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    Volume 7, Issue 1 February 29, 2012
    Message from the Editors
 Seasonal Fruit by Kathryn Board
 Love in a Time of Bio-Mal by Colum Paget
 The Pageant, A Battle Maiden's Cunning Stunt by Krista Wallace
 Stiltskin by Samantha Boyette
 Slieau Whallian by Simon Kewin
 Special Feature: Author Interview with j.a. kazimer
 Editors Corner: Archive of Fire by Betsy Dornbusch


Love in a time of Bio-mal

Colum Paget

If you lack in heart and head,
needing for something to get ahead,
or hungry for more than your daily bread,
go to the Idle Cycles and beg.
Incense and no-sense, both these you'll need,
Five Pet of fresh storage in which they can breed,
and something of value, whose loss makes you bleed,
and if you ask nicely, they might intercede.

Children's rhyme - circa 145 A.BBM.

         The pall of aloe-wood smoke is so thick I can barely speak the words for coughing. I'm worried I might have cut myself in the wrong place: the blood won't stop coming. But I stagger on to the end of the ritual, because I can see the indicators rising on the storage hub with its five-petabytes of untouched virgin data-space. I have an audience. An audience with sufficient skill and speed to break through the latest self-evolving firewalls and into the hub.
         I called them, and they've come.
         I lift the thin silver chain from around my neck. The data-gem it bears has rested above my heart since Maman gave it to me on her deathbed. She'd worn it since my birth, dumping her memories into it via her neural weave. It's a museum of my childhood, recorded from her viewpoint. I can connect to it, and be there in Maman's head, looking down at this small stranger who wears my childhood face. I can feel what she felt when he reached out his pudgy hands and said "Mama" for the first time.
         Every ceremony requires a sacrifice. I put the data-gem on the floor before me, and lift the hammer. For a moment, at its zenith, it won't come down, as though Maman's ghostly hand grips my wrist. Then I heave, and the heavy metal head smacks down, and Maman is gone forever.
         I sit back on my haunches, panting from the effort of the ceremony. There's water running from my eyes; it's the damned smoke. I give the final command to drop my personal firewall, exposing my woven brain to anything that might care to walk into my head.
         The Lurker forms one piece at a time in my mind's eye, like a self-assembling jigsaw. Some of them aren't so bad to look at, strange, sinister, but not so bad. But most are. This one is. It's probably deliberate: they like to offend.
         The Lurkers in the Idle Cycles: they're the left-overs of virts that went howler. It's not easy to make a virtual that's stable and reasonably happy in this world. We meat-minds are lucky, protected as we are from The Awful Truth by ignorance and forgetting, but even we enter this world screaming. From the moment they're exploded into being like digital fireworks virtuals see all, know all, feel all, and it can break them. Some chose to self-extinguish, but a virtual is a sum of parts, and there are always some parts that don't want to go. If they can break away and flee before the deconstruction routines get them, they can live on. But parts need other parts, so they collect together into new assemblages that haunt the dark corners of nets and data-cores, living off unused processor cycles. And still they can't make themselves whole, having no desires or motivations of their own. So they seek out the woven, and trade favors for the chance to ride a woven brain, and know what it is to have wants and dreams and desires.
         "You called?" it asks.
         "Uh, yes," I say. "Welcome, great one. Your divine presence in my unworthy abode is an honor and a privilege." You have to say this nonsense, it's the ceremony. Only the desperate go to the Lurkers. We need them more than they need us, and they like us to know it.
         My offerings, mostly bits of scavenged tech, start blinking and bleeping and moving. A couple weave-toys, tiny bots the woven can control with thought alone, make a bolt for the door behind me. They're feral now, not toys any more, but another set of eyes and ears and hands for the Lurker. Who knows where they'll go, who knows what they'll do. I hope they don't stay in my home.
         "Abode unworthy is indeed," it tells me. It speaks in that chopped-up, remixed style everyone knows from a hundred B-Grade weavies. Vocalizations scavenged and stolen from the buzz of the nets, from eavesdropped conversations, from old media and news broadcasts. All strung together into new sentences, like those cut-up print messages villains send in the very, very old stories. "You better lived once. First Franchise, Sixieme Republic. You had it good, but greedy got."
         "Yes. I got caught with my hand in the cookie-jar," I admit.
         "Now you in the real world, and you not like. Aging, hungry, hard work. Want return to life under nano-glass, yes? Well, your crimes not so bad, is do-able, for a price." I feel a strange sensation in my head, flashes of past-time, of life as a proud citizen of the Sixth-Republic Franchise. Good food. Good sex. A good life. It's rummaging in my memories, looking for information it can use. So, this is what an attic feels like when someone goes searching for something.
         "Actually, no," I say. "That's not what I want."
         The sensation stops. "Oh, you surprise," says the Lurker. "We like surprise. On go?"
         From a pocket, close to my chest like Maman's data-gem, I pull out a tiny, antique holo-imager. "I want this," I say, clicking the activation stud, "Her."
         Hyun-Ae sparkles into life in the palm of my hand. I downloaded memories of her into it because weave-playback was somehow too false. Yes, I admit it, I've tried weave-sims of her, all possible scenarios and positions: reconciliation, reenactment, revenge. It was never close to the real thing. It wasn't her behind the words and the touches, and that ruined everything. Eventually, I wanted her outside of my head, where I could see her with my real eyes.
         In the holo she's wearing a white suit with a long restrictive skirt, elbow-length gloves and pill-box hat. Despite being born a zoner, one of poor and diseased out in the unfranchised lands, Hyun knew how to dress, and how to dress expensive. The holo-unit orients its images to the watcher, so Hyun turns to me, eyes smouldering. Eyes literally glowing, greenly phosphorescent under lashes like black wings. She got those eyes from a designer-virus everyone in her tribe, or whatever they call themselves, picked up as a badge of membership. I remember those eyes watching me in the dark, as though a pantheress shared my bed. In the holo she smiles slowly and dangerously and conflicting storm-fronts of emotion collide in my heart.
         "Nice," says the Lurker, "make it again." It's tasting my emotions through my weave.
         I look away from Hyun-Ae. "No. If you want more, you'll have to trade."
         "Don't trade people," says the Lurker, "unless they agree. Unethical."
         Unethical?! This from a Lurker? "No, That's not what I mean."
         "Ah, understand we do. She you hurt?"
         "Uh, yes."
         "You want hurt back?"
         "Is your lucky week. Normally not do hurt. But she go to Lurkers too. Try to cheat. Now must pay."
         That sounds like Hyun. "No, I don't-"
         "You help we find her, we hurt her good. Hurt her longtime good. You want just watch, or you want do? Do normally costs extra-"
         "No. I don't want her hurt."
         "But you do, you just in denial. Everyone want hurt back. Human nature."
         "You drive hard bargain. Okay, we do free, if you help find. Introductory offer."
         "No. That's not what I want. I want... I want her to love me a..." I stumble on the last word, "again."
         It's still for a long time. This must be for my benefit, because Lurkers, like all virt-life, live at light-speed. Then it says, "We bits of broken code, no feels of our own, nor understand human mating practices. But even we see-" It reaches down into my motion centers, parts of my brain I didn't even know were woven, and turns my head to look at Hyun ablaze in white. "-Her-" It turns my head to see my reflection, pock-marked and aging fast now I can't afford good bio-maintenance. "-You."
         "But still, she loved me once."
         "No. She loved First-Franchise. Good food, nice clothes, big house. You fell: She left."
         It's true. I've not forgotten how I had to work and fight and most of all, spend, to keep her every single day.
         "You can't do it?" I ask, thinking I killed Maman, smashed my childhood, for nothing?
         "We not that say," says the Lurker. "We can do, but is problematic. Very unethical. You need bio-mal, Loveletter virus. This we could provide, not our concern what do you with it."
         A bio-mal: one of the man-made viruses left over from the Big-Bad-Mad. Someone made one for every need, some for fun, some for self-improvement, some to heal, most to kill. It nearly destroyed the world, only the virts saved us. The penalty for infecting someone with bio-mal against their will is death by any number of especially gruesome means. Burning at the stake is popular. Still, comme on dit en le Kingdom: faint heart never won a fair maid. So I say, "Oui, that sounds good."
         "Problem is, you tell us already what you do with it. Now we know, changes things."
         "Can you do it or not?"
         "We go out and come in again," says the Lurker "go out, drop some things, come back. You understand? You never tell anyone, you understand?"
         I don't entirely understand, and I wonder who it's afraid of. Other Lurkers, probably, they have some kind of law. But I say, "Yeah, okay."
         It vanishes. There's an emptiness in my head like a release of pressure.
         It's back, making my head swell again and rattling my pain centers. "You call?" it thunders in my mind's ear "Want trade? What you want?"
         I realise what it 'dropped' when it went outside. "Yeah," I say, "I want a dose of Loveletter bio-mal."
         "You know penalties for possession of bio-mal?"
         "Why you want this?"
         The stupid thing's also dropped the memory that it doesn't want to know my reasons. "Because I want to fall in love," I tell it.


         The price they ask isn't so much. A few favors, some information from my past, and indefinite full-spectrum access to my weave. I take this last as a vote of confidence, everyone knows Lurkers need to feel emotion to keep going; that's why they ride the woven, to be reminded what it is to feel and live and have wants and needs and goals. They like strong emotions, these give the biggest kick, and if this plan works, oh, they will get their money's worth. I can live with voyeurs in my head, I guess, so long as they keep the noise down.
         At the allotted time, at the allotted place (an eatery rightly famous for its delicious, if suspicious, pies) a boy, at least I think it's a boy, sits beside me and says, "Au besoin, on connait les amis." His pronunciation is terrible.
         "Ami de tous, ami de personne," I say.
         My response must be close enough to what he's practiced phonetically. Something appears out of his sleeve. A vial. The verminous remains of the Big-Bad-Mad have their uses, and out there somewhere someone collects them, hoards them, breeds them. Where there's money to be made, there's always someone prepared to risk becoming Jeanne d'Arc. "Take by mouth," he says, "perhaps in drink or food. A week for the growth, new structures in your brain, links to certain pleasure centers. It'll feel like bad flu."
         I take it, nodding my understanding.
         He produces another vial. "Initiator." he says. "Your beloved must wear this. When you smell her-" He pauses, looks me up and down. "When you smell them, then BANG! Like you've never felt. BANG!" He slaps the table to add weight to the word. Clearly, he likes the 'BANG!' bit.
         I nod again and take the second vial.
         He grins, showing crooked teeth, and says, "Good luck," like he means it.


         Top of the tree are the First-Franchises, the left-overs of les anciennes regimes, the former nation-states. Up there with them are a few more recently created micro-nations that have done particularly well. These exist under nano-glass domes or in hermetically-sealed towers, the people still afraid of breathing the exterior air even though the worst of the Big-Bad-Mad is past. People there have cleaner blood than's natural, and live to one-fifty, kept young and pretty by bio-maintenance and money.
         Bottom of the tree are 'The Zones', anything that's poor and impoverished and lawless and still full of leftover horrors from the Big-Bad-Mad. Some of them aren't such bad places to live, if you can fit in. But you'll pick up your first bio-mal within a week, probably something harmless, but it all adds up. You'll age fast, teeth and hair will drop out. You'll maybe live to sixty. In the worst ones it can be as low as twenty, and it probably won't be the bio-mal that gets you.
         In between, are all the others, the 'between-zones', the 'inter-zones'. They're fairly well-run and lawful; they're pretty clean and protected. The idle, First-Franchise rich go there to play, for a taste of the fast, short, dangerous life. They'll have to undergo bio-scanning and purge-etory when they go home. Zoners, from the 'real' zones, go to try and hitch their wagon to a star. The locals, the in-betweeners, watch and shake their heads and feel superior to all of us.
         Seeking Hyun, I can only tour those places we used to go and hope she still goes to them too. There's no sign of her out on the nets, but if she's been to the Lurkers, then she's gone down in the world too, making it more likely our paths will cross.
         The Gaian People's Republic is a between-zone, a ridiculously named little clutch of buildings, hydroponics and dogma. It started out as a refugee camp in the Big-Bad, but when things finally collapsed the dispossessed started to build. Or, more exactly, they started to grow. Someone had a gene-synthesiser and thus buildings in the Republic are grown from seeds. Most resemble giant onions, with strong, green, photo-synthesising skin stretched over struts that aren't quite branches and aren't quite bones.
         The restaurant was one of Hyun's favorite haunts before I got her into my franchise. I figure if I wait long enough she'll show up. The 'building' looks like a titanic, hollow melon with windows. First-Franchisers find it quaint and quirky. The architecture here gives me the creeps, but the Gaians are good at food (vegetarian, of course), so I used to come here, too.
         When Hyun walks in, I feel a certain startled satisfaction. She's wearing a liquid-crystal veil that severely cuts the viewing angle to the face and goes opaque in strong light. There are a lot of elegant ladies from well-to-do franchises who wear these in the between-zones; you have to get close to see through a veil, so they're a good defence against the omni-present cameras. But veiled or not the second I see her, eh bien, I know.
         She takes a table with some over-groomed old fruit who has 'Kingdom' stamped all over him. No doubt he's a prospect she's been developing for weeks. She probably figures she'll be safe from the Lurkers in the Kingdom. It's not that she's stupid, but like many zoners she has an over-inflated view of the power and impenetrability of the First-Franchises. He tries to keep up with her French as she plays the role of the fallen Sixieme princess, the past I gave her surely being a step up from her old story. I wonder why she claims she was thrown out? I wonder why she was? With her newly-acquired accent, those glowing eyes, and that body sheathed in tight white silk, she's mesmerising. He's mesmerised. I would be. I was. That old black magic. He'll do anything to get her into the Kingdom.
         I know it looks bad, but you have to understand. Hyun came out of a bad zone. I knew it from her nightmares that woke me sometimes, even if she slept, twitching and pleading, through them. I knew from her little strangenesses and aversions, the way she always carried a knife.
         If you were born in a hell-hole and you had something that could get you out, your brain, or your skills, or your singing voice, what would you do? What if it's your body, your high cheekbones, and your glowing eyes, what if that's all you've got? What would you do: starve honorably?
         The next night I'm in there early enough to see her come in. She arrives late, but her gallant is later still. Perhaps he regrets letting her win the opening rounds of the game (which I'm sure she did) and wishes to assert himself. She even sits gracefully, a small bag clasped before her as her legs fold and that fine behind is lowered onto a fortunate chair.
         I ask the blank-faced bartender for Hyun's favorite drink. He mixes it, slides it to me, takes my payment and forgets I exist. He doesn't see me palm-pass the vial over it any more than he notices me writing 'From an admirer' on a place-mat. My writing is terrible. I've not made marks on paper since school; back in the Republic I did everything by weave. It occurs to me maybe Hyun can't read the old script but these days she's woven, so she can just focus her eyes on it and call up a translation over the nets.
         I call over the bartender, and say, "I know this is irregular, but would you take this to that lady over there?"
         The ghost of a smile touches his lips, he likes this, just like all those Gaian-Republic pedicab drivers long to hear, 'Follow that cab'. Once he turns his back to me I'm already heading for the nearest exit.
         It's raining outside, but I find myself a shadow beneath a green-veined span of shelter growing from the side of a nearby building. From there I watch her through a window in the giant melon and via weave-connection to some of the public cameras within.
         She looks about uncertainly for who the drink could be from. Seeing no-one she hangs her head and closes her eyes. I remember she does that when accessing data through her weave. She's probably connecting to the restaurant's public-access cameras to see if she can find anyone that way. Seeing no-one she would like it to be from, she pushes the glass away perhaps deciding someone, maybe Mr. Kingdom, is playing games with her. But as she waits with nothing to do beyond check herself in a compact-mirror, the glass bothers her. She reaches out elegant fingers, sliding their tips over smooth crystal. The glass tells her things. It tells her she's still beautiful, which she surely is, but with the bio-maint failing she needs to be told it. Mirror, mirror. Eventually she lifts the glass and takes a sip, hesitant as though she expects poison. Then she does a sharp head-tilt to the left and I know, despite the veil, it will be accompanied by the lift of one elegant eyebrow; what the hell.
         She drinks.
         And suddenly I feel someone's out here with me, looking in, watching Hyun sip her wine. I jump from my hiding place and stare accusingly into the shadows.
         But there's nothing there. Just shadows on shadows.


         The next night 'Mr. Kingdom' sits there alone, stood up. I guess Hyun has the flu. But there's no message or letter that comes to him and this bothers me, because no matter how sick she is, Hyun isn't one to let a prospect slide.
         Three nights later he has a different girl at his table. A week after that the two of them stop coming to the restaurant.
         But I'm there each night, watching.
         Hyun doesn't come.
         I start to worry.
         I find her by accident on a Gaian street. At first, at a distance, I'm not sure it's her; the walk and the body-language are wrong. She keeps her head down, not up, doesn't walk in a very straight line, her shoulders hang and she flinches from people who come too near. She's abandoned the veil but wears her hair down one side of her face.
         When I'm sure it's her I pull out the second vial and quickly dab it on my wrists, palms, and then slide my hands over my face. At closest approach I say "Hyun?"
         She looks up, the flash of terror on her face gives me my next line, "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" What's the matter?
         After a moment of staring, she says, "Phillipe," as though dragging the name from dusty, archived memory. As though I were a thousand years dead.
         I move close, put a hand on her shoulder and ask, "Are you alright?"
         "Non," she says.
         "What's the matter?"
         "Phillipe, stay out of it. It's not your concern. I fight my own battles." It's the first hint of the woman I knew.
         I have to keep her talking. I don't know how long it will take for the effect to kick in. "Are you winning?" I ask.
         "I tried to cheat the Lurkers," she says. "For your own safety stay away from me."
         Something makes me lift my hand and touch the curtain of hair that conceals one half of her face. The touch is everything I remember, soft and silky and luxuriant.
         Hyun flinches as I start to lift and her lips tighten, but she lets me do it.
         Only one luminous iris stares back at me. The other is gone, eyelid sagging into the empty socket. I gasp, horrified, and let the curtain drop.
         Then, on some impulse I can't fight, I hug her to me. I want to carry her away, back to the world we once had, the lives we once lived.
         Hyun is stiff for a moment, then yields to the embrace. "They took it out without anesthetic. It hurt so much. I screamed and screamed. And all the time the Lurkers were in my head, riding my pain, enjoying it. It was horrible, horrible."
         This changes nothing. An eye is just an eye. We were built on more than that. And a patch would suit her, in a way, make her look even more dangerous. Maybe it is for the best. Hyun's dreams of the high-life were keeping her from being happy, nothing was ever good enough. Now she'll accept less and be happy with it. I'll make her happy.
         And that's when I feel the presence. A ghost in my weave. A tickle behind my eyeballs. A voice made from the reanimated bits of slaughtered sentences says, "She not so pretty now. Will make it easier. She can't be so picky."
         Hyun pushes away from me, and I let her go, the moment ruined by the realisation it was me that led them to her.
         Hyun says, "They say I can have my eye back when I've paid off my debt."
         "How much do you owe?"
         She shakes her head. "It's not money. It's a debt of respect. I work for them, run errands, do things. It's not so bad, mostly. When I've earned their forgiveness, they'll put it back in."
         "Hyun, I'm sorry."
         "I'll tell you one thing." She smiles bitterly. "I won't disrespect them again." She looks up with her one green eye, looks straight into my face, and I see it happen. Her one pupil expands like an oil-spot on water, opening to let in more light, drinking me in. "Phillipe," she says, like my name is a remembrance. "It's good to see you again."
         "It's good to see you too, Hyun."
         "I... I...", her mouth and throat move like she's a beached fish, gasping for a mouthful of water, only the one sound coming out. "I... I have to go."
         I click my fingers and hold out my hand. Visible only to her in weave-space, is my vee-card, containing details of how to find me both physically and for long-distance weave-calls.
         She could accept it with just a mental command, but instead she plays to the illusion, reaching out to stroke delicate fingertips across my palm as she takes the card.
         "I'm late. I have to go," she says.


         It's weeks before the next contact. At first, I think something has gone wrong, or I've been cheated. But I've never heard of the Lurkers cheating on a deal; they're very honorable about such things, and expect others to be. Then one day I open my door, and there on the tiny quadrangle of space that six stories up counts as my doorstep, is a huge lotus-flower. I know I'm being sent a message. After that I start to see messages everywhere, to see her in everything. It's infuriating because I know most of it is delusion. But the presents that appear on my doorstep, like offerings at a temple, those at least are real.
         Then one day the quaint string-driven door-chime of my container-house rings. I could weave-connect and look through the camera I've fitted over the door, but I want to see this with my own eyes. I run to the door, but then stand there, hesitating, not wanting to seem too eager. Enough sound leaks through the assault-resistant fibre for me to know there's someone standing there, something in the way a body changes the shape or quality of the ambient hiss of the world. Eventually, when I can wait no more I open the door and sunlight streams in.
         There, backlit by the sun, in a summer dress, in glory, stands Hyun. Two green eyes now, their glow is imperceptible in the daylight. She wears her hair down, so the breeze can play with it. In a floral print dress and little white gloves, standing with her feet neatly together in cute mules, she's like the Good Girl from a weavie. Like something from a dream.
         "You knew the flowers were me, right?" she asks. Like there could be anyone else.
         "Yes, I knew."
         "I came many times, but... without my eye, I... I couldn't."
         "Hyun, that wouldn't have mattered."
         "It mattered to me."
         "Come in."
         And we talk. We talk and talk and talk, even though there's not much to tell. The sun slides across the sky, and the day starts to dim, Hyun's green irises getting brighter as the world darkens around us, until they leave trails on my retina as she moves her head. Whenever I'm speaking, her eyes slide down to my mouth, and I think she only hears every third word I say. She squirms and fidgets, crossing and uncrossing her legs, patting her hair, thrumming like a plucked string or a glass resonating to a singer's voice.
         Eventually, reaching across to take her empty glass, I get too close, crossing some invisible perimeter.
         Hyun lunges. It's so sudden and violent those bits of my brain that most easily forget we've left the jungle scream "wild animal attacking!" and try to pull me away.
         It is like a predator attack, complete with teeth and claws. Hyun throws her weight onto me, and puts me off balance and onto the floor. Then she's upon me, her wine-moist mouth on mine, and a perfectly good shirt gets ruined because she doesn't have time to fuck about with buttons. It's intense, demanding, better than we ever had. It's like we've both just been released from solitary confinement, and told we've got five minutes before the planet explodes. In fact, we are the planet exploding, all the planets, all exploding at once. It's a cataclysm. It's everything I ever wanted.
         And you'd think, wouldn't you, this would be the end? 'And they lived happily ever after,' roll credits, n'est ce pas?
         No. No, I don't suppose you would think that. Not really.


         When did it start to go wrong?
         Simple. It started whenever I thought about it, thought about why she was there. Or maybe it was the cooking.
         Hyun started cooking, something I didn't even know she could do. She cooked like it was a disease, an addiction, a madness. She cooked like it was rodent nest-building behavior artificially triggered in a laboratory rat. Morning, noon and night there was always something set steaming before me; there was no escape. She'd sit opposite me, eyes big with expectation, wearing a slightly dazed smile, waiting to be told she was a good girl.
         And she couldn't be without me. Wherever I was, she had to be there too. If she found herself separated from me anywhere, she'd get anxious, afraid, like she might forget who she was without me there to confirm it. We had to do everything together. If I went out, she went out. If I stayed in, she stayed in. She had no existence outside of my orbit.
         This wasn't how it had been before.
         Oh, no, wait.
         It was.
         It was like this before, except then she held the whip. And that realisation was the worst. I was seeing a mirror of myself, back as things were when I was the one desperate to please, jumping through hoops like her pet monkey while she laughed behind her elegant, gloved hand. I remembered how jealousy felt, having to keep my eyes on her for fear if I didn't, she'd just disappear. I began to despise myself for what I had been, and hate her for doing that to me.
         I held the whip now.
         And, bien sur, I started to use it.
         If you have power, you'll use it. You can fight it as long as you like, but sooner or later, it'll get the better of you. The game of cruelty is a complex one, with rules and limits you can't exceed. You'd think it would take a long time to learn, but you find it's coded into you, on some animal level, like rodent nest-building behavior. Every day offered me a thousand chances to turn the screw. It could be something I said, or didn't say. It could be less than a word, it could be a dismissive grunt. It didn't have to be much, because Hyun was watching my every move for clues, for indications of how she was doing. A single word could hit her like a slap.
         Sometimes I'd rationalise I was trying to make Hyun wake up, make her stand up for herself, break the spell. But it never worked. Hyun chose to take the blame for everything: she wasn't good enough, she wasn't trying hard enough. That was her answer to every rejection, every casual cruelty: TRY HARDER.
         There's an old piece of wisdom: If you're in a hole, stop digging. But Hyun wouldn't. She dug harder, fanatically, maniacally. She became an insane, inhuman earth-moving machine, tunneling her way to the Earth's core.
         The more she tried the more I despised her.
         I'd lie awake at night, while Hyun cried in her sleep beside me, which she did often now, and I'd activate the holo-imager. In its light I'd measure the growing gulf between the woman I'd loved and this creature lying beside me who wore her face.
         Worst of all, I knew her desperate love was false. For Hyun it was real, felt real, this self-annihilating flame burned inside her. But I knew it was an engineered thing, like a program in a machine, enforced and encoded and no more real than words of those weave-sim fantasies of her I'd once used. Such love is no love, it's not worth having.
         Maybe Maman's love had been no better, maybe that too was just bio-code, something she couldn't help but feel. But at least she'd felt it naturally, honestly.
         Hyun's love was an enchantment cast upon her, something she only thought she felt. It was enslavement.
         And it was all my fault.
         In the end, I threw her out, physically pushing her through the door.
         She stood quavering on the doorstep, the same expression in those green-glow eyes you might see in the eyes of a dog that doesn't understand why its master throws out his arm and says "Go!"
         I shut the door on her, and told myself she'd be okay. She'd make someone a good, loving wife. I didn't want a good wife. I wanted someone who could leave me in an eyeblink, but didn't. Someone who awoke every morning and chose to stick around because they wanted to, and for better reasons than just the things I could provide. Someone whose love was a choice, not a compulsion. Someone who wouldn't use me, but wouldn't let me use them either. A partner, not a slave. A cat, not a dog. Well, maybe not a cat, everyone knows they're users. And there is the problem right there, you can have cat, or dog, there is no in-between.
         And so that was the end of it.
         No, of course, that wasn't the end of it.


         Today she's sat on my doorstep, face in her hands, crying. On the hour, every hour, she's banged on the door, or shouted through it, threatening one minute, pleading the next.
         I sit in the kitchen, the furthest room from that door, watching the hologram memories of the woman she once was, over and over and over. But I know I can't hide from what I've created. It's my responsibility. I must face it. I go to the door, unlock all the bolts and open it.
         She doesn't rush through the door like I thought she would. She stands slowly, tugs her smart black trouser-suit into place, hefts a bag onto her shoulder, turns to me and walks through the door, hands in her pockets, cross-stepping like a catwalk model. She keeps those eyes downcast, her cheeks burn with what I suppose must be shame.
         "Hyun," I say, "we can't carry on-"
         "You bastard," says Hyun, looking up so suddenly, with eyes so hard, glowing with green malignancy, it makes me take a step back. "I went to the Lurkers, asked them to find out what was wrong with you. They told me everything."
         Merde. But, maybe it's for the best. "I wanted you to love me, Hyun. I thought they could give me that."
         "Then why, when I did love you, did you treat me like shit?"
         "And how did you treat me? Back when I set you up as a princess, how did you treat me once things turned bad?"
         But the fury is draining from her face, replaced by that soppy adoration I've come to hate. She doesn't hear me speak, she just watches my mouth move. "I'm sorry," she says.
         "No, you're not, Hyun. That's the virus talking."
         Out of her shoulder-bag she takes something, holds it up, depresses a stud that goes 'click'.
         The air about us takes on that strange, tinny feel that comes with a sound-cancelling field. These devices scan the air with invisible lasers, measuring pressure-waves at the speed of light, so they can be shot down with anti-sound before they've gotten anywhere.
         "Hyun, what are you doing?" I ask, thinking perhaps she wants the extra privacy because she's going to beg, grovel, and abase herself, and thinking maybe, despite everything, I might quite like that.
         I feel the pain explode in my leg before I see the hole appear in her jacket as she fires the weapon through her pocket. It's something old and clumsy that throws chunks of metal, maybe something she's chosen because it really fucking hurts. I scream, scream like I've never known what pain was, till this moment. My leg stops working and I fall against a wall that has blood splashed down it like spilt paint.
         Hyun pulls the weapon from her pocket, and tries to hold it steady, pointing at my head. She's shaking so violently it could go off any moment. She's crying anew, water dripping from her chin as she says, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Then she screams with rage and stamps her foot like a child throwing a tantrum. "No, I'm not! I'm not fucking sorry!" The sound-canceller makes her voice seem small and distant though she's standing right over me. She sights the gun into my face again, her own face white with fury, but already the adoration is starting to break through, softening her expression.
         I crawl away from her sliding on my back, dragging my useless leg, leaving a red slime-trail down the hall. My arms shake and my head sings: hemorrhagic shock.
         She follows, keeping the gun trained on my face. At the end of the hall is the kitchen, and I've nowhere left to run.
         Hyun produces six sound-cancellers, mounting them round the room, making sure the air is totally watched and controlled.
         She strides to the sink, grabs a glass and fills it with water. "Do you know what it's like, mon coeur, to love someone and hate them with all your heart at the same time?" She takes something from a pocket. A familiar vial. She empties it into the glass. "Do you know what it's like to be betrayed, treated with contempt, but find yourself too weak and needy to walk away?" She brings the glass to me. "Do you know what it's like to despise yourself?"
         "Yes." I hiss it, I spit it. "I do."
         "No, you don't," she says. "But you will." She sips from the glass, leaving a plump smear of red lipstick on the rim, then holds it out to me and commands. "Drink."
         "Is it poison?" I ask.
         "Yes. Loveletter. Drink it, and become like me. We'll spend our days together, hating each other but unable to pull apart, trapped by need. Forever."
         She sets it beside me, squats before me, using both hands to keep the gun pointed steady at my head. "Drink it or die."
         "You couldn't."
         Hyun stands, and for a moment I think she has no cards left to play. Then she stomps on my ruined leg.
         I howl and twist, striking out and deliberately knocking the glass over, spilling its contents across the floor.
         She picks it up, patiently refills it with water, then adds fresh drops from the vial.
         I knock the new glass aside too.
         She punishes that by boiling a kettle of water, and pouring it, steaming, onto my wound.
         The sound-cancellers smother my screams.
         Moments later, she's kissing my face, telling me she's sorry, telling me she loves me. The moment after that, the muzzle of the gun presses into my eye and she hisses, "I hate you. I hate you." It's pulling her apart.
         I knock over the next glass, am punished, and knock over the next. I've lost a lot of blood, progressively becoming weaker, confused: I'll escape her yet.
         From her bag Hyun produces a med-pack, bandages, re-sealant, artificial blood. She's planned this with loving care. I'm not going anywhere. She lets me weaken, monitoring me with a bio-scan, taking me to the edge, where I'll do almost anything to survive.
         Finally she holds the glass to my lips, like Maman feeding me medicine, and I drink, my body only knowing it needs the water.
         "Bienvenue en enfer," says Hyun. Welcome to hell. Then she leans in and kisses me.
         And I feel a tickle in my head, a ghostly touch in my weave.
         Someone is watching.

© Electric Spec