lost ironies

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Tag: dystopia

Noah Bones Chapter 4: Rabble Town

Late evening, darkness falling

It wasn’t really a town, only a bleaker neighbourhood in a bleak city. And across its busy Centre Street, lined with shabby carts, a threadbare sex trade, dead storefronts and hawkers, was strung a multitude of crackle screens, like paper lanterns hanging over a once brighter Chinatown, each screen with the face of the Chief Victor, leader of the Federated States, speaking, all day every day, assuring the People of the brightest and winningest of futures, interrupted only by advertisements.

Noah Bones leaned against a brick wall at a corner, sipping cheap street cart tea from a paper cup, watching an advert for a sugar confection called Pokyfun, a thin brightly wrapped bar of cheap genetically modified carob gown in rooved-over reclaimed asbestos mines in the irradiated Western Wastes, and tempered with hydrogenated pork fat, paraffin and microcrystalline wax.

The ad consisted of a bald mustachioed man in an orange pinstriped suit and purple tap-shoes capering madly across a stage to frenzied music with a Pokyfun bar in each hand as a line of scantily clad dancing girls in gold lame kicked and smiled deliriously behind him.

“Pokyfun,” the mustachioed one finally shouted, as confetti fell, bright coloured lights flashed and strafing jet fighters flew across the length of the stage on green screen, dropping napalm on fleeing victims, “it‘s the Chief Victor’s favourite bar!”

Then after a snowy pause, the Chief Victor himself appeared on screen to deliver a brief pre-recorded message, one viewed and heard by millions ad nauseam.

“I smell dog on the air,” he said, his creased pastel expression hardening, his small hands gripping the podium top. “Underground influences, enabled by Koslov himself, have delivered sham tidings. Koslov, the enemy. He’s the heaviness you feel. The promise of thunder, rumours of disaster. He’s what estranges us and isolates you, and why long ago I intervened on your behalf, placing all art and expression under my gracious care. Fake dispatch is a disease that weakens the Greater Plan, and undermines the righteous authority of your Great Leader—sad.”

“He’s stopped ad libbing,” said a man coming to stand next to Noah, and lighting a cigarette, the smoke mingling with the stagnant odour of Rabble Town.

“That’s old news, Markus,” Noah said, sipping his tea. “I’m not even sure it’s him anymore. Suddenly he’s downright eloquent. He must be being handled by some spook in the background. On the other hand, maybe he’s retired to some tropical island, laughing his head off. Or maybe he’s already dead.” Noah pointed at the image on the screen. “Maybe this is an automaton or data generated.”

“Then what’s the point of this meeting?”

“The point is that we’re here,” Noah said, “like we promised we’d be. The point is that Dr Vlad promised he’d be here too, sometime close to dark.”

Marcus sneered, “I don’t trust that little queer.”

“It’s too late for that. We needed an insider disenchanted with the Plan, and Vlad’s definitely that. He’ll be our push against their shove. Besides, Sylvia M says he’s on the square. That’s good enough for me.”

“I don’t trust her neither,” Markus said. “Vlad’s her little slave. There’s something kinky going on there. Plus he’s a puny little zealot, and I bet he’ll be cashing in big if we pull this off. While we’re sent packing with just a pay cheque.”

The video on the screens hanging above and down the length of Centre Street distorted for a second, the sound crackling noisily as the Chief Victor’s image disappeared, replaced by a manic ad for hand soap, featuring battle tanks and missile silos.

“And don’t forget,” said Noah Bones, “we’re just the hired guns. We aren’t the thinkers. That means that we—you—can leave anytime.”

“No,” Markus said. “We can’t. We’re in too deep now, know too much. If any of us left now, he or she’d be dead in a day.”

“Then why not just enjoy the ride?” came a voice from behind them, as small well-dressed man stepped out of a shadow cast by a street light. “We’re plotting history here. You’ll be heroes soon.”

“Or in a corpse pile,” said Markus, “awaiting trial, post-mortem.”

“Heroically dead, then,” said Dr vlad. “What’s not to love?”

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Noah Bones is a story written in short chapters, not quite flash fiction. This due to the fact that I now have a real job, and less time for writing.

Chapter 3
Chapter 2
Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones Chapter 3: Sylvia M

Read Chapter 1 here
Read Chapter 2 here
__________________________________________________________________

There came the words whispered, “Who’s there?” after a too long silence that followed her knocking.

“Sylvia,” came a female voice. “Let me in.”

Light shone through an eye hole drilled in the door. Then it didn’t.

“But you’re dead,” said the man behind it.

“A dirty rumour,” the tall darkly dress woman said. “Something I’ll deny, if pressed. Now open up.”

A bolt slid, loud in the hall that time of night, and the door opened a crack. A single bright eye peeked out.

“Hello Vlad,” Sylvia said, smiling halfly. “Open up.”

Dr Vladimir Cromwell knew the woman, Silvia M, and her clique well enough. He’d been forced into their plots before, as they raged against the Greater Plan. Violence and certain disappearance came to the noncompliant. He moved back and away from the door, and let Sylvia M enter.

“Cigarettes,” she said stepping in, “and the good stuff. I know you have it. None of that Rabble Town canteen shit.” Vladimir Cromwell obeyed. Vanished a moment into the dark regions of his well furnished apartment and returned with a deck of cigarettes, the package embossed in gold. He handed it over. Sylvia M lit up and unbuttoned her coat.

“There’s been a killing,” she said.

“There’ve been many,” replied Cromwell. He was a meek man, slight in a dark red robe that might have been made of silk. He could have been mistaken for a woman in the low light. His toes were nervously clenched in his slippers. His was an inescapable flamboyance which he tried to hide during the day, but not now in his own home. “The dead are stacked in common refrigerators in morgues all over town, each awaiting its criminal conviction and incineration. We’re overwhelmed.”

“No, none of them,” said Sylvia M. “The one I want you to think very carefully about was a high ranking Agent of the Greater Plan. He won’t be in a stinking corpse heap. He’ll be stored in his own drawer, as is his privilege. You’ve already done the autopsy, I’m certain, Dr Vlad. You’ll remember him for the tragic gunshot wound where his manhood once dwelt, and the fatal bullet wound to his head.”

“Yes,” Cromwell said after a moment, nodding. “I know him. Chief Justice Agent Ahriman, scheduled for pick-up tomorrow,  by a funeral chapel chosen by his family.” In passing, he said, ” It was a tragic wound,” and swallowed.

“No,” said Sylvia M. “You will not hand him over to a funeral chapel.”

“No?”

“No. You’ll lose him, instead. But let him not be so lost that he cannot be found again if necessary.”

“But lose him? What do mean? It would be a criminal act to tamper with the remains. Besides, it’s almost impossible to do. Certainly with the standard operating procedures I’ve implemented since my appointment as Chief of the Forensic Pathology Department of the Justice Bureau.”

“Then, Dr Vlad,” Sylvia M said, “what you’re telling me is that you’re the primary obstacle to my plan?”

“No, not at all. I….”

“Because small effete men frequently end up in stinking corpse piles, don’t they? There’s a prevalent prejudice against ladylike men in the Greater Plan, as you know. I’m no fan of the Plan, of course. I fight against it, and I disagree with many of its phobias. But some wonder how you’ve lasted this long.”

A male silhouette moved across the dark parlour behind Vladimir Cromwell, in the pale light coming through a window from the street, then disappeared.

“I’ll see what can be done,” the doctor said.

“Good,” said Sylvia M, now buttoning her coat and pocketing the deck of cigarettes. “And there’s the wine I enjoy.” She took a card from out of her handbag and handed it to him. “You know it. That Italian red. You’ve gotten it for me before.”

“Yes,” he said, taking her card. The fingernails of his soft hands manicured, and buffed to a glossy lustre. “It’s quite expensive, though. I’m not sure if it’s in my budget.”

“Have a crate delivered to the address on the card, and you know that neither I nor any of my people will be found there, so don’t get any ideas. The wine will find its way to me on its own.”

“Yes, alright.”

“These are dangerous times, Dr Vlad,” said Sylvia M, taking a different tone, smiling halfly again. “Especially for some.” Reaching out, she stroked the smooth lapel of his robe. “But the dead sleep like clouds, don’t they? Moved along by hurricanes, or, as in this case, by soft surreptitious winds? And when they’re gone the sun always shines, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Pausing a moment, she looked into his sad eyes and said, “There’s shame in these rooms, Dr Vlad. There needn’t be, but there is. It’s because you somehow agree with the opinion others have of you. Shame’s a weakness; it reveals too much about a man. Don’t carry it out into the world with you when I’ve assigned you a task.”

“No.”

“Be sure to eliminate all paperwork, audio, video and data-chronicles. All physical evidence; identification, clothing, shoes, any trinkets found in his pockets. This Agent never existed as far as your forensics is concerned.”

“I understand.”

______________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones, chapter 1: the moment

The time of day?

It was a thing to ponder as he waited. The ever-changing curfews and the random rotation of Commonwealth clock dials had done their work. Personal time pieces were forbidden. Time-Knowing was crime. He stood on a cold corner with the slow world nearly deserted, in what might have once been a 10am light filtering through the fog and coal smoke.

Waiting had been the greater part of the job, since the beginning. He waited and saw. Waited for the right moments to attack and retreat, always being careful. A moment wasn’t a minute. A minute was mutiny.

But he dreamed in moments like these, the dead immense moments before a kill, of doors opening into the Greater Plan. Of being offered a place within it, from which he’d emerge and be magnificent. But first, this. Always this first. This, wrapped in limitless moments.

Now his right fist clenched the smoky snub-nosed revolver in his coat pocket. Small and of indeterminate calibre. He hadn’t bothered to look, but knew it had the blunt blue character of a weapon that had killed before. A hand-me-down loaded by a stranger and slid to him across a tabletop, with an envelope of dirty currency. It was made of iron. It could kill forever. Been lost ten thousand years, like something precious, and found once more to kill again. A cheap ouroboros, an unwelcome eternal return.

There were a few ageing black automobiles parked at the curb, and the occasional pedestrian walking quickly past the dingy storefronts. Civil servants. There’d be permits in their pockets, allowing them to be out. They had that privilege, and the consequential dread held tightly somewhere inside. In the gut or wrapped tightly round the heart. Privilege was sedition, when one’s moment finally arrived.

He checked the action of the revolver’s hammer by pulling it back with his thumb, then gently easing it forward with his finger on the trigger. Stiff, gritty.

Then a man stepped out of a café across the street. Ugly but well dressed, familiar from a photograph. Suddenly the revolver felt unmanageable in Noah’s hand. He thought of running, as he always did at moments like these, but crossed the street instead, and met the man at the door of his car. And in a fluid movement, he drew the gun and squeezed the trigger—the sound of it surprising them both. Snap! it said. He cocked and squeezed the trigger again. Snap! Empty chambers? Impossible. Why hadn’t he checked? He was no amateur. A gun slid across a tabletop for an assignment was always loaded.

His target sneered. In seconds it might have been a grin.

Noah looked down at the revolver in his hand rather into the ugly man’s face. Then, desperately and without aim, he squeezed the trigger once more. “Bam!” it said this time, and the ugly man stepped back, eyes wide, hands grasping at the now bloody, empty space where his genitals had been seconds before.

“Oh shit,” Noah said, “I…. I didn’t mean….” …to shoot you there, he wanted to say. But then took more careful aim and, “Bam!” put a hole in the ugly man’s head, over the left eye, causing the eyeball to pop out at speed, and hang gluey from the socket by its optic nerve. Smoke swirled in the mist as the ugly man staggered against the car, falling dead onto the sidewalk. Right eye still open. The left looking away.

Privilege was sedition.

*   *   *

“The first two chambers were empty,” he said over the telephone in his room. “Was that some kind of fucking joke?”

“Are you laughing?” It was a woman’s voice. Familiar from nightmares and previous phone calls.

“No.”

“Not much of a joke then, eh?” she said.

“Yeah, well fuck you.”

He nearly hung-up, but then heard the woman say, “You want into the Greater Plan, I hear. Your Assigned Intermediary says that he sees it in you.”

“The fat fuck who gave me the gun, you mean?”

“And the money, dear,” the woman said. “The filthy filthy money. The Fat One thinks that you might make a sound candidate. You’re just bustin’ to move up, according to him.”

It was true. He was.

“When?” he said.

“When your moment comes.”

“Well when the hell’s that, a week, a month?”

There was a pause, a hush. He heard the very faint sound of a man shouting on a separate, very distant connection.

Then the woman said, “Don’t push yer luck, boyo.”

___________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the moon is a lie

a post from another time, but very relevant since Donny Trump’s apparent election

“The Moon is a lie.”

I say this into the veracigraph. An agent in a crumpled white shirt and lose tie holds a microphone to my mouth. We’re in a large damp concrete garage, lit by a few light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The machine’s internal brainbox hums and clicks, analysing my answer. Then a green light appears on its panel. I’ve passed. I bite my inner cheek, and show no surprise. I’ve practiced endlessly for moments like these. A steady tone of voice; a relaxed diaphragm. The machine has pegged me a true believer. I remain handcuffed to a metal chair, but I live another day.

As an exercise, I run the official narrative through my head: Of course the Moon is a lie. So are its orbit and phases, especially the crescent phases, its dark side and light. The tides are a function of the whirling, shifting planet. The Moon is the enemy’s greatest symbol, a massive manipulation, placed there by the Eastern Faith States. Huge projectors, controlled by vicious Imams, in secret locations beaming it onto the night sky, and sometimes during the day. Watching over the west — over all of us who live in freedom. It is a cruel weapon of mass destruction, the Prime Minister has spoken. All Moon literature, fictional or scientific, recent or historical, are EFS lies. Only the truly radicalised believe otherwise.

So say the newspapers.

I feel dizzy in my chair, and ask for water. A full glass is placed at my feet, but the handcuffs mean I cannot reach it. The agent in the crumpled white shirt smiles.

“Please let me go,” I say to him. “I’ve passed your test, yet again.”

“Not up to me, mate,” the agent says. “There’ll be someone along soon enough.”

I’m eighty years old, in chronic pain. Rationing has made me weak. A decade of self-imposed isolation has nearly erased my memory. I no longer have conventional memories, only flashbacks. Colours mostly. Odd. Flashes of lush blues, pale purples and pinks. Vague recollections of flowers in a window, on a desk. What are they?

I’m a danger to no one. In spite of the pain, I am amused.

It occurs to me that it’s my age that makes me dangerous, if I am at all. I know truths about the Moon that come from before the dismantling of the internet, before mass communication was banned, books incinerated. I’m from a time when radicalisation was merely a basic adolescent awakening of empathy and endeavour, not a mass doctrinal psychopathy.

“You want a cigarette?” says the agent. He pulls one from a deck for himself, and lights it.

“No,” I say.

“Don’t smoke? Is that it?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“You fucking oldsters…,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t get all your no smoking bullshit. The Gov says it’s safe.”

The Gov, short for Government. A word shortened to encourage trust and familiarity, intimacy even. The Gov is family, a warm and welcome friend. A lover.

The agent inhales extra deeply, proudly to make a point. The smoke he exhales is as blue as moonlight on wet pavement.

“I’m truly in trouble this time, aren’t I?” I say.

He half shrugs, and picks up and opens a tattered file. He reads. His lips move.

“You were a university prof?” he says.

“Yes.”

“How’d you fucking live this long? The Gov don’t like your kind.”

It is a mystery.

“Prof of what?” says the agent. “It doesn’t say here. It’s been blacked out.”

“Mathematics,” I lie. Or perhaps it’s not a lie. I no longer know for sure.

“Mathematics is obsolete,” the agent says. “No more long division for you, my friend.”

“That’s arithmetic, long division.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

A door opens to my left and a woman in a business suit walks in, carrying a black leather attaché case. As she approaches me, I see that she has a young but motherly face. Her lipstick is the red of jingoism, however. Not a colour from my flashbacks. It’s a deep shade of blood, derived from propaganda posters. She nods to the agent. He disappears into the dark.

“Hello, Professor,” she says to me, pulling off black kidskin gloves.

I haven’t been called that in over a decade.

“Hello,” I say.

“You’ve lately come to our attention.”

“Have I?”

“Yes you have,” she says. “It might have happened sooner, but information doesn’t flow the way it once did.”

“How does it flow now?” I ask.

“Downhill. Over stone and through culverts. Sometimes it gets stuck in whirlpools and back waters. People like me have to search it out. You lied many years ago, when you first said that you were a mathematics Professor. But it was an intelligent lie.”

She might be correct, I think.

“It seems you actually professed philosophy,” she says.

True, that’s it!

“Which is disturbing enough, but it is the area of philosophy you engaged in that’s troubling to us.”

“Us?”

“We.”

She stares at me for a moment.

I leave it at that.

“Social philosophy,” she reads from her document. “Do you deny it?”

“Is it a crime?”

“You know it’s not,” she says. “And yet it is. You know that, too.”

It’s the perfect answer.

“You wrote prolifically,” she continues. “And there was one paper you wrote, in particular, before the militant Imams began projecting the Moon onto the sky. It troubles us. The Philosophy of Denial.”

“It was well received,” I say.

“Then you don’t deny writing it?”

“The question is too ironic to answer,” I say.

She retrieves another document from her case.

“In the abstract of your paper, it is stated: Interest in the problem of method biases has a long history in State sponsored denial of essential realities. A means by which to control these methods of denial and their methods of dissemination exist as a matter of clandestine fact. The purpose of this article is to examine and discuss the cognitive processes through which a population of intelligent individuals living in a progressive, affluent milieu may be convinced by the State that opposites of reality exist.”

“Yes,” I say. “That’s rather good.”

“It’s treasonous. It’s sedition.”

“It wasn’t then.”

“But it is now.” A satisfied grin. “That’s the point, and it will be as long as the article remains in existence. Somewhere, even as we speak, it is being read and rewritten. The problem is, however, that with every rewrite, it loses a little something. That’s why we’re here today.”

“Burn it,” I say, “and your problems are over.”

“Even if we could track down every copy — and let me assure you that there are many, and more are found each day — that would still leave us with the problem of you.”

“There’s nothing left of me,” I say. “A small thing would end my life. An injection. A well swung iron bar.”

“But enemies are difficult to cultivate, in any meaningful way,” she says, changing track. “You say so, yourself, in your paper. And you’re correct, of course. Genuine, functional enemies are difficult and expensive. But having a serviceable enemy on your side can pay very high dividends.”

Enemies on your side. She gets it. Clever woman.

“So you’ve read it,” I say.

“Allies are much easier,” she carries on. “The human world naturally divides itself down the centre. Despite the reality that cooperation leads to better outcomes.”

She’s paraphrasing chapter two.

“Interesting,” I say.

“When did you last have an egg, Professor?”

This is unexpected, a bit bewildering.

“At least fifteen years ago,” I say. “If I recall correctly, which I’m not sure I do. Just after the supply chain was redirected into the wars. Around the time the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was suspended.”

“A cup of coffee?”

“About the same time.”

“I have them every day,” she says. “And more.”

“How nice for you.”

“You could, too.”

I’m silent.

“You’re old, Professor,” she says. “How long do you have left, hmm? Come over to us. Join our small army of primary Villains. The world awaits you.”

“Are you serious?”

“You’ll write more of this sort of thing.” She holds up my paper. “We’ll distribute it, and punish your readers. Just imagine all of the lovely unrest, and the outrage you’ll cause. The very fuel necessary to run a formless government, indefinitely. You’ll have value again. Your photograph will deface every lamppost in every city of the country, the world.”

“Lunacy.”

“You can live in comfort. Receive medical treatment. Sleep on a proper bed, without pain. In a home with heat and hot water. You’ll live longer for all of that. Think of it.”

“So, you’re bribing me,” I say. Strangely, I suddenly see orchids. The colours. I raised them once, my God. Now I remember. The joy!

“Of course we’re bribing you.”

“Then we agree?” I say. “The moon is not a lie. I don’t believe it, and neither do you.”

“Naturally, it’s an absurd idea. How we ever convinced the people it was, remains a wonderful enigma.”

“And the endless war, it’s only an empty room.”

“Yes, it is.”

My belly tightens. There’s a wicked hope in my gut.

“May I have orchids?” I say.

“Absolutely.”

the moon is a lie

“The Moon is a lie.”

I say this into the veracigraph. An agent in a crumpled white shirt and lose tie holds a microphone to my mouth. We’re in a large damp concrete garage, lit by a few light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The machine’s internal brainbox hums and clicks, analysing my answer. Then a green light appears on its panel. I’ve passed. I bite my inner cheek, and show no surprise. I’ve practiced endlessly for moments like these. A steady tone of voice; a relaxed diaphragm. The machine has pegged me a true believer. I remain handcuffed to a metal chair, but I live another day.

As an exercise, I run the official narrative through my head: Of course the Moon is a lie. So are its orbit and phases, especially the crescent phases, its dark side and light. The tides are a function of the whirling, shifting planet. The Moon is the enemy’s greatest symbol, a massive manipulation, placed there by the Eastern Faith States. Huge projectors, controlled by vicious Imams, in secret locations beaming it onto the night sky, and sometimes during the day. Watching over the west — over all of us who live in freedom. It is a cruel weapon of mass destruction, the Prime Minister has spoken. All Moon literature, fictional or scientific, recent or historical, are EFS lies. Only the truly radicalised believe otherwise.

So say the newspapers.

I feel dizzy in my chair, and ask for water. A full glass is placed at my feet, but the handcuffs mean I cannot reach it. The agent in the crumpled white shirt smiles.

“Please let me go,” I say to him. “I’ve passed your test, yet again.”

“Not up to me, mate,” the agent says. “There’ll be someone along soon enough.”

I’m eighty years old, in chronic pain. Rationing has made me weak. A decade of self-imposed isolation has nearly erased my memory. I no longer have conventional memories, only flashbacks. Colours mostly. Odd. Flashes of lush blues, pale purples and pinks. Vague recollections of flowers in a window, on a desk. What are they?

I’m a danger to no one. In spite of the pain, I am amused.

It occurs to me that it’s my age that makes me dangerous, if I am at all. I know truths about the Moon that come from before the dismantling of the internet, before mass communication was banned, books incinerated. I’m from a time when radicalisation was merely a basic adolescent awakening of empathy and endeavour, not a mass doctrinal psychopathy.

“You want a cigarette?” says the agent. He pulls one from a deck for himself, and lights it.

“No,” I say.

“Don’t smoke? Is that it?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“You fucking oldsters…,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t get all your no smoking bullshit. The Gov says it’s safe.”

The Gov, short for Government. A word shortened to encourage trust and familiarity, intimacy even. The Gov is family, a warm and welcome friend. A lover.

The agent inhales extra deeply, proudly to make a point. The smoke he exhales is as blue as moonlight on wet pavement.

“I’m truly in trouble this time, aren’t I?” I say.

He half shrugs, and picks up and opens a tattered file. He reads. His lips move.

“You were a university prof?” he says.

“Yes.”

“How’d you fucking live this long? The Gov don’t like your kind.”

It is a mystery.

“Prof of what?” says the agent. “It doesn’t say here. It’s been blacked out.”

“Mathematics,” I lie. Or perhaps it’s not a lie. I no longer know for sure.

“Mathematics is obsolete,” the agent says. “No more long division for you, my friend.”

“That’s arithmetic, long division.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

A door opens to my left and a woman in a business suit walks in, carrying a black leather attaché case. As she approaches me, I see that she has a young but motherly face. Her lipstick is the red of jingoism, however. Not a colour from my flashbacks. It’s a deep shade of blood, derived from propaganda posters. She nods to the agent. He disappears into the dark.

“Hello, Professor,” she says to me, pulling off black kidskin gloves.

I haven’t been called that in over a decade.

“Hello,” I say.

“You’ve lately come to our attention.”

“Have I?”

“Yes you have,” she says. “It might have happened sooner, but information doesn’t flow the way it once did.”

“How does it flow now?” I ask.

“Downhill. Over stone and through culverts. Sometimes it gets stuck in whirlpools and back waters. People like me have to search it out. You lied many years ago, when you first said that you were a mathematics Professor. But it was an intelligent lie.”

She might be correct, I think.

“It seems you actually professed philosophy,” she says.

True, that’s it!

“Which is disturbing enough, but it is the area of philosophy you engaged in that’s troubling to us.”

“Us?”

“We.”

She stares at me for a moment.

I leave it at that.

“Social philosophy,” she reads from her document. “Do you deny it?”

“Is it a crime?”

“You know it’s not,” she says. “And yet it is. You know that, too.”

It’s the perfect answer.

“You wrote prolifically,” she continues. “And there was one paper you wrote, in particular, before the militant Imams began projecting the Moon onto the sky. It troubles us. The Philosophy of Denial.”

“It was well received,” I say.

“Then you don’t deny writing it?”

“The question is too ironic to answer,” I say.

She retrieves another document from her case.

“In the abstract of your paper, it is stated: Interest in the problem of method biases has a long history in State sponsored denial of essential realities. A means by which to control these methods of denial and their methods of dissemination exist as a matter of clandestine fact. The purpose of this article is to examine and discuss the cognitive processes through which a population of intelligent individuals living in a progressive, affluent milieu may be convinced by the State that opposites of reality exist.”

“Yes,” I say. “That’s rather good.”

“It’s treasonous. It’s sedition.”

“It wasn’t then.”

“But it is now.” A satisfied grin. “That’s the point, and it will be as long as the article remains in existence. Somewhere, even as we speak, it is being read and rewritten. The problem is, however, that with every rewrite, it loses a little something. That’s why we’re here today.”

“Burn it,” I say, “and your problems are over.”

“Even if we could track down every copy — and let me assure you that there are many, and more are found each day — that would still leave us with the problem of you.”

“There’s nothing left of me,” I say. “A small thing would end my life. An injection. A well swung iron bar.”

“But enemies are difficult to cultivate, in any meaningful way,” she says, changing track. “You say so, yourself, in your paper. And you’re correct, of course. Genuine, functional enemies are difficult and expensive. But having a serviceable enemy on your side can pay very high dividends.”

Enemies on your side. She gets it. Clever woman.

“So you’ve read it,” I say.

“Allies are much easier,” she carries on. “The human world naturally divides itself down the centre. Despite the reality that cooperation leads to better outcomes.”

She’s paraphrasing chapter two.

“Interesting,” I say.

“When did you last have an egg, Professor?”

This is unexpected, a bit bewildering.

“At least fifteen years ago,” I say. “If I recall correctly, which I’m not sure I do. Just after the supply chain was redirected into the wars. Around the time the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was suspended.”

“A cup of coffee?”

“About the same time.”

“I have them every day,” she says. “And more.”

“How nice for you.”

“You could, too.”

I’m silent.

“You’re old, Professor,” she says. “How long do you have left, hmm? Come over to us. Join our small army of primary Villains. The world awaits you.”

“Are you serious?”

“You’ll write more of this sort of thing.” She holds up my paper. “We’ll distribute it, and punish your readers. Just imagine all of the lovely unrest, and the outrage you’ll cause. The very fuel necessary to run a formless government, indefinitely. You’ll have value again. Your photograph will deface every lamppost in every city of the country, the world.”

“Lunacy.”

“You can live in comfort. Receive medical treatment. Sleep on a proper bed, without pain. In a home with heat and hot water. You’ll live longer for all of that. Think of it.”

“So, you’re bribing me,” I say. Strangely, I suddenly see orchids. The colours. I raised them once, my God. Now I remember. The joy!

“Of course we’re bribing you.”

“Then we agree?” I say. “The moon is not a lie. I don’t believe it, and neither do you.”

“Naturally, it’s an absurd idea. How we ever convinced the people it was, remains a wonderful enigma.”

“And the endless war, it’s only an empty room.”

“Yes, it is.”

My belly tightens. There’s a wicked hope in my gut.

“May I have orchids?” I say.

“Absolutely.”

 

 

 

 

 

copyright (from 2012)

The type font name is Spinoza Acclaim®, a pathodigital rogue sans serif first used during the advent of Confined IR®, or CIR®. It is compatible with fibre optic and microwave communications as a binary code enhancer/de-enhancer, replicating organic thought patterns at speeds of up to 10,000 times. It was designed as a cipher-boost font by Johan Mac of Holland in answer to a lack of virtual military Molten Metal© field cryptography, and for the ease with which it is set and broadcast under rigorous urban military situations and Fear® ops. Spinoza Acclaim® is recognised for its design based on engraved Delta Garamond, Cripto-Sabon roman and Italic Faux-font® Decoy-logic® algorithms developed during the last century by Jobs®–Wozniak® Granjon and Wozniak Strategics Corp©®™. It remains a durable contemporary standard for use by covert inner city military and extrajudicial extermination squads.

seizures

Inexplicably, I have Oscar and Hammerstein music playing in my head. It’s a signal. I shiver. I’m expecting the onset of seizures soon. I’m standing at an intersection in the city, aware of the surveillance camera at the top of the lamppost next to me. Its servos need cleaning and graphite. They grind audibly as the camera manoeuvres onto its target, me, standing beneath it. Somewhere, there are military personnel watching screens.

I feel the seizures coming, and I run out into the intersection in front of oncoming traffic. I don’t care. I don’t want to be recorded thrashing on the concrete. They’d send a recovery crew to sweep me up like a piece of litter. I’d rather take a hit by an approaching vehicle. It won’t matter much. I still have the Medcap® next to my jugular vein. It contains drugs for low to moderate trauma, pain and infection, along with an ever ready remotely activated two gram dose of Gelmight®, an explosive C5®/algae Sporaphil® derivative specially prepared so that the military underachiever charged with pushing my button won’t have to think too much about it.

I reach the other side of the intersection. Car drivers honk their horns. The frequency of the sound exacerbates the brain shivers. My inner ear fails. I fall and get up, fall and get up. An elderly woman nearby looks on but doesn’t help. I don’t blame her. I look like shit. I’m emaciated, my face is heavily scarred and pitted, my left eye is missing and my right arm is rotting in a dumpster somewhere. To her, I’m the enemy. But what TV fails to mention to its audience of little old ladies is that no enemy actually exists. No nation has the energy or resources to be another nation’s enemy – there are only Blackfact® and Fear®. I’m hungry enough to eat her little dog. It sits so well behaved. I begin to twitch on my feet. I don’t deserve her consideration. I know this. It’s getting dark. It’s nearly 1 pm. My head begins jerking uncontrollably, from side to side. Seizures.

the big what the hell

No one expected the failure of world economies to hit as severely as it did, or to create the horror. With what seemed minimal incitement at the time, people panicked. It started with them looking inward and losing the human capacity to share. Then came the looting in the cities and private citizens arming themselves. Eventually people left their urban precincts thinking rural areas safer. Only the poor, those who lacked mobility and the military remained. Even the police split town. The army started to use the poor and housebound as target practice, and that began the Urban Wars. The wars, along with the myriad conspiracy theories about who was responsible for it all eventually lead to Blackfact® and Fear®, the two conspiracy theories of all conspiracy theories. They were so seamless and functionally placating that the media, and then what was left of the government, began to use them as mainstays. And conspiracy evolved into actuality. 

earlier, Stanley Park, Vancouver

The mist on the snow is the result of an inversion. I know it will pass soon, and I’ll have a clear shot. This is overgrown and derelict Stanley Park. Once the pride of the city, now a toxic waste dump, pet cemetery, dumping ground for human body parts and camp ground for those too far gone to ever return.

But the adventurous can still find a semi-safe trail to hike.

The .50 calibre Remington® Biomatic® I’ve been assigned is attached to my right wrist by a locked coupling unit near where my hand, fingers and thumb come into contact with the trigger and safety. It only disengages after my handlers have witnessed the successful completion of my assigned op, or things have so turned to shit that my stealthy escape is required for reasons of debriefing and/or Discomfiture-Avoidance™ — a.k.a. blameful secrecy.

Hypodermic needles in the coupling unit pierce the skin on my wrist at varying depths depending on the nerve they’re meant to encounter and have influence over. This is also true of the micro-fibre optic matrix that envelopes my entire body. These injection regions are always mildly to moderately infected, and cause my dry, diabetic skin to itch like mad, but the coupling’s housing denies me access for the purpose of scratching. I’ve never missed a target because of this, but it’s come close.

This isn’t cutting edge technology; no one knows what that is anymore. There is talk, however, of a mythical, parallel world existing somewhere on the planet, where black operatives work with highly accurate, non-penetrating personal laser operated weapon systems that kill with tremendously accurate low frequency sound waves that smash a target’s internal organs to a pulp. Such is myth. I often dream of the possibilities and wake biting my tongue, believing that I’m on fire.

My hip pack is full of ammo, small explosives, rudimentary first aid supplies and candy bars. I have type 1 diabetes, but who cares. Only the rich have access to human recombinant insulin now. The rest of us use cheap, toxic, poorly refined porcine insulin that kills most of the people who use it within a year. My days are numbered. That’s why they chose me for this shit op.

The thing I hate the most about having no insulin is the endless and intense thirst and having to piss every three minutes, along with the obvious bodily atrophy I see in the mirror whenever I bother to look. I’m wasting away. There was an idea once that I might be paid in vials of human insulin, but that would have put my income way over what Fear® Op Specs are paid. Besides, it was said, I would probably have sold it on the grey meds market, anyway.

My blood glucose runs high, which means I’m hungry all the time. I open what currently passes for a Snickers Bar™ and dig in. The peanuts are soy analogues and that’s what they taste like. The synthetic chocolate is made from GMO carob seed grown in low Earth orbit, but tastes like shit. The sugar, however, is real, and even though it’s killing me and my body can’t use it for energy, it’s sweet and comforting.

target(s)

I’m told the target is a government official – a bureaucrat, but one with too much popularity and power.  According to briefing, he stayed in the city while the exodus to the countryside took place, like he was making a statement, which he was, and which has since paid off far too well for him. He may win most of the popular vote in the next farce that passes for an election in these parts. Such are the subtleties I’m not supposed to be able to understand, as a flunky assassin.

I unzip and piss, and risk being given away by the sight of steam rising from my position. The near panicked voice of a handler comes over my Earport® informing me that I’m functioning outside of procedure. ‘Fuck your procedure,’ I say, and a powerful electric shock is sent through the hypos into my body. I convulse and kick on my back in the snow, as a result, which is just as likely to reveal my position as the piss steam. This kind of conditioning is counter-productive. It numbs my hand and trigger finger, and rattles my brain making for a potentially less accurate shot, but my handlers aren’t the brightest pennies in the jar.  Anyway, the target is still five minutes away according to the best recon, which is actually for shit.

There’s the usual crackle over my Earport®. It’s all in undeciphered SA® — Spinoza Acclaim®. It sounds like a fast hiss with the occasional contrasting pop and short, medium or long silences. The silences, they say, and their duration, mean more than the hiss and pops.

SA® can be used by handlers looking out from, or listening in through, my inverse Eyeport® and Earport® to take over my weapon actions when/if required. It works on CIR®, closed circuit as well as microwave. Its codes are top secret and updated randomly at periods as short as every few nanoseconds to as long as every thirty-seven and a half minutes using a Wozniak Strategics Corp®™ algorithm that we’re told has never come close to being cracked.

Across the bottom third of my Eyeport®, SA® text travels quickly in a SingleLine®, from right to left. At some time in the distant past, before the world went into unremitting meltdown, I learned to read. I was a child then, of course, and diligent teachers worked hard to fill my mind with essential facts and beautiful if benign magic. They’re probably all dead now. Intellectuals, however defined, don’t live long in worlds where conspiracy theories are copyright.

As the air cools, the inversion subsides and the mist begins to disappear. I make a small mound of snow on which to mount the Biomatic®. No handler has ever taken over my weapon action. They’ve never had to. I’m a fucking rock, and they hate me for it.

I watch the line where the woods end and become an open field. I’m 300 meters back looking through the Biomatic’s® Vidscope®. This is where the target is known to carelessly appear like clockwork every day at this time. It’s his daily exercise. I blink and there he, or should I say she is, preceded by a rare and expensive Golden Labrador Retriever.

“Confirm target, please,” I say to my mystic handler, sitting somewhere in relative comfort.

“Confirmed.”

I draw a bead, but behind her comes a child, a little boy maybe five years old. My thumb hesitates over the safety, and then flicks it over, back into safe mode. The trigger remains locked. Another handler’s voice comes over my Earport®,

“Shooter, disengage your weapon’s safety.”

“I’m thinking,” I say.

“You’re paid to shoot, not think.”

“Unintended mark with target,” I say. “Request permission to abort.”

“Negative, unintended mark is also target.”

“He’s a fucking kid.”

“Both parties,” the handler says. “Or surrender weapon action.”

So, it’s a matter of pride. A competent shooter does not lose weapon action. I now have approximately 45 of the 60 seconds given by Spinoza Acclaim® to undecided shooters to make up their minds, or overcome whatever snafu they face. The little boy is exerting his independence by following several paces behind the target. I move the Vidscope® back and forth between them. If I fire over their heads, they’ll have warning to drop or run. But SA® will take control of the Biomatic® in a flash, and its caseless ammo will tear down the old growth forest and obliterate every living thing in view.

I’m a slave, but I don’t kill children.

I take a Snickers Bar™ from my hip pack; I tear it from its wrapper and push it into the muzzle of the Biomatic®. Physics, etched into cosmic stone, dictates that a bullet fired now will lead to a violent and unavoidable reaction. Heavy, high velocity ammunition passes through the blocked barrel of a rifled weapon too fast for pressures to dissipate before said pressures blow the muzzle area of the weapon’s barrel wide open, resulting in physical catastrophe. In other words, the normally soft and gooey Snickers Bar™ is a brick wall that a solid, ultrasonic projectile cannot penetrate. Spinoza Acclaim® has no solution for this snafu. It’s a bug I encountered by mistake two years ago while on ops in Calgary. Shooters aren’t supposed to put their own health and safety at risk in this way, so no contingency exists.

Sixty seconds has passed and SA® takes weapon action away from me. I feel, for the first time ever, my Biomatic® move with seeming independence across a 180 degree plane, taking in all possible targets, and then falling on one.

Somewhere in an Ultra-secure™ climate controlled operations viewing room, Ops Handler Management is weighing the pros and cons of initiating my explosive Gelmight® sequence, or leaving me alone until after debriefing. Pre-recorded muzzle obstruction warnings are crackling over my Earport® and flashing red across my Eyeport®. A handler breaks in and demands I take action to remove the muzzle obstruction or abort immediately.

“I’ve lost weapon action,” I say, stating the obvious. “Muzzle obstruction is an SA® quandary now.”

Another handler demands I describe the makeup of the muzzle obstruction: “SA® cannot determine nature of obstruction, is unable to decide correct course of action.”

“Obstruction,” I reply, “appears to be a sugary combination of elements including paraffin based imitation chocolate, heavily hydrogenated soy oil based caramel and soy peanut analogues.” Then I say, “Available almost everywhere you shop.”

The safety automatically disengages, and the Biomatic® accepts a .50 calibre bullet into its breech. Electrical pulses move through almost all the muscles on my right side, and some on my left. There’s a tensing emphasis on my right wrist, upper hand, and thumb and trigger finger. I hold the small and light, yet massively lethal Remington Biomatic® out in front of me with a straight captive arm. The Vidscope® shows the little boy will be first. Bewildering. It’s the law of the jungle, but an unpleasant discovery, that an undetected bug in Spinoza Acclaim® indicates that, when left to its own devices, it will go after the smallest and weakest target first.

SA® follows the little boy for a few of his small steps, confirming its calculations, and then fires. The barrel of the Biomatic® explodes, and I’m showered with molten material, and at least one sizable piece of super-heated carbon fibre has been shot into my brain from the blast. The blast’s resulting kick takes off my arm at the midpoint of my upper tibia, and I am, for the moment at least, blinded.

much later, snickers bar morbidity

There’s a worm in my brain. Words from the Oscar and Hammerstein musical South Pacific are cycling through my head. Why the line “there is nothing like a dame” of all things? I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had her.

I’m sitting on a bench at a transit stop. The seizures have begun, and a little girl with a grape Popsicle™ stands at the curb five feet away, impassively watching me twitch and convulse with increasing ferocity. It’ll be grand maul, across the scale soon. The chunk of carbon fibre that landed in my brain all those months ago was never removed, after I was canned as a Fear® Op Spec. A recovery crew is probably already on its way, and I’m becoming convinced that there really is nothing like a dame, after all.©

the Aftertown graphic novel part 3

Part one, Part two,  Part 2.1 here

Introduction
The characters in the story of Aftertown don’t know that they’re characters at all. Their lives are real to them and unfold in an unfailingly ordinary fashion. Time is marked according to a calendar of days, but no day can exist outside of a numbered graphic novel frame. And no none can escape form the sequence of frames, drawn by an unknowable hand, and sometimes narrated by an equally unknowable voice.

There are, however, individuals like Matthew Roseland, Shamus Guild member. He’s a private detective able to move from frame to frame with a freedom other characters in the story do not possess. This freedom to move back and forth, from one moment to the next, makes him an outcast, but also provides him with unique insights into the criminal intrigues of the smoky dark distopic urban landscape of Aftertown.

* * * * *

Frame #11 (November 21, 1912, 1am): There’s back alley gravel under my feet. I lean a shoulder against a damp mossy redbrick wall, and light a hero. I toss the match. There’s a flask of Roaring Girl in my pocket. I tell myself it’s for later, but my gut says now. For me, what’s about to happen isn’t political. I’m just practicing my trade.

A few feet away, the street’s busy with the delirious energy of an Imperial Fetish Guild celebration. There’s a band of drums and flutes. There’re fireworks and banners denouncing the fictitious Chan Cult. A Priest is carried on a parade float.

The procession passes beneath machine gun blister turrets, swelling out of the upper floors of buildings along the way. The Priest is surrounded on the float by adoring virgin boys and girls, food of sorts for him and the Guild. They’ve been drugged. And were provided by their parents – some ardent, some very afraid.

It’s quite a show, but I’m laying low. Staying off the scanners. There’s still an Intel Sect Executive Warrant out for my arrest. My Shamus Guild credentials have been revoked. Now the badge I carry isn’t worth the chrome plated aggregate it’s made from.

The Deterrent Guild is looking for me, of course. But I’m untouchable. The Executive Warrant makes me the property of Intel Sect. Only an executive member of Intel Sect can arrest or detain me. Beat cops know it. I can spit in their eye with impunity, and regularly do. It’s come close a couple of times, but they lack my mobility.

Inquisitor Guild agents are in the crowd. That’s why I’m here. They’re looking for a Resistance Over-Deputy by the name of Nadia Trimmell. A woman getting too good at her job, exposing the Imperial Guild System for what it is, propelled by lies and soaked in blood. But she won’t be worth a damn if the High Inquisitor get his hooks into her. He’ll tear her to pieces in interrogation, and then try and execute her as a member of the Chan Cult. That’s where the propelled by lies part comes in.

I check my watch. Dates and times repeat themselves here, or arrive out of sequence. But based on the best information from the last frame, Nadia Trimmell should be running by me about now. I drop the hero and step out of the alley, onto the sidewalk. There’s commotion in the crowd, up the block. Menacing shouts for someone to stop. Gun fire. People screaming. Bodies being pushed off the sidewalk, onto the street. The crowd panics. It turns my way and begins to stampede. I pull out my revolver and aim straight ahead. The stampede detours round me.

In a moment, there she is. A short black haired woman in black overalls, her hair tied up in a red scarf. Nadia Trimmell. She sees my drawn weapon and stops, looking confused – which way now? I holster the gun and hold out my hand.

“Roseland?” she says.

My reputation precedes me.

“Let’s go,” I say, and take her hand.

We head back down the alley, running. There’s a backdoor to an abandoned shop up ahead. I scouted it out ahead of time. Out of range of the nearest surveillance shytube. That’s all I know. I didn’t have time to check it out thoroughly. If we go through the door, we could be in Hell.

There’s gunfire behind us. Bullets are striking walls, lamp standards and old signage hanging on brackets above our heads. It’s just up ahead, a few feet. As we run, I push her sideways through the door I’ve left ajar. We both fall into a black basement. She’s fallen onto the filthy floor. In the dim light, I can see that we’re surrounded by hundreds of unused mannequins, watching us closely. I grab her hand and pull her to her feet.

“I’ve never done this with a woman before,” I say.

She looks at me, surprised and frightened.

I grasp her other hand so that now I’m holding both. Then I say, “Here we go, baby. Close your eyes. Sometimes there’s sparks….”

It’s true. I never have done this with a woman before. Or anyone else. Moving from frame to frame has always been a solo act.

Frame #19 (November 22, 1912, 10pm): In a second, we’re standing in a different frame, out of doors under a full moon. We’re still holding hands. Her hair’s a little messy. My hat and Aquascutum are a little crocked. But we made it.

“What just happened?” she says.

“We survived,” I say.

“We need to find Fernsby.”

“I know,” I say, sounding defeated already. “But that means crashing the Ministry of Allegory.”

Then there’s a voice behind us. “Well, me mates, what do we ‘ave here?”

I turn round. It’s Chalk, leader of the Terminus Boy Punks. Street gang deluxe, as they like to call themselves. He’s surrounded by his cohorts. His jacket and pants are black leather. His face is deathly pale in the full moonlight, the result of the white lead makeup all of the Boy Punks smear on their faces. Tonight, his tall laminated Mohawk is purple.

“Which Guild are you a stooge for now?” I say. “Fetish or Inquisitor?”

“Never mind that.” says Chalk. “Yous two ain’t going nowheres.” He smiles, revealing his rust coloured teeth, filed into points. Then he draws his .50 calibre Crossly Autofield revolver. “We’ve been requested to remove yous two from the picture, we ‘ave.”

Chalk aims and cocks his Crossly, well-oiled and deadly. I look wearily at Nadia Trimmell, and sigh.

“Close your eyes, sugar,” I say. “Here we go again….”

* * * * *

Frame #17 (November 22, 1912, 8:45pm): The High Inquisitor stands beneath an awning. But the wind blows sheets of rain even there. He’s drenched.

A black car with the Inquisitor Guild insignia pulls up to the curb, and he gets inside.

“You’re late,” he says to the driver.

The driver knows otherwise, but says nothing.

“Ministry of Allegory,” the Inquisitor says. “Grand Sanctity Entrance.”

“Shortcut or through the town?”

“Shortcut,” says the Inquisitor, looking out of the window.

His wire frame eye glasses are tinted blue and rain speckled. Rain drips off of his hat, into his lap and onto a black leather attaché case, as he takes a small black note book out of his breast pocket, and begins to leaf through the pages. Name after name. Each followed by brief but incriminating notes. Details of theoretical statecraft and half-formed ideas, made fanatical by nonconformity. Snatched from out of the air to feed variance interpreters. Tertiary ciphers contained on reels in their subterranean vaults. Cold, frank analysis. Death to careless talkers and radical enthusiasms.

The driver is competent and knows the town, avoiding the Love Marches and the throngs surrounding the blood soaked Sacrifice Steeples. In a short time, the car arrives at the stately Ministry of Allegory building, rising only two stories above the sidewalk. But hiding ten stories beneath the ground. To the passerby, the building is grand but introverted, watched over by surveillance dirigibles, machine guns and powerful searchlights tracing figure eights on the low overcast in the night sky. Few can know what goes on inside.

The vehicle slows to a stop at the Grand Sanctity Entrance.  “Don’t return until I call,” he tells the driver. “And try to find cigarettes.”

He exits the vehicle, and climbs the wide granite steps. The massive brass and crystal doors open for him, and he walks past the armed guards. Inside, he removes his hat. The lobby, a cathedral of gold and artificial indirect light. His footsteps echo as he makes his way to the elevators.

“Influence Level E,” he tells the operator as he steps into a car.

The doors close, and the lift descends. He looks at his shoes as the floors slipped by.

On a floor below him, a man is cuffed to a chair. His mind crippled by extreme fatigue, deafening generators and clacking actuator panels. Choking on the damp, greasy air.

A sacrifice, the inquisitor smiles. Nearly ready for the upper level incinerators.

“Influence Level E,” the operator says as they slow.

The elevator doors slide open, and he hears the muffled sound of heavy machinery. A guard sits at attention at a desk.

“Where is the prisoner?” the High Inquisitor says to the Warden, there to greet him, as he steps off of the elevator. He has put down his attaché case, and is removing his tight black kid skin gloves. His eyes are cold and impassive behind the blue lenses.

“Hall five, sir,” the Warden says.

“How long?”

“Eighty hours, sir.”

“Mental state?”

The Warden picks up a clipboard from the guard’s desk, and hands it to the High Inquisitor. It’s the most current assessment. The name on the document is Fernsby, Albert H.

Fernsby the silent, but powerful. Fernsby the key operative. Fernsby, who may hold an inventory of sleeper cells in his head. He is the jewel, the prize.

The Inquisitor reads the data, and cocks an eyebrow.

“He’s a tough one,” he says.

“They all break eventually, sir.” the Warden says. “They’re not like us. They’re weak.”

“Perhaps.”

“You have doubts, sir?” There’s inference in the Warden’s voice. He sounds sly and slightly fanatical. The voice of State sanctioned mob rule.

“If I do, they’re based on experience. How long have you practiced as an Inquisitor, Warden?”

“I never have, sir.” Now the Warden’s face reddens.

“Take a bit of advice then,” the High Inquisitor says, “since you seem to be the zealous type. It’s the zealots that always die first, when the State runs out of the usual victims. Zealots are the easiest to spot in a crowd. They’re prone to dangerous overstatement and they always believe they’re invulnerable.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Best to just concentrate on keeping your buttons shiny. You don’t want to be tied to a chair in Hall 5 one day, do you?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you have cigarettes?”

“They’re forbidden, sir.”

“That wasn’t the question, Warden.”

“No. No cigarettes, sir.”

The Inquisitor drops the clipboard onto the desk. It makes a loud flat sound. The Warden looks down at his wringing hands.

Two guards stand at the door to Hall 5. On it are the words Tertiary Cipher Hall Five. The Inquisitor inserts a key, and enters.

Inside, the noise of switches and gears is deafening. He breaths deeply the foul air. There is row upon row of cipher engines, as far as the eye can see . Cogs and wheels coding and decoding wire transmissions, radio, telephone and electronic dispatches. Two stories high, miles of vacuum tube circuits the cooling systems can never adequately cool. Nothing escapes the wiretaps, screen mesh collectors and massive rotary surveillance discs. Illicit secrets are impossible, all secrets are illicit.

He comes to stand before Fernsby’s slumped body in a metal chair. Fernsby’s a small balding man. Hands cuffed behind him and ankles clamped to chair legs. This is the one for tonight. The High Inquisitor kicks Fernsby in the shin. He stirs. Some have begun to scream and rave by now; others stare at nothing. The ones who stare are usually irretrievable.

But some, like Fernsby, enter an unconscious state, resembling sleep. Despite the roaring noise and disorientation, the thirst and hunger. These had the highest rate of survival, in his estimation. And Fernsby had scored unusually high on the Foster/Ashby Extreme Duress Functioning Evaluation, only two hours earlier.

“A vacant Influence Room?” the Inquisitor says to one of the guards, as he exits the cipher hall.

“Room B, sir.”

“Make the transfer.”

The Inquisitor is in Room B when Fernsby arrives, hauled in in an upright position, feet dragging behind. He’s conscious but very weak, as he’s fixed into a high back chair with restraints. The guards leave, closing the door after them.

The room is small, and the walls are hung with the tackle of torture. A strong beam of light is focussed on Fernsby.

The Inquisitor reads a check list and notices that the junior Inquisitors who conducted early stage interviews neglected the teeth. He surveys the wall and sees a dental drill, and takes comfort in its presence.

“Are you awake?” he says, kicking the Fernsby again.

“Fuck you.”

“I’ll take that to mean yes,” the High Inquisitor says.

Fernsby says nothing.

“May I read you something from The Inquisitors’ Codex?” the High Inquisitor asks, with a book in his hand. “Do you know what a codex is?”

“A book.” Fernsby sounds drunk with torture.

“Interesting. Knowledge of books is a capital offence.”

“Then execute me.”

“No no no,” the inquisitor says, holding an index finger aloft. “Let me read. For it is out of love that you must not accept the ready confession. The easy confession is always a lie, and you must never let a Subject in your care die with a lie upon his lips. Only the confession obtained under the influence of blunt force is an honest confession. Apply this tenet out of love for your Subject, so that he may ascend into splendor.”

“Do you believe that?” Fernsby is looking up now, into the eyes of the High Inquisitor.

“No,” the High Inquisitor says. “It is, itself, a lie.”

“Then why live by it?”

“Because it is a good lie. It is a lie that sustains the Imperial Guilds. It is a lie that, even in the darkest of times, creates truths in its telling.”

“You’re sick,” says Fernsby. “You and the whole Imperial Guild system.”

“So your polemics and rhetoric have indicated,” says the High Inquisitor. “And in no uncertain terms, I’ll add. Tell me, do you and your kind ever simply say what’s on your mind, without puffing out your chests and hammering your fists on something. Surely a valid idea stands on its own without all of that. Or is it that you’re afraid that the square peg of your philosophy might fail to fit the round hole of reality.”

The prisoner slumps in his chair.

The High Inquisitor goes to his attaché case. It lies on a desk. He opens it and takes out a package of heroes and a book of matches.

“Do you smoke?” he asks Fernsby.

Fernsby looks up, and licks his lips.

“Where did you get them?” he asks.

“I’m a High Inquisitor. I can get most anything.” He lights his cigarette, and says, “Would you like one?”

“Yes.”

The Inquisitor lights a second cigarette and holds it for Fernsby to smoke.

“We need you to name names, Mr Fernsby. Accomplices, partners in crime. Why not just talk, so we can get this over with. I can lie, and say I really worked you over. It’s a half truth, anyway. You should see yourself.”

Fernsby coughs on the stale cigarette smoke, and says, “Just kill me. You know that I don’t know any operatives by name. And even if I did, you’ve seen my Foster/Ashby results. You know I won’t break.”

The High Inquisitor pushes a button on an intercom.

“Come in, please,” he says. “Bring a head strap.”

Two guards come through the door.

“Secure his head.”

The Inquisitor takes the dental drill from the wall. He then sits down in a wheeled desk chair and maneuvers in close to Fernsby. He tests the drill, activating it with a foot pedal. Its sound is a high pitched whine, pleasing to the High Inquisitor’s ear.

The two guards use a strap to secure Fernsby’s head to the chair’s head rest, and then force a wooden block into one side of his mouth.

The High Inquisitor pushes the foot pedal two more times for effect, and leaning forward says, “Let’s get started, shall we?”

Frame #17 (November 22, 1912, 8:45pm): Nadia Trimmell and I land in a different frame, after vanishing in front of Chalk’s eyes. He’s probably still standing there, livid at the unfairness of life.

Now we’re on a poorly lit street. I look across and see a man under an awning, attempting to shelter himself from the sheets of torrential rain. He’s tall and gaunt, wearing a sodden trench coat and a pair of blue lensed wire framed glasses. A black car arrives at the curb, the Inquisitor Guild insignia on its doors. The man gets into the back seat, and the car drives away into the night.