Tags: AIDS, chapter, HIV, industry, molecular tracking device, novel, research, safe sex, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology
Breakthroughs occurred in Year Four of the Molecular Tracking Device project and the scent of success galvanised the Diep Research Centre team. Casting aside the remaining shreds of their social lives, the scientists toiled around the clock.
At last, Jessica Diep and her colleagues produced a prototype. Like children putting on a show, they whispered excitedly until Neville Major arrived for his briefing. A radiant Jessica delivered the speech she’d been rehearsing since adolescence.
‘In conclusion, gang, it’s been an honour to work with you. We’ve slogged our bums off and achieved something to be immensely proud of. For the times I lost my temper, I’m sorry. Though it’s no excuse, this project has pretty much ruled my life. I’m very happy and very grateful. My one regret is that Dad isn’t here to see what we’ve done. Most of you will remember how excited he used to get. Well, wherever he is now, I can guarantee he’s doing his absolute nut.’
The group cheered and applauded.
‘Now, Neville, since you were the only one with the faith (and the funding) to get this technology off the ground, I think it’s fitting that you flick the switch on our demonstration.’ She glanced around smiling. ‘I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.’
Jessica was more accurate than she realised. After the successful demonstration, Major acknowledged contributions, promised bonuses and reiterated the project’s social value. He then predicted greater challenges, adding that they could wait until after the victory party, which he undertook to organise for that evening.
The night began with a banquet served in a lavishly redecorated conference room. The space had the feel of a familiar place used for a strange purpose, like a kindergarten voting centre. Afterwards, the team relaxed around the fireplace installed for the occasion. Ambient music from an industrial-strength entertainment system flowed around them.
A tray circulated with cocaine, MDMA and LSD templates — all guaranteed harmless and non-addictive by their manufacturers. Only the underworld had opposed their introduction; the drop in crime had been staggering. As the team began its ascent, Major said a few words then excused himself. A redheaded engineer thanked him for all he’d done and the group warmly echoed his sentiments.
With their executive controller gone, a feeling of release paired with the drugs to remove inhibitions. Laughter rang out as the group began to entertain itself. Music and conversation swirled faster and louder, till all were on their feet pounding the expensive rugs to fluff. Much later, the romantics ceded the room to diehard dancers. The rest saw sunrise from the roof of the facility as the most significant chapter of their lives closed behind them.
Neville Major was too excited to notice the morning spilling into his study. Not for thirty years had he felt so alive. He’d achieved the most significant adaptation of computer power to date. A modern Domesday Book, able to log all discrete manifestations of matter.
Compounding this triumph was his political victory. In four years he’d achieved what even supportive Members had claimed would take twelve. He now had the jump over rivals working on other methods of societal control. As the world embraced the logic of employing ETAT Members to run its systems, he’d delivered the means by which such power, once secured, could be retained.
He’d hardly been able to contain himself during the briefing, so eager was he to confront his critics. Fortunately sense had prevailed. The prototype had significant scope for improvement, especially in terms of reliability. It wasn’t ready for the dramatic unveiling he’d envisioned since encountering Jessica’s thesis.
A gifted orator, Major was one of the few PC users who employed voice recognition. To the despair of its proponents, most eschewed the utility in favour of typing, for fear of voicing mistakes. Now his report was taking shape. ETAT was an unofficial conglomerate of minds. Yet every organisation, however nebulous, needed a leader.
As soon as the improved prototype was ready, Major authorised leave for all but Jessica and three of her team. Though he had loaded his report with lures, he was stunned at the number of Members who attended his briefing.
He acknowledged the most powerful people on earth and introduced Jessica, treading a fine line between crediting her and keeping the focus on himself. With patent pride, Jessica nodded to the assembly, retired behind the prototype and swapped smiles with her off stage support team.
Major’s rich baritone swept the auditorium, channelled by a forest of acoustic reflectors.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, today you shall witness the most remarkable of inventions. The Molecular Tracking Device, or MTD, collects and transmits detailed information about discrete objects — enabling them to be identified and tracked. The technology relies on the unique molecular signature of everything around us, its speed and accuracy varying according to conditions. If an object’s molecular signature is known, stable and close to an MTD, accuracy can be as high as 99.97 percent.
‘Take, for example, this “Spoonbak” construction brick.’ Major held the shiny prism aloft. ‘This is a simple product made by the Alesis group of companies from known elements. Information about its every dimension is held on the Internet, including its specifications and method of manufacture. We can easily list the world’s structures incorporating bricks of this type. In other words, we know all about Spoonbak bricks.
Now, the MTD interfaces with the Internet. If it comes within range of a brick like this, a spontaneous Net search for a generic match will reveal instantly that the MTD is dealing with an Alesis Spoonbak brick. That certainly narrows the field and in most cases we’d have learned all we wanted to know. But the MTD can go much further; it can identify a specific brick from countless visually identical units.’
Major paused to gauge his effect. The audience was interested, but neither convinced nor impressed. He moved to the edge of the stage.
‘The power of molecular tracking is better demonstrated than described. May I have a volunteer? …Alright, how about a sceptic?’ A thickset, bullet-headed man clambered from the darkness. Major recognised his arch critic and felt a flutter of anxiety.
‘Good morning, Mr Hillyer. Would it be fair to say you’re unconvinced as to the power and potential of the Molecular Tracking Device?’
Jason Hillyer took the stage. ‘That would be putting my view very mildly.’
‘Share with us, then, your frank views on this technology.’
Hillyer folded his arms. ‘Having read everything you’ve sent us, I’ve formed the opinion that it’s a complete waste of resources. Nor have I witnessed anything today beyond rhetoric.’
Major blanched and forced a smile. ‘Thanks for your appraisal. Now a question: were you earlier approached to assist in today’s demonstration?’
‘Have you ever received any incentive to regard this invention favourably?’
‘Absolutely not! I came today to see this ridiculous project crash and burn.’ Hillyer’s gaze narrowed. ‘I suggest you get on with it.’
‘Certainly; I sought merely to establish your authenticity as a volunteer.’
The bullet head rotated. ‘My colleagues are well aware of my views.’ Guffaws rose from the gloom.
‘Very well. Jessica, scan Mr Hillyer and tell us something about him we could not reasonably know.’
Jessica studied her monitor. ‘His shoes are hand made.’
‘He had sausages, eggs, bacon, toast and pineapple juice for breakfast.’
‘The emerald in his ring is real; the diamond isn’t.’
Major chuckled. ‘How many carats is the gold?’
‘How many dental fillings does he have?’
‘One… SureFix amalgam.’
‘How old is he?’
Jessica paused. ’43.9 years.’
‘This is bullshit!’ said Hillyer. ‘All this information could’ve been gathered in advance.’ Murmurs of agreement sounded. ‘Is this the best you can do?’
‘May I remind you, Jason, that you volunteered?’
‘So what? For all I know, you’ve spent your obscene budget having all of us followed, just to assemble material for this sham of a demonstration. Well you don’t convince me; I’ve seen enough.’
Terrified of a walkout, Major played his last, desperate card.
Hillyer turned. ‘What?’
‘I shall prove this invention to your satisfaction or resign from this organisation.’
Gasps swept the auditorium; this was unbelievable. Hard-nosed entrepreneurs and bemused technocrats leaned forward to catch Hillyer’s reply.
Major wet his lips. ‘Ask Jessica three questions about yourself. Things to which only you know the answer and for which correct responses will constitute proof that my claims are genuine.’
Hillyer thought it over, suspecting a trick but unable to resist. ‘Alright, but one wrong call and you’re finished.’
‘Agreed,’ said Major, his heart beating wildly. He looked at Jessica. Her eyes berated him for the unfair trial. She’d only scanned Hillyer and the clothes he stood in. If he had any idea of the MTD’s limitations, they were history.
Hillyer strolled to the table. ‘Ready?’
‘Knock yourself out,’ Jessica retorted.
‘Right. Question One: what sort of fish do I keep?’
Jessica’s heart fell and her eyes pricked. Her dream had been reduced to a cheap gag. In an angry voice directed squarely at Major she said, ‘I don’t know; what sort of fish do you keep?’
‘Ha! I thought as much.’
Hillyer stomped over to Major, his words lost in the audience’s cacophony. On saying his piece with patent relish, he left the stage. Colleagues gave the thumbs up and welcomed him back to his seat. Pandemonium reigned. Then a circle of calm radiated from the centre of the auditorium. ETAT’s most senior Member held his withered hand aloft. One by one, neighbouring peers fell silent, as much out of curiosity as respect.
Victor Chow was the closest thing ETAT had to a leader. Notorious for influencing without overt action, his acumen had achieved mythic proportions. To draw attention like this was unprecedented. Only after silence returned did Chow’s words waft over the assembly — in the voice of a stern but kindly grandparent.
‘I suggest this demonstration has failed to reveal the potential of the Molecular Tracking Device.’
‘No shit,’ Jessica muttered, wondering what the hell was going on.
‘I suggest we take a second look at the technology before dismissing it,’ continued Chow.
No one dared object.
Startled, Jessica peered into the lights for a face. ‘Yes?’
‘You have scanned Mr Hillyer.’
‘Yeah.’ Jessica felt rising anger at the voice’s anonymity.
‘You can tell much about Jason from his physiology and from what he is wearing and carrying.’
‘It’s a bit late for this, don’t you think?’ Jessica’s eyes tracked irritably over the sea of suits. ‘Who am I talking to anyway?’
Crimson at this impertinence, Major strode over and hissed a blunt description of Chow’s importance. Jessica recoiled with a loud ‘So what?’ Major moved in front of her, his gestures suddenly suppliant in the spotlight’s shadow, but she shook her head emphatically. He then flung out his arms as if to conduct her. She side-stepped and opened her mouth defiantly, but before she could speak, Major ducked forward with a whisper sharp enough to wound.
Jessica stilled and stared at him, through him. He was serious about throwing her off the project. Like hair caught in a lathe, all trust and respect for him was instantly stripped away. Blood searing, the taste of iron in her mouth, she turned jerkily back to the voice.
‘Yes, Mister Chow, I can tell you a great deal about Mr Hillyer.’
Chow continued as if nothing had happened. ‘But you have had no access to Mr Hillyer’s home.’
‘No. Ten seconds in there and I’d have known more about his fu…, his jolly fish than he ever will.’
A titter rippled through the assembly. Hillyer shifted uneasily.
‘Tell me,’ asked Chow, ‘can you reveal something truly confidential about Mr Hillyer himself? Something… significant?’
Hillyer rose and roundly denounced Jessica, Major, the MTD and everything associated with it. Chow let him wind down, until Hillyer realised he was raving to silence. He spluttered to a halt and looked at the ring of expectant faces.
Chow’s eyes glittered in the darkness. ‘Your attitude towards new ideas is regrettable, Jason. What have you found, Jessica?’
‘Pure wool suit with silk lining. Platinum AMEX card in factory-stitched, pigskin wallet. Broken left tibia at age six. Cancer polyps removed from large intestine five months ago. Blood group A-positive…’ Jessica hesitated; Hillyer looked up sharply.
‘What have you found?’ Chow prompted.
‘Er. Something significant. But I don’t think it’s what you’re after.’
‘This has gone far enough!’ Hillyer exploded.
‘What is it, Jessica?’
‘I’m really not sure you want to know.’
‘Tell us!’ The voice was irresistible.
‘OK; you asked for it. Mr Hillyer has been HIV-22C positive for one month. Lesions indicate vigorous rectal penetration at this time. Causal link: 97.4 percent. Mr Hillyer appears to have become infected by means of unsafe intercourse. Tissue traces inside his foreskin further indicate he has performed unprotected penetration of an adult male less than six hours ago. Satisfied?’
Every eye fixed on Hillyer. That he had the virus was irrelevant; ten percent of the population carried one or more strains. That he slept with men was even less an issue; one in four experimented with homosexuality. What stunned the auditorium was Hillyer’s disregard for the only moral standard ever embraced by the world community: that of safe sex. He had failed to monitor his health and endangered that of another. Though no longer a death sentence, AIDS demanded lifetime medication.
‘Jason,’ asked Chow, ‘is this true?’
‘You don’t understand,’ Hillyer croaked.
‘I understand that the MTD works. Would you say you now hold a similar view?’
‘Go fuck yourself!’ Hillyer tottered through the nearest door and tried to slam it behind him. It stubbornly whispered shut of its own accord.
After again waiting for calm, Chow summed up. ‘I consider the MTD a remarkable invention worthy of further study. I see significant potential for it to address our requirements. I commend Neville on his work and suggest we support him fully.’
Jessica and her assistants were ushered from the auditorium. Major took the dais again and predicted that if correctly introduced, the MTD could identify and track every person, object and transaction in the world. Combined with the unlimited storage capacity of the Internet, ETAT would have at its disposal the most effective intelligence, administrative and enforcement network ever known.
The meeting ran late into the night. Word spread rapidly and Members who hadn’t attended broke commitments to link up with proceedings. It was ETAT’s largest ever gathering. Under Chow’s patronage, arguments were productive and business proceeded briskly.
Major’s suite overlooked the river. Needing time to collect himself, he enjoyed a scalding spa, then switched off the lights and opened the curtains. A moonlit panorama swept into view, the water a play of mercurial reflections. A net of fairy lights stretched to the mountains.
Major reflected drowsily on the most significant day of his life. Victor Chow’s personal endorsement was his mandate to shape the future.
His face hardened. Jessica now knew she was expendable. Though serious, the issue didn’t impair his sleep. He was a great believer in the power of problem incubation and his smile returned as the low moon bathed him into effigy.
Read Chapter 06.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Tags: chapter, molecular tracking device, novel, PC, personal computer, research, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology
Hilton Diep had been a pioneer, leading forensics into the realm of molecular analysis. His team had given society a spectacular edge over crime, until the underworld developed countermeasures. Stripped of funding by their disillusioned law enforcement clients, Hilton and his colleagues had continued to refine their technology in their own time. Over decades they’d faded away, until only Hilton remained to mentor the students who’d grown up around the project.
Now with his organs beyond rejuvenation, the old man was in decline. He spent more and more time in the immersion unit he’d designed around his mainframe, scouring the Internet for clues of what might lie beyond death.
The door beeped and Hilton opened it to his daughter Jessica. Whatever Lee Khuzain’s motivation to marry a man thirty-two years her senior, the partnership had worked. The combination of Asian and Middle-Eastern blood had produced a handsome girl with brooding brow, interrogative gaze and a regal stillness that both unsettled and attracted.
‘Sorry to interrupt Dad; there’s someone to see you.’
Hilton winced. ‘Why can’t I take it here?’
‘It’s not virtual; he’s in the hall.’
‘Well, send him up. Who is it anyway?’
‘No-one we know. He says he’s from television and that it’s urgent he speak with you personally.’
Hilton’s rheumy eyes almost twinkled. ‘Ha! They’ve finally decided to do my life story.’
‘No Dad. He’s here about the project. He mentioned funding. Jesus! Will you get down there?’
Standing at the front door in tailored charcoal, Neville Major appraised Hilton during his unsteady descent. Though the file images bore scant resemblance to this bent little man, Major wasn’t fooled. Diep’s recent essays were as brilliant as ever. Major offered a manicured hand as Hilton negotiated the last stair.
‘Good morning, Mr Diep. I am…’
‘Neville Major,’ said Hilton, adjusting his dressing gown.
Major hesitated, recovering quickly. ‘Yes. I’m with television. You’re familiar with the industry?’
‘Not with the industry, Mr Major, but with that band of scoundrels known as “ETAT”. A cartel of which I believe you are a Member.’
Major coloured. ‘I think you may have the wrong man, Sir. I am Senior Executive in Charge of…’
‘…Wresting Control of the Planet from Those Who Inhabit It,’ Hilton icily completed.
‘You follow politics.’
‘I follow the world. I value it highly and despise any threat to it.’
‘You consider me a threat?’
‘Your colleagues command a great deal of information. More so than our elected governments, by my reckoning. I’d wager there isn’t a key enterprise or subsector council you don’t plan to infiltrate, if you haven’t already.’
‘Yes, indeed! What’s more disturbing is that the data you control used to be in the public domain. I notice PBW Corporation hasn’t done much for humanity since acquiring their portfolio of rice genomes. Then again, it’s only been sixteen years. You’re on the board there; what’s your take on things?’
Major’s flush deepened.
‘Yes indeed. You ETAT people are all very eager to conceal the extent to which you already pull strings. You’ve revealed nothing of yourselves other than your title, and even that hasn’t been openly declared. Your Members are creeping onto the world stage in every arena: industry, media, politics, even religion. Should I not see you as threat?’
‘You accuse ETAT of specific misdeeds?’
‘Why waste my breath? With so much at stake, I’ve no doubt you’re past masters at denial — if not concealment.’
Major smiled thinly. ‘A barbed compliment indeed. To accept it I must confess our crimes. Now what do you imagine they are?’
Hilton shuffled to the window. ‘I’ve no idea. I’m a scientist, not a politician. All I have is my fear of a burgeoning cartel with an undisclosed mission and zero integrity. No doubt you’ll dismiss my concerns as the ravings of dementia.’
Major was more impressed than concerned. Diep had made some sharp observations but wouldn’t live long enough to join the dots.
‘Sir, you are far from senile. I shall dismiss your concerns, but not for the reason you suggest. You have invented a conspiracy more labyrinthine than could exist in the real world.’
Hilton gazed outside and sighed. His back gave a warning twinge. ‘I imagine we’ll hear that a great deal in years to come. The universal panacea: “it can’t happen here”. Hmm, there’s our first daffodil.’
‘Mr Diep, I represent the television industry. Having studied your daughter’s thesis, we’re keen to learn more about the origins of this remarkable tracking technology. We wish to document the history of molecular forensics, focusing on your contribution.’
‘You’re lying. Or is it a jonquil? You can never tell until they bloom.’
Major stilled his temper with effort. ‘As payment for your co-operation and to help you continue your research, we have prepared a substantial offer.’
Hilton turned abruptly, a fresh line of pain on his face. ‘Get out of my house.’
‘Mr. Diep, you don’t understand. We will pay you to complete your life’s work.’
Though his crippled frame was comic compared to Major’s lanky build, the intensity of Hilton’s voice made the younger man step back. He kept moving, as if leaving of his own accord, then drew up piously on the threshold.
‘I came today to discuss a generous capital injection for your molecular identification project. You seem more interested in my political affiliations than in resurrecting your brainchild. I leave you to ponder the waste of your unfinished work. Good day.’
Hilton trembled with rage. ‘You’re a liar and a charlatan! ETAT wants my invention for some reason or other and you’re the bell hop sent to fetch it from me.’
The front door slammed, dislodging a family portrait, as Jessica rushed into the room.
‘Dad! I cannot believe you! Why’d you throw him out? Did you hear what he said? This is the first expression of interest you’ve had since I was born! This was why I posted my thesis. Shit, Dad, we’ve been waiting twenty years for him!’
Hilton thrust his hands into his gown. ‘I should never have let you put that paper on the Net. I knew someone like him would come sniffing around.’
‘What do you mean, “someone like him”? Did you see how he was dressed? He’s loaded. And he’s from television. We could get more out of them than the cops ever put up. For Christ’s sake, Dad, what’s the problem? You’ve never even met him!’
His source of irritation gone, Hilton was calming rapidly. ‘I know him from the Net. He’s in league with a cohort of shady characters. They’re planning something. The signs are there, if you take your time and know where to look. The trouble is, no one cares who controls what anymore, so long as it keeps running.’
Jessica rolled her eyes. ‘Come off it Dad, you’ll have to do better than “shady characters”. That guy was our ticket. We’re not letting him go because you read some gossip in your booth.’
‘That’s enough, Jessica. Believe me, Major is bad news.’
‘How can you expect me to accept unsubstantiated allegations? You’re a scientist, Dad. So am I, almost. We deal in facts. You’ve never talked like this before. What’s the real reason you don’t like him?’
Hilton felt suddenly tired. His will to argue collected its things and made to leave. He ran a hand over his crumpled face and looked at Jessica, impatient for his response. ‘Trust me. Major came on behalf of ETAT. I don’t know why, but I’m certain their interest in our work is suspicious. Please, as a favour to me, just accept what I say.’
Jessica stared clear-eyed back at him. ‘You know I can’t do that; it contravenes everything you’ve taught me.’ Her voice softened. ‘What is it really? Are you frightened I’ll finish your work? Is that it?’
Hilton shook his head slowly.
She touched his arm. ‘You know I love you Dad, and that I’ve always loved your invention — from when I was a toddler in the lab, remember? What does it matter if I finish what you couldn’t? There’s no shame in that; it’s honourable.’ A car door slammed and Jessica sprang to the window. ‘Shit! He’s leaving! We can’t let him go!’
Hilton reached out to her. ‘Jessica! Don’t you dare go after him. You have no idea what these people are like. I forbid you to…’
But she was gone.
Though her passion and naiveté made her easy work, Neville Major was careful to treat Jessica with respect. No-one with a doctorate at twenty-four was a sure thing. He admitted he was an ETAT Member and described complex but innocuous links between ETAT and the television industry. Then he made visionary yet practical suggestions as to how molecular identification could benefit society. Jessica agreed to head up a research facility. Major noted with satisfaction that she’d come on board for a fraction of what ETAT had been prepared to offer her father. He was certain her research would eventually run rings around all that had preceded it.
Hilton begged Jessica to reconsider and drew dark images of Major’s hidden agenda. But he had raised her to be logical and independent. What he could not specify, Jessica dismissed. His defeat was heavy with irony; he’d once been every bit as headstrong. Concern for her welfare gnawed at him and his health began a steeper descent.
Jessica moved into the fabulously appointed research complex which Major had named ‘The Diep Research Centre’ in Hilton’s honour. To her delight, Major encouraged her to assemble her own team, with the exception of two ETAT-nominated candidates. She’d grown up with the children of the original developers. Many had done papers on the technology of their youth. All were keenly interested in Jessica’s project description and interviews quickly became ‘remember when’ sessions.
Major was unfazed by his charges’ familiarity with each other. The mix was perfect: common history underpinning experience, capped with youthful enthusiasm. His report to fellow ETAT Members rang with confidence.
The team assembled, Major slipped behind the scenes and became the perfect manager, removing obstacles and minimising interference. He foiled office politics, fostered the free flow of ideas and rewarded effort. The team barely noticed him and laboured with almost religious fervour. Never had they felt so motivated. They were continuing the work of their elders and refining the technology of the future — technology on which, according to their benefactor, the advancement of humanity depended. They ate, breathed and dreamed their project, even whispering about it during occasional, furtive couplings. It was the happiest team of keen, young minds ever assembled.
Two years into the molecular tracking development project, Hilton Diep tumbled down his stairs and shattered his pelvis. His wife Lee pleaded with him to undergo a risky replacement operation but he refused. Shock, compounded by concern for Jessica, sapped him of the strength to recover.
Jessica visited when her schedule permitted. One evening Hilton surfaced from delirium to startle his daughter with a sudden, lucid question.
‘Do you believe me about ETAT yet?’
‘Let’s not talk about that, Dad. I know you just wanted the best for me.’
Hilton’s eyes glimmered with anger. He swallowed dryly. ‘Don’t patronise me; not on my deathbed.’
Jessica flushed. ‘Do we have to deal with this now Dad? Is there nothing else to talk about…’
‘…in my last days?’
‘Yes. That. I didn’t mean to be hurtful. It just seems such a waste of time to rake over old arguments.’
Hilton dug his fingers into her arm and raised himself painfully. ‘Jessica! The signs are all around now. They’ve started to come out; I can name thirty in positions of power. Real, push-the-button, make-it-happen power. Surely you’ve noticed their growing profile? ETAT is becoming a household name. People are beginning to acknowledge Member influence. Governments are hiring them as consultants for God’s sake! You must see it — it’s all around!’
Jessica pressed him back. ‘Dad, just take it easy will you? Look at your damn monitor!’
He fought her off. ‘Stupid girl! Why won’t you listen? I’d renounce my life’s work if it’d make you quit your precious patron. Can’t you look around for once and spot the changes? Your ETAT is positioning itself to devour the world and all you can do is humour me!’
A nurse bustled into the room, checked the monitor and glared at Jessica. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘I must ask you to leave; Mr Diep is too frail to be upset like this.’
‘Not another word. Please leave; you may return this evening.’ The nurse deposited a sedative into Hilton’s drip.
Hilton lay back. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Just relax, Mr Diep. The doctor will be along shortly.’
Hilton turned to Jessica, who had surprised herself by backing off, and extended his arm. Dodging a lethal look from the nurse she took his hand.
‘Just… check it out… for yourself. Please?’
‘… Alright, I will.’
Jessica tucked his arm under the blankets and walked thoughtfully from the ward.
Four days later, Hilton slipped into a coma and died. Jessica kept her promise. With Major’s encouragement she took compassionate leave. Despite Hilton’s notes, however, her research revealed nothing sinister about ETAT. All she could discern was a collection of prominent, variously gifted citizens involved in global projects of great import. She found no financial, legal, political or philosophical connections between the named Members and couldn’t even see the point of using a common title for such a disparate group. She scoured the Net, following her father’s ‘leads’. In every case, she dismissed his fears for lack of evidence. Conscience appeased, she grieved, comforted her mother and threw herself back into her work.
Read Chapter 03.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Phil Gibbs.
Tags: chapter, contestant, death, game show, novel, personal risk, science fiction, speculative fiction, television, TV
The studio lights speared into Peter Gideon’s eyes. Fresh sweat sprang to his temples as the roadies strapped him down. With his head fastened to an array of rubber-sheathed prongs, his field of vision had shrunk dramatically.
Metre-high numerals drifted past on shiny red and black rectangles. Their gilt characters spangled his coveralls as they entered and left his sight, then began another circuit. Before the series could blur in Peter’s fevered mind, a sole oblong of beetle green, bearing an elegant gold zero, cruised past like a hammerhead and spoiled the pattern.
Wedded to each number and extending beneath Peter’s immobilising chair was an aperture. As these passed under him, he rechecked his tallies of apertures closed and open. Numbers three, four, seven and twenty-eight had their articulated shutters locked down. These were his favourites and he felt their safety as they glided past. The rest of the range zero to thirty-one was horribly different: mouths gaping — hungry and expectant. Chill upon chill flayed Peter as each void briefly revealed the tip of the steel lance directly below him.
‘One in eight, one in eight, four in thirty-two, twelve point five percent, I can do it, I can do it.’ Peter repeated the mantra in an effort to stay calm. Again he questioned his decision. Was a new life worth this risk, this terror? Despite the bats in his stomach and the staccato tattoo at his temple, he again affirmed, ‘yes’.
Lester Rodrigues pounced on the mahogany decking and thrust a microphone into Peter’s face.
‘Hiyaaa! Winners are grinners! So, Peter, how do you feel to be on the threshold of the good life, eh? Pretty damn good I’ll bet, yes?’
Peter peered past the host’s pencil moustache to the cameras that had materialised around him. He realised with shock that the screens were gone, exposing the Wheel to its audience. He sensed them shifting, breathing, waiting.
‘You feel like you are on top of the world. All these lovely people have come to see your great triumph; they wish they were here instead of you. You cannot wait to start the ball rolling, yes?’
‘Yes,’ Peter blurted, flummoxed.
‘Great! Then let’s get going!’
Rodrigues could get cattle dancing in an abattoir. To a roar from the crowd and a refrain from the band, he sprang up and cantered towards the cameras, jigging and swooping with elegant gestures.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome once again to The Game! Tonight we have just for you a very special show, packed with contestants. We begin with Peter Gideon. Tell us about Peter, Sophie!’
Camera One panned to a fit, fake-breasted redhead in a diaphanous body suit. She read from a card.
‘Peter is a thirty-five year old Rich Class citizen taking his one-in-eight on the Wheel. He’s a human resources manager with Kroger Concrete and he enjoys parties, swimming and travel. Peter’s ambition is to become Free, but he’ll happily enjoy Superrich status for a while — if he makes it. Peter’s numbers are three, four, seven and twenty-eight and he’s chosen a spin of sixty seconds, anti-clockwise, starting from zero!’
Lights spun furiously, the band played a jazzy interlude and the focus swept back to Rodrigues.
‘Thank you, Sophie. Isn’t she sexy, everyone?’
‘Yes!’ roared most of the male and many female crowd members. The rest craned for a glimpse of Shaun, who always presented the second contestant.
Rodrigues waited while the roadies fussed over the Wheel, cycling the zero to where Peter sat and engaging the drive. When they were finished, the host raised his arms as for a flamenco and a technician killed the lights. Though familiar with the effect, the spectators gasped as one. Peter tensed, picturing the skewer beneath him. He was loath to commence his ordeal over the abyss, but it was infinitely more important to finish with a closed shutter than to begin with one.
‘And now,’ said Rodrigues from the velvet blackness, ‘we shall together see whether Peter… is in luck.’
Above the Wheel a single light flicked into life, parting the dark and sounding myriad metal echoes. Slowly the power increased. Peter’s outline became discernible and his coveralls regained their orange hue. At length the Wheel was fully visible. The light grew brighter still. At last, Peter and his chosen instrument were ablaze and the crowd was on its feet, yelling and hooting with anticipation. The drive motor thudded into life. The Wheel shuddered and began to move.
The effect was literally electric; Peter felt the machine come alive. Involuntarily he strained against his restraints, gaping at the numbers blurring before him. He fought for composure while his heart threatened to burst through his chest.
Recognising something concrete amid the hype, the crowd sat down with murmurs of comment and speculation. Rodrigues manoeuvred beyond the pool of light. Though the spectacle of a spin required no augmentation, he had to be ready to harvest the result. On reaching his station, he regarded Peter’s form and idly predicted, ‘he is dead.’
The cameras wheeled like terns over fish. Every nuance on Peter’s shining face was fed to the control room, where angles were selected for telecast. The choice was extensive: a fixed shot of passing numbers; a profile of the lance in its alcove; the countdown to the end of Peter’s spin. As was tradition, the audience bellowed the final seconds in unison with the timer.
‘Ten! Nine! Eight!’
Sophie and Shaun shared a de facto cigarette backstage and watched a monitor.
‘Three! Two! One! Showtime!’
With a second thud, the drive disconnected and the device freewheeled. As the rate of revolution decreased, the crowd fell silent, guessing how many circuits remained. Most had bets sharpening their interest. Eagerly they tracked numbers, shutters or open apertures, depending on their wager.
Faint with fear and unable to see anything beyond the Wheel, Peter was mesmerised by the race of numbers flashing before him. Only the faint clickclickclickclickclick of the arresting mechanism broke the silence. The decreasing tempo of this metronome was his best guide to death or riches. He winced at the sweat blurring his vision and closed his eyes.
Through crimson membranes he recalled his decision to become a punter. The impromptu party had been wild and filled with salacious speculation about the delights of the Superrich. He thought of the friends who’d gone before him, inspiring him to register. Now they waited to welcome him over the line. If only he too had bitten the bullet before the odds had lengthened.
He imagined himself in fine, Superrich clothes on the balcony of his luxurious apartment. Waves smashed against mighty rocks, spray turning to gold. Wayward shafts pierced the clouds as the sun quenched itself in a mass of glittering reflections. One cloud detached itself and rotated slowly. It was shaped like a seven. It was a seven! Peter gave thanks for his salvation and closed his eyes. Reopened, they beheld the sunset at its climax.
The cloud was gone.
In its place reared an emerald serpent with fangs bared, its hiss pulsating in waves. Its jaws opened wider and the flickering tongue stiffened to attention, tines pressed together. With a shriek, Peter regained consciousness to hear the arresting mechanism at less than a click per second. The Wheel was about to stop.
He raced among the numbers. Three, four and twenty-eight were out of sight. He panicked until, from the limit of his vision, he discerned the seven cruising to his deliverance.
His relief was short-lived. Between his chair and the safety of the shuttered aperture lurked five voids. The first slid beneath him, yielding to the second with a click. The second gave way to the third, which hung on to no avail. The fourth fought the remaining momentum, but lost to the fifth. At the last moment, it too was carried away. The proud gold-on-red seven, its shutter firmly locked down, took its place beneath the man who had selected it, denying the lance its prey and sending the audience wild with catharsis. Peter reeled at his victory, as three beautiful seconds stretched into the distance.
With a final click the Wheel came to a true stop — confirmed by a fractional rotation in the opposite direction. A siren sounded and the gold-on-green zero grinned a horrible, single-toothed salutation at its victim.
Peter’s sphincters opened. Diarrhoea coursed down his calves and his last meal rocketed into a fleeting nebula. With a sigh of compressed air, the Wheel engaged its secondary gears and the lance rose smoothly at one centimetre per second. The crowd hailed the pitiless instrument. To the brave, it could grant divine favour. To the unlucky, it brought a death not exceeding two minutes. To ETAT, it returned staggering advertising revenue.
The main monitor tracked the lance. Higher-echelon citizens abandoned ringside views for the centre screen close-up. The tip passed into the restraining chair and pushed against the reeking seat of Peter’s coveralls. Though not yet hurt by the gentle advance, his banshee wail belied an imagination fully conversant with the pain to come. The roadies leaned quietly in the wings, estimating the amount of cleaning. In the next few seconds, the course of the skewer gave them an idea.
With two soft tears of fabric, the questing point entered the cleft of Peter’s buttocks. He braced himself, only to realise that the lance, slippery with excrement, had already passed into his rectum. Shock, dismay and embarrassment all gave way to a dull ripping sensation. He recalled his abject fear of spinal injury and realised that the severing of nerves would have brought relief beyond price.
His intestinal coils presented no obstacle, pierced or pushed aside as the lance ascended. Peter’s abdominal cavity began to flood with effluent and the trickle of pain became a torrent as a dam of razors burst in his brain. Frantically his organs telegraphed their respective piercings, beseeching him to flee. But the restraints held, preventing escape of all but the blood twisting down the shaft. At the loss of his left lung, Peter coughed a red mist into the superheated air, weeping and howling for mercy. Coldly oblivious to the twitchings of the invaded body, the lance slid inexorably upwards, its slim taper finding Peter’s windpipe and truncating further protest. The tracking camera scored a sensational shot of the tip travelling past his epiglottis into the cavity formed by his hysterical mouthings.
It was almost over. By avoiding the heart and leaving the brain till last, the Wheel was The Game’s most consistent performer. As Lester Rodrigues moved forward, Peter’s last thought was of what societal stratum the host occupied. Had he ever been a contestant? His speculation ended as the lance reached his occipital lobe. It cracked through Peter’s skull; scalp riding up until pierced. The drive wound down and clamps were reapplied. Peter Gideon, human resources manager for Kroger Concrete, was dead.
Rodrigues gestured rhetorically to those happiest with the outcome and the cameras pounced. Flushed faces crammed the monitors as contagion flared, racing through the tiers, leaping pockets of resistance and feasting on noise and movement. Swiftly the feeds fell in a flurry of eyes and teeth. Then, calm as a sundial, with the roadies already preparing for his next contestant, Rodrigues slid from the chaos and threw seamlessly to a commercial.
Read Chapter 02.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Fuzzy Gerdes.