lost ironies

© dm gillis and lost ironies, 2012 -2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to dm gillis and lost ironies with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tag: dystopian

thunder moon

the girl clothed in wisteria stands
under the thunder moon with
midnight in her fists
next to the bedroom window
with the single light still on
upon the nightstand Ray Bradbury
page eighty-nine, the
burning of books-—

They say you retain knowledge
even when you’re sleeping,
if someone whispers in your ear

whispers under the July moon
life is obvious she says, but lonely
phases written in hands
dystopias sketched aloud
in tongues

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.©

Lisbon

The only sound on Saturday night. I can hear my wrist watch. She’s in the next room. Sitting on the floor. Her back against the wall. I can hear her heart beat with my stethoscope. I hold it against the peeling wallpaper.

Is she reading or just sitting? Meditating on darkness. Or listening to neutrinos.

It’s midnight. I take notes. Time is everything. Time is the paint on the wall. The dust in the corner. The weight from above. They told me this at the Conservatory. In the Master Class. Before I received my credentials. The power of deceit.

The hotel room telephone rings. I pick up. The receiver’s filthy. The filth of drifters. There’s a dog barking a block away. I see the window’s open. How did that happen?

“Hello?”

“What do you know?”

It’s a stranger’s voice. But I know he’s calling from Central. Asking him to identify himself would be foolish. Against training. No one else knows I’m here. I can hear the keys of a telex machine striking endlessly in the background. Cyphers. Broken codes. Absences of code. Pleas of innocence. Broken bones in sealed rooms.

“She’s sitting still,” I say. “She has been for hours. Her heart is beating. But there’s no activity.”

“We need more than that.”

“That’s all there is.”

The Central stranger goes silent on the line. An ardent pause. The telex machine continues. Memoranda. Surveillances. Realities obliterated.

“Visit her.”

“That’s not my assignment.”

More silence. Then….

“Perhaps your assignment has changed,” says the voice. “Perhaps now you open her door. Make something happen. Accuse her. Take the initiative. Arrest her on a lie. Truth is a luxury we can’t afford, anyway. It’s a flimsy thing. It takes time to descend from on high. Through the atmospheric resistance. To fall upon someone’s desktop. Only to be ruined by more robust falsehoods.”

Now I’m silent. It’s almost poetic. The textbooks were poetic, too. The poetics of indoctrination. Never deviate from the poetry of State.

“You still there?” the stranger says.

“Yes.”

“Time is everything,” he says.

The mantra. The mandatory salute. Demanding a prompt duplicate reply.

“Time is everything,” I say.

There is a click at the end of the line. Central has disengaged. I am alone again. With her in the next room. I check my weapon. It’s unnecessary. She’s alone, defenseless. That’s why I’m here. Central prefers an easy target. Budgets are best met engaging easy targets.

The hallway has been reduced to a narrow trail through decades of refuse. I shine my torch ahead. There are rats here. Brave as agents. Standing on their haunches. Sniffing. They look away and squabble.

Her room is number 607. I try the doorknob. Locked. I knock. Hold my ear to the door. Nothing. I knock again. Ear to the door. Nothing.

“Open, please. It’s Central.”

Nothing.

“I’ll force the door. Please open up.”

Nothing.

I step back and kick. The bottom of my foot. My heel at the bolt. The wood cracks. I kick again and it gives way. Inside it’s dark. The entire city is blacked out. Only my hotel room has electricity and a functioning telephone. Central has arranged it.

I shine my torch in the area I assume she occupies. She’s there, looking at me. Her face is dark and round. Hair black with grey streaks, tied back. Eyes brown. She sits on the floor. Back against the wall. She’s wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

“Identify yourself,” I say.

“You’re just a boy,” she says. “I can tell, even in the dark.”

I’m quiet for a moment in the doorway. Then I repeat myself. “Please identify.”

She takes a hero from a pack and lights it, inhales.

“Smoking is forbidden.”

“So shoot me,” she says. Her accent is difficult to place. Pakistani? “I never thought they’d send a boy. Did they tell you who I am?”

I was briefed before I left Central. Subject is Rachel Kalpar. I watched her smoke. She blows a smoke ring.

“You’re a writer,” I say.

“That what they told you?”

“You have to come with me.” I say. “I have a car on the street.”

She smokes on, and says, “On what grounds?”

I stop. There is no warrant. No judicial order. Paperwork is problematic when denying a person’s existence.

“And where will we go in your car on the street?”

“Central.”

“Bullshit.”

She has a venerable air, even sitting on the floor smoking. She makes Bullshit sound like a hypothesis.

“You don’t even know why you’re here,” she says. “But let me tell you. You’re a recent graduate of the Conservatory. This is your first assignment. They told you to observe and report on a female subject in a derelict hotel room.”

“Yes,” I say, almost involuntarily.

“But then you got a phone call in your room, on one of the only functioning telephones in the city.”

She pauses for emphasis. I say nothing.

“An anonymous caller,” she continues, “from Central. He tells you your mission has changed, and tells you what to do next. So, now you’re here asking me to go with you, but you don’t know where.” She taps cigarette ash onto the floor next to her.

“Don’t you see?” she says. “It’s an initiation. Your assignment will change again before the night is out, perhaps several times. But in the end, we’ll be alone together in an abandoned field on the outskirts of the city where you’ll follow an order inconsistent with your textbook training. You’ll fire a bullet into the general area of my cerebellum, causing fatal brain trauma and hemorrhaging. And in order to confirm you’ve completed the assignment, you’ll do as instructed and remove one of my eyes for later biometric verification. And when it’s done, you’ll be one of them. No escaping.”

“Impossible,” I say, but am suddenly unsure.

“Not impossible. Compliance was encoded into your basal ganglia during your training. And there’s a part of your unconscious that knows it. It will surface eventually and may even drive you mad. That’s a quirk in the encoding process that was put there by the developer, like a computer virus.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m the developer.” She lights another hero.

“Then why…?”

“Because they don’t need me anymore. They never liked me much anyway. I started out believing in pure science. Never interested in commerce or politics. But after the purges, I was one of the only people still alive who could do the neuro-programming. Until now.”

I quietly evaluate. Time is everything. I sense an adrenaline reaction, but can’t trace its cause.

“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” she says, “to die tonight. This confounding itch to live, in spite of everything, it’s exhausting.”

“You’re not going to die tonight,” I say. I still believe it.

She says, “You’ve heard of Lisbon, of course.”

“Lisbon is a myth.” The word alone makes my belly churn. Scripture could be written, but hasn’t. People have disappeared after saying its name.

“That’s what they’ll have told you. But I assure you it’s real. And I guess that’s why they’ve finally tracked me down and sent you.”

“The State would have never allowed it to exist.”

“Don’t be a fool,” she says, smiling. “It belongs to the State, or it did. It’s the State’s delinquent runaway child. The State sponsored it and chose its victims. I wrote it. With two other programmers. We were just teenagers at the time. It was meant to be set loose on the Pious Eastern Bloc. To scuttle their uranium enrichment programs. But after it did, it got into the wild. It mutates flawlessly. It destroys its targets without being detected. And everything is its target. It’s mutating now and beginning to infiltrate pre-digital analogue systems.”

She looks to her left, out of the window, onto the lightless nighttime city.

“You may be old enough to remember when the city was lit up at night,” she says. “Lisbon ended that. Worldwide. No more electrical grids. No more energy extraction or refinement. No distribution networks. No hospitals. No law enforcement. No mass communications. Technology is dead. Lisbon killed it. The virus is so entrenched, so cryptographically perfect, that they can’t find it to quarantine or kill it. It’s woven into the macrocosm. The leaves of trees. Fish in the sea. The clouds. The air we breathe. Put a finger to your throat. Feel the pulse. There it is. That’s the Lisbon virus. Maybe that’s why they call it a myth.”

“You’re wrong,” I say. She has to be.

The phone rings in the adjacent room. My room. The only working telephone for tens of square miles. She pulls on her cigarette and exhales.

“Change of plans,” she says.

I leave her and go to my room. The phone rings like a toothache. I answer.

“Yes?”

“Report.”

It’s the familiar voice of the stranger, calling from Central. The telex machine rattles in the background.

“She’s in her room smoking,” I say.

“Is she compliant?”

“Compliant? In what way? I haven’t asked her to do anything yet.”

There is silence on the line again. The invincible weapon of absolute authority.

“Take her to your car.”

“And…?”

“There will be instructions in the glove box.”

I hesitate, then say, “Does she die tonight?”

“Time is everything.”

I hesitate again. Fully aware that this much hesitation is lethal. No textbook says so. It is never mentioned in a lecture. It is simply assumed. It is supposed. It is resolutely rumoured. One never returns from so much hesitation, to tell his story.

“Time is everything,” I finally reply, expecting to hear the distant click of a receiver returned to its cradle. But I do not. And I dare not ring-off first. Another unwritten rule.

Silence.

“Complete your assignment as instructed,” says the stranger.

Then there is the click of his receiver. I hang up also. And look out of the window at the black void of the city. The window is no longer open. I look around for someone. I hear a footstep in the hall. I run out. There is no one. I go into 607. My eyes take time adjusting to the darkness. I see the red glow at the end of a hero illuminate the area round Rachel Kalpar. It’s amazing how bright.

“Instructions in the glove box?” she says.

“Yes.”

“But now you’re conflicted. You feel almost defiant.”

She’s reading my mind. If what she says is true, then she’s reading her own book.

“We can drive away,” I say. “In the opposite direction. Away from the abandoned field. I don’t need to read the instructions in the glove box.”

I stop for a moment.

“Is that the quirk in the encoding process talking?” I ask. “Or is it me?”

“I hear only you speaking.”

“I feel sick,” I say.

I run out into the hall and vomit. I fall to the floor. I remember convulsions. My teeth grinding. My body tightening into a ball.

When I come to, the lights are on in the hall. They’re blinding. A man in a black suit crouches next to me, checking my pulse. Another shines a penlight into each of my eyes. I reach for my gun. It’s gone.

“Normal,” one of them says. “He’ll survive.”

“That’s a funny way to put it,” says the other, and they both laugh.

“That’s enough,” says Rachel Kalpar, dismissing the two of them. She stands over me, blocking a ceiling light. “You’re a failed experiment,” she says. “A disappointment.”

“I don’t understand,” Is say.

“Understanding’s a luxury,” Kalpar says, and walks away.