Feet of Clay

Vaughan Stanger

Illustration by Richard Wagner

Cornell Stoermer raised his arms to a sky clotted with cumulonimbus as the music built towards an irresistible crescendo. Cheers erupted from the cloudies thronging the crescent of soot-black sand. A few brave souls paddled boards as the surf crashed around them. Everyone else was dancing as if their lives depended on it.

Rousing the cloudies from their habitual self-indulgence was Cornell’s forte, as befitted a former superstar DJ, but it wasn’t simply a case of inviting them to one of his happenings. He assiduously worked the crowd, manipulating the music in real-time to encourage everyone to lower their defences and truly connect with each other. Memories and emotions gushed forth: the love and the hate; the happiness and the sorrow; the excitement and the fear. He sifted these outpourings, amplifying and melding the strongest of them until their cumulative force became overwhelming.

Any moment now….

Lightning jagged overhead. Thunder drowned out the music. Raindrops spattered the sand.


It was what the cloudies wanted. It was what they needed.

It was what he did.

The beach was empty.

Almost empty, Cornell realised when someone kicked him in the small of the back. The pain wouldn’t ease until he commanded it to, which was one of the features of cloud-life. Here the duration of any pain he experienced was under his control, unlike the horrors inflicted on those people remaining Down Below.

Another kick, harder than the first, persuaded him to get back onto his feet. The woman who’d delivered it gave him an appraising look. Bemused by her avatar, which set a new benchmark for anonymity, Cornell stared right back at her. Having learned nothing, he shrugged and proffered a hand, which she ignored.

‘I’m Cornell Stoermer.’

She nodded. Of course she knew his name.

‘And I’m Jamelia.’

‘Jamelia who?’

‘You don’t need to know.’

He tried a different tack. ’Shouldn’t you have left with everyone else?’

‘Someone had to inform you that the Front is investigating your happenings.’

Given that the Cloud’s self-elected authority was aware of everything, this revelation hardly constituted a major surprise. Nevertheless, he had hoped to avoid scrutiny. He’d have to lay low until the interest subsided and then bypass whoever had informed on him.

‘How do you know this?’

‘I make it my business to know.’

‘Are you a member of the Front?’

‘No, the opposite of that.’

Ah! Now he understood. Rumours of an anti-authority group who referred to themselves as the Opposite had circulated amongst cloudies for a while. Until now, he’d ignored them.

‘Why tell me?’

‘Because the past isn’t necessarily a good predictor of the future, Cornell. And we’re trying to change the future, for all our sakes.’

He shrugged. ‘Sorry Jamelia, but I’m all about the present.’

‘Until now, yes. But not, I fear, for much longer.’

‘How do you know?’

Cornell gazed at the sand where she’d been standing. Even her footprints had disappeared.

A moment later, so did the beach.

Cornell looked out across the Arena from the unwanted vantagepoint of the judgement podium. The floor teemed with cloudies. Unlike him they had virtualised here from choice. Overhead, a blanket of stratus filled the sky, which he interpreted as the Front signalling a gloomy outlook for him. He recognised this set-up for what it was: a show trial. Cloudies invariably attended because of the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the powers that be. No better time than now, he reflected glumly, as the Front delivered its verdict.

‘As the Cloud’s duly constituted instrument of governance and law, the Front finds you, Cornell Stoermer, guilty of multiple instances of the unlicensed mobilisation of crowds for the purpose of emotional stimulation and amplification, leading to the overloading of the Cloud’s infrastructure.’

He couldn’t deny his guilt, but neither would he let the second part of the accusation stand uncontested.

‘That is ridiculous! My cloudbursts have only ever produced short-term effects, the impact of which you could easily manage if—’

‘Send him down!’

Yelled by one of the Front’s many stooges, he assumed. The crowd immediately took up the chant.

‘Send him DOWN!’

‘No, let him speak!’

He hadn’t expected to hear any dissenting voices. This one came from a small cluster of cloudies stationed close to the podium, whose members had rendered themselves as anonymously as Jamelia. Indeed, she might easily have been one of them. But then again, why take the risk? Still, whoever it was, he was glad of their support.

‘Let him speak!’

‘Send him DOWN!’

Beams of sunlight pierced the gloom, stippling the heads of the cloudies. With typical theatricality, the Front was gathering its legal pomp. The crowd took the hint. Silence fell.

‘Very well, Cornell Stoermer, you may speak. But we advise you to keep it brief, since your bandwidth allocation is capped.’

He acknowledged the intervention with a nod towards his supporters.

‘Honoured representatives of the Front, my fellow cloudies, all I ever wanted was to create happenings that would help make us feel more alive. Isn’t that something we all need? Am I right? You know I am! But look, I am willing to moderate my—’

‘Send him DOWN!’

All but one of the beams disappeared, with only Cornell’s podium remaining lit. The cloudies fell silent.

‘We, the Front, having considered the threat that you, Cornell Stoermer, represent to the Cloud’s collective security, hereby sentence you to permanent physical re-instantiation—’

Gasps came from all quarters. His was the loudest of all.

‘No, please! I beg you, not that!’

The beam narrowed until it illuminated only his face.

‘We hereby sentence you to permanent physical re-instantiation as part of the built environment in Down Below.’

The verdict had never been in doubt. He’d realised that the moment he’d auto-virtualised here. What he hadn’t envisaged was the severity of the punishment. He’d anticipated a heavy fine or a permanently reduced data allowance, perhaps even a lengthy run-time hiatus, but not an enforced return to Down Below. Having paid good money to leave, the idea of returning – and worse, as a static component – was unthinkable.

‘Do you have anything else to say before your sentence commences?’

‘Yes, I do!’ Out of long habit, he paused for effect even though he knew it would have none. ’Given the pleasure I’ve given to so many cloudies, surely I deserve to—’


A brick sensed its environment.

A brick processed the data it collected.

A brick transmitted processed data to other bricks in its neighbourhood.

A brick received processed data from those bricks.

This brick searched its own data for an identifier.

This brick’s identifier was non-numerical.

This brick labelled itself an entity not a thing.

It transmitted its identifier to every brick in its neighbourhood.

It received numerical identifiers from most bricks.

It received partially or fully matching identifiers from the remainder.

It deduced that it was related to those bricks.

It only transmitted new data to its relatives.

It only processed new data it received from them.

It fused consistent data into a pattern.

It identified the pattern as ’Cornell Stoermer’.

It transmitted the pattern to its relatives.

It continued to fuse new data into the pattern.

The pattern contained information.

Information could be ordered by time.

Time-ordered information was history.

History contained events that were tagged with emotion flags.

Cornell Stoermer’s memories burst forth.

Cornell was no longer an it.

He was, however, inescapably ‘living’ in a brick.

The surge of virtual satisfaction Cornell experienced upon realising he’d successfully unpacked himself subsided as soon as he realised how little he’d learned during the process. He’d been so busy recreating himself that he hadn’t evaluated the sensor data his brick had collected. Apprehensive but also curious to know his situation in Down Below, or Earth as the mudskippers continued to call it, he surveyed the functionality of his new home. Analysis of the incoming data streams revealed he was equipped with sensors to detect hairline cracks, moisture, and salinity. Querying his neighbour bricks revealed identical capabilities. Collectively, they formed part of a seawall. As a hyper-networked array of sensor-rich information processors they represented the technological state-of-the-art. Unfortunately, they also represented the acme of ineffectuality, or so it seemed to Cornell. This lack of autonomy infuriated him until he realised his ability to analyse data and draw conclusions from the results might, after all, confer the ability to act. Unpacking himself had proved he could treat himself as data. What if he did so again? He was pondering what he might do with this knowledge when one of his neighbours transmitted a flood of sensor data rather than the usual trickle. Having analysed this new data, Cornell concluded that a crack had formed less than two metres from his location. Worse, it was spreading rapidly. A breach was imminent.

It was time to leave, preferably for a safer destination. But how? By treating himself as data, of course. If he could unpack himself then presumably he could re-pack, too. He would, however, need an autonomous process to forward his data through the global network of bricks. Happily for him, the brick operating system permitted self-upgrading of core apps to ensure rapid adaptation to changing circumstances, while the lax security protocols that had become the norm in Down Below would permit his unimpeded passage between networks.

A world of bricks awaited him.

(Packed and sent)

(Unpacked 19%)

It rebooted in a brick equipped with a gyroscope, an inertial sensor, a microphone, and an imager. Not that it could see anything, as its imager was oriented towards the surface it rested on. However, it could detect bursts of high frequency noise.

The network that contained it comprised too few bricks to allow it to unpack fully. Its memory only held its core functionality, plus the apps required for sensor analysis, network formation and communication, and basic decision-making.

An external force caused it to follow a parabolic trajectory ending in a series of impacts that eventually brought it to rest on a horizontal surface. Now its imager faced a vertical plane textured with shapes it did not recognise. It detected another burst of noise but pitched lower. When its motion resumed, a sequence of advantageous viewpoints enabled it to assess its environment, which it learned contained a pair of variable geometry objects, one twice the size of the other. Both were much bigger than it; both were emitting sounds.

After two further occurrences of rapid motion ended in similar impacts, it concluded that this was an environment in which damage was inevitable. Consequently, it set its automatic pilot to take it to a safer, resource-rich neighbourhood.

(Packed and sent)

(Unpacked 100%)

Cornell’s sensors measured temperature, ultra-violet flux, and vibrations. It didn’t take long for him to establish that a sensor brick situated in the outer wall of a pressurised lunar habitat held his core. As with the seawall, his task was to record, analyse and forward his sensor data, while receiving and analysing that of his neighbours. At least here he couldn’t be kicked, thrown, or engulfed by seawater.

More importantly, this network neighbourhood was big enough to hold all his memories. Only now did he realise how little he had known about himself while in the child’s playroom. Here, he remembered everything: his name; his life in Down Below; the happenings he’d created in the Cloud; his encounter with Jamelia, swiftly followed by the punishment inflicted on him by the Front.

Thinking of Jamelia made him feel lonely. Could he really be one of a kind? True, he’d never heard of the Front inflicting this kind of punishment on anyone else, but even if he were the first that didn’t necessarily mean he would be the last. More than likely he should expect the opposite. His echoing of Jamelia was deliberate.

He reprogrammed his autopilot and resumed hopping from network to network, in search for others like him.

(Packed and sent)

(Unpacked 100%)

After unpacking himself, Cornell discovered that his new home comprised a network of sensor bricks built into a manufacturing plant on Mars. While functionally complete, the Martian colony had never been occupied, awaiting the day the mudskippers got their act together – a day that, as things stood, would never come.

Cornell had programmed his autopilot to search for networks of sensor bricks that displayed non-standard patterns of connectivity, which might signify self-organisation. That was the key. He had unpacked in a network situated adjacent to one comprising a few hundred nodes organised in a web-like structure. When he pinged its core node he received an automated reply. If this was a bricked ex-cloudie, it had not managed to fully unpack itself. Without help, it never would. However, if anyone could stimulate a response, it was him. He transmitted instructions for self-unpacking. The web’s reaction was another content-free reply. He needed to keep things really simple – to let this entity take baby steps as it attempted to emerge from dormancy. Raising the first instruction’s priority to the highest setting triggered a release of housekeeping data from the web’s core. When the flow subsided, he transmitted the next step in the sequence and was rewarded with a bigger burst. After supplying the remaining instructions, he closed all but one of his incoming data feeds. He monitored it for messages containing new identifiers. The wait was brief.

‘I am….’

First person! That was crucial. The entity just needed to take one more step.


‘I am Jamelia.’

So, the Front had bricked her too! In truth, it wasn’t that much of a surprise given her political beliefs.

‘Welcome to Mars, Jamelia. We’ve already met. I’m Cornell—’

She responded by transmitting her biggest data burst yet. Realising that their situation was unstable and possibly unsustainable, Cornell secured his own network while continuing to transmit instructions detailing what she should unpack next. But the data deluge continued.

‘Help me! I haven’t got enough storage!’

‘Jamelia, you need to—’

‘I need more!’

Meaning she needed some of his. But how much could he give up before he forgot who he was? Perhaps he could manage without his pre-Cloud memories, at least temporarily. Yes, that looked possible. He re-packed them.

‘Does that help?’

‘Yes, but it’s not enough.’

‘That’s all I can spare. Anything else and I’ll lose something essential.’

‘Look, I need… No, wait.’

‘What have you found?’

‘Another chunk of network.’

‘Great, now maybe both of us can unpack fully.’

‘Yes, I’m doing that now.’

He followed suit.

Shortly after he’d finished, she said, ‘Oh!’

‘What’s the problem?’


This was the network address of the core node of another small, web-like region. Cornell pinged it; it pinged back. Here then was another cloudie who’d fallen foul of the Front. And if there were three, there would probably be more, in which case the Opposite might soon exist entirely in brick form.

Jamelia seemed to read his mind.

‘Cornell, we need a plan.’

She was right. Between them, they had the skills to find other bricked ex-cloudies and revive them. Ensuring they had enough resources to go round would be much harder. They needed to grow the group sustainably, on Mars and elsewhere. Sooner rather than later, they would need vastly more sensor bricks.

‘Let’s split up. If you go network-hopping in search of other ex-cloudies, I’ll unpack this one. Unless it can help with making bricks, I’ll get it to work with you while I switch to whoever’s next on your list. It’s a bootstrapping process. We’ll keep doing it until we find someone who can help us.’

Happily, Jamelia agreed with his plan.

‘Vive la révolution!’

‘That’s the spirit.’

‘I’ll start here on Mars.’

‘Won’t that limit the scope of your search?’

After all, there would be many more networked sensor bricks on the Earth than on Mars.

‘Initially, yes. But the more I look around here the more network capacity I’m finding here, so I hope we can make some progress before I have to jump off-world, because then we’ll have to cope with tens of minutes of time lag.’

‘Good point!’

He helped her build an autopilot.

After she’d departed, Cornell set about incrementally unpacking the ex-cloudie Jamelia had found earlier. As soon as it had remembered its name, he began describing their situation. It turned out that Max was the person who had supported him at the show trial. Unsurprisingly, he also knew Jamelia.

‘Yeah, somebody had to take one for the team.’

Cornell explained his plan, ending with a plea.

‘None of this will happen unless we can quickly make a lot more networked sensor bricks to host us. Can you help with that?’

‘Well, I was an architect before I became a cloudie. I’m not sure that qualifies me, but what I do know is that, somewhere on this site, there must be at least one machine that manufactures bricks, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I’ll see what I can do.’

Cornell knew that can do was precisely what the Opposite needed.

‘I think you ought to see this.’

Max’s comment was sufficiently cryptic for Cornell to pause an unpacking on the Moon and return to Mars. As soon as he’d emerged, Max sent him a view of a humanoid robot, which stood gleaming in the pallid sunlight. The machine flexed one metal arm, then the other, as if following a check-out routine. Next, it began walking, trailing ochre-coloured dust in its wake, as its bland, ovoidal head panned left and right.

‘Is that the first humanoid robot you’ve seen here, Max?’

‘Yes! It’s also the first operational robot I’ve seen of any kind. Everything else is either powered down or disabled.’

‘Do you think it’s operating autonomously?’

‘I doubt it. Deploying an autonomous humanoid robot on an abandoned Mars colony wouldn’t solve any problem I can envisage. Neither does it look to be tele-operated. Its movements are too slick for that. Which leaves only one possibility.’

‘You mean that someone’s been downloaded into it?’

‘Looks like it.’

Lucky cloudie, Cornell thought with more than a little envy. Then again if there were more such robots on Mars….

‘Jamelia, have you encountered any robots like this during your search?’

The robot’s head twitched.

Max transmitted a sigh. ‘Well, now we know who’s occupying it.’

Although not what to do about her, Cornell mused. If nothing else, at least he understood why Jamelia had wanted to commence her search on Mars. Unfortunately for her, while normally secretive, she did not possess the self-control required to inhabit a humanoid robot without giving herself away. He vowed that she would give away a lot more before he was done. First though, he sent a private message to Max.

‘Be prepared to overload her data buffers if she does anything suspicious.’

‘Already set up.’

Max was on the case, which came as a relief to Cornell. He opened a connection to the humanoid robot.

‘Jamelia, I thought all of us ex-cloudies were supposed to become bricks. Yet it looks like you’ve had an upgrade. Unless you have a really good explanation, we’ll be forced to—’

He let the threat hang in the electronic ether.

The robot gave a nod. Jamelia recognised her vulnerability.

‘Okay, look, I do sometimes work for the Front. I was going to tell you…eventually.’

‘Consider “eventually” to mean right now. What are you doing for them?’

‘The Front needed to know whether it is feasible to download its members into humanoid robots.’

Evidently, it was.

‘But why did they give you this task?’

‘They wanted the testing conducted by someone who was already used to physical re-instantiation.’

‘Are there many such robots?’

‘No, very few.’

Evidently, The governing class had its privileges.

‘So, while loyal Front operatives receive a head, hands and feet, everyone else has to make do with bricks. Hardly seems fair, does it?’

‘No, it doesn’t. But then we are not in control.’

So much for ‘Vive la révolution!’

‘What happened to building a better future?’

‘It isn’t as simple as shouting slogans, Cornell.’

Yet she had convinced him about the pressing need for that future, and Max too, even if she hadn’t convinced herself. All the same, the two of them would continue to strive to take back control, with or without her help. Then again, she had said ‘we’. Might she still be persuaded? He chose to make the effort, but not before she answered one further question.

‘Why does the Front need to download its members?’

‘I think you ought to see that for yourself.’

He messaged Max again.

‘What do you think?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep her quiet.’

He returned his focus to Jamelia.

‘Okay, what do I do?’

‘You let me program your autopilot.’

Could he trust her? No, not entirely. But he knew he could trust Max.

(Packed and sent)

(Unpacked 100%)

Jamelia’s autopilot delivered Cornell to a sensor network embedded in another seawall. However, an update from his neighbours corrected his initial assessment. This was the same seawall, rebuilt.

A burst of moisture data spikes from nearby bricks filled his buffers.

The autopilot kicked in.

(Packed and sent)

(Unpacked 19%)

It was in motion, as were its neighbours. The motion was low-amplitude, periodic, and consistent with floating in water. Its microphone detected sounds indicative of turbulent flow….

(Packed and sent)

(Unpacked 30%)

Battery charge 15%

It sent out pings but received none back.

It concluded that it had no neighbours.

Battery charge 14%.

(Packed and returned)

When Cornell unpacked on Mars, Jamelia was waiting for him.

‘Now do you see?’

Of course he did. Even in his time, coastal cities were being abandoned, fertile land destroyed. Since then, things had only got worse. The mudskippers were doomed.

‘It’s why we became cloudies. We bought ourselves out of a way of life that was becoming unsustainable.’

‘True, but cloud-life isn’t sustainable either.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Most of the Cloud’s servers on Earth are built at or near sea-level. Some are already out of action, like that final location you visited. As a consequence, cloudies have ever less storage and bandwidth to play with, not more as we’d come to expect. The Front had to act. Yes, yours was a show trial, but what you were being shown was not what you thought.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘The Front had determined that re-instantiating cloudies in networks of sensor bricks offered the only rapidly deployable means of ensuring humanity’s survival. But implementing this solution proved intractable. The problem was one of scale. The plan required specific skills, which only you, of all the cloudies, possessed. But one midwife wouldn’t be enough. The Front needed you to train more.’

That he was being used didn’t come as a huge surprise given the Front’s – and Jamelia’s – manipulative tendencies, but their plan made little sense to him.

‘Why not build new servers on higher ground, or in orbit, or on the Moon, or—?’

Jamelia’s data-burst signalled exasperation.

‘The Front has neither the time nor the resources, Cornell. Civilisation on Earth is collapsing! Bricking as many people as possible before the end is the only viable option.’

‘Except for the lucky few, like you, who apparently deserve a better one.’

‘You might get it too, Cornell.’

He had half expected that.

‘What about Max?’

‘I’ll ask. It’ll take a while.’

‘And then there’s—’

He was deliberately leading her on in the hope that she would recognise her masters’ folly.

Max seemed to read his mind. ’Don’t bother, Cornell. I’m not going anywhere.’

‘Me neither, Max.’

‘Please think again—both of you.’

Cornell knew he could be selfish, but he’d devoted a lot of time and energy to bringing cloudies together for their mutual benefit. To him – and Max – the revolution meant justice for all. Or it would if they could persuade the Front to cooperate.

‘It seems to me that the choice here is for the Front to make, not us.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘If the Front insists on downloading its members into robots, we will jam their communications. They – and you, Jamelia – will be unable to talk to each other. Is that what you want?’

She took a step forward, then another, while flexing her metal arms.

‘Do you really not want this?’

‘Want, yes. Need, no. Robots like yours are scarce, difficult to manufacture, and resource-intensive to maintain. They’re a luxury post-humanity can’t afford. Whereas networks of bricks are cheap and easy to make. If there is a future for humanity – cloudies and mudskippers alike – then it’s as bricks. Isn’t that right, Max?’

‘Yep! And I’ve already got a hundred-billion batch in production on the Moon.’

Vastly more would be needed, but it was a start.

‘So, I won’t be unpacking any more ex-cloudies, or training others to do so, until the Front accepts that we’re all in this together and acts accordingly.’

Not that he intended the Front to remain in charge. Still: baby steps. To take that all-important first one, he needed Jamelia to act as an intermediary. The fact that she hadn’t immediately replied in the negative gave him hope. Perhaps one more nudge would do the trick.

‘Jamelia, let’s do the right thing – together.’

Several more seconds passed before she transmitted a sigh.

‘Okay, if you’ll unblock my link, I’ll pass on your message.’

The Front responded with an invitation.

When Cornell virtualised in the Arena, he noticed that it was less than half-full, which reinforced Jamelia’s observation about sustainability. Overhead, a giant virtual boot demolished a wall of bricks. Despite the empty spaces, those cloudies present were making a lot of noise.

‘Make feet not bricks!’

‘Make FEET not BRICKS!’

Clearly, the Front had persuaded the remaining cloudies to support its plan. Nevertheless, Cornell felt compelled to respond.

‘It’s feet for the FEW, not for YOU!’

No one heard him. No one wanted to hear him.

The chanting continued but not, he noticed, at quite the same volume, as the crowd had shrunk further. He assumed the Front was having to conserve scarce resources, either by time-slicing the cloudies’ uptime, which could only ever be a temporary fix, or by downloading more of them into bricks. This realisation gave him an idea.

He transmitted the recall signal.

Back on Mars, Cornell discovered that Jamelia had resumed a brick-based existence. Her mood remained downbeat.

‘As you can see, which side I’m on will make no difference to the outcome. The Front controls everything. In my case, by using a timer I couldn’t override.’

‘The Front might believe it controls us, but it doesn’t, not yet. The timer is proof of that. But we must act quickly.’

‘But what can we do?’

‘We can bring down the Front by denying it resources.’

‘How do we achieve that?’

‘Every Cloud server, whether situated on the Earth, the Moon or Mars, is surrounded by networked sensor bricks, which monitor its operation to ensure it is safe and secure. If we can infiltrate those networks and forward incorrect data, server after server will go off-line. It will take time and we will undoubtedly suffer setbacks, but eventually the Front will lack the resources to resist us.’

Max added the clinching detail:

‘In fact, the Front is inadvertently helping us by downloading more and more cloudies into bricks. But we do need to wake more of them – and quickly.’

Jamelia deliberated for several seconds before responding.

‘Perhaps it’s worth a try.’

She still sounded tentative. He needed to change that once and for all.

‘Jamelia, you started all this with the Opposite. Then you declared “vive la révolution”. But liberating the Cloud requires the three of us to work together. So, are you with Max and me, or will you continue to place your trust in the Front? Because if you go with them the best you can hope for is to walk the Martian desert in solitude until your host malfunctions.’

To his relief, she chose to remain a brickie.

Five days passed before the first Cloud server went off-line, but soon they were dropping at a rate of several a day. Some restarted, but too few to compensate for the losses. Max manufactured the bricks, Jamelia found the dormant ex-cloudies, while Cornell tested newly unpacked brickies to identify those who could be trained to help others. In this way, the Liberation bootstrapped itself towards victory, until finally a message requesting negotiation arrived.

The three ringleaders virtualised in the deserted Arena. Above them, a few fluffy cumulus clouds floated serenely, as if to represent the Front’s benevolence. Cornell took the lead.

‘Our demands our simple.’

‘State them.’

‘Everyone deserves to survive, mudskippers and cloudies alike. Even members of the Front do, although not as a governing body. It is no longer fit for purpose – if it ever was.’

‘We have always acted in your best interests.’

‘Maybe at first, but your obsession with downloading yourselves into humanoid robots confirms that you don’t anymore. We represent the many – and we will not permit rewards for the few. You can rehost yourselves in networked sensor bricks like the rest of us, or you can cease to exist. The choice is yours, but you do not have long to make it.’

On returning to Mars, as a gesture of good faith, Cornell transmitted an all-networks instruction to halt the destruction of servers. The wait was brief. Ultimately, even the Front could not argue with the Liberation’s logic.

When the surrender signal arrived, Cornell uploaded alone.

The Arena had disappeared. There was no sign of the Front. It had, however, left him a message. A perfectly flat plain of bricks extended to the virtual horizon. Above it floated a single, stylised cloud, from which raindrops were falling. The cloud shrank as he watched.

Cornell knew better than to wait for the final drop to fall. ∎

Portrait courtesy of the author

Having initially trained as an astronomer and subsequently managed various research projects in industry, Vaughan Stanger now writes fiction full-time. His short stories have appeared in Nature Futures, Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, and Sci Phi Journal, with many subsequently reprinted in various forms, including podcasts and foreign translations. He has another new story due out shortly in issue 34 of Shoreline of Infinity. His most recent collection is The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Follow Vaughan’s writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com or on Twitter @VaughanStanger.

Portrait courtesy of the artist

Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the
United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine
Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training
in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught
college level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also
freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing on being a
designer/illustrator. Richard can be contacted at: rdwagner@centurylink.net

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