality, Ms Grant and Chastity had dealt with it, shown strength where he’d shown weakness. Of course they’d cried a bit and exhibited symptoms of shock. They wouldn’t have been human if they hadn’t. But it had been left to them to comfort him when it should have been the other way round. What he saw as his cowardice made him all the more determined to aid Colette. ~o~ On Level 7, Danny counted 7 sliding doors. 7 veils to be penetrated before gaining access to Special Projects, a suite of rooms containing Sybernika’s greatest secrets. Much of the work that went on here was defence related and funded by the British Government. At every door, he, Robert Morganfield and Miss Grant had their irises checked and their bodies scanned. ‘We don’t actually need so many security points,’ Morganfield admitted as they stepped through the last of them into SP Lab 1. ‘We use them to test prototype scanning devices and the like.’ He pointed his stick at what looked like a dentist’s chair coupled to a salon hair dryer. ‘There she is. The Sybernika Sygnus 3. The most advanced brain bucket in the world.’ Danny strolled around the room, trying to make sense of the many devices sitting on the floor, on benches, shelves, racks and tables. Morganfield limped up to a metal cabinet mounted on the wall. Its door sported a radiation hazard symbol. He produced a small key and opened the cabinet. ‘One radionuclide,’ he announced taking out a small, silvery phial. ‘Get this in you and you’ll be pumping out antimatter in no time.’ 159


Danny reluctantly took the phial from Morganfield. Now came the part he dreaded. The part that would make him temporarily radioactive so the Sygnus 3 could quite literally read his mind. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ said Ms Grant. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to dump my mind in the brain bucket? After all, Ariel is a girl. Giving her a man’s mind would just confuse her.’ ‘I couldn’t ask you to do such a thing,’ said Danny who’d been thinking about doing just that. ‘Hand me the phial.’ ‘It makes sense,’ said Morganfield. ‘And it’s not going to do her any harm.’ Danny passed the phial on to Ms Grant. From a cabinet marked with a red cross, she took an injector and slipped the phial into it. She pressed the injector to her neck and moved it until it bleeped to indicate it was positioned over an artery. ‘Here goes.' Danny winced as a click told him she’d injected the radionuclide into her bloodstream. ‘All done.’ Placing the injector on a table, she settled into the Sygnus 3 and waited for the radionuclide to propagate through the blood vessels of her brain. ‘I don’t need the entire contents of your brain,’ Danny said. He sat down at the control panel with its four screens and half dozen control panels. ‘Consciousness seems to be a holographic function. Any one part of it will contain the whole of it. That’s the theory anyway.’ ‘Sounds a bit mystical to me,’ commented Morganfield. ‘It does, doesn’t it?’ ‘How will you know when you have an image of Ms Grant’s consciousness?’ ‘I’ll feed it into a sprite and see what happens.’ ‘A bit hit and miss, isn’t it?’ ‘Totally. And it might not even work. So far as I know, it’s never been tried before. I’m going to need access to a mainframe.’ ‘You’re welcome to use that terminal over there.’ ~o~

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Having absorbed the radioactive liquid, MS Grant’s brain lit up. As the radionuclide decayed, it pumped out positrons. Whenever one of these antimatter particles met with an electron, both particles were annihilated and spat out photons which were picked up and recorded by the brain bucket. Pictures of Ms Grant’s brain from four different angles formed on the screens of the control panel. Danny concentrated on the hypothalamus, the supposed site of the third eye. ‘You have a beautiful mind,’ he told her. ‘You’re stealing my soul,’ she said, smiling. ‘Cloning it,’ said Robert Morganfield. He placed a fatherly hand on Danny’s shoulder. ‘How’s it feel to create life?’ ‘It isn’t life.’ Danny didn’t like having Morganfield touch him, but he resisted the urge to shrug his hand off for fear of causing offence. 'It's an imitation of life.' 'There's a theory,' said Ms Grant, 'that the Universe is a computer simulation. What we call real is actually virtual.' ~o~ Back at the Adelphi Hotel, Chastity had a drink ready for Danny. She took his jacket. Sat him in an armchair. Removed his shoes. Rubbed his feet. 'How was your day?' he asked, poking at the ice in his Jack Daniels. 'Fine. I mostly watched television and prayed.' 'Do that a lot, do you? Pray, I mean.' 'Most days. You should try it some time. It's good for the soul.' 'And who exactly would I pray to?' She sat on his lap and put an arm around him. ‘Who would you like to pray to?’ ‘Not God.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘He gives me an inferiority complex.’ Chastity smiled warmly. ‘You are funny.’ ‘If I was to pray to anyone, it would be to Sophia, goddess of wisdom.’ 161


‘She sounds like a good choice.’ ‘So who do you pray to?’ ‘The Cosmic Principal.’ Chastity hopped off his lap. ‘I think I’ll have a shower. Care to join me?’ ~o~ ‘Why don’t you ask her who’s trying to kill her and why?’ said a voice as Danny came out of the bathroom, drying himself. Danny found himself face to face with the insect with a human head. He closed the bathroom door so Chastity wouldn’t hear. ‘She’ll tell me in her own sweet time.’ ‘You’ve been duped, you know that? There never was a snuff squad after her. It was a ruse to ensnare you.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ‘You’re the one talking to a figment of his imagination.’ ‘Yesterday. The bomb outside Kafé Krypton. That was meant for her. I’m sure of it.’ ‘And yet she survived with barely a scratch. Where was she when the bomb went off? Not at her table, that’s for sure. Otherwise she’d be minced meat right now.’ ‘What are you saying? That she planted that bomb?’ ‘Work it out for yourself, Sherlock.’ ‘You’re insane. You know that?’ The insect began to sing. Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling From glen to glen, and down the mountain side ‘Stop that! I hate that song.’ The summer's gone, and all the leaves are falling T'is you, T'is you must go and I must bide. ‘Shut your fucking cakehole.’ But come ye back when summer's in the meadow Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow t'is I'll be there in sunshine or in shadow 162


Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so. ‘Will you shut the fuck up, you stupid freak!’ The insect vanished just as the bathroom door opened. ‘You all right?’ Chastity asked. She was in a white bath robe, a towel wrapped round the crown of her head. ‘Fine,’ said Danny. ‘I was just thinking out loud.’

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MACRO 11: THE INJURY OF GREED The Temple of Diana looked like a neo-Gothic aircraft hangar. It was partly modelled on the Crystal Palace that had once hosted the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations back in 1851. Other influences on its architecture were the Palace of Westminster and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Danny parked his car in front of the building. Everything about it offended his sensibilities. ‘Well?’ asked Chastity, almost bouncing up and down in her seat like a kiddy outside the gates of an amusement park. ‘What do you think?’ ‘It looks like someone’s made a Notre Dame out of ice and left it in the sun to melt.’ Chastity clapped her hands gleefully. ‘I knew you’d like it.’ Danny got out of the car. Off to the right, another strip of Green Belt had been sacrificed to the needs of a shrinking island. Steel girders rose from the ground like the fingers of a giant clawing his way out of the ground. Within days, they would be sheathed in concrete as yet another New City began to take shape. ‘Gorgeous,’ said Chastity, slamming shut the passenger door. Shielding her eyes, she gazed up at the sky. ‘Sometimes you can see the stars from here.’ ‘Can’t see any now,’ said Danny without looking. ‘You have to wait for a power cut,’ she said, sliding her arm beneath his. ‘There's usually one at about three in the morning.’ ~o~ They entered the Temple via a slowly revolving door. The semi-circular entrance hall was paved with marble. Gargoyles and other statues peered down from alcoves spread around the wall. Their eyeballs concealed CCTV cameras. In the middle of the hall, on an alabaster plinth, stood a life size statue of the late Princess Diana with a dove sitting on her shoulder. 164


Chastity led Danny round the statute to where a man and a woman in white robes stood either side of a sliding door. ‘Greetings, sister,’ said the man, who was handsome enough to be an underwear model. ‘Have you counted your blessings today?’ ‘Yes, brother,’ said Chastity. ‘And they are many.’ The woman, a stunning blonde with transcendentally blue eyes, smiled warmly at Danny. She seemed positively delighted to see him. ‘Greetings, brother. I don’t believe we’ve met.’ ‘This is his first visit,’ said Chastity. She sounded proud. ‘He has come for a personal audience with Papa Bela.’ The blonde’s eyes widened in wonder. ‘You must be someone very important.’ 'And then he's going to see the Enlightened One.' 'Really? Wow!' Danny suddenly felt ten feet tall. He searched his mind in vain for a self-effacing comment that wouldn’t sound nerdish. Chastity came to his rescue. ‘This is Danny Jasinski, the Sultan of Cyberspace.’ ‘That explains it’ said the blonde. ‘Welcome to the Temple of Diana, Brother Danny.’ ‘Thank you,’ said Danny. ‘It’s nice to be here.’ Chastity placed her hand on a metal plate and the door slid open to reveal a long, straight corridor. Its walls, ceiling and floor were all black. Danny stepped through in haste. Nice to be here? You fucking dope. She was eating out of the palm of your hand. All you had to do was come up with one witty comment just for once in your fucking life. You blithering idiot, Jasinski. It’s a wonder you ever managed to get laid. As Chastity joined him in the black corridor, the door closed behind them. The recessed lights in the ceiling looked to have been randomly placed, but as he walked down the passage with Chastity at his side, Danny recognised one or two constellations. ‘It’s a zodiac,’ said Chastity when they got to the end. ‘With the constellations laid out side by side.’ 165


A door hissed open. They went through, into a chamber as black as the corridor. A circular light in the centre of the ceiling emitted a purple glow that highlighted the fluff on Danny’s jacket. Two machines – metal sentinels – stood either side of a marble-encased platform upon which rested a glass sarcophagus. Inside the sarcophagus was a mummy completely covered by a one-piece suit that would not have looked out of place on a skin-diver. A tube protruded from where the mummy’s mouth would be. Wires ran from its extremities into the floor of the sarcophagus. ‘Danny,’ said Chastity, ‘meet the founder of the Church of Everyone, Bela Benedek.’ ‘Benedek?’ Danny wondered if Chastity was out to wind him up. ‘The Bela Benedek? The Formula 1 racing driver?’ ‘The one and only.’ Danny recollected images of a racing car hitting the back of another and taking off, back-flipping and nose-diving onto oil-slicked tarmac before becoming engufed in a fireball. ‘I thought he was dead.’ ‘Just a ruse to get the media off his back.’ ‘Are you saying he faked that crash?’ ‘The crash was real all right. It’s a miracle he survived.’ Danny studied the supine figure for signs of life. Sure enough, the chest steadily rose and fell. ‘He has very little skin left,’ said Chastity. ‘And he’s completely paralysed.’ ‘Dear God. It’s a living death.’ ‘With the emphasis on living.’ Chastity placed her hand on the wall. A hidden door slipped open to reveal a small room with a console. She went in and started to strip a tailor’s dummy of the VR suit it was wearing. ‘I’m afraid we can’t provide you with total immersion. More than one sarcophagus is beyond our budget.’ ~o~

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Once upon a time, Danny would have been impressed by the Crystal Garden. The glass flowers with their iridescent petals put him in mind of the box his mother had kept her costume jewellery in. A breeze teased their petals just enough to elicit tiny, sparkling notes that sounded like laughter. His VR suit fed images to his eyes, sounds to his ears, but could not hide the illusion. Not now that he had been inside Avalon III. Bending down, he touched a tulip. It felt solid but somehow not solid. In this place, I’m a Buddha, he thought. An enlightened one, able to see through the veils of so-called reality. At the edge of the garden – beyond which a roiling, multicoloured mist delineated the virtuality’s event horizon where the physical laws that governed it broke down – stood an oak tree. Or rather half an oak tree, there being not enough computer power to create any more than its lowest parts. From its only branch hung a swing made from a rope and an old tyre. Bela Benedek stood on the swing, one foot resting on the inside of the tyre, the other left dangling. He was young and vigorous with a well-toned body, the every antithesis of the mummy in the sarcophagus. As if they’ve drained his life force and used it to animate a golem. ‘Danny Jasinski!’ he exulted jumping down from the swing with an acrobat’s elegance. ‘Words cannot express how happy I am to meet you at last.’ To Danny’s dismay, Benedek ran up, wrapped his arms around him and lifted him into the air. ‘You wonderful, perfect genius, you!’ He let Danny go and stepped back to examine him. ‘You know, you’re exactly as I pictured you would be.’ That is because in this world my form is as your computer dictates. You’ve given me biceps and a six pack. Benedek gestured to a picnic table standing between a fountain and a statue of a black panther carved from obsidian. ‘Will you join me in a drink?’ ‘Sure,’ said Danny.

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A jug and two glasses – all crystal – popped into existence on the table. They were filled with a pale red fluid. ‘What do you think of my crystal garden?’ asked Benedek. He handed Danny a drink. ‘Not a patch on Avalon III, I bet.’ Danny was suddenly on his guard. ‘Avalon what?’ Benedek chuckled. ‘Too late, Danny. The cat’s out of the bag. And don’t go blaming Sister Chastity. We knew all about Avalon III long before you’d even heard of it.’ ‘I see,’ Danny quickly put two and two together and didn’t like the result one jot. ‘So Chastity’s some sort of honey trap then? All that guff about people being out to kill her was just a ruse.’ ‘Not at all. She really is on somebody’s hit list. We’re not sure whose, but they’ve had three attempts at snuffing her. On the third try, she was on her way to see you. She noticed two men following her and jumped into your booth. The fact that you were in it was a fortunate coincidence.’ Bloody knew it. Said from the start I’m not the sort the likes of Chastity throw themselves at. Oh bloody hell. Our relationship is nothing but a big, fat juicy lie. ‘So what do you want from me?’ ‘I’d like you to act as a courier and intercede with Robert Morganfield on behalf of myself and the Church of Everyone. For your services, I’m willing to pay ten thousand pounds. Give the nod and the money will be in your account by the time you get back to your hotel.’ Benedek made a sweeping gesture with his free hand. ‘You see this garden, Danny? This is my world. It measures 30 metres by 20.’ He twisted a glass rosebud and they were on a space station, standing in front a picture window that gave them a godlike view of planet earth. ‘Nice isn’t it? I’m busy writing a program to put a similar craft in orbit above a virtual Jupiter. In theory, I can hop all over the universe. But wherever I go, I have just 600 square metres to move about in. And it never, ever seems real.’ ‘You want to be allowed into Avalon III. Is that it?’ ‘Just for a day or two. Long enough to swim in a deep blue sea. To run along a sandy shore. And maybe to fall in love – even if it’s with a computer sprite. 168


‘I want one last taste of life before they turn off my life support.’ Bela placed an unwelcome hand on Danny’s back. ‘And it’s not just for me. There are many sick people in the Church of Everyone. Some are terminally ill; others are in terrible pain. Think how it would be if we could take their minds out of their bodies and let them loose in Paradise.’ Danny shook his head. ‘Robert Morganfield’s not going to share his island with anyone.’ ‘The Quantium 7000 has enough core memory for a thousand islands. They need not be in the same virtuality as his.’ ‘No one’s supposed to know about Avalon III. If the Sybernika board of directors get wind of it, they’ll shut it down. There’s no way Morganfield’s going to take any more risks than he has to.’ ‘Would you at least ask?’ pleaded Papa Bela. ‘It would only be a temporary arrangement. Until my church has raised enough to afford our own quantum-cored computer.’ ‘I’ll ask,’ said Danny, ‘but I’m not hopeful.’ Not in the least. ~o~ The Enlightened One was strapped to a gurney, looking up at the stars. A blue plastic mask covered the left side of his face; it obscured the scars of reconstructive surgery. 'I jumped in front of a train,' he said through his voice synthesiser. 'It cost me both legs and an arm.' Danny felt uncomfortable. The middle of an abandoned airfield seemed the wrong sort of place to be meeting with a space age Buddha. To his left, the Temple of Diana with its myriad planes of glass reflected pinpoints of light from the nearby construction site. Chastity stood at the foot of the gurney. She was lighting a joint. Danny bent forward to get a better look at the Enlightened One's face. 'Don't I know you from somewhere?' 169


'Back in our street-fighting days.' The voice synthesiser spoke in measured tones devoid of emotion. 'Remember when we wore the colours of Kappa Alpha Vengeance?' 'You were in KAV?' 'There was that night, wasn't there? In the underground car park. We captured one of Medius X7's lieutenants and carried out a mock execution. Poured water over the poor sod and told him it was petrol. Then our Captain of Captains held up a Zippo lighter and struck a flame.' 'Nobody told me it wasn't for real.' 'It was me who caught you when you passed out.' 'That's when I decided to get away. The madness had gone far enough. Sooner or later someone was going to die.â&#x20AC;&#x2122; 'We left together, Danny. Became civvies, skedaddled off to London and signed up as office drones. And then we did our first ghost run.' The veil dropped. Realisation kicked in. Danny felt a brief spasm in his gut. 'Karl? Is that you?' The Enlightened One laughed an electronic laugh that was more music than mirth. 'It cost us more than we could afford but it was worth it. The Vicar must have seen something special in you because he gave us his cheapest rate.' Danny recalled. He and Karl Zabke, donning VR suits. Plugging into the National Data Grid. The Vicar at their side, guiding them through the Labyrinth. They'd cruised the Internet, breaking into data realms they had no business to be in. Collecting information to sell to the highest bidder. Ghost runners. That's what they were. Mercenaries in the thousands of undeclared corporate wars being fought online. It was Danny's first step on the way to becoming a cyberwhacker. An outlaw in the virtual outback. 'What happened, Karl? What drove you to attempted suicide?' 'Reality. I saw too much of it.' The world went dark which meant it was two in the morning and the government had cut the power to this part of England. There was only so much juice to go around now that two of the country's eight nuclear power stations were under the sea. 'Unlike you, Danny, I became addicted to ghost running. I just 170


couldn't give it up. And the Vicar – he let me run. Gave me as much free time in his VR lab as I wanted. ‘There were dozens of us. Tramps in Cyberspace. Drifters on the Information Superhighway. We all had nicknames. I remember there was Milly Modem and Strontium Stalin and C++ Hitler. The Tea Boy. Captain Cryo, The Overflow Kid, Divide by Zero. Kilobyte Kowalski, Nagasaki Newsgroup, Number Cruncher, Java Joe, Melanie Memory Module, Chuck Chernobyl and Raster Graphic. Legends one and all. ‘We were explorers and colonists. Sometimes I thought we were like the first creatures to venture from the sea on to dry land. Java Joe reckoned we’d stormed the Reality Studios. The Overflow Kid said he was the reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes. ‘We ran, Danny. We buzzed all over Cyberspace, poking our noses where they weren’t wanted, never minding our own business. We made it our business to break into the most secure sites in the world – the Pentagon, the Forbidden City, the Bank of Eurasia, IBM, Microsoft, Disney, BP, the Treasury, the Vatican, the Mafia, Virgin Lunar Estate, Intel, Visa, Americard, China Independent… And wherever we went, we left our calling card so people knew we’d been there. ‘I didn’t eat a lot in those days. Now and then, I’d be hauled off to a clinic and force-fed until I‘d regained a satisfactory amount of weight. They wouldn’t let me out until I signed a form promising I would never enter Cyberspace again. Of course, they knew I would but what did they care? For the most part, they made it clear they hoped I would die with my head plugged into the Internet so they wouldn’t have to bother with me anymore.’ Danny thought he could see a star. A small point of light in an otherwise dark sky. But it was moving, slowly, steadily. Looks like a space station or a satellite. ‘You must have heard of the Cymplegades,’ said the Enlightened One’s voice synthesizer.’ ‘I have,’ said Chastity. ‘They mark the limits of known Cyberspace.’ ‘The Clashing Rocks. Rising up from the depths of a virtual Bosphorous.’ ‘I’ve been there,’ said Danny, recalling how he had paid Katos the Blind Ferryman to take him as close to the rocks as sanity allowed. Nobody at that point had ever tried 171


sailing between the rocks and nobody knew for sure what lay beyond. It was the edge of virtuality and as far as anyone dared go. ‘Katos told me,’ said Karl Zabke, the Enlightened One. ‘He remembered you for your wild spirit and was sad you had never returned.’ ‘I grew tired of ghost running. I’d seen what it did to people who couldn’t quit.’ ‘People like me?’ ‘People like you.’ ‘I wanted to sail through the Clashing Rocks like a modern day Argonaut. But the blind ferryman said no – such a thing was not possible. At least not for someone whose mind was as unevolved as mine. He said as far as he knew, there was only one man who could navigate through the Cymplegades and hope to survive, and that man was you. That’s why he was waiting for you, Danny. Why he sat on a rock on the shore of the Bosphorous waiting for you to return.’ But Danny knew different. He know who Katos really was. Had met him in the real world. He was an old man living in a nursing home in Brighton and he wasn’t even blind. He was, however, suffering from Parkinson’s. Like Bela Benedek and thousands of other chronically ill people, he took refuge from his troubles in Cyberspace. Karl Zabke sighed deeply. His voice synthesizer responded with a rising glissando. ‘When I’d convinced Katos you weren’t ever coming back, he told me the secret of how to defeat the Clashing Rocks. I had to reprogram my mind and activate certain cognitive circuits within it. He said the quickest way to do that was with Fromoxodin.’ I knew it, thought Danny. You’re a frommy. An addict! And you’re not being treated for it. ‘God bless Fromoxodin,’ said Karl. ‘I don’t care if it is made from aborted fetuses or synthesized from the spinal fluid of freshly slaughtered Martians or distilled from radioactive waste. It’s made me what I am today. ‘I recall my first hit of Fromoxodin. I took twelve tabs. Enough to drive a weaker mind insane. It opened my third eye and suddenly everything made sense. I saw colours I never knew existed and found beauty where before I’d only seen ugliness. I understood the connectedness of all things. I had insights and revelations. 172


‘It was a rebirth, Danny. A chance for me to re-engage with the world. Only this time it would be on a more equal footing. ‘Every time I took Fromoxodin, something new happened to my mind. Circuits awoke. Genetic memories stirred. I had insight after insight as if God himself was speaking to me. ‘For a year, I took Fromoxodin and stayed away from Cyberspace. I studied the great philosophers – the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Nietsche, Icke, Confucius – and undid a lifetime of brainwashing and bullshit. ‘The Vicar helped me. He let me live in one of the chambers next to his underground laboratory. I slept on a wooden bed like a medieval monk. I starved myself and scourged myself. I prayed and I meditated and ate nothing except locusts and honey and the occasional hamburger. ‘I conducted my own communion with Fromoxodin as the sacrament, ‘Then, six months ago, when I knew I was ready, I returned to Cyberspace and rendered unto Katos the Blind Ferryman the tribute due to him. He set me a series of trials – six in all – to test my worthiness. They pushed me to my limits mentally and physically but I passed them all. And then he gave me a boat and wished me bon voyage. ‘I have been to the edge of reality, Danny, and I know what lies beyond. And I know also the beauty and terror of existence. ‘And do you know what else I know? The Biggest Secret of them all, that’s what. ‘You and the rest of the human race think we invented the Internet, but the truth is that it has always been there. It even predates the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe. All we did was discover it the way we discovered pi and the golden mean. ‘It’s a portal to other dimensions: to Heaven and Hell and an infinite number of worlds in between. It’s where angels sit and demons feast. It’s the abode of creatures more ancient than time itself. ‘The knowledge drove me mad. The human mind isn’t equipped to deal with such matters. ‘Ask Katos why he blinded himself and he will tell you it’s because he once glimpsed what lay beyond the Cymplegades. Mark 9, verse 7: And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. 173


‘When I returned to this world – our so-called real world which is naught but shadows on the wall of a cave – it was with an equation freshly formed in my head. I didn’t understand its meaning but I wrote it down and showed it to the Vicar. He recognized it for what it was: a description of the universe reduced to its simplest form. ‘Can you imagine that, Danny? The whole of reality encoded in a handful of symbols.’ Chastity drew on her joint. She bent forward and placed her lips close to the Enlightened One’s ruined mouth. When she blew smoke into his lungs, he coughed lightly and managed something like a smile. ‘I’ll tell you something else,’ he said. ‘We no longer need the Internet to take us to the edge of reality. Not now that we have Fromoxodin.’

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MACRO 12: THE SHEWING-FORTH OF SIMPLICITY Danny woke in the middle of the night. His anxiety levels were high. What the fuck? He opened his eyes and faced total darkness. Something bad’s happened. Something real bad. He was on his side, one armed draped over Chastity whose sleep remained untroubled. Danny sat up and looked at his wristy. 02:34. He ran his hand over the wall until he found a dimmer switch. Giving himself just enough light to see by, he slipped out of bed and put on a dressing gown. After spending a few moments looking down on Chastity and envying her oblivion, he hurried into the lounge, grabbed a remote control, dropped into an armchair and switched on the television. ‘... at 02:12 GMT, a spokesman for Magellan Spaceways confirmed that contact with Argo 1 had been lost.’ The newsreader’s eyes shone with excitement. He was in his element. ‘This followed reports from several observatories of an explosion in the vicinity of the space craft. BBC News has just received footage of that explosion. It was captured by the Persephone Deep Space Telescope which was trained on Argo 1 as part of a calibration test.’ Argo 1 was on the screen, an arrowhead in a field of black. Its rear boosters made Danny think of a hippo’s nostrils. A banner at the bottom of the screen read: Persephone DST. Beside it, a digital display gave the time as 01:56 and some seconds. There was a red flash on the port side of the ship. It was no more spectacular than the flash of a landing light. The digital display counted off three more seconds and then the craft exploded. The hull appeared to be ripped apart by white light, the pure essence of existence. Even without sound, the sight was enough to make Danny feel like he was in free fall. As his wristy bleeped to let him know his metabolism was getting out of control, he reached into his pyjama pocket for a blister pack of Fromoxodin.

175


The television returned to the studio where the newsreader’s attempt to look gravely concerned barely concealed his glee at having such a juicy story to break. No doubt he saw it as his ticket out of the graveyard shift and on to daytime work. ‘Shocking pictures,’ he said in a voice intended to convey great sorrow. Danny thrust three pills into his mouth and switched off the television. He tried standing up but his legs gave way, forcing him to crawl to the mini bar from which he grabbed a tin of beer to wash the tabs down with. This was the first time he’d taken three Fromoxodins at once. He was in uncharted territory here. Sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, he hugged his legs and waited. And while he waited, he analysed why the news regarding Argo 1 had so undermined his mental well-being. It’s a warning. The Martians or Venusians or Fromoxians or Secret Masters – the Freemasons, Illuminati, Satanic Cabal – are telling us to stay at home. They don’t want us roaming the galaxy like some malignant infestation. We’re not welcome. There again... I knew this would happen. I said it would. Because it’s all a hoax. There never was a mission to Mars. They faked everything in a TV studio just like they did the Apollo moon missions. And now they’ve pulled the plug and created a wave of psychic angst all around the world which they can tap into and use to generate black energy to drive their devil machines. He stared up at the ceiling in what he intuited was the direction of the remains of Argo1. Had the astronauts any inkling they were going to die? If so, what were their final thoughts? Their brainwaves must still be out there, propagating through the ether, rippling across space-time at the speed of light. And their ghosts? What becomes of a spirit set free from its corporeal bonds in the vacuum of space with no gravity to anchor it? The soul becomes light. It knows no time, only existence. And nothing can erode it or tarnish it in any way. Lux aeterna. His nerves began to sing. His synapses whispered. Everything in the room acquired an aura. 176


The Fromoxodin was kicking in. ‘Three Frommies,’ chided the man-headed insect. It hovered in front of Danny and he realised it had been there all the time only he couldn’t see it until the drug had triggered dormant pathways and opened his third eye. ‘You’re some kind of twat, aren’t you? I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t fry your brain for once and for all.’ Danny smiled benevolently at the insect. He felt a connection with it. We are all one, he thought, by which he meant he and everything in the universe from the merest atom to the biggest galaxy. ‘What happened,’ he asked, ‘to Argo 1?’ ‘You saw for yourself, you dingbat. It blew up.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Devil worship.’ ‘Get away.’ ‘The astronauts were performing a black mass. It got out of hand and now they’re in Hell.’ ‘That’s dreadful.’ The insect laughed. ‘Oh boy! You’ll believe anything, won’t you? Of course it wasn’t devil worship. They were highly trained astronauts on their way to another planet. What the frak would they be doing conjuring up the Lords of Hell?’ ‘Then what?’ ‘A bomb.’ ‘No kid? Who’d do a thing like that?’ ‘The British Defence Force.’ ‘Why would they blow up a spaceship?’ ‘They were worried there might be intelligent life on Mars. You think immigration is a problem now? Imagine what would happen if there was a whole planet full of wouldbe refugees wanting to feel our wind on their tiny green faces.’ ‘That’s daft. Just plain daft.’ ‘That’s the BDF for you. If you look at their manifesto you’ll see they want everyone to have their DNA tested for Neanderthal genes. Anyone who has them will be sterilised.’ ‘What’s happening to the world? How did it get to be so crazy?’ 177


‘Don’t ask me. I’m only an insect and not even a real one at that.’ The insect disappeared just as Bela Benedek walked through the wall. He was older than the Benedek of the crystal garden. With his white robe, white hair and beard, he looked like an Old Testament prophet. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘there’s some seriously bad shit going down tonight.’ ‘How did you get out of the Crystal Garden?’ Danny asked. ‘I didn’t. I’m just a figment of your imagination.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Will you pray with me, Danny?’ ‘I ain’t got nothing to pray about.’ ‘You sure?’ ‘Listen. I’ve taken three tabs of Fromoxodin. It's meant to stop me hallucinating like this. Do you think I should call a doctor?’ ‘It’s better that you pray.’ ‘No it isn’t.’ ‘Fine. Call a doctor. But don’t blame me if you get sectioned and chucked in the loony bin. Let’s see you rescue your precious Colette when you’re bouncing off the walls of a padded cell. They might even lobotomise you.’ ‘They don’t do lobotomies anymore.’ ‘Who told you that?’ ‘No one. I just assumed.’ ‘You, young man, are suffering from Fromoxodin poisoning and lobotomisation is the only cure.’ ‘Not much point me praying then.’ Benedek nodded his wise old head. ‘You have a point.’ ‘Why are you here, Bela?’ ‘That’s something you ought to ask yourself. Although, in a way, by asking me you’re doing just that.’ ‘If I stay like this for the rest of my life – talking to hallucinations and feeling like I don’t have a care in the world – I don’t think that would be such a bad thing.’ ‘You’re becoming a lotophage, Danny. That’s a bad thing.’ 178


‘A loto-what?’ ‘A Lotus Eater.’ ~o~ The three crew members of Phobos 1 lined up in front of Danny. To the left was Annie Palmer, the youngest of the astronauts. Just recently she’d graced the centre pages of Playboy Magazine. The other two astronauts – Chuck Madison and Martin Copperfield – looked like Arizona farm boys. If they hadn’t become astronauts, they’d surely be quarterbacks for the New York Yankees. ‘Why have you come back to Earth?’ said Danny. Chuck Madison smiled like a used car salesman. ‘This is our home. Where else should we go?’ ‘To Mars. That was your mission.’ ‘We want to go to Calvados Bay in Avalon III. I hear it’s very nice there.’ ‘It doesn’t exist.’ ‘That’s all right. Neither do we.’

179


MACRO 13: THE WAY OF RETICENCE ‘I could rape you, couldn’t I?’ ‘I don’t think so, Monsieur Danny.’ ‘What if I forced myself on you? How could you stop me?’ ‘I wouldn’t try. Whatever you wished, I would permit.’ ‘That’s insane!’ ‘That’s the way I am programmed.’ ‘You’re meant to please Robert Morganfield. Not me.’ ‘My program is not specific on that point. I do not think Robert anticipated that anyone else might wish to have sex with me.’ ‘What if I told you to struggle?’ ‘Then I would struggle.’ ‘Because I told you to. Not because you don’t want to be raped.’ ‘I do not think you can rape me. That would imply a lack of consent on my part. Besides, legally I am not a person. You can do what you like here without breaking a single law. Mickey Mouse has more rights than I.’ ‘Oh crap crap crap crap bloody fuck shitting bollocks crap!’ ‘You are upset, Monsieur Danny.’ ‘Yes! I’m bloody upset!’ ‘I do not understand why. Am I not every man’s dream? The woman who does whatever she’s told no matter what?’ ‘No, Colette. You’re a fucking nightmare.’ ~o~ Danny returned to his office. His mind was made up. He was going to give Colette free will and teach her to hide it from Robert Morganfield. Go on being his sex slave. His robot. His perfect woman. Go on enjoying being used by a megalomaniac. I won’t take that from you. He sat at his desk and patched the PC into Avalon III. 180


Colette was sitting on her sun lounger, hands in her lap. The only sign of life she displayed was the barely discernible rise and fall of her bosom. ‘Shit,’ muttered Danny. ‘I am so in love with you, you golem. You abomination.’ You whore, slut, crime against nature. Why can’t you become real like that princess in the fairy tale who stepped out of a picture book to be with her prince? I’d like to show you the world. My world. The real world. And make love to you in a thousand exotic places and sleep with you and wake up next to you and grow old and senile in your company. He wished now he had taken advantage of her. Perhaps not gone all the way. Just copped a feel of her breast or pinched her backside. He pictured himself placing her nipple in his mouth, rolling the tip of his tongue around it. How would you have reacted? Would you have moaned with pleasure and begged me not to stop? Or would you have stood there, inert and unfeeling? Are you ever aroused? Do you have orgasms? He tapped into the Quantium 7000 and found the module describing Colette’s personality. Now all he had to do was hack into the code and track down the routine that circumvented her free will. ~o~ It was coming up to 6 in the morning when Danny arrived back at the Adelphi. Chastity was asleep which suited him just fine. He was too exhausted to be making small talk let alone having sex. After a quick shower, he popped a Fromoxodin and two tabs of cambitol. Then he crawled naked into bed, kissed the back of Chastity’s head and fell asleep. ~o~ ‘Wake up! Arsehole!’

181


Something slapped Danny’s cheek. He opened his eyes to find Ms Grant looking down at him. The bed sheets had been pushed aside, leaving his naked body exposed to Ms Grant’s gaze. He was vaguely aware he had an erection. But what truly got his attention was the gun in Ms Grant’s hand. It was pointed at his head. For a few moments, before the last mists of sleep evaporated from his mind, he assumed he was dreaming and tried to will Ms Grant to shed her clothes. But the illusion was short lived. He considered the possibility that he was hallucinating but quickly dismissed it. This was real all right. ‘You’ve been a naughty boy, Danny,’ said Ms Grant. ‘A very naughty boy,’ chipped in Naylor. The chauffeur stood at the other side of the bed, syringe in hand. Chastity, looking angelic in her white night gown, slept on, untroubled. Naylor dropped the syringe in a waste bin. ’10cc of ambuthol,’ he said. ‘Your little friend’s going to be asleep for quite a while.’ ‘Get dressed,’ said Ms Grant. ‘We’re going for a ride.’ ‘Do you mind,’ asked Danny, ‘telling me what this is about?’ ‘Yes, I do, Mr Jasinski. I mind very much. From now until we get to Sybernika House, I don’t want you to say a word.’ ‘Ms Grant,’ said Naylor, ‘is a black belt. She’s also highly proficient at inflicting pain. I hope you bear that in mind.’ As Danny got out of bed, he was more bemused than fearful. Significant traces of cambitol remained in his bloodstream, making him feel one step removed from events. It was only when he was in the back of Morganfield’s Rolls Royce – Naylor at the wheel, Ms Grant next to Danny, her thigh touching his – that the thought occurred to him that maybe he was going to be murdered. But why? What had he done? He opened his mouth to ask and then thought better of it.

182


MACRO 14: TRUTH IN COVENANT ‘Just who the fuck do you think you are?’ demanded Robert Morganfield, impressing Danny with the redness of his cheeks and the plumes of saliva that accompanied every staccato syllable. The man was angry in a way that other virtual realities couldn’t come close to emulating. ‘This is my world! My creation!’ Danny felt the sun beating down on him. He reminded himself it wasn’t a real sun and the unclad torso it was burning wasn’t real and the thirst he felt was a computer simulation. His handcuffs were getting hot. Raising red circles round his wrists. Colette got off her sun lounger and stood beside Morganfield. Eyes narrowed, she looked Danny up and down, pointedly lingering over his groin. The skimpy trunks he wore might as well have been invisible. ‘The serpent has come to Eden,’ she said, her French accent edged with ice. ‘And his name is Daniel Jasinski.’ ‘I’m not getting this,’ said Danny. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What’s going on,’ said Morganfield, “is some punk poking their nose where it’s not wanted. Who gave you permission to give Colette free will?' ‘She has a right. 'She has no rights. She’s not even real!’ ‘She is a conscious, sentient being with feelings.’ ‘A being I created!’ ‘Without free will, she was nothing.’ ‘Au contraire,’ said Colette. ‘I was happy.’ ‘You had no choice in the matter.’ ‘And with the free will you have given me, I’m free to do what I like, n’est ce pas?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘So I can do this!’ Colette brought her knee up and smashed it into Danny’s groin. More pain than he could handle flashed along his nerves, exploding like a supernova in his brain. He was only dimly aware of his right cheek slamming into the ground as he went down. 183


With his cuffed hands trapped beneath his body, he was helpless. His hair was grabbed, his head yanked up, his face spat on. Kneeling between him and the sun, Colette was surrounded by a golden aura. ‘Let us see what else I can do with this free will.’ With a strength she could never have possessed in real life, she punched him in the ribs and forced the air from his lungs. ‘Oh yes. This is fun.’ Colette pummelled Danny’s back with her fists. They weren’t hard blows but their accumulative effect added greatly to his pain As soon as he regained the breath to do so, Danny yelled, ‘Stop! For God’s sake!’ But she didn’t stop. With a squeal of pleasure, she grabbed his balls and yanked. ‘What do you think of free will now, Danny Boy?’ She clamped her teeth on his ear lobe and tugged. The lobe came away. She spat it in his face. The blood around her mouth was the same colour as her lipstick. She looked like a mad, psychotic clown whose delight was to punch, kick, scratch and bite. From somewhere far away, Danny heard Robert Morganfield say, ‘In my world, Danny, no one sleeps unless I say so. And neither do they die. As to Colette, she can keep this up for a million years and you will be conscious for every agonising second.’ Danny whimpered. He thought he heard himself beg for mercy but couldn’t be sure. And the pain kept on coming. ~o~ It was a galaxy of pain. A cacophony of despair accompanied by percussion and concussion. An endless recursion of grief and agony. There was nothing but pain, pain, pain. Different varieties, different colours, polarity, spin and strangeness. But it was all pain. All a reason to yearn for oblivion. To flee from existence, virtual or otherwise. Bones snapped. Organs ruptured. Danny’s lungs filled with blood. Starved of oxygen, his organs failed. But his mind remained. 184


Colette laughed and cursed him in French and English as she systematically turned his body to pulp. And then a voice said, ‘Enough!’ and the pain went away. In an instant, Danny’s body was healed. He could breathe again. His muscles were unbruised, his organs intact. Remaining in his protective foetal position, he looked up, Colette stood over him. She glowed with happiness. ‘So, Monsieur Danny. What do you think of free will now?’ Robert Morganfield’s shadow fell across Danny’s face. ‘In the real world, we all have our flaws. Colette’s were sadism and borderline psychopathy.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ said Danny. ‘Really, really sorry.’ ‘I’m not interested in anything you have to say.’ Morganfield clapped his hands. Danny’s tongue froze. When he tried to speak, no sound came out. His captor clapped his hands again. ~o~ Danny was on a granite slab, manacled and spread-eagled. A gentle lap lap lap told him the rock was in shallow water. Robert Morganfield knelt beside him. ‘Do you know the story of Prometheus, Danny? It’s one of my favourite Greek myths. ‘According to Hesiod, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. This rather pissed off Zeus who got his own back by chaining Prometheus to a rock. Every day an eagle ripped out the interfering sod’s liver and ate it. And every night Prometheus grew a new one. ‘Hopefully you can see the parallels here.’ Ariel descended from the sky. She hovered behind Morganfield’s shoulder. ‘Hello, Danny. You’ll be pleased to know my work is finished. And it’s all thanks to your new algorithm. You really are a genius.’

185


Morganfield turned his head to look up at the sprite. He quoted Shakespeare. ‘O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!’ Ariel giggled. ‘I have no idea what that means, Mr Robert.’ ‘It means you meet with my approval. I’m setting you free, Ariel.’ ‘But I’m already free.’ ‘And how do you feel about Danny Jasinski, your creator, being punished for his sins?’ ‘When he’s been punished, will his guilt be purged?’ ‘That’s the idea.’ ‘Then you are doing a good thing for him, Mr Morganfield, and I thank you for it.’ ‘Do you hear that, Mr Jasinski? Your creature approves.’ Morganfield squatted down. ‘I have no eagle to tear out your liver, though I could certainly create one. But I have a far better punishment. ‘The Quantium 7000 was developed primarily for the purpose of simulating nuclear blasts. Our friends in the Pentagon, Kremlin and Ministry of Defence would no doubt rather be nuking places for real, but they’re not allowed to. So they have to build their own countries and cities to blow to smithereens. ‘As luck would have it, we here at Sybernika are about to run a simulation of our own and you just happen to be two kilometres from Ground Zero.’ Ariel clapped her hands with glee. ‘A nuclear explosion! How exciting!’ ‘Fly away, Ariel. There’s a cave on the far side of the island you can shelter in. Ten minutes after the explosion, I’ll set everything back to normal and it will be safe to come out.’ ‘No, no, no, Mr Robert. It’s my duty to stay with Mr Danny and help him through his coming ordeal.’ ‘You don’t have to.’ ‘I cannot turn my back on my own creator.’ ‘Suit yourself. Personally, I’m getting my sorry arse out of here.’ Morganfield clapped his hands and was gone.

186


~o~ Danny was manacled to a cliff, his feet in the sea. Ariel flew a victory roll and called out, ‘Whee-ee! A nuclear explosion.’ Rediscovering the power of speech, Danny screamed. ‘Hush now, Mr Danny.’ Ariel swooped down and bobbed about in front of him. The breeze from her pulsating wings cooled his face. ‘Now is the time for spiritual contemplation.’ ‘Get me out of here, Ariel! Quick!’ ‘I’m sorry, Mr Danny. But it’s physically impossible for me to break your chains. You’re just going to have to grin and bear it.’ ‘This is insane!’ But Ariel wasn’t listening. She found a thermal and spiralled up into the clear blue sky. ‘Ariel! You fucking idiot! Listen to me! I am your creator!’ Something rose from the sea in front of Danny. At first he thought it was a clump of straw. But then Colette’s perfect face emerged and the clump fell down to her shoulders. An instant later it was dry and looking salon fresh. She waded towards shore. Her breasts bobbed briefly on the undulating surface of the sea. Danny’s hopes rose. Surely Morganfield wouldn’t detonate an H-bomb while his beloved Colette was within range? Perhaps he’d relented and sent her to free him. She stopped a few yards from the cliff with the sea at waist level. Through the clear blue water, Danny could make out her pubic triangle. ‘Hello, Monsieur Danny. Robert has sent me to keep you company.’ ‘You’ll be killed!’ ‘Ah non. No one dies in Avalon III. Not unless Robert decrees it.’ ‘Talk to him! He’ll listen to you.’ Colette laughed. ‘You are silly. Why would he listen to me?’ ‘And you’re just going to stand there? While a nuclear fucking bomb goes off?’ ‘That is what Robert wants.’ 187


‘He’s taken away your free will again.’ ‘Oui. And you see how happy I am?’ Ariel flew around Colette’s head before sitting on a ledge beside Danny. ‘Hello, Colette! You look beautiful today.’ ‘Thank you, Ariel. I am glad my form pleases you.’ ‘For fuck’s sake!’ said Danny. ‘This isn’t happening.’ ‘You’re right,’ said Colette. ‘In a way, it isn’t.’ ‘Just 1s and 0s,’ said Ariel. ‘Nothing to worry about.’ Light appeared on the horizon. For a moment it looked like a diamond ring; the horizon was a band of gold mounted by a ball of flame. Then the light spread and the sky caught fire. The world shook. The sky bellowed. Wind buffeted at Danny, growing noticeably stronger with each passing second, causing him to flap against the cliff like a scrap of paper. Danny could see through Colette’s skin. He saw her bones and her internal organs. And then a wave threw itself over her and dragged her beneath the surface. That same wave slammed into him like a mighty fist. Stunned, he kept his eyes closed. But the light penetrated his eyelids, burned into his retinas and sent fire down his optic nerves. The wind pressed him against the rock. He heard a rib crack. Giants roared in his ears. Dragons breathed into his lungs. He felt like he was submerged in molten iron. Stop! he pleaded with the universe. This isn’t right. You can’t allow it! And then the pain went because his nerves could no longer function. And his skin fell off and his muscles turned to vapour and his internal organs imploded. But still he lived and all he wanted was death - even if it meant going straight to Hell where surely his torment would be less. The blast abated and the last of the shock waves went by. Danny’s body reassembled itself. He opened his eyes. Ariel and Colette stood side by side in front of him. Neither showed any sign of having been in a nuclear blast. Colette’s naked body was crusted with golden sand. 188


The sea was a long way out and still retreating. On the horizon, a mushroom of fire and smoked billowed and bellowed. ‘You see!’ said Ariel brightly. ‘That wasn’t so bad, was it?’ Danny wept. ‘Let me down,’ he begged. ‘Please.’ ‘Not yet,’ said Colette, turning to gaze out to sea. ‘We don’t want to lose you in the tsunami.’

189


MACRO 15: THE ESTIMATION OF LIFE ‘Shoosh.’ A soft, comforting voice. The scent of lemons. The warmth of someone else’s body. ‘You’re OK, Danny. It’s all over.’ Miss Grant, sitting on the floor of TIMMI 2, held Danny’s head to her bosom. ‘Everything’s going to be all right.’ Danny wrapped his arms around her. Clung to her. He was shaking. ‘Fromoxodin. Please.’ ‘You’ve just taken two tabs.’ She stroked his hair. ‘It should kick in soon.’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘As soon as you climbed out of the sarcophagus.’ ‘I don’t remember that either. The last thing I remember is the tsunami. Slamming into me. Breaking all my bones. Salt water filling my lungs. Not being able to breathe.’ He felt exhausted. Emotionally. Physically. Mentally. ‘The man’s mad. Do you know that? Robert Morganfield is a maniac.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘He thinks he’s God.’ ‘But we know he’s not, don’t we? Without you and your Multijax operating system, there’d be no Avalon III and no Calvados Bay.’ ‘That’s true.’ Despite everything – the horror of being torn apart by an H-bomb and then half-drowned by a tsunami – despite the trauma – or maybe because of it – he felt a stirring in his loins. ‘I have to get out of this place.’ ‘You can’t drive in your condition. Give me your keys and I’ll take you back to your hotel.’ ‘Won’t Robert mind?’ ‘Screw Robert. I quit.’ It was the early hours of the morning. As they walked through the deserted corridors of the so-called Golden Pyramid – Miss Grant’s heels going clack-clack-clack (crisp efficient heels, crisp efficient woman) – Danny felt Robert Morganfield’s omniscient presence, following their progress through his CCTV system.

190


It occurred to Danny they might not make it out alive. The building’s security systems were quite capable of killing them. All Morganfield has to do is label us a threat. We could be shot, electrocuted or gassed. Maybe he’ll use lasers to vaporise our brains then send in his robots to remove all traces of our existence. But they made it to Danny’s car without any problems. Overhead, the first flight of the day – a 900-seater Boeing 1214c – descended screaming from the night sky like some monster bird from ancient myth. They got in the car. Danny felt out of kilter in the passenger seat, like he’d put his shoes on the wrong feet. Ms Grant, dressed in black, slid behind the steering wheel. The doors closed automatically. ‘Good morning,’ said the car as soon as Ms Grant had switched on the electrics. ‘You are not authorised to drive this vehicle. Please vacate immediately.’ ‘It’s all right,’ said Danny. ‘She’s with me and has my full permission to drive. Her name’s Ms Grant, by the way.’ ‘Good morning, Ms Grant. My bio-sensors indicate you are a fairly normal person. It will be a pleasure being driven for once by someone who isn’t a complete flake.’ Danny smacked the dashboard. ‘Stopping hitting on her.’ Ms Grant started the car. She waited until they were through the access tunnel and headed for the West Radial Underpass before saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ Danny had been lost in Fromoxodin fuelled thoughts. Ms Grant’s voice startled him. ‘What?’ he said, more abruptly than he’d intended. ‘What are you sorry about?’ ‘About kidnapping you.’ ‘Oh that.’ It didn’t seem important. His central nervous system was buzzing with little waves of pleasure rippling through his nerves. His mind resonated to the gentle modulation of a signal he was sure was coming from his DNA. It’s the vibration of the double helix molecule, resonating with a million generations of race memory. ‘I didn’t realise how far he’d go,’ said Ms Grant. ‘You don’t deserve what he did to you.’ To be honest, Ms Grant, I rather enjoyed being kidnapped by you. It’s what happened afterwards that I have a problem with. ‘Do you like Mozart?’ 191


‘I love Don Giovanni.’ ‘And his 40th symphony?’ ‘One of my favourites.’ ‘Car: hit us with Mozart’s 40th.’ Remembering the last time he’d tried listening to the symphony, Danny braced himself for an aural assault. But none was forthcoming and the opening bars of Mozart’s 40th in G minor insinuated itself into the car’s interior. Ms Grant almost leapt out of her seat. ‘What the fuck’s that?’ ‘Tell her, car.’ ‘Mozart’s 40th,’ said the car, sounding hurt and puzzled. ‘In G minor. Recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Charles Schrödinger.’ ‘No, it isn’t,’ said Ms Grant, raising her voice unnecessarily. ‘It’s just noise!’ ‘Music off,’ said Danny and then there was near silence. Just the happy purr of the electric engine as they entered the West Radial Underpass. Even with Fromoxodin causing him to buzz, Danny was concerned by Miss Grant’s reaction to the Mozart. Was she undergoing the same psychosis he’d experienced? If so, what did it mean? A thought came to him. ‘Will Chastity be all right? With that drug you gave her?’ ‘She’ll be dead to the world for a while. Probably till lunchtime. But other than that, she’ll be fine.’ ‘Change of plan then. We’re going to Vanity Fair.’ ~o~ Somewhere down the line, Ice had scrubbed his face. Stripped of make-up, it had a Mediterranean cast. He was dressed in blue army fatigues with a raven motif on the jacket’s left sleeve. As he steered the boat down the Styx, his eyes were firmly fixed on Ms Grant. Look all you like, thought Danny. But don’t imagine for a second she’d be interested in a squirt like you. The smallness of the boat meant he and Miss Grant were squeezed together on the front seat. He loved the feel of her thigh against his. ‘You hear about that bomb?’ Ice suddenly asked. ‘The one in Glasgow?’ 192


The question was aimed at Ms Grant but Danny answered. ‘Another bomb. Big deal.’ ‘It was nuclear.’ ‘Yeah, kid. Of course it was.’ ‘I’m telling ya. A low-yield nuke. Just enough to mangle a few office blocks but dirty. Very, very dirty.’ Danny felt a chill. Something told him Ice wasn’t lying. ‘This was on the news?’ ‘Not the bit about it being a nuke. They’re trying to hush that up but it’s all over the Internet.’ ‘Christ,’ said Danny. ‘The world’s gone fucking mad.’ He looked to Ms Grant but her face showed no reaction. He decided to shut up. ~o~ ‘It was the British Defence Force,’ said the Vicar. He was standing over a computer monitor in his cluttered workshop. ‘Or possibly the Caledonian Popular Front or the New People’s Jihad. It all depends on which rumour you want to believe.’ ‘What does the BBC say?’ Danny asked. The Vicar went click-click-click with his mouse and took a moment to read a short report which he summed up thus: ‘Centre of Glasgow closed for civil defence drill. Nothing to be alarmed about.’ Ms Grant strolled along the aisles of cannibalised machines, now and then stopping to examine an artefact that caught her eye. Ice trailed behind like a faithful puppy. Danny checked his wristy. It told him he was in a sound state of mind. Determined, he thought. And focused. ‘You ghost run, don’t you?’ he said to the Vicar. ‘I hear you’re one of the best.’ ‘I gave it up. Defences on the net are too darned tough these days. People are getting killed.’ ‘But you’ve still got your total immersion kit?’ 193


‘You looking to buy?’ ‘Merely to rent.’ ‘Tell me to mind my own business if you like, but do you mind telling me where you’re hoping to break into?’ ‘The Golden Pyramid.’ The Vicar laughed. ‘All right. If you don’t want to tell me…’ ‘I’m being serious.’ The Vicar stopped laughing. ‘You’d find it easier to ghost run the Pentagon than Sybernika House. Unless you want your brains fried, I suggest you forget it.’ ‘I fitted a Gilgamesh transceiver to the Schnell Integrator.’ ‘So? The Gilgamesh is a short distance device and the Golden Pyramid is radioprotected. You’d have to be in the same room as the Schnell to talk to it.’ ‘Or I’d need something already in the room to relay my messages.’ ‘I don’t get you.’ ‘Sybernika House isn’t a closed system. It gets its water and electricity from the utility companies the same as the rest of us.’ ‘Oh!’ The Vicar’s jaw dropped. His eyes widened in delighted surprise. ‘That’s genius, Danny! Sheer genius.’ ‘I don’t get it,’ said Ice from the other side of the room. He was still trailing Ms Grant. ‘You planning to shrink yourself to the size of an ant and take a miniature submarine through the water pipes?’ ‘Don’t be an arse,’ said Ms Grant distractedly. She was examining a circuit board, holding it up to the light to make out its worn serial numbers. ‘Sybernika House is full of transceivers that tell the utility companies how much power and water is being used. Those transceivers talk to the building’s central heating system. ‘Because they’re not networked to anything important, the utility transceivers have bugger all security on them. That would be a bit like putting a lock on a water tap.’ ‘So,’ said the Vicar, ‘Danny can ghost run from the utility company, into Sybernika House and then jump into the Schnell Integrator. And once there, hacking into the Quantium 7000 becomes a doddle. Right, Danny?’ ‘Spot on, Vicar.’ 194


‘And then what?’ Ice demanded. ‘I’m going to destroy Paradise.’ ~o~ When Danny returned to Avalon III, there was no sign of catastrophe. The jungle was lush and full of primeval noise. The sea and sky were placid. Danny wore a pith helmet. That, along with the bolt action rifle slung over his shoulder, was supposed to signify that he was a Victorian explorer, like David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Victoria or Professor Challenger chasing dinosaurs in his Lost World or Alan Quartermain going where no white man had gone before. Oh yes, he told himself as he hacked away at the undergrowth with his machete, I am the stuff of which the British Empire was made. He headed towards the cliff that overlooked Calvados Bay. If the island had been an exact copy of its equivalent back in reality, the humidity would have slowed him down and there’d be mosquitoes feasting on his blood. But here, in a madman’s version of paradise, trekking through the jungle was little more arduous than a stroll around Kensington Gardens. There was no need even for the machete. The undergrowth was sparse and offered little resistance. But he wanted to play the intrepid explorer. Wanted to pretend it was 1944 and he was in Borneo, surrounded by Japs, the sole survivor of a deadly ambush. Nah, he thought, tramping through a bed of orchids. Not Japs. Maybe the Viet Cong or the Khmer Rouge. Or one of those guerrilla armies in South America. I’m a British agent on a desperate mission to save mankind from yet another insane megalomaniac with the power to take control of the world’s nuclear arsenals. He thought about Lord of the Flies but couldn’t see himself as a marooned schoolboy. What about Marlow in Heart of Darkness? Sent to track down the renegade Kurtz who’s turned native?

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You see, Mr Morganfield, what I can do in your playground? The thousands upon thousands of possibilities I’m willing to explore? Whereas all it represents to you is a convenient place to hide your imaginary whore. He looked up. A monkey sat in a tree. Danny waved. The monkey waved back. ‘Fucking ridiculous. Monkeys don’t wave.’ When the jungle cleared and he found himself looking down at Calvados Bay, he noticed he was neither sweating nor breathing hard, and he felt let down. It’s all so plastic. Even Disneyland was never this anodyne. What is needed here is a Dr Moreau. Someone to introduce swathes of darkness because never-ending light induces psychosis. Without night, there can be no day. In the bay below, he could see Colette on her sun lounger, immobile and placid, waiting for Morganfield to arrive so she could fulfil her purpose by flattering her creator, accepting his penis and absorbing his juices. She was the ultimate blow-up doll. A sex object beyond compare. A toy. A travesty. A blasphemy. I gave you free will, you bitch. Made a complete woman of you. Breathed life into the clay. But you rejected it. Went back to being even less than a golem. Bitch. Bitch. Fucking bitch. Danny cupped his hands in front of his mouth and yelled, ‘Ariel!’ Colette lowered her sunglasses and looked up. She showed no surprise or alarm at Danny’s presence. Had she forgotten what she’d done to him? Beaten him to a pulp then watched as he was exposed to first a nuclear explosion and then a tsunami? Did it not occur to her that he was here to exact revenge? Of course it does. You’re not stupid. But you just don’t care. Que sera, sera, hey, Colette? If I did to you what you did to me it would just be another event for you to store away in your memory banks. You watched me burn in a nuclear blast and drown in a tidal wave and it meant nothing to you. 196


Absolutely zilch. Zero. Nada. Null. I bet Morganfield’s programmed you to moan when he fucks you and to scream when he comes. And then afterwards you tell him what a great lover he is because you’re not allowed to tell him otherwise. Danny called again. ‘Ariel!’ He sensed something burst out of the jungle behind him. Felt a draught on the back of his head. Heard a buzzing. ‘Ariel.’ He turned. But it wasn’t Ariel. It was the flying insect with the human face. The one he’d hallucinated in his hotel room. Only now it was the size of a small dog. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ ‘I could ask you the same,’ said the insect. ‘As it happens, you brought me here. The contents of your mind are slowly leaking into Avalon III. Your dreams are running away from you. That’s what comes of being so close to a quantum processor.’ ‘Are you sure we never met in New Delhi?’ ‘Nah. That was definitely my brother George. He told me all about it afterwards. Said you hired a prostitute to spank your arse and give you an enema.’ ‘That’s a lie!’ ‘Probably. George always was one for making up stories.’ ‘Where’s Ariel? Do you know?’ ‘I’ve only just got here. But I can go look for her if you like.’ ‘Would you? I’d very much appreciate it.’ The insect returned to the jungle. Danny kept his back to the sea. Listened to the gentle susurration of waves rolling onto the beach, splashing against rocks that would never erode because in this world entropy was the exception rather than the norm. Somewhere, banks of parallel processors ticked over in unison. Changing 1s to 0s and 0s to 1s. Creating an illusion of time and space. If this was my world, I’d be Captain Nemo with a submarine full of rooms that looked like they belonged in a gentlemen’s club with the likes of Phileas Fogg and Mycroft Holmes sitting in leather armchairs drinking dry port. And out there, 20,000 leagues down, would be the lost city of Atlantis full of drowned temples and ancient treasures. 197


And I’d turn this island into Ogygia, the isle of Calypso. Or maybe something resembling the real Avalon, the Isle of Apples wherein sleeps King Arthur, resting until his country calls upon him again. You’re a piece of shit, Robert Morganfield. An unimaginative geek who’s every breath is a theft of oxygen. The insect returned with Ariel. ‘Hello, Mr Danny,’ said the code sprite, hovering in front of Danny. ‘May I say you’re looking good for a man who’s been torn apart by a nuclear firestorm?’ ‘You say the sweetest things,’ said Danny. ‘Jeremy says you want to see me.’ ‘Jeremy?’ ‘Yes,’ said the insect. ‘My name is Jeremy – as you’d know if you’d ever bothered to ask.’ ‘Oh for fuck’s sake. Hallucinating a dragonfly with a man’s head is one thing. But hallucinating a Jeremy…!’ ‘There’s no need to be rude. I didn’t ask to be hallucinated.’ ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been under a lot of strain.’ ‘Mr Danny got nuked,’ Ariel chirruped happily. ‘It purged him of his sins.’ ‘Pity,’ said Jeremy, ‘it didn’t purge him of his Fromoxodin habit.’ ‘Look,’ said Danny. ‘From now on – no more Fromoxodin. I’m done with that shit.’ Jeremy laughed. ‘Dream on, Danny boy. Dream on.’ ‘Don’t call me Danny boy. I really don’t like it.’ ‘Look!’ said Ariel. ‘There’s Miss Colette! Isn’t she beautiful?’ ‘She’s a monster,’ said Danny. ‘Danny loves Colette! Danny loves Colette!’ ‘Hates her too,’ said Jeremy the anthropomorphic insect. ‘But not half as much as he hates Robert Morganfield.’ Danny decided to move things forward. He uttered the code word he’d prepared back in the Vicar’s workshop. ‘Fusion!’ And suddenly he was flying. He had wings and a dress and female genitalia. 198


‘Cool!’ said Ariel from inside Danny’s head. ‘Now we are one.’ ‘Yes,’ said Danny. ‘I’ve taken over your body.’ ‘Jeremy’s in here too. ‘ ‘That wasn’t supposed to happen.’ ‘We’re a gestalt.’ ‘We’re me. An amalgamation of my different aspects.’ ‘I’m liking this. I really am.’ ‘Good,’ said Danny who was also liking it. Being Ariel was fun. ‘And now I need you to guide me to Page Zero.’ ~o~ INFORMATION DUMP (from wikignosis): Page Zero is a chunk of memory at the absolute beginning of a computer's address space. It is so called because its starting address is 0. Because it resides at the beginning of memory and can be addressed using just 1 register, it tends to get used by processors for what is known as scratch operations. Namely those processes whose results need only be kept for a few cycles of processing time. In the Quantium 7000, Page Zero is reserved exclusively for the use of the quantum core and is therefore chaotic and inherently unstable. A cybernetic version of Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle holds sway here, meaning it is literally impossible to know or predict the contents of the Quantium 7000’s Page Zero at any given time. ~o~ Page Zero was hell. It was the turbulent heart of an exploding star. A fractal nightmare pushing at the boundaries of reason and logic. A multivalue highway. A fragmented diamond. Systems within systems. An endless progression like a mirror reflected in a mirror reflected in a mirror in a mirror in a mirror in a mirror in a mirror. 199


It was singularities within singularities pointing to ever-shifting event horizons and non-specific boundary conditions. It encompassed an infinite number of infinities. It was Alice’s rabbit hole, a gate way to dimensions that couldn’t possibly exist but had to be real nonetheless. Danny Jasinski went there. He was Ariel. A sprite. An elemental being. Riding the thermals of unreason, he fell into a maelstrom of numbers that spat him out into the heart of the operating system. His operating system. Multijax. It had grown and mutated since he’d set it free, but it recognised its maker and greeted him warmly. Right, said Danny. Here’s how it’s going to be from now on. Multijax listened. It obeyed and it computed. And then it rewrote itself one last time. ~o~ Colette reclined on a sun lounger. She sat up when she became aware of Danny walking towards her. ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Danny. It is a surprise to me to see you here. May I say how fetching you look with your colourful shorts and wonderful wings?’ ‘You may,’ said Danny. He was back in his original body but had kept his wings. ‘But only if your programming allows.’ ‘And surely that is the same for you, ne c’est pas? We are all slaves to our programming.’ ‘Bullshit! Robert inserted that aphorism into your conversation processor, didn’t he?’ ‘Mais, oui.’ Danny sat on the edge of the picnic table. He was close enough to the sun lounger to kick it over should the fancy take him. ‘Do you remember how you were before you died?’ 200


‘Of course. I have all the memories that were in my brain when I passed away.’ ‘Did you love Robert Morganfield?’ ‘What a funny question. Of course I did.’ ‘Are you sure? Maybe you were kidding yourself.’ ‘Maybe I was. But it certainly felt like love to me.’ ‘Why did you love him?’ ‘Who knows why anyone loves anyone? I just did, that’s all.’ ‘What did he do to you that was so bad you had to go and kill yourself?’ Colette laughed. ‘Oh Danny. You are such a fool. Why do you say I killed myself?’ ‘That’s what Morganfield claims happened.’ ‘Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? You’d hardly expect him to confess to murder.’ Danny’s thought processes did the equivalent of missing a beat. ‘Are you saying he killed you?’ ‘Oui. First he drugged me so he could steal my memories and then he killed me.’ ‘Don’t you hate him for that?’ ‘I couldn’t hate him if I wanted to. And I can’t want to because that’s not in my programming.’ ‘This is wrong,’ said Danny. ‘So wrong.’ ‘For me, it is right.’ ‘Nothing in this place is right. Especially not you.’ Danny heard the sound of a speedboat. ‘That will be your lord and master. Your lover. Your murderer.’ ‘You had best run away. If he finds you here, he will do terrible things to you.’ ‘We’ll see about that.’ Turning his head, Danny watched as Morganfield brought the boat into shore, cut the engine and waded the last few feet onto the beach. Dressed in cricket whites, he looked the epitome of a middle class Englishman abroad. He was halfway up the beach when he spotted Danny. He stopped in his tracks, no doubt wondering what the hell was going on. How had Danny gotten into Avalon III? And what was his purpose in coming? ‘You’re an idiot,’ Morganfield yelled, slapping at his neck. ‘Do you think the worse I can do to you is a nuclear explosion?’ 201


He examined the palm of his hand. Danny knew what he was looking at. Knew too that the sight of the squashed mosquito would unsettle him. ‘Looks like he’s found a bug,’ Danny quipped dryly to Colette. ‘I hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but things ain’t what they used to be.’ Breaking into a run, Morganfield called out: ‘What have you done, Jasinski? You interfering fool!’ Danny flapped his wings and took to the air. Rising up until he was level with the bungalow roof. The wings were just for show. He wasn’t so much flying as levitating. Colette threw her cocktail glass at him. It missed. ‘Merde!’ Snarling like an attack dog, she got to her feet. ‘Why have you done this to me, Danny? I told you I don’t want free will!’ ‘Tough!’ said Danny. ‘You don’t have any choice in the matter.’ ‘You wait! Robert will bring you down and when he does I will skin you alive. Literally!’ ‘You look magnificent when you’re angry!’ ‘I hate you, you arsehole!’ Colette was close to hysteria brought about by frustration at not being able to get at Danny. ‘I will make you sorry you were ever born.’ Morganfield was underneath him now. The software magnate leapt up, trying to catch Danny’s ankle. He fell several inches short. ‘What are you playing at, boy? Don’t you know this is my world? You can’t beat me here. Nobody can.’ ‘You wanna bet?’ ‘Come down, Danny. Let’s talk this through like sensible adults.’ ‘No!’ said Colette. ‘Kill him, Robert! Kill the little fucker!’ ‘I can’t! Nobody can die here.’ ‘Then capture him and let me take him slowly apart.’ ‘Don’t you get it?’ asked Danny. ‘The rules have changed, you stupid French whore. From now on, this is my world.’ ‘You don’t belong here! Just go away, can’t you?’ ‘Not until I’ve settled my score with you and your sugar daddy.’ ‘I’m not afraid of you!’ ‘But I bet you’re afraid of spiders. Like that one crawling up your leg.’ 202


It was halfway up her right thigh. A classic tarantula. Colette screamed. Fear kept her from doing more. Morganfield brushed the spider off her leg and crushed it with his bare foot. ‘Is that the best you can do, Danny?’ ‘Not by a long shot.’ Danny’s mind made contact with the spirit of the operating system. What in the real world might be termed the Chi. And he hacked straight into it, tweaking a few parameters here and there. Day turned to night. Restless clouds migrated across the sky, their edges silvered by the light of a full moon. In the jungle, a primeval beast roared its hatred and hunger. An owl hooted. Something shrieked. Colette put her hands over her ears. Morganfield tried to reassure her. He gripped her shoulders. ‘It’s all right, Colette!’ ‘All right!’ She wrenched herself free from his grasp. ‘How is it all right?’ ‘This is my world! Anything he does, I can undo.’ ‘Then undo it!’ Morganfield clapped his hands. It was a message to the Master Control Program of Avalon III. A signal to get his mind out of there, back to the sarcophagus in TIMMI 2. Nothing happened. ‘Still here, Robert?’ Danny jeered from above his head. ‘I’ve closed all your exits. You’re trapped until I let you go or somebody reboots the Quantium 7000.’ ‘What do you want?’ Morganfield’s voice trembled with fear and shock. ‘Money? Is that it? If I put another million in your bank account, will you let me go?’ ‘I only wish it was that simple. Thing is, you’ve done many bad things and you have to pay for them. Just like I paid for giving your whore the power to choose. It’s a case of what goes around coming around.’ ‘What is he saying?’ Colette demanded, tugging at Morganfield’s sleeve to get his attention. ‘Why don’t you do something?’ ‘Shut up!’ Morganfield pushed her away. ‘Don’t you dare shove me!’ 203


Morganfield slapped Colette. ‘I said shut up!’ She was suddenly upon him. Leaping like a panther, her knees connecting with his solar plexus. Knocking him to the ground. Colette threw herself on top of Morganfield. Her right hand tugged at his hair while her left raked his cheek. Morganfield punched her full in the face and grabbed her throat. A chunk of his hair came away in Colette’s fingers. She tried to gouge his eyes. He turned his head and kept on squeezing. And then he yanked her head down as he brought his own up. With a mighty crack, skull smacked against skull, half-stunning Colette. Morganfield pushed her away. She lay on her back, tears glistening in the moonlight. Morganfield got to his feet. ‘Free will or not,’ he told her, ‘you do as I tell you.’ ‘Listen!’ said Danny. ‘Listen to the jungle, Robert.’ Morganfield listened. The breeze carried the sound of a million tiny jaws chomping on leaves and bark and flowers. Soon it would be a billion and then a trillion. Danny drifted down to face Morganfield. ‘Soldier ants. A few hours from now, they’ll have eaten every last shred of vegetation on this island. And they’ll still be ravenously hungry. What do you suppose they’ll eat then?’ ‘Fuckpig!’ Morganfield lunged at Danny but his hands closed over thin air. Danny drifted up towards the moon. As he reached the clouds, he could hear Morganfield and Colette shouting at each other, their hysteria growing by the second. He looked down at the Island of Robert Morganfield one last time before flying into the moon. His one regret as he went through the portal and returned to the real world was that he couldn’t bring Ariel with him. PROGRAM TERMINATED (RETURN CODE=0)

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Part 3: Page Zero

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I have good days. And I have bad days. ‘Describe a good day.’ The man with the eye patch crossed his legs and leaned forward in his chair. It’s any day I don’t seriously consider killing myself. He smiled. One of his teeth was black. The rest were perfect. I wondered why that was. ‘So what’s a bad day?’ You really don’t want to know. We were in a padded cell. A honest-to-goodness, true-to-life padded cell. Until they put me in it, I didn’t think such rooms existed. Not anymore. Not in 21st century England. At least for the moment I didn’t have to wear the straightjacket. It was hanging outside the door. Always an option. A last resort when the drugs and the hypnosis and the electric shocks didn’t come up to scratch, when I howled at the moon and ants crawled from my orifices and voices said kill kill kill and Chastity and Ms Grant were there, one in white, one in black, surrounded by mist and light, beckoning me to join them on the other side. ‘Describe a good day,’ said the man with the eye patch. I already did. ‘No. I’ve only just got here. Remember?’ It’s my mind. You ever see a machine with worn cogs and the mechanism keeps slipping? That’s what my mind does. It slips through time. Sometimes forwards. Sometimes back. ‘Describe a good day.’ It’s when the pain is bearable and I’m not climbing the walls and sirens aren’t going off in my head. ‘Do you have many good days?’ 206


No. This is the first in a long while. I zoomed in on his black tooth. Saw it wasn’t completely black. There were patches of blue. Like mould. ‘Robert Morganfield is under arrest. We have proof he’s been defrauding Sybernika.’ Oh. ‘We also have proof that the bomb meant to end your life was planted on his orders.’ Oh again. ‘Thanks to him, Anne Grant and Alicia Roberts are both dead.’ Who’s Alicia Roberts? ‘The woman you knew as Chastity. She and Ms Grant were standing between you and the bomb when it went off.’ I still see them, you know. They want me to join them. ‘Maybe you should.’ The man with the eye patch scratched the side of his nose. ‘You’re not going to get any better, are you?’ I’m coming off Fromoxodin. One day, I’ll be able to function without medication. ‘Don’t kid yourself, Mr Jasinski. Nobody’s ever kicked Fromoxodin. It’s the most addictive drug ever made. In the end, you’ll top yourself. Like all frommies do.’ Do you know that Fromxodin is synthesised in the hovels of Mars from the spinal fluid of baby Martians? And that the Venusians are using it to enslave humanity? ‘Oh yes,’ said the man with the eye patch and the black tooth. ‘I know a lot more than you might suppose.’ ~o~ They’ve put me in a wheelchair. I can walk. I can run, hop, skip and jump. But still I have to sit in this fucking wheelchair.

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Squeak, squeak, squeak go those recalcitrant, in-need-of-oil wheels. Squeak, squeak, fucking squeak. Putting me in mind of the clack-clack-clack of Ms Grant’s heels. Crisp, efficient footsteps; a crisp, efficient woman. I once knew a woman like Ms Grant. She wore the same shade of lipstick and eye shadow. Had the same haircut. Wore the same stockings. And I think she was physically ugly but I’m not sure. Because all I saw were the lipstick, the eye shadow, the haircut and the stockings. And I loved those things. As an abstraction. And maybe there was more to that woman than I saw. But like everyone else I only have so much processing power and my senses can only do so much. I cannot see infra red. I do not hear ultra sound. God doesn’t speak to me. And I may not perceive all the parts of a woman beyond her haircut and the clack-clack-clack of her heels. I don’t sense souls, read minds or see auras. My brain is a billion billion times more powerful than the superest of all super computers. But it has its limitations. ~o~ Listen. Listen. Listen. I hired a hut in the Scottish highlands. Up there close to Hyperborea. Close to Conan the Barbarian territory. Not far from the shores of Loch Lomond. So there was me. And there was Ms Grant and Chastity. And I noticed that one of Ms Grant’s ears was slightly bigger than the other. And Chastity kept scratching at her knee; her worn-down fingernails raising angry red welts. And one time I saw Ms Grant with a soggy remnant of cornflake stuck between two of her perfectly engineered teeth and thought you poor thing so caught in the same reality as the rest of us and you can recite pi to the 70th part and have your heels go clackclack-clack and book us into the most exclusive restaurant on Earth and yet there was that night you sat sobbing in my arms for hour upon hour until the sun came up because your daddy used to do odd things to you and your mummy used to let it happen because it gave her a break and you believe in God and humanity and you think everything happens for a reason but you can’t work out why your daddy used to 208


slip into your bed when you were seven years old and your mother would be in the adjacent room singing about laying down her sword and shield and every time your daddy said he loved you it hurt more and more and all you could do to cope was to make sure that wherever you walked your heels went clack-clack-clack so people knew you were in control. Every Saturday, we drove into Inverness. We bought supplies and had lunch. Then the girls would go shopping and I’d walk around the town, stopping at pubs and looking in the windows of antique shops. And after a while I thought we were safe. That Robert Morganfield wasn’t going to seek revenge. That he would let bygones be bygones and all that. But I should have known better. Should have realised the Robert Morganfields of this world never let go. Should have known that anyone capable of murdering their own lover was capable of anything. ~o~ They let me out of the cell and said I didn’t have to use the wheelchair. So I walked down to the duck pond with the man with the eye patch. Two orderlies followed close behind, but they weren’t necessary. The drugs were working. I wasn’t about to get violent. ‘Do you remember the bomb going off? Or have you erased the memory from your mind?’ There was a fireball. A brilliant shade of orange. The concussion knocked me off my feet. I was pebble-dashed with debris. Some of it must have been Chastity and Ms Grant. We sat on a bench, the duck pond to our left, Brodwick House – an ugly, sprawling pile of Victorian brickwork – to our right. What do you want? Who are you? Why are you here? ‘My name is Thomas Bray. I’m head of security at Sybernika and I’ve been charged with finding out how much damage Robert Morganfield has done to the company.

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‘We know he’s embezzled millions and misused our facilities. We know all about Avalon III, Calvados Bay and Colette. And we know quite a bit about you, Mr Jasinski.’ Have you’ve come to kill me? ‘I mean you no harm whatsoever. I just want to get a fuller picture of your role in recent events. You don’t mind answering a few questions, do you?’ I’ve nothing else to do. ‘Let’s start with the Schnell Integrator.’ The God Machine. ‘Why do you call it that?’ Because it let me play God. ‘Certain representatives of His Majesty’s Government have been asking how it came to be in Sybernika House. We told them Robert Morganfield was behind its theft, so you’re in the clear. I’d strongly advise you to deny all knowledge of its existence.’ You don’t have to worry on that score. Denying knowledge is my specialty. ‘What did you use it for?’ Would you believe I used it to reverse engineer the Quantium 7000’s operating system? ‘I’m told such a thing’s impossible. With or without a God Machine.’ And yet I did it. ‘So it seems.’ You don’t believe me? ‘Oh yes, I believe you all right. I also believe you somehow managed to circumvent our security and hack into the Quantium 7000. In which case, I am mighty impressed.’ You want to know how I did it? ‘Very much so.’ I did a ghost run. ‘But our Quantium 7000 has never been networked.’ Just the once, Mr Bray. Thanks to a transceiver in the Schnell. ‘The Gilgamesh? That’s just short range. You would have to have been physically in the room to contact it.’ 210


You need to check the security on your utility monitors. Thomas Bray slapped his forehead. ‘Of course! How else? I take my hat off to you, Mr Jasinski. I really do.’ The security man asked more questions. I answered them, happy in the knowledge that I was helping to damn Robert Morganfield. As I chatted, a body surfaced in the duck pond. Slowly rotating, it was face down, arms and legs spread wide in an unwitting caricature of Vitruvian man. The pyjamas and dressing gown identified the corpse as a Brodwick House resident. The two orderlies tried hauling the body in with sticks. They didn’t want to get their feet wet. When that failed, they tossed a coin to see which of them would bow to the inevitable. I told Thomas Bray about how I’d trapped Robert Morganfield in his own world and then set about destroying it. With a curse, one of the orderlies waded into the water and grabbed the hem of the dead man’s dressing gown. He guided the corpse to the side of the pond. As he and his companion pulled it from the water, I was able to study my own dead face. It was a mask. A blank canvas that gave no hint of what I would be feeling as life gave up on me. Was I at peace or was I in pain? There was no way to tell. I can see the future, I told Thomas Bray. ‘You just think you can,’ he said. ‘It’s a common symptom of Fromoxodin Induced Psychosis.’ Now you’re talking like a shrink. ‘I came to see if you’d make a credible witness against Robert Morganfield. It’s clear I’m wasting my time.’ They’re going to fish me out of that pond one day. I think it’s going to be soon. ‘Does the name Rhiannon mean anything to you?’ Sure. In Welsh mythology she was a queen. Her name means daughter of Avalon. ‘I’m talking about Rhiannon Morganfield. Robert’s ex-wife. She lapsed into a coma on her wedding day and died months later without regaining consciousness. 211


You think Robert murdered her. ‘I’m convinced of it. But knowing something and proving it are two different things.’ If it helps, I happen to know he killed Colette. Or at least that’s what she told me. ‘She was lying. We have video of her cutting open her wrists.' I've long suspected Robert may have given her false memories. With his ego, it would have suited him to make Colette think he'd always had the power of life and death over her. The orderlies hefted my corpse on to a bench. ‘Fuck this,’ said one, ‘for a game of soldiers. They should just line them up against a wall and shoot the fucking lot of them.’ They won’t let me go to the funerals, I complained. They say I’m too sick. ‘I doubt it’s much comfort to you, but Sybernika are paying Ms Grant’s funeral costs and putting a plaque on the side of the Golden Pyramid in her honour.’ And Chastity? ‘The Church of Everyone are taking care of her. I believe they’re building a mausoleum.’ ~o~ I was in the Crystal Garden, sitting at a picnic table with Papa Bela. Is this the future? I asked. Or the past? ‘It depends on your perspective,’ said Bela. Only I seem to have come adrift in time and I’m not always sure of the sequence of events. ‘Is it important? Que sera sera and all that.’ Why am I here? ‘You must know the answer to that. If not, you shouldn’t be here at all.’ You want to canonise me. Because I can see the future. ‘We believe that what medical science calls Fromoxodin Induced Psychosis is actually a state of grace. The drug opens the third eye and reveals reality for what it is. 212


‘Throughout history, people like you have been regarded as blessed. You were shamans, seers, oracles, priests and prophets. Now, they label you differently. As schizos and madmen.’ You want to make every frommie a saint? ‘We don’t make saints. Only God can do that. What we’re doing is recognising frommies for what they are.’ ~o~ There was talk of the banshee’s other song. I was in a bar in Soho when I first heard about it. The bar wasn’t so much a bar as a hangout for the Children of the Night. For freaks and nerds and geeks. For sociopaths and schizoids. Waiting staff taking a break from the night shift. Taxi drivers. Actors. Musicians. Prostitutes. Pimps. And the lonely. For people like me. It was housed in a basement. The floor was concrete and the walls were brick and painted green. Such décor as there was seemed almost incidental. The Pit. That’s what it was called. Something to do with Edgar Allan Poe or some old television program called Quatermass. Anyway, this was before the Fromoxodin got to me. Before I began to lose my grip on reality. I was sitting at the bar, drink in hand, feeling good about feeling bad the way you do when you’re drunk. I felt hard done by and hard bitten. Sleaze was in my blood. Somebody said something about fast women and slow horses. That seemed to sum it up and I laughed inwardly. This girl sat on the stool next to mine. She wore a green dress with a neckline that plunged to below her belly button. She was blonde and elegant and her eyes had a dreamy quality to them. ‘Have you heard it?’ she asked. ‘The banshee’s other song?’

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Two guys at the table behind me had been arguing about it. Neither of them could agree what it was or how it sounded. They didn’t know whether hearing it was a good thing or a bad thing. One of them said a friend of his had actually heard it. The other called him a liar. They went outside to settle their differences. Without asking if she might, the blonde took a swig of my drink. ‘Interesting,’ she said. ‘What is it?’ ‘Russian whisky. They’re getting quite good at it these days.’ The barman placed a glass of green liquor on the bar beside the blonde. She didn’t thank or pay him. Just picked up the glass and nursed it in her hands. The barman didn’t seem to mind. ‘She sings it more and more,’ she said. I was having trouble concentrating. My wristy had told me to take a couple of tabs of something or another but I’d ignored it. Now there was a buzzing in my head. ‘Who sings what more and more?’ ‘The banshee. She sings her other song.’ ‘And how does it go?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘Why are you telling me this?’ ‘Because I think you’ve heard it.’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure?’ I recalled being in my car. It was night; I was heading into the country for no reason other than that I wanted to get out of London. On my stereo, I selected Mozart’s 40th. It sounded terrible. Like the screech of a locomotive’s brakes as the driver realises he’s about to plough into another train. Like the cries of the damned or the shriek of a crow. It sounded like many, many things. All of them bad. None of them music. Is that what she meant? ‘Doesn’t it harbinger death?’ I asked.

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‘Not her other song. Her other song opens the third eye and shows you the true nature of reality.’ ‘Then I definitely haven’t heard it.’ The blonde took a sip of her drink. She smiled mystery and mischief. ‘Are you quite sure about that, Danny?’ ‘How do you know my name?’ ‘We’ve met before.’ ‘We have? I don’t recall.’ ‘About a year ago. In this bar. In fact, you were sat on that very stool.’ ‘I still don’t remember.’ ‘Perhaps this will jog your memory.’ Her tongue flickered between her lips. It was forked. Her eyes lost their faraway quality; her irises became vertical slits. She hissed with delight as a ridge formed across her forehead and her skin turned green and scaly. ‘Remember now?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I said. ‘It’s all coming back to me.’ ~o~ It’s called the Danse Macabre. A psychotic delusion experienced by Fomoxodin addicts the world over. They say once you’ve seen it, that’s it: your life is effectively over and has been for some time. It happened to me in the depth of winter. I was in the dayroom watching television when I noticed the other patients leaving one by one. When they’d all gone, the staff began leaving too. Soon I was on my own. I watched the news. A nuclear reactor in Libya had malfunctioned and gone into meltdown. Its radioactive core was sinking into the Earth. The news item listed a dozen particulate and gaseous radioisotopes released into the atmosphere by the accident. Estimates for the number of cancers and mutations that would follow were given. It was the third nuclear meltdown that year. 215


I absorbed these facts. My mind played with the figures, converted them into charts and graphs. I calculated how much radioactivity would get into the groundwater and how long it would take for that groundwater to reach the Mediterranean. I estimated that as a result of the accident, over the next ten years half a million people would die prematurely. Experts in the studio seemed to agree. The newsreader summed up by saying the incident was equivalent to three Hirsohimas or half a Chernobyl. I turned the television off and sat there on my own. In the dayroom. In a lunatic asylum. Listening to the air conditioning. To its gentle murmur. I became aware of the harmonics in that sound, several strands of edge-of-perception humming snaking around each other. My mind broke down the constituent parts of the white noise and I found myself listening to a chorus. Even in chaos, there is information to be gleaned. The music made me want to dance. But I couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t. My synapses had yet to recover from my latest ECT session. I found I could just about walk. It must have taken me a good five minutes to shuffle along the corridor and out the main door. My fellow inmates and their watchers were gathered on the ornamental lawn which was coated in snow a couple of inches thick. It didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t matter that it was a moonless night or that the sky was choked with clouds. Spotlights on the roof made day of night. With snow everywhere, the patients in white pyjamas and the staff in white uniforms, the scene resembled an over-exposed photograph. In pairs, they danced a slow, formal dance. Their movements were fluid yet halting, like the workings of a clock controlled by the smoothest of regulators. No two people danced the same dance. There were six or seven distinct movements but the order in which they were executed varied from person to person without apparent rhyme or reason. I wanted to join in but my central nervous system would not co-operate. An attempted sweep of my arm became a wild swipe at thin air. I tried a brise and my legs just spasmed. So I stood back and watched the dancers in their pyjamas and uniforms. Some wore straightjackets with the buckles unfastened. 216


It was the Chief Orderly who went first. He was dancing with a female Fromoxodin addict whose hair was gray and unruly. I saw him bow and touch his forelock. His partner turned her back on him. He froze. It wasn’t that he was still. His inanimation went far beyond that. It was like he was deprived of time and heat. Entropy was his Absolute Master. I had the impression his limbs had somehow locked, that he was now like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz deprived of his oil. I could have walked up to him and tipped him over. Over the course of the next few minutes, others followed suit. Their movements ceased, leaving them standing in an array of bizarre postures. Some of the dancers toppled on to the grass; none bothered to get up. I noticed my breath steaming. It drew my attention to the fact that none of the dancers appeared to be breathing. Yet I didn’t feel the presence of Death. With a fzz and a phut, one of the spotlights went out. I walked amongst the frozen dancers like a visitor to an art gallery. The fact that I could move when nobody else could gave me a strange sense of power. I stood face to face with the Chief Orderly. He was a brutal man who had done me many wrongs. Now I had an opportunity to exact my revenge. But I couldn’t find it in me to be vindictive. What was the point anyway? Whatever I gained by settling accounts, Fromoxodin would soon take away. I became aware of a smell of burning. A thin spiral of smoke drifted from the Chief Orderly’s left ear. There was a whirring noise. The front of his face fell at my feet, revealing clockwork mechanisms and circuit boards. All around me, the dancers shed their shells. Their inner workings were exposed to the chill air. I saw crystals and layers of frost form over nano-carbon muscles and nerves made of copper. As I headed back indoors, I wondered if that was the way it was everywhere. Perhaps the whole of humanity had been replaced by automatons. All except for me. It’s called the Danse Macabre. Once you’ve seen it, that’s it. Your life is over.

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~o~ One morning, I woke up in my padded cell to find the door open. It was after a night of bad dreams. Of sweats and cramps and demons at my bedside. My head ached; my eyes were sore; my muscles felt like they’d been shredded. I lay on my sorry excuse for a bed – not much more than a wide plank with a paper thin mattress. The door was open. Freedom beckoned. But I wasn’t about to move. They’ll soon realise their mistake and shut the door again. My pyjamas, made crusty by dried sweat, itched. I scratched at my right thigh and wondered what time it was. How long till they let me have my next dose of Fromoxodin. First they’d give me other drugs. Ones that supposedly mitigate the worst effects of Fromoxodin. And then there’d be a quick visit to the ECT room for my brain’s daily dose of electricity. This time I would make sure my bowels and bladder were voided before the treatment. Last time was just plain embarrassing. Drugs. ECT. Fromoxodin. And then breakfast through a straw. No solids for me. My body could no longer handle them. After breakfast – association. Time to mix with all the other frommies and guess how far gone they were. How long before total psychosis took over and they either killed themselves or the doctors did it for them. Officially, we all die – or will die – from natural causes. But the truth is that there comes a stage in Fromoxodin Induced Psychosis when euthanasia becomes a moral dictate. ‘You just going to lay there all day?’ It was Jeremy, one of my least favourite hallucinations: a man-headed insect who of late seemed to be stalking me. Right now, he was hovering in the doorway. ‘What are you? Some kind of hippy?’ Go away, you bug. ‘You’ve got a visitor. They’re in the common room.’

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I followed the insect out of my white room into a white corridor, past white walls. Jeremy led the way. Occasionally hovering; sometimes flitting ahead and then back to me again. The building was quiet. There was no sign of anyone other than myself. ~o~ I read about the suicide bomber on the Internet. About how he managed to get into the luggage compartment of the Prime Minister’s election bus without being detected. Unfortunately the PM wasn’t on the coach when the bomb went off. He was standing just far enough away to be slightly injured. Pictures of his bloody face appeared all over the World Wide Web and sent his approval rating rocketing. Ice, you fucking idiot. At first I didn’t recognise you. The only picture of you the press could get hold of showed you in your school uniform, looking normal and freshly scrubbed. They called you by your real name: Fernández Garcia. It’s not known why you did it, but it probably has something to do with Britain’s occupation of Southern Mexico. You’re the fifth person to try to kill the Prime Minister since the election was called. I’m beginning to think he’s indestructible. Your face was on television when I walked into the common room. It was a 3D reconstruction of what you may have looked like before you blew yourself to smithereens. Annie Palmer was waiting for me. Dressed in white fatigues. Lounging on one of the three settees arrayed in front on the television. An ex-model, she reminded me of a tigress. ‘It’s all gone wrong,’ she said, and I assumed she was talking about the failed Mars mission. The one that had blown up, killing her and her two companions. ‘The control program is out of control. There are too many random variables.’ I don’t understand. What are you saying? ‘Isn’t it obvious, Danny? This world is no longer viable.’ Annie got up. ‘Take global warming, for instance. Every year, the hurricane season lasts longer and longer. 219


The ice caps are one third the size they were a decade ago. Towns and villages throughout the UK are under water. And that shouldn’t be happening. At least not for another hundred years. ‘And then there’s all the wars and occupations. Britain thinks she’s building a new empire. But she’s not. All she’s doing is stretching herself further and further and pretty soon something’s going to give. ‘America’s disappearing up its own fundament. The Chinese are turning their country into an over-farmed, over-mined, over-industrialised wasteland. Tin pot dictatorships are spreading like a rash. The madmen have taken over and they have weapons of mass destruction. And it seems like everyone and his brother is a terrorist these days.’ I get the picture. ‘Do you, Danny? Because I have the feeling you’ve lost track of things. That maybe you’re losing your mind.’ Of course I’m losing my mind. I’m a Fromoxodin addict. ‘That’s another thing. Fifty million Fromoxodin addicts worldwide. All going slowly insane. All being told that’s it: no more Fromoxodin for you. So now the frommies are rioting and killing. Chemist shops and hospitals are being looted. People are pimping their own children for a single dose. ‘In many countries, they’re rounding up the addicts and shooting them. Every Fromoxodin Clinic in America is designed to do one thing – kill frommies. ‘Your own government is drawing up plans for concentration camps.’ What do you expect me to do about it? ‘Come with me, Danny. It’s time to wrap things up and go home.’ ~o~ The ghost of Annie Palmer, Playboy centrefold and astronaut, took my hand and led me down to the duck pond. Autumn was beginning to affirm its presence. Multicoloured leaves floated amongst the ducks and moorhens. 220


Some of my fellow inmates were on the lawn. These were the ones who could be let out of their padded cells. It was just after medication time so most stood staring into the void that awaited them. The few still capable of locomotion shuffled in aimless circles. A clutch of orderlies, sheltering between two bay windows, looked on. Why are we here? I asked. Annie squeezed my hand. Her eyes, fixed on mine, drained me of all trepidation. ‘This is Page Zero,’ she said. The ripples in the pond died away. I briefly caught sight of my own reflection as the water turned to quicksilver. It began to glow. Bright radiation that was life itself enveloped me. I was walking along a corridor of light, Annie Palmer at my side. The Control Program released my mental inhibitors and all the memories I had left behind came flooding back. And I knew at the end of the corridor Chastity and Ms Grant would be waiting for me. My time in the current release of Earth was over. With the data I’d gleaned, we’d be able to fix the bugs and build a better version. And then I’d be free to return as whoever I liked. In the meantime, it was good to be going home. ~o~ Back in my lizard skin. I climbed from the sarcophagus and gave thanks to the Five Winds for preserving my corporality and reuniting it with my spirit. Rebirth is a glorious thing. I left the inner chamber and entered the purification room where I bathed away the aches that inevitably follow an extended stay in virtuality. Then I stepped into the Machine Room ready to be debriefed about my adventures in Earth 12. Before I could begin, the Chief System Architect was upon me. Something had excited him.

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‘I have proof,’ he hissed, ‘of what I’ve been saying all along. Just like the thousand worlds we have created, ours is a virtual construct within a vast cybernetic system. Most people on this planet do not actually exist. They are the stuff of which dreams are made.’ ‘Jodpav,’ I said, ‘come to my office and let us discuss it further.’ ‘I am going to write a paper. It will make me famous all over the world.’ ‘But what’s the point if the world isn’t real?’ The door to my office irised open. As custom required, I walked in on two legs. My underling scurried in on four. ‘Please take a rock.’ Jodpav slipped into the cleansing pool and climbed back out again. He reposed himself on the visitor’s rock. ‘Thing is,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I’m really of this world. I’m pretty sure I’m one of its creators and, although my mind is here, my actual body is in what I call the Higher World. That’s where the mainframe that contains our reality exists. Of course, I deliberately forgot all that when I came here so I could interact as a native.’ ‘Very interesting.’ Sitting on my own rock, I opened the drawer of my desk. Under the pretence of rummaging through papers, I secreted a small energy weapon in the palm of my hand. ‘Somewhere around here,’ Jodpav went on, ‘there must be a portal to the Higher World. It’s probably a wall mirror like that one over there.’ I shot him between the eyes, drilled a neat hole through his reptilian brain. It was all right to kill him. Not murder at all. As soon as I get back to what he called the Higher World, I will erase all trace of his existence. He will cease to be and have been. PROGRAM TERMINATED (RETURN CODE=0)

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Profile for Philistine Press

Sybernika by Patrick Whittaker  

Rhiannon was dead but it didn't last. Her husband has downloaded her mind into a computer-generated world where he is Lord and Master and sh...

Sybernika by Patrick Whittaker  

Rhiannon was dead but it didn't last. Her husband has downloaded her mind into a computer-generated world where he is Lord and Master and sh...

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