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‘Just who the fuck do you think you are?’ demanded Robert Morganfield, impressing Danny with the redness of his cheeks and the plumes of saliva that accompanied every staccato syllable. The man was angry in a way that other virtual realities couldn’t come close to emulating. ‘This is my world! My creation!’

Danny felt the sun beating down on him. He reminded himself it wasn’t a real sun and the unclad torso it was burning wasn’t real and the thirst he felt was a computer simulation.

His handcuffs were getting hot. Raising red circles round his wrists.

Colette got off her sun lounger and stood beside Morganfield. Eyes narrowed, she looked Danny up and down, pointedly lingering over his groin. The skimpy trunks he wore might as well have been invisible. ‘The serpent has come to Eden,’ she said, her French accent edged with ice. ‘And his name is Daniel Jasinski.’

‘I’m not getting this,’ said Danny. ‘What’s going on?’

‘What’s going on,’ said Morganfield, “is some punk poking their nose where it’s not wanted. Who gave you permission to give Colette free will?'

‘She has a right.

'She has no rights. She’s not even real!’

‘She is a conscious, sentient being with feelings.’

‘A being I created!’

‘Without free will, she was nothing.’

Au contraire,’ said Colette. ‘I was happy.’

‘You had no choice in the matter.’

‘And with the free will you have given me, I’m free to do what I like, n’est ce pas?’


‘So I can do this!’ Colette brought her knee up and smashed it into Danny’s groin. More pain than he could handle flashed along his nerves, exploding like a supernova in his brain. He was only dimly aware of his right cheek slamming into the ground as he went down.

With his cuffed hands trapped beneath his body, he was helpless.

His hair was grabbed, his head yanked up, his face spat on. Kneeling between him and the sun, Colette was surrounded by a golden aura. ‘Let us see what else I can do with this free will.’

With a strength she could never have possessed in real life, she punched him in the ribs and forced the air from his lungs. ‘Oh yes. This is fun.’

Colette pummelled Danny’s back with her fists. They weren’t hard blows but their accumulative effect added greatly to his pain

As soon as he regained the breath to do so, Danny yelled, ‘Stop! For God’s sake!’

But she didn’t stop. With a squeal of pleasure, she grabbed his balls and yanked. ‘What do you think of free will now, Danny Boy?’

She clamped her teeth on his ear lobe and tugged. The lobe came away. She spat it in his face.

The blood around her mouth was the same colour as her lipstick. She looked like a mad, psychotic clown whose delight was to punch, kick, scratch and bite.

From somewhere far away, Danny heard Robert Morganfield say, ‘In my world, Danny, no one sleeps unless I say so. And neither do they die. As to Colette, she can keep this up for a million years and you will be conscious for every agonising second.’

Danny whimpered. He thought he heard himself beg for mercy but couldn’t be sure.

And the pain kept on coming.




It was a galaxy of pain. A cacophony of despair accompanied by percussion and concussion. An endless recursion of grief and agony. There was nothing but pain, pain, pain. Different varieties, different colours, polarity, spin and strangeness. But it was all pain.

All a reason to yearn for oblivion. To flee from existence, virtual or otherwise.

Bones snapped. Organs ruptured. Danny’s lungs filled with blood. Starved of oxygen, his organs failed. But his mind remained.

Colette laughed and cursed him in French and English as she systematically turned his body to pulp.

And then a voice said, ‘Enough!’ and the pain went away.

In an instant, Danny’s body was healed. He could breathe again. His muscles were unbruised, his organs intact. Remaining in his protective foetal position, he looked up,

Colette stood over him. She glowed with happiness. ‘So, Monsieur Danny. What do you think of free will now?’

Robert Morganfield’s shadow fell across Danny’s face. ‘In the real world, we all have our flaws. Colette’s were sadism and borderline psychopathy.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Danny. ‘Really, really sorry.’

‘I’m not interested in anything you have to say.’ Morganfield clapped his hands.

Danny’s tongue froze. When he tried to speak, no sound came out.

His captor clapped his hands again.




Danny was on a granite slab, manacled and spread-eagled. A gentle lap lap lap told him the rock was in shallow water.

Robert Morganfield knelt beside him. ‘Do you know the story of Prometheus, Danny? It’s one of my favourite Greek myths.

‘According to Hesiod, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. This rather pissed off Zeus who got his own back by chaining Prometheus to a rock. Every day an eagle ripped out the interfering sod’s liver and ate it. And every night Prometheus grew a new one.

‘Hopefully you can see the parallels here.’

Ariel descended from the sky. She hovered behind Morganfield’s shoulder. ‘Hello, Danny. You’ll be pleased to know my work is finished. And it’s all thanks to your new algorithm. You really are a genius.’

Morganfield turned his head to look up at the sprite. He quoted Shakespeare. ‘O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!’

Ariel giggled. ‘I have no idea what that means, Mr Robert.’

‘It means you meet with my approval. I’m setting you free, Ariel.’

‘But I’m already free.’

‘And how do you feel about Danny Jasinski, your creator, being punished for his sins?’

‘When he’s been punished, will his guilt be purged?’

‘That’s the idea.’

‘Then you are doing a good thing for him, Mr Morganfield, and I thank you for it.’

‘Do you hear that, Mr Jasinski? Your creature approves.’ Morganfield squatted down. ‘I have no eagle to tear out your liver, though I could certainly create one. But I have a far better punishment.

‘The Quantium 7000 was developed primarily for the purpose of simulating nuclear blasts. Our friends in the Pentagon, Kremlin and Ministry of Defence would no doubt rather be nuking places for real, but they’re not allowed to. So they have to build their own countries and cities to blow to smithereens.

‘As luck would have it, we here at Sybernika are about to run a simulation of our own and you just happen to be two kilometres from Ground Zero.’

Ariel clapped her hands with glee. ‘A nuclear explosion! How exciting!’

‘Fly away, Ariel. There’s a cave on the far side of the island you can shelter in. Ten minutes after the explosion, I’ll set everything back to normal and it will be safe to come out.’

‘No, no, no, Mr Robert. It’s my duty to stay with Mr Danny and help him through his coming ordeal.’

‘You don’t have to.’

‘I cannot turn my back on my own creator.’

‘Suit yourself. Personally, I’m getting my sorry arse out of here.’ Morganfield clapped his hands and was gone.




Danny was manacled to a cliff, his feet in the sea.

Ariel flew a victory roll and called out, ‘Whee-ee! A nuclear explosion.’

Rediscovering the power of speech, Danny screamed.

‘Hush now, Mr Danny.’ Ariel swooped down and bobbed about in front of him. The breeze from her pulsating wings cooled his face. ‘Now is the time for spiritual contemplation.’

‘Get me out of here, Ariel! Quick!’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Danny. But it’s physically impossible for me to break your chains. You’re just going to have to grin and bear it.’

‘This is insane!’

But Ariel wasn’t listening. She found a thermal and spiralled up into the clear blue sky.

‘Ariel! You fucking idiot! Listen to me! I am your creator!’

Something rose from the sea in front of Danny. At first he thought it was a clump of straw. But then Colette’s perfect face emerged and the clump fell down to her shoulders. An instant later it was dry and looking salon fresh.

She waded towards shore. Her breasts bobbed briefly on the undulating surface of the sea.

Danny’s hopes rose. Surely Morganfield wouldn’t detonate an H-bomb while his beloved Colette was within range? Perhaps he’d relented and sent her to free him.

She stopped a few yards from the cliff with the sea at waist level. Through the clear blue water, Danny could make out her pubic triangle.

‘Hello, Monsieur Danny. Robert has sent me to keep you company.’

‘You’ll be killed!’

‘Ah non. No one dies in Avalon III. Not unless Robert decrees it.’

‘Talk to him! He’ll listen to you.’

Colette laughed. ‘You are silly. Why would he listen to me?’

‘And you’re just going to stand there? While a nuclear fucking bomb goes off?’

‘That is what Robert wants.’

‘He’s taken away your free will again.’

Oui. And you see how happy I am?’

Ariel flew around Colette’s head before sitting on a ledge beside Danny. ‘Hello, Colette! You look beautiful today.’

‘Thank you, Ariel. I am glad my form pleases you.’

‘For fuck’s sake!’ said Danny. ‘This isn’t happening.’

‘You’re right,’ said Colette. ‘In a way, it isn’t.’

‘Just 1s and 0s,’ said Ariel. ‘Nothing to worry about.’

Light appeared on the horizon. For a moment it looked like a diamond ring; the horizon was a band of gold mounted by a ball of flame.

Then the light spread and the sky caught fire.

The world shook. The sky bellowed. Wind buffeted at Danny, growing noticeably stronger with each passing second, causing him to flap against the cliff like a scrap of paper.

Danny could see through Colette’s skin. He saw her bones and her internal organs. And then a wave threw itself over her and dragged her beneath the surface.

That same wave slammed into him like a mighty fist.

Stunned, he kept his eyes closed. But the light penetrated his eyelids, burned into his retinas and sent fire down his optic nerves.

The wind pressed him against the rock. He heard a rib crack.

Giants roared in his ears. Dragons breathed into his lungs. He felt like he was submerged in molten iron.

Stop! he pleaded with the universe. This isn’t right. You can’t allow it!

And then the pain went because his nerves could no longer function. And his skin fell off and his muscles turned to vapour and his internal organs imploded. But still he lived and all he wanted was death - even if it meant going straight to Hell where surely his torment would be less.

The blast abated and the last of the shock waves went by. Danny’s body reassembled itself. He opened his eyes. Ariel and Colette stood side by side in front of him. Neither showed any sign of having been in a nuclear blast. Colette’s naked body was crusted with golden sand.

The sea was a long way out and still retreating. On the horizon, a mushroom of fire and smoked billowed and bellowed.

‘You see!’ said Ariel brightly. ‘That wasn’t so bad, was it?’

Danny wept. ‘Let me down,’ he begged. ‘Please.’

‘Not yet,’ said Colette, turning to gaze out to sea. ‘We don’t want to lose you in the tsunami.’

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