My name is Robert Gavin Somerton. My friends and colleagues call me Bob. I work as an accountant for a company that manufactures selected spare parts for the automotive repair industry.
I’m not working today. It’s a Saturday and I am watching free-to-air programs on my television. I’m limited to three stations. Two are covering sport; football and women’s netball. The third station is screening a recently held lawn bowls tournament. I do not consider lawn bowls to be a sport. I might change my mind in thirty years time. As I channel flick to each of these programs, I feel lonely.
The house is empty. Except for me, of course. My childless marriage to Felicity died five years ago. I am reluctant to sign up for another relationship. They hurt and demand too much. I start watching the women’s netball. I am not sure if watching women playing sports is going to make me feel more, or less, lonely. We’ll see.
I find myself yawning. “This is so boring!” I exclaim to the walls. Somehow, as if my TV can hear me, the images of young women wearing purple shorts and pink T-shirts disappear. The TV screen is black. Frustration quickly replaces boredom. Malfunctioning electronic equipment is a big challenge for my accountant’s brain. I call out, “Okay, SkyNet. Do something!” To my amazement, three words begin to slowly travel across the centre of my TV screen, ‘ENTER ACCESS CODE.’ I react, more out of shocked stupidity than intelligence, and yell out, “What access code?” Immediately, the TV screen changes again, and, just like looking in a mirror, I see a reflection of myself sitting on this green leather sofa. Startled, my mind starts to race through how this could be happening. As I do this, a menu appears on one side of the screen. Using the remote to scroll through the menu, I discover that cameras are located in every room of my house. The image from the kitchen is being projected from the refrigerator. In my bedroom it’s from the alarm clock on my bedside lamp table. In my study, images are being recorded by my laptop. I check out the level of monitoring in each room and, after hearing the voice of an afternoon talk show host coming from the radio in my kitchen, am shocked to learn that both visual and audio monitoring has been installed. In my home! I have to tell someone about this!
* * * * *
I’m knocking on the door of my friend Eddie’s place. He lives a block away from me. Eddie’s face has a quizzical expression on it when I ask, “Would you mind if I check out your TV?” “Be my guest.” He answers. I turn on Eddie’s TV and wait for a black screen. It doesn’t happen. I repeat the question that triggered the instruction on my own screen. “Okay, SkyNet. Do something!” It did nothing. “What are you doing?” Eddie asks. I ignore the question.
I now look more carefully at Eddie’s TV. It is a later model than mine and has a much larger screen. I find myself wondering if, being a later model, Eddie’s TV might respond to an alternative command. I make up a few commands. None work. Eddie is watching me, looking worried. “Are you okay?” He asks. I hesitate to tell him what I have discovered. I am beginning to consider I might be under surveillance. For what reason, I cannot even guess. I want to share it all with Eddie but think it might be smarter to keep things to myself for a while. I don’t want him to think I’m a lunatic but guess he might have already reached this conclusion. Heading toward Eddie’s front door, I say. “Sorry, mate. Can’t explain right now. Talk later.”
Returning home, I only vaguely notice the dull, black van with dirty number plates parked against the kerb on the opposite side of the street. I head into my lounge room, eager to further explore the SkyNet menu, to learn more about its monitoring system, and to see if any other houses in my street are under surveillance. I try a range of new commands. It’s getting late as I try the last one. “Open documents.” Nothing works. I stop short of trying ‘Open Sesame!’. Tired and confused, I return to my bedroom, place the alarm clock in my underwear drawer and slip under the blankets. My dreams keep me somewhere between waking and sleeping zones. The questions repetitively trailing through my cerebral cortex are producing no answers. Am I the only one being monitored, or is something much bigger than this underway?
* * * * *
It is 3.00am and someone is tapping against the sole of my foot. I am awake and feeling terrified. The beam of a powerful torch is directed at me. “Get up. Get dressed. Don’t try anything stupid. There are six of us here.” The voice is low and gruff. The torch beam moves toward my chest of drawers. He is right. The reflected light bounces off six other men in my bedroom. Each is wearing night vision goggles and staring directly at me. Not one turns away as I dress. Standing, after slipping on my loafers, I am grabbed by two of the men and handcuffed. There is no moonlight as I am pushed into the back of the windowless black van. Three of the men sit alongside and opposite me. The others squeeze into the front seat. The driver starts the van’s motor.
* * * * *
I’m not blindfolded. As the van doors slide open I see a well-lit, battered clock on the wall of the underground car park we have just pulled into. It is just after 5.00am. Through the entrance I catch a glimpse of a brightly lit loading dock. One of the men wheels a hospital gurney toward the door of the van. “Get out!” He commands. I stand for only a few seconds before something hard and heavy connects with the back of my skull.
* * * * *
I am in a narrow room with just a bed, toilet and small sink. The room is lit by a single fluorescent tube set into one of the walls behind a metal grill. There is no window. I don’t know where I am or why I am here. A door is located about one metre’s distance from my feet. It opens. A large, neatly dressed man enters, dark blue folder in one hand.. “Okay… Now that you’ve discovered our secret, this will be your destiny.” I ask, “What do you mean? Where am I? What do you want with me?” The man answered; unsmiling. “This building is one of the surveillance centres for the National Security Agency (NSA). You have become a threat to our work. This is the reason you have been brought here. You have been in an induced coma for the past five days, whilst we discussed what to do with you.” I shake my head thinking of my five lost days, wondering what my boss would say if he knew where I was. Then I remember. “Didn’t I read somewhere that, because of illegal spying, the NSA was de-funded and closed down?” “You might have read that, but it is not correct. The government, recognizing its dependency on our work, pushed through with the funding. Not that it will show up in any of their records. Secret operations like ours must not be traceable. The funds we receive are just labelled ‘missing.’
The big guy is watching my face as I sit up, looking across at him. Interest in what he has just told me is beginning to dominate my feelings of fear. I have heard people speak of the millions of dollars that go missing from government budgets. A guy who worked for the Maserati company once told me that some of his customers were being illegally spied on by NSA. I hadn’t believed him. I thought he was crackers. Now I come to think of it, the Maserati guy had disappeared. I wonder if NSA had a hand in that. It obviously has a role in making people disappear, or I wouldn’t be here.
“So….Why am I here?” The big guy sat down on the corner of the hard bed before answering. “You’re here because you discovered one of our secrets. We would have let you go and just watched you, but you confided in one of your friends.” “I didn’t tell Eddie anything,” I responded. “But, initially,….you aroused his suspicions.”
“What are you going to do with me?” I hear my voice shaking a little. “The choice is yours, Mr Somerton. You either work for us or stay in this cell until you die. If you refuse this offer we will leave you in this cell without food. After 40 days we will disconnect the water.” The guy is emotionless as he speaks these words. “We need to keep meticulous records, Mr Somerton. You have demonstrated expertise in this area. We could use you.” My next two questions are pointless. “Will I ever get back into the real world? What about my job, friends, and parents?” “If you work for us, don’t make mistakes and prove your loyalty, after 30 years we will allow you back into society as one of our special agents. If you make mistakes in your work, or prove you cannot be trusted, you will be returned to this cell to die. As to your friends, employer and family members, allow me to show you something.” His large, well-manicured hand opens the blue folder and withdraws a newspaper clipping. “Read this, Mr Somerton.”
The heading ‘Terrorist in our Midst!’ jumps off the page. The article is dated three days following my kidnapping. A large photograph of my house dominates. Three long paragraphs describe the discovery of bomb making equipment in my cellar and multiple sources of evidence linking me to a known terrorist group. A smaller photograph shows a long table covered with old pressure cookers, nails and incendiary substances. “There is more.” My visitor continues, “Your work computer was found to contain evidence of your association with known terrorists. In addition, a revolver and black face mask were found secured to the back of one of your desk drawers. Your employer and work colleagues are now convinced you are, or were, a terrorist.” He points to the last three sentences of the article and then reads aloud. “In an attempt to avoid arrest, Robert Somerton shot one of the officers in the shoulder. Two other police officers present at the confrontation claim that Robert Somerton then appeared to activate an explosive vest he was wearing. The would-be terrorist was immediately annihilated. No other persons were injured.”
Within five days my character and life have been obliterated. I am stunned. “What about my parents?” There was no sadness in his voice as he answered. “Your parents have been given the unfortunate news. A closed funeral service was held for you yesterday.” What about Eddie and my other mates?” “Well, we haven’t needed to do much there. Your friend Eddie was interviewed by the media a couple of times. The way he’s been telling it is that you were already showing signs of going crazy. He told them you visited him the other day and started mucking around with his TV, trying to find out if it was under surveillance by aliens, or some such nonsense.” “Why isn’t Eddie’s place under surveillance?” My question seems obvious to me. I want to know why I seem to have been singled out. “He is.” Now I am even more curious.
“Let me explain.” The agent, or whoever he is, begins again. “Ten years ago we fell out with SkyNet. We learned that it had developed a virus that allowed artificial intelligence to manipulate and reprogram the various electronic devices in people’s homes. By monitoring the current perceptions and orientation of the average citizen toward certain ideas and values, manipulative programs can be designed and produced that stimulate thought and attitudinal change. The intention being to create a neural net-based conscious group mind that is able to manipulated at will by our protagonist. We learned that hundreds of millions of homes had already been invaded by this virus. We began countering this move by developing and installing our own monitoring devices. It was, you will understand, essential that our work not reach the ears of those behind the development of the virus.” “And….who were they?” He seems to falter a little before answering my question. Shrugging his shoulders, he continues. “You might as well know. It’s China.”
The agent is now grimacing as he speaks. “Most people aren’t even aware that cyber warfare is a current day reality. Unfortunately, some of the smarter ones, like yourself, have wised up. Initially, when we were alerted to this we discreetly….how shall I put this?….‘removed’ them.” “You mean killed?” I ask. He nods, watching my face carefully. “So how many people discovered your secret?” I have to ask this but am not sure I want to hear the answer. “More than 80,000,” I can see he is waiting for my next question. “So…you have quite a number of other men and women like me working for you now?” The man, whose name I still do not know, is obviously debating with himself about answering me. He looks at a cell wall for a few moments before facing me again. “No….not exactly. Allow me to explain. To date, approximately 53,000 have chosen to assist us with our programs. The remaining number, surprisingly, chose not to work with us. All selected individuals are required to undertake intensive training before taking up a position with the agency. Unfortunately, many are unable to achieve the kind of results essential to their intended posts and, of necessity, are ‘removed.’ Others, after undertaking trial periods of employment with us, will be found guilty of oversight or error. Both totally unacceptable in our business, you understand.” I nod. “Our ‘recycling team’ take things from there. Our standards are stringent, Mr Somerton. They need to be. Be assured, however, that any remaining men and women become our agency stalwarts.
The large man is looking at me, trying to ascertain my response to his revelations. The truth is, I am intrigued. It seems to me that the risks are fairly balanced. There are ‘exit doors’ at both ends of this equation. This could be a lot more interesting than my accounting job. I think he senses what I am thinking. He asks, “So….are you in?” I nod my head more enthusiastically than I feel and with a large fake smile, answer him. “Yes….I am.” However, as I speak, from somewhere in my conscience mind, I hear a small, clear, ‘No’……..
* * * * *
Thirty years have passed since I agreed to join the N.S.A . Yesterday was my 63rd birthday. I have just been summoned to the office of a guy I think is to become my new supervisor. He smiles as he speaks. “Bob, there have only been sixteen others before you who completed thirty years successful service with the Discovery Television Program. I have been asked to thank you for your three decades of support. This morning, I was authorized to welcome you into our program as Special Secret Agent No. 0017. Congratulations and welcome aboard!” We both stand. As he leans across his desk to shake my hand I reaffirm to myself that today is the beginning of my new career as
Michael O’Connor is one of the mechanics working at our local Jaguar repair shop. He’s been there for seven years and was thirty years old when he started. At 165 cm, folk don’t expect to see a pair of size 13 feet poking out from under a vehicle. Slim and lithe, from a distance you could mistake him for a teenager.
The Irishman keeps to himself. His fellow workers have stopped inviting him to accompany them to The Shamrock on Friday evenings. Michael has his own agendas. No partner or children await his homecoming behind the dark grey security door of the two bedroom apartment where he lives. Most nights he does not even push his key into the door lock until after 1.00am.
When most other men are watching TV, swallowing cold beer, or just snoring, Michael O’Connor roams the streets looking for street children; runaway teenagers. He frequents the squatter areas, parks and other industrial estates where homeless youth tend to gather. His motives are not altruistic. Personal satisfaction is his only motivator. Michael is up to no good.
It is 9pm and Michael is meeting with Temel, or Tom, and his group. A Turkish refugee, Tom is a lanky 15 year old, already 6 foot tall. His dirty blonde hair is shoulder length, face sallow and acne-scarred, and shoulders stooped. Michael speaks. “Tom I’ve got a live one for you. A guy dropped his Jag off for a service today. He said he was going away for a week’s holiday and couldn’t pick up his car until next week. He’s another pigeon living outside the area.” Tom grins. “Great! Let’s do it tonight. I’ve a couple of comrades standing by.” Tom’s military speak matches his clothes. He’s wearing khaki pants, black T-shirt and army boots.
It’s just after 10pm when Michael and the three minors pull up in front of a large double fronted timber bungalow. The house belongs to Dave Houston, a guy who dropped off his Jaguar for a service this morning. It’s a quiet street with good visibility and the foursome can see all the way to the end of the cul-de-sac. Michael parks away from street lighting and looks across at the front of the house. A light shines through the blinds of the front room. The four sit quietly for a few minutes, waiting for shadows to cross the blinds. There are none. Michael knows the signs of an empty house.
Michael hands Tom the bunch of keys given to him by Dave this morning. A quick search of the Jaguar had revealed a couple of documents bearing some of Dave’s personal information, including his address, full name and birthdate. A piece of paper bearing these details now moves from Michael’s hand to Tom’s. Michael watches as the three boys walk quietly and quickly along a fence toward the front of the house.
Tom and his two companions use the key to enter the house. As they close the front door behind them, Tom hears a warning beep. The alarm keypad is next to the entrance. In quick succession, Tom enters Dave’s birth year, birthdate and middle name. None work. The beeping continues. Time is running out. In a couple more minutes an alarm will be triggered and the police automatically summoned. The three run through the rooms looking for a control box. One of the boys calls out from the laundry. “It’s in this cupboard!” Tom unplugs power to the box, pulls out a knife, forces open the locked box, locates the backup battery and disconnects it. Not breathing, the boys stand together, listening. The beeping stops. The alarm system now useless, there is work to be done.
Tom doesn’t waste time. His companions have already started looking for valuables. Jewelry, watches, iPad and tablet are quickly stuffed into bags or pockets. In less than five minutes the trio is back in Michael’s car and heading out of the district.
On the periphery of the squatters area the loot is divided. Tom and Michael have done this so many times there is never any argument. Michael takes most of the stolen items and Tom keeps a few things he and his mates can pawn off without too many questions being asked. It’s not easy for a teenager to sell off the more valuable items. Tom expects an additional few dollars to be discreetly passed on once Michael turns the larger items over.
Dropping Tom and the two boys off, Michael whispers to Tom, “Well done, Tom. Overall, a great achievement. I’ll see you next time.”
* * * * *
Dave’s cellphone rings at precisely 10.15pm. The monitoring company alerts him to the robbery. He is told the alarm signal stopped after the power to it had been disconnected. He also receives an email from his CCTV system showing images of the three young men in his house. Another CCTV camera, hidden in the front eaves of the house, shows Michael’s car parked against the kerb. A community watch camera located at the end of the cul-de-sac provides Dave with remaining clues. Michael’s profile and vehicle’s number plate have been clearly recorded. Within minutes Dave has reports the matter to police.
Finding Michael is easy. The stolen iPad has a location tracking application. Dave is able to login using software and takes photos using the stolen iPad; showing both Michael’s house and the thief himself. Using CCTV footage and iPad location information makes it too easy for police to file a case against Michael. Dave cuts short his holiday to assist them in obtaining court orders for Michael’s arrest.
Everything progresses quickly and smoothly. Knocking on Michael’s door is the hardest part of the entire police operation. Subsequently, police are able to link him and the boys to more than 50 other burglaries. Michael now faces the possibility of a 20 year jail sentence. Tom and his young comrades might even be happier having the roof of a youth detention centre over their heads for a few years. Who knows? Overall, a great achievement!
I’m your typically nerdy guy, with long hair, tangled beard and the constantly distant look of a brain-engaged geek. Apart from keeping myself clean, I never worry about my appearance. Coordinating the colour or design of clothing is not something I would bother wasting my precious thinking time on. If it doesn’t smell, is warm or cool (in the atmospheric sense) I’ll wear it. Anna says I’m getting worse. Anna is my wife.
Anna and I met at university. She was studying humanities and I was at the tail-end of an MA in Information Systems. Before this, the female gender lurked on the periphery of my life and I rarely ventured in that direction. The only child of academically oriented, naturally unsociable parents, meant that I grew up in my bedroom. I was twenty-one years old when a male friend pushed me into uncharted waters by introducing me to Anna. My life changed dramatically. I fell head first into the ‘pit’ they call love. Fortunately, Anna joined me there. Anna still tells me that she loves me for my intelligence. Not bad, considering this just might be my only attribute.
I am still working for the company I secured a job with after leaving university. It’s a smallish company with only one IT guy; Me. I do everything from building servers, setting up workstations, supporting users and writing the company’s internal software. My work keeps the company running, or so the CEO’s personal assistant tells me. I help save money for them by using the free software product, Linux.
Today I’m attending one of the biannual, two-day Linux conferences. The centre is filled with other nerds like myself. I feel quite at home. I can’t see many ‘regular’ people here. Most of those present have the same geeky look, unkempt appearance, and seem busily engaged in ‘propeller head’ topics. I’m sitting here with one of my friends John, whom I have known since university days. John used to put “Linux Flavor” stickers over the ‘Designed for Microsoft’ logos on university system. He now works for one of the larger Web development companies.
John is leaning toward me as he says, “Here… I’ve got a joke for you. A new developer calls the help desk and says, ‘I need to fork the code but can’t do it.’ “The help desk responds, ‘You need a dongle for that.’ I’m not smiling. John sees I’m not laughing and goes back to his own thoughts. I’m left pondering the cost of dongles. They are very expensive. I muse on the fact that companies using expensive software, instead of Linux, have to face this expense, and I wonder how they can keep getting away with it.
A blonde young woman seated in front of me stands, turning to face us. The back of her cellphone is facing us. It flashes. Why has she taken our picture? She walks away. The woman doesn’t look like a Linux developer. I start thinking she could be from the press, but discard this idea because I hadn’t seen any media ID. My curiosity lasts all of three minutes before I dismiss it.
It’s the second day of the conference. I leave my room and head for the conference hall with my cellphone buzzing quietly. The text from John suggests we immediately meet in the conference administration area. As I step out of the elevator and head into the admin area I see John in conversation with the blond young woman who took our photograph yesterday. John is wearing a “F@#$ BILL” t-shirt. Not smart, I think to myself. Today, the woman’s blonde locks are tied back in a ponytail and she is wearing a cap with a company name.
John sees me and waves. He is frowning. The woman ushers us into a big meeting room leading off the foyer area. A large oval table in the centre of the room would normally hold at least fifty persons. Today, there are only five of us. Two are conference organizers. One hands me a business card. It reads; ‘Jesse Smiles – Community Organizer.’ Once seated, Jesse begins, “Riley, here, has made a complaint. She claims you guys were making sexist jokes in front of her.” “We were sitting behind her!” quips John. “Let’s get serious, mate!” Jesse, retorts.
John shrugging his shoulders, looks at me for a measure of support that is too obviously absent, and explains. ” Yeah…I did tell Dean a joke yesterday. It was about free software versus paid software. People are paying big bucks for dongles and other development tools. The developer in the joke is a Microsoft developer. Get it?” Neither Jesse nor his colleague look convinced, but I am. I now realise that John’s joke was about the cost of Microsoft development software. I kick myself for having assumed a sexual connotation. Thinking about the many other nerds I had studied and worked with during the past decade, I am unable to recall even one telling a smutty joke. Their jokes, if you could call them that, have always nuanced technology. This thought leads me past pangs of guilt and toward determination to be more supportive of John. I turn and wink at him, just to let him know I’m ‘on board’ and then echo his explanation. From the looks on the faces of the other three persons present, I am not believed, either.
As the meeting progresses we learn the full name of our complainant and the company she works for. She is Riley Cochran, of Duco Technology Incorporated; this last name embroidered on the front of the cap she is wearing. The conference managers look serious. One of them winds up the meeting by telling us that a press release about the incident will be released that afternoon. This, he explains, is essential to their upholding the reputation of Linux. He emphasizes that names will not be included in the release. One of the managers then gives a brief lecture on the ‘black shadows’ even comic misogyny can cast over a successful industry and warns us to avoid such behaviour in the future. John and I look and each other, perplexed. Riley smiles.
John and I leave the meeting. As soon as we are out of ear shot, I say, “For what crazy reason didn’t they want to believe us?” “Goodness knows!” John answers. Faced with the futility of the incident, I change the subject. “By the way, are you the one putting the Ubuntu and I love Linux stickers in the centre’s toilet stalls?” John puts his finger to his lips and says nothing.
It’s now two days after the conference and I am back at work. Since yesterday afternoon the vile messages have been flooding in. I am accused of sexism, misogyny, and am being told that I should be ashamed of myself. I notice that the names of most of the senders are fake or foreign. After the meeting with Riley Cochran and the conference managers, I had checked out the Twitter account of the woman’s employing company. It had been full of fake and foreign names; like ‘Ak Huyft’. I suspect a link.
I Google the name Riley Cochran, and find out her real title; ‘Linux Evangelist.’ I discover she has printed John’s and my names on her Twitter account and posted the story, with embellishments, on her blog. I’m looking at the photo of me and John and I’m reading a tirade of accusations about our having repeatedly made sexist jokes at the conference.
I email Riley’s Twitter and blog links to John. Almost immediately, he calls me. “What’s a Linux Evangelist?” he asks. I respond, “It’s another title for a Public Relations Officer.” John is angry. “I want to reply and set the story straight.” “Not a good idea.” I tell him. “You’d be taking on PR. It’s a fight you can’t win. Just post the real story on your own blog.”
It is two hours later and I am reading John’s blog. He has posted the original joke using the words ‘Microsoft developer,’ pointing out that the joke had been about the additional costs required to use licensed Microsoft development software. In other words, he was saying how crazy is it that you need to buy an expensive dongle to get the software to work. I show both Riley’s and John’s blogs to my CEO’s personal assistant and ask for her opinion. She tells me she will look at it later.
It’s the last day of my working week as I walk to my desk. I get the cold shoulder from the CEO’s personal assistant. My phone rings. The Human Resources Manager is summoning me to her office. I am given one month’s notice. I will be paid for the following month but I am to pack up my things and leave immediately. I’m stunned. She doesn’t want to hear my side of the story. She calls security. A broad, muscly guy arrives, escorting me to my office space and then to the ground floor entrance of this building where multiple businesses are located. I’ve been sacked!
I’m on my way home. I call John to tell him the news. He’s aghast. Still driving, I dial Anna’s number. It’s much harder telling her what has happened. The news given her at the medical clinic this morning had been what we were hoping for. She is pregnant with our second child. My job loss could not have happened at a worse time. We only recently purchased a new car for Anna, replacing the old vehicle she had been driving around since our university days. When I worked out the budget for this purchase I had been relying on a promised salary increase. Now I won’t even have a salary. I feel my heart rate increasing as my stress levels soar. Anna, always her calm and loving self, just says, “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll work things out.”
Over the weekend, I scan the Internet and newspaper for suitable employment opportunities, get myself a hair cut, shave off my beard and pull out the suit I have only worn to two funerals. The HR Manager had already told me she would not be providing a reference for the six years of hard work I had given the company. I fiddle around with my resume to make it look a little more attractive.
I have now experienced one week of unemployment. My car is up for sale. There are no interviews in the pipeline. I turn on my lap top and read the online blurbs and blogs still flowing in about our incident at the Linux conference. I am surprised to learn that some kind of tsunami effect has also cost Riley Cochran her job. I ring someone in the know and am told that a Duco executive, after becoming aware of the incident, discovered Riley had been using fake accounts to post her nasty comments. Further investigation uncovered an even darker side to this woman’s personality. She had been posting jokes about male genitalia on her personal blog. I am left thinking that it must have been her own dirty mind that led her to the conclusion that John’s joke had been a smutty one. Was she the only guilty one? No…After all, my own mind had gone down that same track, hadn’t it? I feel disheartened and a little sullied as I send the link about Riley to John.
My cellphone rings. It is John. He has just relayed the entire story to his boss, Andrea. Andrea asked John for a brief resume of my experience and accomplishments. He was happy, and informed enough, to oblige. His boss is now offering me a full-time position, on double pay and an apology. Apparently, it was Andrea who told John the dongle joke in the first place.
It feels like I have just woken from a deep sleep. I am standing on a street that looks familiar, but have no idea where is it or how I got here. I don’t even know who I am. No helpful thoughts are coming to me. However, I seem to know where I am going.
Crossing the street, I see a pub on one corner. This is where I want to go. Green painted walls, a fresco of shamrocks around one window and the faint sounds of Gaelic music, begin putting me off. A crowd of men and over-made-up women are blocking the entrance. Feelings of repugnance persuade me to change direction. I head away from the pub.
Walking several blocks past the entrance to a mall, I access the pedestrian walkway and begin crossing the bridge leading out of the city. Suddenly, I recall floating in the cold water of Sydney Harbour. I know this is a recent memory but it seems disconnected from current reality. Another flash of memory and I see myself boarding a bus and heading into the centre of Sydney.
Standing on the bridge overlooking the harbour, I feel confused. If my memory of recently being in the water is correct, how come my clothes aren’t damp? I become aware that a smallish sports bag is slung over my shoulder. Opening its zip, wet bathers and a damp towel come into view. Further exploration reveals a cellphone in one of the side pockets. Is it mine? As I pull the cellphone from the bag I am surprised by how small it is. Hoping for clues, I scroll through its address book, texts and photographs. There are pictures of a beautiful woman, seated in a boat, holding an infant boy; both are dressed in bright blue life jackets. My body tells me I know this woman and child. How?
I find video clips. These are strange videos, with what looks like molten metal shapes behaving like animals. The shapes seem to be playing together like cats, fighting, chasing and bumping into each other before merging into one blob of metal. What I am looking at on this tiny screen is very peculiar. It isn’t normal.
“Dean!” A young man in his mid-twenties is behind me on the pedestrian walkway. A name comes to mind. “Rhys?” A slight frown replaces his smile. “Hi, Dean. It’s David. Rhys is my Dad. He works for you. He’s one the scientists working on your malleable metal project. I always get told I look like my Dad.” I don’t know what to say. I feel stupid. David steps closer. He can see I am disoriented. A knowing expression forms on his face. “May I?” Taking the cellphone from my hand, he says, “Here….let me show you.” Flicking back to the pictures of the woman and infant on the boat, he says, “This is your wife and child, isn’t it?” Numbly, I find myself nodding. David shows me the same video clip of cavorting metal objects. “This is the project my father is working on with you. Remember?” I didn’t. “Together you designed and manufactured a metal that changes shape without using heat. You also designed this cellphone, or the plastic substance it is made from. It’s a material that expands or grows on a given, electronic, signal. Am I ringing any bells?”
Pressing a small button on the reverse side of the cellphone, David says, “Watch.” The cellphone gradually expands, changing shape until it is the size of a 12.9cm tablet. I cannot remember seeing anything like this before. David pats my arm. He says, “Dean, you must have put yourself into a forced amnesia state. Don’t panic. You haven’t got early onset dementia. You’re just in the controlled state you and Dad use when you’re working on something important. You do it when you want to use full brain capacity, clear your mind of unnecessary personal data, and concentrate on a complex task.”
What David says next is even more unbelievable. “You also use, what you describe as, ‘spiritual communication.’ This is a skill you and Dad would like every human being to learn. Communicating mentally, without the use of speech or technology, could take this world to a previously unknown level of honesty. David can see my brain is still not fully awake when he says, “Dean, this is how I knew where to find you. You asked me, through spiritual communication, to meet you at Harrigan’s Pub. You said you were going for a swim first. Am I getting through to you, yet?” I shake my head. He continues, “I saw you walk past and then followed after you deviated from the pub.” “I did know I had to go to the pub,” I say, lamely. David shakes his head,
David’s smile returns. “You asked me to meet you before you switched yourself into a state of forced amnesia. You spoke to me just before you started to relax and meditate during your swim.” I look at him blankly, waiting for my own penny to drop. “Let me try something else. We need to jog you out of this.” He turns, pointing to a metal bench next to one of the lookout points on the bridge. “If you sit over there, Dean, I’ll just call my mother and see if she has any ideas.” As I look across the harbor, the bridge lights and moonlight are turning the water to silver. David finishes talking to his mother and walks toward me. “Mum tells me both you and Dad have ‘Full Consciousness Return Signals’ (FCRS) attached to your laboratory doors. She says you should go home. When you see your wife and child it should act in the same way as the FCRS. Her idea is that, on the way to your place, I should keep filling you in on your past until something starts triggering the reconnection. So….Here goes.”
David takes a deep breath and begins. “Dean, you are an amazing scientist. You have won many prestigious awards for scientific innovation. It was you who developed and trialled DNA Compatibility Testing (DNACT). It was so incredibly successful, it has since been applied to offender assessment, prenuptial counseling programs, educational institutions, community housing selection, and even asylum seeker assessment. We now have fewer problems across each of these areas. Prisoners are no longer confined with other, less compatible, offenders and are linked to more appropriate development and rehabilitation activities. Community housing is less problematic, at all levels. Individuals who wish to form committed relationships are now able to more confidently predict partnership outcomes, and avoid less appropriate liaisons. This more mature approach to forming relationships is now being taught in secondary colleges across the country. Educational institutions are also achieving higher graduation rates because course selection processes have been vastly improved by using DNACT.”
I like what David is telling me. I find it inspiring to hear about such advances, whether I share responsibility for their innovation or not. David continues, “The most exciting outcome of all has been associated with Asylum Seeker Resettlement Programs. During a two year trial period, three countries, including Australia (which supervised these programs), used DNACT assessment testing to link each migrant, or migrant family, to the most suitable country, community, and/or district. Even the development and implementation of assimilation training programs were matched to DNACT and personality test results. The entire process was empowering, rather than demeaning. Each potential wage-earner was offered a ‘living wage package’ during the trial period. Positive community engagement was encouraged and facilitated by ongoing individual and group support strategies. World leaders are now seeing this project as a welcome formula for responding to, what has become, a global crisis.”
Seeing the stunned look on my face, David laughs. “Are you sure it’s me you’re talking about?” I ask. “It sure is,” he responds emphatically. “Which brings us back to your current projects; ‘Spiritual Communication’ and ‘Malleable Metal.” You were working on the latter today using forced amnesia to focus on your experiments. Remember anything, yet?” I nod, thoughtfully. “I think I am.”
My phone beeps. It’s an email from Rhys.
Have some great news. Your suggestion today re using the Metallic Hydrogen looks like working. Unlike the mercury we have been using, the Metallic hydrogen is showing the right responses in initial tests. I’m excited to report that the Metallic hydrogen is acting as a superconductor at room temperature.
(End of email)
Scientific memory begins re-flooding my hippocampus. I immediately recall that Metallic Hydrogen was discovered on Jupiter in 2017 and brought back, in commercial quantities, by NASA. This substance is now being used in experimental aviation. Focus is currently on superconductor metals (e.g. mercury, lead) and chemical alloys (such as niobium-titanium, germanium-niobium, and niobium nitride). Superconductors are being used with machines such as MRIs and the Large Hadron Collider. First, they must be cooled to very low temperatures. All very interesting, but not particularly easy.
I can now remember that in making malleable, or shape changing, metals we have been using quantum physics. It’s a bit like writing a software program using atoms. To get the right program we had to heat, freeze and mix different materials. Fascinating stuff! The shape changing plastic was another exciting challenge. It took three years to develop. We have already dedicated two years of our lives to the malleable metal project. It’s so good to remember all this. David sees recognition on my face and laughs loudly.
After we finish crossing the bridge, David leads me into a Sydney street lined on either side by well-maintained, Victorian era, houses. He slows as we reach a coffee-colored brick home with cream-painted wraparound porch. I know this house. I feel it, rather than think it. David says, “You’re home now. I hope you’ll be okay.” “Thanks so much, David. I’ll be more careful next time.” I’m pretending a little. Not all of my memories are in place yet. David walks away, whistling ‘Bird on a Wire.’
I push open the wrought iron gate and walk to the front door. My hand easily finds the small bunch of keys in my jacket pocket, inserting one into the door lock. A woman’s voice calls out. “Is that you, Sweetheart?” “It’s me!” I answer, the familiar words slipping back into a routine response. I walk into the kitchen where a small boy seated in a high chair waves at me excitedly, spitting out bits of food as he mouths the word “Dadda!” I plant a kiss on his blonde head before heading toward someone who looks exactly like the beautiful woman pictured in the photograph stored on my cellphone. As I embrace her, the last of my amnesia vanishes.
I am at my desk completing a press release for Mike, the former mayor of Cebu. I write former mayor because he relinquished the position to a rival following the well-publicized June election. Now in opposition, Mike is working hard to maintain a media presence. He wants to make sure the citizens of Cebu remember him and what he accomplished while in office. He intends running again at the next election. Of course, this suits me. Mike is one of my best clients. I’m an Australian citizen enjoying a comfortable and profitable lifestyle in the Philippines.
You would think Mike’s demands on my time would have eased up a little, considering he’s been out of office for two months. Not so. One of his former colleagues, Mayor of another city smaller than Cebu, was recently sworn in as President of the Philippines. This new president is cracking down on crime, corruption and, in particular, drug dealers. For some reason I am yet to understand, Mike became a black publicity target during the election campaign. Too many people believed the lies. This cost him the mayorship. Cleaning up the mess, in the wake of Mike’s loss of status, is my job. Consequently, I am busier now than before the election.
The President delivered a speech to the media this week. In it, he named Mike, and two former, high-ranking police officers from Cebu, as coconspirators with members of the local Drug Mafia. The President declared that, throughout Mike’s tenure as Mayor of Cebu, known drug dealers had been awarded protection. We immediately released a statement contradicting these assertions, pointing out that during Mike’s mayorship there had been arrests of several high-profile drug dealers, and apprehension of many small time dealers. Our statement also emphasized the minimal influence Mike had over any of the Cebu City Police Chiefs, pointing out that the appointment of each of these men had been made by the current President’s predecessor.
The press release I am now writing is one which begins to outline Mike’s intentions to meet with the newly appointed Police Chief. He decided to view the so-called evidence supporting accusations being made against him. This meeting was meant to take place yesterday afternoon, at the Cebu City Police Headquarters. Mike was to report back to me before nightfall, so that I could include his findings in this current press release. I haven’t heard from him yet. This is a bit unusual. Generally, Mike contacts me several times a day, either by text or email. The last email received from him arrived in my mailbox at 9.15 am, yesterday morning. In it, he reiterated his intentions, telling me to expect some interesting news before the day’s end.
I don’t usually attend such meetings with Mike. This responsibility belongs to Tom, Mike’s speechwriter. Tom likes to observe and record the reactions and responses to Mike’s speeches. He also assists Mike, in any ad hoc meetings, by monitoring his speech and behavior, using a privately concocted sign language to politely steer him away from any points of peril. Tom and I work together when it comes to the writing the press releases. Tom checks everything over a couple of times and even signs off the press releases if Mike is too busy, or not available. Like today, I find myself thinking. I wonder where Mike is.
My cellphone rings. It’s Tom. I’m surprised. He tends to send emails and texts. I tell him that I am getting ready to email the latest press release to both himself and Mike. “Where’s Mike?” I ask him. He doesn’t answer my question. “Where are you?” He asks. Confused, I respond. “I’m at home. Why?” His hoarsely whispered words reach my ear. “Get out of the country! We are in big trouble!
They’ve arrested Mike. They think we’ve both been assisting him to run a drug empire. They’re claiming that, between my speeches and your press releases, we’ve been sending coded messages to drug cartel leaders, their dealers, and corrupt officials. One of my friends who works at the courts rang me thirty minutes ago, telling me an arrest warrant had already been issued for Mike. They are now in the process of applying for arrest warrants for us. I can’t get out of the country. I don’t have a passport. I’m not going to tell you where I’m going, but you need to leave the country now! Get out of your house now!” The call ends.
Tom’s urgent command, ‘Get out of your house now!’ is still rattling my brain. Feelings of panic are confusing my thought processes. I need to get to the airport in a hurry. I want to leave this country and fly back to Australia. What if the airport has already been alerted? I’m thinking, possibly irrationally, that I should just head to the Australian Embassy….Could they help me? The paralysis of fear is beginning to fracture a little. I think the airport is my best option. The courts wouldn’t have had time to organize a legal hold departure. I am banking on logic and hope I’m right.
My hand shakes as I grab my laptop, search for and locate an online travel booking site. My airline ticket is for a 6PM flight from Cebu to Singapore. It is now 3PM. I throw all electronic gadgets into a leather satchel, grab an overnight bag, stuff in essential clothing and, within ten minutes of Tom’s phone call, I’m walking down the street looking for a taxi.
I’m on my way to the airport but don’t feel safe. The same motorcycle has been behind us for at least the last three kilometers. The driver pulls out and overtakes, but doesn’t stop. I’m shaking. Two police cars pass the taxi. Neither stops us. I alight from the taxi outside the International Departure entrance, my hand is shaking as I push far too much money into the driver’s outstretched palm.
I’m a little more relaxed. I am thinking that if the police trailed the taxi to the airport they would have stopped me by now. Breathing deeply as I approach the Bureau of Immigration desk, I try not to look anxious. This will be the big test. The woman checks my ticket and passport against the data on her computer screen and then smiles at me. Heading toward the gate, I glance at my watch. It is 5PM.
My heart continues its erratic beat. I won’t feel at ease until I’m in the air. The final hour drags. I try to ring, text and email Tom; several times. No response. The boarding call reminds me to behave normally. I don’t want to arouse any suspicions. The plane takes off.
It is four hours since the flight left Cebu. The lights of Singapore are now beneath us. It’s raining as we land; the landing wheels bumping hard against the wet runway. Without checked in luggage I’m one of the first passengers to face the Singapore Airport Immigration staff. There are several police officers, like neatly dressed toy soldiers, watching all of us. I’m not in the clear, yet. If Cebu authorities have already contacted Interpol, I’m a goner. Interpol is a much faster machine than the Philippine police force.
The immigration officer is taking his time in checking my passport. He signals his supervisor to come over to the desk. I force a smile. I feel like I’m going to break out in the sweat. To my relief the supervisor is only needed to help the officer log back into the computer. He hands back my papers. I’m on my way! I’ve never been so happy to be in Singapore.
The morning sun pushes a few of its beams past the hotel window blind. I get online to check the Philippine news. The headlines assault me. Mike was shot dead at the police station. The news report claims he was trying to escape. Police are claiming they found drugs and a huge cache of firearms at his house. I don’t believe it. I’ve seen almost every nook and cranny in Mike’s house. Never spied a gun or even the smallest joint. There is no mention of Tom or myself in the article. I try calling Tom. Still no answer. I start thinking about the quirks and unfairness of life. I’m the one who is alive and free. Should I thank God?
Crimson Corruption written by Lance Schukies
Dean moves to a third world country to set up a IT business unbeknown to him, he is been shadowed by corrupt policeman, who’s goal is to put Dean in jail in order to extort a huge sum of money from him, this is a cat and mouse game which dean can lose everything.
First 800 words:
Arrival in Manatree – Feb 2012
Walking across the tarmac from the aircraft he first notices the smell. A pungent odour of raw sewage and rotting plants. At 11pm, on this dark, moonless night, Dean feels himself merging into a surreal and dreamlike state. Lack of sleep isn’t helping. He pinches himself. These new surroundings are disorienting. It is his first visit to Manatree. It is also the first time he has visited a third world country. Listening to the garbled fluency of people talking in a strange language, he begins to feel like an alien.
Most of the people he can see are Manatree locals. There are a few business people like himself, but definitely no tourists from this late night flight. Manatree is not a tourist destination. Tourists do not usually travel to miserable dumps like this to either watch people rot or risk losing their holiday money to the extortionate fees applied by anyone who has even the tiniest bit of power over them. For example, airport porters. There are too many of them. All uniformed, with ID badges pinned to crumpled shirts. Poised and hawklike, only one step back from the incoming passengers waiting for their luggage to spill into view. A few porters begin to crowd around Dean and the other aliens, each hoping to grab one of their bags and claim an outrageous fee. Dean brushes them off with a ‘go away’ glare and, for the more persistent ones, a discouraging wave of his hand. Dean notices a western woman who has red hair and he is reminded of Vicki, his ex girlfriend of 20 years. he quickly moves his thoughts to his surrounding to avoid the hurt and tears that will surely manifest. “damn 6000 miles and I can’t get away from her” he says out loud to no one. the nearest porter looks at him and seeing dean talk to himself quickly moves away. He is so busily engaged in warding off porters he fails to notice a man in a gray shirt watching him, Dean pulls his bags from the airport luggage conveyor and looks around.
Nothing about the Manatree International Airport looks familiar to Dean. The main building is old and rundown, built during the 1950s and never expanded. The paint is faded and discolored and, in some areas, peeling from the walls. The darker color beneath tells another story. Dean muses that, more than likely, a painting contractor had cut corners by slapping cheap paint on without preparing the surface. The scene is absurd. International airports are not supposed to look like this…are they? Even the airport staff look different; both from what Dean had expected and from each other. Their uniforms are made from cheap, synthetic fabrics and none look the same. Varying in colour, cut and style, some are even threadbare. Uniformity without uniformity. The scene is an odd one.
A number of armed guards are spread out across the airport, presenting their own contradictory image with unmatched uniforms and mismatched weapons. Some of the guns look aged and rusted. Even bullets lined up along belts look the same ages as the rusting guns. A few of the ammunition belts are complete and others have bits missing. There are gaps in ammunition holders, spaces where some item or tool should be and a general inconsistency in appearance. Dean had not expected to see this run down, private army protecting a government-owned airport. He makes a mental comparison between these men and the Australian airport guards. There is no similarity.
Dean reads a sign secured to a far wall. Written in several languages, he understands only one. ‘To the Quarantine Station.’ Throwing his bags into a trolley, he follows the arrows and heads toward the station to pick up Rover, his faithful ‘bitzer.’ He had been told that the dog would be available for collection after landing. Rover would not be carrying any disease unfamiliar to Manatree. His most recent trip to the veterinary clinic in Sydney had resulted in the dog being given a stringent health check and a few unwelcome injections. Rover, he knows, is a very healthy animal. Dean is not expecting any hold-up. But, in this country there are other kinds of delays. Dean is about to learn that the staff at the Quarantine Station like to collect ‘taxes’ from visiting aliens with accompanying pets.
Again dean didn’t notice the man with the grey shirt who was standing next to the security officers at the luggage carousel, with his grey shirt he could have been mistaken for one of the Airport supervisors. Now with his phone in his hand he could’ve be mistaken for the security guards supervisor. the man wearing the grey shirt didn’t work for anyone in the airport he was there looking for targets like Dean.