ExtractRead the first chapters of the novel Virtually

He on-lined and hooked up to the Central Library site, trying to get just one piece - the fifth string quartet was all he wanted - but unable to, had to get it all, the complete works, orchestral and chamber and all the rest, umpteen different performances of each, hours - no, make that days - of playing time, just for one thirty minute piece. It took an age to come through. He grew impatient, started drumming his fingers on the desktop. "Bloody slow today," he grumbled to himself.

At last, after an imponderable wait - it must have taken at least ten seconds - he had it all. He immediately wiped what he didn't want, then began wading through the different performances of the quartet. Hundreds of them. In the end, he simply chose one at random. A good one, as it turned out, as far as the performance was concerned at least. The recording itself wasn't so hot, an antique one, from back in the analogue days. The speakers of his terminal couldn't cope with it; the harsh scratchy melodies glided out mellifluously, the recording's sharp pungent whine turned to syrupy stodge. That was hardly going to keep him on his toes. Might even send him off.

There was a rap at the door. Martin breezed in. "Have you heard? Bloody Inc." He paused. "Something wrong?"

For a moment, it was back. A bleak compaction of thought and feeling swept through him, seeding his mind with filigrees of darkness, interlaced strands, twisting, tangling. He remembered... a door? Something about a door. Locked and boarded-up. Do Not Enter. Although there was a way in. Martin held the key.

But as quickly as they had come into his mind, the fugitive images eeled away, their dark emotions paling....

"What did you want?" he muttered.

"Never mind. It'll keep till after."


"The meeting?" Martin said. "Haven't you checked your e-mail yet? The top brass want to know what gives. Are we still on schedule, etcetera, etcetera. This business with Inc. has put the wind up them something rotten. Come on, chop chop." He tapped his watch. "Minute to go. Lucky I dropped by."

As they proceeded, on the double, through the building, J. remained silent, studying Martin, hearing him gabble on - Inc. this, Enterprises that - though not even catching the drift of what he was saying. What was the link? Was there a link? He just couldn't see how Martin fitted in, let alone could hold the key. As the lift propelled them upwards and stirred the queasy lift-feeling in the pit of his stomach, he found his emotions becoming stressed, disjointed, set in turmoil. Lodged in his brain were shards of an horrific death, broken shivers of memory. When he slotted them together, would he see... Martin?

There was no doubt about it: his mind was playing tricks on him.

They were the last to arrive. Everyone was there, or at least everyone who mattered: department heads, chief engineers, chief programmers and marketing boffins. Even two or three of the company heads were there. The room was filled with a deep swell of whispered words, a restraint of energy like a roller with no shore to thunder down on.

They were brought to order by one of the junior board members, a smug smarmy little man generally resented for his rapid rise to the top. Behind his back, snide comments flew, the usual jibes - arse kisser, bootlicker - tossed about by fellow arse kissers green with brown-tongued envy.

From him they were given the official line on the latest VR system from their rival, the US-based Reality Inc. A real shocker, the man intoned. Kept hush-hush. So hush-hush that not even their own spies in the ranks of Reality Inc. had got a sniff of it. And then suddenly, yesterday, launched on the American public with more glitz and razzmatazz than the Hey-we're-off-to-Mars colony ships that had squirted into the atmosphere a few months ago. Mars? A long six-month haul? Why bother, when you could be there, "virtually", in an instant. That was one of the major selling points of Inc.'s new package, the Marscape program. Early reports were that it was good, too, would be far and away the best VR package on the market. Until, that is, the 6000-Mk-I was launched. Though there were whispers - from Enterprises' US arm, pretty loud whispers - that the new Inc. model would give even the 6000-Mk-I a run for its money. A few dirty words were dropped: industrial espionage, moles, senior ranks, blah blab, rooted out.

Somehow (how? J. didn't know, had let his thoughts rove and his attention wander along with them) all eyes were fixed on him.

"Er - not my area," he said, half standing. He felt the colour rise to his cheeks. What had the question been? "Was, at the outset. But, um... new avenues." A note of panic brought a fluttering warble to his voice. "Branched off," he mumbled. "New lines of research. Far superior model. Still some glitches though. My report - sent to you last week. Three more months at least."

Available for purchase now

Buy the e-book version of Virtually online via Amazon.co.uk (UK readers), and Amazon.com (North America).

The paperback version is available in the UK from Amazon.co.uk and in North America from Amazon.com.


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