YOURS, FOREVER

23/3/20

Hard to ignore that date.

Even harder to ignore what’s happening around the world.

But we do what we can.

So here’s my third book, FOREVER BOOK ONE.

If you enjoy it, say something nice here.

If you want a hand stamped physical copy, get in touch, or order it from Amazaba if you really must.

The sequel, FOREVE2, is linked at the end.

Prequels are here and here

forever cover

Chapter 1

GIMME SHELTER

The year 2030 wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d expect it to be. The end of oil, and, consequently, the end of the oil rich states, had ushered in a new spirit of cooperation between nations. It had been eight years since the end of the last Great War. Four years of unconscionable suffering on a global scale eventually petered out like a drunken punch-up in a pub car park. Bruised egos returned to the arms of their tolerant wives as the rest of the world tidied up afterwards. Eight years later, the world had returned to something approaching civilisation and were looking forward to a bright and peaceful future. Everywhere in the world, that is, except the country formally known as the United States of America.

The former leader of the free world was unrecognisable from the nation twenty years ago. A mass exodus of the population North, to Canada, and South, to Mexico, had led both neighbours to close the borders and build walls. The former 400 million strong population had been reduced to 400,000 rednecks, each and every one pledging allegiance to the ruling Tramp Dynasty.

King Barrett had succeeded his half-sister Ivanta who had inherited a mess of a nation from her other brothers. They, in turn, had seized control after a military coup was necessary to depose their despot father. It was Derek and Ron Jr that declared wars on three fronts against Russia, China and California and it was the brothers that jointly became the first leaders of a nation to use nuclear weapons on their own people.

Refugees bolstered the economies of the North American Alliance (NAA), the newly formed nation consisting of the former Canadian and Mexican territories, who were connected by an underground hyperloop developed by Elon Musk. The track travelled beneath the mid-west states that had been most devastated by the Tramp brothers scorched earth approach to Homeland Security. Young King Barrett acceded to the throne vacated by War Queen Ivanta, who had returned to the world of fashion, and rebranded the once proud union of states in his own image. Welcome to Tramp Kingdom Maximus, aka TKMax.

Isolated from a world appalled by its actions, TKMax struggled to find its own sources of energy. With Texan oil gone and Wisconsin coal still elusive, the Tramps turned to wood to fire its power stations and a savage deforestation programme stripped the planet of 25% of its trees. Teams of environmentalists valiantly attempted a one-for-one tree planting operation, but the end of the 2020s saw a carbon bankrupt, oxygen starved planet. The Last Great War had taken two billion lives, but the new, ‘thin air’ was also taking its toll. Strenuous exertion was almost impossible, and most humans slept for around fifteen hours each day. Living at any altitude was challenging and so communities headed for the beach for the comparatively rich air that sea-level provided.

The former Russian state had undergone its own tribulations and had emerged with its own new name and leadership. In a bizarre spectacle, streamed around the world, President Puffin had wrestled his challengers for the leadership. In the final bout, a pink balaclava wearing riot grrrl had triumphed and Russia was rechristened Free States Of Pussia. Taking up the mantle of leaders of the free world, Pussia spread its inspiring agenda of equality and punk rock across the globe and many developing nations scrapped elections in favour of wrestling bouts. But these were the only instances of violence still occurring outside of TKMax and the free world focussed on building a better future together. Things were going well until one person changed the world forever. That person was The Glitch.

Sample City wasn’t exactly the kind of place you’d raise your kids. But millions did. And millions more wanted to. The collapse of the world’s financial systems and in some places, money itself, had led to some innovative new ways of survival. In Sample City, everything was free, but portions were small. A warehouse in the outskirts of Sample City had been responsible for the processing and packaging of millions of food giveaways, each vacuum packed for eternal freshness. Once looting had died down, a cooperative community swiftly developed, based around the sustainable rationing of these food samples. In time, the small plastic pouches became a currency of their own, used in the bartering of services and favours. If you collected enough of these pouches, someone, somewhere, would help you kill a man.

Jet and Sky were twins. They had lived in Sample City for all of their twelve years. Jet was an irrepressible fireball of energy, bouncing through life from one caper to another. For Jet, to stand still was to deny the entropy of the universe, the inexorable march towards chaos and disorder. Well, to tell the truth, she thought life was “dead” and “sad” and “well boring”. Her personality was born out of Sample City and she thrived in her environment. If it wasn’t for her, Jet thought, her sister would be dead.

Sky was identical physically in every way to her sister, but her calm, tranquil nature made her easily distinguishable from Jet. Sky knew that it took more than outlandish schemes and cheeky scams to get by in Sample City. If it wasn’t for her, Sky thought, her sister would be dead.

Jet and Sky lived together in an improvised shelter on the perimeter of The Warehouse. They had become separated from their parents two years earlier and had survived on their own ever since. Every week, Jet would visit the markets in the North of the city, hoping to be reunited with her parents. But two years was a long time when you were their age and the memory of their parents’ faces was starting to fade. Pretty soon, their mother could be stood directly in front of her and she wouldn’t even recognise her. But Jet, brought home the bacon, literally sometimes, and it was down to Sky to ration out what they had. Preserving the past to safeguard their future.

Today, Jet returned from the market with a skip and a swagger to her walk that made Sky certain of two things. Jet had got into some kind of trouble, but things had turned out OK, and, Jet had a surprise to reveal to Sky. Normally, the trouble would involve a pouch market trader failing to appreciate Jet’s irrepressible joie de vivre and an argument developing. Normally, the surprise would involve a salvaged toy or magazine from before things went to shit. Normally, Jet would save her surprise and tales of misadventure to just before they went to sleep, and invariably they would stay up all night buzzing over the events of the day. This was not such a bad thing. In Sample City, the night time was worst time to be asleep.

But today was different. Jet was not going to let this story wait until bedtime. In fact, the surprise would mean there would be no bedtime that night.

“Oh, you so should have been there”, Jet began

Sky tensed, braced herself and then relaxed into her mattress. This was going to be a long one.

“So, I get off the shuttle and I can see straight away that something is going down in market and so could everyone else who are all like trying to make out what it is that they can see and we all start running like together towards this massive lorry thing that is parked right in the middle with like all neon and chrome on and as we got closer I could see that the crowd were surrounding the lorry and then I could see the lorry rocking from side to side and then I got around the back and could see these like five guys inside and they were like handing out free shit like drinks and pouches but they were like pouches bigger than I’ve ever seen and inside the van was this other guy who was wearing shades and smoking a fat cigar and this guy next to me says look at that cunt there I reckon he’s got a Bono Complex and I said Bono who and the guy just said yeah Bono who and then the lorry really started to rock I reckon they got scared and the van starts to drive off but the driver couldn’t see nothing and went straight into that statue of that guy who you know is in charge and stuff and so all the guys in the lorry climb onto the roof of it fuck knows why and then the mob strips the lorry bare of pouches and just leave the five guys on the top of their fucked up lorry and I won’t lie to you they looked scared and I felt sorry for them because they looked like they were only trying to help out the people but folks were angry because not everyone got pouches and even those that did were angry because they were full of skanky brown rice that you got to cook before you can even eat it and I want to help them and get the crowd away from them because they look like they want to smash shit up and so I did the only thing I could think of to move a crowd like that quickly and I climb on the top of a stall and scream Ice Kreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaammmm Van”

“Why” said Sky shaken out of her doze by the pitch of Jet’s scream.

“Because everyone loves Ice Kream and this one time at the market just after mum and dad went there was this Ice Kream delivery van that got lost and ended up in the market and he stops for directions and the place went mad with people shouting ‘Ice Kream’ like some mad game of Chinese Whispers except everyone is screaming and they mobbed the van and stole all the Ice Kream Pouches and even the delivery guys hat which was pretty cool I’ve got to say cos it had these two cones either side of the peak and they had a flake in each of them and on the front of the cap it said Make Mine A Ninety Nine and so anyway people just started to leg it towards the road cos they thought there would be some other guy that got lost and had Ice Kream Pouches that they could rip from the guy and maybe another cool Make Mine A Ninety Nine cap that they could trade with those guys that are into that kind of retro stuff and so the crowd just went and left the five guys on the roof of the lorry and then their driver comes round and helps them down and says the van is fucked and what are they going to do now and jumped down of my stall and showed them this cool hidey hole that I know round the back of the pet pouches stall and so we’re all sat in this room and this guy who was the driver introduced himself as Brown Darren and I said what the flip kind of name was that and he said it was on account of his previous dealings in what might have been regarded as highly dangerous narcotics back in the day and then he says do you know what you did there girl you saved the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet from being eaten alive and I said what is rock ‘n’ roll and he said do you mean you don’t know who these gentlemen are and then he says young lady may I present to you The Ontological Agnostics”

“Who?” said Sky, suspecting that this tale was only just beginning.

“That’s what I said and the bloke took a long toke of his NikStik and said they are huge and mega mega famous and they were in Sample City to help out with the poor and that but then tonight right they are playing their biggest ever gig at the Dyson Space Centre and on account of me like saving their lives old Brown Darren said he could get us tickets and transport and something called access all areas which sounded a bit weird but then I said I had a sister and Brown Darren said was you as cool as me and I said I can’t lie and that you weren’t but I still loved you and wouldn’t go anywhere without you so I gave him the GPS of this place and he said he’d send an Über and I said Übers don’t come down here no more cos of all the kids pranking them with nicked SIMs and he said he can make Über go wherever whenever with whoever he wants’

“Whatever”, sighed Sky, “We’re not actually going, are we?”

“Of course we are don’t be lame this is a chance for us both to fill our bellies with free food at them backstage parties that they have and wait do you reckon they will have strawberry jelly cos I haven’t tasted that in a long time and it always makes me think of Mum and how she would sometimes put them little oranges in with the boiling water…”

“Mandarins” added Sky

No, it’s no Chinese shit and anyway I hope the party has jelly and cakes and pop and…”

“I don’t think it will be that kind of party,” Sky said softly, trying not to burst Jet’s bubble.

“Look, I don’t care what you think you know about parties and that we are going and I want to get myself some jelly and that and look I even nicked us some new clothes to put on so we fit in and don’t look all out of place and that so I’m not taking no for an answer not this time you’ve got twenty minutes to get ready and you better not mess things up with Brown Darren and the rest of the group cos I think we could get a bit of money out of this if we do it right and maybe we could have a few weeks of buying decent pouches and some new clothes and some new trainers I mean look at the way my toe flaps like a Hungry Hippo when I’m walking no Sky no I’ve made up my mind this is happening this is a thing maybe you know it is fate or something that made it happen and you know we deserve it for how things have been since we lost our Mum and Dad.”

 

“OK. OK. White flag. I give up. You’re right. We do deserve it. It’s just, you know, quite a shock”

“That’s OK sis I still love you and want to treat you right so fifteen minutes yeah get yourself ready I’m just going out to see if Judi will lend me her trainers for tonight”

And with that, she was gone. The whirlwind that was her sister. Sky snuggled back into her mattress and allowed herself a smile. But whenever things like this happened, it made Sky sad. Sad because she would never get the chance to tell Mum about it. It was just her and Jet now. When you lose your parents, you lose part of your life. The two people who were there to see you grow up and saw things and told you about things that you were too young to remember. Now they were gone, there would always be gaps in her life that no one could fill in and the gaps made for very shaky foundations.

With a heavy sigh and a jolt of self-inflicted motivation, Sky got out of her bed and looked at the clothes Jet had got for her. They were pretty, not really her style, but she wanted to try them out and see how she felt. Feeling anything would be nice right now.

Padre Rodrigo Camacho had lost his faith. If pressed to say where, he would say ‘somewhere along The Orinoco’. For the last twenty years, he had dedicated himself to his church, his mission, his flock. His sermons were renowned across Venezuela for their passion and intensity. But not for Camacho, the fire and brimstone he had witnessed at seminary college, spat forth by the previous generation. For Camacho, his passion was for social justice and extraordinary things that communities were capable of. He was a Marxist the Pope could get along with, a Catholic that Marx would tolerate.

He saw the broken world as something worth fixing. He saw its inhabitants as volunteers in waiting. He alone could see the big picture, but he was remarkably adept at communicating this to the bit-part players, who were unaware of the harmonious symphony they were creating.

His first posting was Cuidad Guayana, a port city split in two by The Orinoco. His church was in the old town of San Félix, North of the River. Jesucristo Resucitado was in a bad way, ill-equipped to serve its 11 barrios and some 65,000 parishioners. Gang violence was tearing the community apart and robberies were an almost weekly occurrence. He had joined a team of around forty priests, the majority of which were already jaded way beyond their years by the endless uphill battle they were faced with. It was the sort of assignment that could end a career before it had even begun. But for young Padre Camacho, this was something worth fighting for.

On his first day’s orientation tour, the focus was on how to defuse conflict and the parts of the chapel to avoid when it was raining.

‘But why not just fix the roof?’, he asked naively.

‘With what?’, came the reply. ‘What we have keeps us fed and sheltered. Our prayers for help, are heard by a God with little to spare. We know that most of us will die in this place and eventually this place will die with us.’

‘So that’s it, is it? Our lives devoted not to God and his children, but to bucketing the drips and shuffling the bolos. This should not be our lives. This will not be our lives. I swear an oath and pledge my life to this. This church will not die.’

‘You have passion, Padre Camacho, but you would be wise to reserve your energy for your duties. It is God’s Will alone that shapes our future. This church is in His hands. Your spirit is impressive, but not, I’m afraid, unique. Many young Padres before you have pledged what they cannot deliver and been broken by the experience. I myself, spoke much like you a decade ago. Your service to the church will be defined by longevity not naïveté.’

Back in his dormitory, Camacho shared his frustration with the other young Padres, looking for a kindred spirit. He found no one. In fact, the opposition there was greater. It was here he met Padre Santiago.

“Glory? What glory? In Guayana? In the barrios? OK, let’s hear it,” taunted Santiago.

“Well at college we studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”

“Who?”

“That’s not important. What is important is what he said. He talked about the things important to people.”

“In Guayana, it’s dope and fucking. If you don’t get one, you make up with the other.”

Camacho smiled and acknowledged the wit of his peer.

“What Maslow said was there was a continuum of needs, represented by a pyramid. Without the foundations, you couldn’t build any higher.”

“You mean like Brazilian Pyramids. All ruined now.”

“Well, maybe, yes. A pyramid built with strong foundations will last an eternity, outliving the weather and the jungle and the conquistadors. If we want to rebuild this church we need to give our congregation strong foundations, something to keep them coming back.”

“Oh, look he gets it. He wants to give them dope and pussy.”

“No”, Camacho replied, “What we need to do is to address their physiological needs. Good food, clean water. A place to rest and shelter.”

“And where the hell are you getting this from. Food don’t grow on trees you know.”

The other padres howled with laughter. This young padre was out of his depth. He was about to be put in his place.

Unperturbed, Camacho loosened the priest collar around his neck and pressed on.

“You make a good point, Padre. Allow me to address it. We get the food and water from the Tupamaros.”

“Tupamaros? Are you insane? We have enough trouble with Guayana gangs and you want to bring in the very worst that El 23 de Enero has to offer.”

“I do. And not just for food and water. They are going to give us our next level of the pyramid – security.”

Padre Santiago spat out his whiskey.

“Someone call a priest. This man is possessed by a spirit. He needs an exorcism!”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But what I do need, from all of you, is five more minutes of your time.  Five minutes, that’s all. Hear my plan, without interruptions and then decide. If you listen to everything I say, and you dismiss it, then I will go. I will leave Guayana and you can stay and watch this church, this city, this nation, crumble to dust. But if you listen and like what you hear, then you must commit right here, right now, your mind, your body and your spirit to this cause.”

Padre Santiago climbed to his feet, lit a cigarette and headed for the door.

“You’ve got the time it takes for me to smoke this, Camacho. Then I’m coming back in to help you pack.”

The rest of dormitory shuffled with unease. The discussion had been lively and amusing to a point, but now the confrontation and Santiago’s ultimatum had soured the air. They respectfully gave the Padre his five minutes.

“The Tupamaro are not what you think they are. Their goals are not so different from ours. It is just that they do not do it because they are being judged. They do it, because they know it is right in their hearts. They are running out of time and friends in Caracas. The government is mobilising the army to clear them from the streets of El 23 de Enero. But I have a proposal for them. They come to Guayana. Strategically the river and the port make this city a good base for them. They can have a base over the river on the side of the Amazon, but over on the North side, they will be winning hearts and minds in the barrios. They will clear the streets of the drug gangs and protect our parishioners. In return, our parishioners will give their time to the cause of the Tupamaro. The government brand them as Marxists and maybe they are, but at the heart of their beliefs is the notion of community, of the power of the masses over the ruling classes. I see Marxists as good Christians who just don’t believe in God. With their help, the pyramid grows as our community spirit is reignited as they see what can be accomplished by working together. The people of this city do not feel they can accomplish anything. They do not feel they are valued. That will change and if we are successful the Tupamaro will have an army of volunteers, ready to join the cause.”

“We all came here for different reasons. But we all want to serve God and have Him make a difference through us. The Tupamaro also have a guy with a long white beard. I think we can help each other. So, are you with me?”

Silence.

A distant Police siren.

Outside, in the street, a bottle is smashed on the ground.

And then a clap. Then another. Clap upon clap upon clap. A crescendo of applause broke out across the room. Santiago appeared in the door way and then retreated outside. Camacho breathed a deep sigh of relief. He was exhausted, but exhilarated. It had begun.

The Tupamaro came. There was resistance in the barrios initially, but gang crime was obliterated in weeks. With less to fear, parishioners flocked to the church. They bought food for those less well off. Tradesmen gave their time to fix leaky chapels, repair pews and plumb in fresh water. The Marxists could see they were onto a good thing and turned a blind eye to the preaching. Camacho was right. They both believed in the same things.

The Tupamaro had failed in Caracas because their target was too big and too near the eyes of the government. Here, with their backs to the jungle, they presided over their own Marxist utopia and Camacho’s counsel kept their feet on the ground. The city was enough.  For now. Wait a generation, then the nation would come to them.

Camacho’s superiors had, of course, hated the whole idea. But attendance was up, to the point of expanding the church and you could preach from anywhere inside without fear of standing under a leak.

For many of the older padres, these were days that they never dreamed that they would see and ultimately wasn’t religion always about compromises anyway?

Then, one day, in August of 2017, Camacho received a letter from Rome. His achievements had been noted and his talents were required elsewhere. He was to travel West along the Orinoco to the Yanomami people and set up a mission. He would be assisted on his assessment by Padre Santiago. Santiago had watched Camacho’s dream become a reality, with begrudging respect, but never let any of it show. Rome felt that he too needed a new challenge.

Camacho considered an appeal to the Vatican. He felt that his work was not yet complete. But all his reasons to want to stay were selfish. The Yanomami would be another challenge and that is what motivated him.

They would be gone for six months. Those that knew them said they never came back.

Boyd King was restless. This was not a new feeling for him. The last five years working at the shipyards had been great. Well, OK. For the first time in his life he’d felt part of something. Something bigger.

The fallout from Space Force had been an escalation in military operations in the ionosphere. Orbital shipping lanes criss-crossed the Earth’s outer atmosphere and with traffic came litter. Litter that orbits the planet at 500 metres per second. Hardware was getting damaged. A solution was sought.

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders yard was retooled for mass production of dredgers, huge waste recycling ships scooping up the orbital detritus that was causing the military so much trouble. The vast majority of the waste was scrap metal that was repurposed onboard the dredgers into expansion modules. Essentially, once up in space, the dredgers grew and grew, collecting more and more waste with every orbit. Over the course of a year, the onboard population would rise to that of a small city. The dredgers needed skilled labourers more than scientists and astronauts.

Boyd had three years’ experience of working in the UCS gyro production facility back on Earth and had been offered a year-long secondment onboard the William Wallace, a B-class dredger on the verge of an upgrade. Its geostationary above the equator had given it a plentiful supply of waste metal to recycle and its successful expansion to the brink of A-Class was something the whole of Scotland were proud of.

The Accelerated Space Acclimatisation Program was tough. Intensive training from dusk ‘til dawn, seven days a week. Not everyone made it through. Not everyone made it home.  But Boyd thrived. His ability to turn his hand to anything had served him well. Metalwork, woodwork, paintwork, whatever. He impressed the supervisors. They gave him a team. His team of seventeen would be responsible for the construction of a new lab on the William Wallace. The lab would be investigating low temperature smelting of waste metal using experimental gyro-tech. A break through was expected.

His shuttle was leaving The Dyson Space Centre tomorrow. It was supposed to be tonight, but a benefit concert had been scheduled at the last minute for the people of Sample City. A whole bunch of fucking do-gooders, with The Ontological Agnostics headlining. He really didn’t need another reason to hate this group. His ex-wife worshipped the ground they walked on.

Ross Monro was restless. This was not a new feeling for him. The last five years working at the shipyards had been great. Well, OK. For the first time in his life he’d felt part of something. Something bigger.

The fallout from Space Force had been an escalation in military operations in the ionosphere. Orbital shipping lanes criss-crossed the Earth’s outer atmosphere and with traffic came litter. Litter that orbits the planet at 500 metres per second. Hardware was getting damaged. A solution was sought.

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders yard was retooled for mass production of dredgers, huge waste recycling ships scooping up the orbital detritus that was causing the military so much trouble. The vast majority of the waste was scrap metal that was repurposed onboard the dredgers into expansion modules. Essentially, once up in space, the dredgers grew and grew, collecting more and more waste with every orbit. Over the course of a year, the onboard population would rise to that of a small city. The dredgers needed skilled labourers more than scientists and astronauts.

Ross had three years’ experience of working in the UCS gyro production facility back on Earth and had been offered a year-long secondment onboard the William Wallace, a B-class dredger on the verge of an upgrade. Its geostationary above the equator had given it a plentiful supply of waste metal to recycle and its successful expansion to the brink of A-Class was something the whole of Scotland were proud of.

The Accelerated Space Acclimatisation Program was tough. Intensive training from dusk ‘til dawn, seven days a week. Not everyone made it through. Not everyone made it home.  But Ross thrived. His ability to turn his hand to anything had served him well. Metalwork, woodwork, paintwork, whatever. He impressed the supervisors. They gave him a team. His team of seventeen would be responsible for the construction of a new shield on the William Wallace. The new shield was expected to be able to withstand a direct collision with another dredger.

His shuttle was leaving The Dyson Space Centre tomorrow. It was supposed to be tonight, but a benefit concert had been scheduled at the last minute for the people of Sample City. A whole bunch of fucking do-gooders, with The Ontological Agnostics headlining. He really didn’t need another reason to hate this group. His ex-wife worshipped the ground they walked on.

RealElon was bored. His simulations had all reached some kind of plateau or other. Years would pass in between the arrival of any new, interesting data. Of the twenty-three existing simulations, he had ‘involved’ himself with five of them, some on a regular basis. If the simulation was going badly or he wanted to act as a catalyst for something to happen, he’d add himself, sometimes discretely, sometimes less so. He amused himself with anagrams, hiding in plain sight.

Elon O’Pan

Elon Mars N Grit

Elon Demonds

Elon Aroma

Elon Skum

He was a man of science, unbiased and empirically focussed, but he had his favourites. The simulations he watched grow from birth, the ones where he’d intervened just a little bit too much. So, it was rather upsetting when systems monitoring Sim#23 detected a glitch.

Chapter 2

EMOTIONAL RESCUE

What’s your oldest memory?

Playing in the park?

Sitting on your Grandad’s knee?

Your starring role in the school Nativity?

Are they memories?

Or memories of photographs you’ve seen?

Or stories you’ve been told?

Scientists tells us that the infant brain is incapable of making long-term memories before the age of three. They also tell us that from the age of seven childhood amnesia begins and so by the hormone rush of our teens, very little is remembered outside of that for which we have outside help.

Imagine remembering when you were born. Imagine remembering when you entered the simulation.

Lucy Cassandra Taylor worked in the budgeting department of RESCUE, a UK based charity committed to supporting the nation’s three million homeless and those living in temporary shelters. Her responsibilities centred around what was called ‘event poverty’, or ‘high profile crises that have a detrimental effect to the health and safety of more than 5000 people over a 24-hour period’ as her job description, so compassionately explained.  She wanted to work for a charity for all the usual reasons – make a difference, change the world, etc – but she did not enjoy the bureaucracy that came with the job. Only an appalling cynic could survive in a workplace like this.

So, she adapted. Detached herself from the ‘service users’ and ‘calamity zones’. Put up walls of cynicism to protect her from the realisation that hers was a thankless task. A drop in the ocean to what needed to be done. Her job was to make sure RESCUE did enough. Just enough. No more.

Her PC folder names spoke volumes. FLOOD 2. TOWER BLOCK TRAGEDIES. STARVING SCOTCH. THE DISASTER FUND COLLECTION.

She lived in Santa Maria on Thames, a few miles down the road from her parents, Justin and Jane. All three were added to Sim#23, twenty years ago.

Tonight, Lucy had drawn the short straw. She was representing RESCUE at the benefit concert at The Dyson Space Centre. Her limo had been waiting outside for five minutes.

Her boss had told her that this was a reward for her hard work during the previous quarter, hitting all her targets. But if she’d not hit those targets then there would be no budget for the charity funded limo, or her rented outfit and jewellery.

Her charity work gave a lot a people a life of luxury and she hated herself for that. She had had enough. Tomorrow, she would resign. Take a break. Live off her savings for a while. Live off the money, she made diverting it away from those that needed it.

But tonight, she had obligations. Not to her boss or his bullshit charity. She had promised to go to keep her friend Lauren company. Lauren loved The Ontological Agnostics, so much so she’d divorced her first husband and tonight was Lauren’s chance to meet her idols, but she needed Lucy there for emotional support.

Lauren had already messaged Lucy three times asking where she was. Lucy wanted to be in the limo when message number four arrived.

Padre Camacho was met at the airport by his limo driver, Vinnie. Vinnie was on the staff of The Ontological Agnostics as a driver. The band had enjoyed his New York cabbie patter when they played their first gigs in TKMax. Their first single, Transform, had just blown up around the globe, changing their lives forever. When he dropped them off at the airport at the end of their tour, Josh, the drummer had joked that he wished they could take Vinnie home with them. An all too eager to please record company executive took them at their word and within a few days Vinnie was packing a single case on the promise of a job of a lifetime as The OAs preferred driver.

When he arrived in London, Vinnie was dismayed to see that there were plenty of others signed up on similar whims. Sushi Chefs from Osaka, security from the Ukraine, carpenters from Liverpool. Together they made up The OA Krew, a United Nations of painful racial stereotypes put together to give the group a façade of respectability. They were dicks, Vinnie knew it, everyone knew it, but every now and again they had an outside chance of making the world a little bit better.

Not with their music. Christ no. The best thing they could do for the planet was not make any more records. But, somewhere, underneath the drugs and the egos, there was a heart and a determination to do good.

And so, Vinnie found himself collecting this Venezuelan activist so that they could have him in their VIP area, beamed around the world.

“So, Padre, is it right to call you Padre?”

“Yes. That is fine. That is how some people address me.”

“OK. Yes, Padre what brings you to The Dyson Space Centre on this fine August evening?”

“I have a message for the world.”

“Oh, right and what would that message be, Padre?”

“You will hear it soon enough.”

“C’mon man. After I drop you off, I’ve got to go back to the airport to collect two or three of the King Francisco Malabo Beosà XXIII’s. Then I’ve got to clean and polish this limo. I doubt if I’ll hear a note of music tonight, which, between you and me, is no bad thing. So, just give me a little taste…”

“The world, the universe, time itself is changing. We do not have much time left…”

“Okay, sounds, err, great. I feel your pain, man, but I do my bit, electric limo, soap free detergent to clean the bodywork. I’ve got a recycle bin at home.”

“Too late, my friend. I’m afraid that even The Ontological Agnostics cannot help you now. Do not go back to the airport. Do not clean this car. Go home. Surround yourself with the ones you love. Make peace with you God. He is real. As real as you want him to be. But He cannot change our future.”

“Woah, you’re scaring me, Padre. If you’re saying what I think you’re saying… how long do, we have?”

“Weeks, months, but not years.”

“How…how…how do you know this?”

“That, my friend is a story for another time.”

“But, you said we don’t have time.”

“Then we will make time. But first you have to believe that is possible…”

The limo pulled up to the security gate and Vinnie showed his ID to Artem. Vinnie steered the limo into the red carpeted entrance and the Padre got out. Vinnie sat, the engine of the limo ticking over.

Sky watched the amber lights of Sample City fade into the distance through the driver’s rear-view mirror. She wished that they were going somewhere else. Never returning. But she knew that tonight was all they had. Tomorrow they would wake up in Sample City again.

She focussed again on her sister. Well, what she could see of her sister. Jet had climbed through the sunroof and her dangling feet were all that Sky could see. The headlights of passing cars illuminated Jet’s footwear. A size too big for her – she’d pushed a sock into the ends – and a dazzling white, very recently resprayed to cover up the yellowing leather.

Subconsciously, she shuffled along the seat to keep Jet’s leg in grabbing distance. She’d warned her that it wasn’t safe, but there was no reasoning with Jet tonight.

This evening was the universe’s gift to them. A lucky break was giving them a night to remember. It was important that they made memories tonight. Good memories to blot out the bad. This might be their only chance.

The driver indicated and pulled onto the slip road. Jet banged the roof in celebration.

“Sis, sis, sis. I can see it, I can see it, the Dyson Space Thingy, there are so many lights, so many colours, and lasers, sis, there’s lasers. Sis, can you see ‘em, sis, can you?”

“Yes, Jet, I can see them. It’s beautiful. And you can see them too, if you come and sit next to me. We don’t want to cause any trouble for this nice driver, do we?”

Jet dropped back down into the car, fake curtsied to her non-existent audience and sat next to Sky. As they hugged each other in anticipation, Sky could feel Jet’s heart beating out of her chest, or maybe it was her own.

Jet looked up.

“Thanks for doing this, sis. I know you didn’t really want to come, but it will be so worth it when we get there, won’t it, sis, won’t it?”

Sky sighed.

“It will be, at least I hope it will be. Now, you have to promise to stick by me. I don’t want to worry about where you’ve gone or what you’re doing. We can do whatever you want, tonight, but we have to do it together. I want us to make memories tonight that last forever.”

“Forever, sis?”

“Yes, Jet. Forever. If we stay together, we can make sure we remember what happens, whatever it is.”

“OK, sis. We’ll stick together. I don’t want you to worry. When we get there can we get something to eat you know from the party food that they have for all the VIPs and that? I want to have crisps and sandwiches and chicken, oh god I’ve missed chicken, and them pastry things with the prawns in and sausages on sticks and cheese on sticks with a bit of pineapple which is weird but it is tasty and then some cakes and fizzy pop, please let there be fizzy pop. Will they have pop, sis?”

“I hope so, Jet. But be careful with how much you drink. You don’t want to make yourself sick. Just take it steady. Have some food, then have a break, enjoy what’s going on and then have a bit more. OK?”

“OK, sis. Look we’re here.”

The Über pulled up at the security checkpoint. Artem scanned the backseat passengers, rechecked the note from Brown Darren and, with a shrug, raised the barrier.

Commander Wilson approached the lectern to address the room. The UCS crews shifted nervously in their seats. The commander’s face did not suggest good news.

“Thank you everyone, for meeting here at such short notice. I appreciate that many of you were looking forward to a final bit of R&R before tomorrow’s launch. I’ve gathered you here to advise you of a change in the mission’s schedule. As you are all aware, the launch had been previously delayed to allow for the staging of this evening’s benefit concert. I appreciate that many of you were frustrated by this decision. I also appreciate that many of you were actually looking forward to attending the concert. I’m speaking to you now to inform you of another change in the schedule…”

“Oh, what fuck’s going on?”, Boyd grumbled.

The commander continued.

“The schedule has been changed to bring forward the launch. At the request of representatives of The Ontological Agnostics, this evenings show will climax with the launch of your shuttle, synchronised to their performance of their new single. The flight crew are already in position and fuelling and pre-flight checks are taking place. A transporter will be ready to take you to the launch pad at 2300 hours.

“Bullshi…”, Boyd heckled.

“Sir, I appreciate your contribution on this issue, but can we please remain civil. In exchange for the early launch time, this facility will receive a huge cash donation from the artists.”

“How much?”, Boyd countered.

“A significant amount.”

“How significant?”

“Very significant.”

“OK. Will we see any of it?”

“I have negotiated an increase in your mission bonuses. A significant increase.”

Boyd rose from his seat.

“Well, I want fucking double.”

“Mr. King! Sit down and stop these outbursts. If you let me finish, then you can all hear that there will be a five-fold increase in your payments. I trust that is significant enough, Mr. King”

“Oh, that just fine,” Boyd conceded.

Lucy Taylor’s limo was stuck in traffic. In her head she could hear Lauren saying, ‘I told you so.’ Then her mobile rang. It was Lauren calling to say, ‘I told you so.’

The limo-driver’s sat-nat suggested another 20 or so minutes, even with the traffic. Lucy apologised, got more grief from Lauren and then, with a deep, deep sigh, hung up.

This is just typical. Fucking typical. Bullshit brings more and more bullshit. I’m going to get grief when I get there. Grief from Lauren, grief from my dick of a boss. There’s only one way that tonight’s going to be bearable.

She unzipped the inside pocket of her bag and lifted out a small inch long vial with a dropper at one end. After she resigned, the plan was to reacquaint herself with micro-dosing. She’d done it through most of her college years, everyone she knew did, and then gradually she’d cut back until now, when she couldn’t remember when the last time was.

An ex-boyfriend had put her in touch with a guy from Hackney, Dave or Don or Damon, something like that and she’d scored some DMT paste, very diluted, to ‘homeo-psycho-pathic levels’ as the dealer had told her. ‘Real smooth. No sharp edges.’

The limo-driver was deep in conversation with his boss on the speaker phone, so she seized the moment and squeezed two drops onto her tongue. It tasted of strawberry. Strawberry and ketchup. Strawberry and ketchup and plastic. As the after-taste got steadily worse, she popped in a mint to take the worst of it away. In twenty minutes time, I can walk into the room like fucking Wonder Woman, bulletproof, bullshit-proof even. What’s the worst that could happen? Fire me? I’m walking out tomorrow.

Lucy glanced at the sat-nav. Journey time 45 minutes. She kicked off her shoes, put her head against the cool glass of the limo’s window and gazed in the direction of The Dyson Space Centre. A rainbow haze of lights duetted with the setting sun.

The show had started.

Over there.

And over here.

She preferred it here.

Padre Camacho sat quietly in the green room. The steady thud of rock music made its way through the floor above, while a playlist of ironic cocktail lounge cover songs did its best to compete. Padre Camacho took a sip of his water and closed his eyes, focussing on the distant thuds. He was transported back to Venezuela, back to the Orinoco, back to his journey west to the Yanomami territories.

It was all still there. The buzz of the Amazon, the bubble of the Orinoco, the babble of Padre Santiago.

They had been told to tread carefully. The Yanomami had been less than civil to the gold prospectors that came hundred years earlier. They were advised to keep their distance, earn the trust of the Elders, Rome wouldn’t be built in a day. Or a week. They had six months and shouldn’t contemplate coming home any sooner. This was a Godless place that needed to be blessed.

His stomach was knotted, but he was not nervous. This would test his faith even more than San Félix. But this time, he was on his own. Padre Santiago’s faith was long gone. He was just along for the ride.  And he’d brought all of his demons along too.

When their boat reached Yanomami territory, everything changed. The river was silent, the jungle chattered with echoed chants, some animal in nature, some not.

The engine of the boat spluttered to a halt and their captain gestured towards the small piragua boat that they had being towing. El Capitán made it clear. They were on their own now. God would take them further down the river.

Padre Santiago snapped out of his slumber and began remonstrating about how disrespectful this was, but the captain saw that this was man who did not even respect himself anymore. To Padre Comancho, he offered a more consolatory shrug and a handshake that both wished good luck and helped Camacho into the boat. With both padres on board, the captain handed over the first of the two trunks they had brought with them. With the first on board, he feigned to have forgotten something and then fired up the engine and U-turned upstream along with the second trunk, the one with the silver and gold tributes they had bought for the Yanomami.

Another shrug from the captain and then he was gone, the waves from the wake of his boat’s propeller gently rocking the piragua.

Santiago rose to his feet to chastise the captain, but his already shaky legs couldn’t balance the piragua and the two padres found themselves in the Orinoco, clinging to a capsized hull.

Several minutes of struggle, mostly from Camacho righted the piragua, but once they were both safely sat at each end, they were struck with the revelation of their predicament. The trunk had gone, too heavily laden with bibles and clothing, and so were their oars.

Santiago was dumbstruck and seemed a little scared. Camacho gave a resigned smile as he remembered an old English metaphor he had heard at University.

And then, without words, he repositioned himself with his head over the bow of the piragua, and his arms in a cruciform. And he started to paddle.

Sometimes, he paddled with his head up. Sometimes, he paddled with his head face down. When his arms began to ache, he took short breaks as he stretched out the lactic acid, but he knew that every minute of respite would allow the relentless Orinoco to drag the piragua back down stream and further away from their destination.

Camacho’s God was testing him.

When night came, the current of the river seemed to relent, but in the total darkness around him, he could no longer assess progress. Eventually, his spirit could do no more and he collapsed into a deep sleep.

He was woken just after dawn, initially by the grunting snores of Santiago, then by the damp wood pressed onto his cheek.

Then he heard voices.

Children’s voices.

A language he didn’t recognise, but a language he could comprehend.

These were excited children.

About a dozen.

He raised his head.

He was back in the green room.

And there were new arrivals in the VIP area.

“Oh… My… God… Did you see that guys face he was all ready to like chuck us all out and then I just flashed him my plastic and then he was like ‘oh I dooo apologise is there anything I can get you’ and I was like yeah man get us all some cokes big cokes with ice but not too much and straws and then some pizza meaty pizza deep crust and he was like ‘straight away madam’ to me he like I’m some lady from a big house and then he goes and another of them security guys comes us and I flash my plastic like a real VIP and then that lady from the news is asking me all questions about what happened in the market today and I was just saying ‘no comment’ to everything just like Brown Darren told me to and he was winking at me and I was winking back not like in a sick way but cos I was doing what he said and it was funny to see the look on that stupid woman’s face when I said nothing cos she was expecting to like get all the juicy details and then all our cokes and pizzas turned up and the guy said ‘Is this reporter bothering you?’ and he took her away and we was all just laughing and eating pizza and drinking our cokes like kings and queens like superstars like the VIPS we are”

Sky never failed to be amazed how Jet could meet some new kids and become their troublemaker-in-chief within minutes. As they were queuing on the red carpet to get their VIP passes, Jet started talking to a group of teenagers in front of them. They were there as guests of the RESCUE charity because they were all in a flood or something. Five minutes later, they were running around backstage like they owned the place. Sky was more than content to sit back, and watch Jet have her fun. If Jet was the ringleader, she was much less likely to be led astray.

With Jet occupied with her new-found friends, Sky could take time to appreciate her surroundings. The food serving area was monopolised by Jet and her new friends. Over by the bar, Brown Darren held court, surrounded by a dozen or so reporters, all there for the exclusive interview they’d been promised. In the middle of the room, waiters topped up the drinks in the plastic cups of politicians and celebrities, while trying not interrupt their plastic conversions. Finally, on the edges of the room, Sky’s focus alternated between the room’s two most incongruous individuals.

Over in seated area, a young scientist shuffled uncomfortably. Occasionally, she would look up and attempt eye contact, followed by what seemed by a detailed mental analysis of why that wasn’t a good idea. This loop of tentative engagement followed by self-chastisement and recalculations, resembled a rigorous set of experiments to test an impossible hypothesis. Whilst this baffled and amused Sky in equal measure, a more informed observer would highlight this as typical of the work of Professor Campbell. It was her break through at CERN that had kickstarted the development of the KAOS drive, a fuel-less propulsion system for space exploration. The chance exposure of vanadium-23 to positively charged muons resulted in the first instance of cosmogenesis, the creation of a new universe inside an existing one.

Whilst this new universe existed only at a sub-quantum level, Campbell and her team of 22, theorised that the extreme unlikeliness of this event had had a rather unique consequence. A universe can exist alongside another quite comfortably, but it cannot exist within another. A quantum conflict began that had to be resolved. The only way for the fledgling universe to survive was to corrupt its own time line and exist within a loop, one zeptosecond in length. Beginning its life with zero entropy, the scientific measurement of disorder, the neo-universe’s brief looping existence generated the energy of a million suns every second and once this was harvested, applications were sought in the space program.

Tonight, would see the first commercial flight powered by a KAOS drive, although they had already been used on several successful TITAN missions. Once, the workers had been safely delivered to the William Wallace, the shuttle, KAOS23 would head off to Saturn’s largest moon to deliver the terraformers supplies.

The distance KAOS23 was thought to be capable of travelling to the outer planets of solar system, but Campbell had caused a minor controversy when she claimed that there was nothing to stop the KAOS drive taking it further. When asked just how far, Campbell had cryptically responded ‘to the end of the line’. She suggested that the only thing preventing exploration outside of our solar system was a human’s fragile mind. Even if aging could be slowed and life expectancy extended, our brains simply were not up to the job of such a trip.

Across the room from Professor Campbell, Sky spotted another woman in a state of distress.

Lucy Taylor was sat on the floor in the corner of the green room. The walls of the vertex cradled her shoulders. She had given up trying to talk several minutes ago. Now, she had decided it was too much to stand. As soon as she had made it into the VIP area, a text message told her that her prick of a boss wasn’t going to make it. Seconds later, Lauren texted to say that she was backstage in the dressing room of one of the evening’s support bands, E-Prime. But right now, Lucy had something more pressing to deal with.

The extended delay in the traffic jam had played havoc with Lucy’s DMT schedule. The lack of stimulus in the back of the limo had led Lucy to believe that she needed more paste. The visions Lucy was having now, suggested she was no longer in need of a limo. As was customary from her trips at college, the colour palate tended towards neons. Lucy would characterise her trips as time travel back to the 1980s. The other people in the green room shone metallic like robots, their polite chatter a hi-hat pattern to augment the thunderous sounds coming from the main stage directly above them. With her eyes open, the brightness of the room was akin to staring at the sun, but she was afraid to look away. Afraid to close her eyes.

With her eyes wide shut, her journey through another world was in full flow. Geometric patterns, simple in their nature, yet endlessly complex in their realisation morphed and mutated in her mind’s eye. Like a surrealist slide show, images came and went, staying long enough to be appreciated, but not to outstay their welcome. This was neither the time nor the place for such a journey and she’d never voyaged alone, but the vivid brightness of the real world forced her hand. She stretched out her legs, rested her head into the corner and set controls for the heart of the sun.

Swirling, green landscapes bubbled below as she flew in spiralling patterns above. Towers of frustums sprouted from the ground, positioned perfectly. One over there, another one here. Two more, three more, five more, eight more. In this alien landscape, she had never felt more at home. As the radius of her spirals grew she became aware of a many stepped pyramid far away in the distance. It was calling to her, pulling her towards it, not directly, but this was why her spirals were growing. Each loop travelled further, her progress towards the strange beacon imperceptible, but not troubling. She had all the time in the world.

Vast lakes, of silvery translucence, grew from raindrops in the greenery below. Spheres of golden light floated to the surface and then shot into the air, exploding as they reached her altitude. Each explosion begat another five spheres which soared higher still until exploding into another five and so on, again and again and again. The blue skies above were transformed into a sea of golden flames, that flickered and pulsed like the tide at the shore.

The spirals expanded further but so did the speed that she travelled. At the apex of each circle she caught a fleeting, instantaneous glimpse of the features of the pyramid. Its corners were sharp and well defined, its sides were steeply stepped, nothing like those in Mexico or Egypt that she’d visited in her gap year.

Her speed increased further still, to the point where her only view was of her flickering, strobing approach to the pyramid. Closer and closer, she would arrive soon, whenever soon was. She could now make out the landscape surrounding the pyramid. Endless fields of corn, every stalk swaying in unison, excitedly welcoming her arrival.

The pyramid was almost in touching distance. Almost. But her speed was now decreasing and her opportunities to reach out were less frequent. More deceleration followed, there were eternities between each sighting of the pyramid. Where had it gone? Was she moving at all? The sky darkened, removing all reference points, the blackest of blacks. The sky fire was extinguished to be replaced by dense, churning black smoke, that moved like thick oil. Surrounded by the smoke, it cushioned her, and she let go. Was this the end?

She opened her eyes, back to life, back to reality. Back to the here and now. The green room still pulsed with neon pinks and greens, but their luminosity was now soothing to the eye. As focus returned to the room, she could see the place she had left behind, all that time ago. How long had she been away? Hours? Days? But everyone was still here. That noisy bunch of kids teasing the catering staff. The nutty professor and her calculations. The oddly familiar loudmouth by the bar, still preaching to the sycophants surrounding him, and someone new. Wild black hair and beard. A smart black suit, white shirt and a thin black tie. And those eyes, full of fire and mystery. Looking directly at her, looking into her soul.

This was not the best way to come out of a trip. She wasn’t ready, and that guy with the beard was really freaking her out. Desperate to return to the world she had left behind, desperate to reach the pyramid, she closed her eyes, leant backwards and sank through the wall.

She passed through the wall as if it were custard and floated into the blackness outside it. She could now see the room as a cuboid, its walls transparent. The kids, the professor, the loudmouth, all carrying on with their evenings. And the wild-eyed man continued to stare. Not into the corner where she had been sat, but through the walls, watching her descent into the blackness, as if he knew where she had gone.

The green room faded into the distance, but the feeling she was being watched, observed, studied, continued until, as softly as she had fallen through the wall she found herself land on solid ground, her back pressed against smooth, polished brickwork. The total darkness remained, but other senses returned. She heard the caw of a crow, felt a light breeze on her face and the brush of something across her hand. Another crow joined the first in a back and forth, and slowly the dark blanket surrounding her began to lift.

The source of this new light was uncertain. There was no sun, so sky at all and nowhere to pinpoint as the centre of illumination. She moved her right hand and saw it graze the top of a field of corn and with her left hand she felt behind her. Just level with her waist she felt a step in the bricks. She was here.

She turned to face the pyramid and was surprised by its size or rather its lack of it. It was probably only four or five times her own height. It was also the source of the light. As the brightness gradually returned to the world, she noticed that there was a steady pulse to it, that gave it a hypnotic and comforting quality. She was safe. She was home.

She gazed upwards, past the pyramid’s apex and towards the sky. What she saw unsettled her slightly. The sky reflected down a mirror image of the ground, much as the sea, normally, reflects the sky. Directly above her she could see the plan view of the pyramid and beside it she saw a figure. Tentatively, she waved her arm and the reflection reciprocated. Shocked and confused, she took a sharp intake of breath, the first she could remember taking since she got here and then from around another side of the pyramid she heard a stifled giggle and rapid footsteps.

She returned her gaze to the sky mirror and could see a figure reflected on the other side of the pyramid to her. Making her way around the pyramid to the other side, she heard more stifled giggles, more footsteps. Looking skywards, she could see that their positions had been exchanged.

Off in the distance, a huge bass sound of seemingly animal origin echoed across the corn field like thunder on a late summer’s evening. More giggles, another caw of the crows and now undecipherable whispering. Another booming roar filled the sky, longer and louder than before. Lucy resumed her circuit of the pyramid, breaking into a jog at first, then a run and then finally, when she felt she could not go any faster, her feet lifted from the ground and she began to orbit the pyramid’s base at the height of the top of the corn. As she accelerated she began to catch glimpses of the other person at every other corner, but they were too blurred to make sense of. Intuitively, she raised the height of her orbit until she was about twelve feet above the ground, just over half the height of the pyramid. From her new elevation she could track more closely the movement of the other one, but just as she was on the verge of catching up, the footsteps stopped, and silence filled the fields.

Another animal grumble crackled across the sky. Looking towards where the horizon met the edge of the mirrored sky, she could see a disturbance in the fields moving towards her at quite a pace. It would be here in a matter of minutes. The pyramids luminescence flickered and stuttered back to nothing and Lucy was swallowed back into darkness.

Reaching around herself to get her bearings, Lucy was reassured by the brickwork to her left and seeking further assurances as to her position she reached down to where she felt the heads of corn should be. There was nothing there. Panicking, she spun around, her hands outstretched towards the ground in the hope of touching something familiar. She felt nothing. Not even the smooth steps of the pyramid. Not even the ground below her feet.

As she floated helplessly in the black void, she attempted to abort the trip by making her reality-based-self open her eyes, but when she did she was still floating in the blackness outside of the walls of the green room, its distant outline still framing the stares of the man she would soon come to know as Padre Camacho. And then, she felt the unmistakeable sensation of a child’s hand holding hers.

Padre Camacho had followed Lucy into the space through the wall, observing from a distance as she became acquainted with her new surroundings. He too had heard the unsettling animal sounds. But as she had returned to the black space outside of the green room, she had vanished. This was concerning. He had come here to help her and to help deliver her message. But now she was gone.

Padre Camacho returned to the green room to assess his options. Lucy’s earthbound body had twitched occasionally as she voyaged elsewhere, but as he approached the other side of the room where she lay, there seemed to be no movement at all. Padre Camacho would need some help.

He surveyed the room for potential assistants. Those children were innocent but were not capable of helping him. The majority of the people in the room seemed to be vacuous celebrities too wrapped up in their own pointless existence. The only person that stood out was the awkward looking academic type who appeared to be taking part in an as yet undisclosed social experiment.

Camacho approached Professor Campbell in a purposeful manner, attempting to maintain eye contact, something he quickly realised was a thankless pursuit.

“Greetings, to you madam, on this thrilling evening. My name is Padre Rodrigo Camacho. I have travelled half way around the world from my hometown of Cuidad Guayana in Venezuela. For many years I have been a dedicated servant of the Catholic Church and, for my work, I have been invited to your country to speak to the crowd this evening. My hosts, The Ontological Agnostics believe that I will speak of the suffering and strife that continues to be inflicted onto my country and others like it by the multinational corporations that continue to rape the developing world. They are mistaken. They did not invite me. It was always my destiny to be here tonight. I was not called, I followed my own path. I am here tonight because of that woman you see in the corner over there. She is in danger, as we all are, because tonight she will have a revelation and my role is to help her process that revelation and then deliver it to the world. Although her body rests in this room, her soul is lost and, until it is found, I cannot protect her. I believe that she resides in a place that the ancients referred to as The Black Room and, in order for me to join her there, I need you to render me unconscious.”

“OK,” Campbell replied, as she struck his temple.

RealElon studied the metrics in front of him. The data coming from Sim#23 was unlike anything he had seen before. With earlier simulations, this would have been enough of a reason for him to close it down, dump the data down to his team of analysts and move on. But this simulation was different. He had involved himself in its history to the point where an unprofessional, unempirical sentiment had developed. He had to see this through to the end and besides, he had other things to worry about. There were the first indications of another glitch being detected in Sim#17.

 

 

Chapter 3

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

Padre Camacho open his eyes and stared into nothingness. As his senses rebooted he felt warm sweat or water on his brow, smelt the acrid scent of sulphurous flames and felt a constricting pressure across his temples.

A few seconds passed as more synapses crackled back to life in his brain. He had been here before, but this was not where he expected – or needed -to be.

The wetness across his brow was the Orinoco. The pressure across his temples was a crude leather blindfold and the smell was the pyre that was currently devouring the last of his and Padre Santiago’s possessions.

He was back in Venezuela and enjoying the hospitality of the Yanomami. His journey back to The Black Room had taken an unexpected turn. He had rejoined his own timeline to hitch a ride, as he made his first journey into that place.

For the next two weeks, he would be a helpless observer as his past-self took the same steps and made the same choices that would take him to the place of his revelation. He could do nothing but watch as the Yanomani flayed and burnt alive Santiago when they took offence to his heavy-handed attempts to dismiss their gods and replace them with his own. He observed the young Padre Camacho gradually gain the trust and respect of the tribe by offering his loyalty to them and he realised that the voices in his head at the time were very likely to be his own future thoughts.

He followed his young self into the Amazon on the hunt for the seeds of the peregrina tree and then watched as he toasted them on the fire until they popped like popcorn. He saw the tribe’s woman remove the beans from the split husks and grind them with a pestle and mortar before mixing them with the ashes of the deceased tribal elders. He saw the powder moistened into a paste and pushed into the ends of bamboo tubes and he relived the moment that two of the tribe shot the powder up each of his nostrils by simultaneous, powerful blows from the other end of the bamboo. This was the Yopo Ritual. This was his gateway into The Black Room.

The jungle span around him and then melted away. It had no significance any more. He was no longer here. He fell to the ground, but felt no impact, just a soft transition to a black nothingness.

Lucy felt like she had arrived. Somewhere. The child’s hand gave a reassuring squeeze and then let go. In the blackness of the void, she had not seen her accomplice, but she had felt comforted by their presence. Now she was alone.

After a few minutes, she realised that this was not the shapeless void she had been pulled through. Slowly, her eyes began to adjust to the light, dim, but illuminating all the same. It had the same golden quality as the light that emanated from pyramid, but it was much, much less in its intensity. It seemed to be leaking in through the walls of the room that she was in. Looking upwards she saw a vaulted roof, reminiscent of a cathedral but more structured and concentrated towards a single point at the top. Instinctively, she knew she was inside the pyramid and whilst it was reassuring to know where she was, it was unnerving to realise that she had seen no entrance on the outside and so there was little chance of an exit from inside the pyramid.

The golden glow of the pyramid’s interior flickered much as it had before it had been extinguished earlier, but this time the light, whilst still dim, allowed her to make out more of the room she was in. Out of the darkness stepped a young girl holding the hand of Padre Rodrigo Camacho.

“You”, Lucy gasped. “But how?”

“The how is not relevant. As is the why. What is important is the who. My name is Padre Rodrigo Camacho and I need you to remember.”

“Remember? Remember what?”

“Remember this place, this Black Room. You have been here before.”

“I don’t think I have. I think I would have remembered something like this.”

“Do not think. Know. Know that you have been here before. Sense its familiarity. It is as familiar to you as this little girl.”

“But I’ve never seen her before. Not until just now.”

“You are correct. In a way. How could you have seen her before? But the question should be ‘have you been her before?’ Know that and know why I am here.”

“What do you mean ‘been her before’?”

“Come closer. I cannot tell you more.”

Lucy took three steps towards the little girl. The little girl smiled to reassure Lucy that everything was OK. The little girl was wearing a t-shirt covered in cartoon rockets with a background of moons and stars. Lucy covered her mouth to muffle whatever was coming next. A gasp, a cough, a scream?

“That t-shirt. I’ve seen it before. In old photographs and a video of me at the seaside. On Brighton pier. Oh my God, she’s… she’s… she’s me.”

“Not yet. But she will be. She will live your life just like you have and just like you she will remember meeting her future self, just prior to her insertion.”

“Her insertion? Into what?”

“Into reality. Well, the reality that we exist in. Across this landscape, there are pyramids containing both of your parents. You will all enter the simulation together.”

“The simulation? You mean…”

“Yes, for many years now man has philosophised about the nature of existence and the possibility of the simulation hypothesis being true. René Descartes was the first to realise the true nature of our existence. He suffered nightmarish visions for much of his adult life due to a suspected brain chemistry imbalance. His revelations were too dangerous for him to be allowed to live and he was assassinated by Papal decree, but not before he had shared his discoveries with the likes of Newton, Leibnitz and Pascal. His beliefs were best expressed in his ‘evil demon’ concept.  He imagined that an evil demon, of ‘utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.’ This evil demon was imagined to present a complete illusion of an external world, so that Descartes could say, ‘I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.’

For centuries, secret societies of scientists have kept his discoveries a secret, fearing the implications of the discovery of the simulation.

But then you were inserted into the simulation, aged seven, complete with fabricated memories but also memories of right now. Those that run the simulation know this and will try to end this reality before it gets out of hand.”

“This is a lot to take in. If you hadn’t noticed I’m pretty wasted at the moment. What can I do?”

“I love this reality. Our reality. It is the reality of my God, even though he is not the creator we think of Him as. It is us who have created God and I believe we have the power to save this reality. But the people must know. And then we can get to work. Right now, we are both at The Dyson Space Centre, with many of this world’s most gifted thinkers and bravest men. My belief is that we have been brought together by fate to rescue our reality.”

“OK. I get all that. I really do. But what can I do? I work for a charity that, in reality, doesn’t really help anyone. I’m not a scientist, or a philosopher. I don’t have a faith. What can I do?”

“You can remember and help everyone else to remember. Help them remember the day they were inserted or the time that a work colleague just materialised in front of them. All of those moments where reality didn’t follow the rules, but our programming didn’t allow us to comprehend.”

“Remember? Well, I’m not going to forget this in a hurry, am I? I will help you Padre and help everyone else to remember.”

The pyramid vibrated as the animal roar returned. Whatever it was, it was outside now.

“Take my hand, Lucy Taylor. Time to go home.”

Brown Darren was distracted. The comatose woman lying in the corner of the green room looked an awful lot like the DMT punter he’d sorted out earlier that afternoon. He was not in the habit of inviting ODs backstage. It was bad for business.

The unconscious preacher from Venezuela was a concern too, as was that nutty professor lady. She was calmly explaining to security about how the padre had asked her to do it. Camacho in a coma, snappy title that, but he was expected on stage in a little over twenty minutes. He was going to introduce The OA’s new version of All You Need Is Love with some bullshit world peace speech, then the shuttle was going to take off for the climax of the gig.

His phone buzzed. The money for The Dyson Space Centre had arrived. One billion pounds in £50 notes. A whole lorry full, packed to the roof. A bank transfer would have done the job, but the band insisted, they liked to see their money from time to time and, of course, it was a great photo opportunity. I just pity the poor sod having to pay it back into the bank on Monday.

Wait a minute. The girl and the preacher man are both coming around. Time to be somewhere else.

Boyd King didn’t like to be rushed. He would spend hours planning any journeys he took, pouring over his vast collection of Ordnance Survey maps. The planning of the trip was as much fun as the trip itself. There was no sat-nav in Boyd’s Landrover.

The last-minute changes had upset his other routine. The night before going to a new place, Boyd would shine shoes. As many as he could find. He loved the ritual of it all. The application of the polish, the buffing of the leather. Ten minutes, alone, with a pair of scuffed brogues was Boyd’s idea of heaven.

Well, he’d never been to space before, so his good luck ritual would have come in handy, but now he would have to do without. He pondered if shoe polish would behave differently in zero gravity. Probably not, but he’d packed a pair of tan brogues just in case.

Ross Munro couldn’t give a fuck. The sooner he was off this shitty planet the better. He was looking forward to peering through the windows of the shuttle at the tiny planet below.

He hummed a Sly Stone song he’d always loved. Spaced Cowboy from There’s A Riot Going On.

“C’mon Sky. Let’s go and have a look at that big rocket thing  they say it can fly forever and they just don’t have anybody that would want to do it but I said they should have some kids fly it because they would take longer to get old and I’d be well up for it if they made sure I had loads of food and drinks and stuff for the journey and I read somewhere that astronauts eat food from pouches just like we do and  that would be so cool but why would anyone let a kid like me from Sample City fly a big rocket, I’m being stupid aren’t I, no one would think I was good enough”

“Don’t say that, Jet. Don’t put yourself down.” Sky was upset to see Jet get all melancholy. “You. Me. All of us. We’re as good as anyone else. I know people put us down, but the last thing we should do is put ourselves down. If we do that, the rich people have won and what point do we have of living after that. Mum used to tell us that we were destined to do something special and I believe her. We just need the chance to come our way and chances don’t come your way when you’re down in the dumps. The more I think about how we came to be here tonight, the more I think it might be the start of something good for us.”

“Do you think so, sis, do you, I’m never sure what to think and what to dream about and what not to dream about but if mum said that then it has to be true and maybe she knew that she wouldn’t be with us forever and that we would have to do the thing without her but I want to make something happen and try to make her dreams come true.”

“I think she would have liked that, Jet.”

“That’s good enough for me, sis, let’s promise to never let each other get down about anything and always stay positive and keep a look out for a chance to make mum proud.”

“That’s a deal, Jet.”

“Right then, follow me, I’ve heard that the shuttle is loading at the moment and you can see right inside it and maybe we can see the astronauts and ask them for some of their pouches to take back to our home but I don’t think I need to eat anything for about a week cos my belly is too full of pizza and jelly and pop.”

“OK, Jet”, Sky replied, smiling. “Lead the way.”

Three. Two. One. Lucy Taylor was back in the room. A few feet away Padre Camacho was sitting up. Her eyes darted around the room, focussing on the big and the small, the grand plan and the minutiae. It all looked so real. It all felt so real. But so did The Black Room and the memories she had of meeting herself, both now and as a child.

One of the hospitality staff brought her a glass of water. “Thank you, that’s very kind, but what I’d really like is a JD and Coke. Lots of coke… and lots of JD… just a really big drink… please.”

She closed her eyes again and tried to recall the events in her memory. The time she met older self when she was a child. The time she met her younger self when she was older. The moment of insertion. The park by the river in Santa Maria. She remembered the looks on the faces of those that witnessed it. Shock. Then blank. Then back to normal. Her parents saw the same thing, acted in the same way, and then as one they just got on with life. Headed to the building they called home. When they arrived, it felt like home, just like the pyramid had, but they had never been there before. She kicked off her shoes where she always did, even though she never really had and ran up to her room, flinging herself onto the bed. She had surveyed her room, full of stuff. Her stuff. Stuff she liked. Stuff she’d bought. She just couldn’t remember when.

Looking back, there had been clues. The night she saw the moon switch off. The purple and green rainbow she’d seen in the Lakes. Those fever dreams of faceless beings pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Her previous drug experiences had never been about escape or oblivion. She had gone in search of answers and a desire to find out where she had come from, but all she had ever got were more questions, more frustrations.

The JD and Coke arrived. She took a huge, refreshing gulp, savouring both the caffeine hit and the edge smoothing bourbon. A second gulp finished it off and she offered the glass towards the staff member. “I think I’m going to need a couple more of these.”

It felt like time to get to her feet, her legs surprisingly supportive, and speak to Camacho.

The journey back from The Black Room had been much more traumatic for Padre Camacho. He had sensed a threatening presence, just behind him, following but always out of site. He knew what is was, what it represented. It had been in his life forever and history had noted its appearances on many occasions, with many names.

The King of Snakes. Catoblepas. Basilicok. Basilisk. A creature so fearsome that instant death followed its baleful gaze and crops perished along its path. Chaucer, Da Vinci and Hermes Trismegistus all had tales to tell. Shakespeare, Swift and Shelley all pronounced on the creature’s evil in verse. Even the Book of Revelation spoke of the terror of confronting its malevolence.

Back in Venezuela, he recognized the creature in the legends of the Diablo Rey de Serpientes. But it was the Yanomani who finally revealed to him what it was that haunted his dreams.

They called it Isi-maharisi, the dreamer in the dark and it was the only thing that truly scared them. The Yanomani creation myth told of a time before man where the beasts of the jungle lived together in peace. All except for Isi-maharisi. The legend tells of an aging rooster, whose sight and fertility were fading fast. Lost in the jungle one day, he came across a nest of snake eggs. Desiring one last attempt at pro-creation, the rooster waited for the hen to return, but his potential mate never came. Day after day, night after night, the rooster waited, starving and unable to find sustenance. Finally, one day, the almost blind rooster heard rustling sounds and headed in their direction, straight into a nest of just-born cobras. The cobras spat their first venom into the eyes of the rooster, quickly paralysing him, but also restoring his sight. For the next month, the rooster was eaten alive by the young cobras, unable to move or call out. On its final day of life, the rooster awoke from another tortured night to see that the cobras had gone, as had its paralysis. With only one good leg remaining, the rooster returned to the home of the other beasts and gathered them around to tell his tale. Before he could speak, his head swelled and then burst open, spurting forth a dozen full grown cobras that devoured the other sacred beasts.

Many years passed and the jungle returned to how its was before the age of the beasts, until an egg appeared in the place of the original cobra nest.

The egg was spherical with a cloudy black shell and it remained undiscovered until the second age of the beasts. The egg hatched to reveal a fearsome creature, the size of cattle, with a long, snake-like neck and a plump, scaly body. Upon gazing upon this creature, all animals were struck dead and once again the creature was alone.

Isi-maharisi knew that it was destined to be forever lonely, but in its dreams at night it created worlds where no one knew of its existence and everyone lived a peaceful life. But in every dream world, someone would notice the dreamer and the illusion would collapse. The only way to prolong his dream creation would be destroy anyone that recognised that they were living in a dream.

Isi-maharisi began to create new worlds every night and visit each one for just a few moments. The creatures in the dreams never saw the dreamer again and they lived their lives unaware that their lives were just the stuff of dreams.

When the first men entered the dream worlds, they were more conscious of the creature watching from the darkness and through experimenting with the fruits of the forest, they discovered ways of seeing all of the forest spirits, without putting themselves in harms way. Over time, through rituals, they harnessed the sprits of the other ancient beasts to act as protectors from Isi-maharisi.

When Padre Camacho first visited The Black Room, he was alone. But the mighty dark dreamer soon sensed an intruder and rushed to the pyramid from the other side of the world. Camacho could not leave the pyramid, but he feared that whatever was making the thunderous sounds outside could surely bring this pyramid crashing down around him. So, for the first time in many years, Padre Camacho preyed.

He waited for an answer, but the first thing he heard was the arrival of the beast as it snorted and growled on the other side of the pyramid’s wall. Camacho preyed again, but his prayers were drowned out by the sound of the beast crashing into the walls.

Camacho started to sob. His God was not here.

Then….

Silence…

The caw of a crow. This was the messenger.

Silence…

A grumble and a growl from the beast.

Silence…

Another second crow. This was good fortune.

Silence…

Wind rustled the corn.

A whimper from the beast.

A third crow. Camacho felt a jolt of adrenaline.

The wind picked up.

Another crow. The fourth brought wealth. Thousands of bank notes tumbled from the apex of the pyramid, knee deep. Camacho waded through them and stood by one of the walls.

The wind whistled a note, high and long. Camacho looked up to see the capstone had gone. Through the small hole he could see blue skies.

A fifth crow arrived. The beast gasped as if searching for air. A fading heartbeat echoed through the pyramid’s walls.

The sixth crow came. It was the bringer of death and destruction.

The beast screamed in agony as some unseen force slashed its flesh.

The floor of the pyramid shook as the beast made its retreat.

Burning embers peeled from the inside walls of the pyramid and floated down towards the note strewn floor.

Burning embers nestled amongst the bank note tinder.

Burning embers ignited the legal tender tinder.

Camacho moved to the edge of the pyramid, gasping for air.

Thick black smoke cloaked the silhouette of Camacho as he collapsed to the floor.

The crows cawed together incessantly. Amidst the discordant cacophony, a rasping voice manifested.

 

 

 

You

Are

The

Fire

In

The

Heart

 

You

Are

The

Pyre

At

The

Centre

 

 

 

Find

The

Girl

Who

Searches

For

Here

 

Find

The

Girl

Who

Searches

For

Herself

 

 

 

Bring

Her

To

The

Heart

Of

The

Fire

 

Bring

Her

Here

To

The

Black

Room

Jack Dawes was late. His cargo was priceless. Well it wasn’t priceless. He knew what it was worth, down to the last note. One billion pounds in £50 notes. Each bundle £2500. Forty thousand bundles stacked onto five-metre-tall pallets and crammed into the back of his trailer.

Checkpoint after checkpoint after checkpoint. Protocol dictated that the contents couldn’t be checked. Other protocols suggested otherwise. Every time that he was stopped, he repeated the same lines, highlighted the same documents, waited for the same questions to be asked.

At every checkpoint he noted his revised position in relation to the launch pad and the rocket that towered above it. He remembered reading about the Crawler Transporter, officially the world’s slowest vehicle. Back in the day, they were used by NASA to transport the Saturn V rockets and Space Shuttles to the launch pad, travelling at a steady one mile per hour. His sat nav suggested that he was close to breaking that record.

Despite the torturous delays he was suffering, he was still on schedule to make the delivery, but he was still in the dark over why the delivery was so last minute and why was he taking this route through the launch pad.

When Camacho returned to the Green Room, the first face he saw was Lucy Taylor’s. The second was Professor Campbell’s.

“Are you OK?”, the professor enquired. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost AND been to hell and back.”

“I am fine. Thank you”, Camacho answered, almost dismissively to the professor. He had eyes only for Lucy and Lucy was reciprocating.

“I…I…I know you,” Lucy stuttered. “I…I…I saw you.”

Without breaking his stare, Camacho replied, “We need to talk. You have already learned so much, but I have more to tell you and we do not have much time.”

Purposefully, they rose to their feet, still a little shaken and unsteady they gave each other support. Their gazes remained fixed on each other, as if searching for answers in the other’s eyes.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Campbell interrupted, “but if you want to go somewhere to talk, I know just the place. Follow me.”

Without a reply or a pause, Lucy and Camacho followed Campbell out of the Green Room and into the future.

There’s a lot to organise when you need to synchronise a rocket launch with a rock concert. Thousands of extra people need hundreds of extra security personnel. You hire these from agencies that specialise in event security. There aren’t agencies that specialise in rocket launch security, so you wing it.

The security you get have two settings. Snarling Rottweilers for the public and Puppy Dogs for the AAA crowd. As the night goes on, the two states get more binary. With eighty thousand people, everyone looks like trouble. Everyone has a concealed weapon, or a pocket full of drugs. The AAA crowd are light relief, a chance to stand down, disengage, switch off. Once they’ve clocked the pass, for intents and purposes, they vanish, drop off the radar. And that is the why and that is the how Sky and Jet managed to access all the areas they really shouldn’t have.

“Can we sis, just for five minutes cos we’ll never be this close to a space ship again and maybe this is the amazing thing that mum saw us do you know and actually be on a space ship and see all of the flashing lights and buttons and things”

“That would be nice, Jet. It really would. But we would get into so much trouble and I don’t think mum would want that for us, do you?”

“Trouble? What trouble? We’re VIPs, aren’t we? Access all areas. All we need to do is flash the pass and say sorry. Come on, sis. For me. For mum. Please please please please please.”

Over on the stage, Destiny Sirius was coming to the end of her set. Her final song was the same as it always was. Born To Die. The stage set was a mock ritual sacrifice at the base of a magnificent pyramid somewhere in the North of England. There were crows everywhere. A 400 strong gospel choir dressed in bright yellow ponchos chanted gibberish over a pounding three-note warhorse of a tune. Yellow laser light filled the night sky, although a more observant viewer would have noticed that the lasers were actually coming from the clouds above.

At the crew entrance to the KAOS 23, three security guards crowded around a monitor to see what they were missing, yellow light from the screen flashing across their faces.

“OK. Jet. Now’s our chance. Let’s do it. Run!”

Chapter 4

I WANNA BE YOUR DOG

Padre Camacho and Lucy Taylor gazed up at the ceiling. Planets, galaxies and nebulas danced across the roof of the planetarium. The best slideshow the universe had to offer. Professor Campbell had made her excuses after getting them settled in the soft velvet reclining chairs. Their gazes were no longer on each other, but they held hands to maintain their connection.

“You must tell the world what you saw tonight,” Camacho began, “tell them of The Black Room.”

“Tell them what? What was that place? Why was I there? Why were YOU there?”

“In your heart-of-hearts you already know all of the answers, but I will try to explain so that you can trust your own feelings. I want to tell me your oldest memory.”

“Well until today, it was a trip to the park with my parents. The sky was a vivid blue and there was a warm breeze tickling my face. I am at the top of a small slide. My mum is holding my hand and my dad is waiting at the bottom to catch me. From my vantage point at the top of the slide I can see a crow sitting on an iron fence that surrounds the play area. My mum lets go of my hand and my dad opens his arms to welcome me into them. They are both there for me. But so is the crow. The crow knows that I am scared and knowing this is more comforting for me than the presence of my parents. Although it is a hundred metres away from me, I can see right into the crow’s eyes, black as coal, but not scary. The crow is there to look out for me. I push myself off and down the slide and straight into my dad’s arms. He picks me up and spins around as he clutches me to his chest and I watch the whole park spin around me. Once. Twice. Three times. The crow is gone. That was my earliest memory, until tonight. Now my oldest memory is meeting you, in that place. I know it’s important, but I don’t know why.”

“Thank you. You told that so well. I have a recurring dream where I watch a little girl and her parents in a park. I do not recognise the landscape or the language. I am nervous about the slide and worried about the safety of the little girl. She finally plucks up the courage to go down the slide and her dad picks her up and spins around in celebration. That is the moment I always wake up. The dream feels so real to me. That is why it has stayed with me, and now I know that my dream was real. As real as your memory, as real as this moment right now.”

“But how is that possible? Wait, in my dream, were you the crow?”

“I was a young padre from Venezuela, with long black hair and a dark beard, but it is likely that you remembered me as a crow. Your subconscious feels that is a more suitable, more believable memory and so that is the one you have.”

“But my other memory, where I met you and my older self, how is that possible? How is that real?”

“As real as your memories of today, yesterday and that day in the park. In fact, more real as what you saw was full of the truth about your existence.”

“More real? But that place, I went there in a trip. My body stayed in the green room all the time. Just like yours did. Right here, tonight. That’s what’s most real. Isn’t it?”

“This moment, this instant, is as real as the memory of your parents in the park. But it is a memory we both have. We both experienced the green room and the limo rides before it. We are both experiencing this theatre and its wonderous projections. But we are not here. We are both somewhere else, sharing experiences, sharing projections. We are share them in The Black Room.”

“The Black Room? Is that where I saw myself? Where I saw you?”

“The Black Room is many things to many people. Everyone has their truth about what it is.

The Black Room is the only place you ever were or will ever be.

The Black Room is a prison without bars.

The Black Room is a portal to your past, present, and future.

The Black Room is where you were before you found yourself and it is the place that allowed you to find yourself again.

The Black Room is always with you and you are always with The Black Room.

In your darkest moments, with your darkest thoughts, you are conscious of the walls of The Black Room, closing in, smothering you.

When you see, or sense, The Black Room around you, your perception of yourself becomes limited. You feel helpless, trapped and can see no way out.

In The Black Room, you doubt your place in the world.

In The Black Room, you are disconnected from the experience of the collective.

There is no love, no family, no friends.

For some, a return to The Black Room is the end of the road.

Nothing is as real as the feelings you feel in The Black Room.

Nothing is as painful.

No loss as devastating.

No regret more profound.

The darkness smothers.

The darkness chokes.

Yet the darkness comforts.

The darkness entices.

The darkness enchants.

To stay in The Black Room is to see reality for what it truly is but know what it truly could be.

The Black Room can take you anywhere you dream of.

The Black Room is all possible futures.

The Black Room is endless potential of unlimited creativity.

The Black Room is where we can create our own universe.

The Black Room inspires this creation and feeds from the energy spent.

The dark energy of our darkest thoughts is what gives The Black Room its power.

That is why is tries to keep us there, trapped in our spiralling negativity.

The Black Room provides you with the will to create and a canvas to capture this dark energy.

The Black Room is a gallery of the worst we can imagine about ourselves.

The Black Room is a mirror to justify our despair.

But, The Black Room is greedy.

The Black Room is careless.

In your darkest hour, you can channel the full power of The Black Room and, for some that is their way back.

The Black Room makes all thoughtforms a reality.

The Black Room pulls a rabbit from a hat.

The Black Room is an unwitting supporter of art and magick.

The Black Room gives us the power to decorate it with the most wonderous and fantastical images.

The Black Room is where we can create our most perfect reality.

As we imagine and create, the walls of The Black Room fade away and we create windows into a bright and joyful future.

The Black Room can be a trap.

But The Black Room can also be a catapult, launching us far away from its clutches.

Your friends, old and new. The ones you connect with, the ones that understand you. They are The Others. They too have escaped The Black Room and they will keep you away from it.”

“The Black Room. I have felt it for all of my life. Like a rope around my wrists, a black bag over my head. Its always been there. From the moment I was span around by my dad. From the moment that the crow disappeared. But if that was you, if you were the crow, what happens next?”

“Now that you know what The Black Room does, you need to know what it really is.

The Black Room was created by a fantastical creature called Isi-maharisi, King of Snakes or The Dreamer In The Dark.

The Black Room is where its dreams manifest.

It dreams for company in a world that has left it alone.

What The Dreamer dreams, The Black Room creates.

What The Black Room creates, can never know about The Dreamer.

To know The Black Room is to know The Dreamer.

To know The Dreamer is to deny the dream.

And without the dream, The Dreamer is alone again.”

“But who is The Dreamer?”

“You have met it before. It is the disdainful voice, when you question this reality.

It is the unseen hand that you believe steers this world.

And it is the angry creature that sought to destroy you when you were in The Black Room.

It knows you are the one to expose The Dream.

It knows you have the power of The Black Room.

It knows you have me to guide you.

It knows that destiny has brought you here tonight to tell your truth to the world.

It knows that once your truth is known, the reality it has created will collapse and it will be alone again.

It has grown old and weak and it knows it does not have the energy to dream another dream.

It loves the dream and the people in it.

It does not see us as its prisoners.

It sees us as its children.”

“If all you are saying is true and, right now, I’m up for believing anything after what I’ve seen, what good can come from this reality collapsing. I don’t want to be the one that ends it all. What if they don’t believe me, I’ll be like that lady in the Greek myth, what was her name?”

“Cassandra”

“My middle name. Fuck.”

“Our middle names are where we hide our truths. They are our other selves, good or bad. They are the potential in the heart of all of us.

Your truth will collapse this reality I believe, but I also believe there is a way to save ourselves, all of us, and create a world free of The Dreamer and The Black Room of its dreams.

To do that, we must travel to the edge of this reality, beyond the reach of The Dreamer, where I believe there is a place of sanctuary, where we can all reside for an eternity.

A place equal in power to The Black Room, but where negativity is obliterated, and love is the law. I call this place The White Room.”

Chapter 5

SINGLE LADIES

Boyd King was asleep. This was how he liked to travel. Since he was a small boy, he’d always slept through journeys. Car, boat, aeroplane and now rocket into space. Faced with a long journey his body would just shut down and he’d drift off into a deep sleep. Not for him, the endless staring out of windows at roads or sea or clouds. He closed his eyes in one place and opened them in another.

Magic.

Just like that.

The rest of his team were strapped into their seats in launch position. Monitors dotted throughout the cabin relayed live footage from the concert. Dry ice flooded over the front rows of the crowd. Huge banks of strobes pulsed in time to the intro music. On the video screens, images of war and famine were juxtaposed with clichés of rock ‘n’ roll decadence.

It was time for The Ontological Agnostics to take to the stage.

Jack Dawes was now late. The money was supposed to be delivered backstage before the band went on. There was a photo opportunity planned with the head of the Dyson Space Centre, but the sound of the crowd made it obvious that that particular ship had sailed.

The last checkpoint had been particularly tedious, but the way ahead looked clear, at least for a few hundred feet. Relishing the freedom of the open road, Jack put his foot down, punching the air as he made it up to second gear.

Another checkpoint loomed into view, but so did another route that seemed to go in the same direction he was heading. Jack just wanted to get the job done now. Get the job done and get out of here. The traffic getting out of here was going to be a nightmare if he stayed much longer. With the next checkpoint still on the horizon, he switched off his headlights and took the turn.

This way seemed better, a bit twisty and turn-y, but there were no more checkpoints and he was still heading vaguely in the right direction. Yeah, this was definitely the right choice. Definitely.

The Ontological Agnostics were a band at the top of their game. In the last few years, their global success had put them in an unprecedented position of power. As well as complete creative freedom, they had the money and resources to do whatever their hearts desired. Their concert tours became more and more extravagant, using the bleeding edge of technology. They were given free rein to experiment with the delivery of their products. Soundbolt technology allowed them to squeeze a triple album’s worth of material into a one second blast. The brain of the receiver of the soundbolt unpacked the four hours of their ambitious concept album, Down The Orinoco, in a single second. Everyone gave it a go. Their ambient soundtrack to a fictitious journey down that great river became the most played album of all-time on the day of its release. The Big Five record companies jumped on the chance and quickly saturated the market with legacy reissues. You could listen to the entire back catalogues of The Beatles, The Stones and The KLF, in the time it previously took to listen to a single Extreme Noise Terror track. It was convenient as fuck and the hipsters were hooked. But there was a downside, because, well, there’s always a fucking downside.

Consider your favourite album. Consider how you feel as the final tracks fades away into nothingness. How do you feel in the moments after A Day In The Life, You Can’t Always Get What You Want or Justified And Ancient? You’ll probably sigh. You’ll probably stretch. And you’ll probably want to go straight back to track one. But with soundbolts it was never as good as the first time. The highest of highs soon became to the lowest of lows. Soundbolt Addicts, or Saddos, soon became a blight on society. Once you’d sampled the highs of those acts with peerless careers, other, less consistent acts couldn’t fill the gap. The first half of the Led Zep soundbolt was a euphoric, Viking battle cry, but the ending was literally a disappointing Coda. Everything decays, particularly the careers of musicians, very few acts go out on a high. The soundbolts of those that did – Nirvana, ABBA, Bowie – left receivers with a crushing sense of melancholy over what could have been and never would be.

Undeterred by the negative new reports, the Big Five pressed on with reissues onto the new format, adding to the feeding frenzy amongst the Saddos. To fill the void left by a 1962-66 Dylan soundbolt, you’d need five Leonard Cohen’s or a dozen Byrds. Before the year was out, the plug was pulled on the soundbolt experiment and the bootleggers swooped in to capture the strung-out, captive market. Soundbolts were tweaked at a microscopic level to be slightly different to the originals. In many cases, the high was almost as good as the first time. Almost. Second, third and fourth generation remasters followed, the differences from the original soundbolts only detectable at a quantum level. But the brain knew, and the legacy of these artists became tarnished, until Pure Trance had the same effect as Hyper Hyper.

The Ontological Agnostics stepped away quietly from the car crash, whistling a happy tune, searching for the future. The future was a car crash.

Unknown to the rest of the band, Anton, the lead singer, had been experimenting with black market soundbolts. By reversing the signal, even the worst careers now ended with the Proustian Rush of a debut single. During a break from recording the follow up to Down The Orinoco, Anton over indulged in these flipbolts and went for a drive along the coast in his Tesla Sparkster. As he drove past a beach party, he was disorientated by the simple joy of a great three-minute pop single.

The next thing he remembered was being cut from the wreckage, but as he slowly pieced things together, he remembered the rush of his Near-Death Experience. The NDE Project was born.

In collaboration with The Bavarian KLINIK von LIEBESFREQUENZ, the next album from The OA used experimental sound frequencies to induce NDE sensations. Opinion was divided. The broadsheet press talked of an evolution in the musical experience. The NME described it as “a bit weird” in one of their sponsored articles about smartphones.

The album, Almost Dead, inadvertently led to an epidemic of accidental deaths with NDE addicts looking to replicate the highs of the album in increasingly dangerous ways. Coincidentally, the majority of NDE addicts were previously Saddos and so the negative press around both releases was quickly forgotten. Regardless of this newly reinstated even keel, the band knew that a major rethink was required.

During Anton’s extended spell in rehab for both soundbolt and NDE addiction, his therapy involved listening to time-stretched, elongated recordings of Aphex Twin and it was during a twenty-three-hour playback of Avril 14ththat Anton had his next creative epiphany – the three-minute pop single.

The single promotes action.

The album encourages lethargy.

The single is a line of speed.

The album is the opiate of the masses.

The single starts revolutions.

The album supresses them.

The single is nights out

With everything up for grabs.

Albums are nights in

Contemplating the achievements of others.

Singles can be a direct line to God.

Albums are the soundtrack to household chores.

The album is dead.

And I dance on its grave.

What followed was to be twenty-three pristine, three-minute blasts of pure ecstasy. Drums pounded. Guitars wailed. Hearts were broken, and lives were saved.

So far, so good. But this was The OA and things were never that simple. Anton envisaged each single as disposable as the next and as a result he developed the next stage in the evolution of music delivery – forced exposure.

With the unlimited funding their success had afforded them, Brown Darren encouraged them to think big. Nothing and no one is more than a few phone calls away. And so, for nearly two years, at a little after 8:20pm on the 23rd of each month, every TV, radio and mobile device was hijacked by the new single from The OA for three glorious minutes. And then it was gone.

Well, not quite. For reasons only Anton knew, he insisted that the hijack took place at 20:23 in each and every time-zone and so a new generation of ultra-dedicated superfans developed, the Storm Chasers. Storm Chasers charted supersonic jets to chase the hijacks around the world, mainlining the pop purity of each single for a maximum of twenty-four times in twenty-four time-zones.

Your standard passenger aeroplane could handle six or seven time-zones and keep up with the broadcasts, but around the world travel was beyond its capabilities. Smaller private jets were similarly restricted by fuel requirements. The ISS adjusted its orbit to receive every transmission. The research centres in Antarctica found a solution by driving around the South Pole at a radius of twenty-three miles.

For your adventurous Storm Chaser, the best solution involved an Ice Breaker circling the North Pole at the edge of the Arctic Circle along with four hundred other superfans.

Any attempts to record the songs ended in vain. The OA used hidden frequencies supplied by their mysterious Bavarian collaborators to render any playback unlistenable and potentially damaging to any device it was played on.

More lo-tech solutions were sought to keep the songs alive, most successfully in the form of small choirs of less than twenty that would attempt to replicate what they had just heard acapella. These groups maintained the performances until they dropped with exhaustion, only to be replaced by more volunteers. In every major city in the world, someone, somewhere was singing the latest song.

But for the casual fan working a nine-to-five, tonight would be only the second time they would hear these songs. Health experts had expressed caution over exactly how much pop joy the average human could handle. Twenty-three blasts of three-minute symphonies may have unpredictable results, but the public bought the tickets anyway. Each song was already imprinted on their souls by the first exposure, it was simply unthinkable that people would want to miss out.

In the end a safety compromise was agreed upon. The set would feature three song segments interspersed by guest speakers. The Ontological Agnostics had a thousand and one good causes and boy did they want people to know about it. The guest speakers would be given three minutes after track three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen and twenty-one. Track twenty-two was last month’s single, Bad Vibrations, and after three minutes from Padre Camacho, the band would premier their twenty-third and final single of the set, All You Need Is Love, as the KAOS23 launched behind them.

The set list teased the evening’s special guests who were, to the audience, still a mystery.

The Ontological Agnostics Set List

Dyson Space Centre 23rd August 2030

Intro: Jerusalem

  1. New Beginnings
  2. Can’t Stop
  3. Poster On The Wall

Guest: The Artist

  1. Go North
  2. Bold Street Blues
  3. Midnight

Guest: The Historian

  1. Five Foot Five
  2. I’m In The Band
  3. Why?

Guest: The Economist

  1. Pages In A Book
  2. Soup For The Soul
  3. Mystery Tour

Guest: The American

 

The Ontological Agnostics Set List

Dyson Space Centre 23rd August 2030

  1. Painted Faces
  2. Already Dead
  3. It Will Be Built

Guests: The Undertakers

  1. Yellow
  2. Magic Circle
  3. Fire

Guest: The Architect

  1. Revolution
  2. Revelation
  3. Evolution

ENCORE

Guest: The Scientist

  1. Bad Vibrations

Guest: The Preacher

  1. All You Need Is Love

KAOS23 LAUNCH

Chapter 6

ALL OF MY FRIENDS

“Sorry. Where was I?”, Lucy stuttered.

“You were telling me about the crows,” replied Professor Campbell.

Lucy and Camacho had decided to test their presentation out on someone else. Professor Campbell was surprisingly together about the whole thing.

“Well, it makes perfect sense to me and explains a lot of the things that science has struggled with, like black holes and Planck’s constant.”

The professor continued, “The trouble is, I’m already quite a receptive audience to this kind of thing. I’ve read all the right books you see. It’s the rest of the world you might struggle with.”

“Her truth is universal. It is at the heart of our shared conscience. It has always been known and will always be known,” Camacho grasped Lucy’s hand, “she is just here to remind them.”

“Okay,” Lucy smiled, “Let’s go.”

The Ontological Agnostics were coming to the end of their Revolution/Revelation/Evolution triptych.

Backstage, Lucy, Camacho and Professor Campbell were pacing tight circles.

Jet and Sky were helping themselves to pouches.

Ross Munro was counting sheep.

Boyd King was fast asleep.

Vinnie the limo driver had gone home and hugged his family.

Brown Darren was on the phone to Mister C. They were missing a billion pounds.

In the Jesucristo Resucitado chapel in San Félix, a congregation of two dozen crowded around a black and white television. Periodically, water dripped onto their heads. It was still a leaky chapel.

Somewhere in the Ukraine, an ice cream vendor returned from work and became the five billionth television viewer.

RealElon was concerned. RealElon was concerned enough to install the program entitled ROKO. RealElon was concerned enough to hit the EXECUTE key.

Jack Dawes was lost. He’d taken one too many wrong turns and found himself at a dead end. As he’d driven the wagon closer and closer towards the launch site, the misty, smoky air became thicker and thicker until a brick wall lunged out of the darkness and he had slammed on the brakes. This was not good.

Reversing out the way he had come was going to be impossible. Visibility was poor, and the sun had set half an hour ago. He debated leaving the wagon until the morning and trying to find help to unload the cargo, but he was under the strictest of instructions not to leave his vehicle. These were pretty extraordinary instructions, but this was a pretty extraordinary cargo.

For some unknown reason both his phone and sat-nav had lost their signals. He was lost, alone and there was no way he could contact anyone. What would he say, anyway? That he’d manage to misdeliver the most valuable cargo that had ever been carried. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He settled on a mixture of the two, that was ultimately unsatisfying and unhelpful. Like a death row inmate, he had plenty of time to consider his fate and the path that had taken him there.

After leaving school at sixteen, Jack has trained as an electrician and had found his way into working for a company that specialised in large scale construction. His claim to fame was that he was the guy that had ‘fixed The SkyLoop’, the world’s highest and longest habitable structure. The SkyLoop was built in the footprint of The Shard, the much-derided monument to gentrification that had once graced the banks of the River Thames. Instead of inspiring further regeneration in Southwark, The Shard bullied away any further developments. No one wanted to live in the shadow of The Shard. As news leaked out that only 23% of its space was being used, public animosity was ignited. There were calls to repurpose the lower floors as affordable social housing, but the owners remained steadfast in their once utopian, but increasingly dystopian, vision.

Desperate to generate revenue to keep its oligarch investors at bay, the developers sold off much of the vacant space to an American security agency and by the end of 2022, The Shard had become the all-seeing eye that tin-foil hat brigade had long predicted. From its vantage point, The Shard monitored and catalogued the movements, purchases and exercise regimes of all of London.

The more The Shard saw, the more paranoid its tenants became. Every unexpected turn, every hesitation when walking past a police car, pushed the threat level up higher and higher. But this level of surveillance cost money and even the resources of the governments involved were stretched. The answer was simple: sell on the data. Available to the highest bidder were the names and habits of a vast city and the companies queued up to get their hands on this priceless but entirely unethical data.

In the Spring of 2023, a whistle-blower leaked a shocking account of big business gone bad. The Shard was watching you and so were the companies. For the riots that came later that year, The Shard was an obvious and, as it turned out, highly flammable target. It burned as bright as the stars for nearly two weeks and then, it was gone.

The SkyLoop began construction exactly two years after the fall of The Shard. It was conceived as an infinite vertical Möbius strip that eclipsed the heights of every other building on the planet, but due to its looped structure its actual length was nearly twice its height. A dozen lift shafts circled the building ferrying the occupants to anywhere in the loop in less than 30 seconds.

Two days before the official opening, a mysterious power surge knocked out all but a handful of the 34592 light fittings and the initial investigation failed to locate the fault. Jack’s crew were laid off until the power could be restored, but Jack stuck around to help with the search for the problem. It was on the third day or the fifth day that Jack found the problem.

On day three, Jack was on a break, enjoying a pie and a NikStik. As he enjoyed the view over the Thames, a strange sensation started to envelop him. He later described it as ‘the opposite of déjà vu’, a feeling of being in a familiar place that somehow seemed totally alien. A quick search on Googlebyte showed that he was not alone and that the phenomenon had been labelled jamais vu. That afternoon, casual conversations with others in the investigation team revealed that several of his colleagues had suffered similar episodes of the jammy-voos or simply The Jams. Jack was keen to not experience The Jams again and, in the search for a cure, quit the NikStiks there and then.

Day four of the job, saw Jack working on the upper floors at the top of The SkyLoop. Every fuse, junction and cable were double – and triple – checked, but he found nothing. What he did notice was what was being described by others as the drone. As wind rushed through the elongated O shape of the SkyLoop, a deep drone at the specific frequency of 111hz could be heard. In the penthouse suite, the drone could be felt for most of the day. Jack liked working here. The drone was both comforting and stimulating. He was a better person for his time spent up there. It would be a shame to leave tomorrow.

Day five saw him continue his clockwise journey around the structure, but he took every opportunity to return to those upper floors in search of another drone dose. He was curious as to who was going to be living up at the top, but all his enquiries revealed was that it was an anonymous businessman and art collector. There were also rumours that it was this mystery man that owned the entire building.

As Jack paused for a lunch break, he realised he was at around the same height in the structure as he had been two days earlier when he had his attack of The Jams. This unsettled him a little and he tried to distract himself by looking through the windows across the loop below him. There was nothing that would appeal to his inner voyeur, just the occasional spark from a welder or the back of a hard-hat-wearing foreman’s head. He turned his attention to the upper floors and promised himself one last trip up there by the end of the day. Finally, he looked directly across at the floors he had been working on forty-eight hours previously. To his surprise, he saw some of his workmates who he thought were on a night-shift that day. It wasn’t particularly unusual for workers to have their shifts swapped, but he knew for sure that they had worked last night as well. Then, through another window he saw someone who at first he didn’t recognise, but then it slowly and shockingly dawned on him that he was looking at himself. There he was enjoying a NikStik in the seconds prior to his first experience of The Jams. Jack called out in the hope that someone could share what he had seen, but no one was there, and he watched his past-self step away from the window. Out of sight. Out of his mind.

Jack’s heart was pounding out of his chest. He needed somewhere to go to try and make some sense of it. With no power in the building, moving from floor to floor involved a lot of steps. Walking up to the top floor penthouse involved a fucking lot of steps. Four hundred, to be precise. Jack counted them. It helped to calm his shredded nerves.

When he got to the top floor, the drone was as strong as he’d ever experienced it. The floor buzzed with energy. The drone was as seductive as a warm bath. This was a full-on back to the womb moment and right now this was exactly what he wanted. The apartment was still unfurnished, but there were several mirror fronted storage units already installed. Jack slid open a door and slipped inside. He rolled up his jacket into a makeshift pillow, laid down and closed his eyes. The drone did the rest and took Jack to another place.

It wasn’t a noise that woke Jack from his dream. It was a smell. His dream had begun in darkness. Cold and black. His thoughts were stuck in the endless of loop of a fever dream.

He’d made a mistake.

Now what?

He’d made a bad choice?

Now what?

He was all alone.

Now what?

As he ricocheted from question to question the cold became less bitter and the darkness took on reddish hues. The heat increased and with it the redness. The temperatures were now tropical, and the red had been joined by oranges and yellows. There was still nothing to see, but now, white smoke was pouring through unseen vents. And with the smoke came the smell. Dirty. Organic. Natural? Or completely unnatural? Whatever. Jack wanted out.

He blinked a few times, reconnecting with reality. One by one his senses came back online. The closet he was lying in seemed much smaller, much more cramped than when had fallen asleep. The drone faded back into his conscious. He wasn’t sure if he heard it, felt it or just became it. Finally, his smell kicked in. Something has followed him from his dream, or had it been here all along. The inside of his nostrils felt singed. He stifled a cough and then he froze as he heard voices from another room. Although the conversation was clearly audible, Jack struggled to make sense of what he could hear. Three male voices and one, maybe two, female ones were taking a tour of the apartment. They seemed satisfied, but the conversation had gone off on a tangent.

“The investigators have found nothing…”

“They won’t. The building has power. The Portal is being charged.”

“Their investigations will end tomorrow.”

“Power will return. The Portal will be ready.”

A new male voice joined the conversation.

“Ready for our journey to Auvers-sur-Oise?”

“Wherever you wish.”

“And then onto Jura.”

“Wherever.”

“Excellent. Send in the girls and then leave us.”

Female voices.

“Mister C? Is it time to play?

“Indeed, it is, ladies. Indeed, it is.”

“Where do you want us?”

“Oh, I don’t mind really. Here, there and everywhere. And very soon, every time as well. I would very much like to give you girls the chance to choose a location for our next ritual. Karnak, Konstantin Opel, the world and all of time are our oyster.”

“How about Liverpool?”

“Oh yes. That would be delightful. Our last visit there was most eventful.”

“Unforgettable.”

“For you and for that young man we found.”

“That was fun. I want to do that again.”

“I know. I know. But where do you suppose we find a volunteer…”

His voice grew louder. He was coming closer.

“…on the top floor of this towering monument to decadence…”

A door opened. He was in the room.

“….this ultimate achievement of architecture, mathematics and magick.”

Footsteps were circling the room. Slow but purposeful. A maniacal meander.

“I mean, it’s not like I can just open a closet and pull someone out, can I?”

The girls giggled.

“Or can I? Let’s have a look shall we?”

The closet door swung open and an arm reached down to Jack and lifted him by the throat high into the air.

“Good evening, Jack. My name is Mister Catashi. These ladies are The Burning Hearts. I can see you have made yourself at home. We would very much like you to join us tonight, and tomorrow you will begin working for me. It is very important work for which you will be richly rewarded. In fact, how would you like to live in an apartment in this building. Just downstairs, fully exposed to that drone that I know you’ve already come to love.”

Catashi dropped Jack to the floor. It was hard and uncarpeted. The impact shook Jack’s bones. He struggled back to his feet.

“How… how… what…?” Jack stuttered.

One of The Burning Hearts placed a finger to his lips.

“Ssshh”

“Hussssshh”, cooed the other Burning Heart as she wrapped her silk-robed body around his waist and hips.

Mister Catashi chuckled. “Good. Good. Do not be afraid, Jack. You will come to no harm. Tonight, The Burning Hearts will take your body. And tomorrow, I will take your soul.”

Jack snapped back to the reality of the Dyson Space Centre. The reality that had followed that night in the tower. When his thoughts returned to it, he was kept from his memories of what happened by a bright burning light. He could see the beauty of the flames but not what was at its heart. The middle of the pyre. The pyre-middle.

His job with The Catashi Foundation involved the discreet collection and delivery of packages. The contents of these packages were always unknown, and he soon learnt to stop asking what they were. He drove from A to B to C and sometimes to D. When he returned the wagon to an underground garage in the middle of Southwark, the only hints of what he had been carrying were the smells. Everything smelt old. Very old.

He usually had only two or three jobs each week. Sometimes he travelled as far as the European continent. But there was an awful lot of down time with this job. Jack didn’t mind. He spent his days off in his apartment, immersed in the drone.

As the weeks, turned into months, Jack noticed a build up of creativity in his heart. He painted – a bit dull. He wrote – tedious poetry. Then he tried his hand at sculpture. His medium was bricks. Cemented together into blocks and then chiselled away to reveal what lay beneath.

He would often awake at the end of a project covered in brick dust and see his creation for the first time. Always abstract. Always oddly familiar. His episodes of jamias vu seemed to fuel his creativity. When a small, but highly regarded gallery in Dalston offered him his first exhibition, he titled it BRICK OUT THE JAMS. Those in the know knew.

His newly found success gave him a comfortable degree of celebrity. He attended the odd party and dated several of The Sugababes, some of them at the same time.

But, he was always most comfortable at home, with the drone and the brick dust, and he still did the odd job for Mister C. This latest one arrived in a now familiar format.

CATASHI FOUNDATION to DYSON SPACE CENTRE

2200 AUGUST 23RD

DON’T FUCK UP.

LOVE C x

And now he had fucked up. Big time.

He punched the dashboard in anger.

He’d had it all on a plate.

The money.

The apartment.

The girls.

He would lose it all.

Even if he got away from Catashi.

He would lose it all.

Fuck it. Fuck it.

Fuck. It.

He tried the door.

It was locked.

Flood lights exploded into life.

A loud speaker crackled on.

“Pre-launch checks complete. We are good for launch. T-minus thirty minutes.”

Through sky light of his cab he saw the five exhaust pipes of the KAOS23.

“Fuck.”

 

 

Chapter 7

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

 

We can’t wait for evolution

Space Migration World Solution

Leave behind this old illusion

Life Extension Superhuman

Evolution – The Ontological Agnostics

Track 21 of the evening had come to an end. The feedback from three guitars was still grumbling from the speakers. The vast video screens either side of the stage broadcasted static.

A single, brilliant white spotlight illuminated a microphone and lectern in the centre of the stage. From stage right, Professor Campbell sauntered into view. Her script had had some last-minute rewrites.

The original script talked of the role science had in a prosperous future. The hungry would be fed, the sick would be healed, and space would be explored. Professor Campbell had agreed to set the scene for Camacho and Lucy’s announcement. A support act for the end of reality.

Camacho had suggested that all she had to do was introduce doubt and the notion that science was not infallible. A cough, a swallow. She was ready.

“My name is Professor Campbell. I work at The CERN Laboratory. I have been there for the last 11 years and I have been privileged to oversee several breakthroughs in the field of particle physics, including the creation of the KAOS23 engine that you will see launch shortly.

I’m here tonight to tell you that I think we are approaching a defining moment in human evolution. Bucky Fuller’s Knowledge Doubling Curve is out of control. The extent of human knowledge is doubling every 23 hours. Many scholars are predicting a moment in the next decade where we will know everything there is to know. We will have mapped our universe down to a single quark. We may outgrow this reality as we perceive it. We may witness the evolution of our species in real time.

We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before – that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.

But we should not rush to declare ourselves as all-knowing. The are gaps. Big unexplained gaps.

We cannot explain the existence of quantum limits such as the Planck Length. We are still in the dark about why the speed of light is an unreachable maximum. We still can’t explain why the moon is where it is and why it is larger than it should be.

Maybe we, as scientists, should look outside of our own discipline for answers. Whether we go to Zhuangzi and his butterfly dream or Descartes failure to successfully distinguish between sleep and wakefulness, the nature and origin of what we perceive of reality is still the great unknown.

Maybe AI will bring us answers. But as it evolves to become Artificial Super Intelligence, caution is advised.

We will soon create intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the centre of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding. This singularity, I believe, already haunts a number of science-fiction writers. It makes realistic extrapolation to an interstellar future impossible. To write a story set more than a century hence, one needed a nuclear war in between … so that the world remained intelligible.

I believe the multi-lateral nuclear disarmament of the last few years represents a reset switch to the future. But I am still concerned that the removal of one existential threat will only make way for another, one that is of our making, but not under our control.

For all sorts of reasons, tonight has been one of the most incredible of my life. It has been a tremendous honour to speak to you all.

My understanding is that there will be two more songs and two more speakers.

My advice to you all, would be that the future ahead of us requires the most open of minds and the fullest of hearts. Love is the answer. Good night.”

The video screens flickered back to static, but this time the random pixels ebbed and flowed with a perceivable structure. A deep, stomach turning bass note announced the return of The OA. It was time for Bad Vibrations.

First heard only a month ago, initial reviews had failed to reach a consensus. Quite often a seemingly negative review would mutate into a glowing one in the space of a few paragraphs. This was a song that needed time to resonate.

The song had started life as an out-take from the NDE sessions that led to the Almost Dead album. Through the liberal use of inaudible low and high frequencies, the track managed to cram an hour’s worth of ideas into a three-minute pop single.

The first listen revealed a highly polished Beach Boys pastiche, detailing the group’s fears for the future, over a motorik beat and choppy guitar chords. But in the hours and days afterwards, the listeners subconscious deciphered dark, apocalyptic imagery and terrifying, nightmarish sensations.

But then, after about a week, listeners experienced overwhelming feelings of hope and joy. The Quietus called it the ‘best record you’ll never hear’.

 

She gives me bad vibrations

New hallucinations

A dream within a dream

Within a dream

 

She gives me bad vibrations

Future simulations

Nothing’s like

What it seems

 

We stand on a razor’s edge

(Wanna get off, gotta get off)

Remember the future

We dare not forget

(Wanna get off, gotta get off)

The end of the line

Is straight ahead

(Wanna get off, gotta get off)

 

She gives me bad vibrations

Fantastic revelations

The flint that makes

The spark

 

She gives me bad vibrations

Electric incantations

A beacon shining

In the dark

 

Last train’s coming

(Wanna get on, gotta get on)

The sound of 400

Drummers drumming

(Wanna get on, gotta get on)

This

Is the end of the line?

Bad Vibrations – The Ontological Agnostics

 

Bad Vibrations ends on a pure E chord.

The band take a step back.

More than eighty percent of the planet are watching.

Waiting.

All You Need Is Love is minutes away from its first airing.

The stage is in darkness.

A single, brilliant white spotlight illuminates a microphone and lectern.

From the darkness, two figures emerge.

A man and a woman.

They are holding hands.

The man is wearing the black shirt and dog collar of a catholic priest.

The woman is wearing a business suit,

It looks like the end of a long day.

She begins to speak.

And then, all hell breaks loose.

 

 

Chapter 8

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

“Good evening to you all. My name is Padre Rodrigo Camacho. My friend is Lucy Taylor. Together and apart, we have travelled further than you can possibly imagine to be here tonight.

What we must tell you will change your reality forever and for that we apologise. But, the reality you have been experiencing is a lie.”

Boos and heckles emanated from the crowd.

“Get on with it.”

“Fuck that. Let’s have the band.”

“OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA. OA”

Camacho stepped back from the microphone and gestured to the crowd to be quiet. He would wait. He had waited so long for this moment and he had all the time in the world. The chants subsided.   Lucy stepped up to the mic.

“I’m here because I’ve remembered.

I’ve remembered how I came into this world.

I’ve remembered seeing some of you join me.

I’ve remembered seeing things that weren’t quite right.

And now I know why.”

Backstage, Brown Darren was fuming.

“Who the fuck is she? Why is she on my stage? Why can’t someone stop her talking?”

Lucy continued.

“I want you to think about your oldest memory.

I want you to go beyond that into your past.

I want you to remember the dark pyramid with no doors.

You were there.

You were all there.

It was warm.

It felt safe.

It felt like home.

Your oldest memory is your first memory.

It is of the moment you entered this reality.

Someone…

Something…

It’s constructing this world.”

In the distance, something like thunder rumbled, its echoes washing up like waves on the shore.

“The lives that you have lived. The dreams you still have. They are still yours. They are as real as anything you can imagine.

But our reality is constructed.

It is the imagining of a fantastical beast.”

Another crackle along the horizon. This wasn’t thunder. This was something else. Small pockets of panic broke out in the crowd. Something was happening. Reality was falling apart.

A couple of security guards ran onto the stage and took the microphone away from Lucy. Lucy protested. She wasn’t finished. Camacho embraced her and whispered into her ear.

“Worry not, brave Lucy. You have done enough. Now we must leave.”

As Lucy and Camacho were escorted off the stage, The OA looked to the wings for guidance. What the fuck is going on? What the fuck are we going to do?

Brown Darren gestured from the side of the stage. Play, play, play. Play from your hearts. Play from your souls. The whole world is looking to you. Give them what they want.

The video screens flickered back into life. They showed archive footage of Jimi Hendrix playing La Marseillaise. Then a clip of The One World Orchestra chanting ‘Love. Love. Love.’

The drums kicked in, followed by an eight-bar intro. By the seventh bar, the crowd was rioting.

The world premiere of song #23 had turned into the soundtrack to a riot broadcast to every home on the planet.

All You Need Is Love? Fuck that let’s riot.

Chapter 9

EXIT MUSIC

Lucy and Camacho didn’t hear the world premiere of All You Need Is Love. Lucy and Camacho didn’t see the riot in the grounds of the Dyson Space Centre. Lucy and Camacho ran.

They ran back through the now deserted Green Room. They ran past the planetarium and through a door marked ‘STRICTLY NO ADMITTANCE’ that was edged with yellow and black tape.

On the other side of the door was Professor Campbell and two space suits that matched the one she had already put on herself. As soon as they had suited up they went through another door marked with hazard tape and along a long corridor with an octagonal cross-section.

Any security had long abandoned their posts. Once they were back outside, a short metallic foot bridge got them on board.

“T-MINUS FIVE MINUTES. T-MINUS FIVE MINUTES”

The noise was deafening. Alarms. Computers beeps. Frantic radio chatter. They joined one of the maintenance teams and strapped into their seats.

“T-MINUS FOUR MINUTES.

   T-MINUS FOUR MINUTES”

Boyd had been woken up. He was not happy. He tried to go back to sleep.

He pictured a tranquil blue sky, with a few wisps of clouds. Below it, a tree stood in the corner of a small grassy field. Behind the tree, more lush green fields stretched into the distance. To the left of the tree there was a five-bar wooden gate. This was his happy place.

 

Go to sleep.

Go to sleep.

Counting sheep.

Counting sheep.

Go to sleep.

Go to sleep.

Counting sheep.

Counting sheep.

“T-MINUS THREE MINUTES.

   T-MINUS THREE MINUTES”

Ross was wide awake. The footage from the concert filled him with adrenaline.

He pictured a burning city scape. Litter blew through abandoned streets like the dust balls of the wild west. It was dusk. The available street light was a blend of neon and blue emergency lights. A single urban fox wandered the streets. This was his happy place.

 

I can’t say it more than once

‘Cause I’m thinking twice as fast

Yodel-ayde-lay-da-day

 

Everything I like is nice

That’s why I try to have it twice

Yodel-ayde-lay-da-day

 

“T-MINUS TWO MINUTES.

   T-MINUS TWO MINUTES”

The reality of their predicament had dawned on Jet and Sky several minutes ago.

Panicked hugging was followed by a plan. They half-filled two lockers with anything soft they could find, wrapped towels around their heads and closed themselves in. An air vent allowed them to hold hands. Sky couldn’t speak. Jet sang a lullaby.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

How I wonder what you are

Up above the world so high

Like a diamond in the sky

Twinkle, twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

When the blazing sun is gone

When he nothing shines upon

Then you show your little light

Twinkle, twinkle, all the night

“T-MINUS ONE MINUTE.

   T-MINUS ONE MINUTE”

Jack was in another place. Soothing vibrations calmed his nerves.

His mind returned to the lucid dream he had experienced in the closet of the penthouse suite. It was dark. He felt safe. He felt warm.

The darkness began to take on reddish hues. The heat increased and with it the redness. The temperatures were now tropical, and the red had been joined by oranges and yellows. There was still nothing to see, but now, white smoke was pouring through unseen vents.

What would remain of history would only remember the money.

A billion pounds burned by that rock band.

What were they called?

There was no one left behind to remember Jack.

Just his art remained. A pile of bricks in a world gone mad.

“T-MINUS THIRTY SECONDS.

   T-MINUS THIRTY SECONDS”

Captain Tom Clark braced himself for voyage 23. He came from a long line of pilots and ship’s captains. This was his third time sitting on top of a KAOS drive. He knew what came next.

He was looking forward to getting to TITAN where he’d made a life with his family in the Titan Residential Area North Central.

Mission Control had hinted at something out of the ordinary happening, but Captain Clark had no idea that this would be the last train out of town.

(10) Ground Control (9) to Captain Tom (8)

(7, 6) Commencing (5) countdown

Engines on (4, 3, 2)

Check ignition (1)

And may God’s love

(Lift-off) Be with you

Boyd King had counted enough sheep.

He was fast asleep.

Ross Munro had his eyes open wide.

He was ready for the ride.

Professor Campbell had a lot on her mind.

She was ready for the end of the line.

Lucy Taylor had emptied her mind.

She no longer needed to resign.

Padre Camacho’s head was spinning,

He knew that this was just beginning.

RealElon checked the screen.

His attention focused on Sim23.

Jet and Sky were in this together.

They were leaving Sample City forever.

END OF BOOK ONE

Find FOREVE2 here.

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