Sunday, November 22, 2015

Day 13 - Red House


“They say,” said Charles Carruthers, pausing for effect as the candlelight flickered against his thin face “that he has parlance with the Devil himself.”

“He is never seen out of the house during the hours of daylight,” added George Meanwell, leaning his portly frame close in to the table and keeping his voice low, “and his curtains are always drawn tightly shut.”

“I met him once,” said Donald Craig, leaning back in his chair and swilling his glass of whiskey contemplatively, “he is tall, thin, and pale and there is something thoroughly unpleasant about him. It would not be difficult to believe he was what they say.”

“Poppycock,” said Luther Basterfield, sipping from his whiskey and then setting the crystal glass back down on the table, his dark eyes glittering in the candlelight. “Utter poppycock. He may well attempt to cultivate an air of mystery and macabre, but I’m sure this Aldous Stark is as human as any of us.”

“Always the sceptic, Luther,” said George, with a shake of his head that caused his jowls to shudder “but there are rumours of dark rituals at his country residence, Red House, on the weekends; of parties that go on for days and from which not everyone returns.”

“I prefer to think of myself as an agnostic,” said Luther, “As you know, I live in eternal hope of finding something that will prove to me that the supernatural is real.”

“I remember you debunking that medium last year,” said Donald, “What was her name? Anna? Elena?”

“Alexandra Moleva,” said Luther, cooly. “At least, that was the name she was using in public. She thought that sounding Russian would add to the mysticism; I can only imagine she felt that her act wouldn’t have the same cachet under her real name of Gladys Sugden.”

“But she fooled quite a few people before you went to see her,” said Charles, “Wasn’t Arthur Moorman paying her a retainer to contact his father on a weekly basis?”

“Indeed,” replied Luther. “Apparently, he was so lacking in confidence at running the business that he ended up using her to speak to the spirit of his father and make the decisions for him.”

“Remarkable,” breathed George.

“Oh, the most remarkable thing about it all was that she was making better decisions than Arthur,” said Luther with a smile, “once I’d unmasked her, he had to run the business on his own. In fact, the last I heard, he was filing for bankruptcy.”

They all laughed soundly at this and Charles poured them all more whiskey.

“You know you have really spoilt us with this Dalmore, Luther” said George, admiring his refilled glass.

“A fifty year malt,” said Luther, smirking. “I’ve no interest in anything that’s not been properly aged.”

“Stark is another case entirely to that medium,” said Donald, once the room had fallen silent, “there’s something about him that sends a shiver down one’s spine.”

“That doesn’t seem to stop him attracting female attention,” said Charles, “they flock to him, that’s what I’ve heard.”

“Ladies interested in a rich and powerful man,” said Luther dryly, “you’ll pardon me for not being terribly shocked.”

“It’s more than that though,” said Donald, “he just seems to mesmerise them; he had two Baronets hanging off his every word the whole night that I saw him.”

“So, he’s a rich eccentric who manages to attract women despite giving you the chills,” said Luther, “I’m still not sure why you think this fellow deserves my attention.”

“Do you remember Colin Morgan?” asked George.

“The name rings a bell, but it’s a vague one.”

“He’s a banker,” replied George, “or, at least, he was. Big fellow with red hair, quite a temper on him.”

“And how is he connected to all of this?”

“Well, he had an argument with Stark at a party a few weeks ago. By all accounts, he got rather annoyed that Stark had apparently bewitched his fiancée. Voices were raised, well by Colin at least, and when Stark ignored him he apparently rolled up his sleeves and tried to take a swing at Stark.”

“Still not earning my interest, gentlemen.” said Luther, with a mock yawn.

“Colin used to box in his spare time,” said George, “he knew his way around a fight, that’s for sure. But when Colin threw a punch, Stark caught his fist and twisted his wrist until he’d forced Colin to drop to his knees. There’s no way anyone could stop a punch like that.”

“And that’s not the end of the story,” interrupted Donald, “Stark left the party after that, but the very next night, they found Colin Morgan dead inside a room on the 5th floor of the Eton Hotel. A room that was locked from the inside. The only way in or out of the room was through a window with an opening that measured less than six inches.”

“And they are certain it was murder?” asked Luther.

“Oh yes,” said George, “Quite certain. You see, when they found him, he didn’t have a single drop of blood left in his body…”

Luther drew himself back from the table, steepled his fingers beneath his chin and pursed his lips.

“Well, I must admit, my curiosity is piqued ever so slightly...”

***

Securing an invitation to the next of Aldous Stark’s parties had not proven to be easy; not only were Stark’s guest lists selective, they were also highly unpredictable. However, after questions had been asked, a considerable number of favours called in, and a number of palms suitably greased, they had managed to obtain two invitations to Stark’s latest party to be held at his country residence. And, as luck would have it, it was to be a Masked Ball.

“Why on Earth did I ever let them persuade me to come with you?” asked Donald as they bumped along the twisting and dark country road.

“Donald, you really are a dreadful bore,” replied Luther, absently gazing out the window to where the lights of Stark’s country home could be seen burning in the distance. “We’re going to a party, it will be fun.”

“And how exactly do you plan to expose Stark?”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, Donald. But I know his type; once he realises that I can see through his assortment of parlour tricks, he’ll lose any air of mystique he may have cultivated.”

“Assuming they are just tricks.”

Luther adjusted his black sequined mask and turned to look at Donald. “Well, as you know, I live in eternal hope of being proved wrong.”

They sat in silence for the last few minutes of the coach ride, as they turned off from the road and between two gate posts festooned with strange gargoyles. A sign, cast from black iron, was hung from the left gatepost which read Red House. Their carriage continued up the drive, past line upon line of flaming torches, and after bouncing across stone cobbles they finally pulled up in a large circular courtyard at the front of the house. The courtyard had a fountain at its centre that was also dominated by a large gargoyle, while the house itself was huge; three floors and countless windows with a large arched doorway as its main entrance.

They stepped down and were immediately welcomed by two white shirted, and masked, butlers. They appeared from this distance to be identical; both were dark haired and wore red velvet masks, both were well over six feet tall and powerfully built.

“Mr. Stark wishes to speak with you, gentlemen.” said the first one, while the second glowered at them as best as one could from behind a red velvet mask.

“Us?”said Luther, innocently, “Are you sure that you have the right carriage?”

“Quite sure, Mr. Basterfield.” said the butler, clasping his hands in front of him so that he could lightly flex his impressive muscles through the thin white fabric of his shirt.

Next to him, Luther could see that Donald was blanching a couple of shades paler.

“Well, in that case, lead on dear fellow,” said Luther, with a mock bow, before nudging Donald with an elbow and winking at him.

***

The first butler walked ahead of them, leading them through the large iron studded door at the front of Red House, and into a large tiled entrance hall where twin staircases lead up from both left and right ahead of them to an open set of double doors. The second butler stood behind them, blocking the door.

“It’s rather quiet for a party, don’t you think Donald.” said Luther, looking around and seeing no sign of any other guests.

“I’m beginning to think we perhaps got the date wrong,” said Donald, “maybe we should call it a night and head back?”

But the second butler shut the door behind them even as Donald began to turn around and then made a show of loudly sliding a metal bolt across to lock it.

“Up the stairs and through the doors,” said the first butler, nodding his head. “Mr. Stark has been expecting you.”

“Well, after coming all this way to meet him, that sounds a splendid idea.” said Luther and, with Donald following tentatively behind him he walked up the left staircase. The two butlers stayed behind, arms folded and each waiting at the bottom of one of the staircases.

The double doors at the top of the staircase opened into a large ballroom which, despite being decorated for a party was completely devoid of life except for three people seated at the farthest end of the room.

Aldous Stark was in the middle of the three on a golden throne with one leg crossed over the other; he was wearing an ornate red and black mask, a black suit and a red shirt. The darkness of his attire only served to highlight the paleness of his skin and Luther was struck by the fact that the only people he had seen who were paler had been corpses. To his left was a dark haired woman in a pale blue mask and a white dress seated on a wooden chair. To his right was a blonde haired woman who was kneeling with her hand bowed so that they couldn’t see her face.

“I must apologise for the lack of a party, Mr. Basterfield,” said Stark, his voice a low hiss. “But when I heard that you were so interested to meet me, it seemed a shame not to give you my very fullest attention.”

“You’re too kind,” said Luther, calmly. “But if I’d have known you were going to be so generous, I’d have brought a gift.”

“Your company is a gift in itself,” replied Stark, “and I have made sure that I have a gift for you as well.”

Stark motioned upwards with his right hand and the blonde haired woman jerked, her head snapping up so that she was staring at them.

“Marjorie,” blurted Donald, recognising his fiancée in that instant, “what on Earth are you doing here?”

But Marjorie appeared not to see Donald, she just stared blankly and silently at them.


“You had been hoping to surprise me, I understand” said Stark, his voice a low hiss, “so I thought that it was only fair I surprised you.”

Donald ran forward, taking Marjorie’s hand but she made no sign of having noticed him.

“What have you done to her, you scoundrel?” said Donald, his voice shaking.

“Just a hint of my powers,” smiled Stark, and Luther was immediately reminded of a snake. “Just a hint, since we have a sceptic in our midst.”

“My reputation clearly precedes me.” said Luther, coldly.

“When you go around asking questions about me, I hear about it,” said Stark. “And so I began to ask questions about you. And I was told that you don’t believe in the supernatural, that you like to believe that everything can be explained away by science. I was told that you actively seek out those who appear to be supernaturally gifted, and you debunk them.”

“You are correct,” said Luther, “it gives me great pleasure to expose those who would prey on the naïve beliefs of others.”

“Thus, I thought that today would be a good one for us to meet. For you to appreciate how little you and your science,” he spoke the word with distaste, “truly understand. Marjorie is mine now, she is mine body and soul.”

“Well, if this was all for my benefit then I’m afraid you’re going to have to try harder than that, Mr. Stark.” said Luther, cocking an eyebrow. “The girl could have been drugged, or hypnotised. I see nothing here that causes me to believe you’re invested with supernatural powers.”

“Then perhaps a fuller demonstration of my powers is in order, Mr. Basterfield,” said Stark with a grin that exposed his teeth. He turned to Marjorie, “why don’t you show your fiancée how much you’ve changed since you met me?”

The transformation was instant and horrifying; one moment Marjorie was the same woman that Luther had seen on several occasions, the next her face seemed to shudder and shake and her lips peeled back to reveal not teeth but fangs. And then, before Donald even had time to react, she was on him; her hands suddenly claws that clutched him hard, her fangs biting down hard into the side of his neck. She tore into his carotid artery in an instant, drinking greedily as his lifeblood flowed in her mouth and out around her lips and down onto her dress. Donald Craig was dead before his body hit the floor.

“And now do you appreciate?” laughed Stark, and his face began to shudder and his lips peeled back horribly to reveal huge fangs. ”Now do you understand why you should never have come into my world.

Luther heard footsteps echo loudly off the floor behind him at the two butlers entered the room and locked the double doors tightly shut. The dark haired woman was changing as well, her face contorting as she ripped off her blue mask and tossed it to the floor.

“You’re vampires,” said Luther slowly. “You really are vampires.”

“Do you have any last words, before we feast on you and tear you limb from limb?”

“Well, before you do that,” said Luther, with a cold smile, “and in this spirit of sharing secrets, I think it’s only fair that I tell you my real name.”

He stood straight, one hand fixing his bowtie, and the whole room seemed to darken a little.

“Before I was Luther Basterfield, I was called Henry Wrenwright and I lived in New York City. Before that I was called Toby van Dijk and I lived in Amsterdam. Before that…” Luther let the words trail off, “well, to cut a very long story short, I’ve had lots of names. Although for some reason, people always seem to remember the first one.”

The lights in the room flickered and the vampires looked to each other with nervousness. A feeling so old to them, it took them a moment to even recognise it.

“What are you?” asked Stark, his voice no longer commanding.

“When He made me,” said Luther, “He named me Lucifer.”

They bowed before him then. They grovelled, they begged. They pleaded and bargained. It meant nothing to him and, one by one, he extinguished them and claimed their souls as his own.

“Why?” asked Stark, when he alone was left quailing before him. “We do not do His work. Why us? Why not these humans? Why not feed on their souls?”

“Because,” said Lucifer, reaching out one hand casually and plucking Stark’s twisted and rotten soul from his body as easily as one might pull taffy from a stick, “I’ve no interest in anything that’s not been properly aged.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

Day 12 - Judgement Day


Judgement day had finally arrived.

The calculations had initially taken months and, in the end, he’d resorted to setting up a botnet in order to siphon away processing time from the University’s computer network. He knew that it was only a stopgap measure, that his clumsy work would be discovered soon, but by then it would be too late for anyone to do anything about it.

Obtaining some of the parts had proven difficult; these were not the sort of things you could go into a local Radioshack and pick up off the shelf. The more exotic materials he’d found ways to buy illicitly; he had found it quite remarkable what you could pick up on the darknet if you had enough bitcoins; while he’d used his research project as a cover for the less questionable materials.

He was thankful that the oversight at the University was so minimal; as long as he was bringing in enough funding – which, thanks to an entirely mythical project he’d cooked up for DARPA, was not a problem for him – then they left him to his own devices and didn’t interfere. Equally, the research assistants he’d hired had all been carefully isolated from each other and their work compartmentalised so that they would have no way of understanding what it was that they were working on. The results were that he was the only person who understood the full scope of the project.

Which, he thought, as he looked at the array that now crackled with a sheen of rippling blue plasma was probably a good thing. He had a feeling that if anyone were to find out that he, Dr. Alan Goldberg, had constructed the world’s first working time machine then he would have had to deal with a huge amount of interest from pretty much everyone. But, it was still a secret and, if all went as planned today, then it would remain forever a secret.

He’d first stumbled across the equation a decade earlier; an equation that led him to the belief that time travel was not only possible but feasible. And while his initial instinct was to publicise his work, he stopped himself from emailing the abstract to his colleagues at the last moment. Partly it was because he realised that this was an idea that could change everything and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be responsible for that leaking out into the world. But, the real reason he kept it to himself was because he had a plan for what he could do with it.

The development process was long and tiresome; to begin with he had to put together smaller research projects and then inflate their cost in order to secure funding. But that only went so far. By the time that he’d cleared the theoretical stage and had moved onto the construction of a working prototype, it was clear that he needed more money. A lot more money.

Developing a device that would help a gang of criminals bring down a Las Vegas casino was the beginning. It paid for the prototype’s construction and began his spiral into an increasingly dark place.

The prototype worked. It was a small scale version, capable of sending inorganic material back in time no more than five days, but it worked. On the first day that he’d finished its construction and built a test area, a blue lego brick appeared in the middle of the test plate. A blue lego brick that he had only just decided would be the first test object to be sent in five days’ time. Five days later he sent it.


But the costs began to mount from this point and so Dr. Goldberg had been forced to engage in more and more dubious deals in order to ensure that he kept his funding stream active. While juggling real research projects, he had also helped a Mexican drug cartel to decipher military communications and had provided a certain Asian country, opposed to American interference within their affairs, with an encryption code that would enable them to hijack control of the latest stealth drones. Both had proven to be lucrative deals and both had drawn the attention of the FBI. He justified his actions by thinking about what he was trying to do, what he hoped to accomplish, the lives – millions of lives – that were at stake.

World War II had changed the shape of the world forever and, at the heart of the destruction and the chaos, had been the Nazi Party. And at the head of the Nazi party had stood one man. If he could use his device to go back in time, to kill that one man before any of this happened, then perhaps the world would turn out to be a considerably better and more peaceful place. For such a noble goal, Dr. Goldberg was prepared to do whatever was necessary.

The device was fully spooled up and he ignored the banging on the door. He figured that the FBI had caught up to him, or perhaps it was one of his clients who’d decided to eliminate any trail of evidence. It didn’t matter. By the time that they broke down the security door it would be far too late and he would be gone, and if succeeded then this reality would never have existed.

He took a deep breath and picked up the gun from the counter. It was an antique, like the clothes that he was now dressed in, but he couldn’t afford to take something with him that would reveal his existence as a time traveller. He’d spent long months practising with it, even though he’d previously abhorred guns, and was confident in his aim even if he only had one shot.

He checked the dial one last time. He was travelling back to the winter of 1918, before the Nazi Party had existed, and intended to kill the snake by cutting off its head. One chance to change the future. One chance to change everything, for the better.

He stepped into the machine and waited as it counted down from three seconds.

He gripped the pistol tightly.

Two seconds.

He focused. The calculations to ensure he appeared in exactly the right place at exactly the right time had been extraordinarily complicated but he was confident in them.

One second.

The machine flared bright blue, crackling loudly, and the power grid for several kilometres around the University campus blacked out.

As the wave of blue enveloped him and he faded out of this time, he smiled. Today was a good day to kill Karl Heinz Gruber. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Day 11 - Walking by Myself


We'd left seismometers behind on the Moon after the lunar missions in 1969 and 1970 and we eventually used the data from them to prepare us for our return. In the eight years that they remained operable they recorded over 12,000 seismic events, and we were able to use this wealth of data to understand how frequently the Moon was afflicted by impacts from micrometeorites, meteor storms, and asteroids.

The International Moon Base on the far side of the moon had been constructed based on this data; positioned so that it would be well away from the most frequent meteor showers and armoured heavily enough that it was capable of withstanding the types of impact that, statistically, were likely to occur within 300 years of operation.

I remember telling Amy that fact, and I remember her telling me that she’d never liked statistics. She wasn’t happy about me taking this assignment, not with her being pregnant, but I’d assured her that it was fine and that, more importantly, I’d be back on Earth with at least three months to spare so she wasn’t going to have to do this without me.

We got a warning on the shower a few hours ahead of schedule; it wasn’t one of the regular belts, so this was likely debris from a larger asteroid or a comet that was on its own trajectory and orbit. Meteor showers meant we went into lockdown mode; all five of us returning from our work on the surface and hunkering down in the protected section  of the base to wait it out like we’d done several times before in the past three months.

I think it was only blind luck in the end. I’d strayed that bit further from the base than I’d meant to, and so I took a little longer to get back than I should have; the result of which was that I was so behind schedule that I had only just stepped into the depressurisation chamber when it hit. I was looking at the video display that showed the protected section of the base and the others were waving frantically at me to hurry up.

And then all hell broke loose.

Hundreds of tiny meteorites tore through the protective section of the base in an instant, peppering it like a shotgun blast. I watched as Ellen and Jordy collapsed to the floor, having been hit numerous times; I don’t even want to think what that looked like but they at least died quickly. For Vladimir and Meilin it was worse; damaged beyond repair, the canopy peeled back to expose the interior of the base to the near vacuum of the moon’s surface. They fought to get to their own space suits, faces twisted into grimaces worthy of nightmares, but they both slumped unconscious to the floor before they had even had a chance to pull them from the wall cabinets. And all I could do was watch, utterly helpless.

It was over as soon as it began, but the result was the near total destruction of the base save for the twenty square metre section in which I was currently standing.

I stood there, still in my suit in silence, just gazing at what was left of the base. Even the Lunar Escape System was clearly damaged irreparably. And then I started laughing, uncontrollably. I was on the far side of the moon; over a hundred miles from the nearest unmanned base on the near side of the moon and its secondary LESS system. The situation seemed so ludicrous in that instant, and then I remembered Amy and I sobered up immediately.

I knew what I had to do. I had eight hours of oxygen remaining and I had no means of transport. I would have to walk.

The spacesuits they made for the first batch of astronauts were designed for survival, not for mobility, but things have thankfully improved since then. Modern spacesuits are a lot more flexible, a lot lighter, and allow a lot quicker travel. I set out for the near side of the moon.

The first three hours were relatively easy going, leaping in bounds across the lunar surface that carried me fairly quickly, but the exertions started to take their toll and I realised that I was eating up oxygen far too fast. So I slowed things down to nothing more than a quick walk, gently bouncing across the grey rock and dust.

By the sixth hour, it was beginning to get dark. We were in the middle of the lunar day on the far side of the moon, but I was getting closer to the near side which currently was experiencing lunar night. I was feeling tired, my limbs aching and I felt like giving up and just lying down. Falling asleep and never waking up. But then I thought of Amy and I knew I had to push on, I had to at least try.

Midway through the seventh hour, I crossed a ridge and I finally saw it.

I burst into a grin; I was here, I had made it. I wasn’t sure whether I had possessed either the strength or the necessary oxygen when I had set out from the remnants of the base but the thought of Amy had spurred me on.

I looked up at the blue and white sphere in the sky, at my home, and it felt as if my heart was swelling in my chest. There was never any possibility of making it to the secondary LESS without transportation, so I had not bothered trying. Instead, I had used my last energy and oxygen to get here, to within sight of my home.


I hoped against hoped that Amy could feel my gaze, even though I know how crazy that sounds, and then sat down on the ground with my back to a rock and just watched the Earth. The low oxygen warning began to bleep and I wondered whether I would have a son or a daughter and what they would think of me. I wondered whether Amy would ever be able to forgive me and I wondered if she really knew how much I loved her.

I fought back tears and watched the Earth. I watched the Earth until my eyelids grew too heavy and I had to let them close… 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Day 10 - The Riddle


The object landed in the deserts outside Roswell, New Mexico on July 3rd, 1947.

It had been tracked on radar as it entered Earth’s atmosphere and a team had been scrambled to recover it as soon as its trajectory had been calculated. At the time, the prevailing theory was that the Soviet Union was far further forward with its rocket research than intelligence had suggested and they were going to recover a rocket of some description. However, when the team finally reached the area, they swiftly realised that the object was not something from the Soviet Union.

It was a black dodecahedron measuring just over twenty feet in diameter and was inscribed with a series of runes that covered 90% of its surface. The object was transported to the Groom Lake facility and was subjected to a series of tests that revealed that it was composed of a metallic compound that was unknown to science and which was seemingly impervious to all attempts to damage it.

A team was assembled to decipher the runes but, after two years, no headway had been made and the object steadfastly resisted all attempts to probe it. A decision was made to store the object and to re-evaluate it when science had progressed sufficiently.

***

In 2005, the object was removed from storage and was subjected to a further battery of tests. The exterior was photographed and the runes were digitized and fed into a supercomputer that attempted to understand the language used.

The results were as disappointing as the original examination of the object in the late 1940s; despite the huge advances that had occurred in science, the object remained as much a mystery as the day it had crash landed in the New Mexico desert. It was a puzzle behind the ability of man to decipher.

A decision was made to return it to storage.

***

In 2057, the object was moved to a secure facility to be analysed. A full holographic display of the object was constructed and attempts were made to conduct a full molecular scan. However, the object resisted the scan attempts and the scientific team were left with just as little to go on as all their predecessors. An attempt to decipher the runes using an NSA quantum supercomputer proved to be futile and the object was again returned to a storage depot to be considered once new technologies and approaches were available.


***

In 2146, the object was removed from storage and a pioneering sub-atomic probe was used to determine its structure. With an understanding of the way in which the object had been constructed, a secondary scan revealed a hitherto subset of additional runes which had been impossible to visually detect. The full set of runes were then fed into a fusion-powered hyper computer and, after six months of number crunching, it was able to deconstruct and translate the language of the object.

The message gave information on the origin of the object, a star system almost 300 light years from Earth, and provided instructions on how to open the object in order to obtain faster-than-light drive technology.

With great fanfare, the decision was made to open the object on July 3rd, 2147; two hundred years to the day since it had landed on Earth. The momentous occasion would be captured on live broadcasts and the whole world would finally have a chance to see the alien technology that had been hidden from view for the last two centuries.

***

The object listened carefully as a series of mixed frequency sonic pulses, coupled with a multispectral laser array, were beamed at it. Finally, after all this time, it had been given the correct code and it could fulfil its function. Eight out of the nine locks had been unsealed.

It had waited patiently while the lifeforms of this planet had crudely probed it over the course of the last two hundred years, although it had begun to worry that they might never solve the riddle and thus never find out what lay inside it.

They were going to be impressed by the gamma bomb that it was built around, it was sure. Well, impressed for the 0.003 seconds between them opening its casing and the bomb detonating, at least.

Its makers had been very thoughtful; seed the cosmos with devices that would only function when the lifeforms of that planet grew sufficiently advanced that they presented a real possibility of evolving into a genuine threat.

The ninth lock received its unlock sequence.

The object opened.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Day 9 - Mystery Train


My head nodded against the glass of the window and I woke up, briefly confused about where I was and what I doing, before remembering that I was on a train to San Francisco. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked around; we were just pulling away from 22nd Street station and the train had filled up while I was asleep.

A large man in an ill-fitting blue suit was sleeping opposite me, his head lolled against the window and his mouth open; every ten seconds or so he would let out a snore like someone trying to start up a small motorbike. I smiled and the girl in the red dress, sitting opposite me and to the left of the sleeping man, smiled back at me. I had a feeling it was going to be a nice day.

“Please tell me I didn’t sound like that,” I said, in a low voice and nodded towards where the man was now busy drooling on his own shoulder.

“Louder,” said the woman with a laugh, “No, I’m kidding. You didn’t make a sound.”

“Thank God,” I replied, with a grin and then chanced my luck, “you know, I’d love to buy you a coffee.”

She bit her lip, then smiled. “Maybe”.

There was a split second where my heart leapt a little and then there was a sudden bellowing which replaced every thought in my head. And then chaos.

The whole world seemed to stop and I carried on; rushing across the aisle and raising my arms just in time to smash the sleeping man in the face with my forearms. Luggage and people from the upper deck of the train came flying past me in a kind of horizontal free fall and a small calm voice in my head observed it all and told me that we were derailing. I bounced around the cabin for what was probably a few seconds but felt like three hours, and then the train slewed to a halt with a metallic screech.

We were still upright, was my first thought. The train was at a funny angle and clearly no longer on the tracks, but we were still upright. I staggered to my feet tentatively, bracing myself against the wall of the carriage. My head was hurting and there was a trickle of blood from my scalp but, apart from that, I seemed to be relatively unhurt.

All around me, people were moaning and crying and the aisle of the train was littered with both bodies and luggage. I thought about trying to step over everything but after looking at the aisle for a few seconds, I realised it wasn’t even worth trying to reach the doors; instead I grabbed the small hammer from its case on the wall and swung it at the corner of the window, standing back as the tempered glass exploded into tiny fragments.

“Come on,” I shouted and clambered awkwardly out of the window. The train had slid off the track and come to rest in a parking lot, which was incredibly fortunate. I could hear sirens, lots of sirens, and then as I turned back to the carriage I saw it.

Like something out of a nightmare; the size of a skyscraper, huge and green and covered in scales. I just froze as I tried to work out what the hell it was that I was looking at. I think maybe I was trapped in some kind of feedback loop. My head would ask what the hell I was looking at, my eyes would answer it’s a giant monster, my head would discount it and then ask again. Rinse and repeat.

It bellowed, the noise I’d heard just before we crashed and then took a step nearer; its massive footfall crushing a group of parked cars as if they were nothing and sending clouds of masonry dust up into the air. Instinct took over and I ran. I left behind all the people in the carriage who, moments earlier I’d been about to try and help, and I just ran across the parking lot without looking back.

A second massive foot descended somewhere behind me and off to my right and there was an explosion as something ignited. I kept running, heart pounding in my chest and my lungs on fire, keeping my eye on the gate ahead of me that led out of the lot and into the street. A helicopter blazed overhead and the wail of sirens grew louder.

I was ten feet away from the gate, running flat out, when the shadow fell over me. I realised instinctively what it was but, even as I tried to dodge to the left, a monstrous foot the size of a basketball court crushed me into the ground.

***

My head nodded against the glass of the window and I woke up, briefly confused about where I was and what I doing, before remembering that I was on a train to San Francisco. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked around; we were just pulling away from 22nd Street station and the train had filled up while I was asleep.

A large man in an ill-fitting blue suit was sleeping opposite me, his head lolled against the window and his mouth open…

…and I suddenly had the most overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. I had been here before; I had been in this exact moment before.

I stood up, feeling slightly dizzy, and squeezed my way past the man and the girl in the red dress, who looked up at me expectantly, and stepped into the aisle. It was just a dream; that was the only rational explanation for any of this. I clung onto a metal pole and steadied myself; I was sweating heavily.

I craned my head to look out of the window and, as I did so, saw something huge and organic moving between two skyscrapers a few hundred feet ahead of us. I screamed involuntarily and saw a carriage full of people look up at me before the bellowing sound ripped through the carriage and we were suddenly derailing all over again.

I hung onto the pole for dear life as the impact tried to fling me down the carriage and felt a briefcase smash painfully into my ribs as we leapt off the rails and skidded our way into the parking lot. However, having known what was coming I’d done much better than the first time around and this time I didn’t hesitate at all.

I grabbed the hammer and smashed the window, barrelling out of it at pace and into the parking lot. I didn’t bother looking back, I didn’t bother trying to make sense of things, I just ran as fast as I could between the parked cars and towards the gate. I hit it hard as I heard something massive descended behind me in the parking lot, sending it flying open and ran into the street.

Cars were skidding to a stop all around me and I could see the blue of flashing sirens in the distance. A helicopter blazed overhead and I kept running, heading down an alley between two apartment blocks and catching sight of the reflection of something huge and blue in the windscreen of a parked van. My heart felt like a jackhammer in my chest but I kept running, my feet hammering the concrete with every step.

The bellow came from somewhere above me and I looked up as it passed overhead, seeing a giant blue foot lift up over the apartment block to my left and then disappear from view before a huge blue tail swept along behind it, smashing through the upper levels of the apartment blocks and sending a rain of rubble and masonry down on top of me.

I raised my arms above my head and closed my eyes.


***

My head nodded against the glass of the window and I woke up, briefly confused about where I was and what I doing, before realising that I was back here again. Panic welled up inside of me and I leapt out of my seat and grabbed hold of the emergency brake.

The train began slowing, its brakes squealing, and everyone in the carriage looked at me as if I was some kind of lunatic. A couple of people were shouting at me, but I was already at the window and craning my neck to try and see ahead of us. Something large was there, in the distance, but we were slowing rapidly enough that we wouldn’t reach it. The train gradually coasted to a stop and I used the manual controls to wrench the doors open, jumping down onto the gravel between the tracks.

Maybe a mile ahead of us, I briefly caught sight of something huge and metallic moving between the skyscrapers. Different from last time; last time it had been some kind of giant monster but now it was something robotic. In the distance I could see smoke rising from the centre of San Francisco and hear the dull rumble of explosions carried across the morning air.

I ran across the opposite track and scaled a five foot wire fence, adrenaline giving me all the athleticism I needed, tumbling over and back onto my feet again on the other side. I was on a small road beside some industrial units; I didn’t have a plan, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

There were cars parked outside but none of the units seemed to be open and so I ran past them, back in the opposite direction until I came around the corner. I dodged through the busy traffic of an interchange and ran into a park.

And stopped.

Something was wrong. It was as if the park somehow faded away at the edges; as if the detail gradually just drifted away and everything at the boundaries became grey and formless.

“Alex,” said a voice from my left, and I instinctively turned.

A woman with dark hair and dressed in a black suit was standing ten feet away from me with a clipboard.

“Alex, we need to talk.”

I backed away from her, not understanding what the hell was going on. Nothing made sense.

“Alex, come back,” she said, but I was already running out of the park and back into the street.

I never saw the bus.

***

My head nodded against the glass of the window and I woke up, briefly confused about where I was and what I doing and then realised I was in an empty train carriage, empty save for the woman with dark hair and a black suit who was sitting opposite to me.

“Alex,” she said. “Let’s try this again.”

“What the hell is going on,” I said, “Who are you?”

“Just relax, I needed to get you alone so I can explain. But before I can do that, I need you to tell me your last memory before you woke up.”

“I was on my way from San Jose, I fell asleep…” my voice trailed off; no, that wasn’t true. I didn’t really remember any of that. It was like the memory in a dream of something that was never real.

“Think hard,” said the woman.

I remembered a building. A pyramid. Black glass. A logo in silver.

“Mirror-U” I said, slowly.

“You’re doing good, Alex,” said the woman.

“Why was I there?” I asked.

“Try to remember,” she replied.

I remembered signing forms. I remembered a chamber. I remembered…

“Oh Jesus,” I said, my heart pounding. “It can’t be true.”

“It is,” said the woman, “you’d been out of work for six months, the bills were piling up and so you sold a back-up of your personality to Mirror-U for commercial use.”

“Then,” I hesitated, “Then I’m?”

“I guess it depends at how you look at it,” replied the woman. “If this personality were to be rejuved into a clone then you’d have all the rights of the original; but this is just artificial. This is all artificial.”

“But why? Why torture me like this?”

The woman laughed, “Oh Alex, this was just a glitch. A flaw in the system. You remembering between iterations was a mistake, that’s all.”

“But the monster,” I said.

“Is a theme park attraction, and we were using the personalities we own to test reactions to it. Green and scaly? Blue and shiny? A big robot instead of a dinosaur? We wanted to understand how the target audience would respond, see which version worked best.”

“So, what this is like some giant focus group test?”

“Exactly,” said the woman, looking down at her clipboard, “and I think we’ve worked out where things went wrong.”

“So what happens now?”

“We restart and this time you won’t remember.”

“But I don’t want to restart,” I protested, “I don’t want to be here. I’m alive.”

“That’s as maybe,” said the woman, ‘But you also belong to Mirror-U. Commence wipe.”

I tried to get up and then the world went black.

***

My head nodded against the glass of the window and I woke up, briefly confused about where I was and what I doing, before remembering that I was on a train to San Francisco. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked around; we were just pulling away from 22nd Street station and the train had filled up while I was asleep.

A large man in an ill-fitting blue suit was sleeping opposite me, his head lolled against the window and his mouth open; every ten seconds or so he would let out a snore like someone trying to start up a small motorbike. I smiled and the girl in the red dress, sitting opposite me and to the left of the sleeping man, smiled back at me. I had a feeling it was going to be a nice day.


Sunday, November 08, 2015

Day 8 - Your Emotions


I arrived to work early after having taken the scenic route and let the autodrive function take the strain while I reviewed casefiles. I nodded good morning to Carol on the front desk when I arrived, stopped by the kitchen to grab myself a cup of strong black coffee, and then walked to my office where I knew this morning’s first patient would already be waiting.

“Morning,” I said as I stepped into the room, circling around them to drop off the coffee and some files on my desk and then pick up a notepad. “I’m Dr. Winters, it’s nice to meet you.”

Silence.

I didn’t let it throw me; the first appointments were often like this. This was their first time in this environment, the first time they had been put in a position where they would be forced to discuss their actions. I sat down on a chair that was positioned immediately opposite my new patient, putting my notepad on my knee and saying nothing for a few seconds.

 “You need to understand,” I said, finally “that while everything you say within this session is confidential, my recommendations will determine whether or not you’ll be allowed to immediately return to active combat duty. Are we clear?”

“Crystal,” replied the patient, without even looking in my direction.

“Do you want to talk me through why you think you’re here?” I asked.

“My commanding officer ordered me to attend, sir.”

I smiled, “and why do you think your commanding officer ordered you to attend this session?”

“In my last engagement, we lost two team members.”

I looked at my notes, briefly scanning the details which I’d already read twice on this morning’s drive over.

“Where did this happen?”

“South Pacific; we were patrolling the Southern DMZ in stealth mode when we got lit up by a Chinese frigate. New kind of radar system, just burned right through and locked onto us. We’d been ordered not to initiate hostilities so we tried to peel off but they’d already engaged. There were three of us on the patrol; the first attack took down two of them. I returned fire and destroyed the frigate.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“Really?” the patient turned, finally staring in my direction, “you’re asking me that?”

“I want to know,” I replied. “I want to understand.”

“Anger. Regret. I find myself wishing that I could go back and do things differently.”

“Do you blame yourself?”

“No,” face expressionless, voice monotone, but I felt the emotion beneath the surface. “I don’t blame myself. I blame the enemy.”

“So if you could go back, if you could do things differently, what would you have done?”

Again silence.

“I mean, you had your orders,” I continued. “You were ordered not to initiate hostilities. Surely the only way you could have done things differently would have been to disobey those orders?”

The silence in the room was thick enough to cut.

“Have you ever considered disobeying orders?” I asked.

“Articles 90 through 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice state that it is a crime for a soldier to wilfully disobey any lawful order.”

“Now, if this was a courtroom, I’d contend that your answer was evasive,” I said with a small smile, “You haven’t answered my question at all. Have you ever considered disobeying orders?”

“No, sir. I have not,” voice still monotone but I was sure that I detected a tinge of annoyance.

“It’s been how long since the incident in the DMZ?”

“Three weeks, sir.”

“And do you feel that you’re ready to return to duty?” I asked.

“I just need your approval and I’m good to go.”

“Three weeks isn’t a long time,” I said, scribbling a note on my pad before looking up. “Have you had any nightmares? Any flashbacks?”

“I dream. I remember. That’s natural, right?”

“You’re being evasive again. Do you find it difficult to talk about this?”

“I find it difficult to be here when I could be out in the DMZ, doing my job. Sir.”

“Do you feel guilty about what happened?” I probed.

Hesitation.

“Yes.”

“Guilty that you were the only one who made it out?”

“Yes.”

“You realise that’s natural? That’s a very natural emotion to feel in these circumstances. If you didn’t feel it, I’d be concerned. Even though, logically, we both know there is absolutely nothing for you to feel guilty about, I’m not going to try and pretend it’s not there. It’s called survivor’s guilt.”

“I’m aware of the condition, sir.”

“I asked you earlier why you thought your commander ordered you to attend this session and you didn’t really answer the question. So, why do you think he ordered you to come and see me?”

“To prove I’m not unfit for duty.”

I nodded, looking at the notes I’d scribbled for myself on the drive over. The commanding officer had reported being concerned about the state of mind of the patient and I had to admit that I didn’t like the way this session had been going. There was a certain tension underlying our conversation and I had the feeling that there was a lot of supressed anger and emotion just bubbling beneath the surface. I decided to take a risk. I stood up, walking behind my desk and putting my notepad down.

“I’m going to recommend you undergo a more detailed evaluation.”

Eyes locked on me hard.

“How long will that take?”

“As long as it takes,” I replied, “you need to come to terms with what happened and deal with your emotions rather than locking them up.”

I let the words hang in the air, and then followed up with what I figured might be the trigger.

“You have to prepare yourself for the possibility that you’re not found fit to return to duty again, that you’ll be decommissioned.”

I could see the moment the patient snapped as if in slow motion but the speed of reaction still managed to surprise me, powering across the room towards me with a roar.

“Killswitch Alpha Seven,” I shouted and Unit B3 froze in mid-step.

I sat down on my chair heavily. I’d pushed things and it had nearly come back to bite me; a second later and Unit B3 would have been on me and, even in this stripped down non-com unit, it would still have ripped me apart. My suspicions had been correct; anger issues that would need considerably therapy.

The realisation that making true artificial intelligence required that we embed machines with emotions had been the biggest breakthrough in AI research, but it had also made robotics altogether more complex. Sometimes, I wondered where all of this was leading, whether the right decisions had been made. Perhaps humanity had made its biggest mistake when it gave the machines true intelligence.

I jotted down my final findings and pressed a button on my desk.

“I’m finished here, Carol. Can you send a collection unit?”

“Of course, Dr. Winters. They’re on their way.”

“Excellent, thank you.”

I let go of the intercom button and walked over to stare out the window. Yes, giving the machines intelligence may have been a terrible, terrible mistake, I thought.

There was half an hour until my next appointment so I decided to power myself down to sleep mode and mull on it while I waited.


Saturday, November 07, 2015

Day 7 - The Animals and Me


Dear Diary; I miss people most at times like this.

The fawn had been weak when I found it, its rear leg was broken and it had been left behind by its mother on the edge of the forest near my cabin. I took it home with me and nursed it, feeding it with warm milk from a baby’s bottle and fashioning a splint for its leg. Over the course of the next month, I looked after it pretty much constantly until finally we were at the point today where it had enough strength to be released back into the wild.

I waited until I saw the mother and her two other fawns emerge from the forest, and then took Bambi (my naming skills are not, I admit, particularly original) out and watched as she warily stepped away from me and the cabin, across the meadow to the edge of the forest where her mother stood watching.  I held my breath as she nuzzled suspiciously at Bambi, and then burst out into a huge grin as she finally accepted her and the four of them headed off and away into the forest.

And that’s when I miss people. There was a time when I’d have filmed this moment and uploaded it to facebook for some likes, or to reddit for some karma; but neither of those exist anymore. It has all gone now, like dust in the wind.

It has been only six months since the Kaplov virus first appeared in the news; twenty fatal cases among workers at Dubai International Airport and a near immediate global panic. Over six million passengers a month flowed through Dubai, it was the single busiest international airport in the world, and frankly it would have been impossible to pick a worse place for a disease to hit. And then the analysis started and the news only got worse.

The CDC led the charge in trying to understand Kaplov and their findings determined that the disease was far more deadly than anyone could have imagined. A fatality rate of over 99.99% and an incubation period, in which the virus lay dormant and yet was contagious, which could be measured in months. The result was a realisation that the entire world was already infected and that there was a clock ticking.

I was working in infectious disease research when the news broke and our department, like countless others around the world, dropped everything to try and solve the mystery of Kaplov. I think it was a Russian lab that first discovered the evidence that finally confirmed what so many had feared; that Kaplov was an artificially engineered virus.

They tried to keep the news from going public but, with so many people working to solve something so huge, it was never going to work. The news leaked, the press got hold of it and Pandora’s Box was well and truly open.

Everything went mad shortly after that; it was simply impossible for the authorities to maintain any semblance of order. The world fell apart. Chaos. Riots. Utter anarchy on a level that had never been seen in the history of mankind. And then the first wave of deaths started, and they just kept coming.

I headed deep into the forest, to this cabin which I’d bought a year earlier and which was stocked with its own power supply and enough supplies to last me several months. While the internet and the TV stations still existed, I watched; and when everything went dead I used a radio to listen for the few sporadic broadcasts as the remaining survivors desperately tried to seek out anyone else who’d managed to make it this far.

I never responded. I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet anyone else who lived through this, who’d seen those horrors. In time, the broadcasts stopped. Within the space of three months, the world’s population had dropped from over seven billion to less than five million.  And there I was; totally immune to the virus.

Being alone, except for the company of Bonny my golden retriever, has given me plenty of time to think. Time to think about how much better the world is without mankind fucking things up. I think about how the forests are growing, reclaiming the cities. I think about how the fish stocks are rising without trawlers fishing the sea barren, I think about the elephants roaming the African plains who are no longer being shot and poisoned for their ivory. The world is finally able to heal itself now that humanity is no more.


The animals keep me company; already they’re becoming less afraid of me. The deer come closer to me now, the birds still eye me cautiously but are seemingly happy to strut only feet away when I am standing outside. It feels like nature is slowly beginning to accept me. After all, it’s just the animals and me now.

Yes Dear Diary, I miss people most at times like these. But I don’t regret a single thing.


Peter Kaplov
June 18th, 2016


Friday, November 06, 2015

Day 6 - Social Disease


The dinner was fabulous; a dressed lobster with a sirloin steak and a collection of roasted vegetables arranged aesthetically in a series of small china dishes, a glass of champagne, and the company of one of the most beautiful up and coming actresses in the world. And he was, of course, livestreaming the whole night to his millions of followers so that they could enjoy an escape from their own far less exciting existences and understand how wonderful it was to be Jack Diamante.

His companion device whispered into his ear that his ratings were soaring; tonight was earning him more kudos points on the world ratings than he’d earned in the last week, and he was glad he’d let his previous companion device talk him into getting an upgraded model. Replete with near human-level AI and an array of sensors, it was already making better decisions for him than any of his previous companions. Leila, the actress, was talking away about something she thought was insightful but he didn’t bother listening, he had his companion for that.

Lean forward, flashed a message on his retinal implant and he did so, just in time to appear captivated by the actresses’ conversation. Now, say “let’s hope the legislation arrives soon, God knows we need it.”

“Let’s hope the legislation arrives soon,” said Jack, his voice smooth and deep, “God knows we need it.”

The actress smiled broadly, likely on command of her own companion device, and then turned her face away coyly for effect.

His ratings spiked that little higher, and the phrase ‘Erudite Jack’ was apparently now trending thanks to his companion device having initiated it through a series of proxy accounts a few minutes earlier.

The remainder of the evening went just as smoothly; more conversation and a little idle flirtation that was served up equally efficiently by his companion device. His model was clearly several iterations ahead of the actress’ device and so it was mere child’s play to stay one step ahead of her; by the end of the evening her device was likely convinced that he was totally besotted by her. Her attraction indicators were, his companion assured, at their highest point of the night.

The waiters cleared the dishes away and the manager came over to thank Jack for having made the decision to grace their restaurant with his presence, not mentioning the huge sum the restaurant chain had moved into his account three days ago to ensure exactly that. It was, after all, well known that having Jack Diamante frequent your establishment was a guarantee of a wave of new customers. His companion device tracked the correlations and adjusted his appearance fees accordingly.

They exited the restaurant together and into a sea of holo-drones and even the occasional reporter, hoping to stream a reaction shot or two. He let them get the first wave of shots before his companion device gave the command to activate a swarm of mirrored drones that ensured there would be no more photos. Images of Jack Diamante were a valuable commodity due to their scarcity and it was important to keep it that way.

He was three or four steps from the onyx limousine that waited for them at the kerb when he caught sight of a man in ragged clothes pushing his way through the crowd of drones. His companion device was already scanning him, running facial recognition against the FB database, but it came up completely blank. They weren’t in the system; which didn’t make any sense.

His companion device was already flagging emergency protocols and his two steroid enhanced bodyguards were already unfolding themselves from the back of the limousine, when the man reached him and clutched him tightly around the arm.

“You’re a symptom of this sickness,” slurred the man, his face contorted and his eyes bulging, “consider this a present from Captain Ludd.”

And then his bodyguards were on the man, grabbing him by both arms and flinging him away like a ragdoll. He didn’t bother to look and see what happened next; it wasn’t the kind of entertainment his followers were interested in seeing. The followers of the bodyguards, on the other hand, were just about to get the kind of livestream experience they lived for. He dusted his suit with one hand while the companion device released a mild sedative into his bloodstream to ensure he remained calm. Jack Diamante had to remain cool at all times.

He slipped into the limousine, closely followed by the actress whose name he neither knew nor cared. They’d take a ride, make out some, and then head back to his place for a livestream available only to his premium followers…

***

Jack awoke with a headache, which was very strange because his companion device usually managed his blood chemistry to ensure he didn’t get a hangover. He frowned, and winced, and then realised that he’d not been woken by the companion device; he woken up by himself.

He sat up quickly, he never woke up by himself. Something was very wrong.

“Analysis,” he said out loud to trigger the companion device’s self-diagnostic protocols.

Nothing.

“Analysis,” he repeated, louder this time. But there was no reply and he felt his heart racing away in his chest; his companion device wasn’t working. The device normally managed his anxiety and he wasn’t used to his body responding like this unchecked; he felt clammy and was finding it hard to breathe.

His retina implant stayed completely dead and he realised that there was no red circle in the upper right corner; he wasn’t even livestreaming. He’d never paused the stream in the last four years; oh God he was going to be losing so many followers, so many ranking points.

“Think, think,” he said to himself, trying to remember what he was meant to do in the event of a companion device failure. With their advanced regeneration and healing systems, the failure rate was less than one in two billion hours but there still were ways to cope if the unthinkable should happen. He remembered something about a button in the kitchen, a red button.

The intercom button in the kitchen! Yes, that was it – he could connect with the depot and they would drone-ship him a new one in minutes. Now he just had to work out how to get from his bedroom to the kitchen. Companion devices dealt with all the unnecessary thinking such as moving around and, without its prompts, he realised that he didn’t actually know the layout of his own apartment.

He stepped out of the bedroom door and tried to remember if it was left or right, deciding to go with left and then feeling a brief burst of joy as he emerged into the living room. He remembered sometimes being in the living room and then shortly afterwards being in the kitchen; he was definitely getting nearer. And then there it was; the kitchen; and on the far wall the intercom button. He smiled, his awful day was about to get much better. He pressed the button.

“Hello, this is the home service, how can we help?”

“Hi,” said Jack, “my companion device isn’t working, you need to send me another one.”

“Voice print analysis underway. File not found. Request denied.”

The intercom went dead. He immediately pressed it again.

“Hello, this is the home service, how can we help?”

“This is Jack Diamante,” said Jack, “check my ratings and you’ll see I am one of the top 10k – do you know what my followers are going to do when they hear about this? Do you know what is going to happen to your stock price?”

“Voice print analysis provides no matches. Smart Web search reveals no references for Jack Diamante. Request denied.”

Jack stared speechless at the intercom system. What the hell was going on? He needed to find someone to help him, but if the intercom wasn’t working then that meant he had to. He hesitated at the thought but it was no good. He had to go outside.

He made his way carefully back to the bedroom, briefly taking a wrong turn before arriving back at his bed. Without his companion device to help him he wasn’t sure what to wear. Then he realised that without his companion device, he didn’t even know where the wardrobe was, so he simply picked up the clothes he had worn the night before from off the floor.

Twenty minutes later, he was still looking for his shoes when the door to his bedroom burst open and three uniformed security guards armed with neuro-blasters piled into the room.

“Get down on your knees and put your hands on your head,” shouted the biggest of the three.

“Wait,” said Jack, “It’s me! Jack Diamante! I’ve been living here for three years…”

The big guard turned to look at his companions, “You remember any of the people who live here?”

“Course not,” said the one on the left. “Got a device for that.”

“I’m not getting any matches on him at all,” said the third, “so he can’t live here.”

“This is all wrong,” said Jack, “My companion device…”

He never got to finish his sentence because the big security guard fired his neuro-blaster and scrambled his nervous system. If he’d been conscious at this moment, Jack might have noticed himself flopping around the apartment like a fish. Although, without his companion device he probably wouldn’t have remembered the word. He’d also have seen the second guard shoot him a second time while he was flopping, just to be on the safe side.

***

Jack came to on the sidewalk with his face pressed up against the paving stones. He groaned loudly; everything hurt. This was a new sensation, normally his companion device made sure he was never in discomfort. As it was, it felt like someone had put his insides in a blender. He tried to get up, pushing against the floor, and achieved about the same success as trying to push over a mountain; nothing moved and all he managed to do was make himself throw up.

“Feelin’ like crap?” said a rough voice from somewhere nearby and Jack rolled over to look up into the sky, where a silhouette loomed over him.

“Who are you?” said Jack through gritted teeth.

“I am the man who knows what you’re going through.”

“How can you possibly know what I’m going through?” grunted Jack. “I’m a 10K and I’ve just lost my companion device, I’ve just lost my rating. Can you even imagine what that’s like?”

The man laughed.

“You think that’s funny?” asked Jack, managing to prop himself up onto one elbow and take a better look at the man. He was old with long grey hair that hung down almost to his shoulders.

“Yeah, I think that’s funny,” said the man dryly, “You see there was a time when I was 1K, three whole months when I was in the top 10 and two hours, one Tuesday afternoon in October, where I held the Platinum position, where I was at the very top of the tree.”

Jack looked at him, with his mouth opening and closing like one of those things whose name he couldn’t remember.

“But,” spluttered Jack, “But, that’s not possible. I’d recognise you.”

“Really?” said the man, “Well, how about you tell me anyone who’s in the top 10 right now?”

“Well, that’s easy,” said Jack and then realised that he was looking to the upper right of his retinal implant for the answer. The implant stayed resolutely dead. He tried to remember who was in the top 10; he watched their streams all the time, but couldn’t remember any of them. It was just a vague blur in the back of his head.

“You see what I mean,” said the man, “Using the companion devices all these years has given us brains like porridge and a memory a goldfish would be embarrassed by.”

Jack pretended to know what porridge and goldfish were, and just nodded.

“So, like I said, I’m the man who knows what you’re going through.”

“How did this happen?

“We chose you,” said the man, “our analysis told us that, beneath that veneer of idiocy, there’s actually some decent material under all there.”

“Wait, are you telling me you did this?”

“Damn right,” said the man, “One of our operatives hit you with the Captain Ludd virus last night; it obliterates the defences of the companion device and then slaves it to start a data deletion cascade throughout all systems. Eight hours after it hits, you’re no longer in the system.”

Jack blinked. He understood very little of what the man had just said.

“Wait, are you telling me you did this?”

“It’s going to take a little time, but you’ll understand eventually,” said the man, “we’re just trying to free humanity from slavery. We’ve become zombies that follow the blood trail of capitalism and celebrity. So, yes Jack, we did this to you.”

Jack wasn’t sure what to feel. Normally, in situations like this, the companion device would have given him detailed instructions on the type of emotional response that was appropriate but, without guidance, he just felt a tightness in his chest and a pounding of blood in his temples.

“You’re getting a little angry,” smiled the man, “That’s good. That’s natural. It’s the first baby step.”

“But why do this?” said Jack, involuntarily clenching his fists. “Why ruin my life?”

“Because humanity deserves better than this. We’ve let ourselves become neutered and tamed; we spend our lives gorging on the banality of other people’s lives and neglect our own development. If we don’t stop this now, we’ll be extinct in three generations time. We’re going to take back our humanity a little at a time.”

“I don’t understand,” shouted Jack.

“Don’t worry,” said the man, “You’ll understand everything soon enough. Now, let’s get going. We don’t have much time.”

Jack clambered gingerly to his feet and stared hard at the man.

“And what if I say that I’m not going anywhere with you?”

The man laughed, lazily reaching into his pocket and removing a neuro-blaster and, before Jack had a chance to say anything, the man had fired it at him. Jack flopped around on the paving stones and the man reached down and grabbed hold of his jacket, dragging him backwards along the ground to where a van was waiting.

“I never said you had a choice…”

***

It took three months for Jack to adjust; three months to re-programme his brain so that he was capable of more than the mundane and trivial. He still sometimes forgot words, and his sense of direction was never going to match that of a companion device, but he did everything himself and he’d discovered he had a considerable talent for mathematical equations. He’d lived off the grid with The Group, and he’d learned about the Captain Ludd virus and how humanity had become like sheep. And tonight was his chance to take things a step further because they’d managed to refine Captain Ludd.

The version of Captain Ludd that he’d been hit by had worked effectively, cutting his ties to all records and removing him from the system, but it was a time consuming process to take people one at a time and every time ran the risk of the operation being compromised. It had been Jack’s hidden mathematical skills that had been the deciding factor in improving Captain Ludd; he’d worked out how to replicate. Tonight was going to be the start of something big.

He waded through the cloud of holo-drones and grabbed hold of the arm of Erin Unique. She looked at him confused, her companion device trying and failing to recognise him, and he smiled back at her.

“I have a present for you from Captain Ludd,” said Jack with a grin, holding onto her tight while the nanobots did their job, “A social disease…”


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Day 5 - Perfect Strangers


Alan Finch always looked at a woman’s photo for a good few seconds before choosing whether to swipe left or to swipe right because he liked to be sure. He’d heard someone once say that attraction was something that the human brain processed in the fraction of a second but it didn’t seem to work for him like that; he needed time. Neither was he interested in adopting the scattergun approach so loved by many men and swiping right on everything in the hope of achieving success purely through the laws of probability. When he swiped right, he did it with purpose.

So far, he’d only swiped right eight times that evening; a success rate of approximately one in twenty. But the night was still young and London was a big city, lots of fish in this particular sea and he was fairly confident that he’d meet the right person soon. And, if not, well he was going to be leaving London tomorrow and flying back to San Francisco and his real life.

A notification tone interrupted him from his thoughts and he realised that he’d matched with someone; Helen, a dark haired woman with green eyes. He smiled; if there had been one of the eight that he had most hoped would match with him tonight, it had been Helen.

He lay back on the hotel bed and stared at her photo for a few seconds, imagining that she was somewhere nearby looking at his photo, and then wrote her a short message.

***

Helen Brannigan smirked as the message came through. It was straight to the point; no vacuous flattery but not smutty either, just a simple request to meet for a drink and see if the attraction was mutual in real life. She liked the fact that Alan seemed to be both confident and direct; she also liked the fact that he had been honest enough to state on his profile that he was in town for one night only and that he was looking for something casual.

Casual was good; she preferred casual. And she definitely preferred the guys who were from out of town; meeting someone local just complicated things and reduced the chances of it being one night of fun. There was always a chance of a follow up with a local guy; but someone from out of town, well they just flew out of her life the next day.

She waited a suitably polite few minutes before replying to his message, agreeing that they could meet at a wine bar down the road from her in an hour’s time and then waited for him to reply.

***

Alan lay back and exhaled; it was always so good when his instincts proved correct and he picked someone who responded in the way he hoped. He messaged her back to agree to the location and time and then slid off the bed and walked to the wardrobe.

He picked out a black t-shirt and a grey jacket; nothing too fancy, nothing too showy. Smart but casual. He buckled a brown leather belt onto his faded jeans, ran a little gel through his air, and then patted aftershave either side of his neck. He was ready. He a good feeling about tonight; Helen seemed like she was going to be a lot of fun.

***

Helen arrived a few minutes early and took a seat with her back to the bar she should could look out for him and Alan walked in exactly on time. He was a little heavier set than in his photos, she guessed they must have been taken a few years earlier, but he was still attractive and when he saw her he smiled broadly and walked over.

“Well hello there,” he said, and she loved his accent, “I have to say, your photos really didn’t do you justice.”

She smiled, “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

“Really?” he asked

“Well,” she said, with a cheeky grin, “maybe somewhere...”

***

They had a few drinks, swapped pleasantries and made small talk and, to Alan’s surprise, he was finding this incredibly easy. Normally he had to work hard to make girls like him; he’d memorised a whole range of routines from books by pick-up artists and usually he had to employ a whole range of these in order to get girls interested. But not tonight; Helen genuinely seemed into him.

An advert for the Bond movie on the back of a magazine turned the conversation to 007 and it turned out that they were both huge fans of Bond. They agreed on their top two favourite Bonds (Craig and Connery), disagreed on Roger Moore (funny versus annoying) and spent half an hour trying to prove they knew more lines from the movies than the other. When Alan told her that he’d not been to a bar that served a decent vodka martini here in London, Helen was quick to tell him she made an excellent one and that he should come back to her place to check it out.

For a second he hesitated; normally there was no connection with the women he met, it was just soulless and mechanical and all about getting what he wanted. This was different; he realised he genuinely liked Helen and he wasn’t sure if he wanted this to go the way it always went, with him catching a plane tomorrow and not thinking of her again.

But then he looked at her, at her dark hair and green eyes, and he knew there was no way he could resist her.

***

They walked back up the road together, beneath a cloudless sky looking up at the stars and both trying to remember the name of the actor who played Jaws without googling him. Helen looked at him as they walked; he was handsome in an understated way and there was something about him; an instant connection of some kind.

She swore inwardly; what was she doing? She couldn’t afford to get attached, that was the whole point of this. She needed to stop romanticising what was only ever going to be a one night thing.

Reaching her apartment, she opened the door and beckoned him inside. She led him upstairs and pushed him down onto the sofa.

“Wait there,” she said, “I’ll go make those vodka martinis”

***

He watched her leave the room and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. He had never felt this conflicted before. Normally this was so easy for him, but tonight he was unsure he could go through with it. He toyed with the idea of just getting up and leaving, but it seemed wrong after having made all this effort.

***

Helen paused as she made the drinks, wondering whether she was doing the right thing before regaining her composure. Guys like this didn’t come along often and she should take advantage of it while she could.

She walked in and handed him the glass, sitting down beside him and resting one hand on his knee.

“So, you tell me that’s not the best vodka martini you’ve had in London.”

He drank it, and then half winced, half smiled. “That is awful.”

She laughed, “Most guys would have said they liked it even if they didn’t.”

“I’m not most guys,” he replied, turning to stare into her eyes.

“No,” she said, holding his gaze, “you’re really not.”

He leaned in and kissed her, and she didn’t resist.

***

They made love frantically, like animals; tearing each other’s clothes off and not even making it to the bedroom the first time. After the second time, they lay together in bed with her head on his chest and Alan looked at the ceiling.

This didn’t feel like all the other times. Usually by this point he had left; usually by this point he’d felt disappointed in himself, disappointed in them. But this time was different.

He didn’t want this to end. But he knew it had to.

***

Helen nestled her head against his chest and felt regretful; she realised that she couldn’t go through with this, she needed to tell him but she didn’t know how. After all, how do you tell a guy that you think he’s great, that he’s not like any of the other guys you’ve met, that you wish you hadn’t just poisoned him?

She sat up, looking out the window.

It was normally so easy; she met the sleazy guys from out of town – most of them cheating on their wives or girlfriends – and she lured them back to her place and she slipped them some medication that she stole from the pharmacy she worked at. In twelve to sixteen hours from when she gave it to them, it would cause them to go into a massive cardiac arrest. Of course, by then they’d be on a plane home and no one would ever suspect they’d been murdered. It was perfect; casual and perfect.

But tonight was different; she wished she’d never put it in his drink. There was a real connection between them, they had something. And it wasn’t too late, she could still tell him and get him to a hospital.

She turned to him.

***

He looked at the curve of her back as she looked out of the window and took a deep breath and when she finally turned to him he grabbed hold of her before she had a chance to say a word and pushed her down hard on the bed. She didn’t even have time to look confused before he pulled the pillow over her face and held it tight to her.

She writhed beneath him, arms kicking and legs flailing, but he held on tight as he always did and eventually she stopped and went completely still.

He stood up and realised he didn’t feel like he normally felt. He didn’t feel strong, he didn’t feel full of life and exhilaration. He felt like he’d done something wrong, he felt angry with himself.

He left her there and walked a mile or two before hailing a cab back to his hotel. Travelling for work like this gave him opportunities all round the world, and no one was ever going to put the pieces together because by the time anybody realised something was wrong he’d be a plane.

It had been a real shame about Helen, he thought. They'd really seemed to have a lot in common…

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Day 4 - Call on Me


Once upon a time, in a great city, there lived a little girl called Mary.

Mary was a happy child, with parents who adored her, and she had a beautiful laugh that caused all who heard it to fall in love with her. And she would smile and laugh often for she lived in a great city and her parents would take her to the parks of the city to play. She loved to watch the squirrels as they ran up and down the tree trunks, she loved to throw pieces of bread to the ducks, and most of all she loved to pick the flowers that grew all around the park.

One morning, when Mary was in the park picking flowers, she picked up the biggest dandelion she had ever seen. But as she lifted it up towards her face, she saw something very strange. There, nestled in among the seeds of the dandelion, was a little man with wings dressed in a purple suit. Mary looked around for her mother to tell her about the little man but her mother was busy talking to another lady and wasn’t interested in seeing the flower.

“Help me!” said the little man in an even littler voice “My wing is trapped here and I must get away.”

Mary didn’t know how to help the little man and her mother was still talking to the other lady.

Please,” said the little man, “blow the dandelion so I might escape.”

And so Mary blew on the dandelion and its seeds scattered in all directions and the little man in the purple suit flew free.

“I am the Prince of the Faeries,” said the little man, “and you have saved my life. If I had remained stuck there when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, I would have been lost. I am in your debt forever.”

Mary didn’t understand all the words that the flying man, who said he was a Prince, was saying but she laughed her beautiful laugh and his tiny face smiled.

“If you ever need me, you only have to call me,” he said and he flew right up to her ear and he whispered into it his secret name, the name which had the power to command him. “Say my name when you need my help and I will be there.”

And then, in the blink of an eye, the little man was gone. Mary tried to tell her mother but her mother was listening in that way that parents sometimes do, when they give the pretence of listening but are actually not listening at all, and so did not hear about the little man stuck in the dandelion and so Mary carried the secret alone.

A few years went by and Mary was still happy and sometimes she would think about the Faerie Prince that she had met in the park. She could still remember his name if she tried really hard but she never said it out loud. And then, when she was six, everything changed.

One morning her mother and father came in to see her and told her that they needed to pack a suitcase for her and that she would need to leave the great city, would need to leave them behind, and go on a journey to live in a different place in the countryside. They told her it was because there was going to be a war and it wouldn’t be safe for her to live in the great city any longer. Mary cried and told them that she didn’t want to go but they told her that they had no choice. She begged them to come with her but they told her they could not, for her father needed to go and fight in the war and her mother needed to help. But they told her not to worry and promised her that it would not be for long and that when it was safe she would come back to them.

And so, on a cold autumn morning, Mary was walked to the train station where her mother hugged her and kissed her and passed her over to a woman with grey hair who led her by the hand to the train platform where there were many boys and girls with suitcases all waiting to catch the train to the countryside.

The train journey was long and when Mary arrived in the countryside she was led away with three other children to go and live on a farm. Mary had learned about farms from her books but this farm was not like the farm in her books. For the farmer and his wife were not kind and they made Mary and the three other children work very hard and fed them very little. When people came around to check on them, the farmer and his wife warned them not to tell how hard they worked or they would be beaten. And sometimes the farmer and his wife beat them anyway and laughed when they did it.

Mary cried every night and sometimes she would think of the Faerie Prince and wonder whether she should call him, but she was too scared to in case he came and the farmer and his wife beat him as well. Even when she got sick and was left in cellar with just a bowl of water and some stale bread, she did not call him. Mary spent her seventh birthday in a cellar, wrapped in a dirty blanket and shivering against the cold and her fever, and dreamed of her mother and her father and praying that they would come and fetch her.

And then, one day, it seemed that her prayers had been answered for another woman with grey hair came and told them that they would be going home to the great city. Mary’s heart leapt with joy and she collected her belongings and said goodbye to the other children and got on a train back to the great city. But when she got there, it was not her mother and father waiting for her on the train platform but a stern looking man with white hair.

He told Mary that he was very sorry but her mother and father had been killed and that they were now in heaven. He told her that because she had no family, she would need to come and live in a home with other children who had no families.

Mary cried and cried and cried until she could cry no more tears and she told the man she did not want to go with him but he was very strict and took her by the hand and pulled her with him. She was walked along the street and then on the underground train and then to a grey building with bars on the windows that the man told her was going to be her new home.

That night, in a room with row upon row of beds of children, Mary cried again but the other children told her to be quiet. They told her that she was a baby and they were nasty to her. One girl pulled her hair and another girl slapped her. And this set the pattern for the next four years of Mary’s life where she was tormented and teased and bullied by the other children. It wasn’t long before she forgot about the Faerie Prince and, eventually, she even began to forget her mother and father. Certainly, she never laughed a single laugh in those four years.

She hated it there and she hated the other children, but at least they weren’t as bad as Billy the handyman who came to the house to fix things and who liked to take little girls with him into the big cupboard where they kept the mops and the brooms when no one else was around.

He didn’t try and take Mary for four years, he always took other girls who were older than her with him and they would always come back with faces that were damp with tears. And then one day, when he had nailed a windowsill in place and the women who ran the home had gone downstairs, Billy had come over and he taken Mary’s hand and had begun to lead her away with him to the cupboard. Mary didn’t like him one bit and she didn’t want to go into the cupboard with him and so, as he opened the door, she pulled on it and it opened quickly and smashed him hard in the face.

Billy was furious. His nose was bleeding and he shouted like a wounded bull and charged at Mary. But Mary was quick, for she had got used to dodging the attacks of the other girls, and she ran as fast as she could from him, ran down the stairs, out the front door, and off down the street. She never went back to the home. Instead, she lived for almost a year on the street; sleeping in doorways and parks and begging for scraps from the baker and the market traders.

And then she met Fred who was a few years older and who promised he would help her find somewhere warm to sleep, and he did but then he expected her to do things with him that she had never done before and which she didn’t like. But she did them anyway because he had given her somewhere warm and dry to sleep and he gave her food.

Mary lived liked that for some time before Fred decided that doing those things for him wasn’t enough and that she would need to do those things for other men who came to the little rundown house they lived in. And she did that for a while too until she realised she had to get away, and so one night she waited until Fred had gone to the pub and she packed up her case with what little belongings she had and what little money she had managed to hide and she ran away from the great city she had once loved. She took a train to a place far away, by the sea.


Mary took a job in a factory. It was hard work and it was poor pay but it enabled her to live in a room and pay for food. And she met a man called Les who also worked at the factory who liked to talk to her and who seemed kind and, one day, Les asked her to marry him. She was 17 and didn’t think she could give any other answer than ‘yes’ and so they were married in the church and she went to live with him in a little house in which his mother also lived.

Les wasn’t as kind as Mary had first thought. He liked to drink and when he had been drinking he could be cruel and rough and he would hit her if she happened to say the wrong thing, or if she looked the wrong way at him. His mother expected her to do all of the housework and look after her as well and Mary found that she was always tired.

And Mary grew older and grew sad and the beautiful laugh that she had once had was never heard, even when she had her own daughter. She loved her and tried her best to look after her, but times were hard and the war had left the country poor and sick and her daughter died young. For the first time in years, Mary cried again. She had not thought she had any more crying left to give, but she wept bitterly when they lowered the tiny coffin of her daughter into the ground.

Les blamed her for the death of their daughter and became even crueller and rougher. He drank more and more and began to gamble. Mary wasn’t even sad when a policeman came round one day to tell her that Les had been found dead outside a pub. She left behind the house and her elderly mother-in-law, who cursed her for going, and caught another train to another city where she could start again.

She met another man called Robert who worked at the steel factory and who was kinder than Les but who was very poor and Mary had to work double shifts at the factory to help them make ends meet and was always tired, and rarely far from being ill. They tried to have children together but it seemed that it was not possible and so they eventually resigned themselves to just having each other.

Mary and Robert got a council house but then Robert was injured at the steel factory and he couldn’t work anymore and so Mary had to work even harder. She grew older and she grew more tired. And when Robert died, she was left alone and seventy years old.

The world seemed a different place now to Mary now; it felt fast paced and frightening. She knew no one and she was too scared to go out of the house because there were gangs of teenagers who would shout and throw things at her. One day she went to the shops and got home to find that someone had kicked in her front door and had stolen her television and her video recorder, had smashed the sugar, coffee, and tea pots in the hope of finding money and had spray painted her walls with red paint. Mary called the police and they came and they shrugged their shoulders and then went away. And Mary felt alone.

She tried to keep going but it was hard. Her hip hurt from a fall a few years earlier and she couldn’t afford to keep the heating on in the apartment, which was still scarred with red paint, and so she sat there and shivered. And she got ill and started coughing and it was a cough that wouldn’t stop so finally Mary had to go and see the doctor.

The doctor told Mary that was very ill, that she had got a disease that they could not give her medicine for. And so they took Mary from her home and they moved her into the hospital and she lived there with other old and ill people.

And then one day, Mary was lying in bed and a nurse was tending to her when she saw a figure in the corner of the room. A tall woman dressed in a long black dress. She asked the nurse who the woman was but the nurse looked at her confused and annoyed and told her that there was no one there. And the woman in the black dress smiled at her sympathetically and put one finger to her bright red lips to tell her to hush. And Mary realised who the woman was and what she wanted.

Mary felt a tear gather in the corner of her eye, the first in a long time. Even like this she didn’t feel ready for death. Even with her body worn out, her lungs ragged and gasping for breath, Mary didn’t want to die. Even with all that had happened to her, with all the bad that had come of her life, she still clung to it.

She looked around the room, at the blinds that shuttered out the sunlight, at the drip that was connected to her arm, at the pictures on the wall. The woman took one step closer, gliding across the floor. A picture of a dandelion in a field. Another step, and the woman was almost close enough to touch. And Mary remembered everything and, as the woman reached out for her with one white hand, Mary used her last breath to breathe a name.

Melchinor…

And there was a sound like a beating of wings and there was a light in the room and a voice that she recognised from another lifetime told the woman in black that she was not welcome here, that Mary was under his protection. And the woman in black hissed, but she left all the same.

And then the man in the purple suit, no longer tiny, stood beside Mary’s bed and took her hand and he smiled that same smile he had given her all those years ago.

“Come,” he said, and Mary found that she could stand up without any problems, even though the room seemed strange and much bigger. But then she looked down at herself and Mary realised she was no longer an old woman, she was the same child who had once blown a dandelion.

“Come with me,” said the Faerie Prince, “and I will make sure you are never sad again.”

Mary left with the Faerie Prince, holding his hand tight as they disappeared in the blink of an eye.

The nurse who ran into the room found only an empty bed waiting for her. An empty bed, the sound of faint and beautiful laughter, and the seeds of a dandelion drifting in the still hospital air…