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Excerpt from Code Beast

The following text is excerpted from Code Beast by Simon Sellars (Wanton Sun 2023).



‘Excuse me, dear. There’s something in your eye.’

My mod scarfs up the thought, cloning it with synthetic speech. The transference is instantaneous, a miracle of neural engineering, but the synth is plinky. I tilt my head and box my ear, dislodging imaginary dirt. After all this time, the clang still drives me batty.

—Something in your eye.

I remember the chocky scanner that chipped me, a spindly clothes horse of awkward hydraulics and raptorial surgi-tools. When I complained about the synth, the chocky clicked to itself in untranslated machine slang. I thought it was mimicking the flaw in my head until it swayed on its lower extremities like a praying mantis about to strike. It was probably muttering some piquant insult in chocky-speak.

‘Blame your advanced years,’ it said, translated. ‘You are hardly the sign of a brand-new computing paradigm.’

‘Just fix it, okay?’

It laughed in the creepy way that chockys do, a forced audio expulsion from an imagined orifice.

‘Nothing can be done. The pre-emptive holosonic capacities in your brain have atrophied. Even vex-tech can’t erase the scandalous humiliations of old age.’

I grew tired of its hectoring tone. ‘Listen, if you have no time for fantasies of the flesh, then why am I here?’

‘Correction,’ it clicked. ‘I have no time for you.’

That’s how I met the ghosts of my life, the irascible creatures that have always plagued me in the Vexworld. I’ll need years of rebirth therapy to annihilate that primal seed. Let’s just say I’m working on it.

—Your eye.

I always chat myself up before re-entry. It softens the blow of the divided self. I guess the impulse is inside me, a part of who I am. The truth is, I’ve been a split-brain fantasist ever since I was a kid. Each night, I’d inhabit grindhouse personas before hiding behind the wall of sleep. The parameters of my small bedroom warped my young mind. My tiny mattress was the set, and claustrophobia was the theme.

My favourite routine was Marooned Astronaut in a Damaged Capsule. It had the lot. Solitude, cosmic wonder, mild suicidal tendencies. All the essentials.

There were others.

Escaped Convict Sleeping Rough Beneath an Overpass.

Miner Trapped in a Shaft Cage.

As the scenarios unfurled, I’d defy the odds and save my skin, but once I hit my teens the game reeked of putrefaction. I suffered escalating indignities, each bleaker than the last.

I was a hapless office worker, suffocating slowly under the rubble from an earthquake. A small-town boy abducted by a serial killer and kept in a plywood box. A weedy family man framed by mobsters and thrown into a pit of wild pigs.

Escape was out of the question, so I left my body, observing from on high as my doppelganger suffered the tortures of the damned. Did I really float free? It felt like it. The scenarios were gruesome and my mind’s eye spared no detail, but it was like watching a snuff film in which I played the starring role. I thought I was an astral voyager studying the physical plane, but in hindsight I was a psychopath on training wheels, itching and bleeding for the Vexworld to be born.

Now that vexxing is all I know, the death drive has been blunted.

—Never mind, dear. It’s only a sparkle.

I mean, listen to me. I’m using pick-up lines on myself.

Welcome to the slow-cooked madness of soft middle age.


I’m sprawled on my ratty sofa, a zombie with no brains to consume. I’m holed up in a slovenly cube the size of a storage container, but the universe behind my eyes is boundless. If only they’d let me in.

The ceiling and walls are coated with Kvvlt, smooth and eternal, and I’m lusting for the moment when the surfaces will explode with lysergic energy.

Kvvlt isn’t a material. It’s a self-sufficient colony, an industry of tiny worms stuck to nylon sheets by their foul secretions. They live and die on the sheets, reflex-cannibals gorging on the corpses of their kin.

They’re mutated in Chernobyl, but they’re not really worms. That’s just PR to sugar-coat the weird. They’re a type of larval moth, godless mutations with labyrinthine, tubular exoskeletons. When light enters the exotubes, it’s trapped forever. Stare at Kvvlt when you’re vexxing and nothing disturbs you, no ambient pollution from the shell world.

Just as well. My attention span has been slashed to ribbons lately. Sanderson, my chronosthesia supervisor, calls it ‘social dementia’. Weird scenes inside a hermetic circle. Mental time travel. Seconds forward in the mind, seconds back. Sometimes sideways.

‘Don’t rely on me for anything,’ I always remind him. ‘Half the time I can’t even see you.’

I shake down the entry sensel, a speck of lightpaint in my peripheral vision, but it won’t unwrap. It’s an oscillating blur, a manic attack. The sensel should be stable and now I can’t blink it away. It’s like a scratched cornea, supremely uncomfortable and a sign that the worst is yet to come.

Blame the iceheads, that’s my motto. For months, the Arctic Free State has been clouding our eyes with sentient hallucinations, and now the sneaky snow merchants have learned how to mimic entry protocols, smuggling malignant thoughtware into unsecured cheaters. I always forget that we’re in perpetual conflict. It can be hard to tell the hottest zones from the latest attacks, but the way some castle hunters carry on, you’d think they enjoy starring in snuff loops. I think I’m apart from them, but that’s just another joke.

If it’s iceheads, there’s a sure way to find out. Track the asymmetric pixel response rate. Everyone knows that little trick. The Swarm drilled it into us at the start of the campaign, but effective hygiene is beyond me now. I can’t track anything because I ‘forgot’ to calibrate the parameters. I couldn’t see the point. I never had to break back in because I was rarely untransitioned. Like a goldfish running low on memory, I didn’t think it could happen until it did.

I don’t know why I was dumped. My cheaters are drained, but there should be enough power for descent. Something soured the milk and the analytics are firing blanks. Like most code beasts, the data glots won’t talk to me, and that’s the least of my worries. If I don’t transition soon, the cronk will tear me a new one.

I blink and wait a few breathless seconds, gouging my thumb with my teeth, attacking a scab that won’t heal. The tortured flesh releases thick trickles of blood, and the pain from damaged nerves is excruciating, but it’s nothing compared to cronk. Blink, release. Light space fails to engulf me. I see only my domestic prison and the banal terror of its cruel dimensions. I’m sort of relieved. If the sensel was thoughtware, I’d be a vegetable rotting in a bad zone by now. Still, the sad fact remains. I’m on the outside and that’s the game. Alive but unvexxed is no victory.

I assess my hands. I’ve failed the stress test yet again, and without a wrap to hide my shame, my decrepit body is the bitter truth. My fingers are hamburger meat from tip to root. ‘Wolf biting’, they call it, the consumption of one’s own skin, obsessive-compulsive behaviour triggered by severe anxiety. Some people deal with stress by pulling their hair or biting their nails. I eat myself alive. I’ve forgotten the last time actual food passed my lips.

I’ve been a wolf-biter since I was little. It coincided with the beginning of the astral theatre. I chew my fingers when I’m vexxing, I chew when I’m untransitioned. It’s so ingrained, I’m barely aware that I’m chewing at all until I grip something and my hands convulse in screaming agony.

My anxiety’s in the red because of my useless job. I’m a life-coach to brain-jacked kids, dispensing empty wisdom to bonsaied adults with no social skills. They’re still in nappies, and I’m the mug who has to change them, my hands covered in shit while they chill on the change table, roasting me for not knowing some obscure branch of quantum theory.

After my last shift, I contacted Sanderson.

‘Philip,’ I said. ‘I can’t take it. I need a break, to reset.’

‘Medical cert? You want me to sign you off from work?’

‘Yes. My nerves are on fire.’

‘Alright, Jones. You are a mess, I can see that. I’ll do it on one condition. You report to me twice a month.’

‘Yes, Philip. I understand.’

I knew I hadn’t convinced him of any overpowering need. He just likes to keep tabs on me because I’ll always be a castle hunter in his eyes. Deathly paranoid, hopelessly anti-social, doing anything to skive off and stay in the zones. The certificate recommended two weeks’ leave, which my boss grudgingly approved, but time’s running out and I need to make a judgement call.

‘Judgement’ is a superpower I don’t possess.

The sensel is dying. Maybe my cheaters too. I remove them, but I’m not happy about it. I’d rather gouge my eyes out than be away from my gear. In the end, it amounts to the same.

I inspect the lens and frame. They’re spun from high-impact, low-gravity polycarbonate, near invisible when worn, a status symbol for sure, but what use is status when I can’t snag the zones?

I examine the controlling chip, a silicon flint embedded in the frame. The chip is a tiny miracle, bouncing information from lens to eye. All the action is inside the optic nerve. The lens is a relay, not a screen. The eye is the screen and I’m the terminal, but the terminal is dead.

The cronk’s on the march, so I jam the cheaters back on. I inspect my inner wrist, caressing the subcute. Beneath the skin, a glowing red circle forms, its corona gently throbbing. On the third blink, the sensel explodes and the veins in my wrist turn incandescent like the festering detail inside a medical holocap.

The rest happens in an instant.

A lumigreen lattice of light swamps my vision, covering my eyeballs. It sluices down the back like slime, elastodynamic vortices remapping the dorsal root ganglia until there are no more internal fireworks, just the vastness of null space and my sightless, weightless being.

There’s a gravitation, a slow drift. Transition is standard, seven seconds from blink to descent, but it feels eternal. Null space stops time with sensory deprivation. That’s why The Swarm uses a souped-up version to punish recalcitrants. They can keep a crook in a null-reality jail for what seems like a thousand years to the hapless chump but is only half an hour in real time. When the dunderhead is released, there’s no mind left to lose.

Casual vexxers hate transition. They panic and rip their cheaters off then try again, but they’re just day traders, cloistered types whining about the flaws in synth clones. I haven’t complained about any of it since the day I was chipped because I know what I am. Out to pasture. I’ll take what I can get.

When transition resolves, time is a strange beast. It seems to accrete rather than restart. Everything you were thinking about in null space happens simultaneously with the thought that predicted it. The past becomes the present, the future the past. It’s like you’ve already acted on the thought but there’s a lag between performing the action and the production of the mimetic glue that sets the memory.

I can’t stop thinking about Rimy, my virtant. I’m forever obsessing over the ant.

What does Rimy do when I’m untransitioned? Where do they go? Everywhere and nowhere, so it seems.

I’m rattled from the previous outage, and my repetitive thoughts are projections of impending doom. Although I’ve been doing this forever, I’m still capable of losing my nerve, but before I do something stupid like ditching my cheaters, I check my wrist. I’m relieved to see lava-red lines flowing from hand to shoulder. It means the subcute is talking to the neuromod. Now I just need the old brain pan to do its thing.

I white out, rolling my eyes into my skull, and flat-pack images appear, expanding like foam until I’m back where I belong.

Back inside the Vexworld.

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