Friday, 1 January 2016

Space Bats prohibited





Happy New Year 2016!

And, with thanks to The Archdruid for the inspiration, herewith my acceptance of his
a story set in a neither collapsing nor permanently-expanding future.

(note: I've changed to USA spellings for this one!) 




*****************************************************************************




GIFT


“I wake up lying on my back, unable to move.

He’s smiling down at me_”

“Who is, love?”

“And I...ask him, where I am. He just says I’m a dissident. Says I’m going to start a new life. Not going to be...like I am, anymore. Not, you know, the way I’m always curious: always asking questions...”

“I know. I know, love.” 

“And always thinking of how...things could be better. He’s got a syringe. Calls it ‘the solution’, the stuff in it. It’s on one of those steel trolleys like they have in hospital. Beside the table, whatever it is, that I’m lying on. He knows I can’t see well so he holds it right near me, next to my face. I can feel my hands going cold...” 

Her words trailed off. 

He knew he’d reached the difficult part, just like in his former work: the witness too distressed to go on. 

“It’s over, love, you’re safe, you’re at home, with me.”

He stole an arm under her.

“You can tell me everything. Can’t you?”

“Mmmm...” she smiled at him.

He made the tiniest of verbal noises. Perfected over years of his work. The one that said, ‘I’m on your side. I’m listening...’

“He’s talking about the Project. It’s their invention, he says, it’s...part of their latest Program. It’s...for...dissidents. Like me. Like us. Tad...I try and move but there are straps.  They’re broad, soft, won’t leave a mark. He’s asking me if I knew about the previous Program. Of course I know! Those...so-called medical implants. Learned Responses. So...grossly overdone. The shocks: all the people who died, he’s referring to them as Collateral Damage! Our...Party leader!”

“Yes, I know_”

“He’s saying he regrets killing Ernie because he could have brainwashed him instead!! With the stuff in that bloody syringe! It almost made me glad they had killed him! ‘Those whom the Gods would destroy’ and all that. And he lets slip that the stuff’s only just been developed, that’s why they didn’t...didn’t...”

“Didn’t use it on Ernie?”

“Yes. Want to try it out on ‘Volunteer subjects’ first. Referred to me, strapped to this bloody table, as a ‘volunteer’! And a Subject! Because I...was...born in Britain. British Subject. And said, well I suppose it’s true, I’m one of the best-known dissidents in our Neighborhood Defense Bloc.

“And when I say I don’t want to volunteer, he pretends to get all sentimental. Says, this stuff, this horrible stuff, is ‘a gift. From the Project.’ And that they’ll get all upset if I turn it down. As if the Project has feelings. Gift...it means Poison. In German. You know I learned...French and German. At school. In Hampshire...” 

“Yes, love. And some Polish. From me_”

“And I have to keep quiet about it. Bloody Trump-junior and his foreign language ban...”

They could each tell the other's thoughts. Their daughter: fluent in Polish, keeping it quiet. Only had to keep it quiet for another month while she worked her notice as a meteorologist at Climate, Inc.  Bricks through the windows, courtesy of the Denialists. With a bit of luck and a following wind she’d be out of territorial waters by October 22nd, and away. Another Returner. 

“So, British Subject,” he smiled, “what happens next?”

“He’s pulled up the bedside chair and sat down, sat next to me trying to be friendly. Just like you told me they did...at your work. The ones who use the Reid Technique. Step five: reassure. Look...sincere. Oh God. He wants to tell me exactly what it’s going to do to me. Do I really want to know..? He starts:”

She mimicked his voice:

“‘First up, it don’t destroy nothing. It ain’t violent: ain’t like one of those anti-psychotic drugs they gave to dissidents, the ones that got all the complaints, no sir. It works by overlayin’. Introducin’ new behavior patterns that you’ll like, that you’ll do.  Been developed ‘specially for people like you. How ‘bout that?’”

“He says it works...like adverts do. You know the way they don’t actually tell you anything about...whatever it is they’re advertising. The shampoo or whatever. They just use psychology to make you want to buy it. He says...they, the teams of psychologists, know everything about what makes people want to do things. And the adverts they design...go...deep, in, without people being any the wiser. He called them ‘Enhanced’ adverts. Well, commercials. Like people say here. And people buy, or believe, thinking they’re choosing freely...

“But we’re dissidents, the ones this method doesn’t work on. Because we don’t have a telly. Or those that do, are, kind-of immune somehow. Immune to adverts. Enhanced adverts. More and more of us are. 

“He says, when the teams are absorbed in their work on designing these adverts, there’s a chemical they produce in their brains. Like Oxytocin when you trust, Serotonin when you’re happy, Melatonin when you’re sleepy. And they’ve let Program people come along and...extract it.  

“He shows me the syringe again: holds it up to press out all the air. Some of this awful stuff comes out. I’m...terrified. He talks about...doing this several times, over years. Every six months bringing me back to this place, wherever it is, giving me more of this stuff and...obliterating my memory that I’ve been given it! And I think...I think...”

He hoped he hadn’t lost her. One of the first victims he’d ever interviewed, more than forty years ago now. In shock because, just a half-hour previously, a man had pulled a gun on her. She sat crying, and of all things, apologizing. Because, she said, she was face-blind and wouldn’t be able to recognize him again. “Not much use as a witness, am I?”

He’d had to start ever so gently: reassuring her the man was no longer around: waiting for her to stop crying. And he’d got her talking about how the man was standing, how he moved, how he held the gun. She’d been looking at his face. Sensible girl: you’re less likely to get shot that way. But that meant she hadn’t noticed the type of weapon: couldn’t even tell a pistol from a revolver. Brits. Except ‘I noticed it was black with gold trimmings on’. 

He got her to show whereabouts the man had held it: had he grabbed her? As a result, they’d worked out he’d been left-handed. And ‘I was looking at his neck, because it had a cobweb drawn on it.’ And ‘No, sorry, I couldn’t see the color of his eyes: he had wrap-around shades on. They looked odd in his hair. It was pale and frizzy...’

“So, let me get this straight: we’ve got a pale frizzy-haired southpaw gunman with a cobweb tat on his neck and gold decals on his gun.”

Pause.

“Now how many of those d’ya reckon we’re going to have in this town, huh?”

And he’d got her to smile.

He had to use the same skills now, every time this happened. He wasn’t going to ask her what she’d been thinking: no point, and too distressing.

“What does he do next?”

Present tense. 

“I...said if it were proper medical...treatment, I’d have to...sign my consent. He said, I’d ‘get consented’ can you believe a phrase like that, after I’d had the shot! I said that didn’t count! I’d be a different person by then. But he said I’d still be me, just with ‘Enhanced Behavior’...” 

She frowned, as if forcing herself to go on.

“He said I’d feel a lot happier. Being...the same as everybody else. Started talking about my school records going back decades, back to when our family first came to live here, in America. The new school had noticed what I was like and, my family never told me this: recommended me for some mental treatment! ECT! My parents raised hell, and they were lucky: they managed to convince a doctor that electric shocks would risk killing me. My heart. I couldn’t help smiling when he said they even went as far as to find a lawyer.  When the school authorities found out about the lawyer, they backed down. 

“He seemed to...genuinely believe that not buying stuff makes you unhappy. That curiosity makes you unhappy. That by doing this to me he’d be doing me a favor. And when I pointed out that we’ve next-to-no income he started talking about how nice our house is and we could raise money on it to buy stuff. 

“I thought I’d floored him by telling him that going into debt would make me miserable.”

“And that doesn’t work? Doesn’t convince him?”

“No. But it got him to tell me the real reason for what he was doing.”

Her face changed as she grappled with the idea.

“He says that without enough people buying things, the Economy would collapse. There’d be massive unemployment and everybody would turn to crime. Whereas if we keep buying, the phrase he used was ‘It’d just about keep the show on the road.’ Doesn’t sound very reassuring, does it?”

Tad shook his head.

“Then I thought of you! If I’m a ‘dissident’, what the heck are you? Off the scale! Fluent in a foreign language. Repairing everything; one of the few people we know who’s not plagued by some chronic health condition needing daily doses of expensive medicines. Did they know?  And if so, were they doing this to you as well? 

“And if not, I’d...change, and I wouldn’t know it was happening, and what would you think...you’d go off me, wouldn’t you? 

“Then I wondered if that’s the reason so many people are getting divorced these days...and...it’s good for ‘them’, the Project, because divorce causes people to...buy...more...stuff...oh Tad..!

“I didn’t want this. He stood up. He had that thing in his hand, in one hand. Still going on about wanting me to feel good, that I’d feel good. Didn’t want the injection to hurt me, can you believe it after all that? Didn’t want me to see it going in. So I made a point of keeping looking at my right arm, where he’d swabbed it earlier. He...”

He had to draw it all out: get her to tell it all. Draw it out like poison. Her gift.

As she’d smiled after her account of the hold-up all those years ago, he had handed her his card, saying she shouldn’t hesitate to call if she remembered anything else, no matter how apparently trivial. 

And two days later at some ungodly hour she’d done exactly that. Called, and described a street corner she knew: he knew the one. Said she never wanted to set foot anywhere near it because he was there. The gunman. And then she had burst into tears and apologized, saying she shouldn’t have bothered him because it was only a dream. She was nowhere nearby, she’d just dreamed it. And she’d hung up. 

Bored in his squad car, he’d taken a turn round to that corner anyway. And who’d he noticed, standing right there, looking like he was up to no good at 3 a.m. in his wrap-around shades? Complete with his distinctive firearm, and a bag of coke for good measure: a nice easy arrest. 

They’d let him question the man: a privilege for so young an officer. Listened in disbelief as all he’d done, after reciting him his Miranda Rights and reassuring him that ‘we just wanna eliminate you from our enquiries’ was ask the man for as thorough an account as he could give of the evening of the hold-up. Then realized what his game was as he went back and pressed, gently, on the weak points of the account. One by one, until the story unraveled. Unfashionable at the time, but effective...

“He forced my head away, with his other hand, and I felt the pressure on my shoulder...”

He felt the tension leave her: it was over. He held her, as he always did. Caroline. His witness. Safe. 

Only one problem remained. Unlike all the other predictive dreams she’d had: the shock second Trump presidency, the massive storm of ’21 that would have ripped Mazzi and Fadida’s roof off if they’d not, following her account of it at a party at their house, had repairs done first; the anti-immigrant riot in Portland, of all places...unlike all those this dream, on being recounted, had a horribly familiar feel to it. 

Not a good start to the first day of Fall, or Autumn as Caroline still liked to call it.  They got up even though it couldn’t have been more than five in the morning: plenty to do today. 

They decided on a cooked breakfast. And then, still hungry, a second one.


*****


After breakfast she went to let out the chickens. Happened to look up at the trees beyond.  Everything looked so luminous; so intricate; so alive. As if she wanted it, somehow.

The berries she picked for wine each glowed with richly colored translucent depths. She felt she could have got lost in the deep pile of them in the basket. The salt she took to put in the KimChi became a magnificent crystal oriental edifice: she wanted to climb up it. The Paks had taught her how to make KimChi to preserve vegetables, a year ago. She missed them: they had since returned to newly reunited Korea. Their house still stood deserted: handed back to the bank but unsold. 

In the afternoon she helped Tad saw wood, and after eating more supper than either would have thought possible they lit the woodburner for the first time.
 
She leant against him in the big easy-chair. Her kind, handsome husband who listened when she had nightmares, and believed her. She smiled up at him and stole for one of his hands: I want to tell you...so much. I want to tell you...everything...


*****

A month and a day later a message arrived from their daughter.

Twelve mile limit. I’m free!

Wanda.

They got out home-made champagne to celebrate. 

On All-Saints’ a message arrived from their son.

Senior Lecturer, History, Southampton! 

Wanda arrived safely.

Andrzej.

They got out more home-made champagne. They added some of Tad’s home-made vodka.

Caroline noticed her heartbeat misbehaving as they staggered upstairs two hours later. She’d have to ask Mazzi to check it over in the morning: he worked as a cardiologist and kept an ECG machine in the house ‘for emergencies’. Fadida said Caroline’s dream that had saved their roof still counted as an emergency. 

Then she remembered that Mazzi, Fadida and their three children had left for Jordan earlier that year. Somehow they’d managed to keep it quiet until they’d boarded. The crew of the ship, being Russian, hadn’t let Homeland anywhere near it. 


*****


“Oh Tad...I was paddling at Calshot Beach! It’s where we used to go when I was a child. I miss...each pebble was like a planet. You could explore them. Overseas...I wonder what Andrzej’s doing. I bet Wanda doesn’t get rocks through her window for being a scientist_”

“And being half-Polish_”

“And speaking a foreign language...”

She put a hand to her wrist.

“My pulse’s playing up again. What are we going to do..?”


*****


“Bloody hell Tad they’ve banned contraception! Even the Pope’s up in arms!”

“What?”

“It was on the radio just now. No-one admitted the real reason, of course.”

Population 200 million, down another four hundred thousand since June...

“And there’s been another shooting. University staff again: fifty!”

“Let me guess: all with_”

“Foreign surnames. Dr Zarczinski.”

He smiled bitterly: “What did you say, Dr Zonderland?”

“D’you think it’s because they’re running out of non-white people to terrorize..?” 

She sat down and put her fingers to her wrist.

“Oh get us some more foxglove tea would you? It’s happened again...”

Tad brought the tea. And an idea. 

“It’s a fantastic idea, love. But what’re we going to tell the Colonel?”

They sat in silence, gazing into the woodburner’s flames. 

“Tad...”

Her voice became a whisper.

“It was him. In that terrible dream I had on the last night of summer. He’s not just our local friendly Defense and Security head: the Militia. He’s in the Project.”

Tad stared into the flames.

“And all the things we’ve told him, over the years, when he comes round here first-footing for the New Year. Oh God, Tad, the genius of it! We’ve been to someone’s party, we come back tired and...and the worse for wear like a pair of teenagers, and there I was thinking...he was humoring me because I once told him we used to do first-footing in England! And he_”

Caroline paled.

“...asks us a load of questions.”

“It’s not that serious, love. Conversation Management. He asks about our friends, about what we’re up to; I parry, and you’re usually wanting to talk about something else altogether, like chickens or poetry. I’d never have guessed the part about the Project, though. Not till that night_”

“Night? I didn’t tell you...till the morning.”

Tad stared at the flames for a long time, before turning to his wife:

“I had the same dream. Down to the last detail. Oh, except without the part about hearts. And it was my left arm_”

“It’s not fair joking about this Tad!”

He tore off a scrap of paper from the pile near the stove, wrote on it and folded it.

“OK: what was the Colonel wearing?”

“A lab-coat. White. Grey collar. With a dark blue turtleneck underneath.”

She unfolded the proffered piece of paper, read it and blanched.

They stared at each other. Neither knew how long for.

Finally Caroline put her hands to her mouth to hide a grin.

“Now it’s you that’s joking. Come on, what is it?”

“We’re supposed to have forgotten about being given that stuff aren’t we? So it hasn’t worked! We haven’t bought anything unusual either.”

“What about my idea? That involves buying something.”

“I suppose it does, yes.”

“It could even involve a bank loan. The biggest we can get, if we want to_”

“Is that allowed?”

“Depends which bank we use, I guess.”

They refilled their glasses and talked some more about the Colonel, and about Conversation Management. 


*****


“They’ve rounded up another lot of college loan debt people. Sending them to do nuclear clean-up this time. After that leak. It was on the news. And an interview with some idiot whingeing about the fall in the number of kids who want to study for a degree.”

“That makes sense.”

“And they had an academic chap on who was talking about how it was impossible to organize an international conference these days, what with the 200-day visa application thing. And the vetting. He says from now on, there’s an agreement, American academic conferences’ll be held in Canada. Or Puerto Rico. I’m glad I’m retired now.” 

“Yes. Quantum Physics probably isn’t what it was...”

“You’re incorrigible, Tad!”

“Then don’t incorrige me!”


*****


On St Andrew’s Day morning a message arrived from their daughter:

Job at Lloyds. Climate modeling: insurance. Settling-in grant for new immigrant! 

Did Quarantine on IoW! Country now clear of Feline Flu. Pop back up to 40 million.

Wanda.

In the afternoon, word arrived from their son:

Found out what you asked, about NHS. 

Treatment still free if born in UK.

Andrzej


*****


“There it is: twelve midnight. Twenty twenty-six!”

They could hear the chimes from the clock tower in town. Standing on the porch in front of the open door, they raised their glasses of home-made champagne:

“Happy New Year!”

“Absent friends!”

The first snow began to fall in the still, cool air. They stood and watched for a while, before going back inside and closing the door. 

“Must be the first New Year for ages when we haven’t got pie-eyed at somebody’s party.” 

“Or stoned on that cake at Mazzi and Fadida’s.”

They heard the knock at the door. 

“Just as well.” smiled Tad.

“Happy New Year, Colonel! Come in!”

He crossed the threshold: handed Tad the bundle of wood, and Caroline the jar of salt. He noticed their hallway looked the same as ever: same old pictures and wall-hangings, nothing new here. Well, give it time: the bank loan was a good sign. He had a trick up his sleeve this year, as well as that good first question...

“Fancy some gluwein?” 

He nodded his thanks as she passed him the hot glass cup with its silver holder. Caroline Zonderland: Englishwoman. Why’s her surname Dutch? Meaning ‘without a country’? He watched her pour some for Tad and some for herself. They went through and sat near the woodburner. 

Then he realized he wasn’t supposed to know what the word “gluwein” meant. Never mind: start the questions, Herz. It’s what you’re here for.

“So: you guys makin’ any good New Years’ Resolutions this year?”

He saw them look at each other. It took him aback that Caroline spoke first.
 
“Actually, we have, and it’s...a bit different from the usual. We’ve...had to borrow some money to do it_”

And he noticed Tad flash his wife a look, as if to say, you’ve said too much. Well, he knew about the bank loan anyway: the Bank’s records were a Security matter, after all. Didn’t want anybody getting up to no good.

He saw Caroline blush. Gotcha. He nodded for her to go on. 

“You probably know, er, about my heart? It had to be repaired...in England when I was small. They always said it might need...more done to it...as I got older.”

And she’s never taken it to a medic here in the States. That’s no good...

“I’ve been using foxglove tea to keep it steady, but that’s beginning not to work now. And it’s dicey: you probably don’t know but the therapeutic dose and the, er, danger line, they’re not too far apart. So this year we’re taking the plunge: I’m going to get one of those Enhanced Hearts put in_”

“Aw, that’s such good news! ‘Cause I remember, you were trashin’ them last year, sayin’ they were no good for some reason of your own, and I got worried aboutcha_”
 
“Really? I don’t remember...ever talking to you about such a thing!”

“Sure you did. You said they had ‘privacy implications’, with information ‘bout your vital signs and location goin’ everywhere.”

He noticed her transient frown.

“Well, tough.” she smiled, “I’ve had a change of heart!”

Limeys. Puns

“Basically, I want to live beyond the age of sixty-five. Which is only next year, after all.”

“Where ya havin’ it done, if ya don’t mind me askin’?”

“We haven’t made our minds up yet. I need to do a bit of research. It used to be so easy with the ‘net, but now...”

“You have to be loaded to afford it.” sighed Tad. 

He pondered the pros and cons of offering them the use of his home connection: pro, he’d know exactly what they were up to without having to rely on the poorly-maintained central databank. Con: he’d have to admit to being high enough up to have one at all. Plus, they’d be in his house: they might see stuff. He decided to stay stumm for the time being: see what transpired.

“More gluwein?”

Caroline took the glasses through to the kitchen and refilled them, once again adding vodka to the Colonel’s.

“Oh, I nearly forgot: I broughtcha something extra this year.”

She put down her glass and took the large, soft, brown-paper parcel. She undid the string bow. He studied her reaction carefully as she pulled back the paper and the clean white stars looked up at her from their deep blue background. 

She realizes what it is...now. 

She doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t look ill-at-ease. Her face lights up.

“Oh that’s fantastic, thank you! Is it for the front garden?”

“Sure.”

“Do you know, I’ve always preferred it to ours. Crosses are so...cr_”

Shit: do they know..?

“_uel.”

“I can’t remember if I toldya this last year, but I’ve applied to have my surname changed. You guys ever thoughta_”

“Oh! That’s so sad. It’s a nice name: it’s German for Heart, isn’t it?”

He stared at her face: his look that demanded an explanation.

“We learned foreign languages at school in England.” she blushed. “That’s how I know.”

“Betcha miss that, don’tcha?”

“No I don’t! It was a lot of hard work!” her blush deepened.

And she added, almost casually, “Were your family from Germany?”

He could feel his face change color. He’d wanted to ask them about their family: about their children. Do they miss them. Are they plotting to Return, to be near them. Scramming to England with that two hundred grand: private transfer. And not having to repay it. The new European banking laws allowed for that: have it declared an Odious Debt...

“Yes...yes they were. A long time ago now. How ‘bout yours?”

“Flemish weavers. A...very long time ago now. Henry VIII let them stay: help the economy by making things from the wool that we, that England, had loads of at the time.”

He didn’t ask about Tad’s family, because he already knew. Polish Home. Youngest partisan, known as “the postman”, could deliver any message, anywhere, empty-handed and unnoticed: anything, no matter how long, provided it had been recited in rhyme. Because “the postman” was a girl: Tad’s mother. Got caught out. Didn’t talk. Four days. Rescued by The Hunters, Tad’s father’s gang. 

Rescued from interrogation at the hands of Herz of the SS: his grandfather. Back home, everybody knew the name. Here, in the New World, he’d been hoping to be free of it. But last year’s application to change it had been turned down...

He didn’t want to ask any more questions: he’d had enough.

“Well, guess I’d better hit the road.”


*****


“Progress report, Herz.”

“Formula F5, you asked me to find a real toughie: I found ‘em. Couple who’re doing the self-sufficient thing, homestead, nearby me in New Hampshire. 

“Took ‘em less than three months to run up a $200,000 loan. Spendin’ it on medics.”

“Name?”

“Zarczinski. And Zonderland.”

“A couple, with different names? They Homo?”

Herz grinned.

“She’s a retired academic. Kept her name when she married. Lot of them do in Europe, ‘pparently. He worked for the Feds and got himself a Psychology degree along the way.”

“You sure they ain’t figurin’ on usin’ the money for_”

“Returners? Can’t be.”

“How d’ya know for sure?”

“Passed the Flag Test. Flying colors.”


*****


The ocean stretched out before them. Grey, austere, free. Like Caroline’s eyes. Tad gazed at her as she watched the slim crescent of the extra sail uncurling into the West wind: the wind that would take them to Southampton, before the Equinox Gales got up. 

“Well done about the flag. The cross bit was genius!” he put an arm round her shoulder. “Did you know that the German for swastika is_”

“Yes: I was trying to get the ‘crooked’ in but I couldn’t think of a way that wasn’t too obvious.”

“Put him right off his stride!”

Tad leaned towards her,

“The look on his face: I bet he’s got a family secret. I wish I knew_”

“Probably best off not knowing. It was all a long time ago now: what, eighty years? And even if there is, it’s not his fault.”

Always rational: always the scientist. Even though the matter of her life’s work didn’t seem to behave that way: matter endowed with Strangeness, Top-ness, Charm... 
 
He followed her gaze out to sea. Did the waves on the ocean recall her work to her? Particles tracing out the patterns of ghostly waves; waves that didn’t yet exist. As if those particles somehow knew the future. The possibility, barely touched on yet, that this shadowy play may be at work in the mind, in consciousness itself. In those occasional haunting dreams of hers... 

They noticed a boat coming alongside; the Tannoy announced passenger roll call.

“Homeland: time for a last bit of Conversation Management.” Tad smiled.

“They should get a different name: breach of the Trades Descriptions Act calling themselves ‘Land’ and coming and bothering us out here at sea. Like bloody pirates.”
Everybody made their way below decks. It looked like over a hundred people. Lined up before the Homeland team, who swaggered about with their automatic weapons.

“How did it ever come to this?” Caroline whispered. “When the Government’s always saying we’re free, and then...It’s like_”

“They’re a law unto themselves, the Project, that’s why. Homeland’s kind of part of them, now. It was already starting to get like that in the FBI before I retired. Port authorities still hate them, though. That’s why they can’t check us as we board: have to resort to this.”

He leaned in and added:

“And they hate people travelling overseas. Gives us ideas. Dangerous ideas, like, ‘You don’t need air-con in New Hampshire’.”

Caroline smiled.

“Aarhaus!” 

A family stepped forward nervously.

“Reason for journey.”

“Mother’s funeral.” said the woman. “Here are our tickets: outward, and back.”
 
“Tad! They’ve got a polygraph! You know what my heartbeat’s like: it’s going to_”
 
“Daughter’s wedding, remember? What mother isn’t going to be all excited about that? Also explains the thirty Grand: deposit for the first house. Come on: Conversation Management. You can do it.”

The Homeland man bent down in front of the first family’s smallest child, 

“What’s your name?”

“Aarhaus, E!” announced the child.

“Well, Aarhaus, E.: Can you tell me,” he asked slowly, “When and where your grandmother’s funeral is?”

“NO!!” said the child, clutching her teddy. “Ma said I’d be upset if...if...” and she burst into tears.

And so it went on, through the alphabet: getting nearer and nearer. 

Caroline smiled. But he noticed she was still blushing: it didn’t look good. 

“Zark...er,” 

The Homeland agent indicated them with the gun.

“Them zee names!”

They stepped forward. 

The ship’s horn sounded: twelve mile limit! 

The Captain came on the Tannoy. 

“Ladies and Gentleman, members of the crew and,”

he paused,

“Any extra security staff who may be on board. We have now left United States Territorial Waters for the open ocean. The ship is under my direct jurisdiction, in accordance with International Law. I remind you all that the use or threat of use of firearms on board without my express permission constitutes Piracy and that_”
 
They could almost hear the smile,

“we are sailing for England, under whose laws that particular crime is punishable by hanging.”

“D’you know,” Caroline smiled, “This might be the only time ever that I don’t feel terrible about us reintroducing the Death Penalty?”

“Or about the ship’s crew packing heat.” Tad added with a grin.


 *****


He pulled up in the front yard. Noticed, before turning off the headlights, the immaculate covering of snow: no footprints. Well, of course: the Zees, as everyone round here called them, had gone away on holiday. Not a conventional holiday: just got in the car and driven off to ‘Oh, let’s just see where we end up’. Good old-timers road-trip. Most unlike them to even do that, said all their friends, but he knew the reason. F5, deep in their brain chemistry, working its magic. He smiled. 

Why had he come here? To check out the story about the heart: was there any paper trail? Appointment letters pinned to the noticeboard, meds on the kitchen counter. 
 
He noticed the flag, hung in the front yard for all to see. Found himself trying the door before getting out his Universal Keys, provided to him by the Project. 

The door opened.

The hallway felt different, and not just because no fire burned, and no lights shone. It sounded less welcoming than he remembered. 

He flicked a lightswitch: no power. 

Only after returning to the Jeep to get his flashlight did he see what it was that had changed in the hallway: the wall-hangings, and all the pictures, were gone. 

He went through to the living room: no papers on the sideboard. None in the kitchen either: there had always been a huge pile there on the occasions when he’d called in before. 

In all of the ground floor rooms, he found not a single sheet of paper: not even a till receipt or a bank statement: nada. 

The woodburner gave it away: black, curled sheets of ashes slept within. Everything had been burned. And, with no computer in the house, that meant no records. 

He knew what he would find on checking their bank files tomorrow: they had gone, and taken the money with them, to Poland, or England. British bank: he’d had to give ten-day notice to check the files. 

He should have pressed them about how they felt about being thousands of miles away from their children. Should maybe even have asked them what they thought of the Project: anything to draw them out. 

He couldn’t stand it: couldn’t face failure. 

He left the house. 

As he crossed the garden he noticed something white on the lowest corner of the flag. A note had been pinned there, in an envelope, addressed to him. 

He opened it and read, just four words:

We know your secret.

It was torture: which one? Did they know what had been done to them? Or had they found out about his family’s past? And they were such careful people. A blackmailer was easily silenced, but not these: they’d have left details with a lawyer someplace. Probably Poland, making the most of the language barrier. In any case they wouldn’t be in it for the money: they were dissidents. Driven by other goals.

He should have been able to persuade them to stay: to make them stay, and lure their children back. All four of them on F5, no longer dissidents. Happy, borrowing, spending: helping the country keep going; avoid a sudden downturn.  

Because he knew History.

He knew what had happened to his old country after a sudden economic downturn. 

Knew, from his Grandfather.

They’d started by picking on people with foreign surnames...