I let out a sigh — not of regret, just air — and looked out of the window of the stolen car we were in.
Back in the multi-storey carpark, the Mercedes was half-filled with poisonous white smoke and three dead bodies. I hadn’t really accepted what I’d done, it was more of an abstract impression I had in the back of my mind. Not being able to see inside the back of the car helped.
I guess that’s how army drone pilots can not feel like total pieces of shit for killing people thousands of miles away without taking any personal risks and giving their victims no chance to defend themselves — the screen fills with static and you finish your Frappuccino unable to hear the screams. And the Medal of Honor goes to…
Three coffee shops passed by in quick succession, a sign of what society had become. We used to be hunters who fought for survival, every moment a terrifying attempt to keep from falling off the brink. Now we forced bitter stimulants into our bodies throughout the day so we wouldn’t fall asleep halfway through our own lives.
It wasn’t that I didn’t feel bad for what had happened to Lillian. Technically, I was to blame but, unlike most of the deaths I had caused, it really hadn’t been my intention to get rid of her.
She was annoying and probably a threat, so removing her from the picture wasn’t all bad, but I’m not the sort of person that just ends lives because I can.
That probably sounds a bit disingenuous considering what I did to Samson, but that was different. He had made it clear that he had ill intentions. Even if he didn’t have plans to go through with them (unless the situation demanded it) that made no difference. It was like a boxer stepping into the ring with a pistol tucked into his belt. Sure, he might not use it — firing a gun with boxing gloves on is hardly going to win you any quick draw contests — but that’s not the point.
You have indicated a willingness to go outside the normal parameters that have been established and agreed on, which is enough to mark you out as a piece of shit.
You might think I should have felt bad about what happened to her in the back of the car, but that would just mean you haven’t been paying very close attention. Her passing was sad, but no sadder than that of the two guys with her, or some kid who needed a liver transplant and couldn’t afford the Chinese prices, or a cat that fell off a roof and didn’t land on its feet like the cartoons had promised.
Death is death. No one is so important that they force you to restart the level. We are all NPCs in this game.
“The boss is going to like you a lot,” said AJ. He was smiling and quite relaxed for a big black dude who had just lost three of his colleagues in a terrible button-pressing accident. He didn’t appear to be at all worried about what I might do to him, hadn’t even reprimanded me for touching his stuff without permission, which was very much the mode these days — say nothing at the time and complain bitterly later. Clearly, I was a person who should be kept away from knobs at all cost.
This car didn’t have any strange fittings and all the buttons had clear symbols that indicated what they did. Was it so hard to give passengers a little heads up like this?
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“I call him Boss,” said AJ. “He is a very private man. Doesn’t like people knowing his business. You understand, ah? You are the same, no?” He grinned at me again.
“Sure. But I’m not calling him Boss.”
“Then you will have to ask him yourself. I do not speak for the man. I only speak for myself.”
Commendable but not particularly helpful. “Aren’t you upset about Lillian and the other two?” It was a risk bringing it up, but he hadn’t shown any signs of giving the slightest toss. It wasn’t normal behaviour.
“No, these things happen. You shouldn’t feel too bad. How were you to know what that switch did? No, no — no one blames you. And to be honest, I never liked her. Very arrogant young woman, very full of herself. I don’t know why, but every woman I meet over here has to prove she is a bad motherfucker. Haha. No need to prove anything when it is the truth, ah?”
“And the women where you come from? They’re docile and do what they’re told, do they?”
“Ah, tch. No, of course not. Who would want a woman like that? My wife, if I upset her too much, she would wait until I am asleep, and beat me to death with a broom. She is a good woman. Strong. Dependable. Keeps the house very clean. Haha.”
It was hard to know if he was joking or not. He laughed no matter what, so that made it doubly tricky to tell.
This world, the home I’d returned to, still didn’t feel real to me. In many ways, Flatland seemed like the real world, and this was the weird fantasy creation that was like some sort of game.
I could kill people here and it was just a computer model with excellent ragdoll physics. I could pass through walls and frighten grown men. I could even put two million pounds in my bank account and drive around in a car with a murder switch. And none of it affected me. It was like I wasn’t really here.
A convenient excuse to do all sorts of stupid shit. Maybe I was cut out for a leadership position after all.
I saw a police car coming down the opposite side of the road and immediately felt my butt clench. I was in a stolen car with a black man. The British police could be accused of failing in a lot of areas but pulling over a black man for no good reason wasn’t one of them. AJ didn’t appear to be concerned as the sleek white saloon passed by. I think he would have been fine even if they’d stopped us and asked to see his licence. Some people are just cool with that sort of thing.
“What would you have done if that cop car had stopped us?”
AJ shrugged. “Nothing. They’re just doing their job. I have no reason not to cooperate.”
“You stole this car,” I pointed out.
He pulled a short-lived grimace that suggested he didn’t see how that had anything to do with it. “The car will find its way back to its owner in the same condition.” Not exactly the point I was making. “When you don’t see threats and problems in every face you meet, life becomes much more enjoyable.”
“I think there are a lot of black people who would disagree with you,” I said. Far be it for me to speak for an entire race of which I wasn’t a member, but I was pretty confident in assuming there had been a number of innocent black people who had agreed to help the police in a spirit of cooperation, and found themselves stitched up and in prison as their reward.
“Not all black people are the same,” said AJ, which could have been an admonishment of my innate racism, but sounded more like a PSA in case I hadn’t heard. “There are those who spend their time listening to reggae and playing cricket. They are clearly not in their right mind to start with. It also helps if your ancestors were never slaves. It can twist your way of thinking. Make you enjoy playing a game that takes five days. We have had wars that didn’t take that long in my country.”
He turned the car into a residential road with trees lining it, and then into a private parking area outside a glass and steel building. It wasn’t very big. You could see inside where there was a reception area and some padded benches where people could wait, some potted plants for ambience. The sign outside said ‘St Mary of Atlantis’.
I couldn’t recall mention of the lost kingdom of Atlantis in any holy texts, but they were finding new scrolls around the Dead Sea all the time, so maybe something had turned up while I’d been away.
“Is this a church?” It had that modern Alpha course aesthetic, where people could gather and accept their failings in an effort to not have to take responsibility for any of them.
“It is a religious establishment, yes,” said AJ.
“You’re Christians?” All I needed, the power of the occult as my enemy.
“No,” said AJ. “What we do in there, no Christian would do.”
“Follow the teachings of Christ?”
AJ smiled even wider than usual. “The religious status is mainly for tax purposes.”
That made more sense. Why religions didn’t have to pay taxes I couldn’t tell you, but you’d be a fool not to take advantage if you could. Why help everyone when you could focus solely on the twats you personally approved of? That’s what Jesus would do, right?
We left our stolen vehicle out in front for any passing rozzers to spot and call in. Obviously, it wasn’t very likely but it still seemed needlessly risky.
AJ wasn’t having any anxiety over such a piddling matter. If the police came to ask how come there was a stolen car parked outside, he would probably smile and shrug and shake his head at the reckless youth who had taken it for a joyride and left it here.
There were bound to be a bunch of traffic cameras that could prove he was the one driving, but why would anyone go to those sorts of lengths for a car that had been found in good nick with not even steaming turd on the backseat?
It’s the confident people who get away with it. The link between acting like you’re the best thing since sliced bread and the universe agreeing to give you all the breaks is hard to ignore. You can be the biggest dickhead in the world, but if you walk with a swagger and refuse to admit you’re to blame for anything, the universe will love you like a puppy who pissed on the carpet but is just too cute to stay mad at.
AJ led me inside through double doors made of glass with a poster stuck to it offering free coffee and cake to anyone who attended a talk to be given on Tuesday by Pastor Wilhelm on the subject of mind and body connection.
The photo of the pastor was of a young blond man with a lot of muscles and carrying a kettlebell in each hand. It wasn’t immediately clear to me which denomination this church belonged to or what kind of services they offered. High-intensity prayer and free communal showers, probably.
It was very quiet in the reception area with no one manning the desk. Perhaps the whole thing had been designed to encourage everyone to stay well clear. There are some organisations that are expert at creating an atmosphere of utter contempt in anyone who passes by outside, like a yoga studio or a tanning salon.
AJ went down some stairs that weren’t visible from the exterior and through wooden doors, once he’d keyed in the code.
Religious buildings with locks on the doors are also very dubious in a world full of cold, hungry, homeless people. Aren’t they the ones who need shelter the most? I know, it’s a bit of a cliché at this point, everyone makes a big deal about how rich the church is when there’s so much poverty and distress in the world. I guess it’s due to it being a valid criticism that’s gone unanswered for the last two thousand years. Not even Blizzard take this long to fix a bug.
Through the doors there was not a lot of religious fervour or ecumenical matters being addressed. There were about thirty or forty chairs at cubicles, with people sitting with headsets, like at a call centre. Only, their headsets covered their entire heads, like VR helmets.
At the far end of the room was a large screen, black but slightly flickering like the show was just about to start.
“What are they doing?” I asked AJ. “Selling real estate in Heaven?”
“No,” said AJ. “They are part of a psychic collective, connected by advanced technology to increase their brain power exponentially.”
“It’s the neural centre of our network,” said a young (youngish) man who had come running towards me with his hand extended. “Hello, I’m Nov, head of communications. You must be Colin.”
He was fair-haired, receding at the front, wearing thick black-framed glasses and a white shirt with blue tie. Very prim, a high voice full of energy. I didn’t like him straightaway.
The hand he offered was up near my face, which made it hard to shake comfortably. Maybe he wanted me to kiss it.
“Why is your hand so high?” I asked, looking at the long slender fingers that probably had never done any hard work in their life. Unfair, I know, but when did that ever stop me?
“Ah, sorry, it’s a non-verbal psychological test. Your response gives an idea of the kind of social strata you occupy.”
“Well, lower it before I show you, non-verbally.” It wasn’t really a threat, more of a gentle go fuck yourself.
“Yes, yes, of course. Sorry.” He lowered his hand, smiling nervously.
“Good for you,” said AJ. “He tried to high five me the first time we met, like some kind of Amercian basketball player. He has some strange ideas, but he is often brilliant.”
“Not brilliant enough,” I muttered. “What are these people doing?”
“Ah, our team of specialists,” said Nov. “They’re all actually functional psychics. I know, I know, sounds ridiculous, but I don’t mean they have ESP type abilities, telekinesis and whatnot — I wish — it’s very low-level, unfit for any practical use. Until, of course, they are wired up to our mainframe which is down in the basement. Don’t go down there without a jacket, freezing cold.” He had a face that suggested he was eager to be friends. By which I mean he was annoying from the forehead down.
“They can do psychic shit when they’re linked up?” I didn’t really believe it, but I was interested in seeing what they could do.
“Yes, they really can. Let me show you — I think you have time before the boss gets out of his, erm, meeting. Come over here.”
He went over to a lectern under the screen. There was a thin microphone on a stand on top of the lectern and Nov leaned into it. “Control, we’ll be running the duck test.”
“Okay,” said a small tinny voice from a speaker somewhere. “Ready when you are.”
“Hello, everyone.” This time Nov’s voice filled the room. People moved around in their chairs. “We’ll be conducting the duck test. Please relax and let your minds empty. Breathe in, hold it… breathe out. And in, hold… and out.”
This went on for about a minute.
“...and out. And now… duck!” He spun around and looked up at the screen.
It flickered but remained black. Then there was a vaguely duck-shaped silhouette, which was hard to see when it was black on black, and may have been my imagination.
Then a yellow duckling appeared, like a still photograph. Then it was replaced by a mallard with a green head, followed by a series of ducks and duck-like creatures all superimposed over one another in a big blurry mess.
I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Nov just watched, his neck tilted at an awkward angle. I looked over at AJ who seemed to be enjoying the show nodding his approval.
The ducks merged into one very sharp and well-defined duck. It was speckled brown with a yellow beak. It moved around the screen in a very convincing manner.
“They’re all imagining this duck, together,” said Nov. “No instructions, just a communal belief in ducks.”
I had no idea what this was meant to prove — a successful launch at next year’s E3?
“Great,” I said. “Breathtaking.”
“Wait there’s more,” said Nov. He began fiddling with knobs on the lectern.
If it was really what he claimed, then it was an impressive achievement, a step on the way to some kind of future tech that would wow our grandkids, but it could just as easily be a video of a duck, which isn’t that amazing.
“One second, one second…” Nov had a finger raised.
I was here on other business and wasn’t really interested in seeing the next Nintendo console in action.
“Okay, people,” Nov said into the mic. “You’re all in sync. Please allow yourselves to receive. Open your minds and your chakras, your meridians, your neural pathways. Fully dilated, please.”
There were some odd oohs and ahs around the room. The duck had gone, replaced by the flickering darkness.
Then a face emerged, half-hidden in shadow but very familiar.
“Colin? Is that you?” said Jenny.
I looked up at the screen, her face looking down at me.
“Jenny?” My voice caught in my throat. They say you don’t know what you have until you lose it, but it’s not until you see it again that you realise how much you want it back.
And then she said, “Why the fuck did you leave me here? Are you trying to break up with me?”
Girlfriends — you can dump them in another universe but you never really get rid of them, not until they decide it’s over.
“This isn’t over, Colin. We need to have a nice long talk about the future of our relationship. Running away won’t save you.”
I signalled to Nov to cut the line.
“You better not hang up or so help me I will reach through this portal and strangle you. I will Sadako your arse.” This is why you shouldn’t teach your girl the power of pop cultural references — she’ll use your own strength against you, like judo.
She moved closer and the half of her face that was scarred and malformed emerged from the shadows.
The people in the room gasped and stifled screams, like they’d seen a monster. They weren’t entirely wrong.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino