Philip Fracassi

Illustration by Dante Luiz

‘Quad,’ Grace said, opening her rested eyes, ‘I’d like today to be beautiful.’

The green dot floating inside the screen pulsed in response, and the world around her became sunlight. Smiling, she pushed off the blanket and slipped her feet to the ground, felt cool grass beneath her toes. She stood, stretched, and looked around with pleasure.

She was standing outside. She heard the delicate chirping of birds; could feel a soft, scented breeze. She stood in a large courtyard surrounded by a dense wall of white flowers; bright blue sky rose above, a faint half-moon ghost floated within.

Grace walked across the courtyard to where the screen hovered, unhinged from anything.

‘A sundress?’ she asked.

The green dot floating within the screen pulsed and the grey fabric fitted to her body transformed into a soft, cream fabric; its silky embrace tingled her skin. A pattern of pink watercolour lilies spread across the sleeveless dress, her exposed arms warmed by a mid-morning sun.

Grace walked through the courtyard, soft grass rolling beneath her bare feet, the ghost moon fading evermore diligently as the sun grew in the sky, as programmed. She walked to a wall of the white flowers, looked up, as it rose high above.

‘What are they, Quad?’ she asked.

A lilting voice, that of a generous – yet seemingly carefree – observer, came from the now swirling green pulse in the screen. The screen itself still hovering near the edge of her vision, as if it travelled silently with her wherever she walked.

‘A hybrid,’ Quad replied. ‘A combination of Earth’s rose and Tyberian’s drascus. Thornless, scented, densely petalled.’

‘Do you always need to create, Quad? Duplication is far simpler, and variety shouldn’t be an issue.’

‘No,’ the male voice relented, the green pulse darkening as if shamed, ‘but it does become redundant.’

‘To you, maybe,’ she said with a smile. ‘Still, it is lovely.’ She took one of the flowers in her palm, careful not to dislodge it. She ran her thumb across one sagging petal, felt its durable texture. She released it.

‘Is there more?’

Quad’s pulsing spot flickered, dashed around the screen, expanded and shrank, then grew again, slowing to a stop. A bulging eye.

‘Behind the topiary, I believe.’

Grace turned her head, searching. In the courtyard’s opposite corner stood a large myrtle hedge, shaped like a four-legged beast. Perhaps a bear, she thought. But it was bulbous and strangely rounded, a hump along its spine. She figured it was not a beast from Earth, but perhaps one of Quad’s creations.

She giggled, regardless, and ran to the hulking thing. She pushed her hands against its prickly green surface, tried to hug its broad curves. Trailing her fingers along its side – as if it were fur instead of broken twigs and dark green leaves – she walked around it, ducked beneath its raised snout. Behind the topiary creature was an archway; a faded teak lattice intertwined with peach bougainvillaea; and beyond that, the sound of trickling water. The archway itself was deep and heavily shadowed, a tunnel with no exit.

Grace walked through the archway, glancing up at the sunlight filtering through the flowers, the leaves and twisting stems as she passed beneath. The archway tunnel was longer than she’d anticipated, the surrounding shadows growing heavy and dark. As she walked, she felt the texture of the ground beneath her feet change, and for a moment the spell was broken by the movement of a tacky rubber surface. But then, after only a brief moment, the green grass was there again, thicker and cooler than before.

At the end of the tunnel a new garden opened before her. A large fountain, carved in the shape of a mythical flute-playing faun, sprayed rainbow-tinted water ten feet in the air. The sky above was bright as blue crystal, the sun so warm it nearly made her fear for her exposed skin, although she knew better.

It was serene, and playful, and gorgeous. Lush plants surrounded the fountain, and a coarse but painless gravel path replaced the grass as she neared the splashing centrepiece. She sat on its edge, the porous stone cool through the thin dress, raising goosebumps on her forearms. She dipped one hand into the water, swirled it about, the fractured surface turning to reflective diamonds as the disturbed edges caught the eye of the sun above.

Grace sighed, content. Then she looked back toward the archway where the black screen hovered obediently nearby. Quad’s eye pulsed peacefully, sleepily.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘What now?’

‘Bored already?’ Quad chided, then, ‘How about your exercises?’

She nodded. Yes, it was time to get the day started. She stood quickly, assuredly, already forgetting about the garden around her.

‘Okay, but first I’d like to eat.’

It was early afternoon before Grace finished with breakfast and exercise. She bathed away the sweat and had Quad dress her in market clothes; pants and sweater, soft-soled shoes.

‘Quad, I’d like to shop,’ she said, and stooped to fasten the loose strap of her shoe, a small touch Quad often put into the program to make her feel more in control. By the time she straightened, she was standing before the massive walls of a city courtyard. The city walls were smooth as marble, glistening and white, a tooth-shaped parapet running along its breadth. Mirrored doors taller than three men were opened toward her, beckoning.

‘Not too crowded, today, please,’ she asked.

A rush of people pushed past her on either side: a fat man wrapped in a brilliant red tunic, a woman holding a bundled, squalling baby; two children – similar enough to be brother and sister – holding hands, speaking whispers into each other’s ear as they walked, laughing and chiding the other for some unheard foolishness. Grace walked among them, studying the faces of the other people exiting the structure, the roll of the floor beneath her more evident with the added grip of her shoes. Grace, feeling mischievous, grabbed the sleeve of a pretty girl about her own age as she started to walk by. The girl spun, eyes wide with surprise. Grace met her eyes and stared into them – they were sea-green, flecked with dark specks that floated like underwater fish. Her pupils were dilated, her skin the colour of the peach bougainvillaea Grace had seen crawling the trellis that morning.

Grace strained not to reach out and touch her cheek.

‘Yes?’ the girl asked sweetly, offering an innocent smile, her eyes dancing with a deeper knowledge that brewed behind them, the green irises pulsing rhythmically around the wide, dark pupils.

‘Is the market good today?’ Grace asked.

‘I thought so,’ the girl replied. ‘There’s lots to see.’

‘And yet,’ Grace said playfully, her eyes darting to the girl’s empty arms, ‘you purchased nothing?’

Grace saw the smallest quiver at the corner of the girl’s mouth, the most infinitesimal moment of blankness behind those green eyes. But she recovered quickly, smiled all the more broadly.

‘Nothing I could afford, I’m afraid,’ she said. ‘I hope you have better fortune.’

‘As do I,’ Grace replied.

Before the girl could reply there was a deep rumble in the earth. The girl, the city, the blue sky and distant trees, all momentarily wavered. The eyes of the girl looked momentarily troubled, and then the sound stopped, and the sounds of the market crowd rushed back in, and the world was solid once more.

‘I must go now. Good day,’ the green-eyed girl said, and quickly walked on.

Growing excited, already forgetting about the peculiar disturbance, Grace started running toward the open doors, nearly bumping into a young couple showering praise on their child’s oversized, plush toy. She brushed past an old woman who swore softly, scolding her haste. And then she was bursting through the large reflective doors, underneath the city wall, and into the market.

Inside, there were two long rows of merchant shops separated by a wide, sandstone walkway which ran between them. Grace laughed and continued toward the shops, ignoring the push of people that she passed. As she always did, Grace walked the entire length of the mercantile, studying the fantastic displays of clothing and toys, machines, weapons, bags, and jewellery. She marvelled at the large variety of shoes and boots, the outrageous, colourful displays of hats, the array of rare crystals and plants from regions across the universe.

After several hours of bartering, testing, trying-on, and study, Grace finally resolved to purchase a necklace made entirely from Quirrillion gems; the string of deep blue, pea-size crystal laid cool and sparkling against the pale soft skin of her neck.

Delighted, but by now exhausted, Grace left the market. She was so worn out she almost decided not to walk all the way back home, but resolved to do so, anyway. The more exercise she got, the better.

As the city walls receded behind her, the world surrounding her softened. When her eyelids grew heavy, and her feet stumbled in exhaustion from the tireless movement, the sky surrounding quickly turned from light blue to dark violet, full of bright, plump stars.

‘Quad, I need to sleep,’ she whispered, and in two steps her hands found her bedding, soft and warm and ready. Her clothes turned into a soothing second skin, light and tight around her body. She crawled into the bed, fingers trailing along the carved gems resting against her neck. She smiled and sunk more deeply into the warm layers. She fell asleep.

The next morning, Grace asked for a hazy day and allowed herself to sleep in. She was tired from the exertions of the market the day before. Upon waking she felt a pang of disappointment to find her necklace gone, and was going to mention it to Quad when her searching hand touched it, stuck deep into the bedding. Amazed, she pulled it free and looked at it longingly, then quickly clasped it around her neck once more, not ready to give it up just yet.

‘Quad,’ she said, stifling a yawn, ‘let’s watch a film.’

‘While in bed?’ Quad asked, not objecting, but an inquiry.

‘Yes, and perhaps some soft rain. And an open window.’

‘Yes, Grace,’ Quad replied, the green eye dancing.

The sound of rain tapping against panes of glass filled the room. She stared upward, marvelling at the dome of hexagonal glass, the soothing rain spreading over it. Somewhere a vent clicked on and she felt a push of warm, rain-scented air brush her skin. She snuggled more deeply into her bedding as a large screen slid open before her and an old comedy played out. A lost classic.

Grace watched contentedly for a while, then turned to the active screen which contained Quad’s pulsing green eye.

‘Do you want to watch it with me?’ she asked.

‘Of course,’ Quad said, then paused. ‘What form shall I take?’

‘An Earth cat,’ she replied. ‘Just a plain old cat, Quad, nothing fancy.’

Before she could even finish her command, she felt the weight of the animal as it sprang up onto her bed, walking unsteadily from her feet toward her face, green eyes intent. The lift and fall of paws through the bedding pushed gently, playfully against her. It was a large tabby, its orange fur thick and ruffled, its paws enormous, its tail high and excited. It meowed, then rolled into a ball, tucking itself between her arms and her chest, its head raised, eyes on the movie screen. It purred deeply as she stroked between its ears.

‘This is my favourite part,’ she whispered. ‘Just watch.’

Then, without warning, the screen went dark.

Flickered away entirely.

Grace didn’t have time to react before the surroundings also fell into darkness. The sound of rain cut off, as if with a switch. The weight of the tabby vanished, its lingering warmth still cooling on her skin. Alarmed, she looked to the screen. Quad’s bright green eye, beating fast as a rabbit’s heart, moved in quick, jagged slashes.


‘They’re here,’ Quad said. His normal patient tone flickered with something close to panic; possibly anger.

‘Quad!’ she yelled, finding herself lying on hard, cold ground, the surface like hard rubber. The massive chamber now empty save for Quad’s frantic eye. Her clothes once more skin-fitting and drab, dark grey. She stood, panicked eyes roaming the overarching dome, praying for it to dissolve once more into illusion.

Then she heard a muffled voice. One she’d never heard before.

‘Domicile one-one-four-alpha-alpha, do you hear me? Repeat, domicile one-one-four-alpha-alpha, do you copy?’

Breathing faster, fear rising in her chest, Grace made herself focus on Quad, his erratic movements, now moving faster and faster.

She realised, with a sense of disbelief, that the unfamiliar voice seemed to be coming from…outside.

‘Domicile one-one-four-alpha-alpha. Prepare for entry.’

‘Quad?’ Grace yelled, scared now, her voice shaking.

Quad’s pulsing green eye slowed, then widened.

‘It’s okay, Grace,’ he said, his voice approaching calm, but deep and resonant, as if buried. ‘They’ve…hacked into me, breached my security…but they have not shut me down. Not completely.’

The high-pitched whine of grinding metal erupted from behind her and she spun toward it, staring wide-eyed as a large portion of the wall seemed to…push outward. Incredibly, it slid away, left-to-right, and she knew what it was, she’d seen enough to know…

It was a door.

As the door moved away, a brilliant, pale white light poured through the opening, the strength of it stinging her eyes. She raised a hand to shield her vision from the blinding light, walking backward – away – with awkward, ungainly steps. Stumbling.

‘It’s going to be okay Grace,’ Quad said, speaking quickly, soothingly. ‘It’s time, that’s all. It’s just time.’

Cautiously, squinting, Grace looked once more to the white light. Air rushed into the chamber, heavy with foreign scent. It was dense and coarse, and felt to her like breathing smoke. Slowly, her eyes adjusted, and she could see a grey, barren stretch of earth beyond the open doorway. A gigantic machine – it’s a truck – rolled past, its heavy notched wheels grinding up the soft earth in its path.

A tall, broad-shouldered man stepped into the doorway. A dark, featureless shadow backlit by a brilliant white sky.


It was Quad who replied. ‘Her name is Grace.’

The man looked to the screen, then to the girl standing fragile and shaking in the corner of the dome. ‘I see. Hello Grace. My name is Lieutenant Commander Gopinath. I know that’s a mouthful, so you’re welcome to just call me Mahesh. It’s nice to meet you.’

‘Say hello, Grace,’ Quad said, his tone pacifying, assuring. ‘It’s okay,’

‘Hello,’ said Grace, and took one step forward, toward the man. She could make out his features now. His cheekbones and mouth, his brown eyes and dense eyebrows. A prominent nose. His clothes were grey, like hers, but heavier. A broad, colourful patch was stitched on the left side of his chest.

The Lieutenant Commander looked down at her, smiling broadly, as if happy to see her; someone he’s never even met. ‘It’s time, Grace,’ he said. ‘It’s time to go home.’

Grace, understanding but not wholly prepared to act on that understanding, just nodded. The Commander reached out his hand, waited. After a moment, she raised her own. The sensation of touching another person went through her like a wave of electricity, and she unknowingly squeezed his fingers tight.

Together, they stepped out of the dome, into the white light.

Studying the new surroundings, real wind blowing through her hair, she now saw the swarms of machines – rumbling across the ground, hovering above it and, higher, flying through the air. She turned her head and gasped.

As far as her eyes could see across this strange, barren landscape, was a countless army of grey domes. They littered the earth like stones, rising up hills, dotting distant crests of unexplored geography. Thousands upon thousands of them, in varying sizes – some small, some large. She looked back at her own, her home for all the years she’d ever known. It seemed so small that she couldn’t believe it had been her entire world, her reality.

Just inside the door hovered the dark screen, a shimmering green light pulsing within, as if watching her.

‘Quad,’ she said.

‘Goodbye,’ Quad replied. ‘Goodbye, Grace.’

Grace turned away, her emotions boiling and confused, leaving her oddly numb, speechless. Still clutching the Commander’s hand, she walked further from the dome city, toward the machines. She noticed, in the near distance, a long line of children of various ages. Some were smiling, even laughing. Some were crying. Some simply stared upward, at the white featureless sky, their eyes wide with wonder.

She joined them, and, on instinct, felt for the necklace around her neck, but there was nothing to feel there. Nothing but skin and the tight ribbed neckline of her outfit.

Mahesh gently released her hand, but she hardly noticed. Her mind was bursting with questions. What would her world be now? What is reality when it is given, instead of conjured on a whim? As a thoughtless request? Who was in control?

A massive, gunmetal ship, engines burning crimson in the atmosphere, roared slowly by overhead, distracting her from her new thoughts and worries.

She narrowed her eyes and gazed into the distance, catching something that lay beyond the machines, the lines of children, the busy movement of a hundred men and women. Far off in the hazy distance she could see the spirals of what might have once been an ancient city, with towering structures and buildings, like she’d seen before, in a reflection of glass turned reality. A creation of Quad.

She wondered, despairing, if she would ever again see the bright colours of flowers, or hear the soft patter of rain against the windows, or feel the cool pressure of precious stones against her skin.

Mahesh, who had strolled a few feet away, was now coming back. He held the hand of a small boy, one who looked as dazed and distraught as she did.

‘Grace,’ he said, smiling warmly, ‘this is four-four-six-bravo-alpha.’

Grace stood eye-to-eye with the boy, who looked to be her exact height, if not age, and stared deeply into his blue eyes. There was no flicker of thoughtlessness, no playful knowing within them. He was no manifestation. He was just a boy with no name.

The Lieutenant Commander moved away, leaving them for now, likely having many other things to attend to, many other children to hatch.

The boy sniffed, looked around, watched the ships crawling through the air, their massive exhaust blowing the wispy hair from his forehead like a sudden breeze. On an impulse, Grace reached out and placed a hand on his cheek. He flinched a little, then relaxed. He looked at her, eyes curious.

She smiled at the sensation of warmth beneath her palm, so different from the heat of Quad’s sun.

He smiled back, as if only now realising she would not disappear. ∎

Philip Fracassi is the author of the novels Boys in the Valley, Gothic, and A Child Alone With Strangers, and the short story collections Behold the Void and Beneath a Pale Sky. His stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year and Black Static. ‘Quad’ is his IZ Digital debut and you can read his novelette ‘Murder by Proxy’ in Interzone #294.

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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