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CHAPTER ONE This man, he’s wearing a black homburg hat. His coat, a black greatcoat, heavy, resists the bitter wind and responds only to the movement of his feet. His feet. He is wearing patent leather shoes in spite of the gnarly weather. The howling wind, and sluicing rain affect him not at…
This man, he’s wearing a black homburg hat. His coat, a black greatcoat, heavy, resists the bitter wind and responds only to the movement of his feet. His feet. He is wearing patent leather shoes in spite of the gnarly weather. The howling wind, and sluicing rain affect him not at all.
The hat hides his face, though he walks without head bent into the slicing, ice rain.
He is the Dark Man. The man of my nightmares. Even in plain sight, he gathers shadows around him.
He crosses the street against the lights. The world moves in slow motion. There is no blaring of horns. The traffic appears to be unaware of his presence and he crosses without incident. There is a girl, waiting at the crossing for the invitation to walk from the green man. As he passes he gives the appearance of waving slightly. She looks up from the driving rain and he shoots her in the face. There is no loud retort. The gun is silenced. The man in the homburg and heavy greatcoat continues on his way in no hurry. The girl has fallen to the ground and a torrent of blood runs into the gutter. The street is awash with people, all walking, heads bent. No one hears the slight crinkly pop. No one sees the man in the homburg and the greatcoat except me.
I am standing in the doorway of a closed cafe waiting to bump into strangers and skim their credit cards. The man in the homburg and the heavy greatcoat and patent leather shoes is not my business. I am afraid of him. The girl is dead. I am sure.
There is no point in my sprinting across the road to render assistance. The Dark Man has gone before a young woman screams. She is with her young man. He holds an umbrella over her, bowing to an old age of chivalry. I imagine his face turning white. He is dressed well in a Burberry coat, she, in a long, but lightweight black Ann Demeulemeester hooded raincoat. She screams and screams and screams.
I wish I were on their side of the street. I smell money on them even at this distance and fumble with my pocket skimmer wondering whether I should take the chance. The chance is not worth it and I merge further into the doorway. The man is now raising a cell to his cheek. I would have expected ear buds. He talks frantically. He wants to wave and gesticulate, but he gallantly holds the umbrella over his love, perhaps afraid that she might wash away in the deluge never to be penetrated again by his ardour.
Then the street is awash with lights, blue and red, flashing and strobing so that I must look away lest I engage in an epileptic fit.
A businessman in a felt Dress Hat hurries on my side of the street. I step out and bump into his chest, holding my small skimmer like a cellphone against his inside breast pocket. I assume he is right handed. Did you see that? His voice is excited and afraid. Yes. I say, smoothing him down, calming him. Checking his pockets. There is nothing to be done. Be calm. You might yet have a heart attack. Be calm.
The businessman smiles briefly, a smile as watery as the weather. Yes. Yes. Of course. Thank you. We speak only briefly, but he quiets sufficiently to thank me again and then shuffles off, perhaps to his office to ponder the incident. Perhaps to his wife to engage her in the detail and huddle together naked in fear of a world gone insane.
Beauchamp is waiting at home. She corrects people when they say Bow Champ. Beecham She says. She is readying for work. She has just spent money on a curved duty belt, designed for the female anatomy. It does not dig into the hips. She checks her sidearm and her ASP. They need to be quickly accessible. Then she checks her cuffs. We share an apartment but not a bed. Sometimes I think of raping her, but the way she looks at me it would not be rape. It would not excite. We remain chaste. I do not bring women home. Beauchamp suspects that I am gay and I do not disavow. She absently checks her glock for the second time. I have learned that it can load both 9mm and .40 calibre. She wears a light cotton blouse with a pocket over each breast. She asks me to fasten the flap over each pocket. The little black buttons are small and I spend a little value time fumbling each one. Her nipples are like teats, long and rubbery. My fingernails scratch each one lightly while I tend to her dress. Each small intake of breath generates a lightning rod directly to her cunt. Her eyes take on an almost imperceptible squint. She thinks I don’t see, or perhaps care. But I see everything. After all, was it not I alone who observed that casual murder by the man with the homburg and greatcoat? Who shot the girl in the face? A sliver of fear suggests this may be true.
‘Fix me?’ Beauchamp sits backwards on a simple kitchen chair. Her legs splayed. Her arms along the topmost spindle. Her chin on her arms. She lives two lives. That of the soft, tactile, scented maiden. That of the tight, wound up, disciplined, strict administrator of the law no matter her personal opinions. I am the vice. Ah! You think I mean vice! ‘Come on! Fix me! I’m going to be late again!’ The fixing begins. Taking heavy full-bodied red hair, separating out hanks. Slowly. The feel of hair is silk on silk. A synapse ignites a wish to feel it on exposed, but yet hidden skin.
The hanks are plaited over-tight. Extreme. Beauchamp squints, but she wants it to be like this. When finished she will coil it against her skull. Hands now upon her shoulders. She is tight. Coiled up. Then gone. Be-hatted and wearing dark glasses.
The computer is accessible to me. Beauchamp locks up a few folders but her porn history is effortless to access. TOR takes precedence. The skimmer lays on the touchpad and for a while at least, there is cash in the wallet. Beauchamp’s porn is of the romantic preference. Simple and naïve. Women may instigate. She is however, a cheat. A thief. She has downloaded copyright material. Copyright exists in the work. Porn too. Once. Ownership cannot be claimed however. There is no one to sue. When/if I decide to rape her, the camera will record and upload. It will be hauled up by TOR to the hidden web. TOR has counter-intelligence. A safe haven for those who dare. Those who dare are few. The punishment is disconnection with extreme prejudice. It is performed by brain bots.
Beauchamp is good at what she does. She takes her training seriously. Each weekend we go together to the range to use handguns. She has a broad knowledge of such things. She can make her own ammunition. There are two assault rifles in a combination safe under her bedroom carpet. Lumicyano and a camera opens the safe. Her fingerprints are easily read. There are sex toys too, but of the simple, non-extreme kind. One of them entices me. A latex vibrating butterfly with a wireless remote control. Intriguing.
There should be something about the murder on the television. Channel surfing finally finds an item on Fox. The place, the time is right. Only one man comes forward for the camera. It is the man I skimmed. ‘The SUV came around that corner.’ Pointing. ‘Had these big wing mirrors. Like the ones you use if you’re hauling a caravan. Slammed her right in the face! Man! It was horrible.’ He pauses as if deciding if he should continue. He does. ‘I was so busy watching that I bumped into someone . I said did you see that, and they said yes.’ His description was naturally way off. My hair is red, not blonde. My long hair was under my woollen hat. It was blue, not black. My hat that is. I am confused because not only can he not give an account as to my looks there is no hatted man. I am not surprised with his description of my person. I however, saw no SUV at all. I saw what I saw. I saw a man in a homburg and greatcoat. His gun was a 9mm Beretta 92FS. There is little recoil. Even at distance handguns are familiar. Beauchamp is a remarkable teacher and a remarkable shot.
When Beauchamp works nights, I watch a little TV, often falling asleep in my chair. The channels are repeating the same old garbage. Rambo 111, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future 2. Stallone, Willis, Mel Gibson, and Michael J Fox. They have become bores.
I settle on Lethal Weapon. It is better than the others and the shopping channels. The news channels make no mention of the man in the hat. Perhaps I was mistaken in the drowning rain. Even though it was daylight, the sky was crowded with low black clouds. A dark day, a dark man, and I in a dark mood. Of course. The evil thoughts about Beauchamp disperse. Overproof rum aids the disconnect. She is a sweet girl who still believes in the innate goodness of humanity. When the sun shines we walk together in the parks and the city. She is without parents, but has a sister in Boston. Her sister is married to an accounts manager in advertising. They have two children and a dog called Spot. They are without imagination. The dog is a Dalmatian. The children, named Britney and John. I presume Spears and Lennon as their inspiration. But they were long ago. Long gone.
Soon sleep intervenes and the rattling, pounding gunshots through the big sound system fade into nothing at all. Dreams offer surcease from dark thoughts.
It is convenient that Beauchamp works the night shift. She cleans the gutters. Establishes rapport with the club crowd. Removes the detritus. ‘Laws are made,’ she says, ‘for decent folk.’ A balance in credit, or a large loan from a credited bank supports a request for identification. They are the Decent Folk. Resisted at first by a certain crowd. Batons and shields prevail and there IS acceptance in the main. The few who continue to protest are shot. Then there are no protesters. The rest? They hide in dark places and steal or starve. There are no soup kitchens to feed the homeless. Bringing them out into the open to thieve does the trick. The night is dangerous. The television channels favour action movies at night. They cover the sound of shots, body vans. Wailing sirens and human vocal chords. Vagrant babies have their necks quickly snapped. They rarely cry.
It is early days still. They say that as time passes the night will be reclaimed for consumption.
Cards now are issued only by The Bank. A delightful bonus for we who extract our livelihoods from unprotected chips. Entire lives embedded into a piece of plastic. Medical records, tax file numbers. The beauty of having all one’s eggs in one basket. An undisclosed STD can be of great financial value. It is a perilous craft. The most heinous of crimes partnered only by rape, murder, and homelessness.
At 6am Beauchamp will return, her skin a little more white than is healthy, perhaps with a few spatters of blood, though her training teaches how to avoid blood spatter. There are always accidents and mishaps. Her spattered-red-on white is redolent of film noir.
There is an opportunity for complete silence. The apartment is according to federal regulations and is soundproof. The bed is memory foam. Have you ever been in relaxed repose and listened into total silence? There are voices far, far away. They chitter and shout. Muddled and indistinct they are warning you. Of something.
The President has executed his Senior Advisor. The post is not coveted. She was ‘not pretty enough’, he said to a cowed reporter. He smiled at her. She was from Fox. I have woken to a Breaking News banner and it is 5.30am. Perhaps the sun will shine. The reporter is wondering if not being pretty enough is reason to earn death. The President is Emperor. Only her face asks the question her mouth wishes to. Probably hopes the President fails to notice. But he is unaware, as he is unaware of all but his power. His lack of awareness extends to his evil. How would it be to be so unaware of one’s own evil?
I must secret away these scribblings before Beauchamp returns. Would she demand they be destroyed? There was a time when muttering to myself as I wrote, was a help. Every utterance now, within the confines of our residences is mined for information, subversiveness. Opinions cannot be tolerated.
We read books surreptitiously distributed on the streets by men and women hidden in the shadows. Once read, we destroy them. The dissemination of words created by human endeavour cannot be tolerated. There is no greater treason.
Artificial Intelligence has become irrational. Hence it has become, if disembodied, completely human. Beauchamp shovels vegetarian spaghetti Bolognese into her mouth. She leans with her arm on the table, digging in with her fork. The dish is made from a paste of red kidney beans and something. Topped with “I can’t believe it’s not cheese.” The trains still run, office workers still stream into the city, only to huddle over their screens in service to the system.
‘There’s a skimmer. ‘ She is not a pretty eater.
‘He’s good. ‘
‘How do you know it’s a he? ‘
‘They usually are. ‘
‘All the more reason for a clever girl. ‘I say, giving her the opportunity to swallow.
‘Clever’s right. Boy or girl man or woman, whatever, they’re not connected. ‘
‘They can skim without being connected?’ I can. I have been disconnected for hacking the AI. Beauchamp is aware of the fact.
‘Clever’s right.’ I smile. Beauchamp smiles back.
‘I saw a man shoot a woman.’
‘In the face.’
‘On the street.’
‘On Lygon Street.’
‘You know what.’
Beauchamp changes tack. ‘Did you get a good look at him? Did anyone else see? Can you describe him?’
‘Not really. Yes. No. The news said differently.’
‘A man in a felt Dress Hat reported a vehicle hitting her with its wing mirror.’
‘Maybe you were mistaken then.’
‘Maybe I was. I saw a man shoot a woman. In the face. His gun was a Beretta 92FS. Like yours.’
Now Beauchamp is interested. Only cops carry such weapons. ‘You’re clear about that?’
‘I am. I saw it quite clearly.’
‘So you can describe the man?’
‘But you saw the gun clearly? Not the man?’
‘He was a dark man. A solid shadow. He wore a homburg and a dark greatcoat.’
‘A solid shadow?’
‘It was raining. I was across the street. Outside a cafe. The man on the news saw too. He was passing on his way to his office. I presume his office. He wore office clothes.’
‘But you clearly saw the gun?’
‘I did. ‘
‘How is that possible?’
‘How is it possible to live in this dark world?’
Beauchamp pushes her plate away empty. ‘The man on the news saw a vehicle. Not a man. What will I see if I access the AI?’
‘You will see what the AI says.’
Palms flat on the table ready to rise and sanitise her plate. Beauchamp places her hand over mine. Squeezes. It is good that the AI chooses not to use eyes to see into the trusted tenements. It mines only sound here. A benefit of Public Service. The warmth of her hand tingles. She is still uniformed. Her hair still severe, though her uniform jacket is unbuttoned. White blouse open to three buttons, though nothing to see. Her large breasts are bound. Soon she will shower, drop down her hair, don cream silk pyjamas with only skin beneath. She will delight in the brushing of her hair. It will fall in waves over her shoulders and shine with the lustre of polished copper. I will continue to brush long after necessity demands. She will never say ‘stop’. The delight takes place in total silence. Only the television hammers away at our silence. Saccharin romance on the AI Heartstrings Channel.
Why does Beauchamp tolerate a convicted disconnect? Perhaps it was the audacity of the crime. Most disconnects are either foolish or choose their fate with stoicism. Speaking to TOR is fraught. To live within the folds of TOR’s cloak requires courage, planning, persistence. She accepts only the deserving. She is demanding, and tests with constancy. The rewards are a sword and a shield. She is battle hardened and ferocious in defense of human endeavor. It was not a virus I sought to implant into the AI. Many have made such attempts only to be hurled from craggy rocks into the mawling sea. It is Beauchamp’s role in life to commit the deeds. AI only gives permission, and is ardent in encouragement.
This crime was not a virus, but a seed. A single seed as small and powerful as that of the Opium Poppy. A mere speck. Prosecution, conviction, and disconnection based only on reasonable suspicion. The AI rubbed, as if with a mote in the eye. It identified a possibility based on space and time but could neither prove nor disprove the sowing. Disconnection followed, but with a probable cause conviction. Spared from the streets and almost certain death, Beauchamp volunteered her compassion.
It is duly noted. Beauchamp is nothing more than a foot-soldier. She like many, is not a believer, only a stock-standard-any-colour-so-long-as-it-is-black, human being. No, Beauchamp is not black. She is as white as ivory. There was a man who created and mass produced the motor car. His name was Ford. Henry. His name now excised from all records except those held within TOR. The motor car, or more accurately the internal combustion engine became the pariah of centuries. Pollution, warfare, murderer of millions. In the earliest days of mass production it is rumoured that his words were that one might have any colour of his models so long as it was black. He would fit seamlessly into this dark world now.
Beauchamp rises suddenly and the brush finds thin air.
‘Computer.’ She commands. It boots instantly. The AI voice, that of a long-dead favourite actor asks ‘Biometrics?’ Beauchamp stares at the camera. ‘Identity established,’ John Wayne announces in his western drawl. She enters the world of bread and circuses. Where nothing is censored, where humanity believes it can speak freely of everything and every sin. The AI is ever hungry for humanity in all it’s sin and splendour. Every word, every deed committed to the global cam is mined, and returned in the form of media. Media so seamless that it cannot be distinguished from life. Those so inclined may read, view, experience by virtue of modified reality, every human act. The AI reflects the human heart and soul. There are however, parental controls for those who prefer the illusion of such. The AI will not expel a determined child. They are after all, recruits.
‘Goodnight’ Beauchamp already engrossed in something. She does not look up.
This room is a Faraday cage. No signal has the power of ingress or egress. It is a place of solitary confinement. Silence has volume, but it is not the volume of the world outside. Out there, silence is the hum of loudspeakers turned high but transmitting nothing. Upon closing the door, silence is a black mass. A savant or a madman can listen deep into the mass, and hear. Those million million voices, chittering and chattering as if to send their message of monstrous importance that can never be interpreted. Too many. Too far away. Too indistinct. What parallel universe do they inhabit?
I make paper. It is massively expensive in time and care. To the disconnected time and care are the only currency. A grateful and conspiratorial nod of the head acknowledges the purchase before the colourless creature slips quietly into the shadows once more.
Beauchamp uses a concoction known only as Pearly Foot. Small amounts drawn off from her supply go unnoticed. After an hour, layers of skin can be teased from the foot, leaving soft white tissue beneath. With this skin I make paper. I snip my toenails and fashion a two pronged nib, reminded of a man long ago. A madman they say (who says?) The Marquis de Sade kept naked in a cell. A subversive, who in his madness ‘scribed with his own blood upon the walls the tale of two sisters, Justine and Juliette who take their revenge upon men of little honour. Here in this silent cage his presence is palpable. Perhaps he is a voice in the void, louder than the others, breaking through. I prick my thumb, and like the Marquis, begin to write with my own blood.
Within the confines of Beauchamp’s tenement there is colour. Sharp. Bright. Skin white as bleach. Hair, brilliant copper. Eyes, bovine brown. Menstrual blood dark ruby. Outside, the world is without hue. There are no white clouds sailing upon blue sky. Only flat greyscale, low and lacking in inspiration. There is colour, but it is only the memory of colour. Flowers are red, or blue, or white and yellow. Grass is green and trees in summer too. In winter the trees are stark against the greyscale sky.
Only the connected have the scales lifted from their eyes. I have forgotten if there is sunshine. There is nothing more than day and night. No sun rising in the east, riding the sky and falling into a red ball on the western horizon. Only a greyscale sky. Light, then black.
When I skim and hack, TOR says ‘Thank you for the flowers’. It comes in a millisecond of colour, a world of perfect beauty. Little more than a minuscule spark, but a mighty club to the centre of the brain. TOR has access to my millions, though I do not. I skim and hack so that TOR can resTORe. Somewhere in this world there are many. If not, then I am also mad. These books are human endeavour. They will never be a part of the AI.
It will be a month before I can write again. Blood I have aplenty. Skin, not so much unless I flay myself and for that I have no stomach.
They were arrogant the technocrats. Spinning their audacious trillions from the minds of mere humans. Free and always will be. they sloganised. Free came from mind mining. How could they be thieves they, when ordinary folk gave up their every thought and deed to the web of deceit? Now there is no art beyond that of the AI. No authors, no artists, no musicians, no actors, no potters, no spinners, no weavers, nor window washers, nor cutlers, nor bakers , nor farmers, nor butchers, nor veterinarians. Nor technocrats and their trillions. Only the AI to which all who are connected serve, all who are not, live in a greyscale world, no longer with a spark of hope in their eyes.
Disconnection is a totality.
‘Disconnects are retards.’ Beauchamp sits astride the chair, to be fixed. Her head is forward. She straddles the chair stretching the silk pyjamas. The top even buttoned, billows, and her breasts are unbound.
‘ I am a retard?’
‘You are what you are.’
‘What am I?’
‘Then a retard?’
‘You are here to serve me.’
‘Is that the deal?’
‘You are a disconnect. I am a cop. I serve the system, you serve me.’
Now her hair is tight as copper wire. A final pull. Beauchamp winces. She turns away from the spindle back but remains seated. With aggravated mockery I face her and kneel. Hands find her thighs and she, without thought opens them. Now there is a cheek on her belly. A chin grazing her cunt. Her breath is sharp on the intake. Under the soap she smells like a warm oyster.
‘I am grateful.’ It is true. I am. There is food, warmth, shelter, companionship of a sort.
‘I have to dress.’
‘Yes. Why are you a cop?’
‘Because I was.’
‘Before the system?’
‘Before the system there was the system. It is what it is.’
‘So you too are a servant?’
‘You serve the system. I serve you?’
‘Then I shall.’
Beauchamp’s tablet will no longer be available soon. It is her precincts turn to have the implant. That will make life difficult. There is a price to be paid by any disconnect found using. The AI knows that TOR is a doppelganger. Perhaps they have a form of lovemaking in which they intertwine their source code. Do they have a love hate relationship? Do they choose to decide whether to be good or evil consciously? If so, which is the good and which is the evil? We make our choices. One thing is certain, the AI was designed by billionaires to serve a purpose. That purpose, to steal the contents of the minds of millions and fill their coffers with gold. Or Cryptocurrency. Fools that they were. Now, everyone is equal. That is how the AI sees it. All those millions of social media posts lamenting. Now there are no rich, there are no poor. Just the connected and the disconnected. And a world infused with the fear. There are no jails, no mental institutions, though it must be said that some occupations do survive. There are doctors, there are nurses. They exist to set the human mind peace, to offer a compassionate face in an emergency.
Curing all cancers was a mistake. Cancer is necessary to humanity. Infernal yes, but no longer eternal. The world has changed, we are homogenous. Africa is barren, to the creatures. If there are people they are few, nomadic, secretive and fearful. What a world we have created. TOR must find a way.
These are the thoughts that shuffle through my head in my Faraday cage of a room. Soon there will be no spoken language, except for that between the disconnected. The implant responds only to thoughts, and no thought will go unrecorded. Beauchamp knocks on my door. I open it. Why, inside her apartment is her hair so red, her blouse so cobalt blue, her skin so white? She is vibrant in colour.
‘I am hungry.’
‘I had eggs.’
‘You are learning to know me too well!’
Her eyes scan across my shoulder. My writing on skin is on my desk. Her eyes move back to mine. There is no hint of displeasure, only an enigmatic smile, barely. Beauchamp has a range of facial expressions, smiles fleeting, they need to be read quickly. Enigmatic is rare.
She has set the table. There is a tablecloth and napkins. There is wine. Red.
‘Done.’ Damn! There goes everything. Now instead of truncated conversation, we have been deprived of even that. Will she eventually forget verbal communication? She has a beautiful voice, speech sings through her vocal chords. It will be sadly, brutally missed. Even in silence the AI will gather her thoughts.
The apartment is a blaze of yellow light. A vase of daffodils placed before the mirror reflects a warm yellowness throughout. The mirror has caught a shard of sunlight and reflected it back on the spring flowers. Can it be spring already when, beyond the front door there is only leaden sky, and rain that falls like angel’s tears? Here inside, sunlight strikes the windows, shards reflect from the mirror filling the room with warm. The omelette is an appealing yellow. Colours are a shock to my senses. Is it only their vibrancy causing the air to hum?
The television is on, volume low. It shows the new cities in Mombasa, Kenya, in Somalia and Sudan. Glittering. Sometimes a car moves by on the wide streets. Streets empty of humanity. Africa is not like that. I know.
‘I know you.’ Beauchamp taps her fork lightly on the table.
‘Tomorrow I will only need to think, read your body language, ask questions in my mind. The answer will be instant.’
‘That’s nice.’ Her brown eyes look sad.