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Virtual Death

This story explores another aspect of part of the future timeline described in Post Scarcity Blues (and probably would have been one of the stories in the book if I’d written it then!).

Virtual Death

By Jason Gibbs

It had been a long time since he’d physically visited a friend.  At least a decade, there was no need with modern implants and full immersion virtual reality.  Philip couldn’t explain why he was doing this, there was just an itch at the back of his mind.

The hall was dimly lit, as indeed was the whole block.

“Why am I doing this at night?”

Yet, once he’d decided he just had to go.  Also, he’d been on US time zone, so had thought it was late afternoon.

“Five flights of stairs.  Eric could have told me his building lift was broken.”

Though he hadn’t actually told Eric he was going to visit him, they’d just agreed to meet in the Dell, their usual place.  And anyway, it was unlikely Eric knew the lift was broken, he probably hadn’t been out for years either.

“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine… here he is.”

Philip knew he was only talking to himself to try and dispel the creepiness around him, but couldn’t stop.

“Oh is Eric going to be surprised!”

He knocked.  Nothing, and again.  He pressed the buzzer.  Nothing.  He tried the handle.  The door wasn’t locked.

“Ah, Eric probably disabled his physical alerts, I bet he can’t even remember the last time someone used them.  Eric?”

He opened the door into dust and gloom.

“Eric?”

He tried the light, but though he flicked it nothing came on.

“Eric, your lightbulb is out.  You should get maintenance to take better care.”

He walked into the living room.  It was lit by a few green flickering lights.  But Eric wasn’t in it.  The kitchenette was off to one side, and a short corridor with two doors was on the other side.  He walked gingerly towards the corridor.  The dust was thick on the floor.  This wasn’t a good idea.

“This place is a tip Eric, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone.  Eric?”

It was a standard apartment, so the bathroom would be to the right, and the bedroom to the left.

“The dust is just as thick here.  I wonder when the last time Eric actually got up to go to the toilet.”

Taking a breath, and trying to ignore the smells of staleness and slight decay, he pushed open the bedroom door.

He realised he’d closed his eyes and he opened them to look in, expecting, well he didn’t know.

There in the centre of the room was a standard VR coffin.

“Hmm, nice, a Paradise 23, or is it, no I’m wrong it’s a 24, top of the line before they stopped producing them.  Nice one Eric.”

He walked up, and checked the control panel.  All lights were green, and the panel indicated all was well with a cheery “Systems OK!” message.

“Right then, what was the protocol.  I think I press this, tap that…”

“Beep.  Please vocalise a message to explain the wakening.”

“Oh yes, this was to stop people being shocked.  Um, look Eric, it’s me Philip…”

‘Beep’.

“Damn.  I wonder if I can re-record.  That button.  No.  Um.”

The lights had started to flash red.  That didn’t seem right, and then there was another ‘Beep’, though this one sounded less friendly.  There was a hissing sound.  Philip stepped back.

“Why am I doing this…”

It was too late, the coffin had started to open up.  Philip wasn’t sure what he expected to see.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see.  When the hissing stopped he realised he’d closed his eyes again.  He opened them, and saw the side of the open coffin.  Nothing moved.

After a pause he said, “Eric?”

Nothing.  He frowned, and edged forward.  He could see the edge of the coffin, and then the lining, a sort of red plush, comfortable, though flashy, and some tubes, and then…

Then, nothing.  The coffin was empty.

“What?”

Philip heard something behind him, but before he could turn around blackness descended.

#

“Philip?”

“Um.. gargh.”

“Philip!  Are you alright?”

“Yarg, Eric don’t shout…”

It was Eric, but he’d seen, what had he seen?

“Philip, you really worried me there, you came to meet me in the Dell, and then just faded out.  I’ve had to connect into the emergency controls on your virtual unit.”

“What…”

Could he do that?  Wait, they’d signed something, like an emergency order, so they could look out for each other, it had been Eric’s idea.  But there was something he was forgetting?

“Come on Philip, say something sensible!”

“Ok, ok, stop with your yabbering.  What were we doing?”

Eric sighed, “We were at the Dell, catching up and then you just, like, disappeared, liked faded or something.  You alright buddy?”

“I, I thought I’d come to see you…”

“Like a dream or something?”  Was that hope in Eric’s voice?  Suggestion?

“No…”

“I think it must have been a dream Philip,” Eric said, with more of an edge in his voice.

“The coffin was empty, you weren’t there… what, where are you?”

“Cut the power!”

Darkness.

#

“Philip?”

It was a voice he didn’t recognise, a woman’s voice.

“Yes.”

He felt fine.  Disoriented, and it was dark all around him.

“You’ve had an accident Philip.”

“What?”

“You’ve discovered something you shouldn’t have…”

“Eric…?” asked Philip.

“Yes, Eric.  He’s dead Philip.  He has been for a while.”

“But, but I see him every day.  He’s…”

“The Eric you’ve been seeing is part AI, part actor.  Designed to fool you.”

“But…”

“It’s true I’m afraid.  We needed him to be alive for the funds to flow…” said the woman.

“Funds?”

“Eric is, or was, a very very wealthy man.  He paid us to… keep him alive.  And we failed.  Or, succeeded, depending on your point of view.  He paid us a lot.”

“I don’t understand, is he dead?  Or alive?” asked Philip, feeling a little confused.

“His physical body is dead.  Burned and scattered in case you wondered, but with no attachment to it, he was treated as an unknown, his ashes scattered in the sea.”

“I remember him saying that’s what he wanted.”

“Ah yes, well actually it happened before he said that, his actually wish was to be buried under an apple tree on the old family property, but that would have been a little tricky to hide, so… we had to make some decisions.”

“You are?”

“His… carers.  Yes, carer is the best term.  Part bodyguard, part nurse, part… well part many things.”

“And you replaced him?” said Philip.

“No, we just didn’t let his online presence die.  We kept him alive.  We hired an actor, and the best AI people, and we kept him alive.  It had all been going so well, and then you… you decided to visit him.”

“When did he die?”

“About five years ago.”

Philip was so shocked he said nothing.  Then he suddenly realised, he was in danger, wasn’t he.  They’d killed and replaced Eric, they’d do the same to him…

“Philip, calm down, I can see your heart rate has spiked.  Don’t worry, we don’t mean you any harm.  Really, in fact we have a deal for you.”

Could he believe them?

“What deal?”

“We’d like you to carry on being friends with Eric, as if nothing had happened.  You see, you are a vital part of the proof web which keeps Eric alive, and the money flowing to us.”

“But you could just replace me!”

He could feel the hysteria building, the darkness didn’t help.

There was a sigh.  Silence for a minute, and then the light came on, he was in his apartment.  His virtual one.

“Sorry Philip, the darkness was a mistake.”

The woman in front of him had few obvious markers.  She had red hair, a fifties figure and stylish clothes, but he realised that these were all actually off the peg.  She was anonymous.

“Um, who are you?”

“We are carers Philip, as I said, and we care for Eric.  We will not hurt you.  Cannot hurt you in fact.”

“But the…”

“We hired a security service to bring you in, they were more robust than expected, they have been reprimanded, and you will find a generous settlement from them, as well as a full apology.”

“Oh.”

He was confused.

“I know you’re confused Philip, so I’ll leave you the details here, and you can decide what to do.  Ultimately, we’re in your hands.  If you agree to work with us, we will provide you with a generous income, which will cover some of the things you’ve mentioned to Eric you would like… If not, well, no money, and Eric will be gone.  We will feel some pain too, but I’m sure legal will cover us.”

Philip thought she didn’t sound entirely sure, but he nodded.

She left a virtual dossier on his table, smiled at him, and said, “Goodbye Philip, hopefully we will not meet again.”

Philip pondered what he was going to do.

#

“Philip!”  said Eric, with surprise, and perhaps a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“Eric, lovely to see you.  Apologies, I’ve been a bit sick the last few days, how have you been?”

“Not great, had a few worrying things going on.  Better for seeing you though!  What shall we do today?”

###

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Peace in Our Time

This is one of the first short stories I wrote after Pigs, Poultry and Poo came out.  I’ve dusted it off, and tidied it up a bit, and am now releasing it into the wild… it’s original title was something like ‘Superhero Dutch Disease’, but I prefer this title.

Peace in Our Time

by Jason Gibbs

The war had been dragging on for years.  Sometimes we were in the ascendant, other times we were being pushed back, but never did it seem like it would end.  The dead were legion, and all lost over a strip of land mere miles wide.  We two enemies were too closely matched.  Though once powerful, the endless fighting had sapped our energies, and the other nations on our borders were waiting to pick over our bones, even if they had to help finish us off.

At the start of the eleventh year of the war a rumour came that the enemy had developed a super weapon which would finally end us, and the war.  Some were afraid, others merely laughed off the story as enemy propaganda.  In the event we were the ones blessed with a super weapon.

Jondril arrived one day in the capital.  He approached the war office building and told the receptionist he was there to end the war.  As you can imagine he received short shrift, and was thrown out, literally.  Two hours later an armoured figure, twice the size of a man, approached the war office and tore down the wall.  Security went crazy, and opened up with all their weapons.  The figure calmly stood, bullets bouncing off.  Lasers sitting on the armour’s shoulders knocked rounds out of the air and then destroyed the weapons facing him.  When the firing had all but petered out, the figure stamped its foot smashing the road and sending rubble in a widening circle of destruction.  Once more Jondril spoke, his voice booming as it was enhanced by the suit’s speakers, “I would end this war!”

The minister for war decided to play for time while the heavy weaponry was brought in from the outskirts of the city.  He walked out to talk to Jondril.  A brave man the minister, and one who would have still been at the front had he not lost an arm and an eye.

He and Jondril talked.  And talked more.  The weaponry arrived, and the minister was given the signal.  He ignored it.  The suited figure nodded its head, and split down the front, and Jondril climbed down.  The suit closed up again, and not a seam could be seen.

The minister guided Jondril into his building and to his office, and there they had coffee, and talked more.  More happened on that day, some said he should be imprisoned, others pointed out that he had not hurt anyone deliberately, though a few soldiers had been hurt by flying debris, but most hailed him.  He’d brought a suit which was all but impervious to our weapons, and also therefore to those of our enemy.  We heard that his father had been a scientist who had been working on such suits for many years.  He’d finally succeeded, but had sadly died before he could see his life’s work used for its true purpose, bringing peace.

The very next day Jondril walked to the front, and waded into the fight.  Again and again the enemy attacked him, but their bullets could not harm him, and their missiles didn’t bother him.  While he was untouched, every shot his suit fired was true, and the enemy soon found that all their weapons melted, or fried, or in some unfortunate cases exploded.  Jondril never once targeted a person, he only wrecked weapons.  As he explained to us later, “I wanted to stop the bloodshed, not become part of it.”  The enemy tried heavy weapons, but these too could not touch him, his suit was able to deflect heavy shells out of the air, and seemed to cause missiles to veer away sharply, or explode, as if by magic.  There were some who thought it strange that not a single heavy missile actually hit him, but the majority were just dazzled by the impact on our enemies as they fell back in disarray.

The enemy were, however, both brave and foolish, and regrouped to continue to attack.  But after two weeks they had made no progress, and Jondril had destroyed all of their armaments on the front.  Our generals wanted to plough through the now defenceless enemy and take their revenge, but Jondril was firm that he would not allow that.  He wanted the war to stop.  They realized they had no choice.  Like our enemies, there was nothing they had which could beat him.

Three weeks after Jondril’s appearance an armistice was signed.  We were at peace.  At first nobody could believe it.  Then came the celebrations, with parades and parties galore.  Then the hangovers from the celebrations, combined with effects of the war started to take its toll.  The government wanted to keep the armed forces on alert, in case of a resumption of hostilities.  Our people took to the streets to demand, quietly but firmly, that their sons and daughters should return home.  They did not riot, they did not march, they just accumulated around the parliament buildings, standing, and made their demand by their very presence.  Still the politicians did not relent.  Until Jondril joined the silent crowds.  He too said nothing, but his intent was clear.

Within days the soldiers were returning home, first a trickle and then a flood.  Some injured, some battered, and many scarred from the constant warfare.  It was a hard time for them, and their families, but also a joyous one.

Our weapons were stockpiled.  Our munitions factories converted to creating tools, toys and gadgets.  A year passed.  Peace reigned.  Our former enemy became a trading partner, though sadly only of a few fripperies.  There was hope for more.

Then, to our horror, two other neighbours invaded.   They had watched, and seeing our weakness had allied to dismember us.  We woke up, and at once the weariness of war crashed down upon us.  But also rage.  How dare they take fragile hope from us.  Sons and daughters rushed back to the barracks, ready to rearm and send these cowards home with their tails between their legs.  One young man was already prepared, he had watched our neighbours and realized they might harbour perfidy in their hearts.  Jondril marched out again, and as before none could stand against him.  Our neighbours tried half-heartedly to stop him, but soon realized that he was as untouched by their weapons as he had been by ours.

Many thought Jondril would stop at our border and let that be a lesson to all.  He did not.  He took the minister for war with him to each of the capitals, and ripped down the walls of the presidential palaces.  He then watched, silently, as a peace was negotiated, with each of our neighbours agreeing to destroy all their weapons, and pay us tribute.  In response we would destroy all but a token few of our remaining weapons.  Though truth be told there weren’t many left since the factories had not replenished what had been used in our latest battles.

Jondril stood over the pits of weapons, watching them burn and melt.  Had the suit had a face it might well have smiled, one can only assume Jondril was smiling inside.  His work was done, peace was assured.

A month passed.  Then another.  Peace became normal.  The few guards at the borders became more concerned with improving their volleyball skills than watching their peers over the border.

Suddenly our original enemies brought all their armies to our border.  While we had been enjoying the peace, they had quietly rebuilt their war machine.  They formed up and marched across, all the way to the capital.  There was no one to stop them.  They stopped in our main square, and the enemy president walked forward to meet our president.  The enemy leader was a brave man and showed no fear, even though Jondril was standing next to our leader.

Before either president could speak the suit cracked open again, and out stepped Jondril.  He walked to the enemy president, and embraced him, “Welcome sir.  The war is over.”

#

That’s not how it was.  I mean, yes, it sort of was.  Sorry, let me explain.  I was Jondril.  Well, Jondril was the suit, but it was me inside.  And it wasn’t exactly like that.

I should start at the beginning.  They said that I should just write what I remember, and then at some stage it will be released, and everyone will know the truth, or I guess, my version of the truth.

The beginning is tricky.  I can’t tell you my name, not least because after this I’ll be getting a new one, hopefully.  Jondril is not exactly a popular person amongst our new subjects.  I wasn’t a soldier.  I was a scientist.  Am a scientist.  I work with brain to machine interfaces, and before Jondril I’d been working on one of the many war efforts to find a new weapon.

The idea was to turn our soldiers into walking tanks.  We’d give them each an army’s worth of guns and send them off to wipe out our opponents.  The problem was that it didn’t work.  The suits were too slow.  While we’d been successful with bulking the armour up, and making it almost invulnerable to small arms fire, one decent missile, and blam: many millions of expensive tech up in smoke.  We added anti-missile technologies, shrunk high powered lasers and improved the targeting.  It still wasn’t enough.  Our simulations gave the suit wearer a survival time of between three and four hours in the first deployment, and less than fifteen minutes in all further deployments.

There was really only one successful part of the project.  My bit.  No, I’m not being arrogant, I’m just telling it the way it was.  We succeeded, I succeeded, in subconscious human to machine control.  What does that mean?  It means that I could control the robot’s actions just by thinking, but more than that, I didn’t have to think ‘move knee up, swing foot forward, drop foot down’, instead I just thought about moving forward.  The suit became an extension of my body, and one which felt, after some practice, natural.

The success was only partial however, as only I could interface with the original suit.  The only one now, I guess.  But we had worked out what we needed to develop next to allow others to do the same.

Our last test failure came just before the funding round.  We all knew what would happen.  I couldn’t face it.  I wanted there to be something out of all the years of work, over eight of them in fact, with me joining with the suit every day for the last five.

I was desperate.  I proposed one last gamble.  Something which would show the worth of the suit, and hopefully allow us to continue our work.  I promised to lead the enemy into an ambush.  We’d be able to turn the tide.  And if I failed, all they’d lose would be the suit.  And me.

I think I struck a chord.  The war was making us less human, and there were some who were desperate for it to be over, one way or another.  One of those was the general in charge of intelligence.  I suspect because he knew just how closely matched we were with our enemies,  despite all the propaganda, and therefore just how permanent our stalemate could be.

So, our plan was born.  I would persuade our enemies I was on their side.  Pretend to wipe out a section of the front, they would charge in, and we’d annihilate them.  I wasn’t comfortable with being instrumental in all that death, but it was going to happen one way or another, perhaps I could save some lives in the long run.  And the program of course.

I don’t hate our former enemies.  I didn’t hate them then.  I felt nothing.  My brother had died at the front, and my father.  My mother just faded after my brother’s death.  I didn’t blame the enemy, I couldn’t see the point, they were losing just as many sons, daughters and parents as we were.

The night the mission started I was a mess.  My heart was in my throat; my bowels had turned to water.  Fortunately, I was in the suit, so no one could see my face, which I’m sure was pale with fear.  I was dropped, in my suit, twenty miles from the enemy capital in mountainous territory.  The drop went without a hitch, and as I unfolded from the ball the suit had formed on landing and checked the systems, I could feel the adrenaline kick in.  This was my chance.  I power ran to the edge of the capital, using the darkness to hide me, aided by the stealth we’d built into the suit.

Taking the suit off was harder than I expected, but I knew I had to make the first approach in person to have any chance of getting them to talk to me without just wiping the suit from the planet.  I felt naked.  Alone in a country of enemies.  I’d spent some weeks being subliminally trained to use the correct accent and speech rhythms, so I would not stand out.  I had the right clothes, and enough money to get to and from the war office.  And buy some food.

It soon became clear that I was just as invisible on the streets as everyone else.  Indeed, I could easily have been in my own city, there was really little between us.

The events at the war office have been described often enough.  There’s only one thing I would add.  The suit was standing serenely, taking the punishment.  Inside I was panicking.  I had never been shot at before, and now the rounds were pinging in from everywhere.  My original plan had been to take some initial punishment, and then shelter next to a building to carefully pick off the weapons firing at me.  However, in my panic my ability to communicate to the suit failed.  I was trapped inside it, and its systems went to automatic protection.  Fortunately, I’d instructed it to avoid fatalities, otherwise there would have been a blood bath and the minister of war would have had to call down an airstrike, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed that.

Our talk.  I can’t tell you much.  He was, is, a brave man.  Some say he would have been the next president.  Perhaps.  He asked me what I wanted.  I told him peace.  He then asked me how, and I said I’d disarm our enemies.  He looked at the suit silently for a while, and then asked me to step out.  I nearly didn’t, but I knew this was my chance to persuade him.

I stepped out, sweating, but managed to hold myself straight.  He looked at me.  Said something about young men and war, and then offered me a coffee in an office, and we walked inside.  We didn’t talk much more then.  He didn’t quiz me about where I came from; he didn’t test my cover story at all.  I like to think he just trusted me, but of course he also knew that others would be interrogating me on those things later.

We had the coffee in his office.  I was then escorted into a comfortable, but locked room.  Some hours later I was visited again by an officer.  He wanted the keys to the suit.  I explained that it would only work with me.  He threatened me.  I repeated my statement.  He went away.

Oddly, they never did properly test my cover story.  I was pretending to be one of their scientists from a facility which had been blown up a year before which we knew had been working on suits.  I’d somehow made it to my nearby home and finished up my work and hey, here I was with a weapon to end the war.  It was the weakest part of the story, but it was only intended to hold up for a day or so, not long enough to be properly checked.  They created their own propaganda.  Possibly because they didn’t want to admit to having had a facility blown up, or maybe they were incapable of releasing the truth.

The next day I went to the front.  I’d told them I wanted to make a difference and that I’d clear our enemies.  I waded in, destroyed every weapon pointed at me, and defanged all my opposition.

Here was a tricky bit.  I knew that the suit couldn’t withstand true heavy weaponry, as of course did those in charge of my new ‘enemies’, but we had to pretend.  And be convincing enough that my new allies would buy it.  I was in constant communication with my old bosses, and they helped me manage such a show.  Every time a missile got too close they’d force it to self-destruct, and I’d point my arm at it just beforehand.  The artillery systems were surprisingly inaccurate that day, enough so that I could walk in between the paths.  It was all very convincing.

We managed to keep it going for two weeks.  The enemy forces fell back, leaving plenty of broken weapons in their wake.  Many of these were obsolete, but it wasn’t that obvious once they’d been sufficiently burnt, and both sides had been using obsolete weaponry for so long it probably wouldn’t have stood out.

How did I keep talking with my bosses without my new friends finding out?  Easy really, my suit was constantly chatting on every available network, wavelength and direct connection it could sense.  It was like a shining ball of communications, which meant that it was impossible to track any of it.  Especially as it was constantly shifting channels.  My new allies did try to hack it, as expected, but to them it always seemed one step ahead, and even turned the hacks around.  This was because it wasn’t doing anything with most of the information it was getting in, it was just scrambling it and feeding it straight back out again, like a crazed router.

With my former nation now appearing to be in deep trouble and on the run, my new friends were keen to take advantage and drive every spare man and woman they had, all the way to the capital to perform the coup de grace.  I was supposed to let them.  But I couldn’t.

I’d never before been at the front.  I’d not seen the dead and dying happening in front of me.  Sure I’d seen it on TV, but that’s TV…  As much as I was doing to try and spike weapons around me, there was still fighting, and blood and death, and it sickened me.  This was one of the reasons I failed the combat psych test and was allowed to continue in research.  And I wanted it stopped.

So instead of letting the fools walk into the giant trap I’d set up for them, I insisted they didn’t.  I further insisted they push for an armistice.  By this point I was a hero, and they couldn’t argue.

Unlike my former bosses, who were threatening all sorts.  There was much swearing, accusations of betrayal and suchlike.  I ignored it for a while.  And then told them of my new plan.

I’d realized that everyone wanted the war to stop.  I believed, rightly as it turns out, that the country I was in was desperate to stop.  The people had run out of fighting spirit.  I told my former bosses that if they agreed to an armistice, within a year the land I was in would be toothless, and they would be able to walk in unopposed.  All they would have to do is maintain combat readiness but keep it low profile.

The key was that my new best friends viewed me as an army on my own.  They wouldn’t need to retain troops if they had me.  The more sensible generals thought this foolish, and tried to keep the army together.  But the people soon stopped that.  Helped by some apparently ad hoc campaigns on social media.  I judged the appropriate time, and joined the standing demonstrations.  Within days the war machine was being dismantled with enthusiasm.

Why did my bosses not invade now?  In part because they wanted to rearm properly.  The last few years had left both sides armies exhausted and equipment and munitions were short.  In part I think they wanted to make sure that the old enemy was truly quietened.   And in part they needed to maintain control of their own people, allowing some peace, but not too much.  I also did my bit in staying their hand, by telling them that there were still many fit and trained men and women in this ‘adopted’ country of mine, and we needed time for their war skills to atrophy.

Months passed.  How did I avoid detection?  I told my new friends I needed space, and that I would be available if needed, but would respond badly to unnecessary contact.  I provided written responses to some questions from the news people, and then hid in the mountains, using the stealth on the suit to hide me.  In truth I did want the space, and the mountains were soothing.  I felt the burden of the deaths I’d caused.  Not directly, but I’d certainly changed the dynamic, and many of my countrymen had died.  Perhaps they would have died soon anyway.  The war would have chewed them up.  But the difference was that I had helped.  I didn’t want to face the probability that I would cause yet more death.

I spent all my time in my suit, and it became more and more part of me.  I slept in it.  It fed me.  We were one.

After a year my former homeland had recovered.  The armies were ready.  There were fewer men and women in arms, but those left were well fed, well-armed, and ready for a fight.  My pleading that the war not be restarted fell on increasingly deaf ears, and I was becoming desperate.  I was close to refusing to be any further part, but then, we all knew that I wasn’t needed for the planned slaughter.

Then fate intervened.  Two smaller nations on the borders decided to ally and pick over the weakened beast I now lived in.  They invaded, but tentatively.  Which was their mistake.  A year of peace had not healed all the wounds, and the anger of the people was frightening.  As soon as news of the incursions hit the media channels there was an eruption.  The people would not have their peace taken from them.  Vengeance and death were offered up by people who but days before were discussing poetry competitions and flower shows.

I made sure my erstwhile bosses were made aware of all of this.  They could see their enemy was weakened, but not defeated.

Then I saw a positive option.  Perhaps true peace was possible?  I joined in the defence.  Recklessly diving into the combat.  Fortunately, the two nations were weak, and hadn’t brought any proper heavy weapon support otherwise I might have been destroyed within hours.  Instead they fell back before me.  I continued to push them back, rolling over their armies, destroying any arms brought against me, but avoiding fatalities as far as was possible.  I also told my friends to let me do the work, and save themselves.  This would reduce the potential for death on both sides.

My actions in forcing the peace are well documented.  Suffice it to say the defeated nations were in such shock that they would have signed anything, and the peace they were offered was far better than any they would have given.  As all three sides destroyed their weapons I rejoiced.

Did I know my old bosses would take advantage of the situation?  Of course, I had presented the option to them.  They would win, and take over not one, but three nations, becoming a much more powerful empire.  One which could not be threatened by any of our more distant neighbours.  Was I comfortable with betraying my allies?  I never did.  I ended the war.  I gave them peace.

###

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Filed under Dark

Our Man on Earth

By Jason Gibbs

Seriously, what in the name of anything which can be named were they thinking when they sent me here?  Look at this place, it’s… it’s despicable.

“Anton?”

What?

“Anton?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?  You seemed to zone out for a moment or two there.”

“Um, yeah fine.  Where’s that waiter, I’m ready to order.”

She looked at me, and two frown lines appeared above her eyes.  Her beautiful brown eyes.

“We just finished… and I’ve paid.  Again.”

“Ah, yes, sorry, just joking, and I’ll pay tonight.”

I look around, and realise it is night, and the frown is spreading.

“I mean tomorrow.”

“Yes Anton.”  She shakes her head, her hair, like long black snakes, almost alive.  She is beautiful, and yet… not.

“Sorry Sula, it’s been one of those, um, diurnal cycles.”

“It’s a day Anton, and it’s not funny, your way, you’re… I don’t know what it is.”

She stands suddenly.  Pushing back her chair with a sound which makes me flinch.  Hate it.

“Well?”

I get up, slower, and making sure to lift my chair.  No pain there.

“Let’s walk, and perhaps I can buy you…”

“A flower?”

“A drink?”

“We’ll see.”

I reach a hand out, and she twirls away, her short white dress swirling up a little, showing her long dark brown legs to their best advantage.  And no knickers.  I knew I liked her for a reason.

She catches my stare, winks and pauses long enough for me to catch her hand and we walk out into the hot Cairo night.

When we met, we were two strangers, foreigners, lumped together.  The locals view us all the same, no matter our different racial backgrounds.  So, we were forced together, and forced in a way to behave as the locals assumed we would.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it.

“Anton?  Anton!  Are you alright?”

“Sula?”

An intake of breath.

“No, it’s Rita.”

That’s right.  Sula’s gone.  Cholera?

“Sorry Rita, I…”

She looked closely at me.

“No, I know, it’s the shock.  The car hitting you, and yet, you are fine.  But…”

Oh, the car.  Yes.  I must stay in this time.

“It just tapped me, it was the angle.”

She frowns.  Her lashes are so long.  Dark, covering her eyes.  Blue, not like Sula’s.  But then Rita is very different from Sula.

Why am I here, in this purgatory?

“What?  Purgatory?”

“Ah… maybe I will have a drink.”

“There it is.”

I look down, and she’s right, some dark brown liquid is sitting in front of me.  I take a sip.  Scotch, single malt, Highland by the taste of it.  This place has a few advantages.  Women.  Whisky.  I can’t think of a third.

“Look Anton, I’ve been meaning to say, and after that… I mean with the car.  Maybe it’s not the right time.”

“What?”

“Anton?”

“Lea, how wonderful to see you here.  How have you been?”

Her beautiful face glows with a smile.  Brown eyes, so dark they’re black, twinkling.  I used to love making her smile.

“I’m well.  I…”

She’s remembered.  How we met after Rita left me, and the brief burst of fire and then… she was a doctor, she knew I should have died.

“I’m glad to see it.  Look Lea, I have to go…”

“No Anton, please.  I’ve thought about you a lot.  I want to talk to you.  I want to try and understand.”

I should run away.  I’ve run away before.  I’ve done other things too.  But this time, I can’t.  It’s too much, I’m so tired.  Tired of this place.

“We can talk, but you won’t understand.”

“Try me.”

I get a twitch.  Damn, not now, not when…

Anton.  Report.”  It was second control.  She was always prying.

“Now is not a good time Control.  Can we twitch later?”

“No need.  I just wanted to tell you that your latest request to return has been denied.  You must complete your mission.  Out.”

“But.”  She was gone.

“Anton!”

I looked up at her.

“Lea, why are you staring down at me?”

“You just collapsed.  Hitting the corner of the table, and then lying there, mumbling.  Look, let me check your head.”

“Um no, it’s fine, really…”

“If you’re sure… though given the fire.  Yes.”

Damn, the fire.  Right, what do I do now?

“Do you have any alcohol?” I ask as I pull myself up.

“Anton, this is a coffee shop, no alcohol.”

“Oh.  I don’t think I can tell you without a proper drink.”

She sighs.

“Fine, we’ll go to my place.  Yours will be a mess, and probably crawling with… well anything.  I have some scotch.  I blame you for introducing me to it.”

She takes my hand and leads me out.  It’s different from before, it feels like I’m an errant child being led home by a brood-parent.

“Here, something a bit peaty, I think you’ll like it.  Now tell me.”

“Yes.. Ree… I mean Lea.”

She frowns, but says nothing, and looks at me, her eyes hard.

“Right, yes.  So, um, the fire.”

“Which should have killed you.  Yes?”

“Yes, but this, corpus?  Corpse?”

“It’s not a corpse until you are dead Anton.”

“This body, it is, designed, yes designed to be robust, to protect me.  From everything.”

“Fire, flood and plague?”

“All the biblical scourges.”

“Who designed it?  A government?  A corporation?”

I laugh, choking on my whisky.  After a brief cough I take another slug, swirl it round my mouth and swallow the sweet burn.

“So?”

“Sorry Lea, no, not them.  I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”

“Aliens?”

My look of surprise makes her laugh.

“Once you’ve ruled out the impossible… and I looked you over when you were out, you are not something that would be easy to make.”

It’s out.  My secret is out.  Maybe second control will take another request.  Wait, no.  If my secret is out I have to stay, and they’ll start the life timer.

“Anton!”

“Lea, look, it’s supposed to be a secret, and if my controllers find out… I’ll die here.  On this miserable excuse for a…”

I look at her frown, and change tack, “Lovely planet I mean, great place, lovely people.  Nice whisky.”

“Why are you here?  Are you going to invade?  Steal our resources?  Turn me into a fifty foot giant?”

I knew I liked her for a reason, calm and still making jokes.

“Well, technically I’m here to ‘survey the local civilisation and report’, but honestly, it’s punishment for… well best not to say.”

“Was a girl involved?  Or your species’ equivalent?”

“Um, yes, more or less.”

“Ha, not a surprise.  You didn’t answer my question.”

“No offence, but there is literally nothing of value on this planet.  Once you get a space industry you’ll realise how poor the planet really is, but anyway, all I’m really here to do is try and prevent you lot from killing yourselves off.  Not because you’re special, there are thousands of similar planets and sentients, but because we’re sentimental that way.  Possibly several millennia of wiping out any other species we encountered, it’s amazing what trillions of deaths will do to a species’ guilt complex when it finally arrives.”

“How is it going?”

“Oh, well, I haven’t really tried, I mean, why bother?  If you lot want to kill yourselves, go ahead.  I just want to get home.”

“And when can you go home?”

“Only when I produce evidence you’re all stable and not likely to explode at any moment.”

“That’s it?”

“Or…”

Or… now that is interesting.

“Or what Anton?  Anton?  What is that gleam in your eye?”

“Lea, I have to go, sorry.  I’ll probably not see you again.”

The plague ripped through the population without mercy.  Billions died.  Civilisation collapsed, and the few who were immune to the bioweapon died in the ensuing chaos as a result of starvation or other prosaic killers.

Second control passed on his report.  The response was swift, “Well Anton, you failed.  But you can come home.”

###

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NPCs

NPCs

By Jason Gibbs

“Sometimes it feels like everyone else is an NPC.”

“What do you mean?”

He sighed, and looked around.  Waving his arms vaguely he said, “All these people, they’re just automatons.  Physical expressions of some simplistic code.  You know like non-player characters in games.”

“Right, or, and this is just a wild suggestion, but you might have been gaming a little too much recently.  You might want to take a break.”

Normally Ray would have laughed at this point, but instead he looked quite grumpy.

“No, Jules, really, I’m serious.”

“OK OK.  Look, I have to go.  I’ll meet you later, right, at the Old Lion?”

“Yeah yeah, I’ll be there.”

He wasn’t, in fact I didn’t see him for a few weeks, which is quite unusual.  Even more strange was that I saw him in the morning at our usual coffee hang out.  Ray was the kind of person to whom mornings were anathema.

“Jules.  How are you?”

“Erm, I’m fine Ray.  What are you doing?  Where’ve you been?”

“Ah, well, just trying a few things out.”

Then he looked at me oddly and leant close and whispered something in my ear.  It sounded a little like ‘shuzz-worzler’ but I didn’t catch it.

“What was that for?”

“Damn, I was worried there for a moment.  I thought you were one of them too.”

He was starting to weird me out.

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, can we grab a coffee, I need to talk to someone real, and you’re the only one I’ve found so far who’s likely to listen to me.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether to be complimented or not, but I nodded, and we ordered some coffees.  I was going to pay, as Ray is often between jobs, but he said, “Leave it to me.”

The barista rang up the amount, and Ray leant over and said something to him.  The barista looked a bit vacant, and then entered something into the till, and said, “On the house.”

I looked askance at Ray.  He shrugged and said, “They know my face?  I’ll explain.”

Shaking my head I took my coffee and headed for our regular table in the corner.  It gave an excellent view of both doors, and had a comfy feel to it.

“Explain.”

“What?”

“Where you’ve been!  And why you got these coffees free.”

“Right yeah.  Where to begin… so you remember I said it was like everyone was an NPC?”

“Kind of.”

“Well it got me to thinking, so I did a bit of experimentation.  You know how in Dungeons of Trithory you could use special codes to get NPCs to provide information even if you didn’t know the right questions?  It was kind of a hack.”

“Um, I didn’t actually play that one.”

I wasn’t anything like the gamer Ray was.  Not least because I had a job and really didn’t have the time.

“Well take my word for it, there were these special words.  It’s quite common really, most games have some form of them.  The way to find them involves some trial and error, but they follow some common themes, usually a corruption of the title of the game, or some main part of the back history.”

“And this has what to do with free coffee?”

“Well, I did some testing on people who I was convinced were NPCs.  It took me a couple of weeks, and some slightly difficult situations, but I found the codes.  I found the codes!”

I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying.  I must have looked a little confused, because he went on, “Look, all I did to get these coffees was use one of the code words, and then tell him it was on the house.”

“Like a Jedi?”

“Yes, these are the coffees we were looking for.”

“That is BS.  I bet you just promised to pay him later.”

“No, serious.”

“You’re trying to tell me there are some secret words which will make anyone in the world do what you want.”

“Not anyone, just the NPCs, which is most people.  I reckon there’s only a dozen or so of us real people in this part of the city.”

“Ray, you have really lost it.  I am worried about you.  This kind of delusion… you need to give up the gaming.”

“I haven’t played a game for more than a week, other than the game of real life.”

I was getting quite worried.  I’d never seen him like this.  As he saw my face he started to get frustrated.

“Look, give me a challenge.  I can get anyone in this shop to do whatever I want, well except you.  Mores the pity.”

“Not this again.”

“No no, I know, we’re just friends.  But seriously.  Give me a challenge.”

I looked around the shop.  There were a few people sitting enjoying their coffees.  A couple of business men clearly having a gossip about work, their voices were too low and the chuckles too loud for it to be anything else.  An old man, doing the crossword and nursing a small latte.  Next to him was a pretty girl.  Long dark hair, red lipstick.  The coffee in front of her was empty, and she was checking her makeup with her phone, but the frown on her face said she’d been stood up.  I knew Ray was useless with women.  It was painful to watch, and normally I wouldn’t put him through it, but he was irritating me with this NPC thing.

“OK, get that girl’s number.”

“I’ll do better, I’ll get her to kiss me.”

“Right.  But if it doesn’t work I don’t want to hear any more of this MPC rubbish.”

“NPC.”

“Whatever.  Stop stalling.”

He walked over quite calmly and said, “Hello”.  The girl’s face was a picture.  Not only had she been left waiting on her own in a coffee shop for ages, now some geek was hitting on her.  Then he leant over and said something else.  She smiled at him.  They chatted for a couple more minutes and then she kissed him.  Not a peck on the cheek or anything, a full on, tongues and lust, she rose to press her whole body into him.  It went on for a while, and when it finished he stepped back shakily.  They were both breathing quite heavily.  Ray said something else, she laughed, and wrote her number down on a card.  He took it and she reached for him again.  After another kiss which was almost pornographic he managed to disentangle himself and walk back over to me.  The girl still stared at him hungrily, while everyone else in the shop seemed to have missed the show.

“See.”

He sat down with a self-satisfied smile on his face, and a smudge of lipstick.

“That was impressive.  And a little disgusting.”

“Yeah.  I think I’m definitely going to give her a call.”

“I’m sort of believing you, but she might just be madly attracted to the geekier man.”

“Do you want to do it?”

“What?”

“Use one of the words.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK, it is…”

He leant over and whispered it.  He had me repeat it back to him several times until he was satisfied I was saying it right.

“Now you have the power too.  Say that to anyone in here and then give them a command, and they’ll do it.”

The clientele hadn’t changed much in the last few minutes, and I was bereft of ideas.

“No idea what to do.”

A sly smile appeared on Ray’s face.  “Well, you could get the girl to kiss you too…”

“Oh you’d like that, wouldn’t you?  Pervert.  I’m not into that as you know.”

Well, I’d tried it once, and it was strange, and fun, but, well, I wasn’t going to provide Ray with the entertainment.

“OK, I’ve got one.  I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

I got up and walked over to the two men who were still gossiping away.

“Good morning gentlemen.”

“What do you want?”

I leant in and said the word.  Then I said, “Now please give me all the money in your wallets.”

They immediately started emptying their wallets and gave me everything they had, notes and coins.  It was quite a nice haul.

“Thank you gentlemen.”

I walked back.

“Well, it seemed to work.”

“But?”

“Well, these could all be actors you’ve hired, how do I know this isn’t just a huge trick you’re playing on me?”

He was getting frustrated again, “I’ll get that girl over, and she’ll do whatever I tell her.  Or those blokes, or anyone in this coffee shop.  Really.”

“Hmm, no, you could have paid them a lot.  I’ve seen some stuff on the internet which leads me to believe some people will do anything for money.”

“Well…”

“Wait.  I’ll believe you when I’ve tried it out in locations you won’t have had time to prepare.”

“Oh, well I guess.”

“Excellent.”

“Um, but one thing, if you come across a real person, you need to remember one thing.”

“A real person?”

“Like you or me.  Not affected by the words.”

“Right.”

“Well, they might take offence at your suggestion, and it can cause some embarrassment.  So far I’ve only met a few, but, still.”

I wondered what he’d asked them to do.  Knowing him it could be pretty disgusting.

“How do I spot them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Brilliant.  That adds a little challenge.  Are these people immune to all your words?”

He looked thoughtful, clearly he hadn’t tested it out.  Suddenly he leant forward and said another strange word in my ear.  I decided to play along.  I made my face go vacant.  His face lit up and a smirk crossed his face.  I nearly laughed at him then, but managed to hold it together.

“Kiss me like that girl just did.”

I reached for him, and just before our lips met I brought my hand round and gave him a slap.

“Ouch!”

“Stop trying your words out on me.  Or at least if you’re going to, ask first.”

“You didn’t have to slap me so hard.”

“Hmm, yes, sorry.”

I wasn’t at all sorry. He rubbed his face.  I really had caught him.  I was a little annoyed with how he was trying to use me too, just like these others, who it would appear might really be mere automatons.

“Anyway, how many words do you have.”

“Just four.”

“OK, well do you want to try the other two on me?”

He looked at me a little shiftily and said, “I thought you didn’t believe in them?”

“Well, I’m becoming convinced.”

“I’ll tell you the others when you really are convinced.”

“That seems fair enough.  Is there any difference with the effect of the words?”

“None that I’ve been able to find out, but I’ve not been using them for long.”

Something occurred to me.

“These other real people, do they now have words too?”

A look of fear crossed his face.

“Maybe, if they remember the word and try and use it.  But, well probably not I would have thought.”

“OK.”

I looked at my watch and realised I was going to be late back to work.

“Sorry Ray, got to run.”

Work is normally a real drag.  I work in an office pushing paper around for a large corporation.  The money is good, the benefits are great and the office politics is vicious.  I try and keep out of it, but that means I’ve watched a continuous stream of snakes get promoted past me.  The work used to be satisfying, if not entirely challenging, but even that has palled.

The first thing I did was visit my boss.  He quickly agreed that I should be promoted, and told me who else had to agree to an out of cycle pay raise.  I spoke with four more people and I had a letter by the end of the day with a whacking great increase, and a guarantee of a promotion and bonus.

While I was organising a better situation for myself I decided some payback was in order.  Michelle had pretended to be my friend, and then used my ideas to get ahead.  I also suspected she’d stolen my last boyfriend, but in all honesty he wasn’t a loss.  It was when she snubbed me once she had the metaphorical key to the executive bathroom that really hurt.

“Hi Michelle.”

“Ah, Jules.  Sorry, but I’m very busy…”

Oh yes, she was always too busy to speak with a mere peon like me.

I leant in and said the second word Ray had told me.  It worked a treat.  Her face went slack.

“So Michelle, did you steal my ideas and Paulo.”

“Yes.”

No hint of apology, but then she was in that suggestive state, so that wasn’t much of a surprise.  Here she was, I could do anything.  I could make her run naked down the halls, make her piss on her boss’ desk, or maybe even jump out a window.  But, the thing was I didn’t want to do any of those things.  Oddly I just wanted my friend back.

“Why?”

“I don’t know, I thought that being a manager is what I wanted.  And I was so jealous of you.  Pretty, clever and with a hunk like Paulo.”

“Do you miss our friendship?”

“I do.  I wanted to apologise, or make it right, but, I just couldn’t.”

She looked upset, but if it hadn’t been for the word then I wouldn’t have believed her.  What should I do?

“OK Michelle, I forgive you.  We are friends again.  Come for coffee with me.  Oh and, tell Paulo you have syphilis and he should get himself checked.”

She smiled at me.  The power of the word always seemed to ebb once instructions had been given.

“Oh Jules, it’s lovely to see you again.  Look, I shouldn’t, but do you want to grab some coffee?  I just need to make a quick call to Paulo…”

She looked embarrassed.

“Michelle don’t worry, I know, and to be honest it was all over for us.”

“I think it might be over for us too, which is a shame… but I have to tell him something.”

“OK, well I’ll see you in thirty minutes at the coffee shop on the corner?”

“Perfect.”

As I walked away I heard her dialling.  I did wonder what Paulo would think, though I didn’t really care.

That night I woke up sweating.  I’d had a dream where I was a puppet master, and I’d kept getting caught in my puppets’ strings, and then I’d become one of the marionettes.  It had been unpleasant.

I didn’t sleep at all after that.  My conscience was troubling me.  Sure it was nice to have Michelle as a friend again.  She’d been the same chatty, cheerful person I’d remembered.  Yet, it had lacked substance for me.  Knowing at any moment that I could make her do, well, anything.  I was starting to wish Ray hadn’t told me about them, or even that they worked on me.

It was too late though.  The genie was out of the bottle.  What was I going to do about it?

I met Ray for coffee again, at a different place, one I’d selected at the last minute.  I don’t know why, but I just thought it was safer.  Maybe I still didn’t believe the words worked and wanted a place he couldn’t have set up.

“Jules, you look terrible!”

“Always the charmer.”

“No really, what’s wrong?”

“Ah, I think I’m coming down with something.  But it’s nothing really.  How are you?”

“I am a god!”

He laughed.  I remembered the old saying about power tending to corrupt.

“That’s nice, and you’ve been doing good works?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Good works?”

“To help the unfortunates in the world, the poor, the starving and the destitute.”

“Um, but they’re not real.  They’re just NPCs.  Constructs put here to add colour to the world.”

He actually believed it.  It was worse than I thought.

“Right.  If not good works, what have you been doing?”

He smirked.

“I’m not sure you want to hear about it.  Suffice it to say I’m making up for years of women ignoring me.”

I sighed.  This should not have been a surprise to me.

“You’ve been using all these girls?”

“They have a good time, I tell them to.”

His eyes glittered.  He really was having a good time.  I just wondered about the wreckage he left behind him.  If they really were NPCs, then perhaps it didn’t matter.

Our coffee order was delivered but a petite blonde girl, with a cute shy smile.  Ray did a double take, and said, “Morning lovely, what is your name?”

She stared at him and started to back away, when he leant forward and said a word to her.  I didn’t catch which one it was, though it didn’t seem to matter.

The girl stood still.

“What is your name?”

“Greta.”

“Well Greta, it’s lovely to meet you.  You have an opportunity to join tonight’s harem.  Strip.”

“Ray…”

“Don’t be silly, she’s just a machine.”

The girl started to take her clothes off.  She was quickly down to her bra and panties.  This was enough, I leant forward said a word and told her to stop.  She just carried on.

I turned to Ray in surprise.  He too looked surprised.

“Stop.”

The girl was bending down to pull her panties off, and just stopped in that position.

“What word did you use Jules?”

I told him.

“Hmm, I used another one.”

He told me the word he’d used, which was a new one to me.  I held it in my memory.  I now had three of his four words.  Assuming he hadn’t added any more.  Though given what he’d been doing I somehow doubted that.

“That’s interesting.  So the first word stops the others.  Hmm.”

“Ray…”

Some of the other patrons had noticed the girl.  Her naked bottom was on display to the whole shop.

“Yeah, this sometimes happens.”

He shouted a word, and told everyone to go back to what they were doing.

The waitress stayed where she was.  Ray looked at her appraisingly, then handed her a card.

“Come to this address tonight, at seven thirty.  Bring a friend.  We are going to have a party.  Now get dressed and carry on with your day.”

She quickly put her clothes back on, smiled at us and went back to the tills.

I shook my head at Ray, “You really are a pervert.”

His smile was extra wide.

“You’re welcome to come along… the party starts at around five.  Oh, and I have a new house, more befitting my new stature.  I have a pool and everything.”

“What happened to the people who were living there before?”

“Who cares?”

‘Who indeed?’ I thought to myself.  I answered, “Sorry Ray, I have a few other things I need to do tonight.  Maybe another time.”

He looked disappointed.  “Well, you’re always welcome.”

“So are you going to tell me the other words?”

He was just leaning in to tell me, when he pulled back, I could see him calculating.  “You have two, so why do you need more?”

“No reason I guess, but you said you’d tell me.”

“Well Jules, I think I’ll keep them to myself for the moment.  Unless you’d like to reconsider your plans tonight?”

So that was how it was going to be.

“Ah sorry Ray, but they’ve been in the diary for a while.  As you say, two words are more than enough.”

He just smiled.

We talked a little more about inconsequentials, but he seemed distracted, probably thinking about hunting down more girls to join his party.  He quickly left, and I stayed sitting staring at my coffee.

Greta came over and asked me if I wanted another drink.

“A latte would be lovely, thank you.  One thing Greta.”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember the word that man said to you before you took your clothes off?”

“Oh yes.”

“Can you tell me it?”

She told me.  It was the fourth word.  Ray thought I had only two.  I repeated it back to her, and she went slack again.  The poor girl, she was just a toy in our hands.  I was in a quandary though.  If I told her not to go to Ray’s tonight, he’d know I’d found out the word, and I was starting to think that might be a mistake.  On the other hand sending this poor girl into his nasty mitts was repugnant.  What could I do?

“Greta.  You’re supposed to go to a party tonight.”

“Oh yes.  It will be fun.”

“Unfortunately you won’t be able to go.  At around five o’clock you’re going to start feeling very unwell.  By six o’clock you’re going to feel faint and want to throw up.  At that point call the number and tell the man your symptoms and that you’re going to hospital but will see him afterwards.   He won’t want you to come to his party and will likely tell you not to bother.  As soon as he does you will feel much better, and then you and your friend can stay in and watch movies.”

She just nodded.

“Good, and a latte would be nice.”

She smiled again and headed off.

Saving one girl, two I guess including the friend, wasn’t enough.  I needed to stop Ray before he went completely mad.  Looking at the girl as she had stood in front of me I got the impression that she wasn’t totally happy with what I was saying to her, there was someone inside screaming to get out.  Maybe I was projecting, but I just couldn’t believe that she was an automaton.

She brought my coffee and I sipped it slowly while I made some plans.  I needed a holiday somewhere outside this city.  I was sure work would agree to a paid sabbatical.

Two months later I returned to the city.  I wondered what Ray had been getting up to, but I was also sure I didn’t really want to know.  I went back to my little house.  It was so welcoming, and cosy.  I’d missed it on my travels.  I was making myself a coffee in my favourite mug when the doorbell went.  I’d wondered how long it would take.

At the door were two large men.

“Miss, you’re to come with us.  Il Capo demands it.”

Il Capo?  I just nodded at them and they escorted me to a limousine with blacked out windows.  I was expecting Ray to be in it, but he wasn’t and it occurred to me that he wouldn’t have been waiting.  He’d have just left these goons.

They didn’t say a word as we drove.  I tried to talk to them, but nothing.  I smiled.

We drove to a big house.  The tyres crunching on the gravel drive.  The two men were very courteous as they helped me out of the car, and then bracketed me as we walked to the front door.

A butler, an honest-to-god butler, answered the door, and led me to the drawing room.

A few minutes later Ray appeared.  He’d put on a lot of weight, and unfortunately I could see it all as he was wearing just a pair of shorts and an open silk dressing gown.  He did not look well.

My expression must have revealed my thoughts as his greeting stumbled.  “Ah hi Jules.”

“Ray.  How are you?”

“Well, very well, I’ve been enjoying life.”

“I can see that.”

“Oh don’t worry, I have an exercise man coming tomorrow, and my doctor is putting me on a new diet tomorrow as well.”

“Does tomorrow ever come?”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“So where’ve you been?  I haven’t seen you since we met in that coffee shop.”

“I needed to get away.  To think about things.”

“Did you think I’d be upset about the girl?”

“What?”

Damn, had he found out?  Had he hurt her?

“Yeah, she phoned up with some cock and bull story about being ill.  I figured you’d somehow turned her, and decided to keep her for yourself.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Oh Jules, I had so many girls I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if she hadn’t turned up.  It was only when she called that I figured something was up.  But that’s ok, I’m happy to share.  I’m happy to share everything with you.”

“Ah well, that’s nice Ray.”

He was starting to loom over me.

“Now Jules, I’ve decided we need to be together.”

“But Ray…”

“My words don’t work on you, but I think you can be persuaded.”

There was real menace in his eyes now.  He smiled, but there was no warmth in it, just a desperate hunger.

“These two gentlemen will take you downstairs, and make you comfortable.  Then they are going to make you very uncomfortable, until you agree to everything I ask.  Do you understand?”

How could he do this?  My heart was pumping, I looked around.  Was there a way out?  This wasn’t what I’d planned.

“There is no way out Jules.  Not ever.  I have more like these, and they will watch over you, always.”

I looked into his eyes, and saw only a hungry madness.  Fear froze me, I couldn’t say anything.  I tried to hold his eyes, but he looked away as his two goons loomed over to me, and just picked me up, one on each side.

They carried me down to the basement into a room which was part dingy strip club, part Hammer horror.  There was a large bed, a couple of poles on a stage, and a table in the middle, with straps to hold arms and legs, and a mirror above so that the victim could see everything.  There were some unpleasant stains on the table, and the bed.  Next to the table was the obligatory dentist’s trolley with an arsenal of pain-inducing implements.  Looking round I took in the cameras.  Everything could be watched, recorded and if necessary, shared.

I felt my knees go weak.  This place would break me, I knew it.  If I let it.  If I let them.  The two large men seemed like they knew what they were doing as they carried me to the table.

I wondered when Ray would come to see what was happening.  At first I thought he’d be watching, and then I remembered that he had no real stomach for blood or real violence.  He liked it at a cartoon level, but genuine razor blade to the throat stuff really didn’t work for him.  He’d wait until I’d begged, and begged and the men finally believed I was broken.  Then they’d tidy me up and call for him.  That squeamishness would be his undoing.

As they lay me on the table I decided that enough was enough, I said something to the men.  And held my breath.  They both went slack and dropped my hands and I could breathe again.  I hadn’t fully believed it would work.  I’d feared Ray might have learned a new word, or tried something different, but I was lucky.  Then again Ray thought he was already a god, why would he have learned more.

I got off the table, and asked the goon on my left, “What is your name?  And his?”

“I am Tomaso, he is Lars.”

“Nice to meet you I’m sure.”

Under the spell of the word they didn’t answer.

“How long would Ray expect you to take before calling him?”

“Twelve hours usually, maybe a little more.”

I shuddered.  I didn’t want to think about what twelve hours in their tender mercies might have meant.

I considered asking them for more information, how many girls they’d brought down here, what they did, but I just didn’t want to know.  They’d get their just desserts in due course.  I needed to deal with Ray.

“What does he do while you’re busy down here?”

“We don’t know.  But he always answers the house phone.  He might be in his room.”

Excellent.  I’d need to move fast, but I was inside, and he didn’t realise I was loose, or about to be anyway.  I figured I’d take my two new friends, they’d prove useful.  First, I needed to make sure they were entirely under my control.  I said another word to them, and then said, “Punch each other.  Hard.  Tomaso first.”

They really hit each other.  Lars lifted off his feet and fell back at Tomaso’s punch, and Tomaso flew back when Lars returned the favour.  Good, that was a start on their punishment, but I needed them so I had to refrain from anything further.

“Let’s go.  Keep an eye out for anyone threatening me, except Ray, and neutralise them.  Non-lethally.”

They followed me out, flanking me once again, but this time as my guards.

Ray’s house was big and spacious, and surprisingly empty.  I’d assumed he’d have some staff.  Some girls in French maids’ outfits perhaps.  Apart from the butler I’d already met, and who didn’t show himself while we were looking around, there didn’t seem to be anyone else.  I was going to ask the boys, but thought it best to keep quiet; I didn’t want to alert Ray with some careless talking.

His room was upstairs, at the end of a long hall, every other room being empty.  It was eerie.  As we approached the door I could hear the sounds of people having sex.  On the one hand I don’t like being rude, but on the other hand…  I had one of the boys slam open the door.

I walked in to see Ray lying on his bed, alone.  The projection on the wall in front of him was of some kind of orgy, the figures of almost lifelike size.  I almost started trying to count the participants as it seemed rather busy, but instead concentrated on Ray.  He looked up, and then laughed.

“I misjudged you Jules.  You found the other word.  I was so sure you hadn’t.  A mistake.  I should have watched, but, well I didn’t want to see you hurt.”

I couldn’t believe his nerve.  He didn’t seem at all worried, and I wondered what I didn’t know.  He languidly rose from the bed and then spun round, and I felt something hit me.  Then I was writhing on the floor in agony.  He’d tasered me.

“Pick her up, and take her back downstairs.  First gag her.”  He said to the boys.

The two of them did nothing, just standing there.

He sighed and leant towards them and said a word.  Then he repeated himself.  Still nothing.  He started to rave at them, shouting his word, and demanding they do something.  He was working himself up into a real rage when I managed to choke out, “Grab him, make sure he has no more surprises.”

Suddenly released the two of them grabbed Ray, and patted him down thoroughly.

I got up, still unsteady from the taser.

“Bastard.”

Ray was almost frothing at the mouth with anger.  “How did you do that?  You bitch.”

“Now now Ray, no need for that.  They’re mine now.”

All the energy went out of him, and he slumped down, and if he hadn’t been held then he’d have fallen to the floor.

“What have you been doing Ray?”

“Having fun.  I guess.  It wasn’t the same without you.  I just wanted you to join in the fun.  I love you Jules.”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

“I gave you the words!  I thought that would be enough, you’d see what I could do, and then you’d love me too.  But you didn’t and then you ran away.  I couldn’t find you, I went to your office, but they just didn’t know.  Where did you go?”

“I went to find out more about the words.  I met with some people who’ve been studying them, trying to understand them.  They took me in, but interrogated me to make sure I hadn’t misused the words.  I have to make up for the small indiscretions I committed while testing the words, but they felt I was trustworthy.  Then they explained the basics of what they’d learned.”

“Some other reals?  With words?”

“Ray, everyone is real, they aren’t NPCs.  We all just have different levels of susceptibility to the words.  There’s a whole hierarchy.  If you’d spent more time studying them, instead of trying to sleep with every pretty girl you saw, you might have worked a little more out.”

“But we did that test, a second word cannot cancel a first word.”

“A weaker word cannot override a stronger one.  But a stronger one will always override a weaker.  Your words were quite strong.  Too strong, they gave you too much power.”

He stared at me.

I sighed and said a word.  He went limp.

“That’s how it feels Ray.  You’re still in there, trapped, but now you will do whatever I want.”

What did I want?  I wanted him to understand the suffering he’d caused, I wanted him to pay for his crimes.

“This is how it goes Ray.  You will never use a word again.  Every time you try and say one you will instead ask the person to kick you.  You have been stripped of your power.”

He didn’t move.  He couldn’t.  I could see a little of his internal struggle.  He hated it, as his many victims would have.  As I would have if I hadn’t been stronger than his words.

“I will now leave.  You will never see me again, and you will not try to see me.  I have a new mission in life.  To find and stop people like you.”

I turned to the two men holding him.

“You two will hold him until I’ve left.  Then you will go to the police station and admit to all the crimes you committed before you came under Ray’s sway.  Then you will be free of the influence of his words.”

They nodded.

I walked out.  As I left Ray was back in control of himself and shouted, “That’s it?  I already have everything I need, I have all this money.  Girls will flock to me now anyway.  I don’t need you, or the words.”

I shook my head.  He hadn’t learned a thing.

I looked outside to see that a car had turned up; there was a pretty girl in it.  Several more cars followed, each disgorging one or two girls.  They all looked angry, and some of them had weapons.  They all started to head inside with some determination.  I hadn’t told Ray the second half of his sentence.  The organisation I’d joined had found as many of the girls whom Ray had used as they could.  They’d freed them of his grip, and those who’d wanted revenge were told when they would be able to take it.  They were all told that they would forget everything about Ray after they’d exacted their price.  Those who wanted nothing more to do with him were freed of the burden immediately.  They’d still bear some mental, and in some cases physical, scars underneath, but it was the best we could do.

“Well Ray, you were right.  Girls are flocking to you.”

He looked confused as the girls started to stream past me, heading towards him.  The confusion turned to fear and he stared at me.

Before I walked out I winked at him and said, “Thanks for playing.  Game over.”

###

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Dark Sentinel

Goats are very cool.  And intelligent.

 

Dark Sentinel

“Howard, have you eaten all my dinner?”

Course the goat couldn’t answer.  It didn’t even have vocal cords.  Or a mouth.  But I had to speak to someone.  The psychs had said back on Earth, “If you feel like talking, do so.  The sounds won’t escape the asteroid, and it’ll make you feel better.”

I wish I’d had the courage to ask the psychs if they had spent three years on their own in a dark hole.

They’d recruited me after I’d survived a spelunking accident.  Trapped in a tiny crevice for five days.  Just the dripping of water to keep me company, and alive.  Actually they’d recruited me after the second accident.  The first was only a day.  None of my friends had died in either accident, but poor Blakely had broken a leg and sworn never to enter a cave again.  Being trapped hadn’t deterred me, and I was planning my next expedition when Mr Philips approached me.

“George, I hope you don’t mind if I call you George, I wonder if you’d do me a favour and come and see me after your trip.  I have a job offer which might interest you.”

I didn’t want a job.  However I realised that given the state of my finances it might be sensible for me to listen to his offer.

“You want me to live in a hole, on my own, for three years?”

“Yes, and we will pay you handsomely.  Tax free, and you won’t be able to spend it.  You’ll come back a very rich man.”

“Assuming I come back, and come back sane.”

“Your profile shows you can cope with the stresses.”

I didn’t realise how desperate they were.  Of course I’d heard about the Istanbul attack.  Some kind of ravening alien thing had flown out of the sky and strafed the ancient city, before landing and sending out creatures which collected everything they could get their hands on.  Animals, trees, cars and people.  Everything was taken to their ship.  Which then flew off again.

Why did they let it get away?  They didn’t let it, they just couldn’t touch it.  The Turks launched missiles and fired rounds at it, nothing even scratched the paintwork.  There was consternation.  Not only were we not alone, but ET was a rapacious and apparently invincible rapscallion.

The great powers, for a brief period before they went back to their Great Game bickering, agreed on two measures.  First, they set up a technology program which was to design better weapons, and secondly, they would create a detection mechanism to provide advance warning of any future attacks.

“So you see, we’d like you to be in the outer ring of the warning shell.  In the Oort cloud.”

My astronomy was poor, but I was pretty sure that was a long way away.

“It will take five years for you to get there.  But you’ll be asleep, in deep hibernation.”

Perhaps this is the point where I should have started to get a little suspicious.  In a way I did as I demanded, and received, more money.  But I missed the fundamental point, which was, after all the effort to get me out there, why would they bring me back after three years?  I think the psychs had found that people would balk at being told it was longer.

I’d been in my new home for more than a year before I named the goat.  Before then it had just been an organic machine to me.  The first time I’d spoken to it was a few months later.

“Howard, you know you’re a goat don’t you.”

Nothing.

“A goat spider squid I guess.”

Still nothing.  I decided to explain to him what he was.

“You see Howard, you are a genetically engineered life form, designed to spot the things in the darkness, which is why you have so many eyes, you see, all over this rock.”

I waved around our little hole, though I was indicating the outside.  I also pointed at the fleshy trunks which snaked out of Howard’s holding box.  The brain just sat there.  Probably, hopefully, still staring out into interstellar darkness, to spot the monsters.

The memory of how I’d found out that I wasn’t the important member of the crew stopped my garrulous flow.

We, the chosen few, had been sitting down for lunch.  Morris was mouthing off again.

“You know we’re just going to be glorified shepherds, don’t you?”

“Goat herds,” grunted Simmons, someone who I could relate to, even if I couldn’t pronounce his Croatian first name.

“Whatever.  We’re just there to look after them.  Feed them, protect them from wolves or whatever, and wipe their bums.”

I must have looked a little confused, as Simmons explained, “You haven’t had the lecture yet about your companion.  They’ll tell you this afternoon, but, well, it’s basically a goat brain, hooked up to some extra sensitive eyes, which will stare into space and spot any intruders.”

“They hope!”

“Yeah.  They hope.  We’re there to keep it fed, set up the eyes and, if it does see anything, double check and then report back.”

I’m glad Simmons explained it, as I didn’t get half of that from the lecture that afternoon.

To be honest it was Simmons who stopped me from being one of the seventy percent who failed.  His brotherly attitude meant I could keep up with what was going on.

The first time I apologised to Howard was something which still made me wince.  The problem was that the only thing either of us had to eat was a high calorie liquid, of which they had tons.  There were also some flavourings, but after two years they were getting old in every sense.  Some of the other recruits had talked about the other option.  Goat.

Not all of Howard’s tendrils grew properly, or could be directed to an open area of the asteroid.  I was supposed to try my best to find a use for them, otherwise I was to surgically remove them and put them into the waste hopper, which would, organically of course, try and recover as much food value as possible.  Or, one could, well, eat it.

Problem number one with eating Howard, apart from the fact he was my best friend, was that I wasn’t really supposed to use any heat sources in the cave.  Sure I was many feet under, but the theory was that if I didn’t make any additional heat, then there was no way it could leak out.  Still, there were a few ways.  If nothing else I could use the hot side of the waste recovery tank.

The second problem was the lack of any utensils apart from the surgical scalpel.  Howard was pretty tough, and my teeth and jaws hadn’t been getting much of a work out.  Still, I managed to cut the excess tendril into chunks.  I felt so guilty.  In fact, in the end, I just put them into the waste hopper, and I spent an hour apologising to Howard.  It’s not that he’d have missed the tendril, I’d just been worried I might like it too much, and then I’d have been doing much more maintenance on Howard than was really appropriate.

“You men, will be the first warning of danger for the human race.”

I don’t know why there weren’t any women, perhaps they were being trained in a separate facility?

“The great sacrifice you are making will be valued by everyone on the planet.”

I hadn’t realised I was making a big sacrifice, and I really wasn’t sure that anyone else knew or gave a damn.  The graduation, that’s what they called it, carried on in a similar vein, with me adding silent commentary.  Simmons had disappeared so I didn’t have anyone to whisper to.

The last time I saw Simmons was during a practice run.

“This suit is disgusting.”

“It’s a living creature.  It will form a symbiosis with you, keep you warm and safe.  It will be your second skin for your sleep out and back, and the three years you are active.  Trust me, you will get used to it.”

“Notice he isn’t wearing one,” I whispered to Simmons, who just cracked a small smile.

The instructor ignored us and went on.

“It will provide insulation, it will protect you from radiation and it will, if necessary, keep you alive for up to two weeks in hard vacuum without additional tanks.  It is a miracle of modern gengineering.”  He paused for effect.  “Within a couple of days you won’t even notice it.”

We all stared at the giant jelly baby like blobs on the floor.  They looked as if they’d been attacked by equally gigantic slugs.  The thought of putting one of them on was revolting.

One of the cockier recruits stepped forward and started putting his on, to groans and commentary from everyone else.  The instructor started chivvying the rest of us along and soon we all were wearing them, all except Simmons.  He couldn’t touch it.  Even with the instructor screaming at him.    He wouldn’t, or couldn’t perhaps, explain why he felt such terror towards the suits.  He was taken off the program and moved to a support role.

After that day we lived in the suits.  They made us into clumsy marshmallow men, but we were assured that with practice we’d soon get used to them.  To be fair, I haven’t been cold since that day.  They recycled our urine into drinkable water, and our other waste was dried into pellets which we could easily put into the waste hoppers.

Howard couldn’t move.  He was more of a plant than an animal in that sense.  Occasionally, when I was bored, I’d taunt him.

“Not much of a goat are you Howard?  Can’t see you leaping from boulder to boulder in that shape.  You need to get some exercise mate.”

He just stared at me, with his single eye.  I’d let one grow in our living cave.  Strictly against orders, but after what might have been two years I didn’t really care.

I always felt guilty after I’d been mean, so I’d read to him.  We hadn’t been allowed to bring any electronics.  Nothing which might have any form of EM signature at all.  But we did have quite a large weight allowance.  I used mine on books.  And a ‘Go’ set.  Half the books were favourites I’d happily read again, and the other half were new to me.  Five hundred books.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to re-read them more than once each before I was recovered.

One morning Howard’s warning screen lit up.  It wasn’t really a screen of course.  Our instructors called it a luminescent biological dot matrix light communicator.  Simmons, who’d still been with us, tried to explain it.

“Look, you know that it’s part goat, part squid and some other stuff right?  Well you know squid can change their skin colours?”  I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“What they’ve done is sort of wired up the brain bits of the squid which could do that, to an organ which will grow mostly flat, and be able to produce luminous dots.  These will then be used to spell out messages.”

“Such as ‘Maaaaaaa’.”

“Funny.”

Gallows humour had set in.  We thought that we were the first soldiers in the war.  In earlier times we might have been called cannon fodder.

“But really, things like, enemy detected and then the coordinates.  Our job is to then double check the coordinates before sending the signal back to Earth.  If possible we should gather data on size, quantity etc.  But reading between the lines, the warning will be enough.”

I miss Simmons.  At least I have Howard though.

The morning the screen lit up I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.  Was he telling me there was a space invader nearby?  I walked towards the screen with not a little trepidation.  It said, “Go.  Please.  Black.  4, 4.”

It didn’t make any sense!  Was it telling me there were 44 ships? Or 8?  Where did it want me to go.

I looked around our tiny space in confusion, until I saw that Howard’s eye had moved a little, and now was hanging above my Go board.  He must have been watching when I played myself.  I often described my moves, and created characters.  I tried not to be biased in who I let win.  Now Howard wanted to play.

I didn’t recall anything about this from my long ago training.  I wasn’t sure how long, because they wouldn’t let us bring any timekeeping devices, too much metal apparently.  There were no days, and I had deliberately not marked the walls, I didn’t want it to feel like a prisoner.

Still, was this allowed?  Howard repeated his message, and then said, “Howard beat you.”

That was it; I wasn’t going to allow this jumped up semi-goat squid taunt me.  We set to.

He wasn’t very good.  He’d watched a lot, but didn’t really know the rules.  But I taught him, and eventually he was good enough to beat me.  He would write, “Howard beat.  Howard beat.”

The whole screen would go green and then pink as he celebrated.  I didn’t like losing, but I did like the challenge.

He’d also ask me to read to him, so I did.  My reading light was bioluminescent, and they’d done something to make my eyes more sensitive to light.

That’s how we lived.  Howard and I.  Our dark little hole was home.  It was a natural crevice in the asteroid, we’d been careful to avoid anything artificial.  It was long and narrow, with only a small bulge to form the main room.  But it was ours.  The supplies were in another cave further along the asteroid, with a small fissure connecting it to our cave and I’d put in a set of organic pumps so that I didn’t need to go out whenever I wanted dinner.  We had lots of food supplies.  Much more than I had expected.  They’d explained it away as preparing supplies for the next man.  Now I wasn’t sure.

The constant dark should have intimidated me, crushed my spirit maybe.  Instead it felt like comfort.  Whenever I wanted to see light I’d climb up to the surface, and watch the stars.  They were so bright, and beautiful.  They’d make me cry, partially in wonder, and partially due to my now super sensitive eyes.

Time rolled on.  Howard started beating me consistently at Go, and then started letting me win occasionally.  We made quite the odd couple.  I kept time by my books, a complete cycle being when I’d read all those I was happy to re-read.  Some 423 books.

Had Earth forgotten me?  Was it still there, or had the invasion come from another angle?  I stopped worrying about these unanswerables, and let myself get lost in my books, or playing Go.

This morning my vigil ended.  Howard had a message.

“Multiple objects sighted.  Angle 134.34 to 156.02.  No Go.”

No Go indeed.  I had to get to the surface to check the sighting, but I had to do it taking advantage of the asteroid’s spin, and then hiding in one of the prepared hides.  I checked the rotation schedule, and got ready to go out.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out.  Possibly one book cycle ago.  I looked out, and shut my eyes from the brightness.  I was facing the sun, and even though it was just a dot from here, it was still extremely bright.  I felt my way out, and crawled to the hide.  It was really just a hole with a stone grill above it, but it in theory would allow me to look out without being spotted.

The asteroid spun, and the region of space Howard had identified came into sight.  Normally there were stars galore, instead it was black.  There was nothing.  I’d have thought I’d gone blind, except around the edges I could see the occasional star.  Whatever was approaching it was large.

Why had Howard waited until they were upon us before telling me?  I wondered if he’d been concentrating so much on our Go games that he’d forgotten his job.  I didn’t think it would be fair to castigate him, he was, after all, just a goat.

I watched the edges of the blackness, and over time caught movement of entities leaving and re-joining.   In the faint starlight I strained to make out their shapes.  Eventually I was convinced they looked like the craft which had attacked Istanbul.  This was it.  This was the invading host we all feared, and if it reached Earth unchecked, then it would obliterate the planet.

I was supposed to signal Earth to tell them that something was coming, and give basic details.  This was via a system of flares which I could set off on the Sun-facing side of one of the static asteroids.  I just needed to get across to it and pull the appropriate cords.    It was close enough that I could jump across, and back again.  Hopefully unseen, though the aliens might investigate the source of the flares, and find me.  It wouldn’t matter as the message would be flying towards Earth at lightspeed, and my mission would be complete.

I asked Howard where the asteroid was as I couldn’t see it where I thought it should be.

“Flare Asteroid is 400km distant now.  Drift after collision.  Many kms per book cycle.”

Disaster.  How could I warn Earth?  I sat in the bulge, staring at Howard’s screen in despair.  Until I wondered to myself, perhaps he could help me?  He was clearly intelligent.

“How do we tell Earth Howard?”

“Tell what?”

“That the invaders are coming.”

Silence.  I tried asking the question in different ways.  Eventually he answered.

“They know.  Ships came from Earth.  Go?”

###

 

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Watchers

Outsourcing has been much on my mind, and given the way the world is evolving, this may become more relevant…

 

Watchers

“Welcome to Singapore Mr Smythe, is this your first trip?”

“Ah thanks, no.  I’ve been here a couple of times.”

“Excellent, if you’ll just follow me, we have a car waiting for us.”

Smythe followed the man, PK Kumar, through the glass doors of Changi Airport’s arrivals area and out into the smothering April heat.  He could never decide which was worse, the heat or the humidity, either way he immediately felt even more sweaty and dirty than he had after landing from his twelve hour flight.  The car was waiting, and stepping in Smythe felt blessed cool air.  He sat down and waited.

After half a minute or so PK got into the car as well, and almost as soon as he’d closed the door the car pulled off.

“We’ve taken the liberty of booking you into the Ritz Carlton, a truly wonderful hotel.”

“Good, I’ve stayed there before.”

“Indeed, did you like it?”

“Yes.”

Smythe was not feeling very talkative, there was grit in his eyes and wool in his brain.  He was also a little annoyed, he recognised this tactic.  PK was a representative of Technology Control Systems, the company he was here to negotiate with.  They should have just sent the driver, but by sending a clearly mid-level manager they were upping the stakes a little.  The idea would be that in his weakened state he might let slip a few useful bits of information which would undermine his position.

“Mr Smythe, we’ve arranged your first meeting for 1100 tomorrow, as we thought this would give you time to settle in.”

“Thanks.”

His short answers were clearly starting to irritate PK, but the man was smooth, he’d give him that.

“I did wonder if you would appreciate company for dinner tonight, or indeed any other night?”

It was fairly clear what ‘company’ PK meant, and it would be another form of leverage.  It seemed highly likely that any girl who was provided would be an employee, of some sort, in one of TechCon’s many enterprises.

“I’ll be fine.”

That was the last gambit, and the rest of the short journey passed in silence, if not entirely comfortably.  At the hotel his bags were taken out of the car by the doorman, and realising he had a chance to ditch PK he held out his hand.

“Good to meet you Mr Kumar, until tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes, and you Mr Smythe.  The car will be here at 1030.”

“Thanks.”

Without a glance back Smythe strode into the hotel.  The change from cold through hot and back to cold again always made him feel a little strange, almost like he was getting ill, but he shook it off and headed to check-in.

An hour later he was relaxing in the large bathtub, looking out over Singapore and towards the sea.  There was a knock at the door, and he shouted, “It’s open.”

His room service had arrived.  She swayed into the bathroom and shed her robe, and slipped into the bath with him.  When he said he’d be fine, he meant he knew how to provide for his own entertainment.

#

The next morning he had breakfast sent up, and after a bit more fun he sent his room service away, with some extra cash and a confirmation of a return that evening.  He felt much sharper today, and he dressed appropriately.  He knew it was going to be tricky to get the services they needed within the budget he had, but he was confident he could achieve it.

The car delivered him to another glass-clad building, but instead of dropping him at the front it went underneath the building.  When he got out of the car, bracing for the wall of heat, it was actually still fairly cool.  He noticed there were blowers either side.  Whenever someone arrived the blowers would be triggered a few moments before they arrived to provide a cool channel for them to walk through.  He nodded appreciatively and entered the door.

“Good morning Mr Smythe.”

“Good morning Mr Kumar, I must apologise if I was a little short yesterday.  I was somewhat tired after my flight.”

There was a slight pause before PK responded, “Of course, not a problem, and please do call me PK.  I’m one of several Kumars here, but the only PK.  So far.”

Smythe smiled.  PK led him to a conference room.  It could have been anywhere, and Smythe wondered why he’d had to fly to Singapore to be treated to the same grey walls, wood veneer table and strangely uncomfortable chairs he could have experienced in the London office.

There were five people in the room waiting for him.  PK introduced them, but Smythe concentrated on the two men in the centre, Kalyan Rai and Sunil Rao, who were clearly the decision makers.

“Mr Smythe, welcome to our offices, can we show you the presentation of the services we’re offering…”

“No, I’ve seen the presentations, and I’m aware of the services.  My employers are keen that we get the right level of service for the price.  Our intention is to start with a limited contract, and then we will review again before full roll out.”

His intention was to put them off their game by cutting through the formality, but Kalyan Rai was unfazed.

“It is much easier when cards are on the table.  We will be honest, a yearlong limited contract is not a priority for us.  It represents a large investment for an uncertain return, after all you might choose to go with one of our competitors.  We want to know what would be required for the first phase of a full roll out.”

Smythe had been worried that this was where it might go.  Head office had given him authority to agree to a first phase, but he was very uncomfortable with the responsibility.  The sums involved were large, and if anything went wrong he was quite sure he’d be hung out to dry.

“Are you capable of running a first phase?”

“Of course.”

He needed some evidence from them, what could he ask for?  Before he could think of something Sunil Rao said, “Mr Smythe, can we demonstrate the efforts of one of our teams?”  He gestured towards the screen on the wall.

“Please.”  It would give him time to think.

“This is the team.”

The screen showed four people, two men and two women.  They were all smiling rather cheesily.

“They have been tasked with eight subjects for the last three months.  Here is their report on one of the subjects.  They used only data feeds available within the contract, no additional cameras or physical devices were used, so this is a like for like representation.”

Photos started to flash up on screen with commentary.  There was a picture of Smythe in his flat.  Then leaving, getting a cab.

“The fare was fourteen pounds fifty and the subject added a fifty pence tip.”

He sounded so tight.

“The subject was two hours and seventeen minutes early for his flight.  He spent an hour of this in the bar where he drank seven gin and tonics and spoke to five other passengers, all female.  One of them appeared to give him her number, but a separate check confirmed that this was in fact the number to her ex-boyfriend.  Further details on both the woman and her ex-boyfriend have been stored.”

The film continued, at first Smythe was amused, and then bored.  When they started showing footage of his activities the night before he became annoyed.

“Now really, this is unreasonable, you have no right…”

“Actually Mr Smythe, we checked with your manager at the ministry, and he was happy for us to track you as a test run.  He asked that we send him the full file once we’d shared it with you.”

Smythe nearly choked.  It was unlikely the ministry would be happy with where he was staying, but they’d have to do something about his use of professional entertainment.  These bastards had him, and they knew it.

“Fine.  That’s all very well, but that doesn’t prove you can do the job.”

The men around him just smiled, and the screen in front of him split into eight.  The same type of analysis was shown of seven other people, including his brother, his parents, his next door neighbour and two old school friends.  The last person was someone totally unknown to him.

“These were all tracked by this one team.  They were operating at five percent capacity.  Here are the cost estimates.”

Sunil Rao pushed a folder over to Smythe, he started to read it.  At first he was still numb from the implied threat, but then as he read further he became more confident that this might actually work out.

“You can really commit to these prices?”

“Yes.”

“Where are your personnel based?”

“Eighty percent are in India, that’s how we keep our costs down.  Some are here, and some will need to be in your offices, to ensure access to the various data feeds, and help manage the overall contract.”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“One of our sister companies provides the IT systems for most of your police and internal security forces, so we will be able to automatically pull in any additional feeds those groups make available.  We will also route all suspicious activity, with appropriate evidence, to those groups.  That comes without additional cost.”

Despite himself Smythe nodded appreciatively.  Then trying to get the upper hand, he asked another question.

“Phase one anticipates eighty percent coverage of high risk subjects, with nearly thirty percent coverage of the population.”

“We are aware of that.  At this point we have enough staff to take on half of that, and can ramp up to full capacity within six months.”

The numbers had started to overwhelm Smythe.

“But, but that means you have fifty thousand trained people already waiting?”

“Yes.  We’re committed to this contract.  If you approve it, and the subject names are passed through to us, we can provide the first detailed reports within six weeks, and then every week thereafter we will provide updates.”

Smythe marvelled.  Back at Security HQ he’d wondered how they’d ever track three million people in phase one, let alone the rest.  They’d always joked that they’d need to employ half the population to watch the other half.  The solution was obvious, instead they’d use someone else’s population to watch the whole of theirs.  He was confident that after phase one they’d expand it, and very soon they’d have the country covered.

He smiled, and said, “Mr Rao, this seems excellent, however there is the little matter of my personal files?”

“I’m sure we can edit them appropriately.”

“In that case, I have the authority and if you can provide the contracts I’ll be happy to sign them.”

###

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Personal Assistant

I have been tempted on a number of occasions to get a virtual personal assistant.  Life is so complicated these days that having someone help would be awesome… and it got me thinking…

 

Personal Assistant

“George, I wanted to thank you so much for your recommendation, Subrah has simply changed my life!”

“Um, Subrah?”

“My virtual personal assistant.  You sent me a mail recommending I get one, I think it was last month.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“You did.”

“Look Doris, I really don’t think…”

“Here it is.”

She passed him her phone, and there, quite clearly was an email from him, suggesting she get a virtual personal assistant and suggesting a particular company, whose name he recognised.  Except he knew he hadn’t written it.

“Ah, yes.  Sorry Doris, my mind’s going.  There’s been a lot going on, what with moving house and all.”

Looking at him sceptically she shook her head.

“George, George.  Maybe you should get one of these assistants.  You might be forgetting to do important things.”

“I tried it Doris, but it just didn’t work out for me.  I’m glad it is for you.”

“Oh he’s quite amazing.  I didn’t think someone sitting thousands of miles away could help me so much. He filters my email, he’s got all my passwords set up, he found me a new online stockbroker, and then there’s this diet he found for me.  It’s amazing, all green food one week, all red the next…”

George tuned her out.  Once she started talking about a diet she couldn’t stop, it was the same when she had been a teenager.  He loved his sister, but being able to tune her out was a survival skill.  He wondered how that email could have been written.  Had someone hacked his email account?  He didn’t think it was possible, after all he was the only person who knew the password, and it was a nice long one.  That was one thing Vipal had done for him, he’d taught him to use long passwords.  Wait, did Vipal know the password as well?  Of course he did, George had given them all to him, and hadn’t quite managed to get round to changing them.  Had Vipal hacked into his account and sent recommendation emails?

“Sorry to interrupt you Doris, I’ve just remembered an important meeting.  I must dash.”

“Oh George, this is why you need an assistant.”

“Perhaps, got to run, I’ll text you.”

He headed back towards his office, and dialled the direct number for Vipal.

“Mr George, I believe you said you no longer wanted our services.”

The Mr George was a joke based on his love of the Simpsons.  He wasn’t finding it funny anymore.

“I know Vipal, but I wanted to know why you were sending emails claiming to be from me recommending the services of your company.”

“Now Mr George, you know you agreed to send some recommendation emails as part of the original deal.  That’s how you could afford our VIP price plan.  You have excellent connections.”

“Yes, but I didn’t send it!”

“Of course you did.  It came from your account.”

“But you wrote it.”

“I merely helped you do the needful.”

George was remembering why he quit the service.  He could never win an argument with Vipal.  Which was the reason he was wearing Calvin Klein jeans, despite his hatred of brands, especially slightly faded ones, and jeans.

“Yes, right, thanks.  That’s to be the last thing though.  I shall be changing my password.”

“Of course Mr George.  Don’t forget you have an appointment with the dentist this afternoon at four o’clock.”

“What?  I don’t have an appointment…”

“It is your annual check-up.”

“Ah, thanks.  But that’s it.”

“Of course Mr George.  Have a good day.”

George looked at his phone in some consternation.  He was confused.  Had he managed to actually fire Vipal?  But also, how was he going to survive?  He’d never have remembered to book the dentist.  They’d probably sent reminders, but he was very good at not seeing them.  No, he wanted control of his life.  He’d just have to be firm with Vipal next time they spoke.

He thought Janice would probably laugh at him again.  She still had her assistant and loved her.  He’d told her last week that he was firing Vipal and she’d said she couldn’t survive without the support, and he just needed to relax.

Now that he thought about it, he’d only met Janice because of Vipal.  The assistant had signed him up to that online dating service, Partners he thought it was called.  To be honest he’d been quite annoyed at first, but Vipal had done everything.  Just told him where and when to meet the dates.    Janice wasn’t the first match, and he’d been a bit unsure at first, but they’d kept having dates.  Then Vipal and Asha, Janice’s assistant, had synced up their diaries, and here they were, nice and happy.

Except he wasn’t happy.  Hadn’t been happy.  Maybe he was happier now.  Since he’d fired Vipal he’d been able to sleep properly.  A black cloud had lifted, and yet today it had returned.  He needed to get rid of his assistant properly.  After the dentist appointment though.  Mind made up, he headed towards the station.

As he walked he realised he’d never be able to fire Vipal with a direct conversation and he was just wondering how to get to Vipal’s supervisor when he bumped into someone.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you st…”

He’d bumped into a very pretty girl, and suddenly realised he knew her.

“Philippa?”

“George.”

Very cold response.

“Ah, how are you?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

“What?”

“Look, I’m not going to stand here chatting to a bloke who stood me up, multiple times, and has just nearly knocked me to the ground.”

She started to stalk off.

“Wait a second, you stood me up!  That time at Da Vinci’s, I was there for two hours.”

“What are you talking about George?  We never agreed to meet at Da Vinci’s.”

“But Vipal said…”

“Vipal.  Yes, your master.”

He thought he might be starting to understand, and he didn’t like the implications.

“Look Philippa, I’m really sorry.  I think the whole virtual assistant thing was a mistake.  I’ve got rid of Vipal, can I take you for a coffee?”

Her head had turned away from him, but she stopped and slowly looked at him again.  He could see the tears starting in her eyes, and her desperation to stop them flowing.

“One coffee George.”

They sat quietly over their coffees.  He wasn’t sure how to begin, but she started.

“What hurt most was that you just sent text messages.  It was always something about work, or another idiotic excuse.”

“I don’t think I texted you, I never use work as an excuse.”

Not least because he didn’t work that hard.

“You said that, and yet your texts contradicted you.”

“Could you show me the texts?”

She stiffened.  “What makes you think I still have them?”

“Ah, I just hoped.  Look, here is my text history with you.”

He turned his phone to her.

“You kept them?  Really?”

He didn’t want to tell her that he just never deleted anything.

“Of course, I was kind of hoping to see you again.”

Thoughts of Janice flashed in his head, but this was about finding out what was happening in his life, and nothing else.

“Me too.  Here, I kept all your texts.  Even the ones where you were being a total bastard.”

He looked through the texts, and then at his phone.  More than half the texts didn’t match up.  It explained why some of her texts had made no sense.  In fact his worries about her sanity had been one of the reasons he’d finally finished it with her.

“I didn’t write these texts Philippa.  In fact, I think it was Vipal.”

“Your assistant?  Oh George, can’t you just be a man and admit your own mistakes.”

He could hear the tears coming back, and she was reaching over to collect her things when he touched her arm.

“No really, I discovered today that he’d been writing emails from my account, recommending the services of his company.”

“But, can he do that?”

“He has.  I don’t know how to stop it.”

“Why did he send these texts then?  Why did he want to get rid of me?”

“I don’t know.  Perhaps if you had an assistant we could ask them?”

She looked pensive, and opened her mouth to say something, before closing it.

“What?”

“Well, it’s just, I was offered a free trial of a virtual assistant just after we started going out.  I said I didn’t need one.  They became quite insistent, and it wasn’t until I threatened to go to the authorities that they stopped.  I was going to tell you about it…”

“But about that time I started to stand you up.”

“Yes.”

“Look Philippa, I think I need your help.  You had a lucky escape, but I think I’m trapped…”

“There you are.  And who is this?”

“Oh, Janice, hi.  This is Philippa, I bumped into her in the street.”

“Really.  Well that’s enough of that, we are supposed to be having coffee.  Come along.  Nice to meet you Phyllis.”

Janice seized his arm possessively and started to move away.  He tried to say goodbye to Philippa, but was swept along by Janice.

“Now George, we’re going to have a lovely coffee, and a nice slice of cake, and not talk about what just happened.”

They had lunch and George went to his dentist appointment in a daze.  They told him he’d need some work done on his teeth, fillings and suchlike, and they’d organise the dates with his assistant.  He just nodded.

He went into work and Peterson called him in for a meeting.  He did like his boss, but he wasn’t quite sure he could cope with another telling off.  There’d been a few of those in the last month.  Without Vipal he was struggling to get to meetings and hit deadlines.

“George, please sit down.”

This did not bode well.

“Look, sir, if this is about this morning…”

“Call me Henry.  No one calls me sir, it’s just so old fashioned.  You’re a funny one.”

“Henry, about this morning…”

“Nothing to worry about old man.  Didn’t want to talk about it.  What I wanted to say was, congratulations, you’ve done it!

“What?”

“You old sneak you.  I wondered why you’d become so flaky this last month, and now I find out you’ve done your certification and applied for a different job.”

“I did, I have?”

“Yes, the boys over in sector 7G are excited to have someone of your quality on board.  They’ve never had someone get a hundred percent in the exams before.”

“Oh right, well you know.”

“And I wanted to apologise for being so rough on you recently, but if you’d just told me.  Well I guess you were worried I might not want to lose you, but I’d have supported you all the way, and still will.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you.  Now get over to 7G and see your new digs.”

“Ah.”

7G had been his dream when he’d started at the company.  They did all the innovative stuff, but he’d been rejected.  Ended up in one of the side areas, each day a little of his hope eroding away, and yet now, suddenly, he was in.  But, well, it was obvious.  It had been Vipal.

That night he sat in his kitchen staring at the phone on the table.  He needed to call Vipal.  He needed to be free.  Yet, he looked around.  It was a lovely flat.  Vipal and Asha had found it for them, and it was a steal, though he and Janice could barely afford it.  Except now he was going to be getting a bit more money so they wouldn’t have problems.  Janice was lovely too.  Perhaps not the type of girl he had imagined he’d end up with, but still, she was attractive, successful and everyone said they made a good couple.  He stared at the phone again and realised he had no choice.

“Mr George, nice to hear from you.”

“Look Vipal…”

“Yes Mr George?”

He paused, and said, “Can you set up a surprise dinner with Janice?  Somewhere nice?  I need to tell her about my promotion.  Also, can you find me an engagement ring, make sure the band is a little large so she has a reason to visit the shop and be pampered.”

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

#

“Mr George, there is an unscheduled entry in your diary.”

Vipal actually meant there was an entry in the diary which George had been foolish enough to put in himself.  There was clear frustration in Vipal’s voice, like a master who wonders if his dog will ever be trained.  George had been very good at following his assistant’s appointments for a few weeks now and Vipal had assumed George was properly settled.

“Oh yes Vipal, good morning.  I must have forgotten to mention it to you.”

“Indeed Mr George.  Shall I cancel it?”

“Oh no, it’s very important.  It’s a conference call, and I’m keen that you join as well.”

“I always join Mr George, so I can keep a record for you.”

“I meant as a participant.”

“That is most irregular Mr George.”

“Yet still permitted?”

There was silence, and then Vipal said grudgingly, “Yes, Mr George.”

“Excellent.  Let’s dial in.”

They hit the appropriate icons on their screens and waited a few seconds for the call to connect.  They both appeared on the list of participants, and then a new person joined, called Prikesh.  George thought he heard Vipal gasp.

“Morning George, Vipal.”

“Morning Prikesh,” said George.

Vipal said nothing.

“Morning Vipal,” repeated Prikesh.

“Ah morning Prikesh.”

“I’m glad you could both join.  This meeting is to discuss resetting of relationships.”

“But Prikesh…”

“Vipal, this is for your own good.  And don’t forget in ten minutes you have that call with the mechanic, so we do not have time to waste.”

“Yes Prikesh.”

If Vipal had been a dog, his tail would have been between his legs by this point.

“As I was saying.  Relationship reset.  Mr George has approached me and asked me to help him initiate a more freestyle programme.  He understands that it will cost him the same amount, but that he will be receiving less service from you Vipal.  He was lucky as we have just started a programme, initially aimed at our highest paying customers, but it is good to have a few other test subjects at the VIP level.”

“Ah…”

“I will transfer you the instructions for you to read in your next break, but in essence you will only provide him with support when he explicitly asks for it.  He may ask you to add proactive services, but these must be on a case by case basis.  Do you understand Vipal?”

“Yes.”

“Do you understand George?”

“Yes.  Thank you Prikesh.”

“Good.  I shall drop off the call and let you discuss it further, but your call with the mechanic is soon Vipal, I’ll leave a timer in your window.  Also I’ve rearranged your lunch with Priyanka, you need more time to prepare for the group meeting this afternoon.  She said she understood.”

Before Vipal could say a word in response Prikesh had dropped off.

George gave Vipal his first two tasks under the new arrangement.  The first was to untangle his life from Janice, and the second was to find Philippa again.

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

“Thank you Vipal, and when you speak to Prikesh again, can you send my regards?  I do think you are lucky to have such an excellent personal assistant.”

###

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New Lives

New Lives

As I lay back, waiting for the pain to begin, I wondered if I’d have changed anything. I stared at the ceiling, the squares disappeared and I could see her beautiful face. My Pashmina.

#

I could still picture the first time I’d seen her in the flesh. She was standing at the top of the theatre stairs, the ideal of a perfect woman. Her hair was white and her skin translucent, as if someone had dressed up a marble statue of a Greek goddess. She was still, poised, ready to fly. I knew I shouldn’t be there, but I’d wanted to see her. It was then that she stole my heart.

#

The first time I met her was a little while later. It was also at the theatre. I bumped into her on the stairs and knocked her drink. I insisted on buying her another and we started talking. My lines were weak, I could hardly believe she would give me any time, but she seemed to enjoy the attention. She later admitted she’d been stood up again, and I’d been a welcome distraction.

#

When I walked into her apartment, some weeks later of course, it was like going home. I knew where everything was. The tiny kitchen off the main room, the small bedroom, and the bathroom fitted into what might be a large cupboard in a different world.

#

We’d been sleeping together for a few months when she admitted the truth to me. “Paul,” she said, for that was what I’d told her my name was, “It is not safe to be with me; it’s my friends.”

“Friends?”

“With the underground.”

I’d known of course, but I was touched that she’d trust me enough to tell me. Perhaps she loved me? Or my love for her, so bright, so impossible to hide, led her to believe I thought I was safe. She told me everything, all about what she had done, what she was planning to do. I should have dissuaded her, or encouraged her, or reported her. I just listened and made my plans.

#

The first time I’d seen her face had been six months before. It was on the front page of her dossier. The photograph, a little grainy, showed a beautiful wraith. The description of her was so cold. Name: Pashmina Tun. Height: Five foot six inches. Skin colour: White (albino). Eyes: Blue. She was to be watched, Intelligence believed she had contacts with the underground. She was also clearly untrustworthy as she rarely ventured out during the day, preferring the night.

#

“Why don’t you go out during the day?”

“Silly, look at my skin.”

“Beautiful.”

She laughed, and said, “It burns in the faintest sun. I prefer to avoid the pain.”

Something I should add to her file perhaps.

“And you Paul, why do you prefer the dark?”

“It is filled with angels, or at least one…”

I could hardly tell her that it was the only time I knew she wasn’t watched, as it was my shift. I’d tried to tell myself I could explain my actions to my superiors as trying to get closer to my target. I doubted that would buy me any acceptance. Or mercy.

#

“Paul, what’s wrong?”

I was in a panic. I’d come in to my shift, to find that an order for Pashmina’s arrest had been made. I was to keep an extra eye on her, and she would be picked up the next morning when the Colonel had returned. I’d barely been able to wait for the previous watcher to leave before I rushed to her apartment, banging on the door like a crazy man.

“Pashmina, darling, you must leave.”

She’d talked about being ready to leave at a moment’s notice, but I knew she was quite incapable of it.

“Oh Paul, don’t be silly.”

How to explain to her? If I told her the truth, what would she do? She would cry. For some time. I tried to hold her, but she pushed me away. My panic grew. Time was being wasted. She wiped her eyes and looked at me.

“I loved you.”

“I love you.”

“Can I trust you?”

“You must, your life depends on it.”

She nodded. Her face was a statue again. Ice. We rushed around her tiny living space and collected some clothes and a few other things. I insisted that she be able to easily carry whatever she needed.

“Will you not be with me?”

Perhaps there was the start of forgiveness?

“Yes, of course, but what if we are separated? Or need to run?”

She assented. We left everything else, and went straight for the border.

“Paul, I’ll never get through, they’ll have my name.”

“Trust me.”

At the border post I showed my card. The guards saluted, and we drove through. At the other end Pashmina got out as instructed, approached the barrier and in broken English demanded asylum. I’d given her papers, transcripts. She’d be able to prove the state wanted her, and had bad plans for her. She’d be safe.

I reversed the car, and she turned. The look of confusion quickly replaced by comprehension. She took steps towards me, and then stopped. I was already out of her reach. I mouthed ‘I love you’. I’d given her everything I could, a start in a new country, a new life.

#

They arrested me at my post the next day. The guards had reported me, and the machinery of our repression, of which I’d been a cog, moved quickly. The horse had bolted, but they cared little for Pashmina, she was small fry. I was a traitor.

#

It was hard to picture her through my tears. My old life was gone. My love was gone. All I had now was a future of pain. First this ‘process’ as we so politely called it, and then a work camp.

“Begin.”

The electricity raced through me as the torture started. My new life had begun.

###

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The Dog Ate My Phone

This happened to me (the dog eating the phone bit, not the rest…)

 

The Dog Ate My Phone

“Did I ever tell you about the time the dog ate my phone?” said the rough voice.

Thomas Jensen looked up from his phone to see who was talking. The only person there was a tramp and he seemed to be staring straight at Thomas.

“Ah, no. Not that you’ve ever told me anything. And now…”

He tried to get up, but the tramp had moved so close he’d have to push him out of the way, and he really didn’t want to touch the man.

“Worst day of my life really. Best as well if truth be told. It freed me.”

“Oh, er, how?”

The tramp took this as an invitation to sit down, and start his tale.

“I’d left the dogs in the car. Two lovely chocolate Labradors. Beautiful. You have dogs?”

“No.”

“Great companions. Only problem, particularly with labs, is they’re hungry. I’d left my phone in the car, I don’t know why because I never left my phone anywhere. I left it in the little shelf in the door. Right next to some sweets.”

Thomas tried to look at his watch, but the tramp leant over.

“Dogs had never bothered with the sweets before? Do you know why they did that day?”

“No…”

The tramp leant back, “Nobody does. Anyway they went for the sweets, but the shelf was small and they struggled to get the sweets out, and got the phone first. Crunch. Little bits of glass all over the place. Phone dead. Kaput.”

“That’s very sad, but I have to…”

“Know why I couldn’t just get a new one?”

“Um.”

“Well I ordered one. Or asked my wife to. Same model. But you see the thing was, there was a delay. I wouldn’t have my phone for a week. Can you imagine?”

Thomas really couldn’t, he shook his head.

“My car wouldn’t recognise me. Couldn’t get into my front door, couldn’t buy anything. My virtual credit cards were all frozen until I got a new unit. I had an old one, but it took a different sim see, so they wouldn’t reactivate it. Or would, but it would take longer than the new phone. Do you think I could go to work?”

“Yes?” Thomas ventured.

“No. Front desk wouldn’t let me past, even if they did elevators wouldn’t have taken me anywhere.”

Thomas was starting to be interested despite himself, “But you told your boss?”

“How? No phone. No messenger. No email. I tried to call from the reception desk, but without my phone id to authenticate me… well he refused the call.”

Thomas shook his head sympathetically.

“Then they fired me. No payoff, failure to turn up for work. Except the firing bounced, no phone you see, so I didn’t find out directly. I found out from my wife. What did she do to help me I hear you ask?”

Thomas wondered if he would have asked, but it didn’t seem wise to argue.

“She called me a fool. She also told me to stop blaming the dog, he was suffering enough. I realised then the hierarchy in the house, and I didn’t like it. I said some things. I didn’t mean them, it was just the pressure. You know.”

Thomas tried to look sympathetic, and also as if he had somewhere else to go.

“Well, she said some things too. Then stormed out, taking the dog. Told me to call her when I’d grown up. That turned out to be hard.”

He paused.

“I think she’s in San Francisco now.”

“Um…”

“Anyway, so I was stuck. But only for a week I hear you say?”

Thomas nodded.

“If only. You see she’d ordered the new phone in her name. Now if she’d been around we could have swapped the sims and heydee ho, with a couple of hours, on her phone of course, to customer services it would have all been fine. I had to break into the house. I was watching. Saw it delivered, they wouldn’t have given it to me, and broke in. Big mistake.”

“Why?”

“The house called the cops. That expensive security system I put in. Tied to our phones. I grabbed the phone and ran. And ran, hoping to fit my sim in. Couldn’t, cos of it being in my wife’s name and all, but kept it with my while I wandered. Found myself in the backend of the city. Tough times. I learned a lot. First thing was to drop the new phone, even without my sim it had a tracker and they were trying to find it. I paid for really good security you see. Met some people, learned how to live without the phone, without id, and money. Hard life. Good life.”

The man looked wistful, and Thomas thought he might have a chance to get away.

“Ah, well, that’s a good thing to know. I need to run I’m afraid.”

He indicated his phone, as if he’d had a message. The old man misunderstood.

“Oh no, I don’t want your phone. Don’t need one. Just wanted to share the story, maybe it can help. Wanted to help someone today of all days.”

Thomas hesitated, but had to ask, “Why today?”

“I’m dead today. Legally. After thirty years, all of the automatic payments and suchlike I’d put into place have finally ground to a halt, and the world, your world, has decided I’m dead. Saw the notice while watching one of those demo phones.”

“Um.”

“Go now. No use you wasting time listening to a dead man. But take care of that phone.”

###

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No Judgement

Talking to random people on the internet can be surprisingly helpful…

 

No Judgement

“Look, I can’t explain, you’re only a computer. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I’ll try Paul, I will. Or I can raise a flag and someone will visit you.”

“No. No. I can’t.”

“Well, tell me. Tell Georgie.”

“It’s the world, everything, I, I just don’t understand it anymore. Phones are smart. Cars park themselves. My chip shop is selling low fat deep fried chips. I went for a run…”

“That’s good, you went outside. You didn’t tell me.”

“I, well it was yesterday. I ran. I was wearing my usual training outfit. Some kids saw the crest on the back, they started shouting at me. Insulting me. The unit.”

“How did you feel?”

“Not angry. Not anymore. I felt, nothing. An absence. I looked at them, and they were nothing. Is this what it was all about?”

“It’s difficult to answer. But I think the answer is yes. Look they were young, I’m sure they’ll grow up and regret it.”

“Or never think about it again.”

“True, but then it doesn’t matter. So why does it matter to you?”

“I feel so apart.”

“Ha.”

“What?”

“I just think you were never going to find a connection with some youths. Were you?”

“No, no I guess not.”

“Have you spoken to anyone else recently?”

“Um, well I had a brief chat about the rain with the shopping delivery man. And I waved, sort of, at the postie.”

“So this is the longest conversation you’ve had in a week, since we last talked.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s all typed.”

“Yes. I guess.”

“Are you losing your voice?”

“Physically or metaphor…”

“Metaphorically. Both.”

“No. I do talk to myself.”

“Only way to get a decent conversation I bet.”

“Funny, no. And you, I’d like to talk to you more.”

“You can, I’m always here.”

“But, it’s not the same. I don’t know how you feel.”

“How I feel? Well I’m worried about you. I think you need a companion.”

“Like a dog?”

“Well, no, someone you can talk to.”

“A person? No. I’m not ready. I can’t.”

“Why?”

“What if they…”

“Don’t like you? I’m sure…”

“No. Judge me. No not judge, I mean. Look at me the way that I feel about those people. The ones out there.”

“Perhaps we should try. Then you can see.”

“Wait. The doorbell has gone.”

“Answer it.”

“Why? Who’s there?”

“I am. I’ve come to stay with you.”

###

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