Author : Salli Shepherd

In Fresno, California, Kalisha Henderson jacks herself in to a palm-length, slimline psii-pod and closes her eyes. She is young, barely in her teens, and her mind soon fills with images of pink, prancing horses with horns of silver.

She hasn’t yet learnt to hold her impressions well or long enough to leave a decent neural imprint. Soon the horses shred and tatter, fading into cartoonish, equine ghosts. With a low moan of despair, she watches her popularity rate spike briefly and then plummet again to almost zero. She’ll have to try harder, much harder, if she is ever going to succeed. She also realises her Subscription is running out and, in anticipation of that terrible loss, weeps loudly into her hands.

On the other side of the world, Peter O’Flaherty is enjoying the fruit of being a Master of his art. From Peter’s psii-pod and thence into ArtiCon’s main gallery flows a horrifically lifelike pack of Hell Hounds, slavering and many-limbed, set loose on a roomful of barebreasted cat-women. Millions watch the carnage, enthralled, and for every minute they do so a credit leaks from their account to ArtiCon’s coffers. Peter will see one ten-thousandth of the money, but he doesn’t care. His popularity rate just went through the roof, and the subsequent endorphin reward meted out to him through the Subscriber chip embedded in his temporal lobe sets him shivering, pleasure dripping wet and warm down his thigh.

They are just two, among six billion Subscribers.

Kalisha’s little burst of misery, a mere drop in the ocean, is nevertheless a  source of great happiness to Narghaflog. Roughly the size and shape of an inflated sleeping-bag, the alien hooked up to ArtiCon’s artificial brain by hairlike microfilaments quivers and blubbers in joy. What fuel these creatures provide! What manner of mesmeric delicacies! Narghaflog’s entire planet is beholden to It for this cheap source of food, fuel and entertainment. And to think, It almost passed the place by. With a pulse of neurons and self-satisfaction, the great Arcturean explorer transmits a message to Its second-in-command.

“Lhamayaoh! Plant discord in that large spike on Subscriber #27985362, immediately.”

The lesser creature does as It is bidden, proceeding to insert a twin trend of manufactured outrage and disapproval into Peter O’Flaherty’s rating stream. Immediately, a massive wave of murderous anger drives response levels off the chart– Peter’s dedicated fans and followers, numbering in their millions, won’t stand for the creations of their favourite Dream-Weaver being sullied by unfavourable critique.

Moments later, the slug-like denizens of Arcturus let out a telepathic roar of approval as a tide of human rage floods at the speed of Thought across space, permeating their depleted auric channels. Narghaflog allows a final shudder of pleasure to wobble Its colourless flesh before turning back to the neural monitors, thanking the Spawn-Source for happy accidents and the limitless vanity of artists.

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