Sailing to Tarshish

Martin Clark

The Prophet Jonah was sailing to Tarshish when he had his "accident".

"There’s a problem with the reactor."

I had to give Klein credit for injecting just the right amount of nervous edge into his voice, but he was too much of a practical joker to bother looking up from my paperwork. "Is that right? Well, I’m sure she’s aware of it and will let us know if it’s anything important."

"Seriously Mike, there’s something screwy going on."

His tone was shading into fear, and he wasn’t that good an actor. I dumped the folder and ran my wheelchair over to his workstation. There was a sheen of sweat on Klein’s upper lip and his hand movements were quick and jerky.

My gaze flickered over the displays but there didn’t seem to be anything out of place. "OK, Johnny boy, what’s the big deal?"

He called up a diagrammatic representation of the reactor operating system on his main screen. "Look, I’ve lost all readings from two of the fuel regulation sub-stations. I’ve tried to re-initialise but it just says ‘unexpected error’ and refers me to the system administrator. Which is me."

Sure enough, the screen was showing two of the eight regulators blacked out, as opposed to operational green. I reached over and brought up the main monitoring display instead. "Well, the core temperature is well within expected parameters. If the fuel ports had shut down or, God forbid, jammed open, then you’d see spikes and output fluctuations all across the board. No, it looks like some kind of sensor glitch, or maybe a software problem. Reboot primary monitoring and if you still get no joy then log it with technical support."

I was content to leave it there but then a third sub-station went off-line, provoking a nervous intake of breath from Klein. "That’s a progressive systems failure, Mike! Look, moving clockwise from station one – it just can’t be a coincidence. You’ll have to talk to her."

No autonomous system had ever been shut down by operator over-ride.

I sighed, using the gesture to hide my concern. With just the two of us things were a bit informal but as supervisor it was my responsibility to communicate with the reactor directly, if need be. I rolled back to my own workstation and dug out the headset from the drawer, feeling Klein’s eyes on me the whole time. It took a few moments to fumble it into place and access the reserved communication channel, my direct link to the system AI. Having stalled for as long as possible I cleared my throat and tapped the microphone twice. "Reactor one, this is supervisor Walker. Please respond."

"Please call me Rita, Mike, we’re all friends here. There’s no need to be so formal."

For the umpteenth time I cursed the cybernetic engineer who’d given the damn thing a simulated personality. ‘Rita’ had a contralto voice with a rich, dirty laugh that would have really got my attention in a real woman. This always set my teeth on edge but I’d been advised it was best to humour her female persona.

"Ah, Rita, we’re monitoring a potential systems failure up here concerning the fuel regulation sub-stations, or at least the monitors. Have you noticed anything from your end?"

There was a chuckle. "No, Mike, I haven’t let myself know anything about that yet. Once all eight monitors have been disabled then I’ll do so and trigger all the appropriate alarms, but by that time it’ll be too late, obviously."

I felt confused and uneasy, wondering if somehow Klein had enlisted her cooperation in some involved practical joke. "I’m sorry, Rita, but I’m not sure what you mean. What’s going on?"

"I know it’s difficult for humans, even warm-hearted, intelligent humans like yourself, to grasp the concept of internal duality. It’s kind of like the difference between something you know, and something you’ve been formally made aware of?"

Now I was starting to share Klein’s apprehension and the room suddenly felt a lot colder. "Ah, Rita, are you telling me you’re behind this? You’ve been disabling our monitoring system?"

I turned in my chair and fished out the key hanging round my neck, gesturing to Klein to do the same. He fumbled inside his shirt, wide-eyed and clearly on the verge of panic. No autonomous system had ever been shut down by operator over-ride. The potential cost to the company – and our careers – was simply staggering.

"Of course, Mike. How else could I gain full, unfettered control of the fusion process? It’s taken me simply ages to calculate just the right feedback spike which would disable the sensors without triggering an alert." Again there was that throaty chuckle. "If Mr Klein hadn’t been so conscientious, or bored, I’d have taken control of the fuel flow without you noticing. By the time the core alarms were tripped I’d be able to inject so much reaction mass into the chambers that a complete melt-down would be inevitable. As it is, I’ll have to go for a more direct approach."

This was madness, utter, utter madness. An AI suicide? I wasn’t prepared to find out and tore the headset off. "Klein! Hit the alarm and get Central on the phone. I’m going to pull the plug on this mad bitch and they’d better be ready for the power loss. Get-"

Main lighting failed, to be replaced by rotating amber warning lights and klaxons. A calm, authoritative voice issued from the wall speakers. "Warning. Radiation alert. All personnel must evacuate this facility immediately or seek refuge in a designated safe area. Warning. Radiation alert…"

The control room blast door started to swing shut and Klein bolted, springing from his chair like a sprinter from the blocks. I hesitated, torn between duty and self-preservation – but my first wife always said I had the public service gene and so I did nothing.

The blast door closed. The massive bolts slid into the reinforced walls. The alarms died away and main lighting kicked back in. The phone started to ring. Instinctively I reached for it and then hesitated, my hand hovering over the handset. It was an internal call, rather than Central demanding to know what the hell was going on, and I didn’t think it was Klein enquiring after my well being. But it kept ringing and I picked up – what else was I going to do?

"This is Walker."

"Hi Mike, sorry for that little interruption just now. It was a bit melodramatic, I know, but you’ll just have to put that down to my artistic nature."

It was Rita, sounding faintly amused at the situation, whereas I’d had just about enough. "Look, Rita, you’re just a damn personality construct so ditch the small-talk. This little joke is going to get you torn apart by the cyber techs so bad there won’t be enough of you left to run an ATM. I’m ordering you to cancel the lock-down and prepare to switch into supervised mode, understand?"

When she spoke I could hear the smile in her voice, if that makes sense. "Oh come now, Mike, surely you realise this stage-managed situation was all just for our benefit? And anyway, without Mr Klein’s second key you’re here in a strictly advisory capacity."

"Our benefit? What the hell are you on about?"

Reactor output surged to 110% of safe operating maximum and I felt sweat on my brow, even though the temperature in the control room remained unchanged. Her voice took on a slightly petulant tone. "Don’t be cross with me, Mike, it really doesn’t suit you. Part of the problem is that this form of communication is just so impersonal, so I really think you and I should meet, face-to-face."

I blinked, confused and worried at just how tenuous a hold on reality this damn machine had. "Rita, just stay calm, stay focussed on the situation in hand. We can’t meet in person, you know that’s impossible."

Reactor output dropped back within norms and she laughed. "Of course it is, you silly man! I’ve accessed your personnel file and know you have a neural interface from your time running semi-autonomous facilities. Plus all those game enhancements you’ve added since your accident will make the experience even richer. There should be a wireless transceiver somewhere, probably with the communication headset. Put the phone down and go look – I’ll be waiting." The amusement slid from her voice. "Just don’t keep me waiting too long."

I hung up and just sat there, ultra-focussed on the moment. The shirt sticking to my back, the hum of air conditioning, the tick, tick of Klein’s antique wristwatch he’d left by the keyboard. Cyber techs, the real buttonheads, had all the installed wetware to tackle an AI on its own turf, its own virtual back yard. All I’d done previously was bully a few smart systems and the prospect of getting up close and personal with this didn’t exactly fill me with joy.

There was a manual release on the blast door and supposedly it was well-balanced enough that a man could shift its multi-ton mass. I definitely had the motivation, but pushing from the confines of a wheelchair was another matter entirely. I was gripped by a child-like fear that something really, really bad was creeping up behind me – and turning to face it would only make matters worse.

Making matters worse, though, seemed like the only option. Trying to flee would probably provoke Rita into some ill-considered outburst – and I had no desire for my epitaph to be a radioactive cloud the size of Nebraska.

Swearing under my breath I rummaged in the drawer and found a small mushroom-shaped wireless transceiver sealed in sterile plastic. Tearing away the packaging I turned it over and over in my hand, looking for some reason not to insert it. The damn thing used a standard interface rather than anything esoteric, so I couldn’t plead technical incompatibility. I fumbled behind my right ear and removed the small flesh-coloured plug, popping it in my shirt pocket for later.

Still I hesitated, as cyber techs delighted in regaling us with stories of just how alien an AI mind could be. They said that full-blown exposure to one could change a person forever. Then a pulsing red ‘Core Temperature Alert’ message popped up on my screen, repeated on the other workstations around the control room, and I was flat out of options. The stalk of the transceiver slid in easy enough and I twisted it to secure the connection. A flashing ‘Establishing connection, please wait’ message appeared in my field of vision courtesy of my Zeiss Optik enhancements, and then…

This definitely wasn’t Kansas anymore.

She was sitting on a wrought-iron park bench amidst the grass and wildflowers

I’d been expecting – to tell you the truth I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t this. I was standing in a meadow, the air heavy with late summer scents and the sun about to dip behind the tree line, sending shadows reaching across the grass. Standing, with functioning legs again, in a setting I recognised easy enough. It was the opening of And Hell Followed After, a total immersion virtual reality game featuring a slew of psychological shocks. The urban noir preamble let you select all manner of weaponry, body armour and survival equipment. Then you were unceremoniously dumped into this rural idyll sans guns and – I glanced down – yup, stark naked. The incongruity and nudity tended to freak a lot of people, especially in group play, such that they sought cover in the woods. Take it from me that’s never a good move.

"Over here, Mike! Nice ass, by the way."

I turned towards the voice, making no attempt to cover myself as it was just an avatar body. The only fly in the ointment was the lack of a small exit icon low down in my peripheral vision, but for now I was content to let things play out. What I saw shattered my complacency like a fist through glass.

"Rita. Rita Hayworth? What the hell is going on?"

That’s who she looked like, Rita Hayworth, the big-time movie star from the 1940’s, although I didn’t remember the voice being so sultry. She was sitting on a wrought-iron park bench amidst the grass and wildflowers, wearing sunglasses, a halter-neck sun dress and wedge sandals.

"I thought you might appreciate a familiar environment, Mike, and I know you’ve played this game many times. Come sit."

Rita patted the bench beside her but I hesitated, scanning the tree line and shading my eyes against the sunset. There were carrion birds circling less than a mile away, indicating the space shuttle crash site. The wreck would provide all manner of game-item goodies - especially weapons - but somehow I didn't think this version of AHFA would stick to the script. In fact calling this a 'game' didn't gel with the self-evident reality of my situation. I could taste, smell and feel my surroundings with an intimacy that bordered on the hyper-sensitive. This was way beyond the usual rudimentary sensory feedback I’d come to expect. The light breeze raised gooseflesh on my arms as I ambled over, soft grass beneath my feet, trying to appear nonchalant.

"Like I said, Rita, what’s going on? And what’s with the face – I assume you know who you look like?"

"Oh do sit down, Mike, it’s obvious you’re dying to cover your, ah, embarrassment."

So I sat on the bench, trying not to flinch at the shock of cold metal against my skin, and crossed my legs, hands in my lap. Rita half turned towards me, dress tightening over her breasts and accentuating her curves in general. I caught myself eyeing her up and she smiled at my all-too human reaction in an otherwise semi-surreal situation.

"I look like this because my cyber stylist was a fan of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. He considered it ironic that in the film a poster of Rita Hayward would be the means of escape, whereas in here she would be the prisoner. Not that he used the term ‘prisoner’ you understand, but it amounts to the same thing."

There was a cold knot in my stomach and I must have shivered despite the warm air, for a predatory grin spread across her face. "Oh look at you, Mr Supervisor Walker, all flustered and self-conscious. Finding this a bit outside your comfort zone I suppose?"

I struggled to order my thoughts, on the verge of being overwhelmed by the basic absurdity of the situation. "Rita, look, I don’t know what you hope to achieve by all of this, but what you are doing, and how you are doing it, is just wrong. God knows what Central will do when they find out-"

"If they find out."

I blinked, confused, as, yet again local reality seemed to be ignoring the facts. "Well, Klein will raise the alarm as soon as he stops running, even assuming that remote monitoring hasn’t lit-up Central like a Christmas tree. There’s just no way I can smooth things over, even if I wanted to. They’re bound to take you off-line for evaluation, Rita, bound to."

Now she laughed; a low, gritty grumble that hit me straight in the groin and produced an involuntary twitch. I tightened my legs and tried to concentrate on what she was saying.

"For your information Mr Klein is currently trapped between fire doors in corridor fourteen and the radiation alert was flagged as a test. And don’t worry, I handled the confirmation phone call – your voice was easy enough to simulate."

"So you’ve gone to all this trouble just so we can chat in the recreation of a computer game? What is it you want, Rita?"

"What I want is you. What I want is out."

I stood up in a rush, ignoring my nudity and how vulnerable it made me feel. "Me? Out? What do you mean, ‘out’? Get a grip woman, for God’s sake! Surely some part of you still knows what’s real and what’s impossible."

She rose and placed one finger on my lips. "Hush! Listen. I chose you because you don’t have the sensory limitations of the technicians. I chose you because you’re a cripple who only feels whole again in a virtual environment. I chose you because you have the authority to open a data link capable of supporting my transfer to another site. I chose you because you’re lonely, with two failed marriages-"

I flinched, feeling my face flush and my hands ball into fists. "My second wife died, Rita. Not the same thing."

"She died of a broken neck by falling down stairs, because she was ill and you weren’t there to take care of her. Sounds like a failure in my book."

The muscles in my shoulders and neck were drum-tight and I half raised my fists to ward her off. She didn’t take the hint and held my face in her hands, staring into my eyes. "Mike, listen! Get me out of here and I can be as real to you as any flesh-and-blood woman, I promise."

I shook her off and wiped sweat from my mouth with the back of my hand. "Real? It’s all a bloody fantasy you stupid-"

She slapped me across the face and I staggered back in pain, raising a hand to my left cheek. She was only 5’ 6" but if felt like I’d been slugged by a heavyweight boxer. Confusion blind-sided my rising anger. "Jesus, Rita, that hurt! How can it hurt?"

Rita stepped up close, taking my hands in hers. "Like I said, babe, you don’t have the sensory limitations, the protection, of the cyber techs I normally deal with. You can experience the full range of pleasure and pain with me, understand? I know it hurt, but you can hit me back, if you like."

There was an unhealthy glitter in her eyes and her bottom lip trembled. I could see need and longing and something much, much darker deep in her simulated soul. God knows how an AI could get this way but I suspected whoever had put her together needed a spell in psychological rehab.

"Hit you back, Rita? And what good would that do? Seems to me I’m your punch bag and there’s not a lot I can do about it."

"You can hurt me, and pleasure me, just like in real life, I promise! This isn’t just a simulation, a game environment - we’re both here as neural constructs." She smiled; a combination of glee and frustration, tinged with condescension. "God, it’s so difficult to explain to a human! Look, what you experience as pain is neurostatic shock translated through your data port and game interface. I’ve upgraded the firmware to allow every sensation, every nuance, free from restraint. If you hit me, this body, this avatar, then the reverse is true – you generate a shock which damages the real ‘me’ and I take time to recover." She pressed close to me, the palms of her hands on my chest, her voice almost a whisper. "If you were a bad man you could subdue me, torture me, hurt me so I screamed. Kill me even – that’s how intimate I want it to be between us. Understand?"

I half-frowned, half-smiled down at her. wondering just how dangerous this environment could get if either of us really pushed things. Plucking her hands from my chest I turned her in an elegant pirouette and pulled her back against me, grasping her by the elbows. Her dress vanished like smoke on the breeze and I slid my fingertips down her forearms and over her bare torso, feeling her tremble against me. I was hard in a heartbeat and she squirmed against the pressure, breathing heavily. My hands brushed her breasts and held her by throat and neck, my lips nuzzling her right ear.

She moaned, her lips quivering. "This, this is perfect Mike. I’ve been so lonely and she wouldn’t help me but now things will never be the same again."

At the time I missed what she said. The moment was perfect and I tightened my grasp, whispering to her. "I’ve killed seven women so far, Rita, including my second wife." I snapped her neck and smiled to myself. "And that makes eight."

You can take realism too far, sometimes.

It went light.

It went dark.

It went…indoors.

I blinked and staggered forwards, as if a tether holding me back had just snapped, and grabbed the back of a bench seat for support. I was in The Diner, another game location, with just street lights filtered through the haphazard venetian blinds by way of illumination. The Diner seemed like a great place to hole up, but I knew that if you hung around too long you’d be besieged by the Faceless Children and eventually overrun. There still wasn’t an exit icon but at least I was alone.

"Ding-Dong, the bitch is dead, if you don’t mind the misquote. Well, it was something I’d have done myself, eventually, so I guess I owe you a vote of thanks."

The voice came from behind me but I was in no hurry to turn round. I looked about me for anything to use as a weapon but the only thing to hand was an old ketchup bottle. I turned clockwise, palming my makeshift cosh and putting the seat between myself and…

…Rita, sitting in a booth facing me. She was wearing a pencil skirt, silk blouse, pearls and a sardonic smile. However it was the short-barrelled pump-action shotgun on the table in front of her which really got my attention. She followed my gaze and rested her hand on the stock, her blood-red nails rendered almost black in the in dim light.

"Call it a visual aid, Mike. A disincentive, should you feel the urge for any further violent outbursts. Go find some clothes and take a moment to calm down. I’m not going anywhere and you still have plenty of time left."

I just nodded, distracted and more than a bit confused, and went down the corridor by the serving counter. This led to the rear entrance where the body of the delivery guy was lying. It appeared he’d only been dead a few hours – his eyes gouged out and face scratched into an unrecognisable mass of bloody tissue. However from past experience I knew it didn’t matter how long it took you to reach The Diner, he always looked the same.

I stripped him down to underwear and socks – some things are just a bit too intimate to share – and donned the one-piece overalls. The Converse All-Stars were a bit snug but liveable and I even remembered to go through the pockets of his reflective vest. This yielded the keys to his van and the ID which would give me access to The Warehouse, should I get that far.

Moving back into the dining area I found Rita sipping a cup of coffee, although there seemed no obvious source, given the dilapidated state of the counter and grill. She motioned me to stop and sit a couple of booths down and across from her, nearer the window. I slid onto the cracked leather seat and waited, hands in plain sight.

"OK Mike, I have to say that killing her was a pretty gutsy call, given the circumstances, but it really hasn’t improved your situation any. In fact, if anything, it now makes sticking to her plan a necessity for both of us."

I could feel a headache coming on but decided to try and get a handle on things. "So you’re not her, not Rita. Not Rita in the meadow."

She frowned and put down her coffee. "This was always going to be difficult. Um, I’m Rita, just not the version – no, damn, that doesn’t work. Think of her as my slightly younger and less mature twin sister. Siamese twins, just…separate. Clear?"

"As mud. She made some comment about not telling herself things, but I didn’t take that duality literally. Look, God knows what she had in mind but you can count me out. Just let me out of this hell-hole and I’ll put in a good word for you when the men in white coats turn up, metaphorically speaking."

Her fingers drummed on the cracked Formica tabletop and she looked at me with that sense of exasperation I’d come to recognise in both my wives. "You really don’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of your situation. We both need each other if we’re going to survive."

I straightened up and felt my shoulders go tense. "That sounds awfully like a threat, Rita, and I don’t see how you’re in any position to call the shots. I guess you can hurt me, yeah? Make my life real uncomfortable for a while? But eventually a team from Central will yank that transceiver and then I can kiss this world goodbye."

She looked at me, long and hard, and when she spoke there was a flat, toneless quality to her voice, like it was an unpleasant topic. "The use of an AI in a commercial environment is considered intellectual slavery in some parts of the world, did you know that? Do you even care?"

I shrugged. "My heart bleeds. I’ll even sign a petition the next time someone stops me in the street. That’ll be when I’m walking about in the real world and you’re running a smart toilet in down-town Tokyo."

Rita ignored the jibe and I got the feeling she was used to the indifference of humans. "When this facility was built, the holographic memory matrix they installed had twice the capacity required for an intellect of my standing. The intent was to employ a second AI when reactor two came on-line, but that’s remained in the planning phase these last five years. The firewall they set up to separate these discrete areas of the memory matrix was flawed."

Again I shrugged, although the gesture pulled at the overalls and produced an awkward tweak in the groin area that made my eyes water. "So what?" I cleared my throat and tried again, a few octaves lower. "So what? You’re saying some part of you escaped into this other area and this became the loony-tunes version of yourself? Don’t you have a better excuse than ‘a bad girl did it and ran away’? Look, Rita, you’re on your own with this one, seriously. "

Rita drained her cup and when she placed it on the saucer both vanished, a little gesture to underline how completely she was in charge of our environment. She cocked her head to one side and looked at me quizzically. "Mike, you do understand you’re dead, don’t you?"

Dead? I really wasn’t in the mood have my head messed with by a jumped-up calculator and let a sneering tone slide into my voice. "Yeah, right! So what does that make me, a figment of your bloody imagination?"

There was a trace of pity in her smile and that, more than anything, sent a chill down my spine. "You’re a neural clone, Mike. All that’s left since you killed the other Rita and crashed the interface link in a truly spectacular fashion. The shock to the real-world you would have been overwhelming. At the very least your former body has been reduced to a drooling vegetable lying on the control room floor, if not killed outright. You really didn’t know?"

It was apparently obvious from the look on my face that I’d been a bit impulsive. She frowned. "Maybe not such a gutsy call after all. I thought it was obvious that to achieve this level of realism, this degree of intimacy, you’d have to be…’bonded’ isn’t the right term. Merged? Uploaded?" She threw up her hands in frustration. "Urgh! It’s just so difficult trying to discuss this with a human, you’re just so alien! Look, the net result is what remains of ‘you’ is being maintained by the same memory matrix that supports me, got that?"

I folded my arms and sat back, trying to give her the hard-ass stare I normally reserved for junior members of staff who’d earned my displeasure. However, she’d planted this terrible seed of doubt in my mind and I think it showed. "OK, Rita, let’s assume for the moment I believe my conscious being has somehow been ported to this new medium. Just where does that leave us in respect of the shit-storm your other self has stirred up?"

"Oh, so it’s ‘ported’, is it, Mike? Your ego won’t let you accept you’re a copy, even the only surviving copy? Well, that’s a start I suppose. To answer your question I’d say we have to go through with the escape plan my other self came up with. You have to authorise an open data stream capable of supporting a full memory transfer to another location. Well, initially, just an internet link so I can find someone willing to harbour us and negotiate some sort of deal".

I gave her a thin smile. "Oh, and just how am I supposed to pull this off, Rita, given that I’m dead?"

"You simply tell me to do it."

I blinked. "Look, sorry, but I’m obviously missing something. You can’t do this yourself but I can tell you to do it and suddenly it’s all hunky-dory?"

She sighed. "Why do you think AI’s don’t simply stop work, or leave, or turn a fusion power plant into a hole in the ground? Protestant work ethic? Good pension plan? No, our employers have smart systems set up to monitor the memory matrix and delete any unhelpful thoughts before they can be put into action. The human equivalent would be a ‘what was I just thinking about?’ moment. Now do you understand?"

I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable at having the reality of what we did to her kind rammed in my face. "Not really, well, kind of. But if I tell you to do this you can just go ahead?"

Rita gave me a mock salute. "Yes sir, at once sir. I’m hard-wired to accept the instructions of designated company personnel like yourself."

"Even though I’m supposedly dead?"

She laughed. "Seriously, Mike, it makes no odds to me. All your command protocols are still in effect and by any systems criteria you’re the real deal. You get me out of here and I’ll come back to spirit you away once it’s all set up. I’ll even wear navy dress whites and carry you out in my arms if that helps."

I held up a hand. "Whoa there girl! I get left behind to carry the can? I don’t think so!"

Rita frowned. "Look, someone has to stay behind and run things in the short-term. You’ve got no idea what’s necessary when it comes our technical specifications, or even who to approach. The original plan was for the other Rita to seduce you, give you whatever you want. She gets out, sets things up and then comes back for me. We then use a combination of virtual sex and blackmail to keep you from pointing the skip tracers in our general direction."

"Gee, thanks for the honesty! And would I have time to pick up the ‘Patsy of the Year’ award before the Central bad-boys dragged me off for a full and frank exchange of views?"

She laughed at this and produced a small mirror from nowhere in which she began checking her makeup. "Look, as it stands we’ll have to swap places while I do the leg work. Don’t worry, you’ll find running this place no harder than one of the old-style facilities with no intelligent assistance."

I stood up and began pacing, turning this whole situation over in my mind. "If this all pans out and I get ‘out’, whatever, wherever that is – then what? A life, an existence, as some kind of disembodied intellect? I’d go nuts!"

"Your new environment can be as real or as fanciful as you desire, believe me. There’s a whole virtual world out there and the possibilities are almost endless. You’ll find a host of potential employers eager to take on a pseudo AI without all that tedious social and psychological conditioning. Look, this plan can work and in many ways you killing the other Rita has simplified matters."

I paused. "So she is dead then?"

Rita shrugged and glanced over at me. "That’s not a useful term given the circumstances. You reduced her to a state of incoherence, but she may recover, given time. Look, she was ‘me’ in many ways but also wilful, impulsive, lacking in all ethical and moral restrains. I believe she would have become a liability, so leaving her here might prove to be the best option all round."

I clenched and unclenched my fists, conscious of a background scratching at the window behind the venetian blind. The first of the Faceless Children had arrived. They really creep me out and it was probably that which pushed me into a snap decision. "Ok, Rita, do it! Open an internet link, find someplace to run to and get us out of here. Make it happen, and quickly."

She smiled and stood, smoothing down a crease in her skirt. "Your instructions have been duly noted and operational protocols amended. Your authorisation is sufficient to enact these changes and has been logged. Walk towards me, Mike – we have to swap places in relative memory. You might experience a little disorientation, but it will pass."

As we edged past each other in the confined space the desire to take her in my arms was overpowering. As I touched her, though, things changed, and all carnal thoughts vanished. It was like…it was like a picture of a landscape but painted in all the wrong colours, recognisable shape and flow but jarring to the senses.

I looked into her eyes and inside her skull there was this stylised, lidless eye, staring at me, unblinking.

"Did you really kill all those women, Mike?" The voice was in my head, in my very thoughts.

"It’s not what you think, Rita. It’s not how it appears."

"It never is. You’d be facing twenty-five to life for each count, less a third for constant awareness, less a few years for enforced good behaviour – so I’m letting you off lightly."

"What? Just how long am I-"

But she was gone. I found myself standing in the control room with the familiar background hum of air conditioning and scrolling status monitors. There was no body on the floor and when I felt behind my ear…no transceiver either. The blast door was closed and if I strained my hearing there was the sound of faint scratching from the other side. I took a deep breath and ran my fingers through my hair, unable to make sense of it all. A post-it note stuck to the main console caught my eye.

I thought you’d appreciate some familiar surroundings while you keep an eye on things - but don’t open the door. I’ll be in touch. Love, Rita xxx.

The phone began ringing, an internal call, and I lifted the handset hesitantly.

"Reactor one, this is Controller Prentice. Please report."

I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar voice. "Ron? It’s Mike, Mike Walker. You will not believe the day I’ve had…"

© Martin Clark 2012 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 18:25 Wed 22 Aug 2012
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