Save Me From Eternity

(First published within the anthology “Infinite Dysmorphia” from Kristell Ink)

Nathaniel remembered his birth. It is said that people don’t, and that anyone who says differently has pieced together a false memory from dream and story… but Nathaniel remembered his. He remembered it because he was forty-six at the time, and had just woken up after a serious car accident. After the chaos and agony of his death he found himself in what he would later describe as a vast expanse of bugger-all, wondering where the hell he was and what was coming next. Adrift, afraid, completely alone, he could do nothing but linger, suspended in the nothing for long enough to fear he would never leave. To fear that an eternity of lonely existence was to be his fate. There had been no way to tell exactly how long that was, but had someone later insisted that it had been an instant, or a decade, he would have believed either without question.

As he was to learn later, time was an entirely different concept for one who was brought back. The same could be said for memory.

Though his recall of his life and all events since his rebirth were essentially perfect, there were gaps. Gaps made all the more apparent for how well he remembered everything else. He knew that his death had been painful. He remembered shrieking as the sinewy limb of a tree punched through his windscreen and then his chest, pinning him to his chair. He remembered watching in stunned fascination as blood spurted from the tears in his body, and he remembered another pain, deeper and more personal, as his head rolled to the side and he looked into the passenger seat. And yet, whenever he tried to recall why, whenever he demanded that the systems which granted him such clarity showed him what he had seen, he immediately found himself thinking of something else.

That was where the memory ended. The next thing he recalled was when the paramedics wheeled him away and he caught a glimpse of the wreckage. It was no surprise that the crash had ended his life. His car looked like the Kraken had used it as a Fleshlight.

He later found out that a tree branch had fallen into the road, too fast and too close to be avoided. His car had hit it at seventy miles per hour and driven it, tumbling, into a ditch at the side of the road until a granite wall brought it to a stop.

Fate had afforded him a modicum of vengeance though. The branch also pierced the fuel tank, and the entire tree had burned right along with him.

To find such a gap in his memory was perplexing, as he knew that what he referred to as his memory was nothing of the sort. Rather, everything he knew was stored in a series of drives that housed a vast amount of information, with more than enough spare capacity to file away everything he was ever likely to learn. As far as he understood, a gap should have been all but impossible, but in truth it was a minor annoyance. There was something else missing from his life which was of far greater concern.

As Nathaniel stood and pondered the aching gap in his world, the single door at the far end of his room slid open. A softly humming servo in his neck purred into life as he turned to face his visitor, every detail of her face picked out in glorious HD. He was torn from his examination by a polite, but pointed cough. By his count, which was impeccable, he had been staring at her for a full twelve seconds. Now that he came to look, taking her in as a whole, it became clear that she had something pressing to discuss. She was nervous, struggling to look directly at him, fiddling with something in her pocket that he couldn’t see, but which looked the approximate size and shape of a mobile phone. Not the time to tell her he had been ignoring her, fascinated by the gyrations of a demodex colony in the lashes of her left eyelid.

“Good morning, Nathaniel,” she said, unable to hide the nerves from her voice. “How are you doing today?”

She was agitated. Heart rate elevated, perspiration gathering, all signs pointing to the fact she was there to do a job she’d rather not be doing. He sympathised in his way, being both an individual and someone’s property himself. He knew what it was to feel like the meat in an asshole sandwich. Under ordinary circumstances he would have had more time for her concerns, but today he had problems of his own.

“I’ve been better,” he said, turning away and striding across the room. His feet, three-toed and over a foot long each, clacked across the tiles as he moved, carrying him rapidly to the table beside his charging station. Knick-knacks clattered over to the table top as he rooted through them, searching for the source of his discontent. He swore quietly to himself when what he was looking for failed to present itself. Irritated and oblivious to his visitor’s growing discomfort, his elongated head swept on its axis until it was facing backwards, like that of some mechanical hybrid of crane and owl. The speaker set into his throat clicked his annoyance as he spotted his prize on a shelf on the other side of the room. Not where he remembered putting it.

“Someone has been in here,” he said, bearing down on it, body rotating in sections as he moved until he was facing entirely the right direction. His right hand, an exaggerated appendage of woven carbon fibre and smooth hydraulics, snatched up a picture frame and brandished it accusingly, tapping the surface with the pad of his index finger. “If people are going to tidy my things I want them put back where I left them! Do you know how unsettling it is when your things keep popping up in any old place?”

“I can’t imagine,” she said, noticeably flinching as he took a step towards her. “I’ll bring it up with the cleaners if you like.”

Nathaniel glared, the feather-like sections of his irises slicing together. His visitor swallowed drily as he looked at her, and he knew he had gone too far. Though he had every right to be upset, he knew better than to take it out on someone else, and he told her so.

“I’m sorry Suzanne,” he said, shaking his head and tipping it downwards, allowing the pistons that formed his avian legs to sag under his weight. He softened his voice, choosing one from his database that he had always found soothing in difficult times. “Sure hope you can forgive me.”

His voice was soft but deep. Purest auditory velvet. Her tired smile let him know that it had helped defuse the tension. She loved it when he did impressions.

“I know that one… Frank something? Sinatra?”

He attempted a smile of his own but his form, while advanced, had its limitations. The chassis that housed his mind had been designed to explore the bottom of the ocean, where no human would see it and the fish were so ugly they had no right to criticise. Its face was rudimentary and barely human, making its expressions quite alarming.

“Close… It’s Dean Martin. Listen.”

Her smile widened as he sang a few lines of ‘Little ole wine drinker, me.’ His rendition was perfect, and it should have been. It was exactly as the man had sung it in London in nineteen eighty three, only filtered and warmed up to make up for the limitations of the original recording. It sounded exactly as it would have had Dino been stood right in front of her, had he ever performed in a room as white as a doctor’s surgery.

“That was beautiful,” she said, genuine regret in her tone as she interrupted. “But I am here for a reason.”

“Of course,” Dino said, his tone fading into the less interesting nuances of Nathaniel’s own voice – a bland, native English with a vague twist of West Country. “So who’s trying to have me turned off this time? It’s not those Westborough tossers; they’re pretending I don’t exist again.”

That earned a real smile and a barely contained laugh that erupted as a snort. Nathaniel, a gay man as well as one of the implanted, had been the subject of many a placard at their rallies. It had been a combination of policy and best practice that the newly transferred were kept at the facility for several months after arrival, and it had taken less than a week for the first lurid signs to appear outside their American offices. Just long enough for them to sharpen their crayons.

“No it’s definitely not them, there’s just somebody I would like you to meet, if you feel up to it. Her name is Doctor Scheving. She would like to talk about Eric.”

The change that came over Nathaniel was immediate. His irises slashed open and he rose up to his full height, well over three metres, poised and tense as he nodded. His grip on the framed photograph tightened, eliciting a squeaking whine from its Perspex glazing.

As she went to open the door he hurried himself about the room, striding to a filing cabinet he’d been using in preparation for this very moment. By the time Suzanne returned he had an armful of files, carefully collated, tabbed with delicately placed slips of coloured tape.

The woman who accompanied Suzanne back into the room was many years her senior, carrying herself with the quiet assurance of one who had every confidence in her abilities. While Suzanne was in her early thirties, with auburn hair scraped into an Essex facelift, Doctor Scheving was pushing sixty, her once-blonde hair giving way to streaks of ethereal silver.

As he reached out to shake the doctor’s hand, Nathaniel lost his grip on his files and one of them fell to the floor, spilling its contents. Cursing to himself, he gifted his visitor the sight of a powerful cybernetic organism, stooping to the ground and hurriedly gathering up the scattered documents, annoyed with himself and desperate that none of them were presented out of place. He had put a lot of effort into them after all, and disorder would not do.

“There we are,” he said, rising to his feet with the files more carefully gripped, buckling in fact under the pressure from his fingertips. “Sorry about that, doctor. I blame it on my age.”

Doctor Scheving’s expression was warm, lined by her years and a lifetime of smiling. “You have my sympathies there, Mr Harrison. Time is a fickle friend.”

“Please, call me Nathaniel.” He shook her hand carefully and gestured towards a small sitting area with a round, steel table. “Would you like to sit with me?”

As Suzanne and the doctor took their seats, Nathaniel set about laying out his case. Each of his three files were stamped with the dates covered by their contents, all full to the brim with photographs and printed sheets of A4, meticulously organised. From the third he slipped a sheaf of papers that he had stapled together and placed it in front of Doctor Scheving, turning it when he realised he had placed it upside-down.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to share,” he said, turning to Suzanne. “I only have the one copy.”

Doctor Scheving nodded and picked up the document, briefly flicking through the top few sheets, pausing to scan-read one before placing it back on the table.

“Thank you, Nathaniel. Could you explain to me what this is?”

“Of course,” he said, flashing a Jack-O’-Lantern smile. “This is a brief summary of my findings. You see I last saw Eric the morning of my accident, but not since. He hasn’t been to visit me and it’s just not like him. It’s been almost a month.”

Suzanne turned to the doctor and was about to speak when Scheving briefly shook her head, silencing her.

“We have discussed this – Miss Cartwright tells me that nothing new has come to light,. By the size of your files I can assume that you have been more successful?”

Nathaniel nodded, flicking open the top sheet. “My resources are almost unlimited, but it has still been very difficult. This is a summary of my findings, starting with a possible sighting on the London underground. I…” he paused for a moment, attempting perhaps to look a little sheepish. “I shouldn’t really have been able to look through their CCTV feeds, but you have to understand, I’ve been so worried… Following information for me is like you peeking in a window, only I don’t forget what I see. My memory is a series of enormous solid-state drives you see, so I couldn’t really help making a copy.”

“He really can’t,” Miss Cartwright added. “And nobody can make him. Legally nobody can tamper with his memory unless he gave permission, which I believe Nathaniel never would.”

“Would you?” Nathaniel’s interruption was emphatic, close to rude in its sharpness. “I mean, what are we if not our memories? If someone else got to decide what I was and was not allowed to remember… I’m sure you understand.”

Scheving’s smile was a reassuring thing, worn comfortably. “I understand that perfectly. In fact, before your creation I sat on an ethical panel that helped clarify the legal situation of the implanted. And don’t look like you’re going to apologise for not knowing that, Miss Cartwright. It was before your creation too. Now, Nathaniel. Why don’t you show me what you’ve found?”

Miss Cartwright and the doctor sat in interested silence as Nathaniel detailed the summary for them, reaching into files every now and then to show his supporting evidence, calling up vignettes taken from video feeds around the world and displaying them on his monitors. Here a photograph from a bus station, there a transcript of an eavesdropped conversation where a man by the name of Eric was mentioned as having left the country. Piece by piece he made his case, seemingly oblivious to how many laws he had broken in the gathering of information he quite clearly had not obtained by legitimate means. Once done with the photographic evidence of men who, Miss Cartwright had to admit, did closely resemble Eric, Nathaniel moved into more tangential territory.

“I’m sorry,” Doctor Scheving said, passing a piece of paper to Miss Cartwright and getting a raised eyebrow in return. “What exactly are we looking at here?”

“That is… Ah. I’m sorry, it’s a bit out there I admit, but it’s… Look, it occurred to me that people have habits, so I collated everything I know about Eric, from his taste in food, places he shopped … If you put them all together-”

“You get a profile.”

He nodded enthusiastically at the doctor, but Miss Cartwright was quick to cut them off.

“And this next sheet is a list of credit card transactions lifted from the systems of a major bank. Nathaniel… Do you know how much trouble you could get into for that?”

“I had to know.”

Both women threw their hands over their ears as he bellowed, speakers hidden around the room howling with feedback. Oblivious to their pain, he stamped over to the table, all considerations of order forgotten as he tore open the files and grabbed at pieces of paper, brandishing them before their eyes. Miss Cartwright flinched backwards and her hand shot back into her pocket, but Doctor Scheving remained calm, shaking her head at her companion.

“It’s all here,” he said, shaking the papers until they began to tear around his fingertips. “Why won’t any of you listen?”

Miss Cartwright was in awe of the doctor as she held up her hands and stood, slowly rising to her feet beneath the cyborg’s unflinching glare.

“I hear you Nathaniel and I want to help, but I am feeling intimidated and I am going to have to ask you to take a moment to calm yourself.”

Nathaniel paused for a long while, freezing as only a mechanical person could.

“I’m sorry,” he said, lowering the papers and placing them back on the table. Right before their eyes he seemed to sag, folding in on himself to the limits his mechanical frame would allow. His eyes, so recently fixed and certain, began to wander, darting from place to place. Gradually they found their way to the folder in his hands, crumpled and careworn, looking at it as though he had never seen it before.

“I want him back,” he whispered, head twitching gently. “I’m… I’m so alone.”

He froze again, only this time his pause was accompanied by the whirring of fans set deep inside his torso – fans that served to cool his processors when they were under heavy strain. On the surface nothing was happening, but inside, behind the high definition cameras that had replaced his eyes, deep in the darkness that housed whatever it was that was still Nathaniel, a memory began to surface. The pain was there again, the physical kind, dragged from the depths as his final moments were played out for him once more. He recalled the pain and he remembered fear – not the fear for one’s self, but for something far more important. The fear for someone he loved.

This time, when he turned his head, the memory did not fade. This time, for the first time he could remember, Nathaniel saw.

“He’s… He’s gone. Isn’t he?”

Miss Cartwright kept her own counsel. She had agreed that her guest would take the lead in their meeting while she observed. Observed, and kept one hand close to the device in her pocket.

“Yes,” Scheving said, taking Nathaniel’s hand in her own, gently stroking it with her fingertips. “I’m afraid so. Are you starting to remember?”

Nathaniel nodded, eyes flickering. The memory was painful, the worst memory of all, but he forced himself to look. There he found the truth, but little comfort, save the concern he saw looking back at him through eyes blue as sapphire. “He was in the car with me… Wasn’t he? He was hurt.”

Unbidden, a small hatch slid open on his chest and he reached inside, extracting a tattered piece of paper that was yellowing with age. As Nathaniel held it up, the dull outline of a signature could be seen. He stared at it for over a minute, unable to reconcile what he was seeing with what he remembered. Different versions of events collided within him, impossible to reconcile with the infallibility of his new form. Only it wasn’t new… He knew that now. One glance at the paper in his hand told him it could not have been mere weeks, or even months since his arrival. He stopped himself from making an estimate. His systems were sophisticated enough to feel, and his head was beginning to ache.

“This was the last thing he ever wrote…”

His voice was soft now – the whisper of a gentle breeze, barely audible, even in a quiet room. As he read the signature over and over, caressing every line and loop with his eyes, his mouth began to tremble, heralding tears that would never come.

“The records tell me that he passed away minutes after signing that form,” Scheving said. ”He used the last moments of his life to make sure you would have a fighting chance.”

Nathaniel nodded, stashing the slip of paper back into his chest and flicking the door closed. Memories were flooding back now, taunting him with their sudden clarity. As relieving as it was to find the truth, he already missed the bliss of ignorance. Now he remembered the moment he had found out that Eric had passed away, feeling the burn of its injustice all over again. Nathaniel had been driving and he had turned the car away as well as he could, taking the brunt of the collision on his own side, instinctively protecting his passenger. It had almost worked, and while the driver’s side had crumpled, trapping Nathaniel’s legs, Eric had received nothing more than a crack to the skull. It was Eric who had fought his way through the heat to reach him. It was Eric whose strong hands had bend the wreckage out of the way, hauling his husband, or what was left of him, out of harm’s way. Sure, Eric had been burned, but by comparison he had emerged unscathed. Were it not for a congenital weakness, a thinning of blood vessel walls, he would still be alive.

“I survived all that,” Nathaniel whispered, looking down at his hands, his memory laying scorched flesh over them. “He died of a bump. A fucking bump. How is any of that fair?”

Scheving shook her head, blinking away a sympathetic tear. “It isn’t, but as legacies go, saving the person you love is one of the better ones. I know that can’t be much comfort but it shows how he loved you.”

“And I’ll never forget him…”

He drifted then, seemingly lost in his thoughts as he stalked away. Scheving and Cartwright watched him for a while. When they tried to talk to him again he didn’t seem to hear, even when he returned to the table to retrieve his files. They watched as his nimble fingers sorted through them, returning everything to its proper place and glancing hurriedly at the summary he had written. When it became clear that he had said all that he would for the moment they said their goodbyes to his back and quietly left the room, leaving him to his work. He had turned away, leaving the files on the table. Without a word, Miss Cartwright swept them up and took them with her.

Nothing was said as they made for Miss Cartwright’s office. They were each deep in their own thoughts. Once they were seated on opposite sides of a desk, door closed, a fresh cup of coffee in their hands, Miss Cartwright let out a sigh and turned on her computer. With the press of a few buttons the room’s only door rippled with light distortion and let out a low whine. The same void shielding was used on Earth’s fleet of starships, Doctor Scheving knew, forming a sound-proof barrier around the reactor rooms. While the shield was activated there would be no interruptions, and there was not a device anywhere in the world or beyond that could transmit what was said.

“Before we begin, a question,” Scheving said, taking a much-needed sip of hot caffeine. “Suzanne?”

Having pre-empted the question, Miss Cartwright turned her desk monitor to the case file she had opened. “Nathaniel’s original attendant, back when we still carried out the implantation procedures here. This facility was chosen because of its familiarity to our service users. As it happens, this is where Nathaniel was brought after his accident.”

“I see. She looks-”

“Like me, I know. My grandmother. When Nathaniel’s reversion began it was felt that my appearance might calm him, make it easier to study what was happening.”

“I see. Did it work? The file I was sent didn’t give such details.”

Miss Cartwright sighed. “Not like we hoped. He seems calmer around me, perhaps because I’m familiar, but in the end all we gained was a time loop a little larger than average. How long it will persist is anyone’s guess. At the moment he has around twenty-four hours left to his own devices, less if he’s confronted with the truth. When that happens he loops back around and it starts again. Fighting his memories, searching for Eric, passing over information that doesn’t fit where and when he thinks he is. He has the entire internet at his disposal but he simply can’t see anything that contradicts his window on the world. We’re lucky he has a predictable reset time or we’d never be able to clear the room. If we forget anything, well… I’m afraid you know how that goes.”

This time it was Scheving who sighed, reaching into her pocket for a personal communication device. She swiped through the file containing her orders, scan reading.

“I’m afraid so. Three people dead, Miss Cartwright. You have my condolences.”

The silence between them spread out over almost a minute as Miss Cartwright pinched her nose, screwing her eyes shut to fight back the tears. The facility was large but sparsely populated, with many systems automated and the rest maintained by a small team of specialists. Their charges did not eat, did not sleep and took all they needed from the facility’s integrated systems. Void shields made even guards unnecessary, so all those who worked there were passing acquaintances at the very least. Miss Cartwright had shared a meal with all three of the deceased on more than one occasion. The pain of their loss was personal.

“Nobody here blames him,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “Nathaniel is a sweet, devoted man, everyone can see that. He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody and when he realised he had he fell apart and we had to sedate him with an EMP. I always hated that they kitted every room out with one, but if they hadn’t…”

She took the hated control device from her pocket and tossed it onto her desk.

“When we brought him here we hoped we’d be able to help, but all we can do for now is contain him, pending your recommendation.”

Doctor Scheving nodded, deferring once again to her orders. Hers was a fact-finding mission, brought about by the incident. Implantation technology was not new and had been an important part of mankind’s progression beyond the confines of its native solar system, and an inspection of this sort had not been ordered lightly.

“Show me the others.”

The room was not large and was almost completely undecorated, save for a wall hanging displaying the white silhouette of a kestrel on a field of black, dotted with silver stars – the crest of Cartwright’s alma mater. The rest of the wall space was a mosaic of view screens which flickered into life, each displaying a room identical to the one which Nathaniel called home, each containing a single occupant. Most of the others were of basically normal human proportions, each caught in their own loop in time, reliving the same moments over and over.

Scheving’s attention was drawn to only two – those for whom those loops had closed to little more than an instant. One was sitting down, twitching momentarily as though about to stand up, then relaxing as the thought slipped away from them. The other was stood in the corner of the room, a knitted scarf looped around their neck, convulsing as though crying, their face pressed into the palms of their hands.

“At first we thought that the technology was to blame,” Cartwright said. “But no matter what we’ve tried the result seems to be the same. It’s the mind itself.”

“You’re sure?”

“As we can be. One of our researchers was dying of lung cancer and implanted herself into a neural net whose occupant had faded to nothing. The procedure was a complete success and if we didn’t know better you’d think there was never a problem. Whatever it is, it isn’t physical. It’s like… This is pure speculation of course, but it’s as though the mind rejects immortality.”

“Rejects it?”

“That’s how it seems to me.” She fell silent for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She had never put pen to paper on the subject in any official capacity, but for once she was in the presence of someone who just might understand. “Look, the human mind is born in flesh and lives its life that way, knowing that one day it will grow old, or ill, and fail. Knowing there’s an end out there is what people need to make them get up in the morning. I honestly believe that staring down eternity is bad for us. Have time to climb Everest once, and you just might do it. Have so much time to climb it that the numbers become meaningless, well, then you’ll probably never climb it at all. I believe that the trouble we’re having is that the mind knows it’s mortal, and nothing the body says can convince it otherwise.”

Doctor Scheving mulled over the concept. She had been an expert in her field for many years, though her access to subjects such as Nathaniel had been limited by Cartwright’s employers. She had entertained a similar theory but had never been granted access for research. It was only once their own expert had found herself in the firing line that they had called for outside assistance, with a fat pay cheque and iron-clad gagging order into the bargain.

“It’s an intriguing idea, but I’m afraid that will have to wait. Your colleagues understand the situation your charges are in, but I’m afraid their families do not. Hence my being here. I wish I could tell you they were seeking assurances, but my impression is that this is very much a cover your ass situation.”

Cartwright nodded. She could understand the position the families would be in, knowing only what they had to know, but knowing most of all that people they loved would never be coming home. They would want to know how this had been allowed to happen. They would want to know why an implanted human suffering such a break with reality had been permitted to retain its powerful cybernetic body, either not understanding or not able to care that their physical autonomy was still a legally and ethically protected concept. They would not care that no implanted human had ever lashed out at anybody before. They would only care that it had happened now.

“Our next visitors will be lawyers, then,” she said.

Scheving nodded. “For what it’s worth the family isn’t seeking compensation, beyond assurances of pension and that sort of thing. When the public gets wind of the case it will erode the trust between us and them, and especially with the implanted. People will be afraid of them.”

Miss Cartwright snorted her derision.

“Because they’re ignorant. That’s what takes a person who needs help and turns them into some monster. All those fucking movies about schizophrenia and split personalities…”

“Not to mention killer robots. I’ll be honest with you, my report will state that this was an isolated incident and recommend a review of your approaches to treatment and staffing. The situation is unprecedented but there are those who did predict a loss of quote-unquote human life to a cybernetic aggressor. At a minimum, I believe they will be looking for a scapegoat. I doubt the hands on their purse strings will allow anything less.”

Many things had changed in the years since Miss Cartwright’s grandmother had retired, but there were some factors in business that were ever the same. Sooner or later all the recommendations and expert opinions in the world could be swept away by the person who wrote the cheques. Facilities such as this one were hugely expensive and an investor didn’t have to actually demand anything. At the slightest suggestion that their funds might be more secure in another location, a stampede would start. It would be Nathaniel and the others who suffered, but the money would be alright. That was what counted. Apparently.

“So I should make sure my sword is nice and sharp for when I’m asked to fall on it?”

The question was so clearly rhetorical that Scheving didn’t bother to answer it. “If I hear anything I promise to try and let you know. If I can save you from any nasty surprises, I will.”

Miss Cartwright smiled. It was a pained expression, but the gratitude behind it was genuine. “That’s good of you. I’d like a favour though, if you can swing it. If I do go they’ll need a new expert, and I’d like you to make sure that whoever takes over won’t come in here with the wrong idea. You might actually have some say in that, given your background. Most people see machines… Clever and complicated machines, but still machines. We both know they’re still people.”

“I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately…”

Doctor Scheving had left her suitcase in the office for the meeting with Nathaniel, but she reached for it now. It clicked open as a retinal scanner confirmed her identity and she took out a folded newspaper – an early edition that would be available in stands all over the world and beyond within a few hours. The headline was the sucker-punch that heralded a torrent of lies – lies that would resonate and shift copy. ‘RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINES.’

Original… No. but effective.

Miss Cartwright groaned as she took the paper, flicking through the front page and seeing everything she had hoped would never get out. What was known went far beyond just the deaths of her staff and the information that had been made available to their families. It also referenced Nathaniel’s personal history, from the initial report of his death to allusions to his senility. Papers such as this one had railed against the implantation procedure from the very beginning, and they’d had a field day with any little bit of information they could find. Now, someone from inside the organisation had blabbed. There was no other explanation for the things they knew.

“It says the story continues on pages three to six. Do I want to know?”

“Well page three tells you what Cynthia, nineteen, from Dulwich, thinks. I was impressed to see her talking existentialism while massaging oil into her cleavage. Other than that I wouldn’t upset yourself, but I’ll give you a potted version.” Scheving took the paper back, tossing it into the bin where she felt it belonged. “Some clever bastard decided to itemise a year’s running costs for someone like Nathaniel. They’ve listed it in sterling, Euros and dollars with a helpful breakdown of how many NHS hospitals, nurses, school teachers and bottles of cancer drugs for little kiddies it would buy.”

Cartwright rolled her eyes. “Ouch… That’s low.”

“And effective, proving that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar and a lot more with bullshit. In PR terms you are, to put it mildly, screwed.”
They stood and shook hands, looking each other straight in the eye as Scheving went on.

“I will do everything I can to make sure they are cared for appropriately. A representative will be in touch. For what it’s worth I am sorry, Miss Cartwright… I’m sorry for us all.”

Scheving saw herself out, pausing only for the void shield to deactivate. Had she wanted to, Miss Cartwright could have tracked her progress from the door to the exit, tracking her with the camera systems and weapons emplacements that rendered formal guard personnel unnecessary. For a moment, a fleeting thing forged in the heat of a defiant heart, her eyes lingered over the manual control system that would allow her to take over the security grid. Losing her job was one thing, but it wasn’t what she feared. With a little careful politicking she would be blamed, shifted sideways, officially held responsible and moved to another facility, but what of Nathaniel? As her charges went, though he may have been the one to raise his hand and do harm, he at least retained much of the person he had been. There were others, nothing more than victims to the passage of time and the nature of the human mind, for whom so much more had been lost. There were those to whom the implanted were affronts to decency – abominations regardless of demeanour. Should they be the ones to win out, was her place here, mounting a defence of those in her care? If not her, was there anyone else who would fight to keep them safe?

She let out a sigh, a slow rasp through her teeth as she abandoned the notion. Whatever the best way forward was, it was not at the end of a gun. It could never be that.

With a wave of her hand she switched the monitors back on, surrounding herself with her charges. Loosening her tie, she reached into her desk drawer and took out a small bottle of whisky – a particularly fine brand from Scotland, gifted to her at the very beginning of her career. The woman who had given it to her was gone now, one whose mind had failed to the point that no neural activity could be detected, in spite of her perfectly functioning circuity. She had been a writer for a prestigious lifestyle magazine and had lived long enough to see the birth of her grandchildren, thanks to Miss Cartwright and her team. She had survived only a few days, with her death being put down to a framework malfunction. Now of course, with the benefit of hindsight, she presumed she had known her end was in sight. All she had wanted to do was live long enough, and she had. What more could anybody ask for?

The room’s lights dimmed at her instruction, leaving her bathed in the glow of the view screens alone. She raised the bottle to her nose, taking a deep breath of its exquisite scent. It promised to be every bit as good as her patient had assured her it would be. She had been saving it for a special occasion, but who knew if an occasion good enough was ever going to come? In the end, a wake would just have to do.

“Your health,” she said, raising the bottle in the air before moving it to her lips, looking to her charges one by one. She lingered on the sight of Nathaniel, sat perfectly still in the corner of his room. “And God help you all.”

Going live, in five…

Sloppy Joes again. Sloppy seconds, Tayrin thought, as a heaped spoonful of the stuff pattered into her tray. She’d been younger the first time she’d heard it called that, hadn’t spent as much time around the locker-room drawl of her fellow soldiers. These days she eyed the greasy-white film that pooled around the heap that was her lunch with greater suspicion. It would still be there when her tray went back on the rack.

‘Look alive, Instruments! Fifteen minutes until broadcast!’

The speaker above her head was broken. It shrieked unpleasantly as its transmissions began and ended, and Tayrin’s head was already aching thanks to a run-in with a concussion round barely a few hours before. The cast steel of the bulkhead she had been sheltering behind had rung like a bell, shaking her in her boots and damn near leaving her standing in cover when the next advance came. She did not know who saved her. There had been only a blurred glimpse of a face, further warped out of proportion by their helmet visor, and they were gone. The burst of gunfire that had killed them obliterated the embroidered ID patch they all wore on one side of their chests. There was little sense in asking around, looking for their friends so she could offer her condolences.

Block D wasn’t the sort of place where lasting relationships were forged, because Block D wasn’t the sort of place where people lasted.

‘Meat blobs in goop,’ came a voice by her elbow. ‘Mmm-mmm, just like my nan used to make.’

‘That so?’ Tayrin said, examining her own meal as it oozed slug-like across her. ‘Didn’t she like you?’

Her fellow Instrument grinned and reached out with his foot, pushing a free chair over so she could sit down. He was typical of the block. Male, mid-twenties, biceps like coconuts and a skull to match. His cockiness said that he hadn’t been there long. That meant they thought they knew what it was all about, just as the briefing they all received on the way in told them. A shot at redemption, huge risks for great rewards, and a future that did not involve rotting away in a prison cell on some God-forsaken asteroid. The truth was different, Tayrin knew. He would soon find that out, or he would soon die. He would more than likely do both.

Still, so far Tayrin’s week had been long on pain and short on conversation, so she took the seat. After all, someone needed to tell him that swagger was going to get him killed. Might as well be her.

‘You misunderstand,’ he went on, pushing his food into something resembling a sweaty, greyish sandcastle with his fork. ‘My nana used to make this stuff for her cats. Us kids we got to raid the packet cupboard for crisps and chocolate, juice boxes, all that good stuff, but those damn cats got three square meals a day, all home cooked with love, and us? We got-‘

‘Cavities,’ Tayrin finished, shaking her head mournfully. ‘What a world.’

He smiled. The badge on the left-hand side of his tan T-shirt identified him as A. Zolan. ‘Anthony,’ he said, catching the flick of her eyes as she read his name tag. ‘And you are…’

Tayrin sighed and dropped her fork. ‘Not hungry enough for this shit. Tayrin Yost. Third-year.’

There was a look of wide-eyed surprise, followed by a long blink as though he was resetting his brain. ‘Whoa, OK… I’ve heard of you guys, just didn’t think I’d meet one so soon.’

‘Not something we advertise,’ she said. ‘Tend to get a lot of firsties hanging off you like ticks, hoping you’ll keep their dumb asses alive.’

‘Hey,’ he said, holding his hands open defensively. ‘Not me, just a little honoured is all. You hear stories about the ones that last into years but you don’t expect to walk in and meet one on your first day.’

Tayrin nodded firmly, but she also smiled. ‘Oh no, not you,’ she said. ‘No you’re the go-it-alone, keep on smiling type, right? You’d never go after a third year like a lost puppy, or, say… Start a convo with a girl over lunch, pump up the biceps and switch on the charm.’

‘Now wait a minute-‘

‘Please,’ she went on, silencing him with a wave. ‘Three years isn’t that long, I remember the type. Dark days, lonely nights, let’s help each other through this trying time with a snuggle, a smile, and a ride on Tony’s magic knob. Sound about right?’

He shook his head firmly, but blushed in every shade of yes.

‘Confident is good,’ she said. ‘Cocky is bad, and arrogance will kill you so quick they’ll have to weigh down your coffin to stop it spinning. Don’t be embarrassed. We all think we’re hot shit when we first get here, but I sat down to talk because you were cocky. Not because I want your cock.’

‘Damn it,’ he said, managing to smile through his embarrassment. ‘Just one letter out.’

In his brown eyes there was a hint he hadn’t accepted defeat. The tiniest, twinkling ember of hope. With a gentle sigh and a winning smile, she crushed it beneath her heel.

‘One letter, and a hundred miles, so unless you’ve got a magic lamp for a cock, I’m not going to rub it for you. Now eat up. You’re going to be needing your strength.’

‘Hey gang, how about those delicious Joes? Today’s meals are sponsored by Big Beefy’s House of Mince! Bulk beef direct to your door! Chow down, Instruments! Ten minutes until broadcast!’

‘That get any less irritating?’ Tony said, waving in the general direction of the ceiling with his fork as the speakers howled and fell silent.

Tayrin sat back and closed her eyes, relishing a break from the harsh white of the strip lighting. ‘What do you think?’

The room rattled as those who had not started eating got on with it, some finding the meal all the more palatable for the knowledge it could be their last. Others less so. As Anthony tucked into his with almost childish enthusiasm Tayrin took a couple of mouthfuls of meat and left the rest, careful to make sure she got as little of the semi-congealed fat as possible. In ten minutes she could be on her way back out of the block and into the next fight, and there were few things that could slow you down like a stomach full of grease.

Block D could well kill her in the end. If it did, she was determined not to be shitting her pants in a corner at the time.

After what little of her meal she was willing to entertain there was nothing much to do but wait for the PA system to read them their fortunes. Fortunes which, it had to be said, had been dwindling of late. Take the last broadcast, for instance. For all appearances it had been nothing out of the ordinary. The government of some small planetoid had opened a contract to supply air recycling units to tender, and rival corporations had entered their bids. Five remained after the initial round of rejections and in time-honoured fashion they began hacking away at their margins until only two remained, no doubt offsetting the drop in profits against employee pay and safe working conditions. Good old fashioned capitalism – efficient, brutal, and completely legal. God bless the colonies, etc. Eventually one outbid the other by close to three percent, but for reasons that were not immediately apparent, the other won the tender anyway.

That was where the blocks came in.

In case of such a dispute, companies were required to allow for a combat margin as a part of their bid, and to the victor’s employer went the spoils. When the various teams of lawyers and negotiators could not reach a settlement they turned to the second oldest profession, and so two or more factions of “Instruments” prepared for war by proxy. Tayrin had found herself hired by the smaller of the two companies and served in a brutal five-hour close-combat scenario charging through an abandoned petrochemical factory, her allies marked by the glowing red light on their left wrist, the enemy conspicuous by their blue.

The objective, chosen at random by the agency computer, was to capture the flag from the enemy base and return to your own with it. Once placed into its corresponding socket the scenario ended and the winner was pronounced. Though injured and head-spun, it had been Tayrin who drove the damned thing home and earned herself another reprieve and another plate of hot, steaming swill. By her count that was her forty-somethingth such mission, the eleventh where she had been the one to carry her team over the finish line, but in terms of human cost it was among the winners. Teams were typically ten strong, but there had been eighteen red lights at her side when the klaxons sounded, and at least as many blues across the field. That meant around forty armed Instruments crammed into a warspace built for twenty. That meant every foxhole, every corner, every piece of cover was contested and left people who were on the same team clambering over each other to keep out of the firing line. Such a run into occupied cover was precisely how Tayrin had ended up caught in the open, and why she had almost been killed.

She was long past counting her kills with each battle or keeping an overall total, but a conservative estimate put her into the double figures in that battle alone, allowing for those taken out of sight by grenades and long-distance suppression fire. When she dragged her exhausted self from the field and into the triage allocated to her team, there were only three others present. That made at least twenty-five dead in a game designed for two teams of ten.

Somebody somewhere had paid to see a meat grinder and it had almost cost Tayrin her life, and she liked living. In the blocks you couldn’t hold on to your life for very long if you didn’t feel significantly attached to it, and as it turned out few of those thrown into the machine clung to theirs as ardently as Tayrin did to hers.

On a lighter note, it made for a change of scenery. Everywhere she looked there were new faces, new voices, a few heavily scarred and tattooed bodies who were either transfers from other blocks or looked to have seen action elsewhere. Many were Anthony’s equal for cockiness, but here and there she saw the quieter confidence of experience. The lions prowling in the long grass.

Though the din was too great for her to hear clearly what anyone was saying she could see in their manner that so many legends of the block were in the making that day. Men with arms as thick as legs were arm-wrestling each other, the raconteurs among them had their feet up and their hands folded behind their heads as they bragged about the deeds and misdeeds that had brought them to D Block, and what they were going to do once they got out. She had seen their type before, and once she might have even been one of those who sat in rapt concentration listening to the glories to come and hoping they’d be there to see them. Tayrin had followed men like that, but not many, and never for long. Only an idiot would see the same kind of man torn apart over and over again and keep trying to ride their coattails into oblivion. There were always men like that, and they were always men.

Well, more or less, she thought, as there had been plenty of women cut from the same arrogant cloth. They just found it a lot harder to gather a following.

Still, people like that were good for the system, and on the rare occasion one of them lived up to even half of their bravado they could become superstars. That kept their lucky followers alive a little longer and made sure the right pockets would be filled to the brim. Which was, of course, the point.

‘Are you going to sit down?’ she said, still staring into the middle distance as she addressed the small crowd standing behind her. ‘You’re making the place look untidy.’

There was a brief murmur of discussion, then the empty seats at Tayrin’s table filled with wide-eyed recruits who put their trays down carefully and seemed to be watching Tayrin and avoiding looking at her at the time. There were four of them, all but one of them young, and at a glance she thought if she put them in the correct order she could take a picture and call it “the four stages of an untrustworthy fart.” If Tony was one side of a coin, these four were the other. In place of his muscles and self-confidence they were slim, poorly nourished, muscles like knots in worn out string, with eyes darting here and there as though hoping there had been a mistake and someone was going to come and let them out. It was possible that some sort of martial prowess lurked within them, some spark of useful violence waiting for the right fuel to become an inferno, but more than likely they had been sent here to make up the numbers. It was suspected, though had not yet ever been confirmed, that the block wardens bid on who their next intake would be. If that were true, it would seem unlikely that anyone would have bet the farm on this sorry lot.

They were, in short, fucked.

‘Well well well, would you look at the time?! It does fly when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? Time to quit your jerkin’ and get ready for workin’, just five of God’s own minutes stand between you and show time! Get those smiles ready, campers. We go live in five.’

The faces at the end of the table turned downwards as the speakers wailed, and with good reason. At the other end sat a third year and a newcomer who looked like he could easily kill the four of them on his own and still have time to finish his dinner, and if they were any kind of gauge for what they could expect, those who heard their names in five minutes time would be hearing their death sentences. Tayrin gave them time to get the conversation started but coming to her table seemed to have exhausted what courage they had left. The four stared with hungerless eyes at their congealing heaps of dinner and said nothing, not even to each other. If any hope remained, it would not last for very long.

’I was scared too,’ Tayrin said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the table. ‘Back at the beginning.’

That had them. They gave their direct attention only sparingly at first, like frightened dogs not knowing whether the hand above had come to feed or to strike, but as she went on they warmed to their cause. It wasn’t long before they were hanging on every word she said.

‘Twelve of us shipped in from Eurothaan in the early hours of the morning, nine of us ended up in D Block by the time we got through decontamination.’

Tony grunted a laugh as he wiped waxy fat from the stubble at the corner of his mouth. ‘Shit, three down just from the showers? Probably for the best, right? Wouldn’t have lasted until the end of lunch in here.’

‘They had thorns,’ she replied, and gave herself a moment to enjoy the look of disgust that flashed across his arrogant face.

‘What are thorns?’

The speaker looked to be the youngest of them, but as Tayrin examined her she wondered if that was true. There was a lilt to her voice, a softly musical flair that reminded her of a gentle Irish back on mainworld, but more than likely placed her origins far out beyond the solar region to the orbit of Luyten b. Most of the people there lived aboard orbital stations or carved out a semi-nomadic life travelling to and fro on starships, rarely if ever setting foot on solid ground, but those whose families settled on the rocky terrain had diverged from the ancient bloodlines. Rumour had it they had found something there, and that something had changed them. The woman in front of her looked about fifteen standard, but she could have been forty. There was an elven quality to the Luytena that made them hard to place, and lent strength to the bizarre things people claimed about them.

On any other day Tayrin would have taken the time to sit with her and talk, try to separate truth from the whispers, but by her reckoning they were into their second minute since the last call.

‘It’s an infection,’ she said. ‘Some kind of bone cancer. You break out in these sharp little calcium growths that look like thorns. Some people lose their minds and turn feral, mostly people just die when the infection reaches their lungs. Kinda hard to breathe when your alveoli start growing teeth, but the point is I wasn’t so very different from any of you when I sat down in here for the first time.’

‘Three years ago.’

‘A little over,’ she said. This one appeared to be the eldest, and allowing for her uncertainty about the Luytena there had to have been at least twenty years between him and the next youngest. ‘But you knew that. I’m guessing that’s why the four of you came over?’

‘Two minutes to midnight my lucky ones, make sure you’re hydrated and you’ve drained the main vein! There are no bathroom breaks between here and eternal glory.’

‘And he’s not kidding,’ Tayrin said as she pushed her plate away and stood up. The newcomers looked horrified, but there was no time for anything more, no time for a rundown of the little tips and tricks she knew that might keep them alive.

‘Is there anything you can tell us?’ the Luytena said, clearly far more panicked by the situation than the fluidity of her voice suggested.

Tayrin sighed. ‘In the time we have? Don’t waste ammunition or energy, and use the cover. Whatever the objective is, let someone with more experience worry about it while you keep yourselves breathing. It won’t win you any notoriety and you can forget shaving any time off your sentencing, but it’ll give you a chance to learn. Other than that, don’t trust anybody. The person you share lunch with one day might be the one with their knife in your back the next if that’s what the bigwigs are paying for. Keep your heads down, keep your mouths shut, and let your instincts do the rest. Either they’re strong, or they’re not. You fight hard enough to live, or… It’s as simple as that.’

The hustle and bustle of the room died down as the speakers let out a series of clicks. There would be no more words or warnings between now and the end. The noise transmitted over the intercom came from someone in a distant room checking connections and testing frequencies, ensuring that when they flipped the switched the sound and vision from D Block and whatever other poor sods were to be involved would be beamed to the trillions watching across the galaxy and beyond.

Wouldn’t want to let the punters down now, Tayrin thought. Would you?

At the far end of the austere hall was a huge pair of steel sliding doors which led out of the block and to where the troop transports waited. Above it, now coming to life with a bristling of grey-white static, was a screen. The residents of the block gravitated towards it and watched as the interference cleared and slowly became a pair of grinning, plastic-looking faces.

‘Maxie and Maud,’ Tony remarked as the presenters waved and blew kisses to their legions of adoring fans. ‘I remember watching these fuckers when I was a kid. Don’t age, do they?’

‘They pay a lot to avoid it,’ Tayrin said. ‘Bet you never thought you’d be watching them from the sharp end.’

‘Hello, and welcome to broadcaaaaaaaaast!’ Maud howled, leaning back as though her beehive hairdo was pulling her over.

‘That’s right Maud,’ Maxie squeaked. ‘And it’s a very, super-special broadcast tonight isn’t it, going out live across the cosmos to a select group of super-special subscribers!’

Shit, Tayrin thought, doing her best to hide the look that was threatening to creep its way onto her face. Nobody else reacted as she did, but then why would they? It would be the first time that any of them had been involved in a subscriber-only event so the significance would be lost on them, if anything a welcome deviation from the hum-drum of the same-old same-old. The fools. The poor, ignorant fools.

‘Oh Maxie you took the words right out of my mouth! That’s right my lucky viewers and my even luckier Instruments, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Big Beefy’s House Of Mince, we are handing over our broadcast and the skills of our wonderful Instruments to the will of the people! That’s right, that’s right all of you! Tonight we are changing the format! We’re breaking the paradigm! Tonight…’

‘YOU DECIDE!’

They cried the last two words in shrill harmony before falling about the studio clapping and laughing, high-fiving each other like over-caffeinated children. The little group that surrounded Tayrin were looking to each other and to her for support, but there was none to give. What precious little she had been able to tell them was generic, transferable to most battlefields, and absolutely no use when she had no idea what they were to face. That little nugget of context was what none of them knew, not even the third years. They hadn’t been there the last time such an event took place.

On Big Beefy’s fortieth anniversary.

‘Now what you can’t see in the blocks but you can at home are the options at the bottom of your screen, each symbol matching one of the ones in the welcome packs you received in the mail a month ago when subscriptions went live. When you’ve had a good look through the Instrument profiles enter one of those codes AND WE DO MEAN ONE into the keypad provided along with your favoured Instrument code and maximum bid.’

‘And don’t worry if your favourite isn’t the winner!’ Maxie interrupted. ‘The bottom line rules the world but no matter your bid, you get to watch the outcome from the best seats in the cosmos. That’s the value we’re bringing you tonight, you lucky lucky things! And wow, Maud! Look at the numbers rolling in!’

The room watched in confused and horrified fascination, but Tayrin had seen enough. While the masses edged closer to the screen she quietly slid toward the back of the room, tuning out the squeaky voices of the presenters and going over her mental checklist. Early on in her cell block career she had learned that preparation was the key to survival. That was what her little crew of followers had gotten wrong. Not the technique, but the timing. Finding someone stronger to help them was the right idea but it was no good starting to prepare once the countdown had already begun. That was a luxury only the experienced could afford, and Tayrin had experience. She hadn’t been lying when she told people she was a third year, though that depended on your perspective. She had never claimed that it was her first sentence.

A full five minutes of cackling bullshit played out on the screen as she made sure her laces were tied and her belt fastened, her muscles warmed and her ligaments stretched. Every now and then she looked up to make sure she would not be caught unawares, but she need not have bothered. When the clock ran out and the final bids were in Maxie and Maud made a sound like a banshee with her tit caught in a zip and the final amount flashed across the screen in glowing red figures.

Nice to know what our lives are worth.

‘Oh my Instruments,’ Maud said, as Maxie fanned her with a leaflet advertising mince by the ton. ‘What a way to celebrate fifty years of Big Beefy! One-hundred percent of tonight’s proceeds will be donated to the children’s hospital on Trappist-1h, minus all applicable sales taxes, lottery fees, salaries, tariffs, reimbursement for damages, shareholders dividends and contributions to the Big Beefy Inc. employee pension fund.’

Fuck all then.

‘And we’re donating in style,’ said Maxie. ‘My goodness my Maudie… Would you look at that?’

Maud looked, and so did Tayrin. She had no way of knowing how many symbols there had been to choose from, but as luck or judgement would have it the one that appeared on the screen and began slowly rotating was the same one she had seen all those years before, only this time the three-dimensional rendering of a heavy antique padlock was red in instead of blue. There was no way that could be a good thing.

‘It’s a lock-in,’ Maud whispered.

As she said it the lights faded behind the two women and their smiles became grins, wicked and sharp at the edges, while dirty red light lit them from below on the otherwise black screen. ‘And that’s a lucky sign for my Instruments. Well… For five of them. Blocks A to E, you have been chosen. We have been Maud and Maxie, but it’s time for us to take our seats and enjoy the show. From both of us and most of all from Big Beefy’s House Of Mince, we bid you good night… Good luck.’

They faded to nothing, and in cruelly slow script the block’s instructions began to appear on the screen, letter by letter as though someone somewhere was typing them live. But the four did not stay to watch. Their eyes wide with fear they turned to the one person who might know, who might be able to help them survive.

Not one of them had heard her move. Least of all Tony.

Her arm was around his neck, her hand on his jaw with practiced speed. The four turned just in time to catch the look of surprise on his face and the loud crack of cervical fracture.

‘Lucky for five of us,’ she said as he fell heavily, not yet dead but fading fast. ‘I make that one per block.’

Terror took hold as she prowled forward, an apex predator bearing down on a petrified flock. They banded together as they pleaded, begging her for mercy or to work with them, to help them escape, but she knew they were wasting their time. Not one meal would enter the room until all but one of them was dead and it would not be her. Last time all she had to do was kill ten. If the padlock had been blue that was what she would have done. Ten hearts stilled to keep hers beating. Maybe she would have helped… Maybe not. Now she would never know.

She didn’t know which of them she took first. They put up so little fight it was the work of a moment to haul one free by their lapels, spin them around and flex until she felt the slithering pop of their larynx as it collapsed.

The first of the fights were breaking out as those closest to the screen cottoned on to what was happening. It wouldn’t be long before it didn’t matter if some of them hadn’t read their instructions. War would have taken hold and the trillions watching live across the network started to get their money’s worth, hoping whichever poor bastard they had put their wager on emerged the victor.

Don’t worry, you bastards, Tayrin thought as she dropped her victim and reached for the next. I’m going to make you rich.

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