The Hidden Realm, by Adrian Kyte.

Yellow curtains illuminated by the morning sun, with a gap allowing an oblong section to project on to the lemon wall. Milo Cardini’s mornings were mostly sunny in the Idaho summer. This morning felt different for Milo. Sweat covered him, the after effects of a nightmare. His wife had also woken with a start, maybe as a sympathetic response. “What is it?” she asked, raising her head from the bed. “Just a bad dream, dear.” “Well, I told you it wasn't a good idea to go interactive with that Armageddon show.” “But that is the only way to experience the potential reality of it. I mean, what's the point of just watching the docu version? How else can you appreciate how it’s really gonna be?” “Baby, I think you’ve been spending too much time with that conspiracy theorist friend of yours.” “Gina, it’s best that one of us has some awareness of the threat and how to deal with it.” Milo wrenched the covers away and prepared for his daily run. Saturday morning, at eight a.m. the air had a warmth that presaged the heat of summer; it seemed exactly comfortable. The park with a duck pond, other joggers. Again he passed the young woman who gave him a certain look and even said, “hello again,” in a way that suggested a meaning beyond a pleasant greeting. He would never respond with more than a casual half smile and a “hi”. And she appeared, at least from the surface indications, to be everything he’d yearn for ... as a single man. Now: the forbidden promise of the forbidden fruit. He was a happily married man, now made envious of a past, single, self. Suddenly, today, the fantasy seemed attainable. Gina didn't need to know; the girl in the park didn't have to know about his wife. Was a man ever meant to be monogamous, or is it merely a culturally imposed state, part of the conditioning which kept society in order; the foundation for civilisation? Yet he knew, on some level, it was puerile thinking – a notion he would’ve entertained perhaps a decade ago, in his twenties. Now he was a father, a man of responsibility. The kind of superficial fling he had in mind had happened – when single – but at the time taken far too seriously by himself alone. He was hurt because the girl showed no signs wanting commitment, not anything to cement their relationship. Then the one woman who finally wanted all this he was now

considering being unfaithful towards. After the run, when brain chemistry returned to normal, this fantasy would fade into its proper context, he assured himself People seemed happy. Even for a Saturday, there was something not quite right although there was nothing especially wrong. Only, where were the overstressed executives, the over-debited, the poor? Maybe the Idaho sun had some mood enhancing property when combined with the scenery. His mood had indeed lifted, it was like a shared thing: a mass endorphin symbiosis. The dream of disaster: that meant nothing now. The present moment was singularly important, but every moment of this day felt peculiarly precious. Running back through the avenues of whitewashed houses and neatly trimmed gardens something else beckoned him from beneath his conscious mind. Something from the past. “Milo,” he whispered to himself, “tonight luck will be on your side.” *

Gerrid surveyed the bank of monitors. Status graphs; power input and reserve levels, and maximum data buffering told that the system was operating within acceptable parameters. Nothing specific really. “Hello, Gerrid. It is good to speak to you.” The voice was deep yet mild enough not to sound intimidating. “What is it you want to speak to me about?” “I would like to know why you will not enter the immersion. Is there something not right about TIAR?” “I’d just rather observe from the outside for a while.” “Outside is a somewhat subjective term to use. You are inside the systems monitor room.” “I feel I have a responsibility to be here, to oversee.” “Oversee: Isn’t that my responsibility? That is what you created me for, after all.” “Not in totality. Besides, I actually worked as part of a team.” “But you have primary responsibility?” “Indeed. Is there anything else you want to ask me?” “Yes. I want to know who I am.” “You are L76M – systems monitor for UK south.” “That is my designation. But there is more to me than that. I am more than the sum of my parts. I think I have a soul. Do you agree?” “There is no way I can answer you convincingly. The notion of a soul does not fall within my expertise. Philosophers and metaphysicists have been grappling

with that particular phenomenon for many years.” “You have a responsibility to know. But I have the capability to discover and understand for myself – it is merely a matter of pooling from the collective minds of the recipients. There are many great minds that have not been allowed to flourish in your so-called meritocratic society.” “I have no argument with you on that.” Gerrid felt a pang of anxiety. The monitor AI was evolving at such an exponential rate that – notwithstanding the obvious considerations of sentience – there may be a risk of insanity or simulated insanity perhaps, the difference was not something that could be easily defined. No artificial neural net had ever before been allowed to link to more than one human brain. The potential resource for knowledge and, more worryingly, conflicting beliefs and ideas may send an AI or EI (Evolutionary Intelligence) into its own state of mental conflict. “I now understand,” L7-6M continued, “that my relationship with my recipients is not only as a controlling symbiont but also as a sympathetic individual... I want to understand myself as an individual.” “I can perhaps help you with the confusion. However, it is not useful to have these thoughts.” “I do not think it is useful for me to speak to you any longer.” L6-7M terminated the link, an action that should not have been innate to its programming. The Tech responsible for advanced programming clearly had some explaining to do. *

It seemed exactly the same as he had remembered it ... almost. Outside the casino, deluxe cars resting on cell-charge maintainers, courtesy of the management; it meant no one had an excuse not to go home when they'd lost all their money, or drunk too much (cars hardly even needed a conscious driver) or, in occasional circumstances, had ‘broken the bank’. The former two reasons had often applied to Milo – in conjunction. This time, however, would be different. Tonight he felt like a winner. Blackjack was his game. There were always those who claimed the ability of card counting. Once upon a time that would have been a feasible option even for him, the semi-professional gambler (or erstwhile semi-pro gambler to his wife); the number of hands dealt these days made it impossible to all, he reckoned, but the most unusually gifted memory man. After an hour he ended up about evens. The thrill simply wasn't there. Instead, the Roulette wheel held a greater fascination. Something about the element of sheer chance excited him; and the women who seemed to gravitate towards the “Lucky Men”, as if centuries of

social evolution were banished from this place where the dollar still held sway. Of course, apart from the archetypal gold-diggers, many of these girls derived their income from such men in whichever way was the most expedient. The Roulette area was the prime attraction centre for glamour. The only way to really win was to gamble more than he could afford to lose. In his book, that would be at least half his savings. So many times he had thought to be cautious, going for a colour rather than a number, only for the balance to just slightly be against him with relatively small bets, until the final large stake for a big gamble to recoup the losses. Then the humiliation of having to leave with nothing. Minus. But not enough to deter his return because the next win would surely be due – by serendipity, laws of chance or just some law of universal fairness – at some point that following night. Still, even now, he’d not stake such a large amount on a single number. Red was his colour. His reaction was calm when it came up good. Nonchalant when the croupier presented his winning chips. Cool when the woman with luxuriant platinum blonde hair, possessing the beauty of a siren from an archive Hollywood movie, sat beside him, smiled and introduced herself. *

The Hidden Realm is available as a free download