Love Is a Corrupted Data Stream: First four chapters

This book has now been released and is available here.

Later this week, I’ll (finally) be launching my new novel, ‘Love Is a Corrupted Data Stream.’

This continues the story of Emma Kline (aka ‘Thursday’ of the AFK novels) – picking up from the end of ‘Virtual Thursday.’ The novel is part of my series of books connected to ‘Pink Dawn,’ a virtual world part-populated by avatars driven by digital brain scans.

At launch, you’ll be able to purchase the book in print, Kindle, ePub and PDF formats. I will also soon be announcing an inworld signing event in Second Life in which you can come and receive a free, signed PDF edition of the novel (signed with your choice of dedication) – so stay tuned for that.

To whet your appetite, here are the first four chapters.


I exist. That’s all I can tell you. I can’t say if I’m real or unreal, alive or artificial, a conscious entity or a clever simulation. I don’t know the answer to any of these things. I do have memories of living, but these are the recollections of someone else; someone made from atoms and not electrons.

The first few moments lasted for years. A void that wasn’t a void. A darkness that wasn’t a darkness. I was a grain of sand in a grain-of-sand-sized universe, with nothing beyond me but me. I felt nothing. Only my thoughts existed. Perhaps, once, you lay down in a sensory deprivation tank and marvelled at how your brain, so accustomed to the onslaught of stimulation it’s ordinarily bombarded with, could conjure up such sensory marvels from the merest of things. But your heart would still have been beating. Air would still have been filling your lungs. You would still have felt the presence of your arms and legs and head and body, and the tiniest movement of a finger or toe in the water would still have created the tiniest of sounds and the tiniest of physical sensations for your brain to interpret. I experienced none of this. 

When there is nothing, nothing at all, then time ceases to have meaning. Time cannot be experienced without some sort of stimulation. There is no way to mark its passing. In a tank you would be able to sing a song and measure the time in verses, but if you have no mouth and no ears, and no eyes and no nose, and no head and no body – if the only thing that’s left of you is your mind, disconnected from every channel that ever fed it information – then all that remains of ‘now’ is the meagre capacity of your working memory. A single thought can last seconds or hours or forever.

My initial reaction was to panic, but what is panic without a heart to beat quickly? What is panic when you cannot gasp to fill your lungs? I both felt and did not feel the urge to throw up. I thrashed, wildly, arms and legs that did not exist, my mind sending these instructions anyway out of nothing but sheer habit. A dizziness that I’d never felt before overcame me. I was sure I was going to die.

This went on for but a moment, and yet it lasted forever.

At some point a thought occurred to me: perhaps I was actually dead. Perhaps this was some sort of purgatory. Perhaps this was some sort of hell. But if I was dead then why couldn’t I remember the moment of my death? All I could recall was a conversation in a house on an island, a comfortable chair, a burning fire; all I could remember was feeling warm and sleepy, a cup of something starting to slide from a saucer in my hand. “Jade,” I had said. “Catch me.”

Jade. My mind told my non-existent lips and tongue and teeth to form the word. It wasn’t enough to think her name. I needed to say it. I needed to hear it. I needed to feel it in my mouth. I was less distracted by this point by the absence of my lungs. Somehow, I had gotten used to not breathing. I thought about Jade’s face and I told myself that if there really was nothing to my existence other than my thoughts, then there was surely nothing to interfere with me seeing her. We ‘see’ things in dreams, after all. Maybe that’s what this was.

I knew this wasn’t a dream. Don’t ask me how: I just knew. All the same, I commanded myself, “See her.”

It was hardly anything at first: a patch of black that wasn’t quite so black as everything else around it. But anything after nothing is something. It had no fixed state. It shifted and changed like a cloud.

Over time – it could have been seconds, it could have been years – the patch became brighter, warmer; a warm haze like the haze you see when you shut your eyes but still look. It started to form into an oval. “Is that you, Jade?” I asked the nothingness. “Where am I?  What am I?” I reached out with my non-existent arms. The haze grew brighter.


The two words appeared in bold, pixelated letters, a searing white that hurt to look at, but I had no eyelids to close and no head to turn away from them. They occupied the whole of my vision.

The warm haze was obliterated by them.


The phrase blinked on and off, and with this pattern time suddenly became a thing again. After about ten repetitions a crude progress bar appeared below the words: a long, empty rectangle that started slowly to fill.

When it was complete, both words and progress bar disappeared and a video started to play in front of me.

An image of English countryside. Rolling hills. A narrow lane. A red post box. A village store. A thatched cottage. Its front door opened and a man in his fifties looked out. “Hello!” he said, with a friendly smile. “You’re just on time. Why don’t you come in?”

The video paused and text appeared over the frozen image: BLINK TO ENTER THE COTTAGE. I didn’t have eyelids, but I guessed that what I was supposed to do was to make out as though I did. Amputees claim to have phantom limbs; I supposed that maybe I had phantom eyelids.

I ‘blinked’ and the video resumed. The camera moved through the open doorway and the man showed me into a low-ceilinged living room that had two high-backed chairs positioned in front of a log fire. “Have a seat,” he said, waving towards the chairs. Again, the video paused.


I focused on the chair to the left and sent my blink command. The camera moved me to the chair and ‘sat,’ and turned to watch the man as he took the other seat.

“I expect this is all rather disorientating for you,” he said. He was wearing black jeans and a white shirt, the top two buttons undone. His skin was dark. His hair was black. “I’m here to help you through the first stage of your adaptation, and to reassure you that everything is ok. My name is Dev, by the way. Would you like to know some more about me or would you like me to get right to explaining what has happened?”

Now I had two text options to choose from: LEARN MORE ABOUT DEV on the left and FIND OUT WHAT HAS HAPPENED on the right.

To hell with Dev. I looked to the right and blinked.

He chuckled. “Yes, I rather suspected that would be your choice. As you’ve probably worked out by now, you’re in an induction programme. We’re offering you these choices to help you incrementally adapt your auto-responses to this new environment. By the way, don’t worry if you find any of these action requests too difficult. We’re adjusting each request according to the speed with which you completed the previous one, so if you can’t do what’s being asked of you then the request will time-out and you’ll be given an easier action to do instead. We’ll get you there in the end, one way or another. Okay. Shall I continue?”

The word NOD appeared. I commanded my non-existent head to nod and my view of the video shifted slightly up and back down again. It was somehow a slightly unnatural movement, as though I was witnessing the perspective of someone else’s nod. I supposed that everyone nodded in a slightly different way to everyone else, and this was some sort of pre-programmed, ‘default’ nod.

“Excellent!” The camera view adjusted slightly – an edit – and Dev’s expression changed a tiny bit. “Ah,” he said, “I see you’ve already reached neck movement. Great progress! I’d like us to work on that a bit now. Don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten that you’re waiting to be told what’s going on – but people tend to want to feel normal as quickly as possible, so we’re going to focus on that for a bit.”

This time, I wasn’t given any choice. I waited.

“First things first. It’s time to expand your view a little. Currently, you’re looking at this scene as a two-dimensional video – we start out that way because it’s a familiar thing to look at – but it’s actually a 3D recording. So, let’s start by adding in the extra dimension.” Dev waved his hand across his face and depth appeared. Everything turned solid. The transition made me momentarily dizzy.

“Great. I should add that it’s also a 360 recording and your head movement has now been fully enabled. Try looking to your right. Blink when you see the grandfather clock.”

I turned my head and my rectangular view of the world moved with me. I found the grandfather clock, tick-tocking, to my right. It reminded me of an office someplace and a woman who‘d told me to steal something, a distant dream I couldn’t hold on to. The clock was next to a tall bookcase that was packed full of nonfiction titles. I wanted to look behind me, but the bookcase was about as far as I could go. I looked back at the clock and blinked.

“Good work. Feel free to look around the room as much as you want. When you’re ready to continue, just return to my face and blink.”

What was there to see? It was a quaint country cottage. A cosy, comforting stereotype. I doubted that the details were of any importance. I went straight back to Dev and blinked.

He chuckled again. “‘Just get on with it, Dev.’ Right? Yeah, I’d feel the same way too. Okay. The next step is a biggie, so prepare yourself. I’m going to transition you to a full 3D immersive environment that’s an exact replica of this living room. It’ll take a few seconds to do this, so your vision will be blanked out whilst it happens.”

I felt panic within me. Not the void again. Not the nothingness.

But Dev had anticipated this. “Don’t worry. We understand how unpleasant total sensory deprivation can be, so I’m going to keep talking to you through the transition. You’ll still experience time passing. Just nod when you’re ready to start.”

I drew a nonexistent deep breath. Get it over with. I nodded.

“I like your determination,” Dev said with a smile. “Okay. Blanking in five… four… three… two… one.” The room disappeared. “I’m still here,” he continued. “I’m still sitting right in front of you. We’re transferring you over to the new environment right now. Let me tell you something about it. When it appears, you’ll no longer be looking at me and the room through a window, but you’ll actually be inside it. You’ll be able to look all around you, just like normal, and once you’ve adjusted, we’ll get straight to work on your gross motor movement so you can stand up and walk around ag-”

Mid-word, Dev’s voice got cut off. At the same moment, the living room appeared around me, just as he had promised it would.

But Dev was gone, and the room was empty.


I had a body now. I looked down at it and instinctively knew it was not mine. I held my hands up to examine them, and only after completing this movement did I realise I’d just completed a movement. My arms felt too light. Have you ever done that thing where you stand in a doorway and press your arms against the frame really hard for at least a minute, and then step forward and feel them floating upwards? That’s what holding my hands up felt like.

I looked at my stranger’s fingers – a little too long to be mine, a shade too pale, and a nail varnish I would never have chosen – and waggled them a little. They moved, but it felt like they were still. You don’t notice the air around your body until it’s gone and the very faint resistance it creates is gone with it. I pressed the fingers of my right hand into the palm of my left – noticing as I did this that my palm lines were all wrong – and felt a pressure that’s hard to put into words. It was nothing like anything you’d call ‘touch.’ It was something internal, like a signal, like a block, like a boundary of some description. It was almost like the haptic buzz you feel when you tap an icon on a phone… but not quite. I moved my fingers across my palm and just felt more of that signal. There was no sense of texture at all.

The room did indeed appear exactly as it had appeared in the video. Somehow, though, it was less real. I looked at the armrests of the chair I was sitting in. They were upholstered in a fawn-coloured weave and there was something unusual about it. I studied it for several moments before I realised what it was: minute variations in the fabric’s weave and colouring – the tiny little imperfections we would never ordinarily notice in something ‘real’ – could be seen all over both arms. It was a repeating texture, perfectly ‘seamless’ so that the edges of each tile couldn’t be seen, but at some subconscious level the whole effect was immediately artificial. I looked at the fabric close up, and when my nose was just a couple of inches from the surface, I started to see the individual pixels.

Being able to look at stuff that close was odd too. For the last three years I’d been wearing glasses for reading.

I decided to stand up.

It was a complicated process. I had to think consciously about all the things I would ordinarily do to complete such a movement. The muscle memory was there, of course. My new limbs did exactly what I automatically ordered them to do. But the feedback was all wrong. Movements like standing up are not a single movement at all, but a sequence of them. You put your hands to the armrests to push yourself up, but you don’t start the pushing until you know what’s there is strong enough. When my open palms pressed into the fake fabric of the armrests, they felt that same sense of undefinable boundary that my fingers had felt against my left hand, and nothing more than that. Immediately this set off an alarm in my head that something was wrong and the rest of the process broke down. The things we do automatically are based on a set of assumptions, and when the data comes back that those assumptions are invalid then the routine collapses and you’re left sitting in an armchair with no idea how to get up. I could have overridden the alarm and pressed down anyway, but that would have been as unnatural to me as the act of intentionally walking off a step without stepping down.

“You’re being stupid,” I told myself. “Plenty of chairs don’t have arms. Think stool. Think Futon. Think those deckchairs with the canvas arms that you would never push down on.” Deckchairs. I remembered that I hate deckchairs. But I pushed that thought aside and focused on leaning forward so that more of my unfelt weight was going through my legs. I stood. It was a hesitant, wobbly stand, but it was a stand. Now I felt that sense of boundary, that odd signal that communicated pressure (but at the same time conveyed no actual sense of pressure) coming up through my feet. I felt light, as though my body had no actual weight at all. For a split second, when I was rising, I worried that when I completed the movement I might just keep on going and take off into the air, fly up into the ceiling. But my feet remained stuck to the ground and my body remained in exactly the state that gravity would expect it to remain in.

I took a hesitant first step. Like you do when you’re walking down a flight of uneven steps, I watched my foot through every millimetre of its journey, knowing now that the physical feedback I’d get from the action just wouldn’t be enough on its own.

And then another step.

And then another step. What was most remarkable about it all, I thought to myself, was just how quickly I appeared to be adapting.

“The brain is an incredible device,” said Dev. The shock of his voice nearly sent me tumbling to the ground. He was right back in his chair again, smiling smugly at his deceptive motivational act. “It adapts so quickly to its new environment. New connections form. Neuroplasticity. You’re making excellent progress. In a couple of days you’ll be running around as though you’ve never known anything different from this.” He waved his hand briefly on the word ‘this.’

“And what the fuck is ‘this?’” I tried to say in reply, but instead of words a distorted electronic noise came out of me. It startled me and that caused me to sway a little. Balance was something I had to constantly think about, though I’d already concluded that if I did end up losing this battle then I probably wouldn’t hurt myself when I hit the ground. Getting back up, though, was likely to be a pain in the ass.

Dev’s face seemed to flicker slightly. “Aha,” he said, “you’re attempting speech. Excellent. Let’s do some work on that. I’d advise you first to sit down again though. It’ll be cognitively a great deal harder for you if you try to speak whilst standing. Free up that mental capacity and sit. But take your time coming back to the chair. There’s no rush.”

I took the three steps back to the chair, did a cautious 180, and lowered myself down in an undignified squat until I felt its surface pressing (in that not actually feeling like it was pressing sort of way) against my behind. Then I let myself flop back.

Energetically, Dev leaned forward. “You’ll be getting the picture by now, I’m sure. We start with small, individual movements and then build them up in complexity. The first thing I want you to do is form with your mouth the shape you would make to say ‘ahhhhhh.’ Don’t try to make the sound itself yet, just make the shape with your lips.”

I pushed myself forward, subconsciously mirroring his position, and focused on moving lips I could not feel. Very quickly I came to realise I had no idea whatsoever what sort of shape they were forming on my face.

Anticipating this frustration, Dev smiled kindly and said, “Not quite so easy as moving forward a foot you can look at, eh? The sensory information you’re missing right now is called ‘proprioception’ – in lay person’s terms, all the internal feedback you get from your muscles ordinarily when you move them. It’s basically a whole extra sense. It’s how people are able to do stuff like walk in the dark. You’ve been compensating for your lack of proprioceptive feedback so far by using your vision in combination with the extremely rudimentary sense of contact provided by the system interface. But of course you can’t see your lips without looking in a mirror. Naturally, you do still know how to make an ‘ahh’ shape – you’re probably doing so right now – but you can’t know for sure without that feedback.

“So I’m going to hold up a mirror in front of you. Now don’t be alarmed, but the face you’re going to see isn’t the face you’re used to seeing in a mirror. What you’ll be looking at is an avatar representing you, and in time you’ll be able to change your avatar to look however you want it to – including your real-life self, if that’s what you’d like to look like in here.”

Poor sweet Dev, thinking I didn’t know what an avatar was. I rotated my right hand quickly in that, ‘hurry things up’ fashion, knowing full well that he was probably some sort of recording but hoping just the same there might be someone watching who could hit the fast-forward button.

“And now for a bit of metaverse magic,” Dev said, with a wink. He traced a rectangle in the air and this invisible shape turned into a gilt-framed mirror. I noticed he’d sneaked in the word ‘metaverse’ just then, no doubt a primer for the big reveal due soon that I was connected somehow to a state-of-the-art virtual world. Except I’d figured this out for myself the moment I’d looked at my stranger’s hands, because that sense of disconnect had brought immediately to mind the experience – years ago – of looking at my avatar body through a VR headset in Second Life. Though whatever this place was, it was light years ahead of SL.

I had no idea how this interface Dev had spoken of had managed to isolate me so completely from my real-world senses. I wondered where my body was right now.

The face that looked back at me was stunning in its photorealistic detail, though hardly exciting in any other respect. I was white, blonde, freckled, blue-eyed and boring. It would do for now. I leaned closer to the mirror and got back to work on my ‘ahh’ shape, using the visual feedback to help me position my lips just right. It was awkward, but no more so than moving my feet had been earlier.

“When you’re happy with the shape, just blink,” Dev told me. I fiddled a little longer, and also used this moment to experiment with wiggling my eyebrows and scrunching my nose. Then I blinked.

“Good. Now then, whilst you hold that shape I want you to focus on making an ah sound. Once again, you’re not going to get the internal feedback you’re used to here. First, you won’t feel the sensation of air moving from your lungs and out of your mouth – as I’m certain you’ve already ascertained for yourself, the interface doesn’t simulate the respiratory system. Second, you won’t feel the vibration in your vocal cords and oral cavity that you’re used to feeling when you make this sound. Try to put these things out of your mind and focus on making the sound as though you can feel them anyway. That might sound counter-intuitive, but just give it a try.”

I gave it a try and was immediately discouraged by the sound I started making, which was nothing like an ‘ahh’ and more like an ‘errr’ – and an odd sort of electronic ‘errr’ at that.

“Keep making that sound,” Dev said. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to run out of breath. I’m going to rez a control board in front of you now with a set of dials on it. By the way, ‘rez’ is the word we use when we make something appear in this world.”

Yes yes, Dev. Everyone knows what ‘rez’ means.

The control board – made from brushed aluminium – appeared in front of me. It was fixed in the air like the mirror just above it. There were four dials, labelled ‘volume,’ ‘pitch,’ ‘timbre’ and ‘allophone.’

“These dials will change the sound you’re making right now. I want you to experiment with them until you get the sound that sounds closest to how you would say ‘ahh’ at a normal speaking volume. It’s not going to sound exactly like you, by the way, because we haven’t yet applied your voiceprint – that part comes later. Blink twice when you’re happy with the sound.”

This took an infuriatingly long time to achieve and included a not insubstantial period during which I was no longer certain what ‘ahh’ actually sounded like. The dials themselves were frustratingly difficult to manipulate at first, but – just like walking – it became easier the more I did it. Eventually I got to an acceptable ‘ahh’ and blinked twice.

“Great!” Dev didn’t seem the least bit bored. He had to be a recording. “Now stop making the sound and close your mouth. And then say ‘ahh.’”

“Ahh,” I said.

“Happy with that?”


“Okay! Now let’s get to work on the ‘ooo’ sound – as in ‘move.’ Just let me know when you’re ready to get going.

To my right, the grandfather clock chimed 5pm. It was going to be a long night.

“Ahh,” I said.


“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” I said, rolling my eyes as I did so. The grandfather clock chimed 2am.

“Perfect,” said Dev. “You’ve made amazing progress. And now it’s time to rest. Your brain needs sleep in here just as much as it does in the physical world.”

“Wait,” I said, “you promised me some sort of explanation about this place.” I didn’t feel in the least bit tired.

“I’m sorry,” Dev said, “You’ve made a response I’m unable to parse. You do realise I’m an AI, right? Not a very good one, it’s true, but you have to admit a very charming one!”

It was like reading the packaging banter off a woke yoghurt carton. I stood up and called out, “Is anybody real monitoring this conversation? I want an explanation now!” I paced up and down the living room impatiently, another skill I’d mastered during my various ‘speech breaks’ over the last nine hours.

“So, I’m going to count back from five and then you’ll be placed into a sleep state,” Dev told me, appearing completely undistracted by my pacing.

“Sleep state?” I echoed. “You mean returned to real life, right? I’m duly impressed by this environment, but enough’s enough: either get someone in here who can answer my questions or unplug me from whatever machine you have me plugged into. I need to eat. I need to physically move. I almost certainly need to pee. Do you want me peeing in your machine, Dev? Well, do you?”

“At three, you’ll start to feel sleepy,” Dev continued. “You might want to sit down, but it’s not essential. Your avatar will be moved to a comfortable pose whilst you sleep, ready for when you wake up.”

Suddenly, I felt panic rise within me. “Not the void,” I said. I actually kneeled in front of him. “Please don’t put me back in that. Please, Dev.”

This he responded to. “Don’t worry,” he said softly, “it won’t be like that nothingness earlier. It’ll be just like sleep, exactly the way you remember it.”


He was right. I dreamt of being whole again, of having a body, of touching things.

I dreamt of Jade. 

“I’m falling,” I told her. 

“Catch me.”


I woke immediately, like a light switch being turned on.

I was lying on a bed and wearing pyjamas. It took a few seconds for my day with Dev to come back to me, and to realise I was still inside this artificial environment somehow. That explained the lightness of my body. It felt no different lying down than it had felt to sit or stand.

My learning from the day before was not yet fluent. It took me a couple of minutes to devise a sequence of movements that got me back on my feet. The bedroom was old and low-ceilinged. I went to a tiny window, noting that the aged wooden floorboards creaked when I walked across them, and looked out over a small garden. Beyond it was a field in which sheep were grazing. Morning light cast a crisp shadow. I opened the window and the cool freshness of the hour did not enter through it.

There was a full-size mirror in the room and a chest of drawers next to the bed. I stood in front of the mirror and examined my appearance, reacquainting myself with my blue-eyes and blonde locks. My pyjamas were light blue with a repeating pineapple design, and not a crease in them to suggest I’d just been sleeping. My similarly uncrumpled hair was tied back in a ponytail. This would not do.

I blinked – this seemed to be the base unit of function in this world – and, immediately, a small menu popped up beside the mirror:




When I looked directly at a menu option it turned orange. I held EDIT BODY in focus and blinked. Quite literally in the blink of an eye, then, my pyjamas disappeared. I stood naked, and in the mirror reflection my body was outlined in blue.

It seemed I would need a virtual razor at some point.

An array of new menus, buttons and sliders appeared around the mirror, taking up a good percentage of the surrounding white wall space. I spent a few minutes examining them, finally coming to rest on APPLY NEW SKIN. I blinked and a new window opened showing a variety of thumbnailed bodies in various tones. One of them had a red box around it and text underneath it read RL BODYSCAN NOV 2018.

That’s right, I thought to myself, it was November.

I selected the red box and my real-life skin slowly crept over my body, replacing the pale default. On the one hand, it was a huge relief to see something approaching my normal self looking back at me. On the other hand, did this mean someone had scanned my naked body in real life? Was that something I’d given my consent to? It troubled me that I couldn’t recall any of this happening and, in some subconscious corner of my mind, it bothered me that this troubledness seemed uncharacteristically mild.

Next, I found the body shape menu and applied a similar real-life scan to my proportions. I grew a couple of inches and gained a few more pounds than I had hoped might be quite so visibly apparent. For a moment, I was tempted to play with the BODYFAT slider. The MUSCLE DEFINITION control looked interesting too. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t intending my stay in whatever new virtual universe product this was to be any longer than was absolutely necessary. This was not a moment for investment in avatar appearance. I closed down the shape system to look for something that resembled my hair. No real-life scan of this appeared to have been made, so I settled on a dark crew cut. I felt in a combative mood.

Accordingly, when I found the outfits menu – which was disparagingly minimal, I might add – I settled for a pair of army fatigues, Dr Martens boots and a blank tank top.

I examined myself in the mirror. Yes, that would do. I blinked on EXIT and went downstairs.

The living room where I had spent the previous day with Dev was empty, but in a little kitchen behind the staircase I found a woman sitting at a table by the window. She looked up when I entered and beamed at me. “Good morning! Did you sleep well?”

“I slept.” I replied. She looked about thirty, but there was something about her movement when she stood that suggested an older person. She was wearing blue jeans and a loose peasant top, and some dark green pumps. She had a kind face. I forced myself to ignore that. “Are you another AI?” I asked.

“No Emma,” she replied, smiling. “I’m a real person, just like you.” She stood in front of me and took my hands in hers. “So here we are! What do you think of our little world so far?”

I pulled my hands away. “Well, I’d like to know just how I came to be in it, for one thing.”

“Yes. We’ll get to that, I promise.” She quickly changed the topic. “I see you’ve recreated your real-life appearance, more-or-less.”

“I take it you haven’t,” I replied.

“Well no. I’m quite a bit older than this out in the physical world. But why shouldn’t I go with a younger version of me in here? We all wish we were young again, deep down. Would you like to sit outside?”

“Inside, outside.” I waved my hand, taking in her whole ‘little world’ in one indifferent swipe. “It’s all the same to me.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” she said, opening the back door for me, “but it really helps in here if you can buy in to the illusion.” Outside the kitchen was a little terrace paved in irregularly sized slate. We sat down at a wrought iron table, its white paint flaking away. “When you look at a painting of a rose, the image evokes the memory of its smell, does it not?”

I looked at her. “I know you, don’t I? You know things about memory.”

“Yes, you do know me,” she replied. “And yes, I do.”

“Why can’t I remember how I came here?”

“It’ll come back to you. You’re still in the process of transitioning. That has to be done gradually. You’ve already raced through motor adaptation faster than anyone’s ever managed it before. Take a moment, Emma. There’s no rush in here.”

“How do you know my name?”

She looked at me. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

I frowned. “I was on a plane, I think. A little one. Some old guy was taking me somewhere, but I can’t remember who he was or where we were going.”

“He was bringing you to me,” she said.

“Look,” I told her, “I’m starving hungry. When are you going to let me out of this place so that I can eat?”

“You only think you’re hungry because you’re accustomed to eating after you’ve woken up,” she said. “Pretty much everything in the brain works that way. Association, association, association. The trick is to keep those associations active. You’ll get used to it.”

I sighed (an articulation of the ‘hhhh’ sound). “Okay fine. Tell me about this world then.”

“Oh, I’m not some sort of sales rep, if that’s what you’re thinking. And as for all this-” she waved her hand in a similar way to the way I’d waved mine in the kitchen, “I’ve had very little to do with its construction. Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid. It is impressive though, don’t you think?”

I shook my head. “Impressive? No. It’s fucking incredible.”

She laughed, and there was genuine joy in that sound. I realised it was one I hadn’t yet learned how to make. Then again, I hadn’t really had anything yet to laugh about. “Okay,” she said. “It’s fucking incredible. Yes. Well, it needs to be. And this – I promise you – is just the beginning. One day we’ll work out all the other sensory inputs: tactile, olfactory, gustatory, thermoception, proprioception, interoception, vestibular… one day we’ll sit out here and smell the fresh air and feel the rising sun warming our faces, and eat as many croissants and drink as much coffee as we want to.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Nice. But I doubt that will happen in my lifetime.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she replied. “You might live longer than you think.”

I looked out over the lawn and the fields beyond. “How far does this go?”

She followed my gaze. “Actually, I’ve never ventured any further than this garden. This is kind of a welcome area; I haven’t been here since my own transition.” She stood up. “Want to find out?”

“Sure.” We walked across the lawn and climbed over a stile. “So how long is it since you ‘transitioned’?” I asked her, as we strode out across the field.

“About a year in the real world,” she replied. “Nearly four for me personally. Time works differently in here.”

“So that’s a statement right there that’s going to need some explanation.”

She laughed. “It’s complicated. Essentially, the computers we use for this are extremely fast and can speed the brain up. It’s perfectly safe.”

“How much do they get sped up?”

“We run them at a factor of six right now, but during my first few months it was half that. We were still in the late testing stage back then.”

I stopped and a nearby sheep wandered over to us. “Wait,” I said. “Are you telling me you’ve been hooked up to this place permanently all this time?”

She hesitated, then said, “In a manner of speaking.”

“You’re holding back something.”

“Of course I am, sweetheart. We’ll get to it all eventually, I promise.”


The sheep looked at me and issued a half-hearted bleat. I reached out to stroke it, and it backed away from me in alarm. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you have a real sheep hooked up to this machine,” I said.

She smiled again. “No. That’s just a simulation. It turns out that sheep behaviour isn’t all that hard to simulate.”

“Who knew?”

“I know, right?!”

I looked at her and it came to me. “Trish,” I said. “Your name is Trish.”

“That’s right,” she replied. “And do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it doesn’t make any sense. I think… you’re my mother.”

She put her arms around me, and this time I didn’t pull away. “See?” she said into my hair. “You don’t feel it but you feel it.”


We found the boundary after another ten minutes of walking. It was disappointingly crude. I was expecting some sort of invisible wall, after which the inaccessible fields and hills continued on, beautifully, all the way to the horizon. Instead, we came to a very obvious 2D bitmap.

“Hmm,” Trish said, also appearing unimpressed. “I expect probably no-one ever ventured out this far before. Inductees tend to stay at the cottage, I’ve heard.”

“Where do they go after that?”

“Wherever it is they’ve been assigned to.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, we have a number of sections, all with their own projects. There’s a big push on computing right now.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Designing faster computers. Everything we want to do in here relies on computer speed.”

“And what is it,” I asked, “that you want to do in here?”

“Create a better world, of course!”

“So this isn’t some sort of game, then?”

“Not all virtual environments are games, dear,” she said. “This isn’t like Second Life.” I opened my mouth to protest and then thought better of it.

I reached out to touch the bitmap and got that sense of ‘contact’ through my fingers. Little pieces of memory were starting to come into focus. “That man on the plane,” I said, “He was my father, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” Trish replied.

“His name was… Tony.” And then, suddenly, a whole chunk came back. “I was on a case. A hidden city. A real place that’s spread out all over the country. Maybe all over the world. A house in this town, a building in the next: all linked up via the internet. A resident’s next-door neighbour might live a thousand miles away.”

“A community doesn’t have to be geographically based in order for it to function.”

“Except this was geographically mapped – every house belonged to a virtual street and had a house number. And no-one knew anything about it except for the residents themselves.”

“Well,” she said, with a wry smile, “You knew about it. Well, it was inevitable it would leak out eventually. We’d sort of hoped we might have a bit more time remaining.”

“How did I learn about it?” I asked her.

“You were recruited by the British government. They found out that you were my daughter.”

“I only remember bits and pieces. Is that deliberate?”

She spoke carefully. “There’s a lot for you to take in. It’s better if you do so slowly. It’s better if you learn your way around here first.”

“The city,” I said. “It’s called New Morecambe.”


“You have a position in the university.”

“That’s right.”

“I travelled to… Scotland?”

“Yes. To the Shetlands.”

“So… is this place some sort of extension to New Morecambe?”

“In some ways yes; in some ways no. Very few of the residents know of it.” We started back towards the cottage. “The population of New Morcombe is just over six thousand people, but the residents in here number fewer than sixty. The long-term aim is for it to replace the distributed city infrastructure as the main method of interaction for residents, but right now it acts as a research establishment. We call it, ‘The Mountain.’ It’s existed for about 18 months in real world time.”

“The Mountain,” I repeated. That felt like new information.

“It reaches higher than anything ever made by humankind before,” she said. “Or something like that. Believe it or not, it took a committee a whole week to come up with that name.”

“Into the heavens.”

She looked at me. “Yes. That too.”

We entered back into a small wood we’d walked around the first time. Out of instinct, I reached out to brush my hands over the tops of some tall ferns. It passed right through them. “Before I entered the cottage,” I said to Trish, “there was this endless… nothingness.”

She nodded. “Pretty unpleasant, right?”

“Try existentially terrifying.”

“Yeah. I had that too and I was expecting it. We have to induce consciousness for a short period whilst we hook up all the connections that need to be made. Believe it or not, that actually only lasted for a little over four minutes.”

The memory of that period had become vague up until that point, but now it started to come back to me: the absence of time; the haze I was trying by force of will to turn into something I could look at.

“I wonder what it is about you that’s enabled you to progress so quickly,” Trish was saying, but I’d stopped walking. She turned to look at me. “What is it?”

“Jade,” I said.

A panicked look passed momentarily across her face. “You’re forcing things, darling. Try not to think too much about… past things.”

I stared at her. “Past things? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Is she ok? Has something happened to her? Is that what this is all about? What are you hiding from me?”

“No no no,” she said, her palms wide. “That’s not what I meant at all. Jade is fine, I promise. It’s just important that you complete your transition in a calm state and… and thinking about loved ones… well, it complicates things.”

“I’d be a good deal calmer if Jade was here right now instead of you,” I snapped at her. “I think it’s time you started telling me exactly why I’m here.”

“You’re here because you’re my daughter!” she cried.

“Enough of this,” I demanded. “I want out of this place right now. Unplug me from this fucking thing.”

She sighed and threw her arms up helplessly. “Emma, go to sleep,” she said.

And everything went black.


I woke up back in the bedroom. It was night. The curtains were drawn. A bedside lamp cast a dim glow across the room. Trish was sitting in an armchair where the mirror had been before.

“You can’t return to the physical world, Emma,” she said. “You don’t belong there anymore.

“This is your home now.”


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