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29 Jul 2016: Albedo One is delighted to help spread word of the release of Souls for the Master from Sinister Saints Press, the debut novel from Albedo One Contributing Editor, Jacqui Adams, writing as John C Adams. Jacqui is our new kid on the block. Albedo One first got to know her back in 2012 and 2013 when she was shortlisted for the Aeon Award. Since then, she’s done a tremendous job as a judge for the Aeon Award 2015 and 2016, easily earning a promotion to Contributing Editor.

Souls for the Master comes highly recommended, and is available for purchase on Amazon and at Lulu. Here’s the blurb: 

In a dark world where inequalities of income and power appear insurmountable, people from the west of THE METROPOLIS, like IVY SPIRES and her brother VALENTINE SPIRES, are strictly segregated from easterners such as Trainee Surgeon GERALD FLINT. Ivy and Valentine are members of a resistance group that plans to right these injustices, but the authorities plan to strike first.

You can read some of her short fiction in anthologies from Horrified Press. She’s also had fiction published in The Horror Zine and Devolution Z magazine. What more, Nathan Rowark at Sinister Saints Press has been kind enough to allow us to host a free except from the novel, which you can find below. Enjoy!

Free Excerpt from Souls for the Master

One

In the western half of the Metropolis, eighteen-year-old Ivy Spires peered into the seeing disk. Her twenty-one-year-old brother Valentine sat on the sofa beside her, placidly caressing it. He smiled as the quality of the image improved. They settled down to see where the day’s surveillance would take them.

Ivy felt a blush begin to spread across her cheeks as Valentine began to guide the disk towards their surveillance subjects. As usual it would include watching Trainee Surgeon Gerald Flint. Voyeurism provided its own thrill but, when it came to watching targets over in the eastern half of the Metropolis, it was a pleasure she’d learned to conceal from her brother and their friend Don Allwood. They’d never quit carping at her if they discovered how often she gazed at Gerald when he was alone at home pottering about.

“England looks so beautiful from such a distance,” Ivy said, as Valentine panned out from a point in the south eastern end of the Metropolis to the country as a whole.

“Bloody barrier right down the middle! Needs to come down.”

Don chuckled from the rickety armchair next to the sofa. The fifteen-year-old pushed his straw-blond hair back out of his eyes and crossed his long, slim legs. Ivy glanced over at him questioningly.

The barrier was designed to keep their western half of the country separate from those over in the wealthier East. Ivy couldn’t remember a time when it hadn’t been there. She didn’t like to think about all the souls it took to placate the Master and persuade him to keep it in place. It was often said at the country club where she worked that the Master did nothing without expecting to get something back in return. Thought control was the best example of that strategy Ivy could think of. Nothing typified the Master like his endless glee over knowing every detail of their thoughts. In his struggle for dominance over the other members of the Seven, this gave him endless ways to generate mischief and misery. Don was their way to block the Master, at least temporarily, and do a little of what they wanted for a change.

Energy usage monitors were commonplace in the East. Even someone with top-flight political connections like Gerald Flint couldn’t just use the power he wanted. And here in the West, they had virtually no electrical power at all. There were one million people in the East with plenty of space. On the other side of the barrier, Westerners were crammed in so that the Easterners could have their golf courses and their big gardens.

“The authorities may be about to start Project Omega. There’s been a lot of chatter. Research vessels are gathering just beyond the Umbra Archipelago in the Giant Ocean,” Don said. “Brace for the worst, my friends. The Master was never going to be satisfied with just a few souls here and there. He’s an ambitious bastard. We knew this day would come.”

Ivy nodded. “And so it begins,” she murmured.

 

At Leafy Glade Cottage Hospital, Gerald Flint bent over his unconscious patient. He tried to focus on the matter at hand, but his supervisor was armed and she’d made it clear she wasn’t afraid to shoot. His teal surgical gown billowed around his slight frame as he paused for the nurse to wipe the sweat from his brow. The twenty-three-year-old glanced over at the anaesthetist, but she stared implacably at him over the top of her white mask. Their patient was in a spasm of fits and her heartbeat had stopped more than thirty seconds earlier. The monitors’ dreadful monotones screamed behind them.

“Adrenalin!”

The nurse gave Gerald the syringe. He plunged it straight into the patient’s heart. She spluttered and gagged, her torso shooting into spasms. The monitor started beeping again as her heart restarted. Gerald took several deep breaths in and out before he stepped away from the operating table.

When Gerald had recovered enough for his hand to be steady again, he stitched up the neat incision across the patient’s abdomen. He regained his composure as he worked. When he’d completed the suture, the nurse pushed the patient’s trolley away to the recovery suite.

Gerald peeled off his mask and drank in the fresher air of the operating theatre. He stripped off his gown, revealing a pewter-coloured tunic, trousers and black leather shoes. The health assistants began a routine deep clean, getting ready for the next procedure. One of them wheeled the baby’s remains towards the incinerator room.

Gerald’s senior surgeon finished inputting her conclusions into her handheld device and uploaded the information to the hospital’s central database. This would be linked to the patient data already held on the uniserve. She sent a copy to Gerald too. It wouldn’t make for comfortable reading. The Master operated the uniserve system – always watching and listening. He saw everything.

“I told you it was more complex than I was ready for – even with you standing by.”

The senior surgeon ignored Gerald. He didn’t push it. None of what was happening today stacked up and she seemed as jumpy as him. She was doing him a favour by giving him advance notice of the report’s contents. They both knew that Hospital Director Ironbark was going to want to discuss what’d just happened. The patient Gerald had nearly killed was Ironbark’s only child.

 

That evening on the north side of the Metropolis, at home on Willow Drive, Gerald stepped into the steel shower capsule, triggering the motion sensors. Hot, steamy water squirted out at him and he felt it simultaneously hit his face, chest, toned abdomen and legs. He stroked his trim abs. His shoulder felt stiff, and he massaged his deltoid round and round until he identified the problem.

“Cooler.”

The shower unit lowered the temperature and filtered the request through into its forward-planning function. Gerald received twenty bonus points for saving electricity because he had chosen to shower at a slightly lower temperature than the recommended one.

“Gentler.”

More points pinged onto the system. The unit moderated its output and made another note. Next time Gerald stepped into a shower it would be another step closer to designing him the perfect wash.

Gerald put his hands to his face and closed his eyes. Squirts of scented liquid hit his body. It was designed, at a molecular level, to become unfathomably frothy upon contact with warm water. He’d repeatedly requested fewer bubbles, but the shower unit still seemed to be working on that one.

Gerald braced himself for the impact of cool water. Afterwards, the air generator spooled up, cocooning his body in a dry cloud of heat. He stepped out of the en-suite shower unit and his robot valet Harvey handed him a navy blazer and a light-blue shirt and tie it had selected to match a pair of beige chinos.

Gerald smiled, despite everything that lay ahead tonight, as he stretched out his arms for help managing the cufflinks. Radio East, his favourite station, was piping out a soporific mix of melodies in the run up to the seven o’clock news.

“Embedded movement sensors and analysis of speech patterns predict Dr. Ironbark will leave Leafy Glade Cottage Hospital within five minutes of completing the visit to his daughter. Your car will arrive here in two minutes to allow for the longer drive from here to the club. Speed is programmed to moderate to facilitate simultaneous arrival. Predict palm-connection on the steps of the club to deal with awkwardness without your parents seeing,” Harvey told Gerald in its usual monotone.

Gerald slipped on his blazer. The garment felt complicated and uncomfortable after the silky simplicity of a social tunic. He dreaded being conspicuous, and he worried about forgoing the temperature control and health monitoring built into the fabric of a modern tunic, but Ironbark always wore old-fashioned apparel and this was definitely a moment to be visibly in tune with his values and priorities.

“Have my parents left home yet?”

The house responded to the strain in Gerald’s voice by piping out a more soporific melody rather than the jaunty tunes that usually accompanied his arrival home from the hospital.

Harvey stood analysing voice recordings and movement patterns on the uniserve. As it did so, its eyes glazed over. Using a seeing disk, it projected a live-feed onto the wall opposite, showing the Flints at the club. Harvey turned a small portion of the same wall into a mirror so that Gerald could gel up his short, silvery hair at the same time.

Gerald’s mother was stroking his father’s tunic. To Gerald’s practised eye, it was apparent that, whilst they weren’t in complete agreement over something, they couldn’t quite muster the energy to openly disagree with each other. His mother looked very tired; her sculpted blonde hair was dull and lifeless and her eyes were sunken into their lids. He worried again that her test results tomorrow at the hospital would reveal bad news.

Gerald stood at the bedroom window, where one of Harvey’s perfectly nurtured orchids sat in a slate-coloured pot on the sill, and stared down at the road.

The stupidity of Gerald’s parents staying together simply for the sake of appearances riled him. He’d often wondered what his mother would’ve made of herself if she had only broken free of his father early enough.

Gerald’s black car rolled out of the garage and he wandered down the stairs and out to meet it, slipping onto the back seat and murmuring the instruction to drive away. An easy silence fell.

The vehicle knew exactly where it was going and, analysing the time of day and Gerald’s history of drinking spirits alone at home before social events, it didn’t ask him if he wanted to drive. It switched automatically to Radio East. Gerald’s favourite presenter, Janus Fidens, was murmuring velvety chat in between songs.

The electronic system projected the sound directly into Gerald’s head via implanted electrodes rather than bouncing off inanimate surfaces first. This gave the music an intensity that could be uncomfortable, but Gerald was inured to the intrusion of having involuntary information bouncing around his head. No one in this day and age expected to have their thoughts to themselves.

“I know we’ve talked about this before, but could you just plot another route to the country club? I’m sorry if it’s inconvenient, but the thing is, last time we drove past the incinerator plant, it was very smoky. Even with the windows closed I could smell it on my tunic afterwards. My father remarked upon it. Please, let’s not annoy him a second time,” Gerald asked the car.

Gerald felt the pleasant warm sensation that always accompanied any request to please his father. Ian Flint had a direct line to the Master.

The car took a sharp right turn down a side road where usually it would’ve driven straight on. It monitored its engine to ensure a smooth ride, scanning traffic movements ahead to prevent unnecessary braking and accelerating. This saved fuel and made for a more pleasant passenger experience, so both the authorities’ priorities came together seamlessly. The government didn’t mind asking Easterners for sacrifices, but they rewarded the loyalty of self-denying abstinence.

Gerald began to relax as the vehicle sped up to compensate for the longer journey. As a child he’d heard stories about the incinerator plant and, even now, he shivered just thinking about driving past it.

Gerald closed his eyes. His thoughts were clouded by images of the patient in spasms on his operating table. The system detected his negative thoughts and gave him a gentle electronic prod to deter him from dwelling on them.

Gerald bit his nails. Maybe Ironbark had manipulated the system so that it would prick his conscience and then monitor his neurological responses to see if the poke had got to him. Should he feel badly about what had happened to Ironbark’s daughter today? Had he been negligent? Would the Master punish him for it?

Gerald was rewarded for these musings with a sharper shock inside his head. The brainzap dulled his thoughts for some moments afterwards. In an odd way, it set him at rest. If the Master were angry there wouldn’t have been this dulling sensation. Instead, his thoughts would’ve been allowed free rein to get him into plenty of trouble.

Not even the deterrent effect of the electrical charges in his brain could induce Gerald to forget what he had seen on his operating table this morning. It wasn’t just the prospect of Ironbark laying into him about his daughter when they met in a few minutes at the country club that worried Gerald. A young woman had nearly died in his care. Somehow he had to find a way to live with himself for failing Rhea.

Gerald had so many unanswered questions about what had gone wrong in the theatre. A sharp prick inside his brain warned him more firmly to switch his thought patterns to a less controversial topic. Several appealing alternatives flashed up in his mind’s eye – his parents’ forthcoming thirtieth wedding anniversary party, the image of a couple of marriageable young women his mother had been keen to introduce him to, and some happy childhood memories of summertime frolics gambolled across his thoughts in sequence.

Despite the incentive, Gerald found his thoughts returning to Rhea. Like all but a few Eastern women, she had passed her genetic screening with a class A1. A young woman’s licence to ovulate depended upon it. Gerald could still remember the party to celebrate, the day she’d turned eighteen. Every woman he knew had a licence and his father never ceased to remind him of his duty to procreate flawless offspring from their family’s superior gene pool. But Rhea was unmarried. Gerald could scarcely ever remember this feeble, obedient girl going out on a date or showing much interest in any man. Largely for the sake of form she was subject to the same obsessive chaperonage as less gauche young women. She’d never appeared to protest against their surveillance. In fact, she’d always struck him as limp and lifeless. Yet someone had still gotten this pallid shadow of a real woman pregnant.

Gerald and Rhea shared all the same friends, but he still couldn’t begin to generate a list of suspects. It was certainly safer not to do so. Some poor young man had been stupid enough, reckless to the point of being suicidal in fact, to have had sex with Todd Ironbark’s pasty daughter. Whoever he was, once Rhea’s father discovered his identity, he was toast.

 

 

The car pulled up in front of the Green Glen Country Club and the engine switched over into self-cleaning valet mode in order to make effective use of the time spent waiting for its master. Gerald pulled at his tie. He wasn’t used to wearing something so uncomfortable and he wasn’t entirely sure Harvey had got the knot right. Dr. Ironbark’s car pulled up alongside and Gerald sprang out to open the older man’s door before the car’s system could activate.

Todd Ironbark was scrawny and repulsive. Gerald had to remind himself that the man was only sixty-five. Ironbark had very pale, very dry, reptilian skin stretched over prominent facial bones. As his shoulder bones had shifted and he moved into old age, his neck had come forward and down in front of his body like a deformity. All this was simply the inevitable process of the human body’s deterioration, Gerald reminded himself, yet in Ironbark the natural passage of time appeared peculiarly vulture-like.

Gerald forced himself to hold out his right hand, inviting Ironbark to shake it. The prospect of physical contact with Ironbark disgusted Gerald, but something stopped him from offering his palm instead.

When two men greeted each other by laying right palms vertically against each other it was a profound statement of harmony and equality, of mutual respect. The uniserve system enabled one man to read another’s feelings and opinions directly during the time they were in contact. It was quicker and more efficient than placing a mental request via the system and having it search for you. The shared consciousness might only be for a fleeting moment, or it could be a much longer union of minds if the contact persisted, but it gave both participants a glimpse into the other’s soul for as long as their hands were placed together. And of course, the Master saw it all. He didn’t hesitate to take advantage of whatever insecurities and fears he detected when two people shared palms.

Ironbark took Gerald’s hand in a scaly death-grip and growled, “You nearly killed my daughter today, but I’m prepared to let matters lie if there’s absolutely no chattering about the fact that she was pregnant.”

Once released, Gerald rubbed his right hand until the pain started to ease. Ironbark had crushed his short thumb-bending muscle, the flexor pollicis brevis, with particular cruelty.

Even the short contact had given Gerald a window into the resentment Ironbark was nursing against him. The two men eyed each other. News that a hospital in the East had aborted a disabled embryo carried by a woman in receipt of a licence to ovulate was the kind of shocking information that would spread and cause thousands of women to stop wanting babies or, worse still, turn up at the hospitals demanding precautionary re-testing. The Master believed in the genetic superiority of Eastern stock. He wouldn’t take kindly to evidence to the contrary.

Ironbark would respond to the disgrace of being the Hospital Director who presided over this disaster with unprecedented sadism. Gerald had no intention of being the whipping boy for such a failure. Rationally, he knew that Ironbark’s growling was all show. It was in both their interests to keep as quiet as the grave.

 

Two

 

Gerald found his father at the bar, lounging beside an athletic woman who was wearing a floor-length silver tunic moulded to her contours. His father’s social tunic was slowly altering colour to match.

Whilst Gerald waited for his father to notice him, he watched the bar staff toiling away. His father always joked there was something liberating for the very rich about being able to afford real people to do their grunt work or play their music. The middle classes relied on robots and domestic machines. Below that, no one cared how people managed, as Ian Flint was fond of saying. That problem was nicely tucked away on the far side of the barrier over in the West and no one present here tonight was likely to give it a second thought.

Gerald had to admit that his father was looking younger. Ian had a tan even though the days had been cloudy this summer. His grey hair, which had been thinning, was now suddenly fuller at the front and suspiciously brown again. His upper body seemed more toned; his muscle bulk had certainly improved. Gerald wondered whether his mother had taken note of these stealthy changes and speculated about their genesis.

The woman was very beautiful. The pupils of her azure eyes were highly dilated and she kept touching Gerald’s father’s arm. Her eyes didn’t waver from Ian’s face. She was in her late twenties. She wore her straw-yellow hair loose down her back. She had a symmetrical, almond-shaped face. Her flawless ivory skin, broad shoulders and pert breasts were perfect. A diamond scorpion brooch pinned to her tunic caught his eye. She was dripping with diamonds – long earrings, a pearl bracelet, a larger stone on her necklace.

Ironbark entered the room and walked over to the group. “Miss Tungsten, good to see you,” he said. “May I call you Hendra?”

“If you must,” Hendra said, folding her arms.

Ironbark placed his palm against Ian’s. Both men pressed their palms together for a fleeting second or two before taking them away again. Ironbark put his hand back in his pocket. Ian let his droop around Hendra’s waist.

“My request for projected infection rates for Project Omega is still outstanding. We’re moving forward quickly, but you’re holding us back. That isn’t something I’d recommend. Must I escalate my request to your superiors again or do you have the information I asked for on your person?” Hendra asked Ironbark.

Ironbark patted his trouser pocket suggestively.

Hendra sneered. She handed Ironbark a data-carrier device the size of a small bar of chocolate. He turned it over and over in his hands.

Gerald wondered what was so top-secret that a freestanding device was in use. He received a sharp brainzap for his trouble. A murmur from the Master told him that this was none of his business.

“I could have you replaced by someone who doesn’t resort to smut to undermine me, thereby establishing a claim on their loyalty that may pay dividends in the future. Tell me a reason why I shouldn’t?”

For the first time ever, Gerald saw Ironbark lost for words.

“I do my job well,” Hendra continued unabashed. “We’ve found a suitable location for the burn a long way away from here. Some crappy island chain in the middle of the Giant Ocean that barely deserves a name.”

“Don’t want to pollute our own backyard, do we?” Ian said, in a voice that made Gerald realize how weasel-like his father sounded when he was trying to be pleasant.

Ironbark gripped the data carrier, imbibing its contents mentally simply by holding the item. His eyes went blank and he seemed utterly engrossed.

Gerald wondered what the information was about. Seconds later his brain was groggier than he could ever remember experiencing before. Images of his childhood and his loving, kindly grandparents filled his thoughts. His cousins Brett and Toby Flint up in the North. Visits to Blackacre. Playing on the shores of Darkwater. He shook his head to rid himself of the images and return to his original line of thought, but he couldn’t quite get back on track and remember what it was he’d been trying to think of before the brainzap. This experience was the Master’s version of killing someone with kindness.

“Future generations will glory in how we relieved the planet of its unproductive population and solved the energy crisis in one inspired move,” Ironbark said. He returned the data carrier to Hendra with a curt nod. “And most important of all, give the Master all the souls he could ever need. Enough for a whole eternity of forgiveness for our own sins.”

Hendra eyed Gerald with a flicker of recognition. “I’ll have your son transferred to Project Omega. He can help with some of the medical aspects. It’s only fair to let others from your gene pool share in the glory,” she told Ian. “Ironbark here can find a use for him.”

Gerald rubbed the side of his head and clutched at the side of the bar. He forced himself to think about how wonderful his father was until the stinging inside his head began to subside. Ian Flint loved to talk up the merits of the Master.

And the Master liked to look after his own.

Everything began to clear and Gerald felt the room returning to normal.

Ironbark snapped his fingers at the barmaid. “Whisky. Neat. No ice. Now!”

“That girl isn’t classy enough to work here. She should be replaced with someone suitable,” Hendra’s voice was cold with hostility. “I doubt she’s old enough either.”

Your kind aren’t supposed to come in here either,” Ironbark said. “Weren’t you born on the wrong side of the border?”

Gerald recoiled at the latent discrimination. He was by no means sure that the new employee, mixing a cocktail for his father, hadn’t overheard these comments. Hendra seemed chastened by the reference to her own lowly status as a Westerner because she didn’t repeat her rudeness. The Master rewarded Gerald with a warm, muggy sensation known as a mindhug for not stepping in to defend the barmaid. Ironbark, who Gerald had long suspected of having the same free rein over his thoughts as Ian Flint enjoyed, appeared undeterred.

Gerald sat down on a bar stool at the other end of the bar and stared at the rows of top-shelf brands before him. His mother returned from the ladies’ room and joined a group of her friends sitting on a cosy nest of soft chairs over by the patio doors. Their social tunics had all lightened into the same pastel pink shade after they left their husbands at the bar and congregated together; Gerald’s mother quickly harmonised with them.

The barmaid made her way along the line. Gerald eyed her appreciatively. She was nearly six foot in heels even though she was still a teenager. She had jet-black hair, coiled up on her head and threaded with silvery beads that sparkled in the glare of the lights. Her deep tan was at odds with the paleness considered attractive in Eastern women, but it suited her. Her lipstick was a gash of red and that mascara was really powerful; Gerald wasn’t sure how she got away with it. The country club committee wasn’t much given to artificiality. Makeup. Hairstyles. All of it had to be what they termed ‘regulation natural’ – something it took a lot of intervention to make appear spontaneously effortless. The woman’s black skirt was long and flowing; her white blouse very discreet with its long sleeves and high neckline. She was gorgeous whichever way you looked at it: far and away the most attractive woman in the room. Maybe the selectors had wanted something less vanilla for the younger men at the country club to lust after. If so, they’d got it.

“Sorry for the wait, honey. What’s your poison?”

Gerald did a double take at the unusual question. Staff had access to the parts of the uniserve devoted to voice and facial recognition. The system identified the customer and summarized their beverage preferences. It also highlighted allergies and previous negative reviews of service and products received. This information was shared so other bars and restaurants would also know what he liked to drink.

Gerald toyed with ordering vodka. Its transparent clarity had always appealed to him. As he was mulling over the possibility, he absentmindedly choked on his mouthful of beer nuts.

“Need the Heimlich?”

Gerald, succumbing to a hail of coughing, didn’t answer. Ironbark turned, put his drink down, assessed the situation and silently performed a textbook manoeuvre on him. Gerald collapsed back onto the barstool as his father and Ironbark wandered with Hendra over towards the bay windows overlooking the golf ranges.

“Just a Coke,” Gerald spluttered.

“Nothing stronger? You driving home?” the barmaid asked, fetching a bottle out of the fridge and flipping off its lid. She pushed it over the counter to Gerald without offering a glass. “Nice route down via the lake and into the woods. Summer evening. I’d recommend it if you feel like taking a spin.”

Gerald swigged from the bottle. That drive was only an appealing one if you stayed downwind of the incinerator plant. He frowned, searching the room for familiar faces. Some guys from med school were over at the pool table, one or two girls he knew were giggling together in a corner. Either was a safer bet than getting enticed into conversation with the staff. He was still riding the buzz of his defence of Hendra, but the Master would soon detect him lingering in conversation with a woman whose only purpose was to serve him drinks and he dreaded the consequences after his earlier warnings.

“Fancy a glimpse of the dark side?”

“If we get another power cut like the one last week I won’t have to leave home to do that.” Gerald jumped up as he saw his mother walking towards the bar. He waved to her to join him. She deserved better than watching his father vie with Ironbark for the attention of a woman like Hendra. “Put my drink on my tab,” he said, drumming his fingers against the polished surface of the bar.

“Name?”

“Aren’t you supposed to know everything about me already?”

The barmaid smiled enigmatically. “Baby, you have no idea,” she said.

 

A satellite in geostationary orbit beamed a stream of field data back to Project Omega’s forward centre, the SS Antilles. Fifty-year-old Captain Nicobar had only become interested in Umbra’s Main Island in the last couple of days. He’d been told to concentrate his earlier efforts on other archipelagos further north, islands which had seemed likely to fulfil the requirements of Project Omega. However, yesterday he’d received a vidmessage from Central Command. Their lawyers had analysed other nations’ claims to ownership of these nearer island chains. The European Union had had the strongest claim on two of them, followed by Russians asserting ownership of another two. Then America had started up about the last chain of islands. They’d eliminated these islands from the list of possible burn sites on the grounds that taking possession ran the risk of attracting unwanted attention from others.

Nicobar was still trying to process all the details of the lengthy vidmessage he’d received. Europe in particular seemed aggrieved at the notion of the British landing on any islands that the latter did not already occupy. The European Union had sent General Spratly to the Metropolis as an emissary to object to the proposed colonization, citing all previously unclaimed archipelagos within five thousand nautical miles of their landmass as being off limits. The British government, centred in the Metropolis, had deferred to Europe’s greater military strength and promised that no colonization was intended. However, Senator Flint had said nothing in the hastily signed Treaty of Peace about island chains that lay further out into the Giant Ocean.

Nicobar shook his head. He knew his brother-in-law of old and that was typical of Ian. Too much time serving the Master was starting to go to his head. He couldn’t imagine what the Master had promised Ian in return for his loyalty. It didn’t bear thinking about.

As of last night, Nicobar knew, the empty Umbran island chain had shot right to the top of Project Omega’s list of potential burn sites. Scholars at Souls University in the East, with access to manuscripts going back thousands of years, had finally finished trawling through the material available to them. The most respected academics in the country had concluded that few historic empires had ever heard of Umbra and, of those who had, none had apparently been bothered enough about its feeble natural features to stake any claim to own it.

Nicobar had almost twenty years’ experience at the helm. That made him one of the most experienced, if notoriously irritable, ship’s captains around. Only Captain Pribilof of the SS Nunivak had more time in charge under his belt.

Nicobar had seen scrambles for unpopulated island chains before; the authorities always had their pet projects on the go. Ian Flint was, more often than not, involved. Sometimes Central Command went too far and a short-lived war resulted, but there was always a peace treaty or a swift turning on mutual enemies to restore equanimity. This sort of simmering tension between Britain, the European Union, Russia and America, with occasional flare-ups, suited Nicobar. The nation wouldn’t need a massive navy if peace always remained within easy reach. As Nicobar’s brother-in-law was fond of saying, fear kept them all in work and they had the Master to thank for that.

Nicobar shook his head. The Master was someone that ships’ captains everywhere had heard tell of but seldom had to deal with directly. For some reason that was kept under wraps, the ships were given more free rein than most machines to think their own thoughts. And captains, kept under control by their ships, were left well alone by the Master. Ian had said it was because the Master trusted machines more than he trusted people, but that if a machine trusted someone, then it was good enough for the Master. Nicobar wasn’t inclined to question the reasoning. On a few occasions his friends had shared what it felt like when the Master controlled your thoughts. He was glad to be out of it. Besides, he had other things to worry about.

For several months now, the Antilles’ scientific officers had been reporting to Nicobar that they were narrowing down their geographical search focus. They were inching towards finding the right location for Project Omega’s burn site. He’d relayed all of this to his boss in their morning chats over the uniserve, revelling in Hendra’s delight that the end of their search was near. She seemed engrossed in the importance of this project and Nicobar had begun to appreciate that other, more senior representatives of the authorities shared Hendra’s passion for Omega. She had spoken of it in a breathless tone that Easterners usually reserved for the Master. Reverential. Awed. Adoring. And, in female cases, sexually aroused. Just lately Nicobar had detected that tone of unquestioning worship creeping into vidmessages from other people too.

Central Command had been very precise about what they were looking for in a proposed burn site. Nicobar had taken in all the details and made sure his crew followed their instructions closely. As time wore on, Central Command had become increasingly vocal about the importance of finding the right site soon. This project mattered to the Master. Consequently, it mattered to everyone else in a very immediate way.

Late yesterday evening, the Antilles’ scientific officers had announced that they’d found the Holy Grail. Amidst much triumphal self-promotion, implying his leadership had been instrumental to the discovery and that Pribilof would never have achieved it as quickly, Nicobar had held a vidcon with the politicians and civil servants in charge of the project to share the good news. The ship had tolerated his egocentricity during the vidchat, but she’d ticked him off about it afterwards, gently pointing out that everyone aboard worked hard and was entitled to a fair share of the glory. Hendra had been a lot less gentle in pointing out that Nicobar and his crew were only entitled to a tiny share of the recognition. They might be the grunts out on the ocean doing the actual searching, but this was Central Command’s project all the way. And it was all in honour of the Master.

Success couldn’t have come quickly enough for Nicobar or his ship. Failure meant scouring the farthest reaches of the Giant Ocean until they found a rocky outcrop that did tick all of Project Omega’s boxes, regardless of how many years of family life the crew missed in the process. None of them had had any leave in over six moons. Nicobar had no family, bar a sister back in the Metropolis he seldom saw, but the rest of his crew were not so free-spirited. Success meant going home with a salary hike; for Nicobar it meant getting the better of Pribilof for a change. Failure also meant the risk that the Master would rescind Nicobar’s free pass and take a greater degree of control over all the navy ships and their captains.

The SS Antilles had bounced the data straight on to Central Command so that the leading scientists at LabColl could monitor and assess the data before committing to the next step. Nicobar imagined untold gigabytes of information cascading onto the screens of analysts whose job it was to check whether the area surveyed fulfilled the criteria they’d set. He would never speak to any of the exalted scientists who would check his officers’ work for errors. Like all projects from Central Command, Omega was broken up and spread around. The lower pay-grades, undergraduates and doctoral candidates, would only know the particulars of their information sector and would remain ignorant of how the rest of the jigsaw fit together until the project burst into the glare of publicity. Other scientists higher up the food chain would have a pretty good hunch about why Central Command suddenly wanted to find an undefended chain of islands with no natural resources to speak of and lay claim to it. They could argue out the ethical considerations within their ivory towers and that was fine, as far as Nicobar was concerned. The tiny string of islands called the Umbra Archipelago looked like nothing better than a gigantic empty dustbin. Whatever Central Command wanted to throw into it was none of his business. The Antilles and her crew had done their job and now they were all off home again.

 

As Gerald was being driven home from the country club to Willow Drive, his system generated a feedback request entitled ‘Help us to serve you’ which it projected onto the shiny seat back in front of him, inviting him to rank the evening’s service on a number of different criteria. He pushed the ‘Not now’ button and slumped back in his seat.

The system flipped over to its Wingman function, informing Gerald that analysis of his oral interaction and retina patterns indicated attraction towards two females present tonight. It then asked whether or not he wanted to view their profiles. He leant forward as he felt the nausea of acidic stomach juices rising into his oesophagus. He grabbed a sick bag; his diaphragm and abdomen muscles duly obliged.

“Would you like to view the profiles of those women who found you attractive?”

“How many?” Gerald asked, when he’d finished heaving up the contents of his stomach. The med school guys had started with shots to celebrate a colleague’s unexpected promotion, even though it was midweek and most of them had to work the next day.

“Twenty-five.”

Gerald smirked even though he was holding a bag of partially digested nachos and melted cheese. “Show me the ones who floated my boat,” he said, winding down the car window and throwing the bag out onto the street.

The screen reactivated. Gerald wished he’d upped his tolerance to alcohol by eating a proper dinner instead of grazing on bar snacks. He swallowed hard and resisted the urge to vomit a second time. He let his gaze roll languidly across the profiles. Hendra! He couldn’t believe that awful woman from the bar was first on the list. It was disgusting that he could be attracted to someone so obviously ambitious and manipulative.

The system prompted Gerald to register his interest in Hendra. He shook his head and flicked over to the profile of the other woman who’d attracted him. This was a much stronger physical response. He chewed his lower lip in amusement. Still, the pupil dilation data, breathing regulator report and voice analysis had produced indicators that were difficult to ignore. It surprised him because he hadn’t really noticed the barmaid again after she’d finished serving him. She was young, too young for someone of his age. Still, the system was infallible. He toyed with whether or not to send a notification of interest, but felt sure that a brainzap would result if he did.

“Send a message suggesting a coffee sometime.”

Gerald anticipated that it would feel strange at first to be dating the help. His father, with his unquestioning loyalty to the Master’s views on genetic superiority, would rant about it for hours without drawing breath. And the Master wouldn’t tolerate it lightly. Perhaps it wasn’t worth the risk. But she was so beautiful. So unlike anyone he’d ever seen. She had vivacity, despite the difficulty of her life, and a determination to be her own person that was attractive in its own right.

The system went quiet for a moment: a pulsing of the screen the only indication that it was working on something rather than that it had crashed and needed rebooting.

Gerald braced for the anticipated brainzap, but none came.

“Connecting you to 24-7.”

Gerald yawned. He pressed his right index finger against the screen to authorise the transaction.

Gerald hesitated about which address to provide for the rendezvous. A hotel might be the most sensible approach if some of his friends’ experiences were anything to go by. 24-7 girls had a habit of helping themselves to valuable items if the tip wasn’t large enough. It was their way of making up for the huge cut the company took from their wages. Or there was always the risk that one might turn psycho or add a little blackmail into the mix. On the other hand, going to a hotel made the meeting public. No respectable hotel in the Metropolis would turn a blind eye.

Gerald glanced at his watch. Eleven o’clock. He typed in his home address and told the car to take him home instead.

Gerald flicked back to the girl’s profile. Ivy Spires. Eighteen years old. She was gorgeous. Well worth the inflated charge. Well, it’d been a couple of weeks since he’d last had sex. The system hadn’t brainzapped him for arranging it. And staring at her picture had certainly put him in the mood. So where was the harm?

 

Three

 

As Gerald walked up the path to his front door, he noticed every light inside the house was switched on. He frowned. He’d told Harvey to power-down. Bang went his second shower of the day or the authorities would cut his electricity for a couple of days and give him a sharp zap in the brain to teach him a lesson. He pressed his finger against the reader. The door sprang open. He strode inside ready to tear a strip off Harvey.

“In here, honey and I’m ready for you!” a tantalising voice called from the living room.

Gerald ground his teeth. Damn the woman, arriving an hour early and letting herself in! He couldn’t think how she’d got around the security system. It was late. His neighbours were probably sleeping. She’d certainly become abusive when he forced her to leave.

Gerald’s gaze flickered over to the kitchen, where Harvey’s recharging unit was situated. He tiptoed forward to the door and poked his head around. Sure enough, the robot was plugged into the wall, all its systems shut down, its head nodding against its chest. He reached for his commsys to call the authorities. Nothing. Something was jamming the signal.

Gerald tentatively pushed open the living room door and walked into the room. Even before he could attempt to engage Ivy in debate he felt the coldness of steel on his left temple and the tiny click of a gun’s safety catch being switched into the ‘off’ position.

“If you expect to make a fortune robbing me, think again!” Gerald snapped. “Everything’s voice or fingerprint activated.”

The house, sensing their conflict, began to pour calming music out of every sound-generating surface. Ivy stared around her in surprise. “The sound here comes from the walls?”

Gerald nodded. He stole a glance to his left and chanced a wry smile. “You’ll make a comfortable living through 24-7 if you dial it down a bit. It’s a small world. Mugging your punters isn’t a smart move.”

“I’m not a whore, you bastard. That’s just a fiction to get me into some pretty dark places without your precious Master finding out.”

Ivy shoved the gun against Gerald’s skull. She gripped his arm and thrust him towards the black velvet sofa. He fell heavily onto it, banging his head against the chrome armrest. Ivy stood over him, looking him up and down in astonishment.

“Didn’t realize you thought it was fancy dress night.”

“I was trying to placate Ironbark. You should try it.”

“I don’t mirror other people’s tastes, dumbass. They never respect you for it.”

Gerald mulled over the wisdom of this assertion.

“I’ll deal with Ironbark in my own way.”

Ivy sat down and lit a cigarette. Gerald gingerly rubbed his temporal bone as she took a long draw and blew smoke all over his face.

Gerald watched Ivy warily without challenging her about how much he loathed the smell of cigarettes. In fact, he found the odour of any kind of ash repellent. With luck, the change in air composition would trigger one of the many sensors operating inside the house. Smoking was heavily discouraged in the East. When the system detected the smoke in the air it would probably dispatch someone to the house to lecture him. Gerald intended to lose no time in recruiting that person to help him get rid of his unwanted visitor. For some reason the system hadn’t brainzapped him. He shook his head, worried about what was coming, but his thoughts were clear. Ivy had referred to the Master in decidedly derogatory terms, yet she seemed unaffected. Gerald shook his head again. Maybe she had a way around thought control and was able to think clearly.

Ivy finished her cigarette and slipped the silver case and matching lighter back into her jacket pocket. Her handgun lay on the glass table. She leant back and draped her arm behind him, casually crossing her legs.

“Rhea Ironbark.”

Gerald frowned at the mention of his patient. He’d been accompanied to the theatre at gunpoint. He’d been told to finish off what old man Ironbark had started. The man had injected his daughter with abortion-inducing drugs an hour earlier.

“Is she still alive?”

“I can’t breach patient confidentiality.”

Gerald shifted his weight, trying to get comfortable.

“A gun doesn’t change that.”

“If you’re hoping technology’s coming to your rescue, I’m sorry to disappoint. I’ve already overridden that part of the system,” Ivy said. “Light. Dark. Light. Dark.”

Ivy seemed mesmerised as the house altered the lighting as she spoke. She repeated the words until Gerald ran out of patience. He used the house’s recognition of his voice to override Ivy’s nonsense: something that managed to both impress and irk her at the same time.

Gerald’s gaze flickered away around the room until it rested on the white, fluffy rug. He’d been right. Somehow this young woman had a way of thinking, talking, living that didn’t attract the attention of the Master. Occasionally, someone did manage to get around thought control. They might pierce the East’s protective wall from the inside, but eventually the Master strung them up as a deterrent. However, Ivy had none of the disaffected rich techno youth about her.

“A friend of mine’s rewritten tonight’s data. He’s got a way of blocking your precious system. The Master believes you’re giving it good to a tart. My buddy’s version of apparent time should hold for a while,” Ivy said, lighting another cigarette. “Now! Cut the crap! Tell me the truth or I’ll batter it out of you. You operated on my brother’s girlfriend today. What happened?”

“She survived the procedure.”

Ivy’s dark eyes filled with tears. Her irises were like pools of indigo against a sea of white. It reminded Gerald of an orchid Harvey had grown from seed over the summer.

“What about the baby?”

“The senior surgeon forced me to perform the abortion. I did so,” Gerald muttered.

By the time Rhea had made it onto Gerald’s operating table that morning, the drugs had already killed the baby. He’d attempted an induced delivery without success. Afraid that he’d lose Rhea, he’d removed the five-month-old foetus via a Caesarean and sutured her up afterwards. The whole thing had been a disgusting, gory mess.

“I thought this Master of yours had views on the destruction of life. Eastern life! My part of the country’s expendable, but every one of you is worth a billion pounds! I’ll kill you for this!”

Ivy lunged at Gerald, thumping him with the handgun.

“The baby was dead! I couldn’t just let her die as well!”

Ivy started weeping. Gerald loosened the revolver from her grasp and emptied the bullets from the magazine. He gingerly took her hand.

“What d’you want from me?”

Ivy didn’t answer. Gerald got up and went through into the kitchen to give her time to pull herself together. When he returned, he’d ask her again and see if they could get to the bottom of what she was doing in his home.

 

Captain Nicobar received his instructions from Hendra an hour after he’d sent his report. He projected it onto the wall and skimmed through the introduction. He skipped to the conclusion. The scientific officers could pour over the rest later. Nineteen out of Central Command’s twenty criteria had been met. The authorities had agreed that this was the right place. The Master would be happy. It was time to set sail for home.

The Antilles was pleased too. She was radiating a red glow on her control panel. Central Command would occupy the Umbra Archipelago. They’d kill whatever living things they found there. Then get on with their top-secret plan. That was their business.

Nicobar requested that the ship set her engines at full power. After she agreed, he asked her for permission to conduct a full service of worship to the Master. The crew would want to give thanks whilst they were sailing back to Bloodport. He intended to spend the time sending a message to his sister to tell her he’d be back in port in a few days.

The Antilles sent a pulse of light across her control panel in agreement. Her lights froze. Nicobar watched with interest. When nothing further happened he decided to sneakily proceed with a technical manoeuvre better known as ‘getting the hell out of there’. He settled himself into his comfy chair, staring at the huge expanse of rolling sea, and told the engineer to fire up the engines.

The Antilles flipped Nicobar’s wallmon over to the report’s screen. She drew his attention to the last paragraph but one and patiently waited whilst he read it.

Nicobar felt the ship approach his consciousness more intimately than she usually did during work hours.

The voice of the Antilles inside Nicobar’s head said, “Our instructions from Central Command are to land on the beach, move into the hinterland and set up a base camp. We must establish a secure perimeter of fifty square miles. Then wait for the advance units. We’re going to take an integral part in the colonization of the Umbran island chain. This is such an honour, Frederick! I will analyse my systems. I must be fit for the work. We mustn’t let the Master down.”

Nicobar’s heart sank. The Antilles was a research vessel. This was really a job for the marines. The ship carried only a few lightly armed soldiers. Nicobar rubbed his chin. It would be far better for them to wait for reinforcements to arrive, but their instructions were very clear. It was typical of the Master to risk other peoples’ lives without a second thought.

The Antilles knew what Nicobar was thinking. Nicobar knew that she agreed with his assessment, albeit in far more temperate language. They both liked the freedom the Master gave them. Another boss might not be quite so understanding. The status quo suited both of them just fine.

“Let’s investigate Main Island whilst we’re waiting for backup to arrive,” the ship said, once Nicobar’s thoughts had run their course.

 

Gerald went back into the living room and took Ivy’s hand again but she dragged it away from his clasp. She wiped the tears from her cheeks using the tips of her red-nailed fingers.

“Valentine and I grew up with Rhea because our parents were the Ironbarks’ housekeeper and gardener. One day they disappeared. We got dumped in the West. Our aunt and uncle took us in. We never saw our parents again. Ironbark’s doing! Bastard! Wait til I catch up with him!”

Gerald felt his appreciation of Rhea rising. She’d always seemed like the perfect daughter. She’d lived a wholly uncontroversial life. Yet she’d kept this secret, fallen in love and had sex despite all the risks that entailed. It moved Gerald, who couldn’t really remember ever being in love, that she’d hoped to be with the man she loved. Such deception required a true depth of character, but he’d never discerned that in her. It struck him just how carefully she’d hidden that facet of her personality.

“Tell Rhea that Valentine will come for her – whatever the danger. Do it tomorrow morning. I’ll get Don to block the system to protect your thoughts until then.”

Gerald wandered into the kitchen. His thoughts had never been so clear. Somehow, despite a lifetime of conditioning, he’d been thinking freely for the last half hour without even noticing it.

“Two coffees. Black, no sugar.”

As Gerald waited for the machine to filter the coffee he mulled the situation over. Rhea was recovering from major surgery. He shouldn’t help her escape to the West. Medical facilities would be sketchy or non-existent.

Ivy wandered through from the living room. “Sorry to rock your world and leave, honey, but, hey, that’s war.”

Gerald sank down into one of the chairs. Ivy put her foot up on the one next to him. Her long skirt fell slightly open from the hip. She strapped her gun onto her left thigh just below her suspender belt. She’d used her spangled stockings as a makeshift cradle for the handgun.

“I need to disappear and let everything settle down. There’s only so much alternative reality Don can project into the system without weird shit happening. When I’m across the border, I’ll activate the crossover. You’ll slip back to reality. The system thinks I left here ten minutes ago.” Ivy chuckled. “Seems you weren’t quite able to manage it, so you didn’t want me to hang around. If the system comes back online to find you in bed jacking off to porn it’ll find that reassuringly probable. Don’t worry, your thoughts will still be your own.”

“Perhaps I’ll call Ironbark and tell him everything.”

Ivy eyed Gerald shrewdly. “No. You’re glad thought control’s off. You want to make the most of it.”

“That’s my business. Rhea’s father has powerful friends. They’d level a whole city to kill your brother. What about your precious Western solidarity?” Gerald shouted after Ivy as she headed towards the front door.

Ivy turned and smiled. “Don will keep the thought control off your back for a couple of days so you can help us. The Master isn’t as powerful as he’d like to think.”

“And then?”

“Wipe your memory. You could pass me at the country club and not recall a thing.”

 

Gerald set things up as best he could to help Ivy. He was lying upstairs watching the porn channel when the switchover occurred. He let the writhing bodies projected onto the wall entertain him for ten minutes whilst he ate a pile of buttered toast.

Gerald felt the switchover take place. It was a sort of blip that felt like a shudder. He told the house to switch the pictures off.

Gerald massaged his left deltoid. His shoulder had stiffened again with the cold of evening. He toyed with slipping on an overnight tunic and letting the fabric attempt to heal the muscle whilst he slept. That meant getting out of bed to find one. He’d only just got warm. He couldn’t face Harvey watching his every move and detecting something amiss. Besides, he was fairly certain that the pain was too deep within the muscle tissues for even the best healing tunic to work.

Gerald’s thoughts turned to Rhea. He could hardly imagine a fair, pretty girl like her, who’d always been so prim and passive, finding someone from the other side of the barrier. She’d always seemed so straightforwardly simple. She’d seemed shallow almost. Like most young woman he’d met at school, college or in medicine. She’d been very gawky as a skinny teenager, her arms flappy with energy. Her elbows had stuck out as her hands waved clumsily to make some point, even though people were no longer listening. Gerald had always found her high-pitched voice and tinkling laugh a little irritating. She’d worn very little makeup; just buff foundation, ecru lipstick and butternut nail polish. She’d never worn jewellery. He’d always assumed she didn’t care about being attractive; now he realized she’d been making herself unattractive deliberately to reduce the likelihood of her parents being able to arrange an Eastern boyfriend for her.

Gerald’s dark thoughts roamed on to Ivy. For an eighteen-year-old she seemed horribly worldly-wise. It felt wonderful, without brainzapping, to let his thoughts range widely. He wondered what life was like on the western side of the planet. It was a shame there hadn’t been a chance to ask her. If they’d touched palms even for a few moments they could’ve shared a lifetime worth of experiences. They would’ve understood each other completely. It seemed improbable that living conditions could really be so very different across the barrier. Yet at the back of Gerald’s mind he knew that the West was different. No one he knew had crossed the border. Only unfortunate middle ranking officials went there. Their job was to stoke the anger, the resentment, the violence and the crime that the Master fed on. Whenever he’d thought about it before he’d received a brainzap for his troubles.

Gerald turned onto his side. “Curtains,” he said.

The house immediately responded.

 

 END OF EXCERPT

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Frank Ludlow

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