Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

I hate old servers. Not ‘old’ like they peddle on the upgrade-your-old-one-now streams, but genuinely aged kit still running despite all odds. There’s a lot of it out there. Even back in the late twentieth century, corporates had no real clue as to exactly what hardware they had, where it was and what – if anything – it was doing or being used for. Multiply that information gap by several decades of huge growth in deployed estate and the lack of need for direct connectivity bestowed by the ‘internet of things’ and the result is an unfixable issue of ridiculous proportions.

All of which is a nice preamble to a nasty fact: dead people aren’t going away. Oh, their bodies are recycled and their possessions redistributed, their websites archived and their social media identities memorialised, but any who had a direct neural interface are not actually departing. Whether they are undeleted data or some form of ghost – or even a new form of life, the ‘virtual entity’, is a moot point when they start afflicting. In a world reliant on computerised systems, something that actively interferes is a threat. Giving it so many ‘dark’ places to hide in just makes it harder to remedy.

It’s taken a week, but we’ve traced the faint scatter of this entity to an old server somewhere in the industrial sector around Manchester. As this one managed to kill a real person by slaying their avatar, it’s a priority in case of another ‘attack’. I suspect otherwise, but the concept of vengeful virtual revenants is something I can’t mention. So, I’ve quietly done some research in the hope I can fix it rather than having to erase it.

Ahead of me, amidst the vague data constructs of an ancient system with a faulty GPU and no HPU – holographic processing didn’t exist when this server was installed – there’s a creamy glow with perfectly rounded edges that moves round the constructs, not through them. It’s like it lends them substance with its presence.

“Harold?” The voice is feminine, crackling and hissing like a weak radio broadcast.

“No, ma’am. I’m with the police.”

The creamy form slips nearer, resolving from momentary pixel storm into a young woman in an elegant ballgown.

“Miss Eleanor Graude?” Let’s see if my suspicions are on the mark.

“Why yes, young lady. How can I help?”

My avatar looks like beat cop from twenty years ago.

“Ma’am, it’s Harold. He’s been murdered.”

She hangs her head, a shaking hand covering her eyes: “I hoped I had succeeded, but it’s so difficult to pick things up around here.”

Eleanor looks up: “He beat me all the time. I couldn’t stand it. I can’t prove it, but that’s why I killed him.”

I smile: “Mary told us, ma’am. You defended yourself at last, didn’t you?”

She looks confused: “Mary? But she’s barely six. How could she-”

Her form flickers as realisation sets in.

“I’m dead outside, aren’t I?”

“For nearly two decades, ma’am.”

“He killed me, didn’t he?”

“That’s what Mary told us, Eleanor. With Harold dead, she could tell the truth. And she has. All of it. All the years of it.”

I see her smile as her outline blurs. A perfectly formed tear rolls down her face, leaving a line of empty space where skin used to be.

“Please tell her I love her.” She fades as she utters the words.

I quickly drop out of the virtual world and roll my head to one side so the tears don’t fall on my interface.