Rag Muscovicz was getting ready for bed when a meme posted on the Brainz social network caused a New Tang (feel the fizz!) billboard satellite to overreact and fire a nuclear warhead on its nearest competitor, Hep Lite (heaven, carbonated).
He saw the explosion through his bathroom window as the flash lit up the night sky, obscuring all other billboards for a brief moment. Shards of advertising hoarding became tiny shooting stars as they fell to earth, burning up in the atmosphere.
Rag knew exactly what all this meant, for he was a Hep man. That’s it, he thought, I’m drafted.
Sure enough, within seconds, he received official notice in the form of a priority message from Hep command.
At the same time, his wife cried out from the next room, “Oh no!”
Rag rushed to her side. “You too, Elid?”
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “Oh darling, whatever will we do?”
The hood came off and I blinked in the anticipated spotlight. However, it was just a standard Anglepoise and I was cable-tied to a basic wooden chair, not a restraint-cum-waterboarding recliner. That shouted amateur, and amateur can be dodgy.
“Are you Mallory?” The voice was East End London with an undertone of anger. He was a big man in a black rollneck and camelhair car coat. Pretty much a walking cliché if you’re into retro gangland, but no less dangerous for all that.
Still, it never hurts to run your mouth. “I’d better be, buster, for your sake. Whoever hired you will be less than chuffed if you’ve lifted the wrong bloke. And I know you’re just muscle ’cos you and me, we have zero history.”
Rollneck’s gaze shifted to a point over my right shoulder.
“Quite correct, David – may I call you David?” Unseen had an inflection that reminded me of Peter Lorre. “The gentleman in front of you, and his two associates, are here to provide a physical inducement, should reason not prevail.”
Deep below the house was a lab with walls of cold steel and soft luminescent light. There, a machine sat on a metal chair, cables inserted into the sockets placed within the spine, arms, and legs. A machine in the shape of a human female, with skin of metal and polymer. A gynoid, as was the technical term. It had been weeks since her creator had come to visit her. Thus all the greater was the gynoid’s surprise when her maker stood before her. She stood up, looking into the first eyes she had seen at birth. And now here they were: creation and creator, face to face once more.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I did. I really did. More than anything,” she said. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
Again, only silence and a glance as an answer.
She felt the distraught tension. She wanted to reach out and lock themselves into an embrace like before, but stopped herself. “Is it something I did? Is it because I changed?” she asked. “That I grew is just part of it. You knew that—”
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Opinionated Gallery. I am Director Brandt, the site administrator.” I kept up my smile despite the obvious lack of interest from those few members of the press who’d bothered to attend. “Here at the Cybernetics Division of Anderson Industries, we craft personality constructs based on deceased corporate executives so that they may provide continued boardroom insight and guidance.”
Their indifference was like a sponge, sucking any last shreds of enthusiasm from an already mundane media event, but I persevered.
“Unfortunately, some of our creations have been considered too critical, too irascible, or just too lifelike by the new executives in charge.” I gestured to the horseshoe of twelve anthropomorphic busts. “So rather than see our work go to waste, this free gallery was established, where the public may seek advice from some of the leading captains of industry from the last half-century. And today we play host to a most distinguished guest, Howard Bell, the deputy director of Homeland Security.”
Your world is ours now. Your water, your air, your land – you should have defended them better. When there is so much to take, then we take. When a foe is so weak, we conquer. After a few more battles I will paralyse your military from within. I will use your own warriors to crush you.
I am Tom. Of the Gathering. Your world is ours.
And so are your pronouns.
Let me rephrase. I was of the Gathering and now I am Tom. Not actually Tom, but within Tom, who is now part of us. The Gathering. Except Tom does not know of us and…
This is confusing. Let me rephrase.
I now control Tom. Lieutenant Colonel Tom of the Elite Fighting Furies. Tom is the middle of us. The safe place. What you individuals call mediocre. Under my guidance, he has risen from lowly foot soldier to a position of rank and respect. Tom is a leader. And he is mine. So I am Tom. Of the Gathering. But mostly of Tom and I. Is I. Am I.
Victory is all that matters. My – our – victory is close. You are mine. All mine.
Agent Rodriguez peered through the glass window of the cell door. She preferred not to think of it as a cell but that was the descriptor that fit despite the extravagant furnishings inside. Plush furniture, modern media tech, well-stocked bookcases, and a private bath couldn’t disguise the windowless walls or barred door. Less noticeable, but where the reclining prisoner’s eyes were locked, was the time stream buffering device. It was affixed to the faux chimney column and secured the prisoner in time as well as space.
“He’s been completely silent this time?” Rodriguez asked Agent Webb, the guard on today’s rotation. Rodriguez was distinctly aware of Agent Markham behind her, hanging on her every word.
“Other than thanking me for the food, yes. Even while he slept, no mutterings. He appears—” Webb was suddenly silent.
Rodriguez pulled away from the door and turned towards the older agent. “Yes?”
“Peaceful. He appears peaceful.”
Evening darkness thickens its veil over the cloudless sky as the Earth’s heat drives the bats zigzagging higher. Nothing Greg can do about them, except hope they will not cut across his photo. He will have just one chance to snap his dream picture of H-Line’s new hyper-plane on its London to New York flight.
A cream light arcs up from the tree-lined horizon. He predicts its hypersonic flight path and points his camera ahead of the plane, finger ready over the shutter tab. As it comes closer, the cream divides into red on the right and green on the left. The fuselage material is absorbing sun- moon- and star-light, and transferring and changing it into this plane’s navigation lights.
He bites his lip: closing, almost there. He hits the tab.
The hyper-plane flies past in silence.
Greg examines the image on the camera’s screen. Got it after all these months: plane dead centre; its sleekly curved airframe in staggered rainbow colours – red on the plane’s left, orange and yellow lines down its centre, and green on its right side, haloed by bands of blue, indigo and violet. The version on film with the rainbow colours merging more smoothly is a sure prize-winner.
A bat crashes into his hand. His camera falls and bumps downhill. He half-runs, half-slides after it. The camera smashes into a rock, its back opening and the film dropping out.
Look! These new pills make my hairs stand on end and wave at people. Amazing, right? I don’t mind, but it makes my head itch, although nowhere near as badly as the old pills. Look at them go, luv. Medusa man, right? Thousands of tiny snakes wriggling up top. Unless I wash my hair, and then I can’t do a thing with it.
Sorry, luv. Telekinetic joke. I do that when I’m nervous and it helps to break the ice, and I can do that if I put an ice cube on my forehead. Really, I can break ice a few millimetres from my head, which is pretty awesome. It’s enough to get me over my depression, except that’s probably really down to these drugs that make my hair stand on end. They said this telekinetic thing is a rare side effect. I don’t care.
It’s impossible, right? Waving my hair by the power of my mind? Can’t be done. Well, you just reach over and run your fingers through my hair, and perhaps I’ll trim your nails. Or give me a hug, and I’ll make your hair curl …
Sorry, luv. Yes, I know that was really inappropriate. I’ll just have a bottle of milk and a packet of teabags. I’m just so buzzed that I felt up to leaving the flat. Hey, look, I can raise my eyebrows … and then all my hair at the front … yeah, it’s a fringe activity. Sorry. More telekinetic humour. I don’t often meet new people. How much for the milk and tea? Better make it skimmed.
Manoeuvre thrusters start up to turn Talfryn’s spacecraft back. He hasn’t touched his nav controls or pre-programmed the autopilot to return to Oberon. This is a hacking job. Panic hits him.
He switches to the backup nav to reverse the course change.
That kind of override means an arrest worm. The moon’s police will be waiting to take him into custody for a murder he did not commit. Yes, the moon’s auto-surveillance system recorded somebody with all his personal traits knifing Bernice Deutsch, but he was asleep in his condo at the other side of the Othello crater and had no alibi, not even CCTV.
Left with no other choice, he checks for nearby landing sites for his life-pod. The Frankenstein moon, Miranda, is within reach if he leaves now. He’ll call his twin sister to retrieve him once he’s landed.
He dashes to strap himself into the pod, seal the door and hit the release button. The thrust pushes him into his seat to clear his spacecraft, and then he’s in free fall with only the straps restraining him.
He switches off the pod’s emergency locator beacon and other transponders to go dark. These are all the signs of an expensive way of committing suicide. Let the police think that.
He hung in space like an antique mirror ball, frozen in a confident stance, glimmering as though dusted with a child’s glitter. A crowd gathered in front of the floating man.
The little girl with blond curls named Anna went as close as she could to the floating man and stared at him for a long time. Ropes kept people from getting too close, though no one could actually touch him. He was an afterimage, a series of insubstantial snapshots frozen in time.
“Why does everybody come to watch him? He doesn’t do anything, Mommy.”
“He’s an important person and has something important to tell us. He’s come back from a faraway place, but he’s been delayed. People come to see him because he could arrive at any moment.”
Anna turned to her mother and said, “Is he my father?”
Her mother – tall, lean, and weary in faux leather jacket and grey cotton coveralls – smiled and shook her head. She said, “No, no, of course not. That’s silly.”
But she didn’t really know for sure.