Seventy years ago, when oil was all that mattered, and the population lived out its dreams online;
my ancestor journeyed to Avalon.
She travelled there to hunt a serial killer who walked in both worlds.
And to teach an artificial intelligence what it means to be human.
She sought to save two realities from Armageddon
And to learn to live with the illness that was slowly killing her.
This is her story ...
Every night, around three hours after sundown, David Valentine found himself in a state of semi-rapture: caught willingly between sexual arousal and inner peace. Kneeling on his posture chair, he’d activate the screens, bring the Hyperion array to life, then wait for the sensation to consume him. Just for one meditative moment, his hand in his shorts, his eyes closed, and his pale, emaciated body trapped in the confluence cast by twin streams of light.
Please wait… _
The first stream radiated from the screens in front of him. Six high-definition monitors, daisy-chained to give a bright, sixteen-square-foot panoramic view of Avalon’s virtual landscape.READ MORE
And the second cast by the computer itself: a Hyperion machine built with paternal devotion and a year’s worth of pay cheques. The rig – liquid-cooled to minimise noise – occupied almost a quarter of the apartment’s floor space and submerged the entire living room in a sea-blue iridescence.
Valentine slipped into the VR gloves and pulled them taut, making sure the contacts sewn inside rested flat against his skin.
Loading Avalon Virtual Environment…
Please wait… _
He flexed his fingers, inhaled deeply through his nostrils and then out through his mouth, his breath leaving a wake of dense condensation in the cold, stale air.
Wireless connection active…✓
VR Sensor gloves booting…
VR Sensor gloves booted…✓
His own personal touch; the gloves gave him fine motor function and gesture-based ancillary commands. And how he loved it: the power, the tech, the realisation of his darkest dreams; he loved it all.
‘C’mon!’ he yelled, then wiped the spittle across the back of his glove. Speed was everything in his line of work. Yes, the rig cost a small fortune but with it came a level of control that guaranteed no avatar was faster. It was his weapon. It was his edge.
Avalon Virtual Environment loaded…✓
Loading Avatar: Valentine_Skinner…
Please wait… _
It kept him at the top of the Avalon food chain. Untouchable. Unassailable. He bit into a stale sandwich and chewed doggedly without taking his eyes from the screens.
The wireless headset was the latest addition to the rig; he swallowed the mouthful of dry bread and rancid tuna then pulled the mic boom down in front of his lips. Voice recognition, he thought: too cool. And the Heads-Up Display: a tiny transparent screen he flipped down over his left eye. Status info, he thought: way cooler.
He’d heard chatter on the net, random static about the Sane Corporation working on total immersion technology; a device that would put you right inside your avatar: see what it sees, feel what it feels. He wanted to believe it, he really did; something like that, in his lifetime, would make his avatar a virtual god…
He leaned across his desk and rolled a gloved finger around a home-spun touchpad, dimming the living room lights still further. He liked to work by the light of the machine; no need to see anything else for the next eight hours. Him, Skinner and Avalon. Everything else could burn for all he cared.
Except Melissa, he thought.
She didn’t understand, though one day she would. He just needed to talk to her again. Explain. She’d see – when he was rich. Really rich. Her new bloke – what was his name? Riley? That was it, Riley. Yes, Riley. He could burn. He could burn with the rest of them.
Skinner Avatar loaded…✓
Virtual Environment running…✓
Welcome to Avalon.
The screens erupted into a wash of coloured light, possessing a richness and depth that never failed to hold him, mid-swallow. And now, he was looking at the interior of an apartment, an expansive open-plan affair, much larger and better furnished than his own. This was Skinner’s place: a luxury fortress three clicks from Poseidon Harbour.
‘Okay, Skinner, time to rise and shine, big man.’ His fingers clattered across the keyboard, running a pre-programmed sequence of commands: a simple motion series designed to wake Skinner, get him fed, showered, dressed, armed, then take him to the garage where he’d wait for further instructions – about twenty minutes in all. Valentine leaned back and retrieved a beer from the mini-fridge. He watched the panoramic view twist and roll as Skinner went about his nightly start-up routine. Halfway through the sequence, the avatar stopped in front of a mirror, giving Valentine a few seconds to look at him. Skinner was exactly six feet tall, sturdily built, with a rugged action hero’s face that broadened improbably at the jaw. The avatar had served three years as a special forces operative, a necessary first step in a scheme designed to net its creator an obscene amount of money. To do what he did, Skinner had to be the best: a perfect physical specimen forged in the dreams and inadequacies of his creator.
A switch in the wake-up sequence flipped randomly between black leather and green khaki; tonight it had opted to clothe Skinner in black leather. Valentine nodded approvingly; it felt like a leather kind of night. He raised his can to the avatar. ‘You badass son of a bitch!’ The headset picked up his words and moved Skinner’s lips in synch. Speech interface, he thought: cooler still.
Valentine drew a dollar sign in the air and Skinner’s bank details scrolled on to the HUD. Four accounts, holding a total of six hundred thousand San. At the current exchange rate, about a quarter of a million euros. Not bad, not bad at all. At the rate Skinner was pulling in money, Valentine reckoned he could retire in a few years, just shy of his fortieth birthday. Then he’d buy a big house, out in the countryside somewhere. The Lakes, maybe. Melissa had always loved the Lakes. Would Riley be able to retire in a couple of years and buy her a home near the Lakes? Fuck, no. He poured the beer down his throat and fed Skinner his next series of commands, instructing the avatar to climb astride his motorcycle and race out into the Avalon night. It was a five-and-a-half minute ride to the docks, through the brightly lit streets populated by Avalon’s coastal elite. Normally, an event-free journey Skinner had made countless times before. Still, as always, Valentine watched his back with a trance-like intensity.
Though tonight he found his concentration fractured; a freak interplay in the confluence disturbed his equilibrium.
He hated it when that happened.
Valentine drummed his fingers impatiently, watching the shadows in his living room shift and change. He turned in his seat and glowered at the sliver of light bleeding into his sanctum from beneath the door. It vanished, reappeared and vanished again. He chose to ignore it, turning back to the screens, but then the thought struck him; it might be Melissa. Perhaps their being apart had given her time to think. Perhaps, with space and reflection, she understood his reasons for spending so much time in Avalon. Perhaps she’d realised Riley was wrong for her. Church bells rang inside his skull.
Talk sense, he told himself and set about increasing the coolant flow to the array.
The shifting light patterns returned, eroding his focus and pulling him further from Avalon.
Puzzled, Valentine got up from his chair and went over to the door. He slid the chain across and opened it slightly, peering out into the corridor.
‘Hello?’ he whispered, too quietly for anyone to hear him. He tried again, raising his voice: ‘Hello; is anyone there?’ Valentine took a deep breath and removed the chain. Opening the door a little wider, he poked his head out into the hallway. It was deserted, but the automatic lighting had been triggered.
‘Hello?’ he called again, then stepped gingerly out into the corridor. He thought he heard footsteps, along the passageway, near the emergency stairs. He followed, keeping close to the walls, emulating the way Skinner moved when he stole towards women in the dead of night. The HUD warned him he was now outside wireless range and he began to feel displaced: out in the real world, kitted only in his underwear and VR headgear; his two realities chafed uncomfortably against one another. The hairs on his back lifted from his skin; he held his breath. It was just a draught, nothing more. Just turn around, he told himself, turn around and you’ll see there’s no one there. And yet he stood, paralysed, in only his helmet and shorts and with his knees creaking, before venturing to move his head four inches to the left. He rolled his eyes to the edge of their sockets, and then a little further until his head hurt. Yes, nothing there; it was just a draught. He was getting paranoid in his old age; Hammersmith could do that to you. He thought again of the big house in the Lakes, and went back inside.
Coming in from the corridor – the smell of the place: it was like running into a wall. This had been his first time out in almost three days. He promised himself he would take a shower the following morning, then go for a walk, and maybe clean the place up a little. At the very least he could do some washing-up. Melissa wouldn’t like to see him living like this.
He returned to his chair as Skinner arrived at the harbour.
Poseidon was a glass-like structure floating on pontoons the size of city blocks and joined to the mainland by a series of floating bridges. The docks were busier than usual; a number of tall sailing ships had put in to port, en route to the regatta being held on the island’s southern peninsula. Valentine smiled at the screens. Bright lights and loud music. Avatars queuing to get into clubs and bars. The sounds of laughter and breaking glass. His smile widened to a leer; it looked to be a lucrative night.
A few swift turns on the touchpad and Skinner had parked the motorcycle, dismounted and set off towards Pontus Square: a hundred-metre rectangle of run-down buildings and flickering street lights, just a stone’s throw from the edge of the docks. It was here Skinner did business; it was his office, his patch. It was home to his true nature.
‘Hell, yes,’ Valentine whispered through clenched teeth. He drained the beer can, dropped it to the floor, cracked open another.
The Square wasn’t as crowded as he’d expected. He recognised a few avatars milling around the perimeter, or holed up in doorways taking part in whatever pleasures the confined spaces allowed. He guided Skinner to approach a group of six barely-dressed hookers talking near the entrance of an unlit alleyway. Three of them turned towards the sea when they caught sight of him, looking frantically for somewhere to run.
Valentine drew an inverted arch his finger: a small icon suspended in his field of vision changed to indicate Skinner was grinning.
‘Ladies,’ he said as he approached.
One of the girls put up her hands in a gesture of surrender. ‘It’s a quiet night, Skinner.’ Reaching down the front of her top she pulled out a roll of notes and handed it over.
‘Wrong place, wrong time,’ Valentine said. He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder and Skinner followed suit. ‘You need to get yourselves back to Heracles Street; the crews from the regatta ships are there, spending like they stole it.’
The other girls groaned and handed over a slice of their night’s takings.
‘Skinner, I’m really beat,’ said another, a tall, sculpted goddess dressed as a schoolgirl. ‘I’ve been on my back all night.’
Valentine clenched his fist and the icon changed to anger. ‘Hey, take a break if you want; that’s fine by me, but you’ve all got a rent increase next week, so maybe now would be a good time to think about making some extra cash.’
The avatars groaned again.
‘Yeah, my heart bleeds for the lot of you. Now, where the fuck is Blossom?’
They looked at each other and then down at the pavement.
I ask nicely and I get this shit. He extended two fingers and made a waving motion: Skinner pulled a knife. ‘Ladies,’ he said, ‘don’t make me hurt you.’
‘The alley behind her flat,’ one of the avatars whispered, a head shorter than the others and dressed as a French maid. ‘She’s been working out of there for the past week.’
And you’re Françoise, Valentine remembered: Françoise L’Inferno. Yes, he’d always had a soft spot for Françoise and felt a pang of regret when the other women turned on her – pushing, spitting and screaming about loyalty and sticking together.
Admirable, he thought, but a complete waste of time.
‘Hey, at least one of you skanks is thinking straight.’ He directed Skinner to hand back some of Françoise’s money. She refused it, folding her arms and turning away.
‘I just don’t want to get cut again,’ she said, to the women more than Skinner.
‘Suit yourself.’ Valentine pressed his fingers together and his avatar pocketed the cash. ‘Now, if I were you lot, I’d be over on Heracles Street by now.’
He watched them walk away, still pushing and jostling Françoise as they went. He kept Skinner’s eyes on them until they were out of sight and the avatar was beyond the range of any small firearms they might be carrying – though he couldn’t imagine where any of them could possibly secrete a gun. Valentine took another bite of the sandwich before setting his avatar on a path across the square, past a burnt-out car and a transvestite shopping emporium.
Cross-dressing avatars, he thought but couldn’t see the point. This was Avalon. If you want to be the opposite sex, then just be the opposite sex.
He guided Skinner down a narrow alleyway that opened out into a circular dead end. Under the lights of the surrounding apartments, he could make out near-still shadows behind a row of refuse containers. He moved the avatar to the left so he could get a better look.
It was Blossom, on her knees in front of a regular.
Yeah, she’s working all right. Valentine extended his index finger and rolled his other hand across the touchpad: Skinner pulled a gun, slid silently along the length of the alley wall and pressed the muzzle against the base of the john’s neck. ‘Zip up and get out of here.’
‘Skinner!’ Blossom cried. ‘What the fuck—?’
He directed his avatar to drag Blossom to her feet, while her trick ran from the alley without a word.
‘Little late with the rent aren’t we, love?’ Valentine opened his hand and swiped it across the screen: Skinner obediently delivered an open-handed strike across Blossom’s jaw. The crack was loud enough to make the surround-sound speakers vibrate. Valentine licked his lips, squeezed his thighs together and swiped his hand in the other direction: a backhanded slap this time; Blossom reeled, fighting, exquisitely, to stay conscious.
‘I don’t owe you a fucking thing, Skinner!’ she gasped, spitting blood into the avatar’s face. ‘I don’t work your patch!’
Defiance; he liked that. ‘Blossom, love,’ he said, ‘the whole of Avalon is my fucking patch.’
With an erection straining painfully against his shorts, Valentine clenched his fist and drew back, slicing forward with a perfectly executed punch that, had it connected, would have shattered Blossom’s nose. Instead, he found himself watching sixteen square feet of pavement racing towards him: Skinner hit the ground with a thud that vibrated around the living room.
‘What the hell was that…?’ Fresh data scrolled red across Valentine’s eye line, informing him Skinner now had a fractured clavicle. He sent the avatar rolling across the ground and on to his feet, putting some distance between him and his attacker, simultaneously firing two shots towards the alley entrance. Blossom screamed and tried to wedge herself between the wall and the refuse containers.
‘C’mon! Where are you? Show yourself, you fucking coward!’ Valentine panned left, then right, only seeing the black-clad figure on the return sweep. He was tall by any standard, even Avalon’s, and filled the alleyway opening with no space either side of him, effectively cutting off Skinner’s escape. Wearing a suit and a wide-brimmed fedora, he looked as if he was clothed in his own shadow, and his eyes, even in the darkness of the alleyway, blazed with a malignant, pitiless contempt.
Valentine swallowed; he was big all right, though he appeared to be unarmed. ‘Okay, if that’s the way you want to play it…’
His assailant responded with a barely perceptible nod. ‘Cool,’ said Valentine. ‘Let’s see what you got.’ The shadow easily side-stepped the flying kick; he slid to the left to dodge the right cross, feinted right to avoid a left jab. He deflected a straight punch and followed through, taking hold of Skinner’s arm in mid-flight and snapping it at the wrist.
‘What? No!’ Valentine lurched in his seat, almost tipping himself on to the floor. The HUD flashed red and informed him Skinner was now at seventy-eight per cent of his pain threshold; the lights on Valentine’s right VR glove blinked twice and went dark.
‘Shit! Don’t pass out! Don’t you fucking pass out!’ He raised his left hand and pressed down on the palm of the glove with his forefinger; if he could get at his backup piece with his good arm…
A combat knife appeared on the screens, its long serrated blade flashing towards him; Valentine cried out and raised his arms in front of his face. The view juddered and tumbled as the HUD scrolled a page full of data out of view; he found himself looking up into Blossom’s bruised, terrified face.
‘No, no, no, no…’ He stabbed frantically at the keyboard, digesting readout after readout, until, finally, he sank back against his haunches, staring at the screens. It had been an expertly delivered strike, the blade entering Skinner’s thorax below the ribcage, angled upward to pierce his heart.
But where was his attacker? He couldn’t see him. Was he still in the alley? Who was he? Was he looking to take over? Valentine adjusted the headset and spoke into it, barely able to catch his breath. ‘Blossom? Blossom, love; you gotta help me. Call an ambulance or something!’ Valentine gazed at the screens. Blossom was still there, her hands over her mouth, backing away into the darkness. ‘Blossom! You gotta help me! I’m dying here! Blossom, you little bitch! Come back!’
The screens faded down, then froze.
‘No!’ Valentine pushed himself away from the desk and sprang from his chair. Years of work! Years! The training! The equipment! He picked up the chair and hurled it at one of the screens. It crashed to the floor, dragging two of the keyboards with it.
‘Five fucking years!’ He pounded his fists against his skull. It wasn’t possible. No avatar could be that strong, that fast. He hadn’t even heard him approach. Skinner was the best! He was a trained killer! It wasn’t fair!
Valentine fell to his knees and wept.
Detecting no activity, the Hyperion switched off the remaining screens and then stepped down to power conservation mode. The familiar hum ceased and Valentine found himself alone in the darkness, his ears ringing with his own tortured sobbing. He cried for three long minutes before taking deep breaths in an attempt to stifle his grief. There were things that needed to be done: recover Skinner’s bank accounts, arrange for his body to be picked up and buried. There was a graveyard on the island of Ptolemy; Skinner had ridden past it once. He felt the avatar would like to be buried there. Just a quiet, low key funeral. Perhaps the harbour whores would attend.
Or perhaps not.
Melissa, then. Even if she did not understand the draw of Avalon, she at least understood what Skinner meant to him. He would call her in the morning – explain what had happened.
Or he could appeal… And with the thought came hope. Yes… An appeal! He’d contact the Sane Corporation and tell them what had happened: how he’d run into a giant with superhuman strength. It shouldn’t be possible, not in Avalon. Whoever was controlling the avatar had somehow hacked the system. He was cheating! He had to be. Yes! He would appeal! Get Skinner reinstated and carry on. It would be just like before! Hell, he could try to get the Corporation to set up a rematch with the lanky fuck! See how fucking tough he was without his system hacks! And when Skinner caught up with Blossom he’d cut her a second cunt. Yes, he could turn this around. If he made some calls and stood firm, then it could all be put right. Gripped with a sense of real-world purpose that hadn’t touched him in years, Valentine foraged frantically through the debris of his living room in search of a phone. It was a good five minutes before he found his mobile inside a discarded take-away box. Now he would make good, and Skinner would be proud of him!
‘Hang in there, big guy!’ he cried. ‘I’m bringing you back!’ He keyed the entry for the Sane Corporation and in the same moment felt the shadows breathe around him. He dropped the phone and turned to meet a fist slamming into his chest. The blow lifted his skeletal frame clear of the floor and sent him sprawling across the desk. His head slammed into the wall and his eyes began to stream; he coughed uncontrollably. Each time he tried to draw breath, something rattled near his heart.
A shadow blocked the light from the machines. A hulk of a man, six-and-a-half feet tall, dressed in a suit and overcoat that transcended pure black. A wide-brimmed hat cast a veil of darkness over his face, and in his left hand he carried a large serrated combat knife. He tapped the flat of the blade against his thigh, running a thumb along its edge.
For Valentine, it was as though his blood had coursed to the centre of his body and coalesced as a frigid pool in the pit of his stomach. He momentarily forgot the need to breathe, gripped as he was by a suffocating terror that left him near catatonic: unable to run, or cry for help, or beg for mercy, and unaware he’d suffered an involuntary bowel movement and a mild cardiac arrest.
The figure stepped from the machines’ light and touched the blade against the paper-thin flesh below Valentine’s ribcage. Covering the end of the hilt with his free hand, he pushed forward, pressing his weight against Valentine’s body, easing the blade home.
Valentine opened his mouth and let out a single hollow sob, looking into the same dark, pitiless eyes that had lured Skinner to a parallel death in Avalon.
‘Oh,’ Valentine whispered. ‘It is you.’ Tears streamed from his left eye and mingled with the blood running from his mouth. He rolled his gaze to look down at the pool it formed: a mottled lake, crimson and clear, separate and converging, he thought, just like the streams of light…COLLAPSE