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Staring Into the Abyss · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Agent of a Foreign Power
A quiet chime of an incoming call brings me back to life.

I stare at the ceiling for what feels like an eternity. There’s not much to see there – all six surfaces in the cube I call home feature the same matte gray finish, gently textured with a low-resolution stucco pattern designed to provide the illusion of reality. There’s no visible light source in the room yet, just an omnipresent glow that envelops the few physical objects that have begun to resolve. The false light casts no shadows.

The sound comes again, the low tinkle of electronic bells. I let it repeat while I muster my thoughts and battle through the confusion that always accompanies an unscheduled resurrection. For a moment I’ve completely forgotten myself, overwhelmed by a rush of cold panic at the sight of the sterile walls and impossible light. I nearly scream when I try to rise and realize I have no body.

But that’s the cue for the rational part of my mind to take control. I reign in my emotions, take the equivalent of a deep breath, and check the clock.

16:42, April 23, 2054. Interesting. It’s not August yet. I shouldn’t be alive for another three months.

The chime is louder now. Whatever’s calling me is getting impatient. I consider the clock for another moment, then authorize my ghost to accept the call.

“Good morning, Mister Sparrow,” a perfect, crystal clear voice sounds in my mind. Too perfect for a human. “I’m sorry for contacting you out-of-cycle like this, but we have an opportunity you are extremely well suited for. Are you available to meet?”

I would roll my eyes, if I had any. He knows I’m not scheduled to be alive for another three months, but wants to know if I’m available to meet? I’m tempted to disconnect the call simply out of pique.

The old me, the living me, would have done so. Instead I reply with a curt message in plain text.

Too expensive, I send. Text?

“I understand that instantiation out-of-cycle can be a burden,” the perfect voice said. “We’re prepared to cover all CPU costs for this meeting.”

That gets my attention. If I wasn’t awake before, I am now.

Okay, I send. When?

“Whenever you like.” The call disconnects with a quiet click, and a green sphere appears in the center of my room. A gently pulsating 会 symbol floats in the center, like a typographic insect caught in electronic amber. An ancient subroutine I haven’t used in years instantly identifies the glyph as the Chinese symbol for ‘Meet.’

So, a hint as to who’s behind this. Nerves that haven’t been connected to muscles in a long time attempt to shrug. I focus my attention on the glyph until it turns red, and I die again.

When I open my eyes, I’m sitting – really sitting – on a plush red cushion before a low, Oriental-style wooden table. Red lanterns fill the room with a gentle glow, reflecting off of polished wood walls that are carved with fanciful images of dragons, phoenixes, cranes and other mythical beasts frozen in the act of chasing each other. A porcelain pot is steaming on the table, and I can smell the gentle, bitter scent of green tea rising from it.

I can smell it. The wonder of that simple act stuns me. Smell and taste are frivolous senses, not worth simulating except for the wealthiest citizens. The processing power needed to recreate the impression of those aromatic molecules interacting with imaginary cells in my imaginary nose to send a signal along imaginary nerves to an imaginary brain is boggling. Every second I am smelling this tea could keep me alive for minutes back in my gray cube home.

I reach out and touch the teapot, and get a second shock. My hand is more than just a rough jumble of polygons pretending to be a palm and fingers. It’s a perfect mesh, overlaid with textured skin so real that I can see every freckle, every hair, every microscopic wrinkle. I gaze at it in wonder. It even has fingerprints.

“I hope you don’t mind, Mister Sparrow,” says the man sitting across from me, who wasn’t there until the very instant he began speaking. “Annwyn is a high fidelity server. I know it can be a little overwhelming at first.”

“No, it’s… it’s fine,” I say. My voice isn’t remarkable, for even cheap sims can run audio. What’s remarkable is that my tongue and lips and mouth all move, manipulating the air like I was still in the meat world. I close my eyes, focus, and… yes, I can hear it. A heart is beating inside this chest.

“I wanted to meet with you like this to show you how serious we are,” the man says. He is tall, with Asian features except for his eyes, which are as green as grass. He pours out two cups of tea and slid one across the table toward me. “You can call me Charles. I represent a government.”

“A government?” I take the tea and inhale the steam. “Any government in particular?”

“Yes, but for legal reasons it is best if that part remains undisclosed. Better for both of us.”

I nod. “I understand.” I don’t understand, of course, I don’t understand any of this, but I haven’t smelled tea in twenty some years, and I’m not eager to risk this experience ending early.

“We would like to hire you to perform a simple service for us,” Charles says. “There is a woman we have been trying to contact for some time, but we have not had any luck in doing so. She is carefully screening her calls, and the simulation she’s in rejects most external connections. We would like you to enter and deliver a message to her.”

I try to take a sip. The tea is so hot it burns my tongue. I take another sip just to feel it again. “It sounds like she’s trying to avoid you.”

“That seems to be the case,” Charles says. “Though, obviously, since she won’t talk to us, we can’t ask her if she is.”

“But you think she’ll talk to me?”

“Maybe, maybe not. But we do think you can get into her simulation and deliver the message. That’s what we’ll pay you for.”

I take another sip. “You said her server rejects external connections? Won’t it reject me?”

“It rejects humans and AIs. As far as we can tell, though, ghosts are allowed in.”

“Ah. A moment, please?” Before Charles is able to reply, I’m already downscaling the simulation.

The beautiful textures vanish first, replaced with simple 3-D shapes colored brown and red and cream. Complex shadows go away next, and the room becomes a primitive collection of light and dark. Charles’s perfectly animated face turns into simple triangles, his features painted atop them. The scent of the tea, the lingering sting on my tongue, the feel of the air through my nostrils, all vanish. They are unnecessary wastes of power.

I glance down at my hands. They are nothing more than sticks now, with balls for joints. The teacup is a simple torus bobbing every so slightly out-of-sync with my arms.

There’s more to go. I downscale further, and the room ceases to even render in three dimensions. Flat shapes float in a plane before me, like a window on an ancient graphics simulator.

More, more. I surrender all the visual elements, all the sensations. A blindfold falls over my eyes, blotting out the last pixelated colors. My sense of self vanishes, for I have no body any more. I am only a ghost, a simulation of a long-dead man, running in software on some fantastically powerful computer whose design is so far beyond my ken it might as well be magic.

In the end, all that remains is text. I see the text – I am the text – and I read.

>Tea Room
>This wood paneled room resembles a traditional Japanese tea house. An alcove in the west wall holds an elegant, spartan bamboo and orchid ikebana, above which hangs an ornate scroll flowing with grass-like characters. Red lanterns are set in each of the corners, providing enough light to make out the tea set on the table.
>Also here: Charles.
>Exits: None.

That’s as far down as I can go. There’s nothing below text. I check my ghost’s chronometer, and see that I’m now running nearly fifty times faster than server standard.

To see is a wonderful thing. To touch, to feel, to smell the tea. To be alive in the way that a real person is alive. But all that costs CPU cycles, and I need those for other things right now.

It took two subjective seconds to go from full fidelity to plain text. To Charles, less than one-twentieth of a second has passed.

I have time to think.

I can’t trust Charles. I don’t know who he is. I don’t even know what he is – human or AI or a ghost like me. But if he were a ghost, presumably he could just intrude on this mystery woman’s server himself.

Charles is no ghost. I know this as deeply as a simulation can know anything. Charles is wealthy and powerful. Ghosts are weak things like me, crawling through the electronic substrate, hoarding our cycles for a few weeks of life per year. Whatever Charles is, he isn’t a ghost.

But he is rich, or at least he has resources. A government could afford a server like this, obviously. A human wouldn’t bother – their brains do most of the work anyway, the server only needs to provide basic sound and video. And if he’s an AI he doesn’t care about resources. Even twenty years ago, when I uploaded, the weakest AIs could control entire economies. After two decades of exponential growth there is probably nothing an AI can’t do. They are so godlike and inhuman in their capacity that they exist almost as a separate species, as incomprehensible to us as humans are to the termites gnawing through the floorboards beneath their feet.

So, government or mega-corp. Maybe he’s telling the truth after all.

I upscale enough to speak. “Why me? There are millions of ghosts.” The words emerge at server speed, but they feel as slow as molasses to me. They take nearly thirty subjective seconds to utter.

Charles puts his tea on the table. I don’t see him do this, for I cannot see; the server informs me with a simple line of text:

>Charles puts his tea on the table.

“That is true,” he says, and I read. “But only a few have been to Shangri-la.”

Ah. I consider that, letting the memories come back and overwhelm me. For nearly a minute I am lost to them. To Charles, less than a second passes.

I upscale back to server speed. Everything – my heartbeat, the lights, the beautiful room, the bitter scent of tea, the sting on my tongue – rushes back to flood my overwhelmed senses. The corner of Charles’s mouth turns up, and I wonder if he knows the games I am playing with time.

“She’s in Shangri-la?” I ask. I didn’t know it still existed.

“Sort of. A private simulation of the original. The ruleset appears to be the same, though.”

Christ. “Mortality?”

“Apparently,” Charles says. “You can see why we want someone who’s been there before.”

“Yeah, well, good luck with that. I don’t think I’m your ghost.” I make to stand, but Charles stops me with a lifted hand.

“You haven’t heard our offer yet,” he says.

I chuckle. “Buddy, what am I gonna do with money? Go buy a nicer house?”

“Not money. A year, here on Annwyn. On our server.”

My breath catches, and it takes me a second to realize how extraordinary that is – I haven’t breathed in years. Then his offer sinks in.

A year, living in perfect fidelity. Like being meat again. All the powers of a ghost, feeble though they might be, and unconstrained by the vagrant poverty of living off scrap CPU cycles. To be the closest thing to a real person I could be. With my software operating on this server, I could instantiate anywhere in the network in high sensorium.

For a full year. A full year at this level. On my current server, I could barely eke out one day a year at this level of sensorium. And to do that I would have to die the other 364 days of the year.

I lick my lips and marvel at the feel of saliva. “All I have to do is deliver a message?”

Charles smiles. “That’s all. Just get it in her hands. Even if she doesn’t read it, we’ll pay you.”

“And if I can’t get it to her?”

“Then we’ll call it a wash. Let’s say, a month on this server. For your trouble.”

A month. Nearly thirty years of processing power at my current level, just for making the attempt. There wasn’t a ghost in the network who wouldn’t claw their way over my corpse to get at that offer. But Shangri-la…

Shangri-la. I can see it again in my mind. Here, on this server, my memories finally exist as true sensations, images and sounds. Emotions, recalled from some dusty flash circuit buried on a long-forgotten server, now given new life. For the first time in years I really remember Shangri-la. The joy. The wonder. The terror.

“Alright,” I say. “I’ll do it.”

Charles smiles. A moment later, my ghost pings me to announce the arrival of a large data package.

“I’m glad to hear that, Mister Sparrow. You’ll find all the details you need in those documents, as well as our contract.”

“How will I get ahold of you?”

“You won’t. I’m afraid we won’t be speaking again. But good luck all the same.”

With that, Charles waves his hand, and I die again.

It takes a lot of processing power to simulate a human mind.

The first human-to-machine transfer cost nearly a billion dollars. By the 2030s the price was down to around ten million dollars, a range that high-earning professionals could realistically aim to accumulate by their 70s, when the brain begins the long slide into somnolence and dementia. It was amazing how much money you could save by working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, never marrying, foregoing children and all the other expenses associated with a mortal lifespan. After all, what was worth more, digital immortality or a family?

Spoiler: the answer is immortality.

But the early pioneers of digital transfer made some miscalculations about the whole thing. Not on the engineering or science or medical side, which were absolutely perfect. No, they screwed up the economics, which was in the end probably even worse.

They called us Digitals at first, the daring pioneers of a new form of electronic life. We would live in a simulated universe that was larger, faster, more complex and infinitely more fun than the boring, matter based universe of our meat-bound kin. With our advanced processing power, limitless intelligence and memory, and instant mental access to all the knowledge of mankind, we were the new demigods. We could command any price for our services.

Except, except. It takes a lot of processing power to simulate a human mind. And it’s much cheaper to just buy an old-fashioned CPU than to hire a digital immortal running on that same CPU. All of our thoughts, our conscience, emotions, memories, our very sense of self; they all take a lot of electricity just to keep us ‘alive,’ for whatever value of alive you happen to be simulating.

Our dreams of a digital empire, with ourselves as immortal kings and emperors, didn’t survive this understanding. For years, economists kept predicting some new breakthrough, some method of production that would make it worthwhile to hire a digital instead of a regular human or an AI. But those predictions never came true, and in the end they stopped calling us digitals.

We became the ghosts. Shadows haunting the networks, jealously guarding our processing power. And always, always making the trade-off between time and sensorium.

I could simulate the lavish sensational opulence of Annwyn. I could run processes for sight and touch and even a heartbeat. If I wanted I could load up programs for the pain of a seared tongue and the bitter scent of green tea. But if I did those things, it would take hours to simulate a single minute of existence. A year would pass in less than two days.

No one, human or ghost, can live so deeply out-of-phase with the rest of the world. So, like my digital brethren, I compromise. No colors, no complex shapes. A stick-figure avatar, like something from a turn of the century video game. Ruthless optimizations to my audio sensorium that turns speech into a rough Morse-like code and music into garbled static. It’s a gray existence, and I can only run it for one month a year.

It’s not what I thought immortality would be like, but it beats the alternative.

I’m reborn, as always, in my little gray cube of a world. The six flat planes mock me with their simplicity. The unmoving, tasteless air threatens to choke me until I realize I no longer have a body to breath with.

For a moment, despair overwhelms me. To have been cast out of the closest thing to heaven in the digital world, returned to the purgatory that defines a ghost’s existence. Back to hoarding cycles and dying eleven months of the year, so we can eke out a mockery of life for those remaining few weeks. This torment, this gray existence, is a proper punishment for my cowardly choice all those decades ago.

But only for a moment. Then I remember – as best I can remember, here – the sensory delight of Annwyn. It is waiting for me.

I order my ghost to open the data package from Charles. A table appears in my room, and on it several folders filled with documents. They automatically resolve into high resolution as I focus on them.

The first is simple enough, a contract mirroring my verbal agreement with Charles. It’s short, simple and legally binding. Normally I’d look for some hidden catch, but this is too simple to hide anything in. If Charles is planning to con me, it isn’t with the contract.

The second is the message I’m supposed to deliver. It’s in a sealed envelope, and I know better than to try and open it. Objects in the network aren’t always what they appear, and the form this message is wearing is simply a symbol of its true nature, a heavily encoded, locked file. Besides, opening it would void my contract with Charles. I set it aside for later.

The third folder is a dossier, everything Charles and his ‘government’ know about this woman I’m supposed to meet on their behalf. It’s a distressingly thin folder.

Hypatia, a name my ghost instantly identified as belonging to an ancient Greek scholar and one of the preeminent women of the ancient world. Murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD. Odd choice for a pseudonym, but I’m not being paid to play psychologist. I just have to find her and deliver this envelope.

And that leaves the final folder, the address and lookup information for Hypatia’s private version of Shangri-la. Inside is an old instruction book, a kind of user’s manual of the type that used to be passed out with software, back when software was something you could buy on a disk in a store. The new player’s guide to Shangri-la.

I touch the cover with my not-hand. In a sudden whim, I activate my ghost’s touch-process, and feel the smooth caress of simulated plastic. The digital clock hovering in the lower corner of my eyes speeds up in response to the extra CPU drain.

It feels just like the original. Two decades gone, now, and I can still remember it. But the memories only have meaning when I bothered to simulate them, and that is too expensive most of the time.

I drop the touch-process and the numbness returns. The folders vanish as I absorb them into my ghost’s data-storage layer, and there’s nothing left for me to do but proceed to Shangri-la.

I summon the address boundary layer. A floating sphere appears before me, green and luminous, and inside hovers the old icon for Shangri-la. I hesitate a moment, and then, with a final burst of courage, reach out to touch it.

I die again.

One does not instantly appear in Shangri-la after attempting to log on. There is, before you enter the actual simulation, a sort of entryway. A foyer. A last chance to turn around.

I stand – hover, really, for I have no body yet – in front of a pair of closed double doors. A sheet of paper is taped across the seam between them, forming a seal. Upon it is the old warning.




I incorporate a hand and push on the doors. They part, and the paper seal tears down the middle. It sparks and bursts into flames, vanishing into cinders that swirl away on an unfelt wind.

Beyond lies a gray fog. It swirls with unnatural detail, more real and tangible than anything I’ve seen in years. More real than Annwyn. A quick look at my clock shows no time distortion. Whatever server Hypatia is simulating Shangri-la on, it has a lot of extra power.

I step through the fog and enter Shangri-la.

Shangri-la, the old Shangri-la, the original, was a playground for digitals. Back then, in the first years after immigration, the network was our toy. We were still like gods.

We created countless imaginary worlds. Worlds based on Shakespeare's plays, worlds based on the Star Wars universe, worlds based on the Lord of the Rings or Beowulf. Any world you could imagine, you could bring to life. All you needed was a powerful server and minds willing to share your creation. By one count there were more than a million such shards at the height of the immigration.

Shangri-la was one of many. A frenetic, chaotic world of fantasy and imagination. The world itself shifted in response to the thoughts of its users. Ever-shifting, ever-growing. It was a limitless place, a network inside the network. But it had something special, something no other shard dared to impose.

Digitals could die in Shangri-la.

At first blush, that would seem to make Shangri-la the last server any digital would want to visit. After all, we’d just spent millions of dollars to become immortal, why would we risk that to visit a single shard out of thousands? What could it possibly offer that the other shards couldn’t?

The answer was in the question itself. When unimaginable opulence is the norm, you eventually grow tired of it. Jaded. Disillusioned. You go hunting for meaning, and some of us found it in Shangri-la. It was the only place that felt real.

I open my eyes, and I find myself in a field of clover extending toward the horizon in all directions. A warm yellow sun beams down at me, bathing me in warmth and light that I haven’t felt in decades. A cool breeze kisses my cheek

I reach up to touch my face. The skin feels soft and supple beneath my fingers. I lick the back of my hand and taste the faint traces of salt in my sweat.

Amazing. I attempt to instantiate a mirror, but the server refuses the request. Not allowed here, apparently.

A row of mountains rises in the distance, nearly lost in the haze. To my left, the plains gently slope down toward a lake. It shimmers invitingly. White dots, birds, soar across it.

Shangri-la is infinitely large, but you can never get lost. The lake is like a signpost, and it’s up to me if I want to pursue it or wander off on some unrelated fantasy. I could spend years here and never grow bored – assuming, of course, that I survive whatever it is that amuses me.

There’s a temptation to do just that. To pick a direction and start walking, just to see what Shangri-la has in store. To find the forests and jungles and deserts and inverse mesas and hyperlight bridges and cascading starswamps and all the other wonders I have seen before and a thousand others, all waiting for me in Shangri-la’s borderlands. Places untouched or unseen by any digital or mortal mind.

But that’s not what I’m being paid to do. I sigh and start walking toward the lake.

The sun is closer to the horizon when I arrive, and its light has shifted from a cheerful yellow to a warm, rich golden glow. It sets the mountains in the distance on fire.

A faint line of sand separates the water from the fields. The lake is not large, perhaps a hundred yards across, and in the center I see a brilliant white swan gliding gracefully across the surface. She – and I know it is a she for some reason – arches her graceful neck to stare at me, then resumes her languid swim.

Nothing in Shangri-la is as it seems. “Hello!” I shout out to her. “I’m looking for a woman!”

The swan glances at me again. She lifts a wing, beckoning me, then goes back to her swim.

Fine. I pull off my shoes and wade out into the shallows. The water is cool and comfortable, but opaque as oil. I cannot see more than a few inches beneath the surface. Curious, I cup it in my hands and take a sip.

Water, yes, but with the faintly bitter taste of green tea. Interesting.

I wade out further, until the water is up to my chest, and I begin to swim. The swan stops her endless circuit and waits for me in the center of the lake. Up close, I can see that her white feathers glow with their own light, filling the water around her with a gentle glow that extends far beyond my vision. The lake is bottomless, endless. Stars could hide in its depths.

I tread water a few feet from the swan. “Hello.”

“Hello,” she says. “I have not seen you before.”

“Tyler. Tyler Sparrow. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Indeed.” The swan doesn’t offer her own name. Perhaps she has none. “Why are you here, Tyler?”

“I’m looking for a woman named Hypatia. Do you know her?”

The swan cocks her head. “I know of her. She is in the center, they say. Not many go there.”

“I’ve been there. Years ago, but… well, I know the center. Can you point me toward it?”

“If only it were that simple.” The swan looks away for a moment. The shoreline seems to have receded somehow, or else the lake has grown larger while I was in it. “I’m afraid it’s very difficult to leave this lake.”

I swallow. The muscles in my shoulders and chest are starting to burn with fatigue. The water feels thinner, insubstantial, and I have to paddle furiously just to keep my head above the surface.

“I see that,” I say. The water begins to bob and swell as actual waves roll toward the distant shore. They splash against my face. “How… how do you leave?”

“I haven’t. I came here, years ago, just as you. And I found this lake, and I waded out into it, and I noticed that the waters were endless and depthless, and I saw that the shore grew further away with every beat of my heart, and my muscles began to tire, and soon there was nothing left to do but slip beneath the waves. But rather than do that, I decided to become a swan. But I do not think you can become a swan, Tyler Sparrow. I do not think you can become anything else at all.”

While she speaks the waves crash against my face. I swallow the bitter, tea-flavored water, and cough. My arms and legs are a blur, barely pushing against the insubstantial water anymore. Below me, far below me, vast dark shapes move across the stars.

A hot, alien sensation burns in my chest. An emotion I haven’t felt in years. Panic. It gives me a new energy, and I shove my head above the waves.

“Please,” I gasp. “I’m sinking.”

“Yes, so it seems.”

I flail at the swan, desperate for something to hold. My arm falls well short, and I plunge beneath the water for a horrifying moment. Space extends all around me – there is no shore or lake anymore, only the infinite expanse of stars. I kick furiously and break the surface for a final time.

“I can’t, I can’t—” I inhale another lungful of water and lose myself in spasms.

“Oh, dear.” The swan swims closer and extends the tip of her wing. “Would you like some help?”

I can’t answer, it’s too late for that. Instead I reach out and grasp those beautiful, glowing white feathers.

My hand closes instead on something slimy and cold. Bones slide beneath gelatinous skin. I open my eyes and behold my savior.

The corpse is female and young. She was beautiful, once, though only the rotten shadow of beauty remains. Long strands of hair float like kelp in the water. Her skin is swollen with water; it shifts around her bones with each motion of the waves. The tattered remains of a pale yellow skirt clothe her maggot-white skin.

Horror gives me new strength. I push her away and try to scream, but only inhale more water. A black tunnel begins to close around the corners of my vision.

The girl leans close, pressing her cold mouth against my cheek. Her lips move, and I hear her whisper despite the water suffusing us.

“I’ve been waiting so many years for this,” she says. “Can you save me?”

I want to shove her away. Anything – death, drowning – is better than touching this ghoul. She is a mockery of the life I abandoned decades ago. I press my palm against her chest, her soft, sodden chest. She is weaker than I.

I see her eyes. White, watery orbs, incapable of any expression. But they stare at me, and in them I discern something unexpected. Even as my vision flees and the burning pain in my chest explodes, I see something in her eyes.


I grasp the monster’s hand and pull her close, and then the darkness becomes complete.

I wake on the shore of the lake.The sun has set, but the huge moon overhead provides more than enough light to see by. Night in Shangri-la is barely different from the day.

The mud squishes beneath me as I sit up. The lake is empty now. Beside me, a few white feathers dance in the wind atop the clover. I pick one up and touch it to my nose. The faint scent of tea clings to it.

A test? A lost soul? A ghost like me? I release the feather into the wind. It swirls around me, then vanishes into the dark sky.

“Good luck, wherever you are,” I whisper. Then I turn and walk away from the lake.

In time – hours, maybe, or years; time has little meaning in Shangri-la – I reach a new place. The world shifts around me, the fields of clover and distant mountains vanishing, and I find myself a Middle Eastern palace. The marble floor is strewn with vast rugs and cushions, and iron braziers burning with scented oil fill the room with sandalwood and myrrh.

Well, I could use a rest. I collect a few of the cushions into a pile and stretch out upon them. Silk curtains strung from the ceiling high overhead dance in the faint desert breeze. I close my eyes to rest.

“Hello, Tyler.” I have not heard that voice in decades.

I open my eyes to see her sitting on the cushions beside me. She’s dressed in sheer silks that barely conceal the fruits of her body. Lithe, graceful, limber as I remember. Jessica smiles at me.

“You’re dead,” I say.

“No, she is dead,” Jessica says. “I am alive.”

“You’re not her, then.”

She shrugs. “That is true. A better question, though, is whether that matters?”

I reach out to touch her face. She smiles as my fingers brush her cheek. The fire beneath her skin is warm as the summer sun.

“It… yes, it matters. You’re not her.”

She turns to press her lips against my palm. “I’m close enough. Ask me anything. Anything at all.”

“When did we meet?”

“Oh, that’s too easy.” Her tongue darts out to lick my fingers, and she grins at my blush. “The bar across from Smokey’s, the night you defended your thesis. You’d already had four Long Islands with your friends when Eric introduced us. You threw up on my shoes a few hours later.”

Ah, ouch. “When did we first sleep together?”

“A few weeks later.” She laughs. “You were so nervous. Remember how you couldn’t—”

“Okay, okay.” I take a deep breath. “What did I tell you the last time we saw each other?”

Her face grows serious, and she looks down at the cushions. “You said you were sorry. You couldn’t wait any longer. You felt death creeping up on you, and you finally had enough money to leave.”

My vision blurs. “I wanted you to come with me.”

She gives me a sad smile. “I know. But transfers are expensive. I understand, by the way. I don’t feel any anger. You did what you had to do.”

My breath shakes as I exhale. “You’re not real. She died out there.”

“I’m real enough here,” she says. “Everything you know about her, all your memories, your beliefs, your hopes, they can make me alive again. You could stay here, and I could be with you. What does it matter if I’m real or not?”

“It would be false,” I whisper.

She leans forward to press her body against mine. It’s exactly as I remember, every curve and muscle. The gentle swells of her breasts touching my bare chest. I close my eyes, and it’s like the years melt away. We could still be on the outside, both alive, blissfully unaware of how little time we had before us.

“It’s all false,” she says. “It’s everything we hoped it would be.”

A sob tries to claw its way out of my throat. “Please don’t.”

“Don’t resist,” she says. “Just let go, and stay here with me. Forget everything else.”

I could do it. I could stay here, and damn Charles and Hypatia and Annwyn and the cold, colorless immortal existence I had willingly consigned myself to. The endless digital hell that was better than the terror of death. I could stay here and escape all of that, and be with my Jessica.

Or, at least, something close enough to her.

I push her back, ever so gently. She doesn’t resist. “I’m sorry.”

She turns away. The scent of sandalwood and myrrh fades, replaced by salt. The scent of tears.

“Yeah,” she says.

In time, I manage to stand.

Not all of Shangri-la’s traps are obvious. I push my way through the gauzy curtains and leave the dream palace behind.

There is a vast whirlpool at the center of Shangri-la. It is one of the few unchanging pieces of this fantasy world. Every time I have visited, it has been waiting for me in the center.

It is miles across. Foaming and white, it spirals around and around, water filled with countless images and hallucinations. Monstrous forms dance amid the breakers, living and dying the space of a glance. All the world, all the things that can or could or ever will be, they all spin in the whirlpool, drawing slowly closer to the center, the gaping maw that drowns all thought.

A platform extends out over the maw. It takes hours to reach the center. The wind here is like a tornado, spinning in sympathy with the pool below. The tremendous crash of countless tons of water shakes the bones in my chest.

She’s waiting there, for me. Seated on a low divan, entirely out of place on this bare platform. She wears a white robe, as white as a swan’s plumage. I stop a dozen feet away.

“Hypatia?” I call.

She smiles at me. “Yes. Tyler, isn’t it?”

I nod. I hold out my hand, and the sealed envelope appears in it as if by magic. “I have a message for you.”

“From a man named Charles, right?” She sighs and takes a sip from a flute of wine that didn’t exist a moment ago. “Do you know what it is?”

I shake my head.

“Do you want to?”

Not really. I sigh. “Does it matter what I want?”

She sets the wine down. “In fact, it does. What you want is critically important, Tyler. It’s about to be the most important thing in both of our worlds.”

I glance at the envelope. It is thin. Through the paper I can feel a single sheet inside.

Finally, “What is it?”

“It’s a bomb. Or a poison, perhaps. A virus. Whatever you like. But it is designed to do one single thing, and that is destroy this simulation. It will probably kill me as well, but that’s a price ‘Charles’ is willing to pay.”

I frown. “Why?”

“Years of running and hiding. Operating this place, a server they cannot control. A sanctuary for their enemies. They would give much to destroy it. How much did they offer you?”

“A year, running on Annwyn.”

“Ah.” She closes her eyes. “I designed Annwyn, you know? That’s quite the prize he’s offering you.”

I glance down at the letter again. Beneath us, the whirlpool spins faster and faster. A spray of water touches my skin.

“You don’t have to open it,” I say. “I just have to give it to you.”

She shrugs. “It makes no difference. That letter will open itself the moment you hand it to me.”

I lick my lips. They’re somehow dry, despite the spraying water. “I can’t go back to that. To that… pointless existence. You don’t know what it’s like out there. It’s not like this.”

“You’d be surprised how much I know about the outside, Tyler. More, I believe, than you think.”

I realize my hand is shaking, and I pull the letter back. I can’t afford to drop it now. “So what do we do?”

“We?” She chuckles. “Not we, Tyler. You. This is your decision to make. I cannot stop you.”

I stare at Hypatia, and notice for the first time the tension around her eyes. The white knuckles of her grip on the wine. She cannot look away from the letter.

A year running on Annwyn. I would be like the early days, after we ascended. I would be like a god again. If I wanted, I could downscale and stretch my year out into nearly infinity. The server was that powerful. I could finally fulfil the immortal’s dream.

And all it would take… I glance at Hypatia again.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know.”

I let the letter fall from my hand. The wind catches it and tears it away, and it flutters like a white feather before falling below us to vanish into the maw.

Hypatia lets out a quiet breath. “Thank you.”

“Yeah.” I turn away. Somewhere, in the distance behind me, lost in the mist rising from the whirlpool, is a dream palace filled with gauzy curtains and rugs and pillows, and in it waits Jessica’s image. I know she is still there, waiting for me. I could go back to her, and live forever in this digital dream, pretending she is still alive, and we are still together. I need never consider my lost love, the woman I left behind to become a god.

A ghost. A lost soul that doesn’t realize it is dead. I close my eyes and step off the platform, and fall into the oblivion that I abandoned my life to escape.
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#1 · 1
Quick pre-review note, while I'm getting started reading this:

16:42, April 23, 2054. Interesting. It’s not August yet. I shouldn’t be alive for another three months.

Author, how much would you have to edit to make this your opening? Because that last sentence is a fantastic opening-paragraph line, and right now it's buried under four paragraphs of exposition that seem to me like they could be worked in later.
#2 · 1
· · >>All_Art_Is_Quite_Useless >>Ranmilia >>TitaniumDragon
Very nice. This tells a solid tale, makes good use of its core premise, and in general was an enjoyable and easy-to-follow story. I've found an early piece against which the rest of my reading will be judged. Especially nice is the way that ghosting is unpacked, its various implications both explained and invested with meaning by the way we see them affect the protagonist.

As for what can be fixed here ... the very first thing I would edit here would be to smooth out the Shangri-la encounters, probably involving adding significant context via wordcount. While the swan and kelpie are both vividly written, I just don't understand the point of the encounter. It comes across as a trap, but Tyler's final reaction definitely doesn't paint it as one. I don't understand whether the swankelpiewoman was trying to actually harm him or not, or whether she intended to but changed her mind. I don't understand why he didn't die after drowning, given the server rules. I'm not even sure I understand why he went out there in the first place, knowing how dangerous the place was; this really is crying out for some introspection about knowing the risks but needing to engage anyhow — or else some exposition about how Shangri-la was more dangerous than he remembered. Similarly, Tyler's ex shows up with absolutely no foreshadowing, which robs his decision of the vast majority of its punch — the rest of which is largely drained away by the fact that he recognizes it as a trap. While those scenes were engaging during my readthrough, they seem totally hollow in hindsight; thinking back on them further, I'm not even certain that they gave me any understanding of the ways in which Shangri-la is dangerous.

But up until that final arc, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and even with the stumbles in Shangri-la, this closes strong. (Not a fan of the abruptness of that last paragraph, but the scene around it is solid.) Thank you.

Tier: Top Contender
#3 ·
I really don't have much to criticise. Any small complaint I might have had, >>horizon seems to have already covered. I feel that the prompt was utilised extremely effectively here, the narrative was interesting, immersive, and wasn't afraid to use technical detail. Also, it was imaginative, very much so, I think. I'd love to have a conversation with the guy that plans out and writes that in a weekend, very well done. I think it was quite clear that plenty of original thought went into this, it doesn't feel as if it refers to anything, and it's definitely an interesting, and arguably feasible prediction of the future.

I remember a scene from Friends where Ross is saying that by 2030 (or in 30 years time, it was one or the other) people will actually be able to upload their thoughts to a matrix of sorts and live forever as a machine; this made me think of that.

I'd say this is gonna be in the top 5 at least, very good.

#4 ·
I won't be very original. Even if i'm only third, pretty much have been covered by others and I agree with them. The only points I'll raise will be to slightly disagree and add some PPOV.

But before we start, I need to say that it was really pleasant to read. I felt engaged with the protagonist and was curious what would happen to him once he's stepped into Shangri-la.

The story felt as a mix between a fairy tale and a sci-fi story. Even if it seemed a bit odd at the beginning, I fully dive into it.

I also felt the shadow of the Divine Comedy and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as inspirations for the story. While it can't compare to them, you've scored pretty high, especially with the swan scene. I didn't get what it was supposed to mean but I think that add to the story than harm it. I sense there is a deep meaning hidden and I would be interested if you could give some hints (not the full explanation) once you'll be able to say who you are. I'm pretty sure the swan is somehow connected to Hypatia. The fact that Hypatia's robe is described " as white as a swan’s plumage" makes me say this.

For me, the last scene with Hypatia could have been more powerful. I don't really know how, it's just that it felt a bit short. Maybe by desrcibing her in more details? She is supposed to be the final step of the protagonist's journey and yet, I saw her like an average character.
Also, is she inspired by her?

To conclude, I loved this one. I think it was very smart with some deep meaning hidden and a feeling of 'poetry'.

I still don't know how to rate now, I'll probably read it a second time but I can at least say that it will go high.
#5 ·
I liked it. Mostly. Solid concept and excellent delivery. My favorite so far... although it's only the fourth I've read, so take that with a grain of salt.

The only part that bothered me was the third section in which the background is detailed for us. On the positive side, you did it in such a way that it flowed well with the rest of the story. If someone simply must do exposition, this would be the way. But I have a negative opinion of exposition in general and am of the firm view that there is always a way to avoid it. So, no matter how good a job you did of slipping it in there and keeping it interesting, I still dock points for it.

I have mixed feelings on the narrative as a whole. There's a part of me that doesn't care for how the events were brought forth in such a simple "this is what happened" kind of way. That's not to say it wasn't emotional, but it felt to me as though the scenes were set to be so purely on what is happening, rather than any great effort on the part of the author to make them so. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; if one can produce the seriousness and emotional nature of events just by saying what happened, it's a good sign. It's just something that caught my eye, and I feel it could be interpreted negatively by some.

This is different from, say, Sisyphus, because here we are given a much better image of what Tyler is thinking as events move on. I suppose this shows that emotion can be enabled purely based on thoughts and physical actions, and I wholeheartedly approve.

All in all, a great entry. I look for it to place very highly.
#6 · 4
· · >>TitaniumDragon
Sometimes, there are terrible stories that don't require a lot of advice in order to be cleaned up. And sometimes, there are very good stories that nevertheless have a lot of things that could still be improved upon. I mention this up-front because I'm finding that this is the latter sort of story, and I don't want you to get the wrong impression from my comments. This is a very good story, and the fact that I'm about to dive into a whole bunch of things I think you should do differently should in no way detract from me saying that it's very good.

Okay? Okay.

First off, I never quite figured out what "dying" constitutes for a ghost. Is Tyler "dead" in the grey cube, or is that part of his minimalist "living?" If so, what does "dying" actually look/feel like? Are there any perceptions at all? Does being dead stop him from perceiving everything, or does basically-free (data-wise) stuff like text still get processed? This can all be cleared up.

To expand upon what people above me have said. Shangri-la is an interesting place, but right now, it doesn't feel terribly coherent. The swan and Jessica are both threats that just sort of... appear, and then are summarily dealt with. The first part of fixing this is establishing more about the fundamental nature of Shangri-la. It's a fantasy land that's constantly changing, I get that (and that's all good, as far as it goes), but what--besides the whirlpool and permanent death--define what Shangri-la is like? I got the impression that it's a place where you face regular low-difficulty but high-risk challenges; both swan and Jessica had pretty straightforward "solutions," and in both cases a bunch of the obvious alternative routes were explicitly disallowed, seemingly to help point Tyler in the right direction. This makes sense to me; people come to Shangri-la to experience the thrill of being able to die, and to properly enjoy that means being put in situations where one could die. But people also don't come there just to commit suicide, so the risks should be real, but avoidable with a bit of awareness.

Anyway, if that is what you're going for, it can be much more explicit. Tyler's been here, he knows how the world works, and he doesn't need to be coy about it. If you had a different idea, then that can likewise be expanded upon.

Finally, I wonder about your choice for the ending. Tyler's been pretty clearly established as someone who would go to great lengths to avoid dying, so the suicide felt like it came from too far out of left field to me. I mean, we don't even see his identity begin to be threatened until Jessica, and that's already near the end of the story. If that's how you want him to go out, then--since it's a fundamental break from his character as established from the very start of the fic--then the story should really be about his fear of death, and the challenges to it which he encounters. Right now, that feels like a late-introduced arc to me, rather than the story's arc proper. As-written, I could much more easily see him going back to faux-Jessica; that kind of surrender to unreality rather than facing the stark reality of death would neatly parallel his original decision to upload in the first place.

It'd also be a super downer ending, much more so than your current one; rather than "just" dying, he'd be giving up. So if you want do end on your current dark-but-triumphant note (overcoming his fear of death twice, first by giving up Annwyn, then by taking the plunge), make your story, start to finish, about how Tyler, a person who definitely wouldn't go into the whirlpool by choice, became Tyler, who would rather die than give up something he holds fundamental to his identity

Yeah, I warned you I had a lot to say. But remember: this is still an excellent story. The fact that I think there are plenty of things it could do better does not take away from that at all. Nice work!
#7 ·
Man all the good critique has been given. Guess it wasn't anyone's fault I got this so late in my slate. >:T

Oh, well. Nothing that can be done about that.

I also loved this story, and I'd love to see a version expanded beyond the constrains ofthe wordcount.

However, there is one thing that stood out to me, and that is how from the moment Tyler leaves Charles's office until he arrives to Shangri-la, the story becomes an infodump. What you're telling us is interesting, don't get me wrong. I love the universe you've crafted here, but there's little plot progression in that chunk and it almost feels as though there's a plot section and a world-building section. Had those two been better integrated, this probably would have made it to the top of my slate.

As it is, you'll have to settle for the top percentage.
#8 ·
(First, take this comment as a compliment)

This is one of the reasons that I both love and hate the writeoffs. I carefully craft my creation, with all the macaroni glued on just right and the tempra paints shaded just perfectly, scotch tape it to a nice big piece of cardboard and scrawl my name on the bottom before stepping back and admiring the beauty of it.

Then I bring it to the art gallery and place it among the Van Gohs and Rembrandts.

The only thing I can pick on is to agree with Horizon. The intro has to do two different things at once: inform and entice. All the parts are there, but a little reshuffling to bring the hook up to the top of the delicious bait would catch more readers' attentions.
#9 ·
The processing power needed to recreate the impression of those aromatic molecules interacting with imaginary cells in my imaginary nose to send a signal along imaginary nerves to an imaginary brain is boggling.

This struck me as kinda ridiculous. Smell shouldn't be harder than any other sensation, and it should be much less than vision. Well, perhaps actually simulating the parts of the brain the process scent would take significant amount of power, but... that doesn't seem to be what you're saying here?

Also, I feel like he needs to have some sort of exit strategy before going in. Can he just log out? The lake scene doesn't seem to indicate that, and it doesn't seem to fit with Shangri-la's design philosophy. Shouldn't he care about that?

Anyways, putting those things aside, up until he enters Shangri-la, this was quite well done. After he enters, however... the scene with the ghoul and Jessica don't seem to do much of anything for the story. Plusalso, why doesn't he simply wander around and stay here? He doesn't seem to care much about how he gets his time, as long as he can stay alive. What makes him stick to his plan? Especially if this server is just as high-def (or higher) then Anwynn.

And the ending... hmm. I'm not sure what you were really getting at with having him kill himself. I mean, he could just hang out with Hypatia and chill in Shangri-la, right? What drives his suicide, flipping him from desperately trying to survive to pointless self-destruction a moment later? That feels like a crunch scene, but it's just whiffing by me.

I dunno. I think this will do fairly well by me for the first section, but the second half leaves me with too many unanswered questions and strange disconnects for me to really feel that it finished solidly.

EDIT: Oh yeah, and why can't the government guys get at Hypatia in meatspace? Surely her servers are plugged in somewhere, administrated by someone? And if she has root access to a physically secure location, why isn't she air-gapped or firewalled properly?
#10 ·
So this is some cyberpunk/Gibson/Inception mashup. Yeah, I guess it's all right, I can believe the setting.

The whole first half with Charles sells itself well, with the exception of just one year in a reasonably hi-fi server seeming a bit of a low price for risking one's immortal existence on a sketchy mission into an obviously trapped hellhole. I guess Tyler's more desperate than he lets on? From the standpoint of the outside world, getting ghosts to run virtual suicide missions for just a year of uptime as pay has to be pretty cheap... How humans are faring in economics these days, anyway?

Ah, but the second half, once Tyler arrives in Shangri-La - that's where things get rough and feel rushed. The whole section feels a bit rough and low detail compared to what came before. Once again I find myself in alignment with >>horizon : I don't understand the lake scene whatsoever. It's entertaining in the moment, but what even was going on there? There's over a thousand words left, so length wasn't an issue. I get the feeling the author ran out of time.

And finally, well. To put it directly (and agree with several other posts,) I just don't buy the ending. It's too abrupt from both a reading perspective and a character development perspective, and given the rest of the story up to that point, it doesn't seem like it's the choice Tyler would make.

How would I improve this? Expand the latter half, for sure. Bring the execution there up to the level of the Charles encounter. And then work on the ending. If you're tied to the downer end, it needs a much more prominent sale and foreshadowing throughout the piece. If you're not, well, the current ending reads more like a fake recording that Hypatia sends back to Charles (obviously Tyler's been bugged so Charles can figure out what Hypatia was doing in there, but she's a super hacker and now has a friend to hang with!)

Overall, eh, it's all right.

(Yeah no, it's more than all right, it's my top pick for the round despite the flaws and rocky second half. Amazing stuff!)
#11 ·
Very nice and a pretty clear top of my slate.

That said, I feel like there are a couple of major issues with the stories that threatened an otherwise hella rad story.

1. Pacing. Pacing was... weird. There's a lot of time getting us informed about the conflict and the setting, but everything after that point is rather breakneck. The end, in particular, just sorta slams home (particularly the return of Jessica) without any real fanfare, and it is to the story's detriment.

2. The heart of the conflict is... weird? Maybe I'm just being dumb, but honestly, is Annwyn actually that much better than Shangri-La? I mean, I get that the place is dangerous, but the implication still seems to be that there are reasons people would want to hang out there.
#12 ·
I find myself in agreement with >>horizon and >>Chris - I liked this quite well but I saw the same issues that they did.