1.1.4

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…”

“Yes?”

“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…”

1.1.3

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.”

1.1.2

“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.

1.1.1

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.”

1.1.0

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Yes.”

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.

1.0.4

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.

1.0.3

“Hahaha! You told them what?” howled Stefano. “Vincent my friend,” he said raising his glass, “you have nerves… you have… balls of steel!” He finished what was left of his drink and inelegantly placed it on the table.

“Now look,” responded Vince as he lifted his own glass, “I don’t go around pretending to be a Zuckerberg or Musk or Nakamura, but I do expect a certain level of… quality given my position. Especially when I sacrifice my valuable time and resources to do so.”

“And did they meet your demands?” Stefano asked in amusement.

Vince chuckled and shook his head. “That poor boy. The look he gave me was like… I’ll get fired for this!” He took a sip. “Of course they didn’t. A bottle of wine to all the patrons who ordered the same Pinot Noir?!” He set his glass on the table, which clanked with the sound of ice cubes falling back into place. “You know me. I would never try to pull that shit at say… a place like this. But if you claim to have the best north of Burgundy, that had better be an objective statement.”

Stefano stood briefly. “Another round of drinks over here please!” Returning to his seat, he folded his arms leaning slightly into the table.

“There are clearly more rungs on the ladder left for you to climb then,” he said shifting to a more serious tone. “I’ll give you some time to think it over, but I urge you to consider the opportunity in front of us. The future is deep analytics. Behavioral tracking can only get you so far… it lacks…”

“Nuance.”

“Precisely!”

A waitress set a pair of whiskey drinks on their table, flashing Vince a mischievous smile as she made her way back to the bar. His eyes followed her for a second or two.

“Since Parallel has lifted some of the restrictions in its data collection and use policies, there is a wellspring of potential in front of us for predicting consumer behaviors. But only the first few visionaries to act will be able to stake their claim on the market.”

“I’m not averse to taking a risk you know – hell, I made my first 500k on a gamble. But I’ve never played in the world of big data, and I’m not so sure I’m ready to.”

“It doesn’t pique your interest?”

“There are also ethical questions.”

Vince looked back toward the bar, and the girl smiled at him as their eyes briefly connected.

“I will have an answer for you next week when I have returned to the States,” he said, raising his glass to Stefano.

“And if I like that answer I will send you an exceptional bottle of Pinot Noir!” the larger man joked clinking their glasses together. “Prost, my friend!”

1.0.2

“…the latest in a series of major data breaches taking place earlier this morning around 5 am UTC. The target: Innovocor, the well known tech conglomerate who acquired SrVo last April. Cybersecurity firms have yet to release any official statements about the source of the attack, but online communities are attributing the breach to self-proclaimed hacking-artist Nikola. The governments of Romania and Germany have agreed to…”

Vince averted his attention from the news screen hanging above the central space of the New International Stock Exchange, an open, circular room with corridors reaching out in every direction. He was well dressed, but not overly so, wearing a gray blazer with blue-gray designer pants. He brushed a hand through his sandy brown hair, and turned as he heard his name called out.

“Mr. Vincent Parrish – in the flesh!” a heavier gentleman in a full black suit said approaching him with an extended hand. “How the hell are you?”

“Well as always, Stefano,” he responded with his trademark confidence. “In Berlin right now on business, actually.”

“Always the world traveler – at a conference I suspect?” The man didn’t offer Vince time to respond. “I lost the itch to travel ages ago, it’s gotten less meaningful over the years you know. Though I occasionally visit Jenette’s family in Maine around the holiday season.” He held his finger up for a moment. “Sorry, a message from one of my associates.” Stefano was silent for about fifteen seconds or so. “My apologies,” he continued. “Anyway, I should thank you for meeting me here on such short notice.”

“Anything for an old friend,” Vince responded.

“Shall we go straight to the restaurant or do things the old fashioned way?”

Vince couldn’t help but shake his head at the irony in such a statement. “Let’s walk there, but not because I need the exercise. I need to force myself to slow down once in a while.”

The two began to make their way toward one of the many doorways, and Vince briefly glanced up at the screen above him once more, catching an advertisement for a luxury vehicle that only existed in immaterial space.

1.0.1

Rows of pylons rushed by on Max’s right side, united as a stream of undulating blue light. She glanced to her left and eased back slightly on the throttle that she gripped loosely.

“Pace, how’s the scenery back there?” She accelerated as they exited their turn.

“Still no sign of Corona,” responded a young man’s voice.

She grit her teeth slightly. “ –Don’t blink.” She scanned the environment around her for a moment and then tapped on a screen. “Ji, talk to me.”

“We just crossed paths with their second bike at the last junction. Think they took the upper road. Got a few shots on us but no serious damage.”

“Good, we’ve got a lead on number one but not by much.”

Max and Pace’s vehicle shot through a tunnel carved into the dark landscape.

“Where the hell are-”

“I see them,” reported Pace.

“Where?” Max responded, rapidly looking over the array of displays surrounding her.

“Just came up from the lower level – south tunnel.”

A volley of vivid red laser blasts grazed their rear cockpit.

“Punch it!”

The bike shot forward as Max slammed the throttle away from herself, nearly colliding with a line of metal pillars in the center of the track. Another series of blasts narrowly missed them.

“Send something back there way, will ya?”

Pace focused sharply on the view outside his rear cockpit window, anticipating the trajectory of the vehicle trailing them. He shifted the yoke-like controls carefully down, and slowly compressed a pair of triggers with his hands.

A series of short but powerful snaps could be heard as a torrent of laser blasts emanated from the turret on their own bike, racing backward toward their opponent. The Corona vehicle swung to the left and then right again as it was struck by three or four of them.

“Too early…” grumbled Pace under his breath.

They glided over a smooth curve in the track, which sent them downward on a slope that extended deep into a canyon, the walls covered in screens displaying an impressive variety of signs and logos.

“I’ll shake them at the fork-” began Max, but Pace interjected.

“-Stay to the right, they’ve taken more hits than we have.”

Descending into the rushing blur of neon displays, Max pulled their bike close to the canyon wall.

“We need to close this gap between us, at this distance they have plenty of time to react.”

“You want me to-”

“Yes, slow down.”

“I’d rather leave those posers in the dust.”

“Excellent synergy you two,” Ji’s voice rang over the speaker, thick with sarcasm. “Cut it out and win this thing.”

Max pulled back on the throttle and the vehicle behind them slowly began to draw closer. There was a tense, brief calm as the racers faced each other down, immediately followed by a storm of crossfire.

“Here we go,” said Pace who flashed a brief smile. He compressed the triggers in each of his hands one last time, and the Corona bike behind them exploded into a violent cloud of flame and smoke.

“That’s how it’s done!” shouted Ji. “Great work, now bring it-”

Her words were cut short as the broad side of Max and Pace’s back wheel was struck by another line of laser fire. In a moment of slowed time, their vehicle spiraled into the air and then down to the canyon floor beyond the racetrack. Corona’s second vehicle, which had emerged from a tunnel above the main path, shot forward and out of site.

Max blinked several times as she tried to find her orientation. Before she could piece together exactly what had happened, the world around her dissolved away, and she found herself standing in a vast, empty white space with the words “Players 3 and 4 Disqualified” hovering above. She took off her helmet, and a cascade of bright red hair fell past her shoulders.

“Damn,” she said.

1.0.0

Jiang Xun stepped out into the cool night air and rested an arm on the rail of his tiny apartment’s balcony. He didn’t really understand the need for such a space, though he was aware that a few considered regular exposure to the outdoors a necessary part of their lives. He looked across the river that divided his complex from the hazed skyline of a brightly-lit mega-city. How could something so vast be… inexplicably drab?

He reached into the pocket of his pants and withdrew an electronic vaporizer along with a vial of finely shredded plant material. He pulled back a slot in the blue-gray cylinder, poured some in, and ran his finger across a smooth switch on its side. He then brought the device to his mouth and drew in a few, heavy breaths.

It had a mildly sweet, earthy taste. But it was hardly anything special.

Xun held the device up to eye level and studied it for a moment. At least the glowing end of this thing was slightly more interesting than the common “burn free” models.

He raised his other arm for a moment, looked at it, and then pressed the fiery end of the device into the palm of his hand, holding it there for two or three seconds. He winced, but didn’t make a sound, gazing down at the charred circular mark below his fingers.

“I don’t get it,” he muttered into the wind.