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Excerpt for Soul Thieves by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Soul Thieves

Barbara G. Tarn


***

Barbara G.Tarn copyright © 2018

electronic edition by Unicorn Productions

Cover Art by San@DeviantART

January 2018

***


From Merriam-Webster Online taking you into the 22nd century

soul (noun)

Definition of SOUL

1a: the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life b the special gene in some DNA that makes it compatible to bond with the immortal part of the universe, generating emotions and feelings (see DNA)

Origin of SOUL

Middle English soule, from Old English sāwol; akin to Old High German sēula soul

First Known Use: before 12th century

DNA (noun)

Definition of DNA

1: any of various nucleic acids that are usually the molecular basis of heredity, are constructed of a double helix held together by hydrogen bonds between purine and pyrimidine bases which project inward from two chains containing alternate links of deoxyribose and phosphate, and that in eukaryotes are localized chiefly in cell nuclei — compare recombinant dna

2: harmonic signature of a being in the universe

Origin of DNA

deoxyribonucleic acid

First Known Use: 1944

PART ONE: HOLOGRAMS


CHAPTER 1

And cut! Beth opened her eyes as her laptop stopped recording her thoughts. Like movie directors of the past, she started with "Action!" and stopped with "And cut!" The faint light of the microchip inserted under her left ear went off, disappearing under her skin.

Her claytronic armchair shifted shape to hold her up in a sitting position after lying down to record. She turned it to face the screen, ready for the video editing job. The beauty of catons as programmable matter meant furniture could morph into new shapes, hence the quantity was minimal.

Her workstation was a normal Formica table with a flat screen, a computer and a few framed animated GIFs of long dead celebrities pinned on the wall around the screen, for constant inspiration.

The sun was setting outside her windows and the house AI switched on the lights as the sky turned pink and orange behind the Art Deco shape of the Chrysler Building. The apartment was small and spartan, but it was a wonderful place to create. A smart-house with claytronic furniture, it had only a living room with a kitchenette and a bedroom with a bathroom, and had all the current tech – the self-cleaning, the food dispenser, anything to keep it tidy even though she wasn't very messy.

She was actually quite organized, sort of to the extreme. Her friend who believed it astrology attributed it to her star sign, Virgo, but she simply attributed it to how her mind worked. And besides the photos pinned to the wall all over the apartment, she hadn't personalized much what came free of charge for every citizen of Earth.

The extreme automation of factories had made human labor obsolete. Things were made for free by robots and machines, hence people didn't have to struggle to make ends meet. Money had been completely taken out of the economic domain and technology provided everyone with basic services and material things, so each could do what he or she pleased with their free time

This had led to an explosion of creative types at the beginning of the 22nd century. It was harder and harder to make oneself heard in the increasing online noise. Beth had been a virtual director for years, but none of her movies had gone viral yet, which at times was a little frustrating.

She loved to close her eyes and imagine things and places and people. Coming back to her apartment and reality was sometimes depressing, because even if she didn't have to work for a living and had no real problem in her life, there was still something off that didn't allow her to be completely happy.

She didn't think it was the anonymity, the lack of sharing of her stories and movies. Or the lack of someone to share her life with. She was an introvert, she did just fine on her own. But the near perfection of the current society always left her with a bad taste in her mouth, even though she didn't know what was wrong with it.

If one looked at it from a past point of view, they had everything. Freedom, free housing, free utilities, free everything, even though it had taken years to get to that point. A global world where everybody was on the same level, there were no rich or poor people, no borders, nothing, just a global society that lived in peace and harmony with the planet.

They had avoided World War III and fixed the problems that had emerged at the beginning of the previous century, closing down weapon factories, disarming the whole world and using alternative energy sources. What more could one want? And still... something rattled her, especially at night.

Daydreaming had become a wonderful creative outlet, though. All those stories that kept blossoming in her mind were the best thing that could ever happen to her. The new consciousness of the people of Earth allowed her to experience the planet like never before, but she still preferred to retire into her limitless imagination.

A low electronic buzz introduced a holographic projection of a blond young man. The 3D neurological image looked real, except Beth knew she couldn't actually touch him. But holograms were actually her best friends, and even though they came out of her computer, they felt sometimes more real than the live friends she had outside the walls of her apartment.

"Did you create well?" he asked with a smile.

"Yes, thank you," she answered, rewinding the latest scene to check it.

He observed in silence as she gave mental instructions for changing one name and modified a couple of lines of dialog. The mini-movie changed accordingly. The brain-computer interface meant she could not speak at all if she didn't want to.

She had created the holograms to force herself to hear the dreaded sound of her own voice when she was at home – and she didn't go out much. But she did have communication problems with strangers, and until she got used to the people around her, she was practically mute.

"God bless the thoughts-recorder inventor!" she sighed, saving the file and relaxing. She stared at him, thoughtful.

"I want to change the protagonist," she decided.

He looked disappointed and sad. "Why, are you tired of me?"

"I never really liked blond men." She shrugged. "You've been a great exception."

He sighed and waited while she viewed her database. She opened the folder "Born in the 1960s" and hesitated before opening one of the sub-folders, all named "Type" followed by two letters. Since current laws didn't allow the use of living people without their consent, most virtual directors accessed the database of old moving images from the past, starting from the first mute movies and forward to the present.

Beth had always felt drawn to the end of the 20th century and most of her virtual stars had worked in Hollywood back then. Some were musicians or bands, and she never used other kinds of celebrities.

Their faces were plastered on her walls from the workstation to the bedroom, which made some of her friends comment she must be obsessed with men – the virtual ones, since in her thirty-five years she hadn't managed to keep a live boyfriend for more than three months.

Beth stared at the folders, thoughtful, toying with a strand of her long brown hair. So many memories there too...

Type MD: Matt Dillon. Her first virtual star. Beth smiled at the memory. She had started recording her first movies with him in her early twenties. Naive stories archived as "unwatchable", but he had been her first virtual love. She had her neural implant done for him and had started creating stories and series more and more articulated and complex.

Thanks to him, she had left a world she didn't like much in spite of its perfection to enter a universe built for her, her megalomania, her wish to be a wonderful woman, the most loved (and hated) of the planet. She was way too dramatic back then, and she was almost always present in her works.

Lately her favorite virtual star was blond BP, or Brad Pitt. But she had had enough of him. Too gorgeous and perfect. She closed the Types folders and went to the Movies folders. She checked what she had on Patrick Swayze, who had worked with Matt in The Outsiders, and remembered the dark haired co-protagonist of Point Break she had already used in secondary parts.

"New search: Keanu Reeves," she ordered. "New folder: Type KR."

***

Beth had met Max through common friends. She had fantasized about him because he had been kind and nice, but she already saw flaws in him. Still, when he called to ask her out, she accepted.

Her love life was great – in her head. But dating in the real world had always been a problem for her. At first she was too shy. Now she was too jaded and pretty much on the asexual side of the spectrum. But she decided to give Max a chance, just in case things had changed within her.

And as soon as she put down the phone, she felt sick. Her stomach churned only because she had a date. She felt she was too old for that and didn't want to go through it again.

Through what, though? Last shot had been four years earlier. And here she was, getting ready for a new date and already thinking about what she would say and do to turn him down.

She knew she was fighting her own feelings to keep control of her life and her heart. And nothing had happened yet. She took a deep breath and decided to improvise – she'd go out and see what happened.

She thought about him again, the things she liked and the ones that got on her nerves. She didn't like his short-fingered, dirty hands – he worked with clay and paint and didn't always manage to eliminate traces of his main occupation from his body – and couldn't imagine them on her body. But she liked the shape of his lips and the sound of his voice.

Almost panicking and on the verge of tears, she tried to calm down. After all, she had to try love if she wanted to make movies about it. As far as she knew it was nothing worth dying for, but then what did she know? Love hadn't knocked on her door yet, even if she had been telling love stories with her virtual movies since her teens.

Her living room seemed to wrap her in an embrace that wouldn't let go. She was crouched on the couch, looking outside the window without seeing anything. In front of the couch, to the left of the bedroom door, a big flat screen was pinned to the wall for home cinema watching. To the right was the kitchenette, and next to the couch there was room for a table that seated four.

Not that she ever invited anyone, she didn't have a guest room, but some of her friends with similar apartments had more social lives. She had met Max at one of those dinners, but tonight they'd be alone at some restaurant where she probably wouldn't eat since her stomach was in knots.

Eventually it was time to go out, meet him, talk to him, get to know him better. He was obviously smitten by her and she appreciated his honesty, but didn't feel anything special drawing her to him. One part of her kept screaming, "No! No! Run!" The other tried to calm her down, "Come on, at least give him a chance!", and she just sat there listening to him and wishing to be at home with her holograms.

She was mostly honest too. She was aware of being a pretty brunette with blue eyes even though she did nothing to enhance her body and didn't use makeup. She hadn't dressed up for the occasion and was still basically herself.

Eventually she had to tell him. "No, I don't want to kiss you. I'm sorry, this is not working."

He took her home, disappointed, but she felt much better. Her nervous migraine disappeared as soon as she closed her door on his face.

CHAPTER 2

Alan looked at the starry sky and breathed the cool night air deeply. Nature around him whispered its night song – owls, raccoons and the wind whispering through the leaves of the deciduous trees of the forest behind him.

Far away to the left he could see the lights of a town, where people were preparing to go to bed in their smart-homes that provided them with food and shelter.

Alan vaguely remembered them from his childhood. He'd been raised by his father's wife until he was ten, but then the poor woman had declared she couldn't handle such a cold child.

Alan didn't feel cold, but he knew his emotions weren't as strong as the former Mrs. Bolton's and he was extremely reserved. It had almost been a relief when his father had taken him away to his new job. But now, fifteen years later, Alan treasured the moments he could see the sky and glimpse that life that wasn't really for him. He was still isolated, but at least nobody judged him.

His father's footsteps in the grass startled him. The big frame stopped by his side with his hands in his pockets and looked up too.

"It's very clear tonight. Pity we can't see Alpha Centauri from here."

Alan nodded. He knew he'd have to go to the southern hemisphere to even glimpse Alpha Centauri. It still amazed him that someone had come from that solar system and bothered getting in touch with the then governments of Earth.

There was no central government to speak of anymore. And the Human Extraterrestrials Visitors were still on Earth, two centuries after the first contact.

"Do you think we'll ever see those planets?" Alan asked, looking at the big shadow next to him. His father had looked a giant when Alan was a child, but now they were almost the same height, except his father was still bulkier.

"I doubt it," the elder muttered. "We're stuck on this planet, Alan, and unless they help us to become like the majority out here, we'll never be able to experience the universe."

Alan nodded again and sighed. His father patted his shoulder.

"Let's go back to the base," he said with forced cheerfulness. "We've got work to do!"

***

That night, coming back from her date, Beth found the newly programmed KR waiting for her in the bedroom. The computer must have finished its search while she was out.

"Hello, K," she said, staring approvingly at the new hologram. "I was looking forward to some decent company tonight. Why don't you call B as well?"

Max was already forgotten as she changed into her nightie, thinking about her newest friend. She found them waiting for her, both on the bed with similar expectant expressions. She lay down between them with a sigh of satisfaction. Having a double bed and sharing it with holograms looked silly only in her friends' eyes.

My wonderful virtual men, she thought, happy.

"Did you have a nice day?" K asked, sounding just like the original.

"Have you found new stories for us?" B added, curious.

"You're a great couple of protagonists," she said, her eyes going from one to the other with appreciation. "I will have to think about something..."

Then she lost herself in K's smile. He leaned in to kiss her.

She imagined that kiss with such intensity, she shivered with pleasure.

Her friends kept telling her to find a real man, but she was doing just fine. Going out with Max had been exactly as she remembered it from years long gone – awkward, jarring and unrewarding.

In her own apartment – her sanctuary, as she called it – she felt safe. The computer was programmed to her tastes, after so many years, she could talk to it (or its holographic projections) as if she was talking to herself.

B and K were entities at her service, always available, albeit unreal like all the other lovers and friends she had surrounded herself with through the years. They were more interesting than real people. They just disappeared when she didn't need them anymore.

She had always preferred going after the ones who didn't see her instead of dating the ones who asked her out. The pleasure of fantasies was present even (or mostly) when she couldn't get the object of her desire. Those two young men had been dead for a long time, but their virtual counterparts were still alive for her and kept her very good company.

She hugged the pillow, holding K tight with pride and possessiveness.

***

Beth felt a presence in the room. She tried to move, to scream, but couldn't. She felt cold hands touching her and an intense white light surrounded her.

More human forms stood in transparent cylinders, staring at her, but blurry in her vision. Darkness won.

She woke up all sweaty. Her heart seemed to want to burst out of her ribcage, and she still couldn't move, terrified by the strange dream.

She tried to control her breathing and managed to regain control of her body. She pulled herself up and went to the bathroom. She felt fire between her thighs, as if someone had done something she couldn't remember – sex? Medical exams? – before doing something else that had sent her into panic mode.

She went back to bed and slowly relaxed. She had had that recurring dream for at least twenty years. Somebody abducted her, took her to a windowless room, and she couldn't remember much afterward.

She couldn't tell if they were hostile or what they were doing to her. She didn't remember feeling any pain. When she was awake, she dreamed of leaving Planet Earth, but not with those strange beings.

She let out a sigh. Now she must concentrate on something beautiful to get back to sleep. She imagined K's face smiling at her, she imagined him asleep and curled up as if she were him.

She imagined being the male sleeping beauty in B's tender arms and slowly drifted back to sleep.

CHAPTER 3

Beth strolled with her friend Frances under a spring sun. Manhattan looked slightly different, compared to the movies in Beth's archives: the preexisting buildings had been transformed inside into self-sufficient apartments, and all the company logos had disappeared. There were no offices anymore, just malls – where one could touch things before grabbing them instead of having them sent to the address directly from the automated manufacturers – and food places without human waiters.

Times Square screens showed views of a reborn planet, with wilderness next to uncultivated fields, and very few towns. New York City itself was now only the isle of Manhattan and most of Brooklyn up to the only remaining airport, JFK. The rest had been taken down and nature had reclaimed the land.

Pedestrians filled the streets with very few electric cars. Most eco-friendly vehicles were parked at the subway stations off the island and people used public transport to move up and down Manhattan. Electric buses and the subway still allowed people to get where they wanted for free.

The world population had dropped to less than two billion in one century, thanks to a new ethic and consciousness – and a One Child Policy. Humanity worked on healing the planet from past excesses in peace: no more resource conflicts, no politics, no governments, everything run by computers to serve humanity equally. Energy came from the sun, wind and water. Nuclear plants had been dismantled, and oil search and use abandoned. Climate change had been slowly reversed.

Frances was over fifty and she walked slower than the other passersby, often stopping to prove a point. Beth was sometimes frustrated by her slow pace, since her legs wanted to walk fast and she had to constantly remind herself there was no hurry to go anywhere.

"I don't know, I like creating or recreating worlds, but maybe I'm not good at it," she said expressing her latest self-doubt. Growing up meant she wasn't so sure of her talent anymore, and she continually questioned her story choices. She was still learning her trade and still evolving in her creative process, acquiring and losing certainties every day.

"Well, you're not making historical movies or documentaries, are you?" Frances replied.

"No, it's definitely fiction, I just like to set them in the past," she said.

"As long as you know you're not living back there."

"I know we're not in the 20th century anymore, maybe I'm just trying to be original."

"Every story has already been told thousands of times." Frances shrugged.

"Yeah, but what do you think of my movies? Are they surreal?"

Frances pondered as they headed for the green of Central Park. Both lived in the Upper East Side and liked to walk to the green patch that still stood in the middle of the City. Beth walked there every morning to start her day and keep herself fit. She wasn't the gym type, but she liked to walk and brainstorm her next creation.

"Let me think... some universal concepts are obvious, you believe friendship is the strength that moves the world," Frances said. "But you lack the family concept, which is weird for someone so rooted in the 20th century."

Families of the 22nd century were smaller than they used to be. Beth's parents were still together, but had chosen to live in Italy, hence they didn't see each other much, although they kept in touch online. There were no cousins, though, and being an only child didn't really help to build credible families in the stories.

"I guess I am a daughter of this century anyway." Beth shrugged. "We have much smaller families now... Am I realistic, though?"

"It's only virtual movies, Beth. You recorded them for your own entertainment. What is it, you had a bad review from somebody on the other side of the world?"

"No, I'm just wondering. I've been told I'm a sociopath who lives on other people's experiences, is this what comes out of my work?"

"Nah." Frances smiled. "Let's sit and bask in the sun," she added, pointing at a bench.

Beth kind of envied the cool of her elder friend, and really hoped to reach it herself in the future. She had managed some self-control and some self-esteem, but sometimes she still felt like a hysterical teen unable to handle her feelings.

Experience, they said. But the more she learned, the more she found things to learn and felt stupid and ignorant, so sometimes she just stuck to what she knew, and revised and reworked until she knew it by heart, as if she were afraid to forget it.

Sometimes she saw those 'thought suckers' or 'vampires of thoughts', as she called them, shapeless beings who ate her brain in the space of a nightmare.

"You think too much," Frances told her. "Relax."

Then Wendy joined them. A blonde twenty-five-year-old, she sat next to them beaming with natural beauty. "Hi, guys!"

"Hey, Wendy, you look like heaven." Frances looked pleasantly surprised. Beth thought Wendy always looked heavenly, but she had to admit that today her friend was particularly radiant.

"I am in heaven!" the younger girl said. "I found The One!"

"How do you know he is?" Beth asked, curious. She didn't believe in love at first sight anymore. But Wendy definitely looked in love.

"I can feel it right here," she answered, pointing at her guts with a mischievous smile.

"That's how it usually happens." Frances nodded, amused.

She had been married for many years and raised a daughter as part of a couple until she had amicably parted ways with her husband who had moved to the Caribbean. Her daughter was now twenty-two and lived on the West Coast.

Beth shrugged. That "gut feeling" didn't really work. Not for her.

"Well, my soul-mate isn't born yet," she said.

"It's because you prefer virtual men," Wendy teased.

"So? I've tried real ones, they don't work for me," she replied with a shrug.

"You're a hermit!" Wendy declared.

Beth frowned. "I'm not! I have an intense social life!"

"Virtual," Wendy insisted.

"I have real friends, or I wouldn't be here with you, would I?" she grumbled.

"It's true, though, that most of your friends are around the world, you keep in touch online." Frances mercifully didn't mention the holograms like Wendy. Keeping in touch through the World-Wide Web made things very easy and Beth often spent days without talking to a live person. She even turned the camera off during phone calls most of the time!

"So what?" Beth shrugged. "I'm not good at interacting with people anyway. I'm bad at conversation."

"How about trying a new disco I discovered with Michael?" Wendy suggested. "You do love dancing."

"Is Michael The One?" Beth asked.

Wendy nodded with her most charming grin. She was so adorable, it was impossible to hate her. Or refuse her anything.

Beth sighed and Frances elbowed her.

"Go for it, Beth!" she encouraged. "You might actually enjoy it."

"I hate crowds..." Beth was torn between her love for dancing and her fear of crowded places.

"I promise you're going to love this one," Wendy assured.

Beth surrendered with another sigh.

***

Alan hated the whole underground facility where he'd been born twenty-five years earlier. He had private sleeping quarters that were moderately comfortable. A spartan room with a bed, a wardrobe and a bathroom, much like those smart-condos out there.

Except the air was mustier and less fresh, since no windows opened onto the planet out there. And Alan loved the planet he lived on, even though he had started visiting it only a few years earlier. He'd been stuck in the base until his late teens with his father, some alien workers and Shadya, an illegal alien who had to hide her presence from the Earthlings.

She might look like them, but she was different for one tiny little detail. She didn't have a soul, that harmonic signature of a being in the universe. None of the base inhabitants had one, not even Alan or his father, who was a local. But neither of them was as cold and emotionless as Shadya.

She may look like an attractive red-headed woman in her thirties, but she was much older than that. Her body might not decay like the local ones, but there was still that missing piece... the reason why she was in that underground base in the first place.

When the heads of the three clans of the Alpha Centauri system had first made contact with Earth in 1967 Ohio, they hadn't been interested in mingling with the locals. Now, two centuries later, only one clan still laid claims to the planet – hers.

Two thousand Human Extraterrestrial Visitors still worked on the planet. Living in underground facilities with teleport systems and computers that could hack into the Earth's mainframe. Small, very small teams scattered throughout the planet at teleporting distance from the main towns still standing.

Shadya was at the head of the facility and commanded the alien workers and a couple of half-breeds, including Alan. In theory his father was her local partner, but Alan had long ago understood who was actually in charge, although he hadn't commented on it and certainly not mentioned it to his father.

Shadya bowed to nobody except her supervisor who had gone back to the home planet. Someone who made her feel fear in spite of her lack of emotions. Alan had only seen him on comm screens and noticed her reactions to him.

Sometimes Alan wished he could go out and breathe some fresh air more often. And sometimes he did. But having grown up secluded in that base under artificial lights, he still had to get used to mingling with people.

Shadya had sent him to retrieve the oldest half-breed when she was a teen, but Deena still preferred living out there, so they hadn't bonded much. Alan couldn't blame Deena for sticking to the outside world. He often felt lonely with nobody his age to talk to. He obeyed Shadya's wishes but sometimes he felt used. He didn't have the range of emotion of people out there, but sill wished he could have a friend to talk to.

That the women he had sex with actually saw him and liked him for who he was. That he could have some form of relationship with a soulful individual. He knew Shadya's work was important for both her people and for him, but sometimes it felt hopeless, like the windowless room where he'd grown up and still lived.

CHAPTER 4

Deena entered the club and looked around, but couldn't see Michael's tall dark frame. The stroboscopic lights made it hard to see faces, but she was familiar with her dance partner's looks by now and could locate him even in the low light of the disco.

She was on time, but he was late. Since that blonde bitch had gotten into his pants, he'd become unreliable. Deena felt very frustrated, but she couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.

Relationships drove her crazy, but she liked sex. Michael had been good in bed as well as a dance partner until he'd fallen in love. Fuck love. Deena didn't need it. She had felt the fire in his soul and that had scared her.

Maybe she was more like her half-brother Alan than she thought. No, scratch that. He was shy and introverted and bordering on mute. She was an extrovert, but she didn't fall in love. Not with soulful people, and the soulless ones were too judgmental.

If she thought about it, she couldn't say she had friends. She'd been in the City for a little more than a year and hadn't really bonded with anyone. Not like Michael or her biological father, whom she'd been observing from a distance for about a month.

Maybe what she'd been told in that creepy underground base was true after all. She was glad to have an excuse to be out of it! New York was still New York, even reduced in size, it was still glittery and cheerful, with music and parties and laughter aplenty.

Alan and the underground facility were so boring! And soon she'd find a way to talk to her biological father and maybe forget the years in foster care, when she'd been labeled wild and difficult, and had made no friends.

Her foot tapped impatiently on the floor. Where the hell was Michael?

***

As far as Beth could tell the place was a cross between a Hard Rock Cafe and the long gone Studio 54 nightclub and discotheque. Her research on the end of the 20th century had shown her enough of what it was like to live back then. A stage for professional dancers with a huge screen showed the videos of the songs. It was a So Eighties night, or the birth of music videos, playing nonstop to the happiness of the patrons.

Beth couldn't believe her eyes at the sight, which distracted her from Wendy and Michael, a tall African-American who kept his blond girlfriend very close.

"It opened a year ago, and it's a huge success." Wendy beamed as Beth remembered to close her mouth.

"Who's the genius who had this idea?" she asked.

Michael raised a hand with a smile.

"You're my man!" Beth wanted to high-five him, but she had just met him, so she kept her hands in her pockets. "If you split with Wendy, give me a call!"

Michael laughed. "Sure," he said. "Now I'd better go on stage and show some of the moves."

He joined a Hispanic-looking girl on the stage for some Latino rhythm.

"Who's that, Shakira's reincarnation?" Beth marveled as the sexy couple shook and danced on the stage.

"Might be!" Wendy giggled. "Don't they look great together?"

"And they're not an item?"

"Nope, just friends. She's a little on the icy side, actually. I mean, she certainly can move her body, but..." Wendy seemed to shiver in the flickering disco lights.

Beth glanced puzzled at her friend who usually liked everybody, then observed the two professional dancers some more. While Michael could ne "the King" Jackson's reincarnation, his partner had Shakira's flawless moves, but a very impassive face.

Beth shook herself from the contemplation as the music filtered through to her ears again. She brightened, turning to Wendy. "Wow. This place is great, I love the music!"

They both started dancing to a Village People tune.

Eventually they stopped to catch their breath, and Wendy offered to grab something to drink. Beth waited by the stage, watching the videos and Michael and his dancing partner, bobbing her head to the tunes.

A short blond guy, followed by a friend, approached her. "May I ask you a question?"

"Sure." He sounded innocent enough.

"How tall are you?"

"Five eight."

"I love tall women!" he said. "My name's Patrick and yours?"

She averted her eyes with a snort. Original hook indeed, but she really wasn't interested. She saw Wendy coming back with the drinks and turned her back on the suitor to join her friend.

"What did he want?" Wendy inquired. She must have seen them talk.

"Hitting on me, what else." She shrugged, sipping her water.

"He's kind of cute..."

"Wendy, he's short, and I didn't come here to be picked up!"

"Yeah, right, keep your virtual lovers, they're so much better!"

"They actually are!"

Wendy shook her head with a sigh and they finished their drinks. A dance song came on, and both went back to dancing.

***

It wasn't very late when Beth got back home. She was still too full of songs to go to bed, so she selected a few Very Oldies on her laptop, sending the music tracks to invisible speakers, at a much lower volume than at the club. She didn't like her music loud, she liked to be able to distinguish the instruments.

K materialized with the start of the first ballad. "Had a nice night out?"

"Except for the idiot who tried to pick up on me, the music was great," she answered.

"Did you dance with him?

"Who?"

"The idiot."

"Are you crazy? How was I supposed to get rid of him afterward?"

"Then you will not dance with me either."

"Why not?"

"Or you won't get rid of me afterward."

"Don't be stupid, come here."

She put her arms around the hologram's neck and pretended to rest them on his shoulders. He smiled as they slowly moved to the music. She closed her eyes, imagining him close. She could feel him even if he wasn't real. The last slow dance with a real boy must have been in high school a long time ago. But she didn't mind dancing with a hologram now.

A dance song pulled them away from each other. K was a great dancer, even better than Michael. Breathless, Beth fell onto the bed, and he leaned over her with a mischievous smile. She pulled him closer and hugged the pillow, holding tight to her virtual man.

"Tomorrow I want to record a new story," she said, sleepy. "A dance school. A long music video lasting two hours with consecutive meaningful songs..."

She fell asleep imagining it.

But then she found herself in a concrete room with no windows, walking towards a black cylinder suspended a few inches from the ground. The vision was fuzzy as usual, and she couldn't make out what colors and shapes were.

She entered the strange black cylinder and darkness surrounded her. She woke up with a migraine and chest pains, breathless as if she had just run for miles.

"Fucking nightmares," she whispered, trying to regain control of her body.

It was still night, so she turned around in her bed and tried to go back to sleep.

CHAPTER 5

Beth stopped to look at the snapshots in the theater hall while she waited for her friends. She recognized Daniel in many from both past shows and the present one.

Frances arrived, then Wendy with Michael and a couple more friends. Even Michael's dance partner came, and introduced herself as Deena. Beth shook her hand and found it very cold. Deena's smile was also quite icy, but it reminded her of someone.

They found their places and waited for the play to begin. An off-Broadway work by one of Beth's few male friends who even acted in it.

Daniel had written his usual comedy of misunderstandings, and he was playing a minor role in it – in drags, which made him funnier than ever. Laughter and applause abounded, and Beth had switched on the recording: the microchip allowed her to record her thoughts, but also to use her eyes as cameras inside wired buildings like that theater.

During the interval, Beth switched off the recording to talk to Frances.

"He's good, isn't he?" she enthused. "Sometimes I wonder where he finds his weird ideas."

"Daniel is split in two," Frances replied, thoughtful. "The actor and the man. He shows the actor more than the man."

"You mean he plays a part even off-stage?" Beth wondered.

"Nine times out of ten." Frances smiled. "Very few people know the man, trust me."

"I guess most people don't like the man, that's why he hides it." She sighed. "Pity, though."

Frances nodded as the lights faded again. The serious conversation didn't spoil the rest of the show that ended in huge applause. They slowly left the theater and waited for Daniel to change into his day clothes before heading for a restaurant nearby.

He was a tall, bald forty-something, with one earring and a dazzling smile. He wasn't handsome in a classical way, but he had a lot of charm when he wanted to. He was an extrovert who liked to act and impersonate different characters, but he had a "dark" and introverted side. Off stage he wore casual clothes and Beth had never seen him in a suit.

The restaurant was called Old Wild West and it looked like a saloon, with wooden tables with the central lift of the food-dispenser painted to look like wood, and a counter behind which stood a humanoid robot to serve drinks. On the walls there were paintings and photographs from the Wild West, along with Native American objects and even a couple of Colts.

They were seated by another robotic waiter after a brief wait, since the place was packed after the show. Frances typed everybody's order on the flat screen on her side of the table with Daniel still behaving like his character, a flamboyant drag queen, and then plates started appearing on the table from the food-dispenser at the center of the round table.

"Congratulations." Beth managed to catch his attention now that mouths were filled with food. They sat next to each other and the actor had temporarily stopped to making a fool of himself. "Sometime I'll have to think of something for you guys."

"You're a virtual director, don't bother with stage plays," he replied. "We don't mind writing our own material. And sometimes improvising on stage is funnier than any scripted joke."

"I should learn some humor from you! Sometimes I feel I'm way too dramatic in my stories."

"Nah, you're doing fine." He shrugged.

"So, Daniel, what did you think of Beth's latest sci-fi effort?" Frances asked, winking at Beth who smiled.

Daniel's smile vanished. "Nice," he said. "Except I don't think aliens are that gentle and cute." That was definitely the man speaking. The one other people didn't like much, but Beth found most interesting. His conspiracy theories were so 20th century!

"Physically or in general?" Frances insisted.

"Both," Daniel answered. "I believe they are much more powerful than us, and hostile."

"Again?" Wendy snorted. "There are no aliens on Earth, forget this theory of yours about extraterrestrial control!"

"It's real." Daniel frowned, lowering his eyes.

"What proof do you have?" Wendy challenged.

Deena seemed to be very interested in the conversation, but she hadn't spoken much so far. And Beth now knew who her smile reminded her of. She looked like Daniel's daughter. It was almost obvious now that they sat across from each other. Except Daniel had no daughters, and he seemed to pointedly ignore her, which was rather unusual for him.

"None I can show you, babe, we're not intimate enough." He shrugged and sipped some wine. "You'll have to take my word for it."

"Aliens were expelled last century, Daniel," Frances reminded him with the voice of reason. "They don't interfere with us anymore."

"That's what they want you to think," he replied, unusually aggressive. "They look human now, but they're still doing their dirty deeds."

"What would that be?" Michael spoke up. He had just met Daniel and seemed to find his views interesting.

"The usual," Daniel told him. "Soul stealing, DNA engineering... they're still trying it."

Beth had a flash of the black cylinder and wondered if there was truth in Daniel's words.

"They can't succeed!" Wendy objected.

"They don't know that," Daniel answered. "And since they look human, our souls don't think they're a threat."

Michael shook his head. "I don't know where you get this idea from."

Beth almost groaned. Another skeptic. Maybe Wendy had already told him Daniel was weird, and the discussion had confirmed it.

"Personal experience." Again Daniel lowered his eyes in giving his answer. He definitely wasn't acting now.

"I'm sorry, I can't feel it," Michael said.

"Maybe you have False Abduction Syndrome," Wendy said. "Have you seen a doctor?"

"I'm not sick, Wendy." Daniel sounded at the end of his patience. "I'm sorry this Wonderland of yours looks creepy to me."

Beth smiled fondly at him, but he didn't smile back. She knew what he meant or how he felt. She admired him for discussing it openly. She had never dared tell anybody about her nightmares. Maybe she could talk to Daniel – away from Wendy's ears.

CHAPTER 6

Bolton marched into the control room that now looked painfully familiar to him. The room had no windows. His tall frame barely fit in the small door that lead into the ante-room with computers and surveillance-camera screens, a chair in front of them, and a chest of drawers.

Bolton barged on past the large door-less opening of the control room itself, and dropped his bulky body into a chair at the big oval table in the center where Shadya was working, barely glancing at the computers on the left. On the right two half-walls created spaces like open dressing rooms on both sides of a squat, metallic black cylinder, suspended a few inches from the ground and with tubes going toward the dressing-room-like spaces.

Bolton always felt a shiver of excitement when he entered the control room, but not today. Today he was angry, more so because Shadya kept ignoring him, her ten fingers flying over her keyboard as she worked at her laptop with her usual stern and emotionless expression. She was beautiful, but what an icy bitch! Her long red hair framed her pale face, but her looks didn't make his heart flutter anymore.

When they had first met, he was a young man, hopeful to earn for himself the only thing he missed in spite of being born on that soul farm. Now a fifty-something man, he sat at the oval table across from her, staring at her with a permanent frown on his balding forehead. He was big and physically strong, but lacked the same thing she did.

"Why can't we do it permanently?" he asked, angry, envious and frustrated.

"We need more time," she answered flatly.

"Time!" he exclaimed, raising from the chair and pacing nervously along the side of the table. "I don't have time! I've been trying to get myself that thing for half a century now!"

"I've been trying for a millennium, so you shouldn't complain," she replied coldly.

"Damn you, Shadya, at least your body lasts longer than mine!" he snapped.

She looked exactly like the day of twenty-six years ago when his father had introduced them and they'd had sex. The one and only time they'd had sex, and they'd never spoken about love. When his father had died, he'd become her partner, but still didn't know everything about her work.

She half smiled. "Creating transgenic humans takes time."

"We already spent two centuries researching and trying it!"

"I did it, Bolton, you weren't even born when we started collaborating with humans!" she snapped back.

At least he'd managed some kind of reaction from the icy woman who never bothered using his first name. Since his father's death and his divorce, nobody called him Dean anymore.

"And I'm still at your disposal, but I'd like to see results," he muttered, looking at the machines that whirred around them. He knew how most of them worked, but he thought she had kept things from him on purpose.

She stared at her screen for a moment.

"We could try to steal a newborn soul," she suggested. "Two individuals with souls would sire a super-emotional being with a soul ripe for theft as soon as the baby came out of the womb. But we should have a perfect match first."

"Of what sort?" He stopped short in his pacing and stared at her, both hopeful and skeptical. They had already tried pairing soulful and soulless or soulful and half-breed with no real success.

"We find our subject her dream man," she answered.

"Do you have someone in mind?" He plopped onto his chair and she turned the laptop toward him with her gorgeous, soulless smile.

***

New York Public Library still had old 'dead tree' books on the shelves, but all the tables had screens for reading e-books or watching movies. Beth scrolled through the title list of K's filmography, but she had already seen them all anyway.

Daniel took her by surprise with a kiss on the cheek.

"Dan!" She brightened. "I didn't see you coming!"

"Next time I'll come in screaming and yelling like a madman, or a character from an old movie," he said sitting next to her.

She guffawed. "Dan, it's a library," she reminded him while he switched off all electronic devices near them. "Still afraid it might hear us?"

"It does," he said, serious. "Computers know us better than ourselves. If you really want to talk, let's get out of here. And keep your recording microchip shut down."

"There's a limit to my transmission power," she replied. "Outside buildings I can't record anything."

She followed him outside under the clear blue sky. They walked in silence and went to sit on a bench in Bryant Park, too far for any transmission to any computer. Not that Beth had it in mind to record their conversation, but she knew sometimes Daniel bordered on paranoia.

"They're still doing it, Beth," he said with a frown. "They're still interfering."

"But we forced them to leave!" she replied. "When all the souls awakened, they couldn't try to capture them anymore!"

"Not the awakened souls. Back then only twenty percent of Earth's population had a soul. Now eighty percent has one, so there are thousands of new, unaware souls."

"So you think the soul thieves are back?" She knew very well the new definition of "soul" in that brave New Earth. What if Daniel was right and her nightmares were real?

"I don't know." He shrugged, depressed. "It certainly feels like that. I see too many icy people around me these days."

"I know something is off, things are going on that I can't explain, but I don't think..."

"And don't forget that soulless twenty percent, descendant of the military or New World Order exponents."

"You think our soulless companions are trying to be like us?" she mused. "How?"

"Using the alien facilities that we never dismantled," he replied. "But they always knew where they were."

She shook her head. That was way beyond whatever she could come up with. And she thought she was the storyteller. "You're too cynical," she sighed.

"I'm realistic," he said. "We might look at past documentaries and movies on war and violence as totally and utterly outdated, but I'm not sure we're better humans."

"We have the benefit of all our progress and the wisdom to keep our presence under control," she said. "I think this is amazing."

"And I think my dreams are being sucked away by someone who isn't even human," he said gloomily.

"So, what are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know yet. Enjoy your ignorance and don't look for answers, or you'll get lost like me in the maze of their lies."

CHAPTER 7

Beth let in Wendy and her friend Sophie, and the sliding front door closed with a swish. She pointed to the couch under the window and across the kitchenette. The door to the bedroom was closed and her workstation was turned off.

She sat on her claytronic armchair that was positioned to the side of the couch where her guests sat. No carpets, no low tables, no useless furniture in her small abode.

"Remember Sophie?" Wendy swept a hand towards her friend.

"Sure, we met at your place a couple of times," Beth smiled at Sophie, a Caribbean beauty under thirty who smiled back. Sophie didn't look as cold as Deena, Michael's dance partner. Her frizzy hair was tightly braided and she wore a colorful tunic over tight-fitting pants that contrasted with Wendy's current New Romantic look. The blonde must have taken a fancy to the 1980s fashion as well as their music!

"She does virtual movies too," Wendy said. "She needs your advice."

"I'm not as good as you," Sophie said shyly. "I mean, I can't be as original as you are."

"Tell me some title, maybe I've seen your work," Beth said.

"Oh, no, I don't put them online, they're not good enough," Sophie blushed, lowering her big brown eyes.

"She's being modest," Wendy assured.

"I can't judge what I don't know." Beth smiled. "But feel free to ask, Sophie, I'll answer the best I can."

"I think you should show her the story of the female corsair!" Wendy suggested.

"Why don't you let me speak?" Sophie chided.

"I thought I was helping, you're being shy!"

"I'm not shy, if you give me the time to gather my thoughts!"

"OK, I'll shut up!"

Amused, Beth observed the two friends bickering. She was getting curious, though. Sophie had barely mentioned her works in previous encounters, so she had no idea of how good she was. Wendy wasn't the best or most impartial judge of her friends' creations.

"I wanted to ask you..." Sophie hesitated, frowning, and glared at Wendy who shrugged and kept her pretty mouth shut. "OK, here's the thing. I can't visualize the scene as well as you, and the thoughts-recorder doesn't get it right. I try to work on it with the computer, but it shows. A lot."

"To be a virtual director you must have a very visual imagination," Beth said. "The computer can move your virtual star as you wish, but it doesn't make up clothes or settings. I have a great software with places and clothes from all times, I'll give you the link for the download."

"That would be awesome!" Sophie beamed. "And how do you create aliens? I mean, I have this story of galactic pirates, but they all look very much from Planet Earth..."

"So do mine, usually." Beth sighed. "All humans, young and pretty... sometimes I try to change the hair color or mix two races, like blue, slanted eyes or dark skin with blond straight hair. Or you can try to put makeup on a picture, the computer will animate it afterward."

"You should show me," Sophie said. "I have so much to learn!"

"OK, I'll teach you how to use the morphing software." Beth smiled. "Let's go watch some of your work, so I can be more specific."

"I shall let you both work," Wendy announced as they rose from the couch. "I think Sophie is very good, I'm sure with your help she can become as famous as you."

Again this showed Wendy's support of her friends. Beth wasn't famous. But she'd been doing virtual movies for years and she was happy to share her knowledge. Some of her online friends were virtual directors from all over the world and they supported each other, sharing tips for better creations.

Beth and Sophie sat at the computer as soon as Wendy was out of the main door. The claytronic armchair morphed into a double seat so both of them could work comfortably.

"Access your files," Beth said, averting her eyes as Sophie inserted her password, looking very nervous. Beth could understand the younger girl. Sophie still had to acquire the self-knowledge and self-esteem that Beth herself had found only recently.

Sophie's movie had the virtual director as protagonist surrounded by a 20th century pop band. No wonder Wendy had thought Sophie and Beth had a lot in common in spite of the age gap.

"Not that bad," Beth said at the end of the movie. "Looks like something I did in my teens. They looked more alien because I was inspired by the Japanese anime of the past, and they did have lots of humanoids and other aliens!"

"It's not very original." Sophie sounded depressed. "I told you I'm not very good."

"You could change it like this: the pirate princess has a twin, and play with the contrast between noble and rebel," Beth suggested.

"And the pirate abducts the betrothed of the noble." Hope rose in Sophie's eyes and on her face. "Just to spite her sister. But then she falls in love with him!"

"Good. Work on it. Don't record the first thing that comes to mind. See, I'm working on three new characters right now."

She opened her own files and a folder called Technological Angel. She had three character studies, barely begun, about a winged being (with K's face), a panther-man and a cyber-Amazon.

"I decided they form a gang called Three dot com," she explained, pointing at the screen. "They're adventurers who travel the galaxy..." She was still working on the artificial wings, but K looked great already.

"What do they do, who do they meet?"

"Well, the mad scientist who is following the panther-man, the galaxy police, the emperor himself... I don't know, I'm still thinking about their adventures."

"I'll let you work, then." Sophie shyly held out a card. "Send me the links, please, I'll try to improve my movie before coming back for the morphing lesson."

***

Beth tried again to visualize the technological wings that could disappear into the back of the owner. Different ways of forming them became more and more realistic as she tried to give life to her most complex alien character.

She had decided on this occasion to put 20th century Earth in the story, where the alien characters meet. Her version of 1982 had Planet Earth controlled by reptilian aliens who hid behind human faces like in the original "V" TV series. She knew Daniel would enjoy this creation – hostile aliens controlling humanity – and wondered if there could actually be some truth to it.

She started saving her files outside the mainframe, just in case. Some hackers were still able to delete people's identities from the World-Wide Web. She didn't want to lose her homepage and her works to some server malfunction, or she might as well go to the ground floor without using the elevator.

True she could record everything again, but not the oldest stories. They were silly and outdated, but she still loved all her babies.

"Why are you saving everything on portable devices?" K asked, observing her as she worked.

"I'd rather have some back-up outside of the system," she answered.

"Why? I remember everything," he said. Of course the hologram was part of the mainframe, he had to know everything.

"What if a virus erases my older work?"

"You have excellent anti-virus: me. Unless you plan to leave, you're doing something useless. Besides, you can access your data from anywhere in the world, and you know it."

"Let's say I don't have anything better to do."

"We actually do. We could dance or..."

She stared at him. "What are you afraid of, all of a sudden?" she asked.

"Becoming useless," he answered. "You listen too much to your friend Daniel's theories."

"He feels used, and sometimes so do I." She shrugged.

"Nobody is using you," he answered.


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