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Virtually Deserted

By I.M. Savage



Copyright © 2017, author


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including but not limited to photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval systems, without written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.


Substantially reworked version of author’s previously published title The Stratosphere: The Birth of Nostradamus. All copyright in the previous work is owned by the author.


All characters in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.


Cover adapted from artwork by Tithi Luadthong, licensed by Shutterstock.


Proofread by Owl Editing


Published 2017

29-1-17Z



Dedicated to EC one and two and of course Harriett and Khrystyne.

Contents

Chapter 1 – Wilde Rises

Chapter 2 – Desolation

Chapter 3 – Preparations

Chapter 4 – Harvard

Chapter 5 – An Old Man’s Dream

Chapter 6 – Sing Club

Chapter 7 – The Spy

Chapter 8 – The Purchaser

Chapter 9 – Skyscraper

Chapter 10 – The Governor

Chapter 11 – Sentient Risk

Chapter 12 – The Road to Waltham

Chapter 13 – Starvation

Chapter 14 – Bandits

Chapter 15 – Poisoned

Chapter 16 – Rescue

Chapter 17 – The Return

Chapter 18 – A White Flag

Chapter 19 – Hallucination

Chapter 20 – The Coup

Chapter 21 – Three Possibilities

Chapter 22 – Prison Break

Chapter 23 – Finding an Edge

Chapter 24 – Public Execution

Chapter 25 – Reinforcements

Chapter 26 – Untapped Power

Chapter 27 – Table Talk

Chapter 28 – Surgical Defense

Chapter 29 – River Crossing

Chapter 30 – Frozen

Chapter 31 – Ghost Town

Chapter 32 – Fire

Chapter 33 – Slaughter

Chapter 34 – Allston Celebrates

Chapter 35 – Chocolate

Chapter 36 – Awakening

Chapter 37 – Dead Tank

Chapter 38 – Khaki Fields

Chapter 39 – Gunfight

Chapter 40 – Know Your Enemy

Chapter 41 – Puzzle

Chapter 42 – Eastern Lights

Chapter 43 – Predator

Chapter 44 – Escape from New York

Chapter 45 – Chopper Attack

Chapter 46 – Escape from Allston

Chapter 47 – Injection

Chapter 48 – Radiation Signs

Chapter 49 – The Birth of Nostradamus

Chapter 50 – Empathy Bomb

Chapter 51 – Daisy

Dear Reader

Appendix – Electronic copy of CIA documents

Acknowledgements

Chapter 1 – Wilde Rises

April 1, 2027, 8:20 a.m. – PedCom headquarters, Queens, New York

Katharine Wilde stood from her chair, leaned over the boardroom table, and slammed down her fist. “Enough!”

A dozen middle-aged men surrounded her, separated by six yards of polished mahogany. Reactions to Katharine’s outburst differed. Some gazed at their paperwork, pretending to thumb through notes and briefs, while others’ eyes darted as they surveyed their suited comrades with uncertainty. A few mumbled.

Only one man showed respect. He nodded to her. She briefly caught his eye, and looked away. “We’re going in circles. The board elected me to drive change.”

“It wasn’t unanimous,” grumbled a stocky old man.

“Should we vote again?” Katharine said.

Like boxers in the tense moments before the bell, they stared each other down. Ready for the fight, Katharine stood in one corner.

Right or wrong, she believed power rested on collective perception. Image mattered. The previous evening, the same as thousands before, she rehearsed her body language in the mirror. With precision achieved through relentless repetition, she developed an arsenal of decisive but undramatic movements. She’d then practice her elocution, with a deeper but natural voice. Every action designed to shift attention from her shape to her mind. At twenty-six years old, Katharine had to fight for respect. So each night she trained for battle.

Subtle contradictions defined her. She cultivated this. Her thin muscular frame implied energy. Yet, her suit’s straight lines dislodged scrutiny from curves that flowed beneath the fabric like firm, ripe fruit. An emerald glint in her outfit’s herringbone weave hinted style, without being conspicuous. Soft curls of blonde hair straightened and dyed into a jet-black bob. A sharp fringe framed a sharp mind. She projected distinction that evaded description. A temporary distraction, lodged in the subconscious, registered as faint difference. People remembered her, though they didn’t know why.

In the opposite corner, a stocky man in his late fifties perched in his black leather chair. He sported a thick mop of gray hair raked back in slick waves. Creases lined his broad face, worn like business battle medals. An oversized ring hugged his index finger, the gold rubbed thin from years of clinking against whiskey-filled glasses.

He spoke with the air of arrogance born from decades of unchallenged authority. “No. But that doesn’t give you free rein. You report to the board. Not the opposite. Five board members don’t want you. Six think you’re the best worst choice. Only one gives you their full support. We all know why.” The man turned and glared at the person seated at the table’s end, Professor Igan.

Katharine sat, attention fixed on the stocky man. “I’m here now. Adjust.” Her expression relaxed. “Look, this discussion is pointless. PedCom is close to bankruptcy. If we don’t accept responsibility, we might as well go home.”

After hesitation, the men conceded. The stocky man yielded last.

“Forget blame. I don't care who's responsible. But to succeed, we must understand our failure’s root cause. This requires we park our egos. If we can't, we’re finished.” Katharine’s voice quietened.

A previously silent old man reacted. He scowled at the Marketing Director. “Well if salaries reflected competency—”

Katharine interrupted, “Stop. We can’t do this …”

Silence followed. The boardroom table stretched ahead like a great ocean that separated her from her team. Their complaints rose in waves, the sting of cold salt spray of a violent sea. She felt them drift away. They bobbed and bounced in their own worlds. Their defensiveness widened the distance, forcing them over water dark and deep. It seemed hopeless. The situation threatened to drown her.

After a painful silence, a hawkish old man threw her a life ring. “The Stratosphere is boring.”

Everyone turned to the man. Brows furrowed and eyes narrowed. Businessmen aren’t immune to ignoring inconvenient truths. In fact, many would win a gold medal in self-denial. No one wishes to hear their life’s efforts amounted to rubbish.

The hawkish man delivered a four-word message that summed their failure's essence. A few answered with grunts. Others snorted or waved their hands, as if dismissing a fool.

“It’s true,” Professor Igan responded. “I’ve more ego invested in this product than everyone. I created the Stratosphere and the StratSuits. It was my dream, not yours. If I can admit failure, so can you. The Stratosphere is boring. That’s the problem we must address.”

A younger old-man crossed his arms. “Nonsense. When users wear the StratSuit, the simulation smells, tastes, looks, and behaves so realistically, it’s indistinguishable from reality. And unlike reality, they’re completely free. How can this be boring?”

Katharine said, “That’s precisely the problem.”

“What? The StratSuit?” he mocked.

The Marketing Director snorted in agreement. “Yes, our quandary is we’ve created a perfect wearable electronic fabric that seamlessly integrates users with an immersive digital virtual reality system.”

“No,” Katharine said, “The issue isn’t the suit. It’s the Stratosphere itself. The Strat’s geography is too sterile. The streets are spotless, the buildings all immaculate palaces, the waters crystal clear. People wonder at the technological marvel. But wonderment soon fades. Only light and shade can keep their interest. The Strat is all sun, no darkness. Users find it pointless after the novelty wears off.”

“What do you suggest? Make the digital streets dirty?”

She ignored the snide comment. “The Strat’s economic viability requires two changes. We must create artificial scarcity and eliminate anonymity.”

The last words provoked strong reactions. Everyone spoke together. She clenched her jaw, looked down, and waited. Her eyes shot up first, followed by her head. She yelled, “One at a time.”

“You can’t be serious. Erase anonymity? No one would use the Strat without privacy.”

“Yes, destroy anonymity. Users’ physical appearance will determine their digital one. When they log onto the Strat, I want their virtual spawn point to mirror their plug in location. The Strat must contain no form of social media. Demolish anything people can hide behind. No message boards, texts, blogs, Facebook, Twitter … Nothing.”

“You’re crazy. For six months, we’ve worked fourteen hours a day on the Facebook contract. Should we throw this away?” The General Counsel shook his head and turned bright red. “Let me do my job. By next year we’ll have a virtual Facebook presence in the Strat.”

“Social media will never deliver us a dime in profit,” Katharine said.

The man’s pitch rose as he argued. “You’d discard the social media business model, a billion dollar juggernaut? And you plan to replace it with what?”

Reminding herself to remain calm, she took in a subtle breath. “It’s like we invented a teleportation system, and we’re discussing where to attach the wheels. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, it’s all two-dimensional. We’ve created a five-dimensional space. Three physical dimensions, a time dimension, and a creative dimension.”

“Creative dimension? What the hell is a creative dimension? You’re joking?”

The old men mocked her with laughter.

Her face flushed. “Am I laughing? Virtual reality isn’t bound by physics. Time, space, imagination, all those things have suddenly grown. We must expand our mind to take advantage of this opportunity. I’m not here to rival social media. That’d be folly. I aim to replace the old world in its entirety. Then social media can compete with us and fail.”

“Okay then. I’ll humor you. What is your big plan?” the stocky man asked.

Katharine understood she had one shot to convince them. “Pretend you were fourteen again. You and your friends wandered into a deserted industrial estate filled with abandoned warehouses. Your buddies throw rocks at the windows. They encourage you to join. At first, you’re frightened. You know it’s wrong. But that’s what makes it so fun. The sound of shattered skylights is irresistible. Imagine there are hectares of empty buildings. How long would you hurl stones? An hour, a week, a month? Eventually, even the most die-hard vandal will lose interest. Without enforcement, breaking rules becomes pointless.”

The men didn’t speak. A glint of new possibilities reflected in their eyes. Their minds reached beyond self-preservation, dislodged by a question that appealed to their intelligence.

She searched their faces, willing them closer. “Removing anonymity creates consequence, consequence creates purpose, and purpose will transform users' experience into something meaningful.”

“That all sounds wonderful in theory. But what does it mean practically?”

Her tone became deeper, firmer. “Rules and form are critical. We need two worlds in the Stratosphere. The first world replicates the real world brick-for-brick, house-for-house, road-for-road, city-for-city. The—”

“Yes, you describe the current Strat, albeit free of cleaners.”

Everyone laughed except Professor Igan.

“Let me finish.” Katharine barked. She stared until they hushed. “The second world orbits the first world. In this world, people express themselves however they want, fulfill any desire. They can consume counseling, games, movies—”

“Consumers already have this, in reality. Hell, every survey and focus group returns the same result. They consider the Strat an expensive poor substitute for reality.”

“Yes!” Katharine said, “if you nail your imagination to yesterday. What do people crave? Reality? No! They want fame and fortune. Don't sit clients in virtual cinemas. Transform them into film stars.”

“We’ve tried already. The complexity outstrips our programmers’ capabilities. Five minutes into the movie and the script's probability parameters spiral into infinity. We can make people passengers in electronic acting. That’s all.”

Frustrated, her face reddened. “We can do much better. In the 1970s, quiz show producers realized they didn’t require complex questions or even smart contestants. They just needed big prizes. Similarly, intricate screenplays are unnecessary. We only need to create virtual characters that cater to people’s psychological needs.”

“Humans can’t empathize with computers.”

Irritated, Katharine raised her voice again. “Rubbish! Ever heard of ELIZA?”

“Of course,” the old man said and slapped the table. Blood rushed to his cheeks.

“Then you should understand it takes little to connect emotionally with computers. Individuals compete, they judge, they half-listen. A StratBot won’t jockey for consumers’ ego needs. They’ll give all and expect nothing. Mark my words, people will fall in love with their StratBots.”

“Are you proposing to create SexBots?” the hawkish man asked.

“Whatever it takes to get you laid,” said Katharine, her voice deadpan.

The ice cracked. Almost everyone chuckled.

The hawkish old man added, “Count me in!”

“Yeah, your wife has been too busy with me to keep you happy!” the stocky man replied. The two were good friends. Both laughed until they coughed.

With the mood lightened, progress became possible. “We must widen our view. Then you'll see the opportunities are limitless.” She made eye contact with the stocky man. “Take tertiary education, for example. Instead of creating clunky online courses, we build virtual universities where students learn from a digital Einstein, Plato, Martin Luther King, Freud … anyone we imagine. Why would pupils crowd into sweaty lecture halls, or log onto lonely web seminars, when StratBots can meet all their learning and emotional needs?”

An old man who’d teetered silently on sleep’s edge for hours, sprang to life as if startled. “StratBots?” He wiped dribble from his mouth’s corner.

“Virtual characters, digital personalities; all individually tailored to every participant’s psychology,” she replied without a hint of frustration.

The stocky man snorted at the sleepy man, and the remainder stopped flicking through their papers and phones, and leaned forward. Katharine paused.

“Go on. We’re listening,” the stocky man said.

“We need the right structure to generate profits. Sales require scarcity. Digital tourism can only deliver income if we control movement and real estate.” She gave the men a chance to respond.

The stocky man held her gaze. His face relaxed. He stopped twisting his ring. “Keep going.”

“Like I said, two worlds are essential. One replicates the real world exactly. It provides an emotional bridge between reality and fantasy. We’ll give Google exclusive rights to build and draw income from this world—”

“But that’s potentially billions in advertising revenue,” said the Marketing Director.

“Ideas and intellectual property are lint in our pockets. We have zero leverage. Let them establish their perfect virtual Google Earth. The second virtual world is the gold mine.”

“What’s in this second world? Not that it matters. We don’t have the money to build this either.”

“I agree,” Katharine said. “So we create the framework, virtual real estate and StratBots. We construct the building-blocks, and businesses then utilize them to populate the Stratosphere. They can brand and use the StratBots however they wish. Let them become digital pimps for all I care.” She winked at the hawkish man, and he laughed.

Katharine continued. “Manufacturing shortage is the key. For example, we limit participants’ speeds to fifty miles per hour, with shuttles in the second world that travel at six thousand miles per hour. If we allow people to go wherever they want instantaneously, they’ll soon become bored. The act of choosing a destination will create scarcity. In doing so, it’ll turn a trip into an expedition. It’ll also provide additional profits.”

Everyone laughed. Some rapped their knuckles on the table and shouted, “Hear, hear.” The stocky man clapped his hands.

She gave a subtle appreciative nod. “We’ll draw consumers into the Strat by delivering experiences not even limited by their own imagination.”

The board cheered Katharine again. It appeared she might deliver them from financial ruin.

“What should we call this second world in the Strat?”

“Why, Utopia, of course,” Katharine said.

This elicited more approval.

The men listened as she outlined her vision for transforming the Stratosphere. By the meeting’s end, the afternoon sun warmed the room.

One by one, they shook her hand, offered advice and congratulations, and departed. Eventually the space fell silent, leaving her alone to reflect on the day’s success. After twelve hours negotiating and fighting, more than anything, she wanted to look outside.

So she pulled back the blinds. Natural light flooded the boardroom. Unlike modern towers, the old ten-story stone building had sliding windows. The heavy wooden frame resisted, squeaked complaints, but rose. A breeze entered, the faint smell of stale exhaust and fermented rubbish. Still an improvement on air-conditioning.

She peered out the window to the bustling city. Below, she watched a young boy in a florescent red top buy a hotdog from the street vendor. He bit into one and clutched the second dog awkwardly. Without looking, he dashed into the traffic. Horns blared, and he retreated to the sidewalk.

Yellow taxis lurched along the boulevard, where they wove and honked. The boy ran to the crossing and raced across the road as the lights changed, past shoppers and office workers. He vanished behind shop awnings on the road’s opposite side. A minute later, he reappeared outside a vacant block, cleared for a new high-rise. He pushed through a gap in the chain fence, cut a diagonal path over the empty building site, and exited at the far end. There he crossed another street, to a bright park, where a woman greeted him with a big hug. She handed him a soccer ball, and he gave her the hotdog. They turned for the entrance. Shortly after, they disappeared under a giant oak tree’s lush canopy. A million wavy-edged green leaves swayed in the light breeze, miniature swells on a larger sea.

Katharine smiled and looked up. A jet’s vapor trail traced a white line across a wide blue sky. The city promised inexplicable excitement. An opportunity whispered just below hearing’s threshold. 



Chapter 2 – Desolation

Thirty years later, April 1, 2057 – PedCom headquarters, Queens, New York

Katharine stared out the shattered window. Putrid rubbish ran the street’s length, piled high on the sidewalk in mounds. An oily slick leached through the heaps and out their base, into pools that filled the pavement’s cracks and hollows. The overflow slid in thick rivulets down the curb, joining the sludge in the gutter.

From the rotten piles, lighter objects fluttered, barely held in place. They moved as if waving goodbye, rustling, until a stronger gust freed them. Random choices, an empty plastic bottle crushed and brown, threadbare fabric, nylon netting, and other useless detritus. The wind swept the junk, flapping and spinning across the street, until it disappeared in the shadows beneath shop canopies that’d collapsed to the ground, their underbellies upturned, like industrial corpses. Scaled rust covered by intermittent patches of starved grass.

Once upon a time, awnings hid the shops from Katharine’s view. Now she had a clear line of sight to the stores’ gutted bowels. Bright colors long faded to gray.

Wilted weeds fought to survive where glass panes previously framed high fashion, held at arm’s length from shoppers like Christmas Eve to a child. Today a few broken shelves were scattered on the floors. Nothing else.

Beyond the shops, she saw the park. A skeletonized oak tree towered over the entrance. Silvered trunks reached out, lifeless, covering a wrought iron gate in mottled shadows. The park’s leaning fence disappeared along with the remaining boundary, consumed by wild shrubs and squat trees, their brown leaves drooping under sticky dust.

Above, a dirty gray sky dissolved into heavy smog. Only the hazy silhouettes of industrial printers’ smoke stacks indicated the horizon’s location.

The old mahogany boardroom table stood behind her, dark and decayed. The floor crunched underfoot as she returned. She ran her finger over the soft timber. It turned black with grime. She flicked her thumb against her index digit, trying to dislodge the dirt. It didn’t budge. So she removed a handkerchief from her bag and wiped it clean.

At the table’s head lay her old chair, covered with animal droppings. She dragged it out and knocked the worst filth away with her cloth. After removing a fresh rag, she laid it on the seat and slumped into its discomforting softness. It squelched.

She glanced across the room to her Security Team Leader standing against the dark wall.

“Grant, you’re the only person I can trust.” From the shadows, she gleaned the hint of a solemn smile. “Thanks for bringing me here. I understand the danger.”

“That’s okay.”

“The past is history. But I had to return, one last time.”

He nodded.

After a minute’s silence she said, “Before the world turned to shit, before I met you, this was my throne.” She tapped the armrests. “Three years after taking power, the StratMovies and StratGames made me the world’s wealthiest woman. But somehow I needed more.”

The weight of her words bowed her head, shifting her gaze to the table. For the first time she noticed the peeling veneer and realized the top wasn’t solid mahogany. When she lifted its edge, the thin layer parted company with the substrate, crackling as it did. In the curled corner where dirt couldn’t settle underneath, beneath the hazy brown that almost hid the timber’s beauty, like a grainy black-and-white photo of a fire, lay cheap wide-grained ply. A small surprised humph escaped her lips.

Still focused on the table she said, “It wasn’t greed, just a genuine desire to contribute. The StratUniversity should've been our gift to society.” She laughed weakly. “We obliterated the competition. They gave them crusty old lecturers, has-beens, marking time to retirement. We gave them direct one-on-one contact with the finest minds in history.” Slowly she turned to Grant. “Guess what most students wanted?”

He shrugged.

“They weren’t interested in judging Galileo’s trials, discovering radiation with Curie, participating in the Wright brothers’ first flight, or joining the Apollo crew. Instead they obsessed about their virtual FriendBots. We tailored each virtual friend to students’ psychological needs. We needn’t have bothered. They just wanted someone inferior they could show up. Someone dependent on them.”

“Maybe they needed someone to need them.”

“Perhaps … I can’t help feeling I brought this on myself.”

“Second guesses are useless. It’s outside your control.”

“Is it?” Her shoulders dropped, and she tapped the table.

“The industrial 3D printers did most of the damage,” Grant said.

“Possibly. The visible devastation …” Katharine walked to the window. Small hexagonal glass fragments lay scattered across the sill. Flaked paint covered its frame, curled and yellowed by the sun, lifted in patches, exposing timber honeycombed by rot. The decay distracted her while she spoke to Grant. “The professor is holding a conference at Harvard. It’s so odd. It must be at least two decades since anyone has held one. He asked me to attend, and our technicians, or scientists, as he generously calls them.” A short silence followed as she flicked thumbnail-sized debris onto the empty street. “We’ll need quite a few choppers. Do you think you could round up a dozen? A jet would be easier …”

“Sorry, ma’am, there are no serviceable jets.”

“I know …”

“I can acquire the helicopters. Fuel won’t be easy. It’ll cost a few favors,” he said.

When she turned towards Grant the room appeared black, her pupils narrowed by natural light. The darkness didn’t dissolve. The isolation unnerved her, so she returned to the table. “Do it. Have you heard any gossip on what he plans to talk about?”

“Nothing reliable.”

“How about unreliable?”

“Most are saying it’s the bio-quantum computers.”

The words echoed. “Impossible …” Caught in thought, she ran her hands through her hair. The once vibrant bob, now long, grayed, and curled. “Stubborn old bugger. He’s been hiding with Brenna forever, presumably working on the computers. Matching him with her was one of my better decisions.” A fragile smile. “She’s kept him happy.”

“Yes.”

For a short while, she soaked in Grant’s validation. The moment’s joy disappeared under the pressure of things requiring attention. “Although it pains me, I must send Trevor on a mission.”

“Should I brief him?”

“No. This is my responsibility. He makes me sick. But no one else can complete this assignment. Can you organize a meeting? I’ll catch him at Harvard, when I attend this silly conference.”

“Sure.”

Silence followed, drawing her deeper into introspection. She realized she procrastinated, a luxury time no longer permitted. A lump formed in her throat, the words caught as if she’d swallowed a bone. The discomfort made her drop her head. “Did you get those files on the professor?”

“Yes.” He dug into his briefcase and removed a small manila file, extending it to her. “There wasn’t much.”

The statement hung in the air, like the folder. Reluctantly, she reached out and took it. Transaction completed, she examined the floor vacantly. “You can go, Grant. I need to be alone.”

With a nod, he left. Footsteps echoed, growing distant with each beat. In a dark corner, a drip became audible, plinking into a puddle with a clock’s monotony. Enveloped in shadows, she contemplated her thirty-year anniversary as CEO of the world’s most powerful company. Regrets, vanquished opponents, and lost opportunities. As her eyes drifted over the room’s contents, a conclusion greeted her like a deathbed epiphany, final and bleached of ego’s claims.

So this is my legacy.

Dappled sunshine streamed in from the window. She pulled her chair from the darkness. It deflated again as she sat. Manila folder on her lap, the dust-speckled light rained gently down. The dossier was thin, barely more than a few pieces of paper. Her finger traced the edge, paused, and then opened the file.

Inside the cover, she saw Grant’s handwritten note: “If you have trouble reading these printouts, you’ll find the electronic files stored on server XYT1.” She turned to the notes.








­­












Katharine closed the folder. Disappointed, she sighed and slumped forward. She re-examined Grant’s handwritten note that asked her to click on the link XYT1, if she couldn’t read the printouts.

The documents explained their predicament. But this wasn’t news to her. Worse, they implicated her. Although self-replicating manufacturing robots (3D printers) caused the environmental destruction, the dossier also blamed the Stratosphere. Over the years, she’d learned to accept responsibility. Still, she didn’t enjoy the reminder.

She meandered back to the old boardroom table, where she rifled through her ever-present pharmaceutical bag. “I have a cure for everything except a bloody headache.”

She called Grant on her secure communication device. “Sorry. After you locate fuel, can you please find me a fresh medical supply? A full kit.”

“Will do,” his voice rasped out the tiny coms unit, sounding tinny, but loud.

She left her bag on the table to return to the chair and her morose mood.

The power she enjoyed in 2057 rested on the residue of days past. Ironically, the past also weakened her. Although Katharine didn’t produce industrial 3D printers, she rode the wave of demand they created for new knowledge and therefore shared their fate.

In 2047, after the Printer Killer Virus threatened to sink the whole world into permanent chaos, she ‘freed’ all the StratBots and handed control to Strat users, minus the ability to impersonate people. She also made all Strat businesses free. Everyone consumed whatever they desired. With capitalism dead, and no capitalists left to care, charging entry fees was pointless. The Strat became an economic phantom, and without so much as a whisper of a socialist revolution, the last standing capitalist, Katharine Wilde, had nationalized the Strat.



Chapter 3 – Preparations

Meanwhile, at Galveston Island, over 1600 miles away

Brenna sat at her desk poring over technical documentation when the professor buzzed the warehouse doorbell. In front of her, a small universe of perfection rested in wait. The pens all lined in rows, the papers’ edges squared, containers organized by size.

Nothing superfluous occupied the space, except for a single photo, enclosed in a simple frame. The picture had faded, but the young man’s expression remained clear, caught mid-laugh, as if a close friend just shared a private joke.

For a moment, Brenna didn’t react to the buzzer, still deeply engrossed in her work. Gradually, she rose, her eyes glued to the page. Trapped in concentration, she didn’t break away until the bell sounded a second time.

She crossed the polished concrete floor, past immaculately maintained workbenches. The tables formed an open grid pattern inside a spacious warehouse. Each served a different function. Circuit boards and small electrical components such as servos covered the first workbench she passed. To her right, on another bench, metalworking tools lay neatly against a shadow board.

Two yards ahead, a large low table sat hidden under schematics. Each plan rolled tightly to a precise diameter, arranged side-by-side like tidy toy soldiers. One blueprint lay flat, its curling corners held down by four weights, placed in symmetrical precision.

The next area contained a holographic workstation. Beyond this, at the warehouse’s rear, stood a biological workroom, enclosed by walls, isolated by a decontamination cell and its own air supply.

When she reached the main entrance at the northern corner, she hit a large green button. A hissing sound followed. The outer door opened, and natural light flooded the warehouse.

Between Brenna and the professor, a chamber excluded the external pollution. As the exit shut, fans sucked out the smog while a pipe fed in purified air. Once the contaminants vented, the internal glass barrier slid open.

The professor stepped inside. A warm grin beamed below his grizzled gray stubble. Without hesitation, he leaned in to hug her. But her arms hung limp and heavy. After stepping back, she gave a quick forced smile. “So, everything’s ready?”

“Yes.”

“Why the conference? I don’t understand.”

“Well, I haven’t given a lecture at Harvard for two decades.” The professor laughed.

Like a daughter humoring her father, she smiled briefly. “Very cute.” Her serious expression returned. “The risk is excessive. You must explain the conference's necessity.”

“I’ve just stepped inside. Can’t we sit first?”

As they walked, she cast quizzical sideways glances at him. At her desk, she pulled out a chair for him, and when he sat, she followed.

“Is there a problem?” A small frown etched across her face.

After some pause, he replied, “No, it’s all good.”

“And the test results?”

“Everything is fine, Brenna.” Silence hung heavy as he turned to the photo on her desk. His head dropped. When he looked up again, his mouth moved silently, as if searching for words. “I worry about you.”

With faked surprise, she stiffened and shuffled upright in her chair. “I don’t understand.”

“The universe doesn’t start and finish with our work. You need more.”

She squinted as if he spoke an unrecognizable language. “But our work is everything.”

“Yes, and no.”

“Now I’m confused.”

“When everything’s done, one way or the other, our lives will be transformed. For years I’ve been your only friend. You’re too young to be alone, and I’m too old to keep you company.”

With a rising pitch she asked, “Are you dying?”

“No. Don’t be silly.”

“Good.” Her shoulders loosened.

“But I won’t live forever. Everything we achieved is due to your brilliance. But you are more than your work. If this project fails, you may forget that. You must have someone else.”

When he finished speaking, her eyes darted, and her face drew long. In his cornea, she saw her confusion reflected as worry. The answer would come, but not from her lips, so she waited.

“I know you don’t understand, but you must try. Maybe when we’re in Harvard you can visit our research assistants. You can meet them. Yes, that’s what you should do.”

“But the only person there’s Trevor. He’s a sociopath.”

“You’ve always got a reason to avoid people.”

“But he’s mad.”

“Everyone is mad. The world is mad. You’re scared.”

“You don’t know him,” she snapped.

“Yes, but you don’t either. You spend five minutes with someone on the Strat, give them instructions, and then unplug. Life is a stranger to you.”

She shot a furious glance into the professor’s eyes. When she broke contact he responded, “It’s not your fault. It’s mine. We needed to keep our distance from everyone for security. But you paid the price.”

With her fists held rigid against her knees, she looked a picture of tight posture. Her defenses melted when he leaned forward, reached out, and grasped her hands. When his eyes welled up and glistened, a red hue flushed her cheeks. “As you wish,” she said.

“Good. Good. That’s good.” He squeezed her hands gently and then removed them to lift himself. With his palms pressed into the armrests, he rose, wobbling. She grabbed his arm.

“It’s okay. I won’t fall.” Once standing, his stiff and drooped shoulders slowly rose, and with a chirp in his voice he said, “There must be something delicious we can cook for dinner. Let’s eat something sinful!”

Footsteps echoed through the cavernous warehouse as Brenna walked by his side. When they reached the exit, he said, “Please organize security details with the colonel.”

“It’s already done.”

“Go over it again. The colonel leaves on a short mission tomorrow. So you need to see him today. Triple check everything. Security must be perfect.”

Brenna nodded. “I will. By the way, you still haven’t answered my question.”

He smiled and pushed a paper into her hands. As he walked outside, she examined the scrap of a map he’d given her. They were masters of technology, yet, in many ways he was still an old man hoarding fragments of time past.






Chapter 4 – Harvard

May 15, 2057 – Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

A rat scurried from the ancient lecture hall’s darker extremities, distressed by the encroaching crowd. An hour earlier darkness covered the theater. The quiet had lasted thirteen days. When the previous clangs and footfalls disturbed the rodent, it’d welcomed the interruption.

That day had followed a familiar pattern. Once every four weeks it scampered under the plastic lecture seats bolted to the soft rotting timber floor, along the semi-circular front row to the building's opposite side. From there it hugged the skirting boards and climbed the steps to the landing. Here, light streamed through a crack, the door held ajar a few degrees. Beyond, humans did human things. The rat didn’t know they were traders. It was only interested in the meager meal scraps that the gatherings rained down.

This day, however, was different. The earlier clamor failed to produce food. So it’d retreated to its hole, hungry. But now the humans moved too close. Panicked, it deserted its home. It raced between legs, up the steps, along the wooden landing towards the exit where, in its bid to escape the unusual animals and their noises, its life ended under Nancy’s boot.

Nancy and her gaggle of sidekicks stood outside the least used entrance to the lecture hall. Whenever the crowd moving through the doorway slowed to a trickle, she uttered a sarcastic comment, just as they passed hearing range. Most of her insults were bland, but sometimes she fired a cutting barb that sank into its target, and her friends would respond with sniggering chuckles.

Her appearance mirrored her demeanor. She usually wore black punctuated by a flash of color. Her clothes comprised an assortment of T-shirts in various states of disintegration she designed and created herself. Every so often, a shirt revealed a pleasing composition. However, it was hard to tell if sheer numbers or talent produced the rare jewel. Today’s shirt displayed a male fertility symbol fashioned into a skull with the words “Fear the Female Planet” hovering over the death graphic.

On her head sat a twisted mess of auburn hair. Like most others, the rest of her outfit was a mash up of scrounged items. Nevertheless, the tattered black jeans, leather boots, and thick tanned belt, hung together.

Noise and bustle filled the hall, but nothing held her friends’ attention. While they attempted to find solace in any distraction, counting the minutes until they logged back onto the Strat, Nancy embraced the moment.

For as long as her memory served, one day marched into the next without contrast. Any difference, even dull change, made the wait worthwhile. Consequently, she intended to listen, to see what the fuss would unveil. Her friends only stayed because the town boss said they must attend the lecture or be on duty.

She looked up from the dead rat and groaned. From across the foyer, she watched Gus hobble towards her. She knew him as they both lived in Allston. As she examined him, she noticed that his annoying smile was absent. In its place, was a frown, framed by sweat.

Gus suffered an undiagnosed degenerative motor neuron disease that already cost him most of his coordination. He walked with the help of a cane; effective, but with fits and starts as he lurched from foot to foot. Even Nancy realized he would’ve been a striking man, tall, athletic, with clean symmetrical masculine features. The disease robbed him of this, leaving his body hunched and twisted.

He stumbled through the lecture hall entrance. As he pushed by Nancy, he bumped into her. Then he placed his cane on her foot, leaning on it with force. She responded with a high-pitched yelp, followed by an angry outburst repentant with flying spittle, “Watch where you’re going. Useless gimp!”

Nancy’s friends shrank behind her, attempting to disappear into the shadows. Half a dozen people glared up at her. Embarrassed and flustered but unwilling to retreat, she snorted, “Fuck off back to your own business.”

A second later, she ejected Gus’s cane off her foot with such force that it launched his hand high in the air. With no support, he stumbled backward. The cane clanked down the steps. His legs crossed awkwardly, and he teetered on the brink of falling.

His collapse would appear inevitable to any observer that cared to notice. They could expect a hard tumble, followed by broken bones. As Gus’s knees buckled, a hand shot out from the crowd to save him.

The hand belonged to Brenna, who pulled him back to his feet. He stood, straightened his bent spine slightly, and thanked her. Then he turned to Nancy and apologized. She blushed brightly, and if the floor opened to swallow her, she’d have greeted it like an old friend.

Brenna, dressed in sharp, crisp military fatigues, faced Nancy and stared her down. Nancy faltered, and after five long seconds, muttered an apology that trailed into indecipherable words. For the longest minute, Brenna locked eyes with her. Nancy retreated gradually, until her gaze shifted to the timber floorboards.

“Get his cane. Now,” Brenna said, pointing to where it’d fallen. Before Nancy could respond, Brenna spun and strode off, down the steep wooden steps, through the thin aisle, towards the stage at the theater's basin. An intense man followed her, struggling to keep pace.

Upon reaching the bottom, Brenna stopped and turned to Trevor. She scrutinized him disdainfully. Trevor nudged forward, and she stepped back, maintaining her personal space. She pointed at an empty seat on the front row and waved her index finger, motioning him to the chair. When his slow response outstripped her patience, she instructed him to sit, like a master to a dog. After a short defiant bout, he retreated across the crowded wooden floor, towards the brittle black plastic lecture seats. Satisfied, Brenna climbed the stage steps and sat beside the show’s star. Relieved to be free from Trevor, she relaxed.

The speaker that attracted such enormous interest turned to Brenna and smiled like a father to a daughter. Only a handful of scientists on the planet understood Professor Igan’s brilliance. When they looked at his work, these experts, the cream of the elite, might as well have been children gazing at a plane in flight for the first time—aware of its profound achievement juxtaposed against their own landlocked existence but unable to explain how it flew.

For fifteen years, the professor and Brenna worked relentlessly on their bio-quantum computers, or BQCs as they called them. Their work yielded three functioning BQCs. Individually, the computers were a formidable machine. Together they reached sublime intelligence.

Two things mattered with computers, how much it remembered, and how fast it could process that memory. Silicon computers made programing easy but created processing choke points. No amount of architectural brilliance could resolve this inherent flaw.

Where other computers attempted to force data through tiny bottlenecks, their BQCs accessed wholesale chunks of memory simultaneously, which they processed at an unfathomable speed. Their slowest BQC ran at a staggering one hundred yottaflops, over a million times faster than the human brain.

The last and most powerful BQC operated almost entirely at the quantum level, with its function dedicated to probability. It could, for example, forecast daily fluctuations in the weather for any point on the globe with 99.9 percent accuracy up to two months in advance. Brenna named it ‘Nostradamus,’ given its predictive powers and purpose.

The public had only heard rumors. Although most scientists were skeptical, the professor’s brilliance allowed the possibility of the computer’s existence to seduce them.

They all came for the computers. After endless social and technological regression, Professor Igan offered hope that progress existed. Consequently, the audience did something unprecedented. They left their homes to listen to a man speak. Normally they'd meet in the Stratosphere, if at all. In the Stratosphere, they could gather anywhere the organizer desired, whether a beautiful beach or a grand castle. Instead, they sweltered in a decaying hall.

Outside, the heat roasted the theater’s dull red bricks. The sun’s radiation rained relentlessly, disintegrating the building, atom by atom, until eons from now nothing but brown dust would blow, stretched thin across the shifting continents. Inside, the audience sweated. They fidgeted in their seats, their resilience having already turned to dust.



Chapter 5 – An Old Man’s Dream

Professor Igan shuffled to the podium, cleared his throat, and tapped the microphone. The mic, a quaint relic of a long-discarded technology, echoed with each knock. Sweat ran down his face. He waited while the racket dimmed, first to a dull background noise with the odd spike, then one voice here, one there.

After the hall fell silent, he spoke. “My father was an academic who saw himself as a teacher. He witnessed many changes during his career. In the 1970s, he used a chalkboard. For those who don’t understand, it’s a board coated with special black paint on which you wrote with chalk.” Behind him, he unveiled a blackboard, onto which he scrawled the word ‘CHANGE.’

“During the 1980s whiteboards replaced blackboards, and education took its first steps towards modernization. Many schools stopped using corporal punishment to motivate their students.” He cracked a cane across the table, causing the audience seated along the front row to jolt. A guilty smile forced its way to the corner of his mouth.

“Computers became affordable and useful in the 1990s, and the Internet made its first popular appearance. Within a decade, the world changed forever. Information saturated everyone and everything. The meaningless rubbing shoulders with the meaningful.

“By 2010, manufacturing industries began taking three-dimensional printing seriously. Many predicted it’d be disruptive, but didn’t rank it highly. They failed to comprehend the big picture. Like Columbus, the printers sailed uncharted waters. They crossed the last divide separating the virtual and physical worlds.

“Once printers created silicon chips, they could self-replicate. The late 2030s unleashed a consumption orgy, driving our planet to the brink. Great industrial printers sucked in natural resources and spewed out poisons and consumer goods. The global capitalist economy, one that requires scarcity to survive, crashed. And, the human race, which needs clean air to breathe, also collapsed.

“By the mid-2040s toxins largely depopulated the planet. Yet the printers kept churning out orphaned commodities. However, an endless supply of useless things failed to deliver utopia. Instead, civil society fragmented and turned inwards.

“The pollution continued unchecked, choking our air, killing nearly everyone. Desperation resurrected the anti-print movement. Hunted like dogs, a small band of fanatics achieved the impossible. They created the incurable Printer Killer Virus, the PKV. No printer survived the virus.

“After the printers stopped, humanity battled over the remaining commodities, the last scraps of print. A two-decade Strat induced coma had bleached humanity’s skills and work ethic. Instead of rebuilding society, people took the easiest path. Steal from others. We descended from capitalism into tribal survivalism. Technological progress slowed from a trickle to a complete halt.”

After sipping his water the professor continued, “This is a terrible five minute pottered history. But there’s a point. Creation and control aren't the same. Parents understand this. Technology has outstripped our biology. Society will continue to rise in toxicity until balance returns.”

He turned his notes and then studied the crowd. Like schoolchildren, they fidgeted. It reminded him of the freshmen he’d lectured in this same theater many decades ago. Back then, he worried they didn’t listen. But now, disinterest's price had inflated.

The weight of duty leaned on him. He sensed he’d drifted off track, waffled. What he needed to say required people to view the world differently; it demanded their concentration. The right words slipped between his fingers, but he continued regardless. “So how does one reach equilibrium with technology? How can we evolve our biology? For two decades, we’ve worked to solve this problem.”

The audience’s attention drifted away from the professor. Instead, they faced each other as they whispered and gesticulated, and shook their heads.

Blood flooded his thin capillaries, and his face flushed. “What if rather than making humanity redundant, technology could reinvent us as a species? Well, it’s possible. The nanobots we created are now fully functional, self-replicating, self-learning machines that can assimilate silicon-based information with the human brain.”

Whispered voices became louder. A tiny minority leaned forward in their seats as they strained to listen.

His voice rose. “What does this mean in practice?” While he waited for the noise to dim, he scanned the audience, searching for evidence they understood the implications. They failed to calm, and he pressed ahead. “This means your abilities will be limitless. Whatever you desire to become, a rock star, a painter, a great writer, or a surgeon, everything’s possible.”

The crowd abandoned any remaining polite pretense and broke into a large roar of crossing conversations. Their reaction didn’t surprise the professor. He understood most expected to hear about the BQCs. But he needed them to look past their disappointment, to listen to him.

Throughout the hall, the outcry rose in pitch until someone stood and shouted, “I'm already a rock star in the Strat.”

The professor's thin voice became forceful. “The Stratosphere?” He smacked the cane prop hard against a plastic table near the lectern, and it snapped. Too angry and old to feel it slice into his palm, the blood dripped down his fingers unnoticed.

“The Stratosphere?” he roared. Shocked into submission, the audience hushed. “The Stratosphere is a pretend place, a fantasy land, an escape. It isn’t real.”

The man who started the heckling stood again, yelling, “Your work isn’t original.” Murmurs followed; the crowd sounded the odd agreement.

The creases lining the professor’s chin deepened along with his irritation. “If you can’t play an instrument in this world, then you can’t play one in the Stratosphere either. The applause is fake. They are only StratBots, cheering you because they’re programmed to cheer. If that makes you happy, you’re a delusional drug addict. The Strat rewards plagiarism. It doesn’t encourage new talent. Why is there no original music?”

“Because everyone died!” a man yelled.

“No!” The professor paused, cranky at his own impatience. His tone softened. “That's irrelevant. Creativity requires meaning to exist, a purpose. But when anybody can pretend to be whatever they want, when imagination has no audience, no drive, and no reason for existence, it starves to death. We don’t use the Strat to explore new possibilities. We use it to gaze inwards, searching for self-delusional, narcissistic self-pleasure. The Strat is masturbation.”

Thick, dark blood oozed from the professor's hand. Fumbling through his pocket for a handkerchief to stem the flow, he continued, “If you can actually play the guitar, you’ll want to learn different tunes. To explore and extend your talents is a natural drive. Talent is the seed of creativity, and acquiring it takes work. If you’re happy to stagnate, to rot, go to the Strat. Pretend nothing needs changing, and feed your fragile egos with empty affections.”

A burly man yelled from the crowd, “Your nanobots are no different to the Strat. Either way, it’s artificial talent.”

The lectern rocked under his grip. When he found the right words, he spoke slowly with deliberation. “Unrestrained individualism is the root cause of civil decay. Yes, we’re individuals. But we express our individuality socially. The Strat encourages people to gaze inward. If we focus on ourselves exclusively, we'll never learn and grow as a society. Progress is a byproduct of cooperation, not isolation. The nanobots will expand your actual talents by enabling social learning. When someone learns, the nanobots will share that information with the whole population.”

After pausing, he made his big announcement. “We can be in charge of our own destiny again, but to do this I need access to ten thousand megawatts of power for sixty days.”

In an instant, the crowd erupted into accusations and flailing arms. Only three sources powered anything. A nuclear station in New York and the solar panels and wind turbines printed before the Killer Printer Virus ended all production. He asked for something they wouldn’t give. Disappointed, most believed they wasted their time on an old man’s impossible dream.

At the lecture hall’s rear stood one of the few that abstained from the riotous heckling, Katharine Wilde. She shook her head at the ruckus and muttered, “You old fool.”



Chapter 6 – Sing Club

Allston, twenty minutes’ walk from Harvard

Nancy’s friends, Sheryl, Katie, Anne, and Kim, took the distraction caused by the rioting audience as an opportunity to escape the long, boring lecture. The girls strode home in silence. After they crossed the bridge, they separated, and each took the most direct path to their homes.

On arrival, they shed their clothes and slipped into their StratSuits. As they hit the connect switch, the real world flickered momentarily. Their eyes rolled back in their heads, and a digital world replaced the real one. While their bodies remained comatose, their minds wandered in digital freedom.

The girls exited their virtual homes and flew to the gate they walked through only fifteen minutes ago in reality. Within a minute, they all arrived, where they hovered fifty yards above Allston’s northeastern bridge.

“Why did the boss insist we listen to that stupid talk?”

“I don’t know.”

“Something about building a strategic alliance with New York.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Who cares!”

“It was hilarious when the old man chucked a wobbly!”

“Yes!”

“Not that funny. Not worth wasting a whole day.”

Once the girls finished whining, Kim squealed, “What shall we do?” The others rolled their eyes and mocked her tone. Kim pushed on anyway. “Well?”

“Okayyy, what about the Sing Club?”

Everyone nodded agreement.

“Yea, sure, but Nancy won’t come.”

“She’s boring! She can go to her stupid trade meetings. I say we fly without her.”

“Why not!”

“But we can’t be rude. We must leave a bot.”

“Yes.”

Sheryl clapped her hands, looked to the sky, and exclaimed, “One StratBot, please!” A young man appeared, whom Sheryl told, “Stay here for Nancy. Tell her we’ll be at the Sing Club, okay?”

The StratBot smiled and nodded. “I’ll wait.”

As everyone spun to depart, Sheryl remained. “This bot is entirely too attractive,” she declared as she waved towards the StratBot’s head. “Be ugly and fat.” The instant she issued the order, the StratBot became fat and ugly. The girls turned and giggled.

“Yes, with warts on your nose.”

“And hairy knuckles.”

“With a dirty singlet.”

“Shorter, smelly, and with bad breath that fogs up when you breathe.”

The girls continued until bored. Upon finishing, they left a hideous trollish creature, waiting to give Nancy friendly advice on where to find them.

The four girls shouted, “One, two, three.” Palms slapped and they launched. They flew vertically, in entwined spirals, and wove like fighter planes climbing to the sun in a dance of death. When the earth’s curvature bowed beneath, they stopped, faced each other, nodded, and yelled together, “One, two, three!” On three, they belted down towards the Stratosphere. Here a digital fantasy world orbited the virtual earth. On the ground, the digital world appeared identical to the real world they recently departed. Above this digital disappointment floated a place where they could satisfy any desire.

In the final three seconds, the girls initiated an elaborate and elegant maneuver, shifting from a headfirst dive into an upright position. Each girl landed with their “signature” pose. Kim’s theatrical landing radiated style. Bent knees absorbed the impact, her right fingers splayed, making the gentlest touchdown, and her left hand held overhead and behind her head as if supporting a glass ceiling.

Sheryl fouled her landing, as usual, which always amused the girls. She hit her back mid-roll. But only an inconsequential thump and the girls’ ridicule followed. The StratBots mocked lightly. But they soon replaced their short fuss with warm laughter and loud applause.

A StratBot named Hugo approached Sheryl. “I missed you.” Hugo was the classic cliché: dark, tall, muscular, and handsome. He leaned into Sheryl’s ear and whispered, “The others won’t admit it, but you’re our favorite. We don’t care if you’re clumsy. You’re smart, caring, and beautiful!” He paused, glanced around, and inched closer. “I yearn for you. Return to my place.”

Sheryl blushed, her attempted calmness betrayed by her eyes’ titillated flash and lips’ quiver. She murmured, “Shh, Hugo. We'll meet tonight.” With those words, he departed, and she inhaled deeply and forgot about the momentary excitement.

Strutting side-by-side in perfect step, the girls closed on the Sing Club. The building towered seven stories, clad in shiny black marble. Thin white veins twisted through the rock. Bright neon tubes ran from the ground to the roof, each separated by five yards, held a foot from the wall by stainless steel mounts. Digital art deco. Riotous colors pulsed through the translucent pipes, reflecting the northern lights that contorted and wove above them as if played in fast forward. The club’s sky always hovered on twilight, forever promising the big night ahead.

The press swarmed. Between camera flashes and shouted questions, a StratBot reporter punched his voice through the roar. “Sheryl, we heard you’ll make a special guest appearance at the Sing Club, is that true?”

Another StratBot elbowed to the pack’s front and yelled, “Kim, when are you signing a deal with Gucci to promote their new label?”

“Anne, what shoes are you wearing?”

“Katie, you must allow us to do an in-depth report on you,” shouted the Executive Editor for Vanity Fair.

As reporters, columnists, and fashion magazine editors jostled for the girls’ attention, a rising chant drowned their words. The swollen crowd pressed from all directions.

Outside the Sing Club’s lobby stood twelve serious and beefy bouncers, complete with tight gunmetal gray suits and reflective sunglasses. They formed a phalanx around the girls and rebuffed the fans. Simultaneously, a red carpet unfurled from within the Sing Club entrance. It rolled out between the security guards, onto the street in a straight line. It finished its journey just in time for Kim to place her foot on the end. The crowd “oohed” at her stylish coordination.

Bellhops raced onto the road. Hands held high, they stopped vehicles traveling either direction. With the traffic halted, the girls crossed safely. The drivers blasted their horns and waved their fists from their windows. Caught in gridlock, they emerged from their automobiles and hurled abuse at the unknown obstruction. However, their anger melted into cheers when they spotted the girls. They abandoned their cars where they stood to join the mass of surging people.

In the melee of cheering fans, someone’s long fingernails tore a bouncer’s shirt off, exposing a chiseled and muscular deep-chocolate body. Embarrassed, he apologized. Sheryl smiled, but the others didn’t even notice.

A group of stunning women marched on the Club. Flawless, they strutted like show ponies, noses held high. They shoved to the queue’s front and pleaded with the bouncer. He placed his open palms on the lead girl’s shoulders and pushed her back as Kim passed. “Sorry, only VIPs now that Thunder Gods are singing.”

“Do you know who we are? When my father finds out, you won’t get a job guarding rubber dog shit, not even rubber dog shit!”

Despite their protests, the StratBot bouncer denied the beautiful StratBot girls entry.

The Sing Club Manager, another StratBot, rushed out to greet the girls with his entourage of senior staff in tow, gushing, “Thunder Gods, we’ve waited so long for you. Welcome, welcome! Please come and sing for us.”

The Club always used the right mixture of the familiar and different. It changed sufficiently to avoid boredom, without making the girls anxious about their ‘Sing Club experience.’ Today the Club added a new level overhanging the central stage and a fireworks display.

The crowd made the girls’ ears’ ring with pain. Within a minute, the chants broke into a rhythm: “Thunder, thunder, thunder!” Fireworks burst as the bouncers guided them to the stage. Another bouncer ejected the StratBot band already playing. They protested but soon retreated to make way for the girls. Above, a huge neon edifice sunk from the cathedral ceiling, emblazoned with the girls’ names in ten-foot letters.

They leaped onto the stage. Each grabbed a microphone and started straight into their first song, ‘Deaf Roar.’ The crowd descended into silence and danced maniacally to the beat, as the girls’ voices boomed in pitch perfect harmony.

***

Nancy arrived at the Club an hour later. To her, it was a simple wire frame construct, overlaid with opaque shades of gray. The StratBots appeared to spawn and disappear at random, each one indistinguishable from the next. Plain forms, their external structures crudely defined by millions of polygons. They spoke rarely, and when they did, a familiar monotone voice ensued.


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