On the edge of a desolate rocky shore, the monster makes its stand. I finally have the ugly goddamn thing cornered. It is wounded and unarmed, but still dangerous. The misbegotten creature, regurgitated from the imagination of an obviously deranged programmer, swipes a spiky tentacle at me. It snarls to display a dentist’s nightmare of shark-like triangular teeth.
“Got you, you ugly sonofabitch!” I scream in battle-rage. The voice in my throat is deeper and stronger than my real voice. It makes me feel powerful.
I heft my spear. At some point back in the time-warped lucid stream, I had carried a gun of surreal caliber, with which I blasted dozens of this thing’s brethren back to whatever hell their theology might provide. I lost the weapon in the heat of battle, though, and was forced to improvise. The heavy stick, sharpened to a deadly point upon the jagged rocks, pierces the monster’s skulls easily. Churning their reptilian brains to pulp is much more satisfying than shooting them.
Behind the alien’s back, the boiling maelstrom of the lunatic sea explodes against the rocks. Spray coats my face. I taste salt. For a second this unexpected detail distracts me. I didn’t know I could taste things here. The creature takes advantage of my diversion and rolls to the side in a desperate, crab-like lurch.
I drive my spear through one of the monster’s many appendages, nailing it to the ground. With a wrenching tug and a squealing cry that is painful to hear, the thing pulls free. Leaving its twitching detached limb behind, the crippled beast makes a pathetic attempt at escape. It struggles up the sea-slicked wall of rocks.
I plant my foot on the still-convulsing amputation. The hard outer skin crunches beneath my boot. A spurt of yellow-green blood splatters the rocks with viscous dripping slime. I pull my spear free and heft it over my shoulder. Above me, the sky is as mad as the sea. The canopy of the heavens is filled with a spider-web of lightning, like a dome of black glass shattering to reveal the blinding light of infinity beyond. Deafening thunder drowns my cry as I hurl my spear. I know my aim is true as soon as my hand releases the weapon. It slices the salt air in a perfect trajectory, skewering the beast through its twisted spine.
I laugh in triumph as the thing dies. It was a good kill, very satisfying. Well earned, too. I am wounded. The barbed tentacles have taken a chunk out of my side, but the injury does not concern me. The sensation is not quite pain. It’s like a strange throbbing heat emanating in waves from the damaged area. Pleasant, in a way. Not like the pain of reality.
Now, I think, to the victor the spoils. I crawl over the rocks to see what treasure lies in the cave the monster was defending. My time here is growing short. I hope I can enjoy my prize before the session ends. Vaulting over a ridge, I find myself at the mouth of the cave. A woman crouches inside, huddled beneath a spray-drenched cloak.
She is slight, her figure thin as far as I can determine beneath the coat. Her short dark hair is plastered to her skull with water. Her eyes are wide with fear. She looks nothing like the voluptuous, doe-eyed blondes which are the usual reward for winning a battle. I am a little disappointed, but stretch my hand out for the woman anyway. Instead of taking my hand in hers with gratitude, the usual behavior of the prize-girls, this one scrambles backwards into the shelter of the cavern. She seems afraid of me.
“Don’t worry,” I speak in the deep, flat voice of this world’s throat. “I won’t hurt you. I’m here to rescue you.”
Her dark eyes narrow with mistrust. This strikes me as strange. The eyes of the game-characters are usually as expressive as glass marbles, just one of the minor limitations of the software which keeps the experience from being fully real. Still, determined, I advance on the girl.
“We have time for a little fun,” I jest, adding a chuckle.
The girl replies with a word I have never heard from the lips of a prize-girl.
“No,” she says.
“No?” I’m baffled.
“Please.” Tears. I have never seen tears in this world. “I don’t know where I am or how I got here. Just please help me.”
I stagger on my feet for a second, trying to understand what is happening. Before I can grasp it, the sky rings out with a sound like a million bells. From the other world, an alarm sounds.
“What’s happening to you?” the girl cries out.
I look down and watch my body dissolve into nothingness.
The buzzer rang the end of the session. Michael blinked twice and came awake, surprised as always to find himself sitting in a stifling hot room with three other men. For a moment he could not remember how he had arrived there.
In the chairs beside him, Old Max and Heller came awake. Across the room, their host Morgan opened his strange, sand-colored eyes. He never joined them in their experience, but sometimes dozed off waiting for them to finish.
The device rested on the table before Morgan. It resembled a small, fleshy sac, like a defective organ cut from a dying man. Despite the fact he had smuggled most of the machine’s components from his job, Michael had no idea how the thing worked. Morgan had put it together. All Michael knew was that when it was turned on, the thing pulsed like a beating heart. It broadcast a signal, which was received by the metal ring implanted under the skin on the back of his neck. Under the influence of the machine’s steady throb, and of the sedative Morgan doled, Michael slept lightly. In his shallow dreams he had more power than he had ever known awake.
“How was it, boys?” Morgan asked, massaging the sac, manipulating the controls inside to shut down the machine and terminate the experience.
“Fuckin’ galumptious,” Heller laughed. He looked around the room for someone to second his assessment, flashing a child-like grin.
Old Max merely smiled and nodded. “It was very nice,” he said.
“How about you, Michael?” Morgan’s pale brown eyes glinted.
“It was different this time.”
Morgan nodded. “The filters you smuggled out worked quite well.” His words drawled out like tendrils of smoke wafting from his thin lips. He talked like a man savoring a mouthful of raw oysters. “They add a human dimension.”
Coming from Morgan, “human” sounded like a strange alien species.
“Whatever, dro,” Heller said. “That was the best fight and the best fuck I ever had. My gyno had great pillowy mams and her yoni tasted like strawberry jam.”
Michael had often wondered why Heller joined the club. He wasn’t like the rest of them. Handsome and athletic, with an easy boyish charm, he could have scored himself just about any woman he desired. Though, and this may have been key, not strawberry-flavored ones.
“I killed my gyno this time,” Old Max said, licking his lips with pervy relish. “Just to try something different.”
“Oh?” Morgan smiled. “And did you enjoy that experience?”
“Yes, quite a bit,” Old Max nodded. It was easy to understand why he was in the club. Old Max had probably been disgusting even when he was young.
“And how do you boys feel now?” Morgan said. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I feel great,” Heller said. “Fucking frabjous.”
“Yes,” Old Max agreed. “I feel relaxed. Refreshed. A calm sense of well-being.”
“Any lingering feelings of guilt about the murder?”
The old deviant merely frowned, as if that word were not in his lexicon.
“This program was designed, by Michael’s employer, as a method of controlling prisoners,” Morgan said. “Fully immersing convicts in a virtual reality where they are allowed to indulge in violent and sexual fantasy leaves the prisoners sated. With an outlet for their aggression, the prisoners become docile as . . . kittens.” That last word delivered with the relish a very hungry man might give to the phrase “steak dinner.”
“All right, boys,” Morgan said. “I don’t like to breach such a distasteful topic, but it’s time to ask for your dues. Operating expenses, you know.”
Heller and Old Max dug their credit wands from their pockets and swiped them over Morgan’s Paymaster with the air of men paying a tithe. Michael did not have to pay. His dues were given in trade.
The other two bustled out the door only after extracting promises from Morgan that we would meet again at the same time next week. Every time a session adjourned, there was always the same anxiety that this would be their last.
Michael lingered after they had gone.
“So it was different.” Morgan said. “In what way?”
“The prize-girl said no.”
“Unusual behavior for a game character,” Morgan chuckled. “Could be a hacker, another real-life player jacking in. Though I doubt it.”
“What else could it be?”
“Maybe some joker in the programming department decided to invest the game characters with free will.” Morgan rolled his eyes, as if this would be the grandest joke ever told. “A fascinating proposition, to be sure.”
“Listen,” Michael said. “I wanted to tell you. They’re really tightening up security. It’s going to be a lot harder to sneak things out.”
“Quite all right,” Morgan said. “My translator unit is complete. If any further upgrades are needed, they will involve you smuggling items in. Do you think you can access the mainframe room?”
“I don’t know,” Michael shook his head, feeling the clenching anxiety he always felt whenever Morgan wanted him to jeopardize his job. Still, he couldn’t say no to the man who held the keys to such a glorious kingdom. “Same time next week, then?”
Michael backed out the door. Being alone with Morgan made him nervous.
“Why don’t you drop by Saturday?” Morgan said. “Just you, without the others. I’m very interested in this character you’ve met. Perhaps we can do some exploration.” He put an odd twist on the word, forcing it to rhyme with “exploitation.”
“I’ll try to get away,” Michael said. “My wife wants to fly down to Anchorage for a gallery opening.”
Morgan smiled indulgently at Michael’s pretense of family obligation. “I’m sure you’ll manage.”
Michael nodded again and stepped outside. The cool, dark Fairbanks winter afternoon was like a tall drink of water after the stifling heat of Morgan’s apartment.
Michael took his time driving home. He cruised the Farmer’s Loop, sky aflame with Borealis red, sat-radio tuned to a Russian classic syntho station. Michael grooved to the old pop songs as huge neon curtains swayed in the solar wind. He thought of the girl in the cave, and remembered the human look of fear in her eyes. She didn’t possess the plastic perfection of other game girls, and this imperfection was strangely beguiling.
Coming back into town on the Steese, he passed through North Star Square, not caring that it was choked with traffic. He read the headlines as they spun around the jumboticker on the Wickersham building. “Hurricane Omar pounds Vermont coast.” “Court ruling on organ clone rights angers activists.” “Bid for California independence rejected by Beijing.” The news loop repeated three times before the jam loosened and Michael, who could have waited much longer, was forced to drive home.
No one noticed when he slipped in the door. No one asked where he had been. Nell was in her studio, hand-applying distress scratches to holographic film. The film, run through a projector on a loop, would cast a three-dimensional ball of multi-colored lightning. Nell insisted on calling them “chaos orbs.” Michael, just to irritate his wife, referred to her light sculptures as “etch-a-doodles.” She affected an intense concentration on her work when Michael stepped into her room, though he suspected she was more absorbed by what she heard through the implants flashing blue at each ear.
“Did I miss dinner?” he asked, unsure if he had meant the question to be facetious, ironic or merely sarcastic.
Nell looked up at him, communicating eighteen years of accumulated disdain in a single glance.
“No, it’s just Michael coming home,” she said, talking to whomever was on the other end of her telemancy. She claimed to be communing with professional contacts; agents, dealers, art journalists and the like, but Michael was certain she had a lover. There had been a point when this had angered him. In fact, he had once considered tracking the man down (Michael had a few suspects) and shooting him in the testicles. Eventually he had come to not only to accept Nell’s infidelity, but even felt a kind of empathetic kinship to the mystery guy. Any man who put up with the arc of Nell’s mood swings (from icy indifference to hot judgmental wrath) with only the meager compensation of her near-to-frigid sexuality had Michael’s full sympathy.
He left her to her art and her adultery and slipped down the hall.
Jo-Jo was in the living room, performing what to an outside observer must have looked like some kind of martial-arts inspired dance routine. The VR goggles and the bulky motion-capture gloves were all that gave away what he was really doing. Despite working for the world’s top manufacturer of dream-games, all Michael could afford for his family was one of the clunky old goggles-and-gloves units.
Michael knew better than to interrupt his son even to say hello. “Dad,” the boy would groan. “I’m playing a game!” Rather than face that sort of disdain, Michael simply left his son to his own experience.
He drifted into the kitchen, in search of some kind of leftover. Christy was holding her sat-phone at arm’s length and smiling down at the screen, which held the image of a pimply long-haired boy with braces. “Okay,” Michael heard his daughter say, “but you have to show me yours.” He left just as she was she was aiming the boy’s leering face up her skirt.
Michael knew that, as a parent, he had some obligation to prevent his daughter from bouncing the image of her yoni off a satellite, where it will almost certainly be forwarded onto the boy’s soc-net for the edification of thousands of sexually precocious pre-teens the world over. He could not bring himself to confront her, though. He didn’t even care that much. Not anymore.
Still hungry, Michael went into his bedroom to lie down. He stared up at the ceiling, thinking of the girl in the game. Despite the passive hostility of his wife and children, he felt a calm sense of well-being. He was fully aware that, were it not for his income, he would be completely irrelevant in the eyes of his own family. Still, Michael felt pleasantly sated. Docile as a kitten. Just like those other prisoners.
He fantasized lazily about when he might see her again.
The monsters are gone. The sun beats down on the rocky shore just as mercilessly as the waves did before. I gaze out onto the horizon as my consciousness acclimates to the strange lucidity. The ocean is apparently infinite but I wonder, if I built a boat and sailed to sea, how far could I go before reaching the end of this creation?
“Hello?” I call. My voice is fierce and commanding, perfect for barking threats at enemies, but not so great for offering reassurance. I wish I could modulate its tone, to make myself sound kinder. “Please? I want to talk to you.”
I walk up the shore and find her cave. She is not inside, and there is no evidence of her presence.
I climb a tall rock and survey the shore. A black shape far to the north moves slowly towards me. Waving my arms, I run down to the edge of the water.
“Hey!” I call. “Wait!”
The figure stops. As I run closer, I see it’s her. Despite the heat, she is still wrapped in the black hooded cloak. Her shadowed face curiously watches my approach.
“It’s you,” she says when I am close enough to hear.
“Yes. I came back to see you.”
“I wanted to talk.”
“Talk?” Her eyes roll. Up close in the light, they are not as dark as I had thought. Her irises are green as the sea, flecked with bits of gold and brown. Eyes both haunted and haunting, burning with ferocity. “Last time you were here, you tried to rape me.”
“I didn’t know you were… really a person.”
She laughs at that, bitterly. Her eyes pierce me. “Does that matter?”
“I think so, yeah,” I laugh, trying to make light of the situation. My laugh comes out as a triumphant chuckle, wildly inappropriate under the circumstances.
“My name is Michael,” I say.
She does not take my extended hand. Hers remains hidden in the long sleeves of the cloak.
“Patti,” I say. “I’m glad to meet you.”
She looks away. Awkward silence lies heavy in the air between us for several minutes. “How did you get here?” she finally asks.
“I’m playing a game.”
“A dream-game. I work for a company that makes them. Oneirotech?”
She looks back at me with a strange, blank horror.
“You’re not playing the game?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“How did you get here then?”
She backs away from me. Again, there are tears in her eyes.
“It’s okay,” I say. “You can trust me.”
Her look implies the very concept of trust is beyond her realm of comprehension. I reach my hand out, to try to comfort her with my touch. She bolts backwards and trips over the rocks, sitting down hard. I’ve never seen anyone look so miserable and frightened. I want to help her but I don’t know how.
“I died,” she finally whispers, looking up at me with eyes as deep as the ocean.
“I died and I woke up here. I thought at first I must be in hell because of those… things on the beach. Besides, hell’s where…” She swallows a sob.
“Hell’s where suicides go.”
I sit beside her on the rock, not yet daring to touch her.
“You killed yourself?”
She nods. “I was sick. Cancer. I couldn’t afford to take the Cure and the pain was just going to get worse. There was nobody I could to turn to. Nobody who would really care if I died. I figured it was the best way. So I got good and drunk, took my last few pain pills, ran a hot bath and…” I let her cry for a few minutes, understanding she needs to tell this in her own time. “I slashed my wrists. It didn’t even hurt. It was just like going to sleep on a warm pink cloud. But then… I was here, with those things. And then you…”
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know.”
“I’m scared, Michael.”
Despite everything, I’m pleased to hear her speak my name.
“I want to help you,” I say.
“How can you help me?”
“I don’t know. We’ll figure something out, though. There’s a guy, out there.” I gesture towards the sky. “His name’s Morgan. He’s really smart. If anyone can help you, it’ll be him.”
Patti nods. For the first time, she seems to take some comfort in what I have to say. Risking everything, I slip my arm around her shoulders. She tenses for a moment, and then relaxes against me. I hold her in my arms without speaking for a long time.
“This isn’t what you really look like, is it?” she says after a while.
“No. This is my avatar body.”
“Good. You look like something out of an old Viking movie.”
“My other body is worse,” I say. “I’m kind of… fat.”
“That’s all right,” Patti says, looking me in the eye. “I’d still like to see how you really look. Can this Morgan guy make that happen?”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask him.”
She curls closer into my arms. Her body is warm.
“There’s something I need to show you,” she says.
“What is it?”
She pulls away from my embrace. “On my wrists… where I cut myself. When I woke up here, the wounds had changed.”
“What do you mean?”
Patti looks furtively about, as if there was someone else on this barren world who might witness her shame. She pulls her sleeve back and exposes one wrist to me. The edges of the wound are fleshy and puffy, like swollen lips on either side of the cleft. Patti flexes her wrist and the lips pucker, revealing ridges and the hooded bump of flesh inside. In the very center is an opening. The entire thing glistens with moisture.
“Oh my God,” I say, spellbound by the sight. “That looks like a…”
“It is,” Patti says. To demonstrate, she inserts a finger from the opposite hand into the hole, burying to the second knuckle. She closes her eyes and shudders, with what must be a most unnatural pleasure.
“When I woke up here, they were just on my wrists, where I’d cut myself.” She holds up both wrists for me, displaying the stigmatic gashes. “But they’ve spread. I find more every day. They’re all over my body now.”
She unclasps her cloak and lets it fall to the rocks. Patti stands before me naked. The horror is almost more than I can bear.
She takes a step towards me and I scream to the heavens. “Free my fuckin’ mind!” The exit phrase, given to me by Morgan, which will allow me to awake.
“Please don’t go,” Patti cries. “Please don’t leave me alone here.”
Like a coward I retreat into reality.
“Morning, Carl,” Michael said. “Hey, Jenna.”
He pushed his squeaking courier’s wheels through the halls of Oneirotech International, making his daily rounds. The worm Morgan had given him twitched in his pocket, but Michael had his work-mask on. His face betrayed nothing beyond a half-bored complacency. It was the face of a man with nothing more challenging on his mind than contemplations of what flavor Danish he was going to eat on his next break. There had been a nervous moment when he’d been scanned on the way in the door that morning, but Michael had simply had faith in Morgan’s magic and had walked through without so much as wincing.
Morgan had been amused when Michael had told him about Patti.
“Her body,” Morgan grinned, licked his lips, “was covered,” and giggled a little, like a little kid telling his first dirty joke, “with vaginas?” He had a way of pronouncing certain words which made them sound strange and foreign. “Vaginas” almost, but not quite, rhymed with “heinous.”
“She says she committed suicide and then somehow awoke in the dream-game milieu? That’s very strange!”
Michael, reeling with surrealistic afterglow and the horror of what he’d witnessed, could only nod.
“How could this be?” Morgan rubbed his hands together slowly in a contemplative gesture. “Unless perhaps… no. That’s just not possible.”
“Perhaps your esteemed employer has done more than simply construct a virtual dream environment. Perhaps they’ve tapped into something much deeper.” He nodded, smiling. “It’s long been theorized that what has been supposed to be the after-life is in fact simply an extended dream-state. It’s been called the ‘collective unconscious’ and the ‘astral plane.’ Maybe these Oneirotech sons of bitches have inadvertently wired their phony little world into the great fucking beyond.”
Michael thought about that as he delivered packages and documents too sensitive for e-mail to the executive offices. He dropped his deliveries into the boxes of some of the highest-paid men on the planet, and picked up their outgoing mail. He saw the executives in the hall sometimes, and was properly fawning, not that any of them knew his name.
Michael felt ashamed of how he had reacted when Patti had revealed her body to him. He wished he could return to the dream-game, to apologize. But Morgan had advised him to wait, until his worm was installed.
“Will it allow me to show her my real face?”
“Yes,” he promised. “But more than that, it will enrich the environment, for both of you. A richer sensory experience, a deeper emotional involvement, a more realistic physicality. Perhaps it could even help her.”
“Help her how?”
“Death was her way in.” Morgan’s eyes gleamed. “Perhaps there is a way out, too. Think of the implications.”
Michael didn’t know if he believed such a thing was possible, but he had been amazed by Morgan’s genius before. And he would do anything that might help Patti.
He crossed the factory floor, where the robot drones and the just as drone-like human workers assembled the units. On the other end of the assembly line were the offices of the engineers, the designers and the programmers, and the R&D people. The brains of Oneirotech. The geeks were housed in a separate building from the execs and the office workers, so neither world could taint the other. Michael, as courier, was one of the few employees permitted to move back and forth between the two.
The scientists paid him no mind. No one questioned him as he pushed his cart the wrong way down the hall, to the mainframe room. He stood before the door for a few seconds, gathering courage. The worm in his pocket swelled and quivered with anticipation. He pushed a button on his phone. Morgan had installed a special application onto Michael’s sat-phone. The electronic lock on the mainframe door clicked open. The camera buds planted all over the hall were now, if the program worked, blind to Michael’s presence. Michael prayed Morgan’s promise of virtual invisibility was true. If not, he was fucked beyond reason. Slipping on his gloves, he opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was dimly lit and as warm as the womb. The walls were soft and moist, like flesh, with an overwhelming fungal reek. Michael blinked, not having time for his eyes to adjust to the murk. He pulled the worm from his pocket and looked about for a place to insert it. Morgan had said it would be obvious. Not so fucking obvious to Michael. The worm held out before him like a blind man, he poked at the wall, recoiling from the warm slime.
Finally, he could see the red and black lights, and the ports and terminals. The air was thick and Michael gasped for breath. It was so fucking hot. Sweat stung his eyes. He scanned the rows of sockets. One nasty-looking orifice in the middle of the center console resembled nothing so much as a puckered anus. Michael pressed his worm into the tight little hole. There was resistance for a second, and then it slid easily inside. His worm was completely swallowed.
The room contracted. There was a low, nearly sub-audible sound, like a gasping moan. The dim lights blinked out completely for less than a second, and then for all appearances the mainframe resumed its normal operation.
Michael backed out of the room, sweat cold on his body, adrenaline rattling his blood. He pressed the button on his phone again and the locks once again engaged.
He backed his cart out of the narrow hall and continued his usual rounds.
Today there are twelve. Last time there had only been ten, so Patti was right. They are spreading. There is a new vagina in the sole of her right foot, and a tiny one just beginning to form on the side of her abdomen.
Patti lies naked upon a sun-warmed rock, allowing me to explore the miracle of her body. She has already seen my real face and kissed my real lips. She has already said she loves me. She has called me the light in her dark world.
“Do you think this is a sin?” she asks.
“Sin?” I stroke her slitted left wrist. So soft. So wet and hot.
“I’ve read about stigmata.” She hides her wrist behind her head. “It’s a scourge or a gift, given only to saints. It seems wrong for us to just… oh, God. Don’t stop.”
I am rubbing the fragrant and swampy-wet twitching cleft in her left armpit. Patti writhes and arches her back, purring like a kitten on speed. Without stopping what I’m doing with my hand, I dip my tongue into the salt marsh which has replaced her navel. After this, she talks no more about sin. She does not talk at all.
They’re all different. Each one is unique to the touch and to the tongue. Her heart chakra vagina, located between her small breasts, is fat and swollen, surrounded by kinky hair. It tastes of an exotic spice from a far-away land, like curry or cloves. By contrast, the virginally tight yoni in the back of her right knee tastes like a dry, heady red wine. Patti’s clavicle orifice is as sweet and sticky as honey, and vibrates with her voice when she moans.
I love them. I love every single one. I am in heaven.
“Sit up,” I say.
I help Patti into a kneeling position upon the soft black sand and stand behind her. She is the exact right height. I grasp her head between my hands. My erection easily penetrates the slick vagina at the base of her skull.
“Oh, Jesus,” she gasps. “That’s weird.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No,” she says. “But I think you’re touching something inside my brain. It makes me see things.”
“What things?” I slide in and out, deeper with each stroke.
“A mushroom growing from a snow bank,” she moans. Each of my thrusts triggers a strange, random image. “A doll floating in the water. It’s hollow, filled with eels.” I bury myself to the hilt. “A solar eclipse.”
I am squeezed between her brain stem and cerebellum. I tickle her temporal lobe. She declares of the imagery of her orgasm. “Oh, God. My mother’s face. A child lost in the woods. Oh, Jesus, I see a garden filled with dead birds!”
I plant my seed deep in her skull and wonder what strange child we might conceive inside her brain.
Michael drove through North Star Square on his way to the clubhouse. He had seen Patti every day for the past week. Morgan seemed to understand his need, seemed in fact to encourage it. Michael’s antenna piercing buzzed in anticipation of Patti’s caress, and he thought of nothing but her.
He saw the headline crawl across the jumboticker in front of the Wickersham building, but it took several seconds for the meaning of the words to penetrate his daydream. Michael slammed on the brakes. Behind him, horns blared as a pile-up was narrowly averted. He barely heard them.
“Oneirotech suffers major system crash, victim of sabotage virus,” the headline read. “Costliest corporate terrorism attack since ’55 Microsoftalypse.”
Patti, Michael thought. Along with a mega-jolt of grade-A adrenaline panic, that was the first thing to flush through his brain. Please Jesus let Patti be all right. Not until he hurtled back into traffic did he consider the deeper implications of the news.
What exactly did Morgan have him install into the mainframe? And, a logical extension of that: Are they after me now?
He tossed his sat-phone out the window and, with a furious yank, tore the GPS out of the dash. It wasn’t enough. The overhead drone of the omnipresent ornicopters suddenly took on a very personal malevolence. Michael pulled off the road and ditched the car, hoofing it cross-town to the clubhouse. He cursed his sedentary fat-ass lifestyle and his monumental stupidity.
He arrived ten minutes later, gasping for breath, heart throbbing like a drum machine in his ears. He banged on the wooden door. “Morgan!”
No answer. Michael kicked hard. Pain jolted up his leg, but the door did not give. “Morgan!” He rammed with his shoulder, filling half his body with bruising hurt, and the door splintered open.
Morgan was in the meeting room, packing equipment into bags. An acrid stench rose from the fireplace. Michael saw to his horror that Morgan was burning the translator device, the door to his beloved Patti.
“Morgan.” He grabbed the man by the collar. “What did you do?”
Morgan’s pale eyes registered no fear, just the same look of amused superiority he always wore. “That’s the wrong question, Michael. You should be asking: what have you done?”
Michael released Morgan, tossing him back against his work bench.
“When they analyze the security video, it’ll take them a while to strip off the masks I implanted, but not too long. They’ll see you walking into that little room and plugging in the worm. By then, I’ll be long gone.”
“Why?” Michael begged.
“Do you know what your employers had planned? Do you know what they were going to do?”
Michael sat down hard on the chair where he had always sat for his Patti sessions. He was white with shock.
“They were going to call it the Oneironet. A network of dreams. Bring down the price of the consumer units until nearly everyone could afford them, and then the bastards were going to plug everyone in. Dreams, Michael. The last place humanity can hide from the bombardment of information and technology. The last refuge of the soul.”
Michael shook his head, still thinking Patti, Patti.
“They’ve already started selling ad space. Think of it, Michael- product placement in our dreams. Invading our most secret inner space and filling it with fucking commercials. They had to be stopped.”
“Patti,” Michael moaned. “What about Patti?”
“Patti?” Morgan shook his head. “That’s all you can think about? Are you listening to what I’m telling you? We’ve done a great thing here. You will be remembered as a martyr. We’ve set them back three, maybe four years…”
“You son of a bitch, what about Patti?”
“There is no Patti, you idiot. There never was.”
“It was me. She was my dream-game avatar. All those things you said to her, you said to me.”
“You’re the light in my dark world, Michael.” Patti’s voice from Morgan’s lips was so real for a second Michael was fooled again. His heart lurched and his eyes welled with tears.
He blinked them away quickly. “You?”
“You had to be motivated. You were so easily led. Though, I must say, it wasn’t completely unpleasant.”
Morgan licked his lips. Rage exploded in Michael’s gut.
“You…” No word could express Michael’s hatred. He stood from his chair and grabbed Morgan again. “Give her back to me.”
“She’s gone, Michael. So fuckin’ gone she was never there.”
“You little son of a whore give my Patti back to me!”
Michael slammed Morgan down on the work bench and for the first time saw fear in those strange tan eyes. He liked seeing it.
“Give her back to me!”
He tossed him across the room, to the fireplace where the translator emitted black stinking smoke. Morgan landed face-down upon the stone hearth. He struggled to stand.
“Stop, Michael. Please.” Spoken with Patti’s voice, but this time Michael was not tricked. He clenched his fist around a handful of Morgan’s hair and slammed the hated little man’s head down onto the hearth. The wooden-sounding thonk of his forehead colliding with the stone was very satisfying. Michael was reminded of the monsters on the beach, and how good it had felt to kill them. He hadn’t killed anything in weeks.
Michael slammed Morgan’s head against the hearth again, this time leaving a splatter of red.
“My…” Morgan’s lips, mashed to froth between tooth and stone, formed a dazed, choking syllable. He might have been trying to say Michael’s name, or the sound might have been an attempt at a possessive declaration. It was the last sound his mouth would ever form.
Michael smashed Morgan’s head down again, harder, with all his fury. Then again. And again. He heard a boney crack and Morgan’s head went soft as a crushed melon under his grasp, but still again and again he slammed the little fucker into the floor. Screaming. Tears pouring down his face. An erection like a knife’s blade.
What Michael did next was not driven by logic or premeditation. He reached into the fire and grabbed the translator unit, heedless of how it sizzled against his palm. He squeezed the device as he had seen Morgan do many times and felt or imagined a weak fluttering movement inside. This action raised blisters on Michael’s hand which he would not live to feel.
He jammed the receiving antenna end of the translator into a fissure of Morgan’s shattered skull, hoping it wasn’t too late, hoping that Patti still lived in some hidden fold of the ruins of Morgan’s brain.
His antenna piercing vibrated with the call of the dream-game. He had to sleep now, to receive the transmission. Morgan kept powerful sedatives in the house, but Michael didn’t have time to search for them. He needed a more permanent sleep, anyway.
On the worktable he found a small screwdriver with a very sharp point. Quickly, he drove the tool into his left wrist and pulled down, leaving a jagged gaping wound. The floodgate opened and his red life gushed free. It was impossible now to grasp the screwdriver in his left hand to slit his right wrist. Michael clamped the handle in his teeth and drove the point home so deep it nearly punctured his wrist all the way through.
Michael bled. In his dying moments, he forgot Patti was a lie. He remembered what she had told him about her own suicide, and how there was no pain. She’d said it was like going to sleep on a warm, pink cloud.
Michael did not find this to be true. The pain was excruciating, and it took him much longer to die than he thought possible.
Reasoning in his intuitive death-logic that the transmitter’s range might be shorter now, Michael crawled over beside Morgan. He embraced the other man, to get as close as possible. Their blood mingled on the hearth.
Much later, when they were found, their deaths appeared to be the result of a lover’s suicide pact. Whether or not this was true was impossible to determine.
The environment is urban this time, and seems somehow incomplete. Generic skyscrapers, hastily sketched by lazy programmers, jut into the impossibly pinkish-orange sky. Dawn or dusk is impossible to determine. There is no east or west in this world, only a sun just sunk or about to rise over an artificial horizon. Above and beside us, traffic flows like beads of colored oil through clear plastic water tubes, bent into complex cloverleaf and spiraling double helix exchanges which, with the distorted perspective, seem to tower taller than the distant buildings. The earth is made of concrete, and I wonder if I were to jackhammer my way beneath the concrete, would I find real earth beneath, or only concrete to the very core of this chimerical world?
The air has no scent. The olfactory program is unfinished. I recognize the traffic sounds as coming from a scratch track of test recordings made on a California freeway. Later, I’m sure each false vehicle will be programmed with its own unique sound emission, to be rendered in Tru-Surround.
Patti reposes on a triangular knoll formed by the juncture of two merging lanes. She is nude. Her many vaginas glisten provocatively in the smog-tinted light, including a new one freshly formed on her forehead. The fleshy vulva extends down between her eyes. Patti’s bed is a soft green patch of texture meant to resemble grass but missing some vital component. Beneath her body it looks like plastic Astro-turf, but with the evocative early-summer scent of a freshly mown lawn.
I smile down at her. I am naked too. “Where are we?” I ask.
“Must be a new program,” Patti says. Her voice has changed. It resembles Morgan’s now, but not too much. “They’re already rebuilding the net.”
“We’re the first ones to be born in this new world,” I say. For a moment I am distracted by the fleshy growths rapidly forming on my wrists. “Like Adam and Eve.”
Patti looks around and rolls her lovely eyes. “Not much of a garden.”
I laugh. “It’ll do for our purposes.” The tissue growths are forming all over my body now. They swell in my armpits, at the base of my spine, from the center of my chest. Everywhere, I realize, where Patti is marked I have an equivalent organ. “I just have to keep you away from snakes and apples.”
“I’d like to see you try,” she teases. She unfurls her body, making a dozen wordless invitations.
The penis jutting eagerly from my forehead gives me a unicorn aspect. Laughing, I fall upon Patti and the two of us roll and frolic head to head under the infant sky. Our interface explores infinite configurations as the new world is born around us.