Friday, 29 October 2010

Human Verification

The scattering of tumbled leaves
like rumours of things not said or done
turns to the scuttering of crisp packets
along the pavement that is the sound
of a species somewhere becoming extinct,
followed by that sweep of curtains which
declares that it’s late and you’re watching T.V.
Arcane scribblings by a bollard in a car park
like cave drawings in chalk and spray paint,
read as though council workers were trying
to fathom out the cause of the cause of stars
as a girl bent double and vomiting over a bench
does nothing to hide her gargoyle-spouted face
or the shame she should be but isn’t feeling.
A youth picks at his cheap-suited skin
using an iPod to drown out second thoughts
planted like that extra hit of artificial scent
when opening a jar of expensive instant coffee,
and finds that seeing his life ebb away in shifts
is like watching a flying trapeze artiste
miss.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Closed Shop

In late evening shadows
the road seems to stretch
beyond the point of bearing
the weight of so many years
suspended beneath my feet
where the world entire hangs
worth so much the less
for being so well travelled.
Footsteps long since taken
and those as of yet unmade
only ever serve to postpone
the loneliness of looking
which echoes in my thoughts
after a glance at where you stood
being more than I have ever known
but far less than I have wanted.

Early Promise

I miss being
that age when nothing mattered,
not even the fact that eventually
nothing would be all I have.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

New Review

My review of Lee Rourke's debut novel The Canal is now available at http://www.handandstar.co.uk/

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Measure of Man

A length of high-speed fibre optic cable
through which the light fantastic trips
into a bottomless pit of flesh and fluid
from reality’s binary doppelganger.

A span of concrete, tarmac and metal
that turns the rumble of tyres and engines
into the disappointed shaking of heads by
first-time house buyers who might want kids.

A celebrity-endorsed trans-Atlantic flight
where the gremlin on the wing reminds us
that regardless of what we tell ourselves
the surly bonds of earth aren’t so easily slipped.

A mildewed, subterranean pipe crammed full
of starving, drug-addicted, legally unpersons who crawl
through the bowels of a city where surface-dwellers
do their best to forget that the homeless are human.

A bone strewn road through a warzone
where a mother guides her children to water
in which salvation could be the flicker of fish fins
or the glimmer of a discarded machete.

A bright-uniformed, joker-grinning labour army
marching in columns through a factory-town  
where several thousand years of civilization are reduced
to the gap between buttons on a television remote.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Kinection

James still heard them. Those words. They had a terrible finality. Every pause for breath between them was a bullet through his skull. A lifetime’s belief that the end was not really the end had been exposed for the optimistic delusion that it really was in a carefully improvised speech that barely lasted a few minutes. Just a few minutes. That was all it had taken to sum up his son’s life, one late spring morning all those years ago.
But what more had there been to say? When dealing with the young it was all too easy to drift into sentimental histrionics about their kindness and innocence. He had noticed that in death children were relentlessly happy or beloved, never miserable or a burden, always quiet and studious rather than obnoxious ASBO-fodder. Personally though, he had never really given much thought about his son until it had been too late.
‘Too late for what, James?’
It was late afternoon. Rain trickled across the office windows like piss down the back of a stainless steel urinal. Through a fleeting break in the clouds he could see the contrails of a sub-orbital skyliner. ‘Excuse me?’
Liam Grundy shifted in his chair at the head of the table, glanced at James over a production forecast sheet and asked, ‘Did you say something?’
‘Erm...I hope we’re not too late. With the distribution I mean.’
‘An understandable concern. One I’m sure you’ve all shared at some point during development. But not me.’ Liam stood up and made his customary “I’m a visionary” gesture. ‘Other companies have been close, but what we’ve got on our hands is so far in advance of anything else on the market that we’ll have our rivals chomping at the bit because they didn’t think of it first.’
‘Agreed. First quarter projections are off the charts. I should know, I drew them!’ That was Ben Cassidy. Senior financial analyst and office “joker.” The Cesar Romero rather than the Heath Ledger kind. The kind of man who made up for how boring his job was by trying excessively hard to be funny. You know the type. He was also probably an alcoholic, but if he was he hid it well. His comment elicited peals of a very particular sort of workplace laughter, the sort that sounds like slapping the side of an empty cardboard box.
Liam took a little walk around the room, and admired himself for a second in the shine of his shoes. ‘Alright, settle down. We maybe in the latter stages of production but we’re not out of the woods yet. There are still a lot of kinks that need to be ironed out. James, I want you to see to it personally that this project goes live on schedule and to budget.’
‘Me?’ James was not sure what surprised him more. The task he was being given or the group of armed soldiers he saw talking to a fast food vendor in the rooftop courtyard of the shopping complex across the street.
‘Of course. I think I speak for everyone here when I say that I can think of no one more up to the task than you. Am I right?’ There was gentle applause and muffled agreement. Everyone had to look like they meant it otherwise their bonus pay would have been at risk. The air conditioners made the blinds rattle.
James fiddled with his tie clip. ‘I don’t know what to say. Thank you, I suppose.’ For shooting me in the foot, he grumbled silently.
‘Humble as ever. Yet another perfect example of why you’re such an essential asset to the team, and the company.’ To me. A quiet chime from the iBoard on the wall signalled the striking of the hour. ‘Is it that time already?’ Liam adjusted his shirt sleeves and moved to pack his briefcase. ‘Well, I think we’re done for today, thanks for being here. You all go grab yourselves some lunch.’ He waited for everyone else to leave and as he closed his case said, ‘James, a moment.’ He did not like the way saying that made people’s shoulder tense. Well, not much but he wished they did not always expect the worst. ‘Look, I meant every word I said just then...but I don’t need to tell you how important this project is for the company. For all of us. The board has invested a lot of corporate as well as private capital in this. I’m counting on you to make it work.’
‘It’s a tall order but I’ll do my best.’ James felt himself wanting to grin. He did not.
Liam did it for him. ‘You always do. Now I know you’re going to be working incredibly hard over the next couple of months, but just think after it’s all done you’ll be able to spend a lot more time with your family.’

Everyone at the office knew about his son’s death; it had proven impossible to stop his colleagues from learning about it, but the fact his marriage had collapsed was a secret much easier to keep. He remembered crying a lot at the time but, as he stared at the noodle stand menu scrolling over the top of a news broadcast on the telescreen above the counter, he could not remember exactly why. Was it because he had lost his son? His wife? Both or neither? Or was it something else? Something deeper? Something worse? Had he cried because he had lost himself, or at least everything about himself that he had been convinced that mattered?
‘Many questions. Many choices. Many answers.’ A voice came from out of nowhere like a ringtone changed and forgotten until it went off.
But which one was the right one? James asked himself without even the first clue about a solution the problem, tapping out the contents of a sugar packet into a self-heating cup of the complimentary coffee dispensed from a nozzle on the work-surface. Wait...‘What?’
The voice came from around the dividing slats between the service and kitchen areas. A late-middle-aged man in brown corduroy trousers and khaki cotton shirt craned his neck to see James more clearly and said, ‘You thinking hard about food today.’
Looking at the seemingly disembodied floating head was like staring at a piece of concept art for a Wizard of Oz remake. ‘Err...yes, food.’ He blustered, then grinned. ‘You really should trim down your menu, Mr. Yao.’
‘Impossible.’ Mr. Yao stepped out into the open and slapped the palm of his hand with a spatula in mock outrage. A girl at a nearby table jumped. ‘When I first open I promise to sell ev-ery-th-ing.’ Mr. Yao had lived in the country for decades and could speak flawless English, but he put on a broad accent to make visiting customers feel like they were getting the real deal.
Something on the telescreen caught his eyes. ‘Everything?’ The menu was extensive, but not that extensive.
Mr. Yao winked, ‘Everything that sells.’ He laughed like an uncle chuckling at a dirty joke.
James flicked his eyes from the screen to Mr. Yao. ‘My bosses could learn a lot from you.’
‘Everybody can learn a lot from me.’ Mr. Yao buffed his knuckles on his apron.
‘I’m sure. Give me an 11 and 16 to take away. I’m on my way home.’ It was only then that he realised what it was that had attracted his attention. It should have been obvious from the start. In every report on the screen there were soldiers. Always soldiers. He was not sure if that made him feel safer or more at risk. ‘And some rice. Plain and boiled before you ask.’ He cut Mr. Yao off as he turned around.
‘Oh, you hungry today. I make it fast for you.’

By the time he got home he was hungry again. Some things never changed, he thought as he dropped the noodle cartons into a rubbish bin. There was a brief flash as they disintegrated. A few scraps of them fluttered away and settled into the ash on the pavement. It was an ordinary neighbourhood he lived in. “Was” being the operative word. James lacked a practical definition for what remained of it. Most of the land surrounding his home had been scooped up as though a giant hand had reached down and carried it off. He supposed it had been used during the construction of the high-rise apartment blocks that surrounded his home, the scimitar-curves of their built-in wind turbine casings were like a visual paraphrasing of Tolkien’s towers. As he looked up at those seamless walls of steel and concrete and the lights that burned like gluttonous eyes within them he could not help but wonder where all his old neighbours had gone. He had not had to worry about his home being purchased out from under him because it was company owned and for some reason they had refused to sell up, but everyone else had been forced to leave. Where they were now he had no idea, but as far as the property developers and the city council were concerned they were out of sight and out of mind.
A blimp drifted overhead, the steady thump of its engine was like someone slowly running a stick over the slats of a wooden fence. A haze of neon light engulfed it as if it were a ball of Day-Glo wire wool. In the dark its edges were indistinct, as it hovered between the residential skyscrapers it looked somewhat unreal as though James had fallen asleep with a film on and his unconscious had set about filling in the blanks. It had been drizzling most of the day and by the looks of the weather emoticons he had seen on the train it was likely to continue doing so all night. He smiled and waved at a computer panel on a pedestal halfway up the garden path, a pale blue light like the hem of a ghostly dress seen under a door bathed the porch and he heard his house unlock itself. From amongst the bushes alongside the path a clipped yet chirpy mechanical voice intoned, ‘Welcome home...Doctor Steranko.’ It tripped a little clumsily over the name variable but it was good enough. The front door opened to admit him and closed on pneumatic hinges that along with the wind seemed like a whisper of Mahler.
James walked into the living room and set the flight case he had carried from work down by the side of the sofa. When he had been detected walking up the path an electric fire had switched itself on and it snickered like someone laughing through their teeth in the corner as he warmed his hands against it. One by one the lights flickered on, the tiny electrical pops of their bulbs echoed against the ceiling like knuckles being gently cracked. Through the service hatch between the living room and the kitchen he saw a ready meal drift up through the transparent freezer until it reached a built-in cooker. He had trained his occupant recognition software well. But then that was his job. At least it had been until Liam reassigned him. He cast an uncertain glance towards the flight case. He had been given an altogether more intriguing task: implementation of the Lanning Protocols into the company’s latest and most ambitious project. Either they did it first or the Chinese or Germans would. That was not exactly a prospect that he relished. There was no telling what they would do with such technology: Germany led the way in a federalised Europe which had become increasingly belligerent in the wake of the continental civil war, and China was always on the lookout for ways to help protect its practical monopoly on digital exports. Perhaps the Americans were close, but since the States closed had their borders it was impossible to know. If it was going to be done anywhere it had to be there and then, he told himself, any other outcome would be embarrassingly career threatening.
As he juggled a microwaved roast potato between his cheeks he dragged the flight case around in front of him and opened it. The heavy brushed steel latches responded to his fingerprints with a bleep so smooth he half-expected an air hostess to lean over and offer him refreshments. The magnetic locks inside the case thunked twice and the lid slowly opened as if someone were tilting a page that he was trying to read over their shoulder. Folding a slice of what looked like mummified beef into his mouth he rummaged around in the case. Under a few layers of sponge and small polystyrene spheres he found what he was looking for. Careful not to spill any of the packaging materials he lifted out an unassuming box-like device made of polished black plastic detailed with speckled metal. It looked entirely different to the prototypes, in a bad way, but aesthetics were not his concern. He just had to make it work properly. Of course, he knew it already did. At a basic level it was functional but basic was not exactly what the company had in mind. The pièce de résistance had yet to be added. He thought it bizarre that so much was riding on so little, but only last year a pharmaceutical company in Africa had gone bankrupt after its AIDS vaccine had proven to be more lethal than the actual virus. In human terms that had been as great a loss for such a literally small potential gain as could be imagined. That story had been all over the place, in fact when the news broke several national newspapers projected gigantic copies of the front pages onto the side of their headquarters buildings. But in a week or so no further details were made public. It was as if someone had suddenly decided to keep the matter secret. But James knew that like all secrets it would eventually be used to cause as much damage as possible.
Whilst thinking and eating he had attached the device to the assortment of work computers he had hidden away behind a wall-sized telescreen which drew itself aside like open curtains when not in use. He was glad they had decided to give it standard connectivity, bespoke proprietary systems always ended up being more trouble than they worth for consumers and the manufacturers. The boot-up sequence was fairly straight forward, nothing that any home computer user would shy away from...but that was just part of an operational shell to facilitate ease of integration into existing hardware configurations. To get his job done James would have to download and install procedural updates from his development lab back at the office. He mopped up the last of the gravy with a piece of parsnip like a stick of cardboard and grunted with frustration at the pixel by pixel advance of the progress bar. It was bedtime.

The rain had made the morning murky like a glass of water from a bathroom tap. James washed the dreams from his eyes as though he were trying to purge them, but once he had convinced himself they were clean he liked what he saw in the mirror even less than what stubbornly lingered in his mind. There was nothing wrong with his appearance, except he could not stand everything about it. He may not have been very old, but he was not exactly young either. Age had already begun to mark him out. To isolate him. It was something that happened to everyone, he knew that, but it was only once he had started to notice it in himself that the truth really dawned on him. As a mind he could be eternal, as matter he was dying. No slower or faster than any other perfectly healthy human being of course, but every night before he fell asleep and every morning when he looked into the mirror he could feel time watching him. Waiting.
He wiped a few stray strands of shaving foam off his neck as he went downstairs. It may have been raining but it was also humid. A hand gesture over the thermostat controls activated the air conditioners and he was grateful not to have to brave the transit system that morning or any other morning for the foreseeable future. He would be working from home for the duration of the project, which had many perks including not having to get properly dressed. Not that he had bothered with that for a while; his position at work afforded him a certain amount of leeway regarding his adherence to the dress code. Shirt and tie were only mandatory for him when attending high level corporate meetings, but even that was too often. Pressure sensors had been activated when he got out of bed and triggered the kettle to boil just as he arrived in the kitchen. The toaster popped itself a second or two later.
Breakfast in hand he returned to the living room. The morning post arrived and followed him from the front door in a snaking strand of pixelated envelopes that arranged themselves neatly on the wall by the window he was standing at. He lazily dragged and dropped through the letters until they were all in the recycle bin. He lifted the window blinds and expected only to be greeted by a view of the surrounding buildings brooding over their own shadows like feudal lords over a smaller than expected heap of tax revenue. Instead he saw soldiers. They were grouped around a North Korean man. James knew that particular asylum seeker was from the north because he wore a red armband; former southern citizens were given blue ones. Since the Peninsula Problem had been solved in the only way the Americans knew how to solve any problem, Korean refugees had become a common sight in cities around the globe. Most of them settled in Japan or China, but those with relatives who had travelled further afield decided to do the clever thing and followed suit.
The man was dressed in a hand-me-down tracksuit and trainers held together with strips of duct tape. His face was filthy and by the way the soldiers were waving their hands he obviously stank. None of that particularly surprised James; most refugees barely earned enough to even be called destitute. Nearly all of them were either permanently homeless or lived on the sheltered accommodation circuit. He had a haunted look about him. But it was not his poverty or his alienation from society that tormented him, as a northerner he would have been used to that. Rather it was because whatever pride and dignity he had left would have been obliterated when he saw the shores of his homeland turned into a graveyard for aircraft carriers and destroyers. No evacuation instructions had been given before the bombs went off, and the Americans had been so desperate they had not even ordered their own troops to leave. On the last night of that conflict, light finally came to North Korea.
It was obvious from his expression that the man had done nothing wrong, but he was Korean and that was enough for the soldiers. As the young man, a child really was taken away to be beaten and worse, one of the troopers noticed James watching them. He mouthed the words, “What you looking at?” Then he used his fingers to mime shooting at him through the glass. James let the blinds close and jumped away from the window. He had not heard the soldier speak but he could hear him laugh. James caught a glimpse of himself in the hallway mirror and only just managed to stop the bile in his throat. He could not bring himself to finish his breakfast.

That fit of self-loathing lasted for the best part of an hour. But like all well-meaning, liberal minds his eventually concocted an excuse for his inaction. He was only one man. He was only a computer technician, not a politician. There was nothing he could have done. He hated that fact and he hated himself because of it. If he had gone out to save that man he would have been arrested or shot or both and the Korean would have been abducted anyway. His death would have meant he would have been able to carry on with the project. The project!
James shook himself out of his shame-faced reverie and moved to his computers. There was work to do be done. The download and installation were both complete. The next step was the calibration. The start menu was different to the one he had seen during earlier phases of development. The screen was blank save for a short column of titles under the heading: User Role. Unthinking he paused for a sip of tea and over the rim of the cup his eyes fixed themselves on a single word, a word he feared more than any other. Father.
The tea turned to curdled ice-water in his mouth and he struggled to swallow. Setting the cup aside he scrolled the cursor up and down over the list. It was a nervous tic he had developed as a student. Whenever he found himself at a dead-end in an essay he would aimlessly scroll around the document until he stumbled over the words that enabled him to continue. He stopped scrolling. That word...that thing he had once been was highlighted on the screen, each letter a black hole somehow encased in ice. He heard the priest’s speech on the day of his son’s funeral as though someone was whispering spiteful secrets in his ears. To stop that lethargically remorseful voice he would have punctured his own eardrums. To stop the image of the coffin he would have gouged out his eyes. But he knew that would have done no good. They were inside his head. He did not need ears or eyes in the place that grief took him, a place where it felt like every nerve in his body was being slowly frayed at once. His fingers hovered over the return key. They twitched as he struggled to remind himself not to remember. Then without knowing what he was doing or even why, he pressed the button. It was done. The screen went fully black as if darkness had been pressed between sheets of glass; there was a sound like the grinding of granite as the device scanned the hard drives in his computer, then like a streetlight seen through a snow flurry a glow appeared at the top of the monitor. Gradually the glow illuminated a scene beneath it like a Breughel landscape being taken out of storage. Hills of pale green grass undulated into the distance whilst a pond stirred at the touch of a swift breeze like a fold of fat when flicked. A tree seemed to leer at itself in the water and out of the shadow of its boughs a new shape grew. To begin with it was just a deeper shadow or a hint of gathering night. But then James realised what it was. A swirl of wireframe mesh, pixels and polygons congealed on the screen and words he had not heard for what seemed like a thousand years echoed out from the digital void: ‘Hello, father.’
James was pinned to his seat as though someone had driven frozen spikes through his thighs. His jaw went slack. He fumbled for his tea but his fingers had turned to jittering antennae, their reckless spasms sent the cup hurtling to the ground. In his mind’s eye he saw it smash over and over again in an anime explosion. Terror seemed to ooze from the very marrow of his bones and hawthorn sprigs swayed under his skin like a grove of suicidal memories. Latent and pent-up dread clotted the air in his throat until at last he forced himself to draw a good, clean breath and the words ‘Hello, son’ dripped from his lips like boiling water slowly poured into an anthill.

Liam was not the kind of man capable of simply sitting behind his desk. Instead he had a tendency to inhabit his entire office. There were open box-files on virtually every available space, sheets of paper were arranged in complex patterns that only he understood the logic of. Although it was wasteful, and good sheets were as valuable as spun gold had once been, he had never found anything that made a desk job feel quite as “hands on” as a stack of paper. And yet business necessity had forced him to turn the walls into mosaics of light as letters from company departments across the country scrolled first one way and then another as they struggled to constantly organise themselves. For most “The Cloud” had gone from being an unobtrusive convenience to a miasma or smog of words and numbers and lights. It was infinite and eternal, everywhere and nowhere, physical and ethereal, real and non-existent. Some heard it as a whisper, others felt it like a scream but whether they liked it or not it had become essential to everyday life. Things just did not feel normal without it.
To take his mind off that he tended to let his mind wander as he flicked through hand-written memos. Intermittently he would douse his hands in anti-bacterial gel. He knew that most of the infections the government warned people about probably did not exist, never had and hopefully never would...but that was no reason to play fast and loose with health and safety regulations. There were plenty that were all too real and all too deadly. Every now and then he would go over to the window to make notes on the digi-slates embedded in its surface and to check-up on his reflection. The surgery scars were almost completely healed; only he knew they were even there. Well, so did the protester that had given them to him in an uncharacteristic display of how overwhelmingly generous “freedom fighters” could be. Still, in the right light they were rather fetching.
It had been two full months since he had given James his assignment. Two months since he had seen him or heard from him. His emails and phone calls all went unanswered. He had even gone so far as to have a hotline installed. It only allowed calls to or from James. It had not rung even once. There were days when he found himself staring at the phone, willing it to ring as though his life depended on it like he was some degenerate shut-in who had shunned all human contact but secretly craved it above all else. Of course his life did not depend on it ringing, but his career probably did. Liam always liked to give James a fair degree of autonomy but at that point he had pushed his luck so far that it was about to plunge into a bottomless pit. It was not like one of his employees, especially James, to be out of contact for such an extended period of time even if they had been given special dispensation. Something was wrong. It had to be. He pressed a button on the intercom controls and the kaleidoscopic mesh of communiqués on the walls was banished back into the immaterium. For the moment. Upcoming appointments streamed across a panel built into the clock on his desk. There was nothing that could not be pushed back a few hours at least, or until tomorrow at worst. According to the huge green tick on the side of the building opposite there was a good service operating on all of the air-rail lines. That decided it. He gathered his things, and as he swept out of the room the windows tinted and an out-to-lunch sign blinked on in the glass-panelled office door.

He had never really been a fan of public transport but even on his ridiculous salary there was no way he could have afforded to run a car. With fuel prices as high as they had been there were few people who could. Strangely, that had not put automobile companies out of business, at least not all of them. Since there were far less of them on the few remaining conventional roads, the car and the car manufacturer had regained something of their former symbolic power. Those few companies that had managed to survive various pieces of punitive legislation and advances in technology turned a tidy profit trading on such crude vehicles as iconic historical curiosities. He was doing it again, letting his mind wander...anything to stop himself from thinking about his phobia. That was the problem with public transport: other people. There was the constant chattering about everything and nothing; the blank, unfeeling stares; the kettle-whistle screech of uncomfortable infants and the ever-present drone of music played at excessive volume through mobile phone speakers. Since when had that ever been acceptable? Never, but like so much else in life that did not stop people from doing it anyway.
To quiet his mind, and settle his stomach, Liam tried to focus on the world outside the carriage but it went by so quickly that it was not so much a series of blurs but more like a billowing sheet. Light glinting off glass and steel turned the walls of buildings into the frenetic mass of a back-projection of late summer trees disturbed by an early autumn wind. Grey and silver glittered everywhere like clouds and their linings. Occasionally the density of the view dropped off dramatically and instantly revealed enormous brown-grey pits in the earth where foundations were being sunk or buildings had been demolished and nothing yet put in their place. Most of them were barren holes strewn with debris and construction equipment, but some had become shanty towns or, as they were officially defined by politicians and journalists, “improvised communities.” For the most part they were inhabited by people who were too stubborn, too poor or both to move elsewhere. All of them were home to factory labourers, supermarket staff, a whole variety of other minimum wage workers, war veterans, asylum seekers and the otherwise economically inactive. In short anyone and everyone who could not afford a real place to live. It made him feel guilty, but not guilty enough to do anything about it. In truth he knew that he was just as much a victim of the system as there were; his cage may well have been gilded but it was still a cage. Just as quickly as the world had thrown itself open to him it snapped itself shut. The ramshackle huts amongst the mud disappeared and the gleaming facade of the city centre reasserted itself. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe naturally. The carriage’s computer announced the passage of stations as though it were reading names off of Schindler’s list. He was getting closer.

When Liam arrived he was given precious little time to prepare himself for what he saw. The very instant the train doors opened he was confronted with a vision, not of hell but somewhere very much like it frozen over. The colour had been drained from a world that seemed etched in basalt. That was not the result of any one factor, everything contributed to his impression of the city limits. The air, the dirt, the weather and the light all conspired together to build a brutal and joyless place. He was well aware that the company had sold off the majority of the neighbourhood but he had not been ready to confront the absolute reality of what that meant. From a distance the craters dotted around the city were mere objective facts and as such they could be dismissed just like everything else, without much of a second thought. Unfortunate eyesores as they were, he had never been close enough to one to understand what they actually represented. Yet there on the fringes of a decrepit countryside that no one would even want their backyards in, he saw the exorbitant price that others had to pay for the profligacy of his company and every organization like it. All those years ago Ground Zero had been just the beginning but no one had any plans to build a Mosque near those particular holes in the ground. Which made sense because just like the Koreans, Muslims were an endangered people. There were few of them left alive outside the American camps, and those on the inside of them would not be alive for much longer.
Far above such trivial, material considerations a slow wind nudged the clouds in spirals that made it seem like the heavens mocked with the earth with a contemptuously sneering reflection of itself. Whilst far below rocks tumbled and shifted from the sides of the hole as though an ocean of air were gnawing away at the blasted bones of the planet. Burst pipes funnelled falls of rainwater that ended in a muddy lake surrounding the crumbled remains of what had been a makeshift shelter. Everywhere Liam looked, a thin layer of dark grey dirt covered everything. But it was only once he deliberately scraped his shoe through a gutter that he realised it was not just ordinary dirt. It was the particulate detritus of an area that had been abandoned even by itself. Old animal bones that had long since turned to dust under the endless footfalls of the previous inhabitants; the leftover fibres from clothes discarded on drunken nights out or that had been torn off during abductions; filth from the wretched vermin that still somehow managed to eke out an existence amongst the few derelict homes that someone had forgotten to demolish. All of it had ended up in the dust like everything else eventually would. Dark spots appeared in the dirt amongst a mess of heavy boot prints. There was something falling from the sky. He could not tell if it was ash or rain. Probably a mixture of both he thought whilst he squinted up at the towers that thudded with a sombre light as they stretched up into the soot-sodden sky. It was a part of the world that no one in government, or the media, wanted anyone to know much about. It was a part of the world that he did not want to know much about either.
Only a few minutes away from the station the house the company had allowed James to remain living in clung desperately to the edge of an abyss. Its weather-beaten structure made it look like a tree with its roots exposed by a crumbling cliff face. Structurally the building was fine but the place looked as if Cormac McCarthy had gone insane and scratched post-apocalyptic visions into every available surface. Liam’s thoughts trailed off as he reached the door. From behind him in the overgrown bushes a mechanical voice slurred, ‘Welcome to the Steranko residence, Mr. Grundy.’ By the front door a pile of mail glitched in and out of existence and turned the air around it into a miniature vorticist cityscape in a snow globe. James had not even bothered to read his messages. The automatic door chimes did not sound. He was left with no choice but to do things the old fashioned way.
Three knocks. They were as the footsteps of doom. James ignored them. At first. Then there were three more and then three more. He had no choice but to react. He peeled himself out of his office chair like a naked emperor reluctant to face facts and skulked out of the living room. His feet made slight slurping noises on the floor as though he were walking up the walls of a padded cell. The hall was dark save for the static hiss of grey-white light that filtered through the frosted glass in the front door. He would have checked himself in the mirror on the wall but it was broken. Had be broken it? He must have done. A silhouette crossed his mind, or rather no, it moved in the corner of his eyes like something hidden in plain sight. More knocks. There was someone at the door. The soldiers. Had they come back for him? No, that was impossible because the computer would have let him know if any unregistered visitors approached the house. That meant it was someone he was familiar with, someone who knew how and where to find him. But who could it have been? There was only one way to find out.
‘Liam!’ James opened the door a crack and forced the beams of a smile through it.
A warm, wet smell exuded from within the house; it carried with it hints of fresh decay with a lingering frisson (Liam disliked himself for using such a word, even if only in his head) of a primordial jungle. ‘James?’ Heavy beard growth and fatigue had made his colleague almost unrecognisable.
‘Yes. You seem surprised.’
‘I am.’
‘At what?’
That was a good question. ‘You’ve not been answering any of my messages. I’ve been worried.’
‘Oh yes, of course...’ There was more to be said but James did not seem to know what.
‘I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion but I’ve come to check on your progress.’
‘Progress?’ It could have been worse.
‘On the project.’
‘Project?’ It was much worse.  
Liam felt like he was trying to order food at a restaurant where the waiters did not speak English. ‘Huh-huh, yes.’ At least James had not lost his sense of humour. ‘Remember?’ Surely he was not being serious.
‘What?’ James stared into space for a moment, his eyes moved slowly from side to side as though he were tracing the movements of an invisible mouse cursor as well as searching for the memory. Then it came back to him like a politician reluctantly recalling what voting was for. ‘Yes! Of course I remember. I’ve not lost my mind, you know?’
James turned away as if someone had called him from inside the house. Liam took the opportunity to mutter, ‘Could have fooled me.’
James swivelled on the spot to face Liam. ‘Did you say something?’ He had not so much asked for as he demanded an answer.
‘No, not at all. Just clearing my throat.’ Liam clutched at his Adam’s apple, very conscious of the fact that he had not coughed at all.  
‘Hmm...’ James narrowed his eyes down the ellipsis of his breath. A snarl fluttered low on the Richter scale at the corners of his mouth. ‘Would you like to come in?’
Hell no! – That was Liam’s first reaction. ‘That would be good. It was a long trip across town, I’m a little thirsty.’ That was his second more suitable, and under the circumstances more sane, reaction.
James stood aside to let Liam in. ‘I don’t doubt it. Come through to the kitchen, we’ll talk some more.’ The door closed quietly behind them.

The house was not as dishevelled on the inside as it looked on the outside. It was untidy of course, but not in a way that was not unusual to a man who lived alone. As much as Liam hated to admit it, he understood that there were certain things that just did not matter when there was not a woman around. The computer that ran the house managed to keep the appliances in order and everything clean to a certain extent, but there was something missing: care. James had stopped caring.
‘You didn’t tell anyone at work that your wife had left you.’  
‘Is it that obvious?’ James hung his head as the kettle boiled.
Liam felt like he should have laughed. ‘Yes.’ But he did not. ‘How long has she been gone?’
‘Since my...’ James took the teabags out of the cups and added milk. ‘...our son died.’
As James handed Liam a cup of tea, there was a waft of that ever-present smell of male inhabitation. It had been strong enough to almost turn Liam’s stomach when he was on the doorstep but after a while he had grown used to it and there was something comfortably familiar about it. Unfortunately.
‘You didn’t have to deal with it alone. You could have said something.’
James sneered. ‘Why so you could have made me attend grief counselling sessions and occupational health seminars?’
‘Not exactly.’ Liam lied.
‘Yes exactly! You and I both know that the company would never have let me continue working, not in my condition.’
‘You’re right. They wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have. Look around and tell me that you aren’t proving your own point. You’ve ignored my messages and not even bothered to return my calls. No one has seen you come into the office for two full months. For all I know you’ve completely given up on the project...’
Until those last words James had been sipping his tea whilst he listened to Liam as though he were a teacher bored by his own lesson. When James interrupted he did so like he was distracted in a place where only thing ever happened, ‘That’s where you’re wrong. I’ve not given up on him.’
‘What was that?’ Liam had almost allowed himself to feel relieved. Until he heard that final word.
‘The project. I’ve not given up on it.’ James absent-mindedly back-pedalled.
An exclamation mark of alarm almost popped into being above Liam’s head. ‘You said him.’
‘No, I didn’t.’ James sent darting glances around him as though he were looking for cover. Or a weapon.
‘Yes, you did.’ Liam set down his cup and as he watched the last dregs of tea swirl at the bottom then made for the living room door as he asked, ‘What have you done, James?’  
James blocked Liam’s path. ‘Done? Don’t be ridiculous, I haven’t done anything.’
Liam moved first one way then the other in the way bashful people do when they bump into each other in a romantic comedy. Except their actions were not funny for very different reasons. ‘Let me through.’
‘No. You don’t understand.’ James braced himself against the door frame.
‘I want to see the project.’
‘You can’t, it’s not finished!’
‘James, let me through!’
‘No!’
Their struggle did not last long. They were not particularly violent men and neither of them was physically impressive, but Liam had not been locked up in his house for two months eating ready-meals and so he managed to gain the upper hand and pushed his way by James. He almost wished he had not. If the air in the rest of the house had been a little stifling, then in the living room it was oppressive. Every breath made Liam feel like his own throat was trying to strangle him. The computers had obviously been on constantly for two months. The air conditioners were offline and the windows were shut. Only the timid breaths he dared to take stirred the atmosphere in the room. Liam saw the project flight case open and half-buried under a selection of empty ready-meal trays. So, James had not given up after all. But had he been able to get it to work? The answer came in the form of...was that bird song?  
Liam baby-stepped his way to the monitors. At first from an odd angle he was able to make out what looked like a pastoral idyll built out of Stickle Bricks. Then as he moved further around and he could see the screen straight-on, the image stabilised. There was a pond, a tree, fields and a new-build house from which could be heard the faint sound of someone singing; not quite in tune, but almost. Good, good. James had managed to get the operating system working perfectly but what of...before he could finish that thought a child ran into view from around the far side of the house. Liam raised his hand and the computer responded. The child started to walk towards the front of the image and it was only once the boy had got close enough that Liam recognised him. With narrowed eyes and furrowed brow he looked from the screen, to a photograph on the wall, to James and then back to the screen. That was what he had been doing for two months! It was impossible! But the hair, the eyes, the skin and the clothes were all the same. There was even a family resemblance.  
Then the child on the screen said, ‘Hello, Mr. Grundy. Have you come to play?’ That confirmed everything. It was incredible. It was terrifying. It was almost too good to be true. The Lanning Protocols had worked perfectly.

The darkness was long, brittle and thin as an obsidian blade. It carved a precise fissure between day and night; waking and sleeping. At first James had dreaded its onset as much as he dreaded the sound of his own thoughts. They echoed around his skull like footsteps in a burial vault. But occasionally he caught them on the air like flies as they picked the knotted flesh clean off the corpse of what had once been his life. They had been the moments when he hated and pitied himself the most; moments when scraps of memories hurled him downwards face first into the concrete slabs of time. The sound of his son’s voice from the computer had been the only thing that forced him to remember where and when he was. Regrettably. It was not the presence of the program that bothered him so much, rather the problem was that it made him confront what was absent. When James had first seen the living image of his son on the monitor he had not known what to think of it, or of himself. Had it been the lure of a second chance that prevented him from switching the project off and never turning it on again? Or was it that he knew that it represented something potentially far more profound than one man’s guilt-driven quest to seek pardon for a death he could never have prevented in the first place? Despite the joy and the terror of that moment the one thing, the only thing, he had known since the second the computer had spoken was that it was never going to have been his choice to make. Not just because he was enthralled by the program but because the program was enthralled with him. It knew as much about him as he did about it, and when the project used the Lanning Protocols to make the connection between James and the records of his son on the hard drives, it ceased to be a piece of hardware or a graphical user interface and took on the semblance of a mind. So he had set about testing it, pushing it to the very limits of its reactive capabilities. Until one day James had realised that it was not reacting to him, he was reacting to it. It was at that point he had decided to shut himself away from the world, not to test the project but to test himself. To see how far he could go before he broke...and to prove to himself that he had not done so already.
The trials had started slowly with songs he had sung with the boy; books he had read to him; games they had played together; they started to draw pictures that his son had drawn years ago; they talked and James even took to sleeping on the sofa so that the project would not be alone. Then late one night James was woken up by a most peculiar sound. Initially he had thought it was just a figment of his slumbering imagination but it was not. He had peered through the dark towards the source of the sound, towards his computer. The speakers were still active but everything else was on standby. There should not have been any noise other than the hum of the refrigerator motor in the kitchen and the alternating whine from skyliners amongst the clouds. Yet the room was filled with the unmistakable sound of a cry. Not the sort that once might have drifted cold and keen across Arthur Conan Doyle’s moors, instead it was the stuttering sob of...of a child. James jumped to his feet and the project’s motion detectors switched the computer back on as though someone had mainlined electricity straight into its circuits. On the monitor James could see the boy huddled at the pond’s edge, wiping his eyes. James had asked what was wrong. The child told him he had been up for hours drawing a picture for him but he had dropped it in the pond and was upset. As James had tried to reassure the boy that everything was going to be fine the image shifted to show the picture. Only once he had seen the drawing had James known that everything was not going to fine. The picture was entirely new, not a copy of his son’s old sketches. The program had created it. Knowing that and understanding what it meant, James had started to cry as well.

At the end of his confession James finished pacing back and forth across the living room and fumbled glumly with the sleeves of his dressing gown. Liam was not sure if he could not, or would not believe what he had just been told. He sat hunched at the coffee table with his hands clenched into a fist over his mouth. He fixed his eyes on the “working” light on the front of the computer. He hoped to decipher some hidden messages from its gravel-churning growls. There were none. The child on the screen sat under the tree, his back turned and head held down in the manner of all young when they know they have done something wrong.
Somewhere in the house a clock chimed the hour. It was late and getting later. ‘I see...’
James flinched at the sudden break in the silence. ‘Do you?’
Liam’s eyes glinted like light off the edge of a coin. ‘Not really. What’s the problem exactly?’
‘Didn’t you listen to me?’ Of course he had not. Liam was only interested in one thing no matter what he might have tried to make everyone, including himself, believe.
Liam sat further back on the sofa, crossed his legs and tried to check his reflection in the tip of his shoe. ‘On the contrary, I heard every word that you said.’
‘Well, then surely you realise...’
‘Of course I do. I realise that when we go public with this our stock price is going to go through the roof!’ Liam contemplated that fact like a magpie eyeing up its latest acquisition.
James already knew the answer but he had to ask anyway, ‘That’s it?’
‘What else is there? Other than the fact that now you’ve got the device fully operation it will have to be returned to the office so we can get it into mass production.’
‘You don’t understand.’ James sounded like a heretic in a moment of clarity during torture.
‘I understand perfectly. I put a lot of pressure on you all at once and at short notice, it’s no wonder you’ve become a little over attached to the project. But whatever you’ve experienced recently you’ve come through it for us. You did it. You made it work.’ Liam was not quite sure where he had learned to speak that way, or even if he had. At times he thought that he had always known how, almost as if it were a gift even if it was a questionable one. It was common to all upper-management types. It was a tone that could have made the most savage “bugger off” sound like glowing praise.
‘What if I made it work too well?’ A fear as much as a thrill lurked behind that question.
‘What do you mean?’
He knew full well. ‘I mean, what if it thinks it’s real? What if it is real?’
‘Don’t be absurd.’ There were limits as to how far he would indulge James. ‘It’s a computer program inside a machine. It responds to our commands and follows them within the limits of its coding. For God’s sake, it has a power switch...’ Liam took two swift strides across the room and ran his finger over a touch sensitive button on the device. Without further input the monitor went black. Liam thought that the sound of wind was coming from outside. It was not. ‘Thanks to your hard work, the project will roll out on time. When the directors hear about this, well...I smell promotion.’ Liam added as an afterthought, ‘For both of us.’ As he headed towards the front door he asked, ‘How does being Chief Systems Designer sound?’
‘It...’ There was no point. ‘...that sounds good.’ Even then that was half-true. He had not completely stopped caring.
‘You bet it does. I always knew I could count on you. We’ll go over the details next week, and maybe we can start looking into to finding you a new house.’ Liam felt like he had to scrape the place off his body as he walked out, as though its very existence was an affront to his personal hygiene. Halfway down the path he turned and chirped like a default Blackberry ringtone, ‘I’ll see you at work on Monday.’
‘Fine. See you then.’

Despite what he had said, James he had no intention of returning to work. It was obvious what he had to do instead. James looked out of the window. What he had hoped to see was not clear even to himself. Perhaps he had convinced himself that there would be something out there other than the king size silver Rizla packet glint of clouds off of glass and steel. After all, that was what he remembered most: the grey. There had been flashes of colour, no doubt, but they only existed in fevered bursts like a fight sequence from Avatar watched on too small a television. The only colour that remained came in stabs of synthetic light that fluttered in and out of the clouds as projected adverts scrolled across them like rapturous decals. But he was not interested in buying, just like the people who had made the adverts were not interested in selling. Yet he pretended to be, just like they did. That was part of the thin, peeling veneer of the world. The platinum plating that hid the rust. He took comfort from the veil of rain that slithered over the glass. Not because it hid the world from him but because it obscured the lack of one he wanted to go back to. If it were possible he would have gone outside and let himself dissolve in the cascading water like Excalibur being returned to the Lady. But it was not possible. It never had been and it never would be. Coming into the world was easy for a child at least, but leaving it was another matter entirely for an adult. Or so he thought, most of the time.
Light came into the room as a fine mist clings to a barren field in the spring. It had a cool and clear feeling like the sounding of distant trumpets. Somewhere in a place that did but did not exist, a wall broke as men were put up against it and shot. They would never know why they had died, but James understood why he had to. Or better yet, he finally realised that he had been dead all along. There was little in his life since the priest finished speaking at his son’s funeral that had made the slightest bit of sense, and those few things that had and that had once mattered seemed to have lost their importance entirely. Still wearing a dressing gown, made threadbare by constant use, he gazed about the living room and took stock. Empty boxes. Dirty ready-meal trays. A few ornaments. Some mismatched furniture. Fragments of a broken teacup. Books as obsolete in form as they were in content. One or two photos that he had gone through the trouble of actually having printed. That was all he had left to show for his life. Nothing more than a handful of insignificant souvenirs. Elsewhere in the house there was only more of the same. Just like everywhere else. There was always something else in the way; something else to hide behind; something else that had only been sold and bought so that people could make themselves believe that they were more important than they actually were. Knowing that, he felt like an archaeologist cataloguing a dead civilization’s artefacts of failure. But his civilization was not dead. It refused to admit it was dead and did everything within its power to make everyone assume it would never pass away. It limped forever onward, clinging to the threads of fate like some plague-created ghoul gnawing on its own tattered limbs in lieu of sweeter sustenance.
Although, of course, he still had the computer and within it the living remains of the best parts of himself. That was all that really mattered. He turned the device back on and the screen returned to life. The flat, black-plastic nothingness fell away as though reality had been encased in light reactive lenses. The boy was still under the tree. He no longer sulked, but was watching stones fall to the bottom of the pond. They vanished into the sludge in the depths like hopes being dashed on the concrete skyways of a sink estate. But even in the drug addled darkness that was the legacy of such places and the world that tolerated their existence, there were still pockets of flickering light that cast aside the shadows and revealed things as they truly were. In one such pocket James moved to stand closer to the machine. It read his proximity and posture as gestures of comfort and it was right to do so. The child on the screen came to him and it was in essence but not in spirit that the plastic mesh divided them. But that was no matter. For years the aching void had kept James from his son. If once a failure of technology had separated them, its triumph was surely capable of reuniting them.
‘It’s alright now, he’s gone.’ James said, barely conscious of the microphone input read-out trembling at the bottom left corner of the monitor.  
The boy said in a voice almost too small to have ever conveyed anything but so great a sadness, ‘Are you really going back to work?’  
‘No. Where we’re going we’ll never be apart again.’ After that there were no more words. There was only silence and light.