In a place that much resembled Times Square, though nearly ten times as busy, thousands of heads looked upward at the spectrum of screens lining the buildings overhead. The news reports, advertisements, and televised entertainment all unexpectedly flickered in and out in unison, and were replaced with a countdown clock that began ticking down from 21:00:00.

Somewhere, a middle aged businessman drown his past regrets in whiskey and sweet vermouth.

Somewhere, a girl with big dreams threw a helmet forcefully to the ground of a white, empty space.

Somewhere, an empty programmer hung up the receiver to an old rotary phone.

And somewhere, a strange avatar with a CRT screen face looked over to a woman in a wig, who had the binary numbers 10110 tattooed onto her cheek. She looked back at him and smiled. “Here we go.”


“Hey Stefano, it’s Vince. I hate to send a message like this rather than talk with you directly, but your secretary said you’re in meetings all day. I’ve had some time to think over your offer and, well – I appreciate you keeping me in the loop, but… I don’t think its a good fit for me. Would love to sit down again sometime for another round of drinks. I hope this analytics venture is a wild success – thanks again friend.”

Vince placed the mobile device in his hand onto the granite countertop of his sleek, modern kitchen space. He paused for a moment, and then proceeded into a neighboring room where a treadmill was built into the floor. Already sporting a high-end track suit, he stepped on and began jogging.

“Speed five,” he called out, and the track beneath him accelerated.

Success isn’t something we find at the crossroads of our lives, he mentally recited. It was an overly familiar line from one of his frequent motivational speeches. We find success when we invest our hearts and souls into our decisions, with a resolve that only looks forward and never looks back.

Recognizing the direction his thoughts were going, he focused on his breathing and increased the speed of the track. After fifteen minutes or so, he stepped off and wiped his face with a small towel.

Success… It’s what everyone wants so badly, he thought. No matter the cost.

Vince entered his spacious bathroom, showered, and returned to his living space in casual clothing. Sitting, he placed two small devices into each of his ears, and a thin metal visor over his eyes. He touched a small button on the side of the band that rested on top of his right ear.

The dark space in his view was quickly illuminated by the green glow of the word “Parallel,” which dissolved onto a cascade of particles as if they were swept away by the wind. His periphery was then filled with the view of a space much like his home, though a door in front of him didn’t quite match the surroundings. He moved forward, and passed through the doorway into a bustling city center. Far above him hovered a rotating marquee that spelled out “Global Server”.

“Parallel,” he stated, “take me to West 83rd Street… the fountain right on the edge of the park.”

The world around him fell away, and then rematerialized as a patch of greenery in a dense urban area. To Vince’s side bubbled a fountain with three angelic figures as its centerpiece.

He crossed the street and entered an unassuming bar with a sign that read, “Cipresso.”

The familiar space was once again occupied by only a handful of patrons. But this, thought Vince, was part of its charm. He proceeded toward the bar, where an unfamiliar face was mixing drinks.

“Is Fey around?”

“Who?” responded the woman behind the counter.


“Sorry hun, don’t know any Felicia.”

“Oh, well, umm-” Vince stumbled over his words, a rarity for a man who gave so many presentations. “You’re sure?”

The bartender presented him with an irritated look.

“Of course you’re sure… You haven’t started recently, have you?”

She shook her head.

“Strange… sorry, I must have the wrong place.”

Embarrassed and confused, Vince headed toward the door.

I’d swear we sat over at that table.

Stepping back out to the street, he was almost immediately greeted by a familiar voice. “Hey handsome, looking for someone?”

Only meters outside of the bar, Fey was casually leaned up against a streetlight, a mischievous smile on her face. She was wearing a dark, stylish trench coat and a fiery red wig.

“Shania, thinks my name is Roxi.”

“And why is that?” Vince responded with a smile.

“Because I told her that.”


“What’s the harm in a little fun, Mr. Gevan?”


The bright flash of a distant explosion briefly illuminated the massive pipe-like course that Max and Pace sped forward on. It was impossible for them to distinguish up from down, as a strong gravitational force held their bike to the track at any given position. The space quickly fell dark again, with the pulse of an occasional light ring that was built into the track rushing by.

“You’re being awfully quiet Ji-Hye,” said Max. “That wasn’t you, was it?”

Pace laughed to himself.

“Haha, very funny,” responded Ji over the radio. “Jean took them out in one or two shots. I think he likes this new wave cannon Pace, he almost considered saying something with that last hit.”

“Hey, hey,” interjected Jean, “no need to tarnish such a beautiful moment with words.”

Max quickly glanced at her rear-view screen, seeing nothing behind them.

“We have about… 2k to go until we exit the tunnel.”

“Very good,” responded Ji, “any signs of our other friends?”

“No,” said Max, “Zigg and Dee aren’t at the top of their games today. I think we’ve got a good ten second lead on ‘em.”

“No complaints here, just don’t get careless. Let’s take this one home.”

The next few moments were uncharacteristically serene. Pace released his grip on the controls, and sat, watching a dozen or so rings of light pass them by.

“Hey Pace,” said Max softly. “Do you think we can do this?” There was a flicker of doubt in her voice.


“Good. Because I want this more than anything…”

Their bike exited the tunnel and was bathed in the brilliant sunlight of an open, coastal environment. The track curved gently to the right and then back to the left, and finally straightened into a long stretch along the water.

As Max and Pace glided across the finish line, they began to decelerate, passing by their teammates’ vehicle, which was already off the track.

“1022,” said Max with a smile.


“Dear Lord,” the minister’s voice rang out against a backdrop of imperfect organ music, “please accept Diane’s spirit into your loving arms, comforting us with the reminder that someday we will meet her again in our true home, a kingdom where you reign for all eternity. Amen.”

“Amen,” responded the congregation in unison.

The sun was shining brightly outside the front of the church, an inappropriately pleasant day for a funeral. Vincent stepped out the doorway following a small crowd as they funneled out. He squinted his eyes sharply as they adjusted to the light.

An older woman with a glimmer of youthfulness in her eyes rested a hand on his shoulder. “Vince,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek, “it means so much to us that you came.”

He smiled, and placed his right hand on top of hers. “Family is important to me, Aunt Margaret.”

“Well,” she said with a brief pause, “I know you’re very busy. Goodness, you had to cut your trip short. Diane would have- I’m sure she’s pleased to know you are here.”

He nodded and Margaret gave him a hug before proceeding toward a group of younger relatives.

Vince looked over toward a large tree that was providing shade to several people gathered on the sidewalk, one of its large branches held up by a metal support pole. He recalled a time during his childhood when he tried to climb this tree, and his mother scolded him to get down, worried for his safety.

“It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?” a male voice said as his cousin Ivan walked up and stood next to him.

“…what is?”

“That people still take part in this ritual.”

“Perhaps. You want a funeral someday, don’t you?”

“Eh, maybe. Feels unnecessary. Religion’s been on its way out for years, but some people don’t want to let things go.”

“People find comfort here. Nonsense or not.” Vince chuckled. “I’m no saint, but I do like the idea of heaven.”

“Amen,” replied Ivan.

They stood quietly for a minute or so, trying to reconcile the somber mood of the memorial with the soft chirping of birds around them.

“Next time you in town, let’s hit up Montecello’s.”

“Definitely,” said Vince, as he put on a sleek pair of sunglasses.


“Take care Ivan,” he responded, proceeded toward the parking lot where an orange sports car stood out among an assemblage of humble looking sedans.


Three strange entities sat quietly in the narrow space facing Xun, as if they had been anticipating his arrival. On the left was a slim, bald man – unremarkable in many ways, except for the game of Space Invaders playing out on his bare chest like a living tattoo. On the right, upon an old wooden chair sat an unsettling Dobermann, anatomically perfect with one major exception: a lack of eyes or a place for them to set into. Between these two was a gentleman wearing an exceptionally well fitted suit, whose head had been replaced with a 1950’s CRT television set.

“Hello Xun,” said the one in the center his voice laced heavily with static. “I am Stex-two-eighty-two. I take it you’ve come because our little puzzle has piqued your interest?”

“Yes,” Xun stated. “And if I do break the encryption…”


“I’d like to talk to Faust.”

The television screen head in front of Xun flickered back and forth between color bars and a snowstorm of visual noise.

“I would be more than happy to arrange a meeting between you and our boss. But what makes you so confident you can crack this? Thirty-seven of the best cryptographers on the dark net have failed so far…”

Xun shook his head slightly. “If you doubt my abilities why are we having this meeting?”

“I’m a realist,” replied Stex.

“Then you wouldn’t waste your time with me if you didn’t think I had something to offer. What is that?”

The canine and the bald man briefly looked at Stex, and then all three looked intently at Xun.

“You’re a gifted hacker with an unconventional moral compass…”

“I’m no hacker. Hacker is a profession. I’m a software developer who understands how to break poorly constructed systems.”

“Semantics, Mr. Jiang. Tell me, is it true that you managed to kill one of Parallels moderator AIs?”

“Removed,” corrected Xun once again, “not killed.”

“Do you have a prejudice against artificial intelligences? For all you know the three of us could be AIs ourselves…”

“You could be,” said Xun, “and I couldn’t care less. I did that because…”

“…no one else had done it yet,” Stex finished for him. “For a man of few words and fewer signs of emotion, you have an intense curiosity. And perhaps that is where we are very much alike… ” He paused. “What has stopped you from tinkering in Cognetta?”

“I’m no idiot. There is far more reason to fear a network of social deviants than a capitol-driven corporation.”

“Indeed. I’m transferring the file to you now.”

“And where does this code come from?”

“Let’s not waste valuable time with such petty details…”


For the first time in ages, Xun found himself walking through unfamiliar space, a location he imagined would have looked like Hong Kong two or three decades in the past. The darkness around him was illuminated with the glow of countless neon lights, blinking, shifting, morphing into messages in a variety of languages and codes.

A bright rectangular path appeared on the street beneath him, beckoning to follow it, which he did without hesitation.

Small crowds flanked him on both sides off the street, one group dancing to an erratic mix of electropunk and dubstep.

“Mute audio,” Xun instructed his Parallel client.

“You do not have sufficient privileges to perform this action,” the automated voice stated.

He was annoyed by the inconvenience, but mildly entertained by the challenge.

“Run Dglossa program. Mute audio.”

There was a 4 or 5 second delay and the music went silent.

He rounded a corner where the street ended at a large highrise building; at its edges, tall rails of light pulsated upwards toward the sky.

The path on the ground zigzagged around several structures, and finally ended at an unassuming door several meters inside an alleyway. Xun opened the door and let himself in without knocking.

He hadn’t taken more than two or three steps into the dim interior when suddenly a cage of translucent cubes materialized around him. He pocketed his hands and his eyes moved slightly up and to the right.

“…four, three, two, one…” he mouthed.

“Dglossa Subroutine 1… blocked,” his client’s voice stated.

“Dglossa Subroutine 2… success.”

The cubes around him fell away and then vanished.

“Very good,” said a man with a thick Scottish accent from a table against the back wall. He was engrossed in some sort of card game.

“If that’s your security system,” stated Xun, “it’s not very robust.”

The man at the table laughed. “Nah, it’s just a bit of entertainment for our guests. Ain’t that right Vi?”

“Nothing more than a welcome mat,” a woman across from him said, tossing a card down onto the table.

“I’m here to talk to Stex.”

“Didja make an appointment?” the man asked with a touch of mockery.

“Stop wasting my time.”

The man snapped his fingers, and the cards in his hand vanished. “This one’s got a stick up his ass.” He gestured toward an interior doorway. “Through there. Best not waste his time, Stex is a very, very busy man.”


“We have exactly 9 days until the AGPX Invitationals. That’s 9 days to make it into the top 1000!” Max slammed her fist on the table in front of her to emphasize her point.

This wasn’t news to her teammates – they’d all been tracking the leaderboards for a good month now, but she liked the idea of a team captain giving a pep-talk before things got serious.

“Great speech,” said Ji-Hye, applauding sarcastically, “riveting.”

Her partner, Jean, who was leaned up against a wall quietly nodded. He had a dark complexion and sported a checkered knitted cap.

“If we really want to do it this year,” stated Pace, “we’ve got to maintain a 20:1 win-loss ratio.” He was wearing his helmet and jumpsuit despite being off the track.

“Which means we get, what, one loss? Two tops?”

“Sounds about right,” Max chimed in. “This is big. I’ll skip class if I have to.”

“It won’t be a problem for me to change my schedule around,” said Ji. “And rumor has it, Jean doesn’t sleep. And Pace… he literally doesn’t sleep, so…”

“Damn that’s gotta be convenient,” Max thought aloud.

Pace’s visor angled slightly away from his teammates. “I’ll trade THAT any day to not be treated like a third-class citizen. I still have to nod off on occasion.”

“Yeah,” responded Ji with a smirk, “an hour every two weeks has to be tough. You gotta admit Pace, living in this space does have its perks.”

“It sure does,” he responded coldly, proceeding toward the door. “I’m gonna go run the practice course. Catch you guys later.”

“Pace,” shouted Max, “wait-” but she was cut off by the slam of a door, which was followed by a vacuum of silence.


Darlah was a thin, middle-aged woman with a timid demeanor, but strong hands. She wore a pale blue blouse with a pair of glasses that were impeccably polished, like the stack of spotless plates she lifted into her kitchen cupboard. She glanced back at her daughter, seated at their aging dining room table.

“How are your classes Maxine?”

“Fine,” Max responded, looking down at a touchscreen device in her right hand. Her legs were crossed, resting on the table’s edge.

“Have you made any new friends?”

“Not really,” she said, her gaze locked on the display.

Darlah walked over and rested a hand on the back of her daughter’s chair. “Well I…” She paused. “I hope you do. The bonds you form in high school can be some of the strongest – at least they were back when I was in school.”

Max looked up for a brief moment. “I have friends mom.”

“Oh I know, you do. It’s just… you don’t leave the house very often, and you haven’t had anyone over in a long time.”


Her mom sat in the chair next to her.

“Have you thought about joining a club or getting a part time job? You spend so much time on Parallel playing games that –”

“Mom,” Max said. “Do you know how much money Antonio Silva makes?”

“No. Over 100,000?”

“Per race.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Six figures per race.”

Her mom’s expression was hard to read, perhaps a mix of surprise and skepticism. “You know Max… You need to do what you love. Just don’t lose sight of the important things. I just want what’s best for you. You know that… right?”

Max smiled for a moment. “I know.”

“Oh hey!” Darlah said, her brown eyes lighting up. “Would you help me pick out something to wear? Aileen’s coming over again tonight for dinner and well… She said she’d love to meet you, did I mention that?”

Max finished typing out a message to Pace and set her device on the table. She scanned over her mother. “That looks nice.”

“This? No, I’ve been cleaning up in it all day. It probably smells.”

“Well if she really likes you, she won’t care.”

Darlah flashed her daughter an exaggerated expression of doubt.

“Come on, let’s go look through your stuff.”


“Jiang? Jiang Xun? …that’s strange, I’m not seeing any connectivity issues-”

“-I’m here,” Xun replied, though somewhat reluctantly. He turned away from the four code-filled screens of his virtual work space. “What is it?”

“We never received your confirmation regarding tomorrow’s meeting,” his supervisor stated. “If I recall you were not in attendance at the last one. I should remind you that these things are mandatory…”

“Yes, I’m sorry Mei, I was just about to confirm my-”

“You’re a valuable asset to our team at Dòngnéng, Jiang, but I can’t keep covering for you. We simply can’t have any slip-ups with such an important project on our hands.”

Important, thought Xun, his inner voice thick with sarcasm. Infrastructure is important. Hospitals are important. Encryption is important. Not shallow online social exchanges.

“Now I know as a part of the development team you don’t always feel your voice is heard but let me assure you-”

“Private call requested,” an automated voice chimed in over Mei’s talking.

“I really need to take this… it’s… Zhou,” he said.

“Well promise me you’ll be here tomorrow for Parallel’s integration presentation. And remember, all development next week needs to take place on site. The boss has emphasized the importance of working in a secure environment.”

“I promise I’ll be there,” he replied.

“Okay, thank y-” He ended the connection before she could finish.

“Accept private call.”

There was a brief moment of silence.

“…hello Jiang.” A man’s voice greeted him, taking particular care in the enunciation of each syllable it spoke. “Are you still interested in that little puzzle I mentioned last week?”


“I know you are. Check your parcel box. The one you don’t normally use. Thank me later.”

The private caller ended their conversation before Xun could respond.

“Exit Parallel,” Xun said.

“Are you sure you’d like to end your session?” the automated voice asked.


The space around Xun faded away and his attention returned to the sensations of the world on his physical body. The surface he laid on was cool, but not cold, and his apartment had a mild, musty smell to it. Not that he cared about the latter.

He removed a silver cord from the side of his head and sat up, looking around to allow his eyes to adjust to the light around him. It had been raining earlier that morning, but it looked as if the clouds were starting to dissipate.

Standing, Xun walked over to his apartment door, opened it, and continued down the hall to a collection of old, rusted lock-boxes. Inside his was a small, unmarked package, which he retrieved and brought back to his place. Opening the box, he found a rectangular microchip, along with a handwritten note:

You know the risks involved. Once you’ve modded your hardware, boot into the system and you will find a black door in your user space next to the public gateway entrance.

Welcome to CogNETa.


The bar was thinning out and Vince, on his fourth or fifth drink, took advantage of both the mental and physical space he was so rarely afforded. No meetings to prepare for, no flights to catch, just an investment deal to turn over in his head and a Manhattan with the promise of no hangover in the morning.

He thought back for a moment to simpler days when he used to stay out past 2am with his old college friends. Christine, Arush, Thomas… Marta.

Sure he didn’t have the money or recognition then, but life was carefree and full of energy.

At least until rent was due at the end of the month…

“Hey,” a soft yet bold voice broke Vince’s thoughts. He turned slightly to find the waitress he’d met eyes with earlier leaning forward into the table, her cleavage slightly exposed.

“Hey,” he responded with a smile.

“Do I know you from somewhere?”

“It’s possible.”

“You were in that film Pangloss, right?”

He found her teasing words scintillating.

“That’s right,” he responded, “I’m Joshua Gevan.”

She laughed. “Well Mr. Gevan, I’m Felicia. But you can call me Fey.”

“Vince,” he said, setting down his glass.

“Vince is definitely better than Josh, it has edge to it.” She pulled in closer to him. “You know, I was starting to think your friend would never leave.”

“He certainly knows how to draw out a conversation.”

She brushed aside a strand of her short, black hair from her face. Vince noticed a faint tattoo, a short series of binary numbers on the right side of her face. Definitely not something he would have chosen, but who was he to judge?

“So Vince,” Fey continued, “my shift’s basically over. You wanna go have some fun?”

“Sure. Where?”

She seized his hand and casually led him to the back. They walked into a mostly empty room, with a few unused shelves, and she closed the door behind them.

“I don’t get the point of storage rooms in places like this,” he laughed. “Is anyone really keeping shit back here?”

“You know the answer to that,” Fey replied. “Some people want to make the experience as real as possible.” She pulled herself toward him and kissed his lips. Vince reciprocated with fervor.

“Tell me,” she said breathing heavily, “do you look anything like your avatar?”

He kissed her cheek just above the tattoo. “Of course I do. You?”

She smiled, but dodged the question herself. “You know,” she said, “we could do some fun, nasty things tonight… but then again, you’re a pragmatist, aren’t you?” She pulled her forehead to his and both of them suddenly cried out as they were hit with a fierce wave of pleasure.

“What… what the hell… was that?” Vince asked between breaths? “It was amazing…”

“Sometimes it pays to have a little knowledge of the system,” she said, moving closer to him for another round.