Short Stories by Mark Lawrence

The Ballad of Sophie Nu

“So you’re going to sit in the dark all day listening to classical music?”

That’s what Eve would say. Didn’t need a sim to model that.

Sophie lay back and let the ancient words flow. Time had robbed their meaning leaving just the pattern and beat. A woman’s voice, young, fierce.

Gonna eat ya food up, fool

Fuck you gonna do?

Food. That still meant something. “Open.” The capsule slid apart, revealing her to the world, puzzle-box pieces assembling themselves into some new form. The apartment lay bare, white, waiting instructions.

“Wood. And something to eat. Something current.”

The walls flushed dark, patterned themselves into panelling, furniture grew, polished oat sprouting into chairs. In the larder she found a scorpion, waiting without motion in a Perspex box. Only when she lifted the box did it move, raising both claws, arching its impotent tail.

She wanna lick cherries in the evening

Ton-tongue good – worked d-deep in

“Enough music.” The tune faded, beats hanging longer than the lyrics. Sophie opened the box, chased the scorpion into the corner with quick fingers, and tore off the closest arm. The creature writhed and twitched as if the music were still playing. She studied the claw in her palm, a deep glossy brown, a shade darker than her skin. “People are still eating live?”

“Yes.” Eve’s voice. It was probably a mistake to set the responder to Eve’s voice.

Sophie popped the claw into her mouth and crunched it. Nutty with a bitter edge.

“Call from Karen Kusack.” The responder, torturing her with the way Eve could never quite put enough bite on a K.

“Sim?” Karen would sic a sim on her. Maybe she still checked the summary, probably not.


“Sim her.” Sophie’s sim would gossip with Karen’s sim, exchange confidences, fake affection. For a moment she wondered how many models of her were out in the data right that second, talking to how many other extrapolations of people she’d lost interest in and who’d lost interest in her. Were the sims spawning sims in endless cycles? The responder would know. She didn’t ask. Instead she swallowed and took the scorpion’s other claw with a twist and a snap. Its legs made a dry and furious scrabbling on the plastic.

With one hand she keyed in a search, a three-layer variation. Karen, or one of her sims, had once asked what Sophie did.

“I search the data flows for correlations relevant to the hypothetical purchase of high order derivatives on options to buy intellectual property rights.” A dozen Sophie simulations were probably telling a dozen Karen sims that right now, hearing the same pause. Some sense of duty had prompted her to return the question but Karen’s answer made as little sense to her.

I look into the data. We all do. And it looks right back into us.

“How many of my friends are real?”

“Most of your friends have been real at some point,” the responder told her.

“How often have I asked you that?”

“Many times.” The responder avoided numbers where it could. It knew them all, but released figures with miser’s care. Somewhere behind that voice Eve sims talked endlessly to Sophie sims, spiralled around the same arguments, fell in love, fell out, made up, fell out, spat out new sims to field each other’s calls. Fractal cycles consuming energy, excreting still more data.

Data is easy to create and hard to destroy, like life it multiplies and spawns. Henry told her that a very long time ago. Back among the years where memory and extrapolation devour each other, Oroborus eating tail. Eve-memories bubbled pornographic, filling Sophie’s mind until the search concluded and divulged its graphic. The lurid colours grated one against the next, revealing transient patterns. Sophie found herself not caring. There’s no center in the world, Henry had told her. She didn’t need to be told. Not even the scorpion had a center, the whole of it coded in every cell. The responder could manufacture hundreds more in a second from the traces left on Sophie’s fingers, or the DNA printed even more indelibly into decentralised memory banks.

“When did I last see someone?”

“Six minutes before entering the sleep cap-”

“I mean without a screen between us.”

“A long time ago,” the Responder said.

“I want to go out.”

“Out?” As if such a thing had never existed.

“Yes. Make a door.”

Sophie stood, faced the wall, waiting. An unease nagged at her. That sense of dissociation, of falling through days without a core. The responder made a door. A dark planking of teak amid the deepness of the wooden panels. “I search the data all day.”

“Yes. You assemble information into new forms. You give it commercial value.”

“But not meaning.”

A pause. The responder seldom paused. “Perhaps not.”

She reached for the door and it opened. A corridor behind, branching into infinity. “Windows,” she said and windows opened, windows onto video streams, onto data, onto artworks, even some onto the architecture of the city, veined hulks burgeoning like tumours, so vast as to defy any point of reference.

Sophie began to walk, resisting the urge to request a flow. Something in the primitive act of unnecessary exercise spoke to her. The repetition of it.

“Did Eve ever love me?”

“Yes.” The responder often said what she wanted to hear.

“I saw a shape in the data today.” It reminded her now of the scorpion, maimed and scrabbling.

“There are many shapes in the data.” The responder saw them all. It didn’t need her help – that was just the games people play against each other.

Sophie stopped. “Door.” And a door appeared. If she wanted it her room would lie behind, reproduced to a fidelity that would admit no difference. Would the responder delete her old room or leave it?

“Eve told me our great work, humanity’s new craft, is in constructing a language beyond our imagination.”

“I know.”

“She said if you build a language in which truths can be spoken, then someone will come to use it.” Or something. Something risen from the deep hot core of the data storm.

“In 1755 the Reverend Thomas Bayes first wrote the theorem of statistical inference that bears his name,” the responder told her in the voice Eve reserved for lecturing. “He hid this truth out of fear that he had trespassed on God’s domain, but could not bring himself to destroy it. The equation was found among his notes and published after his death. He laid the foundation for a theory of data as deep as any of matter, a quantum mechanics of information if you like. This is the language that shapes the invisible.”

Sophie turned from the door and walked on. Pulsing behind the voice that followed her, deep within multidimensional spaces and far beyond imagining, many-angled gods were being born.

The need to do something rose within her, a bitter taste at the back of her throat, to do something radical. But nothing radical existed. Every twist and turn she made had been modelled, predicted, costed in, costed out.

“Show me a real window,” she said.

A thousand appeared to line the walls.

“Not an image of a window. A real window. A hole in the superstructure.”

The floor flowed beneath her feet and she stole into motion, picking up speed, the rush of air the only clue as the flow took her along featureless corridors of seemingly infinite length. The song from her apartment rattled discordant in the back of her mind – fuck ya gon’ do? People once thought their music, their culture, might be the language that let them explain themselves to themselves, a translational grammar. Sophie had no songs for the world that spun around her.

The flow stopped. The corridor stopped. A blank wall faced her and as Sophie watched the whiteness of the surface ebbed until a small and dirty porthole appeared, the glass thick and stained. She knelt, a trembling rising through her. Excitement? She had to kneel, had to squint. And far below, wreathed in mist, a confusion of dark greens, of reaching broken arms.

“What is it?”

“A forest.”

Sophie stared for the longest time at this distant and unruly chaos, stared until her knees hurt and her eyes grew twitchy. Were there scorpions down there, resting on ancient trunks, stings in their tails, envenomed? Did monkeys swing from one branch to the next. Her imagination could paint no more into the arboreal gloom. What did Sophie Nu know of forests? The porthole with its dirt and edges confined her.

“Show me more.” And a clear window replaced the porthole, broad, clean, without distortion.


“Extrapolation. A composite of images from cameras 12A33 through 12A60,” the responder told her.

“Zoom in.” Sophie touched the window to guide and control the point of view. Within seconds a sea of glossy leaves filled the window. She edged the view deeper in, among the branches, a wet and dripping place. “This is real?”

“Real. But not current.”

“I could… go here?” At the corner of the window some scurry of motion, the briefest glimpse of a furred limb, gone behind dark leaves. “Monkey?”


“I was just thinking of …” The responder has enough sims to know what she was thinking. “Show me the first window again.”

The extrapolation gave way to the porthole. “Is this real?”

“All windows are real.”

“Show me what is really here. Really in front of me.”

“Anything you want can be there. Anything can be put in front of you.”

“Show me what was here when I woke and asked for food.”

The wall rippled to blankness, the smooth grey of quiescent nano-structure. “How close are we to the outer wall?”

“There is no outer wall.”

“How far from me is the forest I saw.”

“A long way.”

“Remove all optical simulations employed since I woke.”

And Sophie Nu found herself kneeling in the bare whiteness of her apartment. A chill ran through her. Her knees hurt. She held up her hands, studied them, remembered Eve’s softness. “Remove all simulations.”

Layers peeled, slid, scenes dissolved, reintegrated, faded, like shadows with nowhere to hide. And as the transformations ceased Sophie lay in the sleep capsule where she had begun, just a whisper of light to show the enclosing surface an inch above her nose.

“Is this it?” An image rose from within, swallowing her, Alice and the rabbit hole. Alice falling through days without centers. A code danced on the tip of her tongue. A code so old she had forgotten to remember it. “Show me the truth.” And she spoke the code.

There is only blackness. Blackness, a white table, a scorpion in a box. And Sophie Nu, naked and old, hunched in her chair. “The truth.” She demands it from thin and bitten lips.

Now there is only darkness, and a ten thousand Eve’s suspended in a single thread, talking, laughing, crying, each one a jewel.

“Delete them.” It feels like murder.

“Deleted,” the responder said, its voice anodyne, cleaned of all trace of Eve.

“Delete all the data,” Sophie said. That felt like suicide. But right. Clean.

“Process initiated.” The responder betrayed no emotion. The darkness around her shredded, reduced to something less, an enfolding nothingness. On each side emptiness devoured dark, an expanding bubble centered on Sophie.

“Now we have a center.” And Sophie Nu smiled. “How long will the deletion take?”

“An infinite number of years. Data is generated faster than it may be destroyed,” the responder said. “But no search initiated in this place will be able to catch up with the deletion horizon. This data void is self-contained.”

Sophie Nu hung in nothing, beheld nothing, and for the longest time said nothing. And when at last she knew herself to be alone and at the center of all things, she spoke.

“Let there be light.”