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The Captured




Copyright © 2017. Adrian Kyte


Table of Contents













http://www.adriankyte.com/

Prologue

Earth year 2487


It was such a simple weapon. The idling flame reminding him of an Olympic torch; quite innocuous with its wavering amber glow on the light grey walls and onyx junction boxes.

This time he knew what to do. This time there was not the faintest scintilla of doubt in his mind. They were barely living, vaguely humanoid gleaming metal forms quiescent for almost a decade. Their consciousness – if that term could be used with any scientific accuracy – had no presence in this godforsaken place. He was not a religious man but the word ‘godforsaken’ somehow seemed appropriate. Surely this was a place where any religious notion died on first contact; now it all boiled down to code in an artificial substrate. Yet the machine overlords failed to see how this synthetic form was anything other than an improvement. How ironic, some may say, that it was he who fought against them, their ideology. But he had the means, the opportunity. And, he reminded himself, a real chance of success … up until this point.

Still...

He released the flamethrower’s gas, directed the blue-orange flame at the serried line of the unaware metal abominations. Watched their attendant cables melt and distend from tritanium bodies and heads.

Was it murder? No. To be murdered you had to be alive in more than just a Turin, Pantoli compliant sense, did you not? You had to have been born, not captured.

After a few minutes he accepted they were not going to disintegrate. Of course there was a more obvious way – a nuke. A hand-held antimatter device could destroy this entire compound. But such densely packed structures would immediately be detected and neutralized; because the overlords were not stupid, they were not without their enemies itching to unleash every WMD twenty-fifth century technology allowed. The old-fashioned flamethrower, on the other hand, slow and inefficient. Who’d have ever guessed?

In one sense it was a shame, what he was about to do. This body had its advantages, not least the immense strength. And secondly there was something of an aesthetic appeal ... or was that the machine part of him taking over? His old biological form, for all its geneering, still held to some ancient sentimental notion of the ideal. Now he remembered his old self as not much more than the just-adequate-for-survival human; a man of strength and power seemed fragile and vulnerable, in memory.

Without our accoutrements we were nothing, went the voice in his head. If the machines had their way we would be reproducing. Machine procreation – so much more efficient.

No, even to entertain such an idea.

He sat on the diamond glass shell of an empty pod, turned the weapon on himself. There was no sense of the searing heat, only a gentle warmth; pain was considered unnecessary. Just a gradual dimming of consciousness … whatever that was.









Part One: Past Deceptions

1


Two years earlier


‘More and more each day it feels like I don’t belong here, in this life. That there’s somewhere else, a reality – a real reality.’

‘How long have you been feeling like this?’ Her voice did seem familiar: gentle, reassuring.

‘I don’t know,’ Torbin replied after a few long seconds. ‘A week, maybe. Ever since the repetitions happened. It’s not just deja vu.’

‘When was the last time?’

‘About ten minutes ago, as I walked into your consulting room. I am sure I’ve been here before. And doctor. You may say we have never met before, but I feel I know you.’

She looked at him quizzically, but only for a second until her professional composure returned. ‘What you describe does have a medical explanation,’ she said.

‘Some professional term for the beginnings of insanity? I actually wish it was only that.’

‘Then, what do you think it is?’

‘I wish I knew. But it’s like there’s a … a veil between me and something bigger, and every time I try to pass through it it recedes away.’

‘Do you mean an invisible veil?’

‘Invisible, yes.’ Now he felt faintly ridiculous for using a less than adequate analogy. Yet none better came to mind.

‘Interesting.’ She nodded. ‘I’d suggest you keep a record of anything strange.’


Torbin walked through the lush grounds of the institute. His mind somehow captivated by what was before him. He noticed the flowers, pinks and mauves vibrant in unbroken sun, let their soothing scent wash over him. Gentle sound of birds the perfect accompanying soundtrack. And wondered: why? Why question any of his life when it seemed so good?

When had it all fallen into place? The research grant for his work into applied negative energy for wormholes; the marriage of eight years to someone who could still make the day a joy to live, along with a son and daughter. Torbin the family man, more than just about able to cope. Who would have ever imagined?

It wasn’t that things had always been so good – he’d had failed relationships, and the post of chief researcher was not simply handed to him on a plate, others had gotten the promotion that he felt he was due. But at forty-two he could hardly consider himself a failure.

When was it he started to have doubts?

For a long time he had taken his life for granted. Then he focused on others’ lives, and, wow, his was good. Did he deserve it all? Of course. He worked hard for it. And still he had doubts. He’d learned of a condition – a state of mind, really – known as Paradise Neurosis, where the subject believes everything they have to be tenuous, dependent on something fragile and impermanent. Yes, he’d become obsessed with it; studied the accounts.

It made him question: was contentment the natural state of the human? He suspected not. Real lasting happiness, in millennia past, was the reward for the few at the expense of the many. And for those many only ever transitory, an interlude from the vigilance of whatever next threat emerged on the horizon. That, he understood, was the perennial human condition. Moreover it was by design. Design without a designer. The vigilant survives.

He stopped. Eyes closed now. A dream had come back to him. A dream so familiar it could have repeated a thousand times. A house near the edge of a cliff. A garden, scent of bluebells (or maybe tulips). First it was the sound, before he looked and saw the ground crumble away. He ran back into the house, as if by some instinctive act. Maybe the foundations were stronger. But even they gave way with the collapsing walls. He could have escaped to safer ground so easily. But he had frozen with terror. The last moments of life before awakening. As always. The dream reality.

He opened his eyes. The birds tweeting. The flowers. It was … lovely.

It will all be fine, in the end. What is there to fear? Just keep it hidden.

Only he hadn’t, he’d told her enough to make her believe he was... What? In need of medical adjustment? Insane?


* * *







2


Earth. She saw it now: blue oceans, green and brown continents under swirls of white. At a glance you would be hard pressed to see any change; much like her home planet B’tar, that serenity of the unobserved detail. But change there had been.

As a humanological historian and self-defined anthropologist Zoraina Kardoz had visited Earth over fifty times, making her the most knowledgeable b’tari of human behaviours of the modern era. At least unofficially. Her status was still considered that of an apprentice despite her qualifications; it meant she had to answer to a supervisor. The old hierarchy remained, but a fragile bulwark against inevitable change.

An observer – that had been her official role. Then she got the call. It wasn’t so much Central Council of old but a faction within that were now the de facto grand chamber. No longer the strict adherence to the Temporal Directive, this was a mission with a distinct proactive element.

Her shuttle emitted a signal equivalent to the guard spider-drones; it should only seem that this one was returning to Earth for maintenance. Still she felt a surge of fear of some anomaly detected by the Machines’ ever-vigilant monitors.

The landing site was next to a disused compound in the Brazilian-Amazon rainforest, restored to much of its lush glory. The Machines tended to keep away from this area, opting to leave it to the natural processes. Many places on earth nature thrived; the small creatures not warranting the attention of the new colonizers, being below their sentience-detection radar. Perhaps they viewed these creatures as mere biological machines, efficient and logical in their co-dependent functions. Unlike humans, of course, who had become irrational and purposeless (in their view). Of course, at this level the fauna and flora were like a vast machine: functioning beautifully without any need for interference. Humans, and their sentient ilk the B’tari could never co-exist as part of this machine but as interlopers at best, parasites at worst. She remembered how bad the exploitation from humans had become during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, where rainforest had been hacked away for prized resources, for profitable land. After all, humans – at the top of the food chain – were rightly entitled to mould their environment. Was this Darwinism at its most unfettered? She wasn’t sure, but she knew these people who hacked away at the forest would tell you they themselves were simply surviving, simply providing for their families a subsistence living. They were not the prime exploiters but the bottom of a human food chain. The fact is, she concluded, it was all about exploitation, from the simplest bug upwards.

It was not that all humans were gone. Zoraina had the coordinates of an ancient tribe, only her locater was not set to pick up pure bio-signals. She had no idea how much of the original neural bioform remained. She wondered if it was even possible to tell the difference, when only gleaning from a translation program.

A cluster of dots led her to a clearing. She was nervous, of course. Although she looked impeccably human they were bound to suspect her motives, a woman of fairly generic South American appearance that was unlikely to convince a local under close scrutiny. Yet – in the few forest clearings – these were isolated tribes, even from each other. She reached a grouping of huts, made of mud and wood – as if the centuries of civilized modern culture had never penetrated the dense forest. So easy to make assumptions at this, so easy to be led into doing so.

The huts themselves did have doors. How would she indicate her presence?

That was a dilemma soon resolved. The man was dressed in khaki cargo trousers and a faded print t-shirt, but his dark skin clearly marked him out as a native. He was standing in an open doorway, and drew something silver to his mouth, it made a high shrill noise – a whistle. Others came out of their huts: women, men, again developed-world attired but from some previous century style. They gathered round her, talking in words her translator was so far not relaying. One man produced a weapon that buzzed with an electrical field between two prongs

Distracted by the weapon wielder’s approach, she hadn’t noticed who had crept up behind her, but now they had grabbed her arms, locking them behind her back. Now, she thought, would be a good time to communicate.

‘Hello there, my name is Zoraina. I am here to survey your local environment.’

She always had faith in her translator array; it was programmed with over five thousand languages, and even if it encountered one not stored it would analyze every aspect of speech patterns to form a model. After all, there were only a limited number of ways the humanoid form could communicate. She just hoped it had picked up enough to be able to approximate their language.

‘Mechanical – yes?’ The man with the electrical device asked.

‘No, no. I’m not one of them. Are you?’

The man laughed. ‘We’re pure blood. Pure flesh. We destroy them.’

‘Ah, good. We share a common interest.’

‘How do we know?’

‘Do I look like a mechanoid?’

Again he laughed. ‘They look like all kinds, trying to fool us.’

‘But I am a weak human.’ She declared. Something approximating the truth.

‘You pretend.’ It didn’t seem to be meant as a question.

‘No. I really am in some pain,’ she said in truth. Whoever it was who had her arms was increasing the pressure.

Another man walked forward with a knife. Things were looking bad. She could send a signal to her supervisor, but then jeopardize her entire mission. Instead she said, ‘No, wait. I can provide a DNA sample for you.’

That seemed to make no difference, maybe the words didn’t translate properly. The knife man got very close. Zoraina closed her eyes fearing the worse. There was pain, for sure, a sharp slice to her face. And then:

‘You possibly flesh-human.’

She could feel the blood trickling down her face, but also the sting of a finger dragging along the gash. She opened her eyes to the knife man. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘if I was one of them I would not be here on my own.’

‘They very clever; look and act like flesh and blood, make us lower our defences.’

This didn’t make sense to her. The machines – from all accounts – simply assimilated humans without any need for guile or subterfuge. Perhaps they already had; perhaps these people held that they resisted transmogrification because the alternative was unconscionable to them. Given they already had contact, it was not beyond the bounds of reason. But on the other hand the Machines might have sensed the effort to transform such an isolated community held no reward; they could be no threat. That’s why, she reasoned, these people could prove useful in the fight against such pernicious artificial entities.

Zoraina wondered if they’d have to expose one of her internal organs to be finally convinced that she was not in any way machine.

She allowed herself to be led into the hut by the knifeman. At first glance there was the usual accoutrement: within the mud-dried walls, a simple gnarled-leg table, an iron stove above which hung a cooking pot – all exactly what she’d expect.

What happened next astonished her. Her host pulled up a hemp-haired carpet to reveal a trap door. He lifted up a brass-ring handle then indicated for her to follow. Immediately thoughts of her imprisonment in some dank cellar or dungeon used for torturing prisoners – to finally get that crucial information about her true nature. He smiled at her, which didn’t seem reassuring in the least. She followed nevertheless, thinking her fate was sealed regardless. Below the open hatch only darkness, though she could see the tip of a rung of steps. ‘Follow,’ he instructed her.

He descended the steps, and as she followed suit Zoraina noticed a glow below her, it was just enough that she could see her footing. Then a light suddenly flashed on. As she reached the bottom and turned round Zoraina was shocked to find an array of electronics in what looked to be a clinically modern lab. Or a control room? The incongruity struck her as if she’d just walked into an alien spacecraft. There were flashing lights, panels with rotating symbols. This place even seemed to be air-conditioned.

‘How? What is this?’ she asked her rather pleased-looking host.

‘Our station of operations. It is where we track the mechanoids and send out EMP drone strikes.’ His words seemed perfectly fluent, in whatever language they happened to be translated from; maybe her translator had accustomated to their speech.

‘How – how do you possess this kind of technology?’

The broad smile again. ‘The beings from the stars. They provide everything we need.’

But we are the beings from the stars! ‘What beings? What did they look like?’

‘Very tall. Thin.’

Surely not. Not them! They’ve gone, retreated; defeated. ‘And they are helping you to destroy the mechanoids?’

‘We are the last hope for this world.’

‘Oh really. Is that what they told you?’

He looked at her askance. ‘Didn’t you know? All humans have gone, we are the last left.’

‘I understand.’ She nodded. ‘We can think of them as being dead. And they only avoid you because of your bequeathed technology, right? But why are you the chosen ones?’

‘We are known for our unconventional belief in time ...’

‘Yes, your concepts of past and future differ from most humans. But isn’t that merely language?’

‘Language is our primary tool for understanding reality. What is reality without language?’

‘Fair point.’ She nodded. ‘Of humans you are the most different.’

He beckoned her over to a monitor showing blobs of green with adjoining circles, tagged with labels. He placed a finger on one of the green blobs and it suddenly expanded into a shape she immediately recognized – a mechanoid. It was quite humanoid in shape yet distinctly non-biological in its silvery form. It held what she knew to be a phase weapon – a tapered anodized device.

‘That one is approaching our encampment. It intends to destroy us. It is not the first; some have even come in disguise as humans.’

‘So I’ve gathered.’

‘Observe.’

‘As the mechanoid got within visual distance of the camp it suddenly froze.’

‘What happened?’ she asked.

‘A EMP stun burst. Fifty mega joules.’

‘Impressive. But they’ll come back online, won’t they?’

‘Observe.’

A member of the camp gingerly approached the mechanoid, produced what she saw to be a laser cutter, as he drew the beam across the silver head with a dexterity that suggested a well practised skill, and similarly when he removed its electronic brain.

‘You’d think they’d have adapted,’ she commented.

‘They will. Of course, they knew we would take one of their neural substrates. We’ve learned them to be laced with some type of explosive, which we can neutralist’

‘I understand. Anyone can use EMP bursts. Well, that’s not beyond human technology. It’s what happens afterwards, that’s where your special tech comes in. Still overconfidence---’

‘Can lead to carelessness. But our tech is really good.’

‘And do you keep the neural captures?’

‘We destroy them. They are the enemy soldiers, after we extract the memories for our providers.’

‘I see.’ Zoraina felt uneasy. Was this encampment part of a greater war than they appreciated? And if they knew the bigger picture, did it even matter that they were gladly the key participants? This was not the war she had anticipated – humans siding with an old enemy of the B’tari believed to have been vanquished if not completely annihilated. Rumour had it that for over a century the B’tari high command had searched for signs of this once powerful race during the years of the takeover (machine revolution, some would say), not to seek their help but to ensure they were truly gone. If the B’tari Central Council knew of their return, they would order a complete withdrawal of all intervention, or at the very least her intervention?

So, for her mission to succeed she had to keep this extraordinary discovery a secret.

Some chance of that, She thought.


* * *






3


Torbin was at a dinner party when it again happened.

His wife Delina decided after all that she would celebrate her fortieth at a rather high class restaurant; the type of establishment that was guaranteed to make him feel uncomfortable, with its mannered surroundings, the waiter who was distinctly and indubitably human (as opposed to a machine). Then there was the menu – the exotica, the refined and the downright avant-garde all there to make the task of choosing nothing less than uncomfortable. This was not about celebration, that was done the night before: a last chance to misbehave, he imagined. This was affirmation – of status. But of course he would never accuse Delina of this. No, he’d gone along with it with seeming alacrity, because for your fortieth you needed something worthy of such a milestone, an age that once conferred the beginning of a decline. In these times the phrase ‘life begins at...’ had never been so embraced. It really didn’t need to have any real meaning beyond a chronological mark. He thought of his own fortieth, in a sense he had celebrated it – the contented plateau on which his life rested. The doubts were not there back then. If only he could take himself back to that time. Or even just a few weeks.

Torbin was never fond of the stretch before the first course arrived.

A conversation got under way, initiated by Delina’s mother, a woman who would never accept that she was anywhere beyond early middle-age, wearing a black dress way too tightly for his liking (mother-in-laws were never supposed to look that sexy; though at least it augured well for Delina – if she opted for ‘the treatment’). Her much younger lover by her side – a twenty-something who appeared quietly embarrassed to be there – seemed to underline her denial of her true age. Delina disapproved as was only right, but tonight it seemed she would be keeping her disapproval well hidden.

‘I’m impressed with Choidry’s knowledge of physics,’ the woman said, who still sounded like a sixty-eight-year-old. ‘For a five year old that is quite something. I guess he’s a chip off the old block.’ Then, no more than two seconds later: ‘I’m impressed Choidry’s knowledge of---’

‘---yes, so you’ve just told me,’ Torbin interrupted. But he noticed people’s shocked reaction, even Delina.

‘Torbin, she was just saying.’

‘I know. Sorry.’ He amended, not wanting to stir things. But she seemed have repeated that sentence in exactly the same way.’

Delina said, ‘Anyway I think mum’s absolutely right...

Torbin was distracted then by a man on the table opposite. He appeared to be on date; the woman had the kind of extravagant beauty to even put Delina in the shade. The man was staring at Torbin now, making him feel uncomfortable. But there was something else. He was sure he recognized the man, who persisted with his staring. Perhaps he knew of Torbin’s work. It got to the point where others on his table were noticing. ‘Looks like someone’s being a bit nosy,’ Delina observed.

‘Yeah.’ Torbin nodded. ‘Excuse me a minute.’

No one seemed to mind that Torbin was leaving to approach the man. There was something familiar about him: that chiselled face, perfectly cut purple shirt over a gym-honed physique, eliciting in him a slight resentment which he couldn’t quite justify, much less explain. When he got to table the man was smiling at him. ‘Do I know you?’ Torbin enquired.

‘Perhaps.’

‘Then you know me?’

‘Somewhat.’ That smile again, it made him feel – irritated. An old foe?

‘So.’

‘So, you’ve noticed it’s happening again. It will continue to happen until you do something about it.’

‘What are you---Anyway who exactly are you?’

‘Why, I’m the man who has the one answer you seek most.’

‘Sure you do, but what is your name?

‘Roidon Chanley.’

A shiver, like they say when someone walks over your grave. He never understood that expression, but here he felt it – that inexplicable shudder.

‘Your name is familiar but I’m afraid I cannot recall our association.’

The man reiterated his broad smile. ‘Maybe you prefer not to, or maybe something here has taken your memory. It has been a while – eighteen years, though it may seem even longer. Anyhow, we were part of a team---’

An explosion. Outside the restaurant but loud enough to drown out whatever the man was saying. The head waiter hurried over, a panicked look on his once immaculately impassive face. He said, ‘Sirs, a base charge generator has overloaded. We believe it to be foul play. This building is consequently no longer safe. You must leave immediately.’

Roidon gave the man a disdainful look. ‘The work of someone with an impeccable sense of timing, I do not doubt.’

‘Sir?’ The waiter raised an eyebrow.

‘Never mind. It can wait.’ He looked at Torbin. ‘It was nice to be reacquainted. We must catch up on old times soon.’

‘Sure.’ Torbin nodded, before dashing

over to his table.

Delina’s mother was shaking her head, mouthing something before he could hear her words. ‘...Those anti establishment terrorists, I knew it,’ she said. ‘They’re trying to wreck what civilization we have. They’ll only be happy if we all went back to living in caves.’

‘Mum, it could just be some kid trying to steal energy,’ Delina said

The head waiter was now heading for their table, gesturing campily for them to leave, while his assistant had their jackets ready. Even though no-one had yet eaten, everyone complied with the new directive, assured that no payment was required for the wine they had thus far drunken.

As the others waited ‘a safe distance’ for their cabs, Torbin approached the charge point that bore the explosion. He only got near enough to notice the blackened charge-pad and the charred remains of its console pillar when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

‘Sir, I really would not advise you to get any closer.’ Torbin swivelled round to see the cop, smiling but in a strangely menacing way.

‘Oh. Dangerous is it?’ Torbin responded.

‘We have yet to ascertain the true cause of this explosion.’ From this few metre distance there was no smell, or even smoke.

‘But you have your suspicions, right? You don’t think it was an accident?’

‘I am not one to indulge in speculation. Now if you don’t mind.’ The cop, who was at least five centimetres taller than Torbin and considerably wider, manoeuvred around to block his view of the explosion remnants.

Without another word Torbin returned to the waiting guests. Delina was giving him an uncharacteristically stern look, conveying some silent rebuke understood only by intimates. She said, ‘The cab will be here any second. Are you more interested in that’ (she pointed at the charred charge point) ‘than coming home with me?’

‘No, no. Of course not.’

‘Good. I mean all you really need to know is that because of some idiot our evening was ruined.’

A few seconds later their cab touched down. Delina’s friend, a willowy blonde called Sandria, suggested another restaurant they should all go to, but Delina declined, her bad mood obvious. The perfection had been ruined and that was it. Torbin couldn’t help but think his encounter with that old forgotten associate was somehow connected.

It was going to be a difficult night.


* * *






4


The man had invited Zoraina to his living quarters to ‘discuss strategy’, a suggestion she acquiesced to with reluctance. They sat on a large beige sofa, which seemed to encompass her body in a way that demanded her relaxation.

At some point this question would arise: Where are you from? The man who asked her – knife man, whom she now knew as Ipcardi III, was studying her with an uncomfortable scrutiny, and for brief moments touched her shoulder, her arm. He said, ‘You a courageous woman to be venturing to these parts. We thought there were no true humans left. Where you from?’

‘A location I have sworn to keep secret,’ she told him. ‘You understand; their eyes are everywhere.’

‘Their eyes are everywhere … but here. Here you are safe.’

She knew something of human male mating patterns; the need to search from outside the group was common across all species, logical for genetic health. And so here she was the outsider, a lone vulnerable female faced with a man possessing a healthy appreciation for logic and for – what he perceived to be – the human female form.

‘I must make a confession,’ she conceded. ‘I am not merely here to observe, but to plan a counter attack against the Machines.’

‘I know – we know. It is about survival.’

‘But in order to survive you have had to do a deal with a seemingly benevolent alien who may not be what they appear.’

Immediately his countenance shifted from amiable (if lascivious) smiles and gestures to something that suggested he’d been affronted. He rose off the chair in a move that made her sink further into the couch’s envelopment.

‘What do you know of them?’ he demanded. He suddenly looked menacing again as he did when he first held the knife to her throat.

‘I...’ She was struggling for the words that would not give her true identity away. ‘I have studied accounts of the visitations. Was sceptical of their true power. But evidently they can be a formidable ally.’

‘If you deal with the devil, you have to give up your soul?’ he intoned.

‘No I didn’t mean---’

‘No?’ his voice almost a shriek. ‘Well, without their assistance we would not be here but one of the captured. We would no longer be.’

‘I am not judging you, Ipcardi. And I have no knowledge on the subject of souls, only of life’s preciousness. Perhaps your allies share the same beliefs as yours, perhaps their intentions are merely altruistic. It is only caution I am suggesting.’

‘Then you must trust me – my people, that we will not sacrifice our freedom or compromise our beliefs for anyone no matter how much they offer.’

‘You are a good man, Ipcardi.’

He looked at her with an intensity she had never seen in a human. ‘If you truly believe that, then will you be with me tonight?’

‘Be with you? Oh, be with you.’ She wondered if this was when a human female should finally acquiesce.


* * *






5


On a train journey to Toronto, Torbin remembered so clearly now, like it was yesterday. Thirteen years since he’d last seen her.

His eyes closed, he could be there; his mind racing unconstrained with the possibilities. Butterflies in his belly.

He was twenty-nine and single, and he had a history of failure – in love as well as work. But even then he still had hope for the future, that inchoate confidence of the young not yet bound by the disillusionment of accumulated experience. On that warm summer’s day he met a woman on a train – the scenic route between Banff and Toronto. The woman was occupied by her tablet; the glints of projected pulses into her retinas confirming that nothing else in the train would (or at least should) intrude. There was every reason not to interrupt. But that’s exactly what he did, because this was not the first time he had seen her. This had to be a regular journey for her, for he only did this four or five times a year, yet this was the second time in six months they had happened to be booked in the same coach. Not that Torbin was a believer in fate. Fate, acausal coincidence: these were irreducible by any scientific method he knew of. Or any at all, he suspected. More than merely a job – a scientist, albeit one struggling for recognition; a lab assistant for the most part, awaiting that grant.

Anyway, good fortune favours the brave. But back then, he felt no braver than a boy on a quest for his first girl.

He sat in the vacant seat next to her. Her hair: long, wavy copper-red, a slight plumpness about her face; the beginnings of a double chin as she looked down – which was quite unusual when you could choose to be slim without recourse to exercise or diet even if you were on a moderate income. Yet he could tell she did spend time working out by the hint of muscle on her partly-exposed upper arm beneath a white blouse, which held her in snugly and, when he looked down, prominent calves above flat faux leather shoes. The skirt she wore also revealed quite powerful thighs – as much as he could see, but, he wondered, the tightness of it perhaps constricting in a deceptively flattering way.

There was no questioning her attractiveness, though she was not what might be considered conventionally beautiful. Or even average (an appearance men could feel at ease with) because both tended to be popular with the opposite sex. And that kind of popular was not a good thing for Torbin.

Regardless of these careful observations he could tell, if only intuitively (and unscientifically), she would not be an easy pick-up. But he had no intention of going through the usual protracted process.

He then said something he never believed he would. ‘Does a person’s history matter, if it is not dark or criminal?’

‘Excuse me.’ Her response was just what he expected. Her voice was what mattered: the way she enunciated, a precision, a slightly haughty irritation at the intrusion into her valuable time.

‘I mean it’s a game, isn’t it. With rules we’ve accepted because that’s how it was always done. Conventions---’

‘Conventions hold civilization together,’ she said, her voice measured, yet there was definitely a warmth now. ‘Without them we’d be no more than animals.’ If she was looking at him at all it was only in the most peripheral vision.

‘But we are. Only just more sophisticated versions.’

‘Huh.’ A sound of derision at his unoriginal statement, but she did look right at him for a brief moment, then back to her tablet.

He persisted. ‘I’m just making the point: we take these conventions because that’s what we feel society expects. To not be excluded.’

‘It’s been nice meeting you. Now if you don’t mind.’ Her head turned abruptly back to her screen.

He thought he’d probably blown it. Still, he had nothing more to lose. “I’ve seen you on this train several times, and I’ve wanted to approach you, because … because I find you interesting, because I’d like to know you better. But I know time is limited, and you are a woman of high standards, for whom my own credentials may not be adequate.’

‘Well, you’re probably right there,’ she said at his truly brave words. ‘Nevertheless it is clear what you are after, and I’m sure there are plenty of women who appreciate such a direct approach and would ask nothing of your credentials. Perhaps just money.’

‘I’m just tired of playing the game,’ he admitted.

She inclined her head sideways, then sighed. ‘And I’m tired of this conversation.’ Her weary words.

‘Can I even ask your name?’

‘If I told you would you leave me alone?’

A reluctant nod. ‘Okay. If that’s really what you want.’

‘Then it’s Emelda.’

‘Torbin.’

‘Interesting to have made your acquaintance, Torbin. Now if you don’t mind---’

‘Sure.’

Now he knew for certain – there was no chance. He returned to his original seat. His bitter thoughts: So much for the direct approach, and so much for bravery. But you have to know, when you’ve lost, when a situation is irredeemable.

Except – as he remembered, and he felt it now – it only made him want her more. And when he last looked at her, the thought, no, the certainty that she would not be his was an agony that seemed rise in his chest. There, immediately; he wanted to tell her! How would she respond then? Too late, as soon he walked away.

He was back in the present, disorientated for a moment. Only a few minutes had gone. A dream of the past triggered by that same journey, he surmised. It was odd how, looking back on it now, that she alone was ‘the one that got away’; more than just a missed opportunity for, well, sex. How could he not have realized love at first sight, when it was so clear to him now? Maybe he’d just forgotten, made himself believe that the woman he’d been with for the last eight years was the only one for him. Now he felt an emptiness. Loss. Strange, he was grieving a lost opportunity.

Could anything be the same now?

It was not that he had to be somewhere; this was his day off – although as far as Delina was concerned this was just another work day, a day working towards that great goal of near instantaneous communication between planets, maybe even galaxies. He imagined her imagining him engaged in some experiment with directed wormhole projections towards a distant solar system. Not that she knew the details of his work, just enough to have an idea that he played a pivotal role in this project, that he led a team that were at his behest. Perhaps she even suspected that this team included a few attractive women, in admiration of his skills, enraptured by his passion – for his work. Yes, he’d known the signs from a particular blonde, had turned down the offer of a drink even though she claimed it was only to discuss work. There was no denying the number of opportunities a man in his position had to be with many women. But then, he was happily married. Had everything he could possibly wish for. Why risk jeopardizing that with one night of passion, to fulfill a curiosity for something a bit different? Maybe more adventurous, maybe dangerous. A year ago he could have rested on his laurels, have revelled in how much better his life was than the majority of men. But now, he remembered there was an alternative: dangerous and adventurous … but exciting. The Torbin of ten years ago would have feared that, feared getting burnt, been hampered by insecurity. The Torbin of even a year ago would have taken stock and realized, sensibly, there was just too much to risk losing on some youthful fantasy. If only. If only on their first encounter he’d had the courage to take that chance.

Now he felt he had the courage.

Was it success, or the passing of years and the realization that everyone had their shortcomings but only some knew how to make them seem irrelevant, no matter the reality?

Now he was looking around the seats, just hoping. It had been thirteen years since he had last seen her. What were the chances of seeing her again? Yet he had a feeling – far from anything he could rationalize – that this was the right train. And so he moved throughout the coaches. Looking down at the seated passengers, some of whom glanced back at him, some projecting miffed expressions as if he were impinging on their private space.

Now he was sure this was the last coach to be searched. A mote of doubt started to infect his mood. He persisted until, two rows from the end he found someone he recognized

Him! The man from the restaurant. The man glanced up, recognizing Torbin immediately.

The man smiled, half nodding in acknowledgment ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘What a coincidence seeing you again.’

A wave of irritation washed over Torbin. ‘You’re … Royston?’

‘Nearly. It’s Roidon.’ The man grinned more broadly, seemingly amused that Torbin should misremember his name.

‘Well, nice to see you again Roidon, but I was just---’

‘Looking for an old flame?’

‘What? No! I was merely...’ But he could think of no excuse to come up with.

‘You were looking for a woman. With whom you felt you had some connection.’ He nodded once more. ‘I know what that’s like.’

‘Yes I’m sure.’

‘You won’t find her on this train.’

‘Is that so.’ Torbin fixed him with a challenging stare.

‘She can’t be found.’

‘How would you know?’ Torbin questioned.

‘Because I know women, and I know about obsession. Even when it drives you to the brink of losing everything, you still carry on – just for that one chance of the thing that tantalizingly eludes you.’

‘What’s this, psychology one-o-one?’

‘No, just some friendly advice, from someone who knows you.’

Torbin sat in the adjacent seat. ‘You know me? Because I sure as hell don’t remember you.’ But even as he said he knew that was not entirely the truth.

The man had that slightly smug knowing look. ‘You’ve forgotten, Torbin, because it had suited you. And I could have left you like this in your life of contentment. But now, it’s not enough is it?’

‘Just tell me exactly from where you know me, what was our association.’

‘All right. But you won’t believe me.’

‘Try me.’

‘Three years ago---’

A noise. An explosion. The train braked so suddenly they were both thrown against the seat in front, Torbin hitting his forehead on the back of its headrest. Roidon was groaning, saying something about it happening again. And at that point Torbin acknowledged the message he was trying to convey.

A guard appeared, right on cue it seemed, telling them an explosive device had been detonated, and that they must leave the train without delay. But the the guard’s next action did come as a surprise. He grabbed a still-muttering Roidon by his upper arm, and said: ‘It’s you! You’re the one who planted the device.’

Roidon suddenly straightened, tried to shrug the man’s grip off his arm. ‘Don’t be absurd. Why I want to plant a bomb on this train?’

‘We have your image on record.’

‘As a culprit? That’s not possible.’ A smile formed which then developed into a manic laugh. ‘Oh, of course. Anything’s possible here. Forget that I’d have zero motive for planting a bomb. You just want me out – away from here. Away from him.’ He nodded, and that knowing smile again but not looking quite so smug. ‘Well here goes. Torbin, three years ago you were---’ Roidon had slumped forward. Torbin looked across at the guard who was brandishing a key-fob type device.

Torbin glared at the expressionless man. ‘Why did you do that? He was no threat.’

‘That is where you are wrong, sir,’ the guard told him confidently. ‘This is a highly dangerous man. A subversive, a terrorist. He was trying to inveigle you into his devious game.’

‘What are you talking about? How could you possibly know?’

‘Sir, it is all here.’ The guard showed Torbin his PDU tablet, which featured an image of Roidon, and rather prominently the word terrorist above a list of crimes.

Torbin knew something was very much amiss here, yet he allowed the guard to haul the still unconscious Roidon away, as another guard arrived to assist. Everyone was filing off the train now. In the absence of any other options, Torbin followed suit.


* * *






6


Zoraina trudged through a forest. The trees were alive with chirping birds and chittering monkeys. Simply fulfilling their genetic imperative. There was something enviable to such obliviousness. She could even fool herself into believing that Earth was in an ideal state, better than previous centuries when human encroachment had rendered much of this area barren from decades of agriculture, survival as much as short term profit. You could think: this is nature in all its diversity, thriving as it had a millennia ago.

There was no problem getting away from Ipcardi. Her excuse had been to conduct an environmental survey. Ipcardi didn’t even question that other than making her promise she’d return ‘soon’, his serene smile maintained seemingly having already achieved his objective where she was concerned. It only made her all the more doubtful of his resolve; his distraction, his loss of focus. Yet at the same time it was heartening to experience traditional human behaviour, when previously any want could be catered for synthetically. A microcosm of human civilization stripped bare. The Machines – according to what she had studied from their intercepted comms – disdainfully viewed humans as morally dubious pleasure seekers, corrupted from the simplicity their genes had once promised. The Machines’ adversaries the Elusivers seemed to share the same view. No surprise given the Machines were themselves a product of these ‘god-like’ beings; their fear that humans would one day create a similarly advanced non-bio technology. Sentient machines: were they really such an unforeseeable byproduct of the the things to fulfill a need in labour-saving, pleasure-seeking beings?

And her kind were of course far too wise to go encouraging robot evolution. Ever the benign outsiders, observing but not interfering. So Zoraina had broken the cardinal rule – cardinal being the operative word. Zoraina, however, knew that the Temporal Directive was in the process of a serious revision, a loophole here and there being teased out, a once unambiguous stricture reinterpreted for the modern age, made relevant as so many other doctrinal texts had been. The core mandate of her mission to ‘gain a more intimate knowledge of human society, the remains thereof’ itself was vague enough that she could justify her actions.

Yet, she was in trouble. They only knew she had stayed the night in this man’s hut. But that was enough to draw only one conclusion: an unattached female who recently acquired human form. Of course, it would only seem natural to experience the most pleasurable of what this new body had to offer. They surely knew there was always a risk. But at least by participating in human congress she had affirmed her human qualities.

They had sent her the communiqué via her sub-cranial transceiver, the message processed in the hearing portion of her brain as if someone were speaking to her in stereo. ‘Extraction will be at coordinates etc etc.’ Her subdermal scanner threw up an image of a green vector-wire grid with a red dot she had to hone in towards. At this point the idea of her true purpose being discovered by her new lover (a term perhaps over-qualifying his status, at least by human standards), or even one of his associates, had a certain appeal. There might even be a greater chance of her continuing on her mission. Sure, there’d be some kind of punishment but she felt confident she could – as an attractive human female – charm her way out of the worse consequences. But with the B’tari it was all about the simple parameters, Council judgements.

Even though she’d reached the vector point – with a bleep to confirm that – the swiftness of the beam took her by surprise: a sudden feeling of lightness, a haze of light all about. To an outsider just a disturbance in the air for no more than a second. The B’tari had prided themselves as the masters of stealth.

Her handler, Zandaren, already waiting in the port bay into which she arrived, wearing the white tunic uniform, arms folded, his unaltered reptilian face scouring. This was not going to be anything even approximating a warm welcome.

‘Glad you made it back safely,’ he began in the B’tari language. ‘Observations indicate you became fully integrated.’

‘Yes I did it with one of them,’ she admitted straight out. ‘Am I to be punished for that?’

‘Punished. No,’ he assured her, yet the sour expression remained. ‘The intelligence you have gathered has been invaluable. We would never have suspected humans of using Elusiver technology. Frankly that changes the game for us.’

‘What about for me?’

‘For you, we have a mission that will send you into the heart of human society.’

‘What society? Is there more than one?’

‘In the real world, maybe not. However, there is the other realm.’

‘But you said I would not be punished.’ She wished she hadn’t sounded like the rookie they surely regarded her as.

‘Zoraina, you have proved your ability to adapt. Think of this as a progression.’

She detected the pleasure in his voice at meting out this new order.

‘Tell me I’m not going to become hooked up in the same substrate like those poor people.’

‘As far as we know they are not suffering. They are just unaware.’

‘What good---’

‘Your mission is to meet up with a man named Roidon Chanley, a former asset of the B’tari.’

‘And then?’

‘We will inform you once you are immersed.’

‘But once I find Roidon I will be allowed to leave?’

‘You will have the command codes neurally imprinted.’

She smiled with obvious falseness. ‘Total trust as ever.’


* * *






7


The news reader’s form was positioned as if her desk were near in front of Torbin’s comfy chair. How incongruous she appeared in his lounge in her formal shirt, all bolt straight and precision pronunciation. He wasn’t really concentrating on the news story – something about the merger of e-commerce companies – to be sure of what he heard. So he requested a replay, but this time there was no repeat of the sentence. Of course not. But how many times could he simply dismiss it?

He continued to listen as she moved on to a story about re-wilding the Amazon rainforest. Now he would be prepared: he requested a projected real-time display and set up the room monitor to record. And then, less than a minute into the package, a reporter said, ‘...underutilized cleared section, once used for soya produ---’ she repeated as if a glitch had sent back the programme, which should now have been live. What gave the lie to any glitch theory was the reset of the time display; the odds of both occurring simultaneously … well, he couldn’t even calculate. Checking the monitor feed, showed no such repetition. Then it was personal to him. This left only two options to consider: either he was going insane or time really was repeating.

He switched off the projection. Delina was not due back from work for at least another two hours. Within that time he had to have his answer. He requested a link with Dr Fortenski. Naturally she was busy. However, after a twenty minute wait, she did indulge him with a ‘brief consultation’, her form seated behind a desk.

‘Doctor, it’s happening more frequently now,’ he told her.

‘I see,’ she said with a slight drawl of reservation.

‘What do you suggest?’

She looked skywards as if searching for inspiration. ‘I wish I had a course of action,’ she said. ‘But even a diagnosis can only be arbitrary.’

‘I can’t take this any more,’ Torbin protested. ‘I think I’m going mad.’

‘Then you’re probably not,’ she reassured him.

‘Then how else can you explain it?’

The psychiatrist looked at him intensely. ‘There is only one course of action I can suggest,’ she told him. ‘A full neurological scan.’

Torbin considered this, considered the scenario that they’d find a simple fixable dysfunction. Then they would rewire his neurons, or remove some growth. Or something worse: an endogenous disorder which meant he could no longer be part of society. Or discover nothing, and then he would be committed for further tests for a psychological condition.

Still: ‘Okay, doctor I’ll go for the scan.’

Dr Fortenski relaxed into a posture of relief. ‘I’ll make the appointment and get back to you.’

A flash of panic, a physical pain darting through his chest. A feeling manifest of having made the most appalling error, an act that seemed irreversible. It didn’t matter that he knew the psychiatrist to be someone of integrity; that an appointment is not legally binding and can be cancelled. He felt he’d committed himself and was now on that journey’s descent to a dark unknown place. He remembered once being barred down on some grim theme park ride promising a new level of terror; never wanted to try it but felt he should to prove he wasn’t scared. How could there be any quick fix or even diagnosis? Whatever he was going through lay outside the norm (he felt certain) of psychiatry. He was an oddity whose potential diagnosis – if it were to be represented in analytic numbers – would somehow be discomforting, unsettling, disturbing; not even so much for him but for the medical community. If they really could no longer deny the reality of his experience.

But just as he settled down in his chair, returned the live news feed, it began to happen again. The news reader in staccato repetition, the words: ‘for safety considera---.’ A repeating loop, resetting her posture each time to repeat those words. He hadn’t even any idea what she was talking about. He looked at the projected analogue display, which itself flicked back.

Nausea took hold, he wanted to puke but couldn’t quite.

Just … escape!

Torbin jumped off the chair, ran for the nearest door.

Outside in his front garden, the world appeared unchanged. Then he looked overhead. It was a car, at a distant enough altitude that it only appeared as a grey oval blob, but its resetting of position was unmistakable. Then he noticed a bird repeating in sync.

The world is stuck. The world is stuck!

The world was losing its coherence; Torbin was losing his grip on it. Going away from him in all its unacceptable unreality.


* * *






8


Roidon Chanley was more than simply an asset of the B’tari, he had become the protégé – the boy wonder brought back from his own self induced annihilation. He was less and yet paradoxically more than a man. It must have made him view life in a unique way. Zoraina had everything on him, it gave her a sense of power as much as privilege. Especially observing him in his current predicament: locked in a cell. Roidon’s sense of powerlessness and frustration must be greater than that of any normal prisoner, given his awareness. Yet she already had a respect for him, for what he had tried to do to lead to this.

Here she was a visitor, his lawyer, asserting her right for a private consultation. Her clothes were efficient, smart but tightly fitting enough to emphasis her well-honed human form. She knew Roidon would appreciate that: women were his Achilles heel, she understood. Here this felt like a safe use of power.

Roidon’s cell looked less than comfortable; a remand holding place designed in its austerity for him to reflect on his ‘criminal actions’. Conveniently framed to keep him from his objective.

At her approached, her insistent clicking heels on the hard floor, he looked up, his sour expression brightened. Just a man in a dark blue – prison-issue – jumpsuit.

‘A visitor.’ He was looking her over in just the way she expected. ‘To what do I owe this honour?’

‘The honour is all mine, Mr Chanley.’

‘Are you about to tell me that my reputation precedes me?’

‘Something like that.’

‘That means you were sent by the B’tari.’

‘Yes, I work for them.’

‘Convincingly human,’ he surmised. ‘I would happily be taken in by such deception. It would not be the first time.’

‘Anyway. To business,’ she said.

‘The business of my rescue? But weren’t there less involved ways of achieving that?’

‘We work within the restricted parameters of the system. Not that you seem to have much regard for them.’

‘Well, of course you do – and of course I don’t. How naïve of me to think the B’tari would tear up their rule book even after humanity had been assimilated.’

‘Not all of humanity.’

‘No. Just ninety nine, point nine per cent.’

‘About ninety nine point seven,’ she corrected. ‘If there is a means to work within the system then that is always preferable.’

‘You sound like a lackey. I am hoping you are more than that.’

‘Aren’t you simply hoping for your freedom?’

‘Considerably.’ He nodded. ‘I bet the irony is not lost on the administrators. The former overseer trapped as a prisoner; the one who always wanted to be human at the mercy of the machines.’

‘Neither is it lost on us.’

He grabbed her arm, it made her gasp. ‘Tell me how integrated they made me. Is there anything left?’

‘Of your flesh? Why are you concerned with that when what matters is your memory?’

‘Don’t tell me you haven’t tasted the delights of being human, with all its imperfections.’

‘Yes, there is a novelty value,’ she admitted. ‘But to answer your question, your integration has been total. We had to feed you false data to keep you motivated. You see, Mr Chanley, we never did port you in. You died, just like your friend Torbin, and were captured at that point of death.’

‘You thought I couldn’t mentally handle it. How little you lot know me – and after so many years. I can always cope with the truth.’

‘History does not back up your point.’ She did a swiping gesture with her hand as a way of dismissing that comment. ‘Anyway, enough of this. To business.’

‘To business.’ Roidon placed his hand on her knee. Of course, he must have known she’d hacked the sensor feed, albeit virtual.

Zoraina promptly removed his hand. ‘No, no. Not that kind of business!’

Roidon sighed, but it seemed like an affectation. ‘Well, what else could you mean?’ he said. ‘It’s not as if you can get me out of here. And even if you did I would only be in a virtual prison.’

‘I have a guarantee from my commander that you will receive a new body once your mission is complete.’

‘If it matches my old one I will happy. And so might you.’ He winked – a bit too obviously, she thought.

‘Now as I was about to do.’ She focused her attention on the rear wall, to the side of Roidon’s bunk bed. ‘Projecting code 4-6-5-2-7 alpha gamma zero.’ The wall simply dissolved to an arch, revealing the grey tarmac grounds.

Roidon chuckled, nodded his head knowingly. ‘Is that an example of working within the system?’

Zoraina ignored the question. ‘We must leave now,’ she told him.

‘My place or yours?’


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