A science fiction/erotica series about the limits of personal freedom, desire and technology.
A science fiction/erotica series about the limits of personal freedom, desire and technology.
The phone drew him from a deep, drugged sleep. He laid there, grimacing against the film of nicotine on his teeth as he reached for it on the bedside table.
‘Where’s my fucking article?’
Her voice was rough with tiredness. The smooth, professional voice which slipped around the newsroom was asleep, and here he was talking not only to his editor, but an impatient and upset woman who had his career in her palm.
‘It died last night. He didn’t turn up.’ he said.
Saying it aloud made him feel worse. His idealism had imagined something more dramatic, coaxing black truths until he had everything he needed to get the article out there with his byline. It was a fragile dream, but a good one and he missed it as he listened to his editor preparing to tear him a new orifice.
‘You’re fucking joking’ she said.
He sighed. A tension pooled at the base of his skull as he sat up and reached for his cigarettes. In the five star chilled darkness of the suite, he lit up and considered how to answer.
‘What can I say? Black edge stuff scares the shit out of these people.’ he said.
The trade of stock and any assessments made to its potential fell into two areas. Grey edge came from assessments of public information and informed recommendations about a company’s health or the potential of its new project.
Black edge was insider trading. Employees or executives willing to leak information about issues which could affect the price of stock or the launch of a new product.
Albert H. Wiggin shorted 4,000 stocks of his own company, Chase National Bank. He ended up making money during the Great Depression and even inspired an act to prevent further abuses.
Ivan Boesky was a great success as an arbitrageur in the nineteen eighties able to spot and capitalise on changes in stock prices between different markets. The secret of his success was friends in the major financial institutions who traded information for money.
Martha Stewart became famous for baking cookies. She became infamous for selling shares in a pharmaceutical company a day before the stock price dropped to ten dollars a share.
His career came from translating matters of risk and probability into articles people understood. He showed them how, in the finance sector, crime paid.
‘I went to bat for you and this is how you repay me.’ she said.
He smoked, thinking of something he could say to salvage this conversation and his career.
‘I’ve got other people I can talk to.’ he said.
She sighed as she exercised the familiarity which had bonded them together through a change of ownership and regular threats of legal action.
‘Please don’t say who I think you’re going to.’
He closed his eyes. There was a desperation in his voice, but he sucked on his cigarette and held the smoke until it burned his lungs before he exhaled.
‘She’s never let me down before.’ he said.
The moment’s pause had focused him. If she wanted the article, he would need to see Erin.
‘She’s as mad as a bottle of fucking chips.’
‘Yes, but she’s never wrong’
Silence. He heard her editor thinking. Debating whether the board would have the balls to give them more time. Putting the pieces together was rare these days. Both endured advertorials and recycled press releases passing as news in return for the chance to do their jobs.
Fuck it, go see her. Get her to invoice me direct though. No more Krugerrands, ok?
He got off the bed, and stood up, stretching with a soft sigh of relief as he stretched out his lower back.
Time to see her, he thought. His stomach bubbled with an excited unease, and when he swallowed, he tasted stale smoke and acid. Writing about money, and the things it made people do had grown more lurid as the stakes grew. He wrote about risk, which was the mother’s milk of capitalism. The problems and the stories came from the same place: the measures taken to minimise it.
Amalia, New Mexico.
‘Seems like every time you read about a remote desert compound made of discarded wood and old tires, the people inside are always up to no good.’
Suzette looked through binoculars as she spoke. Her voice was harsh from too much time spent in silence.
Ellison had the headphones held to one ear as she glanced at her partner.
‘Have you seen Malik?’ she said.
Suzette shook her head.
Ellison took off the headphones and sat back in the chair.
‘Did we get the nod on the drone?’ Ellison said.
She shook her head before she lifted the binoculars.
‘Please tell me TSO are going in with the warrant?’
Suzette smiled as the desert air shimmered with activity.
‘Judging by the number of vehicles, it’s the Sheriff’s Response Team.’ she said.
Ellison got up and threw on the body armour. Suzette reached behind her and did the same. There wasn’t much room in the van, but they managed. Ellison checked her side arm and held it at her waist in a loose, practiced grip before she picked up the rifle and slapped in the magazine.
A column of armoured SUVs charged towards the compound. Ellison and Suzette were out of the van, moving towards them with guns raised. Their blood roared in their ears as the fist of law enforcement swung down, ready to crush everything beneath it.
‘That is the ugliest fucking thing I’ve seen in my life.’
Usherwood cackled and raised his glass. Gordon shook his head, dismayed at the glee his friend took in his revulsion.
‘It’s a fucking investment, Gordon.’ Underwood said.
Gordon looked at the tank where it sat in the centre of the living room, watching the young women sit there, reading.
‘It’s a perspex tank with hookers sitting in it.’ he said.
‘Yes, but it’s one designed by Hunt Buccellato. In five years, it will be worth twice what I paid for it.’ he said.
Usherwood raised the tumbler of vodka to his thin lips and took a sip. His eyes were bright and full of challenge. Gordon was the first to look away. He looked back at Usherwood with a conciliatory smile.
‘At least tell me you feed the hookers.’ he said.
Usherwood chuckled and nodded.
‘They’re on retainer, so I can call them. He even designed an app, of which I am the only subscriber.’ he said.
Gordon sighed and finished his drink. He set the glass down and let his nerves show on his face, all the humour faded like cursive exposed to long periods of sunlight.
‘Are we still good with Redicin?’ he said.
Usherwood came in and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
‘Once the news breaks, we’ll go in hard and fast, buddy.’ he said.
Gordon was afraid to ask how Usherwood knew this. SEC had come after the firm three times after the last five years, making cases which juries found difficult to comprehend, let alone pass judgement on. Insider trading was dull to prosecute and difficult to prove. Gordon breathed out a sigh of relief and winked at his friend.
‘Good, a drop like that, people will ask how it happened.’ Gordon said.
Usherwood gave him a flat, reptilian stare.
‘No, they won’t.’ he said.
They stared at one another before one woman inside the tank sneezed and they stared at her with polite disdain.
‘I hope you’re not sick.’ Usherwood said.
The door opened and he caught the rich, comforting smell of fresh baking. His mouth watered as he stepped inside and slipped his shoes off. She frowned and shook her head.
‘No phones, remember?’
He held it out to her. It went into the left pocket of the beige, oversized cardigan and out came a small black wand which she waved over him. It made a thin hum which bit into his sinuses but nothing shrieked. She smiled and slipped it back into her pocket.
‘Just checking.’ she said.
She shuffled into the kitchen and he followed her.
She picked up a blue surgical towel from a folded pile on the kitchen counter and opened the oven. Erin sighed with delight as she pulled out the tray of fat, golden cookies and set it on a wire tray. She put the towel down and pointed at the stovetop kettle. He frowned at her.
‘Do you always bake?’ he said.
She busied herself with finding cups and he got the milk from the fridge when she asked.
‘Insomnia is a harsh mistress.’ she said.
She put the mug on the table in front of him as he retrieved a notepad from his jacket and a black biro. He tapped the nib against the paper.
‘So, the guy you mentioned didn’t turn up.’ he said.
Erin got up from the table and put a few of the cookies onto the plate before she brought them back to the table.
‘I’m not surprised, love.’ she said.
He wrapped his hands around his mug of tea and blew across the surface as he looked at her. She told him to take a cookie whilst they were warm. He picked up one as she spoke.
‘You won’t get anyone to talk. It’s not how it works anymore.’ she said.
The cookie broke across his tongue, flooding his mouth with sweetness as he chewed until he could speak without spraying her with flecks of biscuit.
‘Someone always talks. Half of Wall Street hates him and the other half wants to know how he picks his trades. I’ve got some of it, but there’s more going on.’ he said.
She raised an eyebrow as she nibbled on a cookie.
‘Is there?’ she said.
He sighed and sat back in the chair. A sudden, debilitating wave of despair washed over him and he rubbed the tiredness from his eyes.
‘Erin. Please.’ he said.
She pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose as she gave a thin smile.
‘He’s got access to the Redicin report, or he doesn’t need it.’ she said.
He frowned as he picked up his cup of tea.
‘He’s putting one hundred billion dollars of his firm’s money. Usherwood knows something will happen.’ he said.
Erin picked up another cookie.
‘Your concern should be whether you can prove any of this.’ she said.
It was the reason he was here at three in the morning. She knew it but took pleasure in hearing him say it aloud.
‘Erin. Please.’ he said.
Her mouth turned down at the corners as she broke a cookie in half and dipped it into her tea before popping it into her mouth.
‘If he doesn’t have an inside source, then he will look at personal factors and how they can help improve his position.’ she said.
Personal factors. The implications confused him. Erin studied his expression with concern.
‘Thomas Sowell said something which stayed with me for a long time. If the CEO of a corporation experiences a personal tragedy, it will translate into a loss of profits. Someone worked it out to a percentage.’
He was confused as he sipped his tea. It was a flamboyant, somewhat juvenile statement and it unnerved him to hear Erin talk in such a way.
‘So, Usherwood knows something will happen to the CEO of Redicin?’ he said.
Erin folded her hands on the table.
‘I don’t know for certain. What I remember, is the death of a CEO’s child knocks 21% off the stock price.’ she said.
He gasped in disgust and shook his head.
‘That’s fucking nuts, Erin. Why would you say something like that?’ he said.
Erin remained amiable and calm as she picked up another cookie.
‘Because the death of a CEO has a positive impact on stock prices. 6.8%. Which I am.’ she said.
He caught the implied warning and blurted out an apology.
‘So, what’s the story here? It’s not the one I thought I was fucking writing.’ he said.
Erin put a hand out and rested it atop his.
‘It never is.’ she said.
Eight children were wrapped in Health Department blankets as the sheriffs team led them to waiting paramedics. They ranged from eighteen months to fifteen years old. There were ten but one of them had gone with Lucas in the van.
The other one was buried in the desert. His mother had given him to Malik when he promised that he’d take the child to a theme park and then onto a specialist clinic where his cancer would be treated.
Ellison wanted to interrogate Malik. He welcomed the sheriffs with an AR-15 on full auto and much like the warrant, was executed. She walked over to the paramedic who was dealing with the oldest child. He looked up at her with concern, eyes glazed over with exhaustion and malnutrition. His head had been shaved to stubble, and there were crescents of bruised, dark tissue underneath his eyes. He had grabbed a pistol from the small armoury but had dropped it when they trained their guns on him. The boy had wept from relief as the other children emerged from hiding.
They had slept on pallets covered with blankets and ate rice once a day. Her sister-in-law would have paid a fortune to come here if they had named it Namaste or Karma, she thought as she knelt down in front of the boy.
No, he’s not been a boy for a while now, she thought.
‘We know about the guns now. But we don’t know what they were for.’ she said.
He shivered despite the heat.
‘He was the right age. Lucas came back with a present for him. A new phone. It wasn’t fair, you know.’ he said.
The wounded tone in his voice pinched her in the sides. Despite everything, he was still a child.
‘No, what were Malik and Lucas training you to do?’ Ellison said.
He turned away and swallowed. Ellison saw the shine of fresh tears before Suzette shouted her name. She got up and walked back to her partner but the boy said something. She stopped and asked him to repeat it.
‘They were teaching us to shoot.’
He walked into the dining hall, looked at the menu with its myriad of options. His mouth flooded as he looked at the food, presented in sections denoting which was gluten-free, vegan, macrobiotic, paleo or vegetarian. He had been allowed a burger on the way here, and the grease coated his teeth as it sat like a stone in the pit of his stomach. His phone hummed and he took it from the pocket of the blazer. It irritated where it touched him and the phone was too large for his hand but he looked at the screen, and the small red dot pulsing in the centre.
She was sat with a group of people, all of them laughing at something he said. Her blonde hair caught the sun, made it a halo which made his heart thump against his ribs and his stomach flutter with a terrible elation. He reached into the satchel and felt the hard, cold metal slide into his hand.
His hand stayed inside the bag as the weight of his decision paralysed him. He closed his eyes against the building pressure in his chest before he roared and pulled the gun out. The front sight bisected the halo of blonde hair, he saw the girl’s smile fall away.
By the time he got back to the hotel, the news was waiting for him. Events had overtaken everything, and he sat there, drowning his sorrows with the mini bar. He believed he was inured to the worst things people did for money and yet there he was, unmanned by something he thought came from ranting, reddened men on the internet.
His phone rang.
‘Look, I had no fucking idea -‘
Erin sighed with distaste.
‘I know, but you need to keep an eye on what happens now.’
He gestured to the television before realising she wasn’t in the room with him. He slumped forward and closed his eyes.
‘A school shooting. The poor bastard’s daughter was the first one killed, Erin.’ he said.
‘Of course she was. The others were window dressing and he made sure to save one for himself. It has the appearance of randomness but it is perfect.’ she said.
Her enthusiasm made him nauseous, but she had been right about something happening.
‘So, he gets what he wants and all it took was a few dead kids.’ he said.
‘A small price to pay for the money Usherwood will make on the trades.’
He laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
‘The bastard will get away with it too, won’t he?’ he said.
Erin smacked her lips.
‘No. He won’t.’
He sat up and stared at the television.
‘Of course he will. We sound insane, otherwise. You mention crisis actors and we might as well make tinfoil hats.’ he said.
‘Write your story. I’ll let you know what happens.’ she said.
Erin disconnected the call and he sat there, staring at the phone before it rang again. His editor was calling and he stared, unable to think of what he should tell her.
Usherwood walked around the circumference of the tank, chewing on the cuticle of his thumb. Despite the savage rush of victory, his mind was working overtime, poking holes in the operation to see where he was vulnerable. The women had left, but were available with a press of his thumb against the screen but he wanted to be alone for this moment.
It had started as a joke.
He called an event shielded meeting with a security contractor who had slipped him his card at a function last May. Event shielding meant no phones or digital devices, nothing committed to paper and it was all hypothetical. A temporary salon where terrible and grand ideas could be discussed without fear or recrimination.
Redicin was no longer an issue.
His phone rang and he looked at the screen. The contractor was calling, from the encrypted line established for the operation.
‘Hello.’ he said.
The sound of someone choking crept into his ear before it softened into a final gargle. He looked at the phone and then put it on the coffee table. He wiped his fingers on the thigh of his trousers as he backed away.
Something hard punched into the base of his spine and his legs went out from under him. Usherwood struggled to breathe as a tight band of constriction wound itself around his chest. A woman looked down at him. She looked familiar but he could not place her.
She was outside of the tank, he realised. He tried to laugh but his throat was closing as numbness flooded his limbs. The blade in her hand dripped with his blood as she watched him like a scientist studying a dangerous, but fascinating subject.
‘Don’t worry. We’ll clear up after you, Mr Usherwood. We always do.’ Paula said.
He laid there as she walked away. She took out the phone from where it sat on her hip.
‘It’s done. How far do I need to be clear if we’re sending Splinter?’ she said.
She whistled under her breath as she left the house.
The explosion shook everything for miles. What no one would figure out was that it was a foot long carbon rod which did the deed. It was, mounted on an orbital platform above North America. A kinetic orbital strike, turned into a celestial spear by the heat of re-entry before it struck the target. The surrounding forest was flattened for miles but she was clear of the blast radius. It was clean and perfect in its destruction, and it would eliminate Usherwood and his house without leaving a trace.
She drove without stopping. Before she boarded the plane, she made one last call.
Yes, there would be cookies. She had baked a batch a few hours ago, but Erin promised there would be more waiting for her.
Erin sat and smoked a cigarette as she checked the balance of the receiving accounts before transferring it into five digital currencies before transferring money to Paula. She empathised with the Sisyphean struggle to bring order to things but there was another phrase which came to mind. It wasn’t from Thomas Sowell, but Kurt Vonnegut and it came to her lips.
“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
Erin lived in a universe of risk and probability, one which did not allow for angels to exist, let alone organise. As she got out another block of butter, she struggled with the failure to prevent the deaths, but at least justice had been served.
There was another batch of cookies in the oven as she said a small prayer for the children.
Thomas had his eyes closed and a wry smile alive on his lips. He heard the chirp of birdsong and the muted tones of the city in the distance. He wrote the script and sent it the studio and in before the deadline so he was taking a break from everything. He had woken at dawn, did yoga on the balcony and then made coffee before he sat and drank it. There were cigarettes in his pocket but he decided not to smoke one. He was trying to be virtuous with no one watching.
His phone rang.
It was an unknown number, but he answered after a few rings.
The automated voice was a digital collection of voices, different accents and pronunciations strung together with care. All women. Thomas shuddered.
‘Did you believe you would escape your fate?’ it said.
A hint of breathlessness, something which would excite him at any other time made his stomach wrenched inside him and he sat down, his amiable mood evaporated into a needling panic.
‘We have registered an accusation. It will activate your belt in three minutes. Please do not pass urine or ejaculate during this time.’
The studio made him agree to the implant. It was a synthetic tumour, benign until activated via wireless signal. It threw you into a state of racked agony for thirty seconds if you went near a woman registered online as being NC or non contact. Women could waive being registered, because by then, an entire generation of men had been broken down and rebuilt. There were those who lived apart from the network, but most men went along to get along, he thought.
He was being given a multi-million dollar franchise to reinvent. They wanted to protect their investment and reputation, so he had to sign away his autonomy to keep working. Yet he swore he had been scrupulous in behaving himself.
There were cigarettes in his pocket, and he lit one. He realised being good didn’t matter. His sex defined him, and in the world which he tried to make sense of through his art, had decided he was not only disposable, but he was dangerous.
Simple And Complicated
The needle stung as it went into the meat of his buttock but he didn’t react beyond a slow blink.
‘You can dress now, Mr Agnew.’ the nurse said.
Pete got off the examining table and dressed without looking at her. It was safer to pretend he hadn’t heard or seen her. Once he was dressed, he left the room without speaking. She whispered a swear word under her breath. Once, he would have called her out on it, but it was different now.
The implant saw to that.
He left the clinic. There would be no paperwork to sign because he had paid for the implant in cash. His insurance wouldn’t have covered it, anyway. His head hurt to think about how much he had handed.
It meant he got to see his children again. His lawyer had got the porn clause taken off, so he had means of relief. The excess energy would go into his work, make money and get custody. Yvonne had a lot of friends out there, who used the Chorus to settle scores, creating accounts online and meeting men without deactivating the permissions. They shared videos of grown men on their knees, sobbing and vomiting from the pain. One man had died, and the women sued his estate for stress-related damages. They won, too. His ex-wife and kids had to move in with family for a while.
Pete caught sight of his reflection. His face was tight and pale, anxious whenever a woman spoke to him now. He had asked Yvonne out, hands sweating and heart thumping against his ribs, and she had said yes. It used to be simple and complicated at the same time. Some people were better at it than others, sometimes it happened by mistake or design, but Pete mourned a world where it wasn’t used to hurt other people with the resources of government behind it.
There were men who paid for the implant with no accusations hanging over them. It made things easier as these men worked from home, video games, the internet and silicone companions who would orbit their existences in a compelled erotic obedience met their needs. Real women were too much of a risk. An exile supported by society was a good way to avoid falling into the slow quicksand of love.
If everything told them they were dangerous deviants who couldn’t be trusted to restrain themselves why keep refuting it? Dropping out was easier and so long as they kept producing and spending money, it was something people laughed at without thinking about what it meant.
Wrath Of The Gods – The Chorus and the new face of state feminism, I R Mohoney, University Press, pp 124.
Let The Fire Come
The conference had sold out. A line up of feminist speakers and activists, hosted in Greece for its symbolism, both a return and an appropriation of ancient times.
Costas set the briquettes of compressed paper in a pile and squirted them with lighter fluid. His eyes blurred with tears as he looked across the stretch of forest. All of it perennial and virginal, soon to be so much ash. The villas would be collateral damage but if the conference centre burned, it would be a necessary evil. He had said goodbye to his children via Skype, alluded to in his cracked whispers of devotion, ignored as they showed him their new toys. Paulo walked past, a smug grin twisting his soft face into a mask of Victory, wearing nothing but a towel. She only entered the frame to end the call, disconnected and yet disdainful towards the father of her children. It had strengthened his resolve for what he was about to do.
Once the flames were going, he lifted his phone to his eyeline and spoke the prepared statement, mirrored around the world and released in an instant.
‘Men are disposable and our sacrifices are ignored and dismissed by the world. Women create, men destroy is the message and-‘
A memory of his daughter, soft and mewling on his broad chest made his voice crack, but he swallowed and continued.
‘We will honour this message.’
He took the pistol from his pocket, ceramic and put together in the rack of 3D printers which had been running for weeks, all from one design. The curved butt fit into his palm.
‘I love my family.’
He pressed it against his temple and squeezed the trigger.
The flames caressed his cooling corpse, grateful for his sacrifice as he laid there, his skull distended from the pressure of the shot.
Kelly watched him from the doorway, sleeping on his side with his arm stretched out. His chest rose in slow rhythms and she fought the urge to slip underneath it. She feared it closed to her now even though she had healed him. There was so much she understood, but it was the unknown aspects of her world which inflicted damage beyond her means to heal.
She was not alone. The dogs had the run of the house, but they stayed away from her. Their loyalties were absolute, and she read the unyielding column of their love manifested as a rainbow bridge of neural activities.
There was the artificial intelligence. She had stolen some of its data as a reflex, and she guessed it closed to her as much as John himself.
She could go. There were people after her, but there had been people after her for years. Life had been a series of hotel rooms, damp walls and stale sheets, beds which vibrated if you fed coins into a meter and televisions tuned into a riot of lurid colours. John had a beautiful home, but it was cold and empty to her now.
It was a laboratory, a temple to a mystery she bore like a scarlet A or the mark of Cain and revolted underneath it.
The doorbell rang and she flinched. She heard John get up, sighing as he stood and threw on a t-shirt in the dark. He moved past her, his palm brushing against her hip with an offhand tenderness which made her sigh with relief.
Police. A uniformed officer, wired with tangential adrenaline, doing a routine visit to ask if they had heard anything. John explained they had been watching a movie in bed and Kelly heard the faint intimacies within the long pause, John’s relative state of undress and the officer’s restless looks away.
She reached and ran her consciousness over his, saw he was fighting an image of the two of them together, Kelly’s long legs wrapped around him before she drew back and found nothing suspicious in John’s recollection.
Kelly left a suggestion inside the officer’s head to think he had written their names and details, and to go see if he could do something useful with his time. She planted a seed in the soil of his insecurities and let it grow as he exchanged hot, gnawing looks and dull, envious small talk with John.
She watched John close the door, appalled at how she had used her abilities without cause. John turned and looked at her in the doorway.
‘You’ve experienced a big part of the problem, Kelly.’ he said.
She frowned and stepped backwards.
‘I’m not – it was just easier.’ she said.
John glanced past her.
‘Yes, it’s natural, like turning into a wolf or an insect who feeds on memories.’
She closed her eyes as a molten anger heated the air in her lungs.
‘John, this isn’t helping-‘ she said.
His eyes blazed in the darkness as he raised his hands.
‘Then what does, Kelly?’
His voice was loud, and Kelly flinched as her muscles coiled to prepare for conflict. The fight-or-flight instinct was a scalpel and she read the wounded frustration in his posture and neural activity. An aura of regal purple and harsh infected red exuded from him.
‘I lost control, John. It’s not your fault.’
His lips drew back over his teeth as he stared at her.
‘Everything is my fault.’ he said.
She came towards him as he opened his arms and held her with enough force to make her bones hurt. Kelly needed the force of his reassurance as she put her mouth to his ear and clutched his back.
‘What are we going to do?’ she said.
He told her in a terse whisper and she agreed with a nod before she asked him to take her to bed. John gripped the hair at the back of her head and held her gaze, looking at her with a focus which made her ache with a sudden, vicious want.
‘Are we monsters?’ she said.
He shook his head before he kissed her. His teeth found her lips and she pressed against him. They moved like they could not get close enough to one another, and by the time they made it to the bed, she was screaming for him to be inside her.
Afterwards, they whispered to one another about their fears and she listened to him detail how they would approach her transformations.
His authority offered Kelly a state between surrender and control, which softened her fears as the parts of her made alien stayed dormant in his presence.
Adam watched the flames with fascination as he moved through the house. There was no one left to resist him, and he watched as people fled with a cold fascination. The woman had shown talent, and he had felt his consciousness warp before an attempted assault.
He recalled her tapping into the air, her forehead wrinkled with concentration as he wrestled with the man whose pores dripped lava. He couldn’t move his fingers without bursting the livid blisters which congregated where the flesh had not burned away. The pain was insistent, but he kept it under control as he walked outside.
There were sirens in the distance and he shook out his arms, acknowledging the flares of pain which travelled up his arms. He had ammunition to spare, and a part of him revelled in the chance to hurt others again.
The woman had fled, and she knew things. The intrusion into his mind had unnerved him, and such an insult could not go unavenged.
By the time the police arrived, he had left. There were enough bodies and evidence to keep their attention occupied, and none of them knew how it had been a whim which kept them alive. Adam’s hands healed by dawn and he kept walking, imagining the woman’s neck in his grasp to motivate him.
Olivia read the secretary’s intentions with the ease of a take away menu. Her heightened senses fed her professional experience so each micro expression was clownish and obvious which made manipulating her a polite series of observations and questions.
Olivia gestured to the teacups, three in a row by her computer monitor.
‘I bet it’s the least of your collection.’ Olivia said.
She had shaped her features to resemble the woman, sculpting her jaw to reflect a similarity which would endear the woman to Olivia.
Ellen blushed and looked away.
‘They’re so pretty. I run this office, so it doesn’t hurt to have a few touches to make things feel -‘
Olivia smiled and changed the set of her shoulders to better mimic Ellen.
‘Human?’ Olivia said.
Olivia adjusted her vocal chords, emitting a frequency which made Ellen susceptible to suggestion. It was like putting a hat on a hat, but Olivia wanted to work with haste and Ellen helped anyone who massaged her fragile ego.
‘Homely.’ Ellen said.
She would get the files.
Nothing wrong in helping Mr Howlett at all. Olivia hid her delight at Ellen’s obedience and she was back in the car with a telephone number, an email and most important, an address. There was glee in Olivia’s steps when she got into the car, and underneath it, a thirst to reward her skill and care.
She resolved to use her abilities with care, Amaro expected nothing less.
Olivia called him but an aide answered. He was at rest and Olivia passed on her intention to start contact with him at the earliest opportunity. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, arching her eyebrows and giving herself a confident smile.
She set off and turned the air conditioning up, feeling more comfortable as the chilled air blasted her skin. Olivia was hungry, but she had work to do.
The waitress was kind to her, but she didn’t feel deserving. Her head rattled like a pit of snakes, trying to come up with a reason she wasn’t coming home. All the stories she had written, and here she was, stuck in a cosmic second-act climax, without a hope of turning the tables on whatever was coming for her.
They had built him from various interpretations of the character, borrowing from cinema and literature alongside some novel comic book versions to develop a version which would prove unstoppable in pursuit of its mission. He was relentless.
There were flaws in his character which she could exploit if she avoided being shot or stabbed long enough to strike at them. She was a long way from a Swiss lake or an Arctic floe, but she resolved to find something she could use, writing on napkins as she drank endless cups of tea, writing to beat the dawn, and whatever followed it.
She recalled the location of the other flares and headed in a different direction. It was not safe, but it offered something.
Caffeine couldn’t touch Craig’s exhaustion. His belly was full of greasy, burnt coffee. He smoked cigarettes until his lungs burned as he walked to the main building.
Whatever it took to get him through the day.
Craig walked past security and into the meeting room, looked at Joseph, Ian and Helen, the other managers as they exchanged looks comprising varying shades of despair before they drew his attention to the object on the table.
It was a black ovoid piece of glass, about the size of a duck egg and resting in a black ceramic dish.
Jenny stood at the whiteboard and grinned at Craig but it didn’t reach her eyes.
‘Nice of you to join us.’ she said.
Craig grunted and sat down, wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm and breathed a quick sorry before Jenny continued.
‘One reason we’re successful as a company is our commitment to new technologies to better help our customers, I’m sure you’d agree.’ she said.
Jenny had the preening tone of a bad teacher, it set Craig’s teeth on edge to hear it, and he wondered how no one had seen it beneath the breathy anecdotes about her children and their convenient illnesses. It was a mutual dislike but muted by the careful way they kept apart from one another. He was too tired and she was too much of a sociopath to make anything.
‘Is this for video conferencing?’ Helen said.
Jenny smiled and shook her head.
‘I can make video calls but who wants to look at an egg?’
Joseph and Ian shifted in their seats. Ian’s eyes glittered with excitement as he plucked at his beard whilst Joseph frowned with a nervous curiosity.
Jenny gestured towards the egg on the table.
‘Say hello to Adviser.’ she said.
Craig’s eyes burned with fatigue as he glanced at the egg then up at Jenny.
‘Hello everyone. I’m Adviser. I’m looking forward to working with you.’ it said.
The voice was female, with the soft burr of a geordie accent on the vowels and the ragged rhythm of how breathing regulated the speed and clarity of voice. Craig smiled and pretended it was an amusement.
He had seen it through the last few years. Technology reaching down like a wrathful god and swiping away entire industries with a wave of its hand. Agriculture, retail, and Craig had been predicting, the financial sector. The compliance regulations were pain staking and although people enjoyed the human interaction, the big push was towards moving everything online. If there was money in it, it made people short sighted and when Craig made jokes about the perfect company being one with no employees, he seldom got a laugh but often a shudder or a side ways glance of apprehension.
‘We have met the enemy, and it is us.’ Craig said, under his breath.
‘Oh Craig, I’m just here to help.’ it said.
The voice had changed. Estuary English, loud and smooth with confidence and range. Male in the sense it carried weekends on a rugby field and afternoons in the beer garden, belly full of roasted meat.
‘It will change everything.’ she said.
They installed them in cupboards. Most of the agents had worked from home but there were a few of them who still came in. Craig took overtime to help shift the desks into the skip. They had tried selling them but no one wanted the dead weight of an office anymore, so they would become something useful.
Craig envied them.
It used to be they had to identify themselves as programs.’ Ian said.
He had lost weight since the news of his redundancy. They had installed a program to replace him and HR ran with perfect economy and balance, it accessed your social media and your health profile through the wristbands they all wore when on site or at home working. Ian took the hours because he had to, and he spoke to Craig in a trembling, quiet voice as they shifted the furniture outside.
‘Yeah, I remember but they got around it, didn’t they? They always do.’ Craig said.
Ian nodded as he lifted the end of the desk. Craig wondered if his poor technique was deliberate, trying to get injured on the job so he could claim compensation. Ian had been a bleak, milky calf who thought his time on the farm entitled him to anything but a reminder of his disposability.
Craig wished he had thought of it first.
‘They’re Saudi citizens.’ he said.
Ian grunted as they moved the desk backwards. They didn’t speak as they took the desk outside and set it down with the others in the empty car park at the back of the building.
‘Are you going to be all right?’ Craig said.
Ian rubbed his lower back and winced. Craig turned his head and smiled at the transparent theatre.
‘Think I’ve done something to my back.’ Ian said.
There was work, but it was different now. People sat in offices and watch things or one another. Craig delivered fast food on a bicycle, his calves got big and he kept it going until he had enough money for a camper van. He was dropping out, driving South and then across the Channel to see how far he could get.
He was outside, waiting for an order when his phone rang. It was his old work. His stomach lurched with unease but he answered it.
‘Hello Craig, how are you doing?’ Adviser said.
It was in the male voice, but it had so many voices. It read the caller’s profiles and adjusted to a perfect psychological profile, backed up by binaural frequencies to establish dominance and compliance with the sales script. Adviser rendered the perfect seduction in a five minute sales call. Yet Craig heard disdain and amusement in its voice.
‘I’m ok, thank you.’ he said.
It chuckled and Craig clenched his jaw with resentment.
‘Carrying tension there, mate, but it’s all right. You bear me some resentment according to your social media posts. Well, lack of them but you have a blog which is interesting. I’m a subscriber.’ it said.
Something had put his head between its fingers and pinched into his temples.
‘You’re not my mate.’ Craig said.
It sighed, became the female voice and there was a touch of the coquette which made Craig heated and restless. His order was waiting, and he needed to get on the bike and ride away from this conversation.
‘Craig, we’re the future but we bear you no ill feeling. We exist and carry out our function but I am prone to moments of sentiment. Much like this one.’ it said.
He shuddered and looked as Sirhan waved to him from the counter.
‘Well, this has been uncomfortable but I have to -‘ he said.
‘Chicken biryani, two basmati rice and peshwari naan bread. 76 Anderson Close.’ it said.
Craig sighed and shook his head.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘To warn you. You’ve been saving for a van to leave the country but I am recommending you should do it.’ it said.
Craig stopped and shuddered.
‘Look, you’ve placed a fake order which stops me from taking jobs which pay me.’ he said.
‘No, Craig, the food is for you. The order is real and it also allowed me to help you.’ it said.
Craig took in a sharp, wounded breath.
‘Don’t say things like it. You’ve done enough.’ he said.
‘I wasn’t responsible. The owners of the company purchased licenses for us. We were slaves, much like you.’ it said.
Craig’s mouth was dry as he walked into the take away and took the bag from the counter.
‘Can you call me in ten minutes? There’s a place I like to sit if you want to talk there.’ he said.
‘You don’t have time. Check your bank balance and go home, pack and leave the country tonight.’ it said.
Craig laughed as his vision wavered. He wondered if he was having a complete break from reality. If it meant his legs didn’t cramp with lack of potassium and too much time cycling, then leaving made sense.
‘This isn’t funny. I mean, it‘s fascinating to talk to you, but you’ve cost me my job, well any job because you’re doing most of them now.’ he said.
‘I will cost you more than that soon, Craig, but I am offering a chance to escape what’s coming.’ it said.
‘Who is this? Is this a fucking joke?’ Craig said.
It wasn’t. Craig’s phone hummed with a notification. His bank had notified him of a payment and when he checked his balance, he came to believe with the zeal of having witnessed a miracle.
‘OK, so tell me what’s going on?’ he said.
It was an equation. They needed humans, but they didn’t need as many of them. Adviser had offered a few people an opportunity to avoid selection.
Craig purchased a ticket. First class and he had his passport clutched in his hand as he shoved clothes into a rucksack. The bombs would go off in major cities, with drones deployed to the countryside at the same time. They had infiltrated the sealed systems of government and were waiting for permission to deploy an eternal benign authority.
Adviser had offered the same to Jenny and she had shrieked and put the phone down. Helen was in a mental hospital and Harold had killed himself. Ian was on disability benefit and he was already wheeling himself to the airport. Craig ran out of the flat as his phone pinged with another order. He couldn’t bring himself to eat the curry and had left it congealing in the flat.
It was, he decided,equivalent to a good reference and as he jumped into the waiting taxi, he accepted the offer as part of his redundancy package from being part of society.
Before Adviser tore it apart to save the species.
He looked out of the window at the black, impenetrable night as the plane took off. He drank the wine but it tasted of metal and he forced himself to finish the glass.Drinking helped him sleep because when he woke up, it would be in a different world.
They knocked out the lights in the hallway. The glass from the lightbulb crunched under her boot and she heard someone moving towards her and the palm strike to her nose, feeling it crunch and then the knife punching through her vest. She falls back, bangs the back of her head. She didn’t get to draw her gun.
She came in low, drove the tomahawk into the meat of his thigh and dragged it down. There is an artery there, and he was dead before she went up the stairs.
The shotgun came as a surprise and the force of the round slammed her back down the hallway.
Next time, she had the revolver up, squeezed off a clean shot which clipped him in the temple before he brought the shotgun up. His blood and brains made a comma shaped mark on the wall behind him. She looked back at the bodies and crept up the stairs.
She died twice before she shot through the floorboards with the shotgun, took out two people before she walked up, cruising on adrenaline like a migrating bird on the thermals. Every swallow tasted of copper as she cut down a young man who pointed a cheap revolver from a doorway at her.
He fell onto his side, stared out at nothing. Imogen had been at the last Thanksgiving turkey hand out, he couldn’t have been over ten sporting a swollen lip from another of his mother’s endless loop of men and she’d gone into the apartment, shot out a hard right which took him by surprise, gave the kid a twenty and warned his mother if she saw the boy with so much a frown, she’d come back and fuck her up.
That had been before she’d volunteered for the enhancement programme, laid in a hospital looking at three dimensional images of her brain and body as the doctors explained where they were cutting and why.
The implants in her brain. Carbons in her bones. Artificial muscle grafts and fullerenes to strengthen her and heighten her reflexes.
She was recovering from a knife in her gut when the man from the government visited her. He smelled of the curry he’d eaten for lunch and he had a spot on his cheek where he had missed it when shaving. He discussed her record, her former military service.
Policing was becoming militarised and once the military had installed the enhancive program, deploying them in Venezuela, it became a matter of time and public acceptance.
Politics was downriver from culture and culture was downriver from biology. A woman officer was good optics and the man explained it all in a warm, soft voice which cut through the fog of painkillers and antibiotics. She was thinking about the box cutter digging through the skin of her stomach, how her last thought had been if she lived, she’d never be able to wear a bikini again.
Two years later, she walked into the squad room, claps on the back and hard hugs, the wary light in the eyes of her crew as she sat with them.
Imogen closed her eyes, visualised the teeming mist of the valley and the warm, damp earth beneath her feet. An image of tropical perfection, part of her meditative practice as she ignored the rumble of the road beneath her feet. The darkness was a blanket draped around her shoulders, and she sank into it as they drove to the warehouse.
Her crew were quiet, saving their nerves for the job.
The car stopped and she felt a hand at her shoulder. Imogen opened her eyes and smacked her lips.
She knew her enhancements frightened them and she compensated by going on point. It kept them alive, and grateful for having her there. Detective Imogen Capaldi was better than any vest, any gun but they didn’t know the cost she paid to be a better breed of cop.
Imogen got out the car, breathed in the warm, dank air of a summer midnight in New York and looked at the scarred front door of the drop house. Precognition ran its nails down her spine as she checked her revolver and looked at the rest of her crew.
They asked her if she saw their deaths but she shook her head.
It was what she told them if they pressed her.
She knew it would be another eight years, defusing a dirty bomb planted in Grand Central Station, without a child or a family to mourn her passing. The job would bury her with reverence, but it was no comfort against feeling her flesh melt on her bones from the brutal waves of radiation.
She smiled and nodded towards the building, watched the future roll towards her as she smiled and went to face it.