Monday, December 14, 2020

"This Virtual Night"

An acknowledged master of dark fantasy and science fiction alike, C.S. Friedman is a John W. Campbell award finalist, and the author of the highly acclaimed Coldfire trilogy, New York Times Notable Book of the Year This Alien Shore, In Conquest Born, The Madness Season, The Wilding, The Magister Trilogy, and the Dreamwalker series. Friedman worked for twenty years as a professional costume designer, but retired from that career in 1996 to focus on her writing.

Friedman applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, This Virtual Night, and reported the following:
Page 69 only had a couple of lines, so I backed up to 68.
The food court was silent once more. After a minute he vaulted back over the counter and headed toward the exit, but he kept looking back over his shoulder, just to make sure nothing was following him.

Nothing was.

The station grew darker as he hiked to the com center, and also grew dirtier. Whatever bots maintained the food court clearly had less interest in the housing section. There was actually dust in a few places--dust!—and some damage near the base of the walls. A few scratches, a few stains, nothing truly ominous, just….odd. He couldn’t think of what would leave marks like that.

Once he thought he heard the scratching sound again, but though he froze for several long minutes, looking in every direction, there was no hint where it was coming from.

At last he reached the promised land. Communications Center, the sign over the door said. A he approached it the panels split open, admitting him to—


He stood in the doorway just looking at the place, so shocked that for a moment he was unable to process what he was seeing. Then details came into focus: Screens shattered. Consoles gutted. Wires tangled and knotted like intoxicated snakes.

All gone. Deliberately destroyed.

Slowly he walked into the room, picking his way carefully across fallen conduits, over fragments of console housing, past bits of stuffing that someone had ripped from a padded chair. He searched for some remnant of equipment that he could jury-rig, but there was nothing. Whoever had destroyed this place had known what he was doing. There was nothing left.

Coldness settled in his heart. The brief spark of hope was gone. And he heard the scratching again, this time from just outside the door. He rushed across the room, nearly tripping on a length of cord, but by the time he got to the door, whatever had been there was gone. The hall outside was darker than he remembered. Were the lights fading? What if the power on the station was limited?

He rested his hand by the side of the door and leaned on it for a moment, eyes shut. When he opened his eyes he realized there was something under his fingertips. Long scratch marks like he’d seen in the corridor, only several of them this time, in parallel. They were etched deeply into the wall, and as he ran his fingers down them he shivered.

Your average corporate flunky wouldn’t know what they were. The low level techs who had manned this com center wouldn’t recognize them. But he did. He’d designed too many fantasy games not to. And they were spread out as big as his hand, as high as his shoulder. Whatever had made them was as tall as he was, and probably larger.

Claw marks.
Micah Bello is a game designer specializing in virtual reality role-playing games. One of his games was recently implicated in a terrorist act, and he came to realize that the company he designed it for was planning to frame him for the crime. When he tried to flee their corporate station he was attacked, and barely escaped with his life. Now he is on a derelict station, seemingly abandoned, searching for the communications center that will allow him send out a call for help. The corridors are empty, silent, and….strange. There are clues as to what has happened, but he doesn’t know how to interpret them yet.

Micah is one of my favorite characters yet. His gaming background gives him a wide array of knowledge on diverse subjects, and a nature well-suited to dealing with puzzles, but no practical experience in dealing with real-world threats. He’ll soon team up with a woman who has that practical experience, but is addicted to the adrenalin rush of danger. The chemistry between them was great fun to write, and hopefully will be great fun to read.
Visit C.S. Friedman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue