(Previously titled THE CLOCKWORK AGE)

By Mathew John Nelson

"The next world war won't be fought with nukes, but with information, economics and corporate warfare." – Sam Esmail


Beams of azure splashed down from a fragmented ceiling, and triangles defined by diamond-white light fell onto concrete walls while lights burned like purple embers embedded down the length of the hallway. Rebecca rounded the corner. The air in the nightclub's exclusive lounge glowed pink, with little shards of silver hovering around her body. Rings of neon clung to the ceiling and specks of white trickled along the walls like millions of stars. Pegasus nightclub didn't have dancefloor, but a round stage bedazzled with LEDs and stripper poles. A woman with green hair and high-heels danced promiscuously for the people sitting around the stage. She must have been new. Rebecca would have remembered a body like that.

She noticed Zef slouched among the gentlemen watching the show. He made eye-contact and raised his glass to her in acknowledgement. Rebecca nodded in reply and went to the bar where a serving droid with a metal bowtie poured her a glass of whiskey and soda. She sat at the bar for a while, staring into the honey-golden glow of her drink, swirling the ice around and watching the patterns shift. A hologram decorated the back of the bar, showing a volcano as it erupted in slow-motion and sprayed bursts of ash and molten lava into a fiery grey sky. Then a tranquil rooftop swimming pool, shining aqua blues and tanned brunette in a bikini, removing her transparent cotton dress and walking away from the viewer, stepping into radiant water. Than a time-lapse of the city pixelating into bright purple liquid poured from a crystal bottle. Then rain sprinkling over a raging sea of ice.

Rebecca relaxed and watched the dancers but couldn't help noticing other things. She had a suspicious eye for new faces, she had to in her line of work. Like the man with a briefcase speaking to one of the Syndicate bosses next to Zef. He was new. Vex walked between them, wearing her sparkling bikini and jean shorts. She approached Rebecca and leaned her back against the bar.

'I couldn't help noticing you from other there,' she said playfully. 'How about I buy you drink.'

'You allowed to buy customers drinks?' Bec replied, with a similar frisky intonation.

'Only the pretty ones. Besides, you're no customer.' The serving droid slid a glass over to Vex. 'Check it out.' Vex pointed at the holoprojection behind the serving droid. The image had shifted now to a cartoonish robot soaring through the cosmos. 'That one's my favourite.'

'You notice Zef got some new staff?' Bec gestured to the man near the stage, but realised that he had vanished.

'Not that I know of,' Vex shrugged. 'People come and go, you know how it is. I hear you guys are working on some stuff, AI and all that.'

Bec instinctively lowered her head. 'Careful who you say that to – it's supposed to be a secret.'

'I have a way of making men talk,' her voice was a purr.

'It's just another job, anyway,' Bec went on. 'I've been working on some VR tech, Dark Servers.'

'Zef lets me use the Immersion sometimes,' said Vex, eagerly. 'He recorded some of

my dancing. Plus, I got to model for one of the NPCs in that new virtual pleasure-house he

was setting up.'

'Seems about right,' Bec chuckled. 'Invented virtual reality for the porn, everything else was secondary.'

'It's not the same.' Vex sipped at her drink. 'You'd think it'd be better but it's not. People know real intimacy. You can't replicate that. That's why they come to me. I can make them feel special.'

Rebecca finished her drink. She became aware of the glitter on Vex's lips and the way her friend's blue and silver eyeshadow resembled the pattern of a computer motherboard. Vex had a point, maybe. The woman was an artist, someone who saw through the dazzling neon-purple blindfold, the up-beat music and flashy drinks, that obscured the fact that this life was hard and sometimes depressing. Everyone here belonged to the ring of criminal organisations that now reigned freely in the isolated city of Perth. People worked the VRs just to escape this little hell-hole, but no one ever really left. Where would they go? The business of illegal augmentations, hacking services and newly synthesised drugs in Tokyo, London and New York would eat these people alive, but that's where all the fun was at. At least in Perth, hackers like Rebecca could get a win every now and then, and if they didn't, well, there was always Vex.

Bec leaned over the bar and signalled the droid. She had hoped this would be a long night.

'How about another—'

The explosion erupted from the far side of the room, but the instant and devastating shockwave hurled Rebecca like a ragdoll over the bar. Everything became a dark blur as she tried to suck in the air that had been knocked from her lungs. In her effort to breathe she choked on the smoke and fumes that had instantly filled the nightclub. She coughed violently. Shards of glass almost blown to dusk crinkled under her body and dug into her hands as she tried to sit up. She became aware of the absolute silence that accompanied the smouldering remains of the room, the blood trickling from her soot-covered ears followed by distant ringing. Only when she tried to move did she feel the heat blistering on her upper back, and on the right side of her face. A grimy coagulation of blood and dust stuck her shirt to her skin.

The droid appeared from the smoke and tried to assist Rebecca. Sparks flared from a severed wire in the droid's neck and it reached out to her with grotesquely twisted arms.

'Please keep low,' the droid said in its regular monotone voice. 'Try not to inhale the smoke.'

Together they stumbled towards the exit where the few other survivors made their way to the safety of the street. The dancers that weren't in shock did their best to comfort those around them. Men and women in expensive suits were hurriedly making phone calls. They were all covered in soot, most of them bleeding, lines of red streaking down from their ears. They all had the same look—wide eyes, trembling lips. Sheer terror. Rebecca tried to find Vex, or Zephyr. She felt grogginess overwhelm her, like her head was filled with slush. She swayed, tried to sit down on the road before unconsciousness took her.

She wondered, how the fuck could such a regular night turn into a disaster in the blink of an eye?