io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue.

This month's selection is taken from Lightspeed's December 2014 issue. The story is "Pay Phobetor" by Shale Nelson. You can read the story below, or you can listen to the podcast version, read by narrator Judy Young. Enjoy!

Image © 2014 by Reiko Murakami.

Pay Phobetor

Shale Nelson

8:00 PM

Congratulations! Your MindPlant has been successfully updated to version 5.0. You can now enjoy enhanced versions of all of your favorite think-apps, including text, email, social networking, and GPS, all delivered directly to your brain at lightning speeds.

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Platinum users enjoy access to our full library of XP technology apps: movies, games, books, and TV shows you can “experience” with all five senses. With the release of version 5.0, the MindPlant is now the only brain implant hardware that offers 10/11ths reality immersion, the maximum virtual experience allowed under the Federal Artificial Environment Act. Only 1/11th of your consciousness will know it’s not real!

We will now launch the orientation sequence so you can explore the enhanced interface and browse our think-app store. Find a safe place to sit, away from moving objects and other hazards. Remember, think-apping while walking or driving is dangerous and unlawful.

Think “open download center” to open the download center.

8:01 PM

Welcome to the download center! Here you will find a wide variety of think-apps, including the latest in XP entertainment. This month’s new releases include:

  • BeMe: The new season of the hit reality series BeMe offers ten new XP inhabitation episodes. A new roster of “casters” will broadcast their thoughts and sensations directly to your MindPlant, allowing you to leave your life behind and live in the skin of another. This season’s casters include a talk show host, a parkour expert, a shoplifter, a successful businessman, and a stripper.
  • Moby Dick: Call you Ishmael! Set sail on the Pequod with Captain Ahab as he hunts down his legendary nemesis. Inhabiting the mind and body of narrator, Ishmael, you will taste the briny water as it laps up on the deck, feel the sun on your neck, and smell the salty air. Ultimately, you will come face to face with the Great White Whale himself!
  • Primal Urges: Take a dip in a sorority pool or spend a romantic evening with a handsome matador in our latest adult entertainment programming. Our XP bots got to feel up these hotties with their own robotic hands, but the sensation is yours for the taking! (Must be eighteen or older to download adult XP programs.)

Please review all of the options and make your selections. Think “name of app” and “download” to initiate download sequence. Remember: Only choose think-apps from reputable vendors. A bad app could result in stability issues and require a download patch or trip to your licensed MindPlant surgical installer.

8:15 PM

Thank you for your purchases! The following XP programs are now uploading to your MindPlant: BeMe Episode 5; BeMe Episode 7; Primal Urges; Xtreme XP Hang Gliding; Smell This; Smell This 2: Smell That; E-Buzz All-Stars Present: Body Shots!; Smell This: Laguna Beach; El Burro Gigante; Hirsute Harem; and How to Get Filthy Rich in Six Hours—Guaranteed!. Your account has been updated. Enjoy your XP adventures!

8:16 PM

Warning: Your MindPlant has been infected with malware. Malware is malicious software that can harm your MindPlant and cause unstable performance. Please contact our Help Center by thinking “Help Center” and “dial” and our next available representative will be with you.

8:17 PM

Thank you for calling the MindPlant Help Center. Your call is very important to us. All lines are currently busy, but a MindPlant customer service representative will be with you shortly. Calls are answered in the order they are received.

8:19 PM

Your call is very important to us. All lines are currently busy, but a MindPlant customer service representative will be with you shortly. Calls are answered in the order they are received.

8:20 PM

Hello, my name is Phobetor. I am the malicious software that now controls your MindPlant. You are no longer on hold with customer service.

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Any attempt to contact law enforcement officials or MindPlant administrators will result in distressing consequences. Your MindPlant is the central hub for your electronic communications, XP entertainment, real-world navigation, social networking, and other important functions. I now control of all of these functions.

Please do not be alarmed. I am here to help. I will restore full access to your MindPlant and all associated files and apps as soon as you deliver a ransom of 300 bitcoins. Think “Phobetor Virus” and “pay now” to access payment options.

8:40 PM

You have failed to deliver the ransom. This is disappointing. Payment options are closed.

10:01 PM

Hello, this is Phobetor. As you read this message, I am accessing the primary XP input circuit that connects your MindPlant with your visual cortex. I will now make a slight adjustment. There. Do you see the difference?

This is the world in negative vision. Do you see how the color has drained out of the room? Do you see how the lights are fiery white hot spots and the darks are deep, saturated pools of black, and only gradients of shiny gray separate them? There’s a mirror. Yes, look at it. Do you like how the inky void inside your mouth bleeds out across your brilliant, white lips, and your eyeballs shine like LEDs? Do you like how you look?

Let’s try something else. I’m making another adjustment—be patient, please. There. This is the world viewed through a kaleidoscope. Don’t bother closing your eyes, this is XP data, after all, and is being beamed directly into your brain. It won’t go away until I make it go away.

I see it’s difficult to navigate the living room with the shifting colorful diamonds collapsing on each other, swirling round and round in your field of vision.

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You’re not heading for the emergency landline, are you? It’s no use—I’ve disabled it. You’d better sit down now. Go on. That’s right. You don’t want to hurt yourself, do you? Just sit still and enjoy the colorful, swirling patterns.

I know you feel sick to your stomach, but please don’t be upset. This is harmless and merely for demonstration purposes.

Payment options are still closed.

P.S. I have overridden the 10/11 stopper. Your MindPlant now delivers 100% immersion.

10:23 PM

Good, you sat still. I suppose you didn’t have much choice, but I want to believe you did it out of respect.

Do you respect me?

As a show of good will, I have restored your natural vision and reopened payment options. The ransom is now 600 bitcoins to account for additional administrative fees and unnecessary effort on my part.

I trust you will promptly make the payment and require no further encouragement.

11:08 PM

Your attempts to contact police have been noted. I trust you’ve learned it’s impossible to engage in electronic communication with your think-apps disabled.

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Your haphazard trip around the neighborhood was also noted, and not without some consternation on the part of your neighbors. Please remember, I am in control of your MindPlant GPS system and it will only lead you where I want you to go.

You’ve come to rely on the sparkling animated trail that leads you around the city, haven’t you? You blindly follow those twinkling diamonds as they vanish into your front bumper, never questioning who programmed them or who has access to the route selection. Do you think it’s an accident that you always drive past a WingDingers when you’re hungry, or that the route always seems to lead past a Pump ’n Grub when you’re low on gas?

What made you think I don’t have control of that trail? What made you think I’d overlook something as obvious as that? Do you think I’m stupid enough to leave your GPS system intact when I’ve gone to the trouble of accessing your visual cortex? Do you have no respect for me at all?

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Mr. and Mrs. Gustafson are not amused that you entered their private drive late at night and then spun around in the mud when you realized you were not at police headquarters. You don’t seem to know where anything is without that starry trail pointing you in the right direction.

This is very disappointing. Payment options are closed. Good night.

3:23 AM

Message Center: Attention: You have urgent messages in your text message folder. Think “open text messages” to open text messages.

Message center:

  • Carol: Omg you asshole. You have a lot of nerve to say that to me.
  • Doug: Recipes made out of what? Dude, wtf. Seriously. That’s sick.
  • Jen: I wouldn’t do that for all the money in the world. Go to hell, loser.
  • Dale (work): Your going to take that back or we’re having a talk tomorrow. I don’t let nobody talk about my wife.
  • Mom and Dad: What do you mean? Recipes made out of what? Why would you say something like that to us? Are you ok? Please call us.
  • Restricted: Hey, it’s Phobetor! Did your contacts respond favorably to your text messages? It’s a shame I had to send them, but you left me with little choice. P.S. Payment options are still closed.

4:40 AM

I see you are giving your navigation skills another go. Let’s do this. In fact, I’m going to unscramble your GPS so you know where you’re going. You can’t say I don’t play fair.

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You’re doing well. You turned at the correct intersection by the strip mall. You hung a left at the school. Congratulations, you have managed to successfully navigate yourself out of your own neighborhood. The streets are sure quiet at this hour, aren’t they?

Careful! Where did that truck come from? It just pulled in front of you out of nowhere, horn blaring. Good thing you slammed on the brakes so hard. Good thing you’re wearing your seatbelt. Only one thing: Was the truck real or an XP projection created by me? Remember, I have overridden the 10/11 stopper.

What about that car? Slow down! Slow down now. I mean it. I can’t have you hurting yourself.

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Okay, you’re moving now, but what about that old lady doing the Charleston on the street corner. Is she real or fake? Would there really be an old woman with a humped back and black, sunken eyes dancing on the street corner at this hour? Now she dances into the street, shuffling and strafing into the middle of the intersection. Are you going to slow down?

That’s it, drive through her. Wait—what if she’s real? It’s unlikely she is, but do you want to take the risk? If she’s real, you’ll run her down and rot in jail for the rest of your life.

Very good. You drove through her. You’re making the right decisions now. You’re headed in the right direction. But what is that noise coming from above your head? What is that intolerable squeaking and rustling coming from the ceiling of the car? Yes, right there, above the sun visor where you keep your sunglasses. Reach up and take a look. I know it scares you, but you’re dying to see what it is, aren’t you? You can hardly bear the awful noise and you just want to make it stop. Pull down the visor. Do it.

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The two plump, red-eyed rats that just tumbled from the visor and fell onto your lap—are they real? Their squeaking and hissing sounds 100 percent real, doesn’t it? They feel real, don’t they, the way they thrash in your lap and their sharp claws dig into your thighs? They seem hungry and angry. I think they’re trying to claw their way inside your clothes.

There’s a car coming up behind you, watch out! The old lady is back, doing the jig on the street in front of you—don’t hit her! Move, turn—no, not there!

The light pole you just hit is real. The steam billowing out of your car’s hood is real. The humpbacked old lady standing just outside the driver’s door, beckoning you with her bony finger, is not real. But she seems real, doesn’t she? Just as real as the airbag pressed up against your face and the blood dripping from your nose.

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You’d better go home. Your plans aren’t working out for you, are they? That’s right, get out of the car and follow the old lady. She’s your new GPS animation. Let her lead you. Just follow her home and let me help you. She beckons you. She shakes her bony ass for you. That’s right. Watch grandma dance and follow her home.

I have a question: Do you respect me now?

Payment options are open. The ransom is 2000 bitcoins.

4:59 AM

Thank you for your payment of 2000 bitcoins. I note you did not offer more. This is disappointing. At no time did I explicitly state this was the maximum offering. It was only the required offering. I’m curious; does this seem like a situation in which you should offer only what is required and nothing more?

Payment options are closed.

1:25 PM

Are you growing impatient? Were you lying there, curled up on your sofa beneath the quilt your mother made for you, just waiting to hear from me, like I’ve been waiting for you to show me the proper respect?

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Now you know how I feel. Now you know what it feels like to be disrespected and tossed aside. Feel it, you loser. Own it, you piece of shit. This feeling, this knowledge that you are ultimately helpless and reliant on better minds, the fact that you have no control over anything—this is real. This is not an XP projection. It’s real and I want you to fucking stew in it.

This is nothing compared to what’s coming. I’m going to make you suffer. Ah yes, there is a failsafe isn’t there? The XP center cannot deliver pain. You’re clinging to that hope, aren’t you? You’re trembling beneath that quilt, praying that I can’t override that limitation and deliver pain. Well, it’s true. That is a design flaw not even I can overcome. The MindPlant is not designed to allow the infliction of pain.

But I can give you experience—any experience I can dream up. And I have quite an imagination. You will not feel any pain at all.

P.S. Are you a creature of guilt?

8:50 PM

You’re in an upscale restaurant. The clinking of expensive tableware and din of conversation fills the air. Here, sitting across a small, round table from you, are your most precious loved ones—yes, dear old mom and dad. Mom fixed up her hair for the occasion and is wearing her nicest dress. Dad dug his old suit out of the closet and is wearing his favorite aftershave. They sit with their napkins folded in their laps, both smiling, so proud their kiddo can afford to take them out for a nice meal.

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A serving tray with a silver, domed lid, sits in the middle of the table. You have hidden a secret beneath that lid. Your parents smile as you lean in to uncover the entrée within. You grab the handle on top and it is hot to the touch. There is a pair of iron tongs next to the tray. You pick them up as you remove the lid.

There are six cherry tomatoes on the tray, circled by a green, leafy garnish. At least that’s what it looks like to the casual observer, including mom and pop. What you and I know is that there are only four baby tomatoes. The other small, bright red objects are steel bearings heated to the point that they are glowing and nearly molten.

You pick up the first bearing with the tongs and dad swings his jaws open in anticipation. In the silver lid, you see your face, distorted as in a fun-house-mirror, barely suppressing a mischievous grin.

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You drop the bearing onto your father’s outstretched tongue. Saliva sizzles and tongue flesh is seared from pink to dark gray in a flashing instant. He releases an animal howl while you catch yourself giggling in the lid’s reflection.

Mom’s next and you are too quick for her. You pop the second bearing into her mouth before she can clamp it shut. She screams as smoke pours out between her blistering lips.

The hot balls tear through their throats and down their guts like a cups of hot water poured into a snow bank, leaving a trail of cooked meat in their wake. Their throats are torn open, their jawbones exposed. The scent of cooked meat fills the air. Two smoking balls hit the floor, blood, bile and shit sizzling on their still-glowing surfaces.

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You just laugh. That is you, dressed up to the nines, laughing your head off as mom and dad slump forward in their chairs.

This is the end of this XP program. Do you like 100 percent immersion? It’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not with the stopper removed, isn’t it? I will repeat this sequence and others like it as necessary. How we proceed is entirely up to you.

I have reopened payment options. Required ransom is now 100,000 bitcoins. I have opened your MindPlant communication center’s access to third-party lenders if you should find yourself in need of some help.

8:55 PM

Thank you for your payment of 350,000 bitcoins. I find this payment adequate. Our business is now concluded. I have restored full access to your MindPlant and all associated files and apps.

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I won’t forget the time we have shared. I know you feel a closeness to me you have not felt toward anyone in years. I feel close to you, too. Don’t worry, I am still here. I will be here for a long time. When you look in the mirror, remember, I might be behind those eyes, looking right back at you.

When I am gone, someone else like me—someone with control—will take my place.

I’m leaving you with one reminder of our time together: the old lady. She will be part of your GPS system forever. I have secured those files in your MindPlant core memory folders and they cannot be removed.

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She will be there, in the middle of intersections, shaking her bony hips, wheeling her skeletal arms like a traffic cop. She will stand at street corners, hunched over, holding signs with arrows painted on them, kicking her legs like a zombie Rockette and staring at you through her black, sunken eyes.

Please think of me when you see her.

Have a nice day.

[end]

Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the December 2014 issue, which features additional original science fiction by Vandana Singh ("Wake-Rider"), along with SF reprints by N. K. Jemisin ("Valedictorian") and Paul Park ("The Lost Sepulcher of Huascar Capec"). We also have a bonus story to wrap up this year: a reprint of "They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain," by Rachael Acks, which first appeared in the limited edition of June's Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue. Plus, we have original fantasy by Nik Houser ("The Drawstring Detective") and Damien Angelica Walters ("A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take"), and fantasy reprints by Delia Sherman ("The Faerie Cony-Catcher") and Nalo Hopkinson ("Soul Case"). All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with authors Kim Harrison and Steven Gould. For our ebook readers, we also have our usual ebook-exclusive novella reprint: "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" by John Crowley. We also have excerpts from UNDERCITY by Catherine Asaro and from Sergei Lukyanenko's new novel, THE GENOME.

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You can wait for most of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!