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Last night I dreamed. The same old dream. The same old dream, and different every single time.

You... laughing, fooling around. To see you so liberated, so you, is a blessing in itself. I hardly need more, although... I always need more. You take my hand, lead me down to the river. Long sleek cruisers line up like toys along the far shore. A rank of needle towers, each sixty storeys high, scrapes the sky beyond them.

We walk. And talk, of childhood, of writing in chalk on the pavement outside your house, of tying skipping ropes between gate and lamp post to snare passers-by. Of the local beach, childhood playground, childhood escape, shaggy dunes alternating with craggy chalk extrusions, a row of white coastguards’ cottages facing the sea. That childhood, long before you were elected, long before you married the man who controls us both.

You will take me there one day. You tell me that, in the dream, the same old, different old dream.


Noah Barakh tucked his head low against the drizzle and walked. The river loured, flat and grey to his left, a scattering of tour boats lining the far shore, a single, half-constructed needle tower clawing a vertical, dark slot out of the city skyline. All around, people pressed, hurried, coats slick, breath steaming.

Noah didn’t like to come to the city. As one of the pre-eminent v-space architects of the time, Noah, if anyone, should be adept at remote working, and his studio out in the wild Essex flood-marshes was normally his chosen place to pursue his labours.

But some days there was still no substitute for an old-fashioned flesh-meet, and this was one of those days.

The fact that Electee Priscilla would be at the Complex was irrelevant. Noah ducked lower against the rain, kept walking, dodging puddles and pedestrians and spray from passing traffic. And smiling, smiling at the pain and longing that loomed large over every aspect of his miserable, world-changing, epoch-making little life.

The doors slid open for him, greeted him cheerily; there was always a welcome for Professor Barakh. He walked into the lift and closed his eyes to deal with mail while he was whisked up to the fifth floor.

She was there already, talking intensely with Warrener, but as the door opened she looked up. Her eyes met Noah’s briefly, a smile pulled at her mouth, and then she was talking again, her sentence barely interrupted. Noah and Priscilla were colleagues, she the electee overseeing the project, he the advisor, the consultant, the architect. There was nothing more to it than that. There could not be – she had made that much clear already.


“We are building it,” Noah reiterated. “It is an incremental process. With all the computational power in the world, we could not push the process much faster than we do currently.”

“We run and re-run realities all the time,” said Priscilla, leaning towards him across the wide meeting table. He had explained that to her months ago: so many realities needed in order to build consensus!

Noah’s attention was caught by the charms hanging from a delicate silver chain around her neck. He had kissed that neck, he knew its taste, knew the soft gasp she gave in response to the touch of his lips, his teeth, his tongue. But he did not, had not. Could not.

“We do,” said Noah. “It is the process. Consensual reality, however, is of a different order of magnitude. It will come when consensus has been reached, a critical mass of realities, an accord, if you will.” He smiled, realising that it was the first time he had spoken the name aloud, the label the media were applying to the project: the Accord, the consensual reality that would leave all other VRs behind, a reality built from the mass of human experience, a super-city of the mind, a reality where humankind could live on after death.

Noah was its principal architect; he and his team were building the Accord. Noah Barakh knew that he would go down in history as the man who built heaven.

And every night he ran and re-ran realities, private realities, a consensus of one.

Priscilla nodded. “I’m not pushing you, Professor Barakh,” she said softly, her blue eyes locked on his. “I am being pushed.”

In his head she pinged him, one to one, a warm hug, a friendly embrace. She didn’t mean to come down on him like this, he knew.

She did not need to mention the trillions of euros that had been sunk into this, but she mentioned them still. She did not even need to push him. Noah Barakh would deliver the Accord: they all knew that. But still, they had to jump through the political hoops, and minuted records of these meetings helped tick boxes in Brussels and Shanghai.


We sit in a seventeenth-century pub by the water. This time, this dream, we are out on the coast, a broad Essex creek laid out before us through the windows. Yachts stand higgledy-piggledy on the exposed mud, wading birds scuttle and probe, dogs walk their owners in an age-old routine.

We have just kissed across the table. We have spent the morning making love, sunlight streaming into our room above the bar.

Your hand is on the table. I cover it with mine.

“You were so shocked!” you say, chuckling. “Even though we had always flirted like that.”

“Not like that,” I say.

That day, the day we are laughing about, was the day we had crossed the line. Fleetingly. For the shortest of times we had been more than electee and consultant.

“You asked and I answered!” you say, mock-indignant.

“I asked what was on your mind, you seemed distracted.”

“I was. It was a revelation to me, a paradigm shift: that moment when you changed from Professor Barakh to oh my! Something about the look in your eye just then, the way you held my gaze a moment too long...” You smile, reliving that moment, as we do so often.

“You didn’t put it quite like that.”

Your smile broadens. “So I was more succinct.”

“You said you were imagining fucking me like there was no tomorrow.”

You look down. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“You should.”

I dream of you. I always dream of you. I make sure that I do. I am the architect of Accord: I can run reality. I can run realities.


Noah had been hooked into pre-consensus Accord for most of the day. Emerging was a disorientating experience. He had been walking the streets of a consensual Manhattan, downing bourbon with a faux-Dylan Thomas in the White Horse, unconvinced as ever by the quality of the reconstruct. That was not what consensual reality was all about in any case: it was a consensus of the living, of the yet-to-die. Already, the Accord was being built from the consensus of over a million souls, and the project teams were adding more every day, batched up and re-batched into assorted realities, fractal fragments of what would become consensus. Poor Dylan was a gimmick, a toy to amuse the electees and the media, and all he had was virtual whiskey and a way with words with which to defend himself.

Noah rose from his chaise longue and walked slowly to the window. Marie was down at the end of the garden, hacking at a rambling rose.

Noah swallowed, turned his gaze away, stared unfocused at the distant marshes; ribbons of silver water snaked through hard mud matted with samphire and purslane.

He should not feel this way. He had done nothing wrong. He had not betrayed Marie, had not once laid a finger on another woman. On the other woman. Priscilla. Not once.

He turned his back on the window.

He had betrayed Marie many times. He had the guilt many times over. He was betraying her now, always, repeatedly.

He closed his eyes: mail from Elector Burnham. Priscilla must have reported back to him by now, even though Noah had given her little to report. The elector would want hard dates, commitments, a precise measure put on the unquantifiable... When do you know that heaven has been built? When do you know it is time to open the gates? Noah knew they were close, but the gut feeling of an artist of the uber-real was not adequate for Burnham’s needs.

He opened his eyes, left the mail unviewed. Let them think he was lost in his work.

He sank back onto the chaise, and was immediately back in the data-shell of the Accord. It was time to reload. Those who chose to live on in the Accord after death would only do so as the last-recorded instance of themselves – the final minutes, hours, days would be lost forever, all the way back to their last upload... always working from the last snapshot of the soul. Noah had not uploaded for most of a month, preferring to let instances of himself continue to play out their existence in the Accord realities in which he had placed them. But now it really was time to reload, before anyone spotted what he had been doing.

He drifted, allowed himself to be read for change, development, difference, so that the new him would overlay any previous instances.

Outside the window, Marie sang an old pop song, something about love, always something about love.


That time... weeks before. She should never have said what she did, her words the gentle flutter of the butterfly’s wings.

“You look distracted... What’s in your thoughts?” he had asked Priscilla.

They were in the research unit in Bethnal Green, leaning close, drinking tea, peering into multiple overlays of data on the widescreen display. Noah had been trying to explain the concept of fractal realities, how they would ultimately combine to form a super-reality, an over-reality, an entire virtual universe in which the dead could live again. She understood, he knew. She was just playing dumb, teasing him, toying with him. But then... then she had paused, her eyes locked with his. Something had changed. He had thought for a moment that she was struggling with the pressure again, the expectations, but then... no, there was something else in her look, something new.

“You really want to know?”

He nodded.

“You sure?”

Noah sensed boundaries being pushed, lines being redrawn. He nodded again.

“I’m thinking, well fuck, I’m thinking, Christ, I’d like to screw that man like there’s no fucking tomorrow.”

Noah stared. He felt his skin prickling with unexpected heat. He felt his throat suddenly dry, his heart racing. He stared. I love you, he thought. He had always loved her, from the very first day.

“And now you’re thinking, Christ, how do I get out of this awkward, embarrassing situation with the woman who is ten years my senior and controls my budget, aren’t you?” She looked away now, down, into her steaming tea.

“No,” he said softly. “I’m thinking how much I would like to kiss you right now, even though there are people in the room. I’m thinking how beautiful your eyes are – how here I am, a man trying to create perfection but who has perfection sitting right at his side. And finally, I’m thinking, Christ, yes, yes, please do fuck me like there’s no tomorrow.”

Warrener strode across from his console just then. “The Shanghai question?” he asked Noah.

“Hnh? Oh... Shanghai. They can wait, can’t they?”

Warrener gave him a funny look and then turned away. But by then the moment was lost and Priscilla was staring into the distance, dealing with mail, moving on.


That butterfly flutter, the grit in the oyster shell, the spark before the forest fire...

Noah tried to carry on as normal, but his normal had been abruptly redefined by that brief exchange. It didn’t help that his had become largely a monitoring and waiting role, the architecture in place, the information infrastructure built. Teams around the world were coordinating the effort of uploading humankind en masse into the countless fragments of virtual reality that would, one day soon, coalesce into a single consensus.

But Noah’s role was little more than overseer for now: watching for signs that consensus had emerged. When it did, so the theory went, a super-reality would be formed, one strictly bound by the algorithms and protocols of consensus, of what is. Everyday reality is a collective-conscious interpretation of physical phenomena – colour isn’t colour, it’s just a shared set of rules for how we interpret different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Consensual reality is a collective interpretation of non-physical phenomena, a synergy of the perception and recall of massed humankind.

Noah and his teams had built those fragments of reality where the protocols were emerging. They built and rebuilt realities all the time.

And now... the butterfly flutter, the mote, the spark...

Noah Barakh could build realities. He was the architect of Accord.

He could build his own private realities...


We meet on the South Bank, by the Dali sculptures – the elephant with multiple-jointed, stilt-like legs, the split torso with the embedded spider.

“Noah?” Your voice tilts up, quizzical. You’re curious, unsure why I’ve asked you here. “What is it? What’s the big secret that we can’t meet at the Unit, or at my office?” You glance upriver as you say that, towards Parliament.

“May we walk?” I ask, and set off towards the London Eye, the refurbished Ferris wheel rotating almost imperceptibly.

It is sunny, a gentle breeze from across the water, a babble of people all around, jugglers and human statues plying their arts across the wide walkway by the Thames.

You take my arm, a thing you would do with anyone and yet intimate still. The pressure of your hand on my arm, the rhythm of your walk, give me heart.

“This is not real,” I tell you. “We are in a fragment of pre-consensus simulated reality. You and I are the most recently warehoused snapshots of our selves.”

You look away. It jars to be told such things: it is an affront to consensus – if we do not believe this is real, then accord will never emerge.

“I can tell you another truth, too.”

You look at me again.

“You want to fuck me like there’s no tomorrow.”

Your mouth opens. You make as if to speak, then stop, then laugh. Finally, you say, “I can’t remember the last time I have been so lost for words, Noah.”

“You do not remember,” I explain. “A week after the copy of you that is instanced in this reality was made and warehoused, you and I spoke... of this. You told me that you felt this way, and I told you that I felt the same way about you. That I feel the same way.”

You’re watching me closely. “You’re telling me we’re lovers, Noah?”

I shake my head. “We cannot,” I tell you. “You are married to Elector Burnham. I am married to Marie. We cannot.”

“No...” you say. “We could never...”

“But here,” I say. “Here it is all so different. Here it is as different as we choose it to be.”

“No... Noah, I’m sorry, but... this isn’t a game.” You put a hand on your chest. “I feel real. I am real. And I am married, Noah. And so are you. What about Marie? You love her, don’t you? You told me you love her. Noah, I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to happen.”


I am Noah Barakh. I am the architect of Accord. I build realities. I run them. I rerun them.


“You’re telling me we’re lovers, Noah? That we actually crossed that line?”

I shake my head. “Not out there,” I tell you. “Not in the world. But here – here we can live out our dreams. We can explore, Priscilla. We can cross the line from friendly flirtation to lovers to wherever that may lead us. Here we can be.”

You lower your head. “No... Noah, I’m sorry...”


You lower your head and look up at me.

“I...” You stop. You start again: “I... I guess...”


It was nearly two weeks before their next encounter. Noah had mailed Priscilla, gently reminding her of their conversation, prompting her but not pressing. Priscilla had not replied.

He walked into the crowded boardroom and seated himself at one of the few remaining places.

Electee Priscilla was already there. She caught his look immediately, held it.

Noah swallowed, looked away.

A short time later, Elector Burnham entered the room and the meeting could begin. Afterwards, there was coffee and Noah mixed with the attendees until finally his path crossed that of Priscilla.

“You know that we can’t,” she told him, cutting straight to the point. “It’s impossible.”


“Like there’s no tomorrow,” she said. “Or like anything.”

“You have changed your mind? You have decided that there is nothing between us, after all?”

She locked his gaze. “Not one bit,” she said.


“Darling!” A smile broke out across her features and she turned and kissed Elector Burnham on the cheek, one hand resting lightly, briefly, on his chest.

“Elector,” said Noah, bowing his head.

Burnham studied him with narrowed eyes for a moment and then smiled, and said, “Noah, you old code monkey! When’re you going to be finished, eh? Heaven can’t wait forever.”

Later, as the crowded room started to thin, Noah got Priscilla alone again. “So tell me,” he said, “why is it impossible?” He did not know why he asked, why he pushed – he had never done anything like this before, had never been so compelled.

She raised her eyebrows. “Because I am a respected electee and you a high-profile v-space architect, and if it ever got out we would both be ruined. Because I am married to a man who is not only one of our state’s five electors, but an utterly ruthless bastard into the bargain. He would destroy you. He would destroy us both. And not least, Noah, because you are married too – had you forgotten that?”

“I have never done anything like this before. I have never wanted to...”

“And you won’t. Not with me. I’m sorry, Noah. I should never have said what I did. It simply is not possible.”

Noah smiled then... “But it is,” he said. “It is.”


I take you to New York, make you walk half the length of Manhattan – the only way to see it properly. We take the ferry from Battery Park out to the Statue of Liberty and climb up inside to look back upon the city. I kiss you there. Kiss you while you look back upon the city of my birth. We cross Brooklyn Bridge on foot, heading ultimately for the Heights. We both marvel and laugh at the aches and pains and fatigue we are suffering from all the walking. “This is a reality,” I remind you. “It is meant to feel real!”

I am showing you my childhood haunts, distant memories as they are for me. You want to know it all, everything about me. You want to get inside my head, find the real person that I am. I have never known anything like this, an all-consuming passion to share. You know me so well already. It is a continuing cause of wonder to me that since we started this thing, we each of us have discovered a person, a lover, hidden inside the public person we already knew, and that the private you, the private me – we really are two halves of a single whole.

How could we ever have known that it would be like this? How could we ever have known what we might have been missing if we had turned away, accepting the impossibility of our relationship?

You stop me halfway across Brooklyn Bridge. I think it is to do the tourist thing and stare back at the view of the Manhattan skyline, but no: you take my face in your hands and kiss me long and hard.

“Thank you,” you say, in such a quiet voice, your head now resting sideways on my shoulder, your eyes distant.

I raise an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Just... thank you.”

You take my hand and we resume our walk. Almost at the far side, you smile at me and say, “Will you come and see where I grew up one day? I’ll take you, show you everything.”

I smile. We will do that.


Everything is new, fresh. I have been reborn, but reborn whole, adult, myself. I have been reloaded.

I am in my studio, rising from the chaise longue. I am in a reality, I know, one of the fractal realities that will contribute to consensus. Out in the garden, you are there. Priscilla. My love. The other half of me.

I remember you telling me that it wasn’t to be – that “we” could never be. That it was simply not possible.

I create realities. I run and rerun realities until one day they will come together into a whole, a consensus.

In my realities we can be free; we can be us. We can be.

In my realities we can explore the selves that we hide from the world, plot the course of our love, find out what “we” really is, and can be.

I am in my studio, rising from the chaise longue. Walking towards the French windows, pushing one open, going to greet you in the garden, in our garden, in a world where all the complications, all the responsibilities and risks and assumptions – a world where all of that is as nothing.

I have been reloaded.

I go to greet you.


“Okay, then...” she said. She wouldn’t meet his eyes and it was not simply that she was not looking directly into the cam. She would not meet his look. “Okay – come. Now. He’s going back to the city for the weekend. Come to me, Noah. Prove that what you say about us is true.”

Noah cut the link.

He had told her. Told her how it was, how in realities other than this, where they were able to be together, they had fallen so deeply, madly in love... gone way beyond the mutual attraction they felt now.

Finally, he had told her that he loved her – that the Priscilla he knew from meetings and consultations and social events for the project was a woman who fascinated and beguiled him.

And she had said, “Okay then...”

He pushed open the French windows of his studio, called across the garden to his wife. “Darling?” She looked. “I’ve been called away. London. I may be late.”

She rolled her eyes and shooed him on his way. He loved her, and was surprised at his own surprise: he had always loved her. This was not about him loving or not loving Marie, it was about Priscilla, always about Priscilla.


She had told him to enter by the side door, that it would be open, and so he did. He had never been to this house before – a weekend home in the heart of the North Downs granted to Elector Burnham by the state.

The house gave every impression of being unoccupied. She had told him that she and her husband had planned to be here for a quiet weekend, and that Burnham had taken his bodyguard and two assistants with him when he was called away.

Hesitantly, Noah called out, “Priscilla?” Then more loudly, “Priscilla, are you here?”

There was no response.

He almost turned away then. He could just get back into his car, slot it into auto and let it drive him home.

But he stopped. Was he scared? Scared to take that one more step, to cross the line once and for all? But that was stupid. He had crossed that line long ago, crossed it again and again in multiple fractal realities.

There was no sign of Priscilla in any of the ground-floor rooms, so he came to the stairs and, after another momentary hesitation, started to climb.

He found her in one of the bedrooms. She lay slumped on the floor, her body twisted. Blood pooled around her, staining the cream carpet almost black. Red spatters punctuated the wall and a nearby chair.

Her face was white, so deathly white, one strand of long damp hair trailing across her cheek, her eyes staring, unmoving.

The blood came from a gaping wound in her chest.

But she was breathing...

Noah rushed to her, kneeled, hot stickiness seeping through the knees of his trousers. He reached out a hand, tentatively touched knuckles to her cheek.

Her eyes moved, locked on him.

“N... Noah?” she gasped.

“My love...” He leaned close; her voice so faint.

“He found out...”

“Who found out?” But he did not need to ask. Burnham. The elector had done this.

“He was suspicious. He read my mail...”

His face was almost touching hers. His tears started to fall onto her cheek.

He kissed her. Softly, briefly, on the lips. They had never kissed before now, had barely even touched, and yet he knew her so well, knew her responses, the way she moved. He knew what they could have had, what they could have been together...


I find you out in the marshes, walking along the seawall, arms wrapped around yourself against the stiff easterly. You have been crying; I think you still are, although you smile when you see me.


I meet your look and wait.

“Why can’t we be like this in reality?”

I take you in my arms now, bury my face in your hair.

“This is reality,” I tell you. “It is now.”

You sense something. You have always been so perceptive to subtle changes in intonation, in body language.

“What’s happened, Noah?”

I tell you straight. “You are dead,” I say. “Burnham became suspicious, so he read your mail, found the things we had said. He killed you. He will probably get away with it – he is an elector, after all.”

You understand immediately.

“Oh, Noah,” you say, stroking my cheek. “You must hurt so badly.”

Out in the real world: the grieving, the loss, the pain of holding the woman I love in my arms as she dies.

But there is more than that, the part you leave unspoken.

Out in the real world, I would grieve, but then I would come to terms with loss, with a love that never really was. I would move on.

With every day that passed I would move further from you.

I hold you away from me, so that you must look into my eyes. “I could not carry on without you,” I tell you now. “How could I?”

Back in my studio... the drugs, they would have been quick. I took them after I had reloaded for the last time.

This is it now. This, our reality. A fractal reality, a component of the consensus that must happen very soon now, a critical mass of consensual realities that will take on a permanence of their own, a new reality. A new heaven. A new heaven for you, Priscilla, and me.

I smile. We are together. What more could we possibly want?

“You said you were going to show me,” I say now.

You look briefly puzzled.

“You said you would take me there, to the place where you grew up.”

Now, at last, you manage a smile. You pull away, lead me by the hand back towards the cottage, the car. Together, electee and architect await the coming of consensus, of Accord.

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