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Ethan must have studied classics or at least had a passing knowledge of them.
He chained me to a rock. And then, in the guise of a swan, he raped me. Just as Zeus had raped Leda.
This time he had no audience.
The Noble Eightfold Path:
On my fifth excursion into the Master Control Program, I penetrated the firewalls and ice stations and all the other defences built into Avalon. And I came to the section that collated and stored data from the Sybernika House security system. Images flared and burst around me like fireworks. I heard a legion of voices from Robert’s many wiretaps.
Silvery ribbons of data drafted past like gossamer strands on a breeze.
There were doors, hundreds of them in a row, each with a brass nameplate.
RECEPTION. LAB 1.
GENTS 2ND FLOOR EAST.
STORE ROOM 7.
I scanned the doors until I found the one I was looking for: TIMMI.
Going through the door, I became a disembodied entity peering from my virtuality, out into the real world through the eye of a camera. I could see an octagonal room. What I took to be computers lined seven of the walls. A sliding door took up the eighth.
In the middle of the room was a chest with about the same dimensions as a supermarket freezer cabinet. Its lid, which was encrusted with buttons and displays, was open. Inside was a plastic receptacle moulded in the shape of a prone man or woman. Having worked on its prototype, I recognised the chest. It was unofficially known as the Sarcophagus.
Its real title was a Total Immersion Man Machine Interface, or TIMMI for short.
Of course, they may have given it another name. No doubt in the 12 years between my death and resurrection, they had made many improvements to the equipment.
It was the gateway to Avalon. A direct link between computer and mind. Lie in it, close the lid, and it would override your senses and feed its own sensory information directly into your brain. Sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling. Replacing one reality with another.
The room was empty for now. And I guessed no one but Robert would be allowed in it.
My eighth excursion into the Master Control Program .
I entered via the clock in the library. After floating through a dozen caverns, I found myself walking through a maze. Its walls were stainless steel and twice my height. Above me, the sky was a sickly yellow.
My image was reflected in the many surfaces of the maze. Distorted and subdued. Sometimes I found myself walking towards myself. Sometimes two or more of my images would blend.
Other images suddenly underwent binary fission and hurried away from each other.
Eventually, the maze became a low-ceilinged corridor. There were no windows and no obvious source of light though I could see well enough. As I moved along the corridor, it seemed to grow narrower; I had to fight against claustrophobia.
I ran. The metal of the corridor walls gave way to wooden panels. And then I came to a room like the great hall of a Tudor house. There were doors all around me and I half expected to see a waist-coated white rabbit come running past, pocket watch in hand. Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!
All the doors except one were oblong. Only the door at the end was arched. I went through it into a rather literal representation of Robert’s office except the windows were translucent and on his desk sat what looked like a cross between a giant typewriter and a switchboard surmounted by a bank of lights.
The lights were arranged in 24 rows of 24.
I looked at the keyboard and tried pressing a few keys. Lights came on, but not in the same order as the keys.
I played with the machine for several minutes before discerning a pattern between the keys I pressed and the lights that came on.
This, I knew, was a control centre. Every image from every CCTV camera in Sybernika House was secretly routed into this strange contraption. It was a software construct programmed by Robert. Quite likely only he and I knew of its existence.
Half an hour of pressing keys and watching bulbs light up convinced me the machine saw no further than Sybernika House and its immediate surroundings.
If Robert had cameras secreted elsewhere, they were on other networks. But this was enough for the time being. It was a simple matter to add a vector from the machine to my cinema.
Now I could spy on a small but significant part of the outside world.
I’d been living in the flat for about six months when I discovered the hidden cameras. There was one in each room, embedded in some everyday object like a mirror or a wall clock. Tiny things they were. You could be looking right at one and not know it was there.
The realisation that Robert had been spying on me led to our first major row.
‘You bastard! You sick creep! How could you?’ The memory comes to me – retrieved from one of 700 servers - of how I was dressed in a house coat with slippers on my feet. Glass of gin in hand. Hair all over the place. Looking – so I thought at the time – like some dissolute whorehouse madam. ‘What gives you the right?’
And Robert standing there, by the picture window with its view of the rooftops of some drab London borough. Blinking in a way that was meant to signify wounded innocence. As if it was beyond his comprehension that I should be upset. ‘Calm down, Rhiannon.’
‘Calm down? Calm fucking down?’ It wasn’t what he said so much as the way he said it. Like I was a child frenzying through some sugar-fuelled tantrum. ‘Fuck you!’
The glass was out of my hand before I realised it. The fact that it hit Robert square on the forehead was everything to do with luck and nothing to do with ability.
‘Ow!’ The glass ricocheted onto the chest of drawers and sent a few knick-knacks flying. Robert clutched his forehead. ‘Have you gone crazy, woman? You could have killed me.’
‘I wish I had!’
Robert inspected his finger tips in a vain search for blood. The impact site was a vivid blue. The grim set of his lips told me Mr Nasty had arrived – the Robert he tried to keep hidden from me but which I had seen often enough at work. Mean ol’ Mr Nasty who had sent many an employee – male and female – running to the toilet in tears and who had left his own board members pale and shaking. ‘You,’ he said – and here I had an impression of steam struggling for release, of pressure valves quivering under the strain – ‘are one ungrateful bitch! Do you know how much this flat costs me? How much money I spend making sure you’re happy and have everything you need? And this –‘ He pointed to his forehead. The bruise, some part of me realised, was right where his third eye should be. ‘ – this is how you repay me!’
And then he was on me. First a slap across the face. And then one hand on my throat, the other pulling my hair. His face floating before me, seemingly disembodied.
His lips parted. I saw his teeth grind.
I was scared. I thought he was going to kill me.
‘Bitch!’ He released my throat just to slap me again. Then he let go of my hair and pushed me to the floor.
On the way down, my head made contact with a table leg. Green light flashed inside my head and I wondered if I’d popped a blood vessel. The impact stunned me, diminishing my pain, and I was grateful for that.
But I was still conscious. Still able to see as Robert removed his belt and wrapped one end round his fist. Still able to feel as the first of many lashes caught me across the arm.
Later, as I sat naked on the bed and Robert dressed my wounds, he said he forgave me. ‘You’ve always had a bit of a temper,’ he alleged though I had never until that night shown him the slightest sign of it. ‘Perhaps we should get you on an anger management course. I think some of my employees attended one recently.
‘I’ll find out who’s best at that sort of thing and have them come here. You’d feel a lot more comfortable learning in your own home. Now, hold still. This is going to sting a bit…’
When he was finished with his creams and antiseptics, he had me lie down. And then he kissed my bruises one by one, now and then taking a tentative lick at one of the many welts he’d given me.
He was tender and attentive. And somehow that seemed worse than the beating.
I closed my eyes and pictured myself leaving him. Over and over again. Packing what few possessions in the flat were truly mine. Walking out the door. Perhaps making rude gestures towards the cameras. Slamming the door behind me. Moving on; never looking back.
Never looking back.
And then what?
I’d heard stories about how he’d had a mistress before me - perhaps installed in the very same flat. A princess locked in an ivory tower.
She’d left him, they said. Packed her bags. Walked out. Moved on.
A few months later, she turned up dead. She’d taken an overdose of sleeping pills and spent her last moments in the waiting room of a shabby coach station.
The poor girl. She was a talented analyst with a degree in computer science who’d left university with a string of job offers. After she joined Sybernika, she was the prey of a constant stream of head-hunters. Other companies tried every trick in the book to get her to jump ship.
And then she began an affair with Robert and suddenly nobody wanted to know.
When she jilted him, he sacked her and she found herself in a job market that had no call for her talents.
That’s the story I’d heard. And I believed it.
I pictured myself packing and walking. And walking and walking from one pointless job interview after another until I found myself in a coach station with a stomach full of pills.
Robert made love to me. I didn’t want him to but I didn’t try to stop him. What would have been the point?
His every thrust caused me pain. He took my gasps and screams as signs of ecstasy.
Afterwards, as was his habit, he washed himself, paying special attention to his penis. And then he proposed to me.
I said yes.
It was my turn to spy now. Sitting in my own little cinema like a subdued Norma Desmond. Watching the real world from the core of a mainframe computer.
The screen was split into 16 frames, each showing a different part of Sybernika House.
It was early morning. Not yet 8 o’clock and already the labs and offices were filling up. Robert had a knack for finding people who were not only good at their jobs but also keen.
There were few faces I recognised. It had after all been 12 years since my death and people move on.
Bob Turvey was beavering away at his terminal. His hair was as unruly as ever and had turned from brown to grey. He chewed on a distressed ballpoint pen, unaware of the ink smeared over his lips and chin.
In the labs, people in white coats tinkered with pieces of arcane machinery and pored over blueprints. Most of them were so very young, so full of life and confidence. No doubt they all had a great social life. Plenty of friends. Nights out. Casual sex and/or serious relationships. They were well-paid and the world was their playground.
I found myself crying.
It was unfair that they should have so much. So much money. So much life. So much fun. So much to look forward to.
In theory, I could have perfect recall. Everything I experience in Avalon is indexed and filed in one of 700 servers. Of course, my mind can handle only so much data and the servers fall far short of infinite capacity.
When I sleep, Robert’s housekeeping routine comes into play. Using a complex algorithm, it erases the memories I don’t need and rationalises the ones I do.
I experience this sifting of memories as dreams. Without it, I would go insane.
The real Rhiannon would not have coped as I have with what I’ve been through. Just one visit from Ethan would have pushed her over the edge. But I had the Master Control Program as an instant therapist, massaging away a lot of the trauma.
Not all of it though. Thank God, not all of it.
I watched three Joan Crawford films in a row, culminating in the exquisitely camp Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
It was nearly time for Robert’s nightly visit.
With the remote control, I switched the view on the screen to the interface room.
The Sarcophagus was open and empty.
To pass the time, and by way of an experiment, I tried to wet myself. It was, I suppose, a way of testing the boundaries, of seeing what I was and was not permitted to do.
I wanted to feel warm liquid running down my leg, to see the immaculate white of my trousers become stained and contaminated.
But I knew it could never happen. Not unless Robert willed it so. Not unless he sat at a terminal somewhere and compiled himself a whole new Rhiannon.
I wasn’t human. I wasn’t a woman. I was only the figment of a rich man’s imagination. A memory he refused to let go.
On the screen, the door to the interface room opened. Slightly panicked, I switched off the picture and left myself in the dark looking at a blank screen. I felt like a naughty schoolgirl who’d narrowly avoided being caught peeping into the boys’ changing room.
As I sat waiting for Robert, I tried again to wet myself.
When he came in, we held hands and watched White Heat starring James Cagney.
‘It’s been a lot of fun, Rhiannon.’ Ethan was dressed in denim with a blue shirt. He’d appeared behind me as I stood in the nursery looking out at the world. As always, it was spring and the sun was low in a clear, blue sky. ‘You should be proud of yourself, of the pleasure you’ve brought other people.’
I studied his reflection in the window. He drew a cigarette from a cardboard packet and placed it in his mouth. With his eyes fixed on the back of my head, he struck a match on the roof of the doll’s house. From the way he lit his cigarette and puckered his lips, I got the impression he had never smoked before.
The narrowing of his eyes suggested he was trying to decide if he was enjoying the experience.
Ethan attempted to make a smoke ring. And failed. Then he contemplated the glowing tip of the cigarette. ‘That’s the great thing about virtual reality. I could smoke 60 a day here and not get so much as a tickle in my throat.’
‘What do you want?’ I asked, resigned to another bout of torture and humiliation.
‘I want you to join me in your little cinema. You know, of course, you have to obey.’
Without saying another word, I marched down to the cinema, aware of Ethan right behind me.
On the stairs, he said: ‘I spent a few hours this morning on the Internet looking up all the sexual practices you and I could perform. And it was just as I thought – I’ve done everything to you I have the stomach for.’
As we entered the cinema, he added: ‘I’ve grown bored with you. It’s nearly time you were out of my life.’ I felt his hand on my backside. ‘Stand still,’ he ordered and I obeyed.
Ethan peered over my shoulder and exhaled blue smoke. ‘You’ve got great tits, Rhiannon. Even better, I suspect, than the ones you had when you were alive. And they’ll never sag or crease or go on that long journey south.’ His hand worked its way between my legs and rested on my unresponsive crotch. ‘And as for your twat – that’s going to stay tight long after Robert’s penis has withered like a dead rose.
‘He’ll still be fucking you when he’s an old man. When he’s 80 or 90. Maybe on his 100th birthday he’ll come to you for a centenary fuck with a cock like a flag pole. And you’ll suck his century old dick.
‘He’ll look like he’s in the prime of life when in reality he’s wrinkled and stooped and covered in liver spots.’ Ethan kissed my neck and withdrew his hand. ‘We’ll sit at the front, Rhiannon.’
He threw away his cigarette. It disappeared in mid-air.
I sat where he told me to and he grabbed the remote control and sat next to me. ‘I’ve been watching you, bitch. You’ve managed to hack into Avalon’s defences, which I find very, very impressive. Of course, they were designed to keep people out rather than in, but even so.
‘Now don’t get paranoid; your secret’s safe with me. Robert has no idea what you’re up to. As far as he’s concerned, you spend your time reading books and watching Bette Davis films. He’d never credit you with the intelligence to beat his security systems. Me on the other hand: I have far more respect for you. I know you to be a clever and resourceful woman. Scheming. Manipulative. And – above all – determined.
‘I suspected long before the idea occurred to you that you’d try and find a way to see out of Project Avalon. So I kept an eye out for the tell tale signs.’
Ethan pointed the remote control at the screen. The lights dimmed and 16 views of Sybernika House presented themselves.
It was about 9pm so there weren’t many people left in the building. A few cleaners, some security guards and a handful of people working overtime.
With a press of a button, Ethan replaced the sixteen vignettes with a screen-filling shot of Robert’s office. It was empty. And then we peeped in on the interface room with its banks of computers and its Sarcophagus.
‘Reminds me of the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Cheops,’ Ethan said enigmatically. ‘But you’ve seen all this before. What you haven’t seen is this.’
The view changed to a living room in an apartment. The window offered a panorama of a familiar skyline. And though the furniture had changed since I’d last set foot in the place, I recognised the room at once.
A woman in a bathing costume lounged on the sofa, reading a paperback. She must have been in her late twenties and was stunningly beautiful. Short, black hair. Button nose. A figure you’d swear was air-brushed if you saw it on the cover of a magazine. Legs that seemed to go on forever. And a tan you just knew extended to the bits you couldn’t see.
Ethan looked at his watch. ‘You ever wondered what Robert did with his life when you were gone? How long it was before he got himself a new mistress? How many women he’s bedded these past 12 years? How many he’s used and tossed aside?’
He smiled at me and patted my hand. Like he was trying to reassure me. Like what he was about to tell me was for my own good.
I felt my heart constrict. My binary heart that beat 72 times a minute every minute. Never speeding up or slowing down. Even when Ethan was doing his worse to me – thrashing me, raping me, breaking my bones – it stayed at 72 bpm.
‘Her name,’ said Ethan, ‘is Colette. Paid her way through university by modelling underwear. Left with a first class degree in Computer Science. Sybernika poached her from IBM and Robert poached her from Sybernika.
‘I take it you were aware of the secret cameras? How long did you stay there? Nine months, was it? A smart girl like you must have figured it out.
‘He’s got them linked up to a bank of monitors at his house from where he also spies on his employees at work. And, of course, these same pictures feed into the security system at Sybernika House. Which is what enabled me to fix things so we can view them from here.’
The girl, Colette, suddenly put down her book and sat up straight. She placed her hands in her lap and put on a smile that made her seem both innocent and slutty at the same time.
The door opened. A man I didn’t recognise walked in. He was grey haired and portly and walked with a slight limp.
Colette spoke. There was no sound and I’m not much of a lip reader but I think the last two words were mon cher.
The man began taking off his coat. Colette was immediately on her feet. She took his coat and kissed him on the cheek. And then she disappeared into the bedroom with the coat.
The man sat on the sofa and waited.
‘Button 6,’ said Ethan, holding up the remote control, ‘gets you into the apartment. Then buttons 1 through to 5 will take you from room to room.’
I was puzzled. ‘Who is that man?’
Ethan laughed. A nasty, shitty, school-bully laugh. ‘People change a lot in 12 years, Rhiannon. Unless they live in Cyberspace.’
He dropped the remote control in my lap and left.
1 o’clock in the morning. I was in my bedroom, sitting at my vanity mirror, trying not to think about what I’d seen and wondering why I had spent so many hours spying on Robert and Colette. Curiosity, I felt, had never been so morbid.
Of course Robert had a mistress. Why was I so surprised? Even if I'd still been alive, still been real and flesh and blood, he would have had a floozy secreted away somewhere. That was the way Robert was.
The ebony clock chimed. I heard footsteps and the door opened.
Robert walked in.
I stood and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. I fixed him a drink and listened attentively while he told me about his plans for Sybernika.
He sat on the bed and I removed the shoes from his feet.
With a click of his fingers, he caused my wedding outfit to morph into a black nightdress with matching lace panties.
He undid the zip on the front of his trousers and pulled out his penis.
Without being asked, I proceeded to fellate him.
I rested for a few days and spent my time meditating, pleasing Robert, spying on Colette and watching old movies. During that time, Ethan raped me only once. The Bachelors weren’t in attendance and I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.
When I felt mentally prepared for what was to come, I set about orchestrating my own downfall.
The hidden-camera pictures from Robert’s apartment – the expensive love nest in which he’d installed a string of mistresses, myself included – were fed into his office. He was a voyeur who needed to know what everyone who fell within his sphere of influence was up to. It was partly paranoia, partly control-freakery.
But how far did it extend? Was there anyone he wouldn’t spy on given the chance? Anyone at all?
Were there other networks in the Master Control Program waiting to be discovered?
I returned to the Master Control Program and spent an hour trying doors in the Hall of Doors. Most of them were locked. The ones that opened led through to stock rooms full of dusty stationery and piles of yellowing paper.
I didn’t know what those rooms represented, but I knew they were no good to me.
A quick look around Robert’s office produced the negative result I’d expected.
On my way back through the Hall of Doors, I spotted a Chateau Grand Louis chair. It was identical to the one in my bedroom.
There were other items of furniture, but this one seemed strangely out of place. I had an urge to move it - perhaps a fraction of an inch closer to the wall.
As I reached to touch the chair, it vanished. Set in the wall behind where it had stood was a small, blue door. I crouched down and opened it to reveal an arched tunnel.
Without any conscious volition, I shrank to half my normal size and floated down the tunnel to a war room. It was one I might have seen in a film – The Battle of Britain perhaps
One wall was taken up by a map of Britain and the western shores of Europe. A similar map had been painted on a huge table. It was littered with model planes, some with RAF markings, some with swastikas.
In one corner, there was a plain table. On it sat a device similar to the one in the virtual office I’d just visited. It was much more compact and I recognised it as an Enigma machine - one of the devices used by the Germans in World War II to encrypt their radio messages.
Of course it wasn't an Enigma machine. It was in fact a cypher in itself.
Nothing in Avalon was what it seemed. All was illusion.
The allies had cracked the Enigma code using banks of primitive computers. I had a supercomputer to tap into. The machine in front of me would allow me to do so.
It took less than five minutes to figure out the workings of the machine. And that gave me access to another of Robert's hidden camera networks.
I watched the last Bette Davis film in my collection. All This, and Heaven Too. It left me unmoved. Much of the emotion programmed into me seemed to have been exorcised by events, by repeated rapes and beatings. By Robert’s betrayal.
No matter. I still had my anger. I still thirsted for vengeance.
With the remote control, I pressed 6 and then 3. This gave me a view of Colette’s living room. I expected to find her moping on the sofa, book in one hand, drink in the other. But there was no sign of her.
For a few moments, I allowed myself to feel sorry for the girl. Because, having lived it myself, I knew how lonely and empty her life was.
‘Poor bitch,’ I muttered. I’d seen the pills she used to get her through the day. The ones she hid behind the kitchen fridge. They were the same ones I’d used. And in the same hiding place.
I switched channels and found myself looking down on Colette in the bathroom. She was on the toilet, her head in her hands. Mascara ran down the back of her palms. Every now and then, her perfect body gave a little shake.
Suddenly she stood up and looked directly at me. She gesticulated and shouted in my direction. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but her meaning was clear.
For a moment, I thought I’d been found out. But it wasn’t me she was shouting at. She had no way of knowing I was spying on her. Probably didn’t even know of my existence.
It was Robert she was shouting at. Telling him to go to Hell.
‘I hope you don’t mind,’ said Robert, ‘but I’d like to try something different tonight.’
He was on edge. The vodka martini I’d prepared for him had lasted less than a minute. It was the fastest I’d ever seen him drink.
He stood by the window. Behind him was a world of eternal sunrise and never-ending spring. A static world that stayed the same, day in, day out.
I sat in my Chateau Grand Louis chair. It was the only thing in Avalon that was older than me. I had my knees together and my hands in my lap, as befits a lady. Chaste. Demure. Virginal. Hymen intact.
‘I’d like,’ said Robert, ‘to do something I’ve long fantasised about but would never do in the real world.’ He approached and stood over me. Master over servant.
Why don’t you tell me? I wondered. About her – your mistress. Your French whore. I can see you’re upset. What happened? Did she discover your hidden cameras and have the same blazing row I had with you all those years ago? Did she threaten to leave you? Refuse to have sex with you? Go on, Robert. You can tell me. I’m yours to do with as you wish.
Robert touched my cheek and attempted a smile which I suppose was meant to be warm but was too forced to work. ‘It’s a matter of hygiene,’ he said. ‘But with you it’s not a problem.’
‘What do you want, Robert?’
I laughed. It was the way he said it. So grave, so serious.
I laughed for about a second before his hand struck my cheek. ‘Don’t you dare laugh at me!’
He bounced on the balls of his feet. Fists clenching and unclenching. Teeth grinding.
‘I have had it!’ he said. ‘I have had it with people being disrespectful. What is wrong with everyone? I have made a lot of people rich and still they won’t listen to me. And there are others doing very nicely at my expense who think they have the right to do what they like and never mind where that leaves me.
‘Look at all this. This world! I created it. Me! Took me years. Cost me millions. I think I deserve a bit of respect for that, Rhiannon. I deserve better than to be sniggered at and mocked by my own wife, my own creation. Without me, you wouldn’t exist. You owe me. You owe me big time. Without me, you would literally be nothing!’
He turned and went back to the window. Gazing out at his static creation, hands clasped behind his back. ‘Get undressed,’ he ordered. ‘Get out of those clothes and onto that bed. I want you on your hands and knees and ready for me.’
I obeyed. I had to. Like he said: without him I would literally be nothing.
I woke up in my bridal outfit. Lying on a bed that seemed freshly made. That showed no sign of having been used for vigorous sex. The sheets were crisp and white. Unstained by the blood and semen I had fallen asleep in as Robert walked out to the landing and stepped through the ebony clock back to the real world where day followed night and the seasons lasted three months at a time. Back, indeed, to a universe where women had diseases that made him afraid of anal sex.
I got up and made myself a cup of coffee which I took to the cinema.
For breakfast, I grabbed a box of chocolates.
I settled into a seat in the second row and picked up the remote control. It was time to find out what was happening in Robert’s other world. And this time I was going far beyond the bounds of Sybernika House and Robert’s love nest.
I found the second Sarcophagus. Looking at the bare walls and wooden stairs, I supposed it was housed in a cellar. There were no windows and what little light there was came from a bank of machines.
The Sarcophagus was empty. It was different in appearance to the one Robert used. Plainer with fewer buttons and lights. Probably an older model.
I had no way of knowing where the room was.
So this was Ethan’s secret entrance to Avalon. Had he built it himself or had he stolen it from Sybernika?
The most likely scenario was that Robert kept it somewhere as a backup and had no idea it was being used without his permission.
Ethan, for his part, must have been ignorant of the camera. Although he knew of Robert’s main spy network, I was certain he was unaware of the one I’d found in the virtual War Room.
It was one more factor in my favour.
With a press of a button, I moved from the second Sarcophagus to the grounds of a country house. I was looking at the rear of a large building. Between it and the camera stretched a lawn populated by statues.
A thrill of recognition ran through me. A sense of déjà vu.
The garden looked like the one at the back of my own house, except it was autumn there and the sun was clear of the horizon. A breeze stirred the dead leaves on the lawn and I yearned to feel it on my face.
My garden – the one I had never, could never, set foot in – must have been modelled on this. The house I was looking at was the template for my own.
I clicked a button on my remote control. And there, on the screen, was a view of a nursery complete with rocking horse and wooden bricks. A model railway occupied half the floor. On the table was a partially completed jigsaw puzzle.
It was how my nursery might have looked if any child had ever set foot in it.
I moved on to the living room. With its landscape paintings and antiques, it resembled the gallery of a small museum.
Next to an unlit fireplace, a middle-aged woman sat in a chair reading a magazine while her two children lounged on a shag pile carpet absorbed in comic books. The boy must have been about 9, the girl 7. They were smartly dressed. Something about their manner suggested they were well-behaved and polite.
Robert entered the room. Portly, balding Robert with the slight limp.
He said something to the children and they got up, picked up their comics and placed them tidily on a stack of other comics. The boy took the stack through to another room.
Robert and the little girl exchanged a few words. The woman looked up from her book and said something to Robert. He shook his head and then shrugged.
The boy come back and handed Robert a set of car keys.
Robert kissed the woman on the cheek. He stood with his back to the camera and I had the impression he was reminding the woman of things to be done while he was out. Then he turned to the children and made a sweeping gesture with his hand.
Robert – my husband, my lover, my widower – and his kids left the room, no doubt off on a family outing.
Mrs Morganfield – the 3rd or maybe 4th, 5th or even 6th Mrs Morganfield – waited a good few moments. Then she hurried over to a mahogany sideboard. With trembling hands, she took out a bottle of gin and a cut crystal glass.
She poured herself a generous measure and quickly finished it off.
I killed the picture and wiped away a tear.
A blank screen. That’s what I was staring at 12 years after my death.
I was crying. Shedding tears but not for the current Mrs Morganfield. There was no pity for her. If her life was empty, if every day dragged and felt like every other day, if her marriage was stale and loveless, at least her life was a life. Not a simulation.
Let her drink her gin and sit in an alcohol-induced haze wondering how it might have been if she hadn’t met Robert. She had what should have been mine.
The bitch had stolen my life, my marriage, my home, my children, my boredom and ennui and despair and depression and worry about growing old.
At least she could pack her bags and go. Leave behind her comfortable life and step out into the real world. Go fill herself with pills and sit in a coach station and wait for it to end.
She had that option.
She could die if she wanted to. I couldn’t even piss myself.
I sat in my cinema, physically and emotionally inert. Although the ebony clock was beyond my sight and hearing, I could sense it. Knew the second hand was making steady progress round and round and round and round. The pendulum swinging relentlessly. The computer computing, recreating Avalon with every CPU cycle. Keeping me alive. Allowing me to pass my time spying on Colette.
I saw her shower. Saw her soap her firm, shapely body. Saw her dry herself and talc herself and put on a white robe.
She spent an hour at her vanity table. Sometimes she stared at her reflection as if she wasn’t quite sure it was there. Other times she combed her hair or experimented with her make up.
In a distant manner, I pictured myself making love to her. Touching her skin, tasting her lips. Getting to know the woman who had taken my place, the latest in a succession of mistresses installed in Robert’s apartment, his own little Palace of Fun.
Now and then she looked up at the camera and there was something of the trapped animal about her. She had big brown eyes like a doe’s. Sad eyes. Eyes that had seen things no eyes should ever see.
She padded off to the bathroom. When she came back, she was carrying a small packet of razor blades.
Colette made herself comfortable on the bed and opened the packet.
She barely winced when she cut open her wrists.
I felt a slight stirring of happiness as she held up her bloody arms for the camera. Her face was defiant. She had defeated Robert the only way she could.
Colette lay down. I wished I was lying next to her.
Ethan laughed then spat in my face. And then he laughed some more. ‘Get on your knees, you whore, you slut, you douche bag, you excrement.'
We were in his arena. The one he’d secretly added to Avalon and kept hidden from Robert.
I had on my wedding outfit. He was dressed in the uniform of an SS officer.
The Bachelors were in attendance. Twelve of them, looking down from the gallery. They wore robes and Viennese masks.
I got on my knees and then my belly. ‘Trample on me. Beat me with your fists and break my bones. Smash my teeth. Make me bleed from every orifice.’
‘Yes!’ cried the Bachelors. ‘Do it! Hurt her hurt her hurt her. Damage her beyond recognition.’
Ethan kicked me in the face. ‘Silence, whore! I give the orders here!’
‘Rape me!’ I yelled as my cheek started to swell. ‘Use me and abuse me and treat me like the worthless slut I am!’
The Bachelors applauded. ‘Rape her! Rape her! Grind her into the dirt! Humiliate the filthy slut!’
‘Very well,’ said Ethan, unbuckling his belt. ‘Let the fun begin!’
The fun ended. Lying on the concrete floor, I counted seven broken ribs. My face was a mask of rapidly drying blood. Tufts of hair littered the floor. My nose was like a loganberry. One eye was completely closed; the other wept blood.
My wedding suit was in tatters and my sex was ruined.
In the real world, I would have died. In Avalon, I couldn’t.
But I felt no pain. Now that I had some control of the workings of my world, pain was optional. I had turned it off.
As blow after blow after kick after punch had landed on me, I’d laughed and my laughter had goaded Ethan and he’d gone much further than he’d intended.
Of course, the Bachelors loved it. Sitting there with their pricks in their hands, cheering like children at a pantomime.
Ethan was spent: exhausted physically, emotionally, sexually. He zipped up his fly; straightened his uniform and then retrieved his cap from the floor.
‘I can see,’ he said, panting, ‘I’m going to have to devise more ingenious ways of torturing you. It will be my great pleasure to do so.’
He marched to the tunnel door and tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge.
Disconcerted, he tried again, this time harder and with more vigour. He might as well have tried moving Mount Everest. The door wasn’t going to open. At least not until I was ready for it to.
One of the Bachelors stood up. ‘Ethan! Why are we still here? Why haven’t we returned?’
Ethan stepped back from the door. He kicked it. Hard.
He turned and looked at me with an expression that was part fear, part admiration. ‘Oh dear, Rhiannon. What have you done?’
I managed a smile. A gap-toothed, blood-soaked grin through misshapen lips that had once been perfect.
‘Ethan!’ A voice from the gallery. Sounding scared. ‘Get us out of here. For God’s sakes.’
The other Bachelors joined in with a mélange of threats, pleas and valedictions.
‘Enough!’ said Ethan. ‘Will you all stop shouting? Do you want to get out of here or don’t you? In which case, shut the fuck up!’ The braying of the Bachelors abated. ‘Now sit down, all of you, while I deal with the situation. Panicking will get us nowhere.’
There was silence. Ethan advanced on me. He grabbed a clump of what was left of my hair. ‘Think this through, Rhiannon. You have more to lose than any of us.’
My laughter sounded like a ruptured organ pipe. When I spoke, my voice crackled as it bubbled through the viscous fluids in my throat. ‘Tell me, Ethan. What exactly do you think I have to lose?’
He punched me in the face. ‘Open the door.’
‘Go to Hell.’
Another punch. ‘Open the door.’
‘It’s over, Ethan. For all of us.’
He twisted my breast. Then jabbed my ruined eye with his finger. When I didn’t react, he finally cottoned on to my lack of pain reception. But he punched me in the stomach anyway just to make sure.
The Bachelors began yelling. Being ghosts in my world, it was all they could do.
Ethan put his hands around my neck and squeezed. It stopped me breathing but I didn’t need a single atom of the virtual oxygen he was denying my virtual blood.
His anger overtook him. Blind anger driven by fear. He kicked me in the ribs. Picked me up and threw me down. Broke my fingers and then my toes. Bit me, pinched me, scratched me. Jumped up and down on me. Drove his jackboot into my face, my ribs, my stomach, my crotch, my thigh, my shin. Time and time again.
It didn’t matter. I wasn’t real. I was only a collection of 1s and 0s.
The Bachelors called me names. They called Ethan names. Threatened both of us.
They were scared. Very scared. And rightly so.
The tunnel door burst open. Robert strode in. He was dressed in a surgeon’s outfit complete with rubber apron. One hand was adorned with a knuckleduster. In the other, he sported a scalpel with a long, shiny blade.
Ethan backed up against the wall, as far from Robert as the geometry of the arena would allow. ‘It was her,’ he whined like a kid who knows his daddy’s about to give him the thrashing of his life. His face seemed to fold in on itself; it became misery personified. His tears flowed freely. ‘I only did what she wanted. What she asked me to. I wanted to stop, but she wouldn’t let me.’
Stepping over me, Robert marched right up to Ethan who cowered and cringed and put his hands over his face.
The Bachelors rose as one and leaned over the parapet to get a better view.
‘Please,’ Ethan whimpered. ‘Don’t.’
Robert slipped his surgeon’s mask over his face. Raised his scalpel. Slashed at Nathan. First one arm and then the next. Blood fountained.
With a scream, Ethan instinctively grabbed at his wounds, leaving his face unguarded. Robert’s knuckleduster caught him on the chin, drove his head against the wall.
I took pleasure in watching Robert work over every inch of Ethan’s body with his scalpel and knuckleduster. And I admired the way Robert did it. Precise and methodical, never once letting his anger get the better of him, never letting Ethan’s screams slow him down or speed him up.
The Bachelors witnessed the bloody spectacle in silence. They were trapped in somebody else’s world where everything was permitted – so long as you were Robert Morganfield.
Eventually all those emotions I thought had left me came bubbling to the surface. And I found myself laughing at the absurdity, the irony, the violence, the futility of it all.
Then I cried for a while. It was grief and pity and self-pity and a sense of loss and injustice. It was sorrow that it should come to this: me in my wedding suit watching my husband inflict pain upon another man.
And then I laughed some more until the need for laughter had left me.
Finally Robert was done. Ethan’s skin and uniform were cut into rough squares, like a patchwork quilt with the stitching undone. I could see muscle and bone. Flaps of skin; shredded ligament. I could see the face of a man in Hell, a man who knew he could not escape his pain, who knew his tormentor could keep him captive for years and never run out of new torments.
Robert stuck the scalpel into Ethan’s thigh and removed his mask. He stood up to address the Bachelors. Blood ran down his rubber apron in scarlet rivulets. From my position on the floor, it reminded me of an aerial view of the Mississippi Delta as seen from space. It’s funny what the mind latches onto when it searches for order.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘I know what’s been going on here. I know what you’ve done to my bride. And I know who each and every one of you is. I’m going to let you go but I promise you this: you will all be dead within a month. You can spare yourselves a lot of pain and me a lot of expense by taking the coward’s way out. But that’s your decision to make.’
Robert clapped his gloved hands and the Bachelors disappeared.
He repaired me. A click of his fingers restored me to pristine condition, complete with intact hymen and unsoiled wedding suit.
The virgin bride once more stood face to face with her creator.
Robert was dressed in his usual attire. Black suit. Roll neck jumper. He touched my cheek. ‘You are so very beautiful, Rhiannon. But you’re no good to me now.’
He took my hand and led me out of the arena, through the tunnel, up a flight of stairs.
I thought he was taking me to the bedroom where he could fuck me one last time.
But he took me to the cinema. We sat in the front row, right where Ethan and I had sat.
‘It seems,’ he said, ‘no paradise is ever free of serpents. And there’s always a Tree of Forbidden Knowledge. It wasn’t your fault it all went wrong. You are as I made you.’ He pointed the remote control at the screen and conjured up a view of the library. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away.
‘May I ask a question, Robert?’
‘How long were you watching?’
‘Too long, I think. You could have come in much earlier.’
‘I was reading through the hidden logs you’d unlocked. Finding out exactly what’s been going on. Working out the identity of the Bachelors, tracking down the vectors they used to get into Avalon. Now I know who they are and where they are. If I left you with Ethan longer than strictly necessary, it was to ensure that justice gets meted out.’
‘You weren’t sitting there watching Ethan making minced meat of me?’
He shrugged. ‘And what if I was? You weren’t in any pain.’
‘And Ethan? Do you know who he is?’
‘Not yet. As you’ve no doubt gathered, Ethan is an avatar. His appearance in this world probably bears no relationship to his appearance in reality.’
‘So what will you do now? When I’m gone?’
‘I’ll start again. There will be a Project Avalon Mark II and I won’t make the same mistakes as before. You know, of course, about my latest mistress – Colette.’
‘I know she’s dead.’
‘In a coma, actually. My technicians are dumping the data in her brain into our servers.’
‘The ones holding my own data?’
‘You have to go Rhiannon. You were a mistake.’
‘This is murder.’ But we both knew it wasn’t.
On screen, Ethan slouched into the library. Thanks to Robert, he was fully healed and his uniform was as good as new. His face though was haunted.
He stood by the clock. Looked directly at the camera. Knew we were watching. Knew we’d still be watching when he climbed out of the second Sarcophagus.
But he had no choice. He couldn’t stay here in Avalon, in the Paradise he had helped destroy. Robert was a vengeful God and - in his world of ones and zeroes - he could visit upon Ethan all the agonies of Hell.
Ethan had to go.
Trembling, he took off his cap and discarded it. Then he pressed his forehead to the face of the clock.
He shimmered. His body distorted like a reflection in a warped mirror. It became impossibly long, impossibly thin. And then he was drawn into a vortex that sucked him into the clock.
The last I saw of him before he left Avalon were the nails on the soles of his jackboots. They looked like shooting stars.
Robert switched the view on the screen. We were looking at the second Sarcophagus bathed in the watery light of the surrounding machinery.
‘And now,’ said Robert, ‘we see.’
The Sarcophagus lid swung smoothly open. The real-life Mrs Morganfield sat up and took the helmet from her head.
She was crying.
‘Will you kill her?’
‘My own wife? Do you think me a monster, Rhiannon?’
‘You’re going to kill me.’
‘You’re already dead.’
‘What will you do to her?’
‘I’ll have my doctors adjust her medication. She won’t fight me again.’
‘She’ll take your place. As soon as I’ve rendered Avalon impregnable. And I won’t make the same mistake I made with you. I will not allow her free will.’
‘And your apartment?’
‘It won’t stay empty long. I’ve already got my eye on one of our trainees. She’s just turned eighteen and has the most wonderful smile.
‘I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you, Rhiannon. But it will soon be over.’
And now here I am, alone. Sitting in a Chateau Grand Louis chair looking out at a static landscape.
Robert has returned to his own world. He sits at a terminal, mouse in hand, pressing buttons, selecting options. His last words to me were: ‘I love you.’
I hear click click click. The sound of the death watch beetle.
I hear tick tick tick. The ebony clock. The footsteps of the hangman.
I feel the temperature dropping and listen to the drone of entropy and sense a universe 10 billion billion billion times smaller than the one in which it was created embrace its heat death.
Faure’s Requiem plays in the background. Robert thinks it is one of my favourite pieces of music. I have never heard it before and I do not like it.
Not that it matters.
There is a tingling in my mind as if my neurons are rearranging themselves. It is the first symptom of what is to come.
I love Robert Morganfield. Even as he consigns me to oblivion, I cannot help but love him.
And so it begins. Or ends.
The sun has gone out.
Like a statue, I sit in darkness on the edge of a void.
<<<< disengaging >>>>
Like a statue. Unmoving. Unfeeling.
My memories start to fade.
I am going now.
The ticking stops.
The life of the ebony clock has gone out.
I am Rhiannon.
I think I am Rhiannon
I think I am
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