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Above them, planets and stars hung in the sky like Christmas ornaments, far too large and close to be realistic, but stunning in scale and beauty. There was a purple moon and a bright red planet and a streaking comet and several suns that were almost too blinding to look at directly. Between the cloud on which they stood and the constellations above, the sky was filled with mythical beasts—a dragon, a Pegasus, a griffin, things Gunner had never seen or heard of before—and the air was filled with a resonating hum that vibrated his bones.

He couldn’t believe it.

He couldn’t believe that the fantastic sights surrounding him had been generated by nothing more than a fancy pair of glasses and a specially equipped room. Too tempted not to do it, he edged the glasses down his nose and took a peek—those hundreds of pinpricks he’d seen in the walls were blazing with life, moving and projecting and flashing. He slipped the VRSpecs back into place, and the wondrous view enveloped him once again.

“Not bad,” he said, hoping they caught the sarcasm in his understatement. “Man, visually, they nailed the programming a long time ago. Obviously.” He let out an impressed whistle. “I guess we just needed fifty years or so to catch up with all our other senses.”

“Exactly,” George said. In the virtual world, he was dressed like a medieval knight and looked ridiculous. Which made him likable. “This is where we gather to dive into our coding—it’s cheaper than using NerveBoxes, easier on our old bones to come in and out, yet still beautiful. A nice escape from the world without spending money that we don’t have.”

“Yet,” said Kent. He looked like an android, standing stiffly as if his joints didn’t quite work, with silver wires running along his skin in various places. Cherry was a medieval princess; Marta an old-fashioned soldier. “Once we show you what we’ve done—”

“Yeah, I know,” Gunner interrupted. “Then you’ll be raking in the dough. Got it. But I’m still waiting to see it.” With a start, he realized he hadn’t noticed what he was wearing yet and looked down. Thankfully, just a plain gray jumpsuit, like something a mechanic might don to fix cars.

“Now,” George said, his virtual face showing he was ready to get down to business. “Let’s remove ourselves to the sitting area and let the show begin.”

They moved through some wispy clouds and made their way down a slope. Gunner walked tentatively at first, sure he was going to slip through a hole and plummet to the ground. He didn’t know how that worked when wearing a pair of VRSpecs, but he didn’t want to find out.

After passing a pillow-like wall of cloud, they came upon a circle of wooden stumps, about ten in all, looking as if their trunks had just been chopped and felled. In the middle of the circle was a ring of stones with blackened ashes at its center. It all reminded Gunner of a scouting camp he’d gone to as a kid, before people were allowed to use Coffins. He hated to admit it, but fake camping, to him, beat real camping any day of the week.

“Please, have a seat,” George said.

He motioned to the stump closest to Gunner, who sat down, wondering where in the world all this was going. He had a sudden longing for Rachel, wishing she were there with him. The second this crazy meeting was over, he’d book it home and take her somewhere special inside the Sleep. Somewhere familiar.

The others took their own stumps and spread out around the circle. Everyone looked to George to begin.

“Now,” the old man said, adjusting his unnecessary armor. “Look into the fire, Mr. Skale. Look deeply, and you will see the world of our code. You’ll see just why we’re so excited about what we’ve discovered.”

Gunner did as he was told. He sat and stared at the charred wood and sooty ash. Then it began to change, dark swirls dancing upward from the ring of stones, devouring the air around it. It grew and grew, reaching for the celestial body–filled sky, encompassing everything around them. Gunner found himself leaning backward, trying to take it all in, wondering what it was. Soon he saw nothing but blackness, some parts darker than others, spinning like a black hole. It made him queasy, and once again he wondered if he’d fallen for some scheme.

But then a sea of coding splashed from the darkness, an onslaught of letters and numbers and symbols. He’d never seen so much data and information, so much programming—of such complexity—in one place before. From somewhere in that churning cyclone of code, he heard George’s voice, quiet and proud.

“This, Mr. Skale, is something we like to call the Mortality Doctrine.”


Hours later, Gunner had forgotten all about any promise he’d made to himself to rush home to Rachel and Sink into the VirtNet for a night out. He’d forgotten about every little thing in his life, enraptured by the code that George and his partners revealed to him piece by piece. Mesmerized, he sat and stared and listened, never wanting it to end, wondering if maybe it was all a dream. What he saw unravel before him like a long, long story seemed utterly impossible. And yet … it was there. In the code.

“We still have a long way to go,” George said at some point, long before Gunner wanted them to stop their presentation. “But hopefully we’ve shown you enough that you’ll believe in our cause. We want you to join us, Mr. Skale. Not only do we want your endorsement for publicity’s sake—we are practical, after all—but we want your counsel and advice. We want you as part of this team, a team that’s going to change the world forever.”

There was a whir of sound, and then everything disappeared, sucked back into the little fire pit in a great whoosh. Gunner could do nothing but stare at the ashes. Clouds and sky and planets filled the world now.

“What are you going to do with it?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper. His tone must’ve shown them that his joining their cause was an absolute given. All he wanted now was to understand what he’d just witnessed.

“The possibilities are endless,” George replied. The man suddenly didn’t look so goofy in that medieval garb of his. He looked like the greatest warrior who’d ever walked the earth. “Educating the young with instantaneous downloads of information. Eliminating dementia with stored memories and photos. Breaking down language barriers by downloading every known language into every mind. Restoring brain damage with artificial intelligence. Endless, Mr. Skale. The scope of possibility is matched only by its sheer wonder.”