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‘It’s all bollocks.’ Danny was back in his hotel room, cradled in a leather armchair, one leg draped over the arm. The television showed live footage of Argo 1 leaving Earth orbit and heading off to Mars. ‘You bastards think we’ll swallow any old guff you feed us.’

He tore open a packet of peanuts with his teeth as Argo 1’s main rocket thrusters shook and spat flames. It was an ungainly structure, built in space and designed for space with no concessions to aerodynamics or elegance. In some ways it resembled a first-generation space shuttle minus the wings. Only it was five times as big and – thanks to an assortment of modules and instruments attached to its periphery – a whole lot lumpier.

The craft moved away from camera, slowly, sedately in a way that made Danny think of an ocean liner leaving port.

He felt a brief urge to get on to the Internet, to post on one of the many bulletin boards he subscribed to. To state in no uncertain terms why he knew the so-called mission to Mars was an elaborate hoax. But he’d had quite enough of computers for one day. What he needed was to chill out. Maybe meet up with old friends, chew the fat, hit a few clubs.

‘And so there it goes,’ said an unseen commentator. ‘Surely voyages don’t come any more historic or crucial than this. All being well, in a few months from now, mankind will realise the dream of centuries and set foot on another planet for the first time. There are those who say it’s been a long time coming, that the governments of the world should have sponsored such an expedition years ago. And then there are others who see this massive undertaking as a triumph for free enterprise.

‘Whatever one’s view, we are surely all united in wishing those three brave astronauts God speed and come home safely. And now back to the studio.’

‘Television off,’ said Danny and the screen went blank.

He was bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored.

My problem, he realised, is that I’m in Limbo. I want the results of my sprite test now and I can’t have them. For all I know, Ariel has crashed and burned or had a mental breakdown or something worse.

OK. She’s not alive and she doesn’t have consciousness – not even machine consciousness, but she’s my little baby and I care about her. I can’t help it.

And then there’s Colette who is conscious, who knows who and what she is and can do nothing other than what Robert Morganfield’s programming dictates. The poor little robot. If anyone wants to know why God gave us free will, they should spend a few minutes with Colette.

He got smartly to his feet. No use sitting around brooding like this. It would only bring on another of his episodes. Best to keep occupied, to hit the town and grab a few thrills.

From the wardrobe, he fetched his leather jacket, a pair of jeans and a T shirt. Then he shed the clothes he was wearing and headed for the shower.




Out on the town. Danny drifted into Soho where, among all the restaurants and boutiques, he found a conference bar. It cost a small fortune to get in and the drinks were overpriced, but that didn’t matter. At least he’d be alone, away from all these strangers strolling or hurrying past, any one of whom could be a pickpocket, mugger, assassin, madman or terrorist; a carrier of exotic diseases, perhaps terrestrial, perhaps alien - quite possibly artificial.

Once inside the bar, he hurried to a vacant booth and breathed a sigh of relief as the door shut behind him.

His wristy told him he was hungry – something he knew already – and that his walk from the hotel had raised his anxiety levels but not critically. Food and a drink would settle him down. That and a bit of conversation.

Danny settled onto a plastic bench just wide enough to accommodate two moderately sized people. He rested his arms on the table and counted the screens on the wall in front of him. There were 12. Including the table, that made 13 in all. More than enough for his purposes.

‘Would you like to see a menu, sir?’ said a quiet voice. It came from a speaker in the wall.

‘Can you fix me a steak? Rare. With roast spuds and baby carrots.’

‘Certainly, sir. And to drink?’

‘A double Johnny Walker Green Label on the rocks and a bottle of Merlot to go with the steak.’

‘Very good, sir. Will that be all?’

‘For now.’

Danny got his mobile phone out and ejected its memory card into his palm. Then he put the card in a slot on the table. Immediately, a menu appeared on the table’s plastic surface.






He selected ADDRESS BOOK and scrolled through his friends list, picking out people who were online and whose mindsets weren’t far removed from his own.

By the time he’d selected 12 people, his Johnny Walker had arrived and the first of his invitees was already on one of the wall screens. It was Marty Spedding, an übernerd who’d killed his parents with a samurai sword. He was currently detained at His Majesty’s pleasure in Strangeways Prison.  

‘Hey ho, Danny boy!’ Marty greeted cheerfully, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. ‘Long time no see.’

‘Every time I have a conference,’ Danny observed, ‘you’re the first to respond. Aren’t you ever offline?’

‘No more than I have to be. I spend 23 hours a day banged up in this cell. Without the Internet I’d go insane. Mind you, going nuts might be my ticket out of here.’

Cherry Halford came online. She’d written some mean lines of code in her time and was rumoured to have beaten the supposedly unbeatable security systems of several banks and credit card companies. For five years, the police and the companies had done their damnedest to nail her but they hadn’t come up with a single shred of evidence that she’d done anything remotely naughty. She was sitting in a swimsuit on the deck of a yacht anchored somewhere sunny with a blue, blue ocean rippling lazily in the background.

When Danny had first met her, she’d been relentlessly plain. Not ugly. Just the sort of girl a man could walk past without even noticing. Now – thanks to some of the many things that vast amounts of money could buy – she was an absolute stunner.

‘Hi, Danny – nice haircut. Hi, Marty.’ Her voice was brushed velvet. ‘How nice to hear from you both. What’s the weather like back in the UK?’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ said Marty. ‘It’s been a year since I saw the sky.’

‘Don't you ever use the exercise yard?’

‘It's indoors now. Too many helicopter escapes. Frankly, I think they’d like to put every prison underground and bury us alive.’

In rapid succession, 3 more of Danny’s friends signed into the conference. Melvyn ‘Mad Dog’ Meredith. Trish Bauval. Dashboard Dan. Legends one and all.

The other invitees declined their invites.

‘It’s all bollocks,’ said Danny once he’d steered the conversation round to the subject of the Mars mission. ‘Everything they show us has been created in CGI.’

Dashboard Dan nodded his bald, tattooed head in eager agreement. ‘It’s the Apollo moon hoax all over again.’

Cherry Halford laughed. ‘Oh here we go. How much more evidence do you need that the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon?’

‘Oh Cherry, Cherry, Cherry,’ said Mad Dog Meredith who was sitting on a four poster bed encased in chicken wire to protect him from thought-control waves. ‘So beautiful and yet so gullible. Have you ever seen an Apollo capsule? Absolutely no protection against cosmic rays or the Van Allen belt. Anyone sitting in a tin can like that out there in space would be microwaved in seconds. That’s science. You can’t argue with the laws of physics.’

‘You are an imbecile with all the charm and charisma of a dung beetle.’

‘And you are the devil incarnate. But I love you anyway.’

‘Mwaah! You sexy, deluded beast, you.’

‘You know what I saw the other day?’ said Trish Bauval. She was sitting in a marble bath, not caring that her breasts were clearly visible. Danny had long had a thing about her and sometimes fantasised they were married with a brood of healthy, happy children living in some remote villa in Tuscany. ‘I saw the King on television. The King of England that is. He was droning on in his usual way about how we must all be better people and only erect buildings that meet with his approval, and you know what?’

‘He turned into a lizard,’ said Marty Spedding.

‘Exactly! Right there. In front of my eyes. His skin turned all green and scaly and his pupils were slits and his tongue was forked.’

‘And yet you’re the only one who saw it.’

‘Nah. I’ve been on a lot of bulletin boards. Other people saw it too. There’s more and more of us who can see the lizard people for what they are. Those damned aliens have kept us in the dark for thousands of years, but not for much longer. Human consciousness is evolving. We’re beginning to break down the walls of the Iron Prison.’

A ping told Danny his meal had arrived. He took it and the accompanying cutlery and condiments out of the dumb waiter and laid them on the table. ‘Carry on, folks,’ he said, cutting into the steak and releasing a stream of pinkish liquid. ‘I’m listening.’

‘Not fair!’ cried Marty. ‘You know what my dinner was today? A fucking soya burger! They don’t even give us meat anymore.’

Danny ignored him. He was ravenously hungry. The steak seemed to melt on his tongue.

Another ping announced the arrival of his Merlot. He took it from the dumb waiter and filled his wine glass. ‘Tell you what, Marty. This steak is delicious. You would really enjoy this.’

‘Not as much as I’d enjoy cutting off your bollocks and ramming them up your nose.’

‘Back to the King of England,’ said Trish Bauval. ‘I think being enslaved by aliens is a far more important topic than Danny eating bits of dead cow.’

‘Not dead cow,’ said Mad Dog. ‘All the cows on Earth were killed off by Antibiotic-Resistant Mad Cow Disease but the United Nations hushed it up. What people think is steak is actually a mixture of fungus, lichen and human flesh.’

Danny ate his dinner with relish. He finished off the Merlot and downed a couple more glasses of Johnny Walker. Then he took a tab of Fromoxodin.

His wristy told him he was doing OK.

‘There are no Venusians,’ he said, jumping in as the conversation moved round to that subject. ‘Nor Martians. The idea that we’re being manipulated by aliens is absurd and pure paranoia.’

‘I’m not talking about Venusians,’ said Trish. ‘Nor Martians. The Secret Masters come from much further away than that. They’re actually from Sirius.’

‘Utter hogwash,’ said Dashboard Dan. ‘The Secret Masters are the Anunaki and they’re from the 10th Planet.’

Trish was rigorously scrubbing her back with a loofah. ‘How many more times do I have to tell you? The Lizard People originally came from Sirius. They colonised the 10th planet and then landed on Earth where they created humankind as a slave race to mine gold and uranium. These are indisputable facts.’

‘Listen,’ said Danny. ‘It’s been great talking to you all. You are my favouritest people in all the world and I’d love it if right now we could all be together for a group hug or a gang bang. But I’ve got stuff to do. So this is where I love you and leave you.’

The others responded with warm wishes but didn’t seem particularly disappointed that he was going. There were plenty of other people in Cyberspace to take his place.

Staring at a bank of blank screens made him feel lonely. It brought back to him his recurring childhood dreams of being locked in a car while his mum, dad, brothers and sisters ran off down to the beach. Frolicking and laughing, forgetting little Danny who only wanted to be a part of the family.

Fuck, he thought. Now I’m getting maudlin. Have to do something to keep myself occupied and entertained. Stop myself thinking.

His cubicle door slid open and he was outraged. He’d paid good money to be left alone, to be incognito and anonymous - not to be intruded on by some girl dressed in hot pants and a knitted tank top.

She sat next to him.

‘Get out!’

‘Please!’ she pleaded. ‘Don’t let them get me.’

The door closed. She seemed to relax.

Danny assessed her and decided she couldn’t have been much more than 18. Her hair was blonde and in desperate need of conditioner. The little make up she wore did nothing to hide her pallid complexion.

‘Them?’ said Danny.

‘They’re after me.’

‘I don’t care. I want to be left alone.’

‘If you kick me out, I’ll be dead within seconds. Would you want that on your conscience?’

Danny checked his wristy. The indications were that allowing the girl to die would do major damage to his sense of well-being. He looked her over. She was pretty in an unassuming way. And she had the eyes of someone who expected to be always kicked around.

Poor bitch. Probably hasn’t a friend in the world.

Perhaps a bit of contact with someone who wasn’t on a screen would do him good.

The voice in the wall said, ‘I see you have company, sir. Is the young lady bothering you in any way?’

‘No, I’m fine,’ said Danny. He turned to the girl. ‘You wanna drink?’

‘Milk, please.’

‘Nothing alcoholic?’

‘I need to keep my mind sharp.’

‘That’s one milk and one what I had before.’

‘Coming right up,’ said the voice.

The girl threw her arms around Danny and rested her forehead on his shoulder. ‘Thank you, whoever you are. I owe you my life.’

Her perfume was cheap and unsubtle. Danny liked it. He liked also that the girl was depending on him for protection. That made him feel good.

I’m like one of those Victorian philanthropists, rescuing street urchins from a life of deprivation.

‘I’m Danny,’ said Danny.

‘I’m Chastity,’ said the girl, releasing Danny but keeping her puppy dog eyes fixed on his.

Now what the hell do I say? What’s a nice girl like you...?

The obvious question came to him. ‘Who was trying to kill you and why?’

‘Please don’t ask. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.’

The Government, I bet. They’ve sent one of their snuff squads after her. Or maybe it’s the British Defence Force or some other terrorist organisation. Either way, my life has just gotten a whole lot more dangerous.

And yet he didn’t feel afraid and his wristy told him his metabolic readings were all within tolerable levels.

Because Chastity didn’t want to talk about herself, Danny told her about the work he was doing at Sybernika. About Robert Morganfield, Avalon II and the bewitching Colette who was conscious but had no free will.

The girl probably understood less than one part in ten but she was a good listener. Oohing and aahing in just the right places.

By the time Danny had finished, they were holding hands like a couple of kids at the pictures.

Chastity licked milk from her top lip, giving Danny a cheap thrill.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘whoever’s trying to kill you must have moved on by now. We can make it to my hotel in less than ten minutes if we run.’ And I’m absolutely not going to take advantage of you. There’s a very comfortable sofa in the suite which will do me just fine.

‘I don’t want to be any bother. You’ve been very kind and brave. Perhaps it’s best if I left you alone now.’

‘But where would you go?’

She shrugged. ‘I’ll find somewhere.’

‘No. Stay with me. At least until the morning. What do you say?’

‘Well...’ She squeezed his hand and smiled. ‘Why not? It’s been so long since I had someone normal to talk to.’

Danny checked his wristy. It told him to take another Fromoxodin.

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