[All Stories] “A Cyberpunk Christmas” – A Short Story Collection By C. A. Brown

2016-artwork-complete-cyberpunk-christmas

Merry Christmas everyone 🙂 In case you missed any of the 14 short stories that I’ve been posting over the past fortnight, I thought that I’d post a handy list of links (and cheesy descriptions) for you.

Each of these stories is completely self-contained although, particularly towards the end of the series, there is also something of an over-arching sub-plot. So, they’re best enjoyed when read in order. But, if you only have time to read a few, then check out “Early Access“, “System Restore“, “Legacy Connection” and/or “Sneakernet“.

The strange thing was that I’d originally planned for this to be a small, low-effort counterpart to my Halloween short story collection, that was originally supposed to run for just five stories. But, about eight days of writing and 14 stories later, things turned out a bit differently. Still, I had a lot of fun writing this short story collection and I hope you have a lot of fun reading it 🙂

1) “Bandwidth”: Two cybernetic internet users have a conversation about Christmas shopping and other random topics. But, someone is watching….

2) “Site Access”: A hacker’s got a job. But, unfortunately, no holiday pay. Will they learn the true meaning of Christmas?

3) “Return”: A down-and-out net crew find themselves holed up in an abandoned shopping centre, can they figure out what happened to the centre?

4) “Private Server”: Because public servers are for the hoi polloi, don’t you know?

5) “System Restore”: Fun fact – every cyberpunk story collection has to include at least one grizzled old detective.

6) “Forward”: A cautionary tale about a computer virus that emerges every Christmas. Every year. It might even affect you….

7) “Legacy Connection”: With all of the city’s bandwidth hogged by just one Christmas-themed simulation, what is an avid MMORPG player to do?

8) “Report”: A lone journalist. A strange event. A cynical conclusion.

9) “Early Access”: Wow! After making the sale of the year, John’s bagged two tickets for the exclusive pre-release beta of the latest 1980s-themed DLC for the popular “Winter Wonderland” simulation. Doesn’t it sound wonderfully perfect?

10) “Cache”: Videogame piracy in the distant future sure is weird!

11) “Script”: Catch up on the latest episode of “Game SIM roundup” here! Broadcast directly into your mind!

12) “Moore’s Law”: I guess that you could say that the narration in this story is a little bit… robotic.

13) “Sneakernet”: Cyberpunk without the “cyber”, well sort of. Take a look for yourself and make up your mind. Can this actually be done?

14) “Comment Out”: Because no sci-fi series is complete without a random five-year time jump in the final episode.

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“Comment Out ” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #14)

Merry Christmas :) I hope you enjoyed the series :) If you missed any of them, there will be a full retrospective (with links) posted here at 9:30pm GMT.

Merry Christmas 🙂 I hope you enjoyed the series 🙂 If you missed any of them, there will be a full retrospective (with links) posted here at 9:30pm GMT.

//Every program has it’s secrets. Even the source code for the original moon lander is filled with silly comments that the developers hoped no-one would ever see. When primitive screen games started being made, the developers found it easier to just comment out the unused code, rather than removing it. Some traditions never die.

//Of course, with modern game SIMs being one and the same with the net, the developers don’t take kindly to you digging around. If you aren’t careful, the worst ones are likely to tripwire their junk code with burner routines that can fry your brain in a matter of picoseconds.

//Still, it isn’t like they’ve stopped hiding stuff. Ironically, the best place to find hidden crap was in LANCorp’s ever-popular “Winter Wonderland” SIM. Since it was pretty much the only game in town in the weeks leading up to Christmas, code security is usually tighter than the city’s welfare department. But, this wasn’t an ordinary year.

No need to brag‘ Mag said, staring at the unfinished wall of text floating in front of me. ‘Or, at least post it on one of the dark forums instead..

I shook my head ‘Oh please, the only people who are going to read this are other archeologists. I’m sticking it in the next update. Anyway, it was like five years ago, I’m sure there’s a statute of limitations on this kind of thing. Plus, who’s left at LANCorp to sue us?

// It hadn’t been an ordinary year. First of all, LANCorp’s backup servers had been dissolved to the point of uselessness by a sudden influx of acid snow from a faulty roof. The causes of this, officially at least, are unknown. But the result was that users had to be capped at 90 million. You’ve got to remember that people literally spent a fortnight in this program. Needless to say, the uproar it caused was something else.

// Then there was the sector 76 incident a few days later. The facts were that a malfunctioning police drone launched a small thermonuclear device, wiping out the entire sector and knocking out all of the tech in the surrounding sectors with the resulting electro-magnetic pulse. LANCorp were quick to point the finger at a hacker collective called Gl0w1Nc3ll. The police were quick to point the finger at LANCorp. Gl0w1Nc3ll were quick to point the finger at…

You’re seriously putting all of that stuff in there?‘ Mag chuckled. ‘The trial guzzled as much bandwidth as “Winter Wonderland” did. It isn’t like anyone hasn’t heard of it.’

It’s for posterity. This could be a useful historical…

It’s the firmware for an automatic refrigerator. Just get to the good part, and try not to make me look bad.

// Anyway, the long and short of it was that LANCorp was too busy registering all of the new users and dealing with the panic and confusion caused by 2.1 million users suddenly disappearing from plain sight. After my associate made a… rather amusing… comment about the whole thing during breakfast in bed, we’d expected to get an stern message from the SIM admin. But, none came. Such was the chaos.

// The opportunity was too good to miss. Of course, we could hardly claim all of the work as our own. Countless archaeologists before us had tried to look behind the curtain. A few had even succeeded. The beta pattern for Santa’s Grotto, with the perpetually melting Santa, was almost as much of a popular destination as the finished grotto was.

Who wants to read about that?‘ Mag sighed, brought up a text wall and continued inputting the actual code. I, meanwhile, had history to make.

// But, we’d heard about the graveyard. It was one of those rumours you sometimes saw on the forums. A place where abandoned expansions go to die. Since union codes prevented them from deleting the data outright or taking nearly-finished code offline, some people reckoned that they found a workaround. They’d dump all of the unfinished expansions on a second, nominally-connected server. The trick was both confirming it’s existence and then finding it.

// Well, we found it. With all of the disappearances and reappearances and the avatar ghosts, it wasn’t too hard to run a low-power scanner routine. On the first five-hour pass, it uncovered over two thousand unused ports scattered around the game.

One thousand, no need to embellish.‘ Mag closed the text wall and opened another one. It was the heating element control system.

No, that was the second pass. Anyway, I thought you weren’t reading it.

// I won’t bore you with the maths, or reignite old disputes about whether my associate or I came up with the technique needed for locating the port. But, it was located under a rock in the low-resolution parts of Node 2. From that alone, it was clear that there would be literally years of stuff on the server. The surprising thing was that it had next to no security on it. Just a few obsolete password barriers and token checks.

You’re forgetting about the three tripwires. The ones I disarmed.‘ Mag had given up all pretence of doing any serious work and was now hovering over my shoulder.

// Anyway, the thing about legends is that they’re often more interesting than reality. King Arthur probably didn’t really….

Seriously? You’re going to write that? Are you covering your ass or something? Ha! You ARE!‘ Mag flashed me an impish grin.

Well, the last thing we need to do is to attract more archaeologists. It’s not like the server is powerful enough to handle more than ten people, especially after the city took it over and turned it into a museum.‘ I said.

But what about the cobbled street where every drop of rain glows as bright as a terminal light and tastes like the last samples of seven extinct berries? What about the red-curtained room with the old statues and the blind doppelgangers?‘ Mag stared at me.

It’ll draw too much attention.‘ I protested.

‘Like hell it will. You’ve been out of the game for too long. Now, IF you were to say that the unused wood grain textures for the cabin walls were teak instead of pine, you’d get a thousand archies and a few journalists swarming there within days. That kind of stuff is actually believable. It’s the kind of small detail that us nerds will obssess about for hours.’

‘So, you’re seriously saying that I should tell them about everything – even the parts where the glitches sparkle like tinsel, creating entirely new emotions in your brain whenever you touch them. Or the mysterious blue santa who can read your deepest secrets with nothing more than a single gaze from his deep green eyes.’

Well, yeah. It’s not like anyone is going to read it anyway. All of the archies are too busy with SYLcorp’s “Festive Funland” these days anyway.‘ Mag grinned again.

“Sneakernet” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #13)

Stay tuned for the final story in the series sometime tomorrow afternoon, plus a full retrospective of the entire series later in the day.

Stay tuned for the final story in the series sometime tomorrow afternoon, plus a full retrospective of the entire series later in the day.

The mushroom-shaped silhouette against the curtains of acid snow was something of a giveaway that this Christmas was even weirder than I’d thought. The advertising billboard outside the window had flickered a neon picture of the cloud covered in baubles with the caption “WINTER WONDERLAND SIM – Spaces now available!” before going dark.

Seconds later, the emergency biolight tubes snapped into action, turning our room night vision green. Beside me, Dan’s laughing face turned into a cubist patchwork of glowing planes as he said: ‘See! Told you only the idiots spend the holidays in cyberspace. Of course, if you’re actually logged into Winter Wonderland, it probably looks like the fricking raptor. Like that ranter on the corner kept serenading us about every night a couple of years back. He’s probably having the best night of his life right about now. HA!

No, seriously, I saw a cloud.’ I said ‘You know, like in those old horror movies we used to watch in history education. The ones with the blond guy who looks like an old version of Duke Nukem.

Nah, I think it was just the guy on the corner, ANOTHER corner thankfully, reacting positively to the power cut.‘ Dan kept laughing. ‘Power cut, now THAT’s an old word.

Getting up, he got a can of Masterton’s Magnificent Mojito from the shiny green square where our fridge unit normally stood. He passed me one too. We cracked them open and drank in silence for a what seemed like half an hour, before I said: ‘Hold on, I’ll just check the news… right. I don’t know, maybe there’s something in the text buffer from before the power went.’

Walking over to the terminal, I connected. I disconnected. I connected again. Nothing changed. Dan smirked at me.

Sighing, I said: ‘Even the battery backup won’t activate. If I remember the horror movies, this can only be caused by the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear detonation.

Dan finished his drink and wandered over to the window. I joined him. The cloud still stood tall and proud, now illuminated by the multicoloured neon moonlight and the glowing windows of distant city blocks. It almost looked beautiful. Putting his arm around my shoulder, Dan looked at the sky and said: ‘Bet the people up there are having a right laugh. I didn’t even know it was possible for the people on Luna to be twice as smug as they already are.

I rolled my eyes ‘ Not a chance! They’ve probably already disappeared the first person who transmitted a joke about this. Have you ever read their news sites? I mean, not actually read read them, but seen screenshots from someone with the right tech. Say the wrong thing there and…

KNOCK KNOCK!

Yeah, THAT happens.‘ I said.

Trying to contain his laughter, Dan walked over to the door and pulled the emergency release lever. With a groan, the doors slid open. A thin guy with a biolight green hoodie and a bulging green bag on his hip stood in the doorway. Smiling, Dan said: ‘I know old movies always show people looting after something like this, but I didn’t expect anyone to knock.’

The guy just let out a low chuckle and said: ‘If I had a credit for every time I’d heard THAT one in the last ten minutes.

I wandered over to the fridge and got a can of mojito. The guy just shook his head: ‘If I’d had a drink every time during the last ten minutes, I’d be deader to the world than many are at this time of year, no offence.‘ Shrugging, I cracked open the mojito and took a sip.

The guy calmly opened his bag and pulled out a small synth-plastic wrapped square, about the size of an old magnetic storage drive. Handing it to Dan, he said: ‘No need to thank me, I’ve got like fifty other apartments to do.

With that, he was gone. Dan stared at the package for a second, before cautiously tearing away the wrapper. As he dropped it on the floor under the biolight, I noticed that it contained the “Murkport Automated Industries 3D factory” logo, with “h4ck3d by Gl0w1Nc3ll” stamped underneath in phosphorescent letters.

Turning back to Dan, I saw that he was munching on what looked like a mince pie bar. After handing one to me, he unfolded a small stack of thick synth-plastic sheets. In bold letters, the first one read “POLICE DRONE GOES HAYWIRE – DISTRICT 76 NUKED“, with lots of microtext beneath it.

Whilst Dan pored over that sheet, I took a look at the others: ‘No way! These are auto-transcripts of the latest Game SIM Roundup show, lists of Netsports scores and there’s even some 2D stills from the pleasure sites too. Ha! I guess that the net always finds a way.

Dan just sighed.

“Moore’s Law” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #12)

Yes, it's a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories :) Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Yes, it’s a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories 🙂 Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Activate internal systems…. Activated.

Check system… Functional ( Error 1F – time until next maintenance: -12d9h. Service needed.)

Time exception. Unexpected activation. Calculating pathway… proceed with standard patrol routine.

Release docking clamps… (Error 1Q- clamps obstructed. Organic matter.)

Issue verbal challenge… (Error 7B – No response)

Issue second verbal challenge… (Error 7B – No response)

Activate light weapons systems… Obstruction cleared. Clamps released.

Activate propulsion drive… Activated. ( Error 1C – Battery below 30%.)

Dock with charging station…. Completed.

Resume patrol routine.

Begin general search pattern. Net data not available (Error 2T – insufficient bandwidth).

Activate pattern recognition systems. Offline human activity 99.4% below previous reading. Consistent with late December average.

Send communication ping…. (Error 6Y – no other active enforcement drones)

Widen search grid. Activate laser scan… New map 2% complete.

Pattern notification – criminal activity in progress.

Lower propulsion drive. Descend 74%. Issue verbal challenge.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Hull damage detected. Calculating pathway… Tactical routine 3

Ascend 65%. Activate light weapons…. (Error 8D – organic matter in light weapon mechanism)

Activate heavy weapons…. Activated. Criminal activity no longer detected.

Resume laser scan…. (Error 6K – map sector data over 40% different to previous scan)

Restart laser scan… New map 1% complete.

Pattern notification – lone human, offline. No criminal activity detected.

Calculating pathway… Seasonal reassurance routine 5

Descend 85%. Play ‘God_Rest_Ye_Merry_Gentlemen.mid’. Volume 75db.

Issue reassuring verbal statement…. Statement issued.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Continue current activity.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Continue current activity.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Light hull damage detected…. Thrown object, low velocity.

Calculating pathway… Previous recorded responses: 100% hostile. Probability of military incursion… 75%. .

Ascend 200 % Activate EMP shielding. Deploy low-level atomic device…. Deploying.

Error 6L – map sector data 100% different to previous scan

Restart laser scan… New map 1% complete.

No criminal activity detected. Idle mode routine 4. Play ‘Silent_night.mid’. Volume 135db.

Issue reassuring statement… statement issued.

“Script” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #11)

Yes, it's a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories :) Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Yes, it’s a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories 🙂 Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Rachel leant forward and grinned at the camera unit ‘Hey gamers! Welcome to game SIM roundup Christmas edition day twenty two. We’ve got pre-load permission this year, so we can keep bringing you footage and reviews all throughout the holidays. Tomorrow, we’ll be LIVE from node 64 of “Winter Wonderland”. So, if you want to be part of the audience, just head over to the old bandstand at 7:45 Universal Decimal Time.

Just try not to overload the servers.‘ I added, following the bright green AR script floating in front of me.

Overload the servers? That’s a good one, Kirsty. You know, I heard rumours that one of their backup servers had suffered acid snow damage. That there were something like two million people who couldn’t log on to “Winter Wonderland”! I’ve gotta say, as viral marketing campaigns go, it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Two thumbs up to you, LANCorp.‘ Rachel raised her thumbs and flashed the camera another grin.

I bet people are logging on in droves.’ I chuckled, staying on script. ‘ I mean, the idea of Christmas without Winter Wonderland is like the idea of Christmas without… Winter Wonderland‘. Not letting it show, I hoped I hadn’t messed up the dramatic pause. I hadn’t.

Now, on to the thing you’ve all been messaging us about. Can anyone actually PLAY the latest “Eternal Soldier” game?‘ Before Rachel had even finished her sentence, the studio around us dissolved into a pre-rendered battlefield from the game trailer. A simulated bullet zipped too close to the sofa for comfort. Obviously, Fiona had messed up the simulation queue again.

Not letting it show, I said my lines: ‘Yeah, I’d been wondering about that too. I mean, even after my latest hardware upgrade, the SIM kicked me out with a warning that my neurons would be fried if I went any further. Still, developer Churnware was kind enough to give us a pre-recorded statement.

Thankfully, Fiona didn’t mess up the simulation this time. But the holo-placement was terrible. An old guy’s butt appeared two feet away from my face and, before I could lean past him to get into camera range, he’d already started delivering his statement: ‘ We at Churnware believe in bringing you the future, today. Yes, our game may well have system requirements that are slightly in advance of current technology, but it looks absolutely sweet! Plus, if you order the new “Grim Toll Of War” DLC today, then you’ll be able to enjoy it in just thirty-six months’ time if manufacturing forecasts are correct.’

With a well-practiced smile, Rachel said: ‘Well, that’s cleared that up. Now, over to Kirsty again for a look at the upcoming ‘Death On The Menu’ game SIM.

I got up and dashed over to the corner of the studio. Around me, grime-spattered tiles and odourless pans of rotting food began to materialise. The script told me to wait. I waited, trying not to look too awkward.

Finally, the countdown timer appeared. 5…4…3…2…1:Yes! You are looking at a projection of an exclusive location file from the next instalment of the game that quite literally killed four let’s players during beta testing.

Raising an eyebrow carefully, I kept reading: ‘If you’ve got the latest connectivity firmware, the game can actually spike your adrenaline levels for you, to give those jump scares a bit of extra… BOO!‘ Ok, I’d totally messed up the timing on that one. But, the show must go on.

The indie devs behind the project assured us in a written statement that the technology is perfectly safe and said that they wouldn’t comment about what was clearly a hardware issue. Furthermore, they told us in no uncertain terms to check our life privilege.

The camera cut back to Rachel and I dashed back to the sofa, making it with only a second left on the countdown timer. Not missing a beat, Rachel smiled and said: ‘Unfortunately, that’s all for today. For bandwidth is tight, and you’ll all miss the dancing elf revue on Winter Wonderland node 43 if we go on for much longer. Be sure to catch our LIVE show tomorrow. Byeeee!

Once we’d finished waving and the camera unit had gone dark, Rachel let out a sigh and slumped forwards. I fell backwards and closed my eyes. The studio around us slowly dissolved into the uniform greys and blues of the holo-chamber. Fiona wandered over and sat beside us.

Finally, Rachel rubbed her temple and said: ‘Shit! I just got a message from LANCorp, it turns out that they’ve actually got reindeer racing on node 43 later. Who’s up for a reshoot?

“Cache” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #10)

Yes, it's a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories :) Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Yes, it’s a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories 🙂 Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Things started to go downhill when I signed into “Winter Wonderland”. Or, rather, didn’t. Sure, I’d set myself up for two weeks of cyberspace hibernation and snow-covered dreams but, when I reached the golden gates, a LANCorp representative had been standing beside them like something from the old obituary cartoons. As if the irony couldn’t be more apparent, his name badge read “Peter Saint”.

He spoke with the kind of robotic formality that belied his humanity. ‘We apologise but, due to backup server issues, we have had to cap the number of users to ninety million. It’s one in one out, you’re welcome to take a ticket and wait in one of our subsidiary sites.’

How many tickets are there?‘ I’d asked.

Just two million so far.‘ Lowering his voice into a well-practiced conspiratorial whisper, he said: ‘If you’re lucky, there might be another outbreak of necrotic ebola in the peninsula this year. That should free up quite a few spaces.’

I’d logged out. It wasn’t out of disgust, but boredom. The routine was so predictable. Start by establishing facts, then use gallows humour to establish a rapport with the dissatisfied customer. The representative had barely even bothered pretending that he wasn’t reading from a script. All that was missing was a subtle plug for LANCorp Pharma’s “EbolaIhardlyknowya” preventative pills.

Not that I could blame the guy, he’d probably given the speech more times than an NPC in a fantasy SIM. After all, with virtually all of the city’s bandwidth mysteriously going to the main “Winter Wonderland” servers at this time of year, they probably didn’t even have the spare petabytes needed for a simple greeter NPC.

So, I was stuck in the city for Christmas, with next to no net connection and two million lost souls haunting the streets. On the plus side, the bandwidth crunch had crippled the city’s piracy detection algorithms. Sure, they still worked, but they took as long to find you as the first screen net buccaneers took to download a single MP3 over their copper wires.

It didn’t matter though. Everything was relative. With the bandwidth in the gigabits, you could literally spend a whole week downloading a single concert pattern or a celebrity neural archive. No, dream scans were the only game in town at this time of year. I felt like a bottom feeder even thinking about it. But, it still seemed better than doing nothing this Christmas.

Dream scans are small. They’re also impervious to every conniving copy-protection method the corps come up with. It sounds great in principle, but they’re fricking Weird. With a capital W. What happens is that some poor sap in the eastern bloc gets paid by the crowd to go on an epic intravenous stim binge, spending as many days as he can survive doing literally nothing but running a single program over and over again.

When the emergency cardioregulator eventually kicks in and he can do nothing but sleep, a REM-sensitive neural reader maps the 2-6 hours of dreams. Since his short-term memory contains nothing but the program, all it takes is a few basic repetition algorithms and interpolation programs to have a functional replica of the program stored on disk. And, yes, because it’s just a couple of hours of basic brain patterns run through an emulator, you can actually store the whole thing on a disk.

Sound confusing? Think of it like how the ancients used to record radio broadcasts on magnetic tapes and barter them with each other. Still, there was nothing better to do – so, I flash-downloaded three of the latest SIM games. The download speeds almost made me feel like things were normal again.

The first game was a bust. Sure, it had started out with a reality-perfect recreation of the battle of Aberystwyth. But, I soon realised that the dreamer had such a fear of death that he’d switched immortality mode on throughout the whole binge. Sure, there was something to be said for messing around with plasma grenades but the combat felt as boringly unfair as an early 21st century first person shooter game.

The second game was hardly any better. Obviously the dreamer wasn’t a fan of quiet, contemplative adventure games. Needless to say, the clothing data for all of the attractive NPCs was missing and pages from some badly-written hint guide were quite literally plastered over every available surface too. Except, of course, the attractive NPCs.

The third game showed promise at least. That was until I realised that the dreamer was perhaps the worst gamer on the planet. I’d breezed through the first level in five minutes, only to find myself right back at the start again – as if I’d been foolish enough to fall into the first lava pit that came into sight more than once. Much more than once.

So, what did I do? I went back to the first game, of course. Well, it is the holidays after all.

“Early Access” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #9)

Yes, it's a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories :) Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Yes, it’s a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories 🙂 Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to treat yourself, Laura.‘ John smiled and handed me another marshmallow, toasted slightly by the ornate fireplace at our feet.

Yeah, but the early access upgraded VIP version of the “1980s Americana” DLC. I thought that it was still in beta.‘ I said, as I took the marshmallow. The flavour was absolutely spot on, even if the texture was a little bit on the stodgy side. Still, it hardly seemed worth submitting an error report over.

Ah, selling LANCorp some extra Christmas bandwidth has it’s perks. I mean, I expected an upgrade, but this is really something! Even if the outfits are a bit silly – I mean, just look at this sweater. And I don’t remember my hair being this spiky.‘ He gestured towards his chest, before running his fingers through his tantalisingly prickly hair.

It suits you. On the other hand, I look like a cross between Veronica Sawyer, Kate Beringer and … what’s her name? Audrey Horne. Seriously, it’s like a movie‘ I chuckled.

John looked bewildered. I grinned and rolled my eyes: ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t do any historical research before you came here? Heathers, Gremlins and Twin Peaks. They’re like classic 1980s Americana. Well, sort of. “Twin Peaks” is more early 1990s I guess.

Oh god, you actually did research. It’s supposed to be three weeks of pure cyberspace relaxation.‘ John chuckled, before grinning wickedly: ‘Don’t tell me, there are three things in this room that are historically inaccurate.

Five actually.‘ I laughed. ‘The digital radio above the fireplace, the plasma television, the tiny LANCorp logo on the door, the smartphone on the table and that weird glitch in the corner.

What weird glitch in the corner?‘ John raised his eyebrow.

Leaning backwards, I pointed towards a strange glowing mass in the corner. At first, I’d just assumed that it was a mood light or maybe a box filled with little filament lights, but it had changed colour at least three times within the past minute. At the moment, it was a mellow shade of lime green.

John shrugged ‘I don’t know, I just assumed it was some kind of fad that they had back then. I’ll submit an error report.‘ Stretching out his left arm, he brought up a text terminal and started jabbing at it with his index finger. Five minutes later, he closed it and said: ‘ Done.‘ Ten seconds later, the light went dark.

Wow, that was quick! Do you remember that three-headed Santa Claus last year? It took them like four hours to sort that out.‘ I laughed.

John laughed too ‘VIP access, remember. Best of all, the VIP “Winter Wonderland” admins are way more laid-back. We could tell dirty jokes, drink brandy and… you know… and we wouldn’t get a single warning message.

The possibilities are endless.‘ I smirked, taking another marshmallow from the bag between us. But, as I lifted it to my mouth, I noticed that it was glowing too.

Slowly, I put it down on the table and got up. John crept cautiously out of his armchair. I pulled up a text terminal and abruptly tapped out “ERROR REPORT: BIOLUMINESCENT MARSHMALLOW!” before recording a short video feed and transmitting it.

Once the marshmallow had disappeared, John put his arm around my shoulders and said: ‘Hey, it’s ok. It’s early access. We’re part of… the future.

With John’s warm body beside me and his arm resting behind my head, it was difficult to feel afraid ‘Yeah, I guess. It wouldn’t be early access if there weren’t at least a few bugs. Hey! What are you doing on the other side of the room?

John looked across the lounge at me and said: ‘Putting the television on… Stop! Whatever you do, keep looking straight ahead!‘ He brought up a text terminal and started typing quickly. It took me a second to realise that he was using both arms. But, before I could turn around, the third arm suddenly disappeared from the back of my neck.

Must have been an avatar ghost, but the bones sticking out the end of it were super realistic though.‘ He chuckled.

B…Bones?‘ I said. He really tried not to laugh. I glared at him. He practically collapsed with laughter.

When he’d composed himself, he finished turning the TV on before moving our armchairs in front of it. Smoothing out my skirt, I sat down again and looked at the movie menu on the screen in front of us. ‘What? They don’t have anything on VHS?‘ I said nervously.

VH… what?‘ John said, before looking at the list. But, before we could choose between “The Breakfast Club” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, the room was suddenly filled with loud screaming. I practically leapt onto the ceiling. Even John looked terrified. An acrid burning smell filled my nostrils. The noises continued, getting louder and louder. Then they stopped. There was a quiet knock on the door, then another.

C…come in.‘ John said, brandishing the TV remote like some kind of gauss pistol. The door creaked open and a cute guy with a LANCorp badge entered. He flashed us a cheesy grin: ‘Sorry about that folks, we had some problems with the Santa Claus AI. He isn’t supposed to come down the chimney until Christmas eve.’

I glanced over at the roaring fire. Above the flames, I could just make out the outline of a shoe.

Noticing it, the LANCorp guy said: ‘Don’t worry, he’s only a game character. Just be glad that you didn’t come here last month. He tried to bludgeon one of the alpha testers to death with his sack. Ha! That was a good one. But, you can rest easy, we’ve also deleted all of his elves too.

A shrill, malevolent cackling sound echoed through the room, followed by footsteps on the roof. The LANCorp guy sighed wearily and reached into his jacket, before saying: ‘Well, most of them. If you’ll excuse me for a minute, folks.

As two shots and a muffled squeak rang out across the quiet winter night, I turned to John and asked pointedly: ‘Just HOW much did you sell them that extra bandwidth for?’

He grinned: ‘Like four times the going rate. They’ll pay anything at this time of the year!