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March of the Internet Nobody, day four: Sender…

For the fourth time I’m going forth, on my quest to bring my forte to the fore, and I’ve decided to try a short story, so here goes…

Sender.

The first thing he felt, as he came round from whatever they’d stuck him with on the bridge, was a heavy weight on his legs, pinning him down. He did a slow inventory of body parts and decided that he was more or less in one piece, but couldn’t move his legs or right arm. His outstretched left arm, he could move freely enough, albeit only a short distance before his fingers encountered something that felt like cheap carpet. It was dark, although he could see a flicking orange light, coming from somewhere above or behind him, it was difficult to tell, he was still badly disoriented and was having trouble making sense of where he was.

His right arm was pinned against his side, by whatever obstruction had immobilized his legs, so he explored as far as he could with his left hand; thumping the carpeted surface with his fist produced a hollow, vaguely metallic sound and he found a strap of some sort with a square metal buckle on the end. 

Aha, trapped legs, seatbelt, cheap carpet; I’ve been in a car crash.

He was becoming more aware of his surroundings by the minute, as the fog in his brain cleared and now he realised he could smell petrol. More worryingly, he could smell something burning nearby, the acrid fumes of melting plastic making him cough and bringing tears to his eyes. Again he tried to move his legs, achieving nothing more than straining muscles and making red spots dance in front of his eyes, so he forced himself to calm down. Then he had a horrible thought and twisted awkwardly, reaching his free arm across his body, the restricted movement just allowing him to feel the hard lump of the thumb drive in his jacket pocket. He relaxed, at least they hadn’t found that yet.

Which was when he noticed that sound was coming back and it was then that it occurred to him; his world had been cloaked in silence since he’d awoken here and it was only now that his hearing was returning. He heard the unmistakable crackling of a fire behind him and a muffled voice was now audible from somewhere overhead.

“Hello, is anyone in there, are you ok? Hello, hello, can you hear me?”

“Hey!” 

He pounded once more on what he guessed must be the floor of the overturned vehicle, desperate to attract the attention of whoever was outside.

“I’m in here!”

He paused to listen for a second or two and hearing nothing, was about to begin yelling again when the voice of a child was suddenly, shockingly close to his right ear. 
“It’s ok, I can see you now.”

He turned his head to the side, noticing for the first time a small triangular hole where the door frame was crushed, through which, by the wavering orange light of the flames he saw the wide-eyed face of a little girl. She gazed at him with her head on one side, frowning with an intensity he found slightly unnerving, so he smiled reassuringly and tried again.

“Hello, are your mummy and daddy here?”

The little girl, no older than ten years old, remained silent, looking him straight in the eye.

“You shouldn’t be near the fire, it’s dangerous, can you call your parents for me?”

“Are you going to die? You are, aren’t you?” 

He was shocked at the causal way she asked the question, her voice was cold, detached. Then he realised she was probably in shock; maybe the vehicle he had been travelling in had collided with her parents’ car and they were laying injured somewhere like him.

“I need you to find another grown-up, I need help getting free from the car.”

“There’s only me.”

He looked at her face, she didn’t seem injured at all, but there was something..off..about the emotionless voice and quizzical stare.

“Do you have a phone?”

“No, there’s only me, there isn’t anyone else.”

She looked up, her face disappearing from his line of sight for a few seconds, then she turned back to him and inspected the gap in the door. She grabbed the edge of the window frame and gave it an experimental tug. The door moved a couple of inches with a groan of twisted metal but then stuck fast against the tarmac and refused to budge when she heaved on it the second time.

Suddenly there was a roaring WHUMP! noise from the rear of the vehicle and the orange glow instantly rose to a bright glare, illuminating the girl’s face as she stared into his eyes.

“I can’t save you, I’m sorry.”

He wrenched at his trapped legs in frustration, desperately twisting this way and that in a vain attempt to escape a fiery death, then the sound of the flames rose to a roar and he stopped struggling and made his final decision. Looking at the strangely calm little girl’s face, he reached into his jacket and removed the thumb drive and held it out to her.

“You must go now, the car is going to blow up, you must run away, you understand? Take this, take it, that’s right. Can you remember a name for me, just one name?”

“Yes, I have a very good memory.”

The girl’s face breaks into a broad smile, one of her top teeth is missing, he notices, as the flames bathe her in their unforgiving light, making her grin lopsided.

“Take this, it’s for a man called Fallon, Mike Fallon, he works for the government, can you remember that?”

A loud hissing noise starts to rise in volume behind him and he knows the tank is about to go, but now he feels unnaturally calm, resigned to his fate.

“You must go, now. Remember; Mike Fallon, ask a grown-up, maybe they can get policeman to help find him. Now, RUN!

He lies back and closes his eyes, he’d done all he could do, he’d made peace with it and now he waited for the end without fear.

Something is…what the..?..how..?

He opened his eyes and gasped in shock.

He was lying on a hard metal table, topped with cheap carpet, the sort you might find in a car, perhaps. A wide metal plate was clamped across his legs and a strap held one arm tightly against his side. A chair was placed next to the bed, but other than that, the room was empty.

He heard a noise behind him and twisted his neck round, straining painfully to see who was there.

“Who’s there, where am I?”

 “It’s only me, don’t you worry.”

He craned his neck still further and saw the little girl with the gap-toothed smile, opening a door in the room’s blank white wall. She held up the thumb drive and grinned again, but this time it didn’t look so sweet.

“Mike Fallon, you said? Thank you so much, I’m sure everyone will be very pleased, they were jolly keen to know who had been naughty.”

With that she stepped out of the room and closed the door.

*****

In a darkened observation room next door, two men watched the bewildered agent in satisfaction as he struggled against his restraints. Then, as two large men dressed in black fatigues entered the room and approached the table, he started to shout and swear furiously and one of the watchers leant over and turned off the monitor. 

“Very impressive, how did she manage it?”

“The girl’s a Sender, she can put pretty much anything in your head and make you believe it, we have had some exceptional results from her.”

“And him, what will he remember of all this?”

“Oh, you shouldn’t concern yourself with such things, sir Malcolm. Now, shall we have a spot of lunch?”

***********

 

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Stream of Consciousness Saturday: Last Supper…

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Good grief, it’s already after four in the afternoon and I’ve only just seen the prompt Linda G Hill left us for our Stream of Consciousness Saturday post this week;

” “expect/unexpected.”  Use either or both words in your post, or simply base your idea on them.”

Ok, let’s begin…

Last Supper.

Eldrin scanned the evening news-vid, noting the inordinate amount of coverage given to the latest fatal droid incident; hardly an unexpected story these days, what with the numbers of droids on the Parallel almost equaling those of Naturals, you were always going to get the odd bad owner who didn’t keep an eye on his property.

I mean, he thought to himself as he poured a second glass of wine, it’s not like it’s the droids’ fault, right? They were just tools when all was said and done; strong, intelligent tools, that was true, but objects to be commanded nevertheless.

It was everyone’s Creator-given right to own a droid and nobody was going to change that anytime soon, no matter how many of those nature freaks campaigned against it.
It had been that way for hundreds of years after all, there was no way they were going to persuade the billions of droid owners across the Confederate Parallel to suddenly go without their cybernetic servants.
It would be like returning to the Pilgrimage days of the old stories, when settlers on the newly-discovered Parallels could only survive with the mechanical assistance of early droid prototypes.

The changes in gravity and polar orientation had made it difficult for the first few generations to acclimatize to the initially hostile conditions of the extraordinary new world they had colonized, so the Fathers had made provision in the Confederate Parallel’s Grand Charter to allow all citizens to possess however many cybernetic servants they required.
The first colonists received their droids as a gift from the World Council, as a sign of gratitude for volunteering to free up space on the catastrophically overpopulated home planet.

“No man, woman or child should be expected to give up their homeworld and embark on The Pilgrimage, save that the Charter guarantees them the right to employ the assistance of synthetic slave droids for the purposes of construction, manual labour, hunting and for the personal protection of themselves and their families. No man may question another man’s right to possess such a device, nor may he deny others the right, even should he not wish to possess one himself.”

And that was the way it had always been.
It was unimaginable that anyone should want to regulate droid ownership, the people wouldn’t allow it, there would be a revolution.

Obviously, thought Eldrin, the more of these dangerous radicals there were, wanting to take away everyone’s rights, just because there were a minority of owners who couldn’t or wouldn’t program their droids correctly, resulting in the occasional lethal malfunction, the more droids they would need to maintain order.
So he certainly wasn’t expecting the announcement that came on the vid he was watching, made by none other than the Overseer himself. He seemed to be pledging to drastically curtail the freedom to own anything but the most basic service or defence droid, with the introduction of stringent vetting procedures expected to come into effect almost immediately.

All because of a few kids getting crushed by a badly maintained education droid that didn’t know its own strength and most of them had survived anyway, barely even a dozen had died this time.

He didn’t understand why they were making such a fuss.

And as for reports from other Parallels, those that had revoked the rights of civilian droid ownership since acclimatization, suggesting that rates of violent deaths were lower than in the Confederation, well they were obviously untrue, those colonists were primitive peasants compared to the enlightened society they enjoyed here.

The sound of plates being cleared away made him look up from his screen, the carefully blank features of the servant droid intent on its work.

“So, I suppose you’ll be for the scrap heap won’t you” he said, grinning maliciously, “now that he’s bowing to pressure from the Natural lobby?”

“Excuse me sir, I do not comprehend your question.” The droid looked at him, an expression of polite enquiry on its face, “my purpose is only to provide service to society, I pose no threat to its citizens.”

“Well he won’t be taking my slave units away,” Eldrin snapped, “I don’t care if they do make it law, they’ll need to pry the control chips from my dead fingers. It’s guaranteed in the Charter damn him!”

“Is there anything else I can get you sir?” asked the patiently waiting droid.

“No, why are you even still here? Get out of my sight, you sycophantic synth, before I have you disassembled.”

“As you say sir.”
The droid moved behind Eldrin, ensuring it was indeed “out of his sight”, then reached out, grabbed his head firmly in both hands and twisted it sharply to the right, then the left, letting the body collapse noisily onto the table before returning to its service cubicle, Malfunction light blinking rhythmically, to await further instructions.

After a few moments of shocked silence, the buzz of conversation restarted;

“…another bad programmer, there are so many irresponsible owners…”

“…you can’t expect them to work right if you don’t treat them right…”

“…you can’t blame the droid, it just wasn’t coded properly…”

“…this sort of thing won’t get better unless they bring in more defence droids…”

#SoCS

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Looking for literary ladies…

As I may have casually mentioned in passing a few weeks ago, I am about to have a short story, one that I wrote for Stream of Consciousness Saturday, published in an actual printed anthology, via one of my new connections on business networking site, LinkedIn.

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Anyway, impatient as I am to see one of my improvised fiction experiments in print, I got in touch with Catherine Broughton, who is compiling the book, (on her blog, Turquoise Moon, see link below) to ask for an update.
It turns out that the hold up is that she’s 2 or 3 short stories short, if you see what I mean, and she is looking to fill that short story shortfall with contributions from women.

So, if you’re a lady blogger or writer (maybe you’re a woman, but not a lady, it doesn’t matter) and you would like one of your short stories published in a real printed book, then CLICK THIS LINK to submit your work for possible inclusion.

Good luck.

{Cartoon by Ho}

 

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Stream of Consciousness Saturday: Relatively speaking…

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Is it Saturday already? Then it must be time for Stream of Consciousness Saturday and today’s post is brought to you by Linda G Hill’s prompt, “light”.

Relatively speaking.

2055, Princeton, New Jersey.

“It’s not possible I tell you!”

“Why, just because you say so? I don’t accept that.”

The same argument that Michael had every time they reached this point in the experiment was about to start all over again and he was heartily fed up with it now.

“Even neutrinos cannot exceed the universal speed limit, at least not enough to travel into our potential future, I’ve told you time and time again.”

“Yeah, so you said,” Michael shook his head in frustration, “but I’ve already carried out multiple tests that prove otherwise. You’ll see, this time I’m going to break that damn barrier and then I’m going to be the talk of the scientific community.”

His companion chuckled to himself and continued scribbling equations in his spider-like scrawl, now and then peering over his spectacles and favouring Michael with a sympathetic glance as he tinkered with the machine.

“You think travelling into the future will make you rich and famous? I don’t believe for a moment that faster-than-light travel is possible, but just for the sake of argument, let’s say it is,” his smugness made Michael grit his teeth, “do you really think journeying forward in time will have any benefits for mankind?”

“Well of course it will, just think of all the advances in science, medicine and mechanics we could have access to.”

“But how would you get them back to the here and now? All these discoveries would only be of use if we could utilise them in our present.”

Michael sighed. He was never going to explain his theory to this doddering old fool, he’d just have to give him incontrovertible proof, then he’d have to bow to Michael’s scientific superiority and accept his theory as the truth.

“Ok, I think I’m ready to try again,” he closed the final panel on the machine and threw the switch that operated the gigantic generator required to power the faster-than-light drive, “would you please at least run the console for me during the initial jump sequence?”

“But of course, I wish you luck, I’d love you to prove me wrong,” that twinkling, self-satisfied smile flitted across the old scientist’s face once more, “just you say the word and I’ll set the coordinates. When did you say you were aiming for this time?”

“Let’s try going forward 150 years to begin with,” said Michael, adjusting the settings on the machine’s main interface, “we can always increase the jump distance after we’ve confirmed that it works,” he shot his assistant a warning look, “and then we’ll really see what it can do.”

The scruffy old man ran his fingers through his wildly tangled grey hair and sat in front of the console, “Ok, powering up now. Good luck Michael, I really mean that.”

There was a gently rising hum as the generator cycled up to full power, followed by a loud crackling noise and the smell of burning ozone. Then a blinding flash of light filled the laboratory, causing the elderly scientist to squint behind the thick lenses of his glasses.

When he managed to focus on the platform in front of the console, the machine had vanished.

1905, Princeton, New Jersey.

A loud crash shook the empty lab as a bench covered in scientific instruments was crushed beneath the weight of the still-smoking chassis of the time machine, then a moment of silence, before the equally shaken man at the controls stepped out of the wreckage and looked around him.

At first Michael was elated.
He had done it!
He’d finally proved the cynical old professor wrong.

But then he took in his surroundings and frowned, this didn’t look right somehow.
The look of the place was wrong, not what he had been expecting at all.
He’d hoped for some obvious indication that he had travelled far into the future, and yet…this room looked almost primitive in comparison to his own laboratory.

He walked across the room until he reached the desk and for the first time noticed the blackboard on the easel beside it.

On the dusty black surface there was a scrawl he immediately recognised, that made his blood run cold before he even read the words;

“Dear Michael,
I’m afraid that I haven’t been completely honest with you.
Faster-than-light travel IS possible, but only if you want to go BACK in time. To travel into the future, I’d advise you to start studying wormholes. Meanwhile I’ll be continuing your work, here in the lab. I’m sure you’ll have realised by now that I have already harnessed the power of wormholes, in what is now your future, and if you are as clever as you seem to think you are, I expect you to be joining me here shortly.

All the best in your endeavors,

Albert.”

#SoCS

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Stream of Consciousness Saturday: Screen shot…

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Another weekend, another late submission to Linda G Hill’s…..Hey, wait a minute, it’s still Saturday, I’m actually on time for Stream of Consciousness Saturday for a change.

Right, best get on with it then, this week’s prompt was:

““enthuse.”  Add a prefix or suffix to it or leave it as it is and go to town with it!”

Screen Shot.

The good thing about being left in charge, decided Bradley Crane, was that you got to make a lot of important decisions.
The problem was, the bad thing about being left in charge, was that you got to make a lot of important decisions.

Important decisions were all very well, as long as their importance only went as far as which caterers to send out on location, or what promotional material should go to a meet-and-greet with the network’s star du jour, or even which of the tabloid press to invite to “exclusive” news conferences, but this, Bradley was sure, was way above his pay grade.

He tried, with minimal success, to suppress the rising tide of panic and focus on what Eugene, the eager young man from Project Development, was becoming so animated about, aware that he should probably be showing some enthusiasm for whatever Eugene was telling him, but unable to escape the feeling that this kind of thing was usually decided by somebody a lot higher up the food chain than where he, albeit temporarily, found himself.

“So we have the option to get in on the franchise of Crime On Camera,” Eugene could hardly contain his excitement, “but they need to know by this afternoon at the latest, otherwise we’re going to lose out to the competition and trust me, you want this show. Mr Grainger will thank you for it, you wait and see.”

And that was the crux of the matter: would the all-powerful network boss thank him, or would it mean the end of his career altogether?
Bradley shuddered as he recalled the text he’d received from his boss and mentor, Farnham Grainger III, just before he left on a six month tour terrorizing the management of the network’s affiliates out west;

“I have every faith in you Crane. I know the reigns of my empire are in safe hands, this is your chance to make your mark, don’t waste it.”

Well, he thought, this is what he meant, something daring and cutting edge. Something the other local stations were sniffing around, like sharks at the scent of blood.
Could this be the opportunity he needed to mark himself out as the kind of go-getting, ambitious risk taker the bigger networks wanted, even the nationals?

He made an executive decision.

“Ok, go and make them an offer, see what they have to say.”

“Really?” Eugene looked like he may just burst, right there on the spot, “You mean it, we can commission Crime On Camera for a pilot?”

“Yes,” Bradley felt light headed now, almost giddy, “see what they say about doing a whole season for us, since you’re there. Strike while the iron’s hot, isn’t that what they say?”

“Yes sir!” said Eugene, practically running from the office, already punching the speed dial on his phone as the door closed behind him.

Acting Network Chief Crane then did something he had never done thus far in his glittering career in the world of television, he poured himself a stiff drink during office hours, then threw the whole thing back in one gulp, coughing as the spirit burned its way down his throat and noticing the slight tremor in his hand, the tumbler chattering as he placed it on the tray.

Bradley turned and gazed out at the sprawling downtown streets below him, wondering what the great Mr Grainger was going to say when he found out that he’d commissioned a show which used scanners to listen in on police radios. Then they would send camera crews, on standby all over the country, racing to capture footage of crimes in progress and broadcast the highlights every week for the entertainment of a nation of schadenfreude-hungry couch potatoes.

“It’ll be fine,” he said to his worried-looking reflection in the window, “it’s going to be a smash hit, just you wait and see.”

Now he was getting used to the idea, Bradley was becoming genuinely enthusiastic about the fearless initiative he had shown in making his snap decision and spent the rest of the afternoon basking in the glow of his own self-importance.
So when the phone call came, just before he left the office, confirming that the network had indeed secured rights to Crime On Camera, it was the cherry on top of a gigantic cream cake of a day.

*****

“Ok people, settle down, we have a busy day, let’s get this done quickly please.” Bradley Crane looked around the conference table at his production team until he had their full attention, “Thank you. Now as you all know, our new special, Crime On Camera Live, goes out tonight and if the first half of the highlights season is anything to go by it’s going to be a ratings winner, so I want everyone ready for the studio discussion afterwards and the analysis show after the news at eleven.” He took one more look at the faces around the table, “Any questions?” he nodded, “Ok. Thank you everyone, have a good show.”

He watched them file out of the wood-paneled room until he was alone, then took out his phone and once more read the message that had arrived from his absent boss that morning;

“Good luck with the live special tonight, looks like your gamble paid off.”

He couldn’t help feeling a thrill of exonerative satisfaction.
He remembered the decidedly unfriendly call he’d had from Grainger a few weeks ago, after Bradley had informed him of his impulsive acquisition, and realising that his gamble had paid off, the show was a roaring success and the studio-based shows he had hastily organised to cash in on the extraordinary viewing figures were also getting good numbers in the ratings.
As a result, he had won Grainger around and it seemed as if this could well be his ticket to bigger and better things.

That evening he watched the lights of the city passing by through the black mirror of his office window, sipping a well-earned single malt and congratulating himself on the steadiness of his hands, turning as he recognised the now-familiar tones of the Crime On Camera theme tune coming from the television on the wall opposite his desk.

The presenter, a lantern-jawed ex-cop called Travis, was clearly in a state of some excitement, even as the opening credits faded out. He was talking fast and holding his earpiece in the manner of anchormen everywhere who want you to know they’re getting vital information only available to them.

Ladies and gentlemen I can tell you that we already have a situation in progress, it looks like a car theft gone bad, the carjacker was caught in the act and instead of fleeing, he took the owner of the vehicle hostage and has now been cornered by police in an armed standoff.” He appeared to listen for a few seconds, then said, “Let’s go live to Atlanta and the team in the field, led by Austin Monroe. Over to you Austin…”

Travis turned to a monitor and the picture cut to the scene in Atlanta, red and blue lights strobing across the screen as the camera zoomed in on the black saloon, surrounded by black and white police cruisers, all with officers with guns drawn and trained on the two figures just visible in the front seat.

Austin Monroe’s dramatic voiceover informed viewers that a so far unidentified businessman had been taken hostage by an armed man who had been threatening to kill his captive unless the police let him walk on the carjacking charge.

The camera crew moved closer to the brightly-lit tableau, moving through the barricade of police vehicles until they could get a clear shot of the pair who were caught in the glare of dozens of headlights, the masked gunman with his arm around the neck of his unwilling companion, the barrel of a revolver shoved hard against his temple, the terrified man obviously in considerable discomfort.

Bradley Crane watched as the shot closed on the face of man in the passenger seat and his heart jumped in his chest.

“That’s not..?..It can’t be..!”, he strode across the room and stood right in front of the plasma screen, squinting at the image as the camera focussed and then…

“Oh my God, it is!”

The gaunt, white face of the man with a trickle of dried blood at the corner of his mouth, in the front of the badly damaged car with a gun crazed lunatic, was that of Farnham Grainger III himself!

Bradley couldn’t drag his eyes from the screen and he only remembered to breathe because he felt himself becoming light headed again. This really was fantastic television.

Suddenly there was movement from the car and the voice of the carjacker could be heard shouting angrily;

“What’s that TV camera doing there? I told you no pictures!”
He could be seen tightening his grip on Grainger, while the police marksmen took aim at the car’s windshield and waited for the order to fire.

“Get that camera away, I’m warning you…”

Bradley held his breath once more, willing the cameraman to keep filming, as Austin Monroe’s voice rose to an almost hysterical volume, having finally realised whose kidnap he was actually filming.

Then it happened. Something about the situation pushed the gunman over the edge and he finally cracked.

“I told you I was serious, now you’ll be sorry!”

There was the sudden, shocking sound of shots, two from the car in quick succession, followed by a hail of gunfire from the assembled law-enforcers and then silence.

*****

“I’d just like to say that we at the network are all deeply saddened and shocked by the events in Atlanta last week, our thoughts are with the Grainger family and we ask that you please respect their privacy at this difficult time.”

On the TV screen, Bradley turned from the clamouring reporters, hurried down the steps and climbed into the waiting limo, which drove away as the shot cut back to the studio;

“That was Bradley Crane, the man widely tipped to be the new Head of Network at WKZT, giving his reaction to the tragic events of last week…”

In the back of the limo, Bradley switched off the TV, sipped his whiskey and smiled.

*****

This week’s story is dedicated to the memory of Linda Rowe.

*****

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Stream of Consciousness Saturday: The Visitor…

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Yes alright, I know I’m late posting again, but I never seem to get time on Saturdays.

Anyway, here’s my latest offering to Linda G Hill‘s regular Stream of Consciousness Saturday Sunday feature. (Here are the rules)
This week’s prompt was as follows:

” “vis.”  Use a word, or tie your post’s theme around a word, that contains the letters VIS, in that order.”

So, are you sitting comfortably…?
Then we shall begin.

The Visitor.

“All I’m saying is, I’m advising against it. It could irretrievably damage his vision and we don’t want there to be any reduction in his visual acuity unless we can help it,” the voice was pompous, defiant almost, “and I’m certainly not risking all that for the sake of some… visitor,” the word was practically spat out, “no matter how bloody important he is.”

“There’s no need for that tone, Doctor,” the second voice was sharp, condescending, “we aren’t asking you to do anything that will endanger the program, just a short demonstration will suffice.”

“But you don’t understand!” the doctor raised his voice in irritation, “Any stress placed on his visual cortex is going to have a detrimental effect on the outcome, on the overall effectiveness of the program. We can’t afford to take risks, we have so much work invested in this.”

“I’m perfectly well aware of all that, Doctor,” the sarcasm was unmistakable now, “and of a lot more besides. There are some facts that not even you are privy to, so just do as you’re told or we will find somebody else who will.” There was a tense pause, then the second voice continued in a more conciliatory tone, “If it makes you feel any better, I wouldn’t have asked you to do this if there wasn’t another way, but we have identified a serious threat to national security.”

“You are correct, that doesn’t make me feel any better about doing this,” said the doctor stiffly, “nevertheless, if the threat is as imminent as you seem to think, it appears that I don’t have a choice.”

“Thank you, Doctor, I assure you that we will take every precaution to keep the visit as stress-free as possible for your patient. How soon can you have him ready?”

“I will need a while to wake the subject from anesthetic and to prepare the visor for the neural interface, but I envisage being ready by two o’clock this afternoon.”

“Very well, I expect you to be have something suitably impressive to show us when I arrive with our guest.”

There were noises all around him, louder now, as his senses rapidly returned to normal, the sound of footsteps and a door closing, followed by the sudden sensation of movement as the surface he lay on slid smoothly sideways and then began to rise at one end, pivoting upright.
He had the brief, panicky feeling that he was going to topple forward, until the invisible restraint against his chest arrested his fall and he gasped, the first sound he had uttered since he’d regained consciousness some twenty minutes earlier.

There was an abrupt silence in the room, followed by the doctor’s cautious enquiry;
“I say, um, hello, are you awake?” a further pause, then, “You weren’t supposed to wake up until I gave you a shot. Can you hear me?”

He turned his head, attempting to locate the source of the voice, licked his dry lips and tried to speak, but no sound materialised.

“Wait, wait, don’t try to talk, I’ll get you a drink of water,” the doctor’s voice solicitous, his bedside manner taking over, “your throat will be dry from the anesthetic.”

He waited, his mind clearing but still fuzzy around the edges, trying to grasp any passing memories from the fog in his head but not having much success.

He remembered being in the dugout, a lot of heavy fire falling on their lines, the two guys manning the position next to him disappearing in a vapour cloud after being hit by whatever the hell those weapons were and then….nothing.
Not until he’d woken up here, blind, with bandages all over his face, strapped to some sort of hospital bed, listening to the voices of people discussing him like he wasn’t there.

He heard footsteps approaching and sensed somebody close by, then felt a hand on the back of his head and jumped slightly as the doctor spoke; “Here, tip your head forward. Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. There’s a cup of water,..that’s it. That should free up your throat a little.”

He gratefully took a gulp of the cold water, instantly relieving the obstruction in his throat and taking a deep, shaking breath, tried once more to talk.

“Where am I, what’s going on? Who are you people?”

“I’d advise you to try and stay calm,” came the disembodied reply, “you’ve been quite seriously injured and your treatment is still in progress.”

He silently processed this information, then asked, “What happened to the rest of my unit? Did anybody get back to base with me?”

“I’m afraid you didn’t actually make it back to base yourself,” said the doctor, “not under your own steam anyway. You were rescued from no-man’s land by one of our teams. I’m sorry to say the rest of your unit were wiped out in the first wave.”

Taking a moment to absorb this, he returned to his original question, “So, what am I doing here, what is the “treatment” exactly, and what is this program I heard you talking about?”

“I must apologise for the lack of warning we’ve had about this, it gives us very little opportunity to prepare you, but time and VIP visitors wait for no man apparently.”

He heard the doctor moving around behind him, then sensed him at his side just before he felt a hand on his arm, followed by the sharp stab of a hypo needle.
Thinking he was being sedated again he struggled, fighting the pressure of the bands across his chest, but they seemed utterly immovable and the doctor was speaking soothingly in his ear.

“It’s alright, there’s nothing to worry about, you’re not going to be harmed. The injection was merely an anti-rejection drug, a safety measure, nothing more. For your own protection, I assure you.”

He slowly calmed his breathing, trying to think rationally. He was about to ask the unseen doctor to explain himself once more when he was interrupted by the sound of approaching voices outside the room.
He strained to hear what was being said and managed to make out the voice of the man he’d heard speaking to the doctor earlier, saying, “…well they’ll have to be ready now won’t they? If you’d go to the observation lounge down the hall Mr President sir, I’ll inform the good doctor that you’ve arrived.”

The sound of retreating footsteps in the corridor was followed by the door opening, the man already speaking in the same brisk voice as he entered.

“Right, change of plan. He’s here now, he has a tight schedule and he wants to see something.”

“But I told you…” the doctor began.

“Well it’s too late now, we have to work with what we’ve got.”

He heard someone walking across the room towards him and then;

“You, soldier, can you hear me?”

“Me? Yes, I hear you. Who is this, why are you keeping me here?”

“All you need to know is that you are part of a very important operation and your cooperation is essential to its success.”

“I’m not sure I…”

“You don’t need to understand,” a definite command in the tone now, “all you need to do is pay attention and follow instructions, can you do that, soldier?”

“Yes sir!

“Right, listen up. In a few minutes you will be taken into a room where you will meet some people we’d like you to take a look at for us.” Before he could interrupt again, the man continued, “The good doctor is about to fit you with a visor, a brand new piece of hardware, tailor made just for you. The visor will restore your eyesight to a certain degree, but we are more interested in the other enhancements it will make to your sensory apparatus.”

“Enhancements? What..?”

“No time for questions I’m afraid. For now, all that matters is that the visor will enable you, for the first time, to identify which of the people in that room are human and which are Wraiths. We want you to go in there and find out which are which.”

He felt hands begin to gently unwrap the bandages from his eyes, their removal hardly increasing the dull glow he could see, unchanging whichever way he looked.
Then there was a flash of brighter light and he squinted against it, as a cold metallic shape was pressed onto his temples and across his eyes.

“Ok, you should be able to open your eyes now, I’ve lowered the sensitivity.”

He opened his eyes and was amazed to see…well, that he could see.
His vision was slightly dim and had a greenish tint to it, but otherwise his sight appeared to have miraculously returned.

“Can you see me?”

He turned toward the voice and saw a young man, wearing a white coat, spectacles and a worried expression, peering up at him.

“I can see you fine,” he said, then added, “thank you. It’s incredible.”

“Right, time to go I think.” said the second man

He got a quick glimpse of the other man as he was being lowered down with the same smooth, sliding motion as before, then he was gliding along, watching the lights above him move past as the three of them headed down the hall.

They stopped outside a door and his platform slid upright, allowing him his first proper look at the man he assumed was in charge and he was mildly disappointed.
He didn’t know what he was expecting, but certainly not this nondescript looking figure, there was literally nothing memorable about the man at all. If it wasn’t for the officer’s uniform he wore, he would have instantly been lost in any crowd.

However, there was no mistaking the authority in his voice.
“Right, when you get in there, you’ll be behind a screen, they can’t see you, ok?”

“Yes sir. And you want me to do…what, exactly?”

“Don’t say anything until we join you in the observation room, then you can tell us if the visor works.”

“How will I know, what am I looking for?” he asked the young doctor, who stood silently beside him, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.

“Oh, if the visor works, you’ll know,” he replied, “you’ll know alright…” the doctor tailed off, staring at him grimly.

The door opened and he floated into a small room, the door closing quietly after him. One wall was completely glass, looking into the adjoining room, this one considerably larger, where about two dozen people, seemingly civilians, sat at the room’s one table or chatted in small groups, seated in the easy chairs that were arranged around a view screen.

He took in the innocuous scene for a few minutes, not really knowing what he was looking for, then began to scrutinise the individuals one at a time, sure there would be some obvious giveaway, some signal from the visor to somehow tell him he had found the enemy infiltrator.
After nearly ten minutes he had made a careful study of every one of the inhabitants of that room and yet he couldn’t see any indication they were anything but normal citizens.

He was just beginning to think he was doing something wrong, when the door opened and he heard people entering the room behind him.
His forgettable superior from outside stepped back into his line of vision and gave him an expectant look, then glanced through the glass wall at the impervious figures beyond.

“So?” he said, “What’s the verdict, how many have we got?”

“Yes,” said a deep voice behind him, “do tell me how this fantastic discovery works. I’m so grateful to you for your sacrifice Captain, you have done your country a heroic service.”

“Mr President, allow me to introduce the young man who is helping us test the alien technology,” the doctor operated a switch and his platform slowly turned to face the owner of the deep, reassuring voice that millions of people would recognise.

Which was when he realised why the doctor had been so certain, had known there would be no chance of a mistake.

He could feel his mind being clouded by terror, his sanity slipping away as the visor channelled images directly to his brain, his consciousness unable to process the primal, visceral horror it was experiencing.

The abomination that looked like the President glared balefully at what was left of the terrified soldier on the life support unit – barely the remains of a nervous system, kept alive by computers, half a torso, the battered head – and grinned, laughed that deep homely laugh that his subjects knew so well, pulled a small pistol from his pocket and, before anyone could react, shot both the doctor and the officer dead where they stood.

The Wraith stood over the soldier, reached down and delicately removed the visor from what remained of his head, turned it over in his hands once or twice and then dropped it, crushing it beneath its feet.

“No,” it said, “we cannot allow that.”

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