Tag Archives: near future

Own the Octopus

By Jason Gibbs

“Basically we want to stop anyone from being able own the Octopus. We want to be free!”

The cry of revolutionaries everywhere I thought. Well, except perhaps for the bit about the Octopus.

“I agree the current system isn’t entirely fair, but…”

“Isn’t fair Brandon? Isn’t fair! We work for almost nothing, while the algae farmers live in luxury. Look at them, up there, on the top vent, wallowing in luxury, while the rest of us struggle just to eat.”

“Luke, they did save us, and I’m not so convinced about that luxury.”

“Propaganda. Lies. They stole from the real algae farmers. Before we had to retreat from the surface the algae farmers were considered peasants. They’d never have been able to build the mechanisms of control our rulers have in such a short time.”

“Look, brother, I understand your anger, but it’s only been a couple of centuries, we can’t go back to the surface.”

He looked at me steadily. Weighing me. Deciding if he could tell me something. When at last the decision was made, it was in my favour.

“I can’t tell you it all, but I will say, it doesn’t involve going to the Surface. Or attacking the Main Bag, if that’s what you think.”

My eyes had swung to the giant algae and oxygen balloon which floated high above the main vent. At this time of day it was quite visible as a glowing green bulb. All our oxygen came from that one frail bag.

Luke pointed at it and said, “The Council of Algae Farmers, our rulers, destroyed all other balloons in the last purge. They now own the only source of life. And with that, our city, the Octopus, is theirs.”

I’d heard it before, and there was no point arguing, but I was worried about him…

“OK brother, but you know what will happen if they even find out you’ve been speaking against them?”

“I’ll go for a naked swim over the lower tentacles. I know.”

We both looked out over the lower city. Each district following one of the ridge lines, particular encrustations near each main vent. I had no idea who had first described them as tentacles, but it had stuck.

It was rumoured that the execution points were at the tips of two of the lowest arms, far away from the main vent. This was in part aesthetic, as allegedly our rulers didn’t want to see dead people floating around their pleasure palaces, but it was also practical, there was the possibility a corpse might interfere with the Bag. There was little chance of that if they were released so far away, as the fish and other creatures who swum at the edges of our realm would consume them quickly once they were released.

I doubted it was true, but I didn’t want to argue with him again. Before I could say any more, he looked at his watch, and sighed.

“I have to go. Keep safe big brother.”

“Keep safe Luke.”

I was worried about him. He was likely to do something foolish.

#

When I was sure Luke had gone I made a call.

“Hi sir, it’s Brandon.”

“Brandon, I have told you before, call me Douglas,” the white-haired man on the screen smiled at me.

“Si… Douglas, thanks. I’ve just spoken to my brother, and I’m worried…”

“Yes?”

“Are you sure he’ll be OK?”

The old man sighed, and said, “Brandon, as long as he doesn’t do anything violent, he’ll be fine.”

“I hope he’ll understand.”

“He might struggle at first, he has been fed a lot of… well let’s call it misguided information.”

I nodded.

He went on, “So now Brandon, let us discuss the plan.”

#

Several hours later, I was staring at a work screen when I heard the front door slam open. I quickly shut down the app I was using, and brought up the news channel. Luke stormed in, and I muted the screen.

“They’ve announced a total shutdown. This is it Brandon, this is where they’re going to purge anyone who disagrees. They know there’s many of us…” he stopped and looked at me strangely. Actually, not at me, at my screen.

I looked at it, and saw a picture, mine next to Douglas. Chief Farmer Douglas to be exact.

“What is this… no… you’re with them… how could you…”

He stared at me, and then ran to the door. It slammed again.

I turned back to my screen, wishing I’d not picked the news channel. I’d lost track of time and hadn’t realised… still.

I turned the sound up.

“… and the farmers believe that this technology will allow us to operate more independently under the water. Several researchers, including…” she gave a list of my co-workers, and then, “… Brandon Bridges, have been working on this, and in some cases have undergone the procedure themselves.”

‘Undergone the procedure’ I thought. Hardly that. Just a few pills and then… symbiotic algae in the lungs. My contribution had been the salt exchange process. And to be a guinea-pig.

My comms chimed, and I clicked a button, Maria’s face appeared on screen.

“Hi Maria…”

“Sorry Brandon, we have no time, we’ve been following your brother, and others. We think they were planning something, and this announcement may have forced their hand. They’re heading towards the Bag.”

“He said that…”

She frowned, and said, “Look, just come to the west main shaft entrance, I’ll have a unit there waiting for you.”

She cut off before I could answer. I guess being head of Octo Security allowed her some measure of rudeness.

#

I arrived at the entrance twenty minutes later, panting. I needed to rest, and also pass on this information to my colleagues. We’d done some exercise tests, but not this high adrenaline combination, or not enough. I shouldn’t be short of breath after such a short run.

“Brandon… Bridges…” I panted to the armoured figure.

She flicked a switch and I could see her face, it was Maria wearing a wry smile. She knew who I was.

“Brandon, I’m sorry, but, they’re in the control area. All eight of the Gang of Four, and a couple of others, including your brother. If they blow the Bag…”

The Gang of Four had started with just four, but grown, and either been unable to agree a new name, or, more likely, thought it was clever to keep the original name. Confuse the authorities.

“Have they made any demands?”

“Yes, the usual. They want the algae farmers put into custody awaiting trial, and all the political prisoners freed.”

“That should be easy… freeing nobody!”

She looked at me witheringly, “This is not the time for joking Brandon. If the Bag goes, we’ll lose…”

“Three quarters of our citizens,” cut in another voice. We turned round to see Douglas standing there.

“Si… Douglas!”

He smiled, “I’m going in to see them. Maybe I can reason with them…”

I grabbed him, “No! You can’t…”

“Why not?”

“The Gang of Four includes Stephen Cran, he’ll kill you, any chance he gets. He’s sworn it.”

He looked quizzically at Maria, “Commander, were you aware of this?”

She looked uncomfortable and said, “There was rumour…”

“My brother saw it, Cran cut his palm as he swore. He blames you for the death of his brother.”

“I see,” said Douglas.

Jonathan Cran had been one of those who had tried to save the auxiliary bags when they had been attacked. The attack was by a school of large fish, attracted by the new lighting we’d put in, and not some form of government purge as had often been alleged on the conspiracy forums. Douglas had shown me the raw footage, and the studies they’d done afterwards. If the farmers hadn’t turned off the lighting in the main Bag… well we wouldn’t be alive. But several people had died in all the confusion. Stephen had never believed it was an accident, and Douglas had been in charge of the rescue effort.

“So what do we do then Commander?”

Maria said, “I think we need to get up there, work out what they’re doing and if necessary knock them out.”

She made it sound easy, but I was worried.

“Agreed, please proceed. Let’s hope they don’t do anything foolish…”

#

“What’s the status Commander?”

A crackle and then Maria’s voice, “We are at the hatches. We’ve connected listening equipment. It’s difficult to determine what is happening, but it seems like there’s an argument going on.”

“Might we be able to take advantage of it?”

“… hope so …”

I wondered why the signal was so bad, Douglas looked at me and shook his head.

“I think they’ve got jammers up. It will make it harder…”

Maria’s voice suddenly came through clearly, “I think they’re going to push Luke…”

More crackle.

“What?” I was shocked.

“Calm down Brandon, let’s just think. Where would they push your brother?”

I took a deep breath. The only way to help Luke was to use my brains. I thought about the control area. There were only three external points, one to come down the shaft, one up to get to the Bag’s maintenance crawl-ways and the emergency hatch.

“The emergency hatch.”

He smiled at me, “I agree. What can we do?”

He liked this Socratic method, and to be honest I usually enjoyed it, but it seemed a little inefficient given my brother’s life was in danger. I took a deep breath and thought.

“Well, I, I could go outside and catch him.”

“With two sets of oxygen, it seems unlikely you’d be able to get to him quickly enough?”

“I… I know. I’ll let him use the oxygen,” I looked him straight in the eyes as I said this. He nodded, gravely, but I could see he was pleased.

“Right, well go then, quickly, you have no time to lose.”

‘And now he wants to rush…’ I thought to myself, but I headed off to the next maintenance point.

As with most adult members of the Octopus I had training in how to use the suits and the emergency hatches, though as Luke often pointed out, there just weren’t enough suits for everyone. He claimed that the farmers had stacks of them in store rooms, but just wouldn’t release them in case the people rose up. I’d mentioned this to Maria once, and she had laughed.

“We barely keep the ones we have properly tested and with enough oxygen. If there was a store room full of them? Well we wouldn’t be able to keep them maintained anyway. It’s not equipment we lack, it’s people.”

“Well maybe we can do something about that?” had been my answer. I smiled at the memory.

I got to the maintenance point, got the suit on, and attached the oxygen. Making sure it was all ready, I hit the button and the airlock started to fill with water. Before I knew it I was swimming up towards the control point.

The water was a little murky, but as I approached I could see the metal clad bulge of the control point. It was on top of a long spine, sitting under the Bag, like an olive under a melon as someone had once described it. All on one giant toothpick.

Suddenly there was a big rush of bubbles coming from one side, and I could see the emergency hatch opening. A body fell out, arms waving. It was Luke. I pushed myself harder to get to him.

I grabbed him, and saw that he was holding his breath. I quickly took my oxygen breather out and pushed it into his mouth. He sucked a breath in. He offered it back to me, and I shook my head. I was looking towards the control area. I could see through the glass. Maria was in there, and someone was aiming something at her. There was a flash, she fell back.

Something took hold of me, a surge of adrenaline, and shrugging off the oxygen tank to leave it for Luke, I kicked towards the emergency hatch. I knew what I had to do. I kicked hard at the safety, and then turned the release and the inner door popped. Air bubbles started to boil out, and the water started to drag me, I tried to kick away, but the current, while temporary, was too strong. I hit my head on a metal plate, once, twice and darkness.

#

“Is he OK?” said Luke’s voice from far away.

“Yes, he needs rest, now please…”

#

“Is he OK?” said Maria’s voice, far away, but closer than Luke’s.

The nurse repeated her injunction, with perhaps a little weariness in her voice.

“Are you OK?”

“For the hundredth time Luke, I am fine. My head hurts, but the doctor said no permanent damage, though if I notice any spots in my vision I need to call him.”

“But your lungs…”

“Yes, are filled with mutant algae, so I can breathe under water for a period of time. Which is at least an hour… but we haven’t fully tested it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” it was almost a wail.

“I… I don’t know Luke. I didn’t want you to be angry with me, you know for working with the farmers.”

“But…”

He held his head in his hands. He still couldn’t quite get his head around what had happened. He’d believed the Gang of Four had a plan, and followed them into the control area. Once they’d arrived Cran had admitted to him they were just going to threaten the Bag. He’d challenged him, said he couldn’t mean it, and then Cran had hit him. Cran said that he’d rather everyone died then continue to live under the shadow of the Bag. That’s when, finally, Luke had seen the real madness in Cran’s eyes. He’d tried to fight back, but the others still supported Cran and they’d thrown him out of the lock.

They had all drowned when I opened the inner airlock.

“Oh my valiant knight is awake again,” said Maria, and she came and gave me a kiss. Luke’s eyes widened.

“Um… Commander, Brandon, um, what?”

She laughed and then winced. Her shoulder was bandaged from the shot she’d taken. Fortunately she had been wearing a protective vest, but apparently it still hurt. She hadn’t drowned as she was another of the guinea pigs with algae lungs, though she had complained, playfully I think, about being knocked about a bit by the water.

Maria turned to Luke and smiled, and said, “So this is my future brother-in-law?”

He spluttered.

#

Luke was sentenced to six months of additional maintenance work, with the judge taking into account his attempt to stop the Gang of Four from destroying the Bag.

When he’d finished his sentence he took the algae pills. He lives just along the tentacle from us.

We have two little ones now. They have algae lungs too. I look up at the Bag from time to time. We still need it, for the moment. But soon we won’t, and we’ll be able to expand across the sea floor as far as we like. We will no longer be tethered to the Octopus, like pets to an owner.

###

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Tried by Statistics

by Jason Gibbs

“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.” – Homer Simpson

#

“Good morning Mr Jones, please take a seat.”

“Why am I here?”

John Jones was nervous. He’d been about to get into his car to drive home when the police arrived, and brought him to the station.

“All in good time Mr Jones, we need to establish a few things first.”

John sat down. He was a bit taller than average, with grey green eyes and strawberry blond hair. He shuffled his feet and stared down at his somewhat unfashionable patent leather brown shoes.

The police officer asked him to confirm his name and his address, which he did, and then he asked again what they wanted.

“I am Inspector Smith of the Deviation Analysis Squad.”

“The what?”

“The Deviation Analysis Squad. We look for people who are stepping outside the norm, by at least one deviation. For example, did you know that fewer than 10% of people a year have a formal interaction with a member of the police force?”

John stared and then said slowly, “I’m here because I have deviated from the norm by being here. That’s… Kafkaesque.”

“Indeed, and yet of the people who cite a reference to describe this situation, fewer than 7% choose Kafka, the vast majority prefer Orwell.”

Smith made a note on his paper. To John it looked like a cross next to the first item on a long list. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Right, your name, Jones, Quite common I believe. Welsh in origin?”

“Yes…”

“But not in fact your birth name.”

“No, I was…”

“Your birth name was… let me see here… Kalinsky. A rare name.”

“Yes, but…”

“Did you know that fewer than 1% of men change their name in their life time?”

“I didn’t… but you see.”

“Would you like some water?”

“Ah, what, no, I mean, yes actually please.”

“Excellent response…” said the Inspector as he stood up, and went to the door and whispered something to the officer standing outside. He then sat down and made a cross and a tick on his list.

“Now let us continue, and please be clear, I am only after facts. Reasons are not within my remit.”

John stared at him, wondering how he could have ended up here.

“May I ask why you have selected a moustache?”

“Um, as, I mean, compared to what?”

“A full beard. Or no beard.”

“I guess I just like it.”

“And yet two decades ago you had a full beard,” the Inspector sounded a little stern.

“How did you know?”

“We have ways,” said the Inspector showing a humourless smile.

John said nothing, and the Inspector’s smiled grew and he said, “It was on your SocialBook page… which we will come back to. Now please, the facial hair question, this is important.”

“I guess I just liked it.”

“Just liked it, indeed. As of the last survey only 3% of men had just a moustache. And twenty years ago it was a similar percentage who had a full beard, and yet now it’s up to over 20%.”

The Inspector rubbed his clean shaven and rather square chin and looked at John, before nodding, and noting down three more crosses on his list. John was wondering what the third cross represented when the Inspector looked up suddenly.

“SocialBook!”

John started, “Yes?”

“Do you use it?”

“Um, well I’m on it.”

“Yes yes, but how often do you use it?”

“Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I logged in. Does that put me in a minority again?” John couldn’t help letting a little fear enter his voice.

The Inspector laughed drily.

“Oh no, perfectly average, right in the centre of the curve in fact. Always good to check, we get some pretty severe Deviations in the social media world. Right, now, this says you are religious.”

“Ah yes, I believe in God.”

“Indeed. And you go to church how often?”

“Every Sunday. But you see…”

“Do you know how many people go to church every Sunday?”

“Well the congregation has been shrinking, but…”

“Six percent. Six. And of your age group, less than one percent. You are heading right into the tail there my friend.”

He marked a large cross, and John decided he needed to say something, “But you see I only go because I promised my mother…”

“Keeping a promise to a parent. Let me see…. no that’s neutral. Lucky for you. I’d suggest you consider answering only the questions I ask Mr Jones, I am after all trying to do you a favour here.”

John felt that this was the opposite of the case, but realising that discretion was the better part of valour he held his tongue. The Inspector gave one of his hard smiles again, and ticked another box. He then leant back in his chair.

“Hmmm, so it says here that you like classical music,” he pointed vaguely at a file on the table which he hadn’t opened at any point.

“Not really, I mean it doesn’t offend me, but I don’t listen to it very often.”

“I see. So who do you listen to?”

“Well at the moment I’m listening to the Eagles a lot, mixed in with a bit of Queen.”

“Classical music indeed. You know that neither of those bands have been mainstream popular for some time…”

“But the Eagles best of…”

“A glitch.”

And another cross. John was feeling more and more disoriented and worried.

There was a knock on the door and it was opened by a policeman who walked in and gave John the drink of water he’d asked for earlier. He took a sip and tried to gather his thoughts.

“Look, I really don’t understand…”

The Inspector sighed and looked at him.

“Mr Jones, do you know what the problem with modern society is? No don’t answer, it was a rhetorical question. We believe that there are no major problems with the core of society. The problems are in the deviations. The barbarians inside the walls as it were.”

“Barbarians?”

“Yes, a kind of fifth column, well slightly more or less if you count the Deviations…”

The Inspector looked at John as if expecting a response, but seeing nothing just shook his head and muttered something like “non-statisticians” under his breath.

Then he looked at his watch and said, “Mr Jones, please no more interruptions, I only have a few more questions and then we should be able to make a decision, please just bear with me.”

“Um, OK.”

A tick this time.

“Right Mr Jones, can I see your tattoo?”

“What?”

“Your tattoo.”

“I don’t have a tattoo.”

“A real individual aren’t you.”

John felt on more solid ground on this one, he’d had an argument with Philips from Procurement about this only last week.

“Only 25% of 18-40 year-olds have tattoos. So not having one is not really being an individual.”

“Did you just quote a statistic at me Mr Jones?” The air of menace in the room was palpable.

“Um.”

“Perhaps you don’t realise how much trouble you are in! But if I were you, I wouldn’t try and be aggressive again, because at this point I’m your only hope.”

“OK, um, sorry?” John tried to look penitent, but he was so confused it was hard.

“Indeed. Well you are in fact correct about the overall percentage. But what it hides is that within your social strata, educational class and regional variation, having a tattoo is now prevalent across 51% of males.”

John wasn’t sure if it was an accusation or a celebration so he just nodded.

“However, it is not a defining marker for Deviation, so we will mark that as neutral. No more statistics though…” he looked severe.

John nodded meekly.

“Final question for today. Are you a vegan?”

“No. But I have been considering it… I mean not soon, but at some point.”

“Hmmm, well well, now that is interesting. Last year that would have put you into a Deviation category, but the latest updates seem to show… yes, you are now in the majority. Excellent.”

He made another tick. Tapped at the paper, then wrote a number at the bottom.

“Do you have anything else to say for yourself Mr Jones?”

“Ah no, I just…”

“No time for justice here. I am making a summary judgement. You are found guilty of Deviation, but given the balance of information I believe you have a chance of redemption. Sentence suspended for two years pending confirmation of conformation. Do you understand?”

“Um, not really.”

“I’m saving your life Mr Jones, I’m letting you join the majority. You may remain out of prison for the moment.”

###

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Brain Hack

By Jason Gibbs

“Gerald? Is that you… I’m in the kitchen.”

The door slammed, and she heard his footsteps. They sounded heavy, and she hoped he hadn’t had a bad day.

“Dawn… I’ve… I’ve been in an accident.”

“What? Gerald, are you OK? Sit down…”

She pulled a chair out for him, and went to get him a whisky.

“Tell me about it.”

“I was driving home, work was hectic today and I was thinking about a presentation I needed to do on… well I can’t remember, but anyway, I turned off the motorway and then, then I hit something. Someone.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, but there was blood I think, and… I’m here. The car is…”

He slumped, and slid off the chair, falling almost gracefully to the ground before Dawn could get to him. She didn’t know what to do. She took a deep breath, put Gerald into the recovery position and signalled a call. An emergency services avatar appeared in the chat box in her eyespace.

‘How may I help you?’

She blinked a photo of her husband, and quickly summarised the issue.

‘Paramedics are on the way. Can you confirm the OS and version your husband is currently running?’

She’d worried about this, not that it should be a problem, but people were funny about these things.

‘He’s a natural. No implanted OS,’ she answered.

A pause before the response, ‘We will send police as well.’

‘What? Why?’

‘They will explain. Thank you for your call.’

The avatar shut down and a feedback box bounced into view. She irritably flicked her eyes left to send it where it deserved, and then sat down staring at Gerald. She absent mindedly drank the whisky she’d poured for him. She was worried, and wondering to herself, why the police?

#

Thirty minutes later the paramedics were loading Gerald into the ambulance, assuring her that all would be well. The police woman had been very polite, and stayed out of the way while the paramedics were working on him. Once the ambulance had pulled away she looked a question at Dawn, and Dawn sighed inwardly and went over to speak to her.

“I’m Officer Fisher. I’ve reviewed the report Mrs Richards, and I’m concerned. There are a few things which don’t make sense.”

Dawn stared at her. She’d been holding it together up to this point, looking after Gerald, but now… she started to cry.

The police woman didn’t move, but looked sympathetic.

“Now don’t worry Mrs Richards, I don’t think your husband has done anything wrong… quite the opposite in fact, I think he might be a victim. Is this Mr Richards’ car?” she asked as she pointed to the grey box Gerald had been so proud of getting.

Dawn sniffed a bit, then nodded and the police woman walked round it, then carefully looked under it. She nodded, to herself it seemed and then returned to where Dawn was standing.

“As I thought, no obvious damage. Would it be possible to go inside…”

Dawn looked around, and realised that some of her neighbours were loitering. She could see in the corner of her eyespace that there was a queue of messages in her neighbour channel. She nodded to the police woman, turned and went in. Officer Fisher followed at a respectful distance, and flashed a do not disturb message across all the local comms networks.

#

Officer Fisher sat quietly as Dawn busied herself making a cup of tea for them both. She’d wanted a glass of wine, but didn’t think it was entirely appropriate. Eventually she had to sit down and face the police woman.

“Thank you for the cup of tea Mrs Richards.”

“You’re welcome,” said Dawn somewhat woodenly.

“Now, you told the dispatch bot that your husband had no OS… and the request was shunted to a human. That is why I was sent. Now I have to ask this question, it may seem strange, but are you sure your husband is a natural? Some people claim they are, but…”

“Oh no, he’s a natural. You see we went to school together. I was there when they were testing us. He was the only natural in the school for a couple of years. We all knew. He… well he struggled a bit for a while.”

“It is hard for naturals, when they start to be shut out from the social aspects…” said the police woman sympathetically.

“He’s definitely natural.”

“Yes, I see, well that explains it. Please wait one second.” She stared left politely, then went on, “I’ve spoken to the paramedics and they are performing a series of diagnostics, similar to the OS testing you had at school. Hopefully they’ll find out the, um, semi-code and be able to help him.”

Dawn looked are her blankly, then said, “Please, just… I don’t understand, will he be fine?”

The police woman smiled reassuringly, demonstrating that the empathy courses were still in vogue. “He should make a full recovery, based on the other cases I’ve seen, but of course the doctors will need to confirm.”

“But what happened?”

“Your husband was hacked,” said Officer Fisher simply.

“But he’s a natural…”

“I suspect the hackers didn’t know that. They’ve started to use some aggressive techniques recently, and it may have been one of those. In essence they blank all the receptors, and in the case of some naturals, well, it gets partially through, along with a lot of noise and confusion. I believe that is what happened to your husband.”

“Do you mean like a blast attack for us?” Dawn had never experienced one of these, but knew of people who had. They said it was like receiving every message they’d ever had at the same time, and some of them had taken days to get back online.

“In essence yes, though as he had no training he would not have had any context. It’s fortunate he made it home before collapsing. These days blast attacks are much rarer, the underlying architecture has been improved somewhat.”

“I, I think I understand. And don’t I know that they’re still working on the Brain OSes. I had a version upgrade last year, it was pretty confusing. I have to admit I thought Gerald was the lucky one for a few days, I can tell you.”

There was a pause. Then Dawn asked, “What were they trying to do?”

“Oh, well you said he mentioned an accident? I think they were trying to plant the idea he’d been in a car accident. They try to plant it in the back memory of an OS-enabled person so it’s not obvious. It makes it much easier when they follow up a few hours later with a call, you probably know the kind.”

Dawn thought, and then smiled thinly, “Oh yes, the ones which say something like, ‘Hello, I believe you’ve been in a car accident which wasn’t your fault…'”

###

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Increments

I wrote this originally on a whim after reading something about industrial policy. I was trying to see what the impact on real people might be…

Increments

By Jason Gibbs

The government today announced their intention to nationalise Hardys, Julco and Faberdashers.  These last three independent great national champions will be merged into the United Retail Company, serving every aspect of our daily lives.  URC produces items from soap to dishwashers, and will now have the strength to compete with the foreign firms who have begun to dominate our domestic market.

Gladys sat in her comfortable chair, and stared at her supermarket receipt.  She did try to buy British, but it was just so hard.  She’d saved nearly twenty percent over the previous month’s shopping by switching to these odd-sounding brands.  Perhaps with this new British giant things would get cheaper again?  She’d try them next month.

The phone went.

“Yes?”

“Oh hello darling.  Yes I’m fine.”

“No, I’ll be fine my pension covers it now.”

“Yes yes, you sound like you’re busy?  Well, nice to speak to you, see you soon?”

Her daughter was always so busy, though Gladys wasn’t entirely sure what it was that she did.

URC announced today its results for its first quarter since nationalisation, and the results were good.  Sales were up nearly 6% and profits 3%.  The government announced that the profits would be used to accelerate the roll out of the automated home help program.  This government initiative seeks to put a care robot into the home of every single pensioner in the country, current estimates are that there are more than five million people who would be eligible.

Bill sat at his desk trying to work out what he was doing.  He’d been planning to respond to a letter, but couldn’t remember which.  He looked at the pile of papers and saw the one from the Department for Age Support.  Damn them. 

That was it, he remembered now, they wanted to put a robot in his house.  Probably to spy on him, or maybe inject him with all these potions the quacks kept trying to get him to take.  Well, he was going to tell them where to put the ridiculous automaton, and he wasn’t going to be polite about it!

Minister Johns today delivered the millionth care robot to the home of Mrs Jay.  She was heard to exclaim in happiness, and immediately asked the device to make a cup of tea and do the ironing.  The Minister stayed for tea and said he’d had a very pleasant chat with Mrs Jay.  In an interview after the meeting Mrs Jay said that she might now be tempted to vote for the Minister at the next election.

“No dear, he’s an old friend.  A very old friend, we went to school together.”

“Oh don’t be silly, it’s nothing serious at all, we’re just catching up.  Now I must go, the tea is ready.  Bye dear, do pop in soon.”

Gladys turned to her guest, “Sorry Bill, my daughter, Emily.  She does fuss.”

Bill shuffled his feet a bit, “Well these young ones.  At least she cares.”

“Yes, oh yes.  Wasn’t it lucky that we bumped into each other at the supermarket!  After all these years I could tell it was you, just by your walk.  You haven’t changed a bit.”  She smiled at him, and he caught a little of the twinkle he remembered in her eyes.

“Gotten old I have.  Not like you, still a real beauty.”

Gladys was saved the embarrassment of answering by the arrival of the tea, delivered by her new care robot.

“I call her Ruby.  Because of her red lights.”

“Hmph.”

“Oh don’t be an old stick in the mud, she’s jolly useful.  Makes very good tea, now that I’ve shown her how to properly warm the pot.  I do wonder about these engineers, they sent her out without knowing how to make a proper cuppa.”

“Don’t trust them, robots that is, not the engineers.  Though, I will admit that this is a nice cup of tea.”

“Bill, don’t be silly, I spoke to Tom, he’s Emily’s husband and does something with programming these robots.  He says that they’re saying these lovely helpers will give us at least an extra ten years life.”

He frowned.  Until last week an extra ten years of life would have meant a continuation of his purgatory, but finding Gladys again had lifted his heart.  He, almost, felt young again.

“They do, do they?  Well, maybe they’re not all bad.”

He was silent for a moment.

“Mine is arriving next week.  The ministry’s polite response to my eloquent refusal can be summarised as: tough.”

“Well I for one am glad.  I won’t be worrying about you, all on your own in that dingy place.  I’m sure those stairs will be the death of you.  But with a helper, well, you’ll be much safer.”

URC announced today a small drop in sales and commensurate drop in profits.  The CEO, former Minister Palpby, explained that the final integration costs had kicked in.  He also accused the competition of flooding the market with cheap goods to try and damage URC and therefore the country.  He called on the government to set mandatory prices for critical consumer goods such as soap, toothpaste and skin cream.

“These biscuits Bill, are they local?  They taste delicious.”

“Ah, no, they’re imports.”

“Bill!  I thought you were ‘Buy British’ all the way.”

“They are half the price, and taste better.  I’m as patriotic as the next man, but I have to subsist on pennies you know.”

Just then Albert hummed politely.

“Yes?”

“Would you like a refill of tea, sir?”

“Yes, and stop calling me sir.  Call me Bill or something!”

“Yes sir.”

Gladys smothered a smile.  She was glad to see Bill had a care-robot now.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Competition today announced that there would be minimum pricing on all goods defined as core.  He explained that these were all those day to day essentials required for a normal life, but did not include any luxuries.

“Now Gladys, I don’t want you to think I’m being too forward.  But…”

“Yes Bill?”

“Would you like to move in with me?  I can’t marry you.  I promised Beryl I wouldn’t marry again.  But…”

“Oh Bill.  I don’t need to be married to be happy.  Yes, of course.  This last month has seen the cobwebs swept out of my brain.  But why now?”

“Well, you see the thing is.  Oh, I’ll just tell you it all.  I don’t have very much money, in fact my pension just isn’t covering my expenses any more.  I was saving money by buying the cut-price foreign products, but now that all the prices have gone up, well, if I don’t find a way to cut costs I’ll go hungry.”

She just stared at him, and then said, “So it’s just to save money?”

He could see tears threatening to form.

“Oh no no, not at all.  I was hoping to wait and take you out to a nice dinner and do it properly, but this recent change has just.  Oh I’m such an idiot.  I’ve always wanted to be with you.”

Gladys looked at him sombrely and then started to laugh.

“You silly old goose, I was just joking!  Of course I’d like to live with you, but, I’d rather you moved in with me.  My place is quite a bit bigger for a start.”

He smiled and reached for her.  A humming sound interrupted them.

“Yes Albert?”

“Your lunch is ready sBill.”

“sBill?” enquired Gladys.

“I changed his word for sir.  Read up on it in the manual.  I’m not totally useless yet!”

Patoque-Deuters Industries, one of the largest foreign companies still operating in the domestic market, announced a massive increase in profits.  PDI’s spin on this blatant profiteering was that the government minimum pricing had forced them to raise all their prices and this had fed directly through to profits.  A government spokesman pointed out that this couldn’t possibly be true as URC had only achieved limited growth in their profits.

“Now Emily, don’t you worry.  Bill will be bringing his own care robot.  We’ve been told by the ministry that we can keep both of them for three months, and then there will be an assessment.  God knows what they’ll assess.”

“No, Em dear.  Listen, I know you worry about your old mother, but I’m not completely gaga.  This is my decision and I’m sticking with it.  OK, oh, you have to run?  No, that’s fine, we’ll speak next week?  OK, goodbye.”

URC announced the delivery of the four millionth care robot to a pensioner.  The government followed this by extending the care robot programme to cover all pensioners, implying that a further five million robots would be produced.

“So we can keep both robots.  It’s official.”

“That’s good Bill.”

“I thought you’d be more excited.  What’s wrong Gladys?”

“Well.  Bill, how much toilet paper do you actually need to use?”

Bill looked shocked.  This wasn’t something he’d ever discussed, not even with Beryl.

“Er, well four sheets.  Drummed into me in the army.  Never more.”

Gladys looked confused.

“Well I don’t understand, I’m buying twice as much as I used to, and yet we’re running out faster.  I assumed it was just you.  Everything seems to run out so fast these days.”

“At least we’re back to buying British!”

“Yes, though the pleasure of buying British doesn’t really outweigh the drop in quality.”

PDI today made the bizarre claim that they were responsible for ninety percent of the production of URC’s care robots.  Their CEO was hauled in front of the Minister to explain himself, he later made a public apology and blamed it on some confusion at head office.  A URC representative explained that PDI did provide some components for the machines, but that these were all low value items, and would all soon be taken in-house.

“What are you doing Albert?”

The robot turned, and said, “Sorry Miss Gladys, I was checking the toothpaste.  It is part of my regular routine.”

It turned back, screwed on the cap and put the tube down.  Gladys thought the tube looked quite a bit flatter than she remembered it being that morning.

“Please don’t.”

“Yes Miss Gladys.”

As she walked away she muttered to herself, “I can almost believe those robots are mostly foreign.  Stealing my toothpaste.  Wonder what the little devil wanted it for.”

Peter Shipps was today sentenced to ten years in prison for malicious economic sabotage.  Mr Shipps, a so-called independent journalist, had claimed that the care robots had been programmed to steal from their owners.  He asserted that the robots would use a little bit of every one of the core essentials every day, thereby forcing their owners to buy replacements much faster.  The only products being targeted were those made by URC, in an effort to improve sales.  Mr Justice Jenkins summarised by calling Shipps a ‘fantasist’ and enemy of the people.  He also stated that he was surprised that the prosecution hadn’t also added a charge of working for a foreign power, as that was the only motivation he could see behind Shipps’ actions.  Neither URC nor the government deigned to comment on the allegations from the report.

“Bill, I’m sorry, I’ve had to buy foreign.  The British stuff just isn’t as good, and it keeps running out so quickly.  I thought it might be your foolish robot, but after that time I caught it with the toothpaste I’ve never seen it do that again, and I’ve snuck up on it several times.”

“That’s alright love.  We must do what’s right for us.  We’ve given enough to this country over the years.”

He was glad they could go back to having the nice tea biscuits, he’d missed them.

URC announced today that sales in the last quarter had dropped a further 15%, making a drop of nearly 30% this year.  The company claimed that it was because their products had a longer life than their competitors, and this was slowing people’s replacement purchases.  In addition there have been supply delays which have slowed down the care robot delivery program.

“Bill, I caught that devil doing it again!”

“What dear?”

“Albert, stealing the toothpaste.”

“It can’t have been Albert, he’s been with me all day.  Perhaps it was Ruby?”

“Ruby?  Why would she want my toothpaste?  It’s that foreign stuff as well, and I thought she was mostly British!”

“Yes dear.”

One of Peter Shipps colleagues, who’s name cannot be reported during his trial, has made bold claims that in recent months the care robots have been reprogrammed.  He has said that the robots are now stealing small amounts of the products of foreign companies, particularly PDI, and leaving URCs products alone.  His rather contorted explanation is that people had stopped buying URC products because they were running out so quickly, and have now turned to PDI’s which seem to last longer.  Therefore the government has mandated that the robots reverse the process.  It is likely that this alleged merchant of truth will spend the rest of his life in one of the remote penal stations.

“No Gladys.  I don’t care if you think they’re going at the same rate as the British products, the fact is that they’re nicer.  If they cost the same then we should stick with them.”

“But Bill…”

“No buts.”

URC announced today that it needed a cash injection of many billions in order to continue to operate.  Sales have continued to drop precipitously.  Minister Jacobs blamed foreign companies for their cut-throat competition, and focussed his ire on PDI.  He said the government was reviewing options to seize PDI’s illegal profits.  PDI’s latest quarterly report showed continued growth in sales, and a robust profit, clearly as a result of predatory sales practices.  The report claimed the company now employed three hundred thousand people in the country.  The majority are in sales and distribution activities as PDI’s manufacturing capacity is based overseas.  

“Oh Emily, I’m sure it will be fine.  Governments always say such things.  They really can’t do it.”

“I know dear, I love you too.  See you next week?  Bye then”

Bill looked up.

“Is she ok?”

“She’s worried about her job.  PDI have always been good to her, and she’s done very well.  If the government does go through with their threats…”

“Bah.  It’ll never pass.  The courts will stop it.”

“I don’t know Bill.  It doesn’t seem like it was a few years ago.”

The government announced yesterday import duties of 70% on all goods. 

PDI’s response, issued today, was that it would be shutting down operations in Britain.  It was planning an orderly shutdown, and all employees would be terminated by the end of the year.  A government spokesman said that the government were taking steps, though was unable to specify what they were.

“Gladys, why have we got these horrid cardboard biscuits?”

“That’s all there were, love.  Not a single foreign made thing in the shop.  The nice girl at the cashier said that they’d had no deliveries since the government announcement.”

“But I like those biscuits.  Damned government.”

He paused and then taking a deep breath he said, “There is something else.  Gladys, we’re going to Spain.”

“What love?  A holiday?  I’m not sure we can afford it!”

“No dear.  To live.  It’s a one-way ticket.”

“But.  When, what?”

“We can’t stay here.  The shops are half empty, the queues are growing.  The country has gone to the dogs, and it’s getting worse.”

“I know, but Spain.”

She thought about it a bit then said, “It’s nice and warm there though.  Oh, what about Emily?”

“She’s coming too.  With the pay-off she’s getting from PDI she can afford to come as well, with Tom and the kids.”

“I didn’t think you two got on.”

“I think she knows now that I only have your best interests at heart.”

“Oh Bill.  That could be lovely.  But what about the robots?  We’d have to leave them, they are government property.  I couldn’t live without Ruby, and how long would you last without Albert.  Love, it’s just not practical.  It’s not.”

“Trust me dear.  Will you?”

“I can’t go to Spain, I can’t.  There must be another way.”

Reports have come in of rioters destroying shops in town centres across the country.  Government spokesmen have said that these are malcontents trying to stir up trouble.  We tried to interview some of them, but were stopped by the police under the Sedition Act.

“Well Bill.  We’re actually in Spain!”

“Now we can properly relax love.  Sun, sand, and peace.”

She smiled and looked over at him.  The bruising on his face had gone down.  He’d been lucky those rioters hadn’t hurt him more, though he kept saying it was the riot police who’d actually hit him.  He’d been getting milk.  Albert had brought him home and tended to him.  As soon as she’d seen him she’d known that her country was gone, replaced by somewhere she no longer recognised.  Somewhere that was no longer safe.  They had to leave.

“Another cerveza please Albert.  That means beer in Spanish dear.”

“I know Bill, that’s the fourth time you’ve told me.”

He looked out over the pool.

“Bliss.”

“You never did tell me how you managed to bring Albert and Ruby with us.”

“I just downloaded their memories onto flash cards.  Then I uploaded them into two blank robots I purchased here from the local subsidiary of PDI.”

“Oh you are clever Bill.”

He puffed up.

“I do my best dear.”  He didn’t want to admit that Tom had told him how to do it.

The care robot returned.

“Your cerveza sBill.”

“Thanks Albert.”

He raised the bottle and said, “Here’s to new lives.”

Gladys smiled and lifted her glass, “New lives.”

###

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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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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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