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A SLA Industries Short Story

28 Feb

TO THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM

The large grey sofa that sat in the middle Station 515’s main studio seemed to be out of place, surrounded as it was by dozens of cameras, lighting rigs, teleprompters, studio-men and assorted hangers on, but it was quite possibly the best known thing about the station. The sofa and the woman who normally say there, Melinda Chavez. Five days a week she would interview guests, her style an interesting mix of flirty chat and hard-nosed questioning and, for the moment at least, she was the media darling. Ever since her off the cuff interview with Cawdor, the Operative flavour of the moment, the viewing public couldn’t get enough of Melinda and her studio bosses were determined to take full advantage of this.

Tonight’s show was going to be another landmark moment in her career because Doctor Rasmus Lundvail of Karma’s R&D Division had agreed to be interviewed on his latest development, something called the Striatum Adjunct. Even though Doctor Lundvail was going to be on vid in less than an hour Melinda, and her team, knew absolutely nothing about what this Striatum Adjunct was and, if she was going to be honest with herself, the young reporter was beginning to panic.

“How the hell am I meant to interview this man if they won’t give us the slightest clue as to what this Adjunct thing is?” she demanded of her make-up artist as she was sitting in her dressing room, preparing for the show. Lissa, who was diligently trying to cover the minute flaws that the vid would pick up without mercy, was wise enough to know that no answer was expected of her.

“I mean,” continued Melinda, “it’s not as though I have anything to talk to this man about. I know nothing about him. Oh, sure. I know where he went to school, who his parents were, what else he’s been working on, that sort of thing. But really, who cares about that? Doctor R Lundvail, age 39, employee of Karma, today had a roast beef sandwich for his lunch!”

Melinda threw her arms in the air in a gesture that had nothing to do with real irritation and all to do with show. As soon as she woke up in the morning she liked to think of herself as “in-character” and it was an art form that required constant practise. She paused and took a deep calming breath, very aware of how good that looked on camera.

“I have no human angle on this one at all,” she moaned to Lissa. “I have no idea what this Striatum Adjunct is, but unless it’s earth-shattering then this show is going to be a flop!”

*****

In a smaller and much less elaborate dressing room at the far side of the studio, Doctor Rasmus Lundvail stared into the mirror, looking at himself and then at the reflection of the young man in the very expensive suit who was standing behind him.

“Jeremy,” muttered the uncomfortable doctor. “Tell me again exactly why I’m wasting my time with this nonsense? There are a thousand and one things that need doing and this is certainly not one of them.”

“Come on Ras,” Jeremy replied with an easy smile. “We’ve been over and over this. Down at the lab we all know the ground-breaking work you’re doing, we all know how the Adjunct is going to change the world, but unless we can sell that fact to the great unwashed, then it’s never going to make it into the real world. Doc, seriously, you need to focus on this. People watch Melinda, they listen to what she has to say and they take their lead from her. You want next year’s budget to have an extra 0 added to the end of it? Then you sell the Adjunct to Melinda, wow her, make her jaw drop and I guarantee, I personally guarandamntee, that every Op out there will be beating a path to your door.”

The disgruntled doctor opened his mouth to speak again but before he could say anything Jeremy raised his hand.

“Rasmus, Ras, R.. It’s a done deal. People higher up the pay scale than either you or me have agreed that this has to be done so we’re going to do it. Might as well put the best face on it. There are going to be billions of people out there listening to you speak, live. And I know that they’re going to love you. You’re a natural, the vid loves, you, I love you, the world is going to love you. But more importantly the world is going to love the Adjunct.

“Besides,” Jeremy added in a slightly calmer voice. “I’ll be in the control room where the real decisions are made and you know that I’ve got all the pre-recorded goods ready to go if anything gets out of hand. Not that it will of course, you’re going to be great.”

Doctor Lundvail stared silently into the mirror for a moment, hating his PR assistant more than just a little bit.

“Remind me when this is all over, that I either need to fire you or promote you. I’m serious Jeremy, it’s going to be one of the other. And either way, you have to learn to stop talking in clichés”

********

…and we’re back from commercial, go Melinda ….

“Doctor Lundvail, we’re back on air and our viewers are now familiar with who you are and what you’ve done. A very impressive resume I must say. But what they, what I really want to know about is this mysterious Striatum Adjunct that you mentioned. That’s what you’re here to talk about so, please, in terms that we can all understand, tell us what it is.”

This was the section that Rasmus had been dreading. He knew he wasn’t a good public speaker, that was one of the reasons he was so confused by why he had been chosen to appear on the show. He could speak in great depth about the mechanics of the Adjunct for hours, he could explain the new strains of biogenetic materials that had been grown just to make this possible. He could go into minute and excruciating depth about the theoretical problems and actual practicalities that had made this breakthrough possible, but he knew that wasn’t what people wanted to hear.

“Well, Melinda,” he said with a fixed smile. “The Striatum Adjunct is, quite simply a revolution in the way that we can absorb and understand new information and processes. Basically, it’s a new way of learning. Up to now, whenever we want to learn something new or to understand a new concept it’s done through constant repetition until our brain retains it. That’s a slow, laborious and very inefficient way of doing things. With the Striatum Adjunct we no longer have to go through the boring stages, we just go straight to knowing what we need to know.”

Melinda smiled brightly, showing no sign of her growing doubts about the security of her career, and nodded and gestured for the doctor to continue.

“As I’m sure you know,” said Doctor Lundvail. “”When we are creating Stormers, a large amount of the information that any other living being absorbs in its youth is implanted directly into learning centres of the Stormer’s brain. This aids with them coming to terms with their accelerated growth and ensures that we are not creating armies of morons. The Adjunct works along the same lines in that it can be used to insert blocks of new information into the subject’s brain.”

“I see,” said Melinda who really didn’t. “And does this process only work on Stormers?”

“Oh no, not at all. There is some very minor surgery involved in that we have to implant a small biogenetic “reader” for want of a better word, directly into the striatum of the user.”

“And the striatum is part of the brain, so we’re talking about brain surgery here.”

“Yes, yes,” snapped the doctor, beginning to forget that he was speaking to a chat show host and not holding a lecture. “But it is very minor surgery and the process is quite safe. And once the implant has been successfully bonded with the subject, it’s then a simple matter to input new information directly into the reader as and when required. In it’s most simple form, imagine the implant as a Nava-Map and the new information, which comes in the form of a very small injection, as a data slug.”

“Is that the kind of information we’re talking about?” asked Melinda. “Maps and things like that?”

“Of course, the Striatum Adjunct could be used for maps, making the subject instantly familiar with a new location, but that would be just scratching the surface of what the implant is capable of. In your case, for example, if you were going to interview someone that you knew nothing about, you could receive the injection and, within an hour, know everything that was on file regarding that person. Or the implant can be used to learn a new language within minutes instead of months. The subject could, if they wished, learn the intricacies of Wraith Raider crotchet . .”

. . . we have some vid footage here Melinda, rolling it now . . .

“And I believe,” interrupted Melinda smoothly,” that we have some footage relating to the Striatum Adjunct that we need to show now. “My apologies for cutting you off, Doctor Lundvail, but perhaps we could continue this after we’ve watched the vid.”

********

Thick, greasy fog rolls over a muddy field in some far flung war world. The background music is slow and subtle, but if listened to for any length of time you will realise that it grows steadily faster and louder. In the distance you can just make out the shapes of vast tanks firing and recoiling, soldiers running and fighting and dying. Overhead, jet planes scream past leaving coils of vapour in their wake.

“Captain?” the voice is young and obviously scared although trying not to show it. “Captain, what do we do now?”

The camera pulls back and you see a young soldier in pristine armour standings beside a older officer wearing battle-scarred Sarge armour. The helmet’s been removed and the grizzled veteran of the war worlds can be seen staring down at what looks to be an heavy box covered in wires. There is a numeric keypad on the front of the box and a timer that is slowly ticking down. There is less then ten minutes showing on the clock.

“Captain, do you know how to defuse that?” the scared recruit asks. “You do, don’t you? We’re never going to be able to evacuate the civilians in time. You do know how to defuse it, you must!”

Slowly and deliberately, the officer turns from the bomb and looks up at the soldier.

“No son, I don’t. At least, not yet.”

He flicks a clasp on the forearm of his armour and a pulse of steam along with a dribble of hydraulic fluid leaks out as a panel slides open. Beneath the armour you can see skin that is scarred and leathery and, lying along the length of the main vein, is a thin membrane of biogenetic material. As you watch, the material twitches slightly and a small mouth opens at one end.

“Fetch me the Adjunct from the APC,” the officer says with strength and determination. “Vial 217. And hurry son, we don’t have much time left.”

The scene fades as the fog of war grows thicker and the music grows louder. Moments later, the fog fades once more and we can see the officer leaning over the bomb. His fingers are flying across the keypad and the countdown timer is showing 5 seconds left.

“Captain, what do we do? We’re out of time!”

4 Seconds.

“Not yet we’re not son, don’t panic, trust Karma!”

3 Seconds.

“Captain, we’ve got to run, it’s too late!”

2 Seconds.

“Be calm son, almost there, almost there.”

1 Second

1 Second

1 Second

1 Second.

“Captain! You did it! We’ve got time to save the civilians and get the Thresher scum who did this!”

The camera cuts back to the officer’s face and you see that he is tired, drained, but relieved and victorious.

“No soldier, I didn’t do it. We did it. You, me and Striatum Adjunct!”

********

“Well, Doctor Lundvail, that was most impressive. And tell me, is that a realistic representation of what we can expect Striatum Adjunct to be able to achieve?”

The doctor was staring across at the large vid screen that was on display behind the grey sofa and it took him a moment to realise that Melinda was talking to him.

“What? Oh, yes. That’s the first time that I’ve seen that actual film but yes, that’s exactly the sort of thing that Striatum Adjunct would be useful for. That and a large number of other applications of course.”

“Doctor Lundvail,” the reporter continued in a voice that was suddenly serious. “We’ve spoken so far of the benefits of this new invention, but we haven’t mentioned how it’s actually applied or what the possible drawbacks could be. I wonder if you could guide us through those?”

Rasmus Lundvail cleared his throat and readjusted his seat on the sofa. He hadn’t been expecting this sort of question but would be happy to respond.

“The application is quite simple,” he smiled. “As I said previously it does involve some minor surgery with the main component of the Adjunct being placed directly into the brain. It’s perfectly safe, we have absolutely mastered the technique and, with modern medicines you can be up and about again less than 10 hours after the surgery takes place. In addition to this we have to place an entry valve somewhere on the subject’s body. This is normally done on the forearm, as you saw in the vid, somewhere that is easily accessible, but we have found that the closer the entry system is to the main implant, the more quickly the new information will bond with the striatum area.”

“And it looked in the vid as though the brave Captain was going to inject something into himself, I’m assuming that’s how the raw information is given to the Adjunct.”

“Exactly correct Melinda,” replied the doctor patronisingly, as if he was pleased by a dense student showing the slightest glimmer of intelligence. “The information packs come in a thick biogenetic gel which, when injected into the body, heads immediately to the Adjunct and is then fed into the brain.”

“This information,” Melinda interrupted, showing no sign of her anger at the doctor’s tone. “Is it a permanent thing? Is there a limit to the amount of injections you can give yourself?”

“Ahh, no, unfortunately this is not a permanent thing,” admitted Doctor Lundvail. “The knowledge will last for anything between 15 and 25 hours depending on the individual and then it will simply fade away, as if you had forgotten it naturally. And at this point you are limited to being able to have one new information injection within you at any one time. We’ve found that trying for more than once causes a conflict between the two sources which renders both unusable.”

“I see,” mused Melinda, knowing that she was running out of time and she had to hurry things along. “And side effects? Are there any problems that we should be aware of before we all run out and have the surgery?”

“No, absolutely not. Striatum Adjunct is perfectly safe and we are looking forward to when it goes on the open market.”

“Doctor Lundvail, thank you so very much for joining us this evening. I know that I and I’m sure everyone else, will be looking forward to seeing who is the first of our celebrity operatives to make use of this wonderful new technology.”

With a dazzling smile, Melinda Chavez nodded to the bewildered doctor and turned her attention fully to the camera.

“That was Doctor Rasmus Lundvail with the new Karma product, Striatum Adjunct. We have a short commercial break coming up but we’ll be right back and we have an interview with Street Hockey Star Artemus Gideon. He’ll be speaking to us about his move to the Sauchiehall Strikers.”

. . . and we’re out. Four minutes Melinda, four minutes . . . .

********

Twenty minutes later, Rasmus was sitting in the same small dressing room talking to Jeremy.

“Doc, that went better than we could have hoped for,” the assistant said enthusiastically. “Absolutely perfect!”

“I’m not so sure Jeremy, not so sure at all. Why did that bloody woman start asking about side effects? There’s no way that she could know, is there?”

“Of course not, nothing to worry about at all. She was just asking the questions that she had to. No one knows and besides, it’s a very small problem and I know that you’ll be able to work it out very, very soon.”

Doctor Lundvail simply stared up at his assistant, not in the least bit convinced.

“Let’s get out of here,” he finally said. “I’ve work to do.”

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DANCING TO THE BEAT

25 Feb

Hundreds of reporters and their camera-crew are all jostling for position around the edge of the red carpeted walkway outside the Professor Passion Conference Centre, all of them trying to get that one shot, that one brief interview which will either give their career the boost which it so obviously deserves or keep them at the top of the ratings. For hours now minor celebrities have been arriving at the Centre, all of them keen to get their moment in front of the camera and none of them really worth the air-time. Operatives who’ve managed to pull of a couple of high visibility BPNs, corporate execs who are famous for the size of their credit rating, socialites who are always looking for the latest party. All of them come to these sort of function just to be seen but these aren’t the ones that the voracious viewers are waiting for. These people are just the appetizers for the main course.

Melinda Chavez had forced her way to the front of the press crowd with the help of her cameraman, assistant and current lover Pete Whitmoor. She held her position close to the back of the pack knowing that she was enough of a celebrity in her own right to be walking into the building rather than standing outside and that when the time came she would be the one who got the all important interviews. She would be the one who was seen on the vid asking the questions that the public wanted the answers to. And she would be the one taking home the big pay cheque.

“Mel?” came the voice in her ear from the control room. “We’ve got a sighting of Cawdor approaching your position. He should be getting out of the limo in about 30 seconds. Make sure you’re ready for him.”

Melinda bit back the caustic response that was on the tip of her tongue. Of course she was ready for this, when had she ever been not ready? And Cawdor was the main name that she’d been waiting for, the prize that made the hours of standing in the cold worth-while. Well, it would be worth while as long as she managed to get a minute or two of his time and she had no doubts about her ability to do that.

“Show time,” she smiled to Pete as she took off her top coat and smoothed down the red silk dress she wore beneath. Without even having to look she knew that everything was in place, that every detail was correct. Her looks would catch Cawdor’s attention for long enough for him to realise who she was and then he would be hooked. Even a few seconds would be long enough for this but she was hoping for much more.

The gathered press started to surge forward and Melinda rode the wave to the very front of the P.P.C.C.. Armoured Shivers were on duty to keep the peace, to make sure that neither press nor celebrity got too out of hand but Melinda had greased enough palms earlier in the evening to know that a gap would miraculously appear just when she wanted it to. This is what she did and she was very, very good at it.

“Cawdor‘s walking towards you now,” control whispered through the earpiece. “He seems to be in good form, smiling, nodding at a few people and he’s on his own. We have confirmation that he has not brought a date to the event.”

Notching the smile up another level and stepping forward between the wall of green armour, Melinda stood at the side of the carpet at just the perfect time to hold out a microphone to Cawdor. She knew that her cameraman would be close enough behind to catch everything that was going on and she had completely dismissed Pete from her mind. This is what it was all about, this is the thrill that she loved so much. This was her time to shine.

“Cawdor,” she called out, “how good to see you again. Can I steal just a moment of your time to give to your loyal fans?”

The man who was walking down the carpet towards the large open doors of the centre paused for a moment and then when he realised who he was looking at, he broke into what seemed to be an honest smile.

“Melinda Chavez, as I live and breath. Always a pleasure to talk to the press and even more of a pleasure to talk to you. Please don’t tell me you’ve been waiting here all this time just to get a few words with little old me?”

Cawdor stood close to seven feet tall and his long blonde hair and model looks seem to contracts strongly with the network of scar tissue that covered the right side of his face and spread down to his neck. He was wearing what was obviously a very expensive tuxedo and seemed to be perfectly at home in this binding outfit despite the fact that he was most easily recognised when he was wearing armour and swinging a sword.

“You’re not wearing your clan colours,” smiled Melinda. “I almost didn’t recognise you there.”

She knew she was taking a risk by getting into a conversation like this. If it worked then she would have the prefect interview, but if Cawdor was rushed or simply didn’t feel like talking then she would be made to look like a fool and who knew how well her career would stand up to something like that.

“Don’t tell anyone,” laughed the Frother in a stage whisper, “but I’m in disguise. Don’t think it’s working too well though.”

He stepped away from the centre of the carpet and moved closer to Melinda, making no attempt to hide the admiring way he was looking her over.

“Cawdor,” the reporter continued. “There’s something that I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while.”

“You can ask me anything you want,” interrupted the blonde operative with a wide wink. “But don’t you think this could be a bit too public for that sort of thing?”

Laughing on the outside while gloating on the inside Melinda knew she’d made the right choice. Cawdor was high enough to want to flirt and be funny and yet straight enough to be able to talk sensibly. Luck was definitely on her side this evening.

“Everyone knows who Cawdor is,” she said. “Or at least everyone knows who Cawdor appears to be. One of the most renowned of the Frother Operatives who make their name by dispatching the enemies of SLA Industries in as colourful a way as possible. Barely a week goes by without you being shown in a fight to the death and with every swing of your sword you win more fans. What I want to know is why you do it? You’ve made enough credit to live comfortably for a dozen life-times, you could easily move away from the live fights and work on displays, or go on tours off-planet, bringing a bit of the reality of Mort to the outer zones. And yet you don’t do this. You continue to thrill us, to scare us, to make us weep and cheer with you. Why do you do this, Cawdor, why do you keep working?”

Melinda couldn’t help from biting her lip as she waited to see how the volatile Frother would respond. She knew from the sudden drop in conversation all around her that her peers in the press were waiting for exactly the same thing. She’d taken a huge risk, possibly a suicidal risk, by asking something like this. But she was sure that she’d judged Cawdor’s mood correctly. He would answer. He would open up. And this interview would go down in history.

Cawdor stared at the reporter and the pause went on for just long enough to make people uncomfortable. The operative’s green eyes that had been so friendly now looked much more threatening. And then the mood was broken as he laughed and reached out a hand to pull Melinda onto the carpet with him.

“You want to know why I do it?” he asked with a smile. “Look around your, pretty lady. Look and see everyone out there staring at you, watching you, just waiting to see what you’re going to do next.”

He easily pulled Melinda towards him and then spun her around in a smooth dance move, her skirts whirling around her.

“This is why most of us do what we do,” he said. “We do it so that we know we’re alive. We do it so that we mean something. We do it because if we stop doing it then people will stop watching us and how will we know that we’re still here. But that’s not why I do it!”

Cawdor picked the reporter up, hands around her slim waist, and held her above his head for a few moments before slowly lowering her to the ground. Her heart was pounding with both excitement and fear but she was more than aware enough of what was going on to realise that Cawdor has more to say.

“Every time that I put my life on the line for SLA Industries and for you,” he said, speaking more to the entire crown now than the breathless reporter in front of him. “Every time I do it it’s because I have no choice in it, none at all. I live for the dance, I live for the thrill, I live for the rush. When the music in my head starts to play then I’ve got to go along with the rhythm, I’ve no choice. Can you hear it? Can you hear the drum beat in your veins, can you hear the pounding in your ears? I can, I hear it every moment of every day and there are times when it gets so loud that I can’t hear anything else.”

Cawdor’s head had started to bob slightly as he was speaking and he took on a faintly vague expression as he waved from side to side.

“I can hear it now, but it’s slow and steady and calm,” he continued. “The music is lifting me up and pushing me forward, supporting me, helping me. But soon it’ll grow louder and it’ll grow stronger and it’ll grow faster. I’m in control of the beat right now, but tomorrow, or the day after, or maybe even ten minutes from now, who knows. When the beat grows strong you have to dance to the rhythm.

“Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Sounds like the ravings of a drugged up madman? But it’s not.”

“Listen!” he shouted out at the watching crowd. “Be silent and listen, just for a second. Just listen!”

And for a moment he had the press in the palm of his hand. They all went silent, they all tried to hear what it was the Frother could hear. And for some of them, this was a moment of revelation.

“You heard it, didn’t you?” Cawdor asked Melinda and then carried on without waiting for an answer. He was breathless with his own enthusiasm, caught up in his own words. “Some of you out there heard it, some of watching this at home hear it. You can hear it now, can’t you? You can hear the beat calling out to you, it makes you want to stand up, makes you want to dance, makes you want to live! But too much of the world tries to drown out that noise, too much of life tries to dampen the sound.”

Cawdor raised his head and laughed with pure joy.

“Ahh, Melinda,” he smiled. “You still want to know why I do what I do? How could I possibly do anything else? But now, I think that it’s time for me to go inside. I don’t want to hog too much of your valuable time.”

The burly Frother took the reporter’s delicate hand and raised it to his mouth, pressing his lips gently against the back of her knuckles.

“Always a pleasure,” he whispered, just loud enough for the microphone to pick up his words.

Melinda was left to stare as Cawdor span away and hurried up the red carpet into the Centre.

“Melinda,” screamed control into her ear. “Melinda, we need closure. Dammit Melinda, say something!”

Turning back to the camera, Melinda put on her most professional smile and spoke directly to the watching audience.

“You’ve just heard Cawdor speak of what drives him forward, of what makes him the man he is. I’m sure that we have all learned a lot this evening. My name is Melinda Chavez and you’re watching Station 515.”

She pulled the ear-piece loose from under her hair and handed it over to her cameraman.

“That’s it,” she said to him. “I’m done for the evening. Lets go home and listen for what the music has to tell us.”

SLA Industries – Tales of a Madman – 8

7 Sep

When I woke this morning I found it impossible to remember my name or who I was. At least, I think it was when I woke, there is very little difference between sleep and waking for me now. It came back to me eventually but I am still a little uncertain of what is happening to me. Always I hear the whispers of dreams in my mind and always I am unsure as to whether the dreams are mine or sendings from the white-coats.

I can hear the psychiatrists and technicians whispering to me from within my skull and there is nothing I can do to shut them out. For days on end I screamed and tried to block out the noise. I stuffed my fingers in my ears, I banged my head off the padded cell walls until my vision blurred and I collapsed to the ground but I could still hear the whispering. I sang, I prayed, I begged Slayer to forgive me but still I heard the whispers.

Why are they doing this to me, why are they invading my mind and raping my dreams? I thought that I would be safe, hidden inside my own head but the white-coats have come in after me and they hack a brutal path through my carefully laid maze of conflicting personalities and false images. The screens that I took so long perfecting have been blown apart and all that is left is the complete honesty of my life. I don’t think that I am strong enough to face the truth about myself!

It was only a few days ago that it started I think. It is so hard to keep track of the time in here but I don’t think it was very long ago. I was looking down at the drain in the corner of the room and the walls and floor of the cell were still dripping after the ‘shower’ when the door opened and an Ebon walked in. I heard the door open but I didn’t turn round immediately, I was still trying to convince myself that I couldn’t have seen the mud flowing out of the room.

When I did turn round it took me even longer to realise that this …vision was actually inside the cell and not in my head. She was tall, had a perfect slim figure and her face had been carved by angels. Red lips, long loosely curled brown hair and white eyes that seemed to reflect my sins and radiate forgiveness. She stood there for a moment and looked at me. With no conscious thought, my hand rose to my head and I tried to smooth out my hair.

Pathetic, I am a prisoner, a criminal, considered to be insane and still I want to impress this woman. I must have blushed when I realised what I was doing because she came across the room to me and took me hand. I could do nothing but gaze at her as she lifted my hand and lightly brushed her lips across my fingers.

“Trust,” was all she said as she put her left hand onto my face. I could feel her fingers on my face and it felt so cold. Cold but still good. She closed her eyes and I felt the coldness leave her fingers to be replaced by, by nothing. I couldn’t feel her fingers, I couldn’t feel her holding my hand, I couldn’t even feel her warm breath on my face any more. I could still see her but I couldn’t feel her, smell her or sense her.

My vision dulled and I wanted to raise a hand to rub across my eyes but my body was frozen, I couldn’t even move my eyes any more. The image of the cell faded away and was replaced by a long corridor with hundred of doors either side of it stretching away into the distance. Every door had a picture of me on it but no two pictures were the same. Some showed me as a child, some as an operative, some showed me to be asleep, some laughing, others crying. Every picture was me but they were all different aspects of me.

There were images of myself that I recognised from my memories, times that I thought existed only inside my head. But other pictures bore no resemblance to anything that I knew about myself. There were some that showed me as an evil, twisted creature and I loathed those pictures. They couldn’t possibly be me but I knew, deep down that they were. The evil images were as much a part of my self as all the rest.

I think it was then that I realised what the Ebon had done to me. She had sent me into my own head to look at myself, to face all the secrets that I had blocked away for so long. I wasn’t going to let them do that to me, I wasn’t a dog for them to train and control. I was also very scared of what I might find behind all those doors, what forgotten terrors from my childhood may rise up to strike me again as an adult.

It was obvious that they wanted me to go through the doors but I wasn’t going to do that. Instead I sat in the middle of the hall and waited, no point in making things easy for them. Time passed, I have no idea how long, it could have been seconds, hour or even days. I don’t think that time means much when you are inside your own head.

It happened very quickly. One moment I was alone in the corridor and the next the Ebon was back with me. Only this time she didn’t look so pretty. Don’t get me wrong, she was still a very good looking woman but she didn’t have the same ethereal quality that had surrounded her last time I saw her. Maybe that was because it didn’t work inside my mind, or perhaps it took too much of her energy to maintain the illusion or perhaps she had just realised that I wasn’t worth impressing. Whatever the reason she looked to be just a normal, although very pretty, Ebon.

“You have to make a choice!” she said. “Everyone has to choose.”

I think it was the way that she said it that annoyed me the most, as though I was a naughty schoolboy who was deliberately being obstructive. Who did this bitch think she was? First she drags me into my own head and then she treats me like an imbecile. My temper has never been very steady and by now I was at breaking point.

“Choose, what fucking choice do I have? Everything has been decided for me by the likes of you. If it’s so important for the fucking doors to be opened, you open them! I choose not to!”

I climbed to my feet and start stalking down the corridor away from her. I don’t know what I hoped to achieve but I just didn’t care anymore. This had to be a bad dream, things like this didn’t really happen to you, not even Ebons had that much power. I was muttering to myself as I walked but I don’t know what I was saying, I doubt if it would have made any sense. Suddenly, the Ebon was in front of me again.

“You have no idea,” she virtually spat at me as she prodded me in the chest with one long, immaculately manicured finger. “You have absolutely no idea what being inside this cess-pit does to me! Just touching the abominations that is your sub-conscious taints me and now you want me to open the doors to your memories. You really want me to choose what you face? Fine. That’s exactly what I’ll do, you selfish bastard!”

Her face had grown ugly with anger and I took a couple of steps backwards as she advanced upon me. She leaned across me, grabbed a door apparently at random and jerked it open. With little effort she took me by the shoulders and propelled me into the dark room that lay beyond the door. Spinning, I tried to confront her but the door slammed shut and disappeared into the darkness. I jumped forward, scrabbling for the door but there was nothing there. No door, no wall and no Ebon.

With nothing to lean against I fell forward, flat out on what looked like dirty concrete. The lights slowly rose and I could see that I was on the streets of Downtown but everything looked larger than it should have been, just slightly out of proportion.

The rain was beating against me and running down the back of my leather jacket. The water level was high, it came over the ankles of my sneakers and the yellow smog was curling through the streets in search of fresh victims. This couldn’t be right, I was in a cell, not Downtown. But maybe I had just been lost for a while, after all this was my home. Yeah, I should be here not in any cell or prison, this is where I belonged, my home. What cell? I had never been in a cell in my life! I was far too smart to be caught by the Shivers. Me and the boys knew what we were doing, we were hard, we were the best, we were the Disciples!

I warily walked down the street because I knew that there was a lot of Shiver activity in the area just now and I had a guilty looking face. The last thing I needed was to be hassled by a bunch of dumb cops. The mist and the rain muffled everything and I didn’t hear the heavy, metallic footsteps coming up from behind me until it was too late. I didn’t sense the armoured hand coming down towards me until it hit me across the back of the head, knocking me sprawling into the filthy gutter.

Coughing and gasping I turned round to see the massive figure of an armoured Shiver leaning over me. His hand reached out and grabbed my by the front of my shirt and he lifted me easily from the gutter and held me dangling above the street.

“Look what we’ve got here,” he laughed. ” A lost little gutter rat. I really hate gutter rats and the only thing I hate more than gutter rats is lost ones!”

The Shiver shimmered and changed and I was being held in the air by Slayer. His eyes burned into mine and my memories came flooding back. Writhing and screaming I kicked, punched and spat but it made no difference. Slayer lifted me higher and higher until the ground was a tiny speck, far below us and he drew me closer to himself. His lips were only centimetres from mine and I could see the beads of moisture on them glistening in the dim light.

“My chosen one,” he whispered in a deep, calm voice. “You are the best of my creations, everything that I have been striving for and yet, and yet there is still more to do. My ambassador, you will be and you will serve me well by you disobedience. Struggle little one, struggle against what the fates have in store for you. Your anger will fuel you and keep you safe from the terrors of the light! My perfect ambassador, so angry and so scared.”

He drew me even closer and brought his mouth down on mine. I wanted to scream out, to fight against it but I couldn’t, I could only accept. My lips parted and I felt his tongue slide inside my mouth, running over my teeth and tongue, exploring every part of my mouth. The kiss became fiercer, stronger and then the pain came as he bit into my tongue. Razor sharp teeth dug into the soft delicate membrane and agony flared through me as he pulled his head back and ripped my tongue out of my head.

Slayer spat my tongue out and laughed at me as the blood dripped over his lips and down his chin. I screamed in mindless pain and fear, blood spraying from my mouth and painting a mad design on Slayer’s perfect, ruined face. His laughter echoed in my head, drowning out my screams and driving me downwards and then it was over.

I was lying in the corridor with the Ebon standing over me and I was alive. I could feel my tongue in my mouth and there was no blood but the Ebon woman looked shocked, she looked as though she had seen what I had seen.

“Time to go,” she muttered. “You’ve seen everything that you need to.”

Before I could say anything, the scene changed and we were back in the cell. The Ebon moved away from me and backed to the door, her gaze never leaving my mouth for a second. As soon as she reached the door it swung open and she hurried out, leaving me alone again.

Ever since then I have heard the voices whispering in my head. They speak of a place where you can see the sky, where there is no SLA Industries and no Slayer. They tell me of a land that is a mass of chaos, with power fighting power and the poor and the weak suffering. They tell me a place that so badly need the help of SLA Industries, of a place that is ripe to be absorbed into the World Of Progress.

I dream of this place when I close my eyes and it is noisy and crowded and so like Mort but so different. I see no weapons and no armour but I see the same aggression and fear. I see no Stormers or Shaktar or Wraiths or Ebons but I do see humans of all kinds and colours and I see the beginnings of Frothers. Buildings tower around me, modern side by side with ancient but I see no sign of any SLA Industries, no sign of any Karma or Dark Lament. I can read the words that I see but they mean nothing to me, they could be names or directions or warnings, I don’t know.

As I dream, I picture myself walking through this strange land but no-one see me. I know that I am not there because I am not recognised. There are some though, one in every thousand perhaps who can see me. They look and they stare and they know, they know that I am an alien invader, an ambassador from a foreign land and they fear me, they fear what I could be.

I wake from these dreams and I still see the same images. The people and the buildings and the cars, so many cars all around on the screen behind my eyes. Is this to be my fate, to be lost in a sea of dreams and insanity. My lifeline is Slayer but I have thrown that away, never to be touched again.

The drugs are coming more and more frequently now but I hardly notice. I spend all my time watching the players and actors in this new world as they go through their lives unaware of my presence. The cell, the building, all my reality is fading and becoming detached. All that remains clear of Mort is Slayer’s face and hands and in his hand is my severed and bleeding tongue. Blood spreads out from the tongue and starts to fill the streets, impossible amounts of blood rise up, choking and drowning and killing and only Slayer can swim, only Slayer can keep above the blood. Tears stream down my face but I am scared to touch them in case they turn out to be blood as well.

My last dream has to be the strangest and the strongest. It is this dream that I have not woken from and I fear that I never will. The strange land has grown strong and I am in an alley between two buildings. Noises surround me and I can hear someone crying the name of some lost lover, “Herrad,” he cries. “Even Herrad.”

I lie back and look up at the distant sky. It is a dirty blue, crowded with clouds but there is no rain. A huge machine flies past, reminiscent of the great Foldships of Mort, but different, very different. Now I notice how cold it is, colder than Mort. The air seems so clear and clean to me it is hard to breathe. I can still smell the distant taint of pollution but it is so mild.

A movement at the end of the alley attracts my attention and I see a large, black van pull up. It is driven by some strange form of engine, not atomic of that I am sure. The windows are blacked out and the design is unfamiliar to me.

A man gets out of the vehicle but leaves the door open as he walks towards me. I can see he is wearing a black suit and a poppy red ties that shows out in stark contrast. He strides purposefully towards me, takes me by the hand and leads me back to the van. Once inside I sit in a daze, looking out the windows as the city streets speed past me.

“My name is Doctor Crantham,” says the man in the suit. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Slayer sent me,” I mutter in confused response.

“I know, my son, I know.”

I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, preying for the dream to go away, preying to wake in my safe, secure cell. But, when I open my eyes the dream is still here, I am still here. This time, I am sure that the dream will never fade. This time I have truly come home.

The End?

Tales of a Madman – 7

6 Sep

I am finding it very difficult to concentrate in what is happening around me now. I know that my white-coats are coming into my cell and filling me full of drugs every day but it is hard to care about it. I don’t think that they are giving me the Rush that I once needed but it doesn’t seem to matter to me any more. There was a time when I woke up craving the relief that came from the syringe full of pure violence but now it just isn’t important any more.

Much of my time in the cell is a blank to me now. I know that I am here because where else could I possibly be? Night and day mean nothing to me because the lights in the cell never go out or even dim. Meals are brought into me at regular intervals but I have no way of knowing how far apart these meals are. Hunger is a long forgotten memory, I only eat because it is expected of me and I fear that if I didn’t eat voluntarily I would be force fed. The plastic bucket I use as a toilet is taken away whenever it gets full and replaced by an identical one. Maybe the white-coats search through my refuse, hoping to find some clue to my mental state. That would be fitting, unlikely but fitting. I am washed when the jailers put the sprinkler system on but even that indignity doesn’t affect me any more.

I wish I knew how long I have been here, locked away from the harsh realities of Mort. I could probably work it out by the length of my hair and beard but I can’t remember how long it was when I was a free man and every time I try to concentrate on it my mind wanders. I spend so much time running through the maze of my memories that I sometime fear I will be stuck in there for ever. I think that my white-coats fear that as well because they are always reminding me to speak to the camera, to express my inner thoughts to the unseen observers. One of the things that really scares me is how easy it is getting to talk to the camera. My life is becoming nothing more than a story for the amusement of the hidden watchers, a tale for them to dissect and examine. Perhaps one day I will be famous, a case study for the psychiatrist who train and work in the universities and schools. My only lasting effect on the world – a puzzle for trainee mind shrinkers!

The present might be vague and shadowy to me but the past is clear and precise. I care little for myself but I find myself worrying more and more about people I used to know, people I haven’t seen in months, or it might be years, who knows? One of my friends was a man called Tony Morrison, a strong, vibrant, alive person; or at least he was when I first knew him.

I first met Tony in Meny and we became good friends in those hectic months. My time in Meny had to be one of the high points of my life and I hope that I am never forced to forget it. Meny was clean and fresh, a city full of young, lively people, people who know that they are the best and that they are amongst peers. The competition and rivalry was intense but the social life was incredible. All of the operatives in training might be forced to work very hard but we played hard as well, boy, did we play!

For the first few weeks, while we were all finding our feet, the parties were incredible. Every night there were hundreds of things going on and the only problem was deciding which event you should go to. For about a month after that it quietened down when people realised the work load that they had to deal with. That was when the first drop-outs started but the operatives who managed to hack the pace didn’t care about those who fell by the side. All that was important was making it ourselves, becoming one of the select few, the elite, operatives!

After the time of settling, everyone seemed to come to terms with the work and the parties started again. In those few months that I spent in Meny, I formed friendships that will last forever. At least, that was what I thought at the time, but insanity has a way of testing even the strongest of relationships.

Tony had a room in the same hall as I did and we soon got to know each other. I liked him, he was clever, witty and had a wicked, dry sense of humour that appealed to me. It took a long time to get to know him well, but I thought that it was time well spent.

As we went through training together the friendship became stronger and stronger. We both had our faults and there were times when I really hated Tony but they were few and far between. Both of us had problems with certain aspects of the training but it seemed that what one of us was weak in the other one was good at and we somehow managed to struggle through everything. We both expected to team up and work together when we completed out training but it didn’t work out that way.

Out on the streets, I work best on my own and Tony always did function well as part of a team. So, when we graduated we went our separate ways but we kept in touch. Every time I met Tony his liveliness and zest struck me afresh. He loved life so much and was always ready to make new friends and think the best of people. His sense of humour had a wicked streak to it and no-one was safe from his sly comments but he insulted himself far more than anyone else and that seemed to take the bite away from his jokes and jibes.

I hadn’t heard from him in a couple of months when I got a call out of the blue asking if I could meet him in one of our local bars. I was overjoyed to hear from him again and cancelled an appointment I had so that I could meet up with him. When I got to the bar, Tony was already there and he seemed to be on edge. He kept looking around the room and he had taken a seat where he could keep his back to the wall and keep an eye on the door at the same time.

When we started talking it was obvious that there was something on his mind but it took Tony a couple of hours and a lot of drink to actually mention it. The story came out that he had screwed up big style on a BPN and he had two choices, summary execution or serving a two months long tour on Dante. Some choice, both equalled certain death.

I couldn’t believe it when he told me that, SLA Industries couldn’t do things like that, could they? It was blackmail, pure and simple and SLA was far above that sort of thing. It just goes to show how naive I was back then, now I would believe anything of Slayer and his private universe. Tony was distraught, he just couldn’t believe that he was going to be leaving the city that he loved and heading to a war-torn hell. He did his best to put a brave face on it but I knew that he saw this last drink together as a way of saying goodbye.

He was due to ship out the next day and we spent that night getting very drunk and talking about the old days. The bar was meant to close at 1 AM but with a little gentle persuasion and a lot of money we kept it open until about 8 o’clock. We drank lots and talked more and for a while, we almost managed to forget that Tony was leaving the next day.

Finally, the time came for him to go and there were tears in his eyes when he got into the taxi. It wasn’t sorrow at leaving me or fear of dying on Dante but it was a deep regret that he had to leave Mort. Tony loved the city so much, the people, the buildings, the atmosphere, he even loved the constant rain. He had grown up in Suburbia and he truly believed that he had Slayer to thank for everything he ever had. At the time I argued with him about it but now I believe it to be true. I don’t think that Tony meant it in the way that I do now though.

Over the next two months I never forgot about Tony and I watched as many of the news channels as I could in the vain hope that I would find out something about what was happening on the War World of Dante. I know now that the garbage that is beamed directly into the population’s brains from the vid is far from the truth but I didn’t know that then. I thought that we would be told the truth, we would actually be able to find out what was happening in the World of Progress. As usual, the news was good. Great progress was being made against Thresher. The vile invaders had suffered huge losses and would soon be in the position where they had to beg SLA Industries to accept their surrender. It is amazing how many times Thresher have suffered vast losses but they can still fight on and kill thousands of our people every day. Our soldiers fight them on the War Worlds and have done for hundreds of years without making any progress against them but still they are on the brink of defeat. I would like to think that the people of Mort are not stupid enough to swallow the garbage that we are told but it is just not so. I believed in it for years on end, never thinking to question the authenticity of it so why should anyone else doubt.

For two months I watched for news but was certain that Tony would have died long ago. I remember reading somewhere that the average life expectancy of a grunt soldier on his first tour of Dante was 28 hours. Not days, but hours. That is just incredible! With all the technology and equipment that the soldiers are given they can still last for just over a day before they are destroyed. There was no mention of what the expected life span of a Thresher soldier was but I didn’t really expect to be told that.

Still, I watched for any sign of Tony, any hint that he might be alive. The two months passed and I hoped that he would get in touch but it didn’t happen. After another week I was beginning to believe that he had died on Dante and by the time that the third month was over I was sure that the evil monster that is Thresher had claimed another victim. I was swept up in the anti-Thresher brainwashing and was almost ready to sign up for Dante myself, just to avenge Tony’s death.

Then Tony rang! I couldn’t believe it when I saw his face flickering on the screen of the vidphone. He wanted to meet me in the same bar where we had last spoken and it was then that I started to worry. His voice was different, harsher somehow and his attitude had changed. It was as though he expected me to automatically drop everything and come running for him, as though he deserved my obedience. I went to the bar, not sure of what I was thinking. I wanted to believe that I had been mistaken and that Tony was just the same as he had ever been but I couldn’t.

I got to the bar and Tony was sitting in exactly the same seat that he had been in last time. He was leaning on the table, with a bottle of beer in his hand but his eyes were constantly scanning the room. He watched every move that anyone made and stared at me as I walked across the bar to meet him. Our greeting was forced, it was like I was meeting a stranger for the first time. We sat and we drank and slowly things relaxed between us. I talked about what I had been doing for the last three months and Tony pretended to be interested. No matter how much I questioned him Tony would say nothing about his time on Dante. In fact, the more I asked, the quieter he became so I quickly dropped the subject and we talked about Meny again.

The night wore on and Tony got drunker and drunker. He eventually got drunk enough to talk about Dante and it scared me. First he showed me the scars where he had had the Nuke implants put in. Normally, that sort of operation doesn’t leave any scars but it was a rush job for the military and the surgeons cut a few corners. Tony’s body was covered in a network of thin, white lines but it didn’t seem to worry him. He was far too impressed with his new found strength and speed to worry about minor things like scars.

His stories about Dante shocked me and I had been an operative for close to a year by then, very few things shocked me. He told me of whole units of soldiers destroyed by flame-throwers, people screaming and running while the molten flames burned through their armour, their skin, their bones! He told me of the time that a unit of Thresher troops equipped with jump units on their armour dropped into the middle of his camp and started shooting anything that moved. That horror went on for almost 5 minutes and then they suddenly left. The survivors were amazed, they were certain that Thresher would have killed every last one of them but then they realised why the enemy had left. The sky above them was full of missiles that dropped onto the camp, onto the area that the Thresher troops had left only moments before. How did Thresher know that the air strike was on it’s way? Nobody knew! A total of 18 soldiers out of 2,500 survived that attack and more than 400 of them had been killed by their own missiles.

Tony told me of the time he saw a Captain order his men to fire on a unit of our soldiers that had broken and were fleeing from the battle. The poor fools were caught in a crossfire between Thresher and their own companions and were cut down in seconds. They never stood a chance against the Thresher troops and their own side killed them for trying to save their skins. Tony told me of the time that he had been caught in the radius of a bomb blast and had been thrown through the air to land in the area of no-man’s land between the two lines. He said that he lay there for almost 6 hours before he found the courage to start crawling back to his own lines. He struggled the 20 metres back through the blood soaked mud, across razor-wire and bloated, rotting corpses. He told me of how when he tried to crawl across what looked to be open mud, he fell through the surface and landed in a mass grave. Bones and broken armour grabbed at him and his eyes, ears and mouth were filled with the putrid mess of rotting flesh and diseased meat. Maggots crawled over him and gas escaped from one corpse with a high pitched whine that sounded like a young girl laughing. He said that it reminded him of the giggle of one of the girls he used to date in Meny and he actually laughed then. He sat at the table in the bar and laughed at that memory.

When he did finally get back to his own lines, he was given two minutes to get cleaned up, given a shot of Ultra Violence and then sent back to his unit to join in with an attack on the Thresher lines.

The entire time that Tony was telling me this catalogue of horrors, his hands were clenching and unclenching, the knuckles growing whiter and whiter but his face was still and calm. The emotions seemed to have been drained out of him and I didn’t want to know what had been used to replace them.

In the early hours of the morning, the barman came over to tell us that he was going to have to close up soon. He leaned over the table to pick up some of the many empty bottles that lay scattered across it and Tony lashed out at him. The edge of his open hand struck the barman across the throat, breaking bones and crushing his wind pipe and before I had a chance to do anything Tony was on his feet and kicking at the unfortunate man. I threw myself at Tony, trying to pull him away but my friend casually brushed me off and threw me across the room.

As I picked myself up I saw that Tony had moved away from his victim and was walking towards the door. He turned to me and I will never forget his words.

“You will never understand what I’ve been through, no-one will. They taught me to be a wolf and now they put me back with the lambs.”

As he walked out into the rain I staggered across the room to see if I could help the barman but it was too late. I called the Shivers, explained what had happened and went home. I never heard of Tony after that but I almost hope that he has died. I know how bad that sounds but you didn’t see the pain in his face when he left the bar, you didn’t hear how out of place he sounded when he tried to make normal conversation. Tony doesn’t belong on Mort any more, he belongs on Dante with the other killing machines. Maybe he went back, I don’t know!

With hindsight I can see that Tony was just an example of what Slayer does to every one of us. He twists us and changes us into creatures with no feelings, no souls. We are reared in an environment that has no regard for life and then we are punished if we take on the same attitude. One of the paradoxes of Mort is that we are taught to kill and then chastised if we do it without Slayers permission.

I am finding it hard to bring myself back to the present, away from Tony and his tales of Dante. I look around what I know to be my cell and all I can see are the bloody mud fields of Dante. I see kilcopters flying through a polluted sky, clouds of poisonous chemicals drifting in the breeze. I see tanks ploughing their way through the ranks of friend and foe alike and I can feel the dim light of the far away sun on my face. My mind knows that this is not happening, that I am locked in a cell in the depths of Central but my senses tell me that I am on the distant War World.

My vision finally clears and I can see the cell walls and ceiling again. There is still a faint scent of blood in my nostrils but it is my imagination. It is just so hard to concentrate on the present, I fear that one time I will never return from the trips inside my vivid imagination.

No, wait,…… The sprinkler system has just come on but it can’t be time for my shower already, I am sure that I had one just a few hours ago. This is great, just to confuse me even more the white-coats are changing my routine. Do they want to break my already unstable mind or is all just part of some sadistic game to them.

Wait, there, being washed into the drain. I swear I saw a mix of blood and mud being washed out of my cell and into the drains but that just can’t be. My mind is playing tricks on me, perhaps it collaborates with my jailers or perhaps it is just growing bored of this confinement.

Strange, my feet are hurting and there seems to be faint scars on them. Red lines that might be scratches cover the soles of my bare feet but I don’t know where they came from. It must be my mind again, or maybe the drugs that the white-coats force into me. Whatever the reason I will ignore them and I will prey that the go away. The marks can’t be any more real than the mud and my life is full of enough pain without me having to create more.

I will not let them take my sanity away from me, it’s all that I have left.

Tales of a Madman – 6

4 Sep

It is getting harder and harder to remember the life that I had before I was in this cell. The memories are still there but it is difficult to concentrate on any one of them. The memories flood over me and all I get is a confused mess of people and places. There are times when everything is perfectly clear but more and more often I can’t remember any details. I tried to talk to my white-coats about this but all they would say is that it is to be expected, that I am going through a period of readjustment and everything will settle down soon. I don’t know what they are talking about, but it scares me. I wish I knew what the drugs they are pumping into me are and what they are meant to be doing to me.

I remember saying earlier that I stopped working with Rage when he went to work with some Stormers. My shrink wants to know why I wouldn’t work with them, she says that they are a perfectly normal part of life on Mort, no different from me or you. They might not be any different from her, but they are sure as hell different from me. How can something that is grown in a tank and then programmed instead of taught be considered normal. They could be programmed to believe anything, to act in any way.

It is normally not too difficult to figure out how someone is going to act or think because they have been brought up in much the same way that you have. They have gone through similar experiences and been moulded by much the same things that you have. I mean, everyone gets basically the same schooling, watches the same vid programmes, plays the same games with their friends. To figure out what they are going to do you just put yourself in their position and decide what you would do. You can’t do that with Stormers!

They come out of their tanks fully grown with all their memories and ideas planted into them by a group of technicians. They don’t really know how to react to anything, they just know how they are meant to react. Put them in a situation that they haven’t been programmed to deal with and they go to pieces. I have never come across any Stormer that can think for itself and them makes them a liability in stress situations. An operative is constantly put into dangerous situations where it is all that you can do to keep yourself alive. There is no way that I am going to take on the burden of having to worry about a hunk of biogenetic meat that has to be told to duck when the shooting starts.

This healing themselves that the Stormers do, regeneration or something like that, I’m not sure if it’s such a good plan or not. Okay, it’s damn handy not having to worry about bleeding to death but it gives them a sense of invulnerability that can get in the way of common sense. Sure, they heal eventually but they are as dead as you or I would be if they get their heads blown off. I’ve seen Stormers wander into situations where anyone with any sense would have kept well away from.

This one I saw walked into a fire fight between a couple of gangs, the Krosstown and the Mohawks I think it was. The last thing that it ever said was, “Not worry, it only CAF!” Yeah, it was only CAF but it was a hell of a lot of CAF.

I heard somewhere that Stormers don’t feel pain, they only register damage. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but if it is true it’s no wonder that so many of them get themselves killed. Pain is a very good way for the body to warn us that we are in trouble and to get out of that trouble quickly. If these things don’t feel any pain they would never know when to stop. They get shot and hey just carry on as if nothing had happened, confident that they will heal up sooner or later. They are just like big kids that haven’t learned not to stick their fingers into the fire yet. The only difference is that a kid will only burn itself once, Stormers never seem to learn.

Another thing that worries me is how do we know what they are being programmed with. It’s obvious that they know how to fight and talk and walk and stuff like that but what else have they been programmed to do? For all we know they could be just waiting for the right moment to turn on us and take over Mort. I learned my history in Meny, I’ve heard of what happened during the Conflict Wars. When the time was right Slayer turned on the other races using the creatures he had sold them as troops. How do we know that Karma aren’t planning something similar with all these Stormers that are appearing.

Don’t you think it strange that for hundreds of years we had only one kind of Stormer wandering the streets, the 313 and now we have all kinds of new ones. Chagrins, Vevs, Xenos and who knows what else. The Chagrins aren’t too bad, they’re too dumb to be dangerous, as long as they don’t get too close that is! I can’t figure out why Karma would make something that strong when the 313 is plenty strong enough for everything it needs to do. The Chagrins are monsters, pure and simple. They are like the things my mother used to try to scare me with when I wouldn’t go to bed at nights. Creatures with claws and tusks like the Chagrin have shouldn’t be allowed to walk the streets without being kept on a leash.

The Xeno is simply weird. The thing looks like some kind of giant insect, something that you would find in the Cannibal Sectors. You can never tell where the things are looking because of all those eyes and it is impossible to tell if one of them is talking to you or someone behind it. They are always spying on everything that is happening, storing it up for future reference. When I was in school there was this kid who used to stand just round corners, hoping to hear something he could tell the teachers about. Xenos remind me of that kid. You can never tell if one of them is around or not, the way they change colour to blend into the background is spooky. Everyone hates a sneak and the Xenos are the ultimate sneaks,

I saw a Vevaphone in The Pit a little while before I was hauled into this place. It was writhing around the dance floor, changing shape every few seconds, copying the looks of all the people around it. It would go from Frother to Wraith to little woman to fat man to Shaktar to Stormer all in a few seconds. Okay, the copies weren’t perfect but they were close. At one point it came close to me and changed itself to look like I do. It is a bad feeling, looking at something that looks like a slightly blurred version of yourself. It had my clothes, my hair, even the glass that I was carrying but it looked unfinished, not fully developed. For maybe two seconds we stood there, looking at each other and I swear that the Vev could read my mind as well as my body. Looking into the things eyes I saw my own soul in there, looking right back at me. The creature changed into someone else and moved off but it really shook me.

If the Vevs can copy the way that we look how do we know that they cant copy the way that we think? Someone once told me that the form moulds the thoughts and at the time I didn’t know what she was talking about, but now maybe I do know. If the Vev looked just like me surely his brain would work like mine and he would think the same way that I do. He looks like me, acts like me so it must think like me. It was copying my soul as much as the rest of me.

That’s another thing about Stormers, do they have souls? Is it right for mankind to create life in that way? I personally don’t believe in any gods but I know a lot of people that do and a lot of them have a big problem with Stormers. What happens when a Stormer dies, does it have an afterlife to go on to or does it simply stop existing? I often wonder about what is going to happen to me when I die but do Stormers wonder about the same sort of thing? I would like to talk to a 313 about this sort of thing but I can’t imagine ever having a decent conversation with one of those things. They haven’t been programmed for theological discussions so they wouldn’t know where to start.

Slayer is making more and more Stormers all the time yet there aren’t enough jobs for the real people who live in Mort. Millions of Downtowners are unemployed and Slayer would rather make a creature to do the jobs that proper people could do. I saw a Low Wave wandering through the streets of Downtown once. I have no idea what it was doing there or how it got there but it must have been very lost. The kids started throwing stones at it and the thing just kept walking along the middle of the road. It didn’t take long for the bravest of the kids to come up and hit the thing with a bit of wood. The Low Wave didn’t even notice it, it just kept walking. Within minutes the kids were mobbing it, hitting and kicking and cutting at it. The Low Wave didn’t even turn round, it just kept moving in a straight line ignoring everything around it. The kids tore it to bits in the end. There were hunks of quivering flesh all across the street and the stupid Stormer never did a thing to defend itself. I suppose that I should have done something to help it but I really didn’t see the point. If it wouldn’t help itself why should I help it?

That was just one example of how much people dislike Stormers. No one trusts those things yet Slayer keeps on making more and more of them. Do you think that he knows how unpopular the monsters are, or maybe he just doesn’t care? I always think of Stormers as being males, but they aren’t. They aren’t male or female, they just are. One of the major drives in our lives is to reproduce ourselves so that there will be something of us in the future but Stormers don’t have that. What sort of social life can these things have, what do they do for kicks when they are off duty? I know that the 313s like loud music but it isn’t really them that like it. They have no choice in the matter, they have been programmed to like the music and that is what they have to do. Has a Stormer ever developed tastes of its own, is it possible for them to learn to like new experiences?

I wonder what Stormers think of us? Do they see us as superiors or weak inferiors? A major part of human life is wondering about our creator and whether he exists or not. Stormers know everything about their creators, they can call them up on the vidphone if they want to. Do they see the Karma technicians as parents or gods, or are they programmed to not think about that sort of thing? What do Stormers think about? I guess that only the lab technicians know that and they aren’t about to tell the likes of me their trade secrets.

There was a vid program about Dante that I watched a couple of years ago. It showed hundreds of Stormers attacking a Thresher stronghold without care for their own safety. These were Stormers that hadn’t been given free will, they were like machine that simply obeyed their programming and followed orders. They rushed forward towards the town that Thresher had dug into and were shot down in their dozens. The thing was that they didn’t stay down, as soon as they had healed themselves they got up and rushed forward again. It took a while, but they eventually reached the town and the Thresher troops didn’t stand a chance. The Stormers didn’t fight like normal people, more worried abut staying alive than killing their enemy, they just attacked.

I could imagine how scary that would be, fighting against something that didn’t care if it lived or died. I’ve met a few serial killers like that but a whole platoon of them rushing towards you must be terrifying. Whenever I get involved in a fight, whether it is with guns or not, I am more concerned with keeping my own skin intact than killing the other guy. Usually the best way of staying alive is to kill your opponent, but the Stormers don’t think like that. All they were concerned with was killing the Thresher troops as quickly as possible, no matter what the cost to themselves was. This is not a natural way to think.

What do the technicians do to make some Stormers have free will while the others don’t? Having free will must be the same as having a soul, so where do the souls come from? Creating Stormers is like playing at being a god and that is too much responsibility for anyone, even Slayer, especially Slayer! Still, that would suit him perfectly, wouldn’t it? Being thought of as a god by creatures he has created. Maybe that is what Slayer is trying to do, get rid of all the people and replace them with creatures he has created.

Can you imagine a world full of creatures that obey his wishes without a second thought? No-one ever questioning him, disobeying him or challenging him! Slayer would finally have got the total control that he wants so much. A world full of Stormers would be my idea of Hell, but what would a Stormer think of Hell as? A place where they weren’t told what to do, where they had to think for themselves?

I am never going to feel comfortable around Stormers and there is no way that I would ever work with one.

What have I just said? I am never going to get out of this place so there is no point in worrying about Stormers any more. I sometimes forget that I am a prisoner in this cell but I think that that might be because of the drugs. My grip on reality is getting weaker and it has to be the drugs that are doing it. I can’t concentrate on what I am doing or where I am any more and my dreams are getting more vivid. I am dreaming of places I have never seen and people that look as though they are not from Mort. I dream of places where it doesn’t rain all the time, where they have never heard of Slayer. There are times when I wish I could stay in my dreams and didn’t have to come back to this bleak reality.

I should make the most of my dreams because they are all that I have now.

Tales of a Madman 5

31 Aug

Have you ever killed someone? I’m not talking about in the heat of combat or in self-defence, I mean the cold-blooded murder of a living, breathing person. It’s an amazingly easy thing to do, you just pull a trigger, drop a rock, make your car swerve slightly; there are thousands of different ways to kill someone. The only thing that they have in common is that they leave you with an incredible sense of power.

When you have someone in the sights of your rifle, it is through your choice whether they live or die. If there is anything closer to being a god that that I don’t know what it is. Your victim’s future is entirely dependent upon you and the chances are that they don’t even know that you exist. This is your chance to change the world, even if it is only in a small way. Who knows what your victim would go on to do if you let him live? He could find a cure for all disease, find a way to stop Thresher and Dark Night in their evil ways, banish all poverty and even find a cure for old age. On the other hand the person in your rifle sights might be a mass murderer, he could work for a Soft Company that is about to unleash a deadly virus on Mort, he could be someone who gets his kicks from hurting little children.

No matter what kind of person your intended victim is, you will change the world when you pull the trigger! Of course, the more important the victim is, the greater the change that you will make. It is possible that your action could change the history of the world but you will never know, will you? It’s not possible to tell what would have happened if you’d missed your target.

The first time I was given a BPN that had me acting as a sniper I didn’t think there would be any problem with it. It was a simple job, remove the head of a religious cult known as the Readers of the Stars. No explanations, no reasons but there never are, are there? The guy I had to remove, Harris Longstaff was his name, was known as the Lord Prophet and lived in his cult base in Sector 8c of Downtown. I had a week to remove him or it would be my head on the block.

Remove, that’s a nice, polite way of saying murder I guess. It’s amazing the number of different words there are for killing someone. All the jargon that is somehow meant to make the act itself more acceptable. Remove, terminate, exterminate, silence, destroy, waste, rub-out. I have even heard it called retroactive birth control but it all means the same thing. Whatever way you say it, it is still the act of murdering another person. I’ll try to say murder from now on, my shrinks approve of honesty, or so they say. I don’t think that they’ll be too happy about me calling it murder though. They will tell me that it is a necessary evil, that there are times when a rogue element of society has to be removed.

I can just hear them now, “It is not a pleasant experience but it has to be done for the greater good!”

Bullshit! There is no such thing as the greater good, there is only the good of Slayer. Some poor fool says something that offend our leader or does something that Slayer doesn’t like and he is destined to be a non-person. Slayer issues one order and people die. No questions, no reasons, no debate, just a death. They try to tell me that this is the natural way of things. That it is right for one man, no not a man, a thing, to have this much power, this much control over our lives and our destiny. It can’t be right, there has to be a better way than this.

I’m sorry. I get worked up sometimes and I lose track of what I’m saying. That never used to happen to me, maybe it has got something to do with all the drugs that the docs are constantly pumping into me. I tend to lose my grip on things more often now, I can forget what I am saying halfway through a sentence. They never tell me what the drugs are for and when I ask they just smile and say that I should be honoured. Right, honoured!

Harris Longstaff and the Readers of the Stars. While I was checking out this guy I found out that the Readers of the Stars used to hand out food to the down and outs and they were getting very popular with the citizens of Downtown. Longstaff used to preach about how there was a message to the people written in the stars. He said that if Slayer would make the clouds go away we would be able to see the great message that would make life better for all of us. The guy was a grade A freak but he seemed harmless enough.

He wasn’t even getting worked up about the clouds. He thought that Slayer could make the clouds go away if he wanted to and every so often he would send a polite message through the right channels asking him to make it stop raining. Harris and his acolytes ran soup kitchens for the Downtown bums and he would preach to them while they came to eat. Like I said, he was getting very popular but it wasn’t because of this message in the stars crap. It was because he was feeding the people when they were hungry. I don’t know where he was getting the money for this, but I do know that he used to dabble in the stock market.

Feeding that many people must have taken a lot of cash and I don’t think that he would have got enough out of his stocks and shares for that so maybe that was why Slayer wanted him murdered. It is possible that he was getting the money illegally but I never found any evidence of it. Not that I was looking all that hard for that sort of stuff. All I wanted to do was kill this guy and collect my payment.

The job itself was a pretty simple one. Every three days Harris Longstaff, the Lord Prophet as he liked to be called. would set up this soup kitchen in front of an old warehouse where the cult was based. He would get his acolytes to put up a stage and he would stand there and preach to the bums who came to eat. The only protection he had were these acolytes who were hired Props. They were just around to stop any hassle that started with the street punks and they were no danger to a trained operative. They strutted around, trying to look impressive and would do a quick check on the area before every sermon. Amateurs.

Once I’d figured out his routine, it was a simple matter to set myself up on a rooftop that overlooked the warehouse and the stage. It was the early evening when I got myself settled down and the acolytes were busy setting up the stage. Harris was due to appear in about an hour so I got myself set up and tried to keep dry. My building was just under 400 metres away from the stage but the scopes on my FEN 30-30 made it look as though I was standing right by it. I was resting my rifle on the low wall that ran around the edge of the roof and it would be a simple shot. One squeeze of the trigger and I could go home.

I hadn’t bothered to take my armour since I hadn’t reckoned that I’d need it and I was starting to feel very vulnerable even though I was sure that no-one knew I was there. You get so used to wearing this heavy protection that you feel very exposed when you don’t have it on. I was convinced that someone was sighting in on my back and even though I knew that I was alone, I was sure that any second I would feel the blast from a gunshot.

The rain was coming down heavily, it was getting cold and I was as nervous as if this was my first job. I pulled my jacket closer and lit up a Feelgood, trying to think of anything other than my lack of armour. I swore that that would be the last time I went on any BPN without at least a suit of Body armour. The comfort was not worth the nervousness.

I sat with my back to the wall, turning round and peering through the scopes every so often. The nervousness passed and pretty soon all I was concerned about was the rain running down my back. I must have been at least 50 metres above the nearest road but I could still hear the Downtowners moving around below me. That place is like a giant ant’s nest, there are always crowds moving around, going about some business or other. I watched one street through the scope for about 20 minutes and in that time I saw two muggings and a gang beating. There were no Shivers around and I wasn’t about to involve myself in something that had nothing to do with me. In Downtown you have to be able to look out for yourself.

Eventually, the acolytes had got the stage ready and Harris Longstaff turned up. He was a tall guy, with long white hair that was plastered to his head by the rain. He was dressed in a deep blue robe that covered him from neck to foot and must have cost a fortune. I don’t know what it as made of but it sure looked expensive. He walked out onto the stage and stood there for a few moments, looking over all the Downtowners that had come to eat his food. He had a look on his face that I don’t really know how to put into words. It was as though he was a father watching his children enjoying themselves or as if he was personally responsible for all the bums that were stuffing themselves with food bought with his cash.

He started talking to the people that had gathered and most of them actually stopped eating to listen to him. I was too far away to hear what he was saying but I could tell by the way he moved and the expression on his face that he was deeply involved in whatever he was preaching about. He would point towards the sky every few minutes and when he did, every person there would look upwards, even the acolytes who were meant to be protecting him were engrossed with what he was saying. That made me mad for some reason. True, it did mean that the Props weren’t looking around for someone like me, but there are such things as standards. These guys are meant to be professionals and it annoyed me that they could be so careless.

I straightened myself out, stretched the kinks out of my arms and squatted down behind the wall. I loaded the 8mm High Explosive Armour Piercing round into the FEN and took a bead on his forehead. It would be so easy to pull the trigger and Longstaff would not be a problem for SLA any more. He would never know what had hit him, alive one second and dead the next. No warnings, no chance to avoid it, nothing! I eased my shoulders into a slightly more comfortable position and started to squeeze the trigger.

Longstaff moved forward just before I made the shot. I would have risked it and tried for him again but I was more than happy to wait until I got him in my sights again. After all, I was in no rush. Longstaff had moved to the very front of the stage and reached forward to catch hold of a young girl who was in the crowd. He helped her onto the stage and then put his arms around her shoulders. The kid must have been 8 years old at most and she looked completely overwhelmed at being upon the stage with “The Lord Prophet”. She had these huge brown eyes that looked so innocent and helpless and she was biting her lower lip anxiously.

Harris said something to her and she looked up at him and smiled. Her entire face lit up with the smile and she cuddled closely into him. He ran a hand over her hair and said something to the crowd that they obviously approved of, I could hear the applause quite plainly.

I squinted through the sights again, getting a bead on his forehead once more but something had changed. Before he had brought the girl up onto the stage Longstaff had been a target, nothing more. Now I thought of him as a human being, a living, breathing person with a real life. I tried to banish these thoughts and get on with the job but they just wouldn’t go. How could a man like this be a threat to Slayer. He had his arm around the little girl and she obviously loved and trusted him.

I put the rifle down and ran a hand across my face, wiping the rain from my eyes. Breathing deeply I tried to think straight and convince myself that I had to do the job. I needed the money and it wouldn’t look good on my file if I couldn’t do a simple job like this. Grabbing my rifle, I got myself positioned again and looked through the scope for Harris.

He had lifted the girl up now and was carrying her on his hip. I tried to blank that bit of my vision out and sighted on my target. I got a bead on him, between his eyes and just up slightly, it would be a perfect shot, just like they taught us in Meny. The rifle was rock steady and I tried to squeeze my finger on the trigger but I just couldn’t do it. No matter how hard I tried my finger simply wouldn’t move.

I was staring at Longstaff for a least two minutes before he put the girl down and helped her back into the crowd. A racking sigh went through my body and I quickly repositioned the rifle. Once again I sighted on Longstaff but I couldn’t keep the rifle steady, my hands were shaking too badly. Nothing I tried would make me stop shaking and I knew that the sermon would be drawing to a close soon. I was running out of time.

Longstaff appeared to steady himself in my sights for a moment and I took a chance. I pulled the trigger and felt the kick of the recoil as the rifle thumped into my shoulder. Harris had gone down but not with the head shot that I had been hoping for. His right shoulder had been mostly blown away and he was lying on the stage with blood pumping out of it. He would probably die from a wound like that one but I couldn’t take a chance with it, I had to finish the job.

Now that I knew I had to carry on I was amazingly calm. I jacked another round into the rifle and stood up with one foot up on the wall. Resting my elbow on my raised knee, I sighted along the rifle and fired again. Longstaff jerked convulsively as the 8mm slug tore through his brain and then lay still.

The crowd was screaming and running for cover. The acolytes were rushing around like headless chickens looking for the killer of their boss. The only person that wasn’t running was the little girl that Longstaff had picked up. She was standing at the edge of the stage just looking at the corpse of the man who had been holding her just moments earlier. I stood, frozen on the rooftop, watching this girl as she climbed onto the stage and went over to Longstaff. She knelt beside him, put her hands together and closed her eyes. It took me a long time to realise that she was praying for Longstaff.

Finally, I came to my sense, slung the rifle over my shoulder and moved to the stairway that would take me down to the roadway and my bike. I was walking in a trance, thinking of Longstaff and the girl. I don’t remember how I got home that night but I do remember getting very drunk when I did get back to my flat. I still have nightmares about that little girl praying over the corpse of the man that I had killed in cold blood.

My white-coats say that it is good to talk about traumatic experiences like this. I say that they are full of shit. I murdered a man because Slayer didn’t like what he was saying about the clouds and the stars. Harris Longstaff’s life was worth a couple of hundred Credits and a slight increase in my SCL rating. That’s how valuable life is in Mort, in Slayer’s World of Progress. If that’s progress, I don’t want it.

Tales of a Madman 4

8 Aug

There was a time when I was the perfect SLA operative. I was a machine that the programmers fed a routine into and then let loose in the city. That’s how most of the Slops still are, unthinking machines that never vary from their set routine. They all think they are so unique though. Everyone of them is convinced that they are something special, that there is no-one quite like them. Wrong! There isn’t a single one of them any different from all the rest. They are all machines that can only follow their programming. Sure, they might look slightly different from one another but that doesn’t change the way they are inside.

It really makes me laugh, all those self-important little people strutting around with their guns and armour, trying to make an impression on the camera. All their made-up personality quirks and attitudes seem so false if you sit back and study these people. The Slops put forward an image of independent wild men but they are just puppets on the end of Slayer’s strings. They look so good for all the sad citizens who have nothing better to do with their time than watch the vid, but they are just colourful shells with a void where there souls should be.

That’s a word you don’t hear very often, souls. I learned it from a young man I had to kill. He wasn’t even a young man, the kid couldn’t have been any older than 13 at most. Barnaby Hei was his name and he had gathered a small following from the people in Downtown. Barnaby was something of a prophet in the area where he lived, he could read your future from the lines on your hand or from those fancy cards he always carried around with him. Tarot cards I think he called them. For some reason Slayer took a dislike to Barnaby and ordered him terminated. Great word, terminated. It means murdered but sounds so much better. Anyway, I got he BPN to take out the kid and I thought that I would go and see what it was all about before I pulled the trigger. Even all the way back then I was having doubts about Slayer but not enough to make me think of refusing a paying mission.

It must have been about that time that I started to question whether I was doing the right thing or not. I was starting to pay attention to what was going on around me and it must have been some time around then that I realised that all the people I saw everyday were actually thinking, feeling beings like me. Not just scenery but real people. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with, the fact that you are not the centre of the Universe. If you know that everything you do and say has an effect on the people around you, you have to change the way you think of everything. You can’t simply blunder through life with no thought for anyone else, you have to think about how others are going to react to you. The next time you are speaking to someone, stop to think that they are real people too, no different from you!

Sorry, I was rambling again. My white-coats say that rambling is a sign of a disorganised mind but what do they know about it? Anyway, Barnaby lived deep in the lower levels of Downtown. The streets were cluttered with garbage and were mostly underwater and the only light was the dim glow that the few remaining street lights gave off. Dogs were running wild in the streets and the whole place looked as though it was about to fall to bits. There were a lot of people hanging around, drinking from bottles in brown paper bags and warming their hands over open fires. A burned out taxi lay on its side and there were about half a dozen kids playing on it, none of them wore shoes and they all looked to be on the edge of starvation.

When I pulled up on my expensive bike everyone turned to stare at me. Absolutely everything stopped while these down-and-outs examined the intruder in their home. They looked at me as though I was from a different planet and I suppose I might as well have been. They had torn and dirty clothes, not enough to keep warm let alone anything else and not enough money to feed themselves. I had the latest designer fashions, guns and armour that cost more money than they would ever see in their entire lives and a bike that cost more than their block would do.

I turned to the biggest of the kids who were playing on the taxi and said, “If the bike is here when I come back, you get 20 Uni but if it isn’t here, I’ll come looking for you and I will find you! Now, where do I find Barnaby Hei?”

I followed the kids directions and went into one of the smaller tenement blocks. The place stank of some sort of spicy food but the smell had to be better than the usual stench of Downtown. The halls of the block were even darker than outside and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. Once they did I was surprised by how clean the place was. There was no graffiti on the walls and no garbage lying on the floors. Something about the place made me feel nervous and I had the feeling that I was being watched by someone or something. I couldn’t see anyone around and my motion scanner didn’t pick anyone up so I just put it down to an overactive imagination. Now I’m not so sure.

Barnaby was meant to be staying in a flat at the back of the block so I carefully made my way back there, still looking out for anything out of the ordinary.. The door that I had been directed to had a symbol of some kind painted onto it. The centre of the design was a large, ornate sword with some sort of weird runes painted down the middle of the blade. Cutting across the sword was something that looked like an elaborate waking stick. Whoever painted the stick must have been out of his head on something good because the design twisted and turned and it was virtually impossible to follow the pattern of it without finding yourself back at the start again. To the right of the crossed sword and stick was a painting of a coin of some kind. Instead of the normal design of a bit coin this one had an image of a five-pointed star engraved in the centre of it. There was some kind of writing around the edge of the coin but it made no sense to me at all. I can’t read too well but I had never seen anything like that writing before. On the left of the pattern was a goblet of some kind. It looked as though it was meant to be made of a dark, yellow gold and was studded with dozens of different gems. In the goblet was a dark red liquid that seemed to be bubbling and moving slowly.

The whole thing was so realistic that I just stopped myself from reaching out and touching the design. Just looking at it sent a shiver up my spine and I came very close to turning round and walking away. I was on the edge of leaving when the door swung open and a scrawny woman poked her head round the corner.

“Barnaby has been expecting you,” she said and stood aside so that I could go into the room. She was the thinnest person that I have ever seen. There was nothing to her apart from skin and bone and her face made her look as though she had been dead for a month. Her eyes bulged out from the sockets and her lips were drawn back in a fierce grin that showed yellowing teeth. Her hair lay in greasy tangles around her face and her ears had no lobes at all. She was wearing a plain grey dress that hung on her shoulders and she had a necklace of beads around her neck. On the necklace was a large, cloth pouch that had a dark, red stain on it.

My FEN seemed to jump into my hand and was pointing at her when a voice came from inside the apartment.

“Put your gun away, Mr SLA operative, Isobel won’t hurt you. Please come inside, I’ve been waiting for you.”

There was something very soothing about the voice and almost before I realised what I was doing, I had put the FEN away and was stepping past the woman who was called Isobel. The room was decorated with pictures and paintings of hundreds of different symbols, many of them similar to the one on the door. The only window had a heavy curtain over it and the room was lit by dozens of candles. In the middle of the room was a boy sitting at a table covered by a white cloth. The kid must have been Barnaby but he wasn’t anything like I had been expecting him to be.

He was tall, thin and didn’t have a hint of hair on his head or face. The kid was wearing a pair of faded jeans and a plain, black T-shirt and was shuffling a pack of oversized cards. His pale skin seemed to take on a reddish shade in the light of the candles and he was looking up at me with an amused expression on his face. Isobel closed the door behind me and went to stand in a corner of the room. The whole thing looked like something out of a bad horror vid but there was something about the atmosphere in the room that scared the shit out of me.

The kid looked up at me with dark, dark eyes and gestured towards a chair that was at the opposite side of the table for him. Without thinking, I reversed the chair and swung my leg across it to sit down. To this day, I don’t know why I just did what the kid wanted but it seemed like I had no choice.

“I know that you have been sent to kill me, Mr Operative, and I know that you won’t be able to do it. Already doubts are in your mind and when you listen to what I have to say, you will know that there is more than one path. You can’t hurt me, Mr Operative and I don’t want to hurt you. I want to be friends with you and I always get what I want.”

There was something very calming about he way he spoke and for a few seconds I completely believed in him. I didn’t want to hurt this harmless kid and if I went back and reported that the mission had been completed, no-one would know that I hadn’t murdered him. From outside I heard the crash of a window breaking and the sound brought me back to my senses.

What was I thinking about? I had a mission to do and if the kid had to be terminated that was his bad luck. There was no way I was going to leave this room if the kid was still alive and no amount of mumbo-jumbo was going to change that. I shook my head and looked up at the kid just in time to see and expression of pure rage pass across his face. It vanished as soon as it appeared though and he looked as calm and placid as ever.

He spread the cards he was shuffling face down on the table and invited me to pick out any four.

“This will give me an insight into your soul, Mr Operative, it will foretell your future and show you the path. It is obvious that you don’t believe in my powers, Mr Operative, but what do you have to lose by humouring me? If I am to die before this day is over surely there can be no harm in us listening to what the cards have to say? Please, humour me.”

What the hell, I thought. Maybe I should listen to what the kid had to say, it might be a laugh. I wish now that I had never touched those cards. I should have just wasted the kid and got out of the place while I could but no, I leaned forward and pulled four cards towards me.

Barnaby leaned across the table towards me and said, “The cards can read your soul, Mr Operative. They can see your true nature, what you long for and what you are scared of. They can see what you really believe in and they can see past the false images you put forward. The cards will look deep inside you and that tiny place where you hide from the world will be plain for them to see. Your soul, where you hold all your deepest emotions and the real you waits to be released will open itself to the scrutiny of the cards.”

The kid snorted a laugh, harsh and unpleasant, “But that doesn’t matter to you because you don’t believe. How simple it must be to dismiss the lost science of a different age as the ramblings of a stupid child. How nice to live in a black and white world where things are either right or wrong!”

He stretched across the table and took the cards from me. I was shocked to find that my hands were trembling so I crossed my arms ad leaned forward into the back rest of my chair to hide my fear. Barnaby looked as me as though he knew exactly what I was trying to hide and turned over the first card. It was the picture of a boy holding a pair of burning sticks.

“The Two of Wands,” said Barnaby. “The card says that there is a new idea burning in you. This idea will draw you away for your current path and aim your life in a new direction, but it will be up to you to make this goal come to pass. Do you have the strength of Will to change directions? I think not.”

The next card that he turned over showed a man imprisoned by a ring of swords. The man seemed to be trying to break free from the cage but the swords somehow forced him back.

“This is the Eight of Swords. It proclaims that you are unable to act because you fear the consequences. No matter what you do, it will be wrong and you know that you have only yourself to blame for the situation. The time will come, Mr Operative, when you find yourself in a dilemma and there will be no easy way out, no right choice to make. Not a good card, not a good card at all.”

Barnaby turned over the next card and it showed some weird half human, half animal.

“The Hierophant shows that you will soon begin the quest for answers to questions you have not even asked yourself yet. Questions about life and where you fit into it. Doesn’t seem like you, does it, Mr Operative? But the cards never lie. They don’t always tell the whole truth, but they never lie.”

The kid picked up the last card and looked at me before turning it over.

“This is the card that will show you where your life is going. It will show your destiny and the path that is written in your soul.”

It had a picture of a large building on it. It was being struck by lightning and was crumbling down into the sea. Barnaby smiled as he placed it on the table.

“The Tower, Mr Operative. This card tells me that all you believe in is going to come crashing down around your years. Your whole life is going to be turned upside down and everything you have worked for is going to be worthless. That is, Mr Operative, if you live that long!”

I sensed more than saw a movement behind me and as I was turning to see what was going on when something crashed against my back. Isobel was standing behind me with a large, broken carving knife in her hand. She must have been moving around the room while I was engrossed with the cards because I swear that I never saw her move. The knife blade had shattered on my armour and I wasn’t ever bruised from her feeble attack.

Almost casually, I back-handed the frail woman around the face and sent her reeling into a corner of the room where she collapsed to the floor. Turning back to the kid I saw that he had got to his feet and was backing up against the wall. He grabbed a bundle of cloth from his pocket and held it up between him and me.

“You can’t hurt me, Mr Operative, and you know it. Why not just turn around and go back to your nice home? As soon as you walk out the door you will forget all about me, so go quickly, before it is too late.”

Whatever he had used last time to make me believe had no effect this time. I slowly drew my FEN 603 an pointed it at Barnaby. As soon as he saw that I wasn’t going to leave his bold exterior crumbled and he turned back into the 13 year old kid that he was. He grabbed the bundle tight enough for his knuckles to go white and started mumbling some kind of chant. Tears were streaming down his face and he kept stumbling over the words he was trying to say.

“Sorry kid,” I muttered as I pulled the trigger. The shot took him in the centre of the throat and knocked him flying backwards into the wall where he slowly slid to the ground, leaving a trail of blood behind him. A high pitched wailing sound started up from behind me and I spun round to see Isobel crawling towards the kid. She had got maybe 50 centimetres before she collapsed to the ground. Leaning forward to check her pulse I was struck by the stench of death coming off of her. She smelled as though she had been dead for a long time and was falling apart in front of my eyes.

I don’t know what sort of disease she had that made that happen to her, but I wasn’t going to hang around to find out. As soon as I got back to my bike I called in to report that the BPN had been completed and that they should send out some Shivers to verify. Even before I had been acknowledged I had thumbed the bike into life and was out of there.

There was something about the whole mission that had freaked me out and I couldn’t get Barnaby Hei out of my mind for a very long time. For days afterwards, every time I closed my eyes I would see him holding up the card with the picture of the tower on it and hear his voice saying, “All that you believe in is going to come crashing down around your ears.”

All the time I just dismissed the kid as another freak but now…. Too many things have happened that are too close to what the cards said for me to say coincidence. I wish that I could put it down to a fluke, but I can’t. The kid looked into my soul and told me my future. What would I have found out if I had let him live? Would he have told me that I was going to end up in a padded cell because I had finally come to my sense?

Did the kid plant those thoughts in my head or did he really read what was there already? Did he know that I would end up talking to a camera, or is it because of him that I am? There are too many questions that I am never going to get an answer for and I try not to think about all the maybes. It’s only now that I realise that the kid must have had some real power or Slayer wouldn’t have had me murder him. If it had all been trickery Slayer wouldn’t have cared what happened in that rundown part of the city, but he did care. He cared enough to send an operative to deal with the situation. Try to look up the files on Tarot and you will find that it is listed as a “game of chance played with cards”. No way!

If you believe that maybe you should find someone to read your cards. I wouldn’t advise it though, you might just hear something that you are not ready for.