The Game – Chapter 23

February 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Very few contestants selected the Mincer.

Gregor Klimt did not feel bad about Jody’s murder. The act had granted catharsis from his gruelling struggle to Comfortable Status. Though the switch from disfigurement to death had been forced, it had come easily.

Gregor was adamant Jody had deserved to die. Greed had passed her sentence; he’d merely executed it. Had she been satisfied with her lot, she’d have lived to enjoy it with her lover. The New Deal had brought unprecedented social order, but it protected humble and greedy alike. The arrangement was technically efficient, but morally bereft.

Gregor saw a mission; something worth pursuing now his material quest was over. He had the training and resources to discourage avaricious citizens from seeking Free Status. He liked the idea of being fate’s instrument and started scanning the Internet for others like Jody. Part of him wasn’t serious about being a vigilante. It went along for the ride, convinced this was a phase.

Ever since The New Deal’s prospectus had appeared five years earlier, a rumour had circulated. Six months after the cut-off date, it was confirmed. ETAT had classified all its Members as Free – including those whose net worth qualified them for lesser classifications only.

Most Members thus promoted were technically gifted. Their motive to join ETAT hadn’t been fiscal and they’d fallen far behind their mercenary peers. But ETAT needed technocrats as much as the rest of its diverse membership. So it raised them beyond their means to vouchsafe their loyalty.

The public outcry triggered The New Deal’s first significant opposition. Citizens hitherto content under the new order were enraged at the exemption of poorer ETAT Members from Game participation. Relative inequity exploded perceptions of absolute equity. People were as reluctant as ever to give anyone a free ride.

ETAT had believed society’s enthusiasm for The New Deal had earned it a degree of policy latitude. This was a serious underestimation of human nature. At least the damning revelation had been suppressed until after The New Deal became universal law. Surely dissension would not bring calls to dismantle the system?

Wrong again.

Action groups formed within days of the inequity becoming known. Like rain down a window, cells linked and gained momentum as they hurtled to a showdown with their flawed government. ETAT’s greatest crisis imperilled decades of concerted effort.

In breach of their classification contracts and in spite of the heavy punishments prescribed, citizens began to barter for and consume higher-echelon goods. MTD data sites reported an alarming jump in Rich Class food going down Poor and Comfortable Class throats. The Combined Military Force was soon awash with cases.

At an ETAT crisis summit, a solution was tabled that moderate Members feared most: the full use of ETAT powers to quell the uprising. The resolution carried. Those advocating restraint were forced to concede that totalitarianism trumped democracy at enforcing humane policies. Despite its failings, ETAT was still humanity’s best chance of living in harmony with itself and the planet. It was too late to abandon the means with the great goal so close.

The Combined Military Force had never been so well-funded, nor enjoyed such a diverse career structure. Though the former police, army, navy and air corps staff still mistrusted each other, none could deny the colossal benefits of their amalgamation. They had status formerly accorded only by war. If ETAT fell, so would their privileged position.

ETAT ordered the CMF to arrest every citizen conclusively proven to have breached their classification contract. Case priority was assigned according to level of political activity. Resistance leaders went first. In opposing ETAT verbally, most had also undertaken civil disobedience. Their punishment was therefore legal. In a brilliant coup over public hearts and minds, however, ETAT did not arrest even the most vocal leaders who’d protested within the terms of their contracts.

ETAT thus emerged from the fracas with its corporate image intact. It had kept its own laws – though it had patent power not to. This, coupled with the diminished supply of leaders, made people reconsider their rage. The New Deal had been a good thing. Punishment for crime was now established as a sure thing. Perhaps it was wiser to forgive and forget.

ETAT sped the healing with another brilliancy. Without revealing the nature or distribution of the Molecular Tracking Device, ETAT published samples of evidence used to convict those it had arrested. People close to the offenders saw that ETAT had disciplined only the guilty. There was nothing to pin on the party. No one had been punished who hadn’t first broken their written promise to ETAT. By all accounts, ETAT had acted swiftly, fairly and with absolute accuracy. What previous government had ever done likewise?

ETAT’s mysterious power to glean explicit truths became the stuff of urban myth. Citizens saw the cartel as omniscient, just as Neville Major had predicted. Yet the demise of the resistance had established ETAT as a benign force. Only the wicked would ever taste the iron fist; the law-abiding would stay snug in the velvet glove.

A paradoxical spin-off from the quashed rebellion was a dramatic increase in Game contestants. It was as if society had suddenly accepted that ETAT was in power for good and that The Game was the only path to significant self-advancement. While most people toiled for minor increments in their stratum, a significant proportion leapt for the one above. And when several citizens made multiple jumps to Free Status, the flow of hopefuls swelled even more. The term ‘Freedom’ gained a new financial meaning which dictionaries soon picked up.

ETAT, badly shaken by the uprising, was keen to enhance its image. But the growing number of contestants posed a problem. Too many were making it through. Especially alarming was the ingress into the Members’ own echelon. ETAT wasn’t prepared to finance so many reckless winners. The Game and its related industries were critical to the economy. It was the sole legal outlet for dissidence – the solution when all else had failed. It was a self-funding crime deterrent and a means of execution. It couldn’t be tampered with lightly.

ETAT discussed the issue at length, goaded by each new intruder into Freedom. Finally, consensus was reached on a bitter solution: the odds of meeting death on The Game would have to be raised.

Game Day was introduced as a sweetener. Few saw it as more than an ersatz public holiday. ETAT waited for a backlash that never came. Those disenchanted by the reduced chances of success failed to fire those not intending to use The Game. For the latter, the altered odds simply meant spectacular television deaths more often. The flow of contestants eased in close accord with ETAT modelling. People enjoyed their annual day off. Life went on.

Gregor was one citizen who couldn’t forgive ETAT’s reclassification of its own Members: his own struggle had been too desperate. His hatred of the Free deepened with ETAT’s every move. The shortening of odds he found doubly offensive. First, he saw it as a blatant ploy by the government to insulate itself from the masses. Second, he was nauseated by the citizens who continued to strive for Free Status despite the greater risk. To Gregor, they’d devalued their lives beyond comprehension. He quickened his search for someone to set as an example.

His name had been Pablo Guano. Before escaping Comfortable Status, he changed it to Nimon Freemon. Nimon had made three successful jumps, rocketing to Free Status. Fans worshipped his home page. He was a symbol of fearlessness and success; the patron saint of Game contestants.

What set Nimon apart from other social climbers was his prior statement of intent. A year before his first jump, he announced his plan to make all three jumps in three months. Surrounded by the drivel of thousand other Game hopefuls, his manifesto attracted little interest. On achieving his goal, however, his dated Net entry proved he’d foretold his destiny. Eschewing the lure of interim achievements, he’d spent barely a month at the Rich and Superrich strata before moving to his ultimate goal. His sheer determination made him an icon – both for people too frightened to make their first jump and for one-time contestants unwilling to risk their lives again.

Fascinated with Nimon’s instrument choice, Gregor had watched all his Game appearances. Very few contestants selected the Mincer. When a punter chose to risk the spiked rollers and flailing knives, it was always a big deal. Gregor, with his deep hatred of all Game participants, derived great satisfaction from watching them reduced to pet food when their luck failed. To him, the Mincer was the only instrument that dealt a sufficiently painful death to grasping punters. Not surprisingly, he was furious when Nimon Freemon defeated the Mincer three times running. Nimon further enraged Gregor with his behaviour on becoming Free.

It was a classic case of wealth exceeding class. Nimon discarded the modesty and self-restraint he’d displayed during his quest for Freedom and surrendered to conspicuous consumption in a self-engineered publicity blaze. Though alienating some of his early followers, he attracted many more. He became their hero for snatching a perfect life from the jaws of death. He was Midas without the catch. And he was hell-bent on letting everyone know how very good it was at the top.

He bombarded the media with infomercials celebrating his success. ETAT permitted the indulgence, since it focused public attention on The Game’s upside. Nimon’s tacky narcissism made Gregor want to rip his heart out and puke into the cavity. Yet he forced himself to watch everything Nimon put out. He conceded that they had one thing in common: they could both see the future. In Gregor’s version, Nimon’s boundless happiness would be terminated by a little-known but highly motivated Comfortable Class vigilante who also posted his thoughts on the Internet.

Gregor’s desire to liquidate Nimon was tempered only by his determination to get away with it. He realised he’d been freakishly lucky with Jody’s murder. It had been a botched act of rage, riddled with danger. Though he knew nothing of MTDs, Gregor shared the growing feeling on the streets that ETAT had a data network second to none.

Of the many chance events that had aided his escape, only the thunderstorm was obvious. He reasoned that other factors must have thwarted the detectives, but couldn’t imagine what they were. Wary of underestimating the system, Gregor became fanatically conservative in his movements. Though only a fraction of his security regime reduced his exposure to MTDs, it was enough for the moment. ETAT had yet to consolidate its power base. Until then, Gregor was a hard citizen to trace.

He began a coded dossier on Nimon Freemon. To minimise risk of detection, he copied information long hand, rather than print downloads. It was tedious work. Nimon was a prolific consumer with no pattern to his movements. To set up a kill, Gregor needed to identify in advance an event that Nimon would be sure to attend. For months he tracked his target in vain, purging his frustration with ever more punishing workouts.

Nimon’s life was one long party. Wherever he went, fans used their precious recreational leave just to be near him. The New Deal prohibited them from consuming higher-class goods, even as guests of a Free citizen. So those at Nimon’s table were unable to dine. The only taste of Freedom allowed by law was Nimon’s body. And according to Gregor’s research, Nimon distributed a great many samples.

After yet another month of watching Nimon grow fat, Gregor was ready to abandon him as too unpredictable to target. Then came a breakthrough.

In addition to his infomercials, Nimon posted stories, essays and letters. Permanent idea storage was an easy form of immortality – one of the few things he couldn’t buy. Invariably, the stories described his adventures as a Free man, the essays dealt with what it took to become Free and the letters encouraged fans to follow. It was self-indulgent dross, but the fans loved it. Many tried Nimon’s recipe for success. Their deaths boosted Game ratings, earning Nimon continued ETAT tolerance.

Gregor, bucket at the ready, studied everything Nimon wrote. He thus quickly detected the change of tone of an essay marking Nimon’s half-year anniversary at Free Status. Gregor noticed a dilution of enthusiasm with which Nimon described his earthly pleasures. He was vague and wistful. His love of Freedom seemed to have waned and his concluding remarks were ambiguous. Gregor sensed he was on to something and waited for Nimon’s next offering.

It was another story. This time Nimon was a ‘handsome pauper’ – fighting a medieval battle against poverty and oppression, with The Game a fearsome three-headed dragon. As usual, the hero succeeded in his quest and began to enjoy the good life. Gregor was discouraged; he’d hoped for something different. He waded through hunts, feasts, jewels and dancing girls – all metaphors for Nimon’s real-world exploits. Only at the last page did Gregor’s pulse quicken.

The story ended on a speculative note that presaged a sequel. Or three. It seemed to Gregor that Nimon was starting to foretell his own destiny again. Only this time his goal was to become an ETAT Member. All the wealth and pleasures of the world weren’t enough. Nimon wanted to push the buttons of power and, by the sound of it, give his fans a leg-up into the good life.

Gregor hefted the large kettle bell he used when musing. ‘If that little shit’s going into politics, he’ll have to attend ETAT functions. And if he gives any clue in his putrid stories … I’ll be waiting.’

Read Chapter 24.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by David Reeves.

The Game – Chapter 22

February 2, 2013 at 12:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The closest MTD lay hidden in a street light
200 metres away …

After work, Jessica and Fabien headed to his apartment. Franz and Myron scuttled into the underground and arrived at the street shortly before them. They hung back until the lights had been on for a while.

‘I hope this bloody-well works’ whispered Franz nervously. ‘Come on, lets get it over with.’

Fabien answered his door with an inquiring look. Myron asked to see Jessica, who recognised him instantly. She was polite, but perplexed to see him at her partner’s home. She didn’t invite them in.

Franz talked quickly and earnestly. He looked into Jessica’s eyes and asked for a few minutes of her time on a matter of extreme importance. Jessica considered his request and glanced at Fabien, who’d been studying the strangers with a suspicious eye. He shrugged.

‘What’s it about?’ said Jessica. ‘Is it to do with my cat?’

Franz snorted involuntarily, then glanced behind him. The porch was brightly lit: anyone could be watching from the darkness. ‘We’d really rather tell you inside. Believe me, it’s critical.’

Jessica folded her arms. ‘Tell us now or leave. We’re not having our night hijacked by religious nuts.’

Franz reluctantly gave a brief synopsis of his discoveries.

Incredulity, then scorn swept across Jessica’s face. When Franz finished, her expression was close to contempt. ‘That’s it?’

‘It’s a very brief summary, but yes,’ replied Franz defensively.

‘I think we’ll say goodnight then. Your “theory” has left me … underwhelmed.’ Jessica withdrew from the threshold.

‘Wait!’ Franz proffered Myron’s briefcase. ‘You only heard the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got evidence – plenty of it.’

‘No doubt. Now, thank you for coming and goodnight.’

Franz’s mind raced for something convincing, but he was stumped.

Then Myron addressed Fabien in a quiet voice. ‘OK. We’ll go. But before we do, may I just ask how old are your PCs are?’

Fabien glanced at Jessica. ‘Four months.’

‘In that case, I can guarantee they all contain Molecular Tracking Devices. How do you feel about that?’

‘He feels fine, because you’re spinning a load of crap,’ snapped Jessica. ‘Would you please go away now?’

She swung the door but Myron jammed his foot. Jessica’s eyes smoked, but before she could let fly, Myron held up a box.

‘If you give me five minutes, I can prove MTDs are hidden in your PCs,’ he said.

‘What the hell is that?’ asked Jessica.

Myron smiled with proprietary pride. ‘We call it the Ferret.’

Franz winced and put a hand to his brow.

‘Oh that’s great,’ exclaimed Jessica. ‘Jesus Christ; who are you people?!’

‘Five minutes and we’re gone,’ pleaded Myron. One of us can stay out here if you like.’

‘I’m going to crush your foot if you don’t shift it.’

‘Wait Jessie,’ said Fabien. ‘What have we got to lose? I don’t like the idea of our devices being in my PCs. Surely it’s worth just checking?’

As Jessica fumed at his contradiction, Fabian produced his most winning smile.

‘You bastard,’ she muttered and turned back to the others. ‘Alright, whoever you are, come in and give my paranoid lab technician what he wants.’

‘Thank you,’ sighed Franz, looking at Fabien.

Myron swiftly found four MTDs.

While Fabien and Jessica were still in shock, Franz emptied his evidence onto the coffee table and shot them the facts with both barrels.

As the awful truth dawned, Jessica took the expression of a mother finding her child a changeling. Like an old-fashioned Polaroid, Neville Major’s scheme revealed itself. A raft of coincidences, ambiguous remarks and mysterious occurrences formed a picture of crystalline clarity. How could she have been so blind, when the signs had been all around?

Jessica bent her head and wept. Her father had used his dying breath to warn her. She’d stubbornly refused to look beyond the data. Now she knew she’d been ETAT’s puppet – bastardising Hilton Diep’s life work into a devious machine. Despite her intellect, she’d been played like zither. Anguish and regret tore at her heart.

Fabien, also stunned, did his best to comfort her, but saw she was working up for an almighty howl. He addressed Franz. ‘We obviously believe you, but I don’t think we’re in any state to talk tonight. Can you possibly come back tomorrow?’

Franz nodded, his relief tinged with empathy. He shook Fabien’s hand as Jessica crumpled onto the couch and started keening into a cushion. The visitors took their leave.

The next day, seven young people sat on blankets in a deserted park under a threatening sky. The closest powered MTD lay hidden in a streetlight 200 metres away. As far as molecular transmissions were concerned, the group was ‘off-line’. Franz had picked the spot to minimise contact with anyone else braving the cool weather.

Jessica was red-eyed. Her raven hair clung lankly to her jumper. Fabien also looked shabby. Neither had slept. Franz introduced the couple to Julian, Antony and Derek. The mood was stilted and formal, their common interest generating scant warmth.

Franz moved quickly to business by asking Jessica to outline her understanding of the MTD situation. She began haltingly, as if describing a friend who’d died violently, recently and before her time. As she spoke of Neville Major, however, her voice steeled. She and Fabien now realised they’d been squeezed out of the loop. Certain that MTDs were being manufactured elsewhere, they also suspected work was being done on a second generation unit. They agreed that MTD proliferation in consumer goods would constitute a formidable intelligence network. Anyone with access to such a database could, if possessing the means to impose their will, literally rule the planet.

After the difficulties TASOM had endured to reach Jessica and Fabien, the couple’s validation seemed too easy to be true. Yet no other explanation fitted the facts. Franz felt silly calling their discovery a ‘global conspiracy’, but that was exactly how it looked.

‘It’s just mind-blowing,’ reflected Jessica. ‘Five years ago I held my father’s hit list of ETAT Members. All movers and shakers. Household names in communications, mining, transport, manufacturing, property, finance, health, law, government, environment … everything. This disparity convinced me there was no common thread. I now see it was perfect camouflage. Imagine the heights these people have scaled in the last half decade. They were all fast-tracking career animals. ETAT must be integrated up, down and sideways by now, at the highest levels of society.’

Julian shook his head in awe. ‘They’ve already got power. MTDs will help them spot anyone trying to take it away.’

The group fell into dejected silence.

For want of anything better to do, Derek unpacked the picnic basket. ‘Might as well eat if we’re going to clobber the bastards.’

‘Yeah.’ Myron turned to Jessica and Fabien. ‘By the way, welcome to TASOM.’

‘Hang on,’ said Antony, setting up cups. ‘Let’s do this properly.’ He pulled a bottle from the basket and poured equal measures. On handing them out he offered a toast. ‘To the new associates of Technology for the Advancement and Service of Mankind, Jessica and Fabien: welcome to the fray!’

The cups clacked and some of the ice broke. The food looked suddenly appetising. They fell to eating and talking about their respective MTD experiences. Much was exchanged and both parties felt they weren’t alone. After getting over their bad start of the previous evening, Jessica and Franz admired each other’s achievements. He praised her extraordinary miniaturisation effort; she applauded his dogged haystack-needle investigation.

By day’s end, the group was well briefed. Derek had taken copious notes. A list of security safeguards had been agreed and a broad agenda set for the next meeting, five days hence. The venue would be the desert property Julian had bought. Meanwhile, everyone would behave as normally as possible.

Darkness approached. They collected their rubbish and made their separate ways home with mixed emotions. In taking on the mightiest power bloc ever created, their goal of reclaiming MTD technology was ambitious in the extreme. They had only vague ideas. They were anxious and not at all confident. But at least they were having a go.

As they quit the park for the city, they imagined MTDs all around. It was worse than being watched. For all they knew, their every cell was being scrutinised the instant they came in range of a loaded, powered machine. It was draining. It was also hard to think of refuges other than the park. Worse, according to Jessica’s speculations on a second generation device, new MTDs might penetrate even that natural haven.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Neville Major was visiting one of his development teams. Some of the scientists had been part of Phases One and Two of the MTD project. Generous contracts with cut-throat disclosure clauses had kept Jessica’s former colleagues quiet. Officially they’d taken up ETAT’s offer of plum postings in different disciplines at the end of the miniaturisation effort. This was true, but not in the way Jessica and Fabien imagined.

Major conferred with Kit Vogels and Liam MacArthur – two particularly bright sparks. Vogels filled him in. ‘We’ve had success with this prototype front end, Mr Major. Liam has managed to convert the data strings to a wire-frame representation. Instead of being told what the target is, our ubercomputer throws up a pictorial representation. Additional data appear as labels, which can be filtered according to need.

‘Show me,’ commanded Major.

Vogels nodded to MacArthur, who summoned the application to the screen. A jumble of orange lines jostled like so many toothpicks.

Major frowned, trying to make sense of the chaotic display. ‘What’s this?’

‘It looks awful till you get the hang of it,’ explained Vogels. ‘But once we add shading, it’ll be much better.’ He punched a key and a series of tiny labels rode in sympathy with the lines.

At once Major discerned a moving streetscape. He made a noise of understanding.

Vogels looked up brightly. ‘You just got it, didn’t you sir?’

‘I did, yes. Very good.’

Vogels flushed to the roots of his red hair. ‘The labels make all the difference. As soon as you see the words, your brain makes the connection. What we’re watching is a crude representation of a self-powered MTD tracking down a narrow street. Quite trippy, really.’

MacArthur shot his teammate a warning glance.

Major was impressed. These young men had become the project’s driving force. There seemed no end to their innovations. ‘Why does the picture bob around so much? What have you used as a host?’

The two scientists cringed. Vogels took the plunge. ‘Er. His um … his name’s … M … Max.’

‘And who is Max?’

‘A Jack Russell terrier.’

MacArthur bit his tongue.

Major’s face darkened, but Vogels quickly intercepted. ‘Max is the random element in our experiments. We’ve sewn batteries into his collar. They’re an excellent power source for the device. He’s cheaper and less conspicuous than any purpose-built host. He takes us all over town, to the most inaccessible places, yet he always comes home at night for Kanga Chunks.’

Kanga Chunks?’ spluttered Major.

‘Yes sir. He loves ’em. We couldn’t have developed this interface anywhere near as quickly without him.’

Major breathed slowly. ‘Do you two have any concept how much this project is costing?’

‘No sir,’ said Vogels. ‘But if our packages are anything to go by, it’s a shitload.’

‘Correct,’ barked Major, reddening. ‘Now do you really consider, as professional research scientists, that … Max constitutes the best possible use of ETAT resources?’

‘Vogels darted a look at MacArthur, who’d gone very pale. ‘With respect sir, you’ve instilled in us a keen desire for results. I venture that what you see here is a significant improvement on raw alphanumeric MTD transmissions. If you’re unhappy with our progress, then I can’t defend our methodology. If, however, you’re pleased with this result,’ he gestured to the screen, ‘I’d maintain that Max has been very good for the project.’

MacArthur tittered, converting it into a noisy cough. Major fixed Vogels with an icy stare. The younger man returned it for four seconds, before prudently looking away.

‘I suppose you men have a nickname for the Molecular Tracking Device,’ Major inquired stiffly.

‘Yes sir.’

Major sighed. ‘Mind telling me what it is?’

‘Well, apart from Max The Dog, we call it … Mother Teresa’s Dildo’.

‘Dare I ask why?’

‘Because when we’ve finished enhancing this device, it’ll be able to find absolutely anything.

Major paused, thinking. ‘Carry on,’ he said with effort, then walked briskly away.

MacArthur hissed at Vogels. ‘Thy cohones are as bowling balls. Thou art a god!’

Vogels grinned wickedly and stared at the screen. ‘Not quite yet. But with this baby … it won’t be long.’

Read Chapter 23.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by Oggie Dog.

The Game – Chapter 21

January 29, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Mika beheld a lavish spread of foods she’d not tasted in years …

Bernie Plimpton’s henchwomen ushered Penny Travis, Mika Komatsu and Eva Sorensen from the Good Morning Everyone Game stage. They met up with the other six winners and the group was manoeuvred into a hospitality suite. Chattering and laughing, the women so recently reclassified to Comfortable Status eagerly surveyed the trappings of their new lives.

A table groaned with sponsors’ supplementary prizes – mainly ‘health and beauty’ products. It was widely rumoured that these goods were all Poor quality and that higher-echelon versions differed only in packaging. Yet the winners seized them with glee and delighted in pointing out the ‘Comfortable Class and Above Only’ labels on each. A new universe of consumption had opened to them.

Beyond the table stood racks with brochures on every aspect of Comfortable life. The New Deal had been universal law for eighteen months. Purveyors of all goods and services had had plenty of time to tailor their advertising to each of the five new social strata. Recently reclassified consumers had a higher marginal propensity to consume than any other demographic; it was crucial to get them early. Each publication was an adventure waiting to be enjoyed. The television station made tidy commissions from allowing them in the hospitality suites.

Mika scanned the titles avidly. With a cry of pleasure she retrieved a real estate brochure; it interested her more than the rest combined. For the first time in her life she’d have her own space, untainted by dysfunctional family. She rotated the stand and chose four more publications. Sensing her new home in the pages against her heart, she moved to her next priority.

The Permissible Occupation Register was an ETAT-issued directory, not a piece of advertising. Mika scanned the index for ‘poet’ and was referred to ‘writer’. Then, the datum she sought lay before her. ‘Writer’ was still a permissible occupation for Comfortable Class citizens. Mika’s eyes shone. She had a week of ETAT-funded leave and accommodation to arrange her affairs. Now she was in the right stratum, nothing would stop her realising her dream. A waiter approached with a tray of glasses. Mika took one and sipped happily. It wasn’t a patch on the wine she’d tasted when her family had been Rich, but to her it was nectar.

Penny and Eva sauntered over. Both were glowing after two drinks apiece. Penny retold snatches of her ordeal, phrases jumbling in a confused rush. Eva smiled and nodded, too excited to take in a word. She did a circuit of the stands and tucked a few brochures under her arm for later perusal. Penny trailed after her, babbling and gesticulating. Ever protective of her space, Mika moved to the rear of the suite. There she beheld a lavish spread of foods she’d not tasted in years.

Soon the nine winners were half-smashed. For the serving staff who hadn’t shared their ordeal, the boisterous bonhomie and repeated declarations of eternal friendship seemed a bit much. Yet for the women, the world was utterly wonderful. Their death gamble had paid off; their desperate motives were appeased. They’d every right to rejoice with their soulmates. Eva’s ‘Three Witches’ call was hailed as the day’s defining moment. It seemed appropriate that she, Mika and Penny should end up together at the dining table. As the feasting progressed, even Mika felt better about being part of the clique.

Penny had no such inhibitions and hadn’t left Eva’s side since her deliverance. Eva was everything she wanted to be: cool, strong, charismatic. In her unstable frame, Penny would gladly have become Eva on the spot. She still felt rage toward the men who’d tried to destroy her: her brutish boss, Harry Gutton; her manipulating recruiter, Nils Muller; and her swinish guard, John Jefferson. Against the odds, she’d defeated them all.

Perhaps this qualified her to be like Eva. Penny felt she needed to stay close to this powerful woman to make the transformation. She wanted to leave the old Penny behind, along with her miserable flat, job, clothes and food. But she wasn’t strong enough to do it alone.

After lunch the party held a minute’s silence for Soula, then broke up. The audience had gone. The hospitality given to the winners was partly to shield them from anger and jealousy. The disgruntled could take revenge, but not on studio premises.

Eva looked to Penny, then Mika. ‘Do you two have anyone waiting for you?’

‘Not me!’ said Penny brightly. ‘I’m leaving it all behind.’

Mika spoke softly, looking down at her plate. ‘There are two people waiting for me, but not to offer congratulations. I also hope to begin again, without them in my life.’

Eva laughed heartily. ‘I’ll be damned; we’ve more in common than I thought! None of us has anyone. It seems the way these days. Well I’m blowed if I’m spending the rest of this day alone. Why don’t we go out?’

‘Great!’ enthused Penny.

‘Where?’ asked Mika uncertainly.

‘Why, to a Comfortable Class bar, of course!’ cried Eva, thumping the table. ‘You know the deal: our accounts will have received three month’s base Comfortable pay. Never again need we revisit the shit holes that pass for Poor Class entertainment. We can go out! And get pissed in Comfortable Class sunshine!’

‘Unreal!’ yelled Penny, knocking over a glass.

‘What do you say, little one?’ Eva asked Mika kindly. ‘Will you come with us?’

Penny felt a ridiculous twang of jealously.

Mika bit her lip. Being in a group was strange and new. But a whole new life was hers to explore. How better to start than with two who’d crossed with her? ‘OK. I’ll come.’

‘Wonderful; I’m so pleased!’ Eva waved to a Poor Class waiter. Already she was getting the hang of her new status. ‘We want to shower. Please direct us to your facilities.’ The young man pointed Eva to the change rooms and she strode off purposefully with Mika and Penny in tow.

The showers reminded them fleetingly of the Tank, but the water was hot and the soap fragrant. It took little effort to slough an old life in favour of one so much better. In a truly kind gesture, the television station had laundered the women’s old clothes and provided complimentary replacements rendered in Comfortable Class fabric and style. They had the option to abandon their old garments and depart in clothing of greatly superior quality. They all took it, resolving to buy a whole new wardrobe at their earliest opportunity. They threw their hateful orange straitjackets through a recycling chute and exited the building, laughing and shielding their eyes against the sun.

Eva led the way to a nearby hotel, explaining that she’d passed it on her way to signing up. Prohibited from entering the higher-echelon establishment, she’d promised herself a drink there if she made it. She was delighted to be sharing her ritual of passage with the other two.

Cosily ensconced in the beer garden behind potted shrubs, the women revelled in ordering that which had been forbidden only hours earlier. Then they pooled their brochures for a communal browse. Penny and Eva lit defacto cigarettes and exhorted Mika to do likewise. After a brief period of indecision, Mika joined in and the three picked over their dreams beneath a drifting haze of smoke. The wine and sunshine loosened their tongues and they began to speak of the circumstances which had brought them together.

It seemed natural that Eva should go first. She tousled her straight, neck-length hair as if to clear her head. Then she took a sip of wine, lit a fresh defacto and began in her deep voice.

‘My parents had me as teens. I was obviously an accident. They managed to screw up every level of protection that should’ve been in place. Anyway, they were in love and they told each other it didn’t matter. They cut a partnership agreement and decided to make a go of family life. For a while, they did pretty well. I realised at twelve that I was gay. Once my hormones kicked in I was hot for anything in knickers. I had some interesting experiences at school. Ivanka, my mother, soon guessed my inclination and I confirmed it. She was fine. Dad seemed a bit hurt, but he was travelling a lot with work then, so I didn’t see his full reaction.

‘I’d always been keen on fitness so I looked to physical education as a career. We were Poor long before the official stratum was invented, so I had to work and study part time. I was still at home aged twenty-four when ‘Lars-baby’, my dad, decided to have his mid-life thing.’

‘What did he do?’ asked Mika, wondering if it were anything remotely like her father’s neurosis.

‘Nothing special; he just started screwing another woman,’ Eva replied flatly. ‘He had his forty-third birthday with us, then raced off with a bit of fluff he’d met in his sales territory. She was a carbon copy of a younger Ivanka: what a slap in the face! Mum was devastated. Lars-baby left us with nothing but a large dose of sexually transmitted debt.’

‘That’s terrible,’ murmured Penny. ‘Why are men such arseholes?’

‘I don’t like to generalise,’ replied Eva. ‘I’ve met plenty of female arseholes, so to speak. I think men are just more … obvious when they’re shafting someone.’ She took another sip of wine. ‘Ivanka lost the plot after Lars-baby left. She became bulimic, which is unusual – and pretty damn dangerous for a forty-four year old. She figured the thinner she was, the more chance she’d have of winning her husband back. I tried everything to stop her, but she was too cunning. I deferred my course, but couldn’t afford to stop working to watch her all the time. She became very demanding … and manipulative. We got into a rut and the years just flew. The New Deal came in when I was twenty-seven. Ivanka had plateaued at one of her higher levels of misery and I’d been able to snatch enough time to finish my studies.’

‘What did you think of The New Deal?’ asked Penny.

‘Pretty good. I liked the certainty and security it promised. If it’d been in place three years earlier, Lars-baby would never have escaped with our money. The only real downer was that it made me realise how damn poor we were. I mean, we were a dead cert for classification from Day One. We had no savings and no capital, and my physical education diploma was hardly a ticket to riches. The New Deal confirmed what I already knew. I simply looked forward to having my meagre income protected. It was nice to know that if I had an accident or something, there’d be a safety net. Ivanka still depended on me, you see. ETAT was not about to give her a pension for a self-induced illness.’

‘You were very dedicated,’ said Mika.

‘Thanks. I think it was more a case of having the resistance slowly beaten out of me. Anyway, to answer your question Penny, I dug The New Deal so much that I had us classified shortly after it came in. Toeing the line early helped me secure a job in my preferred field. ETAT did alright by me on that score. I spent the next four years as an aerobics instructor and played nurse to my mother at night.’

‘Then what happened?’ asked Penny.

‘Ivanka bought the farm.’

‘She what?!’

‘She killed herself. With Draino. Last year.’

Mika and Penny stared at each other. Eva continued before they could muster the usual pleasantries. ‘Ivanka went on a rare supermarket foray but spotted Lars-baby with his younger model. She followed them back to their love nest, then stood in the street and told the neighbourhood what kind of man was living among them. Lars-baby came flying down the stairs. But before he got to Ivanka, she pulled out the Draino (which she’d bought at the supermarket) and emptied it down her throat. It was the first thing she’d kept down in seven years.’

Mika and Penny waited for each other to speak. Eva lit another defacto, inhaled deeply and glanced at them. ‘Chill out kids; there’s a happy ending. I tried to grieve for Ivanka, but it was over in a month or two. I was thirty-one. My life had suffered a major setback from her neurosis. I still loved her, but I’d suffered too much daily drama to freak out when she bit the big one. Her death meant my freedom. That feeling of release was too strong to be compromised by grief.’

‘Did you ever write down what you were feeling at this time?’ asked Mika. ‘It’s very powerful.’

‘No. I had too much catching up to do to bother with “dear diary”. I celebrated as much as my means permitted. Obviously I couldn’t paint the town, but I’d learned how to make money go far. So I didn’t miss out altogether.’

‘I don’t know how you did it,’ said Penny. ‘I could never get enough together for a good night out, no matter how I tried.’

Eva examined her glass. ‘Well, it helped that some the wealthier women I went out with used to pay the tab. That worked fine until ETAT busted one for gift giving. The rest froze up after that. It was amazing: the chances of getting prosecuted were tiny, yet the punishment was so severe that everyone became law-abiding. Anyway, after my good times dried up, I looked around and saw I had nothing to lose except a pathetic lifestyle. I was going to have to move fast if I wanted to enjoy my thirties, so I did some research and decided to take a punt on The Game and … ‘ Eva refilled her glass and raised it. ‘Here I am! Cheers!’

The Three Witches clinked and drank to their success. Mika told her story next, then Penny. Having shared histories, the women went on to outline their plans.

On finishing her turn, Mika began to fidget. Talking about her perfect space made her hanker for it all the more. Though enjoying the company of the other two, she was even keener to search for her new home. At the first polite opportunity, she excused herself. Eva took her details and asked if she could visit when she was settled. Mika agreed, thanked them for a lovely afternoon and hurried to the nearest ETAT centre.

Read Chapter 22.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by lotusutol.

The Game – Chapter 20

January 28, 2013 at 12:05 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Franz intercepted the cat at dusk …

With the exception of Julian Oberman, Franz’s Heilmayr’s friends wholeheartedly supported his continued investigation of the mystery devices. Once Julian saw he was the odd one out, he back-pedalled. It was better to be popular than safe.

Franz’s evidence was compelling; something was going on. The five men discussed the situation at length. Never had they been so serious in each other’s company.

They agreed that to learn what they were dealing with, they’d have to take a risk and search the Internet. Derek Eckersley and Antony Jarvish drew up a list of ambiguous keywords. Though the broad parameters would produce a mountain of articles, this was preferable to the tip-off potential of an explicit search. Ignorance had made them paranoid.

Julian knew he couldn’t participate in the Net search; he was too fearful of discovery. He asked if there were another way he could help. Franz already had something in mind. It was not what Julian was after.

‘I want you to buy a piece of desert,’ said Franz.

Julian felt himself sliding from the frying pan to the fire. ‘What on earth for?’

‘We need a depot,’ said Franz. ‘Somewhere away from powered devices, where we can stockpile clean gear. I have a strong feeling we’re going to need it. If we wait much longer, there’ll be none left. We’ll be surrounded. We need to set up a sanctuary.’

Julian started to perspire. ‘But I can’t; Dad’ll spot the transaction in a flash.’

‘Not if you siphon funds gradually and do the deal under another name,’ said Myron. ‘That’s your speciality, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ said Julian desperately. ‘But I’ve never done it for myself, only my father.’

‘Well, bucko,’ said Antony, ‘You’ve got a choice: trawl the Net with us, buy the land, or get out of our gang.’

‘Stop it, Tony!’ said Franz. ‘We’re not a bloody gang, and baiting each other achieves nothing.’ He turned to Julian. ‘The fact is we need you. None of us has much money.’

‘Tell me about it,’ said Derek.

Franz continued. ‘We’re going to need funding if we’re to stay safe and make progress. We’ve each got talents and yours, Jules, is the acquisition and manipulation of other people’s money. If you want to be part of this venture, we need you to contribute according to your talents. Refusing won’t compromise our friendship, it’ll just mean we can’t include you; it wouldn’t be fair. So you do have a choice, but Tony’s dead wrong to make it a pressure decision. Just think about it. We need a base and you’re the only one who can buy one.’

‘I’ll do it,’ blurted Julian.

‘No, don’t decide now; it’s obviously a big deal for you. Take a few days to think it through properly.’

‘I have’, said Julian with more conviction than he possessed. ‘I’m buggered if I’m going to be Dad’s lapdog for the rest of my life!’

Antony applauded. ‘That’s the spirit! Welcome aboard!’

‘I’ll need a name,’ said Julian, suddenly all business. ‘Something to call the shell company.’

Franz took out a scrap of paper. ‘I have a name. You tell me if you think it’s suitable. It’s TASOM.’

‘How come that?’ asked Derek.

‘Technology for the Advancement and Service of Mankind,’ said Franz.

‘Woo hoo! What’s it mean?’

‘Well, this whole drama is about technology, right? We’ve just discovered that someone is starting to fuck with our machines. We’ve only spotted it by chance, even though technology is supposed to be our thing. We’re becoming … disenfranchised. If we can no longer understand or control our possessions, we’ll become slaves to them. Yet machines were always meant to serve us and help us advance, not the other way round. I’m suggesting that we represent mankind, and that our mission is to get a handle on what’s happening around us. Only with understanding can we claim to be in control. There, is that too deep for everybody?’

‘Sounds spot on to me,’ said Derek quietly.

‘Well put,’ agreed Antony. ‘Quite noble, really.’

‘It’s exactly what I was about to say,’ said Myron. The others looked at him. ‘No, seriously, ‘I’m there. I’m with it. All the way.’

Julian saw a chance to take his future into his own hands. The group needed him; it felt good to feel … equal. ‘Let’s do it!’

‘Well,’ said Derek, ‘TASOM it is then.’

Franz smiled humbly. ‘Thanks, you blokes.’

The rest of the evening was devoted to details. The young men began to grow up.

It took the members of TASOM seven weeks to locate Jessica Diep’s thesis among the reams of irrelevant Net articles. The temptation to ask directly for what they wanted had been maddening. It was Antony, covering more articles than Franz, Myron and Derek put together, who pulled the single ear of wheat from the megatons of chaff.

They met to study Jessica’s treatise on the feasibility of molecular identification. Franz paled at what he read. Jessica’s diagrams bore a startling resemblance to the X-rays of the mystery components he’d found. He ran a nervous hand through his wiry hair, in which traces of grey had recently appeared.

‘I can’t believe a twenty-one year old did this,’ said Myron, flipping through the download.

‘She’d beat the shit out of your tractor factory girls, that’s for sure,’ said Derek. ‘Look at her awards! Imagine how far she’s gone in the last ten years. She’s truly gifted.’

‘We now know roughly what we’re dealing with,’ interrupted Franz. ‘This molecular identifier is an intelligent, 3D, X-ray surveillance machine. What we don’t know is how powerful it is.

‘Or who’s using it,’ added Antony. ‘Or why.’

‘You can be sure it’s not for the greater glory of our race,’ said Julian. ‘Information is power. This thing is made for collecting data. Whoever’s using it is after power.’

‘Your father, perhaps?’

Julian glared at Antony.

‘Settle down, you two.’ Franz rubbed his stubble. ‘How’s the land going, Julian?’

‘Contrary to my detractors, I’ve raised enough to buy a property. It’s a shack on six hectares of badlands, thirty clicks West of Burnside.

‘Excellent,’ said Franz. ‘Get it.’

‘Surely you want to see it first?’ Julian was frightened by the sudden decision. ‘It’s pretty rough.’

Franz jabbed his finger at Jessica’s thesis. ‘This is extremely heavy duty shit, Jules. We don’t have time to lose. I trust your judgement; just get onto it.’ He addressed the others. ‘We’ve got to find this Diep woman, to see what she’s up to. We also need a better way to locate these … molecular identifiers. We can’t keep lugging everything to Derek’s for scanning, and we don’t know how risky it is to remove components from their host machines. Myron, see if you can use Diep’s design specs to knock up a program to reveal identifiers electronically.’


‘Antony, I need you to locate and download everything you can on Jessica Diep. Make sure you’re discreet.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ replied Antony tartly.

‘Derek, you need to milk your industry contacts. There has to be a huge number of people involved. Someone knows what’s going on. Find ’em, talk to them, suck up to them, get ’em pissed, whatever it takes.’


‘Also, we have to live our lives as normally as possible. Some sort of information gathering devices are all around us. To be safe, we must assume they’re very potent and very nasty. Until we know exactly what we’re dealing with, we must continue as if nothing has changed. OK?’

‘OK,’ chorused the others.

Under Franz’s competent leadership, TASOM made rapid progress.

Julian purchased the desert property without alerting his father and had an architect design an underground bunker, purportedly for a pistol shooting club.

Myron wrote a sophisticated program to recognise the molecular identifier’s unique construction. Franz incorporated the software into a portable unit, enabling the group to tell if a machine was loaded simply by monitoring its power use. Myron dubbed their creation the ‘Ferret’, since it tore through intricate conduits to flush elusive prey.

Antony built a dossier on Jessica, bursting with data on every aspect of her life. Like most people, she had a personal Internet site. Her brilliant university essays were still being downloaded by students. Yet nothing by or about her had been posted on the site for seven years. Nor did the Net list her as sick, dead or missing. It looked like she’d simply been too busy to post entries. Franz had a fair idea what she’d been working on, though Antony was unable to identify her employer.

Only Derek failed to produce a result. His carefully veiled inquiries elicited nothing but strange looks. Convinced of his targets’ ignorance, he felt he’d let his friends down, but they praised him for resisting the temptation to ask dangerously direct questions.

Franz collated the team’s efforts. One of his toughest decisions was to allow a visit to Jessica’s mother. Antony had convinced him it was the only way to pick up Jessica’s trail. Despite Antony’s assurances of caution, stealth and tact, Franz was scared. For all he knew, Lee Khuzain was in on the deal. Franz’s sole comfort concerned Lee’s essential oil boutique. Though seventy, her ads declared her available for consultations. This was much safer than visiting her home.

During his consultation, Antony steered the conversation to the breakdown of the family. He tapped Lee’s pride at her daughter’s achievements and discovered where Jessica worked. He was suspicious; he’d not encountered any Diep Research Centre on the Internet. Lee confirmed that Jessica was working on her father’s dream and produced a photograph. She mentioned a falling out with ‘that horrible man’ Neville Major and alluded to a boyfriend. Antony bought a two vials of ylang ylang and got out while he was ahead.

Franz sent Antony and Derek back to the Net to research Neville Major. Both men, having caught a whiff of the chase, began to get excited.

After months of effort, all the more painstaking for its secrecy, TASOM reached a watershed. They had a base, in which reposed a stockpile of obsolete but untainted PCs and other machines. They had a means of detecting the device they feared. They had profiles of the two people they considered primarily responsible for developing the device. And they had theories aplenty on the conspiracy they’d appeared uncovered. The question was, what next?

As Franz ran out of tasks to assign, he reluctantly admitted they’d gone as far as they could on the existing data. It was time for another risk. To reveal more pieces of the puzzle, TASOM had to make contact with Jessica Diep or Neville Major. But who to target, and how?

During an evening of agonising deliberation, Franz put these questions to the others. The first was relatively easy. Jessica was the one to which they could best relate. Like them, she was young and into computers. That she was quite beautiful didn’t hurt either. Neville Major, on the other hand, was fifty-six. His past deeds portrayed him as a seasoned and ruthless political animal. He reminded Julian of his father.

The second question was tougher. The Diep Research Centre was a fortress. Franz had staked it out and seen barely a soul entering or exiting the grounds. When Jessica left at night, it was either alone to her mother’s home or to an apartment with an athletic-looking young man. There was no pattern to her movements. Nor did she seem to have any interests outside her triangle of destinations. TASOM wrestled with the problem of how to get to Jessica without raising suspicion. They were amateurs. They’d worked long and hard, but now they were stuck.

Franz saw seeds of discontent and proposed a session. They hadn’t had a good blowout for months and the drugs provided a welcome release. As the night progressed, even Franz loosened up a bit.

At around midnight, a mightily intoxicated Julian Oberman moved that TASOM kidnap Jessica’s cat. He slurringly suggested they hold it hostage, and use it to wring salient details from a distraught Jessica. Franz modified the plan: they’d hold the cat until Jessica lost hope. In her emotional state, her guard would be down. The right questions at the right time could trigger valuable clues.

By the light of day, the friends realised this plan was pathetic. But it was all they had. Impatient for progress, Franz intercepted the cat at dusk. Sociable by nature, it devoured the drugged meat from his hand and surrendered to his sports bag. Myron wondered at their chances of saving the universe by such means.

The lost posters appeared next day. Jessica and her mother risked substantial fines for their unauthorised communiques and many were removed by angry surface owners. The rest slid from riotous plastic billboards during two days of rain.

Franz watched Jessica arrive home. An hour later, he saw Myron approach the Diep household – mews emanating from the box under his arm. Franz monitored the exchange and nodded with satisfaction as Jessica’s face lit up. Myron was invited inside.

Some time later, Myron reappeared on the doorstep and took his leave from a smiling Jessica. It looked good. Franz raced back to Myron’s house. Burning with curiosity, he made cups of tea for the others as they arrived. Myron seemed to take an age. Finally, all five members of TASOM were assembled.

‘What did she say?’ asked Franz impatiently.

Myron savoured the moment. ‘We had a lovely time. Lee Khuzain makes the best biscuits.’

‘Cut the crap.’

‘OK. Jessica is working with her technician boyfriend and another scientist on a prototype production line for the Molecular Tracking Device or MTD. The device has been miniaturised and is almost ready for full-scale production.’

‘Where’s the prototype line?’

‘In the research centre. They’re turning out about five hundred a day.’ Myron grinned. ‘Not bad intelligence for a cup of coffee and a chat, eh?’

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ said Antony. ‘They must be making more. Franz has isolated fifty devices in our possessions alone. You can’t tell me we’ve been lucky enough to score ten percent of a day’s production.’

‘Maybe they’re onto us and we’ve been targeted,’ proposed Derek.

‘No way,’ said Franz. ‘The four of you bought your loaded possessions all over town, at times and locations impossible to predict.’

‘Then there’s only one other explanation,’ sighed Myron. ‘MTDs are being produced elsewhere. Shit; I thought I’d done so well, too.’

‘You did,’ said Franz, patting Myron’s shoulder. ‘You connected with Jessica. Tell me, was she cagey or furtive when talking about her work?’

‘On the contrary, she wouldn’t shut up! But everything she said was in the context of her lover, Fabien Varste. She raved about him non-stop.’

‘How long did she say she’d been working on the pilot line?’ asked Derek.

‘Two years.’

‘That’s a hell of a long time. I wonder if she’s been … ‘

‘Sidelined?’ suggested Antony. ‘Happens all the time at uni. Gun academics get sinecures to stop them rocking the boat.’

Franz pounded his fist lightly on the table. ‘We’ve got to talk to her again; and this Varste character. We’re running in circles with what we’ve got. For all we know, someone else could be driving the real project.’

‘Does Fabien have a cat?’ inquired Julian.

‘Don’t be stupid! We’ve spent enough time fart-arseing around. I’ve a feeling this is already out of our control.’

Julian looked hurt, but said nothing.

Franz continued. ‘Myron, she knows you. we’ll follow her to Varste’s place, ask for ten minutes of their time and show ’em what we’ve got. Hopefully, they’ll keep their hands off each other long enough to have a look. It’s the only way.’

‘Alright,’ said Myron. ‘We’ll stake out the centre until she heads off to his place. With any luck, it’ll be tomorrow.’

Read Chapter 21.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by digitalMindy.

The Game – Chapter 19

January 23, 2013 at 4:53 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
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‘We want it all and we want it NOW!’

As Wu Chen writhed on the ETAT information centre’s floor, a bouncer squad materialised to seize Gregor Klimt. They knew their stuff and were supremely fit. Gregor was strong, but badly out of condition. They dragged him to a service lift.

Two minutes later, he sat in a restraining chair in the centre of a windowless room. Ruing his throbbing hand, Gregor mused that his rapid removal suggested a well rehearsed contingency plan. He wondered how many other citizens staged similar ‘protests’ to his.

A tall woman entered. Her grooming was immaculate and her fine black suit expensive.

‘She could be Rich or even Superrich,’ thought Gregor. ‘I wonder where she got her wealth.’

The woman sat at the table in front of Gregor. ‘Good morning Mr Klimt. My name is Dawn Abdullah. I’m the manager of this centre.’

‘Hmmph,’ replied Gregor.

Abdullah took a defacto cigarette from a gold case in her jacket, lit it with a matching lighter and exhaled. Crossing stockinged legs, she pointed a patent toe at Gregor. ‘You seem … unhappy with our Mr Chen’s service. Would you mind telling me what the problem is?’

Gregor glowered. ‘Would you mind removing these restraints?’

‘I’m not sure, Mr Klimt: do you plan to smash my teeth in as well?’

Gregor flushed. ‘It depends what you … no, of course not.’

‘Very well; I believe you.’ Abdullah gestured. A bouncer re-entered the room and swiftly unmanacled Gregor, who flexed his arms and surveyed the room.

‘Now,’ said Abdullah. ‘What happened with Wu?’

Gregor explained.

‘And you saw fit to protest via assault?’

‘I admit it was an extreme response, but he was so damn smug and inflexible about his decision. I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘Did you consider talking to me? We do have an open-door policy here.’

Gregor shook his head. ‘From the way Chen was carrying on, I got the strong impression ETAT’s position was non-negotiable.’

Abdullah tapped ash to the floor. ‘Technically, that’s correct. Wu’s been trained to adhere to ETAT policy. It appears, however, that he may have been a shade too … zealous in dealing with you. It’s not always enough to be right.’

‘You call your policies right?’ retorted Gregor.

‘They’ve been developed with majority interests in mind. In terms of creating the world’s first fair and stable social order, they’re as right as the finest brains on the planet can make them.’

Gregor reddened. ‘So you think they’re right for me too?’

‘I said majority. The reason you’re here – instead of jail – is testament to our desire to help those who fall outside the norm. You could serve months for your tantrum. Should I encourage Wu to press charges? You’d be completely screwed then, wouldn’t you?’ She flicked her defacto into a corner and lit another.

Gregor was impressed; he hadn’t seen a woman act like this since the army. ‘Alright; you’re being tolerant. But your New Deal is set to ruin me better than any prison stretch, wouldn’t you agree?’

Abdullah took a long drag. ‘That depends.’

‘On what?’

‘On whether we can reach a compromise.’

‘We can do that?’

‘I run this centre. I can do pretty much as I please … within limits.’

Gregor sniffed with reluctant admiration and wondered if Abdullah would ever consider visiting his store for a ballistics lesson. He crossed his legs and leaned back. ‘Alright, Dawn. Surprise me.’

Abdullah ran through Gregor’s spreadsheets and showed him how to raise the capital he needed in only two years and nine months. His corrected cash flow projection put him at the threshold of Comfortable Status seven weeks before The New Deal’s cut-off date. It was tight, and he’d have to live like a monk to make it, but Abdullah extracted his written promise to submit to Poor Status – without protest – if he failed. In return, Gregor left the centre with a four-year classification deferment in his satchel.

Having created yet another happy customer, Abdullah’s next meeting was with the whimpering Wu Chen. He quickly accepted  her generous compensation offer in return for silence. After a week’s sick leave, he’d be back at work with new teeth and a more conciliatory attitude. ETAT left nothing to chance.

Gregor was delighted to have brokered a solution within the system. All around him, citizens were embracing The New Deal. It was obvious most people wanted it. Governments had long failed to provide security for ageing constituents. Saving was at an all-time low. Now a familiar, professional, global organisation – containing many of the world’s most gifted individuals – had offered to vouchsafe the future.

Relief and optimism pervaded the streets. Having mastered nature, humanity was finally set to control its own. Guaranteed income, personal safety, protection of property, law enforcement, freedom from fear. These had always been the dreams of ordinary citizens. Only ETAT had the clout to pull it off.

Gregor felt he’d gained a second chance at life. He was almost forty. It had taken him twelve years to get over the loss of his military career. It wasn’t too late to start again, as a Comfortable Class storekeeper. Who knew what the future held? Maybe he’d meet someone in his new echelon.

He showed his revised figures to the disposal store owner, who heartily endorsed his plan. Set for Rich classification, the owner opened a bottle of peach schnapps and toasted with his employee to ETAT and its legacy: The New Deal. It was Gregor’s last drink for a long time.

He became a merciless taskmaster, pushing himself in every aspect of life. His entertainment budget culled, he spent his days training. Ashamed at the pitiful resistance he’d offered Dawn Abdullah’s bouncers, he resolved to regain his army body.

Using odds and ends from the store, he rigged one of his rooms as a gym and spent hours driving his muscles back into shape. He also became fitness coach to a young Superrich couple. Thrice a week, he ran them through their routines. Not being qualified, he couldn’t command a high fee. Yet he treasured every cent that moved him closer to his goal.

Wu Chen had hit a nerve by flagging Gregor’s weakness on matters theoretical. In response, Gregor taxed his brain with free self-improvement programs on the internet. Though his mind responded slower than his body, he eventually detected improvement.

In the store below his rooms, Gregor became a selling dynamo. Already he felt a sense of ownership for the business. He polished every stock item until it shone. He convinced the owner to advertise and made it his mission to sell something, no matter how small, to every browser. After months of effort, he began to enjoy repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendation. His sales figures eclipsed the day manager’s, to the latter’s astonishment.

Two months ahead of time, Gregor had enough capital to buy the store. He celebrated quietly with a single bottle of beer: he wasn’t out of the woods yet. He was capital Comfortable but cash Poor. He needed a savings buffer. Though he’d gained time to grow it, he was determined to push himself to the end. That most of his customers were already classified added to his sense of urgency.

Ten months after Gregor bought the store, the Superrich couple he coached decided to try for Free Status together. Shop sales had plateaued and Gregor worried about losing his secondary income.

The Game was in its sixth season. Programs with a Game segment out-rated competing shows tenfold. Since the death of the first contestant, however, fewer people were signing up than the television industry had envisaged. With ETAT’s blessing, executives decided to keep the odds generous until numbers picked up after The New Deal’s cut-off date.

Gregor’s client couple told him they had ETAT sussed, and that Game odds would not remain good for long. They’d been summoning the guts to go for Free since the prospectus came out. They believed the months leading up to The New Deal’s implementation would yield their best chance of success.

Other than death, they had two fears: that the odds of success would worsen before they signed, and that the odds would improve after. They were eligible only for the odds current at contract endorsement. What if they signed for a one-in-five shot, only to find the odds had improved to one-in-three on the day of their bid? The thought made them quail. Yet The New Deal would be universal law in a year. They had to decide.

Gregor was disgusted by their deliberations. Arriving at their mansion for their regular run, he surveyed what the young women already owned. Their net worth was thousands of times greater than his. They had everything: land, furniture, jewels – even a vehicle each. They travelled, threw parties and donated. They enjoyed stimulating careers. What more could they want?

Freedom, darling!’ they told him gaily. ‘When you’re Free, your income is limited only by a committee of your peers. In other words, it’s practically unlimited!’ The girls giggled at Gregor’s stony countenance and jogged playfully around him, breasts and ponytails bouncing. Then they sang lustily, ‘We want it all and we want it NOW!’

Gregor despised their greed and secretly cursed their bid. It had none of the effort or nobility of his quest. In risking their lives for superfluous wealth, they surely deserved to die. While he struggled just to be Comfortable.

Later that month, Gregor saw the promo for the girls’ bid. In love with publicity, they’d done a photo shoot – modelling their chosen Game instrument in skimpy gym wear. They beamed confidently into the cameras, intoxicated by the excitement their twin attempt at Free Status was generating. They’d easily secured a spot on the Tonight Show, jumping the queue ahead of conventional contestants.

On the night of their attempt, Gregor saw them side by side on a specially modified Wheel. Vivacious, attractive lesbians, flirting with death. Ratings for Lester Rodrigues’ program went through the roof. Gregor shook his head and started cleaning another of the howitzer shell casings he was selling as umbrella stands. Not wanting to feel responsible for anyone’s death, he removed his curse before the spin.

Jody made it.

Pamela perished, ruthlessly impaled beside her lover.

Two days later, Gregor was stunned when Jody rang.

‘Where are you, he-man? Did you forget our run? I was looking forward to your congratulations.’

Gregor blinked into his monitor, momentarily speechless. ‘I … I didn’t think, I mean Pam … you … ‘

‘Oh, come off it, you old dinosaur. Pammy’s number was up, simple as that. Life goes on. Can you come over now?’

‘It’s so soon, Jody. I honestly thought … ‘

‘Cut the sentimental crap, Gregor. I’ve no time for it.’ Jody switched to a sing-song voice. ‘Especially since I’m moving into my new ho-ome!’

Gregor winced. Jody saw his distaste and flushed. ‘How’s the savings plan going, he-man?’

‘Shithouse. And you know it.’

‘Since you’re not classified yet, I could bail you out.’

Again Gregor was thrown by Jody’s change in voice. ‘Like hell.’

‘Yes, yes I could. Jody could make everything better for Gregor. She could, she could!’

‘Yeah, but she won’t, will she?’ Gregor recalled his recent night terrors about missing his target.

Jody twisted the knife. ‘You’re goddamn, motherfucking right she won’t! I hope your high horse kicks your fucking head off! Shit, you couldn’t even say, “Congrats, Jodes; top work, Jodemeister!” If you think I’m paying for last months’ sessions, forget it. I’m Free now. Free! Like it says in the brochure: all obligations pertaining to my previous life have been dissolved. You’ll have to chase ETAT if you want your pocket money. See ya later, Poor-man!’

Gregor stared at the blank monitor. He didn’t know whether to give into rage or despair. The two emotions fought it out. Despair had all but won when an email arrived.

There was an old fart called Klimt,

Who thought it was cool to be skint.

He ended up Poor,

All covered in sores,

And bitterly became extinct. 

ps: Your fired!

Despair was distracted. Rage connected with a haymaker. Gregor resolved to temper Jody’s success.

He went downstairs and chatted with the day manager. Wishing him a good day, he announced he’d take his customary nap. Locking the door, he changed into his running gear. The window was a tight squeeze. Thankful to have shed his excess weight, Gregor dropped into the lane behind the store and jogged briskly along back streets to Jody’s home. A vain creature, she was unlikely to break her fitness routine for anything.

Gregor hid beside the path he’d traversed countless times – rage coursing unabated through his vessels. He and Jody were at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but being Free didn’t give her the right to cheat and insult an honest, hard-working citizen.

His heart leapt as he glimpsed her purple headband rising and falling through the leaves. He scouted the path again. They were alone. As Jody neared, Gregor’s heartbeat overtook her rapid footfall. He pulled the balaclava over his face and waited for her to pass.

Gregor leapt from cover, seized Jody from behind and swept her back into the undergrowth. Seeking to temporarily disfigure her pretty face, he clapped one hand over her mouth and made ready to punch with the other. But Jody was strong from training and twisted free like a cat. Gasping, she straightened up and backed away, fists raised.

The balaclava was a pitiful disguise for someone of Gregor’s singular build. Jody recognised him instantly. To his amazement, she burst out laughing.

‘Oh my God! It’s he-man the wonder killer, come to wreak terrible vengeance on poor Jodes. Just wait till they get their hands on you, boy!’

Gregor saw he was finished. He’d be apprehended and executed by that which he most detested: The Game. A red mist descended over his eyes and he sprang forward. Absorbing Jody’s wild roundhouse kick, he jabbed his palm expertly into her nose, flattening it against her face. The thin bones sheared and speared into her brain. Jody fell backwards, dead before hitting the ground.

Surrounded by mist, Gregor knelt and removed Jody’s gaudy diamond ring. He jogged home on autopilot, washing his hands in a creek and hiding the ring under moss-covered rocks. He scaled his back wall and put himself to bed. Minutes later, the day manager apologetically intruded with a customer inquiry. Gregor went downstairs and closed the sale. A thunderstorm broke as he returned to bed.

Jody’s nasty email made Gregor prime suspect in her death. When the detectives subjected Gregor to a gruelling round of interviews, he stuck rigidly to his story, omitting nothing but his movements between his two interactions with the day manager.

The investigators bemoaned the extraordinary circumstances. Klimt’s alibi was solid. His personal molecular signature was out of sync with ETAT records. Jody hadn’t been wearing anything containing an MTD. Nor had her attacker. Heavy rain had made it impossible to track anyone from the crime scene. Only the diamond ring offered any chance of a lead. The moment it came within range of an MTD, its signature would be flagged. Gregor was released, having already decided to leave the ring where it was.

In the following months, he pulled out the stops, working round the clock and abandoning all non-critical activity and expenditure. When The New Deal’s cut-off date arrived, he was classified as Comfortable.

He’d exceeded the threshold by a mere $116.

That evening, he bought a bottle of peach schnapps. Idly trawling the Net while waiting for customers, he found a murder mystery site. Something moved him to make an anonymous comment:

Beware the Assassins

of the Free.

Be true, do not

succumb to greed.

Gregor finished the bottle, closed his store for the first night in four years, and went to bed.

Read Chapter 20.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by mikebaird

The Game – Chapter 18

January 22, 2013 at 1:11 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Her eyes pleaded with the blurred images beyond the glass to spare her.

Her eyes pleaded with the blurred images
beyond the glass …

The arrangement of the tanks gave Penny Travis a good view of her fellow contestants. Suspended in Tank Ten, she waited for the imminent demise of the luckless woman in Tank Two. This was preferable to closing her eyes and dealing with the demons. Penny worked her jaw, over which control was gradually returning.

In Tank Two, the water quickly covered Soula’s feet and soaked through her slippers and coveralls. ‘It’s … COLD!’ she cried, her voice picked up by ambient stage microphones.

The audience and crew, hitherto silent in face of the tragedy, burst into laughter at the incongruous comment. The catharsis was infectious. Even those sympathetic to Soula found themselves fighting a giggle. Penny watched the watchers rolling in their seats and slapping backs. Then she looked at the water already licking at Soula’s thighs and thought, ‘What will I do when I’m taken? Will I be as funny?’

Under guard in a hospitality suite, Soula’s small band of protesting supporters heard the raucous laughter above them and wondered what the hell was going on. Unable to resist, one of them snapped on a monitor.

Good Morning Everyone host Bernie Plimpton was well used to the timing of the indicator light. He’d stepped out of shot as soon as number thirteen appeared. He had no desire to be beamed round the world next to a dead woman. He felt even more aroused with two strikes against him and made a mental note to book Sonya for the evening. With her olive skin, thick lips and black mane, she’d pass for Soula in the dark.

A few steps away, the real Soula suffered her fate. The water had reached her breasts, outlining them under her straitjacket. When the water scrambled over the press stud at her throat, Soula drew breath to speak. The audience, recovering from its hysteria, fell silent to catch Soula’s parting line. But she misjudged the water’s rise and only managed ‘I … ‘ before the greedy liquid spilled into her near-horizontal mouth. Spluttering violently, she ejected a small fountain. It splashed feebly against the chamber door and was immediately reclaimed by the rising tide.

Soula’s coughing virtually emptied her lungs of air, right when she needed it most. She floated, but her reduced buoyancy allowed only the top of her head to break the surface. Wild eyed, she twisted like a caterpillar, striving with all her might to achieve vertical movement. But her tailored clothing, harness and restraining chains prevented violent or extensive movement. After rising only fractionally, she dropped back down exhausted.

Seconds later, the Tank was full. Looking for all the world like a mermaid, Soula slowly thrashed. Her hair spread out in a wide fan. The chains on her feet, now fully extended, held her half a metre below the limpid surface of the water. Her eyes pleaded with the blurred images beyond the glass to spare her.

After forty seconds, she could hold the remaining air in her lungs no longer. A jellyfish of bubbles plopped lazily. Her dying breath. With eyes screwed tight in terror and concentration, Soula breathed water.

Camera Three picked up her look of surprise. Clearly she’d thought her lungs would rebel against the intake of fluid. Owing to supersaturation with oxygen, however, the water tapped a primitive part of her brain to wake an ancient memory. Soula breathed deeply, perhaps thinking it had all been a big joke and that the Tank’s emergency floor panel would blow out any second to save her.

In all likelihood, Soula experienced many weird imaginings as she died. The oxygen content of the water was high enough to fool her brain, but not to sustain it. At last, her expression became fixed and she floated motionless.

Jeannette wept quietly on the winners’ couch. The audience fidgeted, keen for fresh spectacle. Plimpton caught the nod from the floor manager and threw to a break.

With Punter Two beyond resuscitation, the pumps gurgled into reverse and quickly emptied the Tank. The tireless roadies took Soula down like Jesus and laid her on a trolley to be wheeled out by the clipboard-carrying woman. The roadies wiped the Tank dry and resealed the door, sweeping the stage of spilled drops. On a command from the control booth, the Tank’s numeric display board retracted. Suddenly no trace remained of the drama so recently played out. The audience liked it that way. ‘Accentuate the positive’ was the studio’s unofficial motto.

Bernie Plimpton usually worked the audience at this time, signing autographs and lightening the mood with weak jokes. On this day he stood backstage, smarting from the floor manager’s reaming.

‘You look at me at least once every half minute, you fucking amateur! Do you understand?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘I’m not one of your bloody accessories; I have to run the whole fucking floor! I can not have you swanning around, milking your miserable fan club and getting the show off track!’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Now get your hand off your prick and on the tiller, or I’ll have you replaced with someone from this century.’

The floor manager stormed off. Bernie wondered if he should get Sonya to bring a friend. He was having a difficult enough day for it. He fled to his station next to Tank Three and shakily took his cue. ‘Le … led … ladies and … ge … gentlemen! Welcome back to … The Game!’

Penny had regained control of her fingers, toes and neck. Her restraints stopped her testing her limbs. Her sight had improved, but the neurone suppression drug still had firm hold of her muscle-rich tongue. She was impressed. By the time Plimpton got to her Tank, she’d look like any normal punter. There was no way, however, that she’d be able to describe her treatment at the hands of Nils Muller and John Jefferson, her Game consultant and prison guard.

Tank Three’s punter had chosen numbers meaningful only to her: birthdays, anniversaries and the like. When one of her numbers came up, there were scenes similar to those provided by Jeannette, the first contestant. Punters Four, Five and Six also had personal number selections. They too made it through. The five winners sat bright-eyed on their special couch, willing the others to join them.

The crowd was keen for another death. Each punter was taking a one-in-two chance. Probability dictated that Number Four should’ve died. When she, Number Five and Number Six escaped, the audience felt cheated. What was the point of state-of-the-art killing machines if their victims survived? Some spectators were particularly galled, having also attended the previous day’s event during which all ten contestants had walked.

It was therefore with great anticipation that Punter Seven’s turn began. People were certain the dark-skinned woman was history. Like Soula, she’d selected all the odds. In contrast, she’d included number thirteen, apparently unfazed.

When Board Seven’s indicator light ironically stopped on thirteen, the crowd became decidedly snaky.

Plimpton, incessantly darting glances at the floor manager, obsequiously acknowledged the break signal and introduced another set of commercials. The floor manager knew that with the chances of a kill so high in the last three turns, viewers would be riveted to their PCs.

The remaining three punters exchanged glances from their glass coffins. Mathematically, they were already dead. They had more in common with each other than with most of their acquaintances in the outside world. Penny Travis felt an urge to make contact with the other two before she died. She was also curious to see if the pricking sensation at the base of her tongue presaged release from the immobilisation drug. Carefully forming the words she slurred, ‘Peiiy Traaisth.’

Punter Eight was a diminutive oriental, twenty-two at most. She regarded Penny through her pretty fringe and said clearly and slowly, ‘I beg your pardon?’

Penny grinned blackly to herself, ‘She thinks I’m retarded; what a way to be remembered!’

She tried again. ‘Pe-yiy Tra-yisth. I yam Pe-nyiy Tra-yist. Who aaaargh yew?’

The oriental looked puzzled and a little fearful. She smiled faintly then looked away, pretending to study the audience.

Punter Nine was an athletic, confident-looking platinum blond in her early thirties. She cleared her throat. Penny looked at her expectantly.

‘I’m Eva Sorensen. I didn’t quite catch your name.’

Encouraged, Penny focused all her energy, ‘Pe-nyiy. Pen-nyiy. Penn- niy. Pen-ny. My nay iys Pen-ny!’ The effort was exhausting.

‘Did you say … “Penny”?’ ventured Eva.

‘Yeys! Yeys! Pennny!’ Tears sprang to her eyes. ‘Iym sorreey. Dey jugg-ed mey.’

‘They what?’

‘They jrug-ged mey!’

‘They … drugged you!?’

‘Yeys! Yeys! … Evar.’

Punter Eight looked at Eva Sorensen. ‘Did she say she was drugged?’

‘Yes. And pretty thoroughly by the sound of her.’

‘Why would they do that? The Game is voluntary …’

‘I can’t imagine. Shhh! Someone’s coming!’

A stocky female roadie strode over and stood before the three tanks, hands on hips. ‘Now ladies, what did your contracts say about talking on stage? I suggest you stay quiet, or our friends in the booth will pull the plug on all you. Seriously, it’s almost time. You’ve come this far; don’t blow it by having a chat.’

The three stared at her in silence. Eva had a glint in her eyes, as if she didn’t like being told. After the roadie had left, Eva hissed to Punter Eight. ‘What’s your name, little one?’

The fringe shook violently. Punter Eight had obviously taken the warning to heart.

‘Come on, just for the record.’ This is Penny and I’m Eva. We’re the Three Witches, about to be drowned at the stake. We’re all probably going down together, so what’ve you got to lose? Tell us!’

‘Mika Komatsu,’ whimpered the girl. ‘And I’m not going down anywhere!’

‘Gooj fr yew,’ mumbled Penny.

The lights came up and they were back on air.

Mika was on the block. Only her feng shui numbers stood between her and a watery demise. Without the benefit of a Bernie Plimpton get-to-know-you interview, the audience saw her merely as a component of Tank Eight. Well desensitised to live executions, they used her anonymity as an excuse to howl for blood. Without three straight deaths, few bets would generate a return. The Poor section of the studio was twitchy. Even small losses would be felt for days.

Plimpton picked up on the mood, having had an awful time on the previous death-free show. Eager for lunch, he set Mika’s ball rolling.

She made it.

Plimpton cowered before a phalanx of filthy looks. The sound of betting tickets being shredded by angry fingers unnerved him. Perhaps he was getting too old for all this drama. He unceremoniously introduced Eva’s turn.

Eva made it.

At long last, it was time for Penny. Eva and Mika, arms elatedly around each other on the winners’ couch, smiled and waved encouragement. Jeannette, worn out from channelling, gave her inner goddess a last, apologetic squeeze, while conceding that eight out of ten wasn’t bad.

With most of her faculties now operating, Penny took a last look at the world beyond the glass. She was terrified and didn’t want to die, but she was also resigned. The odds towered above her. She’d been betrayed and abused, and now all humanity wanted the pumps to finish her off. Let them.

The indicator light moved off its mark.

Only Penny knew the complete key to her number choice. Viewers tried to divine the relevance of her selection. The mathematically inclined spotted her primary criteria. But since no one remembered Xania Starwoman’s prediction for Virgo the previous Friday, the significance of the parameters eluded them. All were close on the remaining two numbers; they were date oriented. Twenty-three was Penny’s age; sixty-two was Xania Starwoman’s. Penny had looked it up, her formula having generated only thirty-eight numbers. What she didn’t know was that Xania had lied in her interview.

She was sixty-seven.

The indicator sped through its cycle. Penny closed her eyes, waiting for it to slow down. Her brain, intent on self preservation, forced her eyelids open.

Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No. Yes. No. No. No. No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No .. No … No …. No ….. No ….. No ……. No …….. No ……… Yes ……….


A chime rang thinly from somewhere above. Penny blinked, as if waking from deep sleep. She looked around groggily for the source of the sound.

In ultra-slow motion, a horde of people moved across a grey wasteland toward her. She couldn’t hear them; her whole body was numb. She let her eyes slither across the dreamscape. From the back of her brain came an authoritative: ‘Focus!

Penny felt like the lines to her eyes had come down in a storm. They lay strewn in a wet aftermath on suburban streets. To focus, she’d have to switch to manual.

Slowly she ascended a rickety wooden staircase and brushed thick cobwebs from an ancient iron handle. Grasping it with shaking hands, she began to turn. Rust flakes fluttered to the dusty floor or were crushed to powder by protesting cogs. With enormous effort, the mechanism gradually yielded and the heavy magnets turned reluctantly in their housing. A successful revolution was followed by another, and another, then more. Penny pressed on, increasing momentum. The magnets whirled faster, eventually blurring into a grey cylinder. Suddenly, with a deafening whip crack, a brilliant blue spark snaked off the housing and speared into the darkness. Stung by the strong, unfamiliar current, Penny’s irises brought the outside world into sharp focus. Directly in front of her, blinking yellow then … green was the number fifteen.

She spoke it aloud. ‘Fifteen.’ She tried something else. ‘Penny Travis.’ Finally, the big one: ‘I am … alive!’

Tank Ten rocked on its mountings as the roadies fought through the eight women pressed against it; laughing, crying, yelling. One by one, they were peeled away until only Eva Sorensen remained, her face laced with tears but wearing a triumphant smile. ‘We did it! Penny! You did it! We’re alive! We are … Comfortably well off!’

Eva was yanked away and the roadies set to work releasing Penny. As all but Soula had done, she held out her arms and her flesh was revealed for the first time since breakfast. Eva pushed forcefully past a hovering Bernie Plimpton to embrace Penny warmly and at length. Then she led her to Mika, who waited shyly behind the Tank’s open door. With a soul sister in each arm, Eva proclaimed, ‘We are the Three Witches. We survived drowning at the stake. And together we’re going up!’

Penny and Mika burst into laughter, their spells of terror broken at last. A ceiling cage opened and balloons, streamers and confetti rained down on the tanks and their unlikely survivors. The appalling comic relief band leader whipped his musicians into a frenzy and drew the segment to a close. Disgusted audience members fished under their seats for belongings. After Xania Starwoman’s segment, they were free to leave.

On stage, cameras cruised, capturing footage for the credit roll and promos. One was drawn to the three women cavorting together, wrapped in colourful streamers. A blond, a brunette and an Asian. Nice. Someone taped a brief interview. The blond did most of the talking. ‘The Three Witches’ she called them. The feed went to the control booth.

The station manger happened to be at the console talking to a technician and noticed the images. Pursing his lips he keyed up a contact. ‘Margot … Ivan. Good thanks. Look I’ve got something for you. Yeah, Game segment. Check it out; maybe you can use it. Sure, no worries. OK, here it comes.’ He rang off and punched ‘transmit’. A copy of the feed shot down the channel.

Downstairs, attention had shifted to the astrology segment. The Game stage and its players were moved out of the way.

Read Chapter 19.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by MrB-MMX

The Game – Chapter 17

January 21, 2013 at 5:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
For one quiet moment, Franz contemplated the frayed end of his tether ...

For one quiet moment, Franz contemplated the frayed end of his tether …

Franz Heilmayr‘s fine for receiving stolen military goods obliterated his savings. His months in prison were the most miserable of his life. He worried sick imagining his customers trying to contact him. He visualised them giving up on him, one by one. It was mid-product-cycle time, his busiest. His business was destroyed.

He cried when Myron Price offered to put him up for as long as he needed. Myron’s lounge became the new forum for their friends. Even Julian Oberman felt sympathy for Franz, who’d lost his sense of fun and mischief. His dry sense of humour had drowned. He was quiet and withdrawn.

While Myron worked in his front room, Franz pottered with what the group had salvaged from the trashed warehouse. Everything else had been removed for recycling, at Franz’s expense, by a furious landlord. Myron had a shed in his back yard. He made a space for Franz, that he might recover the confidence to begin again.

Franz cooked most nights, after which he and Myron sat around the heater, watching television or talking over drinks. Franz was obsessed with his arrest, having relived every moment of it countless times. After a month, Myron was close to telling him to shut up about his conspiracy theory.

Franz thought the military raid was triggered not by the stolen army PC, but by the mystery Panrax components. He argued that the raid occurred too long after the unit had received its self-destruct code. Why would the army wait three days to recover the unit and arrest its abductor? Such a serious crime warranted immediate action, especially with disintegrating evidence.

Secondly, the two Panrax components had disappeared from their hiding place. Following Franz’s frenzied phone instructions, Myron had scoured the park but found nothing. So did Franz, on his release. He was sure no one had seen him crouching in the bushes that day. Someone had located the components by other means and taken them. And was it mere coincidence that the shit had only hit the fan after the two ‘resistors’ had been exposed to each other? Some synergy must have occurred.

Finally, neither Myron’s schematic anomaly program nor Franz’s complete teardown of the two Panrax PCs had revealed anything else out of order. The ‘resistors’ were the PCs’ only non-essential components.

Though time strengthened Franz’s certainty of foul play, it also brought a degree of relief. Myron secretly tracked down a few of Franz’s old clients. Every now and then, a job came Franz’s way, enabling him to tinker for a few hours. The work replenished his depleted reserves of self esteem, money and spare parts. The shed began to fill with his concept of treasure.

This peaceful existence might have continued, were it not for the official release of the Panrax 4100K. Unwilling to own anything but the best, Julian obtained one as a matter of course. His test rig had been rendered obsolete by the improvements Panrax had achieved in the last months of validation. His other motivation was to own something that made him interesting to others. He knew Franz would be keen to check out the unit and invited him for dinner. To Julian’s delight, Myron asked if he could come too.

After a catered meal and two bottles of heavily wooded red, Julian led his guests to the computer platform. His favourite space flight simulator chattered to itself, the stars on the screen blending seamlessly with those wheeling beyond the huge bay window. The 4100K’s casing came off in seconds. Franz removed the power supply and broke it into sub-assemblies. He peered at a familiar array of components and gasped in disbelief.

‘What is it?’ asked Julian anxiously.

‘It’s gone!’ said Franz, turning the sub-assembly over and over in amazement. ‘It’s fucking gone!’

‘So it was a typo after all,’ concluded Myron.

Franz shot him a venomous look. ‘No way! Don’t you see? They’re on to us!’

Myron was stung by his friend’s retort. ‘Come on, man. Surely the simplest explanation is the best. Panrax have realised their error and fixed it in the final model. That’s the purpose of validation.’

Franz tore the sub-assembly into components, muttering through gritted teeth. ‘You believe what you like. I say our discovery has been noticed and that Panrax has moved the bogus resistor somewhere else. You saw the X-rays; that thing was unlike anything any of us had seen. I can’t believe you’re prepared to dismiss the whole thing as a … typo.’ His fingers worked at a stubborn mounting.

Julian hovered behind him. ‘I say, um Franz; I can see you’re excited. D’you think you could be a bit more careful with the merchandise?’

Franz formed a biting reply, then looked at his friends and at the mess he was making. ‘Shit. I’m sorry. This thing’s been fucking with my brain since I was arrested. It’s really got me wired.’

Julian saw a chance for brownie points. ‘I’ll tell you what: let’s leave the Panrax for tonight. I’ve got three more bottles of that red. You can both crash here. In the morning, you can take the machine to Derek’s house and go over it with the proper tools. How does that sound?’

Franz looked at his hands; they were shaking. He couldn’t resist the offer of a complete teardown, even if it meant waiting ten hours to start. ‘That’s very kind, Julian; very good of you. Are you sure you won’t mind me taking it to bits?’

Julian solemnly addressed the others. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. I realise that in the past I’ve been something of a tight arse. I’m beginning to see there’s more to life than consumer goods. I’d be honoured if you pulled the Panrax to bits, Franz. Shit, what if you really are onto something? We could all use a little excitement, couldn’t we?’

‘Yeah,’ said Myron. Franz nodded.

‘OK, so let’s put some of Dad’s wealth to good use and get rotten.’ Julian shepherded them to the intimate lounge area at the southern end of the apartment. For once, he felt like a reasonable and even faintly popular human.

Franz woke first the next morning. Hung over, he prised his eyes open, lay back on the guest futon and looked up at the ceiling. For a moment he thought he was back in his old warehouse. Then he felt silk and remembered where he was, and what the day had in store.

Suddenly excited, Franz rolled over and spotted Myron on another futon. He dragged himself to the edge of the loft and peered down at Julian’s bedroom. He too was asleep. Groping for his watch, Franz saw it was only 05:50. Damn! He was wide awake and rearing to rip the 4100K to shreds. He felt like a child in a motel with his parents, dying for the knock and slide of the breakfast tray. Unable to lie still, he padded down the stairs and climbed the ladder to where the PC lay in pieces. Quietly he began to reassemble them for the journey to Derek Eckersley’s house.

At 06:30, Myron’s watch sounded an alarm. He rose groggily and began dressing. The co-ordination needed to pull his trousers on so soon after waking was too great. He fell back onto the futon, knocking over an empty bottle. It smashed on a marble ashtray. ‘Sorry, Julian,’ called Myron, on seeing his host convulse beneath his doona. Franz grinned. A stroke of luck for them to be up so soon.

Myron finished dressing and hurried home to get changed for his run. Franz carried the Panrax carefully down the ladder. Julian watched, stretching and scratching himself in opulent pyjamas. He directed Franz to the 4100K’s travel crate and rang down for a trolley. Without waiting for breakfast, Franz thanked him and set off into the grey dawn.

Despite the hour, Derek welcomed Franz into his studio. Franz brought him up to date over strong coffee. By the time Derek was ready for work, Franz had cleared bench space in his hobby room and was laying out tools.

‘Here’s the locking card, man,’ said Derek. ‘Wish I could stay and watch.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Can’t. We throw the switch on the new shipyards network today. I’ve gotta make sure the dumb-arse CEO plugs it in before screaming that it doesn’t work.’

‘You poor bugger.’

‘I envy you. You’ve got no money, no job and no security. But you’ve got all day to play with someone else’s toys. If we die tonight, you’ll have had more fun than the richest working person alive.’

‘It’s not all beer and skittles,’ returned Franz, ‘I get dreadful fear sometimes. And without Myron, I’d really be on the shit heap. But I agree that today I’ll have a more meaningful and enjoyable time than most. I’m sorry you can’t stay; and I greatly appreciate the use of all your gear.’

‘Think nothing of it. Tell me all about it tonight.’

‘Will do,’ promised Franz, beginning his disassembly.

In contrast to his fevered pawings of the previous evening, Franz operated calmly and methodically. He copied the Panrax’s help directory and loaded it onto one of Derek’s many PCs. Screen by screen, he compared the 4100K’s hardware to its schematic, marvelling that the secrets of the new machine were his for the plundering. How amazing that a company could reveal its designs to the world, knowing that by the time anyone copied them, they’d already be superseded.

He hunted all morning for an unnamed or unnecessary resistor, but all were labelled and essential. The mystery component had vanished. By lunchtime, Franz could no longer deny his hangover. He downed tools and fortified himself with toasted sandwiches, soft drink and more coffee. Then he completed his search. There was no anomaly in the schematic. Franz was frustrated, but not surprised. Steeling himself, he began the second phase of his investigation – verifying the identity of every resistor in the PC with the X-ray scanner. He was still at it when Derek returned that evening.

Franz was too wasted to continue after dinner. He asked if he could return the next day. Yet after another twelve-hour stint that consumed all Derek’s remaining photographic plates, he still had nothing. He asked Derek for money to buy more.

‘Do you have to use so many plates on each resistor?’

‘It’s the only way,’ explained Franz. ‘The little fuckers behave exactly like resistors under the standard tests. They only way to confirm their identity is either by exploratory surgery or X-ray. I can’t afford to destroy Julian’s machine. Even if I did, I’d have nothing to compare to the images I took of the first two resistors.’

‘You’ve still got the original X-rays?’

‘No. They went during the raid. I’m using the drawings I made.’

‘Well I’d like to help, Franz, but those plates are bloody expensive. You’ve already used up my supply for the rest of the year.’

‘I’m sorry about that, man. I promise I’ll pay you back.’

‘I’m not so much worried about the money, more that you’ve set yourself such a punishing regime. You want to nail every elevation of every resistor in the Panrax. It’ll take you weeks. Myron could be right, you know. His typo theory is more plausible … don’t you think?’

Franz sighed, searching for the right words. ‘Mate, I’ve been farting about with hardware since I was three. I’ve been inside more PCs than buildings. Despite the fact the buggers regularly mutate beyond recognition, they’re still, at ground level, nothing more than sophisticated adding machines. I know them, Derek; I’ve got a feel for them. I sense, with every fibre, that there’s a ghost in that machine. I have to find it, or spend the rest of my life wondering why I couldn’t. Please lend me the loot and let me come back for a few more days. I swear I’ll make it up to you.’

Derek regarded his friend with sorrow; jail had really rattled him. He doubted Franz would find anything, however many X-rays he took. ‘Alright.’ He pulled out his wallet and withdrew a silver account card. Franz’s face lit up. ‘Get another five boxes. It’s all I can afford right now, OK?’

‘Sure,’ agreed Franz eagerly. A piece of his old self returned. ‘Thank you, you won’t regret it I promise.’

Derek got up to load the dishwasher. ‘Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Just make every plate count.’

Friday dawned clear and sunny. As before, Franz saw Derek off to work and quickly settled down to his project. He’d made a list of target resistors, based on what he knew about the two he’d encountered before. The X-ray plates delivered overnight were enough to study only a small fraction of the PC’s resistors. So he had to choose. Using the schematic, he highlighted the resistors closest to the power supply module. The first target surrendered its contents to the X-ray scanner. It was like any normal resistor. So was the next one. And the next one. And the next. And the next.

Franz ploughed doggedly through his list, the supply of plates dwindling steadily. After a miserable lunch, he set to work on his last few choices. Like a roulette player stuck too long to a recalcitrant number, he couldn’t abandon his methodology so late in the experiment. Heart in mouth, he carefully developed the last elevation of the last resistor on his list. With sickening recognition, he beheld the simple circuitry of a common resistor. In utter disgust, he flicked the plate across the room. It flipped and dived before landing near a delivery box, in which remained only three plates – too few to study even one more resistor properly.

Franz stormed into the kitchen, set the coffee machine going and slumped at the table. What now? He’d achieved nothing but inconvenience for his friend and debt for himself. He was completely fucked. The coffee ready, he leaned over to pour a cup. The fancy new design was not practical and a thin, scalding jet seared the tender skin of his forearm. The shock gave way to pain and was then eclipsed by rage. For one quiet moment, Franz contemplated the frayed end of his tether. Then he hurled it the coffee machine against the kitchen’s far wall. The unit exploded into steaming fragments. Most shattered further on hitting the floor. Those that didn’t were crushed beneath Franz’s berserk boots as he vented months of frustration.

Exhausted, Franz sank to the floor amid the wet debris. He stared ahead, freckled hands in his lap. After what could’ve been ten minutes or fifty, he came slowly out of his trance. The first thing he registered was the coffee machine’s smashed power module lying between his legs. A severed resistor poked out at him like a tongue. Beside the resistor was a diode, hanging from an optical fibre. Franz blinked.

He picked up the power module and examined it. Though worlds away from the Panrax, the arrangement of primary components was comparable. He tore into the hobby room. Pouncing on the 4100K’s schematic, he summoned the PC’s power module. On reaching the site from which the suspect resistor had disappeared, he panned right. There was the symbol for diode. He noted the number and flew to the Panrax. Swiftly, he located and removed the component, holding it up to the light with his pliers. It was the same size as the resistors he’d been dealing with for three days.

Fighting to restrain false hope, Franz placed the diode inside the X-ray scanner and loaded one of the remaining plates. But in his excitement he tore the film. Swearing profusely, he carefully took another plate and loaded it correctly. He photographed an elevation and waited for the exposure to develop. With trembling hands, he snapped the print onto the backlit viewing surface. At last, he witnessed the bizarre and convoluted outline he’d twice encountered before. He’d done it! Without a clue from the schematic and in spite of completely new camouflage, he’d found in the Panrax 4100K the same mystery component that had been hidden inside the 3700J and the 4000K.

Franz couldn’t wait to tell Derek. As he keyed his mobile, the doorbell rang. Franz froze. Memories of the raid on his warehouse flooded back. He waited. The doorbell sounded again. His mind raced. He had to see who was at the door. He removed his shoes and padded down the hallway. He peered nervously through the security viewer. Julian Oberman was turning to quit the doorstep. With relief, Franz welcomed his friend inside. ‘Shit, man, I thought you were the army, coming to get me again.’

‘I was in the area,’ lied Julian. ‘I thought I’d drop in to see how you were going.’

‘You came at the right time. Have I got something special to show you. Come here!’

Julian, who didn’t possess a tenth of Franz’s faith or tenacity, was impressed. ‘You’ve done well Franz. I can’t believe you had the courage to mess with this stuff, when you thought it was linked to the raid.’ He squinted at the diode in the X-ray scanner. ‘Geez, they’re devious little buggers, aren’t they? You could stick one of these anywhere. What d’you reckon they’re for?’

A strange look passed over Franz’s face, like a cloud shadow over a cornfield. He bolted into the kitchen, snatched the power module from the coffee machine and yanked out the diode. Ignoring Julian’s questions, he used his last plate on a shot identical to the one of the Panrax diode. He put the photograph beside the one already on the viewing surface. The images were identical.

SHIT! There’s one in the fucking coffee pot! Last time I put two of these things together, I went to prison! Now I’ve done it again! Julian, get out of here. Ring Derek. Tell him not to come home until I contact him. I’ve gotta get the Panrax back together. These bastards may be all over the place. Fucking with them must send a signal to whoever has put them there.’

‘But … ‘

‘Just do it! Go! Go now!’ Franz searched frantically for components. Julian, terrified of trouble, fled the studio and hurried back to his workplace, calling Derek on the way.

Franz toiled feverishly to complete the job in record time. Apprehension bathed him in sweat and made his breathing short and shallow. Something was happening. Something sinister. He started at every sound from outside. By the time he finished, he was a wreck.

Franz waited for the axe to fall. But as days passed without incident, he began to calm down. His friends developed alternative explanations for the warehouse raid. Favourite of these was that the resistor from Julian’s stolen test rig had triggered the drama of its own accord; there was no magic synergy between components. Though unconvinced, Franz felt safe enough to resume his investigation after a week. His discoveries had whetted his appetite. Yet he remained nervous and became fanatically cautious.

Borrowing money from Myron for more X-ray plates, Franz set to determining the distribution of the mystery components. Using the elevation that had yielded his earlier successes, he photographed the power modules of various machines belonging to his friends. He was staggered at how many mystery components he found – always near their host’s power module, and disguised as any of a range of parts common to that domain. What he couldn’t figure out was the pattern of component distribution. He created a table listing the specifications of each machine and pored over it for trends. He found that ‘loaded’ machines displayed no additional differences to ‘clean’ machines. His learning curve plateaued maddeningly.

The key came to him by chance, when Myron lost his wristwatch. It had been clean, as was Franz’s. Myron, envious of Franz’s solid-looking unit, bought an identical replacement which Franz scanned. It was loaded. Franz entered its specifications, identical to those of his own watch, onto the spreadsheet. Only then did the penny drop. The sole difference between the two units was that Myron’s was newer.

Franz excitedly entered the production date of other target machines. A trend appeared. The more dates he entered, the sharper the dividing line between loaded and clean machines. The mystery devices had been around for nineteen months. Anything manufactured prior to that was clean. Myron’s Panrax must have been one of the first PCs to be loaded. Franz reasoned that devices were being planted in every conceivable powered product.

The scope of the apparent conspiracy surpassed his maddest theories. His mind raced among the implications. The earth had short product cycles, universal recycling, rabid advertising and ceaseless demand for the latest and best of everything. In just a few years, all but the most durable, low-tech products would be loaded. Mystery devices would be everywhere! He had to find out what the device was for. This was sure to be a difficult if not dangerous exercise. He had to brief his friends.

Read Chapter 18.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by V31S70.

The Game – Chapter 16

January 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
In the weeks that followed, Mika's spirit guttered in chill winds ...

In the weeks that followed, Mika’s spirit
guttered in chill winds …

For two years, Mika Komatsu enjoyed a rare form of happiness. Her circumstances let her pursue her dream of being published. Further, she felt she was moving closer to her goal. Her evidence was a growing folio of poetry she considered worthy of publishing. She was living the honeymoon of present and future.

She wove her days with threads of balance and peace, working hard at the restaurant and writing in her secret bamboo grove when it was sunny. She had acclimatised to Higuchi’s abrasive personality, and the two rarely fought. When they did, Mika invariably retreated. She despised conflict. Since Higuchi’s moods went as swiftly as they came, Mika viewed her repeated defeats as the price of domestic harmony.

Higuchi, seventeen and hell-bent on getting the best Poor Class job available, studied furiously. Her results had lifted significantly. She’d disciplined herself to begin as Mika left for work each evening. Sometimes, as a reward, she bought a bottle of cheap, thin beer and sat up watching the Late Show version of The Game, which she adored. She fantasised about working as a roadie, controlling the various instruments of death.

With all classification deferments expired, every citizen was now locked into The New Deal. After the axe had fallen, many had felt the sudden urge to jump just one stratum higher. Television programmers pulled reruns and populated the morning hours with fresh Game shows to cope with the surge of contestants.

The fact that The New Deal was universal law didn’t affect the sisters. Their father’s zealotry had committed them to a subsistence lifestyle long ago. Higuchi had ceased raging against the injustice and was focusing all her energy on making the best hand of an extremely rough deal. Mika had weathered the maelstrom with her hopes for the future. Her pain began the day she felt ready to seek a professional opinion of her manuscript. She was twenty.

‘Hello, Parmont Publishing. How may I help you … Mika?’

‘I, um. I have a manuscript. I was wondering if you might be interested in looking at it … and, um … giving me some feedback.’

‘What genre?’

‘Poetry. Haiku.’

‘Anything else?’

Mika’s guts turned to water. ‘N .. no. Just haiku. I’ve been writing them for years.’

‘How many do you have?’

‘Um, about 300. Of course, you’ll want to choose just the best fifty or so for a book.’

‘Yes, yes, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Traditional or modern?’

Mika swallowed. ‘All traditional.’

‘Hmm. Send your best six to our website, attention Hayley Di Pietro. We’ll be in touch. Maybe.’

Mika saw with a shock that the call was about to end. She mustered every shred of courage she possessed. ‘Um … excuse me …’

The face looked up sharply. ‘Yes?’

‘Are you Hayley Di Pietro?’

‘Yes why?’

‘Um, well, I just wanted to ask you something.’

The face registered annoyance and impatience. ‘What?’

Mika shook with the effort of asserting herself. ‘Um, well … err … Hayley. I just wanted to know if it would be alright if I didn’t send my poems to your … um … to your … err … w … website.’

Di Pietro’s mouth firmed to a slit. ‘Why’s that, exactly?’

Mika searched frantically for the right words to diffuse the explosives at the other end of the line. She was terrified of her work being pirated and didn’t trust the security of even the most confidential Net nodes. She’d rather hurl her poems into the sea inside a bottle. With Hayley’s thin membrane of patience nearly worn through, despair silver-plated Mika’s tongue and the perfect sentence came out. ‘Because Hayley, I admire your work enormously and would like nothing better than to meet you personally and have you sign my copy of your latest work.’

‘Is that a fact? If you’re such a fan, why didn’t you recognise me?’

Mika brought up splinters from the bottom of the barrel. This was her last shot before she crumbled. ‘Because Hayley, I prefer to appreciate literature without the encumbrance of judgements about the author. I always throw away the dust jackets and covering files of the books I purchase. Your photograph would only have distracted me from the treasure of your words.’ She winced at the schmaltz. But Di Pietro bought it.

‘Wednesday, 14:10. Alright?’

Mika’s eyes opened wide. ‘Y … Yes, Hayley. That would be fantastic! Thank you very much!’

‘Don’t mention it.’ Di Pietro thawed a tight smile. ‘Always got time for a fan.’

Mika slumped onto her desk. A bead of sweat dribbled down her spine. She was exhausted, but she’d won the round. Her dream was a step closer to realisation. She ordered her Net server to find out what on earth Hayley Di Pietro might have written recently; Mika had never heard of her. Then she crept into her bed and dozed off.

Wrenched from sleep by the call, Mika dragged herself groggily to her monitor. ‘Hello?’

‘Mika. Hayley. With a bit of advice. Keep in touch with the industry.’

Mika, half awake and completely in the dark mumbled, ‘wha … ? What’re you talking about?’

Hayley looked at her disapprovingly. ‘Have you been drinking?’

The accusation shocked Mika into full consciousness. She took hold of herself and sat down. ‘No,’ she said carefully, ‘I was sleeping. Please, I didn’t understand what you said just then.’

‘Let me spell it out for you. Literary careers begin at the Comfortable level. The threshold was raised two months ago. It was announced on the Net. Either you missed it, or you’ve deliberately tried to deceive me. Let’s take a test. Name my last book.’

Mika was too shocked even to maximise the blinking report icon. ‘I don’t know.’

‘As I thought; you’ve tried to scam me. Pretty stupid when you think about it. How did you plan to convince me you weren’t Poor, when your status appears on every file in the system?’

‘I wasn’t trying to scam you, Hayley; I had no idea the rules had changed!’

‘I don’t believe you; but that’s immaterial. Your deceit has undone you. That, and the fact you’re unequivocally Poor. Pity the trusting publisher willing to give you a go. You’re pathetic. I hope you don’t live with anyone; you’ve obviously no idea how to treat people with respect.’

‘Hayley … ‘ began Mika, but the line had gone dead. The dialogue box was replaced with the report she’d requested earlier. Mika saw the title of Hayley’s latest work and fainted from emotional exhaustion. Bathing her supine form with soft light was the epitaph: Hayley Di Pietro – Truth is Best.

Mika missed work for the first time that night. Her world had been smashed to smithereens. She vomited until nothing remained, then kept retching. Her temperature soared.

Higuchi arrived home and recoiled at the stench. ‘Jesus, Mika! What’s going on?’

Mika shuddered out the bones of her story.

‘Is that it? Is that all? You missed out on a job? Shit, Mika, you scared the crap out of me. Don’t be such a bloody prima donna. I thought you were the one who was supercool about being Poor.’

Mika blubbered her reason for ‘missing the job’.

Realisation gleamed in Higuchi’s eye. ‘Ahhhh, so finally we’ve hit the wall. Soulful Mika is not above the system after all. All those times papa shoved you in my face as a martyr to the Cause: “Observe, Higuchi; your sister has learned true humility and acceptance”. Ha! Well, how does the cap fit now, little sister? And what’s it like to have joined the ranks of Liars Unanimous? We’ll have to put your high horse in the classifieds.’

Higuchi’s darts lodged in Mika’s heart. With a wail of sorrow, she leapt from her bed and flew across the lounge. Breaking fingernails, she wrenched the front door open and disappeared howling down the stairs. Broken glass tore at her bare feet as she ran to the only thing that had never betrayed her.

Higuchi felt like she’d just enjoyed a large orgasm. She fetched her remaining beer and took a long draught. Burping loudly, she plumped on the couch and keyed a number into the kitchen PC’s remote. The long face of a young man appeared, anxiously searching the screen of the public booth for the caller.

‘Hiya, Ihara!’ said Higuchi casually.

‘Higuchi? Where are you? I’ve been waiting. Where have you been?’

‘I’m in the lounge, baby, out of your line of sight. There’s been a bit of drama here. Mika’s just left.’

‘She’s never been late before. I was worried.’

‘How sweet! Well, she’s gone. And I don’t expect her back for a while.’

Ihara Teika’s brows knitted. ‘You mean, she could return before morning?’

Higuchi examined a weather report on the lounge’s PC. ‘Yep.’

Ihara was confused. ‘But then … she’ll catch us … after all this time.’

Higuchi was enjoying herself immensely. ‘Relax, stud man, everything’s groovy. If she comes back, she comes back. If the worm was ever going to turn, it would’ve happened tonight. It didn’t. As a result, things are about to change.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘Exactly what you want me to, baby. We’re getting you out of there and into my little nest.’

‘I’ll come right over!’ gushed Ihara.

‘Not so fast, bucko! I want you to pick up some booze as a housewarming present.’

Ihara ran a nervous hand over his shaved head. ‘Higuchi, you know I can’t afford it. They’re tracking my transactions. If I divert any more funds to intoxicants, they’ll spot it!’

‘Ihara, darling, are you not about to live rent free in a lovely flat with two lovely young women?’

‘Yes,’ replied the young man miserably.

‘And are you not betrothed to the world’s most fabulous and powerful sex goddess?’


‘And are you not eternally grateful to this goddess for draining your vital fluids every evening for the past two years?’


‘Well then, pull your bloody finger out, use some imagination and get some fucking PISS!’

‘But … ‘

‘And don’t DARE come here without it!’ Higuchi killed the link and rolled around on the couch, tears of laughter streaming down her hard, grinning face.

Outside, cold rain flattened Mika’s clothing to her thin, shivering body. She lay in mud, curled like an embryo. By now, even her tears had lost their warmth. From time to time, her mind’s eye glanced at the horror of her situation. Like peering under a scab, the act was repellent and painful, yet irresistible. Her two loves, life and poetry, were divorced. Her dream had been frozen. She could write until the day she died. But her precious words, crafted to warm the hearts of millions, were doomed to moulder forever under her bed.

The moon rose over the bamboo grove, casting its baleful light into the clearing. The wind gained enough strength to work on the grass. The blades fell, prevented from self actualisation as surely as the frail woman huddled among them.

Much later, Higuchi and Ihara lay among the detritus of a hard night’s drinking. Ihara had bartered a few of his meagre possessions for beer. As he dozed next to his snoring lover, he was visited by unsettling dreams of discovery and apprehension. His transaction had been highly illegal, smiting at the heart of enforced social stratification. He half expected an official to break in with evidence damning him for operating outside the system.

His only hope was that ETAT was too busy to notice his crime. He was indeed safe for now. He woke and turned his large, mournful eyes to the woman who’d goaded him to such folly. He was her prisoner, caught in a trap of sex, familiarity and emotional masochism. They fought with, connived against, lied to and betrayed each other, yet they’d stayed together for almost four years.

Ihara suffered delusions of creativity and refused to apply for conventional jobs. Unemployed since leaving school at sixteen, his attraction to Higuchi grew after she fled her dysfunctional parents to set up house with her sister. Here was a chance to escape the awful dormitory he was forced to occupy until he toed the line and took a job.

When Mika began work at the restaurant, Ihara’s hope was fulfilled. Higuchi rescued him nightly. He enjoyed a shower, a meal and a relatively undisturbed sleep. The few dollars he saved on food bought alcohol for Higuchi. She enjoyed nothing more than getting drunk, toying with his slower mind and repeatedly jumping his skinny bones. That Mika had never detected the arrangement was indicative of her naiveté and Higuchi’s clinical cunning.

Toward dawn, Mika rose painfully and stumbled home. She pressed her palm against the lock. Not recognising her rain-wrinkled print, the door asked for confirmation. Numbly, she punched in her password, her frozen fingers barely feeling the keys. The bolts withdrew and Mika slid inside, almost tripping over an empty beer bottle. She raised her throbbing head. More bottles swung into view, along with food wrappers, blankets and two bodies – one belonging to a stranger. A man. Fighting dizziness and nausea, Mika assembled a sentence for her swollen throat and cracked lips. ‘Higuchi. Who is this person?’

Ihara bolted upright, frantically slapping his lover’s rump and hissing at her snoring face. ‘Higuchi! Your sister has returned. Wake up! Wake up!’

Higuchi stirred leisurely. Yawning, she stretched luxuriously and turned to face Mika. Her eyes, soft from intercourse and sleep, climbed back into their pill boxes and took up their weapons. ‘Ahhhhh, the prodigal child returns. I never agreed with that parable, so you’ll forgive us for devouring the fatted calf last night in your absence.’

Mika pointed mechanically. ‘Who is he?’ Her voice cracked at the realisation that Higuchi was gearing up for one of her sessions.

Higuchi disentangled herself from bedding and boyfriend. Rising smoothly, she planted herself squarely in front of Mika. She was solidly built and now towered over her sister. ‘This is Ihara. He’s a friend of mine and he needs a place to stay for a few days. I told him you wouldn’t mind.’

Mika replied weakly, dreading what was coming. ‘How many days?’

On cue, Higuchi lost her temper. ‘Jesus, Mika, you are so fucking anal! What does it matter how long he stays? A few days is a few days. Christ, are you so tight you can’t even help out another human being? That’s it. That’s fucking IT! I’ve had it with you, you selfish, pious, finicky bitch!’

Higuchi continued her tirade; her proven way to get what she wanted. Installing Ihara was a career best. She slammed doors, gesticulated threateningly and hounded Mika into her room. Then she yelled through the door, grinding Mika into a paste with words beautifully picked and ruthlessly delivered.

Two days earlier, Mika might have resisted. But after a night in the rain and the onset of fever, she folded like a house of cards. Higuchi’s coup was complete. Ihara Teika returned to the dormitory for sign in, and made it back to the flat in time for breakfast.

In the weeks that followed, Mika’s spirit guttered in chill winds. Higuchi engulfed the flat. Under her protection, even the mealy-mouthed Ihara gained enough courage to assist in her methodical persecution of Mika. They ruled the flat’s common areas day and night. Mika retreated to the relative safety of her room, prevented both from sleeping and writing by venomous arguments, vigorous intercourse and violent Game telecasts. Too frightened to neutralise the disturbing sounds with her PC, she suffered terribly. Her energy drained away steadily.

Through strategic visits and phone calls, Higuchi soured Mika’s friendships at work. Colleagues began to avoid her, believing the slander of her convincing sister. Understanding Higuchi’s motivation did nothing to ameliorate Mika’s pain. She knew she Higuchi was punishing her for Otomo’s crime. Yet her attempts to discuss this transference were viciously rejected.

Mika’s sole comfort was that she’d be released from legal responsibility for her sister in three months, when Higuchi turned eighteen. Then, at least, she could leave the corrupted flat and seek solitude in a smaller dwelling. Of course, this promised no relief for her greatest heartache. Her dream of working as a writer was as thwarted as ever.

Beset by deepening depression and despair, Mika vainly sought peace in the bamboo grove. With the onset of winter, it had lost its magic. The clearing was more often a morass than a refuge. Mika had nowhere else to go. She surrendered herself to the elements, rocking herself into dark trances and struggling to suppress the ambition flailing in her heart.

On returning exhausted from work one morning, Mika entered the flat to giggles from Higuchi and Ihara’s room. Yet again, bottles littered the floor. This time the drunken pranks had included fire. A small altar sat awkwardly in the lounge. On and around it lay ashes and half-burned papers. They stirred in the draught from the corridor. Mika picked up a charred corner of familiar stationery. The first line of her earliest haiku stared up in mute appeal.

Higuchi’s door opened a crack and four eyes peered from the darkness. Mika looked up, dumbstruck by the enormity of her discovery. The door slammed shut and her tormentors burst into laughter. Mika tottered into her room. Her overturned bed and gutted storage bins bore witness to a drunken search. After confirming that none of her precious originals had survived, she slumped at her desk to weep. Before the fit could take, she saw the honey leaking from her PC.

Mika ran to the grey building and signed. In two days, she’d escape hell and recapture her dream, or die. Contrary to everything she’d ever thought about herself and the sanctity of life, she’d reached her breaking point. Mika had become a contestant – on the only game that mattered.

Read Chapter 17.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by farflungistan.

The Game – Chapter 15

January 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
1201973265_a0208addfe Crop

Lonely and embittered, Gregor left the only place to which he’d belonged …

Gregor Klimt signed into the army the day he turned sixteen. The government of the day had found it progressively difficult to interest people in the art of murder. Reducing the age of self determination had produced a good supply of impoverished, disgruntled, rebellious and adventurous youths. In possessing all four attributes, Gregor epitomized the target audience.

For a while, things at home had been good. Gregor’s father had been caught in the infectious quest for knowledge which had swept the planet when the Internet came of age. Honore Klimt amazed himself and his wife by discovering other subjects in the universe as interesting as football.

The mind-blowing variety of interactive sites teased him from his narrow mind set. For the first time in his humble life, he felt like part of a bigger picture. Further motivation was provided at his local pub, where peers vied to outdo each other with trivia.

The phenomenon was widespread. The poorer the person, the keener his desire to embrace one of the few great levellers – education. Every fact increased their sense of worth. It was a renaissance. The masses were enchanted by the ease with which they could learn. ‘Net sites were infinitely more entertaining than the condescending artifice of television. It was more controllable than astral travelling, every bit as exhilarating and just as cheap. Billions spent countless hours improving their minds. Those seeking only entertainment still learned subconsciously. After a few years, the population became better informed in more areas than any generation prior.

The dissipation of ignorance struck at the heart of institutions reliant on secrecy and misinformation to control their subjects. Motorists learned of the oil industry’s conspiracy to suppress solar power. Religious devotees questioned strict codes of conduct and devotion to individual leaders. The middle class saw poverty’s role in destroying the environment. The image of the black, malnourished child was replaced with the understanding that sharing resources was logical and good business.

Stereotypes crumbled. Fear of the unknown dissipated. Broader views were taken and both sides heard. White, misogynous homophobes enjoyed articles by Asian lesbians. Across the planet, blinkers were quietly removed without pressure or recrimination. Holism became fashionable. Extremists competed to personify tolerance. Die-hard conservatives became the new pariahs. Throughout the world grew a feeling of oneness and hope. Perhaps, after millennia of destruction, humanity was on the verge of getting it right.

The phenomenon lasted for a decade. It later became known, bitterly by many, as The Temporary Period of Enlightenment.


Television had been the world’s largest industry for decades. The vested interests were enormous. The loss of viewers could not pass unchallenged.

A three-pronged viewer recovery strategy was devised and the Internet was inundated with advertising. First, ex-viewers were tantalised with sensational new programs, produced with record budgets and hyped as never before. Next came saturation with nostalgia about the comfort and security of a familiar medium. Third, a range of competitions with odds and prizes of unprecedented generosity sprang into life.

The Internet could not respond. Nor was it in the business of competing with other media. People came to it of their own accord. Having got what they wanted, most felt they’d learned enough and were ready for a change. So they reverted to new, improved TV. It offered simultaneous familiarity and novelty. The ratings crisis was averted and humanity’s best shot at utopia was advertised to death.


Following The Temporary Period of Enlightenment, Honore Klimt came out of orbit and touched down onto his couch. With his return came a resumption of attendant behaviours. To bolster his feelings of self worth and control, he began to abuse his family again. Though more articulate and inventive, he was every bit as violent.

When Gregor was fifteen, Honore snapped his wife’s arm in a tantrum. Gregor defended her. He was tall and solid. Honore was shorter, but had a labourer’s strength.

The next day, nursing a cracked rib and cuts above both eyes, Gregor contacted the army recruiting centre.


Private Klimt’s first year in the army was better than he had ever imagined. What had begun as an escape turned out to be his calling. His body responded magnificently to the arduous training and he became immensely strong. He kept his blond hair to a bristle. His face became taut and his eyes sharpened.

Gregor excelled at all things physical but was slow to absorb theory. He manipulated heavy arms like cutlery, drove articulated vehicles like golf carts and ran obstacle courses in record time. In communications, gun laying and battle strategy, however, he was invariably bottom of the class. His comrades thought him loyal, but stupid. Despite appearances, they were wrong on the second count. Though a concept could elude him for weeks, Gregor never let it beat him. Doggedly he worked at it until it fitted his conduit of understanding.  Once he had something, he had it for life.

With his physical prowess, popularity and gradual assimilation of theory, Gregor eventually made corporal. It had taken four years to reach the first rung of his career ladder. He set himself the target of sergeant within three years. It took him five.

Gregor loved his position. In commanding respect from above and below, he felt he’d found his niche.

Gregor’s happiness lasted two years. During a private celebration to mark his twenty-seventh birthday, a jealous captain appeared, silencing the music and bringing the guests to groggy attention. Gregor approached the officer bearing a drink and invited him to join the party. The captain knocked Gregor’s hand away, slopping the drink over his own immaculate uniform. The crowd suppressed their laughter with effort. Furious, the captain questioned Gregor’s suitability as a sergeant and a soldier. Gregor withstood the diatribe, until accused of abandoning his mother. His fist snapped the officer’s jaw like a wishbone and he was arrested. Busted to private, his career was over.

Lonely and embittered, Gregor left the only place to which he’d belonged. He drifted from job to job, each more purposeless than the last. His outrage at being ruined on the whim of an upper-class mandarin deepened as he spent the next eight years on the poverty line.

At thirty-five, Gregor hit a mid-life crisis. Unable to save and unmotivated to maintain his body, he saw his life pissed against the walls of the hovels in which he had lived. New products and industries had periodically caught his eye. Opportunities were all around. Why had he not made something else of himself? Disgusted with his introspection, he resolved to get his life in order.

He searched for a job to hold his interest. An disposal store needed a night manager. Though recycling was effortless, selling surplus equipment was more economic. To his surprise, Gregor was hired.

The store’s owner had long wanted to retire. When Gregor had mastered his role, he offered him a deal. In return for living above the store, Gregor took on the bookwork and oversaw the day manager.

It was just the break Gregor needed and he opened a savings account.

In joining the military, Gregor had escaped the television viewer recovery campaign. For him, the ‘Net was still the premium source of entertainment and information. Now he had the opportunity to return. During each day and on quiet nights, he brought himself up to speed with the topics that had interested him as a child. Then he looked at the army, finding it fused with the navy, air corps and police force. Neither modern combat nor rationalist budgets could sustain four separate empires. Officers were resigning en masse, ahead of projected redundancies.

Gregor researched the man who’d ruined him. He saw with anger that he’d left the army early, set up his own company and was helping government to dismantle the very institution that had fed him for thirty years. Gregor was disgusted. Prakash had only made colonel. By getting out ahead of the rest, he’d snatched a pivotol role that should have gone to a more experienced officer. Not satisfied with destroying a popular and capable sergeant, Prakash had taken it upon himself to trash the whole system.

This personally relevant snapshot of the changing world sparked an interest in broader current affairs. Gregor spent more time scouring the ‘Net, and he became conversant with a wide range of issues.

It was surprising that one tutored in violence reacted so strongly to The Game. Gregor had been appalled at the inaugural telecast of the new television program. His amazement and distress was twofold.

On the first level, he couldn’t accept that the people he’d sworn to protect as a soldier were willing to risk their lives for consumer goods and cash. During all his years on skid row, he’d never contemplated suicide. Yet this was what the punters were doing. No matter that the odds of losing were tiny, nor the prizes titanic.

Gregor was further revolted by the avarice of Game contestants. He’d learned to live frugally. Many of the people on the program were middle and upper class. They had the freedom to experience life more fully than he ever could, yet it wasn’t enough. There they were, heads inside a new-age guillotine for the sake of a bigger house, more cash and a car. It was greed incarnate.


Gregor’s circumstances and education improved gradually. He remained single, in love with his window on the world. Shortly after turning thirty-nine, he was informed that Honore had broken his mother’s neck and had not been seen since. Her will bore his father’s stamp and he inherited nothing. At the cremation, Gregor promised revenge.

After thirteen months of winners, a contestant finally died in The Game. The replay broke all ratings records and was used relentlessly as a teaser. To Gregor’s dismay, the Internet erupted with positive reactions.

Apart from his opposition to The Game, Gregor differed from others in another critical respect. His address was one of only a handful that hadn’t been invaded by Molecular Tracking Devices. Gregor was ignorant of their existence, let alone their growing presence. It was thus due to no effort on his part that he was ‘off line’. The product cycle for military equipment was considerably longer than its civilian counterpart. MTDs had only recently made it into the newly combined armed force; it’d be some time before they made it out. High-tech gear was so obsolete on decommissioning that Gregor’s employer didn’t carry it. The store was thus an invisible island in a transparent sea of MTDs. Nor were even Gregor’s personal possessions modern. Penniless when he began the job, he’d taken his first pay in stock items. His wrist-watch, alarm clock, lamp, PC and so on were all ex-military, and MTD-free.

Gregor’s temporary immunity from MTD coverage, however, did not exempt him from The New Deal.

By the time the prospectus came out, ETAT was widely considered to be running civilisation’s critical systems. All it lacked was a mandate. With characteristic foresight, the cartel greatly downplayed its power. The New Deal prospectus took the form of an offer from a reliable supplier to discerning clients.

Though Gregor despised the clauses dealing with fiscal advancement via The Game, he was interested in the order and certainty ETAT promised. All citizens would know their place. Political intrigue would disappear from the equation and decent men could earn a living free of the vagaries of economics. The New Deal was the motivation he needed to consolidate his savings and make the transition to self employment. His discipline had slipped with age and he was well short of the sum  he needed to buy out his employer. Using the formula provided to calculate his net worth, he saw he was within reach of Comfortable Status, provided he knuckled down.

When society reacted favourably to The New Deal, Gregor created a four-year classification deferment request. He was prepared to accept three: anything less would condemn him to Poor Status, which prohibited business ownership.

ETAT had commissioned information centres in all cities. Sourced using Member connections, they were well located, appointed and managed. Ordinary citizens worked there as in the branches of any large corporation. Clause by clause, they interpreted The New Deal for the public, unconscious of ETAT’s broader design. Well paid and treated with respect, ETAT consultants became loyal and discrete.

It was to such a centre that Gregor cycled one hot Monday morning. He tethered his old police bicycle to one of many carrels. A concierge directed him.

Gregor saw with surprise that the information centre occupied the entire floor. Orange booths were dispersed evenly over an expanse of blue carpet. Though Gregor was early, the place was nearly full. He realised why ETAT had opened new centres elsewhere in the city. People were taking The New Deal very seriously, learning all they could before accepting its provisions.

Gregor’s consultant was a round-faced man whose name tag read Wu Chen. He greeted Gregor with a graphic display of mismatched teeth. ‘Please, Mr Klimt, take a seat.’ Gregor complied warily. Chen moved his chair forward with a series of mincing shuffles until his chest pressed against the table. Gregor folded his arms over his battered despatch rider’s case.

Chen pointed a fresh grin at Gregor. ‘I am told you are interested in a deferment of classification. Could I please see your forms?’ Gregor complied and Chen bowed studiously over the first page, examining it minutely. His nose tracked centimetres from the paper. Gregor found  himself wanting to smack the consultant’s head into the table.

Chen began tutting and his brow furrowed. He became progressively animated as he worked his way down the third of Gregor’s forms. Gregor glared, willing him to finish. With a slow exhalation, Chen sat back and regarded to Gregor, a study of solicitude.

‘What is it? What’s wrong with my application?’ Gregor’s meaty hands clenched.

‘I see difficulties,’ said Chen, closing his eyes and raising his eyebrows.

‘Like what?’

The tone and proximity of Gregor’s voice startled Chen. ‘What made you enter the army so young, then terminate your career?’

‘That’s personal.’

‘Why did you spend less than a year at each of your last ten jobs?’

‘I’ve been at my current job for three years!’

‘Yes, but overall your work history is chequered. What guarantee can you give that you will stay where you are now?’

‘My word,’ said Gregor.

Chen chuckled and shook his head. ‘Mr Klimt, I do not mean to disillusion you, but your word is hardly sufficient collateral for me to authorise a deferral.’

‘Apart from my employment history, what else do you have a problem with?’

‘Your level of education.’

‘But I passed everything the army threw at me!’

‘True, but you had a hard time of it.’

‘What does that matter, if I passed in the end?’

‘The heart of any successful classification deferment,’ recited Chen, ‘is the candidate’s capacity to generate significant wealth. Prerequisites for significant wealth generation are windfall, use of capital or rapid assimilation of knowledge pursuant to more gainful employment. You may have passed your exams, Mr Klimt, but you are not a fast learner. It is my assessment, therefore, that you could not assimilate sufficient information to start a new career in the space of four years.’

‘Fine; give me longer.’

‘I cannot do that. The prospectus clearly states that the maximum deferment period is four years.’

Gregor held his temper. ‘You said one of the criteria was the use of existing capital.’


‘Well, I intend to buy the store in which I work.’ He produced a spreadsheet. Wu leaned forward. Gregor traced a thick finger over two columns and continued. ‘As you can see from my projections, I’ll accumulate the purchase price of the store in just under four years. If I …’

‘That is too long.’

‘Will … will you just let me finish?’

‘Very well.’

‘If I reduce my discretionary spending according to this table, I can raise the money in three years. It’ll be tough, but I can manage it. All I want is the chance to buy my own business. After that, my revenue will be more than enough to qualify me for Comfortable Status.’

‘Yes, but … ‘

‘Then you agree?’

‘Yes, but look at your cash flow. Your net worth will take longer than four years to reach threshold. You need to be at threshold before the cut-off date, not after it.’

‘But you acknowledge I’d have the potential to reach that level?’

‘Assuming your figures are correct, yes. But you’re missing the point. The cut-off date for The New Deal is intended to be a snapshot of society. We cannot have you moving around when we take it. You would … blur the picture.’ Chen smiled, enchanted with his analogy.

‘I’d … blur the picture?’

‘Yes. I am sorry Mr Klimt, but I can find no grounds to approve your application.’

‘And what’s your view on The New Deal being accepted by society?’

Chen leaned back beaming. ‘Oh, I am sure it will be accepted. All the comments I have heard in this centre have been most positive.’

‘And there’s nothing you can do to let me reach my chosen level by dint of saving and hard work?’

Chen glanced at his watch and gathered Gregor’s forms. ‘No, Mr Klimt, your time frame is too long. I can do nothing unless you have something else for me.’

‘I do, actually,’ said Gregor quietly.

Chen looked up expectantly. Gregor’s fist slammed into his face, knocking him through the wall of the booth.

In breaking off at the root, Chen’s teeth finally had something in common.

Read Chapter 16.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by CelebMuscle.

The Game – Chapter 14

November 29, 2012 at 12:32 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Julian glimpsed Franz’s tweezers, still clamped around a blue gob of plastic …

The trains ran all night. Julian Oberman surfaced near his new apartment and walked along a handsome, tree-lined street. His expensive boots trod a granite footpath damp with leaves. Hands deep in his voluminous overcoat, he sniffed the cold air. His intoxication was fading fast, replaced by weariness and wanton hunger.

A glimmer in the east told him the time. It was nice to have stayed out all night, especially with the weekend to recover. He reflected on his evening. Franz’s warehouse and its set of regular visitors provided welcome relief from the sycophantic court life of his father.

He envied Franz and Myron: their fortunes depended solely on their efforts. Though far from wealthy, they called their own shots and experienced success and failure as undiluted events. Julian wondered what it’d be like to live by his wits. Property deals were events in which he could participate only vicariously. He hungered for an adventure, the outcome of which would hang on his intrinsic merit.

He nodded to the doorman. The elevator deposited him onto thick carpet. His door opened with a fragrant sigh. The cleaners had done well. He called down to the kitchen for sausages, eggs, onions and potato slices – his favourite hangover cure. He had it for breakfast on most days  anyway, as his girth testified.

He filled his spa and lowered himself into the swirling water. He lay back, a towel behind his neck, and sipped a precocious Chardonnay. His mind wandered, then seized on the evening’s discussion of the Panrax schematic error. First he sought a way to profit from the company’s omission. The reward for alerting Panrax would be negligible. Demonstrating commercial loss would be complicated, and his father would surely forbid him exposing the source of the illicit test rig. Julian switched levels. Why was the resistor not labelled? Was it deliberate? Sabotage? His imagination ran. What if it were something disguised as a resistor: a microphone, some tricky customer research instrument, a bomb? The size of the component didn’t restrict his speculations. All his possessions were top shelf. Since miniaturisation was expensive, he’d encountered it widely.

When his breakfast arrived, Julian had finished the wine and was deep in an erotic spy fantasy. Dripping across the floor, he fought the tent pole in his bathrobe. This was made harder by the attractive house girl who accepted his palm print. He’d gladly have foregone his meal to take her to his torrid spa. But her professional smile could not conceal her distaste for his thick lips and drooping eyelids. She handed him the tray and fled.

Dejected, Julian sat in the kitchenette to eat. He flicked through a dozen channels, finding nothing of interest. The warming of his body outside and in made him sleepy. With fantasies extinguished by the bathroom Mirror of Truth, he went to bed. His last command to the apartment’s central PC was to shut the blinds. He peered through the gloom at the 4000K, high above on its mezzanine. As was common to high-end Panrax products, the PC designed its own screen savers in real time. It was better than having a fish tank. Panrax owners swore their machines had personalities, as indicated by their unique choice of images. Julian hadn’t owned his long enough to have formed an opinion; he just liked the pretty colours. As he settled, the 4000K bathed the apartment in blue.


Julian woke refreshed and ready for diversion. The blinds opened and thin sunshine streamed through the Western windows. He guessed it was 14:30; his bedside terminal read 16:50. Stretching and scratching, he checked his communication directory. Not even a telemarketer had tried him while he slept. He felt miffed, then very lonely. It was Saturday afternoon. Out in the world people were playing sport, watching it with friends, spending time with partners or getting ready for exciting events. Why wasn’t he? Julian didn’t try hard for answers; they were more upsetting than the questions. He paced before his wall of glass, oblivious to the mighty views. Once again he’d have to initiate contact if he wanted to go out. Munching messily on a chocolate bar, he flopped back onto his bed and summoned a register of his abortive forays into the elusive world of ‘good times’.

The spreadsheet catalogued Julian’s contact with people he’d met more than once. The list was generously titled ‘friends’. Other columns held details of calls made and received, including date, duration, topics discussed and action items. The final column contained remarks, and the preponderance of negative ones formed the litany of a lonely man.

Julian sorted the data by date and scanned the faces of those he’d not approached for longest. Some he couldn’t even name. Others bore damning summaries. Reluctantly, he archived four women and two men. Though he had little or no prospect of seeing them again, he couldn’t delete them outright. He scrolled. As the names became familiar and the comments more positive, so did the number of contacts – 97 percent of which he’d initiated. Statistically, the men he’d drunk with the previous night were his best friends. Except for Antony Jarvish, he’d called them all at least once during the week. Only Franz had called him. Though Franz was the person most likely to see him again, his acceptance could nudge him closer to burnout. Julian knew he should let Franz lie fallow for a while, but he couldn’t abide another Saturday alone.

Julian stamped his foot and looked heavenward. At that moment, the 4000K’s screen saver switched from a glacier motif to one of fireworks. The sudden change caught Julian’s eye and triggered a memory. Of course! Franz had asked if he could pull apart his new PC! And fuck it if he hadn’t tried to put him off! Julian slapped his forehead. Here, alone, he couldn’t give a shit about possessions. He’d swap them all for one good friend. Franz had said, ‘one day soon’. Today was soon! For once, Julian had a legitimate reason to call someone.

He pulled on a silk shirt and designer jeans. His stomach bounced on his thighs as he scrambled up the mezzanine ladder. Plumping into the beautifully designed work station, he bashed out Franz’s number and fought to regain his breath.

‘Hello. This is Franz Heilmayr…’

‘Franz?’ gushed Julian, ‘it’s me. How are you?’

‘I’m not here right now, but if you’d like to leave a message…’

Julian collapsed inwardly. He might have known. Franz was off with friends somewhere, participating in the universe. Julian watched the recorded face with malice, when it suddenly acquired a four day stubble.

‘Sorry about that Julian,’ said the real Franz, ‘I was out the back.’

Julian spluttered with relief. ‘Er. Hi, F..Franz. How’re you going?’

Excellent, man. How ’bout you?’

‘Oh, pretty good; bit woozy from last night, you know. Did you have a nice time?’

‘Yeah, always do. It was good to have you over. You mustn’t mind Tony, he’s just a frustrated lefty. He had quite a go at you last night.’

Julian forced a laugh. ‘Oh, that. Hey, I know he was only fooling around. He’s a good bloke, really.’

‘Yeah, he adds a lot to the mix.’

‘Couldn’t agree more.’ Julian noticed with trepidation that dusk was approaching. He drew a breath. ‘What are you up to tonight, man?’ He held the remaining air.

‘Party,’ replied Franz, blithe to the bolt in Julian’s heart.

‘Oh, yeah?’ said Julian faintly, ‘whereabouts?’

‘Next door. One of my customers, by coincidence. He’s into flings and he saw my plate downstairs. I fixed his projector for free and he invited me to his do. Bloody handy; I’ll literally be able to crawl home.’

Julian’s grin looked more like a grimace. His heart palpitated weakly beneath the mezzanine. ‘That’s great, Franz. Who’re you going with?’

‘Just me. I was going to invite Myron, but he’s busy.’

Julian’s heart wearily performed a double somersault with a half turn and landed back in his throat. ‘Really? You’re going alone?’

‘Yeah. Sometimes I do that; it’s the best way to meet people. You’re not worried about whether your mate’s having a good time. And you can be outrageous and no one you know will ever find out. I’ve had a shit of a week and I’m looking forward to some anonymous shenanigans.’ His eyes twinkled beneath fair lashes. ‘I mean, how often do you have a houseful of game, drugged-up women next door to you? Once I get them on a tour of my haunted computer caves, it’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s fancy dress, you know – check this out!’

Franz vanished from the screen. Julian sat, utterly thwarted from attending a marvellous party with his statistical best friend. Hopelessness hatched in his stomach and spread through his body.

Franz reappeared in a costume made entirely from computer hardware. He’d skilfully woven wiring harnesses into a colourful and flexible fabric. Thicker strands secured the material around him and held a range of componentry. Julian watched him prance and cavort for his benefit.

Well, squadron leader, what do you think?’

‘It’s great.’

‘Yeah, isn’t it!’ Franz was oblivious to Julian’s tone. ‘But wait, there’s more: watch this!’ He clapped his hands and the lights went out. The suit lit up with hundreds of tiny globes. Optical fibres channelled thirty hues around Franz’s body. Enhanced by his enthusiastic gyrations, the effect was stunning.

‘It’s wonderful,’ was all Julian could muster. This was obviously the party to end all parties.

‘Thanks mate, I’m pretty proud of it myself. Looks like I haven’t lost my touch with the gear after all.’ Franz grabbed his beer. ‘Now then, what can I do for you?’

‘I just rang to say you can check out the Panrax whenever you like.’

‘That’d be great. When would suit?’

‘Tomorrow?’ suggested Julian, with little conviction.

Franz shook his head ruefully. ‘Oh, man, I don’t think I’ll be up to it; not after tonight.’


‘I’ll call you. I’d love to see it, but I don’t know how rooted I’m going to be.’

‘That’d be fine. I’ll be here; just give me a call when you’ve made a decision.’

‘Great. So what are you up to tonight?’

‘I… I’m er… having dinner with some friends… from overseas.’

‘Nice one, have a groovy time. And now I have to go go go go!’ Franz touched a panel crimped to his sleeve and the lights began strobing wildly. He started to jig around again.

‘Alright, Franz have a good night.’

His back to the monitor, Franz waved farewell.

Julian angrily severed the link, slumped back in his chair and exhaled loudly. ‘Fuck!’ He clenched his fists. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! FUUUUUCK!!’

The sun dipped low. Though his face was suffused with gold, Julian felt as cold as stone  under sleet. He toyed with going back to bed, thought momentarily of suicide, then rejected both ideas in favour of a trusted third. He had nothing but money. Once again he’d buy his happiness, rather than hang on the mercy of others.


An hour later, he was high on cocaine. A meek knock confirmed that the doorman had earned his tip.

Belly spilling from a silk dressing gown, Julian propped himself against the door frame. His attempt at a greeting produced only a leer, instantly repelling the two young women in the corridor. He ushered them in groggily, topped up his Scotch and waved at them to undress. On seeing them burst from their pretty lingerie, he became sluggishly aroused. He accosted them with contempt, in an effort to conceal his own self-revulsion. The oriental ran professional fingers over his hairy shoulders, her pert breasts flattened against his sweating back. Impatiently Julian grabbed her forearm and dragged her into his field of vision while the blonde dropped to her knees and gingerly parted his robe.


Julian was still asleep when Franz called the next day. Bleary eyed and dishevelled, he confronted the monitor.

‘Julian! How goes it? Shit, looks like it was big old dinner.’

Julian stared at him. ‘Oh… yeah… we had a ball.’ His senses dragged themselves into focus. ‘How was the fling?’

‘Shithouse,’ muttered Franz.

Julian’s interest sparked. ‘Really, how come?’

‘Fucking guests didn’t dress up. The arsehole said it was fancy dress. I created the world’s most amazing outfit and only three of the other fuckers made any effort whatsoever. I was the only one who’d put any thought into it. The rest just wore a few clashing colours, which is probably what that lot wear all the time anyway. Wankers. They thought I was hired entertainment! I was so pissed off. I still am. And not one girl in the haunted computer caves either. I was in bed, alone, by 23:00. Can you believe it?’

Julian gloated. For once, he’d enjoyed a better Saturday night than someone else. ‘That’s really ordinary, Franz, especially after the guy said you should dress up.’

‘Too right. Anyway, what can you do? You live and learn. There’s always next Saturday.’

Julian did not wish to even contemplate that crisis. ‘So, what can I do for you this,’ he parted the blinds and squinted outside, ‘grey Sunday morning?’

‘I thought I’d take up your offer to look at the Panrax.’

Julian experienced a rare feeling. Shagged and drug-fucked, his craving for company had diminished. He even felt he could play it cool. ‘Hell, man, as you say, last night’s dinner was pretty heavy. I’m only half awake.’

Franz was immune to the hint. ‘I’ll come over in a couple of hours then, OK?’

Julian was powerless. Franz could easily lose interest. He had to take his social interaction when he could get it. ‘That’d be fine, Franz. See you at 15:30?’

‘How about 15:00?’

God; he couldn’t even control the time. ‘Sure.’

‘Unreal. See you then.’

‘Bye.’ Julian hung up and sighed. A jack hammer began pounding at his temples.


Julian and Franz sat on the mezzanine. Franz was in the driver’s seat, checking the 4000K’s schematic. Everything was as he’d seen two days earlier. He powered down and produced his tool kit.

‘Given this is a stolen unit, we needn’t worry about voiding any warranties, eh?’

‘I’d still rather you were careful’, replied Julian. ‘There’s always the chance Dad may reclaim it. And could you drop the theft references please?’

‘You’re a tetchy thing today. Were you on the old hooter last night?’

‘Nuh, just a few lines of blow.’ Julian winced as Franz’s nippers severed the strap securing the power module. ‘Maybe I should leave you to this. How about a cup of tea?’

‘Got any coffee?’

‘Sure, how do you have it?’

‘White with one.’

While Julian fumbled in the kitchenette, Franz removed the suspect resistor and found it identical to the one from Myron’s machine. Then he conceived a more dramatic test, rebooting just as Julian mounted the platform, shakily bearing a tray.

Julian was relieved to see the Panrax coming back to life. ‘That was quick. How’d you go?’

‘I’ll know in a few minutes.’

Julian glimpsed Franz’s tweezers, still clamped around a blue gob of plastic.



‘Is that from inside my PC?’

Franz squirmed. ‘…Yeah.’

‘What’s it doing out of my PC?’

‘I’m running a little test,’ admitted Franz guiltily. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve done it a hundred times.’

‘That’s crap, Franz. Why didn’t you ask if you could start the machine with a piece missing? They don’t put resistors in for fun. What if the fucking thing burns out?’

‘It won’t, OK? I’ve got a theory.’

‘And if you’re wrong, I’ve got a smouldering wreck.’

‘Trust me, Julian,’ said Franz testily. ‘I know what I’m doing.’

‘What choice have I got? You’re already off and running.’

The two lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Julian gave Franz his coffee and they watched the Panrax go through its paces. While Julian expected smoke with every new sub-routine, Franz didn’t believe the resistor was critical to the PC’s operation.

The 4000K tested every circuit, impressing Franz with its power. Julian’s fear was replaced with relief and proprietary pride.

Franz held up the resistor. ‘May I have this?’

‘To keep?’

‘Yeah. Your machine obviously doesn’t need it. I want to know what’s inside.’

‘Will you have to destroy it?’

‘Depends what it’s wrapped in. I’ll use Derek’s X-ray scanner, but if it’s shielded, I’ll need to remove the coating.’

‘Can’t you just borrow it?’ whined Julian. ‘If you need to mess with it, you could call me first.’

‘Why not make a decision now? This could turn out to be very exciting.’

‘When would you go to Derek’s?’

‘Tonight, if he’s home.’

‘Could I come?’

‘Of course. Come on, let’s call him.’

‘Fuck it’, thought Julian, ‘it’s only a resistor. Why do I get so wound up?’

He turned to Franz. ‘OK Let’s do it.’

‘Attaboy!’ Franz keyed Derek’s number from memory.


Derek Eckersley lay in his lounge watching a documentary, his short legs propped on a stool. When the call came in, he muted the broadcast and opened a small communication box so as not to lose the thread of his programme. ‘Franz! Hey, thanks for Friday; I had a ball. How’re you going?

‘Excellent. Julian’s here too.’

‘Hi Julian.’


‘Listen man,’ said Franz, ‘remember how we found that bogus resistor on the schematic of Julian’s Panrax?’


‘Well, I removed it, and it turned out to be a third wheel. The PC doesn’t use it at all.’

‘That’s pretty silly,’ commented Derek, half watching his documentary.

‘Damn right. I’m suspicious; maybe it’s not a resistor.’

‘But you checked Myron’s and it was.’

‘Yeah, I know, but it’s occurred to me the resistor thing could be just camouflage.’

‘Bit far fetched, don’t you think? Why go to the trouble?’

‘I don’t know, but I want to run it through your scanner.’

‘Sorry man, the globe’s gone. I blew it heating a pie.’

‘Yeah, right.

‘I did! I thought it might work like a microwave, just… take longer, you know?’

‘Remind me never to commission a network from you, Derek. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.’

‘Well, you never know unless you have a go.’

Franz chuckled. ‘You bloody loony. Hey, how’d you like me to fix it for you?’

‘Cool. I can’t tell you how I miss watching mosquitos digest my blood. When d’you want to come?’

‘Now? I’ll just have to whip home for the part.’

‘OK. I’ll get a bottle breathing. You might as well stay for tea.’

‘So long as it’s not pies.’

‘No, no; cheese platter.’

‘OK, see you inside an hour.’ Franz rang off and started packing up his tools, then suddenly turned to Julian. ‘You alright, man?’

‘Yes. ‘I’m just really tired.’

‘D’you still want to come to Derek’s?’

‘No, I think I’ll give it a miss. Just let me know how you get on, alright?’

‘Absolutely. I’ll keep you in the loop. Thanks for the coffee, and the resistor. We’ll only break it if necessary.’

‘OK Franz, I trust you.’

Franz slung his bag. ‘I’ll leave you with this magnificent view. You’ve got a really good place here.’


‘See you later.’

The door slammed and Julian was alone again. He checked his schedule for Monday. The usual meetings awaited, as did the patronising scrutiny of his father. He took five sleeping pills and set his alarm. He’d suffered enough disappointment for one weekend.

That evening his mobile rang. His PC intercepted the signal and directed the caller to leave a message. Franz’s voice, thick with wine, carved itself into Julian’s message bank.

‘Julian, old fruit! How’re they hangin’?’ Giggles from a drunken Derek in the background. ‘We’ve unfortunately, had to tear open your resistor.’ Fresh giggles. ‘The good news… is that it’s not a resistor at all!’ Franz swigged from an empty bottle. ‘The bad news… cobber… is that we don’t know what the fuck it is. The other good news… is that it’s something very new and very… intricate. You might like to warn Mr Price that we’re coming to abduct his “resistor” sometime tomorrow. In conclusion…’

For reasons known only to himself, Derek decided to demonstrate a head-high football tackle. The camera witnessed a small, agile man sailing across the room to collide with a larger, sandy-headed figure. They fell to the floor, wrestling and laughing hysterically. Derek’s bottle toppled from his monitor and landed on a dozen keys, terminating the call.

Julian’s PC logged the message and reverted to powersave.


‘What do you think?’ asked a bleary-eyed Derek.

Antony Jarvish rearranged his lanky frame and held the photographic plate at arm’s length. Turning it upside down, he closed one eye and pulled it slowly towards him.

‘Antony’, said Franz impatiently, ‘it’s not magic.’

Jarvish put the plate down and bit his woeful cafeteria biscuit. ‘I know. In a nutshell, I can make neither head nor tail of your X-rays. The resolution is dreadful for a start.’

‘I didn’t have the right globe.’

‘Whatever it is, it looks quite novel.’

‘Has any of your students come up with anything like it?’, asked Derek.

‘No, but it could be worth checking with the other professors. Do you have copies?’

Franz shook his head. ‘No offence, Tony, but until we know what it is, I’d like to keep it under wraps.’

‘Fair enough. Sorry I don’t have any answers.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m as stumped as you are and I’m supposed to keep up with this stuff.’

‘Well, so am I, actually.’

‘Oh hell, I know that; I’m not suggesting you aren’t.’

Jarvish dusted crumbs from his suit. ‘No offence taken. And now I have a lecture to give. Good to see you all.’

They stood and shook hands. ‘Thanks for your time,’ said Myron. ‘It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one in the dark.’

‘Yes,’ said Antony. ‘Goodbye.’ He swept to the stairs as a metallic tone shrilled across the campus.

‘He’s always a bit off at work,’ explained Derek. ‘He never knows who’s watching. There’s a gang of lecturers furious at his promotion.’

‘He’s done well for a young bloke, hasn’t he?’ said Myron.

‘Yes,’ agreed Franz. ‘Pity he can’t identify the component.’

‘What do you want to do now?’

‘Get a proper globe for Derek’s scanner and give your “resistor” the treatment.’

Myron swallowed. ‘I guess it’s in the name of computer science.’

‘Don’t worry; your toy’ll work fine without it. Guaranteed.’ He surveyed the empty cafeteria. ‘Let’s get out of here; this place gives me the creeps.’

Derek gave Franz his locking card and returned to his consulting. Myron and Franz spent the rest of the day comparing X-rays of the two Panrax components. They were identical. Neither man could fathom the breathtakingly intricate structures. Franz suggested contacting Panrax. Myron pointed out that one of the resistors was from a stolen test rig. They argued until interrupted by Franz’s mobile phone. It was his neighbour.

‘Franz? Hi, it’s Wade. I thought I should call you. Um… the military appears to be trashing your apartment; they’re at it now.’

A deafening crash in the background froze Franz’s blood. ‘How long’ve they been there?’

‘Only a few minutes, but they’re going at it hammer and tongs. Are.. are you in some kind of trouble?’

‘No Wade, not at all. This sounds like a very big mistake. Thanks for calling. I’ll be straight over.’

‘Um, Franz?’ Wade sounded edgy. ‘If they ask… you don’t know me, OK?’

‘No Wade, I don’t. You’re just some bloke next door, alright?’

‘Yes. Thank you. Thanks a lot. See ya.’

Franz rushed to the door. ‘I’ve gotta go, man. Trouble at home.’

‘I’ll come with you.’

‘No way; I don’t want you involved. Stay here or go home. Here, give me those resistors.’

Myron had never seen his friend so rattled. He handed over the components, which had been split open for examination.

‘I’ll call you,’ said Franz hurriedly.

‘Sure you don’t want me along?’

‘No, but thanks.’ He stuffed the resistors into his jacket and bolted to the underground.


Franz tore up the escalator. His home was being raided. Julian’s fear had been valid after all. The stolen field PC must have negotiated an uplink and advised its location. He rushed into the park near his warehouse. Through the foliage he spotted two snub-nosed trucks. Patrolling around them was a military policeman. Franz readied himself. There was no point fleeing, his whole life was upstairs. He dropped to the ground and took out his locking card. Glancing around, he jabbed the card into the moist earth. Then he wrapped the resistors in his handkerchief and poked them into the slit. Tamping it shut, he stood and scattered leaves over the site. The army was sure to search him, and for some reason he felt uneasy about the mystery components.

Another crash sounded from his apartment. He stepped forward and was spotted. Franz identified himself and surrendered to a cursory body search. The guard contacted his commander, who sent a soldier down to fetch him.

Franz’s home was in tatters, all the more dramatic for the computer debris that sprawled across the floor and crunched beneath the boots of the soldiers searching for more stolen equipment. On his kitchen table lay the field unit which had triggered the catastrophe. Almost completely decomposed, the remaining pieces of camouflaged casing were a dead give-away.

Franz’s view was suddenly blocked by the squad commander; a bear of a man with eyes of iron. The name on his tunic was ‘TSARITSYN’. He glared at his clipboard, then levelled his gaze at Franz. ‘So you’re Heilmayr. Let’s talk.’

Read Chapter 15.

Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.

Pic by Joe Seggiola.

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