3,600 Words

2013 Apex Magazine Reader Story of the Year

Jacob stared at the pyramid he had not built.

It stabbed up from the center of his otherwise empty room, its three sides so steep they were nearly vertical, converging to a sharp point that aimed toward the skylight. Jacob gaped at it, disbelieving the sight. The rest of his house was a blank desolation, bereft of furniture, color, and of course, pyramids.

“Couch,” Jacob said.

His couch formed like gelatin out of the floor. Its default color was cream. He plopped down onto its cushion, steepled his fingers, and contemplated the pyramid he had not asked for.

He had heard of glitches like this occurring, but never in stationary homes. Jacob had friends who paid the exorbitant fees for a mobile homespace; wherever they went, they could conjure a modest living pad with whatever furniture, walls, ceilings, and features permitted by their cloudwidth. Oh, there was an undeniable “cool factor” associated with it — snap your fingers and conjure a posh bachelor pad on a Tibetan cliff–top or Venetian alleyway or field in the middle of nowhere. Jacob never went in for that. For one thing, it was horrendously expensive. He knew people who had been crippled by the monthly charges and ended up serving time as part of the global cloud, broken down and used by other shapespace projects until they worked off the debt. Law of averages suggested you’d end up being a pipe or a wall or a spate of shingles. Maybe a fence. But there was always the chance you’d end up as someone’s toilet for a few years.

“It’s all matter,” one of his friends, Jocelyn, told him before she was sentenced to shapespace for unpaid debt. “They can have my molecules for whatever they want. I won’t know the difference. Consciousness is stored in the cloud.”

“Yeah? What if someone makes a mistake?” Jacob asked her. “Then you’d be conscious, unable to move, for the duration of your sentence.”

But all she did was laugh. “Then maybe I’ll get lucky and end up as a supermodel’s sex toy!”

Jacob saw no need for mobile homespace. When he traveled, he used public grids. In the last month alone, he had merged and emerged at a dozen locations around the world. Didn’t need to bring a house to show off. Travel and do business, then return to a fixed, dependable castle. That was how Jacob liked it.

He briefly wondered if he could erase the pyramid by conjuring another preset. Jacob uttered the word “Tuscan.” The default blankness of his home assumed an earthy hue. Vines burst from the tiles and entwined lovingly around pillars and archways. An in–ground swimming pool dimpled and welled. The walls freckled into faded mosaics. A marble statue grew in the foyer.

But the pyramid remained.

Jacob sighed. “Wine,” he said, and a stone goblet formed from the couch, filling with a good red. He sipped it thoughtfully. After a moment, he smacked his lips, enjoying the fruity aftertaste, and said, “House? I think I’ve been hacked.”

 

§

 

“There is no cloudwidth presence detected other than you,” his house replied.

Jacob swirled the wine in his goblet. “Anything to report while I was away? Any visitors? Intrusion attempts?”

“No visitors or intrusion attempts detected. Might I interest you in the Caribbean preset?”

“No. Is there a glitch in the mainspace?”

“There are no glitches detected.”

Jacob leapt to his feet and jabbed a finger at the immense pyramid. “What do you call that? Why is that in my house?”

“The pyramid is designed to represent the glory of the Amon–Ra, with its slopes stylistically recreating the rays of the sun. All bow and kneel before His glory.”

Jacob dropped his goblet. The wine spilled across the floor, soaked into the wood, followed quickly by the goblet itself, like two children fleeing before their parents’ impending argument.

“What did you say?” he cried.

“The sun god is the only god,” replied his house. “He is the one and only. He is the bringer of life, he is the strength in the hawk’s wings, he is the power in the storm, he is the vitality in the bones of the world. Shall I create a House of Healing? Would you like steak for dinner?”

Jacob broke into an icy sweat. “Shutdown,” he ordered, his thoughts flying apart in panic. He had heard of poltergeists before. Hackers who somehow managed to invade a mainspace, possess the central processor, and then mess with the owners. Silly pranks, if you were lucky. Rape, torment, or digestion if you weren’t.

At this thought, Jacob decided to get out. Ordinarily, he would have merged back into his house and simply emerged elsewhere, maybe Toronto or Berlin. But he wouldn’t risk dissolving into a hacked mainspace. Wouldn’t dare.

“Dissolve,” taunted the house. “Dissolve back to the glory of Osiris and defy the serpent of oblivion for all time.”

Jacob screamed.

 

§

 

“Jacob! I’m sorry! Jacob!”

The voice had been shouting for some time, but he hadn’t heard it over his ragged shrieks. The pyramid in his house flowered open. A woman emerged.

“Hi, Jacob,” she began, looking embarrassed. “Forgive me, okay? I wasn’t trying to freak you out, I swear!”

He blinked. “Jocelyn?”

“Who else?”

“I thought you were in cloudspace?”

She grinned and flung herself into him, wrapping her arms around his waist. He shrank from the proffered greeting, nerves still firing in anxiety.

Jocelyn cocked her head. “Hey, I said I’m sorry! Come on, don’t make a big deal of it! I was just having some fun!” She released him and hopped onto the kitchen counter, perching there like a gargoyle.

“If you’re really Jocelyn, you would know the last thing we discussed.”

She sighed in annoyance. “And I do, you paranoid freak. It was the eve of my debt–sentencing, and I told you that if I remained conscious, it’d be cool if I ended up as a dildo. Does that convince you? I’m your friend Jocelyn! Stop being an idiot!”

He felt a flash of anger. “You hacked my house?”

“Yep. Can I have something to eat?”

“Figured you would have helped yourself.”

“I did,” she admitted. “You’ve got terrific culinary options! I never knew you were such a connoisseur! But I did have to download a sushi program while I was waiting for you. What? You don’t like raw fish?”

“No. And I don’t like being hacked, either.”

Jocelyn shrugged—a flippant motion that incensed him. “Well, I didn’t like being in cloudspace. You don’t think about it usually when you bounce off the cloud. But when you’ve got to stay there for extended periods of time? A fucking nightmare! They have these nanocrystalline tethers that you get uploaded to, and then you just… drift. No ground, no solidity. It’s like being a ghost. Everything passes through everything else. They should call it hellspace.” She shuddered.

“You were supposed to be there for five years, as I recall.”

She shrugged again. “Early release.”

“How? Good behavior as a ghost?”

“Something like that.”

“Get out,” he snapped, “and return homespace control to me.”

She made a face. “Yeah? Or what?”

“I’m not kidding, Jocelyn. That shit you pulled almost gave me a heart attack.”

“A heart attack! That’s good!”

“Still costs money to be resurrected,” Jacob said defensively. “And I don’t need my premiums going up.” He hesitated, measuring her defiant stance. “So what’s with the early release? Honestly?”

She grinned. “I made a deal.”

“With who?”

“Sun.”

He was silent. New fear gathered like icicles in his blood, and he subconsciously edged toward the door, wondering if there were other criminals hiding in his homespace. “You’re on Sun’s payroll now?”

“And you are on Ragnar’s.”

“And that makes us enemies.”

She laughed throatily. “Not anymore! There’s been a merger.”

He was stunned. Sun and Ragnar were two of the world’s largest megacorps. They were the new hemispheres of an Earth no longer demarcated by geography or national borders, but by the acquisition lines of the corporate godhead. For him, that was Ragnar. For her, it was Sun.

“I’m an equity baron.” His mind raced, considering escape options. “I would have been notified if there was a merger!”

She shook her head. Behind him, his kitchen rose up into a pharaoh’s dais with solar motifs dimpling a wall of departmental glyphs. “The merger is secret, Jacob. Sun ran your profile and my name popped up as a known associate. So, they figured it made sense to escort you to… hey!”

In the corpwars, Jacob was aware of grim competitive intelligence reports telling of corporate poaching. A key employee drops his mass and transmits himself to a vacation spot, and suddenly his signal is captured. He’s hacked. His brain is absorbed and rewritten. His mass is appropriated for enemy use.

Jacob lived in fear of such a thing.

Without further delay, he dropped his mass and flew through his house circuits, reaching for the outgoing lines. In less than a second he was in the Switzerland grid. He conjured local mass and was suddenly running across a Swiss tarmac into a marketplace. Glass storefronts, neon signs, and a dozen escalators.

Jacob hopped onto an escalator, heading down, his heart pounding.

He had to get to the regional office. If Sun had the ability to hack his home, he needed backup. Ragnar needed to know!

The escalator steps vanished into the floor below him. Jacob sweated, wondering what had happened to the real Jocelyn. Or perhaps that had been the real Jocelyn, the little self–serving freelancer that she was.

He was nearing the bottom of the escalator. He prepared to step off the vanishing stairs —

— and his legs wouldn’t respond.

His shoes seemed to have become glued to the steps. Gasping, he yanked at his legs. He was rooted like a young tree. The escalator flattened out below him, disappearing down the paper–thin gullet of the machine.

“No!” he screamed. “Somebody help me! Somebody help!

As the market’s stunned onlookers watched, Jacob melted along with the escalator stairs and disappeared into the floor.

 

§

 

When he reformed, Jocelyn looked plenty pissed.

They were in a Japanese tea room somewhere beneath the market. Red–lacquered walls and shoji dividers and tatami floormats, with Jocelyn sitting lotus–style, glowering at him, while an indifferent waitress poured hot tea into dainty pearl–colored cups.

“She’s not real,” Jocelyn said sullenly. “So feel free to talk, you paranoid bastard.”

“I would have known if Sun and Ragnar were involved in a merger,” he cried. “I’m an equity baron, dammit!”

“Put your pride on pause, will you? There’s a reason it’s been kept hush–hush, so drink your damn tea and I’ll explain. We’re going to an invitation–only strategy meeting. You were invited, get it? I was ordered to come get you, so it reflects poorly on me when you freak out like that! You’ve got all of Switzerland in a panic.”

He lifted the scalding tea to his lips and drank. His hands were shaking.

“The godheads of Sun and Ragnar agreed to a merger,” she explained. She was flushed from the pursuit, and she snapped up her tea, watching him over the cup’s rim. “I was able to get into your homespace because it’s not your homespace anymore. It’s now a property deed jointly owned by both megacorps. The pyramid… that was my idea.”

He was feeling a little better. If Sun wanted to absorb him, they would have done it by now. Still, he kept the teacup protectively at his mouth, letting the steam moisten his face.

Jocelyn continued. “All equity barons are being summoned to a strategy call for further explanation.”

“Hopefully you’re not the emissary tasked with fetching them all,” he said sourly.

“We can’t all be as charming as you.” She drank the remainder of her tea. “Come on, we’ve got to be there in four minutes before the firewall closes.” She stood, looked sideways at him. “I like you, Jacob, but if you try to run again I’ll turn the tea in your stomach into a block of lead.”

 

§

 

The meeting was held in a hive–like structure about one mile underground. At least, it looked like underground, with the hewn rock and veins of ore glinting in a sepia glow. It could have been inside a mountain for all Jacob could tell, or under the sea, or maybe the godheads were doing it in virtual. Nowadays, angels could not only dance on pinheads; they could hold entire conventions atop pinheads that didn’t exist.

At any rate, the meeting hall gradually fashioned itself into something like the interior of a massive wasp nest. The vast concavity became pockmarked by thousands of coffers, each containing a person. But they were generic–looking people. No identities were being revealed, and so the meeting hall was filled with faceless, clay–colored attendees like some nightmarish mannequin factory.

“I don’t have any arms or legs,” Jacob whispered to Jocelyn.

“Neither do I. We’re meant to listen, not move around and shuffle our feet.”

Slowly, the chamber began to fill with rich, buttery light. The corporate logo of Sun appeared — a dazzling flame sending rays of warmth in every direction. At the same time, Ragnar’s eagle–shaped logo materialized alongside it. They were holograms, and as the secret attendees gasped, the two shapes overlapped and became one. An eagle surrounded by fire.

“Welcome to tomorrow,” a voice spoke in their heads. It was a crisp, clear voice, and it didn’t need to shout. “Let’s have an important discussion, you and I. There are twenty billion lives on Earth. Their future must be decided.”

 

§

 

The world had been divided into three lobes for as long as Jacob could remember, and you needed to scroll back more than a century to find references that, once upon a time, there had once been other companies too.

In fact, those old references were a historical footnote almost too surreal to be believed. It was easier to think that the Earth had always had three megacorps… rather than acknowledge the bygone fables of thousands of corpstates, nations, and tribal enclaves.

Three megacorps struck deep chords of logic and common sense. Earth was the third planet in the solar system, after all. There were three primary colors. All children had three parents—mother, father, and exogenesis pod in which they were incubated.

The Sun godhead spoke, and then the Ragnar godhead joined in what amounted to an intellectual duet. The attendees listened to their grand vision: No more war between the two great empires. The mass of the world would be shared.

“Why keep this secret then?” asked the godhead. Jacob couldn’t discern which godhead was speaking, and his eyes fixed on the unified logo. The corporate voices had blended into a single note.

“We have kept it secret,” the godhead continued, “because there is still strife and war and cruelty and divisiveness. You know of whom we are speaking.”

Jacob nodded. The Sun Ragnar was referring to the third empire of the world. It was referring to Oakbrand.

Sometimes there’s a friendly respect that forms between enemies. Sun and Ragnar had engaged in a cold war so long that they knew each other, and there was comfort in that familiarity. By contrast, Oakbrand was an isolated kingdom. Oakbrand laid claim to the mass of the world’s northern hemisphere. It maintained a secretive curtain over all it did. You couldn’t even transmit to their locations; you had to manifest outside their borders, and then walk into Oakbrand territory. If you dared.

“Oakbrand,” said the godhead, and there was a murmur through the meeting hive, “is common enemy to us all. They remain the last obstacle to a true, global merger.”

A global merger?” Jacob whispered, thunderstruck by the idea.

He could sense Jocelyn’s smile beside him. “That’s right, idiot. One megacorp. One world.”

“No one has ever managed that!”

We will achieve it.”

“But—”

“You’re going to say that Oakbrand will never agree to a merger,” she said. “We know.”

“Then why even waste time discussing it?”

Jocelyn’s smile was pure lechery. “Hostile takeover.”

“Like hell.”

“We’re going to forcibly appropriate their matter. Absorb it into the collective.”

Jacob was silent for a stretch of many microseconds, while the corporate godhead droned on in the hive. Then, finding his voice, he said, “You mean we’re going to murder three billion people? We’re going to… eat them?”

He shuddered to the depths of this legless, armless body that Sun Ragnar was forcing him to occupy. When had humanity been reduced to plankton, susceptible to consumption by a corporate maw? Had it always been the case? When he was just an embryo growing like a bloody tumor on the walls of his exogenesis pod, his fate had already been decided, hadn’t it?

Jacob found his voice at last. “Oakbrand is half a continent in size. How do we attack them? They’ll never let us transmit across their borders. We can’t just emerge like Trojans from a transmit node! What’s the strategy?”

Jocelyn spoke, but it seemed like the voice of the corporate godhead was issuing from her sensual lips. “You’ll see. It’s a matter of matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ll wash over their lands like a tidal wave,” Jocelyn, or the godhead, explained patiently. “Or more precisely, like a tsunami. We’ll reduce the collective mass of all Sun Ragnar inhabitants and buildings and trees and streets into a protean apocalypse, racing across the ocean like a shockwave. Right at their shoreline we’ll rise up! Oh, it will be beautiful! A towering wave of biomass rising like… like… a pyramid!” There was laughter. “We’ll be a wave thousands of meters tall, rushing at hundreds of miles an hour. We’ll be across their borders before they know it. We’ll cover their lands. Boiling, bubbling, splashing into all crevices and buildings! We’ll devour our enemy and add them to our unity. One world!”

The hive chanted, “One world.”

“And what of us?” Jacob muttered, surrendering to the grandiosity of the vision. “Where will our consciousnesses be?”

“In cloudspace,” came the reply. “We will all dance on pinheads in cloudspace while the attack commences, and then we will descend back to an Earth remade. One world!”

“One world!” echoed the crowd.

The godhead continued through Jocelyn, “We will wait in Heaven while conflict perishes in a mighty wave of righteousness. Global mass will be ours. No more division! No more war! A paradise awaits us all. One world!”

“One world!”

This time, Jacob added his own voice to the rhythmic chant.

 

§

 

They transmitted to cloudspace where there were no bodies. The nanocrystalline substrate was like gossamer wisps, visible only as glittering mica dust beneath the nourishing fusion showers of the sun. Billions of bodiless minds gathered, connected frail tendrils like excited jellyfish, and formed an optical array so they could watch from on high how the war was going.

I can’t see the wave, Jacob transmitted to Jocelyn. She was an invisible presence beside him, little more than a compression of neuron–data, like him, and like two–thirds of the human race now.

Jocelyn answered him: You won’t see it until it’s about to wash over Oakbrand properties. That’s the whole point, idiot.

Jacob patched into the optic center for the cloud, a single cyclopean eye staring down at the watery expanse of Pacific blue. You must feel like you’re back in prison, he sent dryly.

Only for a little while longer, she said defensively.

As they would later learn, the wave did impact Oakbrand precisely as planned. The dissolved biomass of Sun Ragnar shot up into the sky and boiled over enemy lands like a legendary flood. It seeped into every crack, it assailed every transmit mode, dividing and cordoning off all escape routes. The god Proteus lived and died in a hundred million separate battles.

And then an electric blue umbrella of light mushroomed from Oakbrand properties. The continent froze in mid–battle, the titanic images of monsters and claws and gnashing teeth petrified as if in a feverish snapshot.

And never moved again.

Slowly, the explanation filtered throughout cloudspace.

Electromagnetic pulse.

On a continent–wide scale.

Faced with extinction, Oakbrand must have called upon a doomsday solution. They must have had electromagnetic bombs peppered throughout their nation as a deterrent no one had anticipated. All earthly shapespace was fried in defiant overload. The war froze. Literally. All circuits dead. All bodies, all mass, petrified. Humanity united at last in a picture of eternal struggle.

The populace of Sun Ragnar, floating on high, attempted to contact the world below and found only silence and a picture of frozen rage.

We just witnessed a mass extinction, Jacob thought in horror. The cloudspace drifted above the dead continent. Above a dead world.

A mass extinction, he repeated. Only we’ll still be here, deranged angelic creatures without bodies, floating as formless phantasms. Immortal. Undying. Incorporeal. Floating in the clouds, basking and soaking in the limitless energy from the sun like…

…like plankton on the seas.

Slowly, Jacob began to laugh for a billion years.

Brian Trent is a 2013 winner in the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest for his story “War Hero” and works in both publishing and film. Work of his has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, COSMOS, The Humanist, Clarkesworld, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and many others. In film, Trent wrote and produced the sci–fi short “The Theseus Woman,” directed by Colin Theys of the Chiller Network, and he is also the writer/producer behind the “Selene Hollow” web series (starring Ashley C. Williams of The Human Centipede.)

Trent lives in Connecticut. His website is www.briantrent.com.

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