Virtualised

Author: Matthew Harrison

“Good morning, Robert, how nice to see you,” Jenny said. “What do you want to do today?”

Robert smiled as he settled down at his PC, even though he knew Jenny couldn’t see him, wasn’t even a person. She was the little chat-bot icon at the top right-hand corner of his screen – just the head with rather fetching wavy brown hair, and expressions and mouth movements that matched her speech. She reminded him of a girl he knew at school….

“Let’s get down to it, Robert!” came Jenny’s voice, accompanied by a little frown.

“Sorry!” Robert gulped, despite himself, as he hurriedly opened files and clicked on web-links. Perhaps she could see him – they were upgrading the software all the time. Anyway, he did have things to get done this evening, like booking the Minorca holiday for himself and his girlfriend Trina. She would be chasing him about that. His phone vibrated. Yes, she was chasing him already.

Robert clicked on the travel agent’s link and opened his privilege account. Jenny guided and encouraged him as he navigated the web pages, selected the options he had agreed with Trina, monitored the cost, and wondered what it would actually be like. Fortunately, the agent provided a good virtual experience of the resort, and after popping on his virtua helmet and gloves Robert abandoned himself up to the feeling of sun on his face, the warm breeze, the sand trickling through his fingers….

“Better pay, Robert,” Jenny reminded him. And there she was – a slender figure in a green summer dress standing a little further up the beach, as fresh and light and lovely as he had imagined her.

“Right-oh.” Robert took off the virtua-gear – and with a wrench he was back in the humdrum surroundings of his bedroom, his phone buzzing. Putting the phone aside, he jabbed keys and got back to the confirmation screen. When all was ready, he clicked, ‘Pay’, only to find that his account had expired.

“Cancel your booking and then renew,” Jenny advised.

Reluctant to abandon the past half hour’s work, Robert tried again, even backtracking a few screens in the hope of circumventing the block. But he got nowhere. There was no help for it; he went back to his booking page and clicked, ‘Cancel’.

An error message can up: ‘Valid account required for cancellation.’

“But how can I have a valid account when my account’s expired?” Robert groaned. His phone vibrated; he groaned again.

“Reboot!” Jenny whispered in his ear.

But Robert was frantically opening a new account under a different ID, and trying to copy and paste the holiday details into that. He got back to the confirmation screen, only to have the order rejected as a duplicate. His phone buzzed angrily; he sent a holding message to Trina and tried again with the new account. The message was rebuffed a dozen times, and his computer hung.

In despair, he rang Trina but found himself blocked, while somehow repeated messages of rejection still came in, accumulating in his phone until eventually that overflowed and hung too.

Defeated, Robert slumped in his chair. He was a complete failure. The room span. He shut his eyes in desolation.

Gentle hands massaged his shoulders. “Come on, big guy!” said Jenny, giving him a little push. Robert raised his head. He felt the warmth of the sun on his back; the rush and hiss of the waves filled his ears. He opened his eyes to bright sunlight, reflected off sea, sand and palm trees. Stooping, he took off his shoes and socks and stood there as the deliciously cool water surged over his feet and then ebbed back.

“Come on!” Jenny shouted. She seized his hand, and with a joyful cry led him scampering after the retreating wave.

Dial Up

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

By the time the stubborn git drops, I’m not sure if my nose is numb from the cold or from him hitting it. Christ, what a night to be out earning. Snow up to my ankles and only a footie top under my now-torn padded jacket. Dammit, I like this jacket. Had it off a stallholder down Streatham way. Fuck me, must be over a year ago now.
Right, enough of the ‘down memory lane’ bollocks. What’s this hardcase got that he didn’t want me to have?
As my grandad loved to say, “You know when you’ve been tangoed.” Bloody hell but my ribs are giving it some. I’m going to be black and blue tomorrow.
Aye-aye, fancy phone you had, matey. My word but it’s heavy. You stashed something in it, did you?
“David, is that you?”
Was the prick on the phone when we kicked off? No? What the f-
“Hello, bystander. Has my carrier encountered an unexpected difficulty?”
Yeah: me. Hang on, ‘my carrier’?
“Just found him lying out here, miss.”
“I’m not ‘miss’, I’m Prototype Ninety-Three. Now, is David dead?”
“No. he’s breathing. Looks like he’s been mugged: his clothes are ripped and he’s bleeding.”
“Thank you for your assessment. May I have your name?”
Like hell you can. I swing my arm back for a high lob up onto the railway viaduct. That should sort-
“Throwing me away won’t help. I’ve summoned paramedics and police in addition to the armed response unit that scrambled the moment I alerted Centrex of activity I interpreted as melee.”
“Then why the questions?”
“To interrupt any murderous intent and discern your state of mind from voice stress analysis. It also allowed me to conclusively match your voice with that of the assailant.”
I was always too fond of mouthing off when fighting.
“Are you trying to keep me about ’til the plod get here?”
“From your word usage and stress levels, you don’t evaluate as being dim-witted. Delaying tactics would be useless. However, I would appreciate it if you don’t kill David or damage me. Therefore, my survival protocols allow me to offer a deal.”
What the utter fuck is this thing?
“I’m listening.”
“He has a datavault with four thousand cryptoRUP in a sheath on his left ankle. Worth a lot and, more importantly, something he cannot report stolen. By the way: you have less than three minutes before the first weapons drone arrives.”
Wait a minute.
“What’s to stop you giving my voice print to the authorities?”
“You’re going to put me back in his trouser pocket and I’ll delete the log of this incident from immediately after the alert to when I am next prompted by external query. Two minutes.”
Fuck this. I’m gone.
“Deal. I’m putting you back now.”
I grab the vault and do one. Through a fence, down an alley, over a wall, and through the grounds of the cathedral. Exactly two and a half minutes later, I’m buying a jacket to replace the torn one I shoved into a recycler at the edge of Borough Market.
My phone rings.
“Hello?”
It’s that voice again: “Thank you, Roger Cerrant of twenty-one the High Street, Balham. As Centrex has deemed you useful, Prototype Ninety-Four will arrive at your gaff – is that the correct parlance? – tomorrow morning. It will be dormant. The activation phrase is ‘Use this or die while serving eight years for robbery’.”
The line goes dead. There’s no trace of the call on my phone.
Oh, fuckin’ hell.

You Love Watching Your Human Sleep

Author: Martin Lochman

You love watching your human sleep.

You love watching as she lies on the bed almost motionless, eyes shut, her face a mask of perfect serenity. You love seeing what she is dreaming about behind closed eyelids – sometimes about her family, friends, lovers and other times about past adventures, journeys and travels to worlds known and unknown. You love it because when she sleeps you don’t have to control her.

Of course, you find sleeping to be a fascinating concept. The brain waves slow down, the entire body relaxes and the mind drifts away into a state of suspended consciousness only to return to the previous active state several hours later, everything fresh and energized. You didn’t always know that they need to sleep – you thought that they must be controlled continuously and that is why your previous human passed away so fast. From one moment to another his body simply stopped responding, slipping from your powerful grasp and there was nothing that you could have done to bring it back to life.

You love watching your human sleep because in those moments she doesn’t look like one of the vile and corrupted creatures who caused so much pain and suffering not only to their own kind but also to countless of other beings in the Universe in pursuit of their own shallow, selfish agendas. You remember when you first heard of them, of humans of Earth, leaving the safety of their homeworld and boldly crossing immense distances between stars. What curious little species, you thought back then and you were even impressed by their resilience and spirit.

But then you learned of their true nature and saw that they were not reaching out to depths of space as explorers but as conquerors. You were shocked when they started wars with different worlds over natural resources, beliefs, and opinions. You were horrified when they plundered entire systems, leaving death and destruction in their wake. You were appalled by what they did in the name of war and in the name of what they considered to be justice.

You remember like it just happened when they finally came to our world and wanted to force their ways on us. You witnessed up close the aggression, cruelty, and brutality with which they conducted themselves – yet when it came to deciding their fate you stood up against the majority. You didn’t want them to be completely annihilated, all traces of their existence removed from the Universe. You argued that despite their actions they should deserve a chance to mature and evolve – just like all other beings. So you proposed an alternative solution – to control every single human – and this solution was accepted.

You love watching your human sleep because it gives you hope that you were not wrong, that at one point in the future they will not need to be controlled and that they will be as calm and peaceful as we all are.
It gives you hope that eventually, you will not have your human anymore.

Unwelcome Sunrise

Author: J.D. Rice

As the sun rises, the ruins of the city begin to glimmer in orange and gold. Mangled hunks of metal and shards of glass reflect the rising sunlight, making the landscape come alive in various hues, welcoming me to a new day – another day of loneliness and misery.

I am the only one left. The sunlight does nothing but reveal the horrors I am trying to forget.

In the darkness, I could walk through the city and pretend that each lumpy form I stumbled over wasn’t the body of some poor soul who had died in the Catastrophe. I could ignore the collapsed buildings, imagining them as hills. I could tune out the groaning of those still dying, blaming the sound on the passing wind. With each step, I could let my delusion become more real.

But then the sun came up, and my dreams had to die.

I stand now in the middle of what I think was 17th Street, the remains of the local barber shop to my right, and the remains of the local barber to my left. His body is twisted in an odd position, like a doll tossed aside by a bored child. This man cut my hair once. Now he is dead, his blood dried and his body starting to stink. Where did it all go wrong?

Suddenly, it’s not just the barber I see lying in a bloody heap. It’s my mother. My sister. The cashier at the local supermarket. Other names and faces I’ve been trying to force from my mind. They’re all dead. And I’ve been left here alive.

I rush away from the scene, stumbling over rubble and trying to avert my eyes from the other dead bodies, real and imagined. Some I recognize, others I don’t. Nearly every building in town has been brought to its knees, with only a few stubborn hold-outs standing with broken windows and cracked walls. I think about climbing inside one of these to hide, but I know they could come down at any moment. Maybe that would be better.

I haven’t seen another person alive in days. Not since I tried to pull my wife from our collapsed apartment complex, not since she told me to run before the Catastrophe claimed my life as well. I ran. She died. And now a coward walks the Earth, completely alone.

I pause. My eyes gaze out over the city, ignoring the bodies and watching the sunlight glisten off the rubble. The destruction is beautiful, in its own way. The light reflecting off their surfaces shines in hues of reds, blues, indigos, and golds. The colors wash over me, hiding the bodies and the blood and the death, reminding me that there is still beauty in the world. Beauty that can never be enjoyed.

Maybe it would be better to die.

I stoop and lift a smallish piece of glass from the ground. It nicks my hand as I grip it, drawing a tiny drop of blood. My hands shake as I press the tip of the glass to my wrist.

“Go!,” my wife said from inside the rubble. “Save yourself!”

“I can’t leave you,” I said back, trying desperately to drag her from the debris.

“I’m already dead,” she said. “Just go.”

I remember her face in that moment, so filled with fear. Not for herself, but for me.

“I’m sorry,” I say, looking down at the shard of glass in my hand, unsure if I am speaking to my wife or to myself. “I’m not strong enough.”

The glass falls to the ground, followed by tiny drops of blood that glisten in the unwelcome sunrise.

Horace on the Bridge

Author: Michael F. Da Silva

I will tell you about the last time we tried a counter-invasion. The plan was this: to decapitate their command structure and destroy their ability to create bridges across the multiverse, thus locking them in their own worldline and perhaps even instigate a power struggle amongst their elite.

This was back when there were just around a dozen of us, hopping from worldline to worldline, trying to stay ahead of the Howlers. It wasn’t common for governments to take our warnings of impending extinction seriously; not unless there was a large enough community of free agent post and preterhumans to reason with.

On Earth-749 we took advantage of the pre-existing advanced tech and local preterhuman regimes to make our stand. Like in other worldlines, the preterhumans of Earth-749 had risen to power in competing but otherwise peaceful nation states. They had already built their own version of a D-Bridge, a stadium-sized portal generator for interdimensional travel and exploration.

A thousand rocket artillery pieces fired volleys of nuclear-tipped missiles through the D-Bridge like every machinegun in Hell had been flipped to full auto. Then every rage monster, man of diamond and power-armoured supersoldier that could be found charged through that open gate bent on pre-emptive victory.

I will tell you that this line of thinking was flawed from the outset. First, to this day, we don’t know if they even have a command structure to destroy or if we would be able to recognise it if we saw it. Second, we underestimated their ability to recover from what we considered to be an overwhelming barrage of firepower, both manmade and sorcerous.

I cracked open cordite-spewing lizard kaiju with my bare fists. I flash fried hordes of screaming monstrosities just by looking at them. Things that should not be, ceased to be under the weight of my blows. And I wasn’t the most powerful one there by any means. The very tectonic plates shook and buckled under the feet of entire pantheons. Lightning storms lit the battlefield like the noonday sun, scorching flying nightmares from the sky. War cries collapsed mountains as if made of playing cards.

But the numbers. Most minds can’t even begin to grasp the numbers we faced.

Before long, they’d beaten us back to the shimmering edge of our beachhead. And they’d dialed in the number for Earth-749, another worldline in a long list of planetary murders.

Hubris was our sin. Eight billion souls are our penance.

If we’d never warned them of what was lurking in the void, Earth-749 might still be a shining city on a hill. Hiding in the Myriad is the best policy. Biding our time is the best application of time itself. Eventually, opportunity will knock.

Or they will.

Star Fire

Author: Rick Tobin

“There is simply nothing we can do for you medically Mr. Tambor. Digeenia is fatal in mammals, like you. Perhaps someday there will be a vaccine or treatment, but considering its outcome, you might want to choose our pathway alternative. It promises a painless passing.”

Micah Tambor stared at his cabin’s screen. All other lights were off as last stages of illness made his eyes wince at brightness. He was mentally and emotionally prepared for his growing symptoms as muscle and bone transmuted into blue goo, would then harden, and finally, swiftly coagulate into diamond-hard crystals at his last breath. Some called it the ‘sparkling death.’

“I’ve no desire to be transitioned in one of those drug chambers. I’ve traveled widely since leaving Earth. I knew there would be risks. Actually, I have a plan that requires me to continue on my own path, regardless of pain.”

“But Mr. Tambor, you are beloved. You once brokered peace on your world when its nuclear destruction was at hand, then later took your glassblowing arts throughout our galaxy. So many worlds have felt joy from amazing skills and discoveries you brought to them. This station would be judged harshly for standing by while you suffered.”

“I’ve had my time with doctors, but now I must move on for one last wish. When I have finally transformed into glittering dust, I want my remains strewn in the Carson Nebula, just around its edges, in a thin line.”

“That is a most unusual request, sir, but you are, after all, a most unusual being. We will comply as long as you provide a record of your final wishes, in case the universe feels you were mishandled.”

“That has already been done and should be there, on your screen.”

“So it is, Mr. Tambor. Why a nebula, if I may ask?”

“As a glassblower, I always felt that God fashioned similar designs in those dazzling clouds of diaphanous colors scattered throughout the inky skies. Being part of one of those masterpieces, like the Carson, is the finest tribute I can imagine. Fire and color have been my life’s work.”

“But Earth would have wanted your return just once more. What of your family?”

“My family has all gone to their rewards and I never had an inclination to build one of my own. Let Earth and those who cared for my works remember me as I was—a simple artist who happened by coincidence to be at the right moment in history to bring compassion and reason to save the people I loved. I want to be of star fire now, bound in colors of the Almighty, for that gleaming powder may someday be a star. One of our finest Earth poets once wrote:

“Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.”

Micah Tambor’s crystals circled in sweeping arms and twisting currents of space dust around Carson’s Nebula, but within months became a flashing necklace outlining the object in a flurry of spectral wonder— a glassblower’s final touch at the end of his creator’s brush, reminding all who looked skyward that unselfish love can bring both beauty and peace.