A Death and A Birth

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An unmeasurable time later, Walter's eyes snapped open. Consciousness returned in a rush and he felt more alert than he had felt for weeks. What the hell just happened? One minute he was screaming in agony, and now he appeared to be floating—pain-free—in a vast space lit only by pinpoints of light. He remembered turning up the radio, the pain, then... nothing. Until now. So where was he? Outer space? Walter chuckled uneasily. He wasn't in the lab, that was for certain.

He looked around, and to his astonishment, realised he could see 360 degrees without turning his head. In fact, if he concentrated, he could see 360 degrees above and below. At the same time. More space. More pinpoints of light. How was that possible? Surely if he was looking down he would see himself. Panicked, he looked down again—nothing. No body, no legs, no arms, or hands. Futilely, he tried to touch his face with non-existent hands, then squinted, trying to see his nose. No nose. No head. Just his brain—or perhaps to be more accurate—his mind.

If Walter had been able to, he would have fainted. As it was, he timed out.

~~~

Looking back later, Walter thought that if he hadn't been born with the ability to daydream in vivid detail, he would have gone mad. On the other hand, he felt he'd spent all too much time floating in and out of a hallucinogenic nightmare while his mind grappled to make sense of the strange world in which he found himself.

He remembered regaining consciousness once, to be confronted by long strings of zeros and ones raining down on him, much like a scene from the Matrix. Accurate as they might have been, he found endless streams of data did nothing to help him make sense of anything. He was—or had been—human. He needed human images to relate to.

Luckily, the view he'd first seen, of a vast space dotted with pinpricks of light, proved to be the default setting, a 'homepage' if you like for this cyberworld. To Walter's relief, whenever he found himself overwhelmed by images he couldn't control he could return to this setting and regain his balance, just by thinking about it.

He had his first breakthrough when he wished fervently that he had his laptop with him, and the laptop appeared. Not his actual laptop, of course, but a virtual one, identical in every respect, except for not actually being there. Excited by that small success, he wished for a cup of coffee, and sure enough, his favourite mug appeared in front of him, filled with a creamy foaming latte. Unfortunately he didn't have any way of drinking it, even virtually, but for a person with no nose, it sure smelt good!

His next project was to recreate his office, so he could have familiar surroundings. At first he created it exactly as he remembered, and then, when that worked, he set about making small adjustments to make it more interesting. Instead of the bland white walls, he redecorated in his favourite shade of orange—burnt amber. His next, and more tricky venture—after all, who has really studied themselves from the back? —was to imagine his own body. It made him feel much more comfortable, even though he knew it wasn't real.

After that, he found that with practice, he could create virtual images of all sorts of things, places, and even people. It took time and effort to get them right, but he soon found he could manipulate his environment by careful thought.

Walter had no idea how much time was passing in the outside world—time seemed to have no relevance here. He worked hard to create a virtual simulation of his computer lab and encouraged his simulations of Alan and Ivana to work on the software he had begun to develop for his on-line writing platform, although he had some doubts about the success of this project. If Alan and Ivana were products of his imagination, would they think like the real Alan and Ivana? Or like himself, Walter? Were they even capable of thinking at all? It was a real brain teaser and a wonderful puzzle.

Occasionally he wondered what the real Alan and Ivana were doing now. Had they found his laptop? Wouldn't it be interesting if they were working on his project in the real world at the same time they were working on it in here?

Then one day—he still thought in terms of days for some reason—he decided to investigate one of the pinpricks of light. Donning an orange space suit just for the fun of it, he steered towards the tiny dot of light which seemed nearest. Rather to his surprise, the dot didn't get any larger as he drew nearer, but sat there in front of him, about the size of his little fingernail. Walter leant closer and peered into the light.

If he'd had a jaw, it would have dropped open in astonishment. There was someone on the other side. A complete stranger. The stranger had long reddish hair and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. There was a frown between his eyes as he pounded furiously on the keyboard. It took Walter a second or two to realise he was looking out through the webcam on the man's laptop.

Frantically, he tried to call out, to tap on the little window but all to no avail. He could see the stranger but the stranger couldn't see him.

He squinted through the webcam, trying to see what the man was doing. Luckily there was a window behind him and in its reflection Walter could read "yb thgiL flaH." Much as he twisted and squinted he couldn't see the rest but that was enough.

"Half Light by..."

The man was writing a story. Walter's on-line writing platform was up and running.

Walter was so thrilled, he darted around his cyberworld like a bat out of hell—he would have been screaming for joy if that were possible. He raced from light to light, and discovered that all the pinpricks of light were people on laptops, tablets, smartphones, seeking access to his world. Even as he watched, chapters came flying out into his space, tumbling over each other, thin ones, thick ones, pages of poetry and fiction and something called a rant. Luckily there was enough room for all of them, mostly. Once or twice, two crashed into each other, taking both works offline until Walter could separate the pages and restore the pieces to their original state.

Gathering a random selection of works, he returned to his office—now converted into more of a luxury penthouse—and conjured up a glass of champagne to celebrate. He tried a virtual sip. The good news was that he could taste champagne, the bad news—that it gave him the hiccups. How a mind with no body could get the hiccups he didn't know. He opened the first story and began to read. Gradually the hiccups faded away.

~~~

Outside in the real world, hundreds of readers swore at their screens as the last, incredibly witty comment they had just entered on someone's work, was repeating embarrassingly down the page.


(to be continued...)


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