THE TETRIS EFFECT WEB SERIES

COLIN CARVALHO BURGESS

Synopsis

A hacked-off online gamer, an ageing spiritual scientist, a psychotropic-addled anaesthetist, and a reclusive RPG developer are thrown together on an unusual quest.

When a regression experiment tears open a rift to the afterlife, two immortal guardians find themselves reincarnated as mortals, with no recollection of their ancient past. They become connected through an RPG called Atari Shock. 

The clock is ticking to find the lost immortals and take back the afterlife, but a mysterious future tech company has a powerful ally and intentions for the land of the dead.

What do the challenges of this otherworld have to do with a reclusive gamer and a fragile developer, and can they come to terms with the true origins of their identities before the land of the dead is lost to a powerful primordial force?

NEW CHAPTERS EVERY TUESDAY

Characters

Our two lead characters are Berry, an agoraphobic developer, and Lars, a reclusive online gamer.

In The Tetris Effect, they are thrown together on a journey that sees them unlock the puzzle pieces of their lives and discover that they have an immortal bond, long since forgotten.

BUT, THE TETRIS EFFECT UNIVERSE features many more characters, and this web series will continue to explore them all.

OUR HUMANS:

Professor Malcolm Van Peterson, the quantum jumping man who discovered interdimensional travel into the space between life and death.

Miss Sarah Clarkson, his daughter, and executive of The Foundation of New World Technologies, Japan.

Dr Tadashi Finjoto, CEO of The Foundation of New World Technologies.

Miss Chieko Finjoto, the proud, young, keeper of the Other World.

Dr Mike Jones, aka Dr Vegas, the free-thinking, hair-growing, know-it-all of the Afterlife.

Agent Jimmy Carlton, the mysterious man from The Office.

The Beta Boys, those NST chem-puting hacker twins.

Zack & Wiki, the comic store owners / angels / **spoiler alert** lizards. Yes, they’re still spirit animals.

OUR NON-HUMANS:

Tengu, the jealous half-man, half-bird, intent on causing divine mischief.

Kitsune, the seductive spirit who cannot be trusted.

The shadow animals, deadly creatures that skulk like sentinels as they guard the Other World.

The Protogenoi, the first-born Gods.

AND, finally, take a bow, the ancient Immortal guardians of the Afterlife;

Bishamon, with his mighty sword.

Fokuro, atop his tiny deer.

Jurojin, with his great iron crutch.

Benten, being neither man, nor woman, but both.

Imperial Uncle Daikoku, forever purifying the air with his Jade crystal tablet.

and, of course, our drunken wanderer, Hotei.

Chapter 1

The ancient immortal, Hotei, sprang into a defensive Kung Fu stance.

Arms raised.

Eyebrows twitching.

Keen, bloodshot eyes.

He had just been startled by the piercing sound of a guitar chord.

White wires snaked through flowing grey hair, leading to a small device in the palm of his hand.

It was magic to him how so much energy could be summoned from the simple touch of a button. 

Looking to his immortal family for reassurance, they smiled back, bowed politely, and urged him to continue with his experiment.

Hotei listened on and began to express a variety of conflicting emotions. 

At first he seemed serious, then cheerful, and then utterly confused.

He appeared briefly elated, before being overcome by what the ancient Immortals agreed must be some kind of strange sadness.

Tears formed in the old man’s sunken eyes, as he shuddered, and experienced the frenetic energy of rock and roll music.

Chapter 20

Berry checked the flight information and calculated the numbers.

She was travelling at thirty-six thousand feet over Russia, at five hundred and forty-three miles an hour.

It was minus eighty-three Fahrenheit outside.

The cabin was pressurised to eight thousand feet.

At this altitude, there would be twenty-five per cent less oxygen than at sea level.

If the cabin lost pressure then there was a risk of hypoxia at around eleven thousand feet, reducing the alveolar oxygen tension in the lungs and subsequently the brain, causing slow thinking, loss of consciousness, and eventually death.

She sucked on a banana Jujyfruit. Her breathing was steady. The pressure had made her ears pop only once.

She calculated that there was an acceptable zero point five percent chance of hypoxia.

Two cans of Hype energy drink and she was wide-awake, frantically explaining the rules of Atari Shock to Sarah, who hadn’t actually asked to hear them. She sat quietly, staring at the small television screen in the back of the seat.

Berry felt like she hadn’t spoken to a human being for a very long time, and apart from the phone call, she hadn’t.

Her laptop was open on the small seat table. They were flying business class. There was in-flight Wi-Fi.

“Each player starts with 1000 kudos points. This is split by the player into five game-play categories; money, influence, drugs, guns, and random. Respect and status are earned by total hours of game play, and the more you have, the higher up the world leader board you climb.”

Sarah smiled and tried to indicate that she was more interested in the in-flight movie. George Peppard was kissing Holly Golightly. George was a fast mover. Berry wasn’t getting the hint.

“Everyone’s after the top spot. The top twenty positions are valuable real estate,” she continued between chugs of energy drink. “The best players get extra points for the next game and can move on to become a super-pimp. Now, the super-pimp…”

“How often do you play this thing?” interrupted Sarah, realising that Berry was likely to keep talking all of the way to Japan.

“Well, always. I’m always playing,” she shrugged.

Sarah sat up. “You’re logged in now?”

“Course.”

“Go on then, what’s happening?”

She calmly tapped a few keys. “We’ve just lost a great player. One of the best. No one is in the mood for war.”

Sarah nodded, feeling like she was missing the point. “Do a lot of people play then?”

“About seven million at any one time, but there’s no guarantee they’re actual people. Could be bots.”

“Bots?”

“You know, fake accounts. Little programmes that hoover up data like fruit flies.” Berry gave the conversation a slight pause and then continued undeterred. “So, you can live out your fantasies…”

“As long as your fantasies involve drugs, guns and gambling, right?” interrupted Sarah.

“Yeah, but if Atari Shock’s not your thing, there are other games out there that might float your boat? Mostly fantasy MMOs. I’m Splendour the trader in Silk Road. An Asmodian assassin called QueenFly in Aion. And a Night Elf called Melissa in Warcraft.”

“How do you find the time to play all these games?”

Berry rolled the Jujyfruit around her mouth. “You make the time.”

“Couldn’t you invent a game where you can be something nice, like a really good painter or a celebrity chef?”

Berry smiled with what was more of a grimace and lowered her head.

Sarah thought she’d finally won a moment of peace and drifted back to the movie. Before she could relax there was an abrupt change of gear and Berry kept talking.

“Now, the super-pimp is all-powerful. Everyone is out to do over the super-pimps, even people that you think are in your clan. So, to stay on top, you got to stay awake and stay online. Snooze you lose. When you’re offline you can’t respond. Sitting duck, mate. In player-safe mode, you’re only as good as the co-ordinates you pre-programme. You really need to fend off attacks with bribes or have higher gun points if it comes to a shoot out. Or get the clan together and gank ’em. Gank ’em good.”

“Gank ’em good?” Sarah repeated the words, trying them out for herself.

Berry smiled. “Now you’re getting it.”

Sarah really wasn’t getting it.

“I’m in player-safe mode right now, so I get updates on who’s doing what. I’m not able to attack or trade. It’s a bit like autopilot. I’m reading the thief forums about how this player called The Immortal got totally shafted. We’re old sparring partners. He’s been in my clan for the last forty-three games.”

“How do you know he’s a he?”

“Huh?”

“The Immortal? Could be a woman?”

Berry sniffed. “I just always thought of him as a he, with an avatar name like The Immortal. Only a guy would call himself that, don’t you think?”

“Could be a bot?” suggested Sarah, trying to be helpful.

“He’s definitely not a bot.” Berry took a gulp of Hype energy drink.

Sarah nodded with an uneasy smile. “So you don’t know who any of these people are?”

“No one knows who anyone is, but that just adds to the fun because you could be playing with anyone from anywhere in the world. The player could be any age, any sex or any tribe. That’s the point of the game; even the condemned and the executioner can be on the same team, know what I’m saying?”

Sarah nodded, vacantly.

She had no idea what Berry was saying.

“The Immortal must have fallen asleep because according to these stats he was saved by a player called Hotei, then he did nothing for about three hours. Everyone jumped on him while he was just floating around, being a dick, including me I’m not ashamed to say. When the weakest dog is down, the pack are quick to sacrifice one of their own. Now, there’s a massive super clan after him. Biggest the game has ever seen.” 

She was surfing the sugar high, chatting at an airspeed equivalent to the plane. 

“After twenty-three hours of gaming he was totally zeroed, out of drug money points; influence, respect, guns, utterly pwned. Now, a good player would have hidden some of their inventory in a cash stash.”

“A cash stash?”

“This is risky because other players can find your stash and raid it, even trap bait it if they’re good enough.” She popped another Jujy. Asparagus Bundle. “You still with me?”

“I’m with you.” Sarah checked her watch.

They had been in the air for barely three hours. She pulled a polite, uncomfortable face, unsure what else to say.

Berry didn’t need to be asked twice. “There are myths of shit hot inventory items hidden on the platform. These inventory items are the big prize. The most precious items that you can carry. No one has found them yet. We still don’t even know what they are. Probably a sword. Cool, huh?”

Sarah was completely lost. The in-flight movie flickered. George Peppard was standing in the rain, looking pathetic. The soggy cat was hiding under a box. Holly Golightly was being passive-aggressive again.

“What’s going to happen to The Immortal?” asked Sarah.

Berry composed herself, curious as to whether Sarah was genuinely interested. She compared the risk factor against the alternatives and calculated that it was best just to keep talking. “He’s on the run. When he settles I’ll have him killed.”

Sarah couldn’t help herself from letting out a little shocked laugh. “You can do that?” She was beginning to get the ruthlessness of the game and didn’t think it sounded like a game at all.

For the serious player, there was nothing fun about Atari Shock.

If it was a game, then it was a game of life and death.

“Sure I can do that. Can’t leave any weak links in the chain. We’ll share the co-ordinates and set him up for a takedown. That’s if the super clan don’t get him first. I’m sure he’ll be back though. He’s too good not to be back. Probably has a cash stash somewhere in game time, or he’ll borrow points from a loaner.”

The cabin lights dimmed.

An alarm pinged in the distance.

The safety belt sign illuminated.

Berry hadn’t unfastened hers since take off.

Sarah clicked her belt into place. “You can get a loan?”

“If you’re killed then you start again at the bottom of the leader board, which is basically like bankruptcy. Or you can re-set your wealth if you borrow points, but this is a bit dodge city, ‘cos if you borrow from a loaner then they have a say over what you do with your points, who you give them to, what you buy or trade, and they can take stuff from you whenever they like.”

“You’re their bitch?” smirked Sarah.

Berry laughed. “Now you’re getting it. You know, if you want to give it a go I can get you a buffed up avatar from a gold farmer on eBay? It’ll be fucked and loaded?”

There was a commotion from the air stewards’ bay; a raised voice, just enough panic to betray a sense of control.

A steward walked swiftly down the aisle towards them.

“Miss Clarkson?” He was trembling. “Miss Clarkson?” He checked the seat number next to Sarah. 

“That’s me,” she answered, still wondering what fucked and loaded meant.

“Your other passengers require immediate attention.”

She turned and spoke Mandarin to a man sitting behind them. It was the limousine driver. He immediately unbuckled and followed the air steward.

“I’ll be right back.” She excused herself with a dutiful smile.

Other passengers? Berry thought she was the one?

She realised that she’d been enjoying all of the attention and wasn’t keen to share the limelight.

She felt a conflicting sensation in her stomach as she wondered who the other gamers were.

Chapter 19

Mist twisted around his ankles.

The air was acrid and smoke-like.

The ground was soft underfoot.

He pushed a large palm leaf to one side and before him, towering and monumental, was the mountain island of Hōrai.

Rocks and debris fell from its jagged shoreline, dripping through a heavy cloud that seemed to hold the landmass in mid-air.

A branch snapped in the undergrowth. Smoke shifted in the trees. Low bushes rustled. Tadashi wasn’t alone.

It was circling.

He tried to find something to use as a weapon. The sound was moving closer. There was no time. He crawled on his hands and knees, trying to see what was causing the foliage to snap. The swirling mist was thicker the lower he got to the ground. His hands touched the soft soil, a mulch of leaves and twigs, then to his relief he felt something sharp. The root of a tree with a pointed end.

It would have to do.

The sound was now coming from behind as well as in front. He followed it with his eyes, barely breathing, listening for movement. He could hear heavy breathing. An animalistic snorting. There was more than one of them.

They were moving in synchronicity.

Tadashi held the tree root tighter in his hand. The sound was now directly behind him. He could feel hot breath on the back of his neck. He didn’t dare look. Leaves swayed in front as something was approaching, coming straight at him.

He was ready to lash out.

Nothing appeared through the foliage. He closed his eyes for a brief second and a deep growl echoed in his ear.

The animal was inches from his face.

He could smell it. In the corner of his eye he could see the shape of a strange dog-like creature.

It was looking directly at him.

Tadashi winced, preparing for the final attack of being pinned to the earth and sacrificed to slavering jaws. There was another hiss from behind and a rustle of leaves in front, but the advance didn’t come. The creatures had him surrounded, but seemed hesitant. A hissing came from beside and again from behind. Then, he realised what they wanted. They were trying to force him in a particular direction.

He was being herded.

He stood up and placed a foot forward. The rustling intensified and the hissing became fierce. He froze and stepped to the side. It stopped. He took another step and walked slowly in the direction that he thought it wanted him to go. He took a glance behind him and saw the arched back of a thin creature, black, without fur. It padded after him in the undergrowth.

He picked up his pace, trying to get a better lead. As he did so it moved faster. Leaves rustled. He looked behind to a wave of rippling foliage that was following in his tracks, moving in a curve that ushered him in a single direction. Either side of him now were wild animal growls. The creatures were coaxing each other.

They moved closer, pushing him to the left, only for him to be shrieked at from the right and moved back in line. They were quickening, forcing him to break into a jog, then a run, and then the shrieking increased as something began snapping tight at his ankles. He felt a scratch each time he set down a foot. He turned and threw the tree root behind him. The creature leapt out of the way.

He was breathless, running frantically. He pulled on a large leaf and was confronted by a high, brick wall.

There was nowhere to go.

The bushes rustled around him.

The snap of jaws.

The thuck of paws on mud.

“Get back!” shouted Tadashi, only to be screamed down by high-pitched squeals. He turned to the wall, his fingers clawing at the stone. He was cornered. The shrieks of the creatures pierced his ears. He spun back to face them, and expecting the worst, pushed himself up against the wall in submission.

The creature lunged.

He lashed out, his hand making contact with the animal. He was surprised that it was hot-blooded. There was another blow to his chest and this time the wall gave way behind him. 

Tadashi tumbled into darkness.

There was no sound, just the unexpected calm of falling.

A spec of light where the wall had once been was now becoming smaller as he slid on his back down a stone shaft.

He choked on dust, spinning in uncontrollable circles, gravity sucking him deeper into the unknown until he landed on sand in a large chamber.

The shadow animals howled in the far distance.

There was the strange scent of sandalwood and roast meat.

Flames burned in tall, bamboo torches.

Tadashi felt bruised and gasped as he tried to sit up.

He blinked in the dim light.

Shadows licked the walls, casting long, pointed shapes that were otherworldly and obscene.

He heard rustles of movement in the shadows and could make out what looked like creatures with large dorsal spines, protruding beaks and fins.

The silence was broken by an inhuman voice. “Be you a Deus?”

Tadashi corrected his posture and dusted himself down. He looked in the direction of the speaker. “A what?” he asked. He was more curious than scared, wincing to see clearly in the darkness. “I was chased. I fell,” he explained. His voice reverberated against the sandstone walls, echoing throughout the chamber.

The creatures were surprised that he had the authority to talk back without first answering their question. From another angle, a second voice, this time soft and feminine, chirped up. “Be you magical?”

“Entertain the court with your wizardry,” commanded the croak of a third.

“Yes! Entertain us,” squeaked a fourth, to the sound of approving chirps and tweets. “If you displease us, you will be sent back to the shadow animals for their sport.”

The laughter of tiny voices squealed all around him.

Tadashi looked to where he thought the shaft had spat him out, and to where he presumed the dog-like animals were still waiting. He concluded that he had no option but to play along. “I shall entertain you!” he shouted, over-enthusiastically. “I am an all-powerful and dangerous magician.” His voice bounced along the chamber walls and echoed into silence.

A creature scrambled over his feet, then another. There was a sudden desperate scurrying of claws and paws. Tiny objects hid in the shadows, bombarding over each other to get out of the way, squeezing themselves into the smallest of cracks as they scattered into dark corners.

Tadashi had the sensation that he was alone until a black shadow reared up before him.

It hovered, twice his size, allowing him to observe its exotic and otherworldly silhouette.

It addressed him in a voice that was thin, sharp, and unused to speaking.

“You seek the sacred mushroom?”

READ NEXT CHAPTER

Chapter 18

The image of a cerebral cortex, in all its grey glory, spanned a banner at the entrance to the Las Vegas auditorium that was about to host Malcolm Van Peterson’s tenth spiritual science conference.

It wasn’t the most appropriate image but he hadn’t seen it and no one was going to mention it.

The conference hall had a capacity of seven hundred.

Only a couple of hundred seats were filled with the usual freaks and sceptics.

They brought some funding in but Sarah knew that they were making a loss.

This was her secret to carry, and a burden that she kept from her father.

Mike sat in the wings with Lori, or Lotus Flower, as she had insisted on being called since New York. He took her pulse and jotted down some notes.

“You’re good to go.”

She beamed back at him, her eyes already showing signs of tripping out on the acid tab she’d taken forty-five minutes earlier.

The chime of a Tibetan gong rang out.

The room hushed.

Everyone waited.

There was a cough.

The rustle of a popcorn bag.

The bell resonated.

The lights dimmed.

A Buddhist chant and a sub-bass wafted in.

A large avatar of Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection, was lowered onto the stage. The audience applauded and whooped as it settled.

A spotlight shone on Vishnu’s face.

It appeared to both bless and judge the rowdy gathering.

Special Agent Carlton was taking notes at the centre of the auditorium. “What the hell is that?” he laughed to himself when he saw the avatar.

Tadashi was within earshot, just a few seats behind.

Professor Van Peterson walked slowly into view. The music changed to a synthesiser led arpeggiated loop; a deep and dramatic atmospheric drone.

A spotlight followed him to reveal a red armchair at the centre of the stage. The light narrowed as he waited, saying nothing, staring into space.

He looked through the audience like they weren’t even there.

He breathed, shallow and calm.

The professor eventually looked up and blinked in the glare of the spotlight. He composed himself and spoke.

“There have been many thinkers, many revolutionaries, contradictors who were deemed dangerous by the Holy Office. They transcended the obvious and asked questions, offering alternatives to the common ways of thinking. They fought for a system of beliefs that challenged the given doctrine. In the early renaissance of the fifteenth century, Copernicus allowed us to re-evaluate our understanding of the Universe by declaring that the Sun was at its centre, and not the Earth, as was commonly believed. His follower, Galileo, was labelled a heretic for supporting this theory. Together, they ushered in a new age of enlightenment.”

The musical drone continued.

“The Universe is forever expanding, uncharted, and awaiting a new generation of explorers to undertake a voyage into the unknown. We are those voyagers. We are a modern Galileo. We are Copernicus. We are a revolution. We have a right. No. We have a responsibility, as creators of our own existence, to sit on the edge of that existence and to explore, to experiment, and to advance ourselves. But what is advancement? Is it change? Is it understanding? Is it becoming − like a god?”

Several uptight Republicans sat forward in their seats and got up to leave.

Van Peterson noticed them being escorted to the exit by torchlight. His lip quivered but he continued.

“Today we find ourselves with a similar challenge, to ask questions and to uncover the truth, to determine what control we have over our perceived reality, and to re-evaluate the natural laws of humanity. For the first time, we hold this power, right here and right now.” 

He took a moment to pull himself together and spotted Sarah standing in the wings.

She held her hand up to wave.

He returned a sad smile that she found strangely alarming.

“Tonight, on this very stage, you will experience the New World.”

A man in the audience whooped and drank his extra-large Coca Cola. Popcorn bags rustled in anticipation of the main event.

“Quantum jumping,” said Van Peterson. His voice was somehow stronger and more confident.

“That is the name on which I have settled. It came to me last night, while discussing our incredible progress with my colleagues, both of whom I hope are in the audience alongside you tonight.”

Heads turned, trying to single out the clever ones.

Carlton slid down in his seat.

“Quantum jumping,” he repeated, searching for hidden meaning in the words. He began to pace the stage.

“Fucking jump already!” shouted a man.

Several people laughed.

Tadashi noted the guilty individual.

The professor ignored the heckler. “This evening, you will witness a new dawn of past life regression. I ask our bold traveller to step forward and to take the seat of sacrifice. Lotus Flower, please come forth.”

There was a ripple of laughter throughout the auditorium.

Mike walked Lori on stage. He held her arm to steady her.

She was completely oblivious of the crowd.

“Please, sit.”

“Woo, Lotus Flower,” someone shouted.

She settled on the chair.

“Earlier this morning, I was talking with Lotus Flower…”

“She’s not a flower,” came a drunken shout.

Van Peterson signalled for the music and his microphone to be made louder. “We have started her journey into the next life. She has been taken to a new level of heightened consciousness. She is standing on the precipice; many lifetimes of history behind, many opportunities ahead. Shall we meet the real her?”

He no longer spoke to the audience.

They were merely eavesdropping on the process.

“Hear my voice, Lotus Flower. Feel your soul expand. Become more than just the one, embrace the many. You are everyone you have ever been. You are complete. You are reaching out across the void, into the realm of formlessness. Feel yourself embrace the arms of the many. They catch you and they comfort you. They raise you up as your body lies dormant, the vessel that is no longer necessary. Their touch is warm to your skin. You are free.”

She sat, perfectly still, eyes closed, and then she spoke.

“We receive you.”

The room fell deathly quiet.

This was exactly what they had come for.

They were captivated.

“Tell me your wishes, ancient ones?” asked Van Peterson.

“We have been waiting for the one to lead us into the light.”

“What light?”

“The light that brightens the passage to your dimension.”

“Do you see the passage?” asked Van Peterson.

“We do.”

“How long have you lived this life?” he asked.

“Since the existence of existence itself.”

Van Peterson caught Mike’s eye. He looked uncomfortable. 

“And where are you now?”

“I am here, and I am now.”

“Woo!” shouted a lone heckler, only to feel Tadashi’s firm grip on his shoulder. “What do you see?”

“Yaoyorozu no Kami,” she replied in a voice that was beginning to sound unlike her own.

Agent Carlton stood up.

“Get down,” hissed an audience member. “You’re blocking the view.”

Carlton ignored him and moved forward a few seats, his eyes locked on Lori.

“The uncountable infinite gods,” she continued. “The gods that reside in everything. They have been betrayed.”

Dust drifted across the spotlight beam; a microscopic particle in an infinite Universe.

“The eight immortals have no right to rule as they claim.”

“Tell me about the eight immortals? Who are they,” asked Van Peterson.

“Izanami and Izanagi; they have transcended the void. They do not belong in mortality. There will be a choice, a choice to repair the broken fragments of the afterlife, to return the immortals to their rightful place as slaves of the shadow wielder, or to witness the earth and sky tear each other apart, leaving the chaos of darkness.” Her voice became more aggressive. “We send a warrior demon to return them to Hōrai, where they shall be judged by the great Oracle. We send a Tengu.”

“Woo, a Tengu!” shouted a voice in the auditorium.

“You are a drip of water in the cold pool that spreads underfoot. We are the guardians of your death.”

There was silence followed by a burst of uncomfortable laughter.

Van Peterson was assessing the situation. He quickly made his decision.

“You must return to us now, Lotus Flower,” he said. He looked to Mike, who was waiting in the wings.

“She stays,” said the voice.

“You will not keep her,” shouted Van Peterson.

The audience rustled, shocked by his outburst.

Mike took a step forward.

Sarah stopped him. “Wait,” she whispered. “Not yet.”

“This is not acceptable, ancient ones,” demanded Van Peterson, appearing flustered.

Mike shook his head and pushed free. He rushed on stage, carrying a tray of implements. He took a syringe, tapped it and injected Lori’s arm.

“Hey, little lady,” he whispered. “That’s enough fun for today. Come back to us now, ok?”

“Professor?” she called out, weak and frightened.

“Follow my voice.” Van Peterson held her hand.

Her body jolted in a spasm and her voice changed pitch.

“She stays.”

Lori fell unconscious.

The professor let out a frustrated cry. He was losing her.

Mike felt the hairs on the back of his neck shiver and turn cold.

“We are the Protogenoi. We are the first-born. We are the primordial gods; Chaos, Chronos, Oceanus, Gaea, Hemera and Nyx. You have opened the passage. Soon, we will awaken and take back our ancient birthright.” The voice was no longer hers. “You know how this ends, mortal?”

Van Peterson looked defeated, aware that the voice was now coming from no fixed position. He knew the answer. He could barely speak. “With a sacrifice,” he replied.

The audience were stone cold, silent.

A shadow flickered off stage.

Mike felt a sensation curl deep in his stomach − the feeling of impending dread.

Carlton moved to the front of house and stood at the side of the stage, anticipating the first move of a skilful opponent.

Tadashi watched, fascinated.

“I am not afraid of you,” said Van Peterson, with a new found confidence.

The lights in the auditorium went out.

There was total darkness.

The audience began to mutter.

Then, spontaneously, they broke into rapturous applause.

More people joined in until they were all cheering the showman and his magnificent Las Vegas spectacle.

The emergency lights flickered on.

Mike and Van Peterson lifted Lori to her feet and carried her off stage.

There was whooping and shouting. Cries of bravo! Cowboy whistles. The stamping of excited feet. The crowd were shouting for more. Cheers and hooting. Excited squeals. A baying snarl. A terrified scream. The rip of bloody flesh and the pounding of otherworldly claws on mortal ground.

“Bring on the dancing girls!” shouted a man as a creature loomed up in front of him. His smile turned to an anxious laugh just before his head was ripped clean from its torso.

Mike and Van Peterson stood in the wings.

They watched the slaughter consume everything in its path as it washed over the auditorium.

There was terrified screaming, pushing and scratching, and the trampling of feet.

It was a desperate struggle in the darkness.

People ran but were cut down in seconds.

Tadashi had climbed up on stage and was standing, transfixed, right in the middle of it all.

“Hey, you!” shouted Carlton. “Get the hell out of here.” 

There was a growl from behind.

The agent pushed a woman out of the way and threw himself to the floor, only to hear her scream as she was struck down.

There was an audible crack, the flurry of movement, and the auditorium suddenly filled with small, winged creatures that hovered in the air.

They were insects − grey moths.

Mike and Carlton watched, amazed, as the moths created a faint blue aura around each human form.

The auditorium filled with tall, blue, circular vortexes, each completely covering an audience member.

He felt a blow to the back of his head and Mike fell to the floor, unconscious.

Carlton scrambled out of the building, leaving them all for dead.

The flurry ceased as quickly as it had begun, and the threat vanished, along with the entire audience.

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Chapter 17

Las Vegas ached from the night before; feeling in its pockets for loose change, managing the comedown, hoping it wore a condom, trying to remember where it left its keys, wondering why the car wasn’t with the valet, hoping they would leave without asking any questions.

The spiritual science conference would start in an hour.

Mike wasn’t going to risk attending it sober.

Hiding behind dark sunglasses, he was sipping a frozen margarita for breakfast; fresh lime, Cointreau, Tequila Gold and plenty of crushed ice.

“Are you ok?” asked a curious voice. “You look terrible.”

Mike looked up and focused on the buffet hall. It was the newbie, Tadashi, holding a breakfast plate of tropical fruit.

“Looks can be deceiving. I feel great.”

Tadashi sat without being invited. “Do you really think you should be drinking?”

“Do you really think you shouldn’t?”

Tadashi ignored him and assessed his plate. He singled in on an individual piece of watermelon. “What happened to you two last night?” he inquired, nonchalantly.

“Who?”

“You and Sarah Clarkson?”

Mike blinked away acrobatic, orgiastic flashbacks. “We had some drinks.” He adjusted his sunglasses. “Elvis is alive, right?”

Tadashi attempted a flat smile, but failed.

Mike sat back in his chair. “I’m glad you came over,” he said. “I want to talk to you about Lori.”

“Lotus Flower?”

He laughed. “Sure, man, whatever you want. Look, I’m…” he chose his words carefully, “I’m concerned that she’s being over-stretched.”

Tadashi stared, mouth downturned, unimpressed.

“How about we just put on a show and get out of town, ok?”

Tadashi carefully placed his fork in the centre of his fruit plate. “I am here to work with the great Malcolm Van Peterson for one reason, to usher in the age of enlightenment. He is on the verge of a new dawn, a new world. Does this not excite you, Michael?”

“It’s Mike. Mike is fine.”

“We owe this achievement to the world, do we not? Provando e riprovando. Are you not a proud member of the Accademia del Cimento?”

“Yes, yes, all that, but seriously, look at the girl? She’s lost it, man. She hasn’t properly come back since New York. She’s taken way too much.”

Tadashi began to divide the individual pieces of fruit into separate colours; red melon, blue berry and green kiwi. “New York,” he said, “was the greatest regression experiment ever documented. It was a defining moment for spiritual science. Professor Van Peterson’s work was truly recognised on the international stage.”

“We crossed a line,” said Mike, sternly.

“I’ve studied the tapes. You did nothing wrong.”

“It’s not about what happened on stage. It’s what happened after that I’m worried about.”

Tadashi raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know how to describe it. Lori was, well, for want of a more scientific phrase, she was fucking possessed.”

Tadashi shook his head, disapprovingly. “It was simply the darkness coming into the light.”

“Something spoke through her, and it spoke directly to us.”

“And what do you think that thing was, Michael?”

“Look, I’m as broadminded as they come. I don’t get easily fazed, but what I saw that night, what happened to her after the regression was something that I’ve never seen before. I was monitoring the results. Her heart rate was normal. There was no evidence of heightened serotonin or adrenaline. Whatever Malcolm did resulted in a full-on schizophrenic episode. She suffered a complete psychotropic breakdown. She said that she was a god.”

Tadashi didn’t blink. “And this surprises you?”

“Look, I understand the point of regression therapy but why would she say a thing like that?”

“Because, Michael, maybe for that brief moment − she was?”

Mike reset the conversation by raising his hand to order another margarita. “Want one? Fresh limes?”

“No.”

“Aw, come on. They’re good.”

Tadashi shook his head.

“Your loss.”

“Why are you here, Michael Jones?” asked the assistant, with a hint of condescension.

“It’s Mike Vegas now. Dr Vegas to you.” The tequila was beginning to kick in.

“How did you come to join the Academy?” His tone was dominant. Tadashi was vying for authority.

“I answered an advert. Simple as that.”

“And what is your purpose?”

“My job is to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Which is why I’m talking to you.”

“Your job, your responsibility,” he paused to exhale, commanding Mike’s full attention, “is to assist Professor Van Peterson in his search for enlightenment.”

The margarita arrived.

Mike threw a twenty on the waiter’s tray and thanked him.

Were his credentials being questioned, or did Tadashi always behave this way, he wondered?


The advert had been suitably incongruous; a renowned spiritual scientist was seeking professional medical assistance for the presentation of a live stage show. It was a legal requirement. He saw the opportunity for easy money, and one where he wouldn’t be forced to mix in the same academic and medical circles that he was used to. There would be no accidental bumping into old colleagues.

That was all he wanted.

He’d struck it lucky and found somewhere under the radar where he could make a simple living and forget about the dark cloud hanging over his professional reputation.

On first impression he had concluded that Malcolm Van Peterson was a showman, an old Wild West alchemist pitching miracle cures and ointments. A little bit of showbiz couldn’t hurt, he thought. The first few months were even enjoyable.

Then, Van Peterson’s daughter, Sarah Clarkson, joined the team; recent divorcee, hot-headed young blonde with a power suit to match, and life got a hell of a lot more interesting.

They went on tour for a summer and their affair began right from the start.

They slept their way through the Deep South and up to the ill-fated New York City.

The tour was then designed to take in the West Coast, including a residency in Las Vegas, but when Tadashi appeared the atmosphere turned from showmanship to some kind of religious propaganda.

They had been working together barely a few days but the young Japanese assistant was really beginning to cramp his style.


Mike had drunk half of his margarita before either of them spoke again. He decided not to take the bait.

“I’ll help the old man search for whatever it is he wants to search for. Just so long as no one has a cardiac arrest in the process,” declared Mike. “That is my one and only responsibility.”

Tadashi let out an audible grumble, clearly annoyed at Mike’s lack of passion for the cause. “Do you not understand what we are trying to achieve?”

He was a couple of drinks down and decided not to let himself be intimidated. “Half a million dollars?” he asked.

Tadashi sniffed, offended. “No, Michael,” he corrected. “The Accademia del Cimento have studied the avoidance of speculation since sixteen fifty-seven. We are approaching a new dawn. It is with this spirit of learning that we find ourselves here today, ushering in the age of enlightenment. Provando e riprovando.”

“You already said that,” Mike interrupted, trying to undermine him.

“Do you know what it means?”

He slurped down his margarita. “I have a feeling that you’re about to tell me.” Mike smiled.

“Experiment and confirm. That is our mantra.”

“If at first you don’t succeed,” nodded Mike.

“Try and try again, yes,” agreed Tadashi, excitedly. “This is a re-evaluation of the properties that define humanity, a re-definition of our very existence. The Academy is the new authority, on the verge of a revolution of science, and it is of monumental importance.”

“Don’t big yourself up now. That kind of talk is how wars start.”

“No, Michael! It is not how wars start.”

“I wasn’t being literal. Calm the fuck down.” He adjusted his dark sunglasses.

“You will listen to me. I am explaining to you the importance of our mission.”

“Ok. Ok. I get it. It’s important. Now relax. There are paying customers watching.” Mike raised his glass to a couple of tourists.

“You are about to witness a new dawn, a new age of awareness, and this is the aim and purpose of the Academy.” Tadashi spoke with a raised voice. “The Academy will untangle the random. The Academy will try and try again. We will experiment and we will confirm, with unity and collaboration, until we chart the map between this world and the next.”

“The map of what?” spluttered Mike through his drink. “I thought you were talking bullshit before, but now you’re setting a new record.”

Tadashi was visibly annoyed, squirming uncomfortably on his chair. “I am not talking bullshit.”

“Jesus, you take everything so literally. Chill the fuck out, man.”

“We are defining an existence beyond this mortal realm. Man has landed on the moon, but our experiments will take man to the next dimension, into the next life.”

“Are you sure you haven’t been drinking?” interrupted Mike.

Tadashi stood up, kicking over his chair. “You are an ignorant man, Michael. You have been judged. I have nothing more to say to you.” 

He walked out of the breakfast room.

Mike scratched his head, shocked by the tide of arrogance that he’d just witnessed. “You have been judged,” he mimicked in a childish voice.

He caught the bartender’s eye and signalled for another margarita.

READ NEXT CHAPTER

Chapter 16

The BBP was a pharmaceutical company whose name was made up of the initials of the conglomerate of families that had founded it more than fifty years ago; Bishop, Banes and Price. 

Lars and his friend, Stu, had updated this to appeal to a more modern clientele and subsequently changed the acronym to Bigger, Better, Pills.

This was abbreviated further by staffers in the loop to simply − The Pill.


It was eight am, a time when the real backbone of the company cleaned up the loose ends from the day before.

They filed their reports, planned exec meetings, and brewed coffee pots ready for another day of slowly poisoning the world.

The offices were open-plan, grey and blue fabric, the corporate colours of conformity. White-collar staff were arriving and opening their Facebook profiles, counting down the minutes to the next cigarette break or snack stop.

Julia Miller could taste the granules in her cup and was convinced that overconsumption of instant coffee was giving her rheumatoid arthritis.

Rain persisted outside.

She’d worn the open-toed sandals, a big mistake.

She could make out her own bleary image in the smudged windows of a neighbouring high rise; repetitive strain injury, a thousand Julia Millers watching the drip, drip, drip of their day.

She noticed the flashing message light and routinely pushed the answering machine button, knowing full well that another of Lars’ excuses would be cued up and ready to play.

“Hi, Julia. It’s Lars…”

She reached for her nail polish.

“Just a quick message to say that I’m running a bit late today, so if you could make sure that the morning reports are filed, that would be great. Yeah. You know how it is.

[breath]

Buses.

[Quick intake of air]

So please carry on with everything you’re doing. Thanks for being brilliant . . .

[pause]

and, er, good luck.

[pause]

I’ll see you in an hour or so. Ok then.”

[Dead tone]

Working at The Pill was about as routine as it got. The fact that Lars spent most of his time absent, playing Atari Shock, chatting with Stu, or sleeping while pretending to be on a break, hadn’t gone unnoticed by the woman who was supposed to be his junior colleague.

When it came to professional reputation, Lars wasn’t top of the league.

He suffered from terminal cycle syndrome where every hour of every day was exactly the same, to the second, to the millisecond, to the nano − Collate. Save. Sigh. Syndicate. Daydream.

He would sit in the office, staring at the cheap plastic clock; a glorified librarian with nothing to read, a pen pusher with no pen to push, just an on button at the start of the day and an off button at the end.

Julia made it look like he was doing a reasonable job by taking on all of his responsibilities. Her long game was to get noticed. She would slingshot around him and eventually become manager in his place.

She was consciously keeping notes on his absence. It had become her own private game.

She’d been organising a series of international projects that had been immediately handed over. There were requests from around the globe for pharmaceutical development liaison programmes in India, Japan, the USA and Switzerland. Julia dealt with them all professionally and with precise attention to detail. She was a consistently neat person, always triple checking documents.

The programmes had been a huge success, thanks to Julia, but the international account managers at the BBP weren’t even aware of her name.

She took another glug of coffee and waggled her toes to keep the blood flowing. A quick glance at Facebook. She popped a Zomec pill, company discounts applied. She noticed that Stu was staring at her from across the office again. She washed down the pill and closed the Facebook window.

She’d been flirting with him over the past few weeks but never let him close enough for conversation.

She smiled and checked her email for the thirtieth time in as many minutes.

The BBP operated a shared Outlook system, so colleagues could send an internal message and then literally stalk the recipient to see if it had been read. This also made it easier for Julia to manage Lars’ inbox. He had gladly given her the authorisation.

She managed a system of two inboxes; a first level that received the information meant for Lars, and forwarded it on to the second level which did all the work, and then sent back to the first level for sign off.

The system worked perfectly. It suited Julia’s control-freak tendencies and allowed Lars to get away with murder.

She looked at the screen and noticed that the first level was increasing in new messages. The numbers were already beyond (56).

“Ugh, what’s going on with all this spam, Lars?”

“Remember your true self.”

“Beware the shadow animals.”

“Fulfil your life path.”

They appeared to be random self-help adverts.

“He’s so bloody useless,” she mumbled, as she selected all and clicked to move them to the trash. As she did so, the messages closed themselves and then automatically opened the next one in the chain.

“Return to Mt. Hōrai.”

“Tengu is watching.”

These messages also closed and re-opened.

The PC had taken on a life of its own.

“Erm,” she shouted aloud to the open-plan office, “my computer’s gone funny!”

More messages appeared, faster and faster, the screen mounting black lines of unread windows sent from an unknown address. She reached for her phone and hit the instant dial for IT.

It was engaged.

The keyboard wasn’t responding as her PC rocked into meltdown; a cyber spasm of bit rot fitting unread messages at the inbox, hundreds every second (505).

“What the flipping heck is going on?”

“Problem, darling?” Stu was standing by her side.

She minimised her Facebook window. “Oh, hello,” she smiled, pretending to be surprised to see him. “You don’t know anything about computers, do you?”

He pulled a chair over and sat slightly too close. “What’s up?”

Julia waved at the screen.

He stole the opportunity for a quick glance down her cleavage and then studied the messages intently. “Have you signed up to some sort of horoscope thing?”

“It’s Lars’ account, actually.”

“Well, he certainly wouldn’t use the company email for anything other than company business, right?”

Of course Stu would protect him. She knew that they were best friends who spent most of their time talking about Atari Shock. It was this fact that put her off pursuing any kind of relationship with him. She hoped that he hadn’t seen her minimise the window, and wondered if she had signed up to a dodgy horoscope.

“It looks like spam,” he said, tapping at the keyboard. He hit control, alt, delete and escape. He hit delete several times. Then he realised that he looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. “Did you call IT?”

“Engaged.”

“I suggest you turn it off and turn it back on again.”

“I don’t think I have the authority to do that,” she said.

“Allow me.” Stu flicked the off switch like he was James Bond.

The screen went black.

“Never fails.” He smiled and thought about asking her for an instant coffee break to celebrate.

There was a hum and buzz as the screen booted to life.

It whirred faster and began processing more incoming messages from an unknown sender (1,109).

The messages contained the same text.

“Return to Mt. Hōrai.” 

“Tengu is watching.”

Another voice called out. “Aw, it’s so fucked.”

The Pill was on meltdown. All of the office computers were receiving the same random messages. The intensity of the emails was disturbing, hundreds of thousands of strange messages, popping up every few seconds.

Everyone looked at each other for answers and for someone to blame.

Julia’s desk phone rang. She gave Stu a fuck off or I won’t fuck you later look.

“No. He’s not here right now. I’m sorry, what?” She seemed more annoyed than usual. “Well, yes. I’ll tell him.”

She hung up, seeming utterly defeated, and turned the computer off at the wall.

Stu stood beside her like a lost dog.

READ NEXT CHAPTER

Chapter 15

M.V. PET RSON’S 10th SP RIT AL SCIENCE ONFERENCE

A young girl, waist too thin for her curvy frame and a dress sense that suggested this wasn’t the only job she held down in Las Vegas, was pressing white plastic lettering onto a black pin conference board.

Voluptuous Vampirella, as her more intimate friends knew her, shook the box and tutted. “I’m missing letters!” She scrabbled inside the box. “I’m missing an R, a C, an I, another C, and I’m missing a U.”

“Missing you too, baby,” boomed a distorted voice over the conference tannoy.

“Go screw yourself,” she hollered back.

“Be seeing you on stage tonight, darling,” the speaker breathed, lasciviously.

“It’s double the price for you, sleazy old bastard,” she mumbled and stomped off leaving the sign unfinished.


Elvis Presley sang Suspicious Minds as the cheap wedding rings were passed between the happy couple.

The chapel organ reached a crescendo and rocked on a groove as The King of Rock and Roll acknowledged the absent crowd.

“Thank you very mush,” said Elvis. “Now kiss her like you mean it.”

They kissed.

They meant it.

“I now pronounce you, the man, an’ the beautiful bride.” Elvis signalled for the cassette tape to play and he blared out a chorus of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.

The young newlyweds thought about laying their bodies down.

A palm tree rustled in the dry desert heat. Las Vegas was 104 degrees Fahrenheit and rising.

It was a glorious day for a glorious wedding; frozen lime margaritas for breakfast, running hand in hand down The Strip in open-necked shirts and short skirts, trying for luck at The Flamingo, a cheeky fuck in a stalled elevator at the Dunes, and then as the sun went down over the Nevada Desert, the happy couple had accosted two tourists of unknown origin to witness a blessing by the sweatiest ever King of Rock and Roll.

Everyone was wasted and the champagne flowed.

“That’s it. You’re married!” sang Elvis, excitedly. “Let’s get Chinese food!”

The King signalled for a drum roll. It came right on cue.

The happy couple collapsed into giggles.

“Now, a word of matrimonial advice from yours truly. You two have an incredible life, an’ you man; you look after your incredible wife. And when you two beautiful people have beautiful babies, just remember that Elvis Aaron Presley said, think with your heart and that “Elvis” is a wonderful start. You catch my drift?”

“Thank you, Elvis Aaron Presley,” said Sarah. She kissed him on a sweaty cheek.

“If it’s a girl then you can call her Priscilla.” Elvis blushed behind his star-spangled sunglasses.

The honeymoon suite at The El Rancho Hotel & Casino wasn’t quite the luxurious penthouse that the two had imagined.

It had a balcony that overlooked the car park, a television set powered by loose change − twenty cents for twenty minutes − and a bathtub that not only needed a clean, but also a plug.

The bed, however, was huge, soft, and all that was on the couple’s mind.

The sound of the chapel organ still whirled in their ears.

Sarah was lying on her front, grinning through the warmth of a post-sex heat haze.

Mike traced a finger down her slender, naked body and then carefully placed his glass of frozen lime margarita on her arse.

“That’s bloody freezing!” she shrieked, pushing him off the bed.

He necked the rest of his drink and hurled it across the hotel suite. It smashed into the wall and they laughed with reckless irresponsibility.

“Another margarita, Mrs… Hey, what are we going to call ourselves?”

She rolled over and kissed him deeply. “Hmm,” she replied, sleepily. “I got it, Mr and Mrs Vegas.”

He lit up a joint, took a toke, and handed her the rest.

“No, wait,” she said, excitedly. “Mr and Mrs − Doctor Vegas.” She laughed. “That doesn’t sound right. I’m a bit drunk.”

He smiled. “It’s perfect. Dr Vegas it is.”

“Thank you spiritual science, whatever you are.” She reached for the room service menu. “Club sandwiches?”

“I like to think that it was the universe that brought us together,” he mumbled and pulled a toke on the joint.

She kissed him on the cheek as a reward. “Club sandwiches and red wine,” she hummed, contentedly. “A wedding feast.”

He rolled over and picked up the phone to dial room service.

She threw herself on him before he could place the order.

Mike wrapped a towel around his waist just in time to answer the door. They sat on the bed, naked, eating fries and sandwiches, swooning in the thrill of elopement.

“I have lost all concept of time,” he said as he pulled the curtain to reveal Las Vegas in a comatose slumber.

A pink neon Vacancy sign anticipated the sunrise.

“It’s not even dawn.”

“What happens at dawn?” she asked with mock suspense.

“I turn into Michael Jackson and dance the Thriller.” 

“Hah! Maybe I turn into Olivia Newton-John?”

“I’d like that.”

“I bet you would,” she pushed him away.

He threw back a pillow.

She caught it and hurled it in his face.

“Easy now, Olivia.”

“Don’t tell me to get physical or I’ll divorce you on the spot,” she laughed.

“I wouldn’t dare,” he said, reaching for the fries.

They were silent until Sarah opened up the conversation that they had both been avoiding.

“It’s going to be ok, isn’t it?” she asked, eating a French fry to keep it casual.

He poured himself another large glass of wine and breathed out. “Honestly?”

“We’re married now, so you have to tell me the truth.”

“We should have cancelled the tour. We should have found someone else.”

“I was thinking about papa, not her.”

“Your dad knows what he’s doing. He’s been through all of this before.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Sarah took a drink.

He immediately topped up her glass without asking. “Have you noticed how much she’s changed since New York?” he asked.

“Lotus Flower?”

“Let’s agree to never call her that.”

“That’s her name.”

“That’s definitely not her name.” He laughed and stared out of the window at the rising glow of the sunrise. “She’s getting worse. It’s like she doesn’t quite come back, you know, after each trip?”

Sarah used the soft pillow to cover her body and listened. She knew that he was anxious, but they had been so busy preparing for the conference that they hadn’t discussed it.

The avoidance tactics had been a little too successful.

When the weekend had finally arrived, the stress found itself an unexpected release and exploded into a fit of passion the moment work was complete.

She hadn’t expected to be sitting, naked in the lotus position, eating club sandwiches in a cheap hotel room at four in the morning after a shot-gun wedding.

Then again, she hadn’t expected to meet Mike.

“She can handle herself,” she said.

“I don’t like the way they’re pushing her.”

“They?” Sarah sat upright. “Is this because of the new guy?”

Mike put down his wine glass and sat on the edge of the bed.

The intimacy was over.

“Don’t you think it’s strange that we get this far with the project and then he turns up? Your father takes him in, just like that?”

“He’s here because he’s an expert, and he has money.”

“I know we need the funding, I get that, but there are limits, Sarah. He’s convincing your father to accelerate the program much faster than we should. It’s exploitation.”

“She’s hardly being kept against her will, Michael.”

“Sounds like something your papa would say.”

“Isn’t that what people want? Why we’re here in Vegas, for a show?” She took a bite of the club sandwich and spoke with her mouth full. “Tadashi? He’s just enthusiastic.”

“Why are you defending him all of a sudden?”

She re-positioned herself on the bed. “Are we about to have our first argument?”

Mike laughed and pretended to look at an invisible watch on his wrist. “We managed, what, three hours?”

“Well, it was good while it lasted, Doctor Vegas,” she said.

“It was the best, Mrs Vegas,” he replied, catching the smile in her eyes.

She touched his arm and they pushed the tray of food to the floor.

READ NEXT CHAPTER

Chapter 14

The front door was locked, but between posters for Spider-Girl, Marvel Zombies and Scott Pilgrim, Lars could see a body slumped face down on the counter.

He tapped on Spider- Girl’s pert breast, then knocked harder on Scott Pilgrim’s head and a Hulk zombie.

“Hey!” he shouted. “This is an emergency.”

The body moved, raised its arm, and flipped Lars the finger. 

“I’m serious. Wiki, is that you? It’s…” he hesitated, “it’s The Immortal.”

There was a buzzing and the door clicked open.

Two screens simultaneously flashed Atari Shock data.

The player-feed scrolled fresh information.

“What time is it?” moaned a moan.

“Ten-ish. How long have you been playing?”

“Thirty-seven hours-ish,” mumbled the body, barely managing to raise its head from the desktop.

Blood-shot eyes, skin as pale as an emergency milk chocolate bar; this was Zack, Wiki’s right-hand man and co-owner of The Amped Up Comic Book Store,

“Where Creatures Come To Life.”

Lars tried to smile at the dehydrated mess of a man before him.

There was an over-long pause and the faint sound of snoring.

“Hey?”

Zack blinked and slapped himself on the cheeks to try and wake himself.

“That never works,” said Lars. “You need electrolytes and eggs, and a single shot of caffeine with a can of Hype, then keep eating Haribo until you feel full.”

“What time is it?”

“I just told you.”

Zack’s eyes fluttered closed.

“Hey!” Lars shouted again. “I need to speak to the Wickster.”

“Upstairs!”

Lars pushed behind the counter and the Atari Shock forums caught his eye.

He saw the words, The Immortal, followed by a variety of imaginative insults on multiple threads.

“Not you as well, Zack?”

“This guy formed a super clan. We all get a piece of the immortal pie. Seen how many people are grouping? Hundreds of thousands. Quintillions even.”

Lars pushed the door with a fuck you and climbed the stairs.

Zack began tapping at the keyboard and was soon lost in the clutches of the game.


The flat above the Amped Up was an archive; boxes of comics and graphic novels were piled high next to framed superhero posters and bags of colourful t-shirts.

Wiki was locked into a laptop, a duvet over his head like a Jedi shawl, a piece of toast hanging from his lips.

“Pissed a few hundred thousand people off then, have we?” he crunched without looking up from the screen.

Talking to Wiki was more like making a phone call. It rarely needed the punctuation of eye contact. Whenever it did, though, you knew that he was hooked.

“That’s not why I’m here.”

“Start again. I can trade you a new buff, been working on her for a while. She’s loaded and fucked.”

“How fucked?”

“Totally.”

Lars considered the offer while he moved a stack of t-shirts and slumped into an armchair. “The Immortal is not for trade.”

“You’ll never be able to use that avatar again if the super clan stay after you, and you know it. You should man up and make the sacrifice.”

“Never,” said Lars dramatically as he pulled out a blonde action figure that was jabbing into his back.

“Careful. That’s a nineteen seventy-four, Dukes of Hazard, Bo Duke original. Very rare. Worth a fortune.”

Lars looked at the shit-eating grin of the plastic figurine. “A tenner on eBay?”

“Excluding postage and packaging.”

He dropped it into a cardboard box, along with several other Dukes of Hazard, Bo Duke originals, that were equally as rare.

“How long have you been buffing up?” Wiki asked, nonchalantly.

Lars couldn’t quite place a date.

Had it been months since he’d first created the almighty avatar, maybe years already?

“Long enough to know that The Immortal is too precious to let go.”

“He’s an Atari Shock god, right?” smirked Wiki, trying to look like he didn’t care enough to be having the conversation.

This was another well-rehearsed act and Lars knew it.

Whenever Wiki really wanted something, he either spoke with complete apathy or overstated sarcasm.

“You seen the forums?”

“Never read your own press,” replied Lars, considering reading the forums.

“They’re all after you.”

For some reason the words made him shiver. He touched his forehead. He had a cold sweat. Perhaps he was coming down with something.

“I hadn’t noticed,” he replied. He wasn’t as good at playing the apathy or sarcasm game.

Wiki crunched on dry toast.

Lars didn’t feel hungry. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d eaten. The nauseous spiralling sensation was hanging in the pit of his stomach.

“If you haven’t come to trade, then what do you want?”

“At the time I got hacked…”

“Played badly.”

“Got hacked,” Lars repeated. “I saw something weird.”

The image of the fox was still perfectly clear, vivid and haunting; lean body and piercing eyes. “I saw a fox with nine tails.” He stated the fact like he’d accidentally summoned the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Wiki resisted the temptation to look up and instead took another crunch of toast to prove his absolute disinterest. He allowed the crumbs to dissolve in his mouth as he considered his answer. 

“You saw a kitsune.”

“I saw a what?”

“Dude, Usagi Yojimbo, issue one hundred and thirty-two.”

Lars was blank.

“Ok. Magic The Gathering? Jade Empire? Naruto?” 

Still nothing.

Wiki became more frantic.

“Shippo from Inu Yasha? Sakura from Hyper Police? Fuck, you’ve never played Perfect Cherry Blossom? Ran Yakumo is the kitsune Shikigami of Yukari, the extra stage boss and the phantasm stage mid-boss.”

Lars shrugged.

“What about Ninetales? You know Ninetales, right? The Pokémon?”

“Well, what’s a Pokémon doing in my bins?”

“Seek information and Wiki shall provide, but Wiki cannot be expected to explain that information,” he said with a touch of the Jedi master.

“Helpful, mate. Seriously, I appreciate it,” replied Lars, sarcastically, and this time really meaning it.

Wiki stared at the laptop and began typing.

His eyes took on the glaze of someone who had no intention of saying anything for a very long time.

“Dude?” asked Lars, with a pained expression. “Help me out here?”

Wiki paused, hit a few keys, minimised and maximised some windows, and put Atari Shock into player-safe mode.

“You saw a kitsune. Plain and simple. It’s probably your spirit animal.

Maybe someone close to you is about to die.

Maybe you’re about to die?

Maybe it just wanted to say hello, who knows?

But well done for having the awareness to allow yourself to be contacted by what is essentially a being from another cosmic dimension.

It made first contact, and it will expect you to answer.

It probably wants you to go on a spirit quest or something. Did it ask you anything?”

Lars shrugged. “It said – “you.”

Wiki stroked the bristles on his chin. “What, like… you look nice. I love you. You coming out to play?”

The more Lars thought about it, the more he realised that the haunting “you” had been echoing throughout the early morning for weeks.

The strange sensation hit him that maybe the animal was trying to get his attention. “Do you know a player called Hotei?”

Wiki had never looked him in the eyes like he did at that moment. “Hotei is a bot. We have no more business to discuss.” He lowered his head and tried to feign disinterest.

“Hotei saved me at the exact moment when the fox was crying out, and then, he disappeared. It’s like the game rebooted. I was sent a bunch of crazy IGMs. Look at this?” 

Lars pulled up the game history on his phone.

Wiki took a fleeting and overly disinterested glance. “Remember your true self. Beware the shadow animals. This is bullshit, man. Return to Mt. Hōrai. Tengu is watching? What the fuck?”

“What’s Tengu?”

“Tengu was a member of Lady Shiva’s Circle of Six. It could kick Richard Dragon’s ass, but didn’t stand a chance against Batman.”

“OK, so one minute I’m top of the league, next I hear a fox say “you”, and now I’ve got one of Batman’s evil villains after me?”

“Exciting times, huh?”

“Someone got into my account and locked me out. Someone sent me a bunch of weird IGMs. It’s connected. I know it.”

“You’re saying that you had nothing to do with the poorly played decisions of The Immortal, and that a fictional animal made you screw up your game?”

“You were the one who said it was a kitsune!”

Wiki pulled the duvet higher over his head and retreated. 

“You know something, don’t you?”

“OK, just because it’s you. So, I’ve tried tracing influencer I.P. recently and I came across a massive cluster of avatars in Japan, like, out of this world huge; thousands in one location. Then, just when I think I’ve cracked the GPS signal, they ghost, disappear, like they never existed. Perhaps Hotei is part of this ghost clan, somehow?”

“Hotei’s a ghost?”

“How the fuck should I know.”

“This really isn’t helping.”

“Just ignore it and be grateful for the assist. You’ve got more important things to worry about like an angry mob after your avatar and a Pokémon in your bins.

That’ll be twenty hot rocks if you please, oh, immortal one,” demanded Wiki from under his duvet with a sense of winner’s pride.

Lars was more confused than ever. “You don’t deserve it. You’ve explained absolutely nothing.”

“Then perhaps you haven’t been listening.”

Wiki’s face was hidden from view but Lars could tell by the sound of his voice that he was grinning wider than the Bo Duke doll.

He waited for more but there was only the sound of empty keys tapping in the cluttered room.

He pulled out his phone and pinged the hot rocks into Wiki’s Atari Shock account, and then jumped down the stairs realising that he was very late for work.

He always came away from these meetings poorer and more confused.

Today was no exception.

“It’s a never-ending battle against evil, dude,” Wiki muttered to himself, as he disappeared under the duvet like a creature retracting into its protective shell. “Tengu is watching.”

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Chapter 13

‘Player-feed: GreySkull launches +500 nuke attack on The Immortal. Critical hit −500 life force.’

“Back off, asshole,” he shouted down the microphone.

Players in their thousands were populating the game space.

He considered a hard reboot but it would leave his avatar completely unprotected.

He didn’t have an escape plan for this eventuality.

There was a scurrying of claws. “You!” The animal yowled again, deep and low, from the yard. It had been calling out with increasing regularity, determined, like a scared child crying in the night.

The sound sent physical shivers down his spine.

It was an uncomfortable feeling.

Every time it shrieked, a snaking detachment clawed deep in the pit of his stomach, pulling him into a cavernous and cold unknown.

He’d even given the feeling a name.

He called it spiralling.

He hadn’t dared mention it to Claire.

“You!”

He hit the keys but his controls were still frozen. “I’m so dead,” he said, just as a new player teleported into game space range.

‘Player-feed: Hotei raises shields around The Immortal +1000. Hotei launches +5000 nuke attack on GreySkull. Critical hit −5000 life force.’

GreySkull was obliterated.

The Immortal had just been saved by an unknown player.

A private IGM popped up.

The box began to scroll data at speed, so fast that it was impossible to read; numbers and images, blurred information, until eventually it settled to display a single message.

“Tengu is watching _._.”

The cursor blinked.

Lars blinked.

The screen re-booted to black.

“You!”

Sudden recognition sent the spiralling sensation twisting to new depths as he realised that the creature was calling out a word.

It was saying “You!”

Lars climbed onto the office chair. It swivelled dangerously. He looked out of the window and directly into the shining eyes of a fox.

The animal stood by the bins and stared back.

Piercing eyes illuminated deeply, fixed as fast as headlamps.

It wasn’t scared.

It didn’t move.

It was totally aware of him.

With a flicker of fur the fox raised not one, but nine bushy tails.

They twitched individually in the moonlight.

Lars struggled to focus, trying to clear his vision, unsure what he was really looking at.

The fox lifted its head and screeched a long and conversational cry, telling tales that only foxes could understand. It looked at him and was gone. In the far distance, he heard it cry out once more.

“You!”



He didn’t see her standing in the doorway. Claire was dressed and ready for work.

“Why are you standing on the chair?”

Hours had seemed like minutes. The night had evaporated quicker than ever.

“I’m looking for my phone.” The chair swung and he almost fell.

“Be careful!” she scolded, disappointed that he’d just lied.

He climbed down and checked the screen. The familiar logo of Atari Shock was back.

He tapped the keyboard, trying not to appear desperate. To his relief the game space was operational. His controls were working again but there was still a problem, the super clan had hit one hundred and fifty thousand players and the numbers were increasing.

“Can you just leave that game alone for one minute, please? At least while I’m in the room.”

He raised his hands in a hostage situation. “Did you hear something, just now?”

“Hear what?”

“Like a fox?”

“What does a fox sound like?”

Lars wondered how best to explain what he’d just seen.

He could still sense the shrill echo of the call.

A klaxon sounded and an exit presented itself. This was his chance. He looked at her.

“Don’t you bloody dare touch that keyboard, Lars Nilsson,” she threatened. “I mean it.”

“I just need to do one more thing,” he pleaded.

“There’s always one more thing.”

He selected the hotkey sequence and The Immortal vanished into player-safe mode.

She snapped. “Why do you keep doing this?” Her lip quivered on the verge of tears.



Lars and Claire had met at university, at a time when he imagined that anything was possible, when he was Captain of the indestructible Galaga.

He had put more time into her pursuit than he did his economics degree, and he still managed to get in a solid twelve hours of gaming every day.

He used to write her cryptic love letters, verging on the scientific, leaving her with no option than to meet him down the pub at eight.

After a typical night out; couple of pints, packet of Cheese and Onion, when she went to sleep, he went to his keyboard.

He was a serious gamer even then.

They shared a house in their final year.

Claire fell in love. Lars fell into an online routine.

At first she thought his obsession was cute, but she didn’t realise the extent to which he was hooked.

She expected him to change but he didn’t.

The attention to companionship, partnership, and their relationship that she longed for, he spent gaming. A year out of University and they were married.

Nothing changed.

The real world came flooding back the instant he knew that his avatar was safe. “What time is it? Shit. I’m going to be late.” He stumbled to the bathroom.

“I don’t care about the games,” she shouted after him, “or whatever it is that you’re doing all night, but why don’t we talk anymore?”

“Have you seen my phone?”

“No, Lars,” she sighed. “I don’t know where you left your stupid phone.”

“I’ll book us a table,” came a mumble from behind the bathroom door. “Dinner, tonight, ok?” 

There was the sound of the toilet flushing.

She had been rehearsing the conversation all night during uncomfortable bursts of sleepless exhaustion, but she hadn’t expected it to go like this. She hadn’t expected him to play the game until dawn and then just ignore her.

She mouthed the words that were meant to inspire an altogether different encounter.

“Lars, I’m pregnant.”

A fin broke the waterline as Mr Chips began swimming at an angle.


Daylight shone through the grey bus window.

It was raining.

The top deck smelled of damp bodies and shower gel, wet hair and wetter shoes.

Lars watched the crowds push along the pavement, keen to get to work so they could count down the minutes until they would struggle in the opposite direction home.

Everyone was staring at their phones; some head first in Facebook, some scanning the Atari Shock forums.

He opened the app and checked his life force.

The situation was bleak. He’d taken a serious hit.

The thief forums were discussing the super clan attack.

One theory claimed that the game had become self-aware and was preparing to raid every single player to fund its own A.I. programme.

Another thread suggested that The Immortal didn’t exist after all, and was just part of the game mechanic to encourage players to spend more on micropayments.

Lars preferred the A.I. theory.

In the light of day, the events of the night before seemed at a safe distance. He thought about the fox, and wondered if what he’d seen was just the result of tired eyes in bad light. Perhaps he should get his eyes tested?

He watched raindrops slide down the dirty bus window.

As the lines of water spilled, they formed the familiar geometric shapes of Tetris; inverse skew, left gun, right gun, square and straight stick.

He rotated them in his mind, clearing the way for more.

A new theory occurred to him as he watched the rain streak the glass.

What if he was exactly like his avatar, trapped in a game of chance that would never end?

What was the point of trying if everything just re-set to make way for more?

The spiralling sensation twisted in his stomach. He swallowed back sickness.

Something was changing.

He felt like a diseased man waiting for the symptoms to show, convinced that it was learning how to manifest itself physically.

He’d been getting stomach pains.

It was just a matter of time.

He felt claustrophobic, spinning in circles, drifting downwards, his defences weak.

He had slipped through the cracks of life to become someone that he wasn’t, a man who thought things that he didn’t, a version of himself who was scared of the shadows.

He wasn’t going to work.

If there was anyone who could give him answers − it was Wiki.

READ NEXT CHAPTER

Chapter 12

One joule of energy is all that’s needed to lift a single piece of fruit exactly twenty centimetres into the air.

Her heart skipped as an executive limousine rolled into view.

Berry put her unfinished cereal bowl on the window ledge and added a large beaker of water to the wooden tub that housed a white lotus flower.

The bloom was incredible, with many curvaceous petals, fragrant and fertile.

She tried not to think that it would be dead by the time she got back.

She closed her laptop just as a series of instant pop-ups littered the screen.

Remember your true self.

Return to Mt. Hōrai.

Tengu is watching.

The messages went unseen, lost in the white noise of her IGM history amongst the thousands of competing chats, flirts, bribes, temptations and game threats.

She switched her Atari Shock avatar to player-safe mode and hoped there would be Wi-Fi on the flight.

Three travel bags were packed with last-minute essentials, grabbed at random from her clutter.

She was as ready as she could be.

Glasses on.

Light off.

Laptop in Crumpler bag.

Pineapple flavour Jujyfruit in her mouth.

Berry was about to leave her flat for the first time in months.

She floated down the stairs, having consumed enough sugar to lift two hundred and thirty-six million, six thousand and fifty-two pieces of fruit.


Outside, she found herself face to face with a woman wearing a black power dress and a blonde smile.

“I thought for a minute that you’d changed your mind?” she said.

Berry turned to push the door and check it was definitely closed.

“I’m Sarah Clarkson.”

Berry smiled, embarrassed, suspicious, or both.

They shook hands.

“This way, Miss Butler.” Sarah gestured to the car and the door automatically opened. “We have a busy schedule once we arrive. You may want to sleep.”

Berry wasn’t sure if she should explain that she hadn’t really slept in weeks. A man appeared. “Dr Finjoto?” she asked.

“Oh no, he’s not important. He’ll look after your bags.” Sarah looked at the three sacks filled with who-knows-what. “You like to travel with a lot of stuff, don’t you?”

“I don’t like to travel,” Berry replied.

The man reached for her laptop. 

“I’ll keep this with me.” She clutched it to herself and avoided eye contact.

He bowed politely and put the rest of her bags in the limousine, returning to the driving seat without saying a word.

The street was quiet.

There were no cars or people.

Yellow streetlights reflected off the perfectly clean car bonnet. 

“After you, Miss Butler, please?” gestured Sarah to the open door. 

The car was impeccably clean and smelled of leather. There was a minibar, a bunch of glossies and a small TV screen mounted in the dashboard between the front seats.

Sarah used the rearview mirror to make eye contact.

“There’s a welcome pack on the table in front of you. I’d recommend that you read it. It has some background information on Dr Finjoto’s outstanding work.”

The front cover displayed a logo for The Foundation of New World Technologies.

“Help yourself to the bar. It’s all for you. Or we could stop for coffee, if you’d prefer?”

“I don’t need booze or caffeine, ta,” said Berry as she crunched on the Jujyfruit.

It occurred to her that no one knew where she was going. Even she didn’t know where she was going. More upsetting though, was the sudden realisation that she had no idea who she would tell.

The car pulled away and she felt her stomach lurch as a piece of her soul was left behind on the cold morning roadside.

There was a scurry of claws as Kitsune lifted her nose over the fence and pulled herself higher to sniff the air. “You!” she yowled, but the limousine was too far down the road. She cursed in annoyance and dropped to the dirt.

“There’s an iPhone in the seat locker. It’s yours for the duration of the contract.”

Berry slipped the phone into her bag.

She took a deep breath and remembered her motivation. Everything would be ok. She was going to be the first to play.

“It’s forty minutes to the airport. We’re fast-tracking, so I just need your passport.” Sarah caught her eye in the mirror.

“Your passport, please, Miss Butler? It’ll save us time when we get to border control.”

She handed over her passport and watched Sarah zip it into a black flight wallet.

“Ok. I’ll wake you when we get there.”

Berry sat back and watched the houses turn to motorway as they headed for the airport.

A gust of wind twisted damp leaves in a spiral in the exact spot where Kitsune had just disappeared.

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Chapter 11

Las Vegas; 1983.

The professor made them wait, enjoying the scent of malt whisky in his tumbler. “Tell me, Jim,” he eventually asked, looking the agent directly in the eye. “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

Carlton cleared this throat. “Now, if you are suggesting that I will come back as a flower or a monkey or something like that, then no sir I do not.”

“There are many faiths who believe that our lives are directly influenced by the choices that we make,” explained Van Peterson, “even those choices made in a previous incarnation. They teach that in the event of death, we are re- born to live again with the consequence of those decisions.

They call it Karma, Jimmy; where good deeds are spiritually rewarded, and bad deeds are forever haunting.”

“I know what Karma is, Malcolm,” he coughed, seeming impatient.

Van Peterson innocently raised his eyebrows.

Tadashi watched quietly, trying not to draw attention to himself.

“What if the soul could be cleansed of this karmic state, with the opportunity to absolve itself of its sins? What if it were possible to learn from our mistakes and to harness the opportunity to try again from the beginning, with the knowledge of experience passed down through generations?

What if, ultimately, we had the chance to seek forgiveness for wrongdoing, and give life another go? What would you say to that, eh?” 

The old man sat back.

“Our Lord will decide who is forgiven,” Carlton stated, firmly.

“Does he give you the opportunity for a second life?”

“There is no second life.”

“Jim, there is,” said Van Peterson, excitedly.

“You’re talking about Heaven and Hell?”

“There is no Heaven, no Hell, but there is the space in-between.”

Their eyes locked.

Tadashi didn’t dare move for fear of interrupting the staring contest.

“Where are you going with this, Malcolm?”

He smiled sympathetically and to everyone’s surprise he encouraged the assistant to speak. “Mr Finjoto, would you be so kind as to enlighten us?”

Tadashi was humbled. He hadn’t expected to say anything. He ducked his head in thanks. “I will try my best.”

The agent scratched his nose and lit up an Old Gold. He wasn’t going to let it slip that he was quite happy to be back in the ring with his old sparring partner. “The floor is yours, young man.”

Tadashi spoke softly and with assured confidence. 

“The passing of life is the visible becoming invisible, the transference of the spirit from one cosmic plane to another,” he explained. “Upon rebirth, the invisible return to our dimension and become visible once more. It is the darkness returning to the light. This is what I believe the professor is referring to as our second chance.”

“Claptrap,” shouted Carlton, just a little too loud for the room they were in.

People turned their heads despite the chaos of chatter.

There were hand signals.

A waiter approached.

“Is there anything I can get you, sirs?”

Carlton was defiant. “I am not talking to you. Please allow us some privacy while I talk with my colleagues.”

Tadashi took it as a personal victory that Carlton had just referred to them both as colleagues.

The waiter retreated as quickly as he’d arrived.

“And who, or what, do you claim to worship, Mr Finjoto?” He was being deliberately provocative and settling in for the fight, trying to undermine the young assistant. “Do you have a God?”

Tadashi was humble, but defiant. “My faith does not celebrate the concept of life and death. There is simply harmony between humanity and nature.

I practice kami-no-michi − Shinto. It is the native religion of Japan. I worship my ancestors who have passed on.

They are my gods, my spirits, and they are what I too shall become.”

“Be careful what you say, boy,” Carlton grunted. He extinguished his cigarette and casually signalled to the exact same waiter that he’d just told to leave.

The waiter hesitated, unsure if he should interrupt.

“I exist to become one with the many,” continued Tadashi. “My purpose is to join the collective ancestral being; a powerful force that exists everywhere and in everything. We all have the opportunity to achieve this enlightenment. It gives us meaning, during our time on this mortal plane.”

Van Peterson was cradling his tumbler. “Just like old times, eh, Jimmy?”

The agent breathed heavily, trying to stop himself from saying something he’d already decided he shouldn’t.

The head waiter arrived and Carlton ordered a spritzer with a twist of lime.

Tadashi took another whisky.

Van Peterson looked at the floor.

“This is big talk for such a small man.” He was almost laughing to himself as he said it. “Think you’re better than everyone else, huh?”

Tadashi looked to Van Peterson for reassurance but he just smiled. The assistant was on his own.

“I am simply in touch with my spiritual ancestors,” he replied. “And this connection gives me the confidence to never fear life, or death.”

Carlton eyed Tadashi, suspiciously.

The spritzer arrived and he took a large and unruly gulp. The drink seemed to calm him. “So, you think this attitude of yours will bring you salvation, do you?”

“I do not require salvation, Mr Carlton…” Tadashi smiled, “for I am already saved.”

The agent wiped his lips with a white napkin and prepared for round two.

“You deny that in death we shall be judged and offered a chance for eternal life in Heaven?”

“Judged by who?” Tadashi interrupted.

“By our Lord, Jesus,” he stated, matter-of-factly.

“And what happens when we have been judged?”

“We go to Heaven, or Hell, based on how well we follow the teachings of our Lord,” said Carlton, as if reading from a bible school pamphlet.

“You are almost correct.”

Carlton was shocked. “What right does this ignorant boy have to question my faith, Malcolm?”

“Hear him out, Jim. Mr Finjoto has much experience in these matters.”

Van Peterson wanted them to fight their corners.

The book was open and all bets were off.

The head waiter ushered new arrivals as far away from their table as possible.

A woman sipped a bright pink cocktail topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The cream stuck to her nose and she laughed out loud.

Tadashi was just getting into his stride. “If you insist on there being a Heaven and Hell, Mr Carlton, then where are they?”

Carlton lit another cigarette and clicked the Zippo shut. “They are in the afterlife.”

“So, the afterlife exists?”

He nodded and smoked.

“And how might I find it? Do I take a tram?”

“It’s not a physical place,” he puffed. “It’s spiritual, ephemeral, it’s where we pass through.”

Van Peterson interjected. “Come on, Jimmy, you can do better than that?”

“Look, I have faith, but I am not the most eloquent at giving lessons in redemption.” He shifted in his seat, uncomfortable at the provocation. “I’m no preacher, I admit that, but I know what I know and I don’t care much for your colleague’s line of questioning.”

Tadashi leaned forward in his chair. “Mr Carlton, if you would be so kind as to forgive me. I have been asked by the professor to contribute to this conversation, and I have no intention of upsetting you, but I will speak my mind.”

The agent tapped his cigarette. “Go on, boy, state your piece.”

Tadashi smiled. There was one more vital move to play which would determine the result of the match. “I believe that it is possible to travel to the high heavenly plain and reside with our ancient ancestors, and should the challenges presented to us in the afterlife be overcome, then we can be reborn on mortal Earth.

This privilege has always been reserved for the most enlightened of souls, until now, until this man, until Malcolm Van Peterson.” 

He took a large gulp of his whisky to declare the fact that he had finished, and choked slightly on the fumes.

The Dunes Hotel bar was oblivious to the battle that had just played out under their cocaine-fuelled noses.

A champagne cork popped.

There was an excited squeal from a dark corner that none of the bar staff wanted to investigate.

Carlton allowed the cigarette to burn in his fingertips. The conversation had taken a turn that he hadn’t anticipated.

He was now making up his mind whether to stay for the conference, or to file a report that would get lost down the back of a filing cabinet and never seen again.

Van Peterson cleared his throat to declare that it was his turn to reclaim the conversation. “Through ancient regression techniques and some chemical enhancements of my own creation,” he announced, “I am able to induce a transferential state in the subject where I believe them to be travelling to the space in-between life and death, and returning to our mortal plane.”

Carlton ran his tongue over his teeth and licked his lips in a gesture that was altogether unpleasant. “You’re making people die and come back to life?”

“Well I think that depends on your definition of dead now, doesn’t it?” He smiled, allowing time for the concept to sink in. 

The diamond-studded bar continued to dance an elegant, alcoholic waltz.

The agent had seen many strange things during his career at The Office and heard his fair share of absurd claims. Most of them he had easily shouted down, some he had recorded in a file and tried to forget.

He was an experienced professional sceptic and programmed to seek the truth in the ridiculous.

He shook his head and shifted in the leather chair. “So, what you’re trying to tell me, Malcolm, is that you have worked out a way to travel into the afterlife, and back again?”

“The subject doesn’t relocate physically. The mind becomes a platform; a vehicle for the conscious unconsciousness.”

Carlton laughed. “This time you’ve completely thrown me, my old friend.” He stood up to leave and fastened a button on his jacket.

“Perhaps our point is best made with a demonstration? Van Peterson waved and a young girl drifted over to their table. “My dear, please meet Special Agent Carlton. He will be observing your journey to enlightenment at the spiritual science conference tomorrow.”

She smiled, dreamlike and dazed; flowing hippy dress and tangled auburn hair. “Hi, I’m Lotus Flower,” she said, considering giving him a hug.

“You really think I’m gonna stick around for your ridiculous light show?”

The professor swirled his tumbler. “Don’t tell me that you’ve come all the way to Las Vegas, Jimmy, and you’re not tempted to take a little gamble?”

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Chapter 10

On the morning World of Warcraft was launched, Lars waited in the rain outside his local games shop. There wasn’t a queue but he had arrived an hour before opening anyway. As he felt the sacrificial chill of the weather, he vowed to become a committed resident of Azeroth.

He raced home and abandoned arcade gaming for good, creating his own cardboard box Alamogordo landfill, to be buried at the back of a cupboard and deep under the bed.

It was a short step to the hyper fantasy world of the deep web, browser-based, massively multi-player online role-playing game named after the great crash of eighty-three.

Atari Shock was a pop culture phenomenon.

The lifestyle blogs called it “a twisted top trumps for Generation Z − a place for enemies” which showed how little they really understood about what the players were getting up to online.

It was a war zone in a virtual world, pure nonsense to the untrained eye, but pure poetry to the hundred thousand players who were permanently logged in and fighting to survive.

Set in an arena where points prevailed, the aim was to stay alive and stay in the game.

Every move was life-threatening.

Every decision had impact.

To play, you needed a credit card, a connection, and a complete disregard for face-to-face social interaction.

Once an avatar is created, the player uses their power-up tokens to launch nukes, exchange dirty drugs, seduce inexperienced players into traps and sneak up on friends to send them back to the beginning of the game.

The geeks, the misfits, and the over-complicated were instigating gang warfare in a simulated reality overrun by bruised egos, high stakes gambling, and a whole lot of pissing on virtual territory.

The game operated in real-time so endurance was essential.

Gamers that went without a break always had the advantage.

It took commitment and stamina.

The console kids were having their heads bitten off and shoved up their asses before they could trade a single nuke.

The bingo queens were lambs to the slaughter and barely progressed beyond level one.

Playing under the influence led to mistakes.

Energy drinks tasted like chalky water after around thirty-six hours of continuous play.

Since its creation, office worker, energy drink slurper, married man who should really know better, Lars Nilsson, had appeared consistently at the top of the league.

It came naturally to multi-task tactics while chatting with his forum followers. He would speak as though to an old friend, while simultaneously setting elaborate traps.

“You’re not taking those co-ordinates, SkullMonkey. They are reserved for the professionals.” 

He performed a hotkey operation as calmly as an air traffic controller, and the weaker player was vapourised to permadeath.

A nauseous excitement swelled in his stomach, and the real world faded into insignificance every time he got lost in the game. Lars played ruthlessly to maintain overlord status in his virtual world.

Amassing an infinite number of power-up tokens was essential to long term survival.

This was possible either by excessive gameplay, or by players teaming up to form a gang known as a super clan, and travelling together around game space like a constantly feeding whale shark.

When a super clan showed any kind of weakness, there was a high chance that it was a multi; a single player with multiple accounts, a peacock splaying its feathers in an attempt to appear bigger than it was.

Lars knew all the tricks.

“This game takes commitment. You have to feed it like one of those virtual pets, otherwise it’ll die.” 

He stole a glance at the fish tank. Mr Chips was swimming sideways.

He vapourised a small clan of low-ranking players in an aggressive attack manoeuvre.

Followers spilled emoticons and absurd comments in his forum feed. The chat room lit up like a stream of consciousness brain tap.

He was logged in for up to eighteen hours a day.

He played hard and fast to earn his secret status.

His method was to keep playing until he heard the dawn chorus, and then snooze between regular cigarette breaks at work.

His wife hoped it was a phase. She didn’t know the half of it.

“No, GreySkull, a plus twenty nuke attack is pointless. Try harder, dumb ass.” The player was sent to the bottom of the leader board in a swift hotkey attack combo.

He heard the familiar sound of the bedroom door slamming. This was Claire’s warning shot. Lars thought about the neighbours, then wondered how long it would be until the door fell off its hinges.

The small room at the top of the stairs was his gaming cockpit. It was lined with Ikea shelves crammed with old files, books that he’d never read, photo albums documenting the life and unfulfilling times of the Nilsson’s; manuals, old stationery, used coffee mugs, boxes of papers, a couple of old printers, rotting banana skins, five monitors − only two that worked − plates of unrecognisable half-eaten somethings, the sacred E.T. Atari 2600 game cartridge that no one was allowed to touch, Mr Chip’s tank and plenty of old skool wires and cables that no longer had a use but he was reluctant to throw away.

This was his mess and everything had a place, even the rubbish.

There was a tiny window but it was easily forgotten and too high to see through without climbing on a chair.

The clutter made the space seem much smaller than it was but also gave it a sense of purpose. It wasn’t possible to do anything else in this room apart from sit still and stare at the monitors. It was the perfect place to host operations.

“Are you coming to bed?” Claire was standing in the doorway wearing the no sex tonight, oversized dressing gown.

He pulled off his headset. “Sorry, honey, I didn’t see you.”

“Is that Minecraft?” she sniffed. The bathrobe hung off her in a way that wasn’t as flattering as she had intended.

“Yes. It’s Minecraft,” he replied, barely looking up from the screen.

“Mr Chips is dead again,” she said, and closed the door without saying goodnight.

This was a regular occurrence. She just wanted a hug.

Lars leaned over and brushed his fingers through Mr Chip’s water.

The goldfish sprang into life and hurtled around the tank like it had just taken a hit from a defibrillator.

Moments after she’d left the room he’d forgotten that Claire was even there. He was lost in the livestream, and GreySkull was back.

“Ah, you buffed up, GreySkull. Got yourself a cheeky cash stash have we? Don’t just shoot stuff. That tactic will get you nowhere. Heal and run. Dodge and build. Get some trap bait going. Hunter sets a baited cage, greedy monkey gets trapped. That’s all the advice I’m giving you today.”

Forum followers spilled emoticons of bananas and monkey faces.

Atari Shock avatars came with free but limited inventory. Most new players bought a more powerful profile for a chance of lasting longer. Players could also collect and hide power-up tokens in-game, at the risk of them being discovered and raided.

It was the ability to give your avatar a unique identifier, however, which made you truly stand out from the crowd. Choosing your profile name was crucial. It was a shield and a spear, as well as a symbol.

More than just a nickname, it was part of the gameplay strategy. It could protect and provoke.

Casual players would typically choose an aggressive or violent name to try and intimidate their opponents; BoneCrusher. DeathWatch. Fuck-u-up.

They would also use anonymity as a tactic and change their avatar name frequently for protection.

When on a winning streak, the mightiest of reputations would cut a path clean through game space. You got noticed and everyone wanted a piece of you.

Virtual fame was just a few clicks away.

The perfect choice of an avatar name was a statement of intent, a show of force, a colourful flag on the blood-spattered battlefield. Infamy would spread on the bounty hunter forums and blogs, causing opponents to use avoidance tactics instead of risking head-on confrontation.

Lars knew that to maintain the presence of a consistently powerful avatar name − was to become immortal.

The player-feed flickered. He barely blinked as he expertly assigned instructions, grasping power-up tokens wherever he could. He was determined to maintain the status that he commanded. He didn’t feel tired. He didn’t feel anything.

The klaxon sounded imminent attack.

‘Player-feed: GreySkull launches +100 nuke attack.’

“GreySkull, you fucking noob,” he laughed, instinctively taking evasive action.

This was a typical transaction, fast and frenetic, the jostling of points, the push and shove of power, over in seconds.

It was barely a challenge for a gamer of his skill, but just at the critical moment, his controls stopped responding.

He tried to activate a teleport. The hotkeys were frozen.

‘Player-feed: The Immortal critical hit −100 life force.’

“Dammit,” he muttered, as he was thrust helplessly into a war zone of explosions; flashing nukes and multiple chat room windows opening and closing with bribes, trades, violent death threats and cybersex, occurring simultaneously in a melting pot of pure fantasy.

Lars watched in amazement as his game space filled with players, more than he had ever imagined possible; two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, five thousand, and they all began sniping away at the most powerful player on the server.

There was a crash of bins from the alley outside. A shrill and piercing animal shriek echoed through the tiny window. “You!”

His co-ordinate counter was increasing with more players by the second. The community had ganged up on him, forming a super clan that blocked all exits, and somehow, someone had worked out how to render him helpless.

“You!” The creature howled for attention as the moon glowed through a fog of light pollution. 

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Chapter 9

“When’s the meeting?” 

“Tomorrow,” answered the caller.

Berry sat cross-legged on the couch and considered her reply.

She wasn’t used to this kind of directness. The woman wasn’t asking, she was demanding. It was confrontational, like a veiled threat.

She reached for her pack of Jujyfruits. This was her quick fix.

She allowed the colours to speak to her, inviting her to choose an Asparagus Bundle; corn syrup, sugar, modified corn starch, natural and artificial flavours, white mineral oil, carnauba wax, caramel colouring, artificial colouring, red forty, yellow six, blue one.

They lasted longer, according to Travis Bickle, and he was a man used to sleep deprivation.

Sugar always made everything right.

Jujyfruits were her saviour.

“What exactly do you want her to do?” she asked the conversational vacuum.

“Miss Butler-san will be developing a new gaming infrastructure, and be the first in the world to play.”

She rolled the gumdrop around her mouth. She didn’t care about the money. The woman had just said all she needed to hear. 

“How did you find her?” she asked, googling The Foundation of New World Technologies and new gaming platforms in two separate windows.

“We have it on good authority that she is the one.”

Berry laughed.

“Is something funny?”

“She’s… the One. You know? I like my dystopian movie references.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Berry was convinced that this was all a setup.

Someone had gotten hold of her direct number and published it on the thief forums. Whoever it was had done their research on what pushed her buttons.

“Surely there are other, more suitable candidates?” she asked, secretly chuffed that she was the one.

“Everything will be made clear on agreement of the project terms and conditions.”

The search brought up a corporate page for The Foundation:

‘Architects of a New World Generation. Dedicated to bringing emerging technologies into hyper-reality.’

New gaming platforms brought up adverts for Augmediated Reality and domestic VR consoles.

Nothing new, nothing next generation.

The phone line crackled.

There was a pause.

The caller was checking something. 

“If we are in agreement then confirmation will be sent to your inbox.”

“You’ve got my email?”

“The funds are insufficient?”

“No, no, it’s not about the money.”

“Double payment has been authorised. Are we in agreement, Miss Butler-san?”

Berry was hesitant.

She didn’t understand why there was such a rush but the sense of urgency made the project seem all the more intriguing.

“You knew it was me?”

The phone line hissed static to no reply.

“I don’t even know your name?”

The caller was silent.

“Hello? Ok. Yes. Of course, we’re in agreement.”

At that precise moment an email arrived from The Foundation of New World Technologies.

“My name is Chieko. Your escort will arrive at six am. We look forward to receiving you in Toyko, Miss Butler. Domo arigato gozaimasu.”

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Chapter 8

Las Vegas; 1983.

Tadashi bowed his head and waited, unsure if he was going to be denied the story.

Van Peterson made a point of shifting in his seat to reset the conversation. “I used to séance with Andrija Puharich,” he said.

The assistant tried to hold back his excitement but could feel himself fidgeting.

“The men at The Office were particularly intrigued by our achievements in extrasensory perception. I had the privilege of being in the search party that found the Amanita Muscaria. You are familiar, I presume?”

“The fly agaric. A powerful psychoactive hallucinogen.”

“Andrija called it . . . the sacred mushroom.

Now that, Tadashi, was a thing of pure fantasy.

Such a beautiful object to observe. It had a bright red bulbous dome and tiny white spots. Right out of Alice In Wonderland, I tell you.

If it wasn’t right there in front of me, I would never have believed it to have existed.

The mushroom was growing in the woods so close to Andrija’s laboratory, as though it had been planted there just for us to discover.”

Van Peterson set his tumbler on the silver doily. “Occasionally, Mr Huxley would join us. We would perform meditation, both under the influence of psychotropics and of sober mind.”

Tadashi bowed, in thanks, but the professor wasn’t done.

A flicker of mischief flashed across his face.

He was about to reveal more than he knew he should.

“Once, Aldous Huxley wanted to borrow my bicycle for an LSD trip, but I had ingested a rather significant dose of the Peyote cactus that day, so I refused.”

“Still talking about drugs, Malcolm?” asked a low, southern American drawl.

They looked up to see a man in a grey suit; squat figure, hair combed abruptly to one side, and a smile that wouldn’t go amiss on a great white shark.

Special Agent Carlton stood, waiting to embrace, with arms outstretched.

“Hello, Jimmy,” smiled the professor.

Tadashi watched them wrestle a hug and pat each other on the back.

They seemed relaxed, like they had parted only weeks before.

“Now then, will you join us in a whisky?”

“I’m still not drinking.”

“Tell me, what else are you still not doing?”

“I’m still not funding you,” laughed the agent.

“Indeed. Indeed. How is Mrs Carlton?”

“And I’m still not going to tell you anything about my personal life,” he joked, but was in fact perfectly serious.

Jimmy Carlton sat on the leather armchair and casually unbuttoned his jacket. He pulled out a pack of Old Gold cigarettes.

No one spoke as he lit up.

Soon, he too appeared to be waiting for someone like himself to arrive.

Tadashi anticipated the conversation.

“Oh,” spluttered Van Peterson. “This is the new assistant. We can talk in front of him.”

Tadashi wasn’t sure if he should be honoured or insulted. 

Carlton took his time. “I don’t believe that I have had the pleasure, young sir?”

He allowed smoke to rise between them.

“Where are my manners? Mr Tadashi Finjoto, from the Tokyo University of Science, may I introduce Special Agent Carlton,” he hesitated, “an old friend.”

Tadashi bowed.

Carlton tapped his cigarette in the ashtray.

They both leaned forward in their chairs and shook hands, neither of them actually standing.

“Mr Finjoto will be documenting my work at the Spiritual Science conference tomorrow,” explained Van Peterson.

The agent appeared to relax, as much as a stiff could. “So, Malcolm,” he said, “what exactly should Mr Finjoto, here, expect to document?”

There was a pregnant pause.

The room buzzed with chic dinner jazz and wealthy conversation.

“What would you say, Jimmy, if I were to tell you that I have made a discovery that will profoundly contradict the very nature of humanity?”

The agent stubbed out his cigarette.

“I would say that you had my full attention, Malcolm.”

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Chapter 7

His parents were concerned.

As a young boy, Lars appeared to have school friends, he was eating well, would do his chores when asked, but instead of going out with the other kids, he would sit in front of his console all day.

He was hooked to the virtual interaction offered by the pixelated screen and grew up with an obsession for arcade computer games. 

His personality evolved by fight or flight. 

He lived these real-time adventures over and over; repeat play, repeat experience, repeat adventure.

He became many people, solved many puzzles, and lived many lives. 

He spent more time in front of the screen burning gaming imagery into his tired, wide eyes than he did simply growing up. 

It was this that his parents put down to a lack of engagement with the physical world.

Doctors were unsure of how to help.

Most of them recommended pills.

One insisted that Lars be given the opportunity to develop an emotional attachment to a pet. This just made his parents worry about why this emotional attachment couldn’t have been to them.

When Lars reached his tenth birthday, he was given a goldfish.

It was orange, plump, insignificant, and much like any other goldfish.

He called it Mr Chips.

Of course, the life expectancy of a common goldfish barely allowed him the time to form any kind of relationship before he found it floating dead, upside down in the cold tank. 

The young boy stared and sprinkled fish food, but it just bobbed, drifting rigid.

He left it for three weeks until the flakes turned brown, convinced that it was looking at him, waiting for him to do something.

Until, one evening, as the landing light broke through a crack in the door revealing Mr Chips floating at an angle, Lars positioned a chair so that he could reach inside the tank.

He took a net and prepared to scoop the fish into the bin. 

Just as the net hit the water, the goldfish flapped into life.

Lars blinked, as the goldfish swam around the tank, having been resurrected from the dead.

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Chapter 6

Berry was well into her second bowl, one hundred and forty-five grams of sugar, when she was confronted by something more puzzling than any challenge presented by her virtual worlds.

Her landline telephone rang.

She never got phone calls and took every precaution to protect her contact information.

Any work request came through an agent, and always in an email. She kept all interaction strictly non-verbal. Communication with the outside world was made through the safety of broadband.

She hesitated, picked up the phone, and instantly regretted it.

“Miss Butler-san?”

It was a young woman.

The line crackled with long-distance static.

“She’s out,” explained Berry, hoping for a swift exit.

“We have an . . . an opportunity.”

The caller paused, following a pre-determined script where Berry was clearly now meant to ask what the opportunity was.

“She will be most grateful to hear our offer.”

Berry considered putting the receiver down, but didn’t want to leave the stranger with an option to call back.

“I’ll deliver the message,” she said.

The caller sounded relieved.

“Miss Butler has been selected to join a new venture from a leading digital architecture company.”

Berry hesitated. “Are you guys Nintendo?”

“We are not Nintendo,” replied the voice, matter-of-factly.

There was a momentary pause while Berry checked how The Immortal was doing on the Atari Shock servers and accepted an IGM from GreySkull to join a super clan. 

“I am an assistant of Dr Tadashi Finjoto-shachō of The Foundation of New World Technologies in Japan. Miss Butler is invited to attend a meeting where she will be instructed further, once she has signed the confidential non-disclosure agreement.”

“You can trust me with the details, if that’s what you mean?” mumbled Berry, unsure if this kind of conversation was considered in any way normal.

“Inform Miss Butler, please, that she will receive payment of one hundred and twenty thousand pounds, GBP, in advance of attending the meeting, and a further two hundred and fifty thousand pounds on the signature of a month’s development work.”

Berry slipped into the imaginative safety of pretending that life was just an over-ambitious film and that this was merely another exaggerated scene . . . or perhaps a deleted online extra.

“I trust by the sound of your breathing that you are taking notes,’ said the voice. “Dr Finjoto would not want her to miss out on such an exciting opportunity.”

“She gets this kind of thing all the time.”

“Of course, she does,” replied the caller. 

Berry Butler had a gift, a talent that made her an asset to the companies that hired her, and gave her the celebrity status that she shunned.

Algorithms came easy.

She saw her world in statistics and problem solved her way through the day. She was an incredibly fast coder. Able to achieve as much as a small team in half the time, and development time was money.

Some of the biggest gaming companies in the world fought to have her on their books. But she stayed true to the indies and created emotional experiences that were truly her own. Truly original.

She’d studied mathematics at college and could always be found in the I.T. room, locked into an action role-player hack and slash like Diablo on the communal PCs.

She won a scholarship offered by a leading creator of software for major corporate and government clients, and with the cash, she’d bought her first laptop.

Research kept her staring at the screen, computer on, burning game imagery into her brain.

She lived for strings of numbers, patterns, puzzles, and as soon as she understood the rules, her universe exploded, full of possibilities.

Her imagination established engines without limits, no boundaries, no rules. She enabled a future in virtual spaces and found purpose. 

Berry’s journey into a parallel life online had begun.

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Chapter 5

Las Vegas; 1983.

The bar at The Dunes Hotel & Oasis Casino popped, fizzed, and ordered one more drink. 

Crushed velvet curtains cornered off VIP areas where the lighting was too dim to betray the age of its more glamorous clientele, but just bright enough to catch their jewellery.

Professor Van Peterson and his new assistant, Tadashi Finjoto, sat patiently, having ordered a pair of Whisky Sours that now looked like an advertisement on silver doilies.

The professor wasn’t interested in his drink.

Whenever a tuxedo approached he would look up.

On realising that it wasn’t who he was waiting for, his gaze would return to the mirrored table where he would quickly become lost in his own reflection.

Tadashi stubbed out a cigarette in the crystal ashtray. “Twenty years is a long time,” he said.

“I imagine that my little conference is being monitored from all over the inquisitive globe,” explained the professor.

“He was your boss?”

Van Peterson sat up, finally admitting to himself that the wait would be much longer than expected. “He was a fund manager of sorts. They call it risk assessment these days. We would be tasked with challenges and invited to discuss possible solutions before he would file his report on the likelihood of a successful outcome. Convince Jimmy and you had the money, that’s what we used to say. We would meet to discuss projects designed to test the very boundaries of reality itself. We were like a club and he became, well, just like one of us really, but we knew he wasn’t. He was there to observe. That was how it worked back then. Much more civilised. None of this dirty stage business.”

The assistant was surprised. “You’re not looking forward to the Spiritual Science conference?”

“The universe has decided that I must sing for my supper, Tadashi, but I am not a fan of public karaoke.”

“With respect, I am excited to witness the regression first-hand.”

The old man laughed. “That is kind of you, but I will allow you to make your judgement after the main event.”

Van Peterson tried to focus on a small group that had entered the bar. He looked disappointed when he realised that his contact wasn’t in the crowd.

“Were all of your projects funded by Mr Carlton?”

“Of course. We had plenty of work. We were busy. We were . . . necessary.”

Tadashi moved in closer, just as he’d seen in the American espionage movies. “C . . . I . . . A?” he asked in a whisper.

Van Peterson wasn’t sure if he should be talking about his work at The Office, or if twenty years was enough to pass the government embargo.

He checked over his shoulder and replied in equally hushed tones, just for dramatic effect; “C . . . I . . . A . . . D . . . S . . . T.” 

Tadashi looked mildly confused. 

“Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science and Technology,” explained Van Peterson. “And there’s really no need to whisper.” He tutted, suddenly annoyed by remembering an event that had happened such a very long time ago and was now consigned to a nagging memory.

Tadashi watched a diamond necklace cling tightly to a low-cut top on its way for a cocaine refresher in the bathroom. “Professor,” he asked, “tell me about the Stargate?”

Van Peterson laughed and tasted his whisky, savouring the flavour before he replied. “Bless you for being so curious, but we’re not living in one of your, whatever they are, those games. We’re not in a movie about a little lost extra-terrestrial.”

Tadashi was humbled to have been invited to document the Spiritual Science conference, let alone chat informally to the man he admired so much. He didn’t want to risk the opportunity by coming across as naïve. “I am very sorry,” he said, lowering his head. “I ask you too much.”

The professor let out a deep sigh.

Despite the constant questioning, Tadashi’s enthusiasm was actually quite welcome.

Discussing past endeavours had brought them closer. It had just been so long since he was the focus of as much attention.

“No. It’s me who should be apologising. Maybe it’s the thought of seeing him again after all these years. Those days were cold and calculating, my boy, but it was a very long time ago. Times have changed. Hah, Bobby Dylan. There’s nothing wrong with a little curiosity. And, since you’re asking, the Stargate didn’t actually work.” 

He laughed to himself as though enjoying a private joke and reached out to pat his young assistant on the shoulder. “Which reminds me of the last time I would have seen Jimmy. During Operation Acoustic Kitty.”

Tadashi’s eyes brightened at the prospect of another anecdote.

Van Peterson indulged with a reassuring smile.

“Operation Acoustic Kitty, yes. I remember it well. Implant a radio microphone in a moveable and yet inconspicuous object . . .” he explained with an authoritative tone, “such as a small cat, and you may well believe that you have designed the perfect cold war spy; adaptable, portable, so very cute. But, expect your kitty to stay within earshot of the target and exactly where you want it? Total disaster.”

He cradled the tumbler in the palm of his hands and leant in.

“We had reams and reams of tape, Tadashi, mostly recordings of angry kitchen staff, hotel valets ushering our kitties out from under parked cars, firemen climbing ladders to rescue them down from trees. One lady even took a kitty home. Now, technically that’s theft of government property.” 

There was a spark of mischief in the old man’s eyes.

He was enjoying himself. “Did you know that tomcats make a very husky growl when fucking? It’s really quite vigorous.”

The assistant felt it appropriate to take a slug of whisky.

“That particular project turned out to be a little too unconventional for our friends in the suits. Jimmy marked the results as unsatisfactory. So The Office and I parted ways before too many little cats lost their tails in the name of science.”

Tadashi pulled a face and made a note to look the case up later. “Then you joined the Accademia del Cimento?”

Van Peterson rolled the ice cubes in his tumbler and didn’t answer.

The hotel bar spun in a twisted carousel of silver drinks trays, the constant popping of champagne corks, long blonde hair, and longer black dresses.

They had been waiting for almost an hour, but there was still no sign of the man from The Office.

Tadashi finished his whisky in a few large gulps and considered ordering another but the old man had hardly touched his. He took a moment to watch the decadence of the room, allowing time to pass, but couldn’t resist the opportunity of trying to tease out a story one more time.

“Tell me about the project . . . MKUltra?”

The professor looked uncomfortable.

“Did you really manage to harness the power of the psychotropic?”

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Chapter 4

Never forget; nineteen eighty-three.

It was the year when two video games were blamed for sending the entire home console industry into meltdown.

America announced a recession. 

They called it the great video game crash.

The Japanese gave it a more stylish twist.

They called it . . . Atari Shock.

Over-confident in the arcade success of Pac-Man, twelve million cartridges had been manufactured for the Atari 2600, despite having only sold ten million consoles.

It didn’t port well.

It didn’t play well.

The fans began queuing up for refunds.

Thirty million dollars were paid for the rights to E.T. Rushed out in five weeks to accompany the Spielberg film.

It was openly branded as the worst video game ever.

Five new consoles were launched the following year, and despite Pac-Man and E.T. taking the fall, the market had become flooded with bad titles that no one enjoyed playing. The second-generation market peaked, overextended, and plummeted in the years to follow.

Atari made a loss of five hundred million dollars in a single financial year.

In a landfill site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, millions of unsold cartridges were made to disappear in the dust overnight.

When news of the desert dumping ground hit the local papers, the kids arrived in their hundreds to resurrect the cartridges, and they found way more than just E.T. and Pac-Man.

The plastic graveyard hid a catalogue of buried treasures; Centipede, Warlords, Defender, Space Invaders, Berzerk; all were buried in the dry desert dirt.

What followed was digital grave robbery on a massive scale.

It was an 8-bit appreciation flash mob, a spark that ignited the digital piracy flame, and inspired the attitude that the fun stuff should be free.

The Alamogordo authorities declared the site a biohazard, at risk of unearthing mercury covered pigs or dislodging a vat of nuclear waste from this former desert dumping ground.

It was sealed-off under concrete.

The cartridge tomb became urban legend.

Thirty years later, the site was excavated, and the games began appearing on eBay.

Lars Nilsson paid a grand for his copy of E.T. and didn’t really understand why he was compelled to do so.

Physically holding a piece of gaming history, despite it being just a rectangle of time-worn plastic, touched him to the very core of his soul.

Chapter 3

Drop a frog into a scalding pot of water and it will leap out.

Leave the frog in cold water and slowly raise the temperature, then it will boil itself alive.

The doctor had succeeded with a profound achievement while in the clutches of the otherworld.

This made him different from the beings that inhabited this strange place, the shadows with vacant faces and absent expressions.

After an incalculable amount of time, and with incredible persistence, he had fought against the gravitational pull intent on stealing his memories and managed to maintain a sense of self.

The state wasn’t permanent, however.

Sometimes he would be up, like when he remembered how to roll a mandrake joint.

Sometimes he would be down, like when he forgot how to walk.

The cigarette extinguished with a fizz as he submerged in the tin bath. He opened his eyes underwater and was somewhere else entirely. He could see beyond the leaves, spider webs, and trees. He was drifting high over hills and deep into valleys like a fly-by cut scene.

He could focus on the sound of every insect as they maintained their perpetual chorus.

He could detect the shadow animals as they crawled in the corners, ready to strike like deadly sentinels.

A spasm shook his body.

He repressed the desire to breathe and instead concentrated on the name of the avatar that he’d just reset to level one; Izanagi.

Dr Vegas was the chain-smoking, hair growing, free-thinking know-it-all of the afterlife, but he was also the frog, and the temperature was rising.

Chapter 2

Sugar; a quick hit of the unrefined, the cereal cerebral suspended animation. Recreational drug of the hyperactive. Lifesaver of the insomniac.

You had to know what you were doing when it came to sugar, an uncalculated comedown could be painful.

Berry weighed out the granules on a small, hypersensitive scale, making sure that the exact amounts were strictly adhered to.

Starting with an average bowl, she poured out a single serving. This was her baseline of thirty grams.

She added a further two hundred and fifty millilitres of Hype energy drink and exactly fifteen teaspoons of sugar.

It was a tried and tested formula, the perfect amount to prevent the honeyed oats from sticking to the roof of her mouth.

Her metabolism was in overdrive.

She thrived off this diet of dry cereal and sweets.

Twelve minutes after consumption, Berry knew that she would feel fucking awesome.

Cereal was all she ever consumed. She was constantly snacking, but despite the extreme sugar intake, she looked fragile on first impression.

She embraced the glucose overdose and became a shadow of her unsweetened self.

Berry’s flat was a cocoon of the contemporary, a collection that would never be complete. Every available space was loaded with toys, icons and games.

Her hunger was insatiable.

She collected TV box sets and special edition DVDs like they were essential to saving the human race.

Magazines and discs were scattered on the floor.

At first glance you might ask where the checkouts were.

Then you might wonder how much the burglars had gotten away with.

She was a consumer, a user, a pop culture leech, and she had created a life that enabled some well-trodden agoraphobic and reclusive tendencies.

In her daydreams, she lived in a small cottage in the Scottish Highlands, where her interaction with the outside world was the fortnightly delivery of food and paint supplies, followed by a passionate night with the delivery girl.

In another fantasy, she lived in Paris, among the intellectual elite, where she lost herself to the depths of artistic melodrama and engaged in frantic orgies with fellow bohemians.

Then there was the one about that post-apocalyptic future where zombies roamed the streets and going out after dark was a death sentence. This one was her favourite. A survival bag was packed for the very eventuality and she had already planned her escape route to the coast. 

When she wasn’t dreaming, she lived in a small bedsit in Loughborough Junction, South London, and existed only for her video games and perfect isolation.

Berry stood by the window, crunching, pulling the curtains to scan the early morning for movement.

The road was quiet.

Television filled the silence but she never watched it.

She was permanently logged in to Atari Shock. The player-feed spooled layers of information. War was raging online.

‘Player-feed: GreySkull teleports into game space range. GreySkull launches +100 nuke attack on The Immortal.’

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