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MACRO 11: THE INJURY OF GREED

The Temple of Diana looked like a neo-Gothic aircraft hangar. It was partly modelled on the Crystal Palace that had once hosted the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations back in 1851. Other influences on its architecture were the Palace of Westminster and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Danny parked his car in front of the building. Everything about it offended his sensibilities.

‘Well?’ asked Chastity, almost bouncing up and down in her seat like a kiddy outside the gates of an amusement park. ‘What do you think?’

‘It looks like someone’s made a Notre Dame out of ice and left it in the sun to melt.’

Chastity clapped her hands gleefully. ‘I knew you’d like it.’

Danny got out of the car. Off to the right, another strip of Green Belt had been sacrificed to the needs of a shrinking island. Steel girders rose from the ground like the fingers of a giant clawing his way out of the ground. Within days, they would be sheathed in concrete as yet another New City began to take shape.

‘Gorgeous,’ said Chastity, slamming shut the passenger door. Shielding her eyes, she gazed up at the sky. ‘Sometimes you can see the stars from here.’

‘Can’t see any now,’ said Danny without looking.

‘You have to wait for a power cut,’ she said, sliding her arm beneath his. ‘There's usually one at about three in the morning.’

 

~o~

 

They entered the Temple via a slowly revolving door. The semi-circular entrance hall was paved with marble. Gargoyles and other statues peered down from alcoves spread around the wall. Their eyeballs concealed CCTV cameras.

In the middle of the hall, on an alabaster plinth, stood a life size statue of the late Princess Diana with a dove sitting on her shoulder.

Chastity led Danny round the statute to where a man and a woman in white robes stood either side of a sliding door.

‘Greetings, sister,’ said the man, who was handsome enough to be an underwear model. ‘Have you counted your blessings today?’

‘Yes, brother,’ said Chastity. ‘And they are many.’

The woman, a stunning blonde with transcendentally blue eyes, smiled warmly at Danny. She seemed positively delighted to see him. ‘Greetings, brother. I don’t believe we’ve met.’

‘This is his first visit,’ said Chastity. She sounded proud. ‘He has come for a personal audience with Papa Bela.’

The blonde’s eyes widened in wonder. ‘You must be someone very important.’

'And then he's going to see the Enlightened One.'

'Really? Wow!'

Danny suddenly felt ten feet tall. He searched his mind in vain for a self-effacing comment that wouldn’t sound nerdish.

Chastity came to his rescue. ‘This is Danny Jasinski, the Sultan of Cyberspace.’

 ‘That explains it’ said the blonde. ‘Welcome to the Temple of Diana, Brother Danny.’

‘Thank you,’ said Danny. ‘It’s nice to be here.’

Chastity placed her hand on a metal plate and the door slid open to reveal a long, straight corridor. Its walls, ceiling and floor were all black.

Danny stepped through in haste. Nice to be here? You fucking dope. She was eating out of the palm of your hand. All you had to do was come up with one witty comment just for once in your fucking life. You blithering idiot, Jasinski. It’s a wonder you ever managed to get laid.

As Chastity joined him in the black corridor, the door closed behind them.

The recessed lights in the ceiling looked to have been randomly placed, but as he walked down the passage with Chastity at his side, Danny recognised one or two constellations.

‘It’s a zodiac,’ said Chastity when they got to the end. ‘With the constellations laid out side by side.’

A door hissed open. They went through, into a chamber as black as the corridor.

A circular light in the centre of the ceiling emitted a purple glow that highlighted the fluff on Danny’s jacket.

Two machines – metal sentinels – stood either side of a marble-encased platform upon which rested a glass sarcophagus. Inside the sarcophagus was a mummy completely covered by a one-piece suit that would not have looked out of place on a skin-diver. A tube protruded from where the mummy’s mouth would be. Wires ran from its extremities into the floor of the sarcophagus.

‘Danny,’ said Chastity, ‘meet the founder of the Church of Everyone, Bela Benedek.’

‘Benedek?’ Danny wondered if Chastity was out to wind him up. ‘The Bela Benedek? The Formula 1 racing driver?’

‘The one and only.’

Danny recollected images of a racing car hitting the back of another and taking off, back-flipping and nose-diving onto oil-slicked tarmac before becoming engufed in a fireball. ‘I thought he was dead.’

‘Just a ruse to get the media off his back.’

‘Are you saying he faked that crash?’

‘The crash was real all right. It’s a miracle he survived.’

Danny studied the supine figure for signs of life. Sure enough, the chest steadily rose and fell.

‘He has very little skin left,’ said Chastity. ‘And he’s completely paralysed.’

‘Dear God. It’s a living death.’

‘With the emphasis on living.’ Chastity placed her hand on the wall. A hidden door slipped open to reveal a small room with a console. She went in and started to strip a tailor’s dummy of the VR suit it was wearing. ‘I’m afraid we can’t provide you with total immersion. More than one sarcophagus is beyond our budget.’

 

~o~

 

Once upon a time, Danny would have been impressed by the Crystal Garden. The glass flowers with their iridescent petals put him in mind of the box his mother had kept her costume jewellery in. A breeze teased their petals just enough to elicit tiny, sparkling notes that sounded like laughter.

His VR suit fed images to his eyes, sounds to his ears, but could not hide the illusion. Not now that he had been inside Avalon III.

Bending down, he touched a tulip. It felt solid but somehow not solid.

In this place, I’m a Buddha, he thought. An enlightened one, able to see through the veils of so-called reality.

At the edge of the garden – beyond which a roiling, multicoloured mist delineated the virtuality’s event horizon where the physical laws that governed it broke down – stood an oak tree. Or rather half an oak tree, there being not enough computer power to create any more than its lowest parts.

From its only branch hung a swing made from a rope and an old tyre. Bela Benedek stood on the swing, one foot resting on the inside of the tyre, the other left dangling.

He was young and vigorous with a well-toned body, the every antithesis of the mummy in the sarcophagus.

As if they’ve drained his life force and used it to animate a golem.

 ‘Danny Jasinski!’ he exulted jumping down from the swing with an acrobat’s elegance. ‘Words cannot express how happy I am to meet you at last.’ To Danny’s dismay, Benedek ran up, wrapped his arms around him and lifted him into the air. ‘You wonderful, perfect genius, you!’

He let Danny go and stepped back to examine him. ‘You know, you’re exactly as I pictured you would be.’

That is because in this world my form is as your computer dictates. You’ve given me biceps and a six pack.

Benedek gestured to a picnic table standing between a fountain and a statue of a black panther carved from obsidian. ‘Will you join me in a drink?’

‘Sure,’ said Danny.

A jug and two glasses – all crystal – popped into existence on the table. They were filled with a pale red fluid.

‘What do you think of my crystal garden?’ asked Benedek. He handed Danny a drink. ‘Not a patch on Avalon III, I bet.’

Danny was suddenly on his guard. ‘Avalon what?’

Benedek chuckled. ‘Too late, Danny. The cat’s out of the bag. And don’t go blaming Sister Chastity. We knew all about Avalon III long before you’d even heard of it.’

‘I see,’ Danny quickly put two and two together and didn’t like the result one jot. ‘So Chastity’s some sort of honey trap then? All that guff about people being out to kill her was just a ruse.’

‘Not at all. She really is on somebody’s hit list. We’re not sure whose, but they’ve had three attempts at snuffing her. On the third try, she was on her way to see you. She noticed two men following her and jumped into your booth. The fact that you were in it was a fortunate coincidence.’

Bloody knew it. Said from the start I’m not the sort the likes of Chastity throw themselves at. Oh bloody hell. Our relationship is nothing but a big, fat juicy lie. ‘So what do you want from me?’

‘I’d like you to act as a courier and intercede with Robert Morganfield on behalf of myself and the Church of Everyone. For your services, I’m willing to pay ten thousand pounds. Give the nod and the money will be in your account by the time you get back to your hotel.’ Benedek made a sweeping gesture with his free hand. ‘You see this garden, Danny? This is my world. It measures 30 metres by 20.’ He twisted a glass rosebud and they were on a space station, standing in front a picture window that gave them a godlike view of planet earth. ‘Nice isn’t it? I’m busy writing a program to put a similar craft in orbit above a virtual Jupiter. In theory, I can hop all over the universe. But wherever I go, I have just 600 square metres to move about in. And it never, ever seems real.’

‘You want to be allowed into Avalon III. Is that it?’

‘Just for a day or two. Long enough to swim in a deep blue sea. To run along a sandy shore. And maybe to fall in love – even if it’s with a computer sprite.

‘I want one last taste of life before they turn off my life support.’ Bela placed an unwelcome hand on Danny’s back. ‘And it’s not just for me. There are many sick people in the Church of Everyone. Some are terminally ill; others are in terrible pain. Think how it would be if we could take their minds out of their bodies and let them loose in Paradise.’

Danny shook his head. ‘Robert Morganfield’s not going to share his island with anyone.’

‘The Quantium 7000 has enough core memory for a thousand islands. They need not be in the same virtuality as his.’

‘No one’s supposed to know about Avalon III. If the Sybernika board of directors get wind of it, they’ll shut it down. There’s no way Morganfield’s going to take any more risks than he has to.’

‘Would you at least ask?’ pleaded Papa Bela. ‘It would only be a temporary arrangement. Until my church has raised enough to afford our own quantum-cored computer.’

‘I’ll ask,’ said Danny, ‘but I’m not hopeful.’

Not in the least.

 

~o~

 

The Enlightened One was strapped to a gurney, looking up at the stars. A blue plastic mask covered the left side of his face; it obscured the scars of reconstructive surgery.

'I jumped in front of a train,' he said through his voice synthesiser. 'It cost me both legs and an arm.'

Danny felt uncomfortable. The middle of an abandoned airfield seemed the wrong sort of place to be meeting with a space age Buddha. To his left, the Temple of Diana with its myriad planes of glass reflected pinpoints of light from the nearby construction site.

Chastity stood at the foot of the gurney. She was lighting a joint.

Danny bent forward to get a better look at the Enlightened One's face. 'Don't I know you from somewhere?'

'Back in our street-fighting days.' The voice synthesiser spoke in measured tones devoid of emotion. 'Remember when we wore the colours of Kappa Alpha Vengeance?'

'You were in KAV?'

'There was that night, wasn't there? In the underground car park. We captured one of Medius X7's lieutenants and carried out a mock execution. Poured water over the poor sod and told him it was petrol. Then our Captain of Captains held up a Zippo lighter and struck a flame.'

'Nobody told me it wasn't for real.'

'It was me who caught you when you passed out.'

'That's when I decided to get away. The madness had gone far enough. Sooner or later someone was going to die.’

'We left together, Danny. Became civvies, skedaddled off to London and signed up as office drones. And then we did our first ghost run.'

The veil dropped. Realisation kicked in. Danny felt a brief spasm in his gut. 'Karl? Is that you?'

The Enlightened One laughed an electronic laugh that was more music than mirth. 'It cost us more than we could afford but it was worth it. The Vicar must have seen something special in you because he gave us his cheapest rate.'

Danny recalled. He and Karl Zabke, donning VR suits. Plugging into the National Data Grid. The Vicar at their side, guiding them through the Labyrinth.

They'd cruised the Internet, breaking into data realms they had no business to be in. Collecting information to sell to the highest bidder.

Ghost runners. That's what they were. Mercenaries in the thousands of undeclared corporate wars being fought online.

It was Danny's first step on the way to becoming a cyberwhacker. An outlaw in the virtual outback.

'What happened, Karl? What drove you to attempted suicide?'

'Reality. I saw too much of it.' The world went dark which meant it was two in the morning and the government had cut the power to this part of England. There was only so much juice to go around now that two of the country's eight nuclear power stations were under the sea. 'Unlike you, Danny, I became addicted to ghost running. I just couldn't give it up. And the Vicar – he let me run. Gave me as much free time in his VR lab as I wanted.

‘There were dozens of us. Tramps in Cyberspace. Drifters on the Information Superhighway. We all had nicknames. I remember there was Milly Modem and Strontium Stalin and C++ Hitler. The Tea Boy. Captain Cryo, The Overflow Kid, Divide by Zero. Kilobyte Kowalski, Nagasaki Newsgroup, Number Cruncher, Java Joe, Melanie Memory Module, Chuck Chernobyl and Raster Graphic. Legends one and all.

‘We were explorers and colonists. Sometimes I thought we were like the first creatures to venture from the sea on to dry land. Java Joe reckoned we’d stormed the Reality Studios. The Overflow Kid said he was the reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes.

‘We ran, Danny. We buzzed all over Cyberspace, poking our noses where they weren’t wanted, never minding our own business. We made it our business to break into the most secure sites in the world – the Pentagon, the Forbidden City, the Bank of Eurasia, IBM, Microsoft, Disney, BP, the Treasury, the Vatican, the Mafia, Virgin Lunar Estate, Intel, Visa, Americard, China Independent… And wherever we went, we left our calling card so people knew we’d been there.

‘I didn’t eat a lot in those days. Now and then, I’d be hauled off to a clinic and force-fed until I‘d regained a satisfactory amount of weight. They wouldn’t let me out until I signed a form promising I would never enter Cyberspace again. Of course, they knew I would but what did they care? For the most part, they made it clear they hoped I would die with my head plugged into the Internet so they wouldn’t have to bother with me anymore.’

Danny thought he could see a star. A small point of light in an otherwise dark sky. But it was moving, slowly, steadily.

Looks like a space station or a satellite.

‘You must have heard of the Cymplegades,’ said the Enlightened One’s voice synthesizer.’

‘I have,’ said Chastity. ‘They mark the limits of known Cyberspace.’

‘The Clashing Rocks. Rising up from the depths of a virtual Bosphorous.’

‘I’ve been there,’ said Danny, recalling how he had paid Katos the Blind Ferryman to take him as close to the rocks as sanity allowed. Nobody at that point had ever tried sailing between the rocks and nobody knew for sure what lay beyond. It was the edge of virtuality and as far as anyone dared go.

‘Katos told me,’ said Karl Zabke, the Enlightened One. ‘He remembered you for your wild spirit and was sad you had never returned.’

‘I grew tired of ghost running. I’d seen what it did to people who couldn’t quit.’

‘People like me?’

‘People like you.’

‘I wanted to sail through the Clashing Rocks like a modern day Argonaut. But the blind ferryman said no – such a thing was not possible. At least not for someone whose mind was as unevolved as mine. He said as far as he knew, there was only one man who could navigate through the Cymplegades and hope to survive, and that man was you. That’s why he was waiting for you, Danny. Why he sat on a rock on the shore of the Bosphorous waiting for you to return.’

But Danny knew different. He know who Katos really was. Had met him in the real world. He was an old man living in a nursing home in Brighton and he wasn’t even blind. He was, however, suffering from Parkinson’s. Like Bela Benedek and thousands of other chronically ill people, he took refuge from his troubles in Cyberspace.

Karl Zabke sighed deeply. His voice synthesizer responded with a rising glissando. ‘When I’d convinced Katos you weren’t ever coming back, he told me the secret of how to defeat the Clashing Rocks. I had to reprogram my mind and activate certain cognitive circuits within it. He said the quickest way to do that was with Fromoxodin.’

I knew it, thought Danny. You’re a frommy. An addict! And you’re not being treated for it.

‘God bless Fromoxodin,’ said Karl. ‘I don’t care if it is made from aborted fetuses or synthesized from the spinal fluid of freshly slaughtered Martians or distilled from radioactive waste. It’s made me what I am today.

‘I recall my first hit of Fromoxodin. I took twelve tabs. Enough to drive a weaker mind insane. It opened my third eye and suddenly everything made sense. I saw colours I never knew existed and found beauty where before I’d only seen ugliness. I understood the connectedness of all things. I had insights and revelations.

‘It was a rebirth, Danny. A chance for me to re-engage with the world. Only this time it would be on a more equal footing.

‘Every time I took Fromoxodin, something new happened to my mind. Circuits awoke. Genetic memories stirred. I had insight after insight as if God himself was speaking to me.

‘For a year, I took Fromoxodin and stayed away from Cyberspace. I studied the great philosophers – the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Nietsche, Icke, Confucius – and undid a lifetime of brainwashing and bullshit.

 ‘The Vicar helped me. He let me live in one of the chambers next to his underground laboratory. I slept on a wooden bed like a medieval monk. I starved myself and scourged myself. I prayed and I meditated and ate nothing except locusts and honey and the occasional hamburger.

‘I conducted my own communion with Fromoxodin as the sacrament,

‘Then, six months ago, when I knew I was ready, I returned to Cyberspace and rendered unto Katos the Blind Ferryman the tribute due to him. He set me a series of trials – six in all – to test my worthiness. They pushed me to my limits mentally and physically but I passed them all. And then he gave me a boat and wished me bon voyage.

‘I have been to the edge of reality, Danny, and I know what lies beyond. And I know also the beauty and terror of existence.

‘And do you know what else I know? The Biggest Secret of them all, that’s what.

‘You and the rest of the human race think we invented the Internet, but the truth is that it has always been there. It even predates the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe. All we did was discover it the way we discovered pi and the golden mean.

‘It’s a portal to other dimensions: to Heaven and Hell and an infinite number of worlds in between. It’s where angels sit and demons feast. It’s the abode of creatures more ancient than time itself.

‘The knowledge drove me mad. The human mind isn’t equipped to deal with such matters.

‘Ask Katos why he blinded himself and he will tell you it’s because he once glimpsed what lay beyond the Cymplegades. Mark 9, verse 7: And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee.

‘When I returned to this world – our so-called real world which is naught but shadows on the wall of a cave – it was with an equation freshly formed in my head. I didn’t understand its meaning but I wrote it down and showed it to the Vicar. He recognized it for what it was: a description of the universe reduced to its simplest form.

‘Can you imagine that, Danny? The whole of reality encoded in a handful of symbols.’

Chastity drew on her joint. She bent forward and placed her lips close to the Enlightened One’s ruined mouth. When she blew smoke into his lungs, he coughed lightly and managed something like a smile.

‘I’ll tell you something else,’ he said. ‘We no longer need the Internet to take us to the edge of reality. Not now that we have Fromoxodin.’






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