“Get in, Wren.” Gareth slumped into his seat and fastened his seat belt, before slamming the door.
Wren did the same.
Gareth grinned. “You’re learning. Good.” He started her up and pulled out into the road. “Now, what can you tell us about this… other place?”
Wren sighed. “I… I don’t know how.”
“Try, it’s important.”
“Well, there’s none of… um…”
“None of what?”
“I can’t. I don’t even know what the none of is.”
Wren looked around as if trapped, then his eyes widened and he bounced in his seat. “That.”
“I don’t get you.”
“Errr.” Wren glanced around, shuffled in his seat, then reached down and picked an empty coffee cup from the foot well. “None of this.” He held the cup up and dropped it.
Olban’s voice echoed in his skull. I think he means gravity, Gareth.
“Gravity? Is what what you mean?”
“It’s the force that keeps us down, stops us floating off into the air. Like that cup?”
“That then, yes. None of that.”
“Less.” Wren waved his hand around. “There’s none of that, either.”
Gareth glanced across. “Another none of what?”
He pointed out of the window at a bush by the road as they went past. Then waved his hand in front of his face and pointed at it with the other one. Then pointed at Gareth. “You’re there. My hand’s there. That green thing was there and I could… Well, I knew it was there.”
”Oh, shit… You mean…”
It makes sense, Gareth. No light, no dark, no up, no down…
“Thank you for describing the void from Doctor Who, Olban.”
But think about it, why would it not be a good description?
“Is that what you meant Wren? No light?”
“Is what what it’s called? The thing that lets me… Um…”
“See things? Light shines out from the sun, bounces off things, bits of it get absorbed, other bits get reflected, that’s what gives things their colour. Like green grass, or the blue of your shirt.”
Wren sighed. “Sorry, that’s the best I can do.”
Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me when we get back.
“What do you mean?”
Gareth, think… Think about space…
Gareth nodded. “Propulsion, or course. We need to be able to move around. And light, but… That’ll draw too much attention if there is none, won’t it?”
Exactly, we need another way to see. I have some sand, I know how to make glass. I can come up with some kind of enchantment to use invisible light… Ask Wren, would his kin be able to sense that?
“Olban’s asking… Do you know if you can sense other things similar to light, Wren?”
“I… I don’t know what you mean? I can see you, that’s all I know.”
Damn! We don’t have time to conduct experiments and Wren’s hardly the final model. Even if Wren can’t sense UV or infra-red, maybe that’s something the nameless one’s added since then. We know they’re slowly improving. We’ll just have to trust to luck. I’ll pick UV, far UV. We need to be able to recognise your dad when we find him, after all.
“I think we might need more than that, Olban.”
“What if we are detected? We need to defend ourselves. Who can tell how many of them are there, now? Could be thousands, millions, even! And what if they all decide rather than attack us, they all turn into carbon copies of my dad?”
Olban groaned. Point taken. I’ll have to call on my master. I can’t do everything by myself, this time. It’ll take ages.
Gareth sighed and nodded. “This is getting too much. It was bad enough when he was trying to kill and kidnap us! Now he’s got my dad! Who next?” He shook his head in frustration and turned the radio on. “I need some music, maybe that’ll calm me down.”
What emerged wasn’t what he was expecting. It was a classical piece. A slow one. A miserable one.
Ah! Good! I like classical. Unusual for you, Radio 3.
Gareth glanced down at the car radio. “What the hell’s going on, now? That’s Radio 1! Oh, shit, you don’t think he’s died, do you? Can’t think of any other reason to have sombre music on bloody Radio 1!”
Eloise chipped in. Don’t think who’s died?
“Charles of course! Only been king a few months, too.”
We’ll find out in a minute, Gareth. Said Olban. Look, it’s nearly on the hour. Switch to Radio 4 for the news.
Gareth nodded and did so.
It wasn’t long before the pips sounded and “The wave of violence has ended. Rioting across every nation in the world came to an abrupt end this evening at 17:34BST to be replaced by a wave of,” the voice froze and let out a little sob, “I apologise. I’m sorry. I’m so,” another sob. “Pull yourself together, Paul.” A deep breath. “A sense of despair, of… of loneliness. The crowds that were previously fighting are now weeping, hugging each other… I’m sorry, I can’t go on.” The sound of a chair being shoved back, footsteps and a door slamming, followed by silence.
Gareth stared at the radio in shock and pulled the car in to the side of the road, turning off the engine. “What the fuck was that?”
Your phone! Check the news on your phone!
“Good idea. Just a sec.”
The first thing that appeared when the news app opened were stories of rioting. He swiped back to the previous day. Reports worldwide of anger erupting for no reason. Violent arguments. A few fights. Another swipe and complaints of nightmares. Of waking up, some people just grumpy, others, furious, livid, for no reason, other than their dreams. And the first to awaken with these foul moods… Eastern Europe.
“Why the hell would it start in eastern Europe?”
It was me, wasn’t it? It must be!
“We know it all started with you, Eloise. But why there?”
Prague! That’s where I was when I fell asleep that night. When I tried… When…
“When you tried to kill one of your personalities… But Prague? How the fuck are we meant to… I can’t afford to ship… Oh, fuck!”
A single ticket, Gareth. We obviously don’t cross fully over. We’ll have to stay in here until everyone’s together. It’ll take time for me to complete the rings, anyway. Came from Olban.
“We’ll have to bring her back with us, Olban! Please, tell me you have a passport, Eloise!”
I had. But I’ve been in the institution for years, they took it when I arrived. It must’ve expired by now.
“So, what the hell are we meant to do? How the hell do we… We can’t make a circle there, I can’t afford the materials. The only one we can use is right here! In bloody Whitby!”
Olban chuckled. Well… We do know quite a few fishermen. A lot of them owe you a favour.
“People smuggling, now? I don’t want to end up in the slammer, Olban! Neither do you!”
True, but most of that sort of thing happens in the English Channel. From France. All those small boats. We’d be doing it from the Netherlands, to get back here, wouldn’t we?
“And just how many other countries between Prague and bloody Rotterdam? This is… It was bad enough with the global riots? What the hell that was all about…”
We saw the effect on the dream, Gareth. Everything about it was war and violence the last time we crossed. Let’s just hope this downer continues. It should be safer, this time, if everyone’s too miserable to do anything. If it continues long enough, it might make it easier to travel here, too.
Gareth sighed, nodded and started the car again. “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
* * *
“Make yourself comfortable, Wren.” Gareth picked up the TV remote and turned it on. “Keep yourself entertained, by watching that.” He pointed at the telly.
“What… I thought magic didn’t work here.”
“It’s not magic, it uses all natural forces, believe me. We’ve become very good at manipulating some of them.”
“What does it do?”
Gareth ushered him to the sofa, urging him to sit and sat beside him. “This is a remote control. You push these little bumps here.” He pointed at them. “And it sends instructions to that. Watch.” He changed the channel. “See?”
“Does it do that stuff that you got in your box?”
“He pointed at his ears.”
“Oh, the music?”
“I… liked that. It was… nice.”
“Want the same type? Or something a little more lively?”
“The same, please.”
Gareth nodded, brought up the programme guide and selected Radio 3. He didn’t know what it was that was playing, but Wren smiled.
“Try to get some sleep.”
“Some… I’m sorry, I…”
“You…” Gareth sighed. “Humans tire. Wear down over the course of the day. We sleep to refresh ourselves. It’s when we dream, when our body gets a chance to heal itself. When our minds can handle what happened during the day, sort things out.”
“I could try. How do you do it?”
“For us, it comes naturally. Lie on the sofa, close your eyes while you’re listening. See if you drift off.”
“But I can’t fly.”
“I meant your mind. Drifting off to sleep. Never mind. Just give it a try, you might feel better about things in the morning if you manage it.”
“Good. I’ll see you in the morning.”
* * *
Gareth trudged through the emptiness of the between and as he continued, the two misty forms appeared and slowly materialised beside him. He glanced at them both with a grin.
“Good to see you’re fully clothed, this time, Eloise.”
“Well, I know, now!”
Gareth nodded and they continued.
The forms of the landscape began to melt into existence as they did so, and when the forms became more solid, the differences to last time were striking.
The trees, though still black, no longer had a threatening aspect, no longer jagged, reaching branches. Instead, is was as if they’d been made of wax and exposed to heat from above. They drooped miserably.
They continued for a while and Olban froze.
“What is it?”
Weeping, a child, by the sound of it.
“First of the dreamers. Let’s see what’s happening this time, then.” Gareth strode forward and it wasn’t long before they emerged into a clearing, in the centre of which was a stone wall that stretched to the left and right of them, vanishing into the woods on each side.
Sitting beneath a long crack in the wall was a small boy, the source of the weeping.
Gareth sighed. “I don’t like the look of that wall. It could go on for miles in both directions.”
“Couldn’t we…” Eloise looked up and smiled. “Couldn’t we dream up some wings and fly over?”
Olban shook his head and craned his neck. “Do you see a top to it? It could go on forever.”
“So we’re stuck?”
Gareth chuckled. “Nah. One thing you learn once you’ve been through here a few times is just how fluid people’s dreams are. We just talk to the kid. Try to cheer him up a little, that should shift it. Might even cause it to erupt into a cloud of butterflies.”
“As long as it’s not a cloud of elephants,” Olban strode forward. “I’m all for it.”
As the other two trotted to catch up, Olban entered the clearing. “Hello.”
The boy didn’t respond, he just continued crying his eyes out.
Olban sat beside him. “What’s wrong, lad?”
“I… I don’t know… It… I don’t understand… I…”
“Feeling bad about something? Want to talk about it?”
“Feeling? Feeling. Yes… Feeling. Why does it…” The boy slapped his head.
“Hurt? Why does it hurt?” The boys eyes blazed a fiery red and the next voice to emerge was a deep growl that shook the earth. “What did you do to me!?”
Olban sprang to his feet and leapt away from the boy, only to bump into something. “Oh, shit! You’re him, aren’t you?” He turned around on the spot. They were surrounded by more walls, boxed in.
“Tell me what you did!” The boy’s voice returned, letting out a pitiful plea. “Please, make it stop!”
Gareth pressed himself against the wall at his back, trying to get as far away from this… thing as possible. “Olban…”
“I know! But look at him!” Olban sighed. “Alright. I know about you. Vellan told us enough. You want to know what you’re feeling?”
“Tell me, now! Make it stop!”
“We awakened in you the feelings you’d buried. They’d always been there, but you ignored them. We had Wren delve into the footprint you’d left in his mind when you abandoned him. All we did to you was allow you to read him.”
“Please, help me! Please? It hurts!”
Gareth stared and barged forward. “Help you!? You’ve done nothing but attempt to kidnap us and murder us since you realised the barrier was weakened! And now you’ve taken my father and you expect us to help you!? Where is he?!”
Gareth looked around. “No he bloody well isn’t.”
“I think he means where he is, Gareth. Obviously this isn’t the whole him. It’s just a crack, remember, this is probably just the equivalent of poking a finger through. If he had his full power right now he would’ve already ripped the planet apart.”
Gareth nodded, strode forward and knelt before the boy, staring him in the eye. “Listen you psychotic cunt! If you think you’re feeling bad right now, that’s nothing compared to how my dad’s feeling! Trapped, in perpetual darkness, unable to move. Floating in a void?”
The boy sniffled. “Worse? I don’t understand!”
“Gareth. Step back, let me deal with it.”
“What? Why? He has my dad!”
“Yes. And you’re wearing the armband.”
“You’re not seriously suggesting”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“But he’ll know all our plans!”
“Gareth, he already knows about the rings, remember? What was it Wellick offered us? A short cut? Premade rings in a different world, all in an attempt to trap us? We don’t have any other plans right now!”
“But what about”
“I’m willing to take that risk! Step away!”
Gareth sighed, nodded and returned to Eloise’s side.
It was Olban’s turn to kneel before him. “As I said, Vellan told us about you and your kind. About, how, at the start of creation, your kind appeared. How each had a purpose in shaping the universe, but you decided your purpose was to destroy it before they’d even begun their work.”
“But it is my purpose! I must! What does that have to”
Olban placed his finger over the boy’s lips. “Shush. I’m getting there. You’re an intelligent being, just as we are. Correct?”
The boy nodded.
“Well, intelligent beings need others of their kind. They need companionship! They need each other, but you cut yourself off from the others long before they cut you off from the universe. Didn’t you?”
The boy nodded again.
“That’s what you’re feeling. Loneliness. A need so deep and profound. You need to reconcile with the others. You need them!”
“But they’ll never talk to me again! They sealed me away! I have to end it all. It’s my purpose!”
“But do you have to end it all, now?”
Olban sighed. “Look. Think about it for a minute! You tried to undo everything the others were doing in shaping the universe. Tried to end it before it had even properly begun, but others of your kind had purposes, too, didn’t they? Some of those purposes couldn’t be fulfilled straight away, they had to wait. Why couldn’t you?”
“What do you mean, wait?”
Olban rolled his eyes. “Some of your kin had the purpose of creating the stars, didn’t they?”
“But some had the purpose of causing the destruction of those stars! But they didn’t do it the moment they were created! They guided that destruction after the stars had spent their fuel! After they were about to burn out! They must’ve waited millions or billions of years for some of them to reach the point where destruction was appropriate, and when those stars were destroyed, whole new forms of matter were created. Matter that went on to form planets and life, like us! Some of those powers, like Vellan, had to wait a hell of a long time before he could carry out his purpose!”
“But Vellan didn’t have a purpose!”
“When you were locked away, he didn’t. Now, with life on this world, he does. He is the guardian of sleep. He guides and protects the people who dream, but it was billions of years of waiting before life developed with the capability to dream. Do you see where I’m going?”
“Gareth, you’re more familiar with it than me.”
“With what, exactly?”
“Your scientists. Their predictions. Fate of the universe?”
“Oh, shit! You mean…”
“I think I do, yes. I’ve been thinking of Vellan’s tale for a while and it does make sense. Tell him.”
Gareth returned to kneel before the boy again, this time beside Olban.
“Our scientists know nothing of your kind, of the powers shaping the universe. All they know is what they’ve observed about it and what they observed over the past hundred years is that the universe will end. Well, not end exactly, but over the course of the next few trillion years, every star will burn out, every galaxy, everything. All the matter that created them will evaporate back into energy and at the very end, there’ll be nothing but a sea of energy. Nothing more will exist. Ever. It’ll be like that for all eternity. The scientists call it the heat death of the universe.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “But that’s horrible!”
“More horrible than what you intended?”
“Eternity? Like that? I can’t allow that! I have to destroy”
Olban placed his finger over the boys lips again. “Perhaps that is your purpose. But you don’t do it now! You shouldn’t’ve begun your work at the beginning. You should’ve waited until the end! Waited until that last star had expired. Waited until there was no more life in the universe, and then ended it! Why? I don’t know. Maybe your purpose was to be the demolition crew. To make way for a new one?”
“But it still hurts! You said you’d tell me how to make it stop!”
“Read me.” Olban closed his eyes and his face took on an expression of deep concentration. “Read me, now.”
The boy stared intently at Olban for a few seconds and started blubbing again, but it sounded different this time.
Olban pulled him into a hug and started stoking his back. “That’s what you need.”
“What was that?”
“The love I have for my family. The love he has for his mother and father, a man you’ve taken. He was right when he said his dad was feeling worse, too. He’s not just all alone in the dark, he’s terrified out of his mind.”
“It’s the love I have for my family, the love you need from yours! You need your own kind, that’s the only way to lose the loneliness! Speak to Vellan. You have a lot of talking to do.”
“But I don’t know how!”
“This is his domain. This is the realm of dreams, the hub of the universe. Every world with sentient beings touches this one. Vellan can be your go-between. He can speak to the rest.”
“Thank you.” The boy let out one final sob and sniffle and vanished in a puff of smoke, which, like the smoke from a genie vanishing into its lamp, drifted into the crack.
Gareth sprang to his feet. “OI! What about my dad!”
The walls began to fade away, and “Go to the cave,” drifted out of the crack before it, too, vanished.
“What the hell did that mean?”
Olban shrugged. “I can only think of one cave, right now. Let’s get going.”
“But that’s in your world!”
“Ah, look on the bright side.”
“Bright side?! What bright side? He’ll never see Mum again!”
“Course he will. Just need an extra ring, that’s all. Besides, he’ll be safer there, as long as I get one of my brothers to look after him when I’m asleep… And of course…”
“Looks like he'll get to meet me in person, after all.”
The rest of their trip through the woods was uneventful, no more dreams, and by the time they’d crossed and the trees began to dissolve, even the colour seemed to be returning to them.
As the last of the dream vanished, again, the wolf was there, sat on its haunches waiting for them.
“Good evening, Gareth, Olban, Eloise. I commend you on your insight, Olban. None of us had considered the possibility his purpose might be correct, if timed right.”
“Of course. I know everything that happens in the dreaming. Don’t worry, you weren’t at risk. He couldn’t have harmed you while you were sleeping.”
Olban nodded. “Thank you, sir… About him…”
“I will speak with him. I’ll pass on what he says to the others. He did still commit a crime against us and the universe. A planet is lifeless because of him. Because of who he killed.”
“Hmm… Sir? Every single mythology that I know about on Gareth’s world has stories of resurrection. Couldn’t you bring her back?”
The wolf cocked its head in the way dogs do when curious or puzzled by something. “That’s impossible. It’d take the power of every single one of us to perform such a task.”
“Before, it might’ve been… But if he was included?”
“Undo some of the damage he did? Interesting idea. I’ll be sure to mention that when we speak. It won’t be safe to perform such a task until after the balance has been restored, however. Such a use of power…”
“Oh, and Gareth?”
“Don’t worry. I have had one of the others follow his progress. The man in the cave isn’t another one of the nameless one’s minions. It’s the genuine article, so no need to treat him with suspicion or waste time on the lens. It’s him. I’d get to him, though. He’s currently feeling his way around the chamber, it’ll be a while before he finds his way out.”
The Road Not Taken. Ch 9
Her eyes widened as he approached the desk.
“God, Des! How many printer cards did you get through?”
“On my third.” He said, placing the ream of paper on the counter.
“Third!? Thirty quid? You would’ve got a couple of months of broadband for that! You really need a computer and printer. It’s a fool’s errand spending that much on the printers here!”
“I know. I know. And I will. Got a lot of tidying to do, a lot of stuff I’ve thought might be useful that’ll never see any use I can sell on Ebay. Then I’ll get one, along with some proper fitness equipment. That’s what a lot of this is. Ebay pages. A little research in how much I could expect to make.”
“Well, you’ll need something to carry that lot home.” She reached under the counter and placed a couple of folders.
“Thank you, that’ll be a big help. How much?”
“I think the library can afford it. You’ve spent enough.” A grin appeared. “I’ve heard it helps if there’s more than one exercising together…”
“Yes. That’s true.”
“Give me your number. I’ll force Brian to phone you.” She sighed. “What he really needs is someone to bully him into it.”
“Oh, I think I can manage that. Had a lot of that when I was a kid.”
“That’s excellent. I just hope he doesn’t back out once I’ve talked him into it.”
“If he agrees, I won’t let him back out. Only trouble is… Where do you live? No car, remember?”
“Don’t worry, he has one, and we’re close to the main bus routes and very close to a country park. Ashton Road. Near Daisy Nook.”
“I know it. Good place, too. Plenty of canal towpaths, nice and flat, and some steep hills when we get to that stage… I agree.” He dug out his phone. “I can never remember the bloody number. Where is it?” He selected a few different menus before he spotted “MY NUMBER”, hit select and held it up to her.
She nodded, jotted it down, wrote something more and slid a scrap of paper to him. “Our address and number, just in case.”
“Thanks. Tell him not to call me until Monday. Visiting a friend down south tonight, I’ll be busy until then. Oh, and if he doesn’t have any, buy him a pair of shorts and some trainers. We won’t be running at the start, a nice long walk the first few times just to build up some stamina.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you.”
He held up the folders. “No, thank you,” divided the stack of paper in two and shoved them into the folders. “I’ll probably be back on Monday, anyway. See you.”
“See you, Des.”
The moment he hit the street, he turned towards the nearest bus stop that’d get him back into the city centre.
It didn’t take him long to sense… well… A shiver ran down his spine. He glanced around, convinced he was being watched and turned the next corner.
Continuing to glance around, he turned again and pressed himself against a wall as a car turned and skidded to a halt.
The front window slid down. “Get in.”
“And why would I do that?”
A sharp click issued from within the car. One he recognised.
“Get in, now.”
“You’re not going to shoot me in broad daylight, so, what do you want? How do I know if I do get in, I won’t be found by a dog walker in some woodland in a couple of weeks?”
“Look, just get… in!”
“Who are you?”
“The person telling you to get the fuck in the bloody car!”
“And why are you trying to order me about?”
“When my boss wants something, he gets it, and he wants you!”
“Well, as far as I know, I don’t have any criminal connections, so why does he want me? What did he tell you?”
“He said get Derek Brown, he’s currently at the library. When he comes out, bring him here.”
“Well, unless he said why”
“He told me to say maze of darkness, no idea why!”
Derek sighed, opened the back door and clambered in. “Why didn’t you say that in the first bloody place? And you can put the gun away, don’t forget to make it safe! You wouldn’t’ve even needed to draw the bloody thing if you’d said that first!”
The man in the driver’s seat turned and stared. “Why the fuck aren’t you brickin’ it?”
“Why would I be?”
“I threatened you with a gun!”
“So? Just… Get a move on, will you? I’ve got things to do.”
He nodded and the car pulled away from the kerb. “But you’re just a washed out author! What did it mean anyway? Maze of darkness?”
“All I care about is, your boss and I know what it means. If he chooses to spill the beans, that’s his business, but I’ll say this, it is related to why your threats didn’t phase me.”
Derek relaxed and watched the world go by as the car drove through the outskirts of Manchester, into a derelict warehouse district and finally, into an abandoned factory, the shutter doors slamming shut behind the car as it entered.
The moment the car had slowed to a halt, the door opened. “Out!”
Derek shrugged, stepped out and smiled at another gun wielding thug. “You’re not scaring anyone, y’know. Just put your little toy away and lead the way.”
A call from the front of the car. “Just do as he says. He’s a tough nut, this one. He’s not easy to intimidate.”
“But you got him!”
“He got in willingly, not from my threats. Seems he wants to meet the boss!”
“Quite. So, put it away and take me to your leader.”
The new thug sighed. “OK. Follow me. Where’s the fun when they come willingly? Why aren’t you afraid?”
“Fairly simple. What’s the point in hurting me when your boss wants to speak? Wouldn’t exactly be a good way to get me on side, would it?”
“Look… I have no criminal connections, which means your boss has reacted to something I very recently posted. Something I know, he needs. Something he has, I might find a use for, too. I’m got no qualms in working with you lot if it gets me closer to my personal goals, so, as I said, lead the way.”
“Right you are.”
Into the heart of the factory, up some steps, the man stood at the top and pointed at the end of the gangway.
He nodded and marched to the end. A door led into an office and sitting behind desk, a middle aged man with a cruel scar down his cheek.
“Ah, good. Please, close the door and take a seat.”
The moment the door was closed he lowered his voice to a near whisper. “They’re not near it are they?”
“One’s still in the car, one, top of the steps.”
He relaxed. “Oh, thank God! I’m terrified. I can’t relax! To make things even worse, I’ve had to move five times since I found myself here! Please!” The next word out of his mouth came out as a yelp. “Help!”
“Thought so. So you are another one of us? Another victim of this lottery bullshit?”
He nodded. “I’m not a criminal! I’ve never even stolen a Mars bar from the local newsagents! And now? I’m the head of a gang in control of all kinds of crap!”
“Lemme guess. Drugs? Protection?”
“Human trafficking, prostitution, burglaries to order, you name it, they… I suppose… we do it.”
“I’ll help, but I expect the same in return.”
“How do you expect me to help? I… I’m terrified just talking to these thugs!”
“But they do obey you? They do respect you, or, at least who you used to be? Right?”
“What exactly are you intentions? Obviously you’re trying to connect with other… victims?”
“Quite. The life I’ve had dumped on me was probably just as much a shock as yours was to you. Not as much of a fright, though, admittedly. His life’s a wreck! Mine, apart from an… indiscretion in my late twenties that wasn’t my fault, leading to having to pay child support, my life was bloody good. I don’t intend to allow this to continue. I’ve got to get back before he destroys what I had.”
“What the hell was mine even thinking? I’ve not been able to find any reason why he would abandon this life for mine!”
Derek shrugged. “I suggest you speak to them. They may be able to enlighten you a little. Criminal rival, perhaps? Threats to your life? Maybe the police were getting a little too close for comfort and he saw it as an escape? Do you know anything?”
“Only that until six months ago, he was making a packet from his various schemes. Then, huge amounts went out of his accounts every month, paying for those bloody tickets.”
“Sounds like he did see it as an escape. Have there been any attempts on your life since you got here?”
“Not that I know of, but as I said, they’ve moved me five times.”
“Sounds like someone’s after you. Have you spoken to him?”
“Spoken? How the hell can I”
Derek held up his hand. “I suggest you try.”
“But he’s in a different… world?”
“Did you get any flashes when you were in the maze?”
“Memories of my old life?”
“I thought that until he looked in the mirror and apologised at me. I responded. He heard. We’ve been in intermittent communication, since.”
Derek looked around. The door was of solid wood. No windows were evident. “Try? Turn the light out. When you get a flash, latch onto it and talk. If he hears you, responds, it should be enough.” He sighed. “It might depend on how long ago it was. Still less than forty-eight hours in my case.”
“If you could?” He pointed at the light switch by the door.
Derek flicked it. Immediately, his other self’s senses became evident. Even better, he was in the middle of another run.
“So, this isn’t just a memory? It’s a bit faint.”
“Where is he?”
Where’s who? Who was that?
Not you! I’m talking another one of us through communicating, so just shush and continue your run. I don’t care if you listen in, but shut it, for now.
“He’s watching something on my telly.”
“Address him directly. If it worked for my counterpart staring at the mirror, it might work without it. Try.”
“OI! Shit-for-brains! Give me my life back, you twat!”
“Me, Alistair Maddock, that’s who!”
Derek chuckled to himself. “If you want to be a little more discreet, thinking should be enough.”
“That? That was another victim of those bastards who did this to me! Thanks for the thinking it idea. When I’m among the others, I’ll do that.”
“What do you mean, I… At least give me some pointers! By now, you know you’ve never… What do you mean not any more? Oh, fuck! Why did you escape from this one? You were already established, here! And now you’re trying the same over there? You’re going to ruin my life!”
“But I don’t know how to do this!”
“I’m not going to let you get away with this! I’m” After a long pause, he sighed. “Turn the light back on, will you, Mr Brown?”
Derek nodded and flicked the switch. “He can’t hear you, now. It’s only when either of you are in pitch darkness. What did he say?”
“He said he’s restarting his gang, over there! That the police were getting too close, there had been one too many attempts on his life by rivals and he wanted to escape. He bribed one of the lottery people, so knew it was an exchange, that he’d retain his memories there and I’d be dumped here. More, he doesn’t give a shit. He wants me dead. You were right, it’s not just the police after me.”
“Well, it seems to me, you’re in a far better place than I am, right now. “
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Look at me! I can barely walk up the hill from the bus stop. I used to be a bloody army NCO, a physical training instructor with twenty-five years of experience! Brown, sergeant, 45305640.”
“I don’t own a car, a computer, not even a… I believe they call them smartphones, here! I spent thirty quid just on the printer at the library for all the research I did today! You look in shape, you’ve got a criminal organisation to back you up. You can use that when it’s time!”
“Time? What the hell are you planning?”
“If you want to think of it in terms that lot’ll understand,” Derek pointed at the door, “we could call it a heist. Might be an idea, actually. The goal as far as they’re concerned, steal the tech that did this. Our goal, use the tech to return home and destroy it, so no-one else can get swiped.”
“You really think…”
“I have a map of the area I emerged. I have a map in my head of the maze we went through. I should be able to pinpoint where they are. It’s getting in that’ll be the problem. I intend to contact everyone. You could help, there. Find out who else won, gather us together. That’s why I posted the thing about the white room in the first place. I can train you in a few military tactics, I can make a few makeshift explosives. I bet your men could, too.”
“And the heist?”
“How many criminals, corrupt politicians and bent businessmen would be willing to pay millions, maybe everything they own to escape the consequences of their lives? Especially if the authorities are closing in? Sell that service, highest bidder. Think you get the idea. Keep the location secret, just as they do. That’s what you tell them out there, anyway. Meanwhile when we get in, we force them to reverse it, I trigger the timed charge when the last of us,” he pointed at himself, “is about to be sent back. Then, boom. Problem solved, no more victims, for a while at least. They’d need to rebuild. If, at the same time, the truth of their “service” got released to the public, they may not be able to.”
Alistair’s eyes widened. He chuckled. “Oh, God! Do you think it’ll be possible?”
“It’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about since I got here. I have to at least try. I have a month’s reprieve before my life ends up in ruins over there. I’m clever enough in both worlds.”
“What do you mean, a month?”
“I’m stationed at Pirbright ATC. I’m one of the training team for new recruits. One of those recruits had two attempts at basic training, so far. The first, he broke his ankle, or rather, that’s what we thought. The second, he failed in other ways. My other self, over there, came up with a bloody good idea. He’s placing himself in the role of recruit with the failure training him. The idea as far as they’re concerned is to build up his confidence. Something that took a severe beating due to a punishment for something that wasn’t his fault and the broken ankle. Something other me managed to get him to admit was inflicted by one of the true guilty parties. The upshot is, one month to get the training he needs to become a soldier where he can be as incompetent as he wants. One month where his duties are on hold. Believe me, trying to fake being a sergeant would be a disaster. Even more so, faking being a physical training instructor.”
“So, you have a grace period. I wish I could say the same. With my luck, by the time I do get back I’ll be in prison! Or facing the same shit there as I am here!”
“My advice. Swallow your morals. Try to become the evil, self-serving git you need to be to be a crime boss. Keep all those schemes going. Do anything you can to keep your position here. What’s more, I’ll help.”
“But you don’t know how to be a crime boss anymore than I do!”
“No. But I know how to lead. I have the confidence to command. I can be your right hand man, if you like. Do you have any documentation about your activities or are you truly flying blind?”
“I do. I’ve been through most of it and it’s horrifying!”
“How do you feel?”
“Terrified! I said that!”
“Of course I’m angry!”
“Well, that’s the key. Don’t just fake it. Pour the anger of what’s been done to you into your work. Into revenge. Screw the world, put all that fear and fury into pushing your criminal activities forward. Rivals have been a threat? Take them down. It’s a thing we’re trained for. Taking down an enemy. For me, that’s normally a rogue state. For you, it’s another criminal organisation. Do to them what they’ve been trying to do to you.”
Alistair’s head sank into his hands. “Oh, shit!”
“How about this, if it’ll make you feel any better? Is this your world?”
“And do you have any emotional attachment to anyone in it?”
“So? Fuck ’em! If you like, you could see the whole world as fake, as us being the only real people in it. As every other being as being nothing but a fiction. Try any mental trick that can help you become what you need to be to succeed. They don’t matter. The only people that do matter are the ones in our own worlds and both of those lives are at risk of ruin from trespassers from here.”
“But what if we fail? End up stuck here?”
Derek shrugged. “Then it’s even more important you embrace the life. If you hate being a criminal mastermind, use it until you’ve made enough to disappear and emigrate. Obviously, somewhere that doesn’t have extradition treaties with the UK. Make a new life for yourself with your ill-gotten gains.”
Derek sighed. “For me? I may very well have to learn how to write fiction. As long as I can remain in contact with my other self, I may be able to pick his brains for writing the third in the series. Apparently it’s been years of anticipation from the fans. That should produce enough income. You never know… Maybe I’ll like working with you. A double life, like Superman or Batman, but as a baddy.”
“You’d willingly join the criminal underclass? I’m already stuck with it, but you?!”
“Well, I did say if I liked it.”
Alistair smiled and reached over the desk. “Welcome to the club, I… suppose.”
Derek returned smile and gave it a shake. “Deal.”
“So, what now?”
“What time is it?”
Alistair reached into his pocket and glanced at his phone. “Going up to five. Why?”
“I’ve got time. If you can arrange for the man who brought me here to take me down to Rugeley, a lot of time.”
“What’s at Rugeley? Where is that, anyway?”
“Ever heard of Cannock? It’s near Cannock chase, I think. There’s a forest there. I’ve agreed to be there to… well… to get as close to my other self as possible.”
“You said the images were quite faint before you spoke to yours. Did they become clearer as you were speaking to him?”
“It’s just an idea. It might not work, but if it does, I suggest you do the same. Keep the link between you alive. I figured physical proximity might help with that. No idea if it will.”
“But he wants me dead!”
“True. But you can rub it in when you succeed at something. Torment him with your successes and tell him of your plans to take the tech that did this. Make billions from it. Really get on his tits. Added to that, you never know, but it might help in reversing it when it’s time.”
“God, I love your way of thinking!” Alistair chuckled. “You really have a vindictive streak, don’t you?”
“When it comes to having my life ripped away from me, damned right I do! You do too, it could make or break your situation here. Now, how many men do you have here?”
“And in total?”
Alistair took a deep breath through his teeth. “Ooo, well over a hundred. Scattered, though. All over Lancashire and Merseyside.”
“Does this place have a boardroom?”
“I suppose it might’ve had that use… No furniture in there anymore though. Why?”
“Let’s get their greed juices flowing. It’ll explain where you were, too. How… Long were you gone?”
“Apparently, three days…” Alistair clicked his fingers. “Damn, I’d forgotten about that. They did regular security sweeps in my home. A day before I left, clean. The day I got back…” He opened a drawer and dropped a couple of things on the desk. They were small, about, two inches long, thin, with an angled bit on one end and a glint of glass. “Cameras. That’s what spooked them into moving me the first time, but… I think the timing’s too perfect for it not to be from… well… y’know… Them.”
Derek stared at them, then dived for his pocket. Then sagged. “I… I wondered what it was, but… When I took the books down off the shelf, I think one of those things fell to the floor. I just… didn’t think, I just swept it up and put it in my pocket.”
“You have one? An active one? Here?”
“Wrong pocket. The sweats I was wearing are in the washing machine.”
“Oh, thank God! Of they over heard a word of what we’ve said… That confirms it, then. It was those gits who planted them, not one of my rivals, probably using his keys to get around any security. Damn, I didn’t even need to bloody move the first time!”
“Might’ve done you a favour if you are vulnerable to attacks from not only the other criminal gangs but the police, though. My advice, keep moving. We’ll need to exchange numbers, though, so I know where to be to be picked up.”
Alistair chuckled. “They’re spooked. I don’t think I’d have any choice but to keep moving at this point. Now… Boardroom?”
“If there’s no furniture, the factory floor will do just as well. Gather them together, the ones here, that is, and we announce our plans. Don’t worry, after you tell them the basic outline, I’ll take over with what I propose.”
“Have them spread the word. Once I’ve located their most probable position, you could put a few of your Merseyside crew on surveillance duty, disguised as homeless people or something. Watch for any comings and goings. I doubt they live there, they’ll treat it as a normal workplace, most likely. There might be more than one way in and out. We need to know as much as possible before we strike.”
The Road Not Taken. Ch 7-8
With a grunt, he jerked awake and looked around in shock. It was dark, the TV was off, the only light, a faint glow through the window from a distant street light and the red dot of the TV standby light.
“I fell asleep watching the TV? Good God, I’ve not done that in years!”
He sighed and started fumbling for the light switch. The moment it was on, he turned the TV on again to get the time. 22:14.
“Six hours?” He did feel better, though. It had been a very tiring day. “Right then. Let’s see just how much of a mess you have made of your life. Judging by the house, it’s not looking good.”
He grabbed the file from the carrier bag.
Up until the age of fourteen, their lives had matched. That’s when the split had occurred, this version having left the army cadets. It didn’t say why. After that, exam results, tanked, periods of unemployment, crap temporary job after crap temporary job… Then it got to ten years ago when he seemed to have a period of good fortune.
“Two books published?” He went to the bookshelf and studied it, his hand shooting out when he spotted his name… Twice. They were hefty tomes. “A fantasy epic? I wrote a fantasy epic? How could I be so crap, now?”
Something small and black fell to the floor as he took the books. Absently, he swept it up and put it into his pocket before placing the books on top of the pile of paper on the coffee table and wandered into the kitchen. “Might as well see what he’s done with the rest of the house.”
Stacks of plates in the sink, stacks of unopened boxes, scattered all over the place. He sighed and went upstairs to find similar untidiness in the bedroom, clothes scattered all over the floor. He opened the wardrobe to find it crammed full of clothing, much of it still had the tags on.
Then, the spare room. This seemed to have been turned into an office. A typewriter sat on the desk, but it was clear from all the cobwebs hanging off it that he hadn’t written a word in years. This was the only room that wasn’t a bomb site.
“What the hell happened to me? How could I forget everything I learned in the cadets? Allow myself to get into this state?!” He sighed and returned to the file, but after the books, it was just more of the same, crap job after crap job and even those dried up after the death of his parents three years ago.
The file ended with no more information about any other aspects of his life. No details about other interests, friends, not even favourite pubs.
He tossed the file away in disgust and was just about to return to the kitchen to check on the boxes when…
Mork calling Orson, come in Orson. Mork calling Orson, come in, your fattitude.
You’ve got a fucking nerve, calling me that!
Well, you are. I know from personal experience!
Yes. You’re the fat one! I can’t believe the disrespect!
What do you mean, disrespect?
The house? Mum and Dad’s house? Well, if I can’t reverse this, my house? They kept it in perfect shape! I don’t remember a single day when I’ve visited them when there was even a cup out of place, but you! Look at it! What is all this crap?
Just stuff I bought. Stuff I thought might come in useful one day.
I know exactly what it is.
What about you? You don’t own anything! Where’s all your stuff?
I have no need for stuff! The army provides! Anything I need, I buy. My laptop, my spare watch and techwatch, my phone, what more do I need!?
One set of civilian clothing?
That’s a point, my other suit’s at the dry cleaners, I don’t need more than two. I suppose that’s one job you’ll have to do, tomorrow. Collect it. The ticket’s in the top drawer in my office. It has the address on it, before you ask.
But… But what about the rest?
I said, I only buy what I need. You’ve never been deployed. Moved from camp to camp. You soon learn to travel light. The spartan lifestyle is the right lifestyle. I don’t subscribe to the consumer economy. The only reason people buy all the latest and greatest gadgets they barely even use is to fill a bloody void in their lives. I don’t have a void in mine. Seems to me, yours is nothing but void!
I’m a published author!
And where’s that got you? How much do you even make from those two books, now? Yes, I’ve seen them, no I haven’t read them yet. I may.
So, do! They’re pretty good.
And yet, you haven’t written anything in years! Why don’t you own a computer to write with? Just a typewriter? You can’t even edit!
I can’t afford
“Can’t afford? How much have you wasted on all those boxes in the bloody kitchen? How much on clothing you’ll never wear? How much of that crap even fits… well… me, now? I’ll tell you this for starters, I am going to sort your life out! When you get back here, the house will be just as tidy as when Mum was alive. When you get back, every single one of those boxes will be sold on Auctionweb. Your life will be just as spartan here as mine is there. Where’s your fitness gear?
Fitness gear? I don’t have any fitness gear!
Well, that’s another reason I’ll have to sell all this crap!
No. You stole my life! I know it wasn’t intentional but things are not looking good in finding my way to that place to undo it. I need resources. I need cash. That cash comes from your hoarding. It’ll take a military operation to get back there and thankfully, that’s what I’m good at! Now, what happened there? What have you been doing?
Being clever! OK! I sorted out Ashford and at the same time, I’m sorting myself out! I start basic training on Monday.
How the fuck does a sergeant start basic training?
I said I was being clever, didn’t I? Ashford’s been shat on from a great height on multiple occasions, first with the fight, then his broken ankle, which wasn’t an accident, by the way, then he spent the entire second attempt second guessing himself, freezing, panicking, terrified he’d make a mistake, which, of course, led to him fail! I’m putting things right one bit at a time.
So, you contacted them, then?
Yes. Well, I contacted about half, the major contacted the rest. Every single one of them reported the same story Ashford initially told. Well, everyone apart from Prichard, who still maintained his lies and accused Ashford of being a mentally unstable coward. He’s the one who broke Ashford’s ankle on that assault course. Ashford landed, he kicked, then bolted.
Fuck! Really? That’s what Ashford claimed?
There’s some very grainy CCTV footage that does match Ashford’s side of the story and the medical report corroborates it The footage is incomplete, doesn’t show the kick, but it does show a soldier lurking by that wall and the next soldier to drop down it curled into a ball a few frames later.
I can’t believe you’re actually doing a good job of it, so far. Well done!
I like this! I.. I hope it doesn’t end!
But it has to! How can you continue to fake thirty years of army experience? How can you even do basic training!?
I’m losing my stripes for the month. Ashford’s gaining one, acting lance-corporal. He is going to train me. They’ll all think I’m faking being incompetent, I already told them I’d make all the same mistakes they make, but at the same time, I’ll be learning the basics.
Yes, the basics! There’s a hell of a lot more than that involved in commanding twenty-three men, which is the usual number in a section during basic training. Where are you?
In my room.
My room! Open the wardrobe. Third shelf down. PT kit. Put it on! Run around the camp five times. Now!
How far is that?
About five kilometres.
I couldn’t even walk five k!
Oh, I know exactly what your capable of. It’s me who can’t walk five k, right now! Even the walk from the bloody bus stop knocked it out of me! I am not letting you turn my body into another version of this… this blob!
But I don’t want to run around the camp!
Do you want to draw attention to yourself?
Of course not!
Do you want them to see you’re acting strangely?
Open the wardrobe! Look at the PT kit! Now!
But if I turn the light on…
Do it, you can just as easily turn it off again.
*sigh* OK! OK!
There was a pause.
Canvas? Shorts made out of canvas?
The army provides! I refuse to waste money on overpriced crap when I’m issued with something that’s perfectly functional. I’m a career soldier. I’ve seen action.
I saw the medal. What’s it for?
Our detachment was attacked when I was setting up a communication network. I not only took out the attackers, single handed, I might add, I saved the life of my det commander who was trapped in the burning vehicle. The shorts aren’t the only bit of PT kit on that shelf, the vest?
Neatly folded, white, so what?
Open it out. And strip. Put them on! Now!
I… Oh, fuck! Red trim? Crossed swords?
And you know what that means, don’t you?
Physical training instructor? I’m a PTI?
And not only any PTI, but a PTI class one and a sergeant! You will run around the camp! And in the morning at 5AM, before breakfast, you will hit the gym and push yourself to the limit in there! A sergeant has to set an example for the ranks below him. You start lazing about like you have been here and it’ll be seven shades of shit hitting the fan! Another reason this has to end. PTIs come in three levels, three grades. Grade three, they can train regular soldiers, grade two, you get let loose on the recruits, men who don’t know how to exercise. You’re clueless, you’re a danger! One bad command from you during physical training could injure a recruit out of the bloody army!
And grade one?
We’re trained in physiotherapy. Rehabilitation to get injured soldiers back into good, battle worthy shape. Who do you think got Ashford back on his feet? Now do as I say. Put that kit on and run!
But I was loving this! Now you expect me to put myself through hell?
You’ll love it, trust me.
How do you know?
Because I do? You won’t even hurt, running that far. You’ll experience something you never have before, an adult body at the peak of physical fitness, running further than you ever could before. I know, remember, it’s mine! You didn’t hate it when you were a cadet, did you? And don’t lie, I was you until you were fourteen!
*sigh* I suppose you have a point.
One thing that dossier didn’t go into… Well, a few things… Why did you quit? I would’ve never considered leaving the cadets under any circumstances!
It wasn’t exactly my choice, y’know.
Matt? OK, he broke his legs jumping off a roof, so what? OK, he was a friend, but I hardly think that’s reason to
Broke his neck, more like! And I was there! I’d never seen a dead body before and he was my best friend! I was a wreck for weeks! I couldn’t continue!
But I wasn’t there! I was on holiday with Mum and Dad at the time. Blackpool!
Dad had to cancel. An emergency at work! That’s why we diverged? Because of that?
Seems so, but that still doesn’t explain the rest. You tanked all your exams? You’ve been a failure all your life, apart from that brief success with the books, and even that, you couldn’t be bothered to continue!
I said it left me a wreck, didn’t I?
For a few weeks, you said. The exams were over a year later!
Well, obviously, if you passed them all with flying colours, then it affected me more than I thought!
Did you seek help?
What? What kind of help?
Of course not!
Well, if you do get back, I suggest you do. Obviously, there, you can’t, because mine and yours are totally different circumstances. Yes, I’ve suffered from PTSD, myself. It helps to talk it out. Seriously helps.
PTSD? You think that’s what it is?
As a kid, it’s much more nasty. You’ve seen yourself how much it’s damaged your life. It’s not just soldiers who suffer from it.
But I feel fine!
Your life’s pathetic. You apologised for the state of it, the very first thing you said to me. Nothing to be done about it now, but when you do get back here, that’s one of the things you need to see to. Lose the apathy. Fill the void in a useful way, not by hoarding crap. Now light on, kit on, out for that run.
But I don’t know where to run!
Easily solved, I close the curtains, unplug the TV, the room should be dark enough for me to take over the comms. I can guide you around the route I take.
* * *
As he sat there with his eyes closed, it was almost as if he was doing it himself. It wasn’t just the five senses, he could feel it. All of it. Of course, the first time around the roads on camp, he’d had to constantly push his other self. Faster, harder, stop slowing down, breathe, but after the second, he could sense he was putting the effort in. He could even sense the exhilaration, the fact his counterpart was beginning to enjoy it. He continued to experience the run without the need for constant cajoling after that, and when he’d finally finished the final lap…
Feels good, doesn’t it?
I’ve never felt so alive! I… I’m back to not wanting this to end!
And I’m back to reminding you it has to. Don’t worry, by the time this is over, I’ll make sure this pile of blubber’s a hell of a lot fitter. You can continue here and I expect you to! Now, get back to my room, grab a towel and hit the shower before bed. You’ve got to be up at five. Don’t worry, the alarm on my phone’s set for that time, anyway.
Yes sarnt! Err… Where is the shower?
*sigh* Army barrack blocks are the same across the nation. You’ve been in one before.
Ablutions at the other end of the corridor?
You’ll get used to it. Who cares about privacy in the army? You lose all that in the billets, anyway, living with twenty other men. Tbis time of night, though, you should be alone. I would’ve normally had my run hours ago.
Time for me to ask some questions.
What kind of questions this time? You know everything about me, now?
Not just about you this time, though, one thing that file they left me didn’t go into was friends. Who are they? How do I recognise them? Be a bit of a giveaway if I didn’t know who the fuck they were, me being you right now, but before that, internet equivalents.
You’re the one who mentioned them. What was it? Googol or something? Amazon? Ebay? We’ll both need this information rather than fumble around searching for them.
I suppose you have a point. What’s your equivalent of google, that G L E, not G O L, by the way.
You’ll have to tell me what it is, first.
Started as a search engine. Then they started an email service, I mentioned gmail.
Ah, so, Pagerank? They did that, too, along with maps.
They… They do seem to be an equivalent, don’t they? Maybe it’s the same people, just a different name? Anyway, Google does offer more than just the maps, now. Online word processor, spreadsheet, stuff like that. I’ve used that as well as the typewriter. Comes in useful.
If you’d got yourself a computer, even an outdated one, surely there must be word processors you can get for it?
Microsoft word’s expensive, but I’ve heard of a few free ones.
Microsoft? Don’t tell me people are still stuck with windows 95?
Of course not, they did update, release new versions every few years! Think the current one’s windows 11 but I’ve read the hardware requirements are way out of my price range.
What? Just for the base operating system? How can that have hardware requirements? It’s just a platform for running other stuff! My God, I’m glad they went bust.
Microsoft? How the hell could they go bust? They’re worth billions! Bill Gates was one of the richest men in the world until Musk took the top spot!
*chuckle* Windows 95 was bad, but 98 was even worse. At the same time those came out, something else was on the horizon. Something free. A bloke called Linus replicated the functionality of Unix and made it useful for home users. No-one uses Microsoft, anymore… Well, only a few who were locked in by software, anyway.
What about Apple?
Oh, they still make their Macs. But even those run that same OS now. Linux.
I’ve heard of that! Isn’t it more difficult?
Not here. It comes with every computer. I suppose if Microsoft still dominates here, I might need to install it myself. Not exactly difficult.
What about the iPhone? The iPod? iPad?
Never heard of them.
But Apple made the first smartphone!
What’s a smartphone? You mentioned that word before.
What do you mean? You have one!
It’s not called that. It’s called a screenphone, it has a touch sensitive screen and it was Nokia who came up with the first. A dozen other companies make them, now, of course. OK… Back to the… Please tell me it’s called the web.
World wide web, yes. They’re called websites.
At least that’s the same, then. Now… Auctionweb…
Online auctions? That’d be eBay.
Never heard of it.
Started out selling books online. Now? Sells just about anything.
That’ll be Amazon, then.
Errr… What does it do?
Communication network. Hell of a lot of people on it. It’s not the only one, a lot of people still use the old text only format’s because it’s more efficient. Usenet and IRC, but if they want to chat and post photos, other graphics, music, stuff like that, people tend to gravitate towards Chatter.
Hmm, suppose it sounds a bit like Twitter. What about Facebook?
Another one I’ve never heard of.
Bit like Twitter, I suppose, but for more lengthy discussions. Twitter has a length limit on messages. It started out as the same limits as SMS.
I didn’t invent it! But it is very popular.
I think I’ve got enough to be getting on with. Anything more, I’ll ask this Google thing. Now, friends?
Ah, come on, there must be someone.
OK, we’re… I’d say pally. Wouldn’t go full friend for either of them, though, just a friendly acquaintanceship.
I’ve got dozens I’d consider to be friends!
I prefer to be alone! OK?
OK… Who are they?
Simon and Barry, but don’t call them that. Sime and Bazza.
And how do you… associate with them?
Horse and hound. It’s
I know it. And are they trustworthy?
Well, I’ve never had any trouble with ’em.
Could I confide in either of them about… Well… This?
Bazza… I think Sime’s a little bit too… blabbermouthy.
They’re in there. In the on phone address book thingy.
And does this Bazza have a computer? Internet at home?
Live’s near here?
Just down the street, but don’t bother trying to contact him, now. He works nights.
Typical. Suppose it’ll have to be the library in the morning, then. Please tell me they’re open. Same place as it’s always been?
Same place it was when I was you, yes. What about your friends?
I’d need to give you a rundown of the entire camp personnel. You’ll just have to wing it. Sorry. But, as you begin basic training, that should bypass that issue. Obviously, you mix more with the other sergeants than the lower ranks but you’re mates with a few of them, too.
Hang on… Something you said earlier…
Didn’t you say you’ve got a laptop?
Where? I didn’t see it.
Not given the place a thorough going over yet, I take it? Bottom drawer, under the ledger. You’ve got the password to get into it. Don’t embarrass me online.
Wouldn’t dream of it. I doubt I’ll use it much, anyway. Oh, one last thing, online video streaming?
You have YouTube. People constantly upload videos on almost every subject. Like, subscribe, follow them. You might even like some of them. Pretty obvious we’ll have different tastes, but… I suppose if you still like scifi, there’s a few Americans reacting to Doctor Who, right now.
But… Taking the piss out of the paper mache and bad rubber monsters, are they?
There was no revival here?
Revival? It died in the 80s!
And came back in the 2000s. Much better production values. Much bigger budget. Some of them are fucking good. We’ve had six doctors since McCoy, another two on the way. Doctor number fourteen is the same actor as ten, though. Thirteen was a disaster. Terrible writer, she wasn’t that good either, in my opinion.
Yes. She. Don’t worry, he’s back to being male again. Before you say it, regenerations are a bit… Well, the master’s also been a woman. Mistress in that one’s case… Or Missy as she preferred.
What the hell have I been missing?
You’ve got a month to find out, if you at least let me have that much.
We’ll see. It might take me that long to work out where they’re hidden and that’s assuming they don’t move. God, I hope that’s not the case, cos if it is, then I’m well and truly screwed. Anyway, I’ll sign off, got a lot of sorting to do.
He got up and turned on the light, then returned to the kitchen to open all the boxes.
For the next few hours, he sorted through all the boxes in the kitchen, setting them into three distinct piles. Things he may decide were useful enough to keep, things to sell and things he wasn’t too sure about, were they even worth selling? He’d need to do a little research online to find out in the morning, for everything, of course.
At three in the morning, he stumbled upstairs and collapsed onto the bed, exhausted again. Even that had been draining. Even that? God, he had a lot of work to do to get himself into shape.
* * *
The clothes on the floor, into the washing machine. The scruffy sweats he wore, in, too. He dug around for clean clothing that had been worn before, avoiding the tagged stuff in the wardrobe, for now… Most of that, he’d sell.
Dressed, he returned to the kitchen, grabbed a bite to eat, picked up his keys, phone and wallet and headed towards the library.
“No buses from now on, unless it’s a non-local journey. Walk. Then jog. Then run.” He sighed.
Finally, an hour later, he staggered through the doors, over to the first chair he could see and collapsed onto it.
“Good God, Des! Are you OK?”
His gaze shot to the woman being the counter. “Err.”
“I’ve never seen you look so ill! Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“No… Thanks for the concern, but, I’m just tired, that’s all. It’s a long walk.”
“Don’t tell me your so strapped for cash you couldn’t even get the bus!”
He shook his head and smiled. “I decided I was more tired of being… Well…” His hand swept over his body. “This. Baby steps, got to walk before I can run.”
“You? On a fitness binge? What brought this on?”
He shrugged. “Struggling up the hill from the bus stop, for one. Looking at myself in the mirror’s not too pleasant, either.”
“Good on you. Hope you keep it up.” She sighed. “I’ve been nagging Brian for months he needs to do something similar. His excuse, I’m too busy. Always the same with him. Just hope he doesn’t leave me a widow.”
“Do you have a dog?”
“Might be an idea. It’d get him out of the house. A nice walk around the park’s a start and with a dog, that’s pretty much compulsory.”
“I know him too well, I’d end up being the one to do it. Thanks for the idea, though.” She nodded towards the back of the library. “Computers?”
“How long, today?”
“When do you close again?”
“Research. A lot of it.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve finally started on book three?”
Don’t tell me he didn’t even complete the story! “It’s a possibility. Don’t hold your breath, though,”
She chuckled. “I know. Write the first draft, then edit edit edit edit, edit some more, then rewrite huge chunks and delete others, then edit again, then submit to an editor for more edits, then to an agent only for it to get sent back with more changes, blah blah. You’re not the only author to come in here. Heard it all before. I’ll print you your day pass. Come to the desk when you can force yourself out of that chair. We close at four on a Saturday.”
Ten minutes later, he sat at the computer and glanced down at the sheet of paper he’d been handed. Username and password, and beneath that. “For your safety and security, please remember to log out when you’ve finished. All user files are deleted at logout and refreshed on login by the next customer. If you wish to save anything, save it to the cloud before logging off or all work will be lost.”
“Hmm, thanks for the warning, I think. What the hell is the cloud?”
A man at a computer a little further down looked up with a smile. “It just means save it to an online storage. They call it the cloud because you can access it anywhere, I think, like you can see a cloud in the sky while moving about. Think that’s why, anyway.”
“Thanks. What’s the point? Why not just say save it to online storage?”
He shrugged. “Don’t ask me, mate. I just use it. All this online stuff’s been called the cloud for years.”
Derek nodded. “I… What would… Err…” He looked at the desktop. It had a few icons with things written beneath them, but… “Damn… How do you start Netscape?”
“Good God! If it’s been that long since you used a computer, no wonder you’ve never heard of the cloud. Netscape vanished from the world twenty years ago. They branched off with Firefox. They don’t have that here, though. I recommend Chrome rather then Edge.”
“Aha! Chrome! Someone mentioned that, thanks. Err… Where?”
“Bottom left, used to be called the start menu. These days, it’s just the Windows logo. All the programs should be accessible from that.”
“Thank you.” He clicked, selected and entered gmail,com.
Thankfully, one thing he did remember, username and password. Before he knew it, he was greeted by a long list of unread emails. Most seemed to just be adverts, but, it looked a hell of a lot like the one on Pagerank. Finally, one that had been read caught his eye. He clicked it.
“Congratulations. You’re one step closer to a new life. Click the link below to register for your prize.”
This one, he didn’t click. Instead, he examined gmail again more closely, clicking several things until he found what he wanted. Open the raw email, show all the header information. He got out a notepad he’d taken from his office room and jotteddown everything in it he could make any sense of… There wasn’t much, just long lists of unfathomable numbers. One thing that did leap out was one of the URLs. Quantronix PLC.
“It’s a start I suppose. Now let’s see how many before me… I wonder…”
The actual website associated with this lottery was useless. Buzzwords and techobabble aplenty that didn’t say anything of use. It certainly, on any page he could find, didn’t mention the exchange, just a transfer. It didn’t even list the names of other winners. Only that so far, there had been six successful transfers and the next would occur, for the next winner, in the middle of July.
“About as useful as a chocolate fireguard.” He sighed. “Right then”
He glanced at the man who’d helped. “That bloody real life lottery website.”
“You’ve not fallen for that bullshit, have you? You know they go in but never come out, right? There’ve been a few news reporters hovering around the entrance when a winner goes in.”
He stiffened. “Entrance? Where? Do you know?”
He glanced around shiftily. “Somewhere in Merseyside, that’s all I know. I don’t think they’re sending them anywhere. I think they’re just killing them, personally. Population control.”
“Six people? One person a month? Population control? No, it works. I know that for a fact.”
“What? You’re expecting me to believe that someone’s found a way to send someone to a… a what? A parallel universe? Seriously? If they’re not killing them for population control, maybe it’s just to keep the lie alive so they can keep running the lottery. Ten quid a ticket. Millions buy them. One winner a month… They’re rolling in it.”
“Trust me, it works.”
“How do you know?”
“You might want to spread this around any conspiracy theory sites you know… Cos this one’s a biggy. I know because it happened to me. In reverse.”
“What do you mean, reverse?”
“One day ago, well… 9am yesterday… I wasn’t in Manchester. I was in Pirbright. Then, poof, white room with two absolute cunts behind a window looking at me.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying.”
“They send them alright. But the life they find themselves in… It already had an occupant. They don’t gain any memories, they don’t become that person. It’s an exchange. A swap. I was a bloody sergeant. A PTI! Now I’m a blob of blubber! I had a good life and I’ve had it stolen out from under me. I suppose I should count myself lucky they left a bag with his things in it and a file on how his life transpired. This version of me…” He swept his hand over himself. “became a different person when he quit the army cadets when he was fourteen. I didn’t quit.”
“Oh, God, that’s a good one. Way better than the population control. Why aren’t they seen coming out. Why weren’t you?”
“In one way, out another would be my guess. I had to find my way out of a bloody maze of pitch dark tunnels before I emerged into daylight. No idea where they’ve hidden themselves.”
“Hmmm… Might not be too helpful, looking for those news stories, then. The reporters only noted the cars going down into an underground car park. God knows where that leads, but none of them’ve gone beyond that, yet.”
“I suppose any clues right now would be helpful.”
“Of course. You don’t expect me to accept what they’ve done to me, do you? Besides, the longer I’m here, the longer that other me has to ruin the life I have, there. 30 years of army experience? With this blob in control of my body. I dread to think…”
“Wby conspiracy theory websites, though?”
“That’s simple. No-one takes them seriously.”
“But don’t you want what’s… I’d be screaming from the bloody rooftop’s, mate! National news! Major public outcry!”
“And if I did that, they’d go to ground, wouldn’t they? Hide themselves away even more. Probably even move operations, possibly even to a different country. I’d never find them, then.”
“So, what are you looking for?”
“I need a few things. Maps of the area I came out. Maybe try to find the others this happened to. Bet none of them are pleased with their situation.”
“Maybe make a callout on Twitter or Facebook? You on them?”
“Until today, I’d never even seen a Windows… what version is this?”
“That, then. Last time I saw a machine running Windows was in around ’97. Something better came along that wiped the floor with Microsoft back home, they went bust in 2001.”
He nodded. “Seems I got dumped in a much worse timeline. Tories for 40 years from what I can gather, so far. Country on its knees? Everything’s fine back home. Better than fine, we’ve never had it so good. How do I find out if I’m on this Facebook thing, or Twitter?”
“I suppose there’s a couple of ways, if you’re using google to store your passwords.”
“Easiest, go to the website, click login and if the username/password’s already filled in, Google stored it for you.”
“And the other?”
“Takes a bit of digging, but I know it’s in there somewhere. Your account on Google should have an option to view your password manager. That should show every site you ever registered with.”
“Thank you, so much. I would’ve been fumbling around with this thing for hours before I got anywhere. Derek, by the way. Derek Brown.”
“That name rings a bell. Bet that gets annoying… Or will do?”
“Getting constantly asked when the next one’s coming out.”
“Yes… Well… I’m going to leave a sternly worded letter on his coffee table before I leave, if I ever do manage to reverse this. Might kick him up the arse enough to finish it, assuming he even bothered to start.”
“You mean you… You’re that Derek Brown?”
“No, I just look like him.”
He chuckled. “Point taken. Here’s an idea if you do end up stuck here. You finish it!”
“But I’ve never written anything but military reports in my life before! I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve not even read the first two, yet.”
“Something to think about. Oh, sorry. Adrian. Adrian Manson. Maybe I can help spread the word, once you’ve decided what word you want spread to get in contact with these other ones.”
“Social media tends to work on how many followers you’ve got. How many people follow what you say. I’ve got some, you’ll likely have loads, but there might not be much crossover. More people means a wider net. Even more if you ask them to share or retweet.”
Derek nodded. “Thanks, again.” and proceeded to login to Facebook. The layout looked fairly straightforward, he scrolled a little to see what people were saying, shrugged when little of it meant anything and tapped his pen on his teeth in thought.
“I don’t want to be too blatant about it. How about… Please share this message… An empty white room, an observation window at one end with men in lab coats at the controls. How did you get here? What happens next? If you know the answer, err… Reply?”
“Direct Message would be better. It’s private, then. Only you see it rather than your entire audience. DM for short. What’s your username on Facebook? I’ll post the same but ask them to DM you. You might need to poke around in the settings to make sure you can receive from everyone. Otherwise, they might not be able to unless they’re a friend.”
“Hmm.” He searched the screen… “Does DBrown423 sound right?”
“Sending you a message, now. You should see the number change on one of those icons at the top. Click the one that looks like speech bubbles, that’s the messenger. Do you have it on your phone?”
“My phone’s so old I’m lucky to have a phone on my phone.”
“Worth a thought.”
He clicked, a side bar sprang up, and at the top. “Can you see this?” from someone calling themselves AdeHeadManson.
“Is… That’s a weird name. It’s not real is it?”
“Course not. Manson is, but adding the head if you say it quick, it does sound a bit like…”
“Ade Edmondson? But he died years ago! Thank God Rick Mayall’s still going strong.”
“You got it the wrong way ’round, mate. It’s Mayall who snuffed it.”
“Few years ago.”
“So, things are better back home, but not perfect. I’ll have a dig around in the news archives later to see what other differences there are… King Arthur, here?”
“Arthur? What, Lancelot, Guinevere? Seriously?”
“So, who is, then?”
“Who’s this Arthur bloke?”
“Son of Charles and Diana?”
“Used to be William, went for Arthur when he got”
“What about Charles? He’d been waiting ages? That’s who we’ve got!”
“But he died before his mother! She died three years ago.”
“She died last year, mate. And Charles is still alive, so he got a third after his name. Harry’s gone completely off the rails, though… Why Arthur?”
“Well, he is called William Arthur Philip Windsor. Maybe he though William had too many negative connotations, William the Conqueror being the first. And he didn’t want to name himself after his granddad. Besides, there is something romantic about Arthur.”
Adrian shrugged. “Negative connotations certainly didn’t seem to bother his dad. Charles the first being the complete moron that he was, so much so he lost his head.”
Derek shrugged and typed out the message. “I just hope this works.”
“What if they contact you about this?”
He chuckled. “Maybe I can fool them into helping. Send them my way the moment they’re grabbed, or at least, the moment they get to the exit and pick up their file and possessions. I’ll tell them I’m setting up a support group. I imagine it’s a traumatic experience for most of them. Being wrenched from everything they know and just dumped here.”
“And it wasn’t for you?”
“It was a shock, admittedly, but by the time I was out of those tunnels… I’m a career soldier. I’ve been trained to handle unexpected situations. To fight against the odds and my GOD am I going to fight. This is nothing close to as bad as hostage training.” He shuddered. “That… That was hell.”
“I thought only special forces did that.”
“Look, when you’re in enemy territory, alone, with a detachment and only one man for backup, there’s a risk of capture. I’m in the signals. Setting up secure communication networks is what we do and we do it alone. A truck with all the equipment in it and two men, one stays with the vehicle, one goes out to set up the dishes.”
“So, you’ve seen action?”
“Thirty years in the army, what do you think?”
“Good God, no. I was still in the cadets when desert storm happened!”
“I was thinking about the second one.”
“Second?” He sighed. “Another black mark against this timeline. Here, we had a bloody good man go and do something fucking amazing in the middle east. He spoke to the mujaheddeen and managed to broker a peace with Israel.”
“Who? Must be a bloody miracle worker.”
“Corbyn’s a national treasure. They even withdrew from Palestinian territory. Allowed them to self govern, which was all they’d wanted for decades, anyway. That deal kicked the whole middle east up the arse. If those two could agree to meet at the negotiation table… Well… Iraq’s not been a problem for ages.”
“Still there. Seems to have mellowed with age. Anyway, after Smith snuffed it, Corbyn took the reins. He’s been prime minister ever since. Ten years and counting.”
“Smith? What… John Smith?”
“But… But he died before”
Derek sighed. “Lemme guess. Before he got the chance to stand. And… What was it… Tony Blair?”
“He caused… Well… He didn’t exactly cause it, but he participated in the second gulf war. They toppled Sadam, but left Iraq in chaos.”
“Still bombing the fuck out of the Palestinians, yes. And vice versa.”
“I’m beginning to think I’ve died and gone to hell! Everything’s wrong here! Enough chitchat, I’ve got work to do. Thanks for filling me in on a few details. And thanks for the help.”
“Need any more, just ask, while I’m here. It’s been an… interesting conversation. Almost tempted to get one of those lottery tickets myself, now, if I could end up there.”
“I suppose that depends on what your regrets are from what I understand about it, so far. Could end up anywhere. Maybe even a world worse than this one, not that I can imagine one, right now.”
The Road Not Taken. Ch 1-6
Right... This was going to be a challenge entry. However, when I was four chapters in, it vanished from the site. No idea what happened to it? Deleted by the person who created it? A glitch in the system? I don't know. But as I was four chapters in, and no longer had a deadline, I decided to continue with it. Still am, in fact. These are the first 6 chapters, I'll post more as I write them.
To the person who did make that challenge, an explanation would be appreciated in the comments, if you did delete it! Just because no one's submitted anything 3 weeks in, does not mean no one will!
“I’ve just thought of a question.”
“We’ve been through all the technicalities, Mr Brown…”
A mechanical voice spoke over the head researcher. “Five.”
“…It’s a little late to have second thoughts, now, don’t you think?”
“… How do I know what I’ll be getting into? I will have this other…”
“...me’s memories, won't I?”
“No, and he’ll be very confused when he finds himself here.”
“Fortunately for him, we can at least give him your history.”
“… himself here? He’s taking over my life? And I won’t know anything about…”
“…see to it, sir” He froze in midsentence, and stared around at the blank, white room with the observation window at one end. At the two men in white lab coats sitting at some controls. “What the fuck is going on? Where am…” He glanced down at himself, at the scruffy sweats he wore. “What the fuck am I wearing?”
“Allow me to explain, Mr Brown. Our research has unearthed a very interesting aspect of the universe. Have you any understanding of the concept of timelines?”
“I… You… You’ve… I… Yes, I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, everyone knows what timelines are. Are you trying to tell me that’s where I am? You’ve yanked me from mine and brought me… What gives you the fucking right?”
“Quite frankly, Mr Brown, we don’t care. You’re just an unfortunate consequence of the research, it’s the you you’re currently inhabiting who chose to take on a new life. It seems the life he’s taken, is yours. The only way to do it is by direct exchange, he takes yours, you take his. Goodbye.”
“What do you mean goodbye? Send me back!”
“No. Oh, you’ll find a dossier containing all pertinent information on how your life transpired at the entrance.” And with that, there was a click, the floor tilted violently and this other Mr Brown slid down into the darkness and was gone. The moment he’d slid out of sight, the floor returned to its horizontal state.
“Do you think he’ll figure it all out?”
“We haven’t exactly given him much choice in the matter. He can’t do much worse with what he’s been given than the one we sent.”
“True. Very true. I wonder what the differences are.”
“So do I. We’ll just have to piece together what we can by observation. Are all the cameras in place?”
”We’ll never know the full story, short of exchanging ourselves to find out. I’m not quite ready to do that, yet. I’m not sure I trust anyone to perform the reversal and I like the life I have. I’m not sure I’d trust the alternative me to cooperate, either. One-way trips are all we’re doing for the foreseeable future.”
“We could’ve debriefed him, you know. Found out from the horse’s mouth, so to speak?”
“No, Alan.” He sighed. “You know the only way to maintain stability in the early stages is to keep the exchanged subjects as far from the equipment as possible. One week and there’s no way to reverse it without another active transfer. He’ll never find us again, he doesn’t know where we are and the tunnel’s designed to be confusing. By the time he finds the exit, he’ll be a mile away and…”
The next words out of Alan’s mouth were in a bored monotone as if reading a line for the 500th time. “And the tunnel seals itself behind him as he travels, ensuring no possibility of return. I know. Hell, I designed part of that, myself.”
“Yes. Rather cunning little wheeze, that part, wasn’t it.” He chuckled.
“…his? How the”
“I beg your pardon?”
Derek Brown blinked and looked around in shock. He wasn’t in the white featureless room anymore. He stood on the edge of a wide, open area surrounded by buildings on all sides. He gulped at the man standing stiffly before him, then he noticed his own posture. Both had their hands firmly clasped behind their backs. The man who’d spoken wore a uniform. An army uniform. He glanced down at the man’s sleeve but there was nothing there, then his eyes crept up to the man’s shoulder. On the pristinely pressed army tunic, a crown was woven onto each of his shoulder straps.
So, you’re an officer… How high, though… Higher than captain? Shit, how can I… Then he glanced down at his arm. At least that, he recognised. Three stripes. Sergeant. At least he knew how to address him.
“I’m… I’m sorry, sir?”
“What does ’He’s had every chance, I’ll his? How the' mean?"
“My apologies, sir, I… I suppose you could say my train of thought became derailed, sir. Err… Who’s had every chance, sir?”
“Are you unwell, sergeant?”
“I… I feel fine, sir. I suppose I could just put it down to a rough night, sir.”
“I expect better from my NCOs, sergeant.” The officer… Major! That’s what the crown represented!The major slapped a file into his chest. His hand instinctively shot from behind his back to grasp it. “I’ll give him one final chance. One more failure from him and I’ll have him discharged from service. And if you make a slip like that, again, get to the medical centre! Dismissed.”
It’d been thirty years since he’d been an army cadet as a kid, but the jog to his memory regarding the crown had another effect. Almost unbidden, his arm snapped up into a salute.
The major saluted back, about turned and marched away.
Derek attempted the same thing, stumbled a little and rushed away, rather than marched. He looked around in a panic, muttering under his breath. “Fuck! Why army!? Why the fuck did it have to be this bloody life? I can’t survive here! I don’t even know where I live! What my…” He glanced down at the folder he held. “Maybe I can fake it… Looks like I don’t have much of a choice.”
He began to pay much more attention to his surroundings. To the signs on all the buildings. Finally, his eyes settled on one in particular. A large NAAFI sign hung above the door. “I can’t remember what it stands for, but I know what it means. I… Shit, I hope it’s got a bar and a place to sit. No idea where the mess is.”
He sighed with relief when he crossed the threshold. A bar, a sign on a door to the left read “Snug”, on the other side, “NAAFI shop.” He walked up to the bar, noting the two stripes on the sleeve of the barman. “Half a bitter, corporal.”
“Yes, sarnt. Aren’t you on duty, though?”
“That’s why it’s only a half. I need time to think and somewhere comfortable to think it.”
“You normally go to the warrant officer’s and sergeant’s mess don’t you, sarnt?”
“Yes, but not this time. I… It’s complicated.”
“Oh. I get it.” He nodded at the folder. “Ashford, again. What’s he done this time?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. That’s why I need to think… What can you tell me about him?”
“You’ve worked much more closely with him than I have, sarnt.”
“Yes, but you’re likely to have seen him in… a less official capacity, working here. True? I want to learn everything I can about him, this time. Everything. It might be the only way to save his career. Maybe even his life. You know how bad it can be if you’re looking for work as a civvy having been involuntarily discharged from the army.”
“Frankly, I’m surprised he’s lasted his long, sarnt. If I’d been in his boots, I would’ve quit the first time.”
“Yes. The fact he’s still here must mean something.”
“Well… He’s a pleasant enough bloke most of the time, but my God he gets angry when people disagree with him. I even saw him throw a bloody tantrum, once. That time, I kicked him out, and sent him back to his billet to calm down.”
“Only that he’s glued to the screen whenever the wolves play.”
The barman nodded. “Even asked me to record a match if he was on duty and it clashed.”
“And did you?”
“If the recording didn’t clash with another request from one of us, sarnt. yes. I can only do two at a time.”
“I suppose it’s something.” He patted himself down, located a wallet and pulled out a credit card.
The barman smiled, tapped something into the till, then a handset and held it out for him.
A tap, a beep. He put the card back into the wallet and picked up his half. “I’ll just sit in the snug. Got some reading to do.”
Derek rushed to the corner table, placed his pint and folder and began emptying his pockets. “Anything. Anything to give me some fucking clue…”
He had more pockets than he was used to. From his left breast pocket, he pulled a notepad, his two rear trouser pockets produced a few folded bits of paper and the wallet… His wallet. Well, it was his, now. His right trouser pocket, keys. When he tapped his left trouser leg pocket and felt the smooth rectangular shape, he immediately unbuttoned it and pulled out a smartphone with a grin. The grin widened when he activated it and it asked for his fingerprint.
“Oh, thank fuck he didn’t use a password.” He immediately swiped through all the apps, spotted the banking app and tapped it. Another fingerprint lock and the sight of his bank accounts turned the grin into a cackle. “Twenty-five grand! I’ve never had that much money before.” He scrolled down. “And that was just an ISA… Another… Bloody hell! Why the fuck did I have to leave the army cadets if this is the result?” Another two accounts. Each contained six thousand pounds and a credit card that only had a hundred quid on it, obviously fully paid off every month.
He spent the next ten minutes studying the accounts more closely, trying to find some rhyme and reason, some clues to his life based on the payments he made.
“They say the smartphone contains your life, these days. I’ll have to study it more closely, later. Now, let’s see what…” He unfolded the papers and signed when one of them had his address on it, and the address was on the base. Finally, he knew where he was. Pirbright army barracks, wherever that was. His smile vanished as he looked at the contents of the letter. A mandatory increase in child support based on inflation? “So… It’s not perfect for you, here, either. I’ve got a kid! And divorced, by the looks of it. Suppose it explains why I’m living here.”
Putting everything back into the relevant pockets, he spotted the sign for the toilet and rushed over to it, freezing when he saw himself over the mirror above the sinks. A chiselled jawline, a rugged, handsome face, clean-shaven. Unlike the scruffy, unkempt, double-chinned, flabby mess he had been. The uniform looked like it was a part of him, from the pristine neatness of the sleeves of his shirt, folded and pressed so they rested just above his elbows, to his exquisitely polished boots. Around his waist, not holding up his trousers, but there anyway, was a cloth belt in three colours. He removed the beret he wore, and even the hairstyle, short, army cut, suited him. He didn’t just like what he saw, he loved it.
The cap badge had a figure on it. Pan, perhaps? No… Not Pan, this figure had wings on its ankles. Hermes? He shrugged. But it did give him pause. “I don’t even know what regiment I’m in! Use the clues. Start with the belt, seeing as I don’t know what the badge means.” He got out the phone and pressed the middle button, hoping against hope it worked the same as the ones back home.
“What regiment wears a belt of light blue at the top, green and dark blue.”
It beeped twice. “The Royal Signals wear a stable belt of light blue, green and dark blue. The colours represent air, land and sea.”
He sighed. “Thank God I’m not infantry!”
He returned his attention to the mirror and stared himself in the eye. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I thought I’d just become you. That I’d get your memories. Oh, fuck, you’re in for a shock when you see the state you’re in, the state my life’s in. I’ll do my best to not fuck yours up, too much. I like it here. I like me, here.”
As he shot out of sight and the floor above slid back into its horizontal position, darkness engulfed him. He continued to slide and sensed what he was sliding down become narrower. A chute of some kind, then, a sharp turn to the right, another to the left and the gradient gently became shallower, flatter until he came to a rest. He felt his way forward. The chute had turned into a slide, flat at the end and as his feet touched the floor there was a slam behind him, cutting off any chance of him attempting to climb back up it.
Blindly, he stumbled forward until his fingers brushed a wall. He felt it, scratched it. Concrete. Then his foot kicked something that rattled into the distance. He crouched and began scrambling around on the floor until his hand grasped a stone. Standing, he felt the wall again and began scratching into it with the stone until he’d carved a deep indent. He did it again forming an X.
His fingers probed the symbol he’d carved, familiarising himself with it. “At least now I’ll know if I’ve gone back on myself.” He placed his left hand on the wall and walked. As he did so, there was a flash, a vision. Bright sunlight. Major Davenport and it was gone.
“What the hell was that? Memory?” In the pitch darkness, he couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. “I suppose the mind can play tricks on you when there’s nothing to see.”
He shrugged and continued, counting his steps, trying to note any deviation from a straight line as he continued. Then, his hand reached a corner. He bend his arm around it to measure the angle and continued. Another image. Pirbright’s parade square flashed through his mind. Another few steps and the NAAFI sigh appeared briefly and vanished.
He sighed. “Stop imagining your old life.” He slapped himself across the face. “Unless I can find those twats, I’m stuck here. I can’t afford to dwell on that, now.”
Again, he continued. Another flash, this time, Corporal Gorton, standing behind the NAAFI bar. Then the snug. Another corner and he was just about to go around it when the most powerful vision yet appeared. Of himself. Looking in the mirror in the NAAFI ablutions.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I thought I’d just become you. That I’d get your memories. Oh, fuck, you’re in for a shock when you see the state you’re in, the state my life’s in. I’ll do my best to not fuck yours up, too much. I like it here. I like me, here.”
Sergeant Brown froze. “What the fuck!? How did you do… What do you mean, you thought you’d become me?”
“You can hear me!? How the hell can you hear me?”
“Well I don’t know, do I? I suppose the fact I’m stuck in a pitch-black tunnel with nothing to see might have something to do with it. What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“But you were talking to me!”
“Maybe that’s what I did. I wasn’t talking to myself, I was apologizing to your reflection.”
“There has to be some kind of link between us. Some… I don’t know… Residue of our old selves in each of us, maybe. What do you mean you thought you’d become me?”
“They said I’d get a new life! A new timeline where a decision I’d regretted would be undone. I wasn’t expecting this! They didn’t tell me we’d swap places until two seconds before the transfer. I… I can’t live here without help! I’m lost! How can I fake being an army sergeant when the last military experience I had was when I was fourteen?”
“But you said you thought you’d become me! You are me, now!”
“Physically, maybe.” Derek tapped his temple. “But I’m not you up here, am I? The only things I know about your life so far are what I’ve been able to piece together from the contents of your pockets!”
“But if you’d become me, you realise that would’ve been death to you, surely?”
“Well, if you somehow became me, me. Properly. All the memories from here would’ve been gone, wouldn’t they?”
“My life’s been shitty for years. No big loss, there.” Derek sighed. “And now, you’re stuck with it! I said I was sorry. Please, help me!”
“Help you? I’m going to find out where those bastards are and force them to send me back!”
“And if that’s not possible?”
“Where am I?”
“I don’t know! How do you expect me to know that?”
“You were there! You had to get there, didn’t you? How did you even get into this mess in the first place?”
“They’d been announcing their discoveries for over a year on the news. Worlds vastly different from the one you’re stuck in, now. Different kings, different prime ministers, different everything. I think they might’ve even been trying to map the timelines. Then, one weekend, they made a big announcement. A lottery. Ten quid a ticket. Win a new life. A life where your deepest regret was undone. I didn’t even know what that regret was until I found myself in uniform!”
“Well, now, we need to work together! I’m just as lost here as you are there. Now, where am I?”
“I said I don’t know! When they brought me here, they said their location had to remain a secret. Pretty obvious, why, now. To keep you in the dark. Stop you from finding them! The windows in the car were blacked out. I didn’t see any of the journey.”
“OK, where were you picked up? How long did the journey take? How many corners did the car take? Any straight sections that were probably motorways? How long were they?”
“I’ll need time to think about that! I’ve got other problems, right now.”
“Where were you picked up and how long did it take!?”
“I was picked up outside my house! I think it took about two hours.”
“I thought you said your life was shitty, and you own a house?”
“I inherited it when Mum and Dad died! I’m not well off if that’s what you’re thinking! When I saw the contents of your bank accounts my eyes popped out on stalks!”
“They’re dead? Both of them?”
“What the hell’s Covid?”
“The pandemic? Think it was one of those SARS viruses? Millions died, more were affected long term.”
“Shit! When did this happen?”
“It started in 2019. Covid19’s the full name for it. It started in China but it was global by the end of March 2020.”
“But we have a robust bio-protocol against that kind of thing! Why wasn’t it contained!?”
“Boris fucking Johnson. For us lot anyway. Trump was even worse!”
“Who… and who?”
“PM? Bunch of greedy, self-serving twats who only cared about milking the economy for every penny they could scam out of it.”
“Fucking hell! Lemme guess? Tories?”
“Who the hell would vote the Tories in again after Thatcher and Major?”
“Oh, after Major, we did sort of get a labour government. Sort of. There was a joke going around at the time, I’m Tory Plan B. An anagram of Tony Blair PM.”
“What? But… But we’ve been Labour since Major. Things are working out pretty well under Corbyn!”
“Corbyn? Bloody hell! Well, you’ve got bloody Rishi Sunak. Tory millionaire and totally out of touch with reality. Before him, you had the utterly useless head of lettuce known as Liz Truss.”
“Lettuce?” The sergeant resumed his blind fumbling through the tunnel.
“One of the tabloids. They got a head of lettuce and put it on a shelf. The lettuce lasted longer than she did as PM. Forty days. And in those forty days, Queen Elizabeth died, and she tried to shove through tax cuts for the ultra-rich that weren’t budgeted and crashed the economy. Before her, Boris, Teresa May and David Cameron. Thanks to him and Brexit, the country’s on its knees.”
“What the hell is Brexit… Never mind, I’ll check the newspaper archives rather than go over the history of the whole world for the past thirty years, we’ve got more pressing concerns. I want my life back and you need me. Probably far more than I need you, right now. I don’t want to get back there to find myself in the glasshouse or dishonourably discharged. You have to put up a bloody good show.”
“But what if we can’t talk again? What if what’s happening now’s just a fluke?”
“We have to at least try to keep the link alive!” Another corner, this one to the right. Again, he measured the angle before continuing. “Meet me!”
“What do you mean? Different worlds, remember!”
“Same physical location! Maybe it’ll help, both of us standing in the same place. At least I know where I live, now. I just don’t know how far away it is from here. I do know it’s a long way from Pirbright. We’ll have to meet halfway.”
“That depends on transport. Please tell me I own a bloody car, here.”
Derek shook his head. “I could never afford one.”
“At least tell me you can drive.”
“I can. It’s been a while, though.”
“Birmingham’s about the middle of the journey. Taken it often enough when visiting.”
“They’re… They’re still alive? Both of them?”
“Of course! They’re not thatold!”
“But how do I get there?”
“You’ve got an army land rover issued to you. Use it! Tomorrow night. I’ve got no idea how long it’ll take me to get home. How long it’ll take me to get out of this tunnel? When you said they wanted to keep me in the dark, you’ve got no idea. Oh, and bring a mirror. I will, too. That might be part of it.”
“OK. Where in Birmingham?”
“Hmmm… Good question. We need somewhere dark. Bring your torch. It’s army issue and bright enough. Maybe not Birmingham, then. Somewhere outside. Get your phone out. There’s a mapping app on it. Somewhere within easy reach of a train station. Preferably in the countryside away from streetlights. Pick somewhere north of the city, closer to me. I don’t have a car, after all.”
Derek got the phone out again to check, and noted that the train seemed to go way off course, but hit London before a change to get to Pirbright, then struck Pirbright off to get a better course for London itself. Finally, he saw a route he recognised. He zoomed in, following it until he found one that looked promising. “It looks pretty green around Rugeley.”
“Pick a place.”
“Cannock Chase Forest looks like it might be dark.”
“Zoom in as far as it’ll go and put a pin in it. Read out the coordinates. I’ll find it.”
“Just press the screen until it appears. You can use that, too, to guide you while you’re driving. It does satellite navigation. When we get there, head for the most distinctive landmark near the pin. We’ll both likely see the same thing as suitable. We are the same person, after all.”
“Just have to trust to luck this works. If we can talk, we can find the same landmark, that way.”
“I suppose that’s a point.”
“Now, what did Major Davenport say to you?”
“After telling me off for losing focus, he slapped a file to my chest and said he’d got one last chance.”
“I suggest you stop looking in that mirror and start reading it, then.”
“What if we need it?”
“Well, we won’t find that out until you go back into the snug, will we? You can’t stand there all day! Get to it, soldier!”
Derek sighed. “Yes, sir.”
“Did you just call me sir? You’re lucky I’m not there or I’d beast you all the way to bloody Guildford! I work for a living! You address me as sarnt!”
“Yes, sarnt!” He returned to the door to the snug, opened it, stepped out and looked around, backing into the loo and closing the door.
“There are other people in there, now. We can’t talk. Damn!”
“Wonder? Wonder what?”
So, you heard me, then?
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Don’t speak. Think.
“Think?”Don’t tell me we’re telepathic, now!
I’m seeing through your eyes. Well, my eyes… I thought it was worth a try. Yes, we’re telepathic, now.
Oh, fuck, this is good!
Just, get to it.
Yes, sarnt! Derek retuned to his seat, took a sup of his bitter and picked up the file.
Interesting. And good. We share the same taste in beer. If you’d bought a Bux or Stella I would’ve been gagging, right now. I could taste that. Try not to stub your toe.
So the link’s not just… Fuck me, this is amazing! So, why is he here? I know he’s prone to losing his temper and throwing tantrums.
He failed basic for the second time, but that isn’t the only thing wrong. As you said, severe anger management issues.
Any idea why?
He complains about forgetting his training. I think it’s more a confidence issue than anything else. He picks things up quickly enough during classes and other training but fucks up later. The temper? Probably frustration.
When did he fail?
Last week. It’s all in the file.
Don’t they normally get sent home until the next lot?
First time, he failed due to an injury. He couldn’t complete before their passing out. We held him here until a decision was made, this time. It took the higher-ups all week to decide what to do with him. He’d make a damned fine soldier if he could only get over himself.
Derek opened the file and began. A brawl on the first day?
And he had a week of punishment duty because of it.
Bullying? And two of the other recruits stepped in to defend the victim?
That, in my opinion, isn’t certain. The officer in charge took their side, two against one. The other recruits present corroborated their evidence, but…
Why the doubt?
Because the one who was bullied, a recruit called Taylor, bloodied the noses of those two. three weeks later.
Shouldn’t we get to the bottom of that, too, then? If he was the one defending Taylor rather than the one doing the bullying, wouldn’t it mean a black mark wiped from his record if we got the truth?
How would you recommend we do that?
I don’t know, do I? I’ve been in this life for, what? An hour? Two? What about the other recruits? If they’ve all moved on, they shouldn’t be anywhere near the two who may be guilty, anymore. Any influence they had, any loyalty or threats are meaningless, now. Do you have their contact info, so we could phone them at their new postings?
Another corner and when Sgt Brown rounded that one, the image in his mind’s eye vanished. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Good, you’re getting into the spirit of it, now.
There was no reply.
“Shit. Hang on.” The sergeant backed around the corner again and turned away from the light. The image returned. Derek?
I just said good, you’re getting into the spirit of it, now. Did you hear that?
Oh, shit! No, I didn’t. We’re losing the link?
I don’t think so, no, but I think we’ve found a limit to this contact. Pitch darkness is a big part of it. I lost contact the moment I rounded the corner, this time. There’s light ahead.
Bugger! Do we have their contact details?
Yes, yes. They’re in my office. We keep them for a year. I’ll have them until the next intake, then they get moved to the archives.
When is the next intake?
And where’s your office?
Admin block, level two, room 242. The key code to get in past reception’s 5334x. You’ve got the key.
Thanks. Any maps of the base?
Yes, and they’re dotted around the place. There’s one outside the barrack block. I need something from you, now, before I get out of these tunnels.
What? You know where I live.
Your pockets are empty.
They took everything from me apart from the clothes on my back. I suppose they might’ve left all that for you.
Mobile phone password? Any internet passwords I need to know?
I’ve only got a dumb phone. Smartphones are way too expensive. Barely use it, anyway. It’s not locked.
Not at home. I’ve not even got a computer. I just nip into the local library when they bother to open and use theirs.
Good point. Gmail.com. Username, Derek dot Brown 3342. Password, Snowy owl. One word. Just, make sure the S and L are capitals and the Os are zeroes.
I like all owls. Tawny owls, little owls, barn owls, snowy owls… Of course…
Sgt Brown chuckled. Of course, they’re all snowy owls by the time I’m done with ’em. Christ, I’d forgotten about Richard not Judy. Can’t believe that joke stuck with you. Anything more? Credit card? Debit card?
Shit! Sorry. You’ll need them, too, if you plan on getting back home. Most of the time you can just get away with contactless. Just tap the reader, but once in a while, it does demand a PIN. 0405 for both.
Have you any idea how insecure that is? Using your birthday as a PIN?
At least you’ll remember it. Please don’t change it, just in case I do end up back there. Oh, there’s more to Gmail than just email, there’s an entire suite of programs you can use online, and I have been.
I suppose everything else I need’ll be in the dossier they said they’d left for me. If I do need further information, I’ll find a dark room and wrap a towel around my head. If it’s good enough for the ravenous bugblatter beast, it’s good enough for us. You do the same if you run into problems. I’ll sign off. Got a lot to do. You do, too. Go through that file with a fine-toothed comb, Derek. A man’s career depends on it.
Not to mention mine. Or yours. Whatever. I’ll do my best. Suppose it’s all I can do.
We’ll speak later.
Oh, one last thing that should help. Office, bookshelf, army training manual. Study it. Might only cover the theory, but every little helps. Sergeant Brown, signing off.
Hang on! What about your passwords? There’s got to be more to it than a door code.
*sigh* Good point. Get your notepad out, you’ll never remember them all.
Derek did as he was told. Ready.
What followed was a long list of sites he’d never heard of, usernames, passwords and other pertinent data.
One last piece, saved it ’til last because it’s very important…
Brown, Sergeant, 45305640!
Name, rank and… Oh, fuck… How long did it take you to memorise it?
I’d got it by the end of basic. Sticks with you for life, that number. Especially when you’ve been in as long as me.
What was it again?
The sergeant repeated it more slowly. Any more questions?
Derek studied the list in confusion. Where are Google? Facebook? Netflicks? There’s not even a sign of Twitter or eBay! No Amazon either!”
Never heard of any of them. Clearly, we got a different lot of things there. Are you on those?”
Don’t worry, Google stores all my passwords. Just use Chrome. You only need the Gmail one to make sure you’re logged in for the rest.
One final thing… Cap off! Didn’t you learn anything in cadets? Indoors, one does not wear his beret! And you only salute an officer when it’s on! Beret off, no salute.
What do I do with it? Shove it in a pocket?
*Sigh* I know it’s been a while, but… Right shoulder strap. Roll your beret up and put it there. Now get to it, we’ll talk later… Hopefully.
Derek sighed and started to read. The file was quite detailed, covering every aspect of Ashford’s training and where he’d failed the most. The first time he took basic, before an injury forced him to miss the end, he’d been a hell of a lot better than the second. As he continued to read, the cogs began to turn. This could work for both of them… If the commanding officer agreed.
The moment he’d absorbed the last sheet of the report, he packed everything back into the folder, finished his bitter and rushed out of the NAAFI.
Where to go… Where to go… Well, he did say they were dotted around the place.
Derek resumed his walk around the parade square. It didn’t take him long to find one of the maps on a large noticeboard by one of the buildings. A large, red, “You are here” pointed at one particular block. Classroom block 1.
“Right, then.” There was a lot more to it than just the buildings around the square. The place was huge, but, he located the barrack block both he and Ashford shared, he located the admin block and the idea he’d had began to solidify in his mind. He nodded and made his way to his office.
He took a deep breath as he entered the admin block, removing his beret as he did so, nodded at the lance corporal behind the reception desk and looked around. There was only one door at the back of the room, so, he went to it and keyed in the code. A twist, the door opened and he rushed through.
This floor seemed to have far too few doors for offices, only four lined the corridor, so, he walked past them, noting what each sign said. Briefing rooms, all.
At the end of the corridor, double doors, a shorter corridor turned to the right and at the end of that, a stairwell. Up that, another set of double doors and offices, lots of them. It didn’t take long to find his, it even had his name on the door, so, a fumble for the keys, testing each until the lock clicked, he entered, closed the door, locked it again and breathed a sigh of relief.
He began his search in earnest, riffling through all three filing cabinets in there until, finally, he located the group of recruits that’d shared Ashford’s dorm during his first basic training.
Sitting at the desk and searching the drawers, he gathered together some paper and began compiling the information he required, building up the story as the other recruits had sworn was the truth, noting that only Ashford’’s testimony deviated from the story the others had told. Even Taylor’s corroborated the other recruits' stories. He studied Taylor’s file in more detail, noting the bloody noses he’d inflicted on the two Ashford had initially accused. Privates Wallis and Pritchard had avoided any other trouble. Even the bloody noses had only had a passing mention, no discipline against anyone in that case.
Derek shook his head and sighed. Then, he remembered something else his counterpart had said. Bookshelf. Training manual. He dashed over, gathered up the three volumes and returned to his desk, perusing the first part. It didn’t take long for him to find something that raised a smile. Something he could use.
He grabbed his phone, unlocked it again and studied the apps in more detail. None of them had familiar names, apart from the ones that described their function. Fortunately, the one he wanted did just that… Call recorder. He activated it, returned to his papers and dialled the first of many numbers.
“Kettering army camp.”
“Ah, good. I’m just following up on some details from a soldier’s basic training. Would it be possible to speak to Summers, private, 88944507?”
“Oh, of course. Brown, Sergeant, 45305640”
“One moment please…” What followed was a couple of minutes of the most insipid hold music it was possible to produce.
“Ah, hello. Could I speak to private Summers, please?”
“Ah, good. I’m following up on something that happened during your basic training, first night on camp.”
“Oh, shit. How can that even be an issue, anymore? It was last year!”
The voice rose three octaves. “Recruit? Still? I know he didn’t pass out with us, but… Seriously? And he’s still there?”
“Before we continue, I’d like to emphasise a few points.”
“Err… What… What points.”
“The core tenets of the British Army include honour, loyalty, respect and courage. That loyalty and respect isn’t just between your comrades, the majority of it should be directed upwards, to your superior NCOs and officers, ending with the king himself. Agreed?”
The voice on the other end of the phone sighed. “Agreed.”
“So, what happened that night.”
“I…” Summers froze.
“Don’t tell me you still consider Wallis and Pritchard worthy of loyalty.”
“It wasn’t loyalty, believe me.”
“Fear? There were 18 of you against those two. OK. Look at it like this. You’re not in that billet anymore. You joined the royal engineers, those two joined the artillery. Two different regiments, too. Every single one of you moved on to separate army camps. The chances of you even seeing them again are slim.”
“I’m sorry, who is this?”
“Oh, shit! Sorry, sarnt! You saw them! They were both hulks! They started throwing their weight around the moment we’d had the bed-making demonstration. They singled out Taylor, saw him as the weakest, so decided he was going to do all their personal admin.”
“He saw Taylor in a similar light, as the weakest. God, was he wrong about that.”
“So, he joined in on the bullying? And they decided he wasn’t worthy to receive the same services they were demanding, hence the fight? Something like that?”
“No! He stepped in. He defended Taylor.”
“Thank you, private Summers. That’s exactly what I suspected. Ashford failed his second basic training. I believe it may be a confidence issue and the punishment he had to endure when everyone backed up Pritchard and Wallis in their lies… Well, I think you can imagine that confidence took a major hit. I’m going to contact everyone from your intake. Get the story from each of you. Wiping that black mark from his record, I think, is the first step in getting him back on track. Now, what happened a few weeks later?”
“When Taylor snapped?”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“I wasn’t there. Obviously Wallis and Pritchard were. Galway and Brent were the only other ones to witness it, but when they told their tale after leave… He might look scrawny, but it’s a wiry strength. He flattened both of them. Oh, my God. Taylor suddenly became a friend to everyone. He’d tried to keep himself to himself until then.”
“And Wallis and Pritchard?”
“Taylor showed his worth that weekend. Really gained our respect. He forced them to apologise to Ashford, too.”
“But the stain remained. No one stepped forward to correct the injustice?”
“It was too late for that, sarnt. The damage had been done and we were all terrified we’d get kicked out for lying. Oh, bugger. I’m not gonna get it in the neck, now, for telling you this, am I?”
“I think we could chalk it down to the indiscretions of youth. I won’t push for any repercussions. In fact, I’ll advise against it for most of you.”
“So Wallis and Pritchard?”
“Who knows? They may. It’ll be down to the CO if he decides to pursue this. The only reason I’m doing it is to remove a black mark from Ashford’s record.”
“I hope he makes it this time! He’s a good bloke. Best of the lot of us.”
Derek chuckled. “Thank you for the endorsement. I hope that works in his favour, too.”
He ended the call, ended the recording, began another and dialled again.
Sixteen calls later, eight of which had borne similar fruit, the others being unavailable for various reasons, he left his office and explored the admin block, noting every office, every name on the doors. It was a while before he came across the office of Major Davenport. He gulped, took a deep breath and knocked.
Open the door, step inside, close it, march to the desk, stamp to attention. “Sir.”
“I take it this is about Ashford?”
“Yes, sir. I believe I may have concocted a cunning plan to deal with him, sir.”
“Well, I did a little digging, sir. I believe a lot of his problems are centred around the frustration, resentment and loss of confidence after his first day as a recruit, sir.”
“The punishment he received, sir. The black mark on his record.” He pulled out the phone and hit play on the first recording, placing it on the major’s desk. “I believe it was an unjust punishment, sir. Listen.”
The major nodded and smiled when Derek invoked the values of the army, then it got to the core of the issue. The smile vanished as the recording reached its end. “And you’ve corroborated this?”
“I managed to contact eight more, sir. The rest were all unavailable, but I could follow up on the calls if you wish. They all said pretty much the same things. I did record those, too.”
“Forward them to me, and give me the list of numbers of the ones you failed to contact. I’ll follow up on them. If they also corroborate this new evidence, I’ll also contact the commanding officers of the two true guilty parties.”
“Thank you, sir. Which email address do you wish me to forward them to, sir?”
“Good point.” The major jotted something on a sheet of paper and slid it across the desk. “So, what did you have in mind?”
“Well, obviously, the first thing that should be done is to wipe that black mark from his record, sir.” Derek collected the sheet and placed one of his own, sliding it back towards the major. “I haven’t spoken to him, yet, but something to boost his confidence before the next intake… That’s where my cunning plan comes into play, sir. I would need to requisition a fresh army training manual, a new set of uniforms for myself, sir. And a set of lance-corporal armbands for Ashford. I’d also need to be relieved of my other duties if we do this.”
“Promote him? Before he’s even completed”
“Oh, no! Nothing quite that extreme, sir. He would be an acting lance-corporal, but I would emphasise some severe limitations. I would be the recruit that he would train, sir. The rank would only be in relation to me, sir. No-one else. If he tried pulling rank on anyone else, or treating a real lance corporal as an equal, well… That’s one punishment he would deserve. As for the training, trust me, I’ll make all the same mistakes they make. Probably even come up with a few they’d never think of, sir.”
“You’d willingly do this? Lower yourself to below him?”
“The next intake is in a month, sir. A recruit again for that long, before he resumes his own training? I think it’ll work wonders, sir. He’ll certainly gain an understanding of the frustrations we have to endure, sir.”
“I’m not sure I can spare you, sergeant.”
“I’d willingly take some of my leave to do this, if you can’t spare me in any other way, sir.”
“A man’s career is on the line, sir. He’ll make a damned fine soldier. The first recording wasn’t the only one that said he was the best of their section, sir.”
“And when do you wish this training to commence?”
“Monday would be the ideal start. It’ll give us time to prepare, sir. He’ll need it just as much as I will, and I have personal business to get out of the way tomorrow in order for it to be possible, sir.”
“And you’re willing to take on the role of recruit, for the full month? Even after hours?”
“Of course, sir. Might actually be fun, and it wouldn’t be the full trainer experience for him if he didn’t also get to do the morning inspection, sir.”
Davenport smiled. “I’ll assign you to three echo one and have a corporal arrange it’s clean and suitable for habitation. Ashford can take three echo three. You won’t be disturbed or disturb others. And I’ll have staff Etheridge arrange for all your needs. I agree, this is a worthy cause. We could even expand the concept if it works out for Ashford.”
“Expand it, sir? More than one of us posing as recruits?”
“And more than one of them taking the roles of your trainers. Done right, it could even lead to a few exercises. Exercises they would devise and you would attempt to complete.”
He grinned. “This is very clever. I love where this might lead. Granted, and no need to use any of your leave. I’ll have Etherage delegate your duties for the month.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I suggest you speak to recruit Ashford. I imagine what you tell him may be a bit of a shock.”
“Oh, I intend it to be, sir. I’ll order him to close his eyes when I slip the armbands on, sir. And I’ll be in the rankless uniform when I do it. See how long it takes him to realise.”
“You’d better get down to the quartermaster’s stores. I’ll phone ahead. Everything will be waiting for you. Dismissed.”Chapter 5
The light at the end of the tunnel hadn’t been daylight. Just a dim bulb at the foot of a flight of stairs. That led to another maze of service tunnels, this time, illuminated. He didn’t know how long it took before he finally found his way to a small room at the top of another staircase, this time, five flights.
His heart sank. If their complex was so far underground, he might never find a way back there. Even with the map he’d been building in his mind.
On a table, a carrier bag containing a folder, wallet, mobile phone and set of keys. One more door and a short flight of steps and, finally, he was in open air. His dismay grew as he studied his surroundings.
It was a housing estate. A badly rundown one. Many of the buildings were boarded up, a few even burnt-out shells and to make things even more unpleasant, the place seemed to be a target for fly-tippers. Heaps of rubbish, rotten old mattresses and rubble dotted the streets.
A heavy metal crash behind him shook the ground and he turned in shock, bolting back down the steps, wrenched open the door, only to be met by a steel wall.
“Fuck! Well, that’s one way back down there blocked. I need to find out where this is. I need a map.”
Continuing to count his paces, he moved down to the street, turned left and followed it around until, finally, he reached a junction to a main road. Following that for what felt like an age, finally, a road sign and something more. Something he knew. 33 Signals?
“Merseyside? Well, at least now I know how to locate that estate on the map. Damn, it’s a shame I can’t call on them to help. I could seriously do with some.” He dug into the carrier bag and checked the wallet. A ten pound note and two cards. That was it? That’s all this version of him bothered to carry?
“At least I know where I am.” He crossed the road and turned down a street that lead towards the nearest train station.
As he continued, his calves began to burn. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to continue, finally arriving an hour later, gasping for breath. He collapsed onto the bench and groaned. “I refuse to live like this. I refuse!”
He allowed himself to recover for a few minutes before looking at the display. The next train to Manchester was thirty minutes delayed and due in twenty. He sighed, forced himself to stand and staggered over to the ticket machine, muttering “Oh, God. Oh, God. How can anyone get into this state?” He took a deep breath. “I should be able to run ten times that distance. I will. Looks like it’s going to be hell for me for the next few months if this doesn’t get sorted.”
* * *
“Finally!” He gasped as he collapsed onto the sofa in his parents'… in his… living room. Even the trudge up the hill from the bus stop had knocked the wind out of him.
He only then looked around the room in dismay.
The place was a mess. It looked like the house had been ransacked! If it weren’t for the fact a TV sat in the corner of the room, he would’ve suspected burglary.
“You lazy, bone-idle waste of air!” Another sigh. “I’ll deal with this crap tomorrow.”
Spotting the TV remote half buried under a pile of paper on the coffee table, he reached for it and turned on the telly, flicking through all the channels.
“Well, that’s similar.” He glanced at the clock. “4pm and sod all on.”
He was just about to hit the button again when an advert came on. He froze and stared in horror.
“Unsatisfied with the way your life has turned? Do you have deep regrets you didn’t take a different path? The new life lottery. Just £10 per ticket and you could win the life you always dreamed of. A life where those actions you missed weren’t missed. A life where the things you regret didn’t occur. Next draw on the 20th of June. Get your tickets now!”
“I… Oh, fuck! So, I’m not the only one? How many more? How many before me?”
He continued with the channel surfing until he stumbled onto a news channel and settled down to watch.
You’re a sergeant. Talk like one. Act like one. Exude the presence of one! He took a few deep breaths, then an extra deep one and yelled. “Stand by your bed!”
He gave it a count of five before he opened the door to the billet.
Ashford was six foot two, medium build and wore a t-shirt and jeans. He stood to attention at the foot of his bed and didn’t look happy.
Derek marched forward and stamped to a halt in front of him.
“Make yourself presentable, Ashford. Uniform. Now. I’ll be back in ten minutes!”
“Uniform, sarnt?” The worry increased on his face. “Ah, shit. That means they’ve decided?”
“Yes, a decision has been made. Get changed.”
About turn, march out, slam the door. Derek chuckled. “That actually felt good!”
He looked down the corridor, the doors all followed the same pattern. On the left, all had large gaps between them, indicating they were all similar dormitories, each with the two doors on the right indicating smaller rooms. Rooms for the lance corporals and corporals in command of each section, or in this case, training each section. The other, for the sergeant in command of all of them.
He fumbled with his keys again until he found the right one, then picked up the kitbag he’d been given and opened his door.
So… This is home, is it?
It wasn’t a huge room, but it was enough, he supposed. Everything he expected was in there. The large metal cabinet synonymous with army barracks everywhere was his wardrobe. The pristinely made bed. Everything in the place, neat, tidy and clean.
There was no hint of clutter and apart from a TV in the corner, very few personal items. He opened the cabinet and studied the perfectly stores uniforms. On the left-hand side of the rail, one set of civilian clothing. On the right, shelves contained underwear and socks. The top one, a few books. The shelves also housed a lockable drawer. Another fumble with the keys and he studied the contents of that, too. A couple of wristwatches, one looked high-tech, a few coins at the bottom and a box. He reached in and opened it to reveal a medal. What it was for, he had no idea.
“Where the hell’s all your other stuff? You’re on a sergeant’s wages and you don’t seem to own anything! So this is it? A career soldier, with nothing to show for it?”
He sighed, locked the drawer and wandered over to the desk. A lamp, a blotter, a couple of drawers, but when he opened them, more army stuff. Nothing personal.
“How can anyone live like this? And now I have to? God! How can he not be bored stiff when he’s not on duty? Just as well I am doing that basic training thing next week. Least I won’t have this to think about.”
He sighed and returned to the door opposite. Another yell of “Stand by your bed!” and again, he marched in, this time facing a fully uniformed Ashford.
He glanced around, grabbed a couple of chairs and slammed them down. “Sit.”
He sat on the other, facing Ashford as he took his.
“Now. Tell me how you feel?”
“Miserable? Terrified? I don’t want this to end, sarnt! I want to pass out! I need” Ashford sighed. Well, half sigh, half sob.
“I said a decision had been made, I didn’t say what that decision was. I am partly instrumental in it, though. I did a little digging on your behalf.”
“Listen.” He again hit play on the first recording.
As it played, Ashford stared at the phone in shock. Tears began to well. “Does this mean…”
“The next intake is in one month. You’re a part of it. You’ll get to complete your basic, Ashford.”
“But I failed!”
“I can understand why, you know? You took an unjust punishment on your very first day. You’ve been holding back a hell of a lot of resentment since then. Confidence in yourself at rock bottom? Second guessing every decision? Tiptoeing about, walking on eggshells, terrified you’ll make a mistake?”
His eyes widened and he nodded.
“Well, by the time you begin again, that black mark will be permanently wiped from your record, if it isn’t already. Stop worrying so much. If it makes you feel any better, I handed the list to Major Davenport. Everyone I couldn’t contact, or didn’t try to, will be contacted too and if they also corroborate what the nine I already did said, and the two true guilty parties continue to lie… Well… They’ll likely really get it in the neck.”
“So… So I get to come back next month! Oh, thank fuck! Thank’s sarnt!”
“Oh, no. You’re not coming back next month.”
“What? But you said”
“We’ll talk about that later. Right now, though, I want to build some of that confidence back. A little roleplay.”
“What? But I’m not a nerd, sarnt!”
“I didn’t mean that kind of roleplay. I’m not asking you to pretend to be a wizard or anything. Just pretend that I am a guest of this base. That I’ve never been here before. You are going to give me a guided tour, tell me what each and every building and feature of the camp is, what it’s called, its function and so on, and as we walk between them, you can go into the history of the base. If we have time, maybe the history of the regiment you hope to join.” He stood. “So, get to it, recruit. Lead the way.”
* * *
At first, he stumbled over his words, hesitated, ummed and ahhed, but after a few simple questions about the place, easy ones even someone who’d been there a day should know, but Derek still didn’t, Ashford began to relax, become more vocal, more eloquent and by the time they were halfway around the camp, he brimmed with enthusiasm. It was clear he loved the army life and that enthusiasm began to rub off on Derek.
Then they reached the assault course and as they approached one of the walls, Ashford slowed.
Derek glanced across at him to see pain in his eyes. To see the hesitation beginning to return.
“What’s wro… Ah.” Remembering the file he’d read, he nodded. “I understand. This is where you broke your ankle close to the end of your first attempt at basic training?”
“I… Please sarnt… Before I say anything more… Could you go to the med centre and ask them to review the x-ray?/”
“What? W… Don’t tell me it was more than just a bad landing?”
“I want you to see for yourself before I say anything more. I… I can’t… I need you to see it.”
“I’ll do it, now. I think we’ve covered a lot… Before I go, though, point out anything we missed.”
“Yes, sarnt! At the end of the assault course, the outdoor firing range.” He pointed. “That building, the armoury manned by Staff Wilson, normally. He even has his billet in there, the weapons are never left unguarded. Beyond that, general stores, where we go to pick up our ration packs and where we got issued with our kit. That building over there… Payroll. Only really need to go there, these days if there’s something wrong with our wages, but they told us there’d be a queue around the block twenty years ago when they paid by cheque. These days, it goes straight into our bank accounts, though. Workshops beyond that, for general trade training. Things like bricklaying, carpentry, stuff like that. Then, back to the guard house by the main gate and the cells in there.” He shrugged. “Spent a week in one of them when I wasn’t painting those rocks along the paths. They’re comfortable enough.”
“Thank you, recruit. I think you did a fucking good job. Until we got here, you were enjoying it, too, weren’t you?”
“Get back to your billet. I’ll see what the med centre has to say.” Now that I know where it is. “I think I can guess why you’ve clammed up again, though. You were… still are? Terrified no one will believe you?”
Ashford sighed and nodded.
“I think that may have changed, by now. If the med centre does claim anything unusual, I’ll fetch you, we’ll both report to the major’s office and I will bring the x-rays and an assessment by the medic on duty of that x-ray. If what I think you’re trying to say is what I think it is, this is a hell of a lot more serious than a bit of bullying.”
Ashford nodded again.
“Well, jump to it. I’ll meet you there when I’ve done this, make sure you’re in tip-top shape for major Davenport.”
“Thanks, sarnt.” Ashford bolted back towards the accommodation blocks.
* * *
He froze just before crossing the threshold, his hand shooting up to his head. For fuck’s sake, Derek, it’s not that hard to remember. Cap off, you idiot!
He took off his beret, rolled it up, unbuttoned his right shoulder strap and fastened it again with his beret in place, then opened the door.
It looked pretty much like any doctor’s reception area, a lot of seats for waiting patients, even a few tables with the ubiquitous readers digests on them.
Behind the counter, a lance corporal in conversation with a captain, both with red crosses on their arms.
He marched up to the counter, stamped to a halt and waited.
It didn’t take long for the captain to turn. “Sergeant Brown! No health concerns, I hope?”
“Not for me, sir. It’s a past one I wish to enquire about.”
“But you haven’t had one in”
“Sorry, sir. Not me. Ashford.”
“Ashford?! So, he’s finally decided to come clean, has he?”
“So, there was something suspicious about his injury, sir? He only hinted earlier. He wanted me to see what you had to say about it before he’d be more… forthcoming, sir.”
“Any idea why?”
“Oh, I have an idea, sir. He’d been labelled as a liar from his very first day, sir. I imagine he wasn’t willing to tell the truth about it because we’d see it as him lying again, sir. Probably in an attempt to get one of the other recruits in trouble.”
“Yes… Well, he did lie, sergeant.”
“He didn’t, sir. That’s just it. Major Davenport already knows, I suppose you should, too.”
He again played the first recording.
The captain’s eyes widened as the recording reached its end. “Bloody hell. No wonder he clammed up so much. He insisted his injury was caused by a bad landing after jumping off the wall but… Just a moment. I’ll just go and get his file. And your intentions?”
“Clear his name, sir. Completely. If it means bringing a true villain to justice as a consequence then so much the better, sir. This isn’t just bullying if I think it’s what it looks like, it’s aggravated assault, grievous bodily harm, sir.”
The captain vanished into the room beyond the reception for a few minutes and returned holding a file, he pulled out an x-ray and held it up to the light. “Yes… See here, and here… The injury he claimed would’ve been a compression injury if he landed badly, but his ankle appears to have sustained a crushing force laterally, as if impacted by a blunt object.” He pointed at the picture showing how the bones had been cracked and displaced.
“What are the probabilities that it was self-inflicted?”
The captain shrugged. “Pretty negligible, unless he took a hammer to it. The angle’s all wrong for anything but a force applied from outside. Even if he’d stamped on his own ankle, the bones would’ve been displaced in the opposite direction.”
“Would it be possible to write these conclusions down, sir?”
“No need, already done. The suspicions have been in that file from the start, along with his insistence that it was just the result of landing badly. Take it.”
“Isn’t there a doctor/patient confidentiality… thing to worry about, sir?”
“Not in this case. We have a little more leeway in the army. It’s army business, we’re fine. If it’d been a more personal… issue, such as a sexually transmitted disease, then it would be a concern.”
* * *
He didn’t bother with a yell of stand by your bed, this time. He just opened the door, said “Ashford, with me,” turned and walked down the corridor.
Ashford was by his side moments later. “What did he say, sarnt?”
“Oh, he knew you weren’t being very liberal with the truth about your injury.”
Ashford sighed. “Thought so, sarnt. They grilled me when they were setting my leg.”
“Now, it’s time to set things right. Major Davenport’s office. When I say speak, you tell your tale, fully and truthfully. Who did it, why, how, etc. Understood?”
“Now I know you know I wasn’t lying the first time, no problem.” He grinned. “I would’ve just been accused of doing it to myself before, though, sarnt. Just to get back at them.”
“I thought it must be something like that. Come on…”
Out onto the square, into the admin block, and up the stairs. Derek knocked.
He opened the door, stepped inside and held it open for Ashford before closing it.
“Brown… And Ashford?”
“Sir, something more serious has come to light regarding Ashford’s first basic.”
“More serious? We have them both banged to rights already!”
“Ashford. It’s time. Speak.”
“It was the final assault course before our passing out, sir. We only had a few more lessons, then it would’ve just been drill practice until the parade itself to make sure we were perfect, sir. Wallis and Prichard didn’t know what order we’d be running the course, none of us did, and if I’d gone before both of them, nothing would’ve happened. I would’ve been in the signals right now. Unfortunately for me, Prichard was three ahead of me. He deliberately slowed to let the ones behind him pass and when he got to the wall and dropped down, he waited. The moment my feet hit the ground, he lashed out, sir. Kicked me in the ankle. After that… Well, you know I spent the next four months in plaster and another two undergoing physiotherapy to get my movement back. I’m sorry, sir! I didn’t see any choice but to lie. You already had me pegged as a liar and if I’d tried to report what really happened, he said right there after he did it, he’d report I did it to myself, sir. And no one would’ve believed me! I would’ve been kicked out for sure, sir!”
Davenport sighed. “I see. And I understand. You’re probably right about your veracity being put under severe scrutiny after what we perceived to be the lies on your first day. So, Prichard broke your ankle?”
“Yes, sir, but I bet if Wallis had been the one ahead of me that day, he would’ve done the same thing. They were almost joined at the hip, them two, sir.”
“Did he say why he did it? Was it just retaliation for that first day?”
“I was doing pretty well on my first basic, sir. I think I might’ve even been heading for best recruit or at least, most improved, sir. I think it was just to take me out of the running, sir. I missed all that… Can you tell me who got that, sir? And if I would’ve if it hadn’t happened?”
“I’ve reviewed all the files, now, so I don’t even need to look it up. Best? No. That black mark knocked you out for that one, but most improved, yes.” He sighed. “And yes, Wallis got best.”
“And most improved, sir?”
Ashford smiled. “Thank you, sir. At least he deserved it.”
“You were right, sergeant. This is far more serious, and now that they’ve both completed their basic training and attested, they are really in for it. Assaulting a fellow soldier? I see the glasshouse in Prichard’s future, probably followed by a dishonourable discharge. I managed to contact all the others in your section the sergeant missed, bar one. Wallis was out on an exercise and won’t be back until next week, so he’ll have to wait to dig his own grave, but… Well… You may want to hear this.”
Davenport grabbed his phone, scrolled and prodded a couple of times and placed it on the desk before hitting play.
“Ah, hello. Major Davenport of Pirbright. I was wondering if you could get private Prichard on the line. Army number, 88944502.”
“One moment please, sir.”
Another few minutes of that same insipid hold music.
Davenport frowned. “I’m really going to have to have a word with them about that. A dead line would be preferable.”
Derek chuckled. “Yes, sir. At least on Father Ted, the nuns sang their hold music live, sir.”
“I’m sorry? Father who?”
Damn! Err… “I caught it quite some time ago, sir. An Irish catholic priest. Comedy, sir.”
“When you were stationed in Belfast? Good grief, that was a while ago, wasn’t it? I suppose it just didn’t make it to the mainland.”
“I suppose so, sir.”
Their attention snapped back to the phone when the next voice emerged. “Hello?”
“Ah, jolly good. I’m phoning all who took part in your basic training. Just routine, you understand. I was wondering if you could give your assessment of one recruit Ashford.”
A snigger emerged. “Don’t tell me that loser’s still there? I’m surprised he hasn’t been kicked out, yet.”
“That’s your assessment? Loser? Can you be more precise?”
“He’s a coward, sir. And mentally unstable, sir.”
“What do you mean, mentally unstable?”
“He’s bonkers, sir! I take it you know about our first day?”
“Go on. I do have the file here, but I want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”
“We’d just been taught how to make our bed and iron our kit when he started on the wimp at the end, sir. Telling him to make his bed. That he’d be his personal valet from then on, sir.”
“And how did the fight start?”
“We saw what he was doing was wrong, sir. Me and Pete… Sorry, sir. Private Wallis, stepped in, sir. Told him to stop.”
“So, not quite the coward if he stood up to both of you, even if he did pick on the weakest, initially?”
“No, sir. It was like flicking a switch, sir. He went totally mental. Threw a right hissy fit. Before we knew it, we were both rolling around on the floor with the moron, sir.”
“Any other instances of this… mental instability?”
“Assault course, sir. He was right behind me. He yelled forward that he was going to get me for what I did, whatever that was and when he jumped down off one of the taller walls, he landed with his foot right on his other ankle, sir. I yelled back that no one would ever believe him. He’d already lied through his teeth about us, sir. I suppose that’s when he realised what a mistake he’d made. God, did he turn the air blue. As I said, sir, he’s a nutter, sir!”
“Thank you for the rather… colourful description. Anything more to add?”
“If he is still there, seriously, dump the git, sir. He’s a danger, sir. Dread to think what he’d do with a loaded weapon and someone in his section he had a grudge against, sir. Bastard should be sectioned.”
“Thank you, Private Prichard. That was very helpful. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.”
There was a beep.
“God, he really has it in for me. Even now, the petty, vindictive little”
“Understandable, but the language I imagine would have come out of your mouth is totally inappropriate in front of an officer. Don’t worry. The others in your section all described the events of that first day much more favourably. Favourably for you, that is. Added to that… I wonder…”
He opened the medical file, nodded and fiddled with his laptop for a minute. “We do have security cameras on all the buildings. It isn’t a good view… Ah, here we are.”
The assault course was visible and it was a good angle to see the wall from a direction that showed the side they dropped down from, but it was a fair distance away. The major turned the laptop again briefly and zoomed in on that section of the course, watched for a minute and clicked something before turning it back. A lot of soldiers in full combat gear dropped down the wall and continued, then one stopped and waited for a few frames. The next frame, another soldier was at the top, a couple of frames later, he was curled into a ball at the foot of the wall as the one who’d waited was halfway to the next obstacle.
“Whenever an incident occurs on camp, all camera outputs for that time are logged rather than discarded. Unfortunately, it was such a distance away, we don’t have the resolution to identify faces and as it’s in time-lapse, we didn’t see the whole event or the offending kick. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky we have that much. It does, however, correlate with your version of events, which means that phone call is another nail in his coffin.”
Ashford beamed. “Thank you, sir!”
“You will, of course, testify at the court martial. I don’t know when, and as every witness is spread out across almost every army camp in the country, I’m afraid you won’t be able to face him directly. It’ll have to be via videomeet.”
“Very good. Report to the military police at oh eight hundred tomorrow to make your official statement.”
“Yes, sir. Might get the chance to ask them a few questions, too, sir.”
“Questions? About what?”
“If I’d passed out when I should’ve, I would’ve been wearing Mercury on my cap badge right now, sir, same as sergeant Brown, but after what happened, my priorities have changed. That’s what I’m gunning for now, sir. MP.”
“That is excellent. We always need more MPs, not the most popular trade in the army and as you’ve suffered an injustice yourself… I think you’ll make a damned fine one.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He about turned and marched to the door.
“And you, sergeant.”
“Of course, sir!”
He was getting better at the about turn and managed it flawlessly, marched out of the door Ashford had opened, closed it and joined him as they marched back towards the billet.
“Looks like I won’t be going home for a while, after all, sarnt. Do you have any idea how long it’ll take before the court martial?”
“Absolutely none. I doubt he’s even been charged, yet. It can take some time. I wouldn’t worry. You weren’t going home, anyway.”
“I… don’t understand, sarnt. The next basic’s not for a month.”
“You will. I did say you weren’t returning for the next basic training, didn’t I? The reason is, you’re not leaving so there was nowhere to return from. Come on, back to the billet, I’ll explain there.”
* * *
“Stand to attention, but this time, move your arms away from your body a bit and close your eyes. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Derek returned to his room, replaced his shirt with an unranked one, hastily and messily folded up his sleeves, rummaged for the new beret and put that under his shoulder strap and gathered up the fresh training manuals and armbands.
When he returned to the dormitory, Ashford still stood there, a little worry creasing his brow.
Derek dumped the manuals onto one of the beds, stretched the first armband as wide as it would go and, careful not to touch the recruit’s arm, eased it up until it was in place before releasing. He did the same with the other arm, stood before him and… “You can open your eyes, now.”
He did so and stepped back, staring at Derek’s arms. “Where’s your stripes, sarnt!”
“Think of this as a continuation of the roleplay we had earlier. The guest you escorted was so swept up by your enthusiasm, he joined up. That’s why I don’t have a rank. I’m a recruit, now, and you, corporal, are going to train me. I’ve never been in uniform before. This is totally new to me. You will perform all the duties the training team had when they trained you. Every mistake you lot made and many more, I will make and we have a month. We begin on Monday.”
“You… You want me, to train you?”
“Corporal!?” He glanced down at his arms. “Fuck… me! Seriously? How can I”
“Before you continue, you are an acting lance-corporal. Don’t try to pull rank on anyone but me or you’ll be in deep shit. Don’t try to act as an equal to a real lance-corporal, either. Those are only armbands, not sewn on. For the next month, I’m your plaything. Inspection, training, punishment. Everything we did to you, you get to do to me.”
“Holy shit! This is… It’s… Why, though? I don’t get it.”
“You needed a boost, corporal—a serious one, not only to your confidence. By the time this is over, you’ll hopefully be a hell of a lot more sure of yourself. No more second-guessing. It can kill a soldier, being frozen in indecision, so, I came up with this and the CO didn’t only agree, he loved the idea.” He returned to the bed, gathered up the training manuals and shoved them into Ashford’s chest. “You’ve got a lot of preparation to do. I suggest you study those. Every single thing, no matter how basic, you teach me. Even down to making a bed, polishing my boots and ironing my kit. Take the armbands off, for now, though. They don’t come into force until Monday morning. And on Sunday night, pack all your kit”
“Pack up, sarnt?”
“To stay out from under the feet of everyone else, Major Davenport has assigned me to three echo one and for you, three echo three.”
“I… But no one’s been on the top floor of block three in five years, sarnt!”
“I did say to keep out from under everyone’s feet, didn’t I? Don’t worry. He assured me it would be returned to a habitable state before we begin. I Imagine it’s a bit dusty up there, right now. If you require any resources, the person to see is Staff Etherage.” Damn, what was the word… Think, Derek! Think! Oh, yeah. “The major’s assigned him as our quartermaster. He’ll probably be able to offer you advice, too. Now, I suggest you start studying those books. They’ll be available for the full period as a reference, of course, but absorb as much as you can before then.”
“Oh, God, this is amazing! Did you say I’ll be in room three?”
“Of course! You’re training me, after all.”
“My own room?”
“And I have a dormitory all to myself, but a room is more appropriate to someone doing the training, so, yes.”
To the person who created the challenge “The road not taken” about someone who won a lottery to get transferred to a different timeline wher
Where's it gone? Did you delete it with over a week left on the challenge? The deadline's nowhere near over yet, and I was 4 chapters into a piece for it!
PUT IT BACK!
“With me is Doctor Barratt of the Midshire University Archaeology Department.”
“Doctor, what exactly am I looking at?”
“Our most recent dig. Our most exciting one in decades.”
The reporter glances into the dugout. “But what is it?”
“A barrow mound, carbon dating estimates 1000 BCE, with a 10% margin for error.”
“In a field in the middle of nowhere? How did you find it?”
“It began as a class project. A search for anomalies by studying aerial photography. Several candidates and not one to balk at a challenge, this is the one I chose. We hoped we’d strike gold, and… Some of the artefacts are amazing..”
“A diamond encrusted bronze plate is the most valuable piece, but a clay pot sealed with pitch contained a surprise. The most important discovery is a windup toy and a ball similar in size to a modern football. The body was that of a child.”
“3000 year old clockwork?”
“Nothing quite so exotic, but it was driven by a spring.”
“And the contents of the pot?”
“A fish, coated in what could only be described as batter.”
“Aren’t barrow mounds normally above ground?”
“There are a lot of mines in the area. Five hundred years ago, the workings beneath it collapsed causing the whole mound to slump into a deep dip which gradually filled with debris over time.”
“Thank you, doctor. Dennis Mulligan, BBC news, Cheshire.”
The screen switched back to the studio.
“Sport now, and Manchester United have announced a new lineup”
The TV turned off.
“I think that went rather well. Score one for us.” Barratt grinned.
Barratt’s assistant stared at the blank TV, worry creasing his brow. “But what if they catch us? It’s the most audacious hoax since Piltdown Man!”
“I wouldn’t worry about that.”
He marched up to the table, pulled out the chair and sat, watching the guard in the corner of his eye.
“Hello, Dad. Go on…”
“What do you mean go on! I’ve been worried sick!”
“Give me the bollocking of a lifetime, of course!”
“Oh, no. I’m saving that up for when you’re home!”
“How is she?”
“No, the woman I ran into!”
”How do you think she is!? Her arm’s likely to be in plaster for the next six months! They don’t heal well at that age. What the hell were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thi”
”I knew that bike was a bad idea! I’ll tell you this for starters. That bike has been destroyed!”
“Dad! It took me a year to save up for that! It cost me over ten quid to get it made!”
“I don’t care. You’re a menace on the roads on that thing! At least a horse has common sense, unlike you!”
The guard moved away and stood by the door.
Eric grinned. He lowered his voice. “Did Lance keep his trap shut?”
“He did. Dave grounded him with Greg.”
Eric sighed with relief. “Did you bring what I asked?”
“Yes, they’re checking the books over, now… So how is it in here?”
“I agree with Diah. I actually like a lot of it. Banged up in your cell all alone, though. That’s the hardest part for me. I need to do stuff. God it’s boring. Even with a book.”
“It’s not meant t”
“I know, you don’t need to say it. I won’t either. What’s happening with two section, do you know?”
“They went on an exercise on Monday.”
“Yeah. Diah told me about them marching past his prison cart in full kit. How long?”
“Bugger. And I’m missing it! Have they started on the fighting, yet?”
“Don’t know. They’re on exercise, so I doubt it. Look, how is Diah?”
“I’ve only seen him once since it happened, but I know he’ll be fine.” Eric sighed. “Angry, of course.”
“I can’t believe you agreed to this, Eric. This…”
“Diah wasn’t even conscious until we were in that bloody prison cart on the way down here, Dad. He didn’t take the taser well, at all. He needed me and I am better than fine here. Just pissed off I needed to miss two days in chains because of what happened Tuesday night. God, he’s impressive.”
“I mean it, Dad. That guard…” He chuckled. “They’ve told both of us if we ever get banged up again, it’ll be hard labour every time whether we’re sentenced to it or not. They’ve never seen anything like it, for either of us.”
“Yes. Really. And what’s more, I’d be more than happy with it, too.”
Sorry about the huge delay. Work and a lack of ooomph and when I hit a sweet spot where I felt like writing again, I ran into a roadblock as I re-read the previous part. Took a while to get a slight alteration in place for me to start again and then the time had passed. Can't believe it's nearly six months since the last part. Oh well, let's try to get things back on track.
As they trudged up the hill, Gareth slowed his pace until he was walking level with Wren.
He lowered his voice to a mutter. “Can you tell?”
“Keep your voice down. Talk like I am. I don’t want him to hear.” Gareth pointed at his dad. “Can you tell if that’s my dad, or one of you pretending to be him?”
Wren sighed. “Sorry, He just looks… well… Um…”
“I’ve seen my reflection in that shiny thing on your car. I look human too, don’t I?”
“Right now, yes. I was hoping there might be some kind of tell.”
“If there is, I don’t remember what it is.”
“I… This might be unpleasant, Wren, but I want you to do something for me, now. He can’t read us, but he can read you.”
“Why couldn’t I read you?”
“Best to keep that a secret, because he can read you. I want you to bring up that feeling, the loneliness. The pain. Think about it and nothing else, for now. Just in case he tries.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Seems to me, from what you said when you were under the influence, that he’s buried those feelings so deeply, he might not even be aware of them. If you bring them to the front and he reads you, he’ll have to face those feelings head on. Possibly for the first time in his existence. It’ll hurt. Might even drive him away for a while. I bet he won’t understand what he’s feeling, but I know it won’t be pleasant.”
“In that case, I… Anything that hurts him, now I know what he feels about me.”
Gareth nodded. “Thanks.”
They continued following his father for another hour, out of the village, down the road, then out onto the moors.
Gareth sighed. “I think we’re far enough away from people, now, Dad.”
“But we’re not there, yet.” He looked around and scratched his head. “If only I could remember…”
“Remember where this supposed fishing spot it?”
“What do you mean, supposed? It”
“Dad, enough. There’s no such place! Not ’round here at any rate! We can talk here!”
“But I was sure…” His shoulders sagged and he turned. “Alright, so… What are your plans?”
“Your new… friend, for one? How can magic even exist? It’s just a stage trick!”
Eloise, I want you to do something for me, now. Seems you have an ability we lack, so we might as well put it to use.
Gareth could feel her shifting uncomfortably in his mind. What do you want me to do? What can I do, stuck in here?
You can hear me. I don’t need to speak out loud to you, Olban can’t, so, act as a relay. If I ask you to pass something on to him, do it. No need to pass it back, I can hear both of you.
Olban sounded confused. What’s that Eloise? What does who want you to do?
Gareth. I can hear his thoughts. Like he can hear both of us. He was just asking me to relay messages.
Gareth’s dad looked at him impatiently. “Well?”
Gareth sighed. Just ask Olban. What I can say that will totally throw him off the scent, something believable.
Eloise repeated the message.
If I had shoulders, or control, you’d be shrugging, right now.
Ask him… How about this… Olban’s created a means for me to access magic, here. It’s normally too weak in this world, while in Olban’s it’s a standard part of life. He created a channel, a way to direct some of that magic here for us to use. He taught me how to make the device that taps into it last week, to show you and Mum that he’s real and magic exists.
Another message passed, Olban considered for a moment and replied. Clever. You’d be nodding right now. Good one. And good thought with this relay, thing.
“Alright, Dad. Can’t hurt to tell you, but I can’t tell you too much. Olban created a sort of… channel… A way to direct some of the magic of his world to here, so I could use it to prove he existed. He directed me into building the receiver half of it last week.”
“Receiver? Of magic? Sounds complicated. Where is it? Can I see it?”
“No, Dad. It’s not accessible. We made it that way.”
“What do you mean, not accessible?”
“We hid it in a sea cave in the cliffs. Somewhere safe. Somewhere no-one could interfere with it. Mainly because it’s hidden, but mostly because it’ll spend over half its life underwater. It’s high tide. I can’t tell you any more. It might put you in danger.”
“Danger?” His dad’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of danger?”
“Taking on a passenger’s caused another problem. Seems we’re being targetted by an extremely powerful but utterly…” Sorry Eloise, but I’m saying this more to rile him up than you, “cretinous moron. He might be an idiot, but he is still dangerous. He wants to destroy the universe, Dad.”
“Destroy the universe!? How the hell can anyone destroy the universe?”
“I can’t say any more. We know. That’s all that matters. I’m protected, thanks to Olban. He can read minds, so I can’t tell you.”
It was a weird sensation. It almost felt like a feather had brushed the surface of his mind.
His dad’s eyes narrowed even more and beads of sweat appeared on his brow. The next time, it wasn’t nearly as gentle, almost like a bullet ricocheting off a brick wall.
Olban chuckled. Nice way to goad him, Gareth. He’s probably not even aware we can feel that. We wouldn’t be able to if the shield wasn’t in place.
“And you both know?” There was a strain in his dad’s voice as he said it.
Gareth nodded. “Protecting him’s next on the agenda. It takes time to get it right.”
Wren collapsed to his knees, but at the same time, the expression on his father’s face twisted into one of pure horror and grief. Tears began to stream down his face as he let out a howl. His body withered, dissolved, briefly revealing the horned, devilish true form of one of his minions before it collapsed into a pile of dust and blew off into the wind. The howl continued for another few seconds as it faded into the distance and was gone.
Wren stared at the spot Gareth’s father had stood a few seconds before, worry creasing his brow. “That… That could’ve happened to me? You don’t think it still could, do you?”
Gareth shrugged. “I think he’s still learning how to interact with the universe. The first time we dealt with one of his minions, it was utterly… stupid… some of the things it did. We managed to kill that one… Well, Olban did, we were in his world at the time. Second time we dealt with one, he just abandoned you, and you became a friend. I imagine he’s just made a small alteration to the design, so when he abandons them from now on, that’s what happens. Otherwise, we’d end up with an army of his own minions teamed up against him.”
Pure guesswork, Gareth, but I like your way of thinking. It does prove one thing, though. That wasn’t your dad.
Gareth sighed. “I suppose we’d better get back to their house. Maybe Mum can pull her head out of her arse long enough to tell us when he started acting differently. We need to find him. If he’s tied up, there’s no telling how long he’ll be stuck like that. Or how long he already has been.” He helped Wren back to his feet. “Are you OK?”
“That hurt. It felt like someone smashed me in the face with a… a… Well, a really hard heavy thing.”
* * *
Gareth knocked on the door and waited… And waited… He knocked again.
Is she in? Maybe she left? She wasn’t in a very… stable… state of mind the last time we saw her.
Gareth sighed. “Or, maybe she’s still out cold on the sofa. Do you think I’d have enough… ooomph to open the door?”
I told you what you’d likely be capable of. Anvil in my world, feather in yours. A pencil, possibly, and that’d be pushing it. Busting open a door? No way.
“But I don’t need to bust it open. I’ve been in and out of this place often enough to know how the latch works.”
Good point. I still think it may be too much for you, but it’s worth a try, I suppose.
“How do I…”
Just place your hand, the right one, obviously, over the lock and concentrate on the image of the latch on the other side. I suggest a hard press down, rather than a gradual one. It might take more energy, more force, but it will be a lot shorter and be enough to overcome the force of the spring in it. Just make sure you time it along side pushing the door correctly. Should do the trick.
“Right.” Gareth placed his hand and closed his eyes. Image of the latch, check… aaaand… He imagined something slapping the end of it, hard and at the same time, shoved the door, almost falling flat on his face as it swung open. “Bloody hell.” He said, scrambling back to his feet. “It worked.”
Take it slow, Gareth.
You saw the state she was in. I’m just saying be on the alert. If you were convinced your son had turned into a monster and were terrified he might come back…
Gareth sighed. “Good point.” He opened the door to the lounge a crack and peeked in. Well, she wasn’t on the sofa. Then, an idea. He opened it wider and peeked through the crack between the door and the frame on the hinge side… “Ah.”
It was only a fine line he could see through, but she was there, hiding behind the door.
“Mum, I’m not going to come in with you there. I’m not a monster. Don’t even know where you got that loony idea. I’m unarmed. And I most certainly do not want to spend the next week in hospital recovering from a stab wound or concussion. What is it? Kitchen knife? Frying pan?”
“Get out of my house! You are a monster! My…” She started to weep. “You murdered him!”
What the hell did he say to her?
Eloise, relay time again. No idea, but it’s obvious he’s been busy.
“I’m still me, Mum. Ask me anything. Anything at all. Dad was the imposter, Mum, not me.”
“Brian told me! He told me he saw you, a demon! You murdered Gareth and”
“The man who left this house an hour ago was not your husband! Think, Mum. Please! I’ve met them before, these, what you called demons! They make mistakes! Obvious things! I don’t know why, but I think it’s because the thing controlling them doesn’t understand the world. It doesn’t understand us! If you’re not willing to talk to me, phone Doctor Connors! He knows everything, now. We’d only just saved him before we came here!”
“I’m not coming out from behind this door until you’re out of the house!”
“Fine! I’ll leave, but phone him! Dad’s missing! No idea where that thing stashed him, but one of them was impersonating Connors! We found him tied up in his broom cupboard! I think they need them alive for some reason. Maybe to pick their brains for the information they need for a convincing disguise, but, as I said, they make mistakes! Think back. When did Dad start on this me being a monster, bollocks? What other things did he say that sounded odd?!” Gareth walked back to the front door, opened it, stepped outside and before slamming it, called back one last time. “Phone Connors! Now!” *SLAM*
Eloise had never sounded so meek. I… I’m… I… don’t know what to say.
“It’s OK, Eloise. It’s not… well… directly your fault. This is new, admittedly, but Mum’s always been a pain in the arse. Trying to protect me. Trying to wrap me in cotton wool because of my,” he maid air quotes, “mental condition.”
Olban chuckled. If you think this reaction was bad, you should’ve seen her when he announced he’d joined the Whitby RNLI. That he’d already been out three times and saved six people from stormy seas.
“Thanks for reminding me.”
Ten minutes later, the front door opened a crack. “Gareth? Is it really you?”
“Of course it’s me! You really upset me when you started throwing that monster bollocks at me! You saw how much!”
“I told you! That wasn’t Dad! What did he say to you? How could you even believe him?”
“I didn’t believe him! I thought he was off his rocker! Until…”
“Shit! I’m sorry, Mum! I finally had a way to prove to you everything I said about Olban was true! Olban’s been working on something back in his world for a while. A way for me to use magic in this one, I wanted to be dramatic! To get it through your thick skull that there’d never been anything wrong with me! Different, yes. I’ve even since been informed it’s very rare, but wrong, no.”
She flung open the door and pounced, gripping him in a tight hug. It wasn’t long before she was bawling her eyes out. “I… I… I thought… you… you were dead!”
Gareth gripped her, too, attempting to calm her by stroking her back. “It’s alright, Mum. It’s alright. Let’s get back inside, eh? Sit down, I’ll put the kettle on and tell you as much as I can over a cuppa? OK?”
Seems fairly obvious...
The evolutionary bias towards male offspring could be seen as a balancing act. After all, throughout history, it's always been the men who did the most dangerous jobs. Hunting, fighting rival tribes, coal mining, heavy labour, etc. Men, therefore, are far more likely to die. OK, women, being the child bearers, are at risk of dying, too, but men tended to put themselves at risk on a daily basis, while the most dangerous part of a pregnancy is the actual labour, which is, at the most, once every nine months. It's only in the past 100 years or so that the balance has shifted, men taking up more sedentary roles and women allowed to do the dangerous jobs, too.
It’s a little more complicated than that...
"We run into the problem of definitions with this little conundrum." He said, leaning back in his leather easy chair, puffing on his pipe. "For there are several different meanings to the word 'brownie'.
"I'll cover just the three that spring instantly to mind and answer your questions in turn for each of them."
"1: Do brownies exist?
"Are they a tangible phenomenon?
"As a small, rectangular chocolate flavoured fudgey delight, of course they are. It'd be a little difficult to enjoy them if they were imaginary.
"Can you quantify them?
"I wouldn't even care to try to come up with an estimate. Millions must be made each day and I'm not a professor of baking.
"Why aren't you eating one?"
He reached for his plate and plucked up a sweet treat, taking a bite. "That's simple, because I'm eating a profiterole."
"2: Do brownies exist?
"Are they a tangible phenomenon?
"Most certainly. I've met a few people who were members, my sister included. As some of the audience may not be from the United Kingdom, a brownie in this sense, is a small girl, too young to join the girl guides. The female equivalent of a cub scout, though, I have heard the boy scout movement began admitting girls a few years ago..."
"Can you quantify them?"
"Again, as someone who pays little interest in youth organisations, I wouldn't care to try. I'm not even aware if they've gone into a decline in recent years."
"Why aren't you eating one?
"Because I'm not a monster? I'm not a child murderer, or cannibal?"
"3: Do brownies exist?
"This is a problematic question to which the best answer is, unlikely.. It is however, impossible to prove a negative. I would personally say no, but many people still believe in fairies, so, who knows? Maybe they do.
"Are they a tangible phenomenon?
"If they exist, they are reputed to be on the helpful end of the faerie spectrum, and they wouldn't be able to help much if they couldn't move things about, so., if they exist, yes. But as I don't think they do, I'll say no, they're just fairy stories. The result of an overactive imagination. So no."
"Can you quantify them?
"For the side of the argument where they do exist, no. For the side where they don't, yes. There are zero, none, zilch.
"Why aren't you eating one?
For the "They exist" side, have you ever seen a faerie? More, have you ever captured one? If, by some extraordinary chain of events, you managed to, killing and eating it would be an incredibly dangerous thing to do. The faerie folk are, as you've proven them to exist, a notoriously vengeful, petty, vindictive people with access to magic. Kill and eat one of their kind and there'd be hell to pay. Om the they don't exist side of the argument, because they don't exist, of course."