"Seriously guys, you've gotta sign up,” Will enthused. The young dark-haired student sat with his two companions in the university coffee shop, other groups sitting at the surrounding tables, the warm cosy room filled with conversation and laughter.
“I dunno,” remarked Emma, absentmindedly playing with her long blonde hair. “I've already got profiles on three or four sites and I used them all for about a month before getting bored of it.”
“Absolute.Network is different,” replied Will, sipping his coffee. “You don't have to do anything accept create a profile. The programme assimilates all your information for you.”
“How does that work?” questioned Henry, adjusting his glasses.
“Well it uses your web cam to get your picture – ”
“That's fairly obvious,” interrupted Emma, making Henry chuckle.
“ – but it also scans your surroundings and gathers the information needed to fill out your profile,” Will continued, ignoring her joke. “For example, I was doing some reading for my course last night, and when I checked my profile the programme had added my degree course to my personal info and had made a post about the exact book I was reading.”
“That sounds a bit invasive.”
“No, it's cool. There's loads of stuff in the regulations and rules that stops anyone from stealing your identity.”
“Yeah, if you trust that stuff,” retorted his friend.
“You're just too paranoid, Mister 'I change my email account every month',” said Will playfully, flicking a biscuit crumb at Henry, who dramatically pretended to be shot as it hit him, the trio laughing.
“Maybe I'll give it a try,” said Emma thoughtfully.
“Well, don't say I didn't warn you,” Henry said aloofly. “These things will take over your life.”
Entering his bedroom, Will took off his backpack and tossed it onto his unmade bed, sitting down at his desk with a sigh of relief. It felt good to get home. Surprising how three hours of lectures can really take it out of you. Almost like a really day's work. He turned on the monitor of his computer, the screen flickering into life. His Absolute.Network profile was gradually filling up with information, the 'hobbies and interests' area brimming with all the films, books and music he liked. Will smiled. So much easier than doing it all himself.
As he glanced at himself in the mirror something caught his eye. He stared at the reflective surface, confused. He was missing a freckle. He touched his face, his fingers passing over the place where the brown dot once was. Well, where he assumed it once was. Had it always been there? He turned back to the computer, scrutinising the image of his face on his profile page. There it was, just below his left eye. Maybe it was just a bit of dirt or a pimple, he thought, but in the back of his mind he knew it had been there for as long as he could remember.
A knock at the door startled him.
“Hey Will, you there?”
“Yeah, come in.”
The tousled curly-haired head of his house-mate Alex poked around the door.
“We're going out for a curry, you wanna come?”
“Um...yeah, alright,” replied Will, grabbing his jacket and following Alex out of the room, the missing freckle pushed to the dusty recesses of his mind.
Will climbed sluggishly back into bed, pulling the covers tightly around him. He felt terrible, completely drained. His house-mates had all made remarks about his colourless complexion when he had ventured downstairs for a slice of toast, urging him with concern to visit the doctor. He waved their anxiety away, asserting that he'd be fine in a day or two. It had already been three days since the illness had started however, and he couldn't even fool himself into thinking that he felt any better. He sank in and out of sleep, all the while his computer humming away in the background, a soothing electronic buzz.
He awoke, his bedroom shrouded in darkness, a shaft of streetlight dissecting the black space from between the parted curtains. An uncomfortable itching sensation covered his entire body, running from his head to his toes, like a thousand ants prickling his flesh. In the dimness he forced himself into a sitting position. He felt so weak. So tired. His head ached, his eyes dry and irritated. He scratched at his arms, the itch burning his skin. Something wasn't right. His skin felt...different, taut and cold. He laboriously swung his legs out of the bed and stood up, inspecting his body in the mirror.
The breath left his body as he caught sight of himself. His skin was completely featureless. No hair, no freckles, not a wrinkle or crease in sight, his body like a grotesque porcelain doll. A cry of fear escaped him as he saw his face. It looked like it had been sanded down to an almost faultless sphere, his nose reduced to a small lump, his mouth a smooth line, his eyes sinking into their sockets. His breath was shallow and fast, as if his lungs were being slowly crushed within him.
Then he saw the computer screen. Glowing in the black, it displayed his Absolute.Network profile picture. Not just a good match or a high-resolution digital copy, the image was perfect. His hair, his face, his imperfections and freckles; everything that was missing from his current mutated form. It was him.
Panic rushing over him, he stumbled towards the computer. He had to shut it down. He fell to his knees, his strength waning, head swimming, vision blurring. He reached out his hand, inching closer and closer, his finger brushing against the power button. Darkness enveloped him, wrapping him in unconsciousness. His body fell limply to the ground, motionless on the carpeted floor.
Emma and Henry sat in the coffee shop, mugs in front of them, a third mug in front of the empty place at the circular table. Henry checked his watch.
“He's never this late,” he remarked.
“You'd think he'd have told us if he wasn't coming,” Emma said, taking out her phone. She placed it against her ear, listening for a few seconds, then removing it. “No answer. I'll see if he's sent me anything on my profile.” She tapped the screen of her touch-phone, cycling through the menus and gadgets. “Nothing. I'll send him a message, he's always online.”