Science, Speculation, Space Opera
James R. Stratton is a chameleon: by day, a
mild-mannered government lawyer specializing in child abuse prosecutions,
living with his wife and children in Delaware. But in recent years
he’s been forging a dark alter ego of genre fiction author through
publication in venues like Dragons, Knights & Angels Magazine,
Ennea and Nth Degree Magazine. The appearance of his first
foray into poetry in The Broadkill Review is but another step
in his master plan. Soon he will step into the light as his stories
appear in 2010 & 2011 in Tower of Light Online Magazine, Big
Pulp, and Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel, an upcoming
anthology of Oriental fantasy. His final reveal, the novel Loki’s
Gambit, is under review for possible publication in 2011, when
he will finally step into the brilliant light of day, triumphant.
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Joan and Sammy marched
along the rolling surface of a glowing path floating
on the crystal blue
waters of the Bay of Bengal. She was cloaked in the
avatar of the Brynhildr the Valkyrie for today’s contest. The path led into
lush jungle on the distant shore. She tapped the head of her mighty
war hammer, Mjolnir the Crusher, hanging from her belt as she
across the glistening waters. The original software package
for Brynhildr included the bright spear of the Valkyrie, but Joan paid
extra to upgrade to Thor’s magical warhammer.
Joan grinned. Their opponents certainly had created an exotic
locale for the contest.
Sammy, cloak in his avatar
of Loki, took her hand. “Is Odin’s
handmaiden ready for battle?” He kissed her on that special spot
on her palm. For an instant she felt it, the perfect interface,
simultaneous contact between Loki’s lips and Brynhildr’s palm,
Sammy’ lips and her palm. For a moment it was all one,
real and virtual, a bright flash that rolled through
her. Joan shivered
“Of course, love. Odin’s handmaiden is always ready for battle.” When
he kissed her again, she laughed and pulled away. “We need to
focus on the contest now, dear. Playtime is later.” Joan stroked
his cheek and turned back to the glistening sea.
Static hissed from the sky,
washing away the crystal sea and lush jungle, leaving Joan standing
at the west
entrance of the
George Washington Carver Memorial Park near her home. Plastic
beer sacks and McDonald’s wrappers littered the ground
as the mag-lev autos on West 19th street whooshed by. A
gaggle of daycare
kids, giggling as they stared, trooped by behind their
frowning daycare lady.
“What the heck!” Joan stared
at Sammy, standing flat-footed with his mouth hanging open.
Static showered down
again and the
virtual world reappeared so Joan stumbled as the glowing
path surged under her feet.
“Hey,” Sammy shouted as he fell. “Joan
sweetie, what are you doing?”
“I wasn’t doing anything!” She scanned the shifting sea for
changes. “We’re probably picking up interference from some idiot
with a hopped up wireless card on his laptop.” When Loki just
stared, Joan continued. “Some people like to hack into the corporate
networks in city center. It’s free Internet. A hacker figured
out how to boost the wifi card’s range with a signal
amplifier. It gets them too far away from the office
buildings for corporate
security to spot, but plays havoc with every other wireless
“Yeah, whatever,” Sammy said. “Can
we get on with it?”
Joan blinked down her heads-up display and keyed the glowing
links for their opponents. Freakin’ newbies! The
stats showed the leader had five tournaments to his credit, but
the other one was a new player. Joan flashed a hello to the other
team and two beings appeared down the glowing path in a jungle
clearing as Joan and Sammy swept forward. The soft evening light
left the clearing in shadows as birds and insects filled the
air with their calls. Joan began to sweat in the moist heat while
she surveyed their opponents.
Not bad. They faced the Hindu gods Shiva and Kali across
the clearing. Shiva was a fairly typical avatar, blue skinned
with eyelids darkened with kohl, naked except for a skirt of
bright cloth around his loins. But Kali was a masterpiece, blue-skinned
like Shiva, but with six arms. Each hand held a blade, and the
arms were in continual motion, shifting from fighting stance
to fighting stance.
Joan grinned. Cool! She
must have an AI subroutine just for the arms, cross-linked
to the programming for the
rest of the
avatar. Of course, all but two of the arms are virtual,
but which are real? If I were writing the programming, I’d
have real and virtual shift randomly.
But then Joan noticed discrepancies. Kali was prominently female,
broad hipped and heavy breasted, but she was wearing a bikini
top. Jesus! Somebody’s feeling shy. And the swords! Kali’s
six blades were from different eras and cultures. There was a
Turkish scimitar, a crusader’s long sword, a Japanese katana
and a sailor’s cutlass. The last two hands, on opposite
sides, held American Bowie knives.
“Freakin’ newbies!” she muttered.
The blades were something she bought right off the shelf, without
the character. Sure, they’re edged weapons the software permitted.
But they got nothing to do with her avatar. I bet she’d be have
plasma lasers if the game rules allowed it. Why bother competing
if you’re not going to pay attention to your avatar?
“Yo, varlets!” Shiva shouted. “How
dare you challenge the gods themselves to battle. We will eat
your livers, raw
cut from your still-living guts.”
Joan shook her head. “Hey, Skippy, varlets? This is the Far
East, not King Arthur’s Britain.”
When Shiva shuffled and looked
over to Kali, Joan charged swinging Mjolnir the Crusher
from overhead. The blue-skinned god jerked his shield up so
clanged against it, but the red flare of damage imparted
by the strike shot through the shield and into Shiva’s arm. Joan laughed
as the shield disappeared, destroyed by the hammer blow, and
the arm turned black and swung limp, paralyzed by the point damage
Mjolnir delivered. She swung again, cracking the top of Shiva’s
helm. Red damage flared through the helm and into Shiva’s
head, so that his eyes and ears turned black. The Hindu
and swiped blindly with his sword. Joan circled around
behind him and tapped him on the back of the head. Red
and Shiva dropped, fading into a black man-shaped smudge
on the ground.
Sammy was scored with glowing
flares of damage from Kali’s multiple
blades when Joan glanced over, but Kali had twice as many. Chanting
his battle cry, Sammy grasped the bottom of his spear with his
left hand and held the shaft loosely with his right. Pumping
with his left hand, he jabbed the spearhead forward and back
like a snake’s tongue. In quick succession, he stabbed Kali in
the breast, the stomach and the shoulder. Joan knew from long
practice at their martial arts classes, Sammy’s technique
with the spear was impossible to beat without a shield,
not if you
wanted to get close enough to fight back.
And then Kali cheated. Sammy stood with his spear jabbing away
when Kali threw down her blades and darted in. Running along
the shaft, the Hindu goddess grabbed Sammy in a bear hug. Joan
chuckled and shook her head. Freakin’ newbie! What does she
think she’s doing? Now she’s unarmed and Sammy has a
knife on his belt. But then she swept one hand up
Sammy’s neck and
across his head.
Red flashes appeared overhead
as a voice announced, “An
disconnection has been detected. Emergency shut down has been
Sammy jerked and dropped,
disappearing before he hit the ground. Static rained down and
they were standing
near the ball field
in the park. Joan ran to where Sammy sprawled twitching
on the ground. A skinny redheaded girl stood to one side, eyes
and mouth open. She held Sammy’s electrode cap in one hand with
the fiberoptic ribbon cable still attached to Sammy’s
“Hey, it was an accident.” The red head dropped the electrode
cap. “I must have snagged it when I grabbed him.”
“Bull! I saw you snatch his
electrodes off on purpose. Do you have any idea how much it
hurts to get cut
out of the game? A
Joan bit her lip. Most gamers
experienced an accidental cut off before they learned to be
had lost her electrode
cap during her third tournament to a low branch. She
winced at the memory. Her head rang like she’d been smacked
with a bat as her senses cycled between virtual reality and
the real world. Give
it a few minutes, he’ll be fine. She patted Sammy on the
chest as he jerked and spasmed.
“I’m here, Sammy. It should
stop in a minute.”
“J-J-J-Joanie, help m-m-me,” Sammy
stuttered. Then his eyes rolled up and a dark stain spread
jeans as the stinging
smell of urine filled her nose.
“Jeez!” Joan began to pant. “He’s having seizures!” Joan
cushioned his head on her lap as he thrashed.
“Help me! I need get him to the shop.” The
redhead had her mouth covered with her hands, but nodded.
Virtual Deceit was a gaming shop
run by Lucian Von Heller five blocks west of the park.
Joan first met
Sammy at an open tournament there a year ago. She’d walked
into old warehouse behind the shop and saw a shaggy haired
opposite her. As soon as she activated her VR unit, she
was Brynhildr the Valkyrie, handmaiden to the gods, standing
in a forest clearing
studded with a few trees where the steel pillars of the
warehouse stood a moment before. Across the glade, a
in gleaming armor saluted with her with his short sword
and charged. He came on without hesitation, stabbing
and slashing, and she
gave as good as she got until he pressed in close where
his short blade gave him the advantage. He defeated her,
but only just.
They became a couple soon after that.
By the time Joan and the redhead reached
Virtual Deceit, Sammy hung twitching between them with only the
whites of his eyes showing. Joan kicked open the front door.
A short, thin man with a long gray ponytail
and goatee popped out of the back.
“This one yanked off Sammy’s electrodes,” Joan
said. “It’s like he’s having seizures.”
“Right.” Lucien disappeared into the back
and reappeared with a hypodermic. “I need to give him a sedative.” He
injected Sammy through his jeans. Sammy went limp. “OK,
“Hey, it was an accident,” the redhead said. “I
didn’t know this would happen if I knocked off his electrodes.
It just cut him off from the gaming machine.”
Lucian puffed up as his face flushed
stupid, I explained all of this to you this morning.
Did you bother to listen to anything?”
He pointed to the gaming unit belted
to her waist. “The unit plays the gaming software directly
into your brain, turning it into an organic CPU. Why
you think you
can walk around in the virtual world without walking
into a telephone pole or falling into a ditch?”
The redhead just stared and shook her head.
“Jesus! Look, I want you to remember this
if you remember nothing at all. You don’t take off the electrodes
during the game. There’s programming running through the neurological
net of your brain. The gaming unit has to shut it down. When
you yanked off Sammy’s electrodes, that left the programming
running in his head. That’s a really bad thing, understand?” The
redhead nodded as tears glistened in her eyes.
Lucian dragged Sammy into the storeroom
and lay him on a cot. “This happened 10 minutes ago,
“Yeah. How did you know?” Lucian
just grunted and turned away.
“He’ll be out for a couple of hours. I’ll
have him call you when he wakes up.”
Her mother’s voice whispering from the living
room pulled Joan from sleep. Her mom called Joan’s room
painfully sparse, but Joan found the decor a comfort.
Fascinated with Japan
during her research for tournaments, she tried to copy
the spare aesthetic decor. The tatami mat and futon were
easy, and a coffee
table served as a computer desk to kneel at. But the
centerpiece of the room hung on a rack on the wall, a
19th century silk kimono.
Multicolored chrysanthemums on a blue background. Joan
saved for a year to buy it on eBay.
As Joan snuggled deeper into the warm futon,
bright flowers filing her mind.
Her eyes popped opened again. Mom’s
voice was shrill with emotion, and growing louder.
“Joan! Get up! Sammy’s in the hospital!”
Joan threw aside the quilt. Hospital!
What’s going on?
“Thank you for coming down so quickly, Ms.
Borland,” the ER doctor said. “Your friend was brought in last
night with seizures. The person who dropped Sam off left without
giving a name. A gray-haired man with a goatee?” Joan just shrugged. “Your
friend’s wallet had your name and number as an emergency
contact. Can you help us get in touch with his next of
Next of kin? Joan clutched the arms
of her chair until her arms trembled. She took a deep breath
and forced herself to relax.
“His folks live in Cleveland. I’ve never
met them, but I can get their number from his roommate. But I
don’t understand, this sounds serious. What’s wrong?”
The doctor stared at his clipboard and shrugged.
“I can’t tell you much. I know he’s your
boyfriend but you’re not family. I can say he’s suffering atypical
seizures. And they’re getting worse. Does he have a history
“Sammy’s never had any health problems.
Is he going to be okay?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t say more. It’s important
we have his family here.” The doctor stood, patted her
on the shoulder and walked away.
By dint of shouting and cussing, she got
the hospital staff to let her see Sammy. He was shaking so hard
they had him in restraints.
“Why isn’t that stopping?” Joan
asked the nurse who led her in.
“We don’t know. We’ve given him injections
of phenobarbital and Dilantin. Enough to wipe out five men. He’s
not responding.” The nurse shrugged and walked out.
Sammy’s eyes popped open and he grimaced,
showing all his teeth. “Okay, Kali, you want a fight? Loki the
undying will give you more than you can handle!” Sammy
spasmed and shook against the restraints.
What’s going on? He’s still
fighting our last contest. She grasped Sammy’s hand and pressed
it against her cheek. “Please get better.”
Just after 4:00 A.M., a monitor above the
bed wailed and staff came crashing in. A tall man in medical
scrubs hauled her out.
“Dear, your friend is in crisis. It’s best
you go to the waiting area, you’ll get in the way. Someone
will be out to talk to you.”
And someone did, after the longest half-hour
Joan ever lived through. He was an older doctor, gray-haired
and stooped, with sad eyes. He sat next to her and held her hand.
“Hello Miss Borland, I’m Dr. Bartholomew.
I have bad news. Your friend didn’t make it. His seizures were
too much and sent him into heart failure. We did everything we
could, but he’s gone. Is there someone I can call for
Joan was shaking as she stared at the floor.
She shook her head, and dislodging tears. The doctor squeezed
her hand and smiled a sad smile.
Joan had to borrow her mom’s black polyester
dress for Sammy’s funeral. She’d never needed anything
that formal before. At the funeral home, Lucian stood
at the entrance wearing
an impeccable gray suit. Joan felt her heart thump as
“You!” She hissed and shoved her face up
to his. “Why did you dump Sammy at the hospital?”
Lucian stepped back. “Joan, sweetheart,
you think I want the police on me? Your boyfriend must have taken
something really bad. I don’t need cops thinking I’m
dealing drugs or something.”
“That’s bull, Lucian. Sammy wasn’t doing
drugs and you know it.” Joan almost said something about Sammy’s
hallucinations about the last competition, but stopped. Something’s
wrong. Why would Lucian make up a lie about Sammy and drugs?
Especially to me, I was with Sammy. Instead she asked about
Sammy’s VR unit. Sammy didn’t have it at the hospital.
“Why would you want that?” Lucian shoved
his hands in his pockets. “You don’t need it.”
“You’ll give it to me because I want it,” Joan
hissed between clenched teeth. She shoved Lucian so he stumbled
back a step. “Have it ready when I come by, or I’ll kick
your butt and take it.”
She went inside and knelt at the coffin.
Joan had to grip the side to keep from falling. Sammy looked
like an oversized doll, pink cheeked and hair plastered with
goop. Somehow they had forced his lips into goofy smile. His
spear was nestled in his arms. Jesus, this is it?
The next evening she sat at her
desk staring at Sammy’s VR unit. What happened to Sammy must be inside.
Nothing else makes sense.
After a moment’s thought, she knew there
was only one place to look. Each VR unit contained a five tetrabyte
RISC memory chip that held the VR software. Everything else,
the wireless transmission hardware, the input-output circuits
for direct feed into the human brain, all were run by the software
on the chip. More important, anything that had been running on
Sammy’s unit when he got cut out should still be in the chip’s
She opened the VR unit with a screwdriver
on its hinge so the three circuit boards inside fanned
out like the pages of the book. The middle board held a computer
as long as her finger. Joan popped it out and slotted
it into the chip socket she’d plugged into her laptop. In a moment she
was scrolling through the coding from the chip. Joan sighed and
rubbed her eyes. There were over three million of lines of Turbo
C coding on the chip, and she didn’t know what she was
looking for. What choice do I have? Sammy’s dead.
She stretched and got down to the task.
Her search turned out to be easy once she
thought about it. She read any recent changes to the coding,
and a section popped up immediately. A subroutine had been added
a month ago that left her bewildered.
Why would Lucian add a communication
program to the VR unit? She could see the subroutine was
a packet transfer program normally found in digital communication
software, but also had lines like you found in a computer virus.
Besides, the unit already had a communications program, part
of the original game software. Why another?
She ran the program on her computer. “Lucian,” she
whispered. “Do you have any idea what you did to us?”
(continued on page 2)