Images & Words: Venetian Penumbra

Images & Words: Venetian Penumbra

Venetian Penumbra

Neal Ulen

When : Where
289 DE (2599 CE) : Infinispace / Italy / Venice (c.2014 CE)

Note: This is an unfinished, unedited first draft excerpt from an upcoming Infinispace novel.

The low, sweltering Mediterranean sun felt all too real.

Perhaps I should have picked another setting for this introduction, or another season. But there’s nothing more beautiful than the low summer sun reflecting off the blue sea as locals and vacationers stroll the Venetian waterfronts. It reminds me of a time when choices were not so difficult … a time less complicated. Here life is safe. Contented. I can feel it on the streets and see it on the faces of its people, even if they are only mirages. This sense of contentedness is something I crave but can never let crack through the façade.

I selected this rooftop café to ensure the mysterious compatriot of this liaison would benefit from the calming vista. I’d created this Venitian space years ago, but made special concession during this visit, depopulating the café of patrons other than myself. Was this individual even a compatriot? Perhaps a rival, or power broker, even a member of the Obscurum? Surely not. They care little of what transpires in Realspace, and rarer still does the Obscurum overtly expose themselves without merit or except out of desperation. Regardless, the information the person had passed on to me was compelling to say the least. A risk of a meeting to discuss beneficial goals was justified. But only a virtual meeting.

I looked at the time piece on my wrist, a relic of this lost time. He should be here soon, then I’d know the truth of it … if truth not be a liar.

The sun, turned orange, was just dipping to the horizon behind the Basilica of Saint Mary when I saw a figure walking emphatically across the cobbles of the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront. But this person was a tall woman, dressed in a tight black dress, with a black wide brimmed hat veiling her face. She looked more dressed for a 20th century funeral than a covert meeting. From her confident air and out of place accoutrement, there was no doubt this was who I was waiting for. I’d made the false assumption it would be a man, but I suppose persona within Infinispace is another bending of the truth. This person could be anyone, from anywhere, any gender … or no gender at all.

The crowd parted and stared at her as she strode to the entry of the building which led to the rooftop café. I leaned over the table side railing to get a better look, but only saw the top of her black feathered hat as she disappeared into the entrance. Sitting back down I could hear her high heels click-clacking up the echoing stairwell. For some reason it sent a chill through me, reminding me of the scuttling of bones across cold stones. Superstitious nonsense!

Presently she emerged from the stairwell and stepped out into the fading sun.

A thin black veil hung from her hat, further obscuring her face under the shadow of its brim. She was a contrast in stark black and white … utterly jet black attire and stark white skin, as if the persona, or its owner, had never spent a day under a sun. The chill set upon me again. Perhaps one of the Obscurum after all.

“I am the one you are to meet,” she said in an unexpectedly soft voice as she walked toward me.

“Of that I have no doubt.” I stood up and presented the most convincing smile I could muster. Behind her veil she raised a single eyebrow ever so slightly at my words.

“Do you require that I stand during this discussion?”

“No, please sit,” I said and gestured to the chair across from me. I held up two fingers to the waiter standing discreetly near the stairwell. He gave a nod and quickly disappeared.

She sat in the chair and slowly removed her hat and veil, keeping her eyes on me the entire time. Silken black hair fell from beneath the hat and framed her face which was quite angular. Her thin lips smiled at me revealing perfectly straight, chrome teeth. I averted my eyes as I sat myself. This was not at all what I was expecting. When I looked back she was gazing over the Riva degli Schiavoni, watching the people mill about, visiting, taking pictures, fishing, or just laughing in small groups. The orange sun reflected off her face giving it a warm glow, until I saw how her eyes roved across the crowd. They had the look of hunger in them, like she was a hunter picking out prey. The warmth afforded by the light melted away in my mind.

“You could have chosen any place imaginable. Why do you pick this one?” she asked.

“Nostalgia, nothing more,” I replied.

“Nostalgia.” It wasn’t a question. She looked me squarely in the eyes. Even her irises had no color, only shades of grey. Was her entire appearance a matter of data fidelity or what it by choice? “Why?”

“Why … ?”

“Why does this place hold nostalgia over you?”

“I find contentment here. It also invokes in me a sense of irony.”

“Oh?” Again the slightly raised eyebrow.

I swept my arm over the railing to emphasize the beautiful vista. “This was an age in human history when affluence was at its peak, all the knowledge of the world was at the fingertips of anyone who sought it out, underdeveloped nations were joining the world stage … yet the general consensus at the time was that the world was in its worst state in history. They were blind to their own naiveté, blind to humanity’s own past history and struggles. The Era of Enlightened Denial is what I name it. Not perfect by any means, but this era was the pinnacle of social history, and they were utterly oblivious to what awaited them just around the corner despite living in a time when ignorance should have been eradicated if not for their own laziness and stubbornness.”

“And what awaited them around this corner?”

An odd question, that. “The end of near everything, as you know.”

“Of course.” she smiled, flashing chrome. “Now, introductions are in order. How shall I call you?”

She either doesn’t know my true identity, or is bluffing, or is simply playing the game I’d set up for her. “You may call me Iago. And you?”

Sitting back down I could hear her high heels click-clacking up the echoing stairwell. For some reason it sent a chill through me, reminding me of the scuttling of bones across cold stones. Superstitious nonsense! Presently she emerged from the stairwell and stepped out into the fading sun.

There was a pause in the conversation and I saw her eyes jitter ever so slightly. “Ah, more of your ancient nostalgia? And perhaps more irony?”

I gave her a slight nod.

“I understand the reference. You may call me Regan then.”

I reached into the Continuum and tried to establish a reference with her own chosen identity. “I see. You should be ruled and led, By some discretion that discerns your state, Better than you yourself.

“Don’t we all seek power?” Her voice held a beguiling sway over me, seeming to probe my mind for information. But that was impossible, the security in bio.nodes was foolproof. I tried to shake the feeling. She continued with a retort. “When devils will the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows.

“Touché,” I said with a laugh. She’s good … or well informed.

The waiter arrived to interrupt our verbal jabs and feints. He placed two porcelain cups in front of us, each with a silver spoon balanced on the saucer. I waved him away.

“I require no false sustenance,” Regan said.

“This isn’t food, think of it more as an indulgence.” This is the most peculiar person I’ve ever encountered. It’s as if she’s so dissociated from normalcy that she doesn’t know how to act. Yet at the same time she’s coy and cunning. She plays the game yet doesn’t understand all the rules. Who was she?

She picked up the cup with thin fingers, held it to her nose, and inhaled subtly. I could tell by the scrunching of her face that it was not to her liking.

“You know no harm can come to you in this place. Here, let me show you.” I picked up my spoon, gave the cup a quick stir, and took a sip. “See?”

Regan set the cup back down and proceeded to mimic my behavior. At the conclusion of her sip she set the cup down on the saucer and nudged it away.

“What is this drink?”

Another peculiar question, but in some way I’d expected it based on how the conversation was progressing. “It’s coffee. In this case a cappuccino. A drink popular in this era and geography.”

“Interesting. It is deliciously unique, but at the same time quite repulsive.” She glanced down at the darkening Riva degli Schiavoni and the milling crowds. “Not unlike your nostalgic humanity.”

An interesting observation, and one fond of analogies. “Well, even hundreds of years after its extinction we’re still quite fond of it, or at least this re-creation of it.”

“You speak of your re-created coffee or humanity?”

“Both.” She’s leading this me somewhere, but I can’t yet see the destination. The rules of the game are coming to her quickly.

Regan reached out to the cup, pulled it nearer, and took another sip. “Your re-booted version of humanity is strangling itself into obsolescence. You corral and herd most of your population like domesticated animals. You quell any free thought that remotely disrupts the edicts of your Triocracy. You lull citizens into a faux sense of contentment by luring them into worlds of fancy and distraction. The sphere of your Triocracy is quite small considering the amount of time that has passed since the ‘end of near everything’ as you put it. Your humanity could be so much more if …”

The fingers of the Obscurum are all over her rhetoric. But why are they suddenly interested in the affairs going on in Realspace. This must be some new play by The Ring. Yet she still behaves like navigating a virtual Space is a new experience; a very non-Obscurum behavior. Perhaps only a diversionary act.

“Enough with the prattle. Why are we here? Why did you want to meet with me?” I interrupted.

She sighed and took another sip, seemingly enjoying the cappuccino far more than she would ever let on. The sun was now well below the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea and a single table candle provided a new warm glow to our conversation. Lights were starting to come on along the riva, creating soft pools of light on the cobbles. Locals walked through those pools holding hands and staring at the Venice lights reflecting off the sea, blissfully ignorant of the power broking taking place just above their heads. Even if they were only AIs, it still gave me a sense of satisfaction.

Images & Words: Ominous Liaisons
Venice by Ippolito Caffi

“We understand you’ve recently come into a position of … influence.”

We? It sounds like she represents a cabal of decision makers. The Ring! For an instant her persona flickered and shifted spectrum, becoming ghostly. Far away this one is, not on Earth. She could be anywhere in the Triocracy that the Continuum reached. Interesting.

“Go on,” I said.

“Iago, your influence only resides on Earth, specifically within the extent of the Techspire and its surrounding shanty-town. A notable and influential seat of power to be sure, but still just a small fragment of the whole. Merely the first bite of an indulgent banquet to which you will never be invited to sit. We can give you influence that extends far beyond your Earthly Techspire. Influence that can extend to the furthest corners of your Triocracy, and beyond if you’ve the vision. Your new position can be used to free your people across the Triocracy or grind them under your heel. Divergent choices to be sure, but ultimately they are yours.”

She picked up the silver spoon and stirred her cappuccino slowly and delicately, almost with purpose. There was a methodical nature to it, as if the distribution of microscopic coffee grains suspended in the water, sugar, and milk were not exactly as she desired. I had the feeling Regan did not suffer chaos, that the very nature of her being was a slave to order and control.

“I supposed you’d like to be the savior of humanity, or that you’d like to free it? It’s a bit presumptuous that you could do better than 300 years of human struggle since the Transcendence Wars. And what if I choose neither? What if the status quo suits me?” I asked.

“Freedom has many definitions and interpretations, but your status quo cannot continue. Stagnation and complacency cannot be sustained. That way leads to ruin.” There was not a shadow of doubt in her voice.

“The ruin of who?”


I’d had enough. I stood up and asked angrily. “How do you know these things?!”

Regan glanced away in annoyance. She pulled the slowly gyrating spoon out of her cappuccino, tapped it on the edge of the cup with a piercing tink-tink, then pointed it sternly and emphatically at my now empty chair. “Sit.”

For a brief moment I considered just ending this insufferable conversation, but something about Regan compelled me to see it through. I took my seat again, the chill creeping back into my system. But this time a chill of realization. Regan knew far more than she was letting on and planned to use it as leverage against me … to force my hand in some scheme to wrest power away from me. I wouldn’t let it happen, I couldn’t let it happen. Too many cogs were in motion for the Ring to upset my meticulous plans. I would have this woman hunted down and exterminated with her conspirators; or better, locked in a virtual slow-clock prison for eternity.

Regan was smiling at me, golden candlelight reflecting off her teeth.

“You have a secret,” she said. “Would you like to share?”

“You’re a member of the Ring,” I said, this time there was no doubt in my voice.

“Not the secret I was hoping for, but if that’s what you’d like to believe …” Regan shrugged, then sighed. “At this juncture my associations are inconsequential. I was thinking of a different secret, one not so … mundane. Let’s stop with the lies and verbal dueling, shall we?”

“I would like nothing more. Where are you located? You’re clearly not here on Earth.”

She shook her head. “Again, inconsequential. I am within range of your Continuum, that’s all you need know.”

“Then who the hell are you and what do you want?” I hadn’t touched my cappuccino since my first sip. It sat in front of me, cold. I pushed it away.

“You will only ever know me as Regan, and if you are lucky you will only ever know me within this construct. I represent a certain unnamed party of interest who would like to assist you in reshaping the face of the Triocracy … something you do not have the means to accomplish yourself. As to what we want specifically and how we can assist, that will come later after we’ve dispensed with these tedious formalities.”

I stared at her. I had to make this work, twist her motives to my advantage, make her always feel the one in control. But I needed to begin building a foundation around the persona sitting before me.

“And I suppose you’d like to reshape the Triocracy into something a bit more demokratia? A bit more ‘by the people’ instead of ‘for the people’?”

She laughed. “Iago, ‘for the people’? That’s a strange way of framing ‘abusing the people’. Oh, nothing so equitable as demokratia. That would serve neither of our purposes or goals. That form of social governance is not an elegant solution for the survival of a species teetering on the brink as you were 300 years ago. Relying on the voice of the people to claw out of a near extinction event would only be digging that hole deeper. Your Triocracy is not ready for it, nor will it be ready in your extended lifetime.”

“At least this we can agree on,” I said.

Freedom has many definitions and interpretations, but your status quo cannot continue. Stagnation and complacency cannot be sustained. That way leads to ruin.

“Make no mistake Iago, demokratia can be extremely effective in small, highly developed societies, where rational intelligence is the rule of law, not irrational emotion. But this mess you call the Triocracy, in its own twisted way, is exactly what was needed after the Transcendence Wars.” She crossed her legs slowly, and folded her arms demurely in her lap. “It’s funny that you bring up demokratia, since it originates many thousands of years ago from very near this location. If I didn’t know better I would think you also have a nostalgic fondness for that anachronistic social structure.”

It was my turn to laugh. “Then you don’t know me well.”

“The less personal we make these formalities, the fewer complications we will have in future negotiations, agreed?”

“Agreed,” I replied, knowing full well that would erode the foundation I sorely needed to hunt this woman down, but I played along. If she actually had something to offer, I would bide my time.

“You’ve come into possession of a technology called ‘Shift’.”

Before I could think my eyes widened in incredulity. She’d broadsided me with that statement with no warning from her annoyingly leading statements. In an attempt to contain my rage, I leaned back in the chair and gazed at the weakly twinkling stars trying to fight through the twilight.

“Ah, I found your secret,” Regan smiled. “We further understand that the technology isn’t fully realized, despite your best efforts.”

I leaned forward and squirmed uncomfortably in my chair, buying into the illusion that I was somehow physically uncomfortable. “Regan, I’m not going to bother to ask how you come by your intelligence. I can only assume these are rhetorical questions. You fully know the answer. Which is, Shift has not been fully realized or optimized. I further assume you somehow know how I came by this technology, and that we’ll never breach that topic … ever.” I pointed a steady finger at her face. “No, Shift is not complete. There’s some missing aspect of it that escapes my, uhh, expertise and the expertise of my best Techspire scientists. It’s a dream that certain segments of humanity have imagined for thousands of years. We were close to it over 300 years ago, but that was all lost and it caused a genocidal war.”

“Yes, the dream quest of all Transcendentalists, who still exist these 300 years later, most of them closeted away in your lofty Techspires. Including members of your family apparently. For some, conflict is the panacea of hope. Violence and conflict is their only method to ensure change, or to ensure progress. I know most of those pampered in their Spires would never ingest this figurative panacea, but there are tens of millions living in your Tangle, and on other worlds, who might just welcome another genocide. This time a one-sided cleansing. Do you wish to start that genocide? One that will eradicate what little is left of humanity?” Regan asked.

“Certainly not,” I feigned.

What is Regan trying to convince me of? I know the history, probably better than her. Hell, I’ve relived some of that bloody history within Infinispace itself. Earth burned to a near cinder in pursuit of the proverbial Fountain of Youth. Who controlled that fount? Who deserved it? Who had moral objections to it? Who could profit from it? I know how humanity crawled out of the ashes after the Exodus. Those shaky legs of order and survival were the progenitors of the Triocracy.

A breeze had come up, wafting cool, salty Mediterranean air over the rooftop. Our candle flickered casting random shadows across the table and our faces.

“Then I suggest you tread carefully, Iago. With the secret of Shift unlocked and controlled, we would control the means to realize the other goal which we spoke to earlier … influence that extends to all corners of your Triocracy. With our help of course.”

“You don’t think I tread carefully? It’s the exact means by which I’ve risen to the position I’m in now! Methodical care and paranoia! How do you propose to use Shift to bring about this change in power?”

She held out her hand over the candle, feeling its warmth. “We’ll speak to the details, and price, after you’ve finalized Shift.”

“Can you help me find the missing link needed to unlock it?” I asked.

“We wouldn’t need you or your glorious Continuum if we knew how to unlock Shift. We only know what can be done with it once secured.”

“Then you’re of little help to me now,” I uttered bitterly.

“Now? Think more forward, Iago.” Regan tapped the side of her head with a black fingernail. “Visionaries never dwell on the past or even the present, always the future. Failure is the fuel of progress. The person you … acquired … Shift from worked on it in near secrecy, correct?”

“This is true, until I discovered its existence. I’m having difficulties understanding its intricacies.”

“Then double your efforts. Squeeze malleable resources. Find non-traditional solution vectors. Maybe you should have considered all of this before pouring a virus into him and liquefying his brain via his bio.node. Don’t make me clean up the mess you’ve chosen to create. I have limits to my magnanimity,” she said sarcastically.

“I told you we would never speak of that!” I yelled, slamming my fist on the table.

“Of course,” Regan smiled. “My apologies. Well, since Shift seems to have been a very personal and secret project to the man, perhaps you should look for clues in aspects that were close to him, those of a more intimate nature.”

I thought for half a minute, while she gazed at me. I could feel and hear the simulated heartbeat in my chest. Slowly, I calmed. “The son.”

“The visionary has awakened! Our time is done for now, Iago. Thank you for the cappuccino and history discussion. I’ll contact you again when it’s time to engage in further action.”

And just like that it was over. Without warning Regan stood up abruptly, smoothed her black dress, and snatched up her hat. She turned and started walking toward the entry to the staircase.

“Wait, will I … ”

But before I could utter another word her persona dissipated into a wispy fog of ever shifting data, until her image evaporated into nothingness. Not even members of the Obscurum were able to circumvent the entry and exit protocols of virtual constructs. Without a doubt it was a display for my benefit, to show me the control she had over Infinispace. The only thing that remained of her visit was the empty cappuccino cup.

The foundation of her I’d been building crumbled to pieces. Regan was neither of the Obscurum nor a member of The Ring. She was an unknown variable in a transcendental equation.

My level of dread increased tenfold.


Images & Words © 2021-2024, Neal Ulen.
Other images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).


  1. Neal, I’m so glad you finally finished and published this part of your story. Really appreciate the complexity of this story and the world you are building. Plus, Shakespeare references are always a bonus in my book!

  2. There are things I look for to determine whether or not I will immerse myself in the universe of someone’s writing. For the most part they are whether or not exploring that world serves a need. The character of Regan carries the aura of a Mata Hari, but working for the de Medici in a high tech setting. The quick transition from her enjoyment of the virtual cappuccino to her command, “sit,” displays a layering of intentions. And this is mirrored by the combination of her sophisticated cultural presence and her probing for constant probing for some useful salient in some unknown struggle. Most writers using artistic settings of historical significance use popularly familiar settings. They aren’t sufficiently self aware to know that they are inviting you to a literary tourist trap. It’s refreshing not to experience this mental jousting match in Saint Peter’s Square, or within sight of the Rialto Bridge of the Trevi Fountain. That’s an indication of a deeper and more sincere research having gone into the process of establishing a setting. The problem of the piece, or at least that portion of it, suggests that the author has read the dialogues of Locke and Berkley and pondered the meaning of the constituent elements of human perception. That struck me so quickly that I didn’t immediately think of the Construct from the Matrix as an influence. One does notice it, but the stark differences such as the alien and interplanetary aspects are delivered with an economy that helps me leap past that. As a reader of Shakespeare, I’m very curious about the choice of Iago for our presumed protagonist. We’re forced to identify with him in that he’s the only representative of humanity yet available to us. And we’re invited to admit that he is at least virtuous enough to have refused the same temptation of ultimate power that Satan offered Christ in the desert. But where does this all go? And where are the rest of us? What became of my children and their children after them? What is the nature of the dystopia that must operate outside this opening venue? Does the fate of humanity rest on the progress of a palace intrigue? Is there an intrepid band of warriors waiting to grasp victory from the jaws of certain annihilation? I’ve seen enough here that I want to know.

    1. Bardolph, you give me far too much credit. I sit down, I bang on the keyboard, and words appear. I ask Amy a question about Shakespeare once in awhile. That’s about it. If you dig around the Lexicon and/or Chronology you might see more of the bigger picture, but parts of it also contain spoilers.

  3. As a certain Vulcan of our mutual acquaintance would say… “Fascinating!” Also frightening and intriguing. Is this the end, or just the beginning?I hope there will be more to this!

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