“Please take a seat, McMaster.”
I sat across the desk from Director Haining, unbuttoning my jacket so that the Glock didn’t snag on the lining. The only source of illumination in his office was the desk lamp. Haining obviously thought the down-lighter made him look serious and brooding, whereas all it really did was highlight his double chin.
He smiled. “You’ve been head of corporate security now for, what, three years?”
“Four come June.”
“Four come June. And may I say that we, that is to say, the board, are very pleased with your work to date. Very pleased indeed.” Haining fiddled with his cufflinks. “You’re the closest thing we have to a father confessor around here. Some may be uncomfortable with what you know about us, but I’m not. You don’t judge, McMaster, you never judge.”
“All I ask for is honesty, sir. I can’t fix the problem if I don’t know what it is.”
The staffroom in the Imagination Correction Facility was the colour of vomit. It reminded Chris of a recent night out where he’d drank far too much cider and brought most of it up onto the pavement outside the kebab shop. The girl he’d been with had laughed, called a taxi for herself and left him there, spewing up his guts.
He wiped his mouth, flicked sandwich crumbs from the table, and then got up to throw his rubbish in the bin. As he washed his hands in the sink, he gazed at the rota on the wall. He didn’t have a day off until Sunday. Great.
Sighing, he picked up his set of keys and headed out of the room. The janitor’s cupboard was just down the corridor and he stepped back to let two giggling girls pass – checking out the arse of the blonde – before unlocking the door and pulling out a mop and bucket.
Two weeks. That’s how long he’d been working there. Two whole weeks, yet in that time nobody had paid him much attention. The girls ignored him, mostly, and the rest of the staff only pretended to be interested in him when they had to work together. He could probably do anything he liked and get away with it.
Dougout squeaked and Crystal purred as they rolled out bouncing and jerking from the ship in their buddy trawler. Dougout navigated the rough terrain while Crystal performed continuous 360-degree scans. To their increasing annoyance, the ship checked their status every fifteen minutes.
Crystal snarled, “Any way to put the ship on silent mode?”
“Sorry, dear,” said Dougout. “it would detect it and we would get penalized.”
She sighed. “Might be worth it.”
Dougout was a small human and fitted easily into the cramped driver’s seat of the trawler. He had light brown skin, which matched his dark brown overalls and explosion of dark brown hair.
“Any sign of the life we detected from orbit?” he asked.
“Not yet. This place should be teeming with life.”
“Yeah, it’s unsettlingly unsettled.”
With a curse and a struggle, Con pulled up the corrugated shutter and peeked out of the storage container she’d spent the day in. She stared into the darkness down the alley, spotted a black cat pounce on something by the bins, and then disappeared back inside to fetch her rucksack. She hauled it onto her back and then crouched by the entrance, holding her hand out towards where the cat had gone.
Here kitty, kitty, kitty.
“Come on, you little sod,” she muttered. The animal appeared from behind the bin, its amber eyes flashed and something – a rat – hung from its jaws. It took a step towards her, tail swishing, and she urged it silently closer.
When it reached her, she ran her hand along its back, making the connection she needed. She sat back on her heels and closed her eyes. Her eyelids flickered.
The cat dropped the rat and trotted down the alley towards the street. It looked one way and then the other, checking the coast was clear. Cars drove down the road, headlights dazzling, but they were unimportant. There was a group of young women across the street, dressed in short skirts and high heels, dressed up for a night out. Heading towards the cat, a man carrying a shopping bag.
Sitting around a fire station waiting for the off is nothing unusual. We all find something to beat off the boredom. Some play cards; others watch videos. Whatever it takes.
In Seb’s case, it was designing a holograph of a three-dimensional chessboard to see all 512 squares at once, and I mean all. Not easy with eight ordinary chessboards stacked one on top of the other. Every square got his attention. He changed their colours, varied their translucencies and even altered the thicknesses of their outlines. No matter what he did, the result did not pass his acid test of seeing all the squares along any diagonal.
His comp-stick went everywhere with him. I’d once seen him unfurl it on a pub table, build the holograph chessboard and patiently adjust the shade of one square for over an hour. Of course it was with him at the Saint Philips fire.
Paula picked up her plate of lumpy mashed potato and congealed beans and carried it to the table where her friends sat. Fish fingers today. She hated fish.
She sat down and stared at the food as all around her the other women in the canteen chattered nosily, or hurled insults, or laughed. Chairs scraped across the floor, plastic cutlery scraped against plastic plates. Her head throbbed.
“…roast chicken,” Mia was saying, “with gravy and roast potatoes and peas. Watch this.”
Paula lifted her gaze and watched. Mia lifted a fish finger and it changed into a chicken drumstick in her hand. “It’ll still taste like fish though,” Paula said.
Mia dropped the drumstick onto her plate, where it abruptly turned back into a fish finger. “What the hell’s wrong with you lately?” she asked, flapping a hand. “You’re so damn miserable all the time.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval and picked up her knife and fork. A black curl of hair fell in front of her face.
“I’ve been here ten years,” Paula said. “That’s what’s wrong with me.”
“Yeah, well it’s not our fault you were an early starter.” Mia hacked a fish finger in half and shoved it in her mouth, glaring at Paula with eyes that were almost as dark as her hair.
In Central Park the leaves are just beginning to turn to yellow. The tourists are overdressed, thinking the air will have turned colder here along the Atlantic coast but there is still some time before that happens. I can remember a time when visitors and Manhattan dwellers alike would only venture to the edges of the park. As if touching your toes on the boundary was an invitation to a criminal gang.
It has since been “cleaned up” but not in the way the media claims. Sure the police presence helps but I know the real reason why you will not see the homeless in the park. I know why the drug trade and robberies are down to almost nothing. You see, I was there around twenty years ago when it all went down and I will never forget the face that saved the park. It haunts my nightmares to this day.
You know when you’ve done something stupid and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry? That’s how I felt when the water smashed into my face. Also, once I’d calmed down enough to work out which direction the surface was in, a Tweet popped into my head. Really cocked up this time. LOL #GonnaDie.
I guess I was so used to crap happening to me that ending up completely under water with no idea of where I was, didn’t seem so bad. You have to laugh or you go mad.
My lungs screamed at me and although my arms worked frantically, they didn’t seem to be getting me very far. The joke was over, anyway; it was no longer funny. I really was gonna die if I didn’t get air soon.
So, blue sky above me. Promising. Just keep swimming. When I broke the surface I had enough time to suck in a breath before my head went under again. I panicked, flailed a lot – probably looked like an idiot to anybody watching – then my hand touched something soft and I realised I’d reached the bank and there was grass and earth and oh! Life. I was alive.
Yay. I dragged my half-drowned self up onto the bank and coughed until I vomited water. Exhausted, I rolled over onto my back and lay there, soaked and shivering and staring at the sky which, now I looked properly, was more of a weird green colour. Tourmaline. The word popped into my head suddenly. Tourmaline sky. A poet would have a field day.
“The simulation is complete. Creation of an artificial singularity is deemed viable. Do you wish to repeat the simulation?”
I sat back, frowning at the screen. A phone began ringing in the background but I ignored it.
“Do you wish to repeat the simulation?”
“No, no, that’s fine. Leave it there.”
The computer interface closed down and I turned to my work space. Everything looked fine but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that we were missing something. Director Massingbird was a brilliant theoretical physicist, but sometimes I felt we were all dazzled by that very brilliance, blind to the obvious.
That damn phone was still ringing and I was irritated that one of the nightshift hadn’t bothered to answer it. Then I realised the ringtone was wrong. It didn’t match the internal phones and the whole lab was encased in a giant Faraday cage, which blocked all mobile signals. I stood and turned, moving my head from side to side, trying to get a fix on the source, as the caller seemed in no mood to hang up.
After a moment I swung round – the sound was coming from behind me, from within the reaction chamber itself. Bemused, I left the control area and walked across the access gantry to the armoured glass sphere which housed the initiators, even though there couldn’t possibly be a phone in there. I passed through the access airlock and paused. The air in the chamber pulsed rhythmically in time to the ringing, a palpable change in pressure that made my ears itch. I checked for system anomalies, in case this “phone” was actually an unfamiliar audible alarm, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I looked around the chamber, bathed in the cool blue glow of the Tesla coils. There was a hint of frost on the interior glass, caused by the cryogenic cooling net, but that would vanish when the system came online.
Shen-Kw’aim crouched in front of Jeta and Shan, and took a moment to embed their faces in his memory. He reached out to Jeta, brushing his daughter’s hair back from her eyes, and then put his hand on his son’s shoulder, squeezing just a little.
“Remember,” he said, “this body is not what carries our soul.”
He stood and took Elana in his arms. She wanted him to stay; her clutching hands told him so, even though she knew the contract was unbreakable. The pain ahead would be worse and more prolonged if he didn’t go. She shook against him, her tears wetting his shoulder and it was all he could do not to break down and show his fear. He used precious moments taking his wife in his arms and kissing those soft lips once more, parting them, melting into her.
A sharp pain in his wrist made him pull away. He could hide it no longer. He let his wife go and turned away.
It was time to die.
He started up the Hill of Souls, avoiding a new-soul who skidded down the path, sure of her way but not sure on her feet. Her face was lit with the wonder of sensation.
The building at the top of the hill, raised of silvered stone and glistening in the sun, was close now. Shen fell against the glass door, pushing it open with his left hand – his right arm throbbed from his wrist up to his shoulder, and the very thought of using it brought tears to his eyes. He hurried to the receptionist, cradling his right wrist with his left hand. He presented it to her, and already – so quickly, much quicker than any of his seven previous deaths – his soul was wriggling under the skin, making it bulge and rend the tissues beneath. He should not have delayed; he was glad he had.