The Visitor (full story)


Chapter 1

Max had to make sure that everything was perfect. His small studio apartment had been overturned, flipped back and turned again in the past week. And he was still unhappy with the result. He felt that soft nagging feeling as he stood in the dining space and took it all in. Something just was not right, like a puzzle piece that fit on three sides, but the fourth edge was a disappointing hole-on-hole.

It was an upmarket apartment in one of hightown New York’s “susto builds”. Sustainable living, using every part of a skyline to keep city living affordable in the Twenty-Second Century. That was the tagline and Max was one of those who had bought into it with an open mind. He looked around him and saw progress. He saw progress and a puzzle that he could not solve.

Continue reading “The Visitor (full story)”

The Book Of Fred: Enlightenment


“Get lost, you nutcase!” the passer-by shouted.

At last. Confirmation that it had not all been in vain. Fred could have wept if he had not been so overjoyed to have his cosmic truths appreciated. He shed a few tears anyway. After all, he was still a man.

Am I a nutcase? How’d I know if I was, without having met one? I suppose if I was, I would have met myself. There’s a puzzle. Can a man meet himself?

“Have you met yourself?” Fred demanded, shouting after his heckler’s retreating back.

No, not a heckler. This was Fred’s crowning achievement and he would not let his own limited vocabulary tarnish it. The passer-by was his pharisee, like those who had denied the teachings of Christ at the outset.

“I’m not Christ,” he said, thinking it best to make the point clear.

“We know you’re not,” the library attendant said, waiting patiently at his shoulder. His first disciple. “Now, could you please move from the doorway, sir? People need to be able to come in?”

Smart thinking. She was clearly switched-on, but would she meet his strict requirements? Fred leaned in towards her and whispered in her ear.

“Can I meet myself?”

It was cruel, he knew. The poor woman stood no chance of unpicking his riddle. He could see her nose wrinkling in confusion. Covering her mouth and holding her breath in awe at the profundity of his thoughts.

“I don’t know, sir,” she said, gagging in wonder and pinching her nostrils in… well, he was not sure why she did that. “But I’ve met you and I think you’re a nice enough guy. Now, please move or I’ll call the police.”

“That’s it,” he said, too stunned for words. What was that smell? The pungent odour of enlightenment, surely. “You’ve done it! can’t meet myself, but a woman can. How does a man find the library doors, portal to knowledge, without a woman to guide him through? You’re a genius. No, a prophet.”

Fred stepped out from the library’s doorway and marched down the street, swept up in a wave of confidence. He was doing the right thing. There was no denying it now. What was more, he had his first disciple. She would follow him wherever he went. He knew she would.

Of course, she was not following him at that moment. The library attendant had scurried back inside, most likely to finish her shift, but she would find him again. His pure intentions were a shining beacon which would spread light around him wherever he went.

“Follow the light,” he said, forgetting she was not with him.

He kicked off his ripped canvas shoes, to make it easier for others to follow in his footsteps.



The Book Of Fred: Origins


The bitch was a fighter and no mistake. Nothing wrong with that. She was giving him a chance to test his mettle, show who was in charge around here. When he wanted something, he was damn well going to get it.

“That’s right,” he said, shuffling towards her until she was backed into a dim corner of the filthy alley. No escape. Nobody to hear her yelps of fright. “This is Fred’s alley. You’re in my stomping ground now. You know what I want.” He leered at her, showing yellow teeth and bloody gums. “Give it over without a tussle and we can stay friends.”

Quick as a snake, she darted right. It was a sly move, an unexpected move, but this was not Fred’s first hunt. He moved with her, throwing his weight into a Hail Mary dive and stretching his arms after her. His grubby fingers caught around her flanks, bearing her down to the ground. Caught the bitch.

Her head swung back and she snapped her jaws at him. With a cry of fear, Fred let go. The worst thing he could have done. A rookie mistake. A bark of triumph and the dog was loping away.

Is that all you got? You think Fred ain’t got no more fight in him? You a dumb bitch if you believe that.

It felt like an Olympic sprint, haring off after her as fast as his legs could carry him. If only they had been another man’s legs. He was not running in truth, he was hobbling, and she did not fare much better. The mongrel limped out towards the safety of the street, ears pinned back in case he made a sudden rush after her.

“Drop the sandwich and we’ll call it quits,” he offered, gasping for breath as he shambled out onto the pavement. “We both know you ain’t got much more running in you.”

A screech of tires and an agonising whine. His heart was being pulled apart inside his chest. How could it end like this? Angry cursing and the slam of a car door. The driver pulled away, leaving the dog to lie limp and broken in the middle of the street.

Fred hobbled over and dropped to his knees beside her, muttering consolation to himself, to her, to anyone and no one at the same time.

“Poor girl,” he said, rocking on his haunches. “There there. Lie still. Poor girl.” He brushed a hand across her mangy fur. “What’d you go and do that for, eh? You know I would’ve shared. Did you go and forget who I was? Poor girl.”

Where was everyone? He looked up and down the street, expecting to see a full procession of mourners come to carry away his nemesis. His friend. The street was deserted, occupied only by a solemn rank of overflowing bins. They stood to attention, saluting their former looter.

So this is what it’s come to. This is death. Why did I expect more?

A kid cycled past, swerving as he craned his neck to stare. Fred leapt to his feet and waved his arms. At last, someone who would care. Kids still loved dogs, right? Of course. He chased after the cyclist.

“Hey, kid!” he shouted as the child sped away, throwing frightened glances over his shoulder. “The dog’s dead. Come look.”

Not even a “May she rest in peace.” What was happening to the world? Did nobody care any more?

“What do you say to that, girl?” he asked the dog. No use, she was dead. It was foolish, but he had almost forgotten. “Never mind.”

The people of the world needed something. That much was clear. They needed God.

You’re kidding, right?

Not God then. He had been around for millennia and what did He have to show for it?

Not bloody much.

Then it had to be something new. Fred had an idea, an inkling of where he could start. The people needed guidance. Someone wise to lead them out of blindness and into… seeing. An education man. An educated women? He would find out when he got there.

It was decided. He had never been more certain of anything. There was only one place he knew of where the enlightened could be found mixing with the intellectually destitute such as himself.

“Come on, girl,” he said. “We’re going to the library.” Of course, it had slipped his mind again. She was dead. “Well, so long then. Don’t stray far.”

More: The Book of Fred, Lessons 1-3

The Embassy #2

Kuiper belt Object, Planetoid 2003 UB313 & Moon ("Xena" and "Gabrielle", respectively) shown for January 1, 2006 Painting by A.Schaller for STScI

Jess climbed down the shuttle’s exit chute and followed the hermetically sealed corridor which snaked across the flat dirt plain. It led to Bhagra Inter-planetary Shuttleport’s containment centre.

There she was escorted into a claustraphobic frosted glass capsule by shuttleport security officers in radiation suits. A sound like rushing water and grinding gears assaulted her on all sides, a hiss of escaping air and five suffocating seconds without sound or breath. Then clean air rushed back inside, accompanied by a damp spray of evaporated chemical mist.

“Welcome to Bagra, we hope you enjoy your stay.” a cheerful woman in a baby blue uniform said as Jess left the chamber.

It was not Jess’ first time flying, so she had known what to expect. Her family was comfortably middle-class, taking vacations to all the better known space station resorts in West-One Galaxy.

She still carried vivid memories of the year of her father’s big promotion. He had taken them all to West-Seven for walks along the unending coastlines of Tarin and skiing through the frozen continents of Arctia. The sight of West-Seven’s two suns throwing out a kaleidoscope of red and purple light over the vast, curving expanse of ice was what inspired her to join the ministry.

There were darker memories from those trips as well. Radiation was the greatest risk in all inter-planetary travel, requiring extensive de-contamination on arrival. Jess could also picture in her mind the burning poverty in the overflow colonies on Mars. It was a part of her childhood she struggled not to revisit.

Her luggage was waiting for her outside the containment centre. Bhagra Inter-planetary Shuttleport’s terminal looked like a massive greenhouse. A glass wall faced the runway, the other three sides were open to the elements and a sloping roof of corrugated chrome rested high overhead.

A stream of taxi aircraft made their sluggish way out from loading bay, carrying passengers from earlier flights. They waited until a kilometre stood between them and the terminal before cracking away at supersonic speed towards the distant haze of Bhagra’s capital, Danask.

“Are you Jess Matison?” a local man asked.

He was wearing the grubby grey overalls of a ricker-jet pilot, dark sweat stains visible under his arms. Jess stared at the sign he was holding. It was a crude attempt to spell her name in Romanised script, Jez Metson.

“I am. Are you from the embassy?” she asked.

“Please come.”

Without waiting for her, he set off across the terminal and started up the ricker-jet. No take-off checks or last-minute inspections, she saw. The pilot just climbed right in and began hitting buttons.

It was an old machine, out-dated by a few decades. The gaudy red and yellow paint used to decorate it in swirling patterns had been cracked and flaked by supersonic travel. It produced a ripple effect across the vehicle’s body, as if it had buckled in a head-on collision.

If the embassy expected her to travel in that thing, she might as well get back on the shuttle now and go home. Jess’ life still had some value over her career.

“I’m sorry.” she called up to the pilot. “I think I’ll take my own transportation.”

“No, you must come with me.” he shouted, jumping down from the ricker-jet and narrowing his dark eyes.

Jess took a step back. Was that how embassy staff were treated on Bhagra? It was beginning to look like she had made a mistake in applying for this posting. She thought about offering the pilot money to leave without her.

His eyes suddenly became glazed, staring out across the terminal. Turning to see what was distracting him, Jess saw a glimmering light hovering just above the skyline. It was like sunlight reflecting on a mirror, almost blinding.

A rough hand grabbed her arm and she stumbled as the pilot dragged her towards the ricker-jet. Was he mad? Jess screamed for help and people turned to gawp at them. Three security officers jogged across the terminal.

It was an abduction. She should have known. The CPO at the ministry had briefed her on embassy staff being targeted in other galaxies.

An ear-splitting eruption of sound tore through the terminal. Jess turned from fighting her abductor and saw a thousand footlong shards of razor-sharp glass shower down at the far end of the terminal. Automatic rifle fire chattered through the air.

“We must go.” the pilot said, pulling her towards the vehicle.

Jess was dead weight. Her mind turned in dizzying circles as it tried to comprehend what was happening around them.

People were dying. They were tripping over each other, falling down and being thrown off their feet by an invisible force. What was going on? There was no sign of attackers, even the security officers had vanished from sight.

A few hundred feet from where she stood, a taxi tried to take off. Its jets roared into action and the vehicle lifted up from the ground. It kicked forwards, the power of its engines sending passengers flying into the air behind it as the pilot rammed the throttle to full blast.

Jess saw a blur of shining chrome whip past the taxi and, for a second, the image of two long wings and a pair of black rifle muzzles spouting fire flashed in her eyes. Then the taxi was tearing away, a ball of flames ripping into the grey landscape in a plume of black smoke.

The Embassy

Kuiper belt Object, Planetoid 2003 UB313 & Moon ("Xena" and "Gabrielle", respectively) shown for January 1, 2006 Painting by A.Schaller for STScI

“We are now entering orbit. If you look left you will see sunrise over Bhagra.”

Jess glanced up from her reading and out of the shuttle window. A pale crescent of gold was cresting over the ash grey planet below. As the weak and distant sun crept up over the horizon, it spread a red glow which seemed to ignite a wildfire on Bhagra’s surface. The land was swept up in the crimson tide.

It should have warmed Jess’ heart. The sight was magnificent, far more inspiring than her last sight of Earth had been. But there were too many worries weighing down her spirits. What would life be like down there on the planet’s surface?

This was her first overseas posting with the Ministry of Diplomacy. She had excelled as a trainee and junior advisor on inter-planetary policy, which was why she had drawn Bhagra. It was a dream posting. A civil servant could make their career in a place like this.

The shuttle’s navigation system spoke again, delivering a roundup of yesterday’s world news in its soothing automated tones.

“Tensions have flared up again between rival tribes in the mineral-rich southern hemisphere. It is claimed by sources on the ground that as many as two hundred were killed yesterday by Shearer attacks around the mining colony of Mozlin.”

Jess racked her mind trying to recall what a Shearer was. It was the sort of thing she would be expected to know when she arrived at the United Coalition embassy. The chief policy officer for Middle-Six Galaxy at the ministry had briefed her on a hundred different aspects of Bhagra life before she left.

Days locked in a musty office with an old, droning minister and Jess still could not remember one simple fact. Or was that it? The memories of his dull monotone flooded back. Shearers were unmanned sub-orbit combat vehicles. Their purpose was to carry out lightning, precision attacks in urban areas.

“Did you hear the latest? What they aren’t saying on the news…”

The couple in the row of seats in front of hers had dropped their voices to a whisper. Jess leaned forward, pretending to stow her antique novel away in her bag, and cocked her head to listen. Nobody would question how long it was taking her to put the book away. It was real paper, extremely rare and all too easily damaged. She had spent half a month’s salary on it.

“What are they saying?” the man asked.

“My mother says the planetary government is losing its grip. She says the isurgents aren’t just hitting the southern hemisphere mineral colonies, they’re pushing the peacekeepers back over the equator.”

“You’re kidding!”

Jess stopped listening to the couple and settled back in her seat, shifting into a more comfortable position for landing.

It was nonsense. Bhagra was a small planet, with only a quarter of Earth’s circumference and about the same size as the moon. Even so, for the insurgents to have crossed the equator without the Defence Assembly hearing about it was lunacy. Less than that, it was nothing more than idle gossip.

Her stomach rumbled, matching the hum of the shuttle as it tore into the upper atmosphere. Jess hoped the food was good on Bhagra. Shuttle meals were too dry for her palate and they tasted like cardboard.

Hundreds of kilometres below, a white shape flitted through the sheer valleys which wrinkled the planet’s surface in a thick band around the equatorial line. A warning flashed through its control matrix as it detected the shuttle diving into the stratosphere. The Shearer tracked the shuttle’s flight path and dismissed the threat.

Chrome microlattice flaps dropped on its wings, leaving two thin trails of vapour as it banked north. The Shearer dropped out through the narrow mouth of a valley, into the northern hemisphere.

Bad Samaritan #3


Where will we be two millennia from now? Will we be looking at the world through our own eyes or staring into the minds of others?

-A sequel to The Visitor-

Streaming from consciousness to subconscious, breaking down the mental barriers of countless millennia of evolution. It was a lot like hiking in the mountains.

When I dropped into the tank of nano-enhanced fluid, my mind was set to a closed frequency. It was like moving along an avenue of trees. My consciousness set a gentle, easy pace. There was time to stop and inspect each flower. I could have counted every stone on the gravel path if I had wanted to.

Then the sub-atomic pincers clamped onto my spinal column and I was flying.

I shot out into a broad valley, racing forwards with the world passing by as little more than a blur. Grass, rocks, streams. A constant deluge of information flooded my senses.

Things slowed down and I was creeping towards the summit. Everything was laid out below me and on all sides. I could see for miles. Valleys, mountains, forests.

My mind was open, turned inside out. It could reach down and touch a tree twenty miles away. I could see every creeping tectonic shift in the landscape.

But I was blind. My mind groped through the tangled strands and broken webs of human thought which reached out through the derelict city.

Something snagged. It was a stray idea, a thought which spelled danger, secrecy and mistrust. I followed the spider’s trailing silk and took care not to pull too hard.

“We have to do it tonight.” she said.

Her mind was rigid with certainty and I could follow her thoughts like the flight of an arrow. Their conclusion was vivid in her imagination, giving the speaker a thrill of satisfaction. Explosion, fire, destruction.

“Are you sure it has to be tonight?” a man asked.

“I’m certain. It’s now or never.”

A cracking sound rose sharp to her ears, but did not startle her. She had primed the weapon in her hands. It was a long chrome tube with a trigger at one end. I felt the heavy rectangular stock in her hands, the mechanism which would send a precision bolt of radioactive energy shooting out faster than the speed of light.

I felt a lurch in my gut. Something was wrong. The barrier between our thoughts was crumbling away and I could feel her consciousness probing mine.

“We’re not alone.” she said. “They’re listening to us. It has to be now.”

My body lurched out over the side of the thought tank and the connection was broken. I was shaking from head to toe. The urge to vomit was overpowering.

Was that how it felt? Did they know the same sickening sense of violation every time we crept inside their minds?

If you enjoyed this short story, you might like The Visitor and Lights Out.

Bad Samaritan #2


Where will we be two millennia from now? Will we be looking at the world through our own eyes or staring into the minds of others?

-A sequel to The Visitor-

It was hard to be a regulator, let alone an interceptor, without thinking about Max Beatus. My mind wandered to him as I went down the staircase of decaying concrete, flaking chrome-nanosteel railings.

He had been a prophet in a way. His work had allowed mankind the opportunity to bridge the gap between conscious and subconscious thought, allowing the leap to be made between one person’s consciousness and another’s. That was why we were there, in those grime-streaked corridors.

I reached the sign on the wall, a cracked micro-glaze square which had once been illuminated with the floor number. A black figure 26 remained, burnt onto the polished surface from the moment the fuses blew. That would have been centuries ago. It was an overwhelming thought.

Scratch marks remained where the figure 1 had been filed off. My predecessors did that when they took over the building. The first hundred floors were warped, walls bulging inwards so that they almost touched in places. We had no use for them, so we etched them out.

Level 26 was like any other, except that a cold sense of fear pinched my spine whenever I reached it on the descent. A dozen steps below I would find Level 25. I was terrified.

I was late that day, so I decided to run and get it over with as fast as possible. The steps sped past under my feet, walls streaking past in a grey and brown blur. Then the world suddenly opened up on my left where the perpendicular arm of the tower, a skyscraper jutting out at a right angle, had been torn away.

Wind, muddy fog and the vast expanse of the city stretched away at my side. It was a yawning cavity of shattered nanosteel and crumbled concrete which beckoned me out towards the thousand-foot drop on the other side.

It wasn’t until I reached Level 21 that I realised I was bending double, having almost crawled the last four flights of stairs. My supervisor, Axil, was waiting for me at the door to our work quarters.

“You’re late, Rex.” she said, furrowing her brows as I wheezed and leaned against the wall to catch my breath.

I nodded and pushed past her. There was no sense in hanging around to explain myself if I was already late. She would just have to understand.

Our office had once been a series of apartments. You could see the faded floor where beds had stood, exposed pipes and wiring in the gutted walls of the kitchen areas. Four walls surrounding the central apartment had been knocked in, ragged holes through which men and women in black overalls passed, ducking out of instinct.

“Another day at the office.” I said, walking over to my station.

“This is going to be my last one.” Axil said, following me.

“Is that right?”

I had reached one of the ten large micro-glaze tanks arranged in the centre of the room. A turquoise liquid filled the tank, sluggish ripples spreading across its surface. Gently, I cut through a tiny wave with one finger.

“I’m killing myself after work today.”

Her words knocked me back a pace, but I forced myself to wait the appropriate amount of time, as prescribed by division policy, before responding. I could still feel Axil’s glare burning through the back of my head. It was the wrong day to have arrived late.

“Nothing to do with me, I hope?”

“No, just early retirement.”


With fingers steadied by practice, I unsealed my overalls until I was standing naked on the bare concrete floor. Nine other pale-skinned figures hung suspended in the tanks around me.

I hopped up onto the edge of my container and lay back, letting the cold liquid prickle over my body. Once fully submerged, I risked taking a breath. It was like drinking in a mouthful of fire. Everything from my throat to my lungs screamed in agony, but I could breathe.

My mind began to relax as the atom-sized machines chemically imprinted on the water molecules began to interact with my nervous system. They spread like an agonising tickle up my spinal column, clamping sub-atomic pincers into my brain stem.

Max Beatus’ implant had been simpler, painless if you believed the historians. But this was far more comprehensive. The last thing I felt before my mind went under was envy.

Why should Axil get to retire before me? I’ll jump off Level 25 as soon as my shift ends. That’ll show her.

If you enjoyed this short story, you might like The Visitor and Lights Out.

Bad Samaritan #1

Bad Samaritan #1


Where will we be two millennia from now? Will we be looking at the world through our own eyes or staring into the minds of others?

-A sequel to The Visitor-

It was twelve-point after daybreak, time to start my shift.

For some reason, I couldn’t shake myself into gear that morning. The spot-grids were up in the dark haze of the sky around me, criss-cross patterns of infrared beaming up over the city in crimson cones of light.

If I could have changed anything about my life, it would be the moment I decided to move to a city. I would go back in time and fire a rad-beam into my own face. It would serve me right. I was a stupid kid back then, and six years later, I was a stupid young adult.

Looking back, I think I know what I was waiting for that morning. It seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time I didn’t know. In my mind, I was just standing around wondering when something interesting was going to happen.

A throbbing bass sound like two huge metal gears trying to grind down a building ripped out through the near-black air. That was all we got in the city: near-night and true night. Dawn was just a brownish tint in an otherwise charcoal sky.

Four spot-grids converged on one location, while the rest began an erratic dance across the sky. Where the response beams landed, the brown miasma of fog, pollution and ash glowed a deep red. It rippled and distorted as the heat grew, a nuclear explosion slowed down by ten to the power of a thousand.

I watched for what must have been two points. At fourteen-point AD, the air was white hot and a howling gale was whipping out over the city from the epicentre. There was a brief burst of a high-pitched klaxon, like fingernails dragging against my eardrum, and the noise and light show stopped.

What was that about? I wondered, making my way towards the roof exit.

The official line was “Airborne Insurgent Activity”. When asked why nobody had seen an AIA in their lives, the city regulators would say something about spot-grids taking care of them before they became a problem.

That line didn’t sit well in some people’s minds. I wasn’t about to disagree with it. I was one of the bastards.

Alright, you’re wondering which I’m referring to: regulators or AIA. It’s a good question, but one I’m not about to answer straight away. The thing is, it’s complicated. Are you asking what my job was, who was or what I believed in?

I was a regulator. More specifically, an interceptor in the Samaritan Division. That meant I got inside people’s heads, intercepted thoughts and tried to piece together as much as I could. The suicide rate in my division? Somewhere around a hundred, a hundred and ten percent.

I was born out of the city. That’s not saying much. Giving birth in the city was an insurgent activity, accounted for by radiation risks and the fact that newborns don’t cope well without sunlight. Apart from that, I was human. That should tell you all you need to know.

I believed in nothing.

That’s where things started to go wrong.

If you enjoyed this short story, you might like The Visitor and Lights Out.

The Book of Fred: Lessons 1-3


About the author

Fred is a homeless man living beneath an underpass on the outskirts of the Los Angeles – Fransisco megacity, year 502 A.R. (After Reckoning). His hobbies include preaching his autobiographical gospel and antique megaphone repair.

As of the date published, Fred remains entirely dependant on the American Atheistic Congregation for his financial solvency. He has yet to tell them about his life’s work.

Lesson 1

Fred walked in the world and, as he went, he looked about him. With eyes opened, he saw that his world was in peril.

Therefore, he decided that the world had been wanting, and that want had become a desperate need. Fred had little to give. His clothes were rags and his possessions were rags. The world did not want his rags, had no need of them.

But Fred had the mind to think and the capacity to speak. He shrugged off the rags of a beggar and put on the robes of a teacher. Not robes of cloth or colour, but abstract garments to shield his mind from idle thought and tune it to true purpose.

Dressed in his teacher’s robe and unclothed as a newborn, Fred spoke out into the darkness. Voices answered him, eager to learn. Fred bade them keep quiet to better hear his truths.

This was the first lesson of Fred: truth in silence.

Lesson 2

Fred spoke to the world and it grew silent to hear his voice. But the silence did not last.

Once his first lesson was heard, the people sought to learn it. The quiet broke then, as voices were raised in repetition and discussion.

Tired, Fred allowed his tongue to rest. He moved among the people, walking in the world, and listened to what they were saying. Fred learnt many things.

The most important lesson he learned was that, while the people remembered and understood all he had said, they had come to know nothing.

Peril remained and the world was in need. Fred unwound his teacher’s robe and set the student’s cap upon his head. Now he found a place to stand among the people, to hear his lesson and think on it.

This was the second lesson of Fred: wear two hats, think with two minds.

Lesson 3

An old man stepped into Fred’s path and raised a question. He wondered whether a man could wear two hats with but one head, find truth in silence when nothing is said.

Fred remained silent. He thought for a long while and, when the answer came to him, the old man had gone.

Still, he spoke his idea into the wind and waited in hope of an answer.

Can a man wear two hats with but one head? Can he find truth in silence when nothing is said? No, but a woman might.

This was the third lesson of Fred: two heads are better than one, if one is a woman’s head.

The Visitor #4

The Visitor #4


The short hour after work finished was Max’s favourite time of day. That went without saying for most people, but words could not describe how much Max loved his job. No, something truly special happened when his workstation shut itself down at five-thirty.

He always ran one finger along the smooth plastiglass-chrome alloy surface. It had not started as a ritual, yet it became one over time. In the beginning it was just a test to see that everything was switched off and staying off, none of the processors running too hot.

“Do you miss it when you’re not here?” Rachel asked.

That was a given for Max. He remembered being a child, he had forgotten exactly how old, and sleeping over in a storage room so that he could be at school before anyone else.

The school had been sub-level, he realised, back in the old days. It had been a dank, gloomy place excavated from the basement ruins of an ancient, ramshackle housing project. He had been terrified that night. He had wet himself.

He didn’t want her to know that.

“That’s alright, something similar happened when I was a kid. It happens to everyone.”

“It did?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

That was hardly fair, but Max didn’t want to press the point. It would take too much time and this was his hour.

He went to the elevator and rode it up to ground-level. That was special in itself. For the vast majority of people, their lives were spent between sub-level and highrise. They only ever saw ground-level as ribbons of rapid traffic hedged in by sheer walls of concrete-nanosteel. But Max knew a place.

His feet carried him along a narrow service walkway, cars rushing past in a roar of sound. Smooth midnight-grey walls rose on his left and a short drop fell away to the road on his right. After a few minutes he arrived at the park.

“Are you serious? You’re not taking another elevator up to a greenspace? It’s a real-life park?”

Max’s pleasure was soured by a sense of jealousy and guilt. Jealous that another person would be going into his secret, sacred place. Guilty that he felt that way.

“No, I understand. It’s your peaceful place and you don’t want me intruding.” she said, so sincere and genuine. He could feel some attachment growing inside his mind, a bridge between himself and that formless voice. Was Rachel his friend? He would like to think so. “I’ll try to keep quiet and let you enjoy it.”

Her voice had broken slightly. It was as if Max had reached out through the implant and touched her, brushed her hand with his. They had both become real to each other. She was more than just a visitor. It was a perpendicular friendship. Max liked that idea.

The park was an accident, which explained how it had survived while the rest of the city grew into itself like a concrete and micro-glaze fungus. Three broad avenues intersected in a Y-shape at the heart of New York’s perpendicularity boom.

Because of how the buildings’ arms reached out to each other overhead, there was no way for anything to be built in a tiny triangular patch of grass at the centre of the intersection.

“I hope you don’t get killed!”

He had been thinking the same thing, but that was just how it went. To get out among the waist-high grass, gnarled and rusted fence, and thick brambles Max would have to cross traffic. Nobody ever tried to cross traffic who didn’t have a deep longing to cut their life short. It was a constant, screaming torrent of chrome whipping past in a horrifying blur, but there was a way through.

It would be about five-thirty-nine. Almost time to go.

An empty void of silence suddenly swallowed up the chasm between the high skyscrapers. Max always found it eerie, no matter how many times he visited ground-level. The cars had stopped, caught in a twist of fate that hung by a fine thread to that coincidence which had allowed the small patch of grass to survive. Every day, at five-forty in the afternoon, traffic at that intersection stopped. If it didn’t, due to some glitch in highway planning, transport across New York would grind to a juddering halt.

Max vaulted over the railing and landed on the soft, springy road surface. He made up for his lack of agility with pure muscle memory, repeating the actions he had taken a hundred times before, and sprinted out towards the bright splash of green that was his island of colour in a sea of charcoal grey.

And there she was, waiting on the other side. She waved to him.