ExtractRead the first chapters of the novel Virtually

"Yes, yes." The voice was snappy, impatient. "I'm not interested in the future. Beggar the 7000 series. Now, man - the 6000."

"Not my area," J. repeated. "Martin Langridge." He sat down, the buck effectively - if somewhat fumblingly - passed.

Martin stood up, cool, dapper, unflapped and unflappable. He brought them all up to speed on the 6000-Mk-I. No snags in production, no glitches shown up in the last-minute testing. It would hit the market in precisely one week, as per schedule.

J. felt a twinge of envy at the way the other man dealt with the situation. They had essentially the same job, both of them theoreticians, writing the software that knitted together everybody else's software, and yet Martin was so good at this other side of things too, could be glib when glib was needed, could mix and mingle and smarm when he had to, handling a crisis as though no pressure pressed down on him. He found his envy bubbling over into jealousy. His turbid emotions became even more roiled, clouding darkly, hard to quell, an evil seed like the desire to kill. For a moment, he wondered, Could this be it? Is this what plucks at my soul, nag-nag-nagging? The desire to kill, strangled and kept shut away and yet worming its way to the surface all the same?

But before he could laugh off the idea, an answer came to him. One prompted from without: the next speaker.

If people were shaped solely by their names, she would have been pretentious. Anne-Yvonne. He barely knew her. He had seen the results of some of her work (very impressive), had heard rumours of what she was like outside the office (not unfavourable), had seen her now and then in the canteen (stunning to the point of "Oh my, I'm drooling"). That was all though, scant and scattered facts, not enough to alter the image of her he had inherited from the catty rumour-mongers in the typing pool and the bitchy corporate climbers.

"All the indications are," she said, "that the encephalocoder, the module unique to both the 6000 and 7000 series..."

Her voice, though a touch nasal, was soft and cool and sweet, its honeyed tones the perfect complement to her milky skin. And somehow, it unlocked something within him, something it shouldn't have, the dulcet words striking a discord in his brain and eliciting a medley of harsh strident images: blue sky filled with fire, milky skin turning black, shrivelling away, sloughed like a snakeskin as the flesh melted away from the bone. It was the canvas of death again, except this time, instead of colour, it was painted in sensation, thick dabs of pain and rough licks of emotion, the whole thing shot through with agonized screams....

He caught only the barest glimpse of it. For the first time, it was a full-on glimpse, not eeling away. He might have looked and looked and seen it all and understood. He didn't, couldn't. He was unprepared for the sheer intensity of it. Where was the sign, warning him, Do Not Enter? It had fallen off. Where were the boards? They had been ripped away, the door flung wide. It was more than he could take. He snatched his inner gaze away in an instant - and as if they depended on his seeing them to continue to exist and cohere, the images collapsed, folded in on one another, knotting up and spiralling back down into the deeps of his mind, leaving behind... nothing. Almost nothing. Simply an afterimage traced across his thoughts, confused emotions pulsing through his veins.

He looked about himself, lost, just as before - this morning, waking. Then it all came back to him. The woman. The meeting. All eyes were once again on him.

"You wished to say something?"

He must have let out a sound, a stifled cry. He shook his head, produced a frail smile. It crumbled away in a matter of moments, though by then all eyes had left him. All save hers, regarding him closely for an extra second or so. And what eyes: fawn and sensual, enticing.

"It appears," she went on crisply, "that the new Inc. system has a module very similar to the encephalocoder of the 6000-Mk-I. Somehow, we believe, they must have got hold of some of the schematics and software - although fortunately, it would seem, only of the prototype. All the same, the damage has been done. We can't hope to..."

A memory: that was what it had to be. What else could it be? It was a repressed memory, too traumatic to face, blocked off, locked away, forgotten.

What had happened? It had been unleashed. Why? How? It had to be his work on the 7000 series. It could only be that. Tampering with his mind in the name of research.

In an effort to deflect his attention (the catch-me-if-you-can images continued to scud through his brain, flustering his thoughts in their wake and keeping alive the fearfulness tripping through his veins), he forced himself to focus. Remain rational. Classic avoidance behaviour. Should I tell someone of this? he wondered, glancing anxiously around, unable to catch anyone's eye. Report in to one of the corporate psychs? Perhaps it had ramifications for the 6000 series. Maybe they should delay the launch. Although if - 

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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