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The office beyond the stationery cupboard was silent. Howard could almost fool himself into believing the threat had passed, that the tank had left, or never been there to begin with.
‘This isn’t happening,’ Howard whispered, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to block out the world. ‘I’m at my desk. This is a dream.’
‘Then why are you whispering?’ The runes tattooed on the angel's face read "Not a representative of your chosen deity." His softly glowing form filled the small space, a digital reminder.
‘I’ve been stressed and my brain is craving an escape.’ His hands curled into fists, the muscles in his back aching with the tension.
‘This isn’t helping.’
‘When I open my eyes this will all be gone.’
‘I’d like to stab you with a pencil. Would that get your attention?’
‘I’m home, I’m safe. There isn’t a mad tank woman roaming the office calling my name.’
‘If you’re good here, I can leave.’
The silence in the office beyond the flimsy wooden door was complete; static filled his ears and he was almost ready to believe his wish had come true and the intruder had been an illusion. Then something smashed into the cupboard door, cracking the wood and letting in a sliver of light. The glow from the office outside was pale and sickly beside the angel.
‘Howie, honey,’ the tank woman said, ‘Are you hiding in a cupboard, like a little girl?’ Her voice came from across the office, so whatever smashed the door wasn’t her.
‘To be fair,’ he said to himself, ‘If she’d punched the door it would probably have burst into splinters and exploded into here. Through me.’
‘You’re going to hyperventilate if you don’t chill out,’ the angel said, annoyingly calm.
When the angel first appeared he’d tried ignoring it, writing it off as a phantom avatar imposing on his personal realm. It happened, “trolls be trolling” and all that. You ignored them and they went away. Then the tank he’d warned of arrived and the building security had shut down.
‘Can you help me?’ Howard said. He was stuck in the nightmare; he might as well try to survive it.
The angel stood, naked but for a cartoony fig leaf, a seven-foot athlete with glowing white wings and shoulder-length blonde hair. His son would have called it surfer hair. Somehow the angel fit into the tiny cupboard, beside him, without losing any of his presence. He wasn’t really there, of course, but it was an impressive illusion.
‘Remember when I suggested you shouldn't bother hiding in here, 'cause it would only annoy her? That was me trying to help.’ He pushed his face through the broken wood to look at the office. ‘I have to disappear for a second, but I’m just invisible. I’ll be right beside you when she drags you out.’
‘When she what?’
The angel vanished as the tank tore the door from its hinges and tossed it away. She stood for a moment outside his hidey hole; six foot tall, dark hair, Chinese or Japanese – he got them confused, much to his embarrassment – and attractive, stunning even. Also the most terrifying thing in Howard’s world.
'Hi, Howie.' She grabbed his arm and there wasn’t anything he could do when she pulled him toward her. 'You don't mind if I call you Howie, do you?'
The office was empty; Howard was the only human employee left on payroll. At this time of night if the cops hadn’t arrived yet then they weren’t going to. Nobody was coming to save him.
‘My name is Kazumi, and I just want to ask you some questions.’ She walked to an empty desk still holding his arm – stepping around the heavy filing cabinet she’d tossed at the cupboard door – and forced him to sit. ‘Why would you hide from me?’
‘What do you want?’
She didn’t answer as she fetched a chair from another empty desk and sat opposite him. The only sound in the office now was that of his heart beating too fast. The smell of burning dust carried on a current from the ageing air-conditioner. I’ll have to get someone to fix it on Monday, he thought.
‘What do you want?’ He heard the whine in his voice but it had no effect on the woman. She studied him, perhaps trying to decide which part to remove first. ‘What?’
‘You’re what, forty? That’s the new twenty-five these days.’ She sat back, still examining him. ‘Maybe thirty in your case. Why are you working, and on a perfectly good evening like this? Why aren’t you out doing something interesting?’
He had no answer for her, his mind too scattered to think about the odd direction of her questioning. He settled for another, ‘What?’
‘Where is your son?’ The office vanished; the rooms full of empty desks and discarded ambition, the dusty smell from the air-conditioner, the sound of blood rushing through his body, it all faded away as he finally locked eyes with his tormentor. ‘Have you seen Smiley tonight?’
‘His name is Earl.’ She laughed at his words, as though humouring a weak joke. The whine was gone from his voice though.
‘Fine, Earl then. Seen him?’
‘Why?’ What had the boy done this time? Something big, something catastrophically stupid if he had a tank chasing him. Howard had grown to expect the police from time to time, had even used it as a way to keep tabs on Earl, but this was bigger, more serious.
‘Because I want to know. Isn’t that enough?’ She tilted her head and batted her eyelashes at him.
‘No.’ He held her gaze as the smile left her face. There was something of the machine under the skin when her expression shifted, something unnatural. She was suddenly in the uncanny valley and his heart sank in his chest.
‘Don’t grow a spine on me, Howie. You were doing the right thing being scared. I’m very scary.’ She lifted her arm above the desk and let it fall, showing no effort as it exploded away from her hand. ‘I’ll break you into little pieces.’
‘Tell me why?’ He held his ground, held her gaze, and waited.
‘He stole something belonging to my employer, OK?’ She wiped splinters off her jacket as she spoke. ‘I need to get it back. I don’t have to kill him.’
‘Kill…’ he said, his voice cracking, his bravery lost. ‘Please, don’t hurt him.’
‘That’s the Howie I know and love.’ Her smile came back, bright and false. ‘Have you heard from him?’
‘We don’t talk.’ His palms were together as though praying, or begging.
‘Do you know where he is, or where he hangs out?’
There were a million spots, an entire city full of hiding places for kids like Earl. There was no reason for Howard to know, so he lied.
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
In a moment she wasn’t sitting in front of him anymore. Now she stood behind him, her hand on his throat and her lips on his right ear. ‘If you see him you’ll let him know I’m looking for him, right?’
I’m going to die, he thought, but it was Earl’s fate that filled his mind.
‘I’ll let him know.’ He choked the words past the machine grip of her hand.
She was in front of him again a second later, smiling and friendly before he could take his next breath. ‘Thanks so much for your time. I’m so sorry to have bothered you.’ She blew him a kiss and strolled to the exit. ‘Work, and in an office no less. How quaint.’
The lift was waiting for her and she stepped out of his life without slowing.
‘Earl, pick up.’ A blank screen hung in the air as Howard’s PDA tried every username it could find.
‘She knew you were lying.’ Howard jumped when the angel appeared beside him. ‘You can’t fool a machine like that.’
‘She bought it.’
‘She really didn’t.’ The angel sat in Kazumi’s vacant chair.
‘Then why am I not dead now?’ The PDA brought another screen to life with another potential username. No answer.
‘She planted a bug on you, very small.’ Howard began patting himself down without thinking but the angel held up a hand. ‘You won’t find it; it’s tiny, in your bloodstream. She left it on your neck before leaving. I’ve hijacked the signal though, so you’re fine.’
‘Hijacked the signal?’ Another screen popped into life in the air around his head, but for a moment Howard ignored it. ‘Who the hell are you?’
‘My name is Angel.’ He gestured to himself and shook one of his wings. ‘Because I lack imagination. I tracked your intruder from the site of an interesting news story and it looked like you could use some help.’
‘You’re a reporter?’
‘A gamer, actually. Think of this as grinding.’
‘I need something interesting to get my next level.’ The angel, Angel, was laughing at him, Howard was sure.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I’m going mad, it’s the only explanation, he thought.
‘It doesn’t matter. Let’s go find your son.’ Angel bounced in his seat in apparent anticipation.
He hadn’t named his PDA, hadn’t wanted it at all, but you couldn’t live in a city like London without one any more. He just called it PDA, to the amusement of anyone nearby.
‘PDA, disconnect my realm.’ Howard had no bells and whistles in his Realmware, no cute alterations superimposed over the real world on the lenses of his cheap glasses. When the PDA carried out the command the only change was an empty chair where the angel had been.
‘I’ve been unable to find Earl,’ PDA said in his generic male voice.
‘Have a cab waiting for me downstairs.’ He’d lied to the tank – successfully, despite what Angel thought – and he had a few ideas where to find his son. ‘And see if you can find anything newsworthy happening tonight. That gamer said he followed her from something interesting.’
‘You should call the police,’ PDA said.
‘If he’s mixed up in anything big they’ll be looking for him already.’ How much trouble was too much? Had he finally done something that couldn’t be glossed over, that would land him in jail?
‘They might be able to protect you, and Earl.’
‘Shut up. Get my cab and leave me alone. Don’t say anything unless it’s useful.’
‘In case you’re interested, building security just came back up. There are systems pinging me to find out what you saw while they were down.’
Howard removed his Realmware glasses – hideous wraparound plastic sunglasses, the curse of the augmented-reality-on-a-budget crowd – and put them in his pocket. The PDA and the last of the call screens left reality.
He needed a bit of quiet, a bit of stability, if only for a moment. He was still shaking.
What had Earl done now? An image of the tank woman, crushing Earl as she’d threatened to crush him, flickered through his mind. He closed his eyes and let his chin sit on his chest.
He just needed a moment, just a few minutes of calm before going to look for his troublesome son. Again.
Hil hurried to catch up with her parents, dodging adults eager to start in this land of opportunity. She’d dressed up special for today, put on her best, most flowery dress, and tied her long blonde hair into tiny little braids arranged around her head in cute swirls. She’d even made the extra effort of putting on good shoes. Good shoes, she had come to learn, were always extremely uncomfortable for some reason.
Nobody noticed her effort. Even her parents were too eager to get off the boat – no, it’s a ship, she reminded herself – the ship they’d been living on for a month to notice her. And she was their daughter!
She caught up at the bottom of the ramp leading from the side of the enormous, clanking, rusty boat. Someone had idiotically decided to call it the Elegant Journey, a name which bore no resemblance to anything the stupid thing might have been a part of.
The adults were slowing. Hil slipped her hands into those of her parents, sandwiched between them as they clumped up with everyone else. The dock was amazing after being confined for so long. It was a large paved area, big enough to comfortably fit more people than she’d ever seen in one place. Maybe a few thousand. Beautiful, curved buildings ran along either side of it, the milky stone of their walls catching the early morning light and making them shine. Giant trees, redwoods or something, grew along the line where the dock ended and the new country began.
From what little she’d managed to see on her way down the ramp over the heads of the grown-ups, beyond the trees was a real countryside, with rolling hills and little houses dotted among stands of normal trees. Everything green and healthy, and enough space for everyone.
A stage had been set up at the far end of the gathering area, closing the normal exit road and giving the handsome man behind the podium enough height to see everyone. This man was their reason for coming to the new country.
Her parents – mostly her dad – believed they were moving to the future. Becoming part of the grand experiment of the age. They were going to create a new world, free of a bunch of stuff Hil didn’t understand. Politics and money, and old white guys on TV. All she knew was it meant getting out of the city, which was fine for her. She was twelve, and already a world traveller.
‘I can’t see,’ she said, tugging on Dad’s hand. He didn’t notice, his attention focused on the stage as though he couldn’t see anything else. ‘Dad. Daddy, I can’t see.’ He frowned for a second when he finally looked down at her, but he forced a smile – she could always tell when he forced it – and picked her up and put her on his shoulders. Some people behind them grumbled, so Hil made sure not to look at them.
‘Welcome,’ the man on the stage said. ‘Welcome to Bransford.’ The crowd gave a tired cheer and the man continued. ‘Your countries are failing you. Those who would prefer not to participate, those who would prefer to indulge themselves instead of doing a hard day’s work are fleeing to your cities. London and New York are full to capacity with the lazy and the irrelevant. So much so they’re madly building as fast as they can to accommodate them. And they’re giving them your money.
‘Here you will be rewarded for your work. We won’t coddle the irrelevant members of society, the ones who don’t want to get involved but would rather live off the excess. The world has no more excess to offer, yet still they come. Not here though. Here we will remake the world, rebuild it as it once was. Here you’ll be free.
‘Here no government will take your money in taxes. Here you’re in charge. If you want a nice home and a comfortable life then work hard and get it. If you want to lie around all day and feel sorry for yourself then you can get out.’
The crowd erupted at the final line and Hil winced at the thunderous noise around her. The emotions on people’s faces were hard to read; happiness, hope, but also anger, for some reason. Dad’s face was out of sight, but she imagined she’d see anger there. He was always saying things like the man on the stage. Mom was just tired.
When the applause and shouting died down, the man on the stage continued. ‘Thank you for being a part of this my friends. Thank you for coming here. As long as you’re happy to do your part you’re welcome to stay on my island.’
People started moving toward the milky white buildings. They were immigration offices, she’d been told. She didn’t notice though.
The man on the stage stayed where he was, watching the new arrivals and smiling, occasionally waving at someone in the crowd. Behind him though was a boy, a teenager, sitting on an uncomfortable chair, patiently waiting for his father to be done. The boy caught her eye as soon as she could see him and she leaned against her father’s head in an effort not to lose sight of him.
It was strange, but the boy seemed more real than the rest of the world, like he was superimposed on the scene, the only thing the camera focused on. He had dark hair like his father and was handsome too, but it wasn’t why she stared. It was like he was in colour while the rest of the world was in black and white. Then he looked her in the eye, from across the gathered immigrants, and he smiled.
She began to raise her hand to wave but stopped. Don’t be stupid, Hil, she thought. He can’t see you from there. He’s just smiling for the crowd, like his dad.
But he kept watching her, kept looking right at her. She felt herself blush at the attention, even as she knew it couldn’t actually be true.
Screw it, she thought and raised her hand to wave.
The boy waved back.