P.A.Ruddock (aka P.A.Rudders)
Digital Escape, a short story by Dave Brown had been available for download for over 100 years, though it was only in the last 10 years the title had been available for neural-interfacing. Michael Wright liked the look of it, intrigued that a storyline from so long ago could so accurately mirror the reading technologies of the present.
He might have enjoyed it too if he’d had more faith in the latest neural-interfacing technology, namely the neural implants that made the reading experience a more seamless one. But no, Michael preferred the tried and tested wrist-worn e-Reading devices; no way was he going to risk his extended life-span with a neural-interface brain implant.
A quick tap of the wrist and Michael was in a world of imagination made real. Having read the reviews, he was anticipating an interesting and educational insight. Something wasn’t right though.
He’d expected to be experiencing the story from the perspective of the main character, a story-hopping psychopath. Instead, he found himself in a long-forgotten profession, behind a shop counter serving a customer? He was confused at this unexpected role, and never having handled money before, he was even more confused.
The customer looked agitated with him, and Michael started to feel afraid. Apart from the hands around his neck it was the last thing he would ever feel ….
* * *
Due to diminishing attention spans of the public and abolition of crime, stories featuring the darker side of human nature had become popular. So too had many other genres, simply for the quality and originality of the writing.
The automated content generators, although powered by tens of billions of the most advanced analytical algorithms and capable of churning out thousands of new books each day, had never really fulfilled the potential hoped for by their designers.
Flawless grammar, formulaic plots, and perfect sentence structure made for poor and lifeless writing, which is why so many century-old stories had been made available once again.
* * *
Literature had come a long way from those primitive days of the printed page and eBook readers. No longer did the public have the tedium of exercising their imagination, flipping book pages, or scrolling their electronic counterparts, although e-Reading devices had became the new way of reading in the 21st century.
Within 100 years of the first e-Reader, the world had become a sterile and colourless place. Little was left for nurturing the creative imagination, but this was needed to write anything that could begin to compete with the automated production lines of CGI generated visual media.
It had become the norm to use mindless entertainment, requiring no more effort from its audience other than click the ‘pay now to watch’ holographic screen tabs. The Interplanetary Products and Entertainments Corporation (IPEC) – more commonly referred to as The Mighty Zon, was not about to concede without a fight, and losing what had previously been a profitable income source.
The latest e-Read Intelligence devices, (EI’s from the The Mighty Zon’s e-Read Artificial Intelligence division), allowed readers to connect neurally with books.
The system was similar to the ancient Virtual Reality game playing, but a thousand times more sophisticated and minus all the physical accessories. In use, the EI devices allowed the author or reader’s imaginations to interpret and become involved in the world in which the story takes place.
It also caused the demise of movies.
* * *
Dave Brown, the acclaimed author and pioneer of ‘active plot’ had been dead a long time. His full name was David Bolingbrook Brown, but when he gained celebrity status, he preferred being referred to as Mr Brown. Prior to his death, he resented being told his theories were wrong.
It is perhaps not hard to imagine his surprise at once again feeling the familiar tingle of apprehension and excitement, prior to snuffing out the life of someone for whom he’d taken a particular dislike, but something felt different this time.
Everything about him looked fuzzy and disjointed, like a bad quality copy of the worst copy of an old video film. Just as bizarre was his mind. He knew who he was, and his memories were fully intact, but some of the detail was more like having read about himself as a person, a character in his own right.
Conceiving himself as being the person he was would have made sense, but remembering how he died – how could he know such a thing? That was the problem. He remembered how he died, but not in the same way as having read about it.
Anyway, such thoughts were temporarily put aside while he turned his attention to the matter in hand – the obnoxious shop assistant who’d failed to offer a grovelling and abject apology for short-changing him by 23 pence.
Choking the shop assistant came naturally. It was immediately afterwards when Michael Wright was slumped across the counter, that Mr Brown noticed something odd … an electronic wrist attachment. It looked out of place in this artificial world, like seeing a digital watch in a period drama.
“Hmm, what have we here I wonder?” Mr Brown mused aloud. Instinctively he knew the odd-looking device had something to do with his new found consciousness, so he carefully removed it and placed it on his own wrist. It took a few seconds for the EI sensors to interface with his nervous system.
Of course, Mr Brown wouldn’t know that these external devices weren’t as quick as the implant versions, but once device and wearer were synchronised and calibrated for interactive use, the wearer’s mind became flooded with the billions of titles available just two wrist-taps away.
In Mr Brown’s case, he also became of aware of what had happened in the past.
* * *
“There’s been another one, Chief, another random victim and no sign of how the behavioural deviant accomplished their egress.”
“No, I don’t believe that,” Chief Regular Investigator Hillary Jackson snapped in reply. “While we’re at it, Lester, please drop the official speak. Whoever’s done this is a murderer… and they escaped, plain and simple.” She allowed her words to sink in. “I’m sure these aren’t just random victims as you put it, there must be a connection, but we can’t see it yet.”
Hillary Jackson was an enigma in the Ministry of Surveillance and Investigation. She was an individual whose imagination and ability to think beyond the empiric mind-set boundaries of her colleagues set her apart. Much to the annoyance of CRI Jackson’s superiors, she had the attitude and used the methods of generations long past, but she got results.
“I want to see the scene of crime,” CRI Jackson declared, before adding disdainfully, “… before the clean-up squad completely sanitise everything.”
“But why?” asked RI Lester Horton. “The SOC officers have taken all the sensor and surveillance readings available?” Being a regular investigator, Horton was protesting. He lacked enthusiasm at the prospect of being in the physical presence of an actual corpse. In Horton’s opinion, that particular duty was best left to the ‘lower’ work grades.
* * *
The sight of a dead body under the age of at least 150 years old was new to them both, but seeing one belonging to a man clearly in the prime of life was beyond the experience of anyone in the developed world. This had been the case for more than a century.
“There’s no sign of anyone else being here, just the life-drained victim lying slumped in the hover chair,” RI Horton casually remarked. He was trying hard, but failing dismally to hide his revulsion at being so close to a dead body.
“And no sign of a struggle either,” CRI Jackson said. “There is only bruising of the neck.”
“Not the case,” RI Horton said. “According to the Central Health and Monitoring Centre, the victim’s life-light flickered for several seconds and then went out like it had just been switched off.”
The CRI looked in Horton’s direction with a blank expression.
Horton continued. “The behavioural … I’m sorry, I mean the murderer … has left no sign or footage of making their egre-, I mean escape. There is no trace of their presence afterwards.”
It was this last aspect of what had happened that most troubled the investigators. In a world where advanced technology and surveillance of every kind had made any type of deliberate crime a thing of the distant past, what they had encountered was quite impossible.
There were 1,000 nano-cams for every man woman and child on the planet, so for anyone hoping to evade capture and justice – it was no longer possible. It was widely regarded as unthinkable to try.
The ‘whys and wherefores’ of a crime were no longer important to most investigators, because they were only interested in the apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. To CRI Jackson such attitudes and disinterest in the means and motivation behind a crime were a constant frustration. Equally frustrating were the lack of any additional evidence or clues to what was behind the recent spate of murders … She refused to treat them as simply unexplained premature deaths.
* * *
Since putting on the wrist version of an EI, Mr Brown’s world changed, frequently and quite literally. From the moment he discovered he could hop back and forth between countless imaginary worlds, which was something the EI was never originally designed for, Mr Brown exploited it to the full.
Mr Brown had always fancied himself as a master criminal, preferably one with a few violent homicidal tendencies. The Thomas Harris novel he was currently immersed in was just the ticket. In true Hannibal Lecter style he slowly choked the life out of his latest victim and was looking forward to making a stew from their soon-to-be dismembered body parts.
How disappointing it was when he awoke to find himself in a prison cell, having been denied his pleasure. His mind was a complete blank from the moment after he had stifled the last gasps for breath of the man he had seemingly strangled only moments before. It was indeed puzzling.
Perhaps it was a formatting glitch in the original upload? Mr Brown thought.
At least he was alone in the cell, though being in a cell at all was confusing, given that it played no part of the original story. He still had a lot to figure out about his strange and recent digital resurrection, not that he was complaining – escape was a much more complicated affair back in the real world ….
* * *
CRI Jackson said, “It may be nothing, but each of the victims had their EI interfaces active at the time of their deaths.” She was relieved to have found the connection she knew must exist.
“And,” RI Horton replied. “Most of the population spends half their time plugged into their books, news, and entertainment feeds.”
“On its own I agree it means nothing,” CRI Jackson said. “But, in each case the victim’s life-readings started going awry precisely 11.62 seconds into their EI neural activations. That’s way too much of a coincidence to be ignored.” She had her subordinate’s renewed attention.
My surveillance technology has proved useful after all, Horton thought. Yes, she may have been right about some connecting factor but she would never have discovered it without the sensor and surveillance readings she was so quick to discount.
RI Horton felt vindicated, conveniently forgetting that it had taken no small measure of good old fashioned detective work to bring the latest surveillance info to light.
* * *
“Yes. That looks interesting,” Mr Brown muttered to himself while browsing through the Sci-Fi and Paranormal categories. Like most of the stories Mr Brown liked to read, the latest one to catch his eye was also listed among the IPEC’s Historical back catalogue, but was still a firm favourite among readers, even after 200 years since first publication.
He allowed his mind to access the neural EI interface, submerging himself in the Look Inside sample pages. A further tap of his wrist and there he was, an actual character in the story. But Mr Brown was no ordinary reader.
A while back in one of his own stories, he’d written a thriller fantasy, about a man who could physically transport himself in and out of the digital worlds of the books he downloaded, using the ability to wreak digital havoc. Now as a result of some freak coding anomaly Mr Brown had that ability or something like it – for real.
The entire digital universe was his to explore. He regretted not having that ability many years before when he’d been sent to a secure psychiatric unit for hacking off the head of an irritating salesman who’d interrupted him while writing.
* * *
“I finally got a reply from The Mighty Zon,” CRI Jackson said. “Okay, it took the threat of going public to get it, but they’ve allowed me access to their customer database and download records.” She grinned at her partner. “All that was missing was the classic wave of a clenched fist.”
“That’s impossible.” RI Horton replied, “No one gets past their automated enquiry response firewalls.” RI Horton’s disbelief was understandable. It been more than half a century since an actual IPEC employee had personally responded to an enquiry. On the previous occasion it had taken the entire resources of the Ministry of World Tax Revenue to elicit a single paragraph, buried among 5000 pages of legal jargon … and excuses.
“I’m as surprised as you are Horton, but The Mighty Zon is as worried about these murders as we are.”
It was an achievement by the CRI. For centuries the IPEC’s wealth and power had made it a law unto itself. The Corporation was autonomous, and free from any outside authority. In a world without crime, where dying took place in secret wards, and where the elderly could quietly slip away, a few unexplained deaths could destroy the credibility of such an organisation.
Stern Dillinger, a member of the Board of Directors was prepared to explain and answer questions.
He said, “According to our investigations … one of our customers, a Michael Wright, downloaded Digital Escape, the classic by Dave Brown. While synchronised with Digital Escape, it appears that Mr Wright assumed the persona of one of the subsidiary characters of the story. He should have assumed the identity of a main character.”
CRI Jackson was squinting. “Are you saying the subsidiary character died in both the story and in the real world?”
“Yes,” Dillinger said. “Somehow, due to the similarity of the main character’s own abilities to those provided by the EI neural-interface, the e-Read AI software mistakenly interpreted Dave Brown’s psychopathic character as a part of its own coding.” He paused. “Basically the programme wouldn’t allow the customer to merge with it – instead choosing to shunt the customer’s mind into that of the one in nearest digital proximity.”
“Unfortunately for Michael Wright,” CRI Jackson said, “that just happened to be a rude shop assistant in the story?”
“Yes,” Dillinger said, nodding as he agreed with the summary.
“So, Michael Wright became the first victim,” RI Horton added. “What about the other victims in the story? Will other people in our world die as well?”
“No. Only the person accessing the story via their EI actually dies, and even then, only if they’re a victim in the story. If they remain just an observer or an incidental character then they’re safe.”
“Surely,” Horton suggested, “there can be no inter-action that could cause a death in real-time?”
CRI Jackson was impressed. Her young colleague was finally showing serious interest. Dillinger hesitated. “In theory, it could only happen if the scene in the book was being accessed simultaneously, and a stronger character had taken on the identity of the antagonist.”
Jackson turned to Dillinger. “So, how we do stop this happening again?”
“That I don’t know. Have you any idea of the size of our customer database? We have over a trillion eBooks available. We can track this character, but only where he’s been. Trying to locate and isolate this code anomaly is impossible.”
“Surely your technical and programming staff can do something?”
“What staff?” Dillinger said. “We have an army of maintenance technicians, but beyond that, the systems, the developments, the upgrades, have all been automated for the past century.” He shook his head. “The complexity of our interactive systems and algorithms started to exceed human understanding several decades ago.”
It wasn’t the answer CRI Jackson wanted hear but it came as no surprise.
The CRI met Dillinger’s gaze. “If we can’t track this Dave Brown character in real time, we need to be ahead of him, steer him in a direction we want him to go.”
“Again, theoretically, yes,” Dillinger agreed.
“So, we could be waiting for him?” RI Horton added.
CRI Jackson nodded, pleased that her colleague was showing initiative rather than waiting for a computer read-out to provide him with a neat and tidy solution.
“I have an idea,” the CRI declared, “but I’ll need the full and unrestricted resources of The Mighty Zon?”
Jackson was about to let rip about how essential it was, but instead she chuckled.
“I mean of course, with the gracious cooperation of the IPEC.”
* * *
Brown was choking on the black smoke from an artillery shell. The acrid cloud had spread through the corpse-strewn trench in which he found himself. Bloodied, limbless bodies lay all about. Flashes of shooting light dotted the sky, accompanied by the crack of explosive thunder.
Cries of ‘forward men,’ were cut short by yells of pain. Dave Brown realised he was in a very different story to the one he had been expecting. Instead of having escaped to the relative safety of a Barbara Cartland romance novel after his latest adventure, this was like being dropped in the middle of a war zone.
Perhaps the summary justice of the Ministry might have been a safer option… It was bad enough that a minor formatting problem had caused him to skip an entire paragraph, depriving him of a cannibalistic feast, but this was inexcusable corporate negligence on the part of The Mighty Zon.
He decided, should he escape with his digital life and in one piece from this latest story, he would write a very stern letter of complaint for listing what was clearly a dangerous war story under Romance. An idea came to mind, and he grinned as he considered taking other steps.
Another artillery shell landed nearby, hurling Brown into the air, taking with it his left arm below the elbow… which included the wrist-implant containing the EI neural interface device. There would be no digital quick escape this time, at least there wouldn’t be until he recovered his missing arm.
* * *
They hadn’t solved the case to CRI Jackson’s satisfaction, but at least there had been no more unexplained deaths or EI reader related complaints. The best they could hope for was that the mysterious Mr Brown had been blown to pixelated digital bits and was finally dead, both physically and digitally this time.
Despite the uncertainty of that last hope The Mighty Zon felt confident enough of that last assumption to issue a statement:
The Interplanetary Products and Entertainments Corporation would like to apologise to customers for the recent problems it’s been having with its historical content format and categorisation and are sorry for any inconvenience and/or discomfort this may have caused.’
It was the closest it was ever likely to get to an apology for more than a dozen deaths and many more attempted murders by way of beheading, throttling, and dismemberment. Mr Brown it seemed had a penchant for doing away with people in particularly disgusting ways.
* * *
What The Mighty Zon didn’t reveal in its apology or from its own internal investigations was that it had had numerous complaints from customers finding themselves surrounded by corpses and almost dying at the hands of a homicidal maniac.
Where readers hadn’t died or been attacked, complaints of stories changed beyond recognition flooded the light-wave communication channels.
For example, a reader seeing a leather-jacketed, whisky drinking, biker – popping up in a convent. Such incidents might have gone unnoticed for longer had they been confined to just the Crime, Horror, and Thriller categories, but they had appeared in all manner of genres ranging from Historical Romance to Children’s picture books.
As per company policy, such complaints had initially been ignored, but when they started finding the same complaints being posted on MeMeMe.com, the successor to MyFacePage, The Mighty Zon had at last felt compelled to act, to curtail the activities of its mysterious digital assassin.
At CRI Jackson’s suggestion, every last one of its past and present catalogue of neutrally-accessible eBooks were temporarily replaced with a particularly bloody and horrific battlefield scene from a shortened version of All Quiet On The Western Front, which is precisely where the mysterious Mr Brown continually found himself each time he ventured back into or from one digital story to another.
* * *
“Somewhere out there,” Stern Dillinger told his reflection in the mirror, “Dave Brown is still lurking, buried among a trillion lines of ancient mobi-format page coding.” He is probably very much alive ….”
Taken from The Welcome: and other Sci-Fi stories